The Mare Who Once Lived on the Moon

by MrNumbers


Chapters


The Mare Who Lives On The Moon

Lacquered wood. Polished brass. Vented steam.

These three things represented the pinnacle of the modern era, an era that shaped and defined Twilight Sparkle's library. Former library, since it had now been refashioned into an observatory that just so happened to contain a lot of books.

You would be forgiven for not noticing, however, for all of the books that got in the way.

Towering shelves of expensive treated woods stood testament to the vast fortunes their owner had at their disposal. Monstrous printing presses drank ink like an addiction and devoured gluttonous volumes of paper to keep the shelves up with the times. Other tomes were sufficiently aged and wizened to keep the shelves timeless.

The bookshelves created a lot of dust though. Bad news when you had a little dragon assistant around with sinus problems. The owner’s insurance policy didn't cover 'flamethrower sneezes', or 'pyrotechnic hiccups'.

Those shelves stacked high and far, curved around each other cyclically. There wasn’t an obvious pattern that they conformed to, however, they were random and haphazard, and interpreting them was an exercise best left to the individual -- a rorschach ink blot in mahogany. Some ladders bridged gaps between levels as others stretched further still to the upper echelons, creating a perverse three dimensional labyrinth scaled only by the hardiest of explorers, or the shrewdest of librarians.

It was rather a shame about the roof, actually.

Once a stunning dome of baroque stained glass that filtered sunlight down onto a reader below, it was now a jutting series of copper plates, already tarnished to a harsh green whose electric corruption spilled into the stale dust-filled air of the library below. The dome of the new copper ceiling had been entirely mounted on railings, with a slit added to accommodate her latest invention, providing an unobstructed view of the vastness of the night sky at whatever angle she wished.

Twilight Sparkle had, really, invented two things of monumental significance, as she often did quite unintentionally. The Telescope came first, and now an Observatory in which to house it.

Certainly, ponies had invented crude facsimiles of this device before. But never to this scale, never to this degree of precision. It was like comparing a crude walking stick to a jewelled sceptre by dint of being able to rest your weight on both.

The housing of the thing was as long as eight of its creator pressed nose-to-tail, and as wide at its fattest end as three more Twilights to mark its diameter. It needed to be, to house the lenses and other optics, at least four of which were larger than their maker herself. Each delicate, polished lens was even more expensive than the finely polished silver mirrors between them. The housing had to be two thick, solid inches of brass just to support its own weight.

Which made it an utter nightmare to move.

Its creator, a purple unicorn covered in scorch marks and sticking plasters, with neat midnight bangs cropped at right angles, sat in a red velvet seat at the Telescope's control hub, staring down its eyepiece. The scorch marks were, at least for now, hidden beneath a set of hardened synthetic-leather overalls she wore with all the decorum of a ballgown, with a white cotton blouse where the overalls ended and she began, for modesty. It was a horrid pain to wash.

The eyepiece provided a distant look into nothing-in-particular, out into the aether. Nothing of interest, yet, at least. It would need to be calibrated for its true target.

Whatever that may be.

She called into the bell of the brass speaking tube beside her, which ran far down a monolithic bookshelf and deeper still through the floor below, like a creeping brass vine ambling its way down a cliff-face to lay its roots.

"How are the boilers, Spike?"

A little rattle raced back up the tube in response, a reply from the bowels of the boiler basement.

"We're getting two bars of pressure, oh Captain my Captain!"

"Just Twilight will do, as always. Thank you, my faithful assistant. All right, that should be enough..."

Twilight Sparkle, Royal Philosopher in Residence, stared at her collection of wheels and levers. Three elongated brass levers, polished to a shine, ended in black, spherical rubber knobs. Pipes of superheated steam, fed up from Spike and the boilers, awaited her guidance with the pull of these levers.

"What should we do with this beautiful brass behemoth, Spike? Where do you think we should aim it?"

"You could look for that mysterious tenth planet?" her faithful draconic assistant offered, "the one that you said is throwing out the orbit of the ninth one, but nopony can seem to find?"

Twilight seriously pondered that for a moment, looking deep into the eyepiece and past it out into the solar system. It would be powerful enough...

"Next time," she declared, as much for her own benefit as it was for Spike's. "I wouldn't know where to aim the Telescope yet."

"You could... try and see what Roman's rings are made of?"

"Or I could just predict that they're obviously rock and ice, like everything else out in the aether. What's something nopony else could do without an instrument this precise?"

"Hit the wrong lever and crush themselves?"

"Not helping, Spike."

"Sorry."

He wasn't.

"Well, there's a full moon tonight, so there's going to be plenty of light to see by?" His tone was uncertain. Rightfully so.

Twilight Sparkle massaged her temples with her hooves. "Spike, that will make other things more difficult to see because of light pollution. It's like going into a theater pit with a bright lantern to see the celluloidtography better."

"Oh. Wait, that wouldn't work? Is that why they have it so dark in there? I thought it was just so you couldn't see what they put on the popcorn to make it taste like that. Or what the ponies in the back row were doing."

Okay, so, Spike may be wrong, but she couldn't blame it on a lack of insight.

"It's going to make it exceedingly more difficult to see anything but the moon tonight, Spike. I guess... no, wait, Spike, you're a genius!"

"I am?" The pipes between them did a good job to mask his confusion, but not good enough.

"The moon, Spike!" Twilight explained, hoof pressing the catch on the handle closest to her and wrenching it vigorously back towards her. The Telescope ground on its thoroughly-greased rails as the steam forced it to comply with simple physics. Twilight's chair slowly spun with it. "We could map it! The vast oceans! The mountains, the crevices! We could prove that Equus isn't the only aetherial body with topography!"

"Err... yay?"

"Yay is right!" Twilight giggled excitedly, much in the same way another pony would after staying awake for a few hours too long, being sustained by at least four cups of coffee too many. "Where should we start?"

Spike hesitated. "Oh, uh, are you asking me for real, or asking just to be polite? Surely, I don't mind either way, but–"

Twilight rolled her eyes, lamenting the fact that her number one assistant couldn't tell just how magnificent the gesture was through the pipes.

"No, my faithful assistant, I want your honest input on this. Where should we start?"

"How about... the left side? Since that's going to get the darkest, first?"

"Brilliant!" Twilight agreed enthusiastically, pulling the lever furthest from her until the Telescope’s gaze hit the side of the moon just so.

Twilight let out an annoyed grunt. Very unladylike but, well, sometimes so was she. "It's harder to tell from such an oblique angle. I forgot to remember the moon isn't flat, it curves like Equus does. I'm looking at this edge almost side-on."

"Still, though, what do you see? Is it like you expected?"

"It's like a desert up there. A seemingly endless white desert, with pearl sand."

"I didn't think you were the poetic type, Twilight?"

"I'm not being poetic. It really is like somepony took all the pearls that ever were and will be and hurled them into orbit after a thorough round with a mortar and pestle, and it all just stuck together."

"So, sandstorms, huh?"

Twilight's head pulled back from the eyepiece long enough for her to shake her head vehemently before realizing that, again, Spike couldn't see her, and feeling rather silly about it.

"There's no atmosphere up there in the aether. The air just gets thinner and thinner like... well, you've been up in the balloon, Spike, you know. But that means, because there aren't really mountains, that there mustn't be any tectonic activity up there either. It's entirely dead, in every sense of the word."

How wonderfully morbid. Her map had suddenly become a guide to a geographic necropolis.

"So, it's probably really cold then, huh?"

"Probably. Certainly nopony could survive up there, not for more than a few seconds."

"Huh. So, no new libraries for you on the moon, then?"

A dangerous gleam appeared in Twilight's eye. One that spoke a simple statement that began with inspiration, and ended with the infamous phrase, ‘or die trying’.

"No, Twilight," her assistant chided after a long moment of contemplative silence. He knew her too well.

"A mare can dream, Spike."

"One mare's dreams is another dragon’s nightmares."

"Point. But there's... blue? Spike! I see blue!"

"Is it a sapphire? Is the moon made of gems?"

"No... no it couldn't be..." Twilight murmured, gingerly pressing down another lever. The Telescope twisted minutely with it, narrowing down and isolating a fuzzy patch of blue right at the edge of the moon. It was about the size of a pinhead at her current magnification, maybe smaller, but it was as visible against that blanket of whiteness as even a single gold thread would be on blackest felt. She centered the Telescope dead on it.

"It definitely can't be a gem. If the moon is tectonically dead, there wouldn't be anything to create them, let alone push them to the surface. I need to get a closer look."

Drat. Three levers: Horizontal, vertical, and the one she really didn't want to use so lightly: Magnification, in the center.

Magnification would slide the mirrors on their mountings fitted to tracks within the body of the telescope itself. Those mirrors were fragile, delicate things, and the sheer force of the steam she was channelling... wasn't.

A small nudge, just the smallest of gestures. Timid as a mouse, or perhaps even timid as a mouse who had spotted cheese on something which appeared decidedly spring-loaded, Twilight pushed the middle lever up.

Nothing cracked. Nothing shattered. Just the soft slippery grind of mountings on their lubricated tracks. The Telescope played its part masterfully, and the view of that mysterious patch of blue on the endless white got larger.

Using a nearby dune for scale, she estimated that the blue patch was at least the size of a pony, possibly larger. Not much larger, though. It was moving, too, or at least part of it was. Like it was caught in a breeze.

A breeze obviously nonexistent on the moon, unless everything modern science and philosophy had gone so far to hypothesize was wrong.

Twilight Sparkle eyed that accursed middle lever again.

"You're going to make me use you again, aren't you?" she muttered darkly at it, away from the speaking tube where Spike couldn't misconstrue her statement.

"So, what is it?" Spike sounded giddy now, or at the very least excitably curious, like Twilight had been moments before.

Now, now she just felt sick. Had she unintentionally just destroyed the results of decades of insights with a chance little discovery at the moon's edge?

Only one way to find out.

Twilight steeled herself as she reached for that brass lever. A bit more confidence, which she felt was entirely undeserved, accompanied the gesture. If she admitted it to herself, she was emboldened by the possibility of proving herself wrong, but as a scientist she refused to acknowledge any bias she might have. Especially bias this potent.

Mirrors slid home and locked into their new positions. Twilight dared look through the eyepiece again.

Something was broken. She had broken something with the levers, that was the only explanation.

"We just dropped below two on the dial, Twilight. You figure out what it is, or am I going to need more coal?"

"I think I broke the mirrors, Spike. We're obviously catching the reflection of somepony's apartment with this, somehow. That's the only possible explanation, besides the obvious."

There was a tentative silence. Did she sound panicked? Hysterical? When her assistant replied, it was with the tentativity of one who was walking on eggshells, certainly. "Well, what's the obvious then?"

"Spike, the only other possibility is that the telescope is not broken, and there is a mare on the moon."

Another long silence. She awaited Spike's answer with trepidation.

"Well, that can't be right. What do you think's broken?"

"I don't know! I definitely haven't seen this pony before. I'd have remembered her! So I can't tell where I'm getting this interference from!"

There was another long pause. It was a rather diplomatic silence this time, one that came from the pregnant pauses that gave birth to carefully worded sentences, sentences laden with the subtext ‘and please don't bite my head off for saying this’. "Why? Why would you have remembered this pony in particular, other than her being on the moon, apparently."

Twilight tried not to take offense for reasons she didn't quite understand, and failed. "And just what do you mean by that, mister?"

"Well, I mean, you've never really been good with remembering names. Or faces. Or, ah, voices."

"That's not true! I'm very good with remembering ponies."

"Oh yeah? How about this: Give me the names of two of your High School teachers."

Twilight opened her mouth, grinning at the tube rather smugly. Spike cut her off.

"Wait! Let me finish. Give me the names of two of your High School teachers that never gave you a B+ or lower."

Twilight's mouth clamped shut, and the pleasant warmth of smugness turned frigid cold. "Grudges should count for something."

"No. No they really, really shouldn't." The monotone imparted by the brass tube medium layered on Spike's deadpan snark in a way that really got to Twilight. "Face it. You're just not the social type."

"To be fair, I graduated when I was thirteen, Spike. High School was a very long time ago."

"Same question, but University."

"I was only there for three years!"

"Uh-huh. So why would you remember this pony, this specific pony?" There was an understandable dubiousness to his voice. Twilight liked to imagine him leaning against the tube, now, skeptical expression on his draconic face, arms folded tight across his chest.

"Well, for one thing, she must be the tallest pony I've ever seen, except for The Princess herself."

"Oh, yeah? What else?"

Twilight's eye pressed to the Telescope again, watching the faintest of sighs part the lips of the mare on the moon. A curious gesture, if there really was no atmosphere up there.

"I don't think I've ever seen a pony this lonely before."

Not even in the mirror.

Twilight Sparkle looked at the wheels and levers in front of her. A lever might be too much... the wheels gave her a lot more fine control over the movement. Maybe if she got a closer look...

She did one full revolution of the wheel. That should be enough to... to...

Do absolutely nothing.

A bemused eyebrow shot up on the unicorn's face. Had she really made the fine tuning so fine?

Another full revolution. Another.

No change.

Twilight's eyebrow shot down low with its twin into a knotted ball of frustration. A dozen more full revolutions of the wheel resulted in no changes. She was about to grab a wrench – possibly to fix something, possibly to whack the wheel until it chose to work – when Spike's voice rattled up the tube.

"Alright, the boiler's back up above two bars of pressure again. See if you can't get a better look! I'm releasing the catch now!"

Spike had shut off the steam feed to build up more pressure. That's why turning the little metal wheel hadn't... wait.

"Spike, no!"

Too late. The steam pushed through its path of least resistance, up through the valve that fifteen full revolutions had opened. Twilight's hoof danced across the wheel, desperate to undo what she had just done, but she couldn't outrace the surge of pressure she had just unleashed.

The soft grinding of tracks became a dull roar, more like a freight train on its tracks, as the mirrors focused closer on the anomaly Twilight had targeted.

Her blood froze like ice in her veins as she watched in rapt horror down the long brass tube. It kept zooming in, closer and closer. She had been just off-center, so the Telescope instead caught a patch of ground directly behind the mare on the moon as the mirrors slid dutifully onwards.

Hoofprints left in the lunar surface. Hoofprints left in the moon dust. This wasn't an anomalous reflection, and her Telescope certainly wasn't broken. There really, truly was a mare on the moon!

There was a shear grinding, like the sound of ripping tinfoil blasted through a megaphone. The Telescope rapidly zoomed out, back past the mare, back past the mountains, until she was no better off looking through it than she was using her naked eye. Then glittering cobwebs as a resounding, shattering crash rattled out of the long brass housing of the Telescope.

Her Telescope certainly hadn't been broken. Before.

Below, in the basement, Spike plugged his ears with cotton wads to escape the screams of the mare far above, amplified and echoed down the brass tube beside him.


The Farmer who Builds

Twilight's doorbell was, naturally, a work of utter genius.

The button itself was a simple bronze nub set in a decorative latticework of elegant curves and angles. Pressing the button depressed a plunger into a network of sealed pipes containing an oily fluid. This oily fluid would then, through conservation of force, open miniature valves throughout Twilight's residence. These valves were connected to the main steam supply – a boon in winter and a bane to its owners in summer – which let through a trickle of their not-insurmountable force through small, modified steam whistles, filling each with silver-toned piping and trilling.

Though rarely used, the engineering marvel that cost a very hefty sum of bits and brainpower to implement would alert Twilight Sparkle or her assistant Spike that somepony was at the door with the blissful ring of silver chimes, as if through a spring breeze.

You can imagine the expression on Twilight's face, then, when she heard three loud, hammered knocks at the door.

The unicorn kicked back, rolling the board beneath her out from under the Telescope, face and apron alike covered in grease stains and scorch marks. She let out a world-weary sigh.

"Spike!" her shout echoed down the cavernous library below her, the echo muffled by the impromptu soundproofing that thousands of books will provide, "would you kindly get the door?"

A head with spines covered in black tar and face covered in brass dust popped up over the other side of the Telescope. "Sorry, what was that?"

"Nevermind," Twilight grumbled, "I forgot you were in there. I'll get it, you just try and tear out the bearings that snapped."

There was a grubby little salute before the head popped back down.

The ladders were useful, certainly, but constantly scurrying machine parts and heavy tools up and down six flights had rapidly gotten tiresome, to quite an alarming degree. An elevator had been installed out of necessity: a simple iron cage on a long, greased piston filled with hydraulic fluid – much like her doorbell system! Just... moreso. A lot moreso. Using it was a simple matter of pulling a lever in the cage: holding it down pooled the fluid from the piston into a holding tank below the floorboards, in what was now an exceedingly cramped basement.

To think, the prior owner had wasted the space with an expansive wine cellar! Twilight couldn't get rid of the nasty stuff fast enough to make room for the boilers and tanks it now held.

Her magic gripped the lever in the elevating cage and, with all the force she could muster, jerked the lever down. The ability to manipulate almost as much force with her magic as she could with her own physical body made her one of the most powerful mages to ever live!

It would have been easier to simply lean on the lever, of course, but she appreciated the practice.

She was still a bit more than two bookshelves high from the ground when that insistent hammering repeated itself. Twilight's poor door was probably splintering from the abuse.

Two pony heights off the ground. Twilight threw open the simple lattice door of the cage.

A pony and a half height. The elevator was moving too slowly, Twilight could sense that imprudent hoof hovering over her door. She jumped, landing on the floor with a sharp protest from her legs and a sharp rap from hooves connecting with wood.

"Use the doorbell!" She shouted, desperately, as she navigated a maze of haphazardly placed bookshelves, all but galloping to the front door.

"Ah, beg'n your pardon?"

Now, that's a voice she didn't recognize. The voice was so... ignorant sounding.

Well, of course they were unencumbered by erudition. They knocked.

Twilight twisted herself around the last of the bookshelves between her and the entry foyer, a warm box-like room jutting from the side of her otherwise cylindrical home. No bookshelves here, just a plush velvet couch, for guests, and a small cappuccino machine of her own design. Colonization of the Zebra lands had brought the miracle of coffee, and the application of steam had made it even more wonderful again.

She turned the valve on the machine as she passed. If not for her guest, the coffee might help Twilight herself cope.

Twilight slid back the deadbolt, removed the chain, unhooked the latch, kicked away the chock and unlocked the padlock – something especially tricky if you didn't have magic, or a dragon's nimble hands – all in the space of ten seconds, desperate not to let that dreadful hammering hoof come into contact with her poor door again.

She pulled the door open, panting furiously, leaning against the doorframe a little for support. Her head was lowered, staring pointedly at the ground until she could catch her breath, so all she saw of her new stallion acquaintance was that their orange fetlocks were ridiculously unkempt.

"The... doorbell... ring... the... doorbell..."

"Ah... okay, valued customer, Ah'll do just that. Whatever it takes."

One of those unshorn fetlocks raised above her head and pressed the little button recessed in the frame of the door, where she was leaning.

"Must be broken, Ah don't hear nothin'."

"Patience! Give it a moment. Let the steam build up."

The moment she finished, the tinkling of silver chimes, as if caught in a gentle spring breeze, drifted from the home behind her. Twilight sighed in pure bliss.

"Thank you very much, Mr...?" She lifted her head slowly, taking one last, gulping breath. She jumped back at the very amused look on the face of the mare she had just greeted.

"Didn't think my voice was that deep."

"It was your hooves. They're very solid, for a mare." Wait, was that offensive? "For anypony, really." Wait, was that offensive?

Twilight sighed in relief when she was rewarded with a brief chuckle rather than a door slammed in her face. Well, actually, the door opened inward, and Twilight was in the way of a door being slammed... The mare didn’t storm off, then, upon finding a lack of door to slam in Twilight’s face, and that was the important thing.

"Why, thank'n you kindly. I'll take that as the compliment it was intended, if'n you don't mind."

Twilight just nodded, taking a moment to study the mare. Clean, washed, but obviously not with soap. Water alone only did so much. She smelled strongly of apples, as well – natural apples, not a perfume. The mare didn't seem the type, regardless. She was wearing a ratty flat cap, too, a style the urchin paper boys seemed insistent on. The cap held down simple braided, golden-blonde hair, which looked not only the same colour as fresh hay, but apparently had the same coarse texture.

Twilight had the sneaking suspicion that if she were to brush that hair, it would be for the first time this week.

Green eyes. Excited, but there was a trace of something behind it. Nervousness, perhaps? Fear? That didn't make sense. Certainly the bright smile seemed genuine, pulling at heavily freckled cheeks that screamed aw-shucks, salt-of-the-earth charm.

Twilight was feeling rather smug about her deduction that this mare must have been an apple farmer. Well, was. Then she noticed that the mare had been pulling an elaborate cart half-again her size, filled with apples, and felt rather silly for not noticing that first. The cart was more dressed up than a performing pony's, with all the bunting and brightness of a gypsy pony's but the stern, serious decorum of a business mare's. A serious salespony wagon.

"You're here to sell apples, aren't you? Well, I'm dreadfully sorry, but I already have a supplier–"

"Yes, that's uh, that's me. Was me I should say. You haven't made any more orders." The orange mare's smile turned rather sheepish.

The unicorn did mental inventory. She still had another month left, didn't she? If she... no... oh dear. She had utterly forgotten. If this mare hadn't reminded her, she'd have starved. "Oh."

"Ah was hopin' I could convince you to remain a loyal Apple family customer."

Twilight smiled in relief."I'm sorry, I just–"

"No! Don't be sorry!" the mare cried, her fragile smile cracking almost audibly, "Just... Ah'm Applejack, you see, of the Apple family, and we're some of the last ponies left in all of the Equestrian Empire to still grow our produce the old fashioned way. No machines, nothin', and whilst our produce might be a mite bit more expensive, you can really taste the difference." Even through the desperation, the mare’s... Applejack's voice was filled with a deep sense of pride.

Twilight didn't quite understand it; it was kind of weird to be proud of being technologically backward, really. She wasn't inclined to change her provider, though. The Apples were the most reliable weekly delivery service she had used, which Twilight counted on... lest she be forced to leave the house and go shopping.

"I'm aware, which is why–"

"No! No lettin' me down gently. Here just... okay, so, ah got here a leadin' competitor's apple," here Applejack plucked an apple by the stem from a side compartment of the wagon she was carting around – or was it the cart she had been wagoning around? – and presented it to Twilight, somewhat furtively. As if Twilight held Applejack's life in her hooves. "On the house. Demonstrative purposes and such."

Twilight took a bite. It tasted like an apple, sort of. More like the ghost, or an echo, of an apple. The crunch was kind of soggy, the flesh was almost powdery... Was this what everypony else always ate?

"Right. Now, try one of your good ol' Apple Family apples!"

One of the apples from the cart itself was plucked and tossed to Twilight, who caught it effortlessly with her magic.

"Woo-wee! Caught a whole apple, there, tossed and all? You must be one heckuva powerful unicorn."

Twilight blushed faintly at the praise, attempting to hide her embarrassment with a crunch of the apple.

Succulent juices burst forth as teeth sank into an apple of just the right texture; hard, but relenting. It was sweet, but not sickly so, with just a hint of bite left over from its greener days.

It was everything she had come to expect from an Apple Family apple.

"See? Now that's – woah, there, slow down, don't choke on it!" Applejack chuckled, smile genuine again, no hint of trepidation in her voice. And it turned out all she had to do was offer Twilight Sparkle a good apple to remind her she had forgotten breakfast.

Again.

"How much is a month's worth of deliveries, remind me?"

"For customer loyalty? Twelve bits for the month."

"Alright, so I nearly made a dreadful mistake here. A year's worth should be... one hundred and forty four bits, then? Round up to hundred fifty... no. No, one hundred and sixty bits, as my sincerest apologies, and my sincerest gratitude for not letting me make that mistake."

Twilight checked the credenza near the front door. Opening it revealed a glimmering pile of unspent gold pieces, just waiting for a book fair. A pity they would be spent on necessities instead, but that was why she kept them so close to the front door. The cap floated off of Applejack's head – who scowled and tried to paw at it before Twilight could jerk it away – and dipped into the credenza. Twilight counted gold chunks into it and sent the hat back to the very-wide-eyed delivery girl.

"Woah, nelly, Ah don't think Ah've ever seen a customer this grateful to be talked out of switchin'."

"Why would I even consider changing supplier?" Twilight asked in genuine confusion, pouring a fresh, steaming cup of coffee to offer the delivery mare.

"Y'er darn tootin'!" Applejack whooped, dumping the bits into a little recessed compartment of her wagon, where they disappeared beneath the pile of apples. Must have a false bottom. "Ah'll be honest with ya, miss, we couldn't afford to lose another customer."

"Hmm? Why's that?" Twilight idly asked, stirring sugar into the drink.

"Well, ever since the colonies spread out to Zebra and Saddle Arabian lands, we just can't compete. Land prices shot up and we can't grow coffee or sugar in these climes, and that's all ponies seem to be paying the good bits for."

Twilight hurriedly downed the coffee in a single gulp, trying to ignore the painful burning as it went down. She stared down the mug: No, no hint of evidence left of her unintentional sin. It would not do to offer the mare a bright, steaming cup of life ruin.

Tea.

Tea would have been better.

"Sorry, I was going to offer you a drink," Twilight wheezed, mouth red and raw, "but it appears I just ran out of things to offer you."

"That's plenty fine, I got a tank of the finest apple juice in the empire right here," Applejack smiled, tapping her wagon with a rear hoof. "Better mosey on anyway. Got a lot of ponies to sway into stickin' with us."

Applejack started hitching herself back up to her wagon, pulling at leads and buckles, more like mountain-climber’s gear than farm equipment.

Twilight nodded ruefully, glancing up and behind her to where the Telescope approximately lay, dead and broken. "Probably for the best. As much as I appreciate the bare essentials of continued living – and I do – what I really need right now is a blacksmith."

The harness stopped clicking, and fell to the ground with a whump, and the clatter of steel clips on stone. The earth pony's smile deepened more than it widened.

"A blacksmith, huh?"

The mare walked around the side of her wagon again, rapping its back sharply with a hind hoof. Twilight watched silently as the mare bobbed down and metal clanged out of the unicorn's sight. The apple farmer popped back up wearing a custom, faded-green welding mask, an elaborate welding torch held by what Twilight sincerely hoped was an imitation leather strap to her hoof.

"Even metal can burn if you know what you're doin', and that's the honest truth. Just point me to the problem and Ah'll have it fixed up before you can say 'good, hard work'."

"Why... why do you have all this welding equipment on you?"

"Cart might break." Applejack shrugged, voice muffled by the mask between them. "Way I see it, you paid me a month more than you bought. Figure this might make us even. I got the mix on this set for brass’ melting point, that good for your purposes?"

"Well, yes, but this is an incredibly delicate scientific instrument I'm working with. Are you sure you can... what are you doing?"

Applejack had pulled a pile of warped brass from the same rear compartment the tools had come from, and hefted it like a baseball to Twilight. It was about the same relative size of a baseball, so catching it like one was a relatively simple matter for a unicorn of Twilight's abilities... another one might not have been so lucky.

"Just makin' sure the apple wasn't a fluke," the mask chuckled, "now, since you're a unicorn and all, this is going to make it a mite easier. Just keep it held steady for me, would ya kindly?"

"Er... sure?"

"Oh, and you might want to look away. Got that?"

Twilight closed her eyes and averted her gaze, letting her magic tell her where the ball of brass stayed. Her horn tingled as she felt the bristled flames lick against her magic grip, like warm cats' tongues.

She began to grow impatient after humming a full chorus of Schaden Freude's latest composition. She was about to hum it to herself again when the tingling in her horn stopped, fading to a dull tickle as the heat dissipated.

"Right, you can look now. Reckon that's about as good as I'm gunna get her."

Twilight peeked at the still-glowing brass blob hanging in the air between them. What had been a tangled mess of scrap metal was now a smooth orb, the size and shape of a small, smooth apple. A glistening stem, glowing gold from the heat, rose and fell delicately from the top and a single leaf, perhaps only a millimeter thick, grew from the stem and rested gently against the apple itself. A faint bead of still-molten metal trickled down its side, giving the illusion of morning dew.

Applejack tipped her welder's mask back and blew on the tip of her torch, like a gunfighter who was quicker on the draw than the poor sap who wasn't. "I can do delicate, if'n you'd have me."

Twilight opened and closed her mouth slowly a few times, utterly lost for words. She quickly decided to overcompensate.

"This is astounding! Beautiful! Prepossessing! Beguiling! Magnificently aesthetically exquisite!"

"Reckon it might be just that, if I knew what half those words meant," Applejack just shrugged again, smiling a little bashfully.

"The elevator is this way. Come! Come, come, come, quickly now."

Twilight had circled around the orange mare, her previous hesitation long-forgotten, shunted from her mind as she rapidly reclassified Applejack from 'salespony' to 'bringer of food' and now, most importantly, to 'vital resource'. The cranial filing cabinet with the gold gilt placard bearing 'friend' lay coated in mental cobwebs and neuron dust. Still, a vital resource was a tool to be used, and Twilight treated her new acquaintance as such. Namely, by pressing her horn into their backside until they navigated the correct bookshelves to the wrought iron cage with the scissor-doors.

"Is this what you need fixed up, good and proper?" Applejack asked, rubbing the apple cutie mark where Twilight had poked pointedly and repeatedly. "Shucks, must be keeping quite a lot of birds in this thing. Or just one really big 'un, I s'pose. Reckon you could fit the two of us in there."

"Oh, yes, that's the intention." Twilight smiled gently, circling back around and opening the scissor-doors with a clattering rattle. "The elevator is quite safe, I assure you, and very functional. What I need fixed is at the other end of this."

"What's it do?"

Twilight blinked at the question. "It's an elevator," she stated rather curtly. "It elevates."

"What's that mean?"

Oh, right. Simpleton. Simpleton savant, obviously, with a welding torch and with farm labour, but simpleton nonetheless.

"It means it goes up," Twilight explained with threadbare patience. She needed this Telescope fixed. She needed to find the Mare on the Moon again...

"Hold your horses, then, I reckon I need to try this," Applejack grinned as she skipped into the cage, pulling the door closed behind her. Twilight jerked the lever and...

"Nothin's happenin'."

"You have to wait for the steam to build up. See that little gauge here? When the needle hits the red... now."

The cage jerked from its resting position, lurching the pair upwards. Applejack's grin redoubled as she watched the bookshelves drift slowly down, a pony height, two pony heights. At three pony heights her grin faded a little. At four she started leaning into Twilight's side, not unlike a foal. At five she openly whimpered, and they were only a quarter of the way up!

"Ah, Twilight, this was fun and all, but there's no bottom on this thing."

"Yes there is. There's a grate, which you are clearly standing on."

"Yeah, yeah, I know, but you can see through it."

Twilight's brow furrowed as her patience wore as thin as one of the pages of the countless books they had passed. "Then don't look down if it bothers you so much."

"I can't help it! If the Mourning Princess had wanted me to get up this high, she'd have given me wings and left me a pegasus. This ain't natural!"

"Neither is agricultural science, and you seem perfectly content to live your life doing that."

"Wha–" Applejack finally ripped her eyes from the distant ground and stared, dumbfounded, at the exasperated unicorn pressed to her side.

"It means farming."

"No, no, I knew that," Applejack muttered, almost frustrated, definitely panicked, as they reached ten ponyheights off the ground – halfway – slowing down as the weight of the piston lifting them grew with each new gush of fluid being pumped into it, "I was just wonderin' how you knew I was happy farmin'. Most ponies look down on the Apples. Think 'cause we don't use machines, we're lesser, somethin's wrong with us."

"Well, I admit that I don't understand that at all." Twilight shrugged. "But, you were very convincing with the taste test, so you obviously know what you're doing. And you're also obviously proud of what you do, your face lit up like a Spark bulb when you talked about your produce. You can't fake that kind of passion. Well, you can, but not easily. And if you can weld like you showed me, it's not for lack of career options. The airshipyards would snap you up in a second, if you wanted. But you're here selling apples, not making ships. It's simple deduction that you're doing it because it makes you happy, which I find noble."

A pony choosing to follow passion over money, in this day and age? It warmed the cold cockles of Twilight's frigid heart. Well, that and the mare had given Twilight a hearty breakfast apple, so all technologically-backward related sins could be forgiven for the length of its digestion.

"Huh. Well, don't that beat all. A high-class, educated, ivory-tower–"

"Well, brass and glass tower."

"–high-falootin' mare that don't look down on me. When all the rest are happy enough to leave their food in the hooves of zebras and diamond dogs who don't want to be growin' it, I got one right here telling me that what I'm doin' isn't a complete waste of a mare. Don't that honestly just beat all?"

"You already said that. At the start of your musing."

Applejack grumbled.

Twilight considered the mare beside her. Was it so hard to believe that Twilight wouldn't look down on her for doing what she loved, even if... no, that frown, those eyes, it really was that hard for her to believe. She wasn't just saying that to keep Twilight as a customer. This was no false flattery.

The realization stunned her.

She nudged Applejack beside her, who gave her a confused glance.

"You know, I built this elevator myself. Designed it, too. Spike helped, of course."

Applejack looked her up and down, as if sizing her up. That might have even been the case. "You? Seriously? You uh, don't look the engineerin' type. Look like too much of a thinker."

"Well, I am the Mourning Princess's personal philosopher-in-residence," Twilight beamed with pride, "but I like to get really hooves-on with my inventions. It just feels so much more... invigorating... when you reap the fruits of your own labour. I suppose you'd know all about that, wouldn't you?"

"Shucks, 'course I do, them being literal fruits and all," Applejack smirked, taking a deep breath and separating herself from Twilight's side. Just four more ponyheights left until they reached the top platform. "But I never figured an educated mare like yourself would. Reckon they always seem to know better."

"Oh, so you're saying what I should do is stop buying my groceries from you and grow them all myself?" Twilight surprised herself when she said that. Was she being... playful? How uncharacteristic of her.

"Wouldn't say a wet-brained thing like that," Applejack shot right back, pointedly looking up and not down, "but I reckon if all those purse-clutching society mares took to good honest labour, I'd be run out of business faster than even the zebra colonies are doin' it."

"Thankfully, those purse-clutching society mares appear to be allergic to hard work, or thinking of any kind. Which makes mares like us a rarity."

"Mares like us, huh?" Applejack's smirk faded, warmed, baked itself into a sweet little affectionate smile. Twilight's eyes bulged, like she'd swallowed an entire apple without chewing and it had caught in her throat. Had she really said that? She had nothing in common with a mare so... so blasé, so uneducated, so... pedestrian.

And yet... she did.

The elevator stopped with a jarring clunk, felt as much as it was heard by its passengers. The two passengers shared a meaningful look, not daring to move first. As soon as they left the elevator, the spell might be broken. This conversation might as well have not even happened.

They might go back to being a farmer and a philosopher, not so much worlds apart as entire solar systems, a distance she couldn’t even see with the aid of her working Telescope.

It was Spike who finally opened the door, breaking the stalemate.

"Hey, Twilight, you're back! I managed to get it all cleaned out for you, now we just need to weld it all back together. I think I worked out what went wrong, too!" He paused, his eager little tail practically wagging, as he stared dumbfounded at the mare standing beside Twilight.

"Hey, who's this?"

Applejack? True, but meaningless to Spike. Help? Also true, but so much less than who she was. An accomplice? Sounded too criminal. What was she, to Twilight?

Applejack got her answer out whilst Twilight was still considering all these options. "A friend, I reckon," she drawled, flashing the unicorn a questioning look, "ain't that right?"

Twilight nodded before her brain caught up with the reflex, jarring her neck uncomfortably like a handbrake on a speeding hansom. It was enough for Applejack, though, who snapped the faded green welder's mask down into position and stepped out.

"Right, now, you're a dragon, huh? Young'un at that. Should bring Apple Bloom 'round next time, betcha she'd love to see a real live, walkin' talkin' lizard boy. Now, show me what I gotta fix, and I'll have it done lickety split."

Spike bounded beside her, talking all about the Telescope, and the fittings, and all the technical details that Twilight would have been talking about, too, if she weren't so... distracted.

Inside Twilight's head, a dusty, cobweb-covered filing cabinet creaked open. Inside it she placed an orange file with a single word on it: Applejack.

There were no other files beside it. And for some strange reason, that made Twilight sad.


The Mare Who Runs On The Moon

"We just hit two point five millibars!" Spike’s voice rattled up through the brass speaking tube.

Twilight tentatively pressed the middle lever.

The Telescope moved flawlessly on its new bearings. Feeling as though it had never been broken in the first place.

True to her words, Applejack, a humble farmer, had improved on the design considerably. The Telescope now focused in and out, whisper-quiet. Safeguards had been installed which made sure the mare’s help would never be needed again, but a small part of Twilight felt saddened by that... and even more so when she’d left. Needed, no, but wanted?

Still, even with this new revelation, she was glad Spike hadn't told Applejack about the mare on the moon. He hadn't seen the hoofprints like she had; he still probably thought it was a fault with the Telescope. Twilight had believed that, too, hadn't she?

For now, the Mare on the Moon remained her little secret.

She widened the field of view, scanning the lunar surface for that pinprick of blue on white desert. There, a few... kilometers? Yes, about that far from the edge of the darkness as the moon started to wane.

Why not stay at the far edge, then, where it was always light?

She narrowed the field of view until she could see the mare fully. She was galloping now, looking back over her shoulder, mane and tail streaming behind her – caught in that breeze that couldn’t be. The Telescope had to move fractions of a millimeter to keep her tight in the unicorn's view. What was she running from? The darkness, obviously, but...

Twilight leaned back away from the eyepiece. This mare was like a foal on the beach, playing with the lapping tide; running with it as it receded, and then away as it pushed its way back to shore, each cycle running the course of a month.

She wasn't just lonely. She was bored.

"Hey, Twilight, can I see?"

Spike's disembodied voice rattled her out of her revelatory reverie. "See what, Spike?"

"The Mare on the Moon. I want to see her!"

Twilight considered it a moment. Was there really a reason to keep it to herself? Why hadn't she reported it to the Princess yet? The thought of telling the Princess of Mourning about this felt... wrong, for some reason. Very wrong.

Spike, though?

"Sure, Spike. Make sure the boilers won't explode without you, and come up here. Take the ladders, though, we don't want to waste pressure on the elevator."

"Gotcha. Be there in a few minutes."

Twilight would feel more guilty about sending Spike up the ladders if she didn't already know two things: that the elevator was up here at the top, and she would have to spend pressure on sending it down as well as back up, which was the cold logical reason. The other was that Spike liked climbing. Maybe not that much, no, but it was the closest he could come to flying, since his wings hadn't grown in yet. Those claws of his made him a better climber than any pony, and he took no small amount of pride in that.

Twilight tracked the galloping mare on the moon slowly, the minutes passing in breathless seconds. She jumped when Spike tapped her on the shoulder.

"Oh! I kept her in view for you. The telescope should be moving at the right speed to keep up with her, now, so all you have to worry about is looking down the eyepiece."

Spike grinned as Twilight vacated her little brass-and-velvet seat affixed to the Telescope's side and Spike plopped down in her place, stretching his neck to reach the eyepiece.

"Woah, she's really moving, isn't she?"

"She's trying to outrun the darkness. I think it's like a game to her."

"Boring game," Spike grunted. "Not like there's anything else to do up there, though, is there?"

"No, I suppose not."

"How long do you think she's been up there?" Spike wondered, eye never leaving the harsh metal eyepiece, pressed to it like not even Twilight dared to with her far more sensitive pony physiology. Draconic skin, draconic skull, draconic eyes all made pressing into it less painful.

"I have no idea. The tracks seem to run all over the moon though. If she makes a circuit once a month... She'd have to have been up there for hundreds of years."

"The Telescope isn't broken is it? There really is a mare up there, huh?"

Twilight was uncharacteristically silent at that.

"Woah!" Spike yelped, suddenly. "Stop! Stop the telescope! Go back!"

"What? What happened?"

"She stopped running, and the Telescope just shot right past her!" Spike jumped out of the chair, giving Twilight a worrisome look. She took his place, magic gripping the lever again and pulling it gently back.

The Telescope moved less than half a millimeter on its bearings, but its view shot back across perhaps a hundred meters, maybe two. The Mare on the Moon was standing, stock still, looking up into the sky...

Directly at her.

Twilight rocked back in her seat, tearing herself away from the eyepiece. Spike tugged at her fur, like an anxious child years his younger would.

"What? What happened? Why'd she stop?"

"I think... I think she knows we're watching her."

"How?! Is she mad?" Spike stared up at the moon, a child awaiting judgement from a parent, hand caught in the cookie jar. Twilight knew how he felt.

Looking back into the eyepiece, she saw that the mare was still staring up at her – at her – across the great span of the aether between them. She shook her head slowly, mane still caught in that wind that couldn't be, and started running again. The spell was broken.

"She knows," Twilight whispered.

"Did you see her face, though?" Spike whispered, as if the Mare could hear them, even now.

"I did. Why?"

The little dragon looked at her a long moment, then down at himself, claw scratching idly at a soot stain earned from working the boilers. Finally, he worked up the courage to say what he thought. "She looked just like you did, when Applejack left yesterday."

Twilight's heart froze, an unbeating block of ice weighing against her chest, as she looked up at the bright moon above.

A decision was made.

"We've got to find some way to talk to her, Spike."

"What? But... but nopony has ever sent a message across the aether before! Magic won't go through it, even if you got the Princess to help you!"

It was true. The Princess of Mourning was strong enough to spin the world, but even she had stated that it was impossible to send magic out beyond Equestria. A single tear had fallen from behind the black veil that she was never without, not even alone, so Twilight knew the truth of it.

"Then we can't use magic," Twilight agreed, pushing herself away from the telescope and peering down, down into the bookshelf labyrinth below, and she made a decision. "Tomorrow, I'm going to the university. Science will succeed where magic has failed."

"You sound so sure. You haven’t even made me double-check anything! How do you know?"

Twilight stepped into the elevator, Spike plodding along behind her, everything about his expression and body language pleading for an answer.

"Because it has to, Spike. I know, because it has to."

Whatever Spike's thought on that matter, he remained silent the length of the elevator ride down.


The Madmare who Invents

The University was a building of significant importance. Its architects and engineers had their choice of building material, and many were considered. It is important, then, to consider what it could have consisted of, but was not.

It was not made of marble. Marble is expensive and presumptuous. Marble is delicate and troublesome to shape. A building made of marble is, therefore, like a pompous dandy wearing fine tailcoats and silk shirts: a lot of time, money and effort spent to present to the world that you are important, because you can spend a lot of time, money and effort on your appearance. Such a stallion stands out nicely from the crowd, but as soon as he opens his mouth, the illusion is dispelled.

Neither was it constructed of wood. Wood rots. Wood ages. Wood may be fine and cheap – unless it is an exotic wood imported from the colonies – and it is certainly easy to shape and work. But wood does not stand the test of time – unless it's coated decade after decade with toxic and wasteful paints and treatments.

It could have been made of iron and brass and lead and glass, like those pillars of modern design reaching into the skies of the Empire's cities. This University was not like those skyscrapers, however. It sprawled low to the ground, hunched like a squatting giant, engulfing parks and quadrangles like an amoeba consuming prey. The University was not to be filled with claustrophobic seas of clerks’ desks drowning in oceans of typewriter ribbon, boldly navigated by a few floor managers. It was cavernous lecture halls and bustling laboratories.

It is important to note that the University was constructed of sandstone. Sandstone is not beautiful. Sandstone is not temperamental. Sandstone is not auspicious, nor is it revered, refined or especially respectable. What it is, however, is functional. Sandstone is comparatively easy to cut, it's comparatively cheap, and it stands strong against the test of time.

Even the occasional fluted column, topped with etchings and engravings, was far more for function than form. Designed more to hold up the floors above it, than to show off the delicate carving the stone could be known for.

This was a building, then, that made no efforts to appear grand, grandiose, or especially great. It was huge, vast and sprawling, but it looked more like a series of cubes chiselled directly out of a cliffside than an opulent locus of higher learning.

This was a building that was simply content with the knowledge that it was indeed great, and need make no effort to show it off. Ponies simply knew, and that was that.

It was a building that Twilight had a lot of respect for. Its occupants, too.

It was also one of the very few places in the Empire that Twilight could wear her absolute favourite brown tweed jacket and a modest bow tie without feeling silly.

The main courtyard was flanked on both sides by sandstone arms forcing their way out of the main, four-floor hub of the building, reaching out towards the smooth cobblestones of Old Minusculus Equusurbem;, literally "Diminutive Horse City" in old Equus. The Capital had far exceeded the bounds of what Clover the Clever and Smart Cookie could ever have imagined when they combined what remained of their territories to make a final stand; a bastion of Civilisation, standing against the nomadic military conquests of the pegasii. Its beating heart, the remains of Minusculus Equusurbem, remained true to its founder's intentions.

Twilight stood now, in that main courtyard, studying the list of departments and their location on the University's campus.

The Electrical Engineering department, a relatively new addition with its age measured in mere decades and not centuries, would probably be her best, safest bet. She pointedly ignored it, looking at her alternatives.

The Chemistry department? A field in which she had notable expertise, but not one she could readily apply to her current objective. Her attempts at communication with her Mare on the Moon using the chemical sciences would probably end in several large craters visible even without the aid of a telescope, let alone the Telescope.

Applied Engineering? Tempting, but not even Twilight would have the materials to build an elevator to the moon. A one-way journey would be far more feasible, but far less preferable.

The Electrical Engineering department was famous for its revolutionary new communication technologies, technologies that were connecting the globe in ways never before imagined. Twilight Sparkle pointedly ignored it. Talking to him should obviously be avoided as much as possible.

Biology? Now, that was just getting silly. Unless somepony could breed some sort of dragon that could fly her through the aether...

No, no... No. Down that path lay madness, and an incredibly jealous Spike.

She was getting desperate now, grasping at straws. Psychology? No, they'd just call her insane, and ask her why she thought an aether-faring dragon was a good idea, and about her relationship with her mother, who she should probably call — on the telephone, an invention of this very University's Electrical Engineering department, which she very pointedly ignored.

It was only, to her horror, after she had seriously started considering asking for the Drama department's help that Twilight Sparkle, Philosopher In Residence, inventor, tinker and polymath extraordinaire... admitted defeat, hung her head low, and forged a slow path to the Electrical Engineering department, to meet the only pony in the Empire who made her feel stupid every time they talked.

It was time to talk to Professor Bright Sparks.

Navigating the University was no mean feat for the uninitiated. Clover the Clever had designed the layout herself, which meant that the floorplan made a great deal of perfect, rational sense – if you were very clever, and thought about it, but otherwise completely nonsensical if you didn't.

The most important requirement on any first year student's book list was the school map. Overconfident teachers had wandered off into these hallowed halls looking for a friend in another department, never to be seen again, except perhaps as a fresh model in Biology.

It was understandable, then, that when Twilight came across the lecture theater and found it empty – despite her timetable assuring her it would still be holding Professor Bright Sparks – she had presumed herself to simply be in the wrong place.

She was about to turn tail from the room when she heard humming, an idle tune drifting from behind the blackboards. Twilight stepped into the room, down into the lecture pit. The simple carpet muffled her hoofsteps as she stalked down between the sloping rows of chairs.

She could make out words, now.

"The wavelength of light in the aether is a thing we cannot know

but soon our understanding of this science shall I grow

I stimulate emissions of radiation held in tow

though diffraction in the atmosphere will... huh."

Twilight had made it to the front, now, or perhaps the bottom. Blackboards filled with mind-numbing and world-changing formulas dangled from crisscrossing polished rails nestled in the ceiling, like somepony was designing a miniature train set to push any combination of pieces across a chessboard. Each blackboard slab could be spun, flipped, rotated, pushed back, brought forward...

Or used to conceal a mare in their depths.

"Ah, hello?" Twilight questioned, annoyed by her own anxiety, "I was looking for Professor Sparks lecture?"

Two boards parted like theater curtains, exposing an almost offensively bright pink mare, who had a mane less like a hairstyle and more like she had actually held her head in a cotton-candy vendor's machine. She didn't seem to be capable of stillness, shifting her weight constantly. She wore a bowler hat, which was annoyingly askew, a simple waistcoat, asymmetrically buttoned up, and a polka dot bow tie, a mockery of Twilight's own.

The mare's face bore a smile that was maddening, or perhaps infectious. Was madness contagious? Twilight suspected talking to her was as good a way as any to find out. Before she had the chance to back away from the pink spectre before her, perhaps even run, the earth pony mare answered her.

"This is Professor Bright Sparks' lecture, silly! You're just late."

Just another thing about this mare that offended every fibre of the unicorn's sensible being. That wasn't right. That couldn't be right. "Late? I hate to correct you, miss...?" Twilight left the invitation hanging, but the ghastly pink mare simply cocked her head to the side and waited for her to continue. "I'm sorry to correct you, but it is 10am on the dot. I'm dreadfully persnickety about my punctuality, you must understand."

The unicorn's magic thrust itself into a pocket within her brown tweed jacket, reaching for the pocket watch it contained. A button on it depressed and a mechanism flipped it open, revealing with stern decorum that the time was, in fact, 10am. "See?"

"Ooh, that's a very pretty pocketwatch you have," the pink abomination cooed, zipping forward well and truly inside the boundaries of Twilight's personal space. She felt distinctly invaded. "It's a shame the second hand isn't moving, though."

Twilight's brow knotted tight, the faint and guilty smile she had at the joy of correcting this mare capsizing like it had hit an iceberg. "What?"

She checked the watch itself and found that it was, indeed, not moving. How long had it been 10am for? "I've forgotten to wind it again, haven't I." It was a statement, not a question.

"I can be really scatterbrained myself," the pink atrocity to good sense assured her. She wrapped a sticky, oily hoof around Twilight's withers and lead her toward the lecturer's desk that sat between the boards and the empty seats. Before she removed her hoof, however, Twilight's withers were treated to a barrage of prods and pokes. This seemed to satisfy the pink thing for some reason. "That's why I have a watch with a battery, now. You can have one of mine!"

A pink hoof slid open the second drawer of the desk and rifled through it, coming back out with a rather shiny looking pocket watch. Even a glance could tell it was much nicer than Twilight’s own. It looked almost achingly fragile.

The mare threw the watch at Twilight. Her eyes widened as she made to grab it with her magic. "Careful! These things are very delicate!"

"Oh, I know," she nodded, "I just wanted to see if you were as strong a unicorn as you looked. You totally are, by the way."

Twilight didn't know how to feel about that, so she turned her attention to the watch. It didn't have a winding key; the mechanism at the top was capable of changing the time, and opening its lid, but it was becoming rapidly clear that this watch was not powered by its clockwork.

It was electrical, then. Twilight immediately distrusted it, almost as much as the mare that gave it to her. Deep into her pockets she reached with her magic once more, pulling out a simple device that she had made in her early attempts at the Telescope; a magnifying glass.

The unicorn pored over the brushed bronze casing of the watch, studying it carefully. Good machinework, expensive material; an excellent accessory, all told. Better than anything the mare before her would own. The mark confirmed her suspicions.

"This has Bright Spark's name on it," Twilight accused, "and you just pulled it from his desk. This isn't your watch, is it?"

"Oh, it is mine, see?" Pinkie nudged the magnifying glass further along. Engraved into the back of the watch was–

"TESLA?" Twilight looked up from the magnifying glass, back at the still-too-wide-smiling mare fiddling with her own bow tie. "What does that mean?"

"It's my name, silly!" The mare apparently named 'Tesla' replied, "or at least my title. I always get those two confused."

"Well, which is it, then," Twilight breathed through gritted teeth with all the patience she could afford, which was a small amount indeed, "your name or your title?"

"Oh! Title. I'm The Electrical Science's Lecturer's Assistant. It's an acronym!"

Twilight's mouth formed a little 'o' of understanding. It all made sense now; this was a mental invalid that Bright Sparks had hired out of pity, an act of philanthropy. Her safest option was to humour this mare until she revealed where the professor was, now.

"So, did Professor Sparks give you this watch as a gift, too?"

"Well, not exactly," TESLA's smile dimmed a little, and she turned back to the blackboards with a stick of white chalk in her mouth, "I helped make it, though."

What? Clearly she misspoke.

"Eugh," the pink mental invalid spat around the chalk in her mouth, "you unicorns are lucky. Chalk tastes terrible."

"Wait, did you say you helped make this? What did you help with?"

"Just the battery, and the circuit. All the mechanisms and the pretty case it's in was all Bright Spark’s, though! I didn't know what else to do with the battery I made, and he told me it would be really good for a watch. Bright Spark is so clever, isn't he?"

"Right," Twilight muttered. Of course this mare wasn't capable of something so sophisticated. Her battery was obviously the project of a dim, if enthusiastic, dabbler. It couldn't possibly last more than a day. "If I asked you to replace the battery when it ran out, where could I find you?" Twilight asked, hoping the mare would reveal the location of Bright Sparks' secret staffroom.

"Oh, I really don't think I'll live that long," TESLA replied cheerfully, "I think you'd find a much better watch in the next sixteen hundred years, anyway."

What?

"That's the half life of the radium I used, anyway. There was plenty left over, too, so I painted the hands of the watch with it. It totally glows in the dark, now!" The ESLA dove into her designated drawer again and pulled out a crumpled blueprint, covered in crumbs and hot cocoa stains. Twilight could tell they were cocoa stains and not coffee because of the tiny little marshmallows melted into them.

The schematics revealed a design for a micro-reactor, powered by the substance that scientists had recently isolated and dubbed 'radium;' a means to produce electricity that Twilight Sparkle – a mare employed to the highest position of advisory to the Princess of Mourning herself by merit of her intellect – could not even begin to comprehend.

"I used smiley faces instead of ohm symbols, because they're about the same shape and they're much more fun, don't you think?”

It was becoming dangerously apparent to Twilight that she had grossly misjudged this mare.

"Pinkie Pie," she breathed, reading the name traced in rather feminine cursive at the bottom. "Is that you?"

"Yepperonies. I couldn't be anypony else, because they were already taken. Geddit?"

"Yes," Twilight's eyes remained focused on the schematics, "how wonderfully droll. What else have you done?"

"Well, I worked out why Professor Spark's generator design didn't work and fixed it – I tried to make a better one, too, but he got really mad and told me I was making the wrong kind of electricity. I told him it was different, but better. Then he got really, really mad at me, I thought his head was going to explode!" Pinkie laughed a lot at that, but it wasn't happy laughter. It was almost manic. In fact, there was no place for 'almost'. Her loud, boisterous voice got quiet.

"He didn't let me help him for a while, after that. He didn't kick me out, though." She brightened considerably, at that thought. "Oh! That's an idea!"

"What is?"

"I'll show you!" Pinkie jumped with joy and began pushing apart blackboard after blackboard, as an explorer would clear through jungle with trusty machete. Row upon row of formula and theorum were brushed aside to reveal what could generously be called a small living quarters, and more accurately called a hovel.

"Is this... is this where you live?" Twilight asked, worried the answer might be in the affirmative. Dreading it, actually. This was no act of philanthropy at all. "When you said he didn't kick you out, surely you didn't mean from here?"

"Of course this is where I live. Where else would he kick me out from? Boy, for a unicorn that thinks she's so clever, you sure ask a lot of silly questions."

That hurt, actually. "How did you know that I thought I was clever?"

"I could just tell. If it helps, I think you probably are, so it's probably okay for you to think it. Just be careful, because clever ponies are the best at proving they're right when they're wrong. So they can be wrong even more than a not-clever pony could."

"It appears I'm not the only philosopher in the room, then," Twilight remarked, wandering around a straw mattress on the floor. Pink linen, of course. Above buzzed a flickering light tube twice as long as Twilight herself, which seemed to be the source of light for the room.

It was cold to the touch.

"Oh, yeah, I made that!" Pinkie's beaming smile was twice as bright as the tube was, "but Bright Spark says that it takes too long to burn out, so nopony will keep buying them. And if nopony buys them, then he can't make them."

Twilight put on a small smile, the kind adults use when talking to small children about concepts they know they can't grasp, and she wore it to hide the sickening knot that had begun to form in her stomach. "What else did you make, Miss Pie?"

"Just Pinkie. Or TESLA. I like both. It's just really nice of Professor Spark to give me so much just for my stupid ideas, isn't it?"

That knot balled tighter still. "Please, Pinkie, just show me what else is your design."

Pinkie looked around the room, at discarded balls of metal, at trailing coils of copper wire, at workbenches and drawing easels and all manner of bric-a-brac... until she found a little box, whirring very quietly, with what looked like part of a sewing machine on top. She gasped in delight and bounced toward it, skipping over piles of junk in her way, and stoodbeside it.

"Okay, are you ready? Follow the beep!"

Pinkie touched her hoof to the metal device on top of her box, which looked almost like a lectern, and Twilight heard a short, sharp 'beep' from somewhere across the room. There was nothing else for it, so she decided to follow it.

Every few seconds Pinkie would make a beep, and with every beep Twilight waded through more junk to her goal. An identical lectern, an almost identical device.

Another beep came from the softly whirring device before Twilight, a metal head on a hinge just-not-quite resting against a metal baseplate. It was for completing a circuit! A circuit across the room.

"You invented the telegram? Pinkie, that's amazing! That's–"

"Oh, no, no, that was all Professor Bright Spark’s. He really is very clever."

Twilight felt almost disappointed, and she couldn't fathom why. She suspected it was because the idea of giving Bright Spark credit for his accomplishments now left a bitter, coppery taste in her mouth. Or maybe that was just the strange air of this room behind the chalkboards?

"I made it wireless though."

Again, a simple, casual sentence from Pinkie had rendered Twilight speechless. She wordlessly removed a back panel from the lectern at her side, even as Pinkie Pie started tapping out nursery rhymes with her little beeps. Below the lectern was copper coils and wires, but none of them trailed into the floorboards like she had assumed. Pinkie Pie was sending information through nothingness itself, and communicating with Twilight across–

"So, what did you want to see the professor about, anyway?"

"Apparently," Twilight breathed, staring at the lectern in wonderment, "you. You're a sandstone mare."

"No I'm not, I'm a fleshy one."

Twilight ripped her eyes away from the more-magic-than-magic coils and stared down the mare on the far side of the room. "No, I mean... you don't care what you look like to the world. You're not expensive, and you just work. You do your job, and you do it so well, because you know that inside you're brilliant, and that's the only thing that matters."

Pinkie blushed faintly at the praise, visible even through the pink. "You really think I'm smart?"

"No," Twilight corrected, looking around the room and seeing the piles of junk lying scattered on the floor for what they truly were: buried treasures. "Brilliant."

The big, blue eyes of the pink mare started watering, visible even from across the room. She pushed herself away from the wireless telegram machine suddenly, and the constant vibrations that now seemed typical of the mare ceased, save for a few wretched jerks that Twilight very quickly identified as sobs.

"What? I said... is that wrong? I can't be the first pony to tell you that?"

Pinkie nodded, even as her cheeks became matted and slick, trails falling from her eyes. "Other than Professor Spark, but he says I can't go out and talk to ponies, or they won't think I'm smart. They'll think I'm crazy, because I am crazy, because you're not really there! You're just another... another one of them! I really, truly thought you were real..."

Twilight was thoroughly confused by this remark. "I am real, Pinkie."

This seemed only to enrage the mare. Blue eyes turned puffy, the whites bloodshot and red. "No! That's what they always say! And then the Professor has to hide me again, and tell me not to talk to ponies, because they're just in my head. The stallions in white coats, you're tricking me into going to them. The stallions in the white coats will take me to the Asylum, just like Bright Spark said.”

The pink mare was vibrating, a bundle of terror and nervous energy.  “But I did the poke test! You should be real!" She was screaming now, bolted to the spot, unsure whether to confront Twilight or run as far from her as possible, her body making the only compromise that it could, which was to do nothing.

It was with horror that Twilight had to admit a sick satisfaction with the knowledge that her first assessment of this psychotic pony was probably correct.

The sandstone pony before her had started to crumble.

Because Twilight had to get to the lectern, had followed the damned beeps, she had placed Pinkie between herself and the exit. No other outs, no egresse, she was trapped with an escaped mental patient.

She should have been scared. Terrified, even. Spike's penny-dreadfuls assured her that this was certain death, but as Twilight looked at the twitching, wretched mess before her she felt no fear.

Only a deep, aching sadness.

"He hurt you, didn't he?" she whispered, making sure the whisper was loud enough to carry, loud enough that this demented mare could hear her.

"I deserved it! You know that!" Pinkie wailed, trembling, a filly who had lost their mother in the bustling markets trapped in the body of a full grown adult Twilight's own age – perhaps even older. "Alternating current is dangerous! And Gummy was dangerous!" Twilight followed those eyes to where they darted now, to a little black shoebox atop an overturned bathtub, neatly painted black. Nothing surrounded it. A bastion of neatness and order in a temple of chaos.

"If it was safe, then it couldn't have hurt Gummy in his bathtub. And if Gummy was safe, then the Professor wouldn't have had to use him for his demonstration! And if I was safe, he wouldn't have had to try to fix me... And you're here! It didn't work! It never, ever works!"

The eyes darted again. Under a pile of coils and wires, Twilight had missed it, but not now. Restraints. More archaic than a dentist's chair. Were those capacitors? And electrodes, at head height?

Electrodes at head height.

Before, when Twilight had thought herself talking to a mare who was merely childlike in their naivety, she had masked the growing ball of discomfort in her stomach with a kind smile. Now it seared like nova-hot plasma. She reached into her jacket pocket again, pulling out the watch that Pinkie had thrown at her.

What had Bright Spark done to a mare so kind as to share what little she possessed with a stranger?

She pulled out her other watch, the one she had forgot to wind. It felt cheap, now. Chintzy. "Pinkie 'TESLA' Pie, what is the most you could possibly imagine a unicorn being able to do?"

"You caught a watch I threw at you, and it was pretty heavy. That's it, right?"

Pinkie had given Twilight a watch to give her peace of mind.

It was only fair that Twilight return the favour.

Her old watch levitated over to Pinkie Pie now. Pinkie watched it, mesmerized, as it drifted ever-closer. She gasped as Twilight cracked it apart with her magic, no more troublesome than a walnut. She unscrewed every screw, pulled every rivet, and broke down the watch piece by piece until nothing but the component parts remained, floating lazily in the air in front of Pinkie's eyes, a three dimensional model on the thing it once was.

The lavender glow of Twilight's magic blinked once, then faded. The watch pieces clattering softly to the ground. Twilight doubled over, panting, a migraine beginning to form. She wasn't used to magic that complex, no unicorn could have been.

Her eyes pressed as far up as they could go, to keep Pinkie in view even as her head sagged towards the dusty, litter-covered ground of the hovel. "Could you imagine a unicorn doing that?"

"No way. No unicorn could ever do that!"

"Well, if you couldn't imagine that," Twilight explained, smiling just a little smugly, "and I just did, then that means you couldn't have imagined me, right?"

"Right," Pinkie agreed, nodding. She caught herself. "Wait... you really aren't imaginary?"

"This headache certainly feels real." Twilight grumped.

"But you still think I'm crazy?" Pinkie accused, pointing a trembling hoof at Twilight.

There were certainly many ways Twilight could play this. Appease the dangerously insane pony with lies and platitudes.

How easy it would be.

How cruel it would be.

Some things we do not because they are easy, but because they are hard.

"A little," Twilight admitted with complete honesty, walking slowly towards the pink pony. What compelled her forward, she could not say, but she'd know she had done the right thing when she got there.

She hoped.

"But you know what? I'm crazy too." Half the distance between them had been closed now. The sobbing pink pony dared look up.

"R-really? Really, really?"

"Really, really." Twilight nodded. Three quarters now. "And you know what else? I'm so crazy I think there's a mare on the moon. I've seen her, too."

Pinkie snorted, giggling a little. "You're right, that is crazy."

Twilight smiled herself, at that. They were inches apart now. Twilight cupped Pinkie's chin with a hoof and raised it, meeting her eyes. "And I would be honoured, Pinkie Pie, from one crazy pony to another... if you would help me find a way to talk to her."

Pinkie looked conflicted, momentarily, her eyes refusing to meet Twilight's, which worried the unicorn, but those worries were dashed as quickly as they had come when Pinkie met Twilight's gaze with her own, and a confident smile to boot.

"Okay," she said, voice quavering and hoarse, "Okay," she repeated, "I'll get started right away. My easel's just over there, I'll–"

"No!" Twilight startled herself with the swiftness of her own answer, "No, I'll... I need to borrow you. Yes, I've got plenty of space for you back at my library." A blatant lie, but Twilight would be damned if she couldn't make room.

Pinkie looked down, to the side, anywhere but Twilight's eyes. She didn't brush away the hoof held to her chin, though, which the unicorn took as a good sign. "Won't the Professor be mad?"

"I promise you that Bright Sparks," she refused to honour his title, forevermore, "will not be mad at you in the slightest, Pinkie Pie."

He will, however, be absolutely livid with me.

So let him.

"But... my inventions?"

"Cartponies are cheap!" Twilight declared loudly. "We'll bring it all with us. I'll have every one at the patent office by the week's end, if I have my way."

"What about my bed?"

"I'll buy you a better one!" Twilight was practically shouting, now, a wild look of raw determination in her eye.

"What about Gummy?" Stormy eyes once more looked to the oasis of clean, and the simple shoebox casket of what had been this mare’s only friend.

Twilight was about to answer louder still when she caught herself. The hoof dropped from Pinkie's chin, and Twilight voluntarily did something she had never done before in her life.

She hugged the broken pink pony, and held her tight.

"A proper burial," she promised, "at Old Bones Park."

Pinkie’s answer was little more than a whisper, but Twilight heard it all the same, as close to the pony as she was. "That sounds nice."

Pinkie tensed, then, and pushed Twilight away from her, shaking her head.

"But I can't... the Professor's been so nice to me!"

That nova in her gut cooled, hardened, set. It chilled, and froze. This is not to say that Twilight's fury was any less intense. Fire burns itself out. Ice? Ice endures. "Pinkie Pie, it breaks my heart, more than anything else, that you believe that."

Professor Spark had more bits to throw around than even Twilight, and here he had kept this fractured soul on a bed of straw behind his classroom? Worse still, bits he had made off this mare's brilliance, even when he was hardly short of his own intellect, staff or resources?

Twilight left, then, with the promise to Pinkie that she would return before the hour's end. The mare had burst into tears when Twilight kept that promise, the unicorn carrying behind her a newly-purchased suitcase.

What little clothes, toiletries – no cosmetics had been lavished on her – and necessities that the mare couldn't part with were hastily thrown together, zipped, and slung across Twilight's own withers as she led the mare out of that lecture hall.

Her heart broke all over again when Pinkie told that she couldn't remember the last time she had left this room, not with anger or sadness or regret, but with a sense of wonder and trepidation.

When Twilight led Pinkie out beneath the wide open sky, the mare hugged tightly into her side, staring up at the clouds with a mix of fear and awe, pointing out shapes she saw in the clouds until staring up at the vast expanse gave her what the unicorn recognized as vertigo.

Soon Pinkie was once more blissfully looking up, her wobbly steps growing more and more confident at Twilight's side, when they passed Professor Bright Sparks in that courtyard. He was talking to some colleagues.

Twilight made deliberate eye contact as they passed. The professor looked at her first in horror, then in revulsion, then pure and unbridled terror. The terror, too, passed, and in its place was an anger Twilight had never seen before.

Perhaps that was only because there had not been a single mirror in Pinkie's room.

Pinkie herself never noticed that they had passed her keeper and her captor. Twilight, though, shared non-verbal communication of a level that surpassed even the telegram. She sent Bright Spark a look.

And in that look, Twilight told Bright Sparks that for what she had planned for him, there would need to be fewer witnesses... or perhaps far, far more.

Pinkie, for her part, remained silent, too lost in the wonder of the sky above.

It was not until the pair were nestled together in the plush, upholstered back seat of a hansom cab, rattling its long journey back to the library, that Pinkie finally blurted out: "Make divergence grow!"

Twilight blinked in very genuine confusion. "I'm sorry?"

"You made me think of the perfect way to finish my song!" Pinkie closed her eyes, smile almost beatific, as she completed her verse: "Diffraction in the atmosphere will make divergence grow!"

Sandstone mare indeed, Twilight thought to herself, as she rested herself back into her seat. A bright pink file searched for its appropriate filing cabinet in her mind. It found it, nestling in next to the only other file in this particular cabinet. An orange one.

She hoped that somewhere in that tortured, brilliant head beside her, a purple file had made its way into a similar cabinet of its own.

“I’m not TESLA anymore, am I?” Pinkie asked, bright eyes looking to Twilight. “I really liked that title.”

“Well, you can keep that too, then.” Twilight thought for a moment. “Twilight’s Extra Special... what were you singing about?”

“A big laser,” Pinkie explained, “I want to shoot the moon with a big laser, so when the light shines off it, I can prove it’s actually way up there, and it’s not just in everypony’s imagination, or painted on the sky.”

“Well, there’s our last two letters then. Laser Artificer. Twilight’s Extra Special – wait, did you say bouncing light off the moon?”


The Mare Who Writes On The Moon

Lacquered wood. Polished brass. Vented steam.

Things that now seemed to represent an age rapidly heading towards antiquity.

Copper coils. Iron generators. The inexorable invisible flow of electrons. They were the future, a future Twilight feared and didn't quite understand. The ever-enthusiastic pink hoof of TESLA, though – Pinkie Pie, if the mood struck her – had pulled her into a whole new world of modern science, one that she would have to tentatively make peace with.

Still, though, when Pinkie had told her that the massive steam boilers in the basement would make a fantastic power source for the generators, she had felt some small relief. It helped her to think of the boilers as the active force, and the electricity merely as a conduit of steam power, much like the elevator utilized hydraulic fluid.

Much had been accomplished in the week since she had excavated Pinkie Pie from the darkest depths of the University, like some forgotten treasure buried by the natives. Or at least by Bright Spark. The hansom had rattled along to what was now their home, at least until Pinkie's patents – a concept that Twilight still thought Pinkie didn't quite understand – had brought in enough to afford Pinkie her own place.

Until that merry day, piles of copper wire wrapped around wood had been unceremoniously dumped in the basement and converted into an impromptu apartment, or perhaps more of a lair for the budding mad scientist. The straw bed had been replaced with one of goose feather, soft and plush. Almost too soft for someone who had survived on such spartan means for so long. Twilight had offered the purchase of a wooden frame to hold it, but Pinkie had declined; she didn't feel comfortable sleeping so high up in the air, away from her rodent friends.

Twilight sincerely hoped that the rodents were another figment of the overactive mind, and not that she had a genuine rodent problem that Spike had neglected to warn her about.

The pair had worked tirelessly over blueprints that first day; Twilight with her unprecedented and unrivalled knowledge of optics and astrophysics, Pinkie with some electrical means to amplify light to a degree sufficient to penetrate the atmosphere and travel the breadth of the aether intact.

Radio had immediately been discarded as a potential means of communication. Pinkie was certain she could send a signal easily to the moon – a terrifying notion – but unless the Mare on the Moon had the appropriately tuned receiver... Twilight sincerely doubted it.

The laser, then, was somewhat of an irony. It was going to be the very pinnacle of modern sciences, a joint project from the two respective heads of two almost entirely new fields... used in the way that any sailorpony with a lamp and cover had utilized for thousands of years.

The day after the designs were drawn – Pinkie had already done most of the work, and Twilight's expertise had greatly accelerated what work remained – was conveniently the day that Applejack had personally made her weekly deliveries at dawn. Twilight had set an alarm, awoken far earlier than she personally believed any pony ought to, and waited by the door nursing coffee – and by a convenient potted plant to tip it into – eagerly awaiting the sound of the delivery wagon making its rounds.

She had pounced on Applejack in the street like an overly excited kitten – fueled by that perverse mixture of sleep deprivation and caffeine that lead a pony to the most irrational and singular of actions – and all but begged for her assistance.

Apparently more customers had switched to the cheaper colony imported or factory goods than Twilight had thought. Applejack had graciously accepted the part time work if Twilight had the bits.

She did.

The panicked thought that perhaps the farmer was only being nice to her because of the money was quickly abated the moment she said she would have to go to the basement, and that Applejack should take the lift up alone to wait for her.

That disappointed look on Applejack's face when Twilight suggested she go up alone gave Twilight far too much joy for something that would otherwise be quite sad. She made certain to keep herself from lingering on it.

Her trip to the boilers was, of course, to retrieve the prior day's blueprints, which she had left overnight with Pinkie. The pony hadn't used her new bed, it seemed, but had fallen asleep at the workbench Twilight had provided, snoring loud enough to be heard over the crackling pops and hisses of the heavy boilers surrounding her. One of her rear legs kicked out occasionally, pawing at the air like a dog's when its tummy was rubbed in just the right spot. At least the boilers would have kept her warm, as she had no blanket to cover her.

Twilight carried one from the bed and draped it around the silly pony's withers, then placed a place under her head. As she did, though, she spotted a little silver pen underneath Pinkie's mane, a pen that Twilight hadn't provided her, nor seen in her belongings. Picking it up, Twilight saw that it held not a nib or ball for ink, but a little glass lens.

Curiosity getting the better of her, as it almost always did, she pressed down on the button that would normally release the tip. Instead it shot out a brilliant red beam of light, as narrow as pencil lead and straighter than any ruler, painting the floor in front of it with a bright dot.

A laser small enough to fit in a pocket? How wonderfully novel.

As she moved to place it back on the desk, she saw something engraved into its side. Writing.

To Twilight, From TESLA

A gift, then?

She nuzzled the sleeping genius, and was rewarded for the gesture with a particularly loud snore. Twilight suppressed a giggle; it wouldn't do to wake her.

Back upstairs – or perhaps more accurately back up the elevator – Applejack was waiting impatiently. Spike wasn't awake yet to keep her company; Spike enjoyed his sleep-ins almost as much as Twilight herself, but with the difference that Spike would flame an alarm clock to a melted husk as soon as hit the snooze button.

Twilight dared not act as that alarm clock.

Most of the parts they would require had already been constructed by Pinkie Pie at the university, built as components for a far inferior version of the device they had eventually come up with together. 

The only work that had to be put into those components was the rapid removal of Bright Sparks' insignia, which Twilight took to with gusto. A wordless conversation passed between the unicorn and the earth pony farmer: Applejack offered a questioning look, Twilight shot back a dangerous one; Applejack replied with raised eyebrows, Twilight said 'yes, that bad' with the tilt and nod of her head. Applejack ended the back and forth with a low whistle.

Twilight still couldn't decide whether she needed more or less witnesses for the retribution she intended.

The rest of the work, though, Applejack took to with impressive grace. Twilight's own contributions to the project didn't go unnoticed, however.

"Never seen a unicorn do earth pony work before," Applejack finally admitted after Twilight had caught her staring for the third time, this time as Twilight made measurements on the materials.

"I'm genuinely not sure whether that's a compliment or not."

"Compliment. Definitely. Takes a horn to do fancy writin' or use a typewriter. Just about anypony can use a rivet gun, though." There was another loud burst of steam and a metallic chunk as Applejack demonstrated her point with brutal efficiency. "Guess which pays more?"

"Supply and demand," Twilight sighed bitterly, marking outlines on steel that would need to be cut. Measured twice, and then again for good measure, just in case. "If only one third of the population has the aptitude for the work, then less than half again of that has the intelligence or the magical endurance. Then assume that at least half of those ponies are content to live off inherited money, which of course they'll have," Twilight grumbled, "then the rest are the only ponies fit for the work. So they can just name a price and somepony is going to have to pay it. It's not like there's a shortage of paperwork needed. It's the grease that runs the Empire."

Applejack waited a moment, seemingly having genuinely kept up with Twilight’s rant. "And?"

"And what?"

"Say it. You know you want to," Applejack urged.

Twilight was genuinely confused. "Say what?"

"Every unicorn that's ever explained this to me has finished by saying, 'and that's why unicorns are the best' or some such. Go on, I won't hold it against you."

Twilight was struck by the mare's honesty. Applejack genuinely wouldn't hold it against her, apparently. Had she really heard that enough times to just expect it from unicorns?

Who was she kidding? Anypony who'd been in The Capital for more than five minutes, if that, hadn't just heard some variation of that 'fact'; they'd seen the supposed proof.

"And that's why unicorns are wrong."

"Bet you feel a lot better sayin' it than... come again?"

"I said, 'And that's why unicorns are wrong'."

Applejack stared at her rather dumbfounded, silently begging an explanation. Twilight might as well have sprouted wings and told her she was the Princess of Mourning herself for all the confusion it held.

"Supply and demand. Demand isn't just what ponies collectively want, it's what ponies can collectively afford. And only the aristocracy can really afford anything, right now. Before The Empire, the aristocracy was formed by demesnes channeling local monies to a few knights – the old equivalent to peace officers – so they could afford equipment, training, castles... The military, essentially.”

She watched Applejack’s face carefully. Her audience seemed to be keeping up so far, at least. “That's not the case, anymore, though. What good's a castle when we have cannons? What good is the training, when you can drill a hundredfold in the same time with muskets? The equipment is mass produced, too, so that's not where the money is going. And the army can't support itself on plunder and expansion much longer; there's not really anywhere left, now that we have Saddle Arabia buttoned down."

"Cousin Braeburn was out in the Saddle Arabian campaigns," Applejack harrumped, "lotta good the money sent home did him, up and before it did him in. Was a Corporal, too."

"Exactly!" Twilight declared triumphantly before realizing exactly what she was being triumphant over. "Oh, dear. I'm sorry for your loss."

Applejack shrugged. "Got a lot of kin. What's one more that you never saw?"

"You don't mean that, do you?"

"Nope," the pony muttered quietly, "just helps to pretend."

"Right... well. Aristocracy is just a remnant of that. But their families – mostly unicorns and pegasii – kept all of the power, so because they already have it, they can control how much they have. Are you with me so far?"

A somewhat amused snort. "Livin' it."

"Right," Twilight repeated, lamely, "I'm sorry, I'm not used to having to explain this to ponies on the other side of the divide, as it were. Anyway... Right now, those families have factories making goods everypony wants, but not everypony can afford." Applejack nodded along, riveting away at the natural pauses in Twilight's speech. "So, soon they're gonna have to start paying ponies enough to afford the products they're making."

"Alright, I can see that. What's that mean for the unicorns at the top, though?"

"Well, if the ponies at the bottom can start affording the things the unicorns at the top have," Twilight explained with a rather sly look, "don't you think they might be able to afford an opinion on how things are run, too?"

Applejack's smile didn't fade from her face as they finished the work. It only grew wider when Twilight paid her the promised bits.

Twilight's smile matched it when the farmer promised to stop by the next week, to hear how everything went.

"Who was that?" A curious voice asked from behind her.

"Oh, you're up, Pinkie? Applejack. She's a friend, helping me actually build what you and I designed."

"Oh. That's nice." Pinkie smiled gently, rubbing tired eyes. "Thanks for the pillow, by the way. I connected the generator to the boiler, so you might not have steam power until the capacitor is done charging."

"That's fine," Twilight smiled back, "I won't need to use the elevator for a few hours yet."

Pinkie blinked, and the smile disappeared. "Hours?"

"Well, yes," Twilight's own smile disappeared, "we're running the main boiler at maximum automated capacity. If Spike watches it, we might get thirty percent more out of it without risk of catastrophic failure. Assuming lossless capacitors, which we should with all the bits I threw into gold wire, then a few hours should do it, right? We only need the laser to be visible to a single pony, and I don't think it's even possible to make the beam any narrower."

Pinkie frowned, turning back towards the bookshelves. She disappeared into them, only returning two minutes later with Twilight's notes on the boiler's output;. a bit more than the typical steam locomotive, a fact that its owner took great pride in.

A pen held in her mouth, the pink mare scribbled some figures on the page, then wordlessly showed her the figure.

"Twelve hours... per burst?" Twilight’s face scrunched up, a mixture of confusion and concern.

"Yep."

"So, if we want to send ten at a minimum..."

"Five days at the soonest."

"Five days without the elevator. Or the doorbell. Or the coffee machine. Or the myriad other sundry uses for the boiler," Twilight said, numbly. Five days of ladders... without coffee. It would have been kinder just to shoot her now.

"Sure looks that way, huh?" Pinkie agreed, looking back over her maths. To Twilight's dismay, it was flawless.

"What else have you got?" Straws. Great for grasping at.

"Well, if you could get me a bucket of radium–"

Twilight's response was gentle, but as firm as bedrock. "No."

"Aw. But it's so pretty!" A worryingly disarming pout. Twilight almost reconsidered. Almost.

"I don't own nearly enough lead."

"But–" Pinkie started, raising a hoof hopefully in the universal language of 'terrible idea that seems good at the time' gesturing.

"I am not buying nearly enough lead, either."

"Oh. Uh. Bright Spark uses lightning?"

Twilight cringed at the idea of crawling back to the stallion, especially now. "Let's just see what we can do with five days’ worth."

She'd just have to use Spike-power for her coffee. And get a little more exercise on the ladders. And deal with ponies knocking should they arrive.

"Oh, and make sure no birds get in the way. This thing can slice through an inch of steel every second! Imagine what it would do to a little feathered friend up there?"

Twilight considered waiting twelve hours, then sticking her head in front of it. It would be far more merciful, that way.

On second thought, if this was how seriously she was taking caffeine withdrawal, it might be for the best she take a break from it...

Nah.


Five days of ladders. Five days of helping Pinkie Pie organize her inventions for the patent office, and sending them away in hansom after hansom. Five days of Spike-heated coffee without the delightfully frothy milk. Five days of anticipation as the capacitor banks grew more and more full.

Five days without being able to move the Telescope and watch the Mare on the Moon.

The most trying five days of Twilight Sparkle's entire existence had passed. The generator was disconnected, the capacitor banks fed by triple-insulated gold wire up and into the BEAM – Bright Emitter Aimed at Moon – and strapped to the Telescope, aimed at the Mare on the Moon.

A magnifying glass array as long as Twilight's foreleg had ensured the BEAM was calibrated to the micron; anything the Telescope aimed at, the BEAM aimed at too, assuming it was at the focal length of the moon.

It was a remarkably safe assumption, all things considered.

Ten minutes of scouring through moonlit lunar wastelands trying to find that blue speck. Two minutes focusing until she was framed nicely. Another minute until the Mare on the Moon felt her watching again, impossibly, and turned to look.

A big red button had been installed next to the levers and wheels. The big red button.

Twilight pushed it now.

The moonlit surface didn't change, but Twilight saw the flash of light reflect as a glimmer in the Mare's eye. For the first time since she had first seen her, the Mare on the Moon smiled, ever so softly.

Twilight's knees wobbled. Her stomach backflipped. She'd made an ancient, wise pony smile for the first time in... goodness knows how long! A rather fetching smile, at that.

She'd give anything to see it more.

Unfortunately she had only nine flashes left. Eight, now, with one to reassure the Lady that the first was no accident. To prove to even herself that it wasn’t luck. That it genuinely worked.

The first extraterrestrial communication had been achieved, and it was Twilight who had achieved it, with a little help from her friends. With a lot of help from her friends, really.

The Mare couldn’t see that, though, even now as it seemed like she was looking directly down into the Telescope. A trick of perspective, obviously. She was merely looking at the source of the light; impossible for her to see Twilight, herself. Still, though, the effect was uncanny. Surreal.

The Mare seemed to consider something. She held up one hoof, then nodded. She brought up the other hoof as well, shaking her head.

Charades, then, across the breadth of the aether! One for yes, two for no!

Twilight pumped the big red button. One flash, twelve hours’ worth of burning coal gone in a second.

Worth it to see that smile light up brighter than the BEAM itself.

The Mare pointed at the Telescope, then at her eyes, then pressed the hoof to her chest. Not hard to decipher:

“You see me?”

One flash, yes. Six left.

Hoof to chest, hoof to eyes, hoof to Telescope, head shake. Hoof to chest, hoof to eyes, and then... then her horn flashed.

Ah!

“I don't see you, but I can see your light.”

Twilight waited.

The Mare frowned now. Said something, lips moving. Quizzical tilt of the head.

She'd asked "Can you hear me?" Sound didn't travel through the aether, though.

Two flashes. No. Four left.

The Mare nodded to herself, once, seeming satisfied with the answer. She began dragging her hoof in the dust, deep enough to furrow it. A line formed, then a letter and, gradually, a word.

"Read?"

The question mark was accomplished by a twirl on the spot with an outstretched hoof, then a little jump and a hard stomp to form the dot. The Mare looked back, awaiting her response.

A single flash. Three left.

The Mare laughed, tapping her hooves together joyously, and danced around a bit in a circle, entirely forgetting herself.

She seemed to remember herself, at last, or at least that she had an audience. She stopped abruptly, falling rather unceremoniously on her rump, blushing furiously enough that even with three hundred eighty four thousand, four hundred and three kilometers between them, Twilight saw it as clear as the noonday sun. That blush burned about as brightly, too.

It was rather fetching, really. Endearing.

If nothing else, it told Twilight that the Mare on the Moon was just that: a mare. A pony, just like her.

Well, except she seemed to have wings, too, and didn't need to breathe, but apart from that? The differences were a trifle, a trivial thing.

The Mare seemed to think long and hard about her next question. She could write whatever she wanted on the lunar surface, but Twilight could only answer yes or no. A problem.

Another message, dragged achingly slowly across the moon dust.

"Can you not say more?"

A rather miserable two flashes. A single one left now.

She could not hear The Mare’s words, but she could hear the sound of their heart breaking from across the breadth of the aether. It was echoed in Twilight’s own chest, and it was a wretched sound indeed.

"Must you leave?"

How heavy her hoof felt as she released that last burst of light and sent it on its dreadful journey.

Light burdened with a bleak and simple message.

Yes.


The Explorer who Dreams

That last forlorn press of the button had made it painfully evident that steam power was insufficient to solve this problem. The look of utter despair in the Mare's eyes as Twilight pulled herself away from the Telescope was even worse.

A problem that couldn't be solved by steam power? Such a thought sent liquid nitrogen through her already miserable veins. Her faith in modern science remained  as unshakable as her faith in the Mourning Princess.

So long as the sun rose in the east and set in the west, modern science would find a way. It was just becoming rapidly apparent that it was her definition of modern that was at fault in this situation.

She sat in the basement now – Pinkie being gracious enough to host their meetings in her room – a cup of fresh exotic coffee on the table in front of her frothed with steam. It was obvious that what was sufficient for the exotic coffee engine wasn't enough to drive the BEAM generator.

Their meeting was to figure out what was. Pinkie was attempting to be helpful.

"I mean, if you don't like radium, polonium is way more radioactive, so–"

"I'm going to stop you right there. Why would I be less concerned by more radioactivity?"

Pinkie's smile was excessive, but again, infectious. "Well, last time I only got a gram of it, and I got it up to five hundred degrees celsius before it started melting through the scale!"

"Five hundred degrees from a gram?" Twilight breathed. "If we got a kilogram of it, imagine... no. No, down that road lies danger and baldness. Do you really want both our manes to fall out?"

Pinkie contemplated that. "Well, wigs would suit me better..."

"A nuclear reactor is out of the question. I don't even think my house is zoned for it. I can't even imagine the paperwork I'd need to fill out to be zoned for it."

Pinkie hummed her disappointment. "Aww."

A stern, thoughtful nod from the unicorn. "So, what else do we have on the table?"

"Well, your exotic tea, and my hoof, and a white pigeon for some reason." Pinkie giggled.

Twilight looked down at the table. A pink hoof, a white porcelain mug of exotic tea and a pigeon notable only by its complete absence.

"Try poking it, Extra-Special Laser Artificer Pinkie," Twilight urged, watching carefully. She hoped the pony would be too focused on Twilight indulging in her new title to realize the oddness of the request. The pony had mentioned a 'poke' test...

The pink hoof lifted from its resting place and jabbed at the air at the center of the table with a swoosh. Pinkie's amused expression softened.

"Aw, it flew away before I could touch it. Why'd you have me scare it off, Twilight?"

"Maybe if we take some breadcrumbs to the park later, it'll come back," she smiled gently, lightly touching Pinkie's fetlock. The impossibly infectious smile returned. Somepony would have to catalogue it for the Collection Of Notable Diseases In The Empire.

"Alright, so steam is out. As is nuclear power. Wind isn't enough, and I don't have a hydroelectric dam just lying around. Even the ones that are quite literally lying around, I can't just borrow."

"Well, yeah, it'd probably be really difficult to move, at the very least. Think how many hansoms you'd need! It'd be so much easier to ask the Professor–"

Again, Twilight was forced to interrupt. "We're not asking anything of him. Even if he has every lightning capable pegasus working for him already. Alternatives?"

"Well... we could strap a whole bunch of cats to a whole bunch of balloons and use static power? Or uh... no, I think it's pretty much that or a bunch of uranium."


Twilight found herself standing outside Mellow Park Industries, the hub for all of Bright's industrial innovations. For dignity's sake she had taken a hansom here, rather than come crawling. Not literally.

’Power plants’ could produce vast amounts of power; from water sources like the Hoover Dam project, or from coal, or from the burning of natural gases. They could produce far more energy than anything Twilight's basement could hope to match. There was another power source, however, that triumphed over all others.

It was clean. It was renewable. It need not be mined or refined. It was even relatively abundant in the empire.

Pegasii, those who had mastered control of the weather, were capable of coaxing bolts of lightning from clouds. A single bolt of lightning carried about as much energy as five hundred pounds of coal in a burst, and a talented pegasus could generate several an hour. If Twilight could manage to get her grubby little hooves on said talented pegasus and some machinery blueprints, well... ten flashes in five days would become the paltry, ludicrously low number it should have been in the first place.

Twilight’s mane was pulled into a neat ponytail, and she had certainly dressed for the occasion: Her most respectable grey gown, accented by a single red rose pinned to the collar. Clean and tight around the breast, and only mildly ostentatious as it separated on the flank, parting into colourless and cascading waves of expensive – but not outrageously so – fabric.

If one were to pay attention to her, they would notice how sophisticated and refined it made her appear. It would not, however, catch their eye to begin with. In it, she could effortlessly blend into a larger crowd of clerks and solicitors and other suits.

It was a carefully considered choice of couture. It simultaneously allowed her to avoid a confrontation with Bright, to avoid being noticed at all, and allowed her to look her absolute best should that confrontation occur regardless.

As much as she loved her waistcoats and boilersuits and tweed jackets, they were all so unrepentantly masculine, which was not how she wished to approach this situation. Nor would it garner her the rightful respect she deserved. No, Twilight strove to conduct herself in this as a lady.

Admittedly, ladies did not engage in casual acts of industrial espionage, but that was probably only because they lacked ambition.

She sighed and approached the building from the street.

The building was typical of new industry in the Empire, much like the other factories that had been cropping up like fungus on a fetid corpse. Red brick, baked en masse, slathered with the cheapest cement, billowing black smoke from chimneys ten floors high and taller. Occasionally a little lightning bolt crackled out.

Double doors of cheap plywood painted in a nauseatingly pallid green stood between the Philosopher in Residence of the Empire and her quarry. In reality, the flimsy doors should have been far more intimidated of her and yet it was her hoof that hovered tentatively, hesitant, over the handle. A deep gulp, pushing the fear down her too-small throat, she forced the handle down, pushing the door open.

A dim and dirty incandescent bulb of Bright Spark's own design hung from the reception room's ceiling, swinging lazily back and forth on its frayed and corroded length of wire. A rather bored looking receptionist sat behind a gunmetal desk on a plywood folding chair that was somehow even cheaper than that of the door's construction. The only thing on the desk was a little bell, directly at its center. Hard benches squatted on either side of the doors, each flanked by wilting potted plants at either end.

Bright Spark may have stolen an awful lot from Pinkie Pie, but he certainly hadn’t stolen her good cheer.

Twilight approached the desk. The receptionist, a unicorn with a dirty blonde mane tied into a neat bun, wearing a stormy grey suit to complement the smattering of yellow, peered over her spectacles at Twilight.

"Yes," she drawled, "can I help you?"

Not once in her lifetime had Twilight heard a less sincere utterance of that question.

"I'd like to speak to a pegasus from the electrical production division?" Twilight asked, firmly, not letting this obstacle get to her in the slightest; no way, no how. The receptionist rolled her eyes, obviously bored, and Twilight had no idea how to react. Oh dear, it just got to her, didn't it? Why must this mare be so rude? "Preferably a manager."

"If you have enquiries or complaints about your bill," the receptionist sighed, speaking in a monotone like a recording from a wax cylinder, "the accounting department can be mailed at–"

"No!" Twilight interrupted, desperately, "No, I'm... I'm from the University. I'm trying to find a pony capable of giving a practical demonstration to a class on meteorology, and I've heard that your association only employs the best weather manipulators in the Empire!"

The receptionist pulled a stick of gum from the drawer in her desk and began chewing it loudly. A horrible fad imported from the zebra lands that would never catch on. "Alright. Go through those doors behind me and to the left, take a left, up the metal stairs – if you see the wooden ones you've gone too far – then follow the blue painted line."

"Oh. Where will that lead?"

The receptionist smiled, at last, and Twilight saw in that smile a filly who pulled the wings off of flies. "That's Rainbow Dash's office. That's who you should talk to."

"Excellent. Thank you very much! Your help was greatly appreciated," Twilight effortlessly lied.

As she pushed through the doors deeper into the bowels of the facility, she heard the receptionist snort derisively and cackle to herself.

Not exactly an auspicious start.


She had learned a little on her journey from reception to the end of the blue line. Following the green line would lead her to the lightbulb research and development labs. Heading down the red line would lead to fabrication. Back down the yellow line would lead her to the main electrical production floors, where all manner of helpful pegasii would be out and about to answer her questions.

All this she considered when she noticed the creeping, flowering tendrils growing out from the door at the end of the blue line.

Twilight approached the door. The vines did not shoot up her leg and strangle her, nor did they wrap around her ankle and drag her to an unforeseen doom. They merely lay on the factory floor, surprisingly green and lush. Their bright jungle flowers perfumed the air pleasantly, even if the smell was disconcertingly out of place. It was needless to say that it clearly was, and Twilight sincerely doubted telling it so would cause it to cease to be..

A wild jungle growing in the middle of a red brick factory was exceedingly disquieting for some reason. It was a thing that Should Not Be. Alarm bells went off in Twilight’s head.

She knocked on the door.

No answer! Wonderful, if nopony was there, then Twilight could leave without calling herself a coward, and all would be well. Entirely not her fault.

She knocked again, just to prove to herself she wasn't giving up so easily.

The door creaked open at her touch, far too ominously for polite company, unbidden.

"H-hello?" Twilight tried to ignore the nervous stammer in her own voice. "Is anypony in here?"

Alright, this was just getting utterly ridiculous. They were plants. It was a door. Logic and reason should hold fast and firm sway in her mind, and irrational fears should not take root.

Take root. Twilight chastised herself for the unintentional pun, giving her enough courage to push the door the rest of the way open.

The room was a jungle, captured in time and space. Creeping vines draped from the ceiling, a wall of green plant-flesh obscuring whatever the original material was. The jungle floor was mulch and leaves which crunched underhoof as she took her first, delicate step on it. The air was hot and humid, sticky, but not like how the center of the factory should feel. More like how the muggy tropical heartlands of the reclusive minotaurs feels.

The desk was a gleaming gold sacrificial altar – which wasn't even a metaphor for anything. It was literally a gold sacrificial altar – covered in pens and paperwork, with an in/out tray at one corner. The 'in' tray was towering dangerously, swaying under its own weight, and the 'out' tray had only one scrap of paper in it.

Twilight approached it cautiously, leaning in close. It appeared to be the receipt for the in/out trays. She looked back at the towering 'in' pile with a raised eyebrow.

A blade pressed to her throat. She went rigid, stone still, hoping that would protect her somewhat from the sharp edge being held to a very vulnerable spot. Her eyes darted around in their sockets, trying to identify her captor.

"Aha! A headhunter!" a raspy, masculine voice declared triumphantly. "Finally caught one, wot wot! Oh, this will be a fantastic haul for the colts back home, tally ho!"

Twilight dared not gulp nervously, as desperately as she wanted to. "I'm not a headhunter. I'm–" wait, a spy didn't sound much better, did it? "–a damsel in distress?"

The blade fell away instantly, and she was spun on the spot rather briskly, turned to face a blue pony dressed in safari gear. A tussled rainbow mane, not even an ambitious dye job so much as a naturally grown rainbow colouration, fell from beneath a tightly-fitted pith helmet. The mare seemed to be weighing her up.

"An adventurer always helps a damsel in need! It's the explorer's code of conduct!" the rather bombastic pony declared, speaking right from the gut and projecting her words with the force of an over-enthusiastic bellows. The knife, Twilight identified, appeared to be a rather sharp golden letter opener, curved wickedly to be reminiscent of a sacrificial blade, taped to the end of a cricket bat.

The pony noticed her noticing it. "I'm not much for paperwork and desk jockeying, quite right!" she declared, slinking around her altar and taking a seat on a plinth that seemed to be her chair. "My spear is my pen, and my Ooloo shield my clipboard! Of course, Mr Spark says he wants me to use an actual clipboard and pen – quite the joker he is, am I right? Ha! Ha ha! Ha!"

"So. You must be Rainbow Dash then?" Twilight hazarded. Was this the mare the receptionist had... ooh, wait 'til Twilight gave her a piece of her mind. "I was looking for the manager–"

"I be her, quite right!" Rainbow declared, proudly. Her eyes narrowed a moment, and she coughed, tapping her chest. "My apologies, what ho, I seem to have slipped back into Pirate Dash for a moment! That was a long time ago, all behind me now. Explorer Dash is where the mind needs to be focused, yes yes, quite right!"

"This is, uh... quite an impressive office," Twilight said, sincerely, looking around it again. Aside from the door she had entered, it really was like the jungle had just been plopped seamlessly right into the middle of the factory. The effect was uncanny. A bulb the size of Twilight's head hung from the center of the room, emanating heat like the noonday sun.

"I thank you, fair lady!" Rainbow grinned, pumping Twilight's hoof across the desk in a brisk shake. "The humidity is maintained from funnelling excess vapour from the cloud chambers! The sun I maintain myself with one bolt of lightning every three days, to keep it as hot as the heart of the jungle itself! The vegetation just takes care of itself after that! Every weekend I must make the perilous journey from doorway to desk with the use of my trusty machete!" Dash reached below the altar to grab it.

Twilight expected a bread knife, or perhaps a few butter knives taped together. What she did not expect was for the pegasus to grip firmly in her mouth a large, genuine, authentic kukri.

Alright, the letter opener she could forgive, but how the heck had she gotten that one in the office? How had no one taken it off her? Had anyone tried?

With a jerk of the pegasus' head, a vine fell toppling to the ground, leaking a noxious white sap. The knife fell back behind the desk, too. "Don't tell Mr Spark! That one's just between you and me, eh?!" she implored, smiling wide.“Now! What can this intrepid explorer help you with?!"

By the Princess, this mare was crazier than even Pinkie Pie.

Twilight pulled out her pocket watch. The hands glowed in the dimness of the jungle, causing Dash's own eyes to light up with it.

"Well, it's getting late, Ms Dash, I hate to interrupt your busy work–"

"The hands on that watch glow in the dark! That's amazing!"

"Well, yes, the radium–"

"What else have you got, Ms... I haven't caught your name! How dreadfully rude of me! Would you enjoy some rooibos and cocoa as an apology?"

The mare hacked away at some creeping flora with her kukri, making short work of it and revealing an electric stove, upon which she began boiling a kettle.

Chocolate tea, if she stayed in the company of this madmare? Only a weak, foolish pony would– oh dear, it smelled really good.

"My name is Twilight Sparkle. I was hoping you could spare a pegasus for a science project of mine."

"Science?! So you're a boffin then!" Rainbow exclaimed, pulling out a canteen from her desk. Of course she wasn't a hot beverage sort of pony, or else the vines wouldn't have grown over the kettle like they did. It probably meant she didn't have many guests either.

Twilight cringed. "I'm not a boffin..."

"Sure you are!" Rainbow declared, walking back around her altar and adventuring deep into the heart of Twilight's personal space, gripping one of her forelegs far too firmly for comfort, "Fetlocks don't lie, and yours are humming the boffins’ tune!"

"My fetlocks don't say anything!" Twilight took a step back, feeling deeply uncomfortable when a wildly smiling Rainbow took an even larger step forward.

"Ah, but they do! You may wear that dress like a lady, but you've got science-pony hooves! Lubricating oil caught around the hoof, tanlines where the boilersuit sits, coal dust ingrained no matter how hard the soap scrubs... The dress is too expensive, though, for a working pony! So, I figure you're a tinker!"

Twilight felt as if someone had told her that her fly was undone. From across a crowded room. "How... dreadfully perceptive," she lamented, a tad chagrin. This mare was wasted outside of Constable's Gardens. The Inspector would give a limb for a mare with this deductive ability. Possibly even one of her own.

"Naturally! An explorer needs to be perceptive, or a feral native might get the drop on her! Or a tiger! Or even a Nemean Lion! Or even a feral native riding a Nemean Lion with a pet tiger, for the scraps!"

"A real explorer adventures outside her office, occasionally," Twilight pointed out, slightly amused, largely annoyed.

Dash's wings fell to her sides. The kettle began whistling and she tried to disguise her reaction behind a desperate bid to make some exotic zebra tea for her guest. "Oh yeah? And what makes you think I don’t?"

"A real explorer wouldn't recreate the jungle in their office. They'd hang trophies and memories of their conquests. They wouldn't talk of what might have happened, future tense, but speak of hard-won lessons, past tense. You have no battle scars to speak of, your spear is a letter opener taped to a cricket bat, your cultist's altar still has the manufacturer's seal on it, and perhaps most tellingly of all, you've merely ignored your paperwork, as opposed to setting fire to it." She noticed Dash's body tense. "No, don't."

"It really is that obvious huh?" Dash sighed, proving something that Twilight had only theorized: apparently the mare did have an 'inside' voice. "Well, I want to be. I was just working here 'til I could work up the bits to fund my own expedition." Dash sighed, passing Twilight a cup of tea that she realized upon her first sip was too strong, too sweet and too milky. She drank greedily from it, anyway. Even bad chocolate tea was still chocolate tea. "Never wanted to be a manager."

Twilight eyed the 'in' tray with a faint smile bordering on conspiratorial.. "Really? I couldn't tell."

Dash smiled a little. "Yeah, I was really good at weather manipulation." Her chest puffed out, proving that her ego had greater regenerative properties than modern medicine thought possible. "The best! Nopony slings lightning like Rainbow 'Danger' Dash!"

Twilight's ears twitched at that, and her smile brightened. ‘Brightened’ is probably the wrong word, actually. It would be more accurate to say that Twilight's smile became distinctly mercantile.

"Oh yes?" Twilight hummed, almost as if she were bored. "Prove it."

Dash's eyes narrowed. Her voice lowered, certainly, but only grew in intensity. "You might want to back up a sec. Hide behind the altar. Hold on to your drink if you don't want to lose it."

Twilight shielded her precious exotic tea and did as was instructed. A pair of flight goggles slid down from under the brim of Dash’s pith helmet. Wings stood to attention and flexed.

Then? Then Rainbow launched herself.

A rainbow blur took up the center of the room as Rainbow pulled herself into a tight spin, a diameter of perhaps only a hula hoop. The humidity was ripped from the air and pulled inexorably into the center, forming a dark and angry cloud. After perhaps only fifteen seconds according to the pocket watch, and a tenth of that if Twilight were to go from feelings alone, Rainbow skidded to a halt, tangling herself in vines like bungie cords to slow her down.

A smirk at Twilight, smug and proud, lit up Dash's face as a rear leg shot out, stabbing at the cloud. It belched a bolt of lightning at the conductive metal of the altar. With another kick, it poofed back into the air, and the oppressive humidity of the room returned.

The pieces were starting to come together. She smelled opportunity here, even over the pungent jungle flowers.

"There's a principle in management theory," Twilight said, smiling as she walked back around to meet Dash at the center of the room, "that ponies are employed to their level of incompetence."

"Hey! Rude!" Dash flinched, eyeing Twilight's exotic tea as if she could take it back. Yeah, she could try.

"What I mean is, management isn't the job you want to be doing. You're here because you were too good at your old job, not because you're right for this one." Twilight pointedly looked at the potential avalanche that was Dash's 'in' pile. Not even the stormcloud in the room had shifted its sheer mass, somehow, and it stood defiant and resolute. If she wanted to scale a mountain, there was one right here.

Dash followed Twilight's eyes and gulped. "Yeah, I know you're right," she muttered, kicking a particularly thick vine idly with a hoof, "it's just that this pays a Princess's ransom. My old job couldn't even pay for a tramp steamer ticket after room and board, let alone a whole expedition!" Her nudging took a violent turn, frustration evident as her hoof came down hard on the vine. "Even if I was doing the work of ten ponies!"

"Well... what if I were to say that you could do your old job for me, and I'd pay you what your current job pays now. More, if you want it."

Rainbow smirked. "How much more?"

"Don't get greedy, now," Twilight warned, "I might just hire ten ponies instead to do your work."

"Hah! You could try!" Rainbow smirked. Her eyes glazed over for a moment, tongue sticking out of her mouth. Twilight would forever think of it as Dash's 'thinking' face. When she returned to lucidity, it was a pleading expression. "Actually, please don't try,” she didn't even try to hide the desperation in her voice, "I'll take the job."

"First you steal my assistant," a rather distinguished and erudite voice scolded from the doorway, with that perfect diction and enunciation that could only have come from very expensive private schooling, "and now you steal my admittedly horribly incompetent artificial weather manager? I dare say, Ms Sparkle, I took you for a lot of things –" That most of them were clearly rather unflattering was left unspoken. "–but a headhunter was not one of them."

"She told me she wasn't a headhunter! I think she’s a bit squeamish, myself!" Dash assured Bright Spark as the pony strode into the room, black tailcoats dragging on the muddy vines and too-tall tophat bouncing off the ones dangling from the ceiling. Only the glowing horn beneath kept it tightly affixed to his head.

Bright Spark rolled his eyes, and even Twilight smiled a little at that. "A headhunter, Ms Rash, is a pony who steals talented workers away from other companies. Lowly pondscum of the modern world incapable of attracting talent, otherwise." He looked at the would-be explorer with a steely glare. "Frankly, I'm rather certain I should let her. Be somepony else's problem, would you? You're fired."

Dash's wings bristled, her pupils dilated. She would have her confrontation in the jungles after all. "You can't fire me, I quit!"

"It's not like you'd do her any good. Our lightning-conductive generators are a closely guarded company secret. One that I know for certain is beyond her capacity to replicate." The accusation stung, but it was the truth, so Twilight bit the proverbial bullet.

There was another way to do this.

Twilight whisked a sheaf of paper from the middle of the pile of Dash's inbox, tapping it against the desk noisily. She started jotting notes on it, feeling the stallion's expansive glare on her as she did. So, it was a confrontation that Bright Spark wanted? She would have done her best to avoid this, but if it must happen, she was going to hurt him as much as she could, where it hurt him the most.

His wallet. His ego. The only things he truly felt mattered.

"Actually, Mr Spark," Twilight emphasized that she was not going to dignify his title, and was rewarded for it with the most satisfactory of eye twitches, "I can't help but notice that when you offered my new associate this position, there were certain legal guidelines that came with it."

She was just guessing, but the paperwork was likely boilerplate. She knew the terms of employment at this level like the back of her hoof.

"As such, termination without notice – as this certainly counts – is subject to a hefty severance package, as well as compensation for personal days accumulated." A wild shot in the dark, but the rage that sparked in Bright's eyes as she said it lit the way. "As my associate appears to have not taken a single day off on the reason that she was saving them all up to be used at once, on a most singular of holidays, this would be quite a large additional sum indeed." An educated guess, but Dash's grin was the one that confirmed this for her.

Bright Spark growled for a moment, shoulders hunching like he was about to leap at Twilight. She stood her ground, unmoving, save for a single, thoroughly unamused raise of an eyebrow. The entrepreneur, inventor, genius, scholar, and all-around insufferable jerk regained his composure with a chilling, restrained grin.

Twilight's eyebrow simply raised further, urging him to go on.

"Well, it's rather fortunate that she just quit, then, isn't it?"

"No I didn't." Rainbow nodded, once.

Bright Spark looked at her oddly. "Yes, you did. Just now. I heard you, Ms Rash. You said that I couldn't fire you, because you quit."

"Well, my legal boffin here will back me up on this," Dash said as she threw an affectionate arm around Twilight's withers, noogying her around the horn for reasons only the explorer-to-be understood, "but you can't prove nuffin'. Which means it didn't happen, what ho!"

Twilight whisked another sheaf of paper to be pored over. A form for all the safety checks that Rainbow didn't oversee. She truly was doing more damage here than good.

As the stack of papers settled, another one caught Twilight’s eye: a strange little azure number, laden with an intricate myriad of lines and laterals. Twilight gave it a cursory scan… and her eyes widened as she realized it could be of monumental importance later.

And hey, it was even blank on the back. How serendipitous.

Twilight yoinked it from the pile, flipped it over, pulled out a pen, and scrawled on it, 'Twilight Sparkle is my legal boffin (what ho, etcetera), to the tune of one (1) bit'.

She shoved it into Dash’s face, who hesitated for only a moment before she plucked the pen from the air and signed it. For some reason, her signature involved the drawing of an explosion with lightning bolts coming from it. For other reasons, this didn't surprise Twilight in the slightest.

"Onus of proof. My client, Ms Dash, says she didn't. As her legal representative, I cannot testify against her. You have no written testimony. I, meanwhile, have documented proof of your terminating her." Twilight's magic suddenly yanked at the tailcoat pockets of a very surprised Mr Spark, and out came a pink slip of paper that moments before had been barely exposed.

Dash's eyes narrowed dangerously. "You were going to fire me anyway!"

"Well, yes," Bright muttered, dry as butler's wit, "you are horribly incompetent. This really was just the last straw. In fact, your new... boffin here is only representing you to get back at me for an incident she doesn't truly understand."

Dash looked at Twilight. Twilight shrugged, but not unkindly. There was a kernel of truth to the notion she was just doing it to get back at this grandiose git. Well that and, for whatever reason, she couldn't help but like the mare. The work she had put into her office alone was a testament to just how passionate she was, and Twilight appreciated that in a pony. Dash was a bird trapped in a cage of her own making, singing about a day she might be able to soar.

A petty part of Twilight also approved of just how much damage Dash had done to Bright Spark's bottom line until now.

"You removed a severely ill pony from my care, Ms Sparkle. You removed her from her home, from her work, from her career. She's dangerous."

"She's not..."

"She is," Bright Spark stated firmly, glaring hard and taking another step into the room. "She is incredibly dangerous, even if she doesn't know it, even if she doesn't seem it. She has bouts of psychosis. She lashes out. Some of the things she's doodled in the margins of a toaster’s blueprints, or hair dryer’s schematics... If she ever made them, they could end cities in the blink of an eye. Did you know that?"

Pinkie did seem that horrifying mix of “wonderfully enthusiastic about radioactive materials” and “blissfully unconcerned with the repercussions”.

Tick.

Twilight was about to stammer something nervously, to verbally flail about in her own defense, but Bright Spark pressed on. "And do you know what they do to mad ponies in the Capital, Ms Sparkle?"

Tick. There it was again. "They throw them in the Asylum, for the amusement of foals with too many pennies and too little empathy."

Tick. Where was it coming from? "They treat them like circus animals, or worse, Ms Sparkle! They sell sticks to an audience, so that they may be poked until the desired reaction is achieved!"

Tick. Her dress. A pocket of her dress.

Rainbow Dash looked uncertain now, looking at Twilight with... hurt? No, that wasn't it. It was betrayal. She believed him.

Tick. She reached for that noise now, with her magic. It was too loud, ringing in her ears.

"You dare take one of my valued employees, now, out of spite?" Rainbow's betrayal seemed to be twisting into confusion. She paid closer attention to Bright Spark, now, to his words. Seeds of doubt had been sown. He should not have risked that lie. "I did not claim those inventions as my own because I am an evil pony, Ms Sparkle, I did it because they needed to be shared with the world! The things that pony has accomplished that she couldn't on her own!"

He was yelling now, screaming even, but Twilight paid him no mind. She was too preoccupied. She looked away from him, searching more intensely now.

"A mad pony could not navigate the patent office! A mad pony could not see an idea through to completion! A mad pony could not be taken seriously! It was the only way–"

Tick. There it was. She had found it.

Twilight shook her head, her magic clamping Bright Spark's jaw closed. Rainbow's eyes widened spectacularly, but Twilight didn't notice, didn't see. She was staring at the watch Pinkie had given her, floating serenely in her magic.

"No, Bright Spark. No, I cannot abide this. You have said your piece – now let me say mine."

She said it as if he had a choice, but considering her magic had moved to take a tight grip on his tongue, it really wasn't an option. If he tried to retreat from her baleful gaze, it would require him to leave the tongue behind.

"This watch was given to me, gifted out of kindness, by the mare you claim I have unjustly removed from your care.”

Tick. Tick. Tick. For sixteen hundred years that sound would not abate, because of Pinkie's contributions to its design.

“There are many things I can abide, Mr Spark, but not this."

She parroted his incessant use of her name, now, as she wasn't above spite. Not right now.

"I can abide you taking away her freedom in the name of her own safety, Mr Spark, as I have reason to believe she is exactly as dangerous as you say. I can abide you taking from her money that was rightfully hers, as she assures me she was not in danger of want under your – and I will be exceedingly generous with this word here, Mr Spark – care.

The watch opened with a delicate click. It did not matter what time it was, what mattered was the makers' mark engraved on its shell.

“What I cannot abide, however, is that you have stolen even her very name."

Bright Spark looked like he had been physically slapped. Twilight didn't revel in it like she wanted. It wasn't enough. It only fed the growing ball of raw hatred brewing in her gut, because that expression meant that he knew exactly what she meant. That she was right.

Oh how she hated that she was right.

"You made her use her title on her inventions, so that even a hundred years from now nopony would remember her name."

She held up the mark, TESLA, and lifted it in front of his eyes like the damning evidence that it was. Rainbow plucked it from the air to see for herself, looking more indecisive than ever.

"Only your name is left, and a title that made her your own. What I can not abide, Mr Spark, is you taking away that mare's rightful existence in history, something that would only hurt you. Not her. A pain you would not feel now, in the present, but only in the annals of time. The idea that you would have to share your reputation with a madpony named Pinkie Pie; that's what you thought was truly dangerous, wasn't it?"

She released his tongue. She allowed him the chance to defend himself, now. She would offer him that.

Rainbow Dash hoofed the watch back to her, nodding in satisfaction to herself.

Bright Spark nursed his jaw with a hoof covered in a fine, white silk sock. "I–"

That was as far as he got before Rainbow Dash bucked him hard, flipping him head-over-teakettle. His rear legs acted as a fine pivot for all the momentum that kick delivered, around which he hinged upward and backward, hat flying off into the far corner of the room. Twilight watched in shock, and no small amount of satisfaction, as Rainbow grabbed the grey dress she wore and pulled, dragging her toward the exit.

"My legal boffin says there weren't no witnesses, and that you can't prove nuffin'!" Rainbow called over her shoulder, somewhat manically, dragging the stunned unicorn in her wake.

"What did you just do?!" Twilight hissed, as the two fled back down the blue line to the building's exit, Rainbow laughing uproariously the whole way.

"I'm rescuing the damsel in distress!" Rainbow declared grandly. "Besides, sounded like that foul villain had it coming. Any good explorer knows you're only good as what somepony puts in a history book!" Rainbow continued, ignoring the shocked look of a pegasus wandering to the cafeteria with his lunchbox as they bowled him over. "So stealing somepony's place in it is the worst thing you can do! Ever! It's like somepony's gone and blazed a trail, and then he's just gone and put it out! Trails need to blaze!"

"I'm glad you agree!" Twilight yelled over the panting of her breath, the hammering of her heart, the giddiness intermixed with panic. "You're fine working with a boffin holding you back, then?"

"Are you kidding?!" Dash grinned manically as they flew past the receptionist, Dash not bothering with the plywood doors, smashing them down before her as Twilight shielded her eyes from splinters. "I love boffins! Where do you think us explorers get all the best gadgets, what ho?! So, whatta ya need me to do?!"

They stopped now, half a block away, panting furiously. Neither of them could keep the smiles from their faces.

Twilight took back the form she had Dash sign the makeshift 'legal contract' on. Bright Spark would never notice the blueprint for the new lightning-based generator missing from Dash's work pile. Twilight herself wouldn't have noticed it if Pinkie hadn't made her familiar with the specific kind of paper he used for his blueprints.

"Oh," Twilight puffed, reading over the designs with a haughty smile, "I just need you to power the death ray we're aiming at the moon."

Rainbow's grin redoubled. "Awesome."


The Mare Who Would Gift Twilight The Moon

Converting bolts of lightning into usable electricity had been an astonishingly simple matter. All the components were readily available; what was interesting was that neither Pinkie nor Twilight had ever considered combining them in that particular way before.

It was like the words of a singularly inspirational quote. Each individual word had been said before, most of them even used together in some way. Someone, however, had found the one combination, in just the right order, that made it greater than the sum of its parts.

Like: "We are all capable of travel through time, but only ever in one direction."

Or perhaps something better than that. That one wasn't very good.

Twilight attributed her inability to create or remember a significant profundity to once again having to give Bright Spark credit for something admittedly brilliant. It seemed to be rather mentally taxing, for her.

Rainbow Dash, meanwhile, had taken to passing the time playing with the laser pointer Pinkie had made for Twilight. She had learned that, if one were to move it quickly enough, one could draw illusory persistent images with it, and one had taken a liking to drawing temporary glowing red moustaches on rather beloved family portraits of the Sparkle family.

Twilight had confiscated back her pen-like device. It had rather disappointed Dash, but Twilight had done it for the pegasus' own safety. Namely, because of the things Twilight would do to her if Dash were to carelessly blind her. In response, Pinkie – who seemed to have taken a liking to their new houseguest – had made a new model just for Dash, one which Twilight had no right to confiscate. Much to Twilight's chagrin, this one came with a button to change colours, as well.

And so the portrait moustaches continued.

Five days of charging the BEAM. One of getting Rainbow Dash out from under Bright Spark. Tomorrow Applejack would be back over with deliveries, and...

Wait, one second.

What was Dash doing here again, before they needed her?

She had just taken it for granted the mare had followed her home after being fired. The fact that the mare had stayed for so many hours, now, was honestly something Twilight hadn't even thought about.

She took the elevator down to the main floor, finding Pinkie Pie and Rainbow Dash together, in one of the larger clearings between bookshelves. They had found a table and a chair each, although neither were sitting on them correctly. Stacks of books sat piled between the pair, mostly fiction on Dash's side and non-fiction on Pinkie's, though they seemed to be comparing piles, trading ones that interested them.

The two had a lot in common; they were both loud, bombastic, excitable, passionate, and – perhaps most important of all – they were both madder than a hatter in their own way. They'd become the fastest of friends, a fact that made Twilight feel just the slightest bit jealous.

She was about to intrude on them when she felt a little claw grab at her hind leg. She looked down and behind her to see a rather anxious looking Spike looking back.

"Hey Twilight, so, your new friend is cool and all. Really cool, actually," the dragon admitted, glancing back at the pith helmet Dash had refused to take off, "but she's not going to be staying here, is she? I'm kinda used to having this space to myself, and it was fine when Pinkie stayed in the basement because that's her space now, you know?"

"But now they're kind of everywhere?" Twilight opined, face almost wistful.

Spike watched his own feet as they kicked at nothing in particular. "Yeah."

Twilight hummed thoughtfully. She turned and approached them now with Spike in tow, though the little dragon was trying to hide behind her as much as possible. He probably thought this was his fault, somehow.

Pinkie and Dash were too busy giggling at something Dash had said to notice the unicorn's approach. Twilight cleared her throat, drawing their attention."So, Rainbow Dash. What would you normally be doing right about now?" The unspoken qualifier was 'if I hadn't just gotten you fired'. Best leave it unsaid.

Dash looked at Pinkie Pie nervously before she answered, only looking back at Twilight with some hesitation. "Honestly? Hiding in my office until everypony left, so nopony would yell at me. Sometimes I'd even sleep there, you know, just in case." There was a pause, and Rainbow seemed to brighten considerably. "It was fantastic, though, because I had everything I could ever need in there! An explorer always comes prepared for whatever situation befalls them!"

Pinkie gasped. "I did that too! We have so much in common!"

Neither of those answers were terribly reassuring. Asking Rainbow to leave right now... Twilight would sooner kick a puppy. At least the puppy might enjoy its brief moment of flight.

"Well... think of this as though  it were a weekend," Twilight suggested, forcing a wan smile, "What would you do on a Sunday?"

Rainbow's face lit up, momentarily, before flickering and burning out. "I'd be looking for new plants for my office, I guess." Again, that she no longer had that office was left heavy in the air between them. She thought a bit more, and smiled again, just a little. "Or reading books about adventure!" She gestured at her pile. Twilight suspected Spike might have wanted her gone just because she'd nicked all his best books.

Pinkie Pie grinned. "Don't you just love it when a book's so super good that you see it in your head, like a picture?"

"Yeah! Only the star is always Rainbow Danger Dash!" Rainbow agreed.

"Well, I've got an idea," Twilight practically whispered, walking right up to their reading table and leaning in close, right between them, almost as if what she was about to say was top secret, for their ears only. Pinkie and Dash grinned, leaning closer too. "How about you two go out to Old Bones and have an afternoon picnic? You can feed the birds, too, if you want. I think Pinkie certainly would." Pinkie's smile lit up the room, and she turned to Dash with the most hopeful expression Twilight had ever seen on the pony.

"I'll introduce you to Gummy!" Pinkie declared, "He doesn't talk much anymore, though. He was my bestest friend in the whole wide world before you and Twilight!"

Rainbow looked at Pinkie in confusion. "Isn't Old Bones a grave..." she trailed off, noticing the meaningful look Twilight was burning into her. Dash's eyes widened in realization, "Oh, I mean, gravely serious place to have a picnic? We should bring extra-special food for the birds, then! The finest loaf of bread money can buy! To the bakery!" It was an admirable recovery. Twilight nodded in approval.

Dash needed to know what she was dealing with, in Pinkie. It wasn’t Twilight’s place to tell her, though. Let Pinkie show her, on her own turf, on her own terms. Even if she didn’t realize that was what she was doing.

Pinkie blinked. "What's a bakery?"

"You'll love it," Twilight assured her, "it's where they make cakes, and cookies, and eclaires--"

"And muffins and pies!" Rainbow added emphatically.

Pinkie jumped out of her seat, knocking her pile of books over. Twilight winced as they fell, winced at every bent page and dented cover... Had it been anypony else, they would have been tugged by the ear until they'd been evicted from the premises. Still, with Pinkie practically vibrating with happiness, it was impossible to hold it against her.

"So! We shall need bits! Money! Twilight, my boffin extraordinaire and most trusted of friends! Would you fund our expedition to the wild, unkempt lands of Old Bones park?"

Most trusted of friends?

Twilight checked her filing cabinet. It had become significantly less dusty over the course of the last two weeks. There she found a rainbow file, sitting happily next to the orange and pink.

The tricky pegasus had snuck it in there when she wasn't looking. Figured.

"Here you go!" Spike said, snapping Twilight out of her reverie, dumping a large wicker basket on the table between the three ponies. "A big picnic basket for you, with enough bits for whatever you want!" He turned quickly to Twilight. "But not too much," he said hurriedly, earning a rather approving look from his adoptive big sister.

"Well done, Spike. Excellent initiative."

"The dragon truly is the greatest batman an explorer could ask for!" Dash declared, scooping up the picnic basket grandly, "Come, Pinkie! Adventure awaits!" Rainbow's wings twitched in anticipation. "I'll show you all my best evasive maneuvers!"

Pinkie pronked up, ready to go with her, when she stopped rather suddenly – impressive indeed when the mare was constantly twitching at least something at all times – and turned to Twilight with big, watery blue eyes.

"Twilight," she asked, sounding almost scared, "is it okay if I spend the night at Dashie's?"

It was remarkably sudden, but she was worried she'd hurt Twilight's feelings just by asking. That was silly, though, she could never hurt Twilight's feelings just for wanting to spend time with a new friend.

What she should have been worried about, though, was the very real possibility that the question would break Twilight's heart. She couldn't blame Pinkie for that, though. Not even Twilight had thought about that possibility until it had already happened.

"I'm not 'Dashie'." Rainbow grumbled, oblivious to Twilight's confusion as the unicorn clutched at her chest, "I'm Rainbow 'Danger!' Dash!"

"You can be both!" Pinkie explained, "Just like I'm Pinkie Pie and TESLA! You're Dashie, too."

Rainbow Dash flushed a bit, looking just the slightest bit uncomfortable and whole heaping loads of embarrassed. Twilight's heart warmed a bit at that, and mended. Of course Pinkie would, and should, want to leave, and explore.

"Why do you want to stay at our daring explorer's house, Pinkie?" Twilight smiled, trying to keep the hurt from her face. She couldn't keep it from her eyes, though, and Pinkie was rather perceptive.

"It's not like I don't think this place is just the best, and that you're not really nice to me, because it is and you are," Pinkie explained, "but Dash says her apartment's almost as cool as her office, and her office sounded really, really cool, and I really want to go see it!"

Having seen Rainbow's office herself, that was a curiosity Twilight could understand. It meant that it really was nothing personal.

"Well, then, I guess I'll see you two tomorrow." A thought, then, made her feel rather better. "Applejack and I should have everything ready for you then, Rainbow."

Rainbow flashed Twilight a winning smile, touching a hoof to the brim of her pith helmet, head tilted in the slightest inclination of respect, as she walked past. "Don't worry, fair Twilight! I shall have the lovely fair maiden safe and returned to her lodgings on the morrow, what ho!"

Twilight raised an eyebrow, and her lip tugged upward in wry amusement. "Fair maiden?"

Pinkie Pie caught up to Dash and pantomimed a swoon, or at least an over-exaggeration of one, hanging off the pegasus just the littlest bit and batting her eyelashes coquettishly. "Is that what I am, now, is it?"

"You know what I meant!" Rainbow laughed as she carried the picnic basket and dragged the pink mare out of that small clearing in the forest of shelves.

And then Twilight was alone, save for Spike, who was guiltily wringing his hands. He didn't quite occupy as much... space, though, as Pinkie Pie did. She had gotten used to the energy, and having Rainbow around had only exacerbated things. So, with just herself and her faithful assistant around, things felt rather... hollow. Empty. Like the library was simply far too big for the two occupants it contained, no matter how much of the actual space had been filled with books. Now even they no longer provided her comfort.

The night would be lonely, yes. Twilight had only just adapted to this 'friend' phenomenon, now, and to have the rug quite so thoroughly and abruptly pulled out from under her...

You don't seem to appreciate just how empty a space truly is until some small thing comes along and fills it.


Twilight was woken by three hammering knocks right in her ear. This may be because she had chosen to make camp and fall asleep by the front door. She looked longingly at the coffee machine beside her.

No time.

She scooped up a hoofful of the ground beans and unceremoniously dumped them in her mouth, chewing them only briefly before swallowing the dry, bitter mess.

Twilight may still have had terrible bed hair. She may not have showered or eaten. But she had 'drank' her morning coffee, and so she deemed herself ready to face the day.

Or at least the door.

"You didn't use the doorbell," Twilight accused, failing to hide an eager smile.

"Yeah, Ah know," Applejack shrugged easily, not bothering to hide her own smile, which was just as eager as the one the unicorn was suppressing. "Just wanted to make sure you knew it was me."

Twilight laughed. She didn't even bother trying to hide it. Why would she?

She was in the company of a friend.

Applejack looked down at the mattress on the floor, at Twilight's condition, then at Twilight herself. Or at least the rear half of her, if the way she had leaned over – overbalancing slightly – and begun smirking would indicate. Which it did. It did indicate it quite clearly.

Twilight flushed and threw the blanket over herself for modesty. "What?" she demanded, rather testily.

"Oh, nothin', nothin'," Applejack hummed, wiping a hoof off on the doormat. "Just a nice sparklebutt you got there."

"You were looking at my cutie mark!" Twilight tried to snap, to snarl, but really it came out as an embarrassed squeal. "That's really personal!"

"Which is why you were sleepin' in the buff," AJ pointed out, eyebrow raised to complement the fashionable smirk she was wearing, "by your front door. In view of the street. Where absolutely everypony could look in."

Twilight squeaked, throwing the blanket down to grab Applejack and all but throw her inside, slamming the door behind them. She leaned against it, panting heavily.

Applejack looked at her uncovered flanks, wiggling her eyebrows. "Nice stars. Real pretty."

"Would you stop looking?" Twilight hissed, as red as an apple. "Why are you late?"

"Because, this is the first time I made sure you were last on my delivery route. Didn't want customers bitin' my head off again. I've been gettin' awful late in them, doin' this part time stuff for y'all."

Twilight darted up the laddered labyrinth, desperately fleeing Applejack's amused stare. Her bedroom was nestled into an alcove, buried behind – and this should come as no great shock to the observant – great piles of books.

A boiler suit and a blouse; all she needed. Well, and a brush. Maybe some eyeliner, but only a little...

Oh. Right. Applejack was waiting. Kept company with the memory of her naked rear end. Gah!

Twilight hurriedly dropped the cosmetics kit in her magical glow and bolted back from behind the little alcove behind the books, back out to find Applejack riding the elevator up, alone, waving at her with a rather cheeky little smile.

Twilight raced up the ladders, jumping between gaps, trying to outpace the elevator. It took an early lead, but soon the sheer weight of the hydraulic fluid began to accumulate in the piston, and Twilight only got faster. A few books clattered from shelves to the floors far below – careless hooffalls – but that didn't matter.

The unicorn beat the elevator to the top, but only just.

"Well done, partner," Applejack congratulated as the elevator wrenched itself home, the scissor doors clattering open, "you didn't have to race me though, you know?"

"What?"

"Yeah. Wonderin' why you did that. Mighty impressive performance though. Certainly got a set of legs on you."

"I... you..." Twilight stammered, gasping and grasping at words that would not come.

"You have absolutely no idea why you just did that, huh, sugarcube?" Applejack chuckled again.

"You saw my cutie mark!" Twilight finally blurted out. "That's really personal! It's everything about who a pony is!"

"Well, shucks, I know that. I'll show you mine, if it'll make us square?"

"This is not highschool!" Twilight stomped a hoof, eyes forced closed from sheer force of indignation.

"Huh, highschool? Most ponies try that 'round fillyhood. You know, when they first get it and it's all shiny and novel."

"That was highschool for me! I graduated young and awkward!" Twilight's voice was getting dangerously high pitched now, even as Applejack just threw more heat into the equation. She was rather like a kettle, at this moment. "You aren't helping!"

Applejack shrugged and pulled down her overalls, Twilight protesting the whole way the denim slid down, until...

"Huh. Apples. That was... really anticlimactic."

"Yep," Applejack chuckled, throwing her overalls back up and jumping a little, just until it settled right. "Don't seem so special now, does it?"

"It might not be to you, but to me--"

"It's a bright coloured picture on your butt. Pretty one, at that, but that's all it is." Applejack rolled her eyes, walking past Twilight and towards the Telescope, upon which rested the designs for the new generator. Twilight hadn't even told Applejack she needed her help, or even that she had wanted it. The farmer-cum-blacksmith had just known. She had even changed an important and decidedly busy schedule just to accommodate Twilight.

And Twilight realized something; So what if this mare knew something as personal as her cutie mark?

After all... what was a secret between friends?


The generator had been relatively easy to put together with the – admittedly expensive – components that Applejack and Twilight had pieced together. It was only a few hours of work before the Princess-damned heap of metal was ready for field testing.

It resembled a washing machine that had had an uncouth relationship with a cotton-candy machine, resulting in a morbidly obese child that could hide a pony within its depths.

Wires sprang from it gallantly through thick, black tubes – the treated rubber had cost almost as much as the wire itself – and down into the capacitor banks below that Pinkie had already established. It might have been more efficient to have built the generator down there, but the simple fact of the matter was that there simply wasn't enough room for it. The large, open plateau of the Observatory dome, however, did not have such limitations.

Applejack removed her green welder's mask, wiping sweat and oil and metal particulate from her brow with the back of a foreleg, which was then wiped off against her overalls."Woo. That was some thirsty work. Reckon we go snaffle some cider from the cart and call it a day?" She was leaning now, over the top of it, resting her weight on the machine.

"Nothing more we can do now, not until Rainbow Dash and Pinkie Pie get back," Twilight agreed from the across the metal thing they'd made. She tried to copy AJ's casual, laid back recline against the machine, but just ended up sliding on it and falling over.

Fortunately, Applejack had looked away, and only looked back up when Twilight had madly scrambled to regain her footing.

The earth-pony side-eyed her a bit. "Who's Rainbow and Pinkie?"

"Oh," she jumped a bit. “Ah, Pinkie you know. Sort of. She was asleep last time," Twilight explained. "But she's... she's a friend. And, for the foreseeable future, my tenant."

"Yuh-huh," Applejack muttered skeptically, then louder said "So, why do we gotta wait for your tenant?"

"Oh! Ah, Pinkie's the one that's helped all this come together. She knows a lot more about electricity than I do, and probably ever will."

Applejack's skeptical half-frown became a playful half-smile, all with just the tiniest movement of the corners of her mouth. "And here I thought you was the smart one."

"Were the smart one," Twilight corrected, absent-mindedly.

"Oh, I know," AJ's half-smile became a full on grin, "I just thought I could trip you into sayin’ you were the smart one, past tense. You just did, by the way."

Twilight winced a bit, but couldn't help but snort. She'd been had! Foiled by a mere earth pony farmer! Now she could never truly be part of the Unicorn Master Race. They'd take away her membership card, they would.

"What about Rainbow Dash?" Applejack mused, relaxing her jaw and rolling it around a bit. "What's she for?"

"Oh, she's a pegasus, a skilled lightning manipulator," Twilight explained. She was about to go on when Applejack held up a hoof.

"Say no more. So, she's the battery. Gotcha."

Twilight flinched a bit. It felt... wrong to summarize a pony as a tool. Insulting. "Well, she's more than just the battery," she corrected brusquely, blowing her bangs with an irked little puff of air.

Another sidelong look, both eyebrows shot up. "So, a friend too, then? Well, ain't that mighty nice. Didn't think you had any first time I rocked up here. Uh, no offense, but that doorbell was too dusty for you to get many guests."

Twilight was about to get indignant, to escalate, when she realized she had no ground on which to stand. As wrong as that was now, it had certainly been true at the time. She hung her head as she dwelled on that.

"Shucks, don't feel bad about it. Can never have too many friends. Just seems like you've been busy."

A wan smile at that. She had been busy, hadn't she? A kidnapping, an assault of a captain of industry, the first extraterrestrial contact... it had been one hectic month. "So what about you?" Twilight asked.

"Well, I ain't got many friends," Applejack admitted, sinking further down with her lean and dipping towards the floor. "I got customers, and I got favourites, but friends are a bit... well, they're a bit of a luxury commodity. Just trying to keep the farm from goin' under, don't have the time."

She must have noticed Twilight's horribly guilty expression. "Hey, I said many, I didn't say none, and you're certainly one of 'em. Best part is, you and I, we can just shoot the breeze, and I'm still bringing in the bits for back home. I don't have to worry."

"I'm glad," Twilight said, with as much meaning as she could muster.

That was when, of course, somepony hammered at the front door. Then two ponies crying out 'For adventure!' in unison, burst into giggling fits. Twilight twitched, hard enough for even AJ to notice.

"So, you get guests, just none of 'em use the doorbell?"

"It would seem so," Twilight sighed. "Come on, I'll introduce you."


They met at the door, Applejack standing tight by Twilight's side, Pinkie by Rainbow's. Four ponies; it was starting to feel a bit crowded.

Crowded, but in a good way. Crowded like a dinner table at Hearth’s Warming. Cozy.

Twilight was about to dwell on that when Applejack and Rainbow Dash started sizing each other up. Applejack was no longer at Twilight's side, and Rainbow was no longer at Pinkie's. Pinkie and Twilight now made a rather confused pair of their own as Applejack and Rainbow found some space wide enough to circle each other like two cats about to fight over territory, backs arched and tails flicking menacingly.

"Thought I recognized you, ya varmint," Applejack accused, keeping the same distance between herself and the pegasus at all times. "Reckon now we can settle old scores."

"You're crazy!" Rainbow shot right back. "Like, Pinkie's insane – no offense Pinkie – but you're crazy!"

"None taken?" Pinkie added, giving Twilight a rather confused look. Twilight's own mirrored it rather impressively.

Rainbow rocked back onto her hind legs, circling her forelegs around each other in a boxer's pose, jabbing at the air occasionally. "I demand retribution! Satisfaction! Sparring and fisticuffs and what-have-you!"

"Wait, wait," Twilight said as she massaged her temples, "why?"

"She chased me with a lasso and a bullwhip! And it hurt!" Rainbow yelped, her scratchy voice breaking with indignation. "Explorers should have bullwhips, not be bullwhipped!"

"You were trespassin'!" Applejack snapped, pawing at the ground like a bull about to stampede.

"So?!" Rainbow snapped right back.

"So, you were hackin' at all my trees with a machete, and stealin' all the good fruit!" Applejack snarled.

Twilight raised a hoof to interrupt. "Actually, it was probably a kukri, not a machete." Both Rainbow and Applejack looked at her in confusion, though Pinkie just seemed relieved the fighting had abated for a moment. She looked very uneasy about the situation. "It's the kind of knife she had in her office. Okay," Twilight sighed, "carry on."

Rainbow took that as her cue. "I was living off the lands, what ho! I was exploring the untamed wilderness!"

"What untamed wilderness?!" Applejack snorted, a genuine mix of anger and confusion, "It was a farm. That's about as tamed as it gets! And it wasn't the land you were livin' off, it was my land! There's a difference!"

"No there isn't!" Rainbow growled. "You can't just own land!"

"Yes you can?!" Applejack howled, now. "It's called a deed! I have one, legal and all! It means I own that land!"

"Yeah well... you were still a rather unwelcoming host!"

"You were stealin' mah livelihood!"

"Potato, po-ta-toe!"

"You ate them, too!"

Twilight sighed. "Pinkie, please just... stay right here. Make sure this doesn't get even more stupid than it already is." She waited until she received a rather tentative little nod before she went to retrieve a small table from a reading corner. The unlit candles on it she placed gently on the floor, and Twilight carried the table – slinging it across her withers – back to the two ponies, who still seemed to be at each other's throats.

Hopefully it wouldn't turn literal. Throats tended to bleed a lot, and bloodstains were very difficult to get out of dry pages.

Twilight slammed the table down in the center of the invisible circle the two warring ponies had created. "You two. Hoofwrestle. Now."

"I ain't touchin' her, less it's to buck her head clean off! You know how much she ate before we caught her?"

"I was only there for a week! I wasn't hurting anypony, I was just off on an adventure! You wouldn't know adventure if it came up behind you and–"

Twilight grabbed both ponies by the ear with her magic at that point. It only took five pounds of pressure to rip an ear off, if applied in the correct location. It took even less force to convince a pony it was in their best interest to follow the tugging before it might come to that.

Rainbow and Applejack were dumped on the floor on either side of the small end table. Twilight pulled a kerchief from her blouse pocket and wrapped it around one of the forelegs of each pony, resting their elbows on the table.

"Hoofwrestle. Now. I want this all out of your system before you start turning my library into a war zone.” Her eyes were as serious as a terminal diagnosis, and they passed over both ponies equally. “Which I might not even be all that upset with, but you're currently in the fiction section and War is in non-fiction, over there. This is a matter of categorization."

Pinkie stepped closer, now. The situation had gotten less hostile, and her natural curiosity was once more taking over.

The two ponies at the table pushed against each other as hard as they could, visible beads of sweat falling from their brows, getting in their eyes. Wiping it away would be a tactical disadvantage though and, besides, you didn't need to see to be able to hoofwrestle.

"You're stronger than you look, little cowpoke," Applejack grunted, leaning into the foreleg. It stayed, but their hooves were vibrating dangerously from the exertion.

"And I look this good doing it, too!" Rainbow snorted. “Finally, a foe worthy of my mighty muscles! One who might challenge me at last!”

Applejack grunted, just starting to gain a lead against Rainbow. “Do you always talk like this?”

“Yes,” Twilight and Pinkie answered together on Rainbow’s behalf, with varying degrees of enthusiasm.

“Hey! Whose side are you guys on, anyway?” Rainbow growled, just barely pushing back AJ’s advances.

“The side that lets me shoot the BEAM at the moon without any of my friends hurting any of my other friends,” Twilight answered, as dry as an ocean was not. “Are either of you willing to quit, yet?”

“Nope!” they both shouted simultaneously, leaning into the other. Twilight rolled her eyes.

“C’mon, Pinkie. I’ll show you what Applejack and I have been up to, and you tell me all about your day with Dash. It looks like these two are going to be at it for a while.”

Pinkie looked dubious. She looked at the two ponies at the table with obvious concern, etching years into her face that she simply wasn’t old enough to have, before ultimately trusting Twilight’s judgement. The two took the elevator up, ignoring the grunts coming from below.

It didn’t really matter who was right, even if it was almost certainly Applejack, what mattered is they stopped fighting. They might damage the books!

Oh, and also Twilight valued their company and it would be great if she could have them in the same room at the same time.

But mostly the books.


Pinkie Pie was trying out Twilight’s gift for her: a collapsible telescope about the size of a pony’s ear, encased in a rather fetching series of brass tubes. She’d been using it to check on Dash and Applejack from their perch above.

Apparently the contest had no winners, not yet.

“It’s been half an hour,” Pinkie murmured, her voice trembling with worry. “Are they going to be okay?”

“You want to go check on them, don’t you?” Twilight sighed. Pinkie nodded, her neck more like a spring than bone and flesh. Twilight sighed again, louder and wearier. She’d almost found where the Mare was tonight, and whilst she was so close...

But she sort of needed Rainbow Dash to power the BEAM. And for Applejack not to hold a grudge.

Twilight and Pinkie took the long elevator ride down together; Twilight in stoic silence, Pinkie twitching away at her side, inventing all of the most absurd possibilities and the wildest of speculation about what might have happened.

It would have been far more amusing if each new hypothesis didn’t have a possibility of truth at its core.

The scissor doors rattled open, the occupants of the elevator stepped out. Now to see how far things had elevated in their absence.

The two scientists navigated the labyrinth of books with ease, finally reaching the entrance foyer where they had abandoned Dash and Applejack. There they found...

Two ponies smiling, laughing. The hooves were still tied together, true, but there was no struggle.

“I don’t know what got into the fool girl’s head,” Applejack was laughing.

Rainbow Dash was pounding her free hoof against the table, hacking and wheezing, face red and tears streaming from her eyes. “Stars and stones! Where did she even get her hooves on so many fireworks?”

“Never found out! I’m not even sure she does, anymore!”

“Aw, man, I wish I had a sister.” Rainbow’s laughs petered out, slowly but noticeably, until she was just left panting. “Sounds like an adventure all its own!”

“It surely is, at that. I’ll get back to you in a few good years on whether it was all worth it or not.”

Twilight coughed. Both ponies looked back at her, surprised.

“Well, howdy there, Ms Sparkle.” Applejack tilted down the brim of her flat-cap with the free foreleg in a half-salute.

“You two really snuck up on us, huh?” Rainbow beamed at Pinkie.

“Who won?” Pinkie asked excitedly. Ponies weren’t angry anymore, so it was right back to games. Sometimes Twilight wished the world seemed so simple for herself.

Rainbow got a sly look, suddenly forcing her competing hoof down. “Huh! An explorer always plays dirty!”

The hoof managed to get Applejack’s about halfway down to the table before the farmpony’s hoof rolled, springing with the force that Rainbow had put into the foreleg and pushing it right back into her. The blue hoof rocketed right back over, slamming against table. Applejack nodded.

“And down on the farm, we win things fair and square.”

“Aw, hay, no fair. You cheated!”

Applejack raised a single eyebrow, letting it hang with significant meaning for a moment. Rainbow gulped.

“Er, I mean... good game? Great game.” Then she whispered, in what she probably thought was too quiet for Twilight to hear. “Rematch tomorrow?”

“Anytime.”

Twilight smiled gently, but still cleared her throat noisily, drawing the attention of the gathered ponies.

“I’ve done the maths, and if we start charging right now, we should be able to send... several hundred flashes. Dots and dashes too. Let’s just hope the Mare understands morse code.”


Rainbow had been ‘plugged into’ – as Pinkie called it – the lightning machine. So long as she charged it like a raging bull for more than an hour or so, Twilight was no longer limited by the amount of bursts she could send; only by the visibility of the moon.

The only thing stopping her from talking to the Mare was a dreary coming dawn, courtesy of the Princess of Mourning.

Twilight had been close to finding the Mare again before they had retrieved their ‘battery’, and now was just the fine tuning. Once more she found the Mare running from the tide of the blackening moon, the sliver of an ivory cue ball peaking out from behind the eight on the billiards table. Only now, Twilight noticed, the Mare kept looking up, kept looking back behind her.

The Mare was looking for her.

Twilight’s heart fluttered, and a rather determined smile touched her lips. She did not seek to disappoint.

The big red button had been removed, now replaced with the device that had sat upon Pinkie’s wireless lecterns all those weeks ago. Her hoof twitched in anticipation.

A beam of light shot forth, penetrating the breadth of the aether, made its long journey across the span between the two celestial bodies and, its aim true, it caught the Mare’s eye.

Was that sparkle in the Mare’s eye from catching the light of the BEAM, or something else entirely? Probably just the former, Twilight thought, even as the Mare ground to a halt.

The Telescope stopped moving with her, too. Twilight reeled it back, microns that swept a hundred meters.

The Mare wrote first, dragging a foot beside her in the lunar surface. Again to make the question mark she stood off to the side and kicked out with a little twirl and then jumped, landing heavily on all four hooves to make the period.

“Can you talk?”

Twilight smiled as she pressed the little metal circuit at her hooftip closed, a single beam of light.

Yes.

A whole kaleidoscope of butterflies emerged from long-dormant chrysalis in her gut, then, when the Mare lit up. The dark blue mare seemed brighter, now. Lighter. Less somber. It was humbling to think that it was Twilight herself who had achieved it.

The Mare on the Moon then erased her question mark, swatting at the lunar dust with her tail until it was just empty ground once more. It was filled with a new word, and the question mark ritual was completed again.

“Can you talk more?”

Now Twilight’s expression turned somewhat mad. Had her face not been pressed to the Telescope’s eyepiece, it would have been a severe concern for any of her new friends that would be subjected to it. It was simply because she knew exactly what would come next.

Long, short, long, long and pause. Short and pause. Short, short, short and pause.

Twilight watched as the Mare did something she had never seen an Equus-bound pony pull off. She got so excited she leaned forward, as if for a pushup, then sprang! Spinning herself up and over, managing to pull off a tight little backflip!

It appeared that the Mare understood the gravity of the situation.

The Mare blinked, then, and made a desperate spinning gesture with her hoof, counterclockwise.

“Go back! Again!”

The Mare stared intensely up at the night sky, at Twilight, waiting for the next message, or at least for the last one again.

Twilight’s hoof danced across the switch. Long, short, long, long and pause.

Now the Mare threw up her hooves.

“Stop!”

A long line, a short line, then two longs. Next to it she drew a single letter: Y.

Very clever girl. And here Twilight thought that teaching a pony morse code from across the gulf of the aether was going to be difficult.

A single dot. The Mare considered something, then drew a grid in the sand. Six rows of eight, with Y being in the second from the bottom, second from the right. Its code was in the square beside it. The Mare began filling out all the letters of the alphabet, then, as Twilight watched in rapt fascination.

Nopony asked her to step aside so that they could see. Pinkie was sleeping off the last of her excess nervousness, apparently having not gotten much sleep at Dash’s the night before. Rainbow Dash had gone home exhausted, but proud. Applejack had a whole farm and a life outside of this place. And Spike had gone to bed, since the boilers need not be tended to.

So it was just Twilight alone. Alone but for the Mare that captivated her so. They might as well have been the only ponies on their entire respective worlds at that moment. In fact, one of them rather was.

When the Mare was finished at last, she looked up at Twilight and began standing next to each letter on the grid.

“A?”

Short then long.

The Mare nodded, drew the dot and dash in the dead world’s ash, and moved down to the next.

“B?”

Long, short, short and short.

They went through every single letter of the alphabet, one at a time. The Mare made a mistake or two, and whenever she did Twilight would send out two short dots, for no. Fortunately the first mistake was on ‘M’, which the Mare had read as “Long, short”. ‘I’ had been two dots, and they both couldn’t be two dots, so...

Trial and error, a pantomime across the aether between worlds.

A fair bit of error could possibly be attributed to just how shaky Twilight’s hooves had become.

The Mare, too, had become more creative with how she would write each new symbol. A pirouette – that of an old dance form that Twilight had never seen before outside of pictures – became her method of making dots at the end of lines.

Twilight had even begun to indulge the flair, spelling out each new letter slower, to allow the Mare more time to draw each symbol.

Perhaps some of her later mistakes were even just a way to draw out the experience, to see how many new ways the Mare could furrow the dust with her hooves... Perhaps, but the truth would likely be carried to the unicorn’s grave.

For the first time she had seen the Mare, Twilight had realized, truly realized, that the Mare was completely and utterly naked at all times. Until now she had been so thoroughly distracted by the notion that the mare was on the moon to have noticed that her subtle lunar cutie mark was on display at all times

A lunar cutie mark. The decidedly naked Mare on the Moon was quite figuratively and literally mooning her. She giggled, then, as they approached the last letter.

“Z?”

Long, long, short, short.

It seemed the Mare wanted to make the most of this final letter, as well. She stretched out liked a cat, stretching her belly as low to the ground as possible. Then, she pulled herself taut, lifting her back inch by inch and drawing the pairs of legs together until the tips of her hooves were practically touching. Her knees bent, holding that ballerina’s en point, then uncoiled, landing her neatly beside the marks left by her languid stretch for two neat, short dots.

Twilight had to fan herself a bit. That was... intense. A mare that old could still be that flexible, then? Very, very flexible... and with all those years, would surely have some experience before she became trapped up on that cold, lifeless rock...

At the very least, hundreds of years of pent up urges and frustrations...

That train of thought was rapidly derailed when Twilight caught herself almost drooling on the clean-to-the-point-of-sterile Telescope. It would not do to ruin such a wonderfully precise, modern, advanced instrument on backwards, degenerate thoughts.

That didn’t mean she wasn’t allowed to save them for later, though.

The Mare looked at the six rows by eight, nodding in satisfaction. She turned, now, back to the Telescope, and the look of raw, childlike excitement and wonder in that pony’s expression was enough to thoroughly banish whatever remained of any impure thought from Twilight’s head. She felt almost guilty for having had them in the first place.

The Mare’s horn flashed, short and long. Not nearly as bright as the BEAM’s light, but it didn’t need to be, as Twilight could see it as clear as if it were right in front of her own face with the Telescope. The Mare was being very careful, very slow, her head moving from letter to letter on the grid.

Long, long, pause, long, short, long and long.

“My.”

The next one was trickier, but it was not like the missives were encrypted. Just that some letters were naturally more difficult than others.

Long, short, pause, short, long, pause, long, long, pause and short.

“Name.”

Twilight would have rocked back out of her seat if that didn’t carry the risk of missing even a single letter. Her name! The Mare on the Moon had a name!

Twilight didn’t even need to translate the next two letters. From context, it could only be ‘is’. After that, she watched, practically forcing her eye into the eyepiece itself, as if that could bring them closer for this next moment, the final reveal.

Short, long, short, short.

“L” - A letter!

Short, short, long.

“U” - A vowel!

Long, short.

“N” - A whole syllable!

Short, long.

“A”

Then silence.

Not silence.That was the wrong word for it. It was a finish. An end. Completion.

She had expected a name to encompass the breadth of silence, of finality. Caesura.

Or perhaps one that summarized her gloomy countenance, like Stygian, though that seemed to have changed dramatically, recently. The loneliness she had first seen in Her was now a distant memory.

What she did not expect was for her to be Luna. She had been named for her prison.

Luna – she would have to adjust to the name, she had become so used to thinking of her as The Mare – began dragging one last message into the dust, below the grid of code.

“‘Til the morrow’s eve. Farewell.”

Wait, what?

No!

Not like this! Not so soon! She had so many questions, so few answers, and–

Dawn broke. The sun pierced the sky and wiped the stain that was the moon’s grim countenance from its surface.


The next day felt like a blur to Twilight. Falling into her secluded bed at 6am and having forgotten to unset the alarm for nine... Not the brightest of mistakes.

It had cost her an alarm clock, at the very least, and they weren’t cheap. At least she could take pride in just how thoroughly she had obliterated it from existence. With great power came great irresponsibility, if one was sufficiently petty.

She had revelled in that small victory for the few moments before she rolled over and fell back asleep.

It’s strange, isn’t it, that the period of most lucid dreams is in that fitful state of rest? Of being awoken from a deeper sleep and allowed to settle back only in the warmer wading waters.

It was there that Twilight heard her sing. It was her, she knew it. It was no coincidence.

It was in that way of dreams that the song and the space were one and the same. It is impossible to distinguish where the sense of sight ended and sound began, or the other way around.

Luna sang for her, not in a voice of smooth velvet, but suitably sonorous, regardless. It was like liquid ice, distinguishable from its superficial cousin water in how it caught the light and the dark and the everything-in-between and played with it, twisted it within itself.

Banished by her sister dearest

She is cursed to walk the moon

A thousand years is at its nearest

A prophecy now due too soon

The infinite of moon’s white sands

The kingdom I would gift to you

A satellite far from mortal lands

If prophecy is to come true

If what is foretold is to take shape

The stars will aid in her escape

A languid, languished sigh, and Luna’s singing ceased. A deep, though intensely feminine, voice pierced the dreamscape. Fog and mist and blackness thrummed with the words, spoken from very tired lips.

“I do not know what it all means, either, if it is any consolation. It is a collection of shared memory from deepest dreamers, snatched and brought together with lacquered night. I am not privy to all secrets. What disturbs me most is that the stars have served their cold vigil for nigh on a millenium now, and I do not foresee that changing.

But I do see you, now, Twilight Sparkle. Thank you for returning to me strength that I thought forever lost to me.”

Twilight sat bolt upright in bed, drenched in cold sweat, which was particularly unpleasant if you were a creature of fur.

Was that real? Stupour? Caffeine withdrawals?

Perhaps it really was more than Pinkie’s smiles that were contagious.

A quick shower, and an awful lot of soap, was had in the en suite. After a thorough drying, Twilight felt much better. She still wouldn't feel quite equine until she had her morning coffee, but... baby steps.

Spike met her in the entry foyer, alerted by the sound of the coffee engine. There were many things coffee was; pure life force distilled in a bitter brown form, an extra two hours in a day usually restricted to twenty four, the sole reason for several prominent University students (and faculty) not keeling over mid-lecture...

What it was not was subtle. It appeared that attaching a steam boiler greater than that of a locomotive did nothing to improve matters.

“Good afternoon, sleeping beauty,” Spike chuckled.

Twilight looked at him curiously, quizzically. “It’s just past midday, isn’t it?”

“It’s six in the evening,” Spike guffawed, as if this were the funniest thing in the world, “Pinkie’s at Rainbow Dash’s again – just 'cause you hadn’t woken up!” Spike reassured Twilight when he noticed her expression fall, pale and darken.

“Did Rainbow remember to recharge the capacitors first?”

“Huh? Oh, yeah. She did that before they headed out. I can’t believe you slept through that; it’s as loud as a thunderstorm. It is literally as loud as having a thunderstorm inside your house, and you slept through it.”

“I need to use the telescope,” Twilight demanded. “Right now. Is the moon out yet?”

“Well, it’s getting closer to winter every day... maybe? I can’t exactly see through the big copper roof either.”

Twilight rushed past her assistant, almost at a gallop. He called after her in a tone that might have been hurt, might have been concern, but that wasn’t important.

The Telescope. It was just dark enough, the moon was visible through the tainted light curling through the atmosphere.

The moon’s surface had been used like a poet’s spiral-ring notebook. A villanelle singing Twilight’s praises. A pantoum asking for her hoof in courtship. Several attempts at haiku, all terrible, frankly. One notably didn’t end in a word, but an angry smattering of hoofprints. A canzone that looked like it started to get rather turgid towards the end, and there, Luna herself, furiously destroying the evidence with flushed cheeks.

All in all, almost a square kilometer of lunar surface had been converted into the largest poetry publication in the long history of ponykind.

Twilight’s hoof lept out, unconsciously. A second later, that light glinted in Luna’s eye.

The Mare on the Moon just seemed to redouble her attempts at destroying the evidence.

Another flash. Luna seemed to sigh, in spite of the utter lack of atmosphere, in defeat and resignation more than anything.

Twilight sent her message slowly, making certain Luna could consult her carefully constructed grid. “What is all this?”

Luna started writing in the moon’s surface, but couldn’t seem to find a spot within eyeshot of her handy chart that hadn’t been filled with poetry of some form. Her horn began to glow. Slow, impermanent, but functional.

“I could not think of the right words to say. So I suppose I tried to say them all, in the hopes that at least some would be serviceable. This soft-skulled fool is far too long out of practice in discussing her feelings.”

If she had been out of practice before, she had certainly gotten plenty now.

“But why?”

Luna seemed to think about that for a long moment. She scribbled in the dust before her, far too small for Twilight to read, and her horn took a few false starts.

“For nearly a thousand years I was lost and forgotten.” Rather than spell ‘thousand’ Luna had drawn a ‘1’ and ‘0’, tapping the former once and the latter three times after. “Then I felt you watching me, and I no longer felt forgotten. No longer lost.”

So she had known! Now Twilight felt... distinctly creepy. Luna was naked after all. Still, the Mare didn’t seem to take offense. Truly, she seemed to feel quite the opposite.

“Then you reached out, and I no longer felt alone, no matter how fleeting.”

There was a long, unspoken moment where they both remembered the pain of that last flash not long before.

“And now you have given me the strength to journey into dreams again without fear of the Nightmare.” An error in translation? Twilight didn’t think so, but she couldn’t explain why not.  “And I reached out to you and–”

Luna just stopped there, looking pained, conflicted. It was a long, far too long, time before she finished her sentence.

“And if I have the words for what I saw of you in dreams, Twilight Sparkle,” Twilight had never told Luna her name, yet there it was, “then surely they are buried in all these attempts. Ignore the canzone for they are not there.” Luna flushed furiously. “I may have gotten overly enthusiastic in that attempt.”

What do you say to that?

Twilight was at an utter loss.

This was beyond her. She needed help.

“I need time to respond favorably. Know that I leave you only until I have an answer for you, and not a second sooner.”

“I understand,” Luna replied, her horn glow dimmer now than the pulsing star it had been before, subdued. Twilight watched helplessly though the telescope as the Mare on the Moon found a blank patch of the moon’s surface and attempted to do the same thing Twilight herself was.

Both attempted to find the right words.


The Socialite who Schemes

Twilight looked down upon the mountain of books supporting her.

Assuming six hundred sixty words per page, assuming four hundred pages per book... how many books were there in a cubic meter though? A quandry. Still, she didn't need to do the maths to realize there were lifetimes worth of words in those books, of information.

They said knowledge was power. If that was true, she stood upon a slumbering dragon.

Typically this was only true if she were using Spike as a stepladder to get a book that was only just out of reach. Though she had only done this one time, at least in recent memory.

At least he wasn't a light sleeper.

Still, with all these books, with all the printed word, not one book told her how to deal with romance. With courtship. Only one book would have come close to her needs at this moment, "How to Win Friends and Influence Ponies", but at the time it had so enraged her that she had used it for kindling.

She was certain, without any shadow of a doubt, that the book contained no information on how to court your crush if she lived on the moon.

In fact, if anypony had written a book on the matter before now, they were obviously mad.

Unless Luna had cheated on her.

Was it cheating if it was just a seemingly mutual crush and their courtship wasn't official yet? Even if she was just... flirting with other ponies?

No, that was impossible. No one had been clever enough to be able to contact her before. Just Twilight. Only Twilight had access to the technology and the intellect to use it, so Luna couldn't have cheated on her, even if she wanted to.

But why would she want to cheat on Twilight if she were so smart? Ridiculous.

...

It was becoming more and more self-evident to the mare that she was panicking. This was a bad thing. Telescope Twilight was clever Twilight. Panicked Twilight was stupid Twilight. Stupid Twilight was not only useless in this situation, but in all situations.

But especially this situation.

So, books couldn't help her. She felt dirty admitting it to herself, maybe even a little scared – it certainly didn't help with the panic – but it was true. Coffee would only allow her to panic with an even clearer and more excitable mind.

She supposed, then, that she could try her own hoof at poetry. It was simply writing, wasn't it? Surely, surely it couldn't be that hard.

With one last, longing look through the Telescope, Twilight tore herself away with a bitter sigh, heading down to the ladders and to a smaller peak atop the bookshelf mountains, one with a writing desk and quills.

She made a valiant attempt.

A draft. A failure. A longer one, then. Just more room for error. A shorter one; now her failure was more refined, though confined. A triumph! Her best yet. This, this might suffice.

She'd need a proofreader, to ensure her she had indeed spun straw into gold.

"Spike."

The sleeping dragon didn't stir.

"Spike!" She hissed, more urgently, shaking him with her magic -- out of range of his blasted breath.

Finally the dragon rolled over from his slumber, rubbing his eyes wearily.

"What?"

"I need you to read this!" Twilight urged, thrusting her latest, and frankly her best, attempt at a poem at him.

"This is a really bad limerick," Spike muttered lamely.

Twilight paused, wondering which part of that to be most concerned about. "...It's not a limerick, Spike."

"... Oh."

Probably all of it, then.

"Did you write this?" Spike groaned, sitting up in his padded basket.

"No! No, of course not. Go back to sleep. I just needed to make sure before I went to court tomorrow."

Spike grumbled, curling back up. "Good. That was terrible. Like, who tries to rhyme 'puritanical' in a love poem?"

There was silence, filled only by the grinding of unicorn teeth. Spike stirred again after the briefest of moments, his sleepy brain processing what it could. "Wait, court? But you hate court."

"Oh. Oh yes." Twilight agreed.

The sleepy little dragon grunted. "Then why–"

"Dream about gems, Spike."

"Oh. Okay." His head fell, tucking up around him again. The snoring continued moments after.

And with that, Twilight made for her own bed. She would have to be at court for midday, and she'd rather face it with a good mood.

The scandal still hadn't quite died down since the last time she had suffered through those pompous, stuffy, ill-mannered, empty-headed, starchy, overly-wealthy, overly-formal, inbred...

Right. She had said that all out loud, last time, hadn't she?

Sleep, then. She would think about, and face this, only after a night's rest.


The Capital had, at its very core, the Hollow Palace.

The Palace wasn't truly hollow in the traditional sense. It was filled with ponies, certainly.

Now, whether or not the ponies themselves that occupied its hallowed halls were hollow? That was up for a debate. A debate Twilight would certainly argue long and passionately. Unfortunately, this had done nothing to deter them from wanting her company.

What gave the Hollow Palace its name was that it stood in a permanent state of incompletion. Its shell was completed, ivory marble walls covered in crystalline waterfalls. Stained glass windows had been fitted, but only a third depicted actual events or ponies. The rest had been hastily filled with kaleidoscopic colours simply to keep out the elements without seeming entirely bare.

Inside, the load bearing pillars had been constructed. Some had even been fluted. The staircases were installed, but had no railings fixed.

The Princess of Mourning seemed to like it this way. Perhaps, though, like was too strong a word. Twilight had certainly never seen her smile, though she had been around the Princess her entire life. Even on the rare moments that the black veil she wore was lifted, for meals or tea, the Princess was far too sombre to truly take joy in anything.

Maybe, then, she took comfort – solace even – in a home that was as empty as she herself was.

It was a miserable thought. The Princess was a miserable pony, though.

Miserable as she was, though, she was also the hub of power for The Empire, making the Fountained Throne spring more than fresh mountain water. It also made it the center for all parasites, leeches, and other social climbers in The Empire.

These were the ponies Twilight would face, now, as she crossed the drawbridge. Surrounded on both sides in the noonday sun by these parasites garbed in the finest silks. The most fashionable of bloodsuckers.

They all recognized Twilight. They smiled at her. They waved. They made small gift offerings with the most humble of remarks, as if appeasing a minor deity. Twilight's smile turned rictus as she attempted to play nice with them all, even if they sickened her.

Her perfume is unbearably strong. Compliment her on her taste, she's obviously self-conscious about it. He believes himself a great wit, disguise your barbed remarks with thinly-veiled sarcasm – he won't see through it, but those more important will see the disdain clearly. Them, that couple – a marriage of convenience – make a pleased note about how their outfits match. Resist the urge to point out the lipstick on his collar does not match that of his bride's. The fallout would send two powerful families into a bitter war.

Whilst she cared not for the families themselves, the employees of half-a-dozen factories could not have their jobs placed at risk over Twilight's careless remarks, no matter how careless the stallion himself had been with his indiscretions.

Politics. You couldn't make it any less insufferable by calling it a science. That only added to the betrayal of the experience.

Twilight was looking for a very particular mare though. One that she suspected would be insufferable to deal with. A pony who would believe herself to be far more witty and intelligent than reality's unkind truth would show her to be, and with the wealth that ensured nobody would inform her otherwise.

Still, she knew this pony had prior success.

Her brother, Field Marshal Shining Armour, had been a notorious, outrageous dork in their youth. Truthfully, he still was. He took great pleasure in playing tin soldiers, painting them with an almost obsessive attention to detail. Even their chevrons and epaulets were meticulously applied with delicate brushstrokes.

Twilight remembered this with fond nostalgia. However, it had been explained to her, many times, that this was obviously a grievous and egregious flaw in her brother that would do his career no good.

From the very beginning, it was obvious to these vaunted stallions that Shining was not made for the military. He simply cared too much. Nothing could come of that.

Something that would be the awe of the stallions under him in the decades to come, and seen as eccentric weakness by the ones who shared membership in the exclusive officer's clubs, was that his younger self had named every single tin soldier under his 'command' and remembered them, each and every one. This habit had carried on to those of flesh and blood.

This seemed to have led to a strange affectation in her brother, others would lament. He seemed to genuinely care about the lives of his soldiers, and went to absurd lengths to preserve them, much to the horror of those heady peers who informed Twilight of the situation. No reckless charges for glory, genuinely considering notions of retreat, and a bizarre obsession with strategy.

In the eyes of The Empire there was no glory in Shining's command, no honour. Simply concern for the lives of his soldiers thinly masked as cold pragmatism. It's what you get from an enlisted pony who rose through the ranks, rather than a stallion who was born and bred for the position.

What mare could possibly want a stallion so blinded by the lives of troopers as to sacrifice glory and valour?

The young Rarity, a newcomer of the court – only a teenager at the time – had seen fit to assist Twilight's elder brother, her dorky, gangly, impossibly-mired-in-military-scandal brother, and had won him the hoof of the fairest pegasus maiden in the entire world, Mi Amore Cadenza.

Cadance was a rare creature. She was intelligent, she had a barbed wit, she was effortlessly beautiful – Twilight had yet to see her wear makeup, and yet she still outshone every plaster face surrounding her – and she was achingly kind and patient.

It is fair to say, then, that Rarity was a miracle worker for getting the wonderful Cadance to have fallen head-over-hooves for her brother, only a lieutenant at the time, a lieutenant who still kept his tin soldiers from childhood in his top desk drawer, and remembered each and every one of their names.

A miracle worker was exactly what she needed.

Midday was the peak of court hearings. As a result, the buzz of mosquitoes was deafening in Twilight's ears. Gathering around the carcass of an empire, baking in the hot sun. The Princess of Mourning never did anything but conquer; more glory for the empire, more land in the empire to fill the void in her hollow chest. It disgusted her, and she wasn't afraid to have that opinion heard.

It was an infinite wonder to her that she had been groomed into the position of Royal Philosopher in Residence, then, rather than summarily beheaded as a filly. All these crawling insects paying blind tribute to their pestilent queen, craving her approval. That approval was a thing that repulsed Twilight, that made her skin crawl and her very soul weep.

Yet the Mourning Princess embraced Twilight's disgust. Welcomed it. Encouraged it. Gave her the most vaunted position in the courts, in the Empire, in the world that wasn't the throne itself. A position whose sole job description was to disagree with the Princess as loudly and as often as possible, a position that Twilight took great pride in. But it was a powerful position.

And so the mosquitos smelled blood.

Itchy. This place made her itchy. These creatures made her itchy.

Twilight smiled politely and had a fleeting discussion approaching intellectual. Of course, it was approaching it from the far, far distance. The stallion had thought a single readthrough of Skinners Box's "Utopia" had revealed to him just how perfectly society could function if the common folk were placated through such means.

She repressed the urge to pinch a single vital vein in his frontal lobe with her magic, ending the miserable wretch's life before he had a chance to spread his well-received musings with the others with too much power and not enough sense. She would, too, if the resulting nose bleed wouldn't stain her dress terribly, and she was exceptionally fond of it, unfortunately.

Perhaps they were not mosquitos. They were wasps building a paper hive and stinging and destroying all they perceived as a threat with brutal efficiency. Unlike bees, they didn't have the good courtesy to die in the attempt.

And Rarity was apparently a warrior of the hive. One placed in the upper echelons of the colony.

She had to have done something to get there. Something. Her work combined vapid lovers and enabled marriages of opportunity. She was always in fashion, no matter how vain, inane or insane it may be. She was a throbbing tumour fueling the cancerous rot.

But she had helped her brother, she reminded herself. She couldn't be all bad.

Twilight looked around the crowds. She couldn't see a single young mare garnering the attention of a crowd around her. She saw clusters and cliques, couples and swinging youths trading incautious words... facilitated by her target? Improbable, her target focused on romance rather than blind lust.

That mare passing the lilac, perfumed – yet ironically not lilac perfumed -- letter into the pockets of her beau couldn't have been less subtle if she had soaked the letter in her own urine instead.

Possibly even in front of everypony.

Now, that might have been entertaining.

Instead Twilight was left to skulk past the couple, who would not last longer than the fripperies of youth ceased being novel, as the perfume stung at her eyes.

Why must she be so dressed up? Why not her labcoat and goggles, or her brown tweed and bow tie?

It wasn't that she didn’t like the ensemble. It was her, it was exceedingly Twilight Sparkle and damn the pony who looked down on it. So what if she didn't have one of those frail lace hats the ladies insisted upon these days? A more masculine coachman's hat fit her far better.

Again, so what if she refused the corsets that crushed fairer ladies into swooning, to appease their vanity. And crinolines... whose idea had it been to attach a windmill to a lady's waist and call it fashionable?!

No. She would face the courtiers on her own terms.

A dress the same colour as Twilight herself, made of smooth velvet. A wasp waistline to emphasize her feminine form, since nothing else about her apparel particularly did. It was a dress, true, but it hugged the legs tightly, like suit pants that simply hadn't been split.

The matching jacket, too, might have had the buttons on the lady's side – and was cut to the ribs rather than below the waist like male's wear – but it emphasized the broadness of her shoulders and her self-assured posture rather than allow her to emphasize vulnerability she hadn't already crushed within herself.

Then she heard the whispers. She remembered, then, why she made all the effort to put on appearances.

"It's the Philosopher?"

After that, she caught snippets, starts and stops, doing her very best to appear as if she wasn't noticing. All she had to do, then, was pretend to be doing what she truly wished she could be doing.

She heard disbelief. "No, it couldn't be. She's a recluse. Complete hermit. Social skills of a–"

She heard rebuke. "–supposedly a shutaway, a spinster, they say–" A spinster? Even at twice her age, needlessly cruel. Her ear flicked imperceptibly, but she still chastised herself for the slip in facade. Nopony seemed to have noticed.

She heard scandal. "–virgin! It's true, and apparently not for lack of trying–" The former was true, though whose business that was but hers was another matter entirely. The latter, meanwhile, was blatant conjecture. Probably a young buck trying to make appearances by claiming to have spurned the advances of the famous recluse. She would have to find out who and castigate him, or at least a word that sounded eerily similar.

She heard caution. "–a wit like a sharpened foil. Don't face her in a duel of words, lest–"

She heard scorn. "–a hack, a fraud, thoroughly disreputed. Now, if that Professor Bright Spark fellow had power, we'd see industry boom overnight–"

She heard something unexpected. "–a stunning dress. Simply magnificent. Notes, notes, I must take notes..." Surprisingly, directed at her.

She turned, then, to see a white pony not looking at her, not noticing that Twilight had caught her out, too busy concentrating on the pen dancing across the little red notebook she clutched with a hoof. An impressive feat of concentration.

She took the time, then to notice her. Perfectly styled purple mane, painstakingly so. Twilight smirked. She knew the style, the technique. She knew the motive, too: Hours of preparation to ensure they would never be caught looking in a mirror. What it spoke of in this lady's vanity was superseded by what it told of her pride and dedication, to say nothing of her patience.

"I love your dress, too," Twilight said openly and honestly, silencing those who overheard her to the lowest of whispers. She did, at that. The lady with the little red notebook had waves of red satin cascading down, and it looked for all the world like she had become the stem for a rose in full bloom. The rose stopped at the knee, though, and what billowed to the floor was as black as charcoal and seemed to swallow the light.

"Hrm?" the mare hummed thoughtfully as she looked up from her notebook, surprised. Her eyes widened rather significantly when she saw that Twilight had not only overhead her, but had taken the opportunity to stride up to her. "Oh, dear, it appears you overheard me. I'm dreadfully sorry."

"Don't be ridiculous. I overheard everypony," and Twilight said that rather pointedly, thoroughly underwhelmed by how fast the quiet around them returned to its normal levels of chatter, "and your words were perhaps the only kind ones."

"Well, yes," the lady muttered dryly, "I wouldn't be so sure of that yet."

Twilight winced. "I just became the inspiration behind another theatrical villain, didn't I? I swore after Major Brassbound's Inversions–"

The lady's eyes widened further still. "Major Brassbound was inspired by you? Well, now that you mention it, the resemblance is remarkable. With your permission, certainly?"

"I believe the playwright was a follower of the creed; 'Better to ask forgiveness than permission'. Offered me a rather lovely box seat on opening night. I believe it was all the better to see my reaction."

The lady's eyebrows shot upward, and her eyes remained wide. She was thinking she had committed a rather awkward faux pas. Under other circumstances, she might be right.

However, she had chosen not to be cruel about Twilight's fashion sense. So Twilight smiled, a smile that seemed perfectly innocent to those at any other angle, but offered to her audience a gleeful malice.

"Of course, I think my reaction rather disappointed him. It's a pity, then, that I couldn't see his when the morning after, the paper published the most devastatingly scathing review. I have it on good authority that whoever the anonymous author was, they had significant pull. It's the only time I've ever seen a theater review make the front pages. All of them, actually, the Gazette, the Daily, the Bugle..."

A white hoof leapt to the lady's mouth to conceal a far-too-amused smile, but it just wasn't quick enough. "How dreadful," she lied, "I remember that. It seemed like the work of a talented and very capable author." There was a contemplative silence, and a worried tinge. "I do hope others didn't suffer for a playwright's error."

Genuine empathy. Twilight seemed to have found a gem in an open sewer. "Oh, she was very kind to the actors’ performances. Spectacular. They all found more work. A pity they had been bogged down by such garbage."

"Ah, the anonymous author was a she now?" The Lady, as Twilight was coming to think of her, smirked. "However would you know that?"

"I'm Twilight Sparkle," she declared, enjoying the shocked reaction those words had on her new conversational partner, turning the white mare somehow even paler. "I make it my duty to know these things. Speaking of which, I'm looking for a certain mare, a Ms Rarity." This name, curiously, had no effect on the Lady, which amazed Twilight. Did her own name hold so much more sway? "You don't know her?"

"Oh, I do. Quite intimately, in fact." The Lady nodded slowly. "It rather depends, though, on what you would like to speak to her about? I am her... seneschal, of sorts. Scarlet Letter, pleased to make your most honoured acquaintance, Philosopher Sparkle."

Now that was an interesting name she had. Twilight was about to comment on it, and the look Scarlet was giving her certainly invited the question, but she decided to save it for later. There would have to be a later.

When Twilight didn't ask, those eyes burned with a keen curiosity, a curiosity that the dull-witted would never experience in all their lives. "Tell me, whatever would you have with the Lady Rarity? You say her name like it's acid on your tongue, and you're keen to spit it out, darling."

Twilight's ear flicked at the 'darling'. Now, that was a familiar word that was rather out of place. She looked closer at the subtle crinoline of the rose-like dress. It blended in seamlessly with the other courtiers, but the cut and flair of it? Now, that was distinctly rural. Had it been white, it would have been a land heiress's wedding dress.

A pony, then, as out of place as Twilight herself among these creatures, and doing her very best to hide it. Apparently with great success.

But she had been asked a question, now, hadn't she?

"Well... I've heard she's a rather vaunted member of... this crowd." Twilight scowled. It would have been sweet as molasses to say what she really thought of these overgrown bacterium, but much like molasses, the repercussions weren't worth the indulgence. "So I figure I've got to be looking for the most sensibly dressed pony here, surrounded by the vapid and witless, a big fish in a small pond."

"Oh? Is that what you think of Ms Rarity, then?" Scarlet Letter asked with no small hint of amusement.

"Well, you know these... ponies." The word came only with reluctance. "You know what it takes to succeed here. Wit and intellect will only get you so far, but if you show the slightest hint of original thought? The crowd turns on you. You soar too high, and you're no longer a thermal for these vultures to soar on, but fresh carrion for them to absorb into themselves." Twilight nodded, until she realized she had, in fact, said that last part out loud.

Scarlet Letter, though, just nodded sadly. "It does seem a very delicate line that Lady Rarity is forced to walk. The bits that come with the position are rather enough for her needs, but if she tried to act on them, she'd lose her hard-fought connections. The most crystalline of social networks in The Capital would shatter. She tells me that is why she deals so firmly in romance. It is an investment that pays dividends." Here Scarlet Letter's sad expression buoyed into one that Twilight didn't much like at all; rather cheeky knowingness. "That's why you've sought out my Lady, yes?"

Twilight sighed, mournfully. "Is there perhaps not a more secluded place we could discuss this?" A meaningful look around. Twilight had already caught the word 'vulture' on a few lips. Scarlet's cheeky smirk became a bit wry for it.

"Of course, darling, shall we abscond to the fountains to discuss the business of pleasure?"

Twilight winced at the phrasing, but the way Scarlet's eyes sparkled, with purpose, with passion, with something almost frightening... she couldn't say no.

That wasn't figurative, either. The parts of her brain that would have allowed her to say no had been shut down, somehow.

That should probably have worried Twilight more than it did as she was led out the double-wide glass doors – unpainted – into the gardens, where only the hedges had been cared for.

The pair began to stroll past the dry fountains, pointedly away from the zoo. "The creatures from The Empire's latest conquests may be a marvel," Scarlet remarked, "but their conditions are far from marvellous."

"The Princess thinks beasts deserve little better. They're merely trophies, and this is their display case."

"Ghastly."

Twilight snorted. "I'm sure your employer thinks it's perfectly reasonable."

Scarlet clutched a hoof to her chest in horror. "Oh, not at all! I can guarantee you, the Lady Rarity despises such horrid treatment of animals, and ponies for that matter."

"She dabbles as a fashionista. I'm certain she does not do her own sewing."

"Well, no," Scarlet admitted, somewhat guiltily, "but she does ensure her assistants are paid a fair wage."

"You speak highly of her. I'm surprised. She's good to you?" Twilight was genuinely surprised now, maybe even a little curious. A lot curious.

"Oh, of course not, she's harder on me than she is on anypony else." Scarlet snorted with a smile. She sat down, now, on the rim of a great and empty marble fountain – one that would never enjoy the simple pleasure of ducks – gesturing for Twilight to sit beside her. She did.

"If that's the case, surely you could find work elsewhere?"

Again, a loud snort, followed by a burst of raucous giggling. "Darling, if Lady Rarity hadn't found good work for me, nopony else would have. She's the only mare I shall ever care to work for."

Twilight raised an eyebrow now. She smiled, too, slightly. She had a sneaking suspicion that Scarlet wasn't the seneschal she claimed to be.

Twilight cast her bait into the waters.

"I'm looking for her services in romance. If she's willing to work wonders for the vapid hangers-on at court, I'm sure she would be willing to help the Royal Philosopher, don't you think?"

Scarlet hummed thoughtfully. "Oh, dear, but she is exhorbitantly expensive. The Royal Philosopher is a title with a lot of power and respect, certainly, a surfeit of both, but it notably lacks more than a scholar's stipend. Which I heard you spend all on books," 'Scarlet' accused, rather testily.

Owch. But her suspicions were rather confirmed. Let's see how far the boning in this corset bent before it snapped, and the true make of this mare was revealed. "Oh, I do. Somepony in the Capital has to. I leave all the trashy 'bodice rippers' for mares like your employer though. I'm sure she burns through them like coal."

Scarlet blushed, becoming rather her namesake. "No more than the usual mare, I assure you! I bet you get off to anatomical diagrams!" Ah. There was that wonderful twang of corset boning buckling, and the gut of the mare spilling out. Beautiful, even the attempts at witty retort had splintered, as had her repose.

"Oh, I bet she pens some too," Twilight continued, as if the mare beside her wasn't practically vibrating with indignation, "under a tasteful pseudonym, of course. You know, if I were to pick a tasteful pseudonym for such raunchy works, I'd probably pick Scarlet Letter. Classy, with just the right undertones of taboo. I'm sure you agree, Lady Rarity."

Lady Rarity, for it was her, sighed beside her. "What gave me away?"

"You have some interesting thoughts on being harder on yourself than anypony else. I rather doubt an assistant would take the same pride in that statement as you did."

"Normally, I'd be rather ticked off for you baiting me so openly," Rarity accused, but slumped back, casually resting her weight on forelegs held behind her on the fountain bed, reclining in the noonday sun. "But a Lady should never lie like I did. And they certainly shouldn't choose such a florid nom de plume to do so. Well done. You bested me." Rarity, much to Twilight's shock, pulled out a little tobacco pouch and rolling papers, setting herself on the task of rolling a neat little cigarette. She offered Twilight one, of course, but Twilight rather adamantly refused.

Rarity shrugged, a rather casual and unladylike gesture, and lit up, taking dainty little puffs.

"It soothes the stress of being around such irksome pests, I find. You certainly had the right idea; find a position of power, then maintain it by dealing with absolutely nopony as often as possible. Wonderful."

"It's unfortunately a lonely position, on top of the totem pole," Twilight admitted.

Rarity snorted, a thin trickle of smoke passing through her nose for her efforts. "Oh, darling, you don't know how lonely alone is until you're surrounded by these ponies, vying for their affections. The loneliest one can be is when one stands amongst a crowd that is not their own."

Twilight was, to put it succinctly, astonished that this was the mare she had sought out. Still, one sure-fire way to test.

"Would you mind reading over some of my poetry? Just so we have a baseline for you to know what you're dealing with, here?"

"Certainly. It can't be the worst I've ever seen, I'll grant you that. Now, be a dear and hand it over for the master to appraise, hrmm?"

Twilight obediently levitated the scrap of paper Spike had dismissed earlier with a porcelain smile. Rarity stubbed her cigarette in the fountain, slipping off an almost-invisible white nylon stocking and placing it back in a pocket of her dress. "The stains these dreadful things leave on a hoof are quite loathsome," She explained.

A red pince-nez emerged from another pocket, settling itself on the thoughtfully-scrunched face of the Lady. There were a few seconds of silence as Rarity peered critically down those red-framed lenses..

"This is a terrible limerick." she remarked dryly.

"It's not meant to be a limerick."

"Oh. Oh, dear. You are in remarkable need of my charity, aren't you, my dear? I mean, this is almost as bad as... hang on... no, I am familiar with this particular flavour of abysmal. You wouldn't happen to have a brother would you?"

"Indeed I do. Military stallion."

Rarity's face lit up. "Ah! Charming fellow, absolutely wonderful, but he had the way with words of a belching toad. Perhaps my greatest accomplishment. So, the resemblance isn't so much familiar as it is familial."

"I suppose you could say that, yes."

"To be fair, sweetheart, I was rather a lot cheaper back then." Rarity feigned a swoon, then, and Twilight tried to hold back from rolling her eyes. Rarity shot her a glare, which Twilight took as encouragement, rolling her eyes to an incredibly sarcastic degree. The Lady nodded in approval.

"Well, how about I make you a wager, of sorts?"

"A wager? Oh, dear, I do like where this is going. Court had gotten dreadfully dull lately." Before Twilight could interrupt, Rarity anticipated it, matching Twilight with an eye-roll of her own. "And yes, before you say it, moreso than even usual, which is a horribly low bar to limbo under. Somehow they continue to exceed my lowest expectations. Regardless, what is this wager you propose?"

"You realize what would happen if somepony overheard one of these careless remarks of yours, yes?"

"This is wonderfully liberating. You see, when I'm in your exclusive company, anything I say is going to be taken as unsubstantiated rumour. So, even if a pony were to overhear this, nopony would believe them. I would ensure of it. Now, dear, you're dodging my question."

"Ah! Right. Well. Okay, here it is." Twilight took a deep breath. All or nothing. Go big or go home. All those wonderful sayings that run through your mind when you're procrastinating at the precipice of a potentially terrible decision. "If what I tell you is, in fact, the most romantic thing you have ever heard, you will agree to provide your unique services for my situation for free."

Rarity smiled wistfully, looking off long into the distance. "Oh, now that's one I haven't heard in a long time. You're familiar with the old rumour then?"

"My brother told me the gist of it, yes."

"Of course he would. He was the first to win it, you know. It seems fitting that another of the lineage should take it up as potentially the last."

Twilight's looked carefully at the scorch mark in the fountain, the remnants of the Lady's unladylike habit. "The last?"

"Oh, yes, the years have left me rather jaded you see," Rarity lamented, "and jade hasn't been fashionable for a decade. It's all amethyst now. Rose quartz though, I've heard that tints glasses wonderfully," she added with a meaningful look, "so let's see if the rose-tinted glasses you have provided me are enough to make this bet meaningful."

"So, all I have to do is tell you how my situation is the most romantic that you've ever heard, and you'll work my case for free?"

"That is rather the gist of it, yes. But over the years I have facilitated literally countless romances. Tragically kept apart by warring families, stark difference in social classes – those are rather my favourite admittedly; the lower classes just have this air of romanticism about them – spurned lovers, insipid love triangles, wars of inheritance... Really, darling, it'd be much quicker to write a book about what I haven't done."

Twilight nodded, confident with her answer. "My–" and then stopped. It was at this moment she realized, that to explain what she and Luna had, she would have to classify and categorize it. To give it a classification would be to instill it with a meaning and weight that might be entirely wrong for it. Disastrously so.

Rarity replaced her glove and lit another cigarette, giving Twilight a rather exasperated look that annoyed her rather thoroughly. It was a look that thoroughly belittled her crisis. "Really, darling, you've stalled for a good three seconds of indecision now. Just call him your 'love'. If it were anything less, you wouldn't have come to me, I hope."

Twilight thought on that, but Rarity continued with barely-concealed disdain. "This is the first time you've said it, yes? At least out loud? Well, forgive me for lighting another of these ill-mannered coping devices, but you're about to have your first honeymoon period and it's going to be nauseatingly, sickeningly sweet. I need something bitter to balance it out."

"Fine!" Twilight spoke with defiance, daring this mare – Lady or not! – to put her in so neat a little pidgeon-hole. "My Love has–" and that was as far as Twilight got.

She smiled, mostly to herself, and lost sight of the world around her.

She saw that little backflip. The grid for code so that they could communicate.

The rather turgid poetry hastily erased, but not quite hastily enough.

Her Love, Luna. Or perhaps it should be Luna, her Love. Twilight's Love, Luna. Luna, Twilight's–

She was brought back by a horrible dull ringing at the back of her head. "Ow!"

Rarity wrung her hoof out in the air, shaking it off. "My apologies, darling, but you blissed out." The hoof was brought back down behind her, propping her up once more as she took another drag on her cigarette. "It was as nauseating as it was sweet. Too much sweet, really, like too-rich mudcake. A spoonful is fine, but you tried to force on me the whole gatteau, darling."

Twilight grinned sheepishly. "That bad?"

"What is it with your family and hopeless romantics?" Rarity rolled her eyes. "Yes, it was that bad. My apologies for striking you, but I learned that from your brother. If it weren't for a quick and precise blow to the head, he'd sit with a dopey grin on his face murmuring 'Cady-bug' over and over to himself for almost an hour."

Twilight snickered. Yep, that was Shining Armour.

"Oh, don't you snicker! So far you seem just as bad. I'm rather dubious about your chances at this bet right now, dear; you could have fallen hard for just about anypony and believed it to be the most romantic thing in the world. You're positively lovestruck."

Twilight thought, again–

"Ow!"

"You were about to go off on me again because I accused you of being lovestruck. I will be having none of that," Rarity scolded. "Now, please lose this bet so I can go back to extorting you for ludicrous sums of money for my own personal gain."

Twilight stared at her, slowly working up the most delicate way to phrase her next question. "You really haven't been able to talk to anypony without your mental filter on maximum setting for a long, long time have you?"

Rarity smiled, and her eyes turned smoky. "I swear, every word with you is almost like another long, rolling orgasm." She blinked, the smoke clearing from her eyes and leaking out her ears. "Oh, dear, I just said that out loud didn't I? I suppose that rather adequately answers your question, then. Now! Stop stalling! Go! Answer mine."

"My... l-love," Twilight gulped. Rarity's hoof hovered at attention, but Twilight had gotten through the stammered word without dwelling on that languid stretch Luna had taken, or the grace she danced upon – "Ow! Sorry, sorry!" Almost. "She's written me poetry from a far distance. We can see each other, but we can't meet. The gulf between us is too great."

Rarity made no effort to hide her yawn. "I'm sorry, dear, but you'll have to do an awful lot better than that. The doomed long-distance hook is typical to the tune of cliche, dear."

Twilight made a huge effort to still the steelish twang in her heart at the word 'doomed'. "Alright then." Twilight took a deep breath, preparing herself. She repeated all those well-sounding words from before in that procrastination ritual which Rarity caught on to immediately, giving her a rather impatient look. Finally, Twilight approached it like a bandaid; she had been peeling it off slowly, when in truth she had to rip it off and hope for the best.

"My love is on the moon. She writes me poetry in the moon's surface, where there are no weathers or winds to alter them. The love notes she has written to me will stand for all eternity, long after the last lifeform on this Equus breathes its last. Near as I can tell, one square kilometer has been covered – to the centimeter! – in her compositions, so desperate was she to find the right words. Now I need to respond and... well, you saw." Twilight was panting, now, rocking back into the fountain herself.

She didn't factor in how slippery the bowl of the fountain would be, not one this dry, and fell right back into it, sprawling with her legs in the air. Rarity paid the slip no mind, staring off into space with a serious expression.

"Yes, your response might be a problem," Rarity murmured. "A she, though? Now, that's interesting."

"That's the part you picked up on?!" Twilight shouted from her position on her back, throwing her forelegs up into the air above her in exasperation, "not the fact that there is a pony on the moon and she's writing me poetry?!"

"Oh, well, yes, that I sort of expected. Not that particular surprise, mind, just one of that calibre." Rarity took a slow, deep breath of her cigarette, expelling a choking cloud into the air around them. Twilight was glad she was upwind of the puffing chimney. "Your brother was young, naive and, quite frankly, thick. Brilliant in a lot of ways, of course, but he was... well, your brother was rather a dork, wasn't he?"

"Was?" Twilight snorted, rocking herself out of the fountain, propping herself back up into a position like Rarity's.

Rarity pointedly arched an eyebrow, looking back between Twilight and where she had fallen in the fountain, but decidedly didn't comment on it. "Yes... " she said evenly, level as eroded bedrock, "well. Even then, he still went after the most elligible bacholerette in the empire and made good on it. It only makes sense, then, that you – smarter, wiser, more cynical, and much comparatively older you – would have to go to great lengths to thoroughly trounce the scale of your brother's romantic ambitions."

Another long, luxuriant billow of smoke, as if to punctuate the remark with tainted air. "Which you did. Well done." It was impossible to tell whether that was genuine or sarcastic. "The moon? Honestly, the moon? Who could have seen that coming?"

Twilight snorted, again, at that. Pinkie Pie and Dash made her laugh, but this mare... this mare had a way that just made her smile constantly, with the most occasional of rare fits of less restrained mirth. "Well..."

"That it is a sapphic romance," Rarity continued, finishing the last of this cigarette. "Well, that's rather just rubbing it in, isn't it? You've gone all the distance to have a love greater than even this planet could hope to contain, and you have to make it delightfully scandalous on top of that? Very well played, Miss Sparkle." The cigarette was ashed on the same scorchmark as its predecessor. "What is it about your family?"

"Well, it's not like I could choose preferences..."

"Oh, please, that's not even an... Look, do you know how many of these ladies have experimented with each other? Or their maids? Or each other as their maids watched? Or, on the rarest of occasions, just all in a great, heaving ball of... experimentation?" Rarity snorted. "At least you aren't being a hypocrite about it."

Twilight looked around carefully, up the courtyard, around the dead fountains... nopony around.

"Have... you?" She asked, tentatively.

Rarity's eyes narrowed dangerously. "A lady never asks!"

Twilight retorted with a dismissive chuckle. "Well, yes, but as we have established, I'm not much of a lady."

"Ah, but a Lady also never tells," Rarity finished with a sly smile.

Twilight snorted. "So, Lady Rarity, did I win the bet?"

"You have a paramour on the moon. I am presuming, then, that she must be a living goddess to endure the conditions of such a harsh environment?"

Twilight gaped. Probably true, but, if Twilight thought about that too hard, it made her head spin. Then there was that whole dream debacle–

"Yes, quite," Rarity drolled over her. "So what we have here is the doomed long distance relationship, separated by forces beyond their control, a comparatively simple – yet brilliant – scientist, and a goddess amongst the stars... This is quite literally every romantic cliche at once. It is nauseating, it is sickening, it is droll and, to be as frank as I am capable, it is the most fantastic thing I have ever heard." Now, that was sincerity, plain and true. "My not-inconsiderable services are at your command."

"Really?" Twilight beamed, leaping to all four hooves. "You mean it?"

"Absolutely," Rarity nodded, rocking herself back up off the fountain and dusting herself off. She didn't need to. Even sitting on that horribly dirty thing, not a trace of dust had settled on her rose-like gown. Rarity caught Twilight noticing, and gave her a wicked smirk. "Trade secret. My other, more reputable trade, I should say. Now, where shall we abscond to?'

Twilight thought about that. Some words in particular were ringing in her head.

"Before we go anywhere, I need to speak to the Princess." Twilight shuddered, even as Rarity's eyes grew practically iridescent with joy. Twilight noticed, as Rarity made no effort to hide it. "You want to come with me, don't you?"

"Well, if it wouldn't be too much of a bother–"

"It would." Two words dropped like an anvil.

"–but even if it would be much of a bother, then, as I shall be doing so much for you." Rarity finished, dodging with the grace of a ballerina.

"...fine." Twilight grumbled. "But don't say I didn't warn you."

"But... you didn't warn me, as such?"

"I was hoping common sense would do the job for me." The words were as bitter as hemlock, administered to a willing victim.

It would burn the whole way down. Rarity seemed to anticipate it as if the burn were the gentle warmth of a good scotch. She would learn.


The wide doors to the court opened, and here were the highest tier of flatters, bootlickers, brown-noses, trust-fund bastards, rising stars, fading giants... all gathered in one room, just to sooth and stoke the dying embers of the fire that was the Princess of Mourning's ego.

It was rumoured that once, a time since immemorial, the ‘u’ in her title was not. She was the Princess of Morning; a bright, white and wise mentor figure who heralded the day.

This was not the case now.

She was dull and perpetually clad in funeral attire. Black veil. Black dress. Hair pulled tight and muted. Pale. Occasionally a patch fell out with the ceremony of a pigeon dying of heart failure mid-flight.

This was the figure sitting on the Fountained throne, a gold seat with velvet cushions, the only thing in this entire tomb not half-built. Either side of the throne hosted a simple cascading water feature which pooled on each side of it, then drained and trickled back into the mountain's wellspring.

Some ponies claimed it was the Fountain of Youth, the secret of the Princess's immortality.

Twilight knew that was absurd.

If it truly were the Fountain of legend, then the Princess would have stopped supping from it long ago and just allowed herself to die and rot, as she should have.

Bitter? Twilight? Never.

The doors that Twilight and Rarity entered through were three stories high and dramatically arched. The engravings on them were neither completed nor symmetrical, of course, but at least the doors had both been installed.

Unfortunately it made subtlety to their entrance impossible, a factor that neither could ever hope to achieve, now.

Fortunately, it did make their entrance suitably dramatic. Two mares alone did not simply barge in on active court. It was unheard of!

"We apologize for the volume of the door," Rarity apologized loudly, "it seems to require some grease."

Twilight massaged the bridge of her nose. "Please, Rarity?" she hissed under her breath. "For the moment, we don't need to make an effort to care what these ponies think of us."

"You, maybe," Rarity hissed back through her mask of a beatific smile, "but I am networking."

And with that, the rose-gown disappeared into the crowd in a flurry of hoofshakes and business-like smiles, the mare shooting Twilight a grateful look for taking the brunt of their entrance.

With an internal heaving of much breath, a white folder with purple trimming was firmly inserted into the 'business' filing cabinet. A pity.

"My philosopher!" The Princess boomed, with what could almost be called mirth. "To what does my court owe this welcome surprise?"

"I've uncovered a very old text," Twilight lied, "and I was hoping to seek counsel from the mare who might have preceded even it."

A very subtle twitch in the Princess, as obvious to Twilight as a bonfire signal. She was careful not to push it, to disguise her biting remarks as compliments, but she knew what hurt the most. Her age. Her attire. Her loneliness.

How she had dressed for the occasion of eternal loneliness... Now, that was a remark Twilight had woven like a hungry spider preparing for a moth it saw approaching from the window, but had never used, like the same spider only just in time realizing the approaching moth was, in truth, a bat.

"Speak, then, of these words that have so mystified you, my Philosopher."

Not a single moment of hesitation in the words. Admirable, if Twilight didn't know better.

"You like it when I hurt you," Twilight screamed in the confines of her own head, "Because then you at least feel something don't you, you sick, twisted, warped–"

What she said instead was; "The stars will aid in her escape. Apparently it's nearly a thousand years old–"

The court, as one, flinched and fell into dread silence when the Princess ripped off her veil. Not pull it aside, not flick it back; she tore the fine black lace with an audible rip to reveal the wild, wide and wired eyes of the mare behind it. They glowed – not a metaphor. Behind them burned the fury of the sun, and the whites of her eyes burned plasma.

"Where did you hear those words?" she hissed. It wasn't cold enough to be winter, but still she could see the Princess's breath. Odd.

"An old book. Incredibly old. I–"

"That is a lie. I had them all burned, without exception!" Celestia boomed low. She barely raised her voice, but she significantly lowered her register, so it carried more. It also seemed to rattle Twilight's very bones.

Still, she could see the breath of the Princess rising, like the wisp of kettle too long on the hob.

"Why?" Twilight heard herself asking. She took a step back, now, but her butt just hit door.

"Where did you hear those words?" the Princess boomed. This time the volume was raised significantly, the sheer force of her words. The two guards closest to her, flanking her throne, ripped their helmets off, falling to the ground clutching bleeding ears. Their eardrums had been ruptured.

At the distance Twilight was at, with the ears of hundreds of courtiers between her to absorb the brunt of it, she still felt her skull rattle and teeth chatter.

"You must have missed one!" Twilight screamed back, just to hear her own voice over the ringing in her ears. The steam...

The steam!

Oh, stars and stones, the Princess was foaming at the mouth. Her saliva was just rapidly evaporating, rather than falling from her like a rabid dog's drool.

"Impossible!" the Princess screeched, bestial, a sound more feral and caged than any creature in her expansive zoos.

Then, a rapid calm overtook the Princess. She abruptly straightened herself. The torn veil was plucked from the floor like a dropped handkerchief and held to the tear. A blazing light seared the two pieces back into a whole. The Princess sat, still and composed on the Fountained Throne.

But still that steam rose ever-upward.

"You are stripped of your stipend," the Princess declared to the court, as cold and as solid as the icebergs that sank great ships, "until you apologize for uttering those words in my presence."

No. No, that was not what was going to happen.

The Princess held only as much power as she could enforce. Twilight's position held many notable safeguards. This was a rabid dog, yes, but behind a sturdy fence. "I'm not going to apologize, because you're asking me to not to do my job. Most ponies understand that they don't get paid for work they don't do, your Highness. It was a gross overestimation on my part to think you might understand that, too, but considering the evidence I suppose I really shouldn't have. You have my apologies for that, instead."

The Princess didn't shake or rattle like earlier. That worried Twilight. Usually a remark that pointed would puncture the all-encompassing, fragile ego of the Princess, a tribal spear hurled clear through a hot air balloon.

Instead she found that spear bouncing fecklessly off the steel skin of a zeppelin.

"Who is the mare you came in with? The Lady Rarity, by reputation, I presume?" The voice was dormant and hollow, now. The caged animal lay dead behind its bars. What lurked there , now, was what had been in the shadows of the cage tormenting the creature so.

It was prepared to slip the bars.

"Is she important to you?" that dead voice asked.

Twilight hesitated a moment. That was all it took.

The courtiers dispersed away from the rose-dress. Rarity stood a heretic island, her network crumbling around her with great weight and greater silence. One had to imagine the sound of shattering crystal.

"The Lady Rarity is banished from court." Celestia declared. "Until such time that Twilight Sparkle apologizes for remarks that shall not be repeated upon punishment of banishment," the dead voice inflected that remark with ice, "and reveals her source."

Great. The shadow-thing had just taken a bolt-cutter to the rabid dog's fence, and they had teamed up against her.

Celestia might have rules and laws that stopped her from doing anything to Twilight. Rules and laws that she couldn't break, as they were the only thing that prevented herself from seeing in the mirror the monster Twilight knew her to be.

She had no such constraints against those closest to Twilight.

It hurt for Twilight to admit that this was the first time she had allowed Celestia access that bargaining chip. She hadn't even considered it when she had walked through that double-door with the Lady Rarity.

Twilight turned desperately to Rarity. To her credit, the mare shrugged and lit a cigarette. In court.

Several courtiers panicked, backing away further, but what worse could Celestia do to a mare whose only crime had been association?

As Rarity strode dignified and indignantly to Twilight's side, she took one long and heavy drag from the burning tobacco leaves. Then, as if an afterthought, she tossed the lit cigarette behind her carelessly. Well, appearing carelessly.

As they left, Twilight felt a chill run down her spine as Rarity's smile grew, little by little, at the panicked screams behind her, ponies rushing madly back and forth trying to extinguish the tapestry she had 'unintentionally' set alight.

Her only crime had been association. Now, arson?

"As soon as those doors close behind us," Rarity whispered, making sure nopony would pay attention to her words between the fires and the enticing sway of her hips, "run. Dignity be damned, you lead the way."

"I could apologize you know?"

Rarity arched an eyebrow.

"Okay, no, you're right, I couldn't, but I could try–"

"Just to be held over your head as a hostage for the next negotiation? No. No, for now, we run, and then we regroup. Then we sort out what to do with the ashes of my life and career."

"You seem to be taking this awfully well, considering."

"Well, that may be, perhaps, because they haven't noticed what I did with my lighter whilst they were all distracted by the cigarette," Rarity remarked.

The immense set of double doors closed behind them, black smoke curling from the top of its arches.

They ran, not stopping for the eight city blocks between the Palace and Twilight's Observatory. Neither mare looked back once.


The Mare Who Would Escape The Moon

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.”

“Yes, but-”

“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.

Sorry Applejack.

“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?”

Silence.

“What is her full name?”

“Luna.”

“Are you sure there isn't a second?”

Silence.

“How old is she?”

“Ancient?”

“Centuries, millennia or aeons?”

Silence.

“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-

Silence.

“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...”

“Err-”

“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?”

“Err-”

“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.”

“Lucky guess!”

The Lady turned back to Twilight with a delicate mask of deadpan. “What is she?”

“It's Pinkie Pie. You get used to it.”

“Truly?”

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.”

“Drat.”

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.”

Yes.

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.

“Ready?”

“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-”

“Time out.”

“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.

“Ooof.”

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.

Right.

“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.

Sigh.

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.

Deep breath.

Approach door.

Probably nothing.

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.

Deeper breath.

Open door with hopeful smile.

Guards.

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!”

“Well-”

“He promises!”

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.

“Later.”

“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.

“Eeyup.”

“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.”

Oh.

Oh.

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.

Oh.

Oh.

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.”

“Kukri?”

“Don't ask.”

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.”

“Thanks, bro.”

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.”

“… what?”


The Guardian who Loves

Twilight stared sleeplessly at her bedroom enclave's ceiling, or in its direction, at least. It was dark enough that she couldn't see her own hoof in front of her face.

This was a rare night, she thought. The moon was full, and too bright to send a message. Without the slow back-and-forth she had with Luna, Twilight was filled with her usual anxieties. Only now she had significantly more to be anxious about.

Addendum to previous statement: There is nothing that riddles you with self-consciousness more than watching the intended receive your poetry word by word, letter by letter. Such intensely personal statements and feelings. The knowledge you could stop at any time... if you could live with the cowardice of doing so.

Oh, but it was agonizing.

Still, what was poetry if not the most efficient way to compress as many thoughts and feelings as possible into as few words as possible?

Fact: She had determined it was her destiny to rescue the mare she was madly crushing on from the moon, when until this year nopony could even get a clear look at the darn thing, let alone pop over for a visit and take back a princess-sized souvenir.

Fact: Nopony had worked out how to pop over to the moon for a visit and take back a princess-sized souvenir before now.

Fact: I am under house arrest, and my stringently stipulated stipend stymied. I have few resources, and fewer means to acquire more.

Fact: Some pegasus, Sergeant Sentry, had apparently flown into the laser earlier in the week while Twilight was dictating poetry – heavily edited by Rarity of course – and the surviving pegasus guards were still rather grumpy about that.

Fact: Shining Armor's solution of walking into the library, picking out a book simply titled Natural Selection, and reading it aloud at his squad had not gone over well.

Fact: I still can't sleep, so making lists is all I can really do unless I fumble for a light and try reading for a while, but that won't help, even though all this is doing is making me more anxious...

Fact: Hot air balloons don't work in the aether because there's no atmosphere. Once you got outside a certain radius, however, there wouldn't be gravity either. This at once made things much simpler and much more complicated.

Fact: It is still very dark and I can't find the matches in here and I could use my horn but that's right in my eyes so I guess no reading this is sleep time anyway.

Fact: Progress was being made to develop manned aeroplanes, though success was a decade off, at least. The principles were sound, but would be totally ineffective in the aether for the same reason balloons were.

Fact: If I'm seen going outside somepony will shoot me with a gun.

Fact: Guns propel a solid mass using forces independent of aerodynamics, comparative densities or gravity.

Fact: Cannons are big guns that shoot much larger masses...

Fact: A very big cannon could, ergo, launch a significantly larger mass...

Twilight was bolt upright now, throwing her covers off.

Fact: Fireworks. Fireworks also used gunpowder to propel themselves through the sky.

Twilight was outside her bedroom now. She didn't need to see the ladder to know where it was, force of habit was more than enough of a compass to find her way down to the ground.

Fact: The same principle can be achieved through more controllable liquid fuel propulsion, in theory.

Twilight stopped on the ladder just as her hoof was about to touch what she knew would be the floor of her library. She opened her eyes, not realizing they had been closed, and found the library bathed in moonlight. A sign? She hoped not: It revealed the floor was significantly closer than she anticipated.. She wasn't used to descending so excitedly blind.

Fact: Said fuel required oxygen to react, which didn't exist in the aether. Without it, the fuel would just be dead weight.

She almost made to carry herself back up the ladder. She started to do so, taking deep gulping breaths into her lungs, preparing her legs to haul the dead weight of her torso back up. Her lungs inflating like...

Lungs inflating...

Query: Why not bring the oxygen, too?

Back down the ladder she dropped.

Hypothesis: A vessel fired from a sufficiently large cannon would have the required velocity to breach gravity's surly bonds.[1] Said vessel could then be equipped with sufficient fuel to propel itself to the moon, and an engine designed to oxidize and exhaust the fuel in the aether without catastrophic incident. The vessel could then land on the moon, retrieve a payload, and return to Equus.

[1] A modified bathysphere, even. Designed to withstand only a single atmosphere of pressure, much lighter than their seafaring equivalents. An aether capsule. Footnotes! She needed more nested footnotes in her own thoughts, she decided.

Method: First, ask Pinkie Pie. Second, do what Pinkie says.

She was walking towards the basement where Pinkie and Spike would be, the idea that this could wait until morning simply not occurring.

She stopped though, when she heard a rustling in her pantry. Immediately Twilight pirouetted and started heading towards the nested kitchen area instead.

Late night snack of course Pinkie would be having a midnight snack brilliant a glass of milk might even help me sleep, yes, avoid the sugar anything sugar wouldn't help, ideas!, too many ideas bubbling now and what is Apple Bloom doing here?

It was at this point that Twilight had absently stumbled through the kitchen entirely – where Spike cooked and did not let Twilight in very often, lest she try experimenting with recipes again – and into the deep pantry. Very little light spilled in from the kitchen, reflecting off its white tile, and Twilight would have navigated mostly by smell. Canned food closest to the entrance so nothing overwhelmed her nose by proximity, dessert spices like cinnamon and nutmeg at the very back of the pantry dead ahead, breads and flours about a meter to the right, the smell of frosted rust to the left where the ice vault was...

Little Apple Bloom with the stock of vegetables on the central shelf dead ahead.

"Apple Bloom? What are you doing? I thought you'd gone home with your sister?"

"Ahh?"

"What happened to your voice?"

"Ah?"

"... you're not Apple Bloom, are you?"

"Ahhh–?"

Twilight's thoughts focused, and the thrall of sleepiness over her was spiderwebs caught in a gale. She lit her horn, wincing slightly.

The orange – not yellow! – foal before her grinned sheepishly around a bag of flour. A bag of Twilight's flour.

"Would you believe I'm just borrowing a cup for a cake I'm baking?"

"No." Twilight deadpanned.

"Oh." The foal mumbled. Was it a filly or a colt? Hard to tell. Masculine scratchy voice indicated a foal hitting puberty, hard, but the slender form seemed to indicate filly. "Uh, so, if I put this down, can I go now?"

"I don't even know how you got in here. Didn't the guards bother you?"

Even in the pale light of Twilight's horn, the foal paled visibly. "G-guards? Lemon Drops said you lived alone!" They clapped hooves to their mouth. "I didn't say a name. You can't say I did. You can't prove anything!"

Boyish filly or girlish colt... Twilight still couldn't quite place it.

"You know who I am, yes?" She tilted her head quizzically, watching the foal's reaction. "Twilight Sparkle, Royal Advisor to the Princess herself? Now that I've introduced myself, I rather think it would be polite if you did too."

Oh, that hit a chord. White as a sheet and reflecting the cast light, like the moon far above. "Ah, uh, um–" the child stammered, "Scootaloo, ma'am." They even bowed their head respectfully.

Twilight channelled more energy into light. She could see what the child was wearing now, a tattered dark leather jacket the colour and seemingly even the texture of gravy left out to coagulate overnight, and heavy canvas pants that were probably long ago a shade of olive. Not comfortable clothing by any means, but very worn-in and practical.

Interesting. Urchins were often employed as 'guttersnakes' for home invasion purposes. A child could be pushed up into high windows or into tiny crawlspaces and drainpipes that an adult wouldn't fit through, then be sent around to unlock the house from inside to allow the more appropriately equipped adult team to loot everything not nailed down. Unless one of the adults brought a crowbar with them, in which case they'd not only take things nailed down, but probably the nails too, good money in scrap iron.

Scootaloo was not being used as a guttersnake. For one, no organized team would target a house surrounded by guards.

For another, they’d gone straight for the pantry. For basic staples, no less. Most of the books could have been fenced for a decent sum and there was a huge pile of bits by the front door that was probably unmolested. Profit came second to survival.

All this flashed like lightning in Twilight's mind, prompting her to do something that Scootaloo didn't quite expect. It started with her turning her back on the foal – something that most thieves take for granted won't happen if they're caught.

"If you're going to be baking a cake, you're going to need eggs too. I don't think you can lay them yourself... unless you're a chicken?"

That stopped Scootaloo in their tracks, which had rapidly led them to the pantry door. Twilight didn't have to turn to look, she knew the kid would give herself away at that.

"I ain't no chicken, ma'am! I'm as brave as any of the boys, make no mistake!"

Boys, not 'other' boys. Oh, thank the stars, gender neutral handles were starting to get exhausting. Her, Scootaloo was a she. A she with a very masculine, scratchy voice.

Twilight opened the ice vault, wandering inside and fishing about for a carton of eggs, throwing a pint of milk on top of that because hey, why not? Can't bake a cake without a good glug of milk.

Very scientific measurement that, glug.

"Audentes Fortuna Adiuvat," Twilight declared as she showed the curious little filly her new spoils and plunder.

Scootaloo eyed her carefully, a mouse that knows the cheese is obviously bait, the only question now is which direction the trap will spring down from. "What's that mean?"

"It's Old Equuish. Fortune favours the bold. It's something my brother says. He's Captain of Her Majesty's Guard, you know, and he's just outside right now, with a whopping big gun. Huge. Could take my head clean off, I'll tell you that much." Pause for dramatic effect, two, three; "Are you sure you're still brave?"

Scootaloo nodded fiercely.

"Well. Can't argue with that," Twilight agreed, a plan having formed firmly in her head. "Then you might be up for a challenge... no, a dare." Something about the filly reminded her of Rainbow Dash. Fortunately, the course of the last few weeks had given her a firm base of understanding of how Dash's mind worked. Enough that Twilight was fluent in a form of Dashlexia, if one will.

It seemed she was right on the money. The filly had either stopped looking for reasons to be wary or, far more likely, had simply stopped caring. Now she just looked determined.

"You're a strange one, miss, but you caught me and didn't try hiding me or throwing me to the wolves," the filly agreed, "so I reckon I'm up for a dare, yeah. What are the stakes?"

"Chocolate. A whole block of the stuff."

Ooh. Another good call, it seemed. Scootaloo practically shivered in anticipation. Then again, what kid[2] didn't love the stuff?'

[2] and Pinkie Pies of all ages, of course.

"Alright... alright, what do I gotta do?"

"What you have to do," Twilight corrected, before correcting her correction, "If you're up to it, I mean, is just sneak in here again tomorrow night. Same time, same place. And if you can do that without getting caught, the chocolate's all yours."

The filly looked surprised. "What, that's it?"

"Yep."

"What's the catch?"

"No catch. I just want to see if you can."

That cautious cynicism came rolling back to the fore, it seemed, and the filly unconsciously took two steps creeping back towards the pantry exit, which would have been more subtle had it not caused a moth to explode out of a patch on her pants. "You're not just going to call the guards on me, are you?"

Twilight laughed, actually laughed. "You really don't have to worry about that, no." Scootaloo remained unconvinced, so she sighed wearily instead. "If I were going to just sic the guards on you anyway, why'd I have this elaborate setup and not just call them now?"

"I don't know! Grownups are weird!"

Touche.

But Twilight had one last trick up her sleeve, of course...

"Fine. I double dog dare you. Unless you're chicken?"

"Oh, it is on!" Scootaloo choked out, "but you wait right here, no cheating, 'kay? You better believe I'll be back tomorrow. " She turned to scarper—

"Wait!" Twilight dumped the eggs and milk in a brown hessian bag, slinging it over the filly's shoulder, nodding. "Okay, you're good."

Scootaloo stared at the bag, choked out the laugh of someone who had just heard the fifth 'click' of the revolver in a game of Russian roulette and passed it back to his opponent, and fled the house through the stars only knew what means.

And, tomorrow, Twilight would as well.

Oh, sure, she could have just asked the filly directly and not have had to wait, or sacrifice precious chocolate, but this way would earn her two things:

1) Proof that this wasn't just a fluke, a chance Twilight could not afford to take and

2) Trust. Something worth significantly more than its weight in cocoa solids.

The results of this little dare would be very interesting indeed...

Twilight headed back to bed, finding the right paths and ladders in an absentminded daze. She couldn't for the life of her remember why she'd come down here in the first place...


That night, Twilight dreamed of a tunnel of brass. It was dark, barely lit, but the distinctive industrial gleam of the metal shone through, like being inside the trombone in an orchestral pit.

It went straight up, though.

The tube narrowed as it went up, not wider. It also felt too hot, wet, humid. Not like a cave, no, more like a mouth. Or a gut. The digestive tract of some great mechanical monster.

This was not a nightmare.

This was not a nightmare.

She felt an overwhelming sense of purpose welling from her own core. She turned her head slightly in this dream – she was at the footplate of some great engine, inside this brass beast's bosum. She had been looking out a window, thick sealed glass. Around her, gears and knobs and levers that would give her telescope a complex, and wires and circuits she didn't understand anything about but their concept and purpose. They would take her up.

"You ready to earn your wings?" Rainbow Dash's voice called into her ear.

Someone was counting down. Applejack? A tone that defied questioning.

"10."

"9."

Rainbow was wearing a tinfoil suit with a fishbowl for a helmet. Why?

Pinkie speaking now, in a wondrous breathiness, so much like disbelief and yet as far from it as one could get.

"8."

"7."

Because the aether was a vacuum and that was where they were going. She knew this.

Rainbow Dash, but not the one beside her. This one would follow you into Hades itself without question.

"6."

"5."

"You know if you did the maths wrong on this, they're going to be scraping us off the walls, right?" Rainbow Dash laughed.

Rarity's voice, but ethereally calm and calming.

"4."

"3."

Dash stopped laughing. "You did the maths right, didn't you?"

A new voice she didn't recognize. It sounded sad, but kind.

"2."

"1."

"Twilight?"

Far in front of her, up, she could feel the heavy weight of midnight eyes staring down at her across an impossible distance. No... merely an improbable distance. She could feel them, she could feel sadness and loneliness and longing and yearning, and she could feel them boring into her and her alone. And she knew, with absolute clarity, it was not just a figment of dreamstuff — She was here, too. It happened so rarely, but sometimes they could be together in dreams.

Twilight was glad this was one that She saw.

It was Twilight herself who finished the countdown with the word that came to her with the irrefutable concrete of dream-logic; “Ignition”.

Everything exploded around her, and it was wonderful.


Twilight shot bolt upright in bed, launched from the sheets, energized. Before, she had made for the ladder in a daze, meandering through the dark. Now she made for it like a last breath.

"I remember!" she cried, gripping the sides of the ladder and not once touching a rung, daring not impede gravity, letting it accelerate her onwards.

She felt the shock of the ground hitting her, ignoring it, pushing it into her knees and popping them back up, launching for Pinkie's basement. "I remember, I remember, I remember, I-"

Pinkie's basement was cleared out, everything pushed to the side. In the center, a thick worktable was covered in crumpled blueprints. At the end a design table pressed up to it, a hunched and manic pink bob of hair covering what lay on it, frenetically twitching back and forth as more crumpled half-thoughts were added to the pile. A flexible tube ran from a steampipe in the ceiling to something buried beneath blueprints on the table, wobbling almost as ominously as Pinkie Pie herself.

At the last "I—" Pinkie's head shot up, eyes dangerously large and pupils dangerously wide. Mania!

Twilight welcomed it, actually. At least it meant they were both on the same page.

"Twilight, Twilight, Twilight!" Pinkie exclaimed, "You're back! Your idea's amazing!"

Of a completely different book, it seemed.

"Which idea, Pinkie?"

"The rocket ship one! How could you forget, you only told me like... a while ago?" Pinkie checked her wrist, nodding. "Yes, definitely a while and thirty-three seconds ago."

"I already told you?"

"Yeah, you were super excited! First you talked about a cannon to get it up into the aether, and then we talked about how to protect an aethership against the aether, and then we talked about how to power it once it's up there, and how to get it back home! But that's when you started talking about chocolate filly-colts and Spike insisted on dragging you back to bed." She gestured back at the grumpily snoozing baby dragon in front of the boiler furnace, both of them smiling faintly.

"I don't remember any of that. Especially not anything about chocolate filly-colts. That... definitely sounds like something I couldn't forget."

"I dunno! You were super out of it! Anyway, so, I thought, wow, this is so much better than a hot air balloon, and I think I got a prototype cannon down."

Pinkie Pie bounced backwards off the little wooden bench at the artist's easel, making a point to crack and loosen every joint she could in the process. Twilight couldn't help but wince. How long had she been sitting still like that?

Probably about a while and thirty-three seconds.

Not to be deterred, and very likely not knowing the meaning of the word, Pinkie flung wadded balls and crackling crumpled sheets of blueprints off the drawing table, revealing an almost molten metal volcano purring happily to itself beneath, steam fed into it through the still-ominously wobbling tube.

"I think it's built up enough pressure." Pinkie declared as she pulled out what was definitely a musket's ramrod.

"You got that off one of the soldiers, didn't you?"

"It's amazing what ponies will do for you if you ask them super nicely!" Pinkie nodded. "I promised him if he needed to shoot anypony I'd give it back."

"Of course. It's only fair."

With a quick flick of her hoof, Pinkie procured a shape analogous to a bullet for a rifle. Twilight momentarily wondered why a rifle bullet was being loaded into a musket, before remembering that this was neither musket nor rifle.

With that done, and a few rams of the ramrod to follow, and Pinkie turned to the big red button beside the volcannon. Of course, she slammed her hoof on it.

KRAKOOSH!!!

The room was a sauna. Splinters of wood and plaster rained down on the heads of two mares with necks tilted as far back as their spines would allow, blinking debris from their eyes. A thin stream of morning sunlight filtered through the steam above.

"The ceiling is a metaphor for space!" Pinkie decreed happily.

"I wish there were more of it." Twilight murmured bitterly.

"Ceiling or space?"

"Yes, exactly."

Pinkie giggled. Twilight smiled a little, as well. Her heart was racing now.

"Would it be safe, though?"

"What? No, of course not!" Pinkie snorted. "Prototypes aren't meant to be safe. If your prototype is safe, it's because it doesn't work."

"Oh."

"But honestly, I have no idea! I don't know much about biology," Pinkie admitted. "If we made this big enough for a pony, you'd probably be scraping jam off the bulkhead."

"Lovely."

"Not really. Jam is a metaphor for pony splatter."

Purple temples throbbed suddenly. "I... yes. I'm aware Pinkie. I was being sarcastic. Do you think there'd be a way to reduce the impulse acceleration to make it survivable?"

"Absolutely. I'm working on exactly that right now! Just one question."

"Mmm?"

"Define 'survivable'?"

Twilight opened her mouth, about to reprimand Pinkie or make another sarcastic comment. She closed it, though, when she realized she legitimately didn't know.

"That's... actually a very good question, Pinkie." It might have just been that shaft of morning light filtering through steam catching her eyes just right but, at that moment, Twilight's eyes gleamed bright. "To which I don't have an answer. You understand what this means, right?"

"Science?"

"Yes Pinkie. We have science to do."

But that would come later.

Tonight, Twilight had a date with a young androgynous foal.

That... that sounded a lot more creepy than she intended.


"I don't get it," Rainbow murmured as they sat in the pantry with the lamp. They were playing Go Fish.

Yes, they were both aware it was a children's game, but there had been... extenuating circumstances.

Twilight had tried to teach Rainbow Dash Omaha-style poker, but it was a failed experiment. Or too successful. While Twilight could calculate odds like nopony's business, she couldn't get around Rainbow's poker face; With only a minimal understanding of the rules, Rainbow got equally excited by a flush or a straight as she did a pair of twos. She also had no restraint in showing this excitement.

The tipping point had been when Rainbow finally looked sullen. Twilight had pressed, and Rainbow had matched her every time insisting 'folding is for cowards'. Still, she looked downright miserable about her cards. On the river, Twilight had finally revealed her queen-high straight. She was about to rake in the chips when Rainbow miserably tossed her own hoof down.

"... Rainbow."

"Yeah, I know, you win, right?"

"Rainbow. This is a flush."

"Yeah, it's downright toilets is what it is."

"It means you won, Rainbow. Your hoof is better than mine."

"What, really? But I can't even make any pretty patterns out of this. They're all the same colour! What do you even do with that."

"Win. You win. That is what you do with a flush. Because that is what it is called."

"What? Really?"

"Yes."

"Huh."

"..."

And so now they were playing Go Fish, or Twilight would make Rainbow Dash into jam, and whether or not it would be a metaphor would be for Pinkie Pie to adjudicate later.

She was still losing of course. Rainbow had the memory of an elephant (what ho!) and Twilight had to write lists of everything for a reason, but that was okay. Twilight didn't mind losing. She just wanted to lose for the right reasons.

I suppose that says a lot about what I'm doing for Luna, doesn't it?

She shooed the errant thought away. She did not plan on losing. All she had to do was bring in a team of covert craftsponies--

With what money?

Fine. The building materials for--

With what money?

Alright. She could go out and--

Force Shining's hoof in the most horrible of circumstances.

Focus on Rainbow's question, now.

"What don't you get?"

"I mean," Rainbow called, "you... hang on, got any twos?" Twilight silently passed the card over, much to Rainbow's impish delight. "You got me for foal-wrangling duty."

"Because I honestly suspect you'd be excellent with children."

Rainbow beamed even brighter at that. "I'm an amazing role-model, right?"

"... yes. Let's go with that. Got any eights?" She'd had good luck with eights so far, no reason not to try them again.

"Nope. You already took 'em all out of the game." Okay, one good reason not to try again, but still! Twilight drew another card. A six. "But like, I mean, you got Applejack and Miss Prissy Pants—"

"Rarity?"

"That's what I said, Miss Prissy Pants. Her. They both have little sisters. So, they'd have more experience than me, right? Also, got any sixes?"

Twilight grudgingly passed the card over. "Rainbow, I suspect you're good with kids while I know for certain what theirs have done to my library . Let's... let's leave it at that for a moment."

"That bad, huh?"

"They were going to hurt my books. My precious darlings!"

"Woah. Okay."

"Can you believe that?"

"Not what I was 'woah'ing at, but sure, let's agree anyway."

"Seriously, though, this is bugging me now. How did you know I drew a six?"

"There are twelve cards left in the deck and your hoof, two kings, a queen, three sixes, a seven, an eight, two nines, and an ace. I know what I got in my hand, and I'm pretty sure you got the king and the nine 'cause of your guesses. So I mean, it's just basic maths, right?"

Twilight stared at Rainbow unblinkingly. Rainbow just stared intently at her own hoof with a tongue stuck out in thought.

Twilight leafed through the deck. Rainbow protested. "Hey, that's cheating!"

She was right. On both counts.

"Okay," Twilight breathed, putting the deck down, "so you can do all that, but you can't figure out that a flush beats a straight?"

"Wait," Rainbow murmured, ear flicking. "I hear something."

"What? Are you sure?"

"Yeah." Rainbow leaned back, actively smugging, hooves folded neatly across her chest. "I hear the sound of a sore loser."

Twilight was about to nudge something very heavy from a tall shelf onto Rainbow's head when the smirk broke, and Rainbow just shook her head instead.

"Nah, for serious though, somepony's tryin' to sneak up on you."

Sure enough, the pantry door opened just a bit, one quavering eye hiding behind it.

"Just us, kid," Rainbow announced. "A fair deal's a fair deal."

The door opened wider, Scootaloo pouting indignantly. "Deal was to see her. She didn't say anything about bringing a friend." The filly eyed their cards, too. Her head slowly raised from the cards to meet Twilight's weary gaze. "Were you... you were. You were actually playing Go Fish, weren't you?"

"Correction," Rainbow snorted, sorting through the deck and starting to shuffle it, "I am destroying at Go Fish."

Twilight barely managed to suppress the urge to whack her hoof against her face.

"Oh. Well, I guess that's okay then."

Twilight failed to suppress the urge to whack her hoof against her face.

"So, I was promised chocolate, right?"

Twilight revealed the promised block from its hiding places, holding it just out of the filly's reach.

Scootaloo jumped up once to grab it, fell rather short, grunted, and glared at Twilight.

Unfortunately, Rainbow joined her in glaring.

"Totally not okay," they both said in unison.

Oh, ye stars, there really was two of them.

Twilight rolled her eyes. "I'm giving you the chocolate anyway. I did promise. I just wanted to ask you how you got in here? Where you got in here from?"

Rainbow narrowed her eyes for a moment before leaping into the air, wrestling the chocolate bar from Twilight's magical grip. With an entirely superfluous action roll that was certainly just for show, clutching the chocolate to her chest like she was protecting a baby, Rainbow came to a stop beside Scootaloo. Dash offered her the block, still glaring at Twilight.

"Rainbow!"

"Totally not cool, Twilight. You can't just welch on a deal like that and say, ‘Oh, and one more thing.’" It was at this point that Scootaloo reverentially took the chocolate from Rainbow's grip, as if it had become something more, something greater, for its time spent cradled in blue hooves. Rainbow remained oblivious to this. "Like, what, were you just going to hope she trusted you?"

"Well. Yes. I had the chocolate right there."

"Yeah! And you weren't gonna give it to her—"

"I totally was!"

"—exactly as you promised. You gotta give trust to get trust, you know?"

"Y-yeah," Scootaloo agreed, eyes wide and staring unabashed.

Rainbow remained oblivious.

"So what do you say to Scootaloo?"

"Really? Are we really doing this?"

"Say it!"

Twilight sighed, running a hoof slowly down her face. "Fine. Okay, Scootaloo, I'm sorry for betraying your trust. I just really want to know how you got in here, and I'd like to reward you significantly if you teach me."

"O-oh. Y-yeah, I guess? I guess I could do that. I mean, if it that's okay with Ms Rainbow...?"

Rainbow snorted. "'Ms' nothing. It's just Dash, squirt."

"Dash," Scootaloo whispered with an awe that Rainbow remained entirely oblivious to, in spite of it being as obvious as the nose on her face.

Admittedly, we find it much easier to focus on noses that are on other people's faces. It's rather difficult to see our own. Perhaps the analogy was more apt than intended.

"And yeah that's okay with me."

"I mean, you did give the chocolate. Kind of." Scootaloo grudgingly admitted. "And you were super nice to me last time. And you haven't totally betrayed me or anything..." The filly bit her lip in obvious indecision. "What's in it for me if I show you? The other orpha— foals, the other foals aren't going to be happy about this, I don't think."

"I... that's a good question. Dash? Any ideas?"

"Well, I have a really big knife," Rainbow said, nodding, "if you want to play with it? More like a curvy sword, I think, actually."

"Rainbow!"

"What? It totally is more of a curvy sword than a knife!" Rainbow protested, not even looking away from the filly at her hooves.

Scootaloo's wide eyes glistened in the dim light. Then in a low voice filled to spilling with awe, "You are so cool."

Rainbow looked at Twilight, wiggling her eyebrows slightly. "You were totally right, I am the best with kids."

What had Twilight done?

What monster had she wrought?


"Sewers."

"Yup."

"These are sewers."

"Big ones."

"This is your secret tunnel?"

"I never said secret!" Scootaloo pointed out, leading them from the front, wearing a miner's helmet far too large for her and strapped tight. She apparently left it in the sewers, otherwise it'd get in the way. "The trick is knowing how to get in and out. That we do it at all. The sewers themselves is kid's stuff."

That guttersnipes moved in the gloom of the sewers was like the existence of syphilis; common knowledge to all, but never discussed or thought about in polite company. Toshing — the art of searching through the sewers for shiny lucre — was a lucrative pastime for those inclined to it, but dangerous in a storm. Floodwaters had flushed out many who sought their fortune in the dropped coins, watches and rings that had gone for a little journey from their owners at some point.

Getting into her house from here? The filly had a point, Twilight miserably admitted to herself. There had been what amounted to a maintenance hatch in the bathroom, intended to be locked when not actively in use.

It had not been a very good lock.

A lot of houses did not have very good locks in their bathrooms, Scootaloo told Twilight. She would know, she told Twilight. She had a list of them all, she told Twilight.

It was information that, once told, could not be untold.

If these had been French sewers, perhaps fourteen pages of loving prose could have been dedicated to them. Instead they were Canterlot sewers, and so we can only speak of two:

They stunk.

If pressed for more, Twilight would elaborate.

They stunk real bad.

Rainbow Dash hovered alongside them.

Scootaloo looked up to her in both senses of the phrase. "Must be nice not having to wade through the muck with us. Wish I could fly..."

Rainbow stared at the filly quizzically. Her wings stopped beating, gliding slowly back into the ankle-deep waters – fortunately more clear than Twilight had expected sewer water to be – and fell in step beside the filly, sloshing right alongside her. She grimaced momentarily, soggy fetlocks being low on anyone's pleasant feelings priorities, but shrugged it off just as quick.

"Sorry, kiddo, that was rude of me. Shouldn't be rubbing it in your face like that."

Scootaloo shook her head emphatically. "You shouldn't have to walk through this if you don't have to!" Yes, she should! "I don't mind."

"Don't sweat it. Marshes of Zebrica are going to be a lot worse than this, anyway. This is just good practice," Rainbow lied breezily.

"You wanna go to Zebrica? Why?"

"I'm going to be an explorer! An adventurer! Sallying forth into the wild green yonder and all that rot!" Rainbow declared, clearly pronouncing each and every exclamation mark."Twilight's going to fund a big expedition for me, because she's just the bee’s knees she is, the cat's pajamas."

Twilight felt both pairs of eyes turn to her. Apparently praise from Rainbow meant far more than even chocolate. Figures.

"How much further is it?"

Rainbow nodded thoughtfully. "Good question. Where are we even going, anyway? I'm all up for an adventure, but I figure we got a destination in mind."

"The, uh, the place. It's just up ahead. It's about five hundred steps straight, then two hundred to the left." With a look back at Twilight, she shrugged a little. "Less for you because you got bigger legs."

Not far then.

Still, it wasn't a hard slog. Twilight wasn't all too unfit, especially with the workout Rarity had given her recently.

Here in the dark, awful, and reeking sewers, she'd never seen Rainbow so relaxed. She suspected Scootaloo hadn't smiled this much in a long time either.

She didn't have the heart to wish this were shorter, for either of them, no matter how many things she had to sidestep.


They emerged on a rather nondescript street. The heavy sewer cap moved aside as three soggy ponies hauled themselves out of the reeking underground.

"So, we're here. You can go now, I guess."

"What?" Rainbow protested, "No way. I wanna see your folks. Tell them what an awesome little filly they have here."

Twilight opened her mouth to protest, but it snapped shut pretty quick. They'd gotten what they needed out of Scootaloo, but it looked like Scootaloo had more that she needed from Dash.

And hey, what could it hurt?

A lot of emotions flashed across Scootaloo's face in the span of seconds. Pride, shame, embarrassment, anger, and hurt, before settling on grumpy defeat.

"I don't exactly have folks, okay?"

Rainbow looked confused by this. While Twilight had already put the pieces together, Rainbow was still... sheltered might not be the right word, but it was a good one nonetheless.

"You can't just not have folks, kid? I mean, where do you go home to at night? Where do you sleep? Who takes care of you?"

Maybe sheltered was the right word.

Scootaloo could have done many things. Run, fume, get angry, kick Rainbow Dash in the shin, cry. Of them, perhaps the least likely was to answer honestly.

But that's what she did.

"I'm kind of, sort of an orphan, okay? I mean, my parents are still probably alive, somewhere, but right now I just..." She pointed a hoof at one of the heavy brick tenements lining the street. "I kind of crash here."

"Woah," Rainbow murmured. "Heavy."

"Yeah."

Dash instinctively reached for the pith helmet she hadn't been wearing, lowering a stubby brim that wasn't even there. Kind of just scratching her head instead. "Well, can I still meet your folks then?"

"I just told you," Scootaloo grumbled, looking briefly at Twilight, "I don't know where they are."

"Nah, not them." Rainbow shook her head, gesturing to the same tenement Scootaloo herself had pointed to, "I mean your actual family. You mentioned others, right? And you care about what they think? So they're, like, your real family, aren't they?"

Twilight and Scootaloo stared at Rainbow for a long moment, much to her discomfort.

"What?"

And with that, Scootaloo had wrapped herself tight around Dash's leg, and looked for all the world like she intended on never letting go. Twilight continued to stare at Rainbow even as the pegasus eyed her back in obvious confusion.

"What?" she repeated, helplessly. "What'd I say?"

Twilight didn't know how to answer that.

"Are you the most brilliant idiot I've ever met, or the most idiotic genius?" she thought instead, being very careful not to say it out loud.

The door to the 'orphanage' burst open, and a very angry little copper-coated colt stood huffing in the archway. His newspaper-boy's hat was pulled down low over his eyes, letting the smoke from his – well, he was a bit young to be smoking, wasn't he? — cigarette pool menacingly around his brow. His tattered vest went a long way to forwarding the 'urchin' look.

It didn't fit the lilting, sad and thoughtful violin music that drifted out from behind him.

"What's all this guff? Scootaloo, you ruddy ragamuffin', git from that bloody mungo or—"

"Shuttup, Brass. She's cool."

"What? Really?" The colt now known as Brass squinted out from the doorway. "She seems like a ponce if I ever saw one." He nodded at Twilight, too, now. "And she looks like a proper starch collar."

Was colonial gear 'poncy'? Apparently so. And what was wrong with starched collars? Kept them crisp. Crisp was good!

Scootaloo finally detached herself from Dash's leg, and Twilight was certain she just imagined the popping sound. "Yeah? Well, she's the one that got us the food last night, and—"

Whatever Scootaloo was going to say was cut off by Dash drawing her kukri from its scabbard at her waist with her teeth. The shining, polished metal glinted menacingly in the light. All fell silent. She wordlessly passed the knife, more of a curvy sword really, to Scootaloo, who took it from her with the reverence of a religious artefact. The weight of it caused her head to drop much lower, though.

"I have a sword.” Dash announced,  “Do you have a sword? Because I have a sword."

Brass paused and sighed. "Okay, yeah, no, I get it, she's cool." He stood aside from the doorway now, flicking his head back twice in an upside-down nod over his withers. "Well, alright, come on then, Meadowgrass baked cake, and Viola's been worried about you."

The gentle string music quivered in anticipation at that.

Rainbow Dash took the 'sword' back off Scootaloo, who bobbed right back up like a cork with the weight gone, and kerschlicked it back into its scabbard. Both made to trot up to the door, a very bemused Twilight in tow.

"Now, hang on, that's all well and good for the Colonel here," Brass jerked his head like a tic towards Rainbow as she passed by him into the tenement's foyer, "but what about the toff?"

"She got us the food."

"Which you were gunna nick anyway. She ain't cuttin' the mustard yet. I don't trust her."

Scootaloo thought for a moment. The thoughtful look was lost on Brass, because Scootaloo had well and truly passed him and Brass never took his eyes off Twilight's horn.

"Okay, remember a while back when a tinned turkey got flash fried above the library?"

"Yeah."

"Her."

"What, no foolin'?" Brass's eyes lit up with a newfound respect. "So, how's she here, then?"

"The mutton shunters apologized to her for it. She's supposed to be under house arrest right now, though, 'pparently."

Twilight's eyes widened in shock. She called past Brass into the hallway, "I didn't tell you that!"

"What, you thought I'd take you up on that dare without doing some scoutin’ first? Dumb fillies don't last long around here."

Touche.

Brass nodded slowly. "Yeah, alright, death rays are pretty swell. You're in. I'll go find Matron and tell her we got company."

The winsome string music was practically allegro with excitement now. Twilight crossed over the threshold, Brass doffing his hat to the lady as she passed.

The door slammed shut behind her, and slides and latches and bolts slid home sweet home.

The tenement was... nice.

It was nice.

The wood panelling on the walls was old and the varnish was peeling. The green wallpaper was speckled in places with mould. Air hung dead in deep, stuffy pools deeper in. The furniture was obviously second hand three owners ago.

But it felt nice. The age wasn't ugly so much as... It gave off the same feeling as visiting someone's eccentric great-grandfather. The history had not been kind to it, but it left personality behind in function's wake.

And Twilight knew for a fact that an urchin around these parts could, and very often would, live a lot worse.

A walnut-wood staircase disappeared into the upper levels to her left. A parlour to her right had its wide double-doors open, revealing a warm fireplace, bookshelves with more curios and knick-knacks than books, and a light blue filly, about the same age as Scootaloo herself, standing by a corner playing a beautifully varnished violin.

There was no shortage of soft places to sit around a small, red-wood coffee table, and even a little old rocking chair to one side, but the filly seemed perfectly content to stand.

Scootaloo was already bounding up to her, leaving Dash behind to marvel at the shiny treasures scattered around the room.

Twilight followed, leaving Dash be.

Scootaloo sat beside the filly Twilight guessed was Viola – though that was definitely a violin she was playing – and rustled about in the many pockets of the jacket she was wearing.

"Hey, Viola," Twilight had guessed right, "I got some chocolate for you, if you—"

"No!" Another little filly squealed, younger than Scootaloo, "No, no, no, you promised!"

The voice belonged to a very upset little yellow-green filly, the colour of grasslands after an oppressive drought, who bounded across the room as fast as her stubby little legs would carry her. Her faded white night-dress was covered across the front by a very tattered and frayed apron, deeply stained with thousands of sauces from perhaps thousands of sources.

"Aww, Meadowgrass, let me—"

"No! There's not that much as it is, and it's almost ready." Meadowgrass insisted. She grabbed the bar of chocolate out of Scootaloo's grip. "Ooh! You warmed it up for me! Much quicker, thank you." The little filly was bouncing with excitement.

Twilight thought she ought to step in. "I did give that chocolate to Scootaloo, so—"

Meadowgrass gasped in excitement. She must have been a pegasus under the bundling, because her nightdress quivered with movement at her sides.

"Oh, it's you!" She cried, glomping herself to a very suddenly confused Twilight's leg, coughing into it as she caught her breath. "Thank you, thank you, thank you—"

"For—"

"Oh! Oh, if you're here then... oh!" Then she turned tail and ran, taking the chocolate with her.

Twilight looked at Scootaloo in confusion, hoping for an explanation, to see if she was as bothered by losing her prize as she ought to be. Instead the orange foal looked concerned, taking a handkerchief from another grubby pocket and wordlessly scrubbing it against the spot of leg that Meadowflower had coughed on.

"Don't worry about me. What about the chocolate? I mean, I can just go get more..."

"It's fine." Scootaloo grimaced, putting the handkerchief back into its hiding spot. "S'not what I'm worried about."

Twilight checked her leg. There was still a few little speckles of red on it.

... oh.

Viola giggled, the violin not stopping or slowing an instant. "Meadowgrass is so silly, isn't she?"

Scootaloo's expression didn't change, but her voice was warm and kind. "Yeah, yeah she is."

Twilight decided not to push.

"You're very good, Viola. Who taught you?"

"Oh, uh, nopony," Viola stammered, a tinge of red coming to pale blue cheeks, "I sort of figured it out myself."

"So, you just read sheet music and figure it out or— Ow!" Scootaloo had kicked her in the shin, hard, and gave her a look filled with pointy daggers.

Viola just opened her eyes and looked right through Twilight, sadly. Twilight flinched at the electric eyes. They were... well. It would be easier to say they weren't.

The iris and pupils were almost as white as the whites, covered in a thin, milky sheen which was tinged blue like winter. They barely reflected the ambient light of the room. A gasp caught in Twilight's throat and died its own miserable death there.

"It's okay, Scootaloo," she muttered, "she didn't know."

Scootaloo stomped a hoof, firm. "It was still a horrible thing to ask—"

"Why?" Viola cut her off with a weak smile, tilting her ears in lieu of eye contact. "She didn't think I was blind. I think that's nice."

"Woah!" Rainbow Dash cooed, zipping across the room from the snowglobe she'd been shaking, kneeling right down in front of Viola. "Your eyes are so cool. How'd you do that?"

Viola gulped a little, the music finally stopping as the violin lowered. "C-chemical spill. At the factory I was working at. It really hurt, and now I can't see."

"Yeesh. Sucks big time," Rainbow murmured, getting really close to the filly, much to Twilight's and Scootaloo's horror. It was like watching an oncoming train come at a carriage stalled on the tracks. Scootaloo especially looked horrified, and had started poking Dash hard in the sides. She didn't seem to notice. "So, you can't see how awesome your eyes look?"

"N-no. Most ponies just think I'm, uh, I'm a freak. Or tell me they're creepy."

"Pfft. Just because you can't see? I mean, I can't play the violin and you can, do you think I'm a freak for that?"

"N-no?"

"Well, there you go," Rainbow finished simply. "Simple as that. And I'll beat up anypony who says otherwise."

Viola giggled at that, genuinely. "Brass already does that for me."

Rainbow nodded, then hesitated, then; "Okay, so I just nodded. Yeah, Brass sounds like good ponies."

Viola giggled again. "Well, yes. He can be. But I'd rather watch my pockets around him." The warning was intoned as seriously as the little girl could, but Twilight imagined she had a hard time keeping a straight face.

Oh, now, that got Dash's attention. "Woah, he knows how to pick pockets? Man, I always wanted to learn— okay, you wait right here, I gotta go ask him something real quick!"

And with that she was off like a shot. Even Scootaloo looked as confused as Twilight felt. "What just happened?"

Viola giggled again, like the tinkling of silver bells. "She's a strange one, isn't she?" the blind violin-playing orphan mused. The irony was not lost on Twilight. "I think I like her though."

"I think I do too," Twilight agreed.

Meadowgrass bolted in as fast as her little legs could carry her. She tried to stop about halfway into the not-small not-big room and skidded across the wooden floor for her troubles, spinning around a full rotation before finally coming to rest on her butt right at Scootaloo, Viola, and Twilight's hooves in the corner.

She looked at Twilight with big, bulging eyes bugging out of their sockets, but instead whispered something into Scootaloo's ear. The brash little filly huffed a sigh.

"Really? Everybody?"

Meadowgrass nodded rapidly, updownupdownupdownupdown—

"But there won't be enough!" Scootaloo's complaint took on high pitched, nasal tones. It reminded Twilight, almost for the first time, how immature these kids really could be. A hard life might have made them grow up fast, but they were still kids, weren't they?

"There'll be enough," Meadowgrass whispered, just before tearing back out of the room again. Scootaloo watched after her miserably.

"Okay. Yeah, I'll... you wait here, Egghead." Twilight gave her a stern, unimpressed look. "Uh, sorry, Ms Egghead."

"Twilight Sparkle."

"Oh. Right, sorry, I forgot. Rainbow Dash just keeps calling you that. I forgot it wasn't your name."

Grit teeth. Don't snap. Don't scold. Nopony's fault. Well, Rainbow's, but if I start blaming her for this there are so many, worse things that I've let slide...

"Just Twilight will be fine, Scootaloo."

"Sorry," Scootaloo intoned again, gravely. A sign of respect? Couldn't be. Still, she took off too, out through a side door, a single-width door, at this side of the room rather than the double doors on the other, where they'd come in.

Twilight hadn't even noticed the door on this side. It had been obscured by a bookshelf since coming in, and after that... strange, how obvious things can be hidden by simply being in places you wouldn't think to look.

Viola seemed very confused. "Do you know what that was about?"

"No."

"Oh." A long silence. "Uh, Twilight, yes? You're the mare who owns the library, aren't you?"

"Well, yes, I suppose. I own a library, but not the public one. I don't loan books out."

Viola paled significantly. "Oh, dear."

"Hrrm?"

"N-nothing." She shook herself a bit, but without the self awareness of... well, she shook herself like Pinkie Pie would. Closing her eyes again, shutting them tight, "Can you read, then?"

Twilight snorted. "You could definitely say that, yes."

Viola's smile rose like a dawning sun. "Oh! Oh! Would you please read to me, then?" She blushed, and the violin's bow brushed against the strings again. The filly didn't even seem to realize she was doing it, but a bright, major chord sprung from the instrument like joy itself. A few quick, excitable notes bubbled and welled from it in the same key. "I like books, but..." She trailed off. The implied meaning rather weighed heavily on the absence of words. "Brass sometimes reads to me, but he's not very good at it. He gets very frustrated, and that's not fun at all. And Slide Rule can read really well, but he doesn't want to do it."

"Doesn't want to read?" Twilight repeated, bewildered. Is such... was such a thing possible?

"He thinks it makes him look like a ponce." Viola nodded sadly, the tone of the notes changing to something sad and sombre.

Erk. Hack. Grargh. Grit teeth.

"What about Scootaloo? Or any of the others?"

Viola thought for a bit, the minor key thrumming a bit more with energy. Thinking music? "Well, there's Cap'n. He reads really well, and he even does the voices! But... it hurts for him." A single long, keening, miserable note. "But he doesn't think I know, and he's very brave about it. But he's also so busy... And Scootaloo..." The filly's ears pitched high, swivelling around a bit. The blind equivalent of looking around? "She can't read. And neither can Meadowgrass or Flatcap."

Erk. Grack. Glargh.

Twilight processed this very, very quickly. And came up with a very immediate, obvious, and inescapable conclusion.

"Of course I can read for you," she said, smiling warmly with her voice, "I'll even do the voices, if you want."

"I do rather like that." Viola nodded slowly, but no less emphatically for it. "Even if it's just until the others come back."

Twilight thought about that, too, for a moment. "Well, we want something short and sweet, then, don't we?"

"If something comes to mind? We have a lot of books, I think."

They didn't, but to such poor children, an absolute treasure trove. Books weren't cheap, but they burned hot and quick in the winter if you could get your hooves on them. Decent to get a larger fire going. Heresy, of course.

"Well, how about poetry? Do you know any poems?"

Viola shook her head.

Twilight smiled softly. "I was dreadful at it, until recently. But I'm rather proud of this one... This is a poem sent by a very lonely filly who fell in love with the moon."

"That sounds absolutely absurd," Viola snorted.

Still, Twilight smiled. "It is a bit, isn't it?"

Twilight hummed out her words, and as she hummed that little violin picked up again, seemed to find the chords, seemed to pluck a melody from the words. It felt... it felt more complete for it, the words. If only there were a way she could send music through the aether, through that vacuummous void...

Perhaps a rocket ship could find some room for a little wind-up record player...

She finished, and as she did Viola's last little note quavered and died in the still air, a slow and dramatic death worthy of a thespian.

The little light blue filly looked thoughtful then. She began to speak—

Too late, the double-doors burst open again, and a decidedly triumphant Meadowgrass strode in, placing a freshly baked cake, a hot cake covered thick in chocolate icing, on that red-wood coffee table, flanked on one side by Rainbow Dash, Scootaloo and Brass, and on the other a trio of ponies Twilight hadn't met yet.

One, small, and the brown of burlap in the spots where he wasn't covered in soot and grease. A closer look revealed he was wearing a boiler suit almost the same shade as his fur, and it was hard to tell where the pony ended and the overalls began. His flatcap, however, ah, that was immaculate.

Another was greasy in a completely different way. Larger, taller even than Brass, but much less stock, he wore a thick ratskin, and moved in it like he was rather proud of the cheap, scrappy leather. His hair, too, was slicked and tugged and pulled into a style that stole heavily from a decade that hadn't happened yet. His eyes, though, gleamed with the steel glint of a sharpness behind them.

But it was the third that most caught her. She guessed this would be the Cap'n that Viola had mentioned before, because what else could he be? Pegleg and an eyepatch on a foal so young... He moved with more confidence than Brass, he had as much sharpness the greasy pony had in both his eyes in one — who knew how much more the eyepatch covered? — but ultimately a kind, warm smile that told you everything would be alright.

A proficient liar, then.

All had gathered for the sumptuous feast. As soon as the cake hit table, the kids had started to circle it like sharks. Well. If only sharks could look so hungry and vicious.

"Woah, hey, hold on," Rainbow called with her Big Serious Grownup voice, the one she used when trying to calm Pinkie down after something upset her. "We gotta cut this up, right? Nice and fair."

"Ms Twilight gets the first piece!" Meadowgrass declared emphatically. Brass groaned, but Scootaloo and the Cap'n thumped him on a shoulder from either side, simultaneously. Meadowgrass slunk up to Twilight, looking up at her with the same awe as before. "Thank you very much, Ms Twilight."

"What for?"

"For the ingredients! I thought we'd be lucky to get flour, but you gave us milk and eggs and stuff! I haven't been able to bake a whole cake in ages!"

"They're all very grateful," a very gentle voice announced. "It can be very hard for them to trust ponies. It's always nice to have that trust returned."

"Oh, yeah, I found Matron." Brass muttered lamely.

Matron was a lot younger than Twilight expected. In fact, she was barely older than Twilight herself, probably a year or so at the most. That was until Twilight saw her deep green eyes and could see within them a creature that had aged far beyond the vessel that carried it.

The vessel itself, though, was beautiful. Her mane was cascading pink silk strands waterfalled around a gentle face and those infinitely kind eyes, and eyelashes that would make Rarity weep. Her dress seemed to be composed of clothes and fabric scraps with their own lineage and family trees, all stitched together to form some new, cohesive whole.

Something appeared to click in her head, though, and Matron flinched from within herself a brief moment. "How rude of me, I'm sorry, we don't usually have guests. I should introduce myself properly. To the children I'm Matron, but you may call me Fluttershy. If you want, I mean."

Meadowgrass was still smiling up at her, now offering a slice of cake – vanilla, it seemed, underneath the chocolate icing – which Twilight graciously took from her. The filly practically exploded with delight when Twilight curtsied most properly.

"Thank you for your hospitality, Lady Meadowgrass," Twilight declared in her Formal Court Voice, "and to you as well, Matron Fluttershy."

Fluttershy blushed, hiding behind her mane. "The pleasure is all ours, Lady Twilight."

Scootaloo gagged. Rainbow snorted. "Nothing wrong with fancy girly stuff every now and again, kid. Most ladylike girly fru-fru pony I ever met could kick my flank up and down the street in a fair fight."

There was no false humility to that. Rainbow Dash might have been a master of Queensbury rules, but Rarity was more than happy to show her the efficacy of Eastern Boxing – a martial artform, she had insisted – in exchange for... had Rainbow challenged her in a fit of bravado, had Rarity asked for her to sit still for a fitting, or had she simply goaded Rainbow into a fight so she could get her into a dress?

All were distressingly likely.

Cap'n, though, was watching Meadowgrass carefully. He whispered something into Brass Tack's ear, causing the thug to jump to attention. The colt looped around the table, bumping past Twilight wordlessly, pressing into her as he hurried past to Meadowgrass.

It was Cap'n who spoke. "Hey, Meadowgrass, why don't you let Lady Twilight serve the cake? You worked so hard to bake it, after all."

The filly looked horrified. "Oh, no, I can do— I can do—" something had caught in her throat. Just before she could hack it up, Brass had a hoof to her mouth as gentle as a butterfly, holding a handkerchief in front of it. It came back spattered with red.

It was also definitely Twilight's handkerchief that he had used. Twilight made eye contact with Fluttershy momentarily. 'Matron' had paled, but said nothing.

She saw, but said nothing.

Twilight smiled at Meadowgrass even as she mentally grit her teeth. "It's okay, Miss Meadowgrass. You've been a very gracious host. Let me be a respectful guest."

And with that her magic neatly cut the cake into equal portions. One for Meadowgrass, Matron, Brass – even if he did owe her a new handkerchief – Cap'n, the colt in the flatcap, the greaser, Viola, Scootaloo and Rainbow Dash. Ten slices in total, including her own.

It was a fair-sized cake, but it wasn't much for ten hungry ponies. Still, each one took their slice as gratefully and graciously as possible. Brass and the pony in the flat cap looked most impressed by the display of magical prowess. Good, because it'd taken a lot out of Twilight.

Twilight looked at Matron levelly. "May I speak with you a moment, Matron Fluttershy? Let the foals have their cake."

Rainbow glared at Twilight around a mouthful of cake. "Hey!" she protested, spraying crumbs.

Twilight did not correct herself.

Fluttershy gulped, looking for all the world as terrified. "Certainly, Lady Twilight. Children, play nice while I talk to our guest, please. And no eavesdropping. Cap'n, I'm trusting you to keep Brass and Slide in line, okay?"

Brass and the greaser pony, Sliding Rule apparently, snickered even as the teenage pony saluted seriously. Rainbow looked him up and down carefully.

"Hey, so, you're kind of like a pirate, right?"

Twilight grit her teeth, ready to step in. Don't... don't make light of a child's deformities. Even if you've been thinking it, you don't say it. How is this a hard thing to understand?

"Pretty much, yeah." The Cap'n agreed levelly. Very even tones, he seemed to be weighing how to feel based on the follow up.

Rainbow nodded. "That's pretty cool. Eyepatch, pegleg. But you know what you need?" Here she unsheathed her khukri. "A proper cutlass. "

Cap'n's eye widened as Rainbow gifted him the sword in as casual a manner as he could. Suddenly Brass and Sliding stopped snickering.

The pirate pony grinned around the 'sword' earnestly. Tucked it beneath his good foreleg a moment as he looked at Scootaloo. "She's a pretty alright sort, ain't she?"

Scootaloo beamed the radiant smile of a foal who had got approval from their 'awesome' sibling as Twilight took Fluttershy to the next room.

"I think your.... wards have been stealing from me," she said simply as soon as the door had closed behind them.

"Oh, yes. For quite a while now. We really appreciate your charity," Fluttershy spoke earnestly.

Twilight blinked. "I... it's not charity if I don't know about it."

"Well. We appreciate it nonetheless."

"Right then, Brass stole a handkerchief from me right under your nose, and you said nothing."

"It seemed he needed it more than you. I'm sure he's very sorry about it, though." A simple answer, as honest as Applejack.

This mare baffled Twilight. "Why? Doesn't the Princess give you a stipend? Surely you're a registered orphanage?"

Fluttershy nodded. "Of course. Which is how I can afford the building. Food and clothing and niceties..." She shrugged a little. "We get where we can."

Twilight grit teeth again. The world wasn't that simple. Ends do not justify means. This wasn't an orphanage, then, just a den of thieves with a kindly innocent little mare wrapped around their hooves. "Why don't they look for honest work, then? There's plenty of work for foals—"

"Which is exactly why they are here, Lady Twilight," Fluttershy said kindly, but with an edge of ice. "This is an orphanage for foals who have been bereaved by industrial accidents and incidents."

"All their parents...?"

"Are probably quite alive and well, I have been assured," Fluttershy nodded. "No, the foals themselves have been bereaved by them. While the Captain and Viola are the more obvious, each and every foal here has been grievously harmed doing 'honest' work."

...

What?

"Scootaloo seemed healthy enough for an earth pony filly..."

"It may shock you to learn that she is, in fact, a pegasus," Fluttershy reprimanded. "Her parents decided they couldn't afford her when she lost her job at a textile mill. Little wings are so good at fixing stuck bobbins, so long as they're quick. Tell me, how do you think a foal would lose a job like that?"

...

O-oh.

Fluttershy blinked, the coldness in her eyes, in her stance, melting immediately. She hid back behind her mane. "Oh, I'm dreadfully sorry to have snapped at you like that." It wasn't even snapping... "It's not your fault. You didn't know. I'm sure Scootaloo would be very upset if she knew I had guilted you like that. It's not my place to tell."

It sort of is...

"I'm... I'm very sorry."

Fluttershy smiled wryly. There was no happiness in it. It was the smile one makes when marvelling at how few reasons they have to be smiling, and yet here they stand, regardless. "Please, don't be. You were very charitable when the opportunity presented itself. Scootaloo might not have the best life here, but it's much better than the one she would have gotten in a dungeon."

Charitable, she said. Not quite.

Still.

"... What if the foals worked for me?"

Fluttershy blinked. "Excuse me?"

"They can't – shouldn't – go back to what got them here. But they shouldn't be resorting to the streets either."

"No," Fluttershy agreed. "It's no place for us. But we do what we have to."

Us? Her, a thief too? Dwell on it later.

"I'm about to engage in an unrivalled scientific exercise. And I need skilled hooves. I also have to do this entirely in secret, so I need somepony quiet. Someponies who won't be noticed. I have a feeling you fit that category."

"Too well," Fluttershy agreed. "But I will not let these ponies get hurt—"

"All of them. I'd need all of them. Which means your constant supervision."

Fluttershy grimaced. "I see. I take it you'd be paying standard rates? It's not much. It might be enough, but—"

Twilight shook her head. "No. I'm afraid my own stipend has been cut. All bits I have will have to go to the project itself."

Fluttershy's grimace sank deeper, but there was a curiosity to it. "I don't think you're trying to get me to agree to this out of the goodness of my heart, Ms Sparkle? Others have tried to recruit the younger ones on the promise of redemption through good hard work, and that idle hooves are Tartarus's playthings. But you seem more practical than that."

If Twilight was anything, it'd be practical.

"I have plenty of food, if that's an issue. And for clothing, an excellent seamstress who's currently between careers at the moment."

"Was she the one who—"

"Yes, she is the one who set fire to the court."

"Oh." Fluttershy allowed herself a weak smile a moment. "Good. I would very much like to meet her."

"I suspect you two will get along like a courtroom on fire, yes."

"And?"

"And?"

"There's more, isn't there?" Fluttershy pointed out. "I don't mean to be presumptuous, but you did sound an awful lot like you were in the middle of a thought."

"Well. Yes. I'd like to pay them in education as well. Reading, writing and arithmetic. Apparently they've been borrowing books from my library for quite a while now."

"Again, thank you for your charity." Sincere, honest. Bizarre.

"You are, retroactively, welcome. But Viola has told me what the current situation is. I'd like to help. Your foals obviously have a lot of trade experience behind them – and I suspect they've learned a lot from other's mistakes as well – and I'd like to make sure they have a future as well as a past."

Fluttershy looked at her oddly. "You're a rather naive one, aren't you, Ms Sparkle?"

What?

"What?"

"It all sounds very well and good on paper. But they'd be taking an awful risk. And maybe they don't want to be educated?" What? How could they— Impossible! Education was— "There. See, that look in your eyes. You don't believe me. I'm very sorry, Ms Sparkle, but not all are drawn to," and this she scoffed, "the irrefutable beauty of truth. I take it you genuinely believe you're helping all of equinity with your research?"

"Of course! Knowledge is—"

"Not putting food on a starving child's table, no. Your telescope alone, all those precise instruments in it... How many bits did you sink into that project?"

The number had commas in it, yes. But—

"Exactly. Enough to feed these children from diapers to adulthood, and then some. How has that helped these children?"

But science...

Fluttershy shook her head. "I'll consider it, Miss Sparkle—" No more 'Ms' or 'Lady', "—but I think you have an awful lot of thinking to do. The truth is, you need me right now a lot more than I need you, don't you?"

Well—

"Your friend seems nice, though. She's welcome to come back whenever she wishes. She's very pleasant company, and the children have taken quite a liking to her. It would be nice to have a positive influence around for them."

Very barbed words indeed. The implication was very self-evident: This was an invitation for one.

Twilight was furious now. What did this mare know of naive? What did she know of her sheltered world? She was thinking too small scale! Didn't she see... how could she not see... what Twilight was offering...

A very cold thought struck her.

Was this what Bright Spark thought when he put Pinkie behind the chalkboards? Is this how he thought? Is this why he thought?

It made far too much sense.

Suddenly she felt very ill.

"Sorry," she said weakly. The glare of Matron wavered a little.

"I know. I'm sorry," she whispered. "But... I'll consider your offer. It was made from a genuine place, and in truth, it might be very good for them. For us. But..." She gulped. "Okay. I'll think about this. I think you need to come with me right now, though. Meadowgrass's legs will have just given out, and the child you know as the Captain is about to tell us that they've taken her to bed. I think she'll need a lullaby to fall asleep. You come with me, Ms Sparkle, and think about what you're offering."

What? What?

What?

The doors opened, a very concerned looking 'pirate' holding them, panting. "Matron—"

"Hush, I know. Come now, Mirth, take us to her."


Twilight stood beside Meadowgrass's bedside. The filly gave what could pass for a grateful look, in the circumstances.

Another cough wracked her frail body, and her trembling hooves no longer had the strength to clutch the edge of their blanket. Twilight wiped spittle from her face and hid the hoof that came away scarlet.

Fluttershy stood beside Twilight, smiling gently and kindly. She had leaned in to nuzzle the child's cheek a few long seconds before the wretched cough, pulling herself out of the line of fire. It was a calculated move, so the child would not see her flinch. Now Fluttershy was the loving protector, the watchful guardian, and she would guide this child safely into dreams.

A crystal voice rang true from the mare's impossibly gentle form, a Hearth’s Warming choir and a funeral procession having collided into a single entity.

"Hush now, quiet now, it's time to lay your sleepy head; hush now, quiet now, it's time to go to bed."

Meadowgrass, only hours before having jumped excitedly at the chance to give Twilight a slice of cake, began closing bloodshot eyes, eyes that had become far too weary for fear.

"Drifting off to sleep, let's put this day behind you; drifting off to sleep, and may the light now guide you."

Those weren't the right lyrics. Those weren't the right lyrics. Twilight's heart twitched and jumped inside, a sensation of leaping from her own skin even when she felt rooted to the spot. Coldness clogged her pores, as if even the dread-sweat itself were cringing from the scene.

The little green urchin girl sighed her last breath, her lungs too tired to catch what was now forever lost to her. Her eyes hadn't closed, but what light remained had died with her. Twilight watched in stunned fascination.

Fluttershy stood between the urchin and her other wards — They could not see, because they could not see.

"Let Meadowgrass get her rest," Fluttershy urged, nodding gently to the others, "the doctors will be here soon."

There were fleeting last looks, tears, trembling amongst the crowded urchins... but they followed the guidance of the yellow mare with the flowing pink mane, because that was all that was left to them.

"Meadowgrass... she’s not breathing," Twilight whispered after Fluttershy had emptied the room.

"Yes. I know." Fluttershy sighed, a simple breath impossibly laden with thick melancholy, a sound that darkened the air itself.

Twilight flinched. She had suspected, known even, but to hear it said so bluntly... "You know? But you said—"

"There is a doctor coming. The mortician. I've known for hours, and called on him. He has made arrangements."

"For hours? Then why didn't you take her to a hospital?"

Fluttershy chuckled at that, but it was a dull, humorless laugh, bitter chimes of self-loathing and recrimination from a heavy lead bell. "Do you know how many bits a physician costs? Far more than I could spend."

Twilight felt desperate now, like a caged animal lashing out at the one mare who let this happen, who watched this happen, who caused Meadowgrass’s death. Fluttershy, who had not intervened, who murdered a child by neglecting it, by doing nothing but sing it to sleep, having known hours in advance that she would die, and still doing nothing, no doctors or surgeons or medics, just cradling the filly, a bed for her friends to watch her die in, to die in—

Fluttershy watched Twilight carefully, evenly. "If it would have done Meadowgrass one single sliver of good, if there had been any chance of recovery, every last bit I had would have gone to making that child well. I would have gone hungry for a month to afford whatever care she needed. No replacing the clothes I wore, no matter how tattered, if it would have helped Meadowgrass now. I would have worked nights back to back, no matter how much it hurt me to do so.”

Fluttershy’s eyes flashed steel. She shook her head not with sadness, but with finality. "You develop an eye for this. For each child, their chances, their outcomes... their time left. You can't do this for so long and not come to see that, not without being blind, and a blind caretaker is as useless to these foals as no caretaker." Fluttershy was firm and resolute on this. She was not yelling, she had not raised her voice above a whisper, but her position would be known, come inferno or storm.

Twilight was filled with... nausea. Repulsion. Horror. It was misdirected, she knew, but it was aimed at this mare, at this spectre, at this ghoul and grim reaperess who would watch children die and do nothing! "How could you?!" Twilight screamed, repulsed now at the hysteria in her own voice. "How could you do nothing but... nothing but..."

"I could see that child was dead the moment she came through my door, and all I could do was make her last days comfortable, happy and surrounded by those who loved her. Thank you, as well, for that."

Nothing but watch. Could do nothing but watch. Just watch and wait and smile and sing and smile and hide and lie and care and love and love and sing and smile and watch and and andandand—

Fluttershy hugged Twilight as she let out one long, low whimpering whine, childish and beastial. Pulled her in tight, let the tears soak into her precious pink mane, the one thing that was clean and radiant left to the mare. Even those eyes, those beautiful eyes, were too haggard and weary now.

Twilight had just watched a child die. Watched a child she had curtsied to hours before, die.

Twilight had just watched a small, innocent child die. She had just watched a child die in front of her very eyes and been helpless to stop it. Was this how their guardian felt all the time? Surely it would be impossible to get used to this, to keep seeing this and just... endure.

She wasn't a sandstone mare, like Pinkie. Sandstone crumbled to the drip, drip, drip of water over time. Canyons were carved from stone by that slow and steady and infinite dripping.

The parts of Twilight that were her empathy and her equinity just weeped helplessly and their eyes leaked all over this mare's withers and she sobbed helplessly into her chest and a calm yellow hoof just patted her back with a gentle and patient rhythm... as a compartment of her mind that was as cold, resolute and sterile as alchemist's iron simply reflected.

This mare was a stalagmite, that lucid part thought. Each drip that should have worn her down just built on this foundation and added to it, raising her higher and higher each time.

It was no coincidence that the dripping water that built the stalagmite was so chemically similar to teardrops.

That last lucid part played a dispassionate observer so that the rest of her was allowed to feel. That lucid part felt as dead as the cooling urchin child beneath the blankets beside her.

"The younger ones don't know,” the mare softly whispered. “It's better that way. The older ones, like Brass and Mirth, do. They don't think I know that they know, but I do." Twilight felt it rather than saw it, but Fluttershy smiled winsomely and wry. If it were the other kind of rye, Twilight would surely ferment it into a strong whiskey, just so she might offer the mare a drink. Somehow, she knew the fallen angel would turn it down anyway. Twilight could not say she would as well.

"They're just careful not to tell the younger ones either. It's their gift to their juniors, just like what small peace I can offer is my gift to them. If it's the only comfort I can offer them, what cost is a few more sleepless nights?"

Twilight sniffled miserably on the mare supporting her, her nose a broken faucet running over yellow withers, but the shoulder’s owner didn't seem to notice or mind.

"Long dark night, morning frost," Fluttershy sang soothingly into Twilight's ear, melancholia impacting upon Twilight heavily, physically, in her heart and her gut and her head and her chest, "I'm still here. But all is lost."

Each tear became slower to fall, held her eyelids shut a second longer each time.

Fluttershy sighed against her. "Do you see, now, why I called you naive for wanting to pay me in futures?"

Twilight snuffled miserably.

“I will think about it, though. You should probably go home, for now, Lady Sparkle.”

It was a suggestion Twilight followed without hesitation, leaving the room silently on wobbly legs.

Twilight went and found Dash downstairs. Ended up finding the pegasus in the parlour listening to Viola. She didn’t tell her what happened. She didn’t say anything.

Rainbow did. “Woah. You alright, Boss? You look like death warmed up.”

Dash caught Twilight with her side as she collapsed, sobbing.

“Woah, uh, something I said? Ponyfeathers. Sorry, Viola, I think I gotta take the egghead back to base. We’ll have to keep working on my themesong some other time, ‘kay? But you better believe we’re coming back.”

“Oh. That would be nice. Thank you, Ms Dash.”

“Pleasures all mine, kid. Come on, Twi, work with me here, you’re sorta heavy. I’m not going to have to drag you the whole way, am I?


It didn’t end up being the whole way. But there weren’t many moments where Twilight wasn’t pressed to Rainbow’s side in some way, leaning on her for support, on the long walk back home through the sewers.

If Rainbow had a problem, if she got tired, if she resented the unicorn for it for even a moment, she never said a word of it the whole journey back.

The walk was silent but for the splashing of shallow water at their hoof falls.

They finally got to the library’s address, in a way, from the bottom. A short ladder up some pipes kept Rainbow pressed up behind her, helping push the unicorn ever upwards. They got to the hatch back into the solitude and sanctum of the Library, one last portal to a world of books that would help her through this.

Twilight opened the portal and stepped right into the muzzle of a loaded musket, held steady between her eyes by her brother.

Shining Armour looked like she felt. The difference was that only one of them was aiming a gun.

“How could you, Twilight?” he whispered. “Why did you have to make me choose between you and my family?”


The Mare Who Would Love the Moon

Situation:

I've got a gun aimed at my face.

My brother is holding the gun aimed at my face..

My brother is about to shoot me with the gun he is holding aimed at my face.

If my brother does not shoot me with the gun he is holding aimed at my face, our friends and family will be executed in my place.

This is the third worst moment of my life.

Oh, and there's another soldier flanking him. You know. Just in case.

Conflict Resolution Scenario Proposal #1:

– Plead for life.

Assessment:

        – Shining Armor hesitates.

                – One of his soldiers shoots me instead, resulting in my death.

                        – Probable death (Henceforth: Resolution A)

                – Shining Armor shoots me anyway

                        – Resolution A

                – Shining Armor orders my safety

                        – Everyone we love is executed. (Henceforth: Resolution B)

                – Shining Armor doesn't hesitate.

                                – Resolution A

Proposal rejected.

Conflict Resolution Scenario Proposal #2

Fight back.

Assessment:

– I state intentions.

        – Shining Armor refuses to fight own sister.

                – Resolution B

        – Shining Armor shoots me

                – Resolution A

...

– I state intentions after disabling firearm

        – As above, but a soldier shoots me instead.

...

– I state intentions after disabling firearms and shielding

        – Shining Armor refuses to fight.

                – Resolution B

        – Shining Armor uses superior tactical acumen and fighting ability to eradicate me with reluctant prejudice.

                – Resolution A

        – Through sheer luck and force of will, I win.

                – Shining Armor has plausible deniability and I live the rest of my life in exile. (Henceforth: Resolution C)

                – Shining Armor has plausible deniability, I live the rest of my life in exile and Celestia follows through on her threat regardless. (Henceforth: Resolution B.1)

– I do not state intentions, strike hard, fast and with the element of surprise behind me.

        – I win.

                – Resolution C... or B.1

        – I lose.

                – Resolution A

Proposal #2 re-categorized Plan A

Proposal #3

Last words:

– I say my last words.with dignity

        – Resolution A

Proposal #3 re-categorized to Plan B

I allow myself another third of a second longer to think about this. It's already been a full seventy milliseconds, which is far, far too long in these circumstances. Every millisecond I spend reduces the factor of surprise quadratically.

"Woah, no way," Rainbow balks, "You're going to shoot us for trying to fix the bloody toilet? That's just unsporting!"

What?

"What?" Shining echoes me, lowering his gun slightly, as does the soldier by his side.

"Well, yeah, why in the knee-high boots else would we have gone down there?" Rainbow snorts. "It's hardly a bloody picnic, that's for sure."

"So why were you down there, then, Ms...?"

"Oh! Right, pleased to meet you. I'm the intrepid explorer Rainbow 'Dashing' Dash! Twilight's the patron for my next glorious expedition, don'cha know, boy?"

Shining raises an eyebrow involuntarily. "Next question, Ms Dash, what was an explorer doing in my sister's plumbing?"

That's Luna's job!

No! Bad thoughts! Get back to tactical assessment.

"Well, when Twilight here, what ho, pulled me from my tally-whatsit, desk job, back at the Spark works, she saw I'd turned my whole ruddy office into a jungle – keep me in the right mindset, you know, Mr Armor—"

"That will be Captain, Miss."

"Nah, I already know a Cap'n, and you ain't him, so as I was saying, Shining, and to do that I had to kind of, uh, mess with the building's pipes. Without anyone noticing. Stealth plumbing, you get me, and I got real good at it." She claps me on the withers hard, affectionately, jolting me out of the branching off modifications of Plans A through D, and the further analysis of proposals 5 through 16 – Obviously only 8 and 11 passed muster. "For some reason, your sister thought somepony might go and shoot her if she got caught trying to fix it. But that's crazy, now, isn't it?" She says, at once jokingly and levelly. Like she's putting on a show.

No, what it is, is a dare. Even if Shining doesn't buy it, he's got a proper story to sell. He's got an out now.

Shining hesitates.

"Sergeant?"

"Yes, Captain?"

"Go confirm Ms 'Dashing' Dash's story. I want a full report from Bright Spark here within the hour as to the truth of her statement."

Shining never was one to back down from a dare. Even the one time it caused him to turn up to the war room covered in custard—blame Cadance for that one.

The Sergeant salutes, then darts off. Rainbow Dash chants 'hup, hup, hup!' the whole time he scurries off, much to my brother's chagrin.

"Fixing the plumbing, eh?" He remarks to the both of us.

"Well, there is an awful lot of it. You wouldn't believe how much piping I had to lay for the doorbell alone..." I groan.

He looks confused. "You have a doorbell? I just knocked. Is that why nopony answered...?"

Internal screaming. Intense internal screaming.

Rainbow grins. "Man, you can just hear her grit her teeth, eh?"

Shining sighed. "Honestly, I was doing the same thing towards the end. Normally I'd have shot you for the 'Captain' remark, but you'd already talked me out of having to do it once. Double Jeopardy saved you on that one."

Wait, where's Pinkie?

Why didn't she answer?

And I thought Rarity might be here too, when I got back...

"So!" I declare loudly instead,

Rainbow and Shining look at me askance.

"Tea?"

Shining smiles slowly, relief setting in. Tension evaporating off him almost visibly. You can see where the hardened cords of it in between muscle disappear into the air around him, and he holds himself easier. "Tea sounds lovely."

"Too bloody right it does!" Dash agrees. "You wouldn't happen to have any assam, would you?"

"I have my own box of Oolong outside, I'll give the stand-down order while I grab it."

"Oolong?" Rainbow snorts. "That tea tastes as weak as you look."

"Arm wrestle?" Shining asks excitedly.

"This! This is a red-blooded stallion!" Rainbow proclaimed for her own benefit. "If I win, you gotta give me one of your medals."

Shining shrugged. "If you win, I reckon I can get a trophy commissioned. That do you fine?"

Rainbow's mouth hung open silently for a moment. Twilight was confused as to why right up until the squeal reached audible frequencies and kept working its way down.

Twilight didn't have a plan for this.

After a bit more back-and-forth, Shining left with a look back over his shoulder. "What do you think Bright Spark's going to say? I mean, you sucker punched him right?"

"Allegedly!" Rainbow declared cheerfully, just like Twilight had trained her to.

"And here I thought this was going to be a bad day..."


It took the soldier an hour to return, even sending a pegasus messenger ahead. The paperwork just took a lot of time.

What came back was a stack of formal patent sheets, blueprints of the building, illustrated cross sections and diagrams... the postage on it alone must have been costing the Crown a pretty penny.

The final document was from the desk of Professor Bright Spark himself, which the Sergeant read to the ponies gathered at the tea table:

"Architecturally speaking, the extent of Ms. Rainbow Dash's achievements is incomprehensible, irreparable and ingenious. The only reason she has not been sued for damages is that I've taken the liberty to incorporate her designs and schemata into industrializing the growth of forced rhubarb, with a wide variety of further applications in the field of, pardon the pun, indoor farming in the future.

I have taken the liberty of avoiding a court settlement in exchange for her ceding the right to the designs. She is free to pursue her own legal action at any time, though I believe her 'lawyer' incapable of showing up at the courthouse.

In summary, Rainbow Dash's abilities continue to win out against her not inconsiderable deficiencies and eccentricities. Now please don't bother me with such frivolous matters again.

Dictated but not read

The Offices of Prof. Spark"

"Looks like her story checks out, Captain."

Shining sighed with relief, more than anything else. "Alright. Okay. Dismissed, Sergeant."

That left Shining, Rainbow and Twilight around the table. Shining glared at Twilight, who gulped. "Now, next time you have a problem with your utilities, we've got some chaps from the engineering corps with nothing better to do."

"Isn't there a piffling war on, though?" Rainbow asked.

Again, Shining sighed, this time massaging the bridge of his nose. "It's not a particularly good one."

Twilight took that as a cue to go make tea. Tea always helped. Assam, no milk, two sugars.

"But aren't those natives weak-spined cowards who back down at the taste of Equestrian steel?" Rainbow asked. "Nasty, vicious vermin who don't know the taste of civilization?"

Shining's eyes softened, and his voice became parental. The kind of voice you used to explain Santa wasn't real and the stove was hot. "Well, to start with, which are these savages; nasty and vicious, or weak-spined cowards?"

The gears in her little feathery head started to turn. "Both?"

"So they're vicious cowards?"

"Yeah, like swaggering bullies, who haven't known anything else!" Rainbow assured him. "I don't see a problem with our way of life, so why should they?"

Shining outright snorted at that, a little sadly. "I'm sure they've said the same thing, themselves, when I showed up on their borders." Twilight returned with the cup of tea, and he gratefully brought it to his lips. Not quite sipping it, but just enough to appreciate the aroma. Clears the head something wonderful. Gets your thoughts ironed out. "Look, Dash, I appreciate you want to be an explorer. But take it from someone who's been there, the locals don't appreciate being explored. It's not undiscovered lands if they were there first."

Careless talk like that would get an officer shot for treason, Twilight thought. Especially given his current circumstances. Her brother was either being very brave or very stupid, or maybe some place right in the middle.

Rainbow looked shellshocked, for her part.

"How's Cadance?" Twilight felt compelled to ask, taking a seat beside the deflated 'explorer'.

Shining finally took a sip of his tea and made a delighted exhale, steam intermingled with breath. "She's worried, very worried, about all this. She's trying not to seem too happy that I'm getting extended leave after this. The Princess does at least grant the small mercies where she sees fit."

"Well, tell her I want to be an aunt sometime, okay? I want a little foal I can spoil stupid with books."

Her brother coughed on his tea a little, punching a foreleg to his chest repeatedly, choking and wheezing far longer than the tea would have caused. He was also blushing furiously. "Twilight!"

"What?"

"Just... I don't know!"

"Well, you must have been thinking about it!"

"I mean... yes, but that's different!"

Rainbow nudged Twilight in the ribs, still looking a little shellshocked from before, but having the presence of mind to say "I think he just doesn't want his sister to know he's spelunking the moist caverns of pleasure."

Shining turned as red as a tomato. "That was the worst possible way to say it."

"Delving the moist pits of carnal pleasure?"

"It's the word 'moist' isn't it?" Twilight agreed straight-faced, watching her brother carefully. He seemed to be shrivelling inside himself. It was decidedly innocent.

"Please make her stop?"

But Rainbow was on a roll now. "Cannonball the fiddle cove? Burying the bishop in the fleshy pink congregation? Giving a kiss to the little man in the canoe? Going up to his nuts in guts?"

Twilight paled noticeably, stealing her brother's tea – with much protest – to take a stiff sip herself. "Okay, that last one was a little much."

"You think!" Shining protested three octaves higher than his usual register.

Twilight tried very hard not to giggle, truly she did. It was just the squeamishness caused by Rainbow's last euphemism that saved her. "Well, what does Cadance call it? She doesn't seem the sort to be shy about it."

"I don't want to say."

Twilight took a swing. "Is it snuggle times?"

"..."

And it's good! "Oh my goodness, it is, she really calls it that."

"...!" Shining stated eloquently behind the sound of him choking on his own tongue.

"Okay," Dash added, "that's actually kinda adorable. Nauseating, yes, but also totally adorable." She tried to keep a straight face, but every other breath became a snort out her nose and down the back of her throat.

"S-shutup!" He was definitely red right down to his neck, now, and squirming in his seat. Both hooves thrown over his head and pulling down on his ears.

"Oh my gosh," Dash wheezed, "now he's stuttering! That's even worse."

Shining stood up suddenly, pointing at Dash, still blushing furiously, but that furiosity was matched by his eyes too. "I swear on my rank, Ms Dash, that I will find out who you're smitten for and I will rub your nose in it."

"Me? What'd I do?"

"I already know who Twilight has a crush on, and it's already ridiculous."

Twilight blinked, then tapped the table with an indignant hoof. "Hey!"

But Shining would have no protests. "Your idea of romance involves giant lasers."

"That's because my idea of romance is objectively better than yours!"

Shining shook his head, trying to clear the excess blood, or at least move it around a bit. "Doesn't matter! Dash! Rue the day! Etcetera!"

And as he turned and stormed out, it was almost forgotten that, about an hour ago, he had nearly been forced to kill Rainbow and Twilight.

Almost forgotten.


As Rainbow left to fly home, and talk to her landlord about her... career prospects again, Twilight wandered around the basement she had ceded to Pinkie Pie. Still hadn't repaired the ceiling... floor? above. She found herself again looking through the blueprints.

She wished the ridiculous pony was here to explain some of these notes to her. Where was she? It wasn't like her to leave without telling Twilight. Or leave at all most days. In fact, she couldn't remember the last time Pinkie had left without at least Rainbow Dash accompanying her.

Some of these devices required parts and components and materials that simply wouldn't exist for decades, centuries even, and yet she had shorthand for them. Whereas Twilight herself would have reams of pages of notes on just one of these parts alone, Pinkie scribbled off with a number. What even was a 555 chip? What did a flip-flop element do?

Still, what she could understand, and the numbers she'd put down – even if Twilight didn't know how the numbers were put there – they all checked out, every time she calculated them. Which took a long time, admittedly, but still.

Time and time again she came back to the concept of escape velocity.

Pinkie had initially considered balloons, like how she had gotten that foal off that stack of books. But recent calculations that Twilight herself had contributed had shown that gravity was... well, gravity was weird.

You end up going high enough, and if you're not going fast enough you end up going sideways instead. You just keep going sideways faster. Because what happens, the scholars have discovered, is that 'down' is relative, and rather quickly becomes your sideways.

If you go fast enough, you achieve orbit, like the moon around Equestria. Falling up in perpetuity.

There were a few equations she had worked out with Pinkie.

Escape velocity was the first, and perhaps the most important. It was the speed whatever vessel they had would need to be moving to be able to escape Equus orbit. That was simple enough to calculate in theory: It was the point where velocity would exceed gravitational potential energy.

Simple enough in theory. In execution, Twilight would kiss the pony who invented calculus.

Whoever said pure math had no practical applications was a fool and a part of a depressing majority!

There was one chalkboard wheeled down into the basement – Pinkie had insisted, but Twilight felt bad for some reason about it, considering her old living conditions. Having her share a room with a chalkboard seemed immoral somehow, but there was a difference between 'with' and 'behind'.

Right?

Still, the equation was simple enough. The square root of (gravitational constant multiplied by mass of Equus) over the radius.

The hardest work had been done a hundred years before by a distant Apple family relative, Latunda, in figuring out the mass of Equus. Now they got the relatively simple number of five kilometers a second.

That number had scared Twilight when she first saw it. Scared her a lot. The muzzle velocity of a musket ball was a fifth that! The idea of getting a pony to 5,000 meters a second was inconceivable!

Well. It was conceivable. The force required was simply mass times acceleration. Assuming a near instantaneous acceleration – well, that would be 5,000 meters per second per second for a second. Nice and simple numbers. Cannons were great like that. They had a great tendency to cause complications to explode. Or complications caused them to explode, either way.

Assuming the weight of a powered bathysphere with pony loaded inside, the weight of the hull being replaced with equipment designed to propel a passenger through the aether, call it two thousand kilograms, then the force required to propel it would be...

Ten million newtons of force. That would be about...

Actually... given a large enough reserve, that was reasonably feasible. More force had gone into gunpowder stockpiles going off!

Twilight did some more quick calculations...

Assuming the structure could be no longer than the entirety of Canterlot mountain was tall, then that gave her about 5,500 meters of room to accelerate evenly over.

To get to escape velocity, then, she could accelerate for three seconds at about seventeen hundred meters per second per second, to make the use of the entire length.

That would be a force about four hundred and fifty times the strength of Equus gravity. How much could a pony take? That, she didn't know.

But aside from fireworks and gunpowder rockets, there wasn't really another way to bring the cannon with her, not the thrust she'd need. The more fuel she wanted to bring with her, the more fuel she'd need.

Even then, it would only even mattered if she could secure funding.

She might have had a lot of savings, before, but not enough to fund what might be the greatest industrial and scientific undertaking in all history.

Twilight looked, again, at the hole in the ceiling. At the glimmering brass cannon. At all the maths surrounding her. The light filtering down. Through it, the light catching off the barrel of her telescope and laser array, something that also had been impossible, had been inconceivable, before this year.

The array she would use to talk to Luna again tonight.

That Twilight would make it to the moon and save her Princess was not an impossibility. It was an inevitability.

And where was Pinkie Pie?

Twilight moved up from the dusty confines of the basement and meandered herself up to the coffee engine in the entrance foyer. The big box of grinders and boilers and steamwands and drip trays rattled and hissed as she poured herself her fourth coffee of the hour.

She sipped it. Needed more sugar.

The sugar tin came up empty, even after a few shakes with it held upended. Her home’s net sugar consumption had skyrocketed since Pinkie Pie moved in, and that was fine, but it didn't help her now.

Where had Pinkie gone? She hadn't said anything. Normally she'd suspect her of going with Dash, but she'd been with Dash when Pinkie had vanished. Maybe she'd ask Applejack when she showed up later. Food deliveries had remained a constant, even with her savings dwindling.

She should also ask Rarity about... things. Applejack too. There was a growing surge in Twilight's gut that maybe she was taking Pinkie for granted, or worse, using her like Bright Spark had. How was she any different, now, to the Professor who kept her locked away? What difference, truly, was there in living in a basement to living behind chalkboards? He'd done horrible things to Pinkie in the name of treatment, but was that truly any worse than not doing anything at all, in what Twilight assumed was her best interest?

She seemed happy in her basement with her tinkering.

She had seemed happy when Twilight first found her, too.

Oh, horsefeathers.

Now here she was, left alone with her thoughts, and the prospect that maybe Pinkie Pie—

— yep, definitely needed more sugar —

—that Pinkie Pie had seen the writing on the wall that Twilight had missed. That maybe Twilight didn't respect Pinkie Pie for more than her brilliance, and what she could do for her. As a means to an end.

That was a horrible way to think of a friend. One of her first. One of her closest.

She had to get her back.

She had to hide from her brother.

She had to apologize to Applejack for only seeing her for her services for so many years, and even then...

Twilight had to talk to somepony who was an expert on growing feelings of loneliness and isolation.

It was growing closer and closer to nightfall. She could talk to Luna soon.


The guards knew to keep their distance. Twilight might have been confined to her house, but the photons she fired off into the aether cared little for civil law, or the wellbeing of straggling pegasi. It's not like she didn't give them fair warning.

Morse code powerful enough to vaporize an entire guard fired ever upwards into the aether, dissipating and diluting as it made the 400,000 kilometer journey to its destination, a lonely blue princess who only ever saw from it the tiniest sparkling of light, semaphore from a passing ship concealed by the heaviest pea-soup fog.

Tonight's missive simply started, in dots and dashes, "What's it like up there, really?"

Luna thought for only a second before using her long, slender limbs to drag out in the cosmic dust: "Beautiful and serene for a time, and then very lonely thereafter."

"What do you miss most?"

"About home?"

"Yes."

"Difficult. So much must have changed. Would not recognize it anymore. It would not recognize Us anymore." Here Luna saved time by writing the sentences parallel to each other, sharing the 'would not recognize' and the 'anymore' between both.

They were such simple questions and answers, given far more weight by the long minutes it took to send and receive and translate them. By how limited their conversational windows were. Every word counted, and so even the littlest nothings were made so infinitely larger because of that.

"Were you happy?"

Luna paused for a long time, seeming to look seriously right down the telescope. Twilight couldn't make out her face, but her head seemed to be angled... well it made sense, it was the same place the laser was coming from. Still, it was almost unnerving, watching Luna look at her without seeing. Something she never quite got used to, even after all these long months now.

"No."

Another long pause. More words dragged on after that first.

"I was always quite alone. Worse now, though."

Was it possible for a pony to write something wryly in moondust? It certainly seemed so.

"Why?"

"Celestia cast a long shadow that was hard to step out of. I grew bitter and jealous, shamefully." No abbreviations, no cut corners. The thought was written in its entirety; obviously a thought that had been gnawed down and tasted and chewed for a long time that was only just now able to be spat out. It wouldn't do to keep it down a moment longer, nor to hold any of it back. "Silly pony. Has she forgiven us?"

Celestia... forgiven her?

But that didn't make any sense.

Celestia banished Luna, why would Luna feel...

"What happened?"

"You don't know???" Three question marks underlined in the dust.

"No."

"Long story. I will write during day. We still have this night."

There was so much Twilight wanted to talk to Luna about, but there was so little time in a night, and the world spun too fast. Soon enough she'd have drifted around again, and the moon would be gone.

Did she talk about Fluttershy? Did she talk about what happened with her brother? Did she talk about... no. Don't talk about rescue plans. Not until hypotheticals become courses of action. Still, there was one thing Luna was in a unique position to talk to her about.

"I am also alone," Twilight admitted.

"Oh? Is my company not enough?"

"A marvel," Twilight typed out, followed by her signal for half power, to indicate time wasn't the only limiting factor. Rainbow Dash could only produce so much power for the capacitor banks during the day. "But I am confined to house arrest. Too dangerous to visit."

"A shame. Friendship is a powerful thing. Often a tool of destiny."

"Destiny?"

"Magic is strange. Fate especially is a force to be reckoned with. I consider our meeting fated, certainly." Luna stopped to consider this. She found a large, blank portion of moon surface to work with and wrote in it the word MAGIC. Around it she drew a five pointed star. Each point had its own word attached to it.

INSPIRATION

DEDICATION

IMAGINATION

VALOUR

CHARITY

Then the writing continued as before, to the side. An arcane diagram written just for her on the surface of another world. Everything Twilight had dreamed of since she was fourteen. "Where you find these in your life, fate has seen fit to intervene, as certain as a cutie mark. All traits you have shown just to help me with my own loneliness. I wish that we could meet so I might know your body as well as your mind."

There was a long pause as Twilight soaked that in. Then a very panicked Luna erased 'know your body', drawing a long line out from those words and into more blank space so that she might write instead "Appearance? Forgive my unintentional euphemism."

She alternated so quickly between forward and bashful sometimes. For some reason Twilight didn't find it as endearing as she usually did; this time it just worried her.

"You won't scare me off," Twilight sent. "Don't worry."

Luna just sat staring up at her for a long time. Her usually impeccable writing became hurried and messy. "I am afraid. I have been alone for so long. I do not wish to lose you to careless words."

Twilight had no words for that. But Rarity had taught her some.

"To love the moon

Is not easy

To talk to her

Is harder still.

To reach the moon

Impossible

But all these things

I surely will."

A longer silence than before, Luna staring up at the sky motionless but for the impossible breeze through her hair. Finally, she brought herself to say one last thing that night.

"For all my fears that you will no longer speak to me, I find myself with no words to say." Then those last four words were scratched out, replaced with "Speechless". Scratched out again. "Grateful". Scratched out again. "Lost for words again." Then she erased all but a skeleton of the sentence to create a new.

"you will no longer find me lost"

Then even that was reduced.

"you will find me"

Even if Twilight had the power to say more, a single flash was all she needed.

"Yes."


As Twilight dragged herself out of bed at midday, she had plenty of time to consider the helplessness of her isolation. With Pinkie Pie gone she didn't really have anyone just... here, besides Spike.

She tried to remember how she was okay with this before. How was she okay with this for so long?

There was no answer that she could grasp at.

Rainbow Dash was still having problems with her landlord. While Twilight had enough bits to tide the pegasus over, the loss of her stipend had reached the news, and it seemed 'lack of stable employment' would be a convenient enough excuse to be rid of Rainbow.

Rarity would make for pleasant company, but she had no means of contacting her. She had no right to ask for Applejack, considering how busy the farmpony was just keeping her head above-water.

Pinkie was still... Twilight didn't know. Gone. Maybe Fluttershy had been right.

So all Twilight had to do, then, was read.

Yet for as vast as the library was, there didn't seem to be a book Twilight would allow herself to read. It seemed so... ineffectual would be the word.

Luna had a thousand years of practice at this. Would that have made each day better or worse? Would you grow more numb or more sensitive to the passage of time? Was the thought of escape a light at the end of the tunnel, or a hollow mockery?

What must that first message to her have felt like?

When she ran out of power that first time...

Again, that memory kept coming to kick her in the gut.

So here Twilight was, having just learned what it was like to have friends, to understand just how lonely she had been, and now the Princess of Mourning had taken that away from her just like she had from Luna.

Her laser was big, certainly. Designed to move with the observatory roof...

What if rescuing Luna was but a pipe dream, an unattainable fool's errand? She didn't believe that yet, but she knew it was a possibility, just like she knew her communication's system could be aimed and pointed at a much closer target. The Hollow Castle was perched higher on the mountain, a lone target and a sitting duck.

She knew what it could do to a pegasus oblivious to her warnings. What could it do to an alicorn, if Twilight had intent?

Maybe that was how she was destined to help Luna. She would aid in her escape by destroying her gaoler.


Pinkie Pie didn't know what a patent office was, but Rainbow Dash seemed to know what she was doing, so that was okay.

Bright Spark knew what patents were. He'd talked about them all the time, and given Pinkie a lot of patented-cure-alls over the years, but most of them just made her really sick, or dizzy, or happy-in-a-bad-way, or sleepy. Drowsy sleepy, not bored sleepy.

Patent offices were bored sleepy.

Everything was beige and covered in wooden desks where wooden ponies sat rubber-stamping everything and doing lots of maths, and while the maths was okay, it was pretty boring arithmetic. Everypony wore the same type of suit in the same boring colours, and they all seemed like they were so much cleverer than her. They acted like the university professors did when Bright Spark introduced her to them, and they all knew so many things she didn't. But they didn't really want to talk to her then, either.

It didn’t help that everything was lit by ornate, brass candelabras in the wall, which looked super cool but weren’t that great at lighting everything super well. At least all the clerks had nice lamps to work with.

Rainbow Dash looked like she was feeling the same way, though, and that was cool. After they'd been sent past the front admissions desk for having just too many patents to file, they'd been sent to sit in this room full of typewriter ponies until a case manager could be assigned. It was only seconds before both ponies were getting squirmy and fidgety, and an impressive amount of restraint on Dash's part to last a full minute.

"Bunch of stuffed shirt eggheads, I tell you what," Rainbow grumbled. "Two shakes of a lamb's tail, Pinks."

With that, the adventurous pegasus flew up and over the desks, sending clerks scrambling for paperweights and bullclips as loose papers were sent scattered by her downdraught.

"Brown suit, grey suit, brown suit, grey suit, grey suit, grey suit, grey suit – ooh, paisley, I'm avoiding you like the plague, sir." Rainbow respectfully doffed her pith at the very unamused stallion. "C'mon! Isn't there any pony around here who isn't made of starch and stiff?"

Well at the back of the deep and dim room was a petite pony with a sparkly red dress. She must have saved up for months to buy it. As bright as the dress was, it was mostly hidden behind piles of paperwork. She’d been pushed into the back, surrounded by filing cabinets filled with index cards and the cumulative weight of oppression given physical form in paper.

Everywhere else was beige carpets, cut-and-paste ‘antique’ wooden desks, but here there was the dark olive green of the cabinets, the yellow of old paper and index cards, the bright red of an insecure pony’s dress.

Dash ran a mental checklist: Not boring? Check. Does paperwork for us? Probably check. Looks like she needs a jolly good talking to? Absolute check.

She zoomed back to the simple padded bench at the entrance of the room, where Pinkie sat. She’d apparently taken some crayons out of her bowler hat and started to doodle more sketches, using the back of an illustration demonstrating the workings of an oscillating kilogram thingamajig that apparently shook buildings. She was lying across the bench, kicking her legs behind her, head over the edge and buried in her drawings set on the floor.

The crayon sketches looked complicated.

Rainbow got distracted, of course. “Woah. What’s this?”

Pinkie smiled. “Well, the moon’s really far away right? And it’s not like we can trail a cable behind it. So I’m trying to figure out how to make a really, really big radio antenna, right? And I’m thinking, gosh, Twilight’s telescope is so clever with all its slidy moving parts for focal length, and light and radio are just different mechanical waves passing through the medium of the ether, right? So it stands to reason I could make a really big radio antenna using the same principles!”

The crayon drawing was flourished with much pride. It looked like the cross section of a Ferris Wheel trying to eat a water tower built into its side, in bright pastel colours of course.

“The blue thing is the shaped-surface subreflector, which is of course bouncing off the bigger purple shaped-surface reflector, and the pink bits are geometric foci. Twilight told me the red bits called an alidade! Isn’t that a fun word! Alidade. It looks super funny when you spell it out, too.” Pinkie filled it in with a little number affix.

Rainbow snorted. “Okay, yeah, throw it on the cart and we’ll get it patented too.”

Pinkie looked hesitant.

“I mean, they’ll give it back. So you can finish it. It’s just proving you designed it, right?”

“Oh right! My signature. Bright Spark taught me it was very important I put my signature super properly on everything.”

Her super important signature had the prettiest yellow crayon saved up just for it. Yellow and pink just matched. It was very, very pretty, she decided.

Rainbow was already hiking the wagon train past the desks of much grumpier looking ponies. The petite mare in the red dress seemed honestly surprised when they stopped in front of her.

“Ah?” she murmured somewhat hesitantly after a few seconds of Rainbow and Pinkie beaming brightly at her, her gold-rimmed spectacles falling down her nose as she looked up at them. She pushed them back up with a hoof. “Can I help you two?”

“I certainly hope so!” Rainbow declared brightly, “or I have made a terrible, horrible mistake.”


Two ponies walked down a long country dirt road with a simple white fencing on either side. Both had a stein of fresh apple cider with them. Both were businessmares, and both were devoted older sisters, but that was about where the similarities between them ended.

"You're lucky Applebloom likes that sister of yours, else I might not have trusted you past the property line. Still ain't lettin' you anywhere near my brother."

Rarity smiled wickedly. "I taught Sweetie Belle to share her toys."

"That ain't it. Mac's too much of a romantic, though you'd never think it by looking at him. Pony like little old you'd break his heart the second you got bored of him. You seem nice enough, Rares, but you don't seem the settlin' down type, and that's what Apples need."

The Lady sighed bitterly. "I suppose you're right. No stallion is so gorgeous as to be worth ruining his life, I suppose. Even if he's a charming, romantic farmer from a family that prides itself on integrity. Probably strapping. Delightful accent. Almost certainly too good for me. Big, strong, yet delicate and innocent, so unfamiliar is he to the ways of the world outside his little farmstead..."

"Rares, hate to break it to ya, but you're droolin'."

"Let me have my moment, Applejack, please. I am fantasizing."

"That's darn near what I was afraid of, yep."

Rarity heaved a long-suffering sigh, straightening herself up a bit. "I suppose it's best we don't meet, then, if only because I'm sure he couldn't possibly live up to the ideal I'm putting together for him in my head."

There was a long silence, unbroken by the country stillness here, even so close to the city. The city's soot did nothing to dull the vibrant green and red of the apple trees, instead settling as fertilizer. The Lady took a moment to appreciate its simple, tranquil beauty.

Speaking of simple beauty, she couldn't help but notice Applejack's eyes darting back and forth, anywhere but at her.

"Oh, dear, he's exactly as I described him, isn't he?"

"Eenope," Applejack lied. Badly.

"I'm choosing to believe that. I want you to know that, because I value our friendship."

"Thank'n you kindly. It'd be a shame. It's been nice, Applebloom having a friend her own age. School's just a mite bit expensive at the moment."

"Actually, I've been meaning to ask you about that. Or, rather, something tangential to it. You've been spending so much more time off the farm lately, when you speak so constantly of your debts."

Applejack snorted, tipping her hat low over her eyes in such a way to hide her smirk from Rarity with the bulk of her foreleg. "You tellin' me it's my own fault for not workin' hard enough, Rares?"

"What?! No, no of course not, I just... I wonder—"

"Easy there." She moved her arm, showing off her big smile, "It's because I'm losin' customers. Doesn't matter how much we grow if nopony's buying. And I don't make enough metalworking to cover costs. So I reckon I've earned a little time off lately to hang around with smart ponies and good company. We'll get by."

"Smart ponies! You have so much potential yourself, mon cher! Why, with this spare time, if you were to get yourself an education—"

Applejack rolled her eyes at that, raising her nose in the air and half lidding her eyes. Her expression just screamed; Peasant! How dare you get your blood on my carriage wheels! "Vous n'êtes pas aussi intelligent que vous pensez que vous êtes." The easy-going smile returned, and Applejack punctuated it with a big sip of cider that gave her the biggest foam moustache as she could manage. "You're not as smart as you think you are, sugarcube."

Rarity balked at that. "You speak the language of culture?"

Applejack snorted. "N’importe quoi. Whatever you say, mon cher. To me it's the language of prissy prep schools."

"You did mention you had 'been there, done that'... " Rarity murmurred thoughtfully, sipping on her big wooden mug of fresh apple cider.

"Yup. Folks thought the best way to save the farm would be to marry me off to a rich pony, sweep me off to a life of luxury and send a little bit home to my precious, rustic beginnings as a sentimentality." She gave Rarity a look so heavy with meaning it seemed to bend time around it, and everything seemed to get slow and heavy for the Lady. "Sound familiar to you?"

"Oh. Quite." Rarity coughed into a white glove. The cider was finished, and Rarity pulled from her small clutch a packet of cigarettes, lighting up. She offered the pack to Applejack, who snorted and turned it down.

"Nah thanks. Gets in the way of the country air, what little of it there is 'round these parts. Reckon if I could bottle and sell that, then we might be in business."

Another long silence. Contemplative.

"You know, for a pony who's so good with the industrial arts, your farmstead seems quite... regressive. It's quaint, but have you considered modernizing?"

"Now there's a phrase I'm familiar with. You want me to mechanize? Just told you, it ain't that the work isn't gettin' done, there just isn't a market. Nopony wants fresh local produce these days, it's all exotic imports."

"You just need branding! To make a name for yourself. You lack exoticism, certainly, but it's a manufactured quality. I'm absolutely certain I don't need to point out to you that far away lands are local to the locals."

"So, you're sayin' make myself a, whatsitcallit... sell out the family's good name just to keep the farm afloat? Sounds awful close to spittin' on it if you ask me."

"Not at all, 'sugarcube'! Perhaps making your family name a household name among the homes of the wealthy elite." Rarity enthused, taking a deep drag on her cigarette, eyes sparkling with ideas. "There's certainly a lot to be said about a cider I can still taste so clearly through the ash."

Applejack snorted at that. "Layin' it on thick there, Rares. Starting to sound like a tiger that's caught sight of my tail."

A white gloved hoof pumped triumphantly. Rarity smiled a smile that grew fangs, and those fangs passed the bar exam and acquired expensive suits to become something far worse. "But when the tiger's got your tail, do you go down with dignity, or do you kick him in the bits that dangle?"

"Seems more like I'm lettin' the tiger kick me in the bits, here, honestly."

"Well, you having bits to kick seems like a requirement."

"You talking money or anatomy bits?"

Another far-too-wide smile. "Seems you're lacking in both."

"Why don't you just spit out this little idea of yours, then, before I kick you myself."


“Where are my manners? How uncharacteristically rude of me, my fair lady, I implore your forgiveness!” Rainbow Dash removed her pith helm, clutching it to her breast respectfully. “My name is thoroughly unimportant, so let’s get to the matter at hoof, shall we?”

The mare in the red dress blinked. “Wait, so, what—?”

“That’s the spirit!” Rainbow Dash ploughed ahead, valiantly and chivalrously and gallantly and not at all cruelly to the poor clerk caught in her wake, “You see, my friend, Pinkie Pie here, she has a lot of inventions. A real tinker if you get my drift. Say hello for the nice lady, Pinkie.”

“Hi!”

“There’s a spiffing girl. Tell me, what’s your name then?”

The poor confused thing looked around in confusion. Much as she expected, a miraculous way out of the situation did not present itself. Still, she wasn’t quite ready to accept that this absurdity was going to happen, and was willing to go down throwing logic wherever she could. “Hold on, if your name isn’t important, why’s mine?”

“Jolly good question!” Dash exploded with enthusiasm, “You must be a very clever pony for thinking to ask it, what ho!” She turned to her accomplice with the red wagon train,  “Pinkie, I think we’ve found the right pony to help us, indeed I do. Sharp as a tack this one.”

“She seems nice,” Pinkie agreed, offering the yet-unnamed pony a smile.

“Also you have a nameplate, but I don’t want to move the papers covering the last half. So shall I just call you Ms Golden for now?”

“Oh, uh, sure, I suppose.”

“Spiffing!” Dash enthused again. “It seems you’re rather bogged down in paperwork here. If I scratched your back, would you afford us ludicrous favours you wouldn’t otherwise agree to?”

Golden looked around at the towering and borderline toppling piles of paper and parchment perched precariously around her workstation. It was not hyperbolic to say that her chief worry was the risk of the paper forming sedimentary layers from the compression.

Clerks at desks closer to them had begun staring openly at the two standing before her. She shrugged nervously.

“I can’t agree to anything,” she admitted, “I don’t even know how I’d be helping you yet. Since you’ve come all the way back here, I’m guessing it’s probably not entirely legal.”

“I prefer the term ‘extralegal’! Far less judgemental, and frankly, it sounds awesome.”

Pinkie piped up there, showing off her wagons of potential patents. “Please, Ms Golden. My friend says it’s very important that I patent all this. My other friend, Twilight Sparkle, has been really, really super nice to me for ages now, and I really want to pay her back.” Pinkie smiled, even as her right front foreleg vibrated anxiously. She wasn’t used to being out in public for this long. “I have a lot of neat friends.”

Golden’s brow furrowed as she studied the twitching pink pony in the bowler hat a long moment. “Twilight Sparkle... the one with the big telescope?” Pinkie nodded. “I know of her work, it’s always a pleasure to file it,” Golden smiled, “I’ve been over her schematics, and some of the designs she’s made are just absolute perfection. Like art with a very rigid set of rules, I suppose. I think she taught me maths can be beautiful, do you know what I mean?”

Dash smiled knowingly, nodding slowly. “Nope!”

Golden sighed bitterly. “Nopony really does.”

Pinkie twitched, smiling. Or smiled while twitching? “I do!”

“I’m sure.” Golden sighed again. It was apparent the pink one was just trying to appease her. “I’m sorry, but I really am very busy. If you have patents to file, I’m sure the front desk—”

Again, Rainbow made a dismissive gesture and blew a raspberry. “They sent us back here to await a case manager, I guess. I didn’t want to get Pinkie a boring one, though, because she deserves the best of the very best, and you seemed right jolly spiffing, you did!”

Flattery will get you everywhere, it seems. Just as Golden was about to protest she wasn’t really that much more interesting than anypony else in here, as evidenced by her finding math beautiful apparently, she actually focused on the sentence as a whole to rebuff it and— “Wait, they sent you back here to wait? That’s unorthodox. Usually it’s taken out of your hooves and assigned on your behalf.”

“Is it because we brought too much?” Pinkie asked nervously, and her tics grew more pronounced as the worry crept into her voice. Still just little twitches for the moment, but occasionally a little flicker of movement just out of her control would jerk a limb in some direction it wasn’t intended to go. “I’m super sorry, I didn’t think I’d be wasting anypony’s time.”

Golden pushed a pair of gold spectacles up her nose, perfect circles with a crooked line joining them that never quite seemed to fit right. “Well, it's certainly not the usual amount to be processed, that's certain. Are these all your patents?”

“Just the ones we could fit in the wagons. Some of them blew away before we thought to tie the bundles up with twine.”

“Sorry.” Rainbow grumbled, glancing apologetically over her shoulder at the ponies still picking up sheafs of paper in a line between here and the door.

Golden shook her head slowly, doubt creeping into her features. “Still. If you're the Royal Advisor's peer, then I should be happy to help. I just don't think I have the time...”

Rainbow and Pinkie craned their necks up at her workload. Rainbow snorted.

“Oh, yeah, I can help with that.”

“Really,” Golden deadpanned.

“Absolutely! Here… Let me guess, like, eighty percent of this is just you reading through a bunch of it and signing your name at the end to officiate it.”

Golden stared at Dash suspiciously. “It's a little more complicated than that.”

“Is it really, though?”

A very long-suffering sigh. “Well, no.”

“Frabjuous!” Rainbow decreed, pottering around Golden's desk, much to her dismay. Golden curled up a little in her office chair, so as to preserve what little personal space remained from the overwhelming force of presence of Dash intruding on it. “Then I've got one word of advice: Stop reading, just sign. Well, I mean, that's four, but it's one word in spirit, and that's really what counts.”

The bureaucrat in the pretty red dress looked positively scandalized. “I can't just do that! I'm a signatory. It's a legal document!”

“Well, yeah, exactly,” Dash shrugged, pointing at a dotted line. “So here's the thing. Are you in a position of power where, if you notice anything wrong, you can change or fix anything?”

“That's… I'm at the end of a long line, true—”

Dash plowed on. “Splendiferous! So, if there were a problem and it was brought up later, would you be the first pony pulled up on it?”

“I mean, no, that would be the drafter of the document or the editor—”

“So am I wrong in saying you only exist to be a legal barrier for other ponies to cover their flanks?”

“That's a terrible thing to say!”

“But accurate!”

A very uncomfortable pause, punctuated with a long stare at the reams and mountains of redundant paperwork in its triplicate. “They are not mutually exclusive things, no,” was the eventual conclusion from a pony suddenly grasping the horrible insignificance of their life and career for the first time.

“Cool. So just sign the dotted lines and don't read anything. I'm, like, 80-90% certain that's what they expect you to do anyway. Here's a tip; the things you need to read are the things ponies super casually tell you not to bother with. Heck, they probably fill you up with so much of this busy work just to get those things to slip by.”

Golden remained silent. Then, after a deep, wondrous sigh, “I am employed solely to be plausible deniability, aren't I?”

“Almost definitely.”

“My mind has been expanded.”

“Fantastic.” This was said with the utmost earnestness.

“How do you know all this?” There was a frantic twang to the curiosity in the question.

“Because I totally went through like, three assistants doing this, so I had somepony else’s name on the paperwork whenever I needed a scapegoat.”

“Dash!” Pinkie scolded, her voice tinged with horror. Rainbow laughed heartily, deep from the gut.

“Don't worry Pinks, I didn't totally throw them under the cart. I'm not a monster! I just had a deal with a pony in R&D. Walked in there once ‘cause I thought it was a whole department dedicated to me. Ended up making buddies with a pal. We swapped assistants back and forth. They were never, like, unemployed for more than an hour at a time. Upper management never caught on.”

“Have you considered, perhaps, Miss Dash,” a deep and very amused voice that raised every single hair on Dash's neck made itself known, “that we did know, and you were my plausible deniability.”

“Mr Spark!” Pinkie chirped in delight, throwing herself into the velvety tailcoats of an astonished entrepreneur, who only just managed to signal to two large, twitchy-looking stallions that was okay.


Twilight had already placed her hoof on the knobs, had already started aligning her sights, when she heard something she hadn't heard in a very long time.

"Sol invictus?" she intoned solemnly to no one in particular, a threatening determination as she pulled another gear ka-chunking into place, "Sic Semper Tyrannis."

The tinkling of silver bells all around the library.

Someone had pressed the doorbell. The diversion of steam released pressure from the observatory, and just for a moment brought it to a halt. Intentionally or not, somepony had stopped her.

Well.

Twilight took a deep breath. Spike's voice rattled up the tube. "You hear that over moving the whole roof? Somepony's at the door for you."

"Y-yeah, Spike. Sure. I got it."

"Woah. You sound... something. You sure sound something. Do you, ah, want me to get it for you this time?"

"It'll take me a bit to get to the door, so, yes please. Also, could you have a cup of tea ready for me when I get down there? I think it might help a lot."

"Ah, yeah, sure. Milk, two sugars?"

Spike knew Twilight took sugar in her tea when she was in a bad way.

Had she nearly made a terrible mistake?

"Yes, please."

She made the long walk to the elevator, to await judgement for actions she had not yet made.


Two foals sat in a hoofmade treehouse far away, while their sisters yelled at each other about something or other. They watched with a pile of fresh apples piled up in the corner, should things get interesting enough to warrant snacks.

Applebloom and Sweetie took an apple each when Applejack got rowdy enough to take her hat off and start making wild gestures with it, while Rarity made funny expressions and odd gestures of her own.

“Yer sister’s a strange one.” Applebloom opined.

Sweetie snorted at that, taking a testing nibble of her apple. It was sweet and juicy enough that the pressure of her teeth sent rivulets of juice dribbling down her chin. “Ponies in glass houses.”

“It’s called a greenhouse, and it’s a totally legitimate farmin’ practice.”

“What? No, I mean... it’s like a biblical allegory I guess?”

Applebloom seemed to mull that over in serious thought for a moment. “What’s a biblical?”

“Rarity says it’s the opiate of the masses.”

Applebloom took a thoughtful bite of her apple as her sister took a swing at her friend's sister. Her friend's sister ducked it though. That was actually pretty cool. "Applejack and Big Macintosh don't grow opiates. Says they've got no moral fibre in them. Fibres super good for you, so we grow that instead.”

This made a lot of sense to Sweetie, who nodded thoughtfully. “Rarity did give me some law… low… laudanum once when I had a really bad cough, and it made me feel better, but it also made me feel super sick too.”

“Well there you go,” Applebloom concluded. “Wait, what were we talking about?”

“Why our sisters are weird and fighting.”

“Oh right.” Applebloom crunched into her apple again, watching out the clubhouse window as Rarity turned Applejack's flat cap into a top hat, much to her sister's horror. The farmpony pounced. “Wonder what they're fightin' over, anyway.”

Sweetie tried to show off by nonchalantly levitating her apple up to her mouth, but failed miserably as she visibly struggled just to tip it over. Applebloom didn't laugh, but did seem to have a knowing smile that made Sweetie almost blush herself to death in embarrassment. She tried to cover by changing the topic back, quick. “What'd make your sister this mad?”

“Usually Applejack only gets this mad when somepony tells her about the miracles of industrialization. She doesn't truck with it.”

“Oh. Why not?”

“Pride I guess. Family heritage. It's everypony else's fault for not wanting the best dang produce in Equestria, in her mind.”

Sweetie took another nibble, making sure to use her hooves this time. “These are really good apples.”

“Best apples in Equestria,” Applebloom repeated.

Their sisters were whipping up a right holler now. Applejack threatened to lasso Rarity and truss her up good. Rarity threatened to like it.

“Our sisters are weird,” Sweetie said.

“Hey, you want to ask if we can visit Spike again? He was cool.”

“Maybe we'll see Pinkie there too!”

“She's really weird though,” Applebloom grumbled. “Nice! But weird.”

Sweetie Belle pointed out the clubhouse window. Rarity had jumped on Applejack's back, and the farmpony was running around trying to buck her off. The top hat seemed to be glued to her head somehow.

“Okay, point taken about weird.”

“I wonder if Twilight would let us borrow some books…”

Applebloom snorted. “Don't reckon she has any with pictures though.”

Sweetie giggled at that, but stopped when Applebloom flinched. That set little gears sparking in her head. “You can't read?”

Applebloom blushed in the same way Sweetie had when she couldn't quite pick up the apple. “I mean, sorta? I can read individual words if I sound 'em out, and I'm real good at numbers – Applejack lets me help her with the books, just to keep me sharp as an axe – but if you put too many words too close together, I just start feelin' dizzy.”

“Huh. Me and Spike could help you with that, then, and you can teach me how to do the numbers.”

“You don't know maths?”

Sweetie smiled with just a hint of bitterness, a stark contrast to Applebloom's embarrassment. “Rarity says ladies as pretty as we are don't need to know maths, because we'll either find good husbands or good assistants. So I never learned.”

“Woah.”

“At least she thinks I'm pretty. So I'm not like, mad or anything.”

“Well… yeah alright. So, we get our sisters to stop fighting and take us to the library, I'll help you with multiplication and you help me with words?”

“Yeah!” Sweetie squeaked, her voice fracturing with excitement. “We just gotta get our dumb sisters to stop being so...”

“Dumb?”

“Yeah.”

Applebloom took one last bite of her apple before bouncing it in her hoof, testing the weight of it. “I was just gunna huck apples at them ‘til they got more mad at us than each other.”

“Okay!”

The fillies armed themselves with the bushel in the treehouse, weaponized in the name of friendship and learning.


Pinkie disentangled herself from her former-and-possibly-still-father figure. He seemed relieved, not that Pinkie had let go, but that she had squeezed so hard to begin with.

“I’m surprised, little one, that... Twilight Sparkle,” the hesitation was not from lack of memory, but of a stallion preparing himself to bite into some particularly unpleasant boiled spinach, “has not poisoned you against me.”

Even as Dash watched on silently, keeping the hired muscle in the corner of her eyes at all times, Pinkie shook her head emphatically. “No! Twilight never ever says mean things about you. She’s actually really nice.”

Dash bit her tongue. Didn’t bite it hard enough. “Dictated but not read, huh?”

The captain of industry snorted, actually cracked a smile. “I see you got my letter, then. I actually hold you in a certain high regard, Ms Dash. Keen spirit of adventure, abilities far beyond your peers, and quite a mean right hook. Quite why you forced yourself into doing paperwork exceeds comprehension.”

“My new employer talks fancy like you too, but she lets me play with the big toys.” Rainbow wiggled her eyebrows up and down, a wink-wink nudge-nudge of a look if there ever was one. Inside she was sweating it out. Pinkie... Pinkie was...

The situation was complicated and she hated it and she just wanted to punch the old buzzard again and be done with it, but he was actually kind of being cool and Pinkie was looking at him like she was and she didn’t want to lose her friend over some stupid macho bullpucky, excuse her language.

So she endured. She could be friendly too. Heck, she’d beat him at his own game.

“It's so good to see you!” Pinkie was all bounces and hugs and excitement and energy, and Spark seemed far more appreciative than annoyed. “What are you even doing here?”

“The same as you, I suspect, my dearest girl. Filing patents, filing patents.”

There was a very strange look on Golden’s expression that Dash found difficult to read. Golden was trying very hard to keep it that way.

Rainbow Dash smiled weakly. "You file the patents yourself? I thought you'd have, like, an assistant to do the boring paperwork for you."

"Ah, but I do!" Bright Spark agreed enthusiastically. "I would never call patents boring, however. You just never know who you're going to meet."

Pinkie Pie gasped, hugging him tight again. "This time it was meee!"

"Yes, dear, yes it was. And it's very good to see you."

This whole scene felt so wrong on so many levels to Dash. She just couldn't quite put a pinion on why.

Golden was all business-like. "Did the front desk send you around too, Mr Spark, sir?"

"Oh, no, no, of course not. I was just saying hello to some friends backstage, as it were, while I was here. Might even be interested in obtaining a few, if some catch my eye."

That sounded... reasonable.

Golden continued to smile, and put on a tone that seemed vaguely ditsy. "What a wonderful coincidence, then, that you came within the hour of another pony with patents so similar to yours. Absolutely remarkable."

That caught in Spark's craw a little. "Er, yes. Why, yes it is. A very happy coincidence, I might add. Now, what's this I hear about you filing patents of your own?"

"Oh! Rainbow said I should be able to have my own money, even though Twilight's been super nice to me. She says I should try being a strong, independent mare like her."

"It's true, I am pretty strong and female," Dash agreed.

Spark's response was glib. "Yes. Well, that's a very mature step for you, Pinkie. But filing all these patents by yourself can be very expensive! Are you sure you can afford all this on your own?"

“I’m sure I can’t! But Rainbow was really nice, and said she’d front the administration costs. We were hoping to get discount on bulk, though.”

It had been easy. She just had to not make rent that month. But that was fine. Her landlord had been trying to evict her since she lost her job at Spark’s. What more could she do that she hadn’t already?

Both Pinkie and Dash looked at Golden expectantly.

“Ah, sorry, but that’s not how this works.”

“Aww...”

“Aww...”

Bright Spark at least had the decency to look disappointed.

“I’m sure you’ll at least have the money to patent the designs that don’t infringe on mine,” he reassured, the muscle behind him flexing slightly in the uneven scattering of shadows that made up the offices, making them look even more misshapen and foreboding.

“Hang on,” Dash felt a little loose thread in the conversation and, like any truly curious mind, decided to pick at it. “How’d you know they infringe on yours?”

“I can see some of them from here, Ms Dash. Rainbow, must you be so suspicious of me?”

“Hrrm,” Golden murmured, largely ignored by the rest.

“I suppose that’s true. I’m sorry for being so jumpy. I’m obviously being unfair, and jolly unsporting. Had a gun to my face rather recently, obviously left me in a rather unspiffing frame of mind,” she said quite proudly.

“It’s okay, Dashie, Mr Spark used to patent stuff for me all the time. I didn’t really know what they were, then. So he just knows what he’s already helped me with before, I guess. Some of these are really old drawings, right Mr Spark?”

Spark’s smile became a fragile and brittle thing, no less there but seeming what was there had become less. “Right you are.”

The hairs on the back of Dash’s neck raised, but she still couldn’t quite tell yet why.

“Oh, wonderful,” Golden interjected, bringing herself back into the conversation as if waking the participants from a dream, where the offices around them had simply faded from their notice, “then Ms Pie here should already be in our files, and we can expedite the process. I’m certain that a respectable stallion such as yourself filed them in her name?”

Spark removed the pocket square from his tailcoats and wiped at his mouth, paying special mind to wipe over the cracks in his facade. “Ms Pie was a dependant of mine at the time, and I was tasked with her financials. It was far more expedient to simply file her patents with my own, under one name.”

Golden looked very serious. “Are you aware that what you are describing, Mr Sparks, may be an admission of a very grave felony?”

Spark’s brittle smile hardened. He had put out the trail Pinkie was blazing!

“Don’t be silly,” Pinkie laughed, much to Dash’s continued surprise, “Mr Spark was just being nice.”

Golden took a long look at Dash’s face expressing... whatever conflicted emotion it was expressing. They shared a moment of acknowledgement. An understanding that Dash didn’t understand.

“Well, Pinkie, if that’s the case, here’s my key to the archives. Do you see that pony in the tweed jacket over there, with the green bow tie? Yes, him, where I’m pointing. Why don’t you go ask him very nicely if you can look through the patents Mr Spark filed for you, and you bring them back, and we’ll see if we can’t help you out. I’d really like to see them! Don’t worry, Dust Jacket is lovely.”

A little brass key on a flax lanyard was pressed into her hooves from a desk draw, and Pinkie was off like a rocket, talking to the purported Dust Jacket. Bright Spark smiled and waved her off, his composure remaining until the very second she was out of sight, at which point it fell, and a look of pure and raw anger replaced his benign happiness.

“What do you want, Ms Dash?! Why are you so intent on twisting her against me?”

“Well that’s a ruddy rotten play of it. What makes you think—”

Golden interrupted Dash, speaking over her not by raising her tone, but by lowering it so that one had to focus to hear her. “How long have you had a plant in this office, Mr Spark?”

The angry indignance just grew further. “Excuse me, Miss? Do I know you?”

“No, but you apparently have been the cause of a considerable deal of extra paperwork piling up on my desk, and it’s left me rather miffed. So I’ll ask again; How long have you had a plant in this office, Mr Spark? Because you clearly have somepony telling you when someone files a claim similar to yours, so that you might be here to personally deal with it. I imagine you’re a very intimidating presence?”

“These are baseless accusations.”

Rainbow had the perfect rebuttal. “No they aren’t. You’re a serial jerk. That’s a basis.”

This time Bright Spark didn’t even dignify her with a glance. “Ms Dash, the grownups are talking.”

A calm voice, a diplomat in a courtroom, came from Golden. “She is trying to help her friend. She has as much stake in this conversation as anyone.”

Her friend?” Spark spluttered. “Her friend? I have devoted myself to nurturing the genius in that tortured soul for over a decade, only now to have her taken from me with the most misguided of intentions.”

“Like claiming her patents as your own?”

Bright Spark was conspicuously silent on this.

“That’s outrageously illegal isn’t it?”

“Only if you can prove it,” Spark growled low, and suddenly his meatsuits were standing between him and Dash and Golden. They seemed to be whispering to him urgently, but he ignored them. “Until then, these patents infringe upon mine. And until my assistant is returned to my custody, voluntarily, you will never see a cent of profit from her work, you thieving, opportunistic bitch.”


A cup of sweet tea and mug of hot chocolate lay on coasters, beside which were a pile of stationary and graph paper. A foal hunched over one of the pages with a quill in hoof, etching out the final three letter-pairs; X x, Y y, Z z.

The page was lifted up and behind her, Twilight reading over it with a thoughtful hum.

“This is very beautiful writing. You’ve never had a formal lesson before?”

Scootaloo was caught in the center of a lot of conflicting emotions. A life on the streets taught you to look for hidden edges wherever you could find them, whether they be hidden under cloaks or under words. And there were certainly a lot of pointy bits that could be hiding behind those words, but before she could get angry about it, she looked up from the page at the genuinely bright and happy smile on Twilight’s face and the hot anger sank into a cold shame instead.

Instead, Scootaloo said “No, never.”

“Well, I would never have guessed just by looking at this. Do you know what the letters mean, or do you just understand the shape of them?”

Again, Scootaloo had to fight down the urge to get snippy, to see the worst of the words. “Just the shape. I see signs and pamphlets sometimes, and I’m really good at drawing. I thought if I practiced drawing the letters enough, they’d start making sense to me.”

Her page of alphabet returned in front of her. Twilight sat down in the seat to her right at the library table, more curious than anything else.  “Did it, in the end?”

“A little,” Scootaloo admitted, shrugging the thought off and away. “Turns out you can’t always understand something just by watching it hard enough, even if it seems like you should.”

Twilight didn’t say anything to that for a long moment, swallowing nothing in a suddenly too-dry throat. “Wise words.”

“For a filly, right?” Scootaloo grumbled.

“It would be very easy for me to forget that, I think.”

Scootaloo had to fight extra hard to stay grumpy for that one, but fortunately an adult being that honest with her was confusing, and confusion is a powerful fuel indeed to lash out with. “Yeah well, are you going to tell me what they mean or not?”

“Oh!” and again, Twilight was snapped out of her introspection and brought back into her ‘teacher’ mindset. “Somepony’s agitated. How about... I don’t know. I’ve never taught anypony to read before. I suppose it might just be easiest to start with small, words and work our way up?”

Scootaloo’s entire face scrunched up. “Can’t you just tell me what the letters sound like, and I’ll figure it out from there?”

Twilight smiled wistfully, thoughtfully. “I’m afraid not. Language is... complicated. Like, let’s just start with ‘A’--”

“So it just sounds like ‘A’ right?” Scootaloo interrupted. “Next letter, then!”

“-- Well, let’s pair it with the next letter, ‘B’, which really sounds like more of a ‘bh’ sound. Together, they can sound like ‘Bh’ and ‘A’ as in ‘bay’, but it can also make ‘bank’, ‘bark’, ‘ball’ and ‘band’.” Twilight wrote each word as she said them, Scootaloo trailing the blatant witchcraft with her eyes.

“That’s cheating!” Scootaloo protested. “You can’t just put the same two letters next to each other and have them make completely different sounds!”

“It’s even worse than that,” Twilight intoned gravely, just for a little bit of drama, “some words are even spelled the same, but mean different things when you pronounce them, like ‘a bow and arrow’ or ‘to bow in court’.” Again she spelled the words as she said them.

Scootaloo stared suspiciously at the words, mouthing them she looked back and forth at them. “Well, I mean, I guess that sorta makes sense. There’s only so many letters to use, right?”

 “But!” Twilight corrected, waggling her pen almost threateningly, her enthusiastic smile making it all the worse,  “it can be pronounced the same and spelled differently too, like ‘to bow in court’ or ‘the bough of a tree’ is spelled like this.”

As Twilight wrote them, Scootaloo looked practically apoplectic, and just seeing that word might have given her a conniption.

The filly’s face hit desk, and then again a few more times for good measure. When it lifted again; “Wait... so are there even words that sound the same, and are spelled the same, but still mean completely different things? That’s gotta be... you can’t just do that,” Scootaloo asserted, though it was clearly more for her own piece of mind than something she genuinely believed.

“Those are called homonyms!” Twilight was practically delighted as she went back up to her earlier examples for ‘b’, bank and bark, and circled them. “Bank can mean where you keep money, or it can mean the bank of a river. Bark can mean the bark of a tree, but it can also mean the sound a dog makes.”

Scootaloo outright balked, now. “And they’re both spelled the same?”

“I’m afraid so.”

Scootaloo’s head hit the desk one last time, and didn’t come back up. Through the wood, Twilight could barely make out the muttered words, “This is going to be way harder than I thought.”

Somebody else heard them quite clearly, though. “I’m not sure I agreed to this, Ms Sparkle. Scootaloo? Thank Ms Sparkle for her time, we are leaving.”

The filly’s head didn’t raise from the desk, but her voice sounded as cold as the ice that had shot through Twilight’s veins like an arctic current. “Hey, Matron.”


Rainbow stood stock still a moment. As if recalling that, yes, a mere second ago he had called her a very... uncouth word. The urge to wash his mouth out with soap was overwhelming, but suddenly she had a powerful tool at her disposal; an audience.

Bright Sparks’ outburst might still have stunned her new bureaucrat friend into submission, but Dash could see all the studious eyes aimed at the spectacle, at them.

Spiffing.

“So, what if we took you to court then, sir, over the rights and rightfulness of our mutual friend to her designs?”

“Then you would lose, and I would bleed you of every cent over a decade.”

Cold. That was cold. That was fine, Rainbow could be warm and bright enough for the both of them! Riposte!

“I didn’t say I would try to win, sir, just that I would take you to court.”

Now, now understanding bloomed in Golden’s eyes. She, too, began to notice the eyes around them, and while she shied away from them... she was beginning to understand all the same.

She whispered something to herself.

“On what grounds? With what proof?” Still the guards tried to pull Spark away, one of them suggesting someone send for his lawyer. Later. “You would ruin yourself for nothing!”

“Well yeah,” Rainbow shrugged, “so I’d come out with what I started. But we’d still get like, a bunch of felony charges on you right? Like, even if we couldn’t get Pinkie the rights back to her designs—”

“Our designs!”

“Of which you took sole credit,” Golden replied pointedly.

“—you’d still, like, get arrested wouldn’t you?”

“And the newspapers would have a field day. The accusations alone would be front page news. Even if nothing came of the legal action, the court of public opinion would crucify you.”

“It’d make a great story.”

“Enough!” And now Bright Spark’s hoof slammed the wooden floor, and Golden and Dash fell silent. “You have no proof. No evidence. You also do not have the connections that I do. I could see you fired, Ms Golden, and perhaps I shall, and you would not be able to turn the papers against me so readily when I am the leading supplier of parts for their presses. You have done nothing but bluff and bluster. Your patents here infringe upon mine which are, in spite of your protestations on the matter, valid and legal. Yet you still think you, Pinkie’s kidnapper, hold the moral high ground over me, that you deserve this? You will deserve everything you get from me. My next letter to the Guard on your behalf, Ms Dash, shall not be so kind.”

Oh.

Dash looked at Golden. Golden didn’t... there wasn’t help there. Neither had any doubt she’d just lost her job over this.

And Dash had banked her home over this.

And it was at that crushing moment, that moment of bitter realization, that both Golden and Rainbow seemed to lose what colour they had. When there was nothing from either of them, Bright Spark didn’t smile or smirk or anything so loathable. He just remained resolute, and the anger drained from him.

Everything seemed to go dark for Dash. Dark and... soft?

“Guess who!” a very peppy voice called into her ear.

“Pinkie?”

“Yup. I brought back some of the papers you asked for.” She presented a sheath of signed and certified patents to the sickly looking Golden and Dash.

“That was very quick of you, Pinkie,” Spark smiled at that, though, genuine and warm. “You have a rather good memory to have found so many so fast!”

“Nah, it was easier than that, Mr Spark,” Pinkie blushed at the praise, waving it out of the air with a modest hoof, “I just found the ones with my signature on them.”

Everyone stopped. Spark was very even and level when he asked, “What?”

“Yeah, I knew I wasn’t supposed to, but you said I was supposed to sign everything, right? So I hid TESLA on all the drawings I did. Just on the ones I was super proud of though! Like, here I put it in the top right corner, see? And here I put in in the axle system... ooh, here, if you look real close, I actually used TESLA as the algebra component, since I was using non-standard values anyway.”

Golden rifled through the ream, stunned, even as Dash passed them to her. As soon as Golden put one down, Spark wordlessly picked it up from her desk and saw for himself.

There is a certain stage of bruise, where the colours are so unique and intermingled that they form entirely new shades that defy concrete labels. It was, too, then that Spark’s face showed such a crushing mix of conflicting and complementary negative emotions, that to list them would be a disservice to the sum of their whole.

“It was... lovely to see you again Pinkie,” he finally managed to croak out. “Feel free to visit any time. Ms Dash, our lawyers will be in contact. That way Pinkie doesn’t have to deal with the boring details of... all this. Clever girl like her shouldn’t have to worry about such things.”

“Oh, uh, yeah. Sure.”

Pinkie waved as the entrepreneur walked out of the building with hunched shoulders. He didn’t look back.


“How'd you know I wasn't just casing somepony?”

“Because,” Fluttershy explained patiently, “you don't get quite this embarrassed about robbing ponies. Which you very well should be, young lady.”

“Sorry, Matron,” Scootaloo mumbled, kicking her hooves under the table, still not sure whether she was supposed to stand or keep sitting where she was, eventually deciding to sit until she was told otherwise.

Her new tutor came to her defense. “I really don't mind, Ms Fluttershy. Scootaloo's been a very quick study, truly.”

Fluttershy seemed to ignore that, still giving Scootaloo a firm look. “And what have you promised for Miss Twilight in return?”

“N-nothing! I just asked really nicely, and said please, like you said I oughta.”

Fluttershy raised an eyebrow reflexively, lowering it the second she realized Twilight was watching her. Peripheral vision of a playground monitor and more besides. “Is that true, Miss Twilight?”

“She did say please, yes. Very emphatically, I might add.”

A slow shake of her yellow head, not even fast enough to disturb a single pink hair on her head. “That is wonderful to hear, but I'm afraid it's not what I was referring to.”

Twilight was growing more confused by the second. It was starting to feel like an interrogation from her parents, of all things. “Oh. No, Scootaloo came all this way just to ask for reading lessons, I couldn't ask a single thing more of her.”

“And you will not be charging her for, say, a beginner's book to help? Or stationary?”

“Well, I don't have any beginner's books, so I was going to write some simple lessons myself. And stationary is something I have an abundance of, if she needs it.”

Matron looked frustrated, excessively so. There was so much mistrust in her eyes, and Scootaloo was caught in the middle of it.

“Hey, whose sister are you?” a country accent interjected from the doorway.

Another voice cracked to join it. “I think she looks like Rainbow’s? I didn’t know she had a sister...”

“Applebloom! Sweetie Belle! What are you doing here? What are you doing in here.”

The fillies made their glacial pace to the reading table the other ponies were at, too caught up in each other to pay the non-Twilight ponies in the conversation much mind.

“Door was open.”

“We’d have knocked but the guard ponies looked really scary, and we didn’t want to linger.”

A thump on the Sweetie’s arm, more annoyed than harsh. “Stop rubbin’ it in that you can read and I can’t. Usin’ big words like that.”

“It’s only two syllables.”

“That ain’t helpin’.”

Finally, Sweetie pulled up a chair across from Scootaloo and Twilight’s position, Applebloom pulling out the chair beside Sweetie. “Oh! Right, hey Twilight. Applebloom doesn’t know how to read so good, and Rarity won’t let me learn how to do maths, so we were hoping—”

“If’n you’ll forgive us for last time!”

“—that you’d help us learn?”

Twilight was silent for a moment. She still, to this day, had not figured out where the potted plants had come from. Books were still missing. But it had been a learning experience for the both of them, and there they were sitting at the table across from Scootaloo, looking up at her so eagerly. Sweetie just about looked like she’d burst into tears were she to say ‘no’...

“That sounds fine with me girls. But you have to promise to behave this time, alright? And ask before coming next time, please.”

“We’re sorry,” they said in unison. It was only now, mission accomplished, that they really began studying the other ponies in the room. There was a tense moment as everypony in the room realized they were in a room with everypony else, as it were, for the first time.

Through this whole exchange, Matron had just been watching in silence, letting the situation wash over her. Finally she made a subtle gesture to Twilight, and they quietly faded into the background, leaving the foals to themselves. They’d already gotten way too excited with each other to notice the grown-up ponies disappearance.

“What’s your angle, Ms Sparkle?”

“What, you mean my curriculum? I was just going to get her familiar with the alphabet and—”

“No!” Fluttershy prodded Twilight in the chest with a hoof tip. A fierce gesture that still landed light as a feather. “I turned down your offer. What are you hoping to gain by teaching Scootaloo anyway?”

“Hopefully a world with one less illiterate foal in it,” Twilight replied tersely. “I don’t appreciate your tone, Fluttershy.“ Twilight dropped the formalities. Seemed like a physical blow. “I do not know your situation. Cannot comprehend it. I freely admit that. But excluding a pony from helping because they are not in the same cycle of poverty is ludicrous!”

“Every single one of those foals was harmed by a rich pony exploiting them, saying it was for their own good because they were paid a fair wage. Excuse me for being suspicious!”

“No, I shall not!” Twilight retorted, seething now, “because it’s not rich and poor, here, it’s immediate and investment. If you’re so focused on just getting them through the day with no plan for what comes next, then you’re the problem here. You’re condemning these foals to a life of poverty as much as any bastard factory worker.”

Fluttershy stood still, like a statue, expression glazed, mouth hanging very slightly open as if to make a retort.

And that’s when Twilight felt the right hook connect.


The foals, meanwhile, were oblivious to the mature conversation happening just meters away, because what use was a library that didn’t enforce its own quiet?

Scootaloo was enraptured by her new friends.“You know Rainbow Dash?”

Applebloom snorted. “Yeah, she’s pretty cool. Wish she stayed out of our trees though, makes my sis real mad.”

“I think she’s cool too! She’s not my sister though...”

Sweetie started shuffling through the notes Twilight had left on the table. “So who’s your sister then?”

“I don’t got one. Or parents, before you ask. I’m, ah, sort of an orphan...”

“Hey, me too!” Applebloom said with way too much enthusiasm. “But I still got a sister though, and a brother. I can share if you want?”

“Yeah, I can share mine too,” Sweetie offered, “she’s a bit much sometimes.”

Appleboom squinted at Sweetie a long second. “Hang on, why are you sharin’ your sister, don’t you got parents?”

“Well, yeah, but it’s my sister I have too much of,” Sweetie said dryly as she finally managed to make sense of Twilight’s impromptu lesson plan. Actually made a lot of sense. She could work with this.

“Ah.”

“So, should we start on the reading then?” Sweetie pointed to what she thought was a good place to start on the notes, spreading them back out on the table for the other two. “Because I reckon if Twilight’s proud of us, she’s more likely to forgive us for the whole... incident.”

Applebloom nodded gravely, even as Scootaloo’s eyebrows raised. “Wait, what incident?”

Sweetie sighed, and just double tapped her hoof on the page again. “Long story. It involves potted plants and a hot air balloon, and then the dragon got an axe I think but then he got grounded, and I was real high up or something? Why’d we even do that?”

“Don’t wanna talk about it.”

Scootaloo still had no real idea who these ponies were, but she absolutely needed to be best friends with them forever.


The streets had taught Fluttershy to fight, and she fought dirty. Shining Armor had taught Twilight to fight, and so she didn't fight dirty. Twilight had something better. Cardio.

Fluttershy had obviously learned to defend herself well, as a pretty girl who walked down a lot of dark alleys, but proper sparring might have been beyond her. After being stunned by that first initial blow, Twilight found herself on a rather even footing.

To whit: The blow, while stunning, filled her with clarity, adrenaline, and forced her mind quickly into its combat procedurals. Had Fluttershy pressed the advantage, the benefits would have been lost very quickly to the detractors, but instead it had caused pause and hesitation. Surprise at throwing the first punch.

So Twilight poked her in the eye with her magic.

Then the surprise turned to rage and, with a soundless scream – probably in a pitch too high for mammals to register – Fluttershy, with her soft eyes and her beautiful and tattered dress, threw herself at her opponent, sending wild punches and jabs, pressing forward, pushing into the librarian.

No, not the librarian, the soldier’s sister, now. Twilight stepped back with an emotionless face, being very careful. Her hooves guided her back through the stacks without bumping into any obstacles, allowing her to focus entirely on her defense. Losing ground wasn’t a problem. It was a resource freely spent. With each step back was another magical strike to a pressure point, almost at random but with the anatomical precision of a surgeon, or at least an avid reader of medical journals.

Fluttershy got sloppier and angrier, even as the mosquito-bite strikes landed in joints and nerve clusters, and she found herself slowing down more and more as her limbs just wouldn’t bend as fast or as right as she’d want them. In frustration she pivoted, coiling in on herself to buck Twilight’s head off with double-barrel hindkicks.

Her legs cannoned out.

Twilight ducked under them, pushing them further up and higher with her magic – a hard feat, but she only needed to use a little more leverage – and then came up under Fluttershy’s waist, pushing her up and over further still, rolling her past the vertical and then flipping her painfully onto her back with a ‘whumpf’ and a panicked squeak the moment the pegasus worked out what was going on.

Twilight stood over her, both of them panting heavily.

“Sorry,” the pegasus admitted.

“No, no, I... I provoked you. I was a little harsh,” Twilight panted, thinking. “Do you mind if I sit down next to you? I think I have a concussion.” She tapped her head again, moving it side to side slowly. “I definitely have a concussion.”

“Oh. Sorry again. Ah,” Fluttershy weakly tapped the ground by her head, to her left. Twilight’s right. “Is here okay?”

“S’fine,” Twilight murmured as she flopped down onto it. “I really do just want to help, you know.”

“I am starting to see that...”

“Hey,” Twilight poked her in the side, smiling, “can we be friends? You seem really nice.”

“Oh, wow. Uh, I hit you a bit harder than I thought, didn’t I?”

Twilight giggled a little. “Yeah, a bit, probably. You proud?”

“No!” Fluttershy gasped, between pants, too weak and sore to raise her hooves to her mouth to do the moment justice, and kind of just flopped there. “I’m mortified.”

“Oh. Well you should be a little proud.” Twilight nodded slowly, rubbing her jaw appreciatively.  “It was a very good punch.”

“T-thank you.”

They sat and lay there a few more moments, getting their breaths back.

“Sorry,” Fluttershy repeated.

“Hey, s’cool. You’re just... doin’ what you think is right, yeah? I just don’t think it’s the most right, right? But hey!” Twilight smiled punch-drunkenly, cheerfully, “If we were friends, then you wouldn’t mind so much me doing stuff right? Because I have some really amazing plans, and I could use the help of some really talented foals, and I could teach them just,” and here she pressed her hooves together and slowly spread them wide, like showing off how big a fish she had caught was, “soooo much.”

“Oh. Uh... What kind of amazing plans?”

Twilight smiled, finally falling back onto the floor herself, head beside Fluttershy but facing the other way. “I wanna turn a volcano into a cannon.”

Fluttershy blinked, turning her head – slowly, slowly! – to look at the dazed and crazed unicorn beside her. “Really? I didn’t think I punched you that hard.”

“Nah, that’s not the concussion talking. I did the maths for this ages ago. Got a working model in the basement, but I ran out of roof... Or floor? Never did figure it out...”

“You truly are a remarkable lady, aren’t you, Ms Sparkle?”

“The remarkable Ms Sparklable!” Twilight smiled, then fell asleep happily. Fortunately rumours that falling asleep with a concussion is dangerous is purely myth.

Fluttershy stared a long time after, not being able to do much of anything else really, and thought about that carefully.

Eventually, around the time that she could wobble to her hooves again, she made a decision.


The Science of Magic

Twilight laid the plans out on the table in front of her brother. Both had strong coffee, lots of sugar, some milk. The steam rose between them and sparked something alchemical in their sinuses.

“I have an idea,” he admitted looking over the simplified designs, “but you're not going to like it. But it might be the only way we can come to a more permanent arrangement with the Princess.”

“We need something more permanent. This house arrest is getting restrictive.”

“It's supposed to,” Shining sighed, “and you know I hate having to enforce it. I just want to go back to Cadance, take an extended leave, and wash my hooves of this for a while.”

Twilight smiled at him sympathetically, reached out and rubbed one of his fetlocks gently. Just a simple touch. He smiled back up at her. They still had each other, even now. “So tell me the plan, then. This isn't easy on either of us, and I'll do whatever I can.”

Shining drained the hot coffee in four deep gulps, easier to do with the sugar content. He pointed at the documents, wiping the brown stains from his white muzzle as he talked.

“You need to tell Celestia you're designing a weapon for her. Something that can fire a shell from Canterlot all the way to whatever border conflict is happening this week.”

Twilight gasped, and all the air was sucked out of her lungs. She looked at her own designs again, as if for the first time. “This isn't… this couldn't do that, could it? This couldn't be a weapon, could it?” She looked pleadingly at her brother, but he was passive and more resigned than anything else. “Shining, I don't build weapons.”

He leaned across the reading table, coffee mug empty and forgotten, and eyes as serious as a threat. “I saw how you were positioning your roof the other day. Don't think for a second that I didn't. You were going to fire this at the Princess, weren't you?”

Twilight stayed silent, but she couldn't look away. Not even down, in shame. Just cold as all the blood rushed from her extremities and into her heart, which seemed to have stopped. Silent.

“That's what I thought. Stars above, Twily, if you're going to do something like that, you gotta promise me, absolutely promise me,” and now he was closer, so close that all Twilight could see were those cold and serious eyes, “that you won't miss. No regrets, no second chances. You'd get one shot and that's it. So don't miss.”

She just stared back at her brother, nodding before she even fully understood what he was saying to her, that it was him saying it. He frowned, just a small and thoughtful little thing.

Twilight repeated it again, less certain this time. “I don’t design weapons, Shining.”

“I have no idea if you could pull it off, but I'm sure if anypony had a chance… But yes. You do design weapons, and I've seen it. You don't mean to but, Twilight, there's stuff here that could change the world, and for a lot of ponies and horses and zebras it wouldn't be for the better. Take those payload figures you’ve got, the velocity calculations, and turn those into munitions power and range projections. Twily, when I said to tell the Princess that you’ve made a gun capable of firing on border conflicts from Canterlot, I was looking at what you’re showing me right now.”

She shot up then, knocking over her coffee, undrank. It spilled off the table, away from the designs, and she felt awful that it didn't destroy them.

“She can never see them. She can never know.”

“Twily, telling her is the only way you could get this built. You need the money, and you need the resources, and I need to not be holding you hostage anymore,” he pleaded.

“Don’t you Twily me, mister!” she growled, glaring at him. “Not one pony will die by my hoof, or by my inventions.”

Shining didn't say anything for a long moment. Just looked off into space above her head a moment, debating something with himself. Finally; “Except for the uh, pegasus in my squad.”

“Industrial accidents don't count!”

“I'm sure he’d disagree, were he able!” Shining protested.

Twilight sat back down, head hung low, and her voice going very quiet. “Just… A second pony will not die by my hoof doesn't have the same ring to it, as a declaration?”

Her brother walked around the table and hugged her with one arm. Her head lolled into his chest and she leaned against him, and sniffled. He just held her close. “Simple. Not one more pony will die by your hoof.”

“Okay, that works,” Twilight snuffled. “I'm going with that one.”

“So, what will you do then?” Shining whispered as his sister continued to press herself into his chest, stroking her hair idly with a hoof idly. She was still his baby sister, even now. Maybe even especially now.

“I gotta make peace with the Princess somehow.” She nuzzled into him, not lifting her head. “Gotta do all this in secret now. Own money, underground. Secret. No weapons.”

“No weapons,” Shining agreed, still stroking her mane. It had a nasty habit of fraying when she got too stressed. “I said you wouldn’t like the plan, I didn’t think it would be this much.”

Twilight remained silent, kept there within herself by the contact, the stroking, the gentle touches. She hadn’t thought of her inventions as weapons, even when she’d thought to use them as one. Even when they’d hurt somepony.

She hadn’t thought what the Princess could do with them.

But now... lightning-powered battleships with lasers mounted on their prows. Rail-mounted artillery capable of firing at cities across nations. There were possibilities in front of her to make those things a reality.

“Even if we make peace,” she snuffled, finally leaning away from her brother and trying to regain some composure, “she can’t know about this.”

Shining smiled faintly, watching her right herself. “So instead you’re going to attempt the largest engineering feat ever accomplished, with no resources, in complete secrecy, by yourself?”

“Of course not.” Twilight shook her head, trying to smile confidently, wiping her nose with the back of her arm.  “My friends will help me.”

“In no particular order,” he held out a hoof and tapped it on the table with each ‘name’, “the arsonist, the madpony, the one who gave you a concussion, the broke farmgirl, and Rainbow Dash.”

The last one surprised her. “Not going to summarize her flaw?”

“I said her name, didn’t I?”

Well, point taken. “Yes.”

Shining let out another big sigh, gave his sister another big hug, and took a few little steps towards leaving, thinking better of it a moment.

“Just don’t miss, okay, Twily? That’s all I ask.” He sounded sad but determined. Resigned, maybe.

“I promise.”

“Good. I’ll try to figure out something else then.”

And with that, he was gone.

And with that, Twilight was left alone with her schematics and drawings and her plans to save Luna, and in them all she saw was the gun barrel that had been aimed at her so recently, stretched across an entire continent.

That was the cost of failure.


The first thing Pinkie had bought with her new money was a week’s worth of candy.

The second thing Pinkie had bought with her new money was a set of seven identical tins, like you’d keep tea and sugar in, one for each day of the week. She divvied out her candy among them into responsible portions, because she was very adult and grown up.

The third thing Pinkie bought were little tins of pottery paint, the kind that turned ceramic when you heated it. It started off looking the wrong colour entirely, but the salespony assured her and Rarity that they would turn out the right colour. Twilight had also let her use her boiler as a kiln, of sorts.

She’d taken the candy out first though.

Not much else had changed in Pinkie’s life now that she had money. Twilight had even looked sick for some reason when she offered to pay rent, but Pinkie had talked her into at least accepting her share of utilities and food, since Spike was still cooking their meals – he was very nice about it, too.

All that stood as testament to Pinkie’s new found wealth were seven hoof-painted tins. One purple with a green top for Spike, a darker purple with a navy-and-pink-striped lid for Twilight, white and purple for Rarity – she ran out of purple doing that – a pink one with a pink lid for herself, a yellow and orange one for Applejack, a pink and yellow one for Fluttershy now (she was lovely!) and, finally, her favourite.

Rainbow’s was blue with a swirly rainbow lid. She’d been the most fun to paint, and it was her absolute favourite one. She put her best candy in it.

Rarity had told her to be careful, because money can’t buy happiness. But Pinkie Pie was already happy, so instead she was fine just buying some treats for herself every now and again.

And almost everything she poked these days was real too, and she’d stopped tasting the metal colours quite so often, like she only did when she got really bad.

And sometimes when she was out with Rainbow Dash, buying her ice cream because she could totally do that now and that was great, she’d lose some time for a bit, and when she woke up her throat was sore and Rainbow looked really worried about her and she never knew what happened, and Rainbow just said she went away for a bit but she was back now.

That was worrying, but Rainbow was really nice about it. Mostly she just felt embarrassed, because Rainbow was really cool and maybe hanging out with Pinkie wasn’t the best...

But then they always got ice cream anyway, and all was forgotten.

Yeah.

Yeah, Pinkie was happy.

Pinkie was so happy, in fact, that she felt she owed Twilight a present of some very, very, very special balloons. She just needed to borrow Applejack for a bit...


In the canopy of the book forest was a clearing, high above the main floor but below the telescope up higher, still. It had far more space than the observatory, certainly, but was still close enough to the roof and the elevator — the perfect place, or at least as close enough as to count, to assemble the pieces for a special project.

Fortunately Pinkie and Applejack had a crack team of experts to help them with their surprise for Twilight.

Applejack went over the foals again.

“Alright, let’s go down the line and no hints or helpin’, I wanna make sure I got you all right. I think I got it. So this strapping copper unicorn here would be Brass Tacks?”

The colt in question snorted in amusement. “Dunno, Ma’am, I’d say I’m more brass than copper, don’tcha fink?”

“Right but that’d be, what’sit, redundant. Tautological? There’s a Twilight word if I ever said one. But I got you right, right?”

“Reckon,” Brass Tacks agreed.

“A’ight. And the quiet earth pony with the magnificent hat would be Flatcap, am I right?”

The littlest of the colts winced a bit, but ultimately smiled and nodded.

The next colt in line, green with a red mane that had way too much cheap hair product slicking it back, puffed air out of his nostrils at that, obviously unimpressed. “You’re just saying that ‘cause it’s like yours, ain’tcha?”

Applejack put a hoof to her chest in mock offense. Rarity had been a terrible influence on her. “Why, Sliding Rule, such undeserved criticism. ‘Sides, reckon you’re just jealous because if we stuck one on you, it’d stay stuck. Or maybe it’d bounce off, can’t quite tell.”

Slide Rule grumbled, even as Brass Tacks snickered at him. Flatcap just smiled.

“Right, well. Y’all are up here while Twilight takes care of the rest of you lot with Matron, teachin’ them how to read and suchlike. Why’d you throw your lot in up here, then?”

Brass Tacks snorted again, and his smile became more of a sneer, but it seemed like it was directed at himself more than anyone else. A sneer turned inward. “Reckon I’m a lost ‘cause Ma’am. Reckon if you got dear ol’ me a desk jockeyship, miss, I’d have nicked all the stationary and some of the desks by week’s end. Better to keep me honest, Miss, looking after this rowdy lot.”

Sliding Rule made a good show of exaggerated offense, but Flatcap couldn’t help but grin at being accused of being rowdy.

“Yeah? Well we can give you good honest work to do, I’ll give you that and more. What about you two?”

Sliding Rule glared at the ceiling for a bit, letting Flatcap go first.

Flatcap just smiled. When he finally talked, Applejack caught herself leaning right in just to hear him.

“I just like this stuff, Miss. Want to build me my own steam shovel one day.”

That was... an unusually specific dream for a colt. “Can’t fault you that. Good honest living in the mines, for those willing to do the work. How ‘bout you, slick? Can’t keep giving this nice dome here the stink eye forever.”

“I like... I like math,” he admitted with a growl. “Wanna be an architect. That okay with you, Miss?”

“Hey, I like math too. Math makes sense when just about nothing else will. Ain’t no need to give me attitude, boy. But if that’s what you want, why don’t you look over these blueprints Pinkie sent our way while I figure out how to actually put this together. You all good with reading technical plans?”

“Ah, yeah...”

Brass snorted again. “Better hope so. Scootaloo’s been borrowing books for him for years.”

“Shutup!”

Applejack raised an eyebrow so hard it darn near floated off her face. “Hey now, no shame in readin’.”

Brass Tacks shrugged with the most shit-eating grin Applejack had seen outside of a noble. “Pretty sure there is, yeah.”

Sliding Rule kind of just... deflated a little and grumbled something darkly.

Now this wouldn’t do at all.

Applejack wrote “Thinks Reading Is Shameful” on a piece of paper in the prettiest, most florid cursive she ever learned and handed it Brass. He squinted at it, but couldn’t decipher the swirls and squiggles of it. “Here, Brass, you take this down to Ms Sparkle, she’ll bring it up for us if it don’t interrupt her lesson none. Wouldn’t wanna bore you with this technical stuff. You’ll be back in time to learn how to weld, don’t you fret none.”

Brass eyed the paper suspiciously but snatched it regardless. The rest of the group quietly watched him descend the stairs to... Well, best not think about it.

“Right, I reckon that’ll set him straight. This why you been so tetchy about being up here, then, Mr. Rule?”

The kid stayed as quiet as Flatcap. But Applejack had the patience of water carving canyons. Didn’t take much longer before he wore down too. “Book learning doesn’t get you far doing what we do, Miss. Others are sure to remind me now and again.”

“What, those others really give you that much trouble over it? Seems Scootaloo at least would stick up for you, what with circumstances and such.”

Sliding smiled to himself a little, eyes up and off to the side in memory. Didn’t notice the cheeky smirk on Flatcap’s face. “Yeah, I’m not the best teacher, and she’s not the best student... But, no, Miss, Brass actually stands up for me a lot. It’s not the other kids under Matron that I’m worried about.”

Ah.

Seeing so many of them nipping Fluttershy’s ankles made it easy to forget how much they were a drop in the bucket.

Here was hoping Twilight wasn’t too harsh on the poor lad, then.

“Yeah well, in here ain’t out there, you got me? And it might help to have another eye go over these that’s a bit more, ah, how do I say this... level? Pinkie’s a lovely lady, just a bit eccentric.”

Sliding nodded in understanding, went over the diagram for a bit. Seemed to be adding numbers between brackets of his own, and then again on a blank bit of paper with some notes. What were those things called, footnotes? Sounded right.

Left Applejack plenty of time to take Flatcap over the materials. She was impressed with how quick he was picking it all up.

“Used to work the drydocks, Miss,” he finally admitted quietly. “Put me to welding in the boilers cause they were small spaces and I was small too.”

“Oh. Ah, I’m very sorry to hear that.”

“Why?” Flatcap asked with a curious but happy smile. “I really liked it, Miss, really, but you need a horn light for safety and I couldn’t anymore.”

Some things clicked, distressingly. Applejack smiled on the outside to hide the hideous cringing going on behind her eyes. “Well, your hat’s gorgeous, kid.” And it fit horribly tight to his head. He was as much an earth pony as Scootaloo was a pegasus, huh?

“It’s going to be nice to be working with boilers again Miss.” There was a tinge of wistfulness in his voice that Applejack admired. Kid knew exactly what he wanted to do. Sort of.

“You know this ain’t a boiler, right? It’s... well...”

“Oh, but it is,” Flatcap insisted, raising his voice above a whisper for the first time in excitement, “it’s just that instead of making all the pressure on the inside bigger, you’re making it smaller on the outside. But it amounts to the same.”

Kid wasn’t wrong... “Well, I ain’t had to work on much stuff with pressure seals, so I’m going to be counting on your expertise for that. A tin can should be an easy enough shape to make—”

“It should be a triangle,” Sliding Rule said confidently from the table, making quick sketching motions without looking up from the drawing. “Well, a cone in three dimensions.”

“Well it’d cut down on the materials,” Applejack admitted cautiously, “but I ain’t sure that’s the best idea.”

“You’re hanging this from balloons, right? This would help keep it level, if it’s bottom heavy. It’d also focus the structure entirely around the joint. The most important thing is that it doesn’t have any straight edges or seams, because Flatcaps’ right, this is basically like designing a boiler to be used as a buoy.”

“Lookit’ that. That’s a clever head you got on those shoulders. A’ight, I can do that too, so long as you stop givin’ me bull pucky. You sort that out then, figure out the dimensions we’ll need to cut, and we’ll do that. The glass part’s going to be a little tricky though...”

Might have to order that in. Shucks if they weren’t trying to keep the cost down, but that was one bit that Applejack couldn’t figure out herself.

Alright, so, they could start on the framework at least, for the bottom. Harness too could be sorted out while Sliding Rule did that, but that might disappoint little Flatcap. She’d have to get Brass on it when he got back.

Woah, nelly, speak of the bugger.

Flatcap snickered. Sliding Rule’s head didn’t lift from the flurry of numbers and protractor sketches he was involved with until he heard Applejack fall flat on her side laughing too. He choked back a smile, though.

Brass’s face was covered in dark letters, a ribbon of sentences that glowed around the edges. And it extended all the way down and around his neck, each line a perfectly legible phrase: “I will not speak blasphemy.

Applejack hopped up off the floor after a moment, dusted herself, cleared her throat loudly, and by all means regained her composure. Utterly deadpan, she said; “So you uh, gave her my message, huh?”

“She hexed me,” Brass stated over-cheerfully through a smile and gritted teeth, staring at his hooves intently. “Easy enough to clear it all up, though. All I gotta do is write “I will not speak blasphemy” a hundred times, and every line I write makes one of these little buggers,” still staring at the floor, he gestured to... himself, in a hoof-wavey gesture, “go away.”

AJ tried to be diplomatic, she really did, but she just couldn’t keep the amusement out of her voice. “Well, you wanna get that out of the way before we start, then? We’ve got a little bit of time while some details are sorted.”

“Can’t, Miss.”

“Why, won’t Miss Twilight let you?”

“No, uh... I already tried, but... the spell can’t read my hoofwriting.”

And AJ lost it again.


Twilight had a poem prepared, her first attempt without Rarity proofreading it.

“Tonight we will be closer

Though yet so far apart

So far you might not notice

Together in my heart”

Luna was still for a moment, as if in thought. Her response was short enough that she could reply back in morse rather than writing: “That was twee.”

Twilight blushed furiously, banging her head against the telescope a few times. She’d fixed it once from worse...

“Sorry.”

“I like twee,” Luna reassured. “Just be safe. Do not rush on my behalf.”

“I can’t help it! Not when we’re so close to being so close.”

Luna seemed to smile at that. She began writing something then in the moon dust.

“The distance between us is two in dimension

Distance and time dimensions each

We must travel through both if ever to reach

I have patience enough, and you the intention.”

They ‘talked’ a while after that. The night was spent with Luna telling Twilight the old names for the stars, and drawing the old constellations.

And each time, Luna would make a great show of drawing them. And each time, Twilight felt a deep appreciation for just watching her.


It was a brisk night on the library roof. The stars shined clear above, the clouds being pushed far away by the same stiff breeze that was causing Pinkie’s teeth to chatter so loudly whenever she wasn’t using them to help Twilight with her straps. Some oil lanterns placed at the points of an invisible triangle around them helped with both the light and the cold, but not enough for either.

And a cone, like a metal party hat, stood looming beside them, big enough to uncomfortably fit a pony with all the scientific instruments that had been wedged into it. Just big and thick enough to support an atmosphere of pressure for the occupant inside, small and light enough that it would rise like a cork in water when the ballast was cut.

And Pinkie and Rainbow were helping Twilight with the final preparations before she rode it into the lower aether.

Rainbow tied off the leather straps as Pinkie checked the pressure. Dash fiddled with Twilight’s aviator cap as Pinkie quadruple-checked the parachute and the backup. Neither of them got in the other’s way as they fussed over all of the important bits and pieces of rigging.

“Are you sure you want to be the one to do this?” Dash asked for the fifth time, the same concern tinting her voice with a mix of concern and incredulity. “You’re not the one who can fly.”

“But you can’t operate the instruments,” Twilight retorted, “and Pinkie doesn’t have our sensitivity to magic. Of the three of us, I’m the one who gets the most out of the trip.”

“Aren’t you scared though?”

“Terrified,” Twilight admitted with what she hoped was a reassuring smile. “Our proof of concept was getting Pinkie up a tower of books, not getting a pony into the lower aether. But it’s basically just an airship, right? We know those are pretty safe.”

“Right, I guess...” Rainbow muttered, rubbing the back of her neck like she always did when she wasn’t sure about something. “What about both of us? We could both fit in the capsule, right?”

Twilight was starting to sweat in her heavy fleece jacket. As beautiful as the thick, waterproofed orange leather was, and as cutting a figure as it gave her, she couldn’t wait to either get it off or get high enough that she wasn’t drowning in herself as much. “We don’t have enough hydrogen, we don’t have enough room, and it’s too late to change it now. You can fly up with me until you can’t, though.”

“Right...” Timid, but then she thought about it a bit. “Right.” More confidently. “Pinkie and I will be there to catch you if anything goes horribly, spectacularly wrong, too.”

“I’ll make a pile of mattresses,” she was agreeing far too enthusiastically for Twilight’s comfort, “you just gotta aim for it, okay?”

“I’ll try... Mostly I’ll be trying to not let anything go horribly, spectacularly wrong so I won’t need to.”

Pinkie’s eyes widened with disappointment, like a puppy’s. “Aww... but I wanted to see how high  you’d bounce.”

Actually, that did sound fun. Her parents had never let her jump on her bed, and this seemed like the most logical extreme of harmless childhood fun, should she survive it.

Pinkie continued, walking her towards the capsule. “Also, I bought you a fire extinguisher, in case the hydrogen has a bit of a hiccup. But you should be fine!”

Again, Twilight tried to smile reassuringly, but this time it was almost entirely for her own benefit. “Thanks, Pinkie.”

“I mean, you probably wouldn’t get a chance to use it. Because if it burns, it’s gonna explode, bang! Because you’ve just got so much of it. Or it’s gunna happen when you’re so high up there’s no air to burn. So you’ll be fine, except for the falling. But just in case, I got you a fire extinguisher.”

Both Rainbow and Twilight stared at Pinkie a long moment, but her genuinely pleased-to-help smile didn’t waver for a second. Neither felt much like dwelling on it, so they both moved on.

“I put enough soda lime and calcium chloride in there that you should be able to breathe comfortably for a few hours, too, okay? There’s also pure oxygen, just in case. It’s the shiny metal tube that’s welded to the chair, not the red one, just so you don’t, uh, try to breathe out of the fire extinguisher. That’d be... that’d be a problem. Heh.”

Twilight looked at Dash and Pinkie utterly stone-faced, a rigid look of apathy bordering on disbelief. “I was so confident about this a few moments ago.”

“Hey, you’ll be fine!” Just like that, Rainbow switched from worried to doing her best to be reassuring, “We’ve gone over everything at least three times now, especially the safety stuff, and you watched Applejack put it together yourself. Everything’s going to be fine. And if it doesn’t, we’ve got you. You can trust us, even if we’re kind of blowing it here, right now.”

“But the balloons are already inflated, you don’t need to—”

“Figure of speech Pinkie.”

“Oh. Okay.”

“But yeah, Twilight, you go up there and you go do as much science as you can, and when you get back we’ll roast marshmallows up here or something to celebrate.”

Pinkie bounced at that, starting to shoo Twilight towards the more-terrifying-by-the-second capsule awaiting her, its balloons still rising high into that night sky. “I’ll bake a cake! It’ll probably be ready by the time you get back.”

Rainbow was smiling too, pressing into Twilight’s other side. “Yeah, well, I’ll lick the beaters.”

Pinkie pushed Twilight into the seat of the capsule. “I’ll leave them out for you. You’re supposed to be flying her up a bit, remember?”

Blue hooves helped strap her into the chair, tight. “Oh yeah. Totally doing that.”

Pinkie’s frizzy mane got into Twilight’s face as she checked the instruments around her one last time. “Then you gotta wash up.”

Rainbow checked the fastenings one last time. “Aww... Can’t Spike do it?”

“Only if he gets to lick the beaters instead.” Both of her friends stepped out and away from the launch pad.

“Dangit, fine.”

And that was the last thing Twilight heard before the capsule door closed, sealed. She had a small fan blade to spin with her magic to keep air circulating over the air scrubbing chemicals, a lot of blinking dials and graph paper and twitching needles, and a big red release lever to free her from the rooftop.

Her hooves were strapped to her sides for launch, so magic it would be.

The lever depressed with a clunk and—

AAAAAAAHHHH

Twilight shot up, less cork rising underwater and more fired from a champagne bottle, the straps keeping her steady in the craft as it rose. Rainbow struggled to keep up, but Twilight could see her clearly out the glass windows of the capsule — most of the front panel, and most of the bottom were windows facing out and down, so she could see everything.

With another magical gesture, the buttons strapping her limbs down were released — they were for acceleration, but now her velocity was a constant.

Rainbow Dash followed dutifully, obvious concern visible in her body language, even though her face was concealed by a mask and flight goggles of her own. She kept twitching towards the craft, looking Twilight up and down nervously whenever she hadn’t been given a reassuring wave every few minutes.

She stayed as they passed over the tallest buildings. She escorted Twilight up past the spires of the palace, as the city fell far below them.

Twilight felt sick, at first, from vertigo. The glass floor certainly wasn’t helping, but it was wonderful as she rose ever higher and higher to see... everything.

Everything looked so small. Everypony looked so insignificant.

Is this how Celestia saw everything all the time, with the distance granted to her by time instead of height?

It was a chilling thought, but far too believable.

Pinkie had gone inside. While Twilight could no longer make out the details, it would be hard to miss just how bright pink she was, even from here, against the stark stone-and-steel of the library roof.

She was rising at a rate of about twelve feet per second. Steady, a trot but upwards. Still faster and longer than she could have climbed any staircase, at this rate. Still, Dash kept close, stretching her wings and soaring on invisible thermals wherever she could find them.

It was only five minutes before she had cleared the cloud layer in its entirety. None around her, but she could see them stretch to the horizons around her. The glass began reporting with sharp cracks, shrinking from the temperature change, but nothing too damaging. Just punctuating the lines of frost forming on whatever edges and lines and joins they could find along the capsule.

Still...

She’d chosen a clear enough night, but she could still see clouds stretching around the curvature of the world. There was always that haze from the smokestacks and the fires, but here it stopped and hung in the air below her. The clouds weren’t close, but she emerged all the same from a great hole in a fluffy white field, another surface far above the planet that looked so solid, but was nothing but mists and fogs. The moonlight glinted off their surface, and everything took on a strange dreamlike quality.

Twilight so badly wanted to run her hooves through them. Just to see what they would feel like.

Even Dash, struggling beside her to keep up now, seemed an impossible thing. It wasn’t long before she had to give one final salute and weak smile, and then she too drifted far below the capsule, twirling in a long and lazy helix down and down and down as Twilight watched her descent. Her receding from a full pony to a blue speck to a nothingness far below.

And still she rose higher.

She could see the prisming, now, of light in the atmosphere, so removed was she from its curvature. So soon, so fast, the planet was so small.

Twilight regretted not having Rarity with her, after all. She needed a poet.

She would have needed more carbon scrubbers, though, and keeping the fan going was taxing enough. She had also been running the fan since she started, she realized. She was getting just a little light-headed. Some of it might have been the height, yes, but more likely the scrubbers had been removing too much carbon dioxide from the air. Give herself a much needed break from running it then.

Now she was far above the poofy cumulus clouds and up into the wispy cirrus. Vapor so far removed from the surface, it was theorized, that the air itself froze.

Crackling fog and frost continued to make it harder and harder to see. She wasn’t running the fan anymore though... Twilight wiped at the outside surface, with a great deal of concentration, using her magic. It helped a little, but condensed back almost immediately.

Heh.

She might not have a poet, but she had plenty of rime.

Why was nopony around to hear that? That was brilliant.

But not only was nopony around, nopony had been here before. Not this high, that she knew of. Or at least no survivors, cheerfully.

It was very lonely.

Luna was higher still...

Luna had been higher still for a long time.

As sombre as the thought was, here, now, Twilight was still giddy with the beauty of... the entire world beneath her.

Oh, wow.

She could see the continents now. Great shapes. And with her depth perception so far removed from what it was ever designed to handle, the continents below her now appeared like the clouds above her had on their surface, the ocean a sky.

She’d never be able to look at a flat map on parchment anymore. Just globes, to really see that curvature... maps! Oh, what this could have meant for cartography! To not have to trail coastlines, to see all of them at once!

Or what if she brought a telescope up here? Or a camera! She’d need one that didn’t leak such noxious fumes into the cabin.

She had notebooks, though, that she could fill. Sketches of the clouds from above, notes on the readings from her ascent, simple outlines of the continents she saw -- unfortunately only pencil sketches -- the change in the colour of the skies from blue above to black above and blue below, where the hue of the sky itself was visible across and below...

The balloon had slowed. Her altimeter had stopped climbing. She’d run out of sky, and had bumped into the aether. No spectacular holes torn into it, like with Pinkie’s experiment in the basement, just...

For the first time since she had broken the cirrus layers, Twilight thought to look up.

“Oh. Oh, wow.”

She was in the night. She was in a place where it was always night time, and the sun could only touch, but never reach, it seemed. Not completely.

It wasn’t quite like a single candle in a vast black cavern hoping to illuminate everything... It was something far worse, Twilight realized, as she stared out into the glistening void. It was an infinity, a true endlessness, filled with stars. And how bright some were! Were they closer, or simply bigger? Both?

The sun was a candle, yes, but not alone, and not in a cavern. It was a prayer candle lit in an uncaring cathedral filled with other candles, with other prayers. But all would only ever see the prayers out in this darkness, never the cathedral, never the clergy, and maybe never even the other parishioners.

And how many of those candles were attended? How many weren’t? How many had been, but no longer? How many would?

Twilight was going to need a bigger telescope, and a bigger laser. And either a lot bigger balloons, or a bigger cannon to put them up here.

And some very industrious ponies, Twilight knew, had recently proven light doesn’t travel instantaneously – by accident, trying to prove the inverse – using an ingenious array of prisms and the knowledge that Equus orbited the sun in an elliptical arc... how far away were these stars? How could she tell?

How big was the cathedral?

Wait... how many of these candles had been snuffed out, if light travelled at a limited speed, and Twilight simply couldn’t know because of the immense distance? They knew from old paintings and astronomers that it happened, certainly. Sometimes stars flared up and died away...

Then she looked down again and saw her entire world hanging in nothingness, in void and black emptiness, oblivious to it all. To everything. And up at the moon far above, which was so small by comparison, which could see it all, all the time. It had no sky protecting it from... everything.

What else had the sky been protecting her from?

The instruments were certainly fascinating. There was some significant background radiation, for some reason – she’d only thought to bring that along for safety, not out of any real suspicion – the temperatures were freezing on one side and comparatively fine for the altitude on the other... still, her winter clothes had paid off, and she wasn’t sweating any more. She was as close to no atmosphere as the laws of buoyancy could take her up to, and the conical nature of the craft was probably helping considerably in preventing it from rupturing...

No abnormal electrical currents. Her compass refused to behave, so the magnetic field was definitely as strange up here as she’d predicted. No wind, because there was no air to move...

One last curiosity, then.

Twilight felt out into the void with her magic and—

“Woah!

She rocked back into her chair, pressing into it, huffing heavily. She felt like she’d tried to fellate a live wire.

The aether was alive with magic! It was filled with...

The aether wasn’t empty! It wasn’t a gas, though, or electrical it was... it was magical! Magical winds soared from those candles, like heat waves, and rippled and eddied around the planet for some reason!

But not the moon! It had no sky to ‘protect’ it! That was how Luna had felt Twilight watching her!

There was so much power, flowing through her now. She hadn’t felt it until she opened her magic, but now that she had... There was so much of it. Imagine what she could do—

No. Think. Design. Invent.

She could use this.

This was the breakthrough she needed.

She didn’t need to fire the cannon all the way to the moon! She could lower her impulse calculations to just get her here, this far, outside of the sky, into the aether... Then she could use all this energy, all this untapped power, to go wherever she wanted! She’d need to run more tests, she’d need to run some numbers, she’d need to run the fan.

The scrubbers still worked without it, yes, but the fan helped.

She strapped herself back in completely, first, ready to release one of the balloons and start her descent. She’d found out all she needed, and her data had been invaluable. Radiation had never been a problem she’d considered before...

Alright. She reached out with her magic and spun the fan a—


She was falling.

She’d been falling for a little bit.

Her left foreleg was definitely broken. The adrenaline was probably why she woke up right now. She still couldn’t feel it yet, not completely, but it was broken all the same.

The capsule was gone. The last thing she remembered was the sound of screaming metal, the shattering of glass, then she had woken up falling.

The balloons were still far above her. She could still see them. They were getting smaller far too quickly though.

She was falling too fast. No air resistance, she realized.

Strapping into the chair first was what saved her. She’d been thrown downwards through the capsule, based on all the lacerations on her hind legs. Nothing vital was cut, and the extreme cold had numbed where the blood poked through her thick clothes.

The cuts must have been very bad to get through all that protective fur and leather, could have been a lot worse without them.

Why was her vision getting so... narrow? Like looking through a tunnel...

Oxygen. She was suffocating.

The oxygen tank, for emergencies, was still strapped to her chair. Twilight reached out with her magic – hesitated – reached out anyway, as light as she could. Still too strong, but she hadn’t caused structural damage to the tank. The aether was already fading away. Pressed the mask to her lips, turned the knob, deep breath.

Gasp.

Everything snaps back. The tunnel’s gone and now there’s the screaming pain in her arm, and her lungs, and her body, oh, everything is screaming at her and it won’t stop, but neither will the falling.

She’s falling at an amazing speed without air resistance.

Her parachute is strapped on her back, between the chair and her back. She was never meant to take the seat with her out of the capsule. If she needed the parachute, the idea was to release the sealed hatch and jump...

They hadn’t anticipated failure at this height. It wasn’t said aloud around the six, but none of them thought a catastrophic failure from this height would have been survivable anyway to worry about the pressure difference. Especially never said around Spike.

Oh stars would she never see Spike again?

Don’t panic. Panic is death. What had Shining taught her?

Center herself. Focus around the pain. Another half-breath of oxygen.

Remember to DIE.

Determine, Infer, Execute.

Determine:

1). I am falling  Threat

2). I have a broken arm and severe lacerations  Complication

3). I am at an extremely lethal velocity  Threat

3a). I have a parachute though  Resolution

4). I am strapped to this chair  Complication

Determine complete.

Infer:

I need to unstrap myself from seat using only one arm, release parachute.

Inference complete.

Now came the hardest letter.

Execute.

Twilight struggled with the strap. She was tumbling, fast, and the air around her was starting to heat up. Friction, or compression, either one was starting to heat up the faster she got. Based on how far she was falling relative to how fast she had climbed, she was well and truly exceeding terminal velocity, possibly by an order of magnitude.

She also still had that broken arm flopping about. That was starting to scream at her, even through the adrenaline. The limb was being tossed like a ragdoll’s, and releasing herself from the straps was going to make it far, far worse.

She grit her teeth and tried to hit the release catch with her good hoof. It took her a few tries, or rather a few rolls, until the g-forces slapped her hoof at just the right angle to hit it.

The broken and battered and sliced pony fell out of her seat, pushing herself away from it, and forced herself into a more shoulder-jarring position, having the pressure force her broken arm into her chest like a sling. An excruciatingly painful sling, but at least it was now still.

Unfortunately the position reduced her drag profile. Staying like this increased her speed profoundly. Her cheeks were pulled and stretched out and away from her teeth and she screwed her eyes shut against the screaming air rushing against her. She might have been screaming, too, but she couldn’t hear it over the howling wind, and she couldn’t feel something as mild as a sore throat over everything else, the pain throbbing and pooling and spreading far beyond the borders of its causes.

Still, still she hesitated about pulling the cord. It’d wrap most of the weight around her waist, but a significant amount of it would jerk her shoulders. Undoing the strap on her broken arm would cause the parachute to pull unevenly, and make for a much harder, uneven pull on the unbroken one.

Simply put, if she pulled her right arm out of the strap to spare it, all she’d do is rip the left one out of its socket. But if she kept it in, she’d be putting a lesser, but not insignificant, amount of force on her broken arm.

And every second she hesitated was another second of acceleration far in excess of terminal velocity.

A conundrum.

A few more cringeful seconds went by. Still she was grateful for the bottled air allowing her to survive this, even this long. What came next, though?

This is going to hurt this is going to hurt this is going to hurt

Twilight pulled the ripcord, her main chute deploying.

There was a ‘whoomph’ of the air catching it and forcing it up and away from her, a sharp ‘twang’ of it catching the air and slowing her descent and then, instead of slowing further, a sharper and harder pull under her left side and she was spinning spinning spinning way too fast, nauseatingly fast.

It hurt, it hurt her head, she was sick she was sick she hurt and was so sick.

She screamed again, but still couldn’t hear it. She pulled again at the green cord, scrambling for it – that detached the main chute – and it went flying up and away from her further still, no longer held to her.

When she stabilized herself again, back to the ground and broken right arm held to her chest and oh stars it hurt so much it hurt so much she could see the problem.

The lacerations hadn’t stopped at her leg. Some shards must have cut through the lines holding the chute to her back, and as a result the parachute itself had held lopsided, which caused the rest of it to tangle and drag her into a spin cycle.

Which was a fantastic thing to find out now that she’d already screamed past the cirrus layers at the speed of sound, air buffeting her excruciatingly painfully.

Problem problem problem the backup chute was an emergency chute. Main chutes designed to deploy over hundreds of feet backup chutes in less than 200 meaning extreme deceleration meaning

more pain

more pain extreme pain hurt hurt hurt hurt—

One last deep breath from the oxygen reserves as she pulled the reserve chute’s cord.

It snapped like a whipcrack, like a gunshot out of the bag this time, and it snapped open just as quick and the very instant that it did, the instant that all that force was ripped back into Twilight, was the moment everything became nothing.


The most beautiful dawn had welcomed the first day of Sweet Apple Acre’s future, and it had been the future for almost two hours now.

Applejack and Rarity stared at the shining metal boiler, gauges and dials ‘borrowed’ from Twilight, some technical specifications ‘borrowed’ from Pinkie Pie, and currently being loaded with apples plucked by Big Macintosh.

Apples were crushed by the dozens, the juice collecting in huge vats. Whenever the vats filled, they were sealed and simmered, not quite to boiling, but enough to treat them of most harmful little things. To clean it, essentially. Pasteurization had gained a hoofhold on the farm.

“I can’t believe it.”

“Stunning, is it not?”

“Nah, I mean I can’t believe you talked me into it.”

“Well, you’ve gone from industrious farmer to farmer industrialist. And I talked to that gallant brother of Ms Moony-Eyed – let me tell you, if he hadn’t been my first client, I’d have sabotaged that entire soiree, stolen him for myself and then coasted on my reputation until I could build it back up again, sweetie, truly, he’s such a wonderfully delicious specimen – about contributing rations to the military. Preserved goods like this are ideal to send as rations. You could send a taste of home to all those fighting Apples on the front lines.”

That earned a long, world-weary sigh from Applejack. “Yeah, it ain’t like the army’s goin’ out of business any time soon, not the way the world is of late...”

“Such a shame you drew the line at tinning it, though. It would have been much easier—”

“Nope.”

“—to clear the deal—”

“Ain’t havin’ it, Rares, we been over this.”

“—if you hadn’t insisted on glass.”

Applejack took off her flat cap and flicked it, dusting it about a bit, before putting it back on. Neither pony was looking at the other, just appreciating the hypnotic rhythm of the big machine they’d put together over the past however long, using the last reserves of the farm’s bits to do it. Even that dollop of money from a while back of Twilight paying way too much for a year’s worth of food didn’t quite cover it...

Hadn’t hurt though.

“Look, Rares, I ain’t gunna compromise on quality. Tinnin’ it? All that metal gets in the taste, messes with your mouth. It’s awful dreck. Glass don’t do that. Sure, it’s harder to ship, costs more to bottle, but ah ain’t compromisin’ one iota on quality. Wasn’t nothin’ wrong with juice before we did all this boilin’ nothin’, tastes better if ponies stopped being so dang fussy.”

“I know dear, but—”

“Tastes weaker, it does!”

“—there are health risks—”

“A little syrupier too, you don’t get the full body of it!”

“—and it preserves it so much longer.”

Still they just watched the hypnotic bottling process as boiled juice filled glass imported en-masse from a local factory Rarity had struck a very appreciable deal with. They’d told Applejack that they’d have to charge her a lot more for the first shipment, to cover the cost of startup, and they’d explained it in a way that seemed mighty fair. Rarity didn’t agree. She had twisted those words on ‘em somehow and they ended up giving the first lot away on discount, when she pointed out that this was investment in a long term business partnership and not to undermine the relationship from the start.

That first startup was filling a bottle every few seconds, then another machine sealed a lid on it tight, and then it went into a crate.

They’d sell this shipment, then they’d have to hire on more workers. Wouldn’t be just the family farm anymore, but it’d be a thriving business.

That was better, right?

Applejack wasn’t so sure. Her voice quivered a little when she asked, “Rares, can you answer somethin’ for me?”

“I certainly hope so.”

“Why don’t ponies like the good old fashioned stuff? Why’d I have to go and muck with it all before they were willing to buy it? Heck, the more I muck with it, like tinning it, the worse I make it, the more ponies I can sell it to. What the heck gives with that?”

“People don’t want better, dear Applejack. They want novelty and they want new, because they live under the misguided idea that new is better. And then one day – maybe sooner, maybe later – ponies will find that ‘new’ has gotten old, and what was old will become new again. Then, perhaps, will the world beat a path to your door for quality and tradition...”

There was a wistful quietness between them, broken only by the sound of burbling and simmering and clattering of glass.

“I sold a pattern once, you know,” Rarity said, miserably.

That snapped Applejack out of her reverie. She finally looked at Rarity, and saw a pony who was far older in life than she was in years, now. “What, to another fashion pony?”

A derisive snort. “No, heavens no! I’ve let apprentices study them, certainly, but, no. Would you so readily sell your best seeds to a rival farm?”

Applejack had come to learn Rarity cared as much about her fashion and she did her farm. She didn’t get it, but she respected it. Sometimes she forgot, but when Rarity said stuff like that, she couldn’t help but be reminded.

All of that went through her head when she answered only by shaking her head.

Rarity must have seen out of the corner of her eye, or just waited the appropriate amount of time, because she continued without looking away from those bottling machines. “To a factory. I was so flattered! They wanted my most simple, elegant design to mass produce, and they’d give me a percentage. Why, with how brilliant the design I had sent them, I was sure to be a millionaire.”

“Take it didn’t pan out, huh? Nopony wanted it?”

Rarity shook her head sadly, a haunted look in her eyes. “No, darling. No, I could have lived with that. It would have been a hit to my ego, but I could have soothed my poor ego by telling myself it was simply too niche. Everypony wanted it.”

“Oh, I see,” Applejack said as if she understood. She didn’t.

“No, you don’t, darling, and neither did I until I saw it. Applejack, my designs are supposed to be unique works, no two pieces quite alike. Each a piece of wearable art tailored to the one pony who most wanted it. A month after production, I saw three young ladies on a street corner, all three garbed in my design. Identical, carbon copies of each other. And I saw everything that was special or wonderful about what I created mocked and corrupted. Were it only those three— The production had sold out. I had outdone myself.” She spat that last bit out with a venom that seemed completely at odds with the statement.

Applejack remained silent, still processing this.

“So, why aren’t you a squillionaire then? If you sold out?”

“Oh, Applejack, please never use those words around me. I sold out... grotesque.” She actually, visibly shuddered. “I spent every cent I had earned buying the pattern back from the factory, and never repeated that mistake.”

Applejack reached a very bitter conclusion of her own. “So you knew what you were asking me to do when you were telling me to do... all this!”

“I’m afraid so, yes.”

“Why didn’t you let on?”

“Because I needed to remain positive about the enterprise. You’d never have followed through if I’d told you the truth that it was just as painful as you imagined, would you?”

Applejack sputtered, taking her hat off again and crushing it against her chest. Felt reassuring. “No! And that would have been for the best, right? You just said how miserable you were!”

“I returned to a successful business selling an irreproducible luxury commodity. If you hadn’t had done this, Applejack, you would have lost your farm. By doing this, we’ve tarnished something wonderful, and beautiful and personal. This machine before us is boiling away something very special to this world.”

The machine chugged on regardless of the harmful words. It was an unfeeling beast, after all.

Applejack pressed through gritted teeth. “I reckon there’s a but?”

“And a significant one at that.” Rarity either didn’t acknowledge Applejack’s anger, or was too somber to let it affect her much. “If we hadn’t done this, Applejack, you’d have lost it. All of it. With it, you can still make the best produce. Nopony else but a close few might appreciate the perfection you have here, the rest but a reflection of the original sublime, but you still have that.”

“Eeyup,” Applejack’s brother agreed soberly from the scaffolding above the machine, hefting another barrel of apples onto his shoulders..

A pleasant little shudder rocked through Rarity’s body. “What is it with you ladies having delicious older brothers I’m not allowed? Apples always were depicted as the forbidden fruit...”

Applejack whacked Rarity over the back of her stupid unicorn skull with her hat. “You know, you were just this side of poignant, Rares, and then you gotta go and say that.”

“I do apologize, I’ve been trying very hard not to stare for this long, but his voice...”

“S’all good Rares. I appreciate the effort.”

Long silence. Big Macintosh continued to move entire barrels filled with apples, sweat glistening down his muscles as they flexed. Rarity very consciously kept her eyes fixed on machine itself, Applejack noticed.

“Didn’t realize this was so hard on you, too.”

“Oh, it was horrid! Knowing how much this was going to hurt you...”

“But you saved the farm. Reckon that was going to end up hurting more. We’d have sold it piecemeal too. Would have taken years of desperate scrabbling, and then we’d have lost out to a neighbour who ended up doing this anyway... You’ve done us a good turn, Rarity, even if we both hate it.”

Another long and thoughtful silence.

Rarity coughed into a hoof. “You know, I suspect if we hold one of those bottles in the flow between the squeezer and the boiler, we could get some freshly squeezed juice ‘before it all got mucked up’.”

“Reckon I’d like that greatly.”

Rarity raised her voice, and higher again so she didn’t have to look at him. “You want one, Macintosh?”

“Eeeyup!”

Rarity shuddered again. Applejack whacked her again.

The pair stepped outside the freshly-raised barn housing the machine, walking around the side to each grab a bottle, when they saw a puffing, panting little figure running towards them.

“Is that—”

“Spikey?”

The dragonling kept running and puffing. Looked like he hadn’t paused for breath the whole way between the farm and the library, poor dear. He bent double when he reached them.

He managed to get three panicked words out between ragged gasps. “Twilight! Hurt! Bad!”

Then he fell over.

Applejack and Rarity shared a look for only a moment before the farmer threw him over her back and they ran, themselves, up into the city. Rarity didn’t even pause to think about how sweaty she’d get. Even she just ran.


The sun hadn’t risen yet.

Pinkie was not happy.

Twilight had landed hard on her pile of crash mattresses, and she wasn’t moving, and her eyes weren’t open, and Pinkie wasn’t even sure that Twilight was breathing. Rainbow had steered the the twisted and torn pony into it, too afraid to really touch her.

No matter how soft the mattresses had been, though, the landing had still been really really hard. Rainbow looked really worried, even worse than than when Pinkie lost time. She’d yelled at Pinkie – she never yelled at Pinkie – to go get Fluttershy. She told Pinkie not to look, too, which just made Pinkie curious when she didn’t want to look but she looked.

Twilight was soaked in blood. Rainbow had pulled out a survival knife from her overcoat. “Pinkie, get the kettle, boil it. And some linen. Like, a bedsheet.”

“Tea and bedrest? Is she sick...”

Rainbow growled and the knife flashed in the moonlight, slicing away pieces of Twilight’s thick clothing. The bleeding looked even worse without it. “That comes later, ‘cause I’m pretty sure she’s got real bad hypoxia. But first we gotta boil some bandages.”

“O-oh.”

Pinkie ran to do it. As soon as she got to the telescope, though, she paused for just a moment. Yeah. She ran to the speaking tube near it.

“Spike?”

“Yeah?”

“Could you quickly bring a bedsheet up to the telescope, please? Oh, and some coal, while you’re at the boiler.” Pinkie’s voice wavered, no matter how hard she tried to hide her anxiety. She hoped it got lost in the pipes... “Then maybe go get Fluttershy?”

“Uh, sure, I guess? Why—”

“Okay thanks bye!”

Pinkie just ran for the kettle this time. Spike could meet her coming up and she’d grab that and give it to Rainbow and Twilight would be okay, even if her arm really, really shouldn’t look like it had three opposing elbows.

There was a kettle just at the bottom of the elevator, which was really slow, and it was so slow that by the bottom of it Pinkie was crying because maybe Twilight was dead and if she had slid down the ladders instead maybe Pinkie could have saved her so maybe she’d accidentally just killed Twilight but then she got a pair of metal buckets from where the buckets were and the elevator was faster than climbing this time so it didn’t feel like a wrong decision on the way back.

Spike was waiting back up at the top of the elevator waiting for her, holding a bedsheet full of coal.

“Why do you need—”

“Thank you so much, Spike!” Pinkie swept him up in a huge hug. “Now, uh, could you go get Fluttershy please? You remember how to get there right?”

“Ah... yeah. What’s going on? I thought everything was okay, Rainbow said—”

Pinkie cut him off, twitching her whole way through the slow sentence that wasn’t helping Twilight right now. “Yeah, she did.” A twitch snapped through her neck and her head jerked a bit. It sucked. “But Twilight’s really hurt right now, okay? And I don’t think it would be a good idea to tell her brother what we were doing...”

“They might have a field medic, though, or... or... yeah.” Spike gulped. “I’ll get Fluttershy. I’ll, uh... oh geeze. I wish I had longer legs!”

He waddled over to a ladder and jumped down it, feet outside the rungs and claws slowing his descent. As soon as that ladder ended, he bounced to the next one, throwing himself down ladder to ladder.

It was way faster than the elevator.

Still, she had the coal and the kettle and the cloth. She grabbed it all up in one big bundle and made her way up to the roof.

Everything looked really, really bad. Twilight had been cut out of most of her clothes, and her fur was all matted with blood, and Rainbow had rolled Twilight onto her back with her head tilted to the side. Twilight was wheezing brokenly and wetly and her breaths kept catching in her throat weirdly but that was okay because she was breathing.

Pinkie didn’t say anything. Just set the bucket up on the coals and pulled a box of matches out of her hair and lit it and the water started simmering slowly. No where near boiling, but it was a start, and the fire was still nice.

She didn’t want to look but she did look and Twilight’s legs looked... weird, not as bad as her arm did but she hadn’t seen blood look like that before it was... gross. Really gross. She tasted lunch again and it wasn’t that great the first time around and the second time wasn’t better.

Rainbow noticed her noticing, and grimaced reassuringly, which was apparently a thing she could do. “It’s hypoxia,” she said, as if that explained it. Then, she did explain it when Pinkie looked confused. “It’s only happened to a few pegasii who were pushing it to the absolute limits. But it’s when the atmospheric pressure whatsit is less than the... I don’t know. Higher you go, colder things boil.” Rainbow pointed at Twilight’s... whole situation. “Her blood literally boiled outside of her body, and probably inside of it a little too. Saliva, eyes, you name it it just... evaporated.”

Ew, ew, ew gross gross awful yuck no was that why everything looked so, oh, yuck, gross, no, no, no!

Rainbow shook her head and slid the knife over to Pinkie. It was covered in blood. She stirred the simmering water with it a little before she started cutting the bedsheet off into thick strips. Rainbow continued. “Yeah, so, it nicked some really big and vital arteries, it looks like, but the blood clotted extraordinarily fast as soon as it hit air. Saved her life. If this had happened at a lower altitude... As it is, she’s probably gonna be lucky if she gets feeling back in this leg for a while.”

“But she’ll get better right? She’s my best friend! She has to be okay!”

A flash of hurt passed like reflected light behind Dash’s eyes. “I thought I was— No, look, she’ll be fine, we just need to—” She was cut off by a fuzzy pink crash tackle.

“You’re my best friend, too, okay? The bestest of best friends! Please don’t be mad I couldn’t take it right now if you were mad at me right now...”

Rainbow hugged her back tight and close and buried Pinkie’s muzzle in her shoulder. “Hey, I was just being stupid jealous for like, a second. I’m a little emotional too right now, okay? We’ll make sure Twilight’s going to be okay too. We’ll get Fluttershy, and we’ll get her bandaged up so none of this gets infected, and she’ll get plenty of bedrest and she’ll just read in bed for like, a month?”

“Y-yeah?” Pinkie snuffled and she hated it because Dash was being so brave.

“You know how much she’ll love that, having us have to be nice to her for a month while she gets breakfast in bed every day and just gets to read? She’ll be in heaven Pinkie, we just gotta get her there, that’s all.”

Pinkie wiped her nose a bit against Dash’s jacket and, to the adventurer’s credit, she didn’t even flinch. “She’s not gonna go to actual heaven though, right?”

“What—Oh, fudge, no. No, no, just... she’ll be happy is all, Pinks. She’ll get better.”

“O-okay.” Again she stuttered and again she hated herself for doing it because it wasn’t helping. “I think the water’s boiling. I’ll... do that.”

She tried to let go, but Rainbow just squeezed her even tighter for a moment. “It’ll be okay, Pinkie. You haven’t done anything wrong, okay?”

Pinkie knew she had, but she didn’t want to upset Rainbow by disagreeing with her. “Okay...”

So she boiled some bedsheets until Rainbow said they were good, and she tried to wring out as much of the water as possible so they didn’t have to reboil much new water, because it took a while to get it up here because the pipes ended downstairs.

Rainbow took them off her, each one in turn, gently and nicely and never snatched them. Then she wrapped them around the worst of the blood spots, tight and thick, and they all bloomed little red splotches when she did, but that was supposed to happen. If it didn’t happen, you didn’t really need the bandage, Rainbow assured her.

They’d done all her legs, and used most of the bed sheet, when two foals wordlessly moved past her to Twilight carrying a stretcher. Then Fluttershy was giving her a hug too.

“You did well, little one,” she whispered so gently into Pinkie’s ear and she knew, she knew, that everything was going to be okay now. “Help me move her? As many hooves as possible to spread the load.”

The foals were Cap’n and Brass, she knew them, they were good kids, and a lot stronger than her, so they and Dash mostly rolled Twilight into the stretcher careful careful while Fluttershy and Pinkie tried to just keep her head and arm from moving as much as possible.

Fluttershy did nothing to hide how impressed she was at their work. “This is excellent first aid, Rainbow. You’ve done good work.” The Matron looked at Rainbow warmly for a few seconds before recognizing something Pinkie couldn’t see, even if she squinted. “Pinkie, would you please get Rainbow an empty bucket? And lay out one of these mattresses?”

Rainbow seemed grateful so Pinkie just did as she was asked. She adjusted the bed and got the bucket and as soon as she did, Rainbow emptied her stomach into it, blinked twice, and fell over fast asleep, beyond snoring, onto the mattress.

“I should get a blanket for her... and a pillow,” Pinkie whispered. Fluttershy nodded and smiled at her and things were okay again, even if they weren’t.

“Where’s Spike?”

“He’s off to get the others. They’ll probably want to know, and I don’t want him here fretting too much. Poor little thing just needs to be useful...”

Pinkie knew the feeling. It was bad and she felt bad.

Then Fluttershy gave her one last, big, motherly hug and took the stretcher downstairs with the foals to get Twilight to a real bed and then Brass Tacks was back with a concerned look and the pillow and blanket so that Pinkie could just stay up here looking after Dash and then he was gone too, and it was hours after they started.

She was curled up next to Rainbow when Pinkie saw the most beautiful sunrise she’d ever, ever seen in her whole life.

The Princess was mocking them, she knew it.

What a mean, cruel, horrible, awful, dreadful... grargh!!!


To Love the Moon, To Love the Moonshine

Twilight woke up and immediately regretted it.

Everything hurt so much, but she was too weak and broken to do anything other than let out a long, low groan.

Then everything hurt more because two ponies had jumped onto her to hug her.

She definitely had a broken rib on both sides, right where blue blur and pink splotch were leaning into her. Five ponies and a little dragon screamed her name and cheered and celebrated. It was probably very nice for them that she was alive, but she wasn’t feeling appreciative.

Not that she wanted to be dead indefinitely, mind. Just as long as it took to stop hurting.

Coma! Coma was the word she was looking for, as her broken ribs were crushed by a pair happy, crying ponies.

Fortunately they were shooed off her by the calm, clear and country voices respectively. Then a reeking drink was thrust under her nose and the calm voice told her to open up. Twilight kept tight lipped. It was pulled away. “Medicine?” she creaked, infuriated at the weakness of her own voice.

“Sort of.” Calm voice -- Fluttershy! that was her name -- told her. “Whiskey, strong.”

"I don’t drink,.” Twilight pouted.

There was a silence in the room, except for Fluttershy’s sigh.

“Well, I’m not a doctor, so this is the best anesthesia you’re going to get. You will hurt less.”

“O-oh.” Twilight downed it. She didn’t like being drunk, hated it in fact, but she hated hurting even more.

She recognized Rarity’s distinctive voice, now, too. “You’re not a doctor? I was under the impression...” she trailed off, and Twilight could feel Fluttershy’s gentle and shy smile even though she couldn’t see it. There was just a distinct impression of it being in the room.

“Everypony knows the nurses do all the work. We just don’t get the best tools.” She considered that a moment. “Although this is very nice whiskey, thank you.”

Rarity seemed to perk right up at that. “Ah. And you’re very welcome. Anything to help a friend.”

“Actually, it’s been a very long night... do you mind if I...?” Fluttershy gave the bottle a meaningful glance.

“Hrm? Oh, yes, go ahead. Pour me a double as well, if we can scrounge up the glasses. Would hate for Twilight to have to drink alone, poor dear. She seems to be having a rough enough time of it as-is.”

Twilight was trying to think of it as medicine, true, but calling it a social activity with her friends might be another step less unpleasant again.

“See? There’s her thoughtful expression. You three be joining us? I have another bottle spare. Rather good, I assure you.”

Dash gave Twilight another quick hug. “I’m spiffing thanks.” Twilight could hear the exhaustion in her voice, deep and haggard. “I’m really not in the mood. Now I know Twilight’s gone from ‘under’ to ‘under the weather’, I might go and catch forty winks or a few hundred more. S’nice seeing you up, Twilight. Had me terrified, you did.”

And with that, there was a slinking, slumping noise... out and away.

Pinkie’s response was a lot simpler, after her own hug was given and taken. “No thank you, Lady Rarity. Alcohol makes me sick.”

Rarity smiled a touch gingerly. “I assure you, if you just stick to a glass and drink plenty of water—”

“Not hangover sick. Head sick.”

“Oh. Oh, I see. Then I’m dreadfully sorry for pressuring you, dearest. Well done for the restraint on your part.”

Pinkie smiled weakly for a moment, before watching something past the door, eyes a little unfocused. “I might go look after Rainbow, actually. I don’t think she’s slept since... she felt really, really, really guilty about passing out before knowing for sure you were okay. I think she’s been by your side since! She taught me how to play checkers.”

Twilight gagged and spluttered down the last of her second glass of whiskey, which Fluttershy had silently refilled while Twilight wasn’t paying attention. “How long was I out?”

“Well, you landed about two hours before sunrise on Saturday, and it’s now about three in the afternoon Monday.”

Twilight choked on the last of the burning liquid going down, catching it in her chest. She reflexively tried to thump it with her right arm and that just sent fire and brimstone through her. When she had finally regained her composure, Fluttershy having rushed to her side to lift her head to a better angle... “That long?”

Rarity murred an agreeing noise. “And Pinkie’s right, Rainbow never left your side. We all paid our visits of course -- your brother especially was worried for you, but couldn’t see you yet. The Princess is apparently very suspicious your injuries are just a way for you to hide some unseemly antics, so visitation has been restricted. Not for us, mind, just for ponies she deems dangerous enough to conspire against you.” She swirled her own whiskey and stared into it sternly, like it was responsible for the slight.  “Honestly, what are we, chopped cabbage?”

Great, now she was in incredible pain and furious. At least the adrenaline reduced the pain, even if the shaking had reignited some dormant embers of agony. “Charming.”

“He’ll be very relieved,” Fluttershy assured her.

“What about you, Applejack? Will you be joining us for a drink? I feel we’re all far too sober to properly discuss such depressing matters.”

“Oh, I’ll be joining you, thank you muchly, but I won’t be drinking. As much fun as it might be to knock back a bottle of hard cider with you, I reckon y’all are gunna need a designated sober pony ‘fore you do something you might regret.”

Rarity was absolutely deadpan when she said; “You’re worried if we’re both drunk, I might seduce you, aren’t you?”

Applejack didn’t even flinch or hesitate. “Wouldn’t be the dumbest thing Drunk Applejack did. Might have picked a fight with a barn once. Might have won it, too.”

Fluttershy asked so that Twilight didn’t have to. “How do you win a fight with a barn?”

“The answer to that one is simple; grit, determination, perseverance and a good buck. The harder question is; How do you explain it to Big Macintosh, in the morning, when he points out termites don’t leave no hoofprints.”

“Ah.” Twilight and Fluttershy said in unison.

Twilight pointed an accusing, trembling hoof at Applejack. “Angry drunk?”

“Only whiskey. Why I said I’d have hard cider. Then I’m a happy drunk.”

“And you’re not drinking anyway, right.” She pointed the accusing hoof at Rarity now, or where she thought Rarity was since she couldn’t quite turn her head. “Angry drunk?”

“Flirty drunk.”

Right. At Fluttershy. “Angry drunk?”

“No, I don’t think so. Just giggly, apparently.”

Twilight pointed at herself. “Probably weepy drunk, let’s be honest here. But I’m the only one who doesn’t have a choice so... Alright let’s do this. I have a lot of pain in my system and not a lot of alcohol, and I’d like to flip that around.” She’d been reluctant with the first one, but a few minutes, an empty stomach, and two shots into her, this was seeming more and more like a great idea by the second.


“Gay,” Rarity declared triumphantly, swishing the ice around in her glass. Twilight had lost count of how many Rarity had to drink by now.

“Really?” Fluttershy gasped far too loudly, swaying a little. “Prince Blueblood?”

“Oh, absolutely, darling. His voice is more feminine than mine and he spends twice as much time on his hair. He’s a buffoon and a ponce but he’s utterly fabulous, I assure you.”

“What about the Wonderbolts?”

“In what particular order?”

Fluttershy went from giggly to a sort of dizzy, serious contemplation, her eyes rolling up a little and she tapped her hoof on the floor as she tried to recall all... “Spitfire, Fleetfoot, Soarin’, Rapidfire, High Winds, Icy Mist, Lightning Streak, Silver Zoom, and Wave Chill.”

"Gay, gay, straight, straight but cheating on his wife with her, who is also cheating on him with him, him, her and she wished me. In that order.”

“Wait, so—”

“Rapidfire is sleeping with High Winds, Icy Mist, LIghtning Streak, Silver Zoom and Wave Chill, yes. High Winds with Fleetfoot and Silver, Icy Mist with Silver and Wave, and Wave with Lightning. Except they all believe the other to be monogamous, except for Rapidfire, who finds the whole situation delectable, as I certainly do as well. I apologize, this is usually a lot easier to explain with a chalkboard, or pins and coloured string...”

Fluttershy mouthed the words a few times to herself until she seemed satisfied, but Applejack had to jump on something. “Wait, you’re tellin’ me this lady’s got a whole athletic team jumpin’ into bed with her, and she still tried chasin’ your tail?”

“Of course she did, darling. I’m better.”

Twilight snorted on a sip of her own drink, and felt the burning go up the back of her nose and her eyes watered and it was just the worst. She coughed and spluttered a bit, and Fluttershy cooed and and pressed Twilight’s head into her chest, stroking her hair reassuringly. It was actually pretty nice.

Applejack was a bit more helpful, taking the glass of whiskey out of Twilight’s hooves and studying her carefully. “Bit go down the wrong way, huh?”

Twilight nodded woozily.

Applejack offered her a glass of something she was holding. “Drink this, you’ll feel better.”

Twilight took the glass and drank greedily and did, indeed, feel better.

Fluttershy’s head disappeared a few moments later, and Twilight missed the warmth, but the drink was doing enough to warm her anyway. Rarity had gone back to regaling them with gossip.

“Of course, that’s just a drop in the bucket. Jet Set and Upper Crust have been embezzling from their little charitable organization to host their fundraisers. Which isn’t technically illegal, because the fundraisers are officially an expense of the organization. It’s the self-perpetuating party in the name of the needy. Last few times they tried the trick, though, the caterers seemed to be sent to the wrong address... ended up going to some soup kitchen or another down the West End, I have it on good authority of the scheming vandal herself. Such a gorgeous and debonair--”

“Was you, wasn’t it?” Applejack smirked.

Rarity tittered. “Guilty as charged. Well. I would be if I were ever to be caught.”

Fluttershy sort of flopped onto the floor at Rarity’s hooves, eyes looking up to her. Rarity shifted in the red upholstered chair she was sitting in to watch the curious display more attentively. Fluttershy rolled onto her back to look up at Rarity and pinwheeled her legs a little. “You’re so brave!” she marvelled, “like Robin Hood, but without the arrows... and more flirty?”

And so Rarity downed her glass again. “Please. They’ve used seamstress as spies for centuries now, and for good reason. So little need for coercion, you’d be astonished what these nobles brag about during a fitting session. A little artificial intimacy and they drop scandal on you like, I dare say, mana from heaven. The juiciest dirt, I assure you.”

“Juicier than the Wonderbolts?” Fluttershy gasped, eyes wide as saucers.

“Oh, absolutely. For instance, I know which lecturers at Celestia’s School for the Gifted are soliciting their students—”

Twilight shouted excitedly, “Oh! Oh! I do too!” She was just happy to be part of the conversation again.

“Oh? Intimate knowledge, then?”

What, why intimate—Oh. Oh! Blushed as red as a very red thing indeed. “No! No, just... uh... I just know.”

“Disappointing. It would have been a salacious bit of gossip. But I digress, I could tell you which nobles are seeing escorts in the lower districts—”

Fluttershy rolled back onto her stomach, her expression serious again. “I know that.”

“Oh?” Rarity’s voice raised with her eyebrow. “Do you?”

“Yes.”

“I see,” Rarity murmured, her tone making it clear that she didn’t. “And how about you, Applejack? Are you in on any sort of gossip, before I make more a fool of myself with redundancy?”

Applejack, the only pony in the room who wasn’t vaguely swaying at this point, snorted. “Nope, straight and narrow, through and through. All I can tell you is who’s the cheapskates round these parts.”

“Ooh. That might be useful to compare notes on. I’ll have to talk to you about it when I can jot it down in my little black book.”

Twilight frowned thoughtfully. It was a little more lopsided than her usual thoughtful expressions, and the right half of her face seemed more enthusiastic about the whole thing, but it was thoughtful nonetheless. “Isn’t a little black book traditionally for, uh... improper liaisons?”

Rarity tittered, a laugh that sounded reminiscent of cracks shooting through glass. “Oh, dear, it can be. No, mine is used exclusively for gossip. But perhaps the two might overlap, on occasion... Regardless, how’s your drink?”

Twilight’s face scrunched up a bit reflexively. She was about to say something, but Rarity cut her off with a wave of her hoof and a very understanding look. “Say no more, say no more. Here, drink this to wash the taste out of your mouth, hrrm? Dreadful stuff to a beginner.”

The glass by Twilight’s side floated away and was switched with Rarity’s own from Twilight’s perspective. Applejack, who had a side view, saw two identical glasses clink in midair from practiced levitation and get sent back to their respective owners.

Twilight sipped it and made a grateful ‘ah!’ noise. “Thank you Rarity, this is much better.”

“I think better when I drink, my scrumptious Apple pie,” Rarity explained.

Applejack snorted.

Fluttershy lay on her back on the floor, limbs spread, sighing contentedly and giggling to herself. “You’re doing very... you’re very... you handle your drink very well.” She nodded emphatically, and upside-down. “I think I might be a liiiiiiiiiiiiiittle bit more tipsy than you, but you’ve drunk like...” her hooves made a ‘this big’ gesture above her head, whenever she could keep them still and co-ordinated long enough to hold it, “way more than me.”

“There are a few secrets to drinking, darling, a myriad and bountiful  knowledge for those willing to dive to the bottom of a bottle and delve its secrets. For instance, at a social gathering, if you ask those darling little men in bow ties to top up your glass before it ever reaches half empty, no one can quite tell just how much you’ve had to drink. It’s a game of inches, you see. I can’t tell you how many Grand Galloping Galas I’ve managed to get through by virtue of being undetectably smashed.”

She barely slurred her words at all. Twilight gave a little round of applause. Fluttershy soon joined her, a little more emphatically. Applejack, on the other hoof, politely passed Rarity a bucket, which she took gratefully.

She smiled a little weakly. “I assure you, it’s because I am remaining perfectly still. Were I to try to move, I would fall flat on my face, vomit profusely, and pass out promptly. Practice, darling, everything is practice.”

Fluttershy’s eyes widened like big, moony saucers. “Oh! You poor baby!”

Rarity shook her head with a smile. “No, dear, it’s quite alright, really.”

“Noooooo.” Fluttershy disagreed emphatically as she unfolded herself from the floor, stretching like a cat. “Nooooo! You need hugs. Lots of cuddles. Yes.”

Fluttershy looked so earnest, and Rarity couldn’t quite figure out a way to say no to that pleading look. Applejack and Twilight watched with amusement. Finally Rarity relented. “I suppose some physical affection wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world.”

Fluttershy sauntered up, all liquid and wobbles, but she managed to keep relatively graceful. The hug that resulted was a surprisingly tender moment, and touched the heart of everyone in the room.

Then Fluttershy put some weight onto Rarity and squeezed a little too tightly.

Though Rarity’s comfortable seat was in the opposite corner of Twilight’s bedroom, a few flecks of vomit still splashed hard enough off of Fluttershy’s face to spray across the bedsheets and onto a very surprised Twilight’s cheek.

Applejack got a sizable portion of it down the back of her neck, as she’d been just a little too slow holding up the bucket.

Twilight was the only one to laugh, but she made up in quality what they were lacking in quantity.


There wasn’t a hangover. There was an awful taste in her cottony mouth, due to the antiseptic nature of the ridiculous amount of alcohol she was tricked into drinking, but she wasn’t hung over.

That surprised Twilight, but the needle stabbed into her leg horrified her.

She looked up at the bag hanging above her, followed the tube connecting a syringe taped to her foreleg.

For a few decades now, intravenous therapy had been used to treat patients dying of dehydration due to cholera. Apparently the treatment was remarkable at treating hangovers as well.

Also apparently, whoever had inserted the needle had not benefited from the treatment themselves. There was an alarming number of ‘misses’ around the vein, covered in colourful sticking plasters.

Fluttershy, then.

The regular aches and pains set in as well, and it was a pain genuinely to the bone. She felt it at her very core, except in her arm which burned itchy fire. It was an incredibly blunt pain that splinted up to her shoulder, and she could feel the edges, the blurriness, where the alcohol was helping.

She could feel where there was an absence of pain, it seemed.

Twilight was about to consider her staunch stance against drinking, then, until the memories of last night returned to her first like a fog, then like an impact.

Alone, she faced a strange conundrum.

She couldn’t... think like this. Everything was blurry, she couldn’t grab at the edge of her thoughts. She could clear the problem pain caused by the thinking -- the problem thinking caused by the pain -- by drinking, but then she’d be drunk.

Either way, she was significantly cognitively impaired.

She still didn’t know for sure the full extent of the damages, either.

The odds of the arm ever healing were remarkably low, as well, given what she knew of the injury. A nuisance. If gangrene set in, she’d have to lose it.

She looked down at it.

She’d miss it, certainly, but at the moment that honestly sounded appealing to her, if it meant no longer having to feel it. That would be nice.

It hurt a lot and maybe she was crying a little.

She turned her head to the side – her neck was better at least – and she could do that without getting so dizzy she lost herself for a few seconds, and saw Fluttershy and Dash sleeping over a poker game. Empty Apple apple juice bottles rolled on the cards, see-sawing back and forth by their snoring.

She could also hear Applejack and Pinkie Pie talking about something from around the corner.

Applejack was saying something... She strained her ears, feeling her skull tingle along that side of her head, from the tip of her skull to the hinge of her jaw. “—break the news to her that we might have to amputate.”

“We might not have to.”

“Well, yeah, but we might have to, and it wouldn’t do to spring it on her all at once, would it?”

Twilight smelled her leg. No egregious smell of gangrene, but there was also still a lot of booze and sick hanging in the air, so that wasn’t quite as reassuring as she hoped.

“No...”

“Yeah.”

Twilight’s hearing strained against the silence, overcompensating against the natural lull in conversation. Then it all came at once.

“What if we made it a good thing?” “How’d you reckon?” “We’ll fix it.” “Limbs don’t grow back so easy, Pinks.” “So, we’ll replace it with something better.” “Better?” “Yeah!”

Oh dear. Oh no.

“What, like, a sword?” “I don’t think Twilight’s super into swords.” “Well you know what I mean. Like a, whatchamacallit it, fanciful prosthetic as opposed to just a crutch or something.” “Yeah!” “Reckon a cane’d suit her academic air, though.” “Well that’s a start right?”

She had to admit, a cane and a few silver hairs, maybe a battle scar or two, really would give her that scientist veteran look she’d been going for. Admittedly she’d have thought it would have taken her a few decades yet, of course, but it’s the use and not the age that puts stress on the engine...

“So what’d be super academic?” “We can’t replace her leg with a book, I don’t reckon...” “Nah. She’d get bored of it anyway. Replaceable book parts?” “That’d be a bookshelf.” “Right. But a cylindrical one!”

There was the rattle of a lot of loose stationary being swept off a desk so a blueprint could be unfurled in the heat of the moment. It was a familiar enough sound.

“So we have a solid iron core to hold the weight. Inch thick. Some phosphorescents in it and a lens here and she could use it as a booklight!”

“Rest of the circumference would just be empty space. Reckon two wooden platforms, shape it to house six scrolls each?”

“Ooh! Like the ammo part of a revolver right?”

“A cylinder, yeah.”

“Really? That’s what it’s called?”

“Yeah.”

“Huh. Thought it’d sound... gunnier?”

“Sorry to disappoint you.”

“That’s sweet, thanks!

Actually that didn’t sound so bad. Twilight looked down at her excruciatingly painful leg. If it were made of books, that wouldn’t be too bad, would it?

“And we got the chloroform, didn’t we?” Pinkie asked excitedly.

“Eh. I’m a little iffy on the stuff. Make you loopy and all that?”

“Yeah! Which is kind of what you want, right?”

“Suppose it wouldn’t hurt. By definition.”

“And apparently a good surgeon can cut off the leg, sew it all up and bandage it in less than thirty seconds!”

“That a fact? Heard they got real good in the field hospitals practicin’...”

It was a weird thing to be reassuring about but... Twilight could hold her breath for longer than that! And it wouldn’t hurt anymore! And she’d get it replaced by books! A portable bookshelf and nightlight would be a part of her!

No more stubbing her hoof in the dark or banging her shin on a coffee table ever again!

“Flutters said that she’d be right as rain if we could get it properly splint though. So long as she doesn’t move it and gets plenty of bedrest, should be fine settlin’ for just a brace.”

“Yeah... I guess you’re right.”

“It’s gonna be a rough few months for her, though, ain’t it?”

“The worst...”

Whatever they said afterwards, Twilight didn’t hear. She had gotten too busy trying to gnaw her leg off.


The sling itched. A week of bedrest and a permanent state of inebriation had done wonders to focus her, to inspire her. She was giddy, and elated, and so many ideas flowed to her now.

She had gotten Pinkie to look over some of her more recent notes and formulas but, as brilliant as she was, this was just one area that Twilight could go and Pinkie couldn’t follow.

Magic!

Not being able to use her body had made her mind so much more in-tune. The numbing of the alcohol allowed her to push herself far longer than she had previously. She was able to use magic for everything now, so she did, because... because the numbers were far more achievable now.

Previously she’d worked out the velocity needed to escape -- 5 kilometers per second for orbit. But that was orbit! She needed far, far less than that simply to break the magnetosphere.

Once there, she could tap into the unrelenting power of the aether.

Twilight took another sip of whiskey. She’d acquired the taste for it, a glass with three ice cubes and some cherry syrup had become her favourite. Rarity called it an “Old Fashioned”. Twilight called it euphoria.

She’d covered her cast in shorthand and formula notes. Fluttershy had got grumpy with her but that was fine. Let her be grumpy. Wouldn’t need to have written on the cast if she’d had a scroll case for a leg, now, would she?

Not that she wasn’t grateful!

Another sip of whiskey.

Magic!

Magic.

She had ripped an entire sealed metal container apart with her magic just trying to spin the fan, a task that had proven a feat of endurance minutes prior. And she shredded her capsule like wet tissue paper! Imagine the potential, then, if that energy could be converted into velocity!

Well. She did have to imagine. She didn’t have the power, down here, to test any of her hypothesis. But she knew enough to make educated guesses and projections!

Maths, maths, another sip of whiskey, maths, empty glass pour another maths.

It was all so achievable, then.

Luna was within reach.

All she needed to do was develop a cannon that could launch a large, as yet undesigned engine at least four kilometers vertically, without killing its occupants, with a means of landing on the moon, picking up its passenger, and then falling safely back to Equus without exploding or crashing!

Another sip of whiskey, nibble on the sweet cherry garnish. She liked the cherry garnish, she had a little jar of them and another little jar of toothpicks by her bedside to make everything just so.

After everything else she’d been through so far... this seemed almost easy.

She stared at the empty toothpick, wondering where her cherry went.

Alcohol was obviously influencing her decisions, and she was in no state to go sober, or get out of bed. This was the best place to figure out how to convert all that raw, potent magical energy into velocity too...

No. No, she’d have to delegate to more sober-minded ponies.

She’d have to wait until the next time she talked to Applejack.


“You know I love the dear, truly, but is she in her right mind?” Rarity asked the five crowding around the blueprints, scrawled on like a cheap date’s phone number on a beer-stained napkin.

Pinkie’s little basement certainly wasn’t meant to double as an entertainment area, but she enjoyed the company. Spike had even brought down a little fruit-and-cheese platter for all of them, sitting on its own table to the side. It had gone relatively untouched, even though it was quite lovely.

“Nope. Drunk as a skunk, and a pickled one at that. Which is why I guess she’s not bein’ her usual control-minded self, and spreading the work around, for once.”

Rainbow smiled. “Yeah she uh, does have a way of taking everything on herself, doesn’t she? Good hussle and all that rot.”

Rarity, on the other hand, was staring down at the pictures and writing with eyebrows knitted together, had other words for it. Self-destructive, perhaps. Delusional, maybe. Still... “So she needs space then?”

“Eeyup, and plenty of it. Got the maths here for the forces we’ll need, and a cannon that big ain’t gunna be stubby, I’ll tell you that much. Supports alone...”

“What, you’re an expert on making cannons now?” Rainbow managed to get her voice balanced between disbelief and impressed, anticipating either answer.

Shaking her head, Applejack removed her cap and clutched it to her breast, eyes never leaving the specifications in front of her. “Nah, it’s just... You can work out what you need with the numbers, in a way. You need enough metal to withstand that much force—” she gestured with her nose, “—over a barrel long enough that the acceleration is even. Same with boilers and nozzles and all sorts of things.”

“And the more you need, the more you need to hold that up, and the more you need to hold that up...” Pinkie added thoughtfully.

“And we’re going to need a lot of energy...”

“Huge amount,” Pinkie agreed.

“And it must be secret,” Rarity emphasized, jabbing her hoof at the blueprint accusingly, the paper shifting under the weight of her disdain. “All of it.”

“Well...” Fluttershy murmured, as if to herself but loud enough for all to hear, “I’ve had very good luck underground. Would that help?”

“Underground... there’s an idea,” Applejack agreed, cap back on her head to free the hoof for rubbing her jaw. “Then we could just focus on the barrel itself.”

Rarity took this moment to wander over to the cheese platter. Some camembert on a fresh apple slice sounded wonderful right now... and she was rather lost in thought.

Rainbow wasn’t convinced though. “What, so how do we secretly dig out that much? “Oh, hello officer, cheery day isn’t it? ‘What, oh this mountain, it was always here.’ Coppers might be dense but—”

She didn’t finish her sentence. Pinkie had her jaw clamped shut with her hooves, looking into Dash’s eyes intently. “Say that again.” She let go.

Dash rolled her jaw around, wincing. “Coppers might be dense?”

“No, no, the bit before that.”

“Oh, hello officer, cheery—”

“After that!”

“This mountain was always here?”

Applejack got it, that much was obvious. Where Fluttershy and Rainbow’s eyes were dim, behind Applejack’s there was a lightbulb burning brightly. “Canterlot mountain.”

“Right. Except it’s not a mountain... It’s a volcano! Dormant—”

“—but with enough magma for a real big boiler... oh, stars above that’s...”

“Right?!”

Rarity cut them off there, crunching into her apple slice loudly enough to draw their attention in the most accidental-looking fashion she could muster. Diplomacy, always diplomacy.

“Now, before we get too carried away, girls, let’s go over what we’ve established, hrmm? So you want to use the land below the royal palace... as a cannon... with months of construction and resource acquisition... and you wish to do so entirely in secret?”

“Seems the long and short of it, eeyup.”

The Lady shook her head, taking another long slow bite of her apple. She desperately wanted a smoke... “Do you realize how many guards you’d have to sweet talk? How much bluffing and misdirection one would need to handle to make such a feat feasible? Why, it would take the most brilliant scheming mind in Canterlot just to have a chance at it!”

Rainbow snorted. “You’re volunteering then?”

“Oh, yes, dear, I just wanted to make that understood. Modesty never suited me.”

Applejack cleared her throat pointedly, giving Rarity an amused glare. “A’ight then. So we need to be fast about this, and we need plenty of bits. We’ll... I’ll talk to Twilight about it. Noon’s when she’s not drunk, not hungover, right?”

“I’ll make sure of it,” Fluttershy agreed.

“Thank’n you kindly. It’ll take a lot. But... I’ll be darned. It looks like we might actually be able to do this. Pinkie—”

“I showed Twilight my prototype but... We still don’t know how fast we can accelerate a pony. I need hard data, or else somepony could get really, really hurt.”

Fluttershy nodded emphatically, which is to say she lowered and raised her chin slightly a few times, “This all sounds very dangerous. If something should happen again—” Pinkie’s ears lowered at the ‘again’. Applejack gave her a reassuring smile though, and Rainbow wrapped a wing around her, so she didn’t feel quite so bad. “I’m not sure I can fix it.”

“How about me?” Rainbow asked. Everypony looked at her oddly, Pinkie even shuffling out from under her wing. “Not... fix it I mean,” she admitted, “I can’t do that. I’m no sodding doctor what have you. I just mean... Use me as your guinea pig? I guess? If you’re going to push anypony here to the very limits to see what happens, well, what else is being an adventurer all about? I’m just... exploring a thing rather than a place.”

They were all silent a moment. Each lost in their own train of thought:

Rarity on how bravery and stupidity often conflated. Then, of course, on how to facilitate such madness as this whole scheme. It did seem such an entertaining use of her time, now.

Fluttershy on all the ways she was woefully untrained for this. How she’d do everything she could, anyway.

Applejack and Pinkie, they thought on the how of it. From what notes they could recover, oxygen deprivation, atmospheric differences, and impulse tolerance would all be important.

And on how Pinkie could make sure Dash wouldn’t hurt herself, no matter how hard she wanted to push her limits.

“Now, then,” Rarity announced, “before anypony else gets any clever ideas and quaint notions in their head, I suppose we ought to assign roles. By which I mean, I ought to assign roles.”

That ruffled Rainbow’s feathers. “Who died and made you Princess?”

Then there was that smile with teeth again, white and regal. “No one, yet.” That hung in the air a moment, and she punctuated the silence with another slice of apple with a smear of camembert. Bliss, all of it. “That being said, does anypony else in the room wish to bring upon themselves a position of authority?”

“Reckon we should hold a vote, keep things nice and democratic.”

“Eugh. Wherever did you learn such a filthy word?”

Applejack doubled down on her accent. “Learned it from watchin’ you, ma. Expandin’ mah vocabulary and suchlike.” Made the harsh syllables count.

“Fine, very well. A show of hooves, please. Who here thinks Applejack should be the leader of our merry little band, our motley crew, in the absence of one Ms. T. Sparkle?”

Pinkie giggled to herself as all ponies, besides Applejack herself, raised their hoof. “Misty...”

Only Fluttershy was unsurprised when Rarity herself had joined them. The Lady raised an eyebrow at them all. “What? I was going to assign the position to Applejack regardless. She is the most qualified mare for the job, she’s just far too damnably humble to have done anything about it.”

Fluttershy nodded emphatically. The mares in this basement, surrounding blueprints on a gunmetal desk, all looked at Applejack expectantly. In the guttering, grim light of the burning coal fires, it seemed like she was being ordained high priestess of some thrice-damned cult. Maybe that wasn’t so far from the truth.

“A’ight. Fine. I reckon Pinkie is best prototyping and doin’ the maths for us. I’ll pull foreman duty, delegate to where we see things fit. Fluttershy, that Sliding Rule kid of yours, you reckon he’d still want to do architect duty?”

Again, Fluttershy nodded. Frowned. “This is all horribly illegal, isn’t it?”

“Ah, mon petite chou-fleur,” Rarity oozed, “aren’t all the best things in life?”

Fluttershy’s voice was as flat and as a marble slab and twice as hard. “No.”

“‘Fraid we can’t bring conventional work crews down here. Myself, the kids, I can trust about that much. And they’re good hands. We won’t be taking any risks, here, you can count on that much. But right now we got plenty of time and about damned near nothing else.”

“They were so proud of that balloon basket... thing they made. Little Flatcap smiled for days...”

“Yeah but I ain’t gunna twist your arm on it. We’ve known Twilight a heckuva lot longer, makes sense for us to want to stick around. Just ‘cause she uprooted our lives in the name of friendship don’t mean she gotta do that to yours.”

“I keep forgetting I set fire to the throne room because of her...” Rarity smiled dreamily. “I stand by the best things in life being the illegal ones, by the by.”

She got a grunt from Applejack for that. “Noted.”

Fluttershy... frowned. Just frowned thoughtfully “I’ll ask the children. I won’t speak on their behalf one way or the other. I hope you all can respect that of me.”

“Well, I mean, roger roger and all that, all’s above board so long as you haven’t run shouting to the guard, right?”

“Yeah!” Pinkie agreed, being the first to actually understand what Rainbow had just said.

“Alright. Rarity, I’m putting you on full time espionage detail. Look at me, on a roll tonight with vocabulary shenanigans. Anyhow, you also handle the finances, whatever they may be, and make sure nopony can figure out what we’re doing, whatever that is. Reckon you can do that.”

“You didn’t phrase that as a question.”

“Knew you’d be offended if’n I did.”

“You flirt.”

“Bite me.”

“Now, is that an—”

“Not an invitation.”

Fluttershy coughed into a hoof while Rainbow smirked audibly, an impressive achievement. “We are still in the room, you two.”

Applejack glared Rarity down, who refused to look even a little embarrassed. “That just leaves Rainbow. ‘Fraid I got some bad news for you, sugarcube.”

“Bully! Whatever it is you got for me, I can take it!” Her breast swelled with pride and hot air, though the exact ratio was unclear.

“Need you to study. If we’re going to be working things out, we’re gonna need you to understand how to drive the damned thing. How it all works.”

Rainbow’s eyes bulged in horror. “Can’t I just be a crash test dummy?”

“Well, I got some good news for you there, sugar,” Applejack flashed a winning smile. “You’re gunna get to do both!”


Empty liquor bottles marked the days better than torn calendar pages, because Twilight might actually have forgotten to tear a new page every other day or so. She didn’t seem to have any trouble remembering to empty a bottle.

The creosote rubbed into her wounds had done wonders to preserve it from festering wounds. The miracles of modern chemistry and medicine! Just twenty, maybe even ten years before and amputation would have been a guarantee.

Another swig from a still-not-empty bottle as she wondered about what could have been with the book-leg. A librarian who could make a piece of her library a real tangible part of herself... and maybe a hidden flask. Or two.

She’d rather taken to liquor, and it had rather taken to her.

At first it had just been for the pain, but now? Now there was always this bubbliness to her. She felt lighter. She had stopped panicking all the time, stopped worrying. She was just... warm.

Normally her happiness was a warmth that never quite pierced the skin. Even at her best she could feel a weird hollowness, like an echo of something more. She could only really identify it now by its absence.

So much. She had written so much. The blueprint stretched out before her and, with it, her plan for Equestria’s first magitechnological engine. More of a thruster really. The aether was this wild whip of power that coursed in bands and torrents from the sun, or at least from its direction. Was the sun producing it, or was it just a quirk of gravity? More study was needed, always more study.

She took another sip of whiskey, ah. Smacked her lips.

That wild whip of raw energy wasn’t just raw energy, but it wasn’t a gas either. It wasn’t a something but it wasn’t a nothing. It was a lot of power, but you can’t just get velocity from force, you need to apply it. Ideally without destroying the vessel containing the engine. Thruster. Arcane focus. Thing.

She had been thinking of the vessel like a submarine, so why not call this the propeller then?

It could pull all of it like... it could focus her magic like a net, casting outwards, and grabbing as much of the aether as she could with it, and pulling backwards. Like a propeller against water, but with a much greater surface area.

The faster they went, the more aether she could push against per second, the faster they could go. Friction would be negligible, but so would traction. No, she’d have to be using this engine to focus her strength to grab every mote of energy in the aether that she could and push against it, like climbing a rope from the inside but with magnets. Wait, no, that simile was terrible...

Apt? Not helpful.

And there was absolutely no way to test it. The theory was sound, but she’d designed the theory herself, and probably no other pony on all of Equus was qualified to help. If they did, they weren’t allowed to know.

Oh this was all so thrilling. Normally the idea would make her so anxious, there’d be knots and gnarls forming in her gut, but now, through the heady haze of hooch, she felt indestructible, and all she felt was pride and excitement and wonder and joy.

A lot of flavours of the same ultimate happiness.

Maybe that’s what she should do, to bring Luna a pleasant. Take a bouquet of flowers and a bottle of moonshine with her to the moon and—

She shot up in bed, almost spilling her drink. “Luna!”

Twilight hadn’t messaged her in – she counted the bottles – at least ten days now. So much of her mind had been dedicated to saving Luna, but the light must have been right for messaging for days now! She’d be so worried!

She flailed for the crutch at her bedside, failing to find it. Her hoof smacked against it, sending it scraping down the wall and hitting the floor with a ‘clack’. She was looking right at it, her depth perception was just a bit off. Already she heard movement outside the room, but she had one leg over the side of the bed, and another, and then she was on her hooves and then she was on the floor, her teeth snapping together with another sharp ‘clack’.

Three legs were wobbly. The happy buzz had become a sick throb in her stomach, in her head. Was it even night right now? Her ribs crackled with blinding fire and she could taste bile rising in her throat. Why was she in a rush—

Luna.

Fluttershy was helping her up, now, tutting in her ear. Twilight made a grab for the crutch, but she was just wobbled back into bed. Spike helped, the concern in his face less worn and more carved into it.

“Even if you weren’t drunk right now, Twilight,” Fluttershy scolded as she thumped the pillow seconds before letting Twilight down onto it, “you still have all sorts of injuries. How quickly do you think a rib heals? Not quickly enough, no, and definitely not now. Silly, silly girl.”

“Luna—” Twilight wheezed, coughing on the bile that burned as she swallowed it back down, not as much as her sides though. “—need to—”

“She’s fine,” Fluttershy chastised again. “We watched after her for you. Applejack controlled everything and Rarity sent a message explaining things for you. Apparently she was very worried about you. Rarity was in tears, I promise you, of frustration trying to console her in code. But Luna never blamed you, Twilight. Rarity offered to keep her company until she got better and do you know what Luna sent back?”

Spike burped a little, wiping his mouth and pulling from it a scroll, some of the paper Twilight kept by the telescope to scribe Luna’s responses with. It was in Rarity’s writing.

“Thank you but I will wait for her.”

She lay groaning in bed. “You didn’t think to tell me?”

Fluttershy and Spike exchanged a significant look. Spike spoke first, the concern hadn’t eased up at all. “We thought somepony else had, since you hadn’t asked about it.”

“No, I just...” Forgot.

The reassuring coo from Fluttershy made her relax muscles she didn’t even realize she’d tensed. “You’ve been focusing on getting better, is all.”

“And on figuring out how to get her back,” Spike pointed out. “You didn’t forget. You just get super focused when you’re working on a problem this big.” He tapped the scrolls with a claw. “You’ve been doing a lot.”

“You’re not a bad pony, Twilight. We were here for you, too. And I need to have a very stern word with somepony else... Spike, you look after Twilight for a little bit, please. Make sure she hasn’t broken anything again getting up.”

“How do I—”

“Poke her.”

“Ah.”

Fluttershy walked out of the room calmly as Spike poked and prodded Twilight in various points until both were satisfied that Twilight had panicked without breaking anything.

The next day the library was filled with the sound of Applejack and Rarity fighting over whose job it was to tell Twilight the situation, both thinking the other was supposed to have done it. It was reassuring, actually, to hear that other ponies had dropped the ball as well.

Luna would wait for her...

Yes. But that didn’t mean she couldn’t write some messages for Rarity to send on her behalf, did it? Now that she knew what was meant to happen.

Replies would be slow from here, and Fluttershy made sure she was sleeping at proper hours these nights, but...

She took out a new scroll and began writing on that as well. It hurt not to be able to send them herself, but Fluttershy was right that she shouldn’t have been making the trip to the roof and... messaging Luna while inebriated seemed a very bad idea.

She looked at the collection of bottles at her bedside. Thought long and hard about it before she pulled herself another shot.

She wouldn’t be able to think through the pain either, at the moment. But she could still do maths, still design this engine. Work out the theory from every possible angle. The liquor helped her think creatively too, certainly.

Twilight could talk to Luna directly again as soon as she stopped hurting. Or as soon as not talking to her hurt more. Whichever came first.


Things were coming together, Applejack thought, nodding.

Canterlot mountain really was a dormant volcano. The entire city built around caverns and chambers funneling down into magma deep below the surface, but not as deep as the citizens above might hope. Something you couldn’t reach with a shovel, but with a drill? Too simple.

The sewers had been a perfect idea. Knocking out the wall behind Twilight’s bathroom, for maintenance of course, allowed them access to the tunnels below. The water level was too shallow and unpleasant to use rafts, but rollers could be used across the footways on either side of the tunnel which remained equidistant throughout. Like a masonry railroad.

That had been settled so far.

After that came a lot of digging. The current idea was to use as much of the natural caverns as possible, to create the least digging and the most stable structure possible. Second would be getting parts put together and assembled down here, piece by piece, through the sewers. Building in the library what couldn’t be done on-site.

Excavated materials could simply be washed down the sewers, poor toshers be damned. They’d waded through worse. The buildup would be spread along major arteries of the system, so the buildup wouldn’t be noticeable from the usual nightsoil. Rarity had come up with that particular detail after pointing out any risk of clogging the infrastructure would result in investigations.

The kids had scoped out the site. Applejack and Pinkie had brought tools and Rainbow had charged lightning special for batteries that littered the excavation site. A lot of rough edges, but surprisingly little need for digging. Twilight had called it a dormant stratovolcano with a large collapsed caldera topped with a cryptodome plug.

Applejack just called it hollow.

That left them in need of tools and materials. Left them in need of money.

She frowned. Pulled the brim of her hat low.

Tomorrow would be the day she talked to the girls about it. Today she was going to pick apples, breathe the fresh air of the farm. Been down in those caverns too long of late, was getting claustrophobic.

This though, was perfect.

So long as you could ignore the rumbling of a diesel engine and the clattering of the bottling machine disturbing the serenity. AJ reckoned that’d just be another skill that came to her in time.

Tomorrow. Let her have this one day first.


Pinkie and Fluttershy looked very seriously at Dash over the table in the library. They were all spending more and more time here, most notably Fluttershy. Twilight had been so devoted to her lesson plans, to guiding Fluttershy to the right resources, that the newly anointed students could educate themselves without her guidance for a while, though apparently they did miss it. For all her grouchiness with adults, Twilight did have a certain tenderness for children of all ages.

Maybe that was why Pinkie had been so focused lately, Rainbow thought. Or sad. Or... something. It was hard to read her, but it was clear she seemed so lost without Twilight. Pinkie didn’t make a point of it, but she wouldn’t see Twilight when she was drinking and, well, Twi was always drinking these days.

Pinkie’s episodes had been worse since. Even though the clever little cookie never seemed to remember them, sometimes Rainbow would hear a whimper and knew she’d be spending the next half hour at Pinkie’s side, just stroking her mane.

After that, though, Pinkie’d just take a long nap and then it was straight back to work without missing a beat.

It sucked.

Now she had to go and talk to Fluttershy about something, and they’d come to her super-seriously and sit her down in the main room... Fluttershy made her tea, and now she was just... waiting.

That sucked too.

“What are we waiting on, then?” Rainbow asked impatiently, exasperated.

“They were waitin’ on me, sugar,” Applejack drawled from behind her. An orange hoof reached around her with one of the many blueprints that had been floating around here lately, dropped it on the table. “When you two are ready. Rarity’s gotta yell at me again about subtlety or some such.”

“Since when’s she been subtle with you?”

“S’what I said too, when I heard.” AJ snorted. “But apparently I’m not allowed to use blasting charges anymore.” Another wry snort as she stormed off, and her follow-up was only audible because Dash was focusing on it. “Only lost one satchel and she gets all paranoid about it.”

Wait—

“So this,” Pinkie pointed at the papers, tapping two distinct drawings with her hoof, “is what we need to do before we can do anything else. Spin you around really, really fast.”

“Isn’t the physical sciences more... Twilight’s thing?”

“Well yeah,” Pinkie admitted with a ‘moving on’ circle of her hoof, “but this is still basic math. Now, if we were getting into liquids, then I’d be having problems. Unless... Anyway! We’re testing acceleration right now, and the easiest way to test it is spinning. If we get the leverage out enough, we can see how fast you go before bad things happen. And that’s our limit! Much safer than firing you out of a cannon a bunch of times, and more reliable results too.”

“Which means,” Fluttershy intoned solemnly, “I’ll be recording everything, monitoring everything, and making sure you don’t push yourself too hard, no matter how much you try to show off, young lady.”

“Well, yeah. That’d be dangerous if we want Twilight to keep up with me,” Rainbow agreed.

“Not what I meant,” the other pegasus grumble-sighed, not quite wistful, not quite annoyed, “but it was something we considered...”

Pinkie’s eyes dimmed a little in worry. “Just don’t tell Twilight, please. It could hurt her feelings.”

“Piffle, not what I meant, but you have my solemn word. So, this... spinny doohickey. Why’d you bring this to me now? Why aren’t you just strapping me into a chair and watching me with clipboards and nodding your heads while you pull a lever to make it go faster or something?”

Fluttershy raised an eyebrow, and Rainbow thought of Applejack for a moment. “Oddly specific mental image.”

“I find them helpful!” Pinkie agreed cheerfully. “Well it’s because we haven’t built it yet. Or for a while. I spent most of my new bits on the hydrogen balloon stuff that... yeah.”

“So... you need money?”

“I’m saving up!” Pinkie promised. “We just wanted to let you know what the plan was as soon as possible so—”

“If you got the money now, how fast could we get this up and running by?”

“A lot quicker. It’s mostly just a big motor and a lot of metal, so Applejack and I can—”

Rainbow pushed her chair back from the table, it scraped harshly against the floor, shrrnk! Pinkie and Fluttershy couldn’t help but wince. “You just hold that thought.”

“Rainbow, wait—”

But she’d already taken a strong beat of her wings and was pouncing up the shelves towards Twilight’s room.

Two knocks, didn’t wait for an answer before she opened the door.

“Oh, hey Rainbow, it’s nice—”

“I’m going to help fund this thing, okay? I know you’d never ask, because you’re a top sort like that, but you can’t stop me either.”

Twilight sat bolt upright in her bed, didn’t even wobble. She must have been drinking less. Impressive, considering how slow some of her wounds were healing. “Rainbow! You can’t do that! I mean... you’ve barely been making rent, haven’t you?”

"Actually I have a lot of savings. It's just all in my expedition fund. I've saved up a lot over the years, but I want you to have it now. I have a condition, though." Hoof pointed in the air, to silence the inevitable objection. It didn’t work.

"Rainbow! You can't give that to me! It's your dream, it's all we've been trying to work towards."

"Right, which is why you gotta hear my condition. I want to be the first pony up into the aether. Your brother's been telling me a lot about what it means to be an explorer down here, so I thought to myself… why not be the first explorer up there? The first pony to see Equestria, all of Equus, from the outside. That's exploring. That's trail blazing. That's what's going to put me in history books.”

She seemed calm and confident. At ease. She'd obviously been thinking of this for a long time, and just looking for an excuse to say it.

“This is what you really want?”

“Yeah. Every pegasus gets to fly, Twilight, but… how many get to see the stars? I want this, and if you can give this to me, then I'll give up ever going to the unexplored Zebra lands. I'll get to see them, all of them, at once. Everything else too. Oh! Yeah, this is also conditional; you build a window into whatever you send us up there in. Otherwise I'm going to feel cheated.”

Window. Yeah.

She could do that.

Twilight just stared at her for a long, slow second. Nodded once. “Alright. If that’s what you’ve decided, I can’t stop you. But—”

Rainbow didn’t wait to hear the rest of it. She was sure it would have been nice and sentimental and reassuring, but she didn’t have time for that. She was already gliding back down to a very surprised and confused pair of ponies still waiting for her.

She had one last important question before she went to make a large, possibly ill-advised cash withdrawal. Or a transfer from an old dream to a new one.

“Alright, so if we do this, I’m getting in a bunch of medical textbooks, right? Especially the ones for the brainy boffins?”


The door to her room slammed open. Rarity dove in looking for all the world like a fleeing rabbit, right until she saw Twilight watching her. The Lady’s back straightened, she dusted herself off, and a manic gleam remained in her eye as an unlit cigarette dangled from her lips. Still, not one hair out of place.

“Twilight, dear, I know you’re very busy and bedridden, absolutely tragic business that,” she oozed, trying to chew the tobacco out of the tube between words, “but the soldiers appear to be, well, leaving. All of them. They’re packing up their things and moving out of the adjacent buildings. I think your brother might be leaving with them. So I thought, well, you might want to say goodbye before they—”

Twilight had already wrapped the crutch around her shoulder and out of bed, rocking past Rarity and to the ladders—no, elevator. Definitely the agonizingly slow elevator.

It made its slow ascent up from the bottom, centimeter by centimeter. Twilight watched it anxiously. Her brother was leaving.

“Hurry, hurry, hurry up...”

The elevator clunked to a stop, and a hiss of excess steam rose from the pistons below. She jumped in and...

The elevator started its slow crawl back down to the bottom. She was practically in tears. She’d designed this for freight, not speed!

The ground inched closer and closer as she heard the whistles and shouts of the soldiers clearing out.

Clunk, again, as it reached the bottom. She slid open the brass grating and hobbled as fast as her good legs could carry her towards the door and was immediately swept up in a huge, all-encompassing hug. He spun her around a little and she smiled, even as her foreleg screamed its protestations, because he was still here.

“I don’t know what you did, little sister,” Shining smiled, wrapping her in one last especially tight hug. Twilight made sure not to complain about the sogginess of her shoulder, it would be hypocritical. “But I get to go home to Cadance now.”

“You’re going to write, okay?”

“Whenever I can. I nearly had to leave without saying goodbye, you know.”

“I’m sorry my elevator is so slow...”

“What?”

“Doesn’t matter.”

They broke, standing apart, Shining standing far straighter. Twilight could see curtains being pulled back on windows for the first time in months, now. Figure out where the encampments had been only for their new absence. Quite a few soldiers here. Would have needed a lot more without her brother.

Twilight was stunned. “Did you send her a letter or...”

“Wouldn’t dare, beyond the usual.” Shining shook his head. “I didn’t want to risk it.” His face scrunched up thoughtfully, strangely. “Have you been drinking?”

Her answer was proud, and Twilight stood straighter. “Less than usual.”

“... usual? Twilight I’d say you’re sober as a judge, but I’ve met judges.”

“It’s a recent thing. I’m getting better. It’s fine.”

His expression of excitement and trepidation set into something harder, like honey crystallizing in the open air. “Wish I knew this before I was about to leave. Twily, I have a train to catch... and you wait until now to—”

She crushed another hug out of him. “It’s medicinal, I’m fine. You’re fine. Go give Cadance all my love.”

He tensed against her, all stiff and unyielding, until he again melted into the hug. “Okay. Okay, geeze, fine, I trust you. Just... be safe, okay? Don’t do anything too... I don’t even know at this point. Just whatever you do—”

“Don’t miss?”

“Exactly.”

“I promise to be the best at alcoholism, then.”

He didn’t appreciate the joke. She gulped. He was all stiff again. “Best at rehabilitation too?”

“...alright. Yeah.” He nodded. Behind them three soldiers in civilian clothing carried two wooden crates covered in warning symbols out of a neighbouring building. Seemed to be a lot of those. Apparently the library would have been an acceptable loss to get to her in an alpha strike.

She didn’t know whether to be appalled or flattered.

“Speaking of don’t miss,” Twilight smiled. “Your train, buster.”

“Oh. Right. Shoot.”

The soldiers nearly dropped the crates, and the flinching at the fragile stickers is probably what saved Twilight’s life. They might have drawn their guns, otherwise.

“Figure of speech, lads!” Shining called over his shoulder, swearing under his breath. “Really should be more careful to remember to swear properly around the men... you’re a good influence on me.”

She shook her head, the adrenaline tingling her. Later, deal with it later. “Train.”

“Right.”

“Cadance.” They both agreed simultaneously with awkward smiles.

There were a few more awkward pleasantries and back and forth but after that, he was gone.

They were gone.

And for the first time in a long time Twilight stood outside the front of her home... and she wasn’t at gunpoint doing so.

Realizing she still had nowhere else to go, Twilight wistfully returned to the library. Still, though, she stood at her doorstep and she lingered.

It’d been so long since she’d been on this side of the door.

She rang the doorbell as she entered and was greeted with silver chimes. The wondrous surreality of the moment, the newfound feeling of safety, made for a warm distraction from her brother leaving.

Twilight felt safe, now.

How angry it made her, then, that it was Celestia who made it strange for her to feel safe from her own family. A mistake on her part.

She wouldn’t miss.


Fluttershy’s long walk began in the build site, or at least as much of the mountain as they could clean out for now. She stepped through the hole they’d knocked out of the sewer wall and admired the stone cavern lit by dim but unwavering gas lights. The room was lit evenly with muddy light but whenever a flame licked, ah, how the shadows danced!

This was where Pinkie was set up now, since she’d taken such a shine to the little ones. The warmness seemed mutual. There was such an innocence to her that the children had never seen in an adult. Not naivety, no, that was something to be exploited, a weakness. Genuine goodness.

What Pinkie was teaching them was more than the science, how many loops of copper wire they needed to get this much resistance, how much voltage was needed to get that much force, all things that could get these foals a job. She was teaching them, in her own way, why they’d want to keep a job when stealing was so much easier. Honesty to kids who weren’t just confidence artists but confidence artistes with the proud inflection.

A little more cynically, too, she wanted to remind her wards of what a victim could look like after the con was over. Especially one that still refused to get angry about it, even now. It just helped others get angry on her behalf. Furious even. Absolutely livid.

Deep breath.

Pinkie was a good pony and a good influence.

It was here that Fluttershy found Flatcap, happy as she’d ever seen him, cutting lines on beams of puddled iron that Applejack had taught him to weld. Still distrustful of the electricity, no honest heat to it. Welding, though, he took to like a duck to water.

Hovering around him like a mother hen was Brass Tacks, silly thing. Made sure everypony wore eye protection whenever they walked past the sewer exit they’d knocked out. Also made a set of caps he’d dipped in tar and hardened. Now, nobody had to wear a hard hat, but he would make a lot of very stern remarks about falling rocks and the like. Something he’d picked up from the dockyards, apparently.

He ferried to the center of the cavern long coils of copper wire which, like all the metal gathered down here, had been generously funded by the Rainbow Dash Exploratory Fund.

Pinkie and Sliding Rule sat at a folding desk overlooking the site, a cleared circle of stone floor about twenty meters from side to side now, talking advanced mathematics. Apparently electricity was just a way to turn education into momentum. The world moved for those clever few it listened to, and the angry little colt in the leather jacket looked... serious and thoughtful. Challenged. Relaxed, like he wasn’t just getting ready for his next fight.

It was here in the darkness that she could finally see a future for them.

Back out through the tunnels. Already she could see the cuts in the stonework, grooves, from where the wheels cut into them. Two of the older foals had been busy getting deliveries to Brass, and received in turn a lecture about lifting with their legs, not with their backs.

She smiled.

Up into the light.

Mirth – “the Cap’n” – was sitting at a table reading to Viola, and he’d gotten a lot better at it recently. Beside Viola was a stack of sheet music Spike had traced with his claws, so with a few brushes of her hoof, Viola would be able to read the impressions.

The pile Mirth had, though, was something perhaps far more interesting. A stack of books that Rarity, of all ponies, had picked out for him on elocution and formal debate. Mirth had taken quite the interest in politics. He had said that the changes Fluttershy could make were only so big. The things he could do with the right education were terrifying – when Mirth smiled and looked at you the way he did, he was dangerously charismatic.

Scootaloo, meanwhile, was somewhere off with Applebloom’s and Rarity’s sisters on the farm. Applebloom was teaching them carpentry in the hopes of building a treehouse. It would do Scootaloo some good to get so much open air.

Things were going... well. They were provided for here, and Twilight had a point that there was only so much she could do with the resources she had. The world may have been uncaring, and it was so hard to remember that there were good ponies in it.

Bam Bam Bam

The front door to the library buckled with three rhythmic pounds, sending sawdust flying from the stretched grain of the wood. Mirth stopped mid sentence, and Viola’s head jerked up towards it. Their smiles evaporated, cast to the air like the so much dust.

“Royal Dragoons. Please get down on the ground. Failure to comply—”

A cold and authoritative voice cut him off. “I’m sure they’re familiar, Captain. Quickly, quickly, get Ms Sparkle, before she thinks of anything especially clever.”

The Princess was here, here.

Mirth looked up at the guards with a horrified look. Fluttershy recognized it as Buying Time #3. “But officers, Ms Twilight said I wasn’t allowed to stop reading no matter what!”

The soldier should have been too old for it to work. And to try it on the Princess was utter recklessness.

The Mourning Princess seemed curious however. She stalked through the bookshelves to the table where Mirth sat. He looked confused, because an innocent foal would. “Is Miss Twilight getting an award for cleverness? Because she should.”

“Strange child, what are you doing.”

Stalling, Fluttershy thought. What he actually said was; “Learning, Miss.”

“After you cut her stipend, Princess, Twilight offered her assistance to me in teaching the disinherited and disenfranchised, ma’am.” Fluttershy didn’t know how to properly address a Princess, so she bowed as much and as low as she could.

The Princess seemed confused by this. “Cutting her funds made her turn to philanthropy, you say? Seems counterintuitive, doesn’t it?”

“It’s strange what it takes to make us aware of those less fortunate sometimes, Your Highness, but I’m grateful for it.”

Twilight had to have heard. At the very least, Rarity had to have found somewhere to hide. Mirth had the right idea, stalling was... good. As long as she didn’t get too much attention doing it. Some of the children had a history with the good officers. Fluttershy, herself, actually, now that she thought about it. Oh, dear.

And the Princess was looking so suspiciously... She stood looking over at Mirth’s book, making a quick jerking motion with her head. Two pegasus soldiers swept in, flanking her and heading up.

Fluttershy’s heart sank. It was a good thought, but they’d only bought seconds at the most.

“Tell me, child, what are you studying?” The Princess paid Viola no mind. With her eyes closed and her head turned away, the blind filly passed for just another student. Her contribution to the conversation seemed to be to shrink into her Cap’n’s side and wait.

And Mirth smiled, now, bright and attentive. “Oh, this, Your Highness? Well, this is very embarrassing for me... politics, Your Highness, and a little bit of law. One day I, uh—” and here Fluttershy genuinely wasn’t sure whether he was acting, or sincere. But then, that was rather the point, wasn’t it? “—I’d be proud to represent this country, and help fix it.”

Fluttershy’s teeth clenched and her smile turned rictus. Dangerous...

“Fix it. Interesting. You think the country is broken, then?” The Princess was for all uneducated appearances genuinely interested, nothing more. To an educated observer, she was baiting a hook.

But Mirth had been studying, hadn’t he? “Oh, yes, Your Highness, rotten almost top to bottom, I suspect. Thank the stars we have you, Princess! I don’t know how the whole thing wouldn’t just collapse without you!”

Celestia’s smile was genuine, but there was a predatory look in her eyes. “How very clever we think we are. Do you think, young man, that I would not notice the intended meaning? The whole thing, being the rotten parts I suspect, would collapse without me. Phrased as if to compliment me. Cute.”

And that’s when Mirth winked, and Fluttershy knew they were all going to die. All of them, executed, up against the wall, firing squad, even the children. But before she could open her mouth, Mirth had opened his again.

“Ah, so you did notice.” He gestured at the book. “As you can see, I’m still learning, Your Highness!”

And the Princess was smiling. She turned that smile on Fluttershy as all the warmth in the pegasus’ body drained down through her hooves, through the floorboards, leaving her frozen.

“Forgive me my suspicions, my little pony, I just had to sate my curiosity. This is no front, Twilight Sparkle has indeed turned herself to advising children instead of myself.” She hummed. “No doubt she’ll make some witty remark about the situation being an upgrade. Tell me, child, what is your name?”

“Ponies just call me the Captain, Your Highness, but considering all these soldiers around, you might be better calling me Mirth for the moment.”

“Mirth then, tell me. What should my scathing reply be, if I were to wager you two bits on it?”

“Five bits and I won’t intentionally allow an opening for a riposte.” He’s only seen the word written down, so his pronunciation was a bit off, but the meaning was clear. Celestia nodded, agreeing. “I would make a remark that it does seem more suited to her level of abilities.”

“Two bits. Clearly she’d reply that the children actually ask better questions or some such. But you have a bright future ahead of you, young Mirth. Haggling to allay my suspicions, then sabotaging me anyway? Cunning. With just enough margin of error to plead genuine incompetence. A very bright future for you indeed. Especially as I believe the royal advisory position may have a vacancy in need of filling.”

Fluttershy stayed rooted to the floor. She noticed, now, that Mirth wasn’t holding Viola’s hoof tightly, to reassure her, it was the other way around.


Rarity was in the romance section when she heard the guards enter the library, looking for books on politics. There was method to her madness; the really interesting books on a lot of subjects were whatever Twilight happened to be carrying around with her around the library, and she had a very bad habit of getting distracted around this part of the library. And here, unless she remembered them, they would remain.

She was reading through “On Liberty” when—

“Royal Dragoons. Please get down on the ground. Failure to comply—”

Oh, dear. They’d caught up to her, then. The whole fire thing, the accident, and she had just been far too embarrassed to come forward about it. The Princess knew how Rarity was about her smoking, so—

“I’m sure they’re familiar, Captain. Quickly, quickly, get Ms Sparkle, before she thinks of anything especially clever.”

Far worse. Far worse by half.

She was up from them, near Twilight’s room. Could get there before they did, see if she heard. As soon as she thought this, she found her legs had already carried her there, holding herself low so as not to attract unwarranted attention.

“Twilight!”

“I heard, Rarity.”

Rarity panicked. Twilight looked... miserably determined. It did not inspire a lot of confidence, considering their current situation.

“I had planned for this eventuality. Fluttershy is already buying you time downstairs, or the Cap’n is, I saw that much, but I don’t know how much. The window – yes, that one – there’s a ledge. If you stay outside that, there’s also a laundry line about a quarter of the building around. It will hold your weight. It connects to an apartment across the street, recently abandoned by your brothers’ soldiers, with some supplies and a disguise kit. If you use the roller on the line, you should be able to – you’ll figure it out! I’ll buy you some time! Now, scarper!”

The Lady turned back as Twilight dragged herself out of bed, closed the door behind her. The Princess herself still had her eyes on the foal, almost hungrily, but some pegasii guards were flying up, searching... good, better in here than out.

She ran into the open, away from Twilight’s room, and threw herself to the floor, weeping uproariously, as pitifully as she could manage, as soon as the pegasii were within ear shot.

“Oh! Oh, guards, you have found me! And here I thought my crimes so perfect, so flawless! I left no evidence! How, oh, however did you find me?”

They looked confused. Good, confusion led to questions, questions bought time.

One of them, the left one for they were identical, asked; “What crimes?”

The one on the right seemed to want to just move past her. Rarity turned on the fluttering eyelashes, batted them as hard as she could. Suddenly, he didn’t seem so interested in leaving. She smiled internally; Not every day a girl could say her feminine wiles overcame military training. “Oh, such terrible crimes, officer! It was I, yes, I, the Lady Rarity, acting alone, who dared set fire to the royal palace in a fit of rage! Yes, it is true!” She thrust her hooves out. “Do what you will! I have run for too long now!”

The guards straightened, their hovering forms dropping in front of her side-by-side, and oh did they look so conflicted now. The arson was no small crime, and certainly famous – no, pride, this is not a good time to show yourself – so it made for a good distraction.

Sigh.

And trying to get away with it a little longer would have been so much fun.

She began to spin an epic tale of regret and woe about her actions, throwing herself at the mercy of such strong, kind officers who she was certain, absolutely certain, would treat her right. They seemed to be buying it right up until Celestia herself appeared beside them, not with a great flap of her wings like Rarity expected but...

Teleported. She actually teleported.

And the bottom of Rarity’s stomach fell right down to the planet’s very core, though she did an admirable job not showing it. Just regretted not having a mirror to quickly check her own performance. Pity.

“This isn’t Twilight Sparkle,” Celestia said simply.

“No,” the guard on the right agreed, “but it appears to be a known fugitive Ms Sparkle was harbouring.”

Celestia smiled, and Rarity’s stomach managed to fall further still at the sight of it. It was the smile of a cat that held a mouse’s tail beneath its paw, and was relishing the moment the claws would extend. “You are correct, men, but I would be genuinely surprised if you had not described just about every occupant of this building in some regard or another. Besides ourselves, of course.”

Well, there was always something to be said about war-crimes, but Twilight made no effort to harbor the Princess.

Then the door behind her opened. Twilight must have been caught but... no, a quick twist of Rarity’s head and she saw the librarian herself was standing there. She tried not to make her surprise too evident, she’d been doing so well with her act thus far. Probably.

Celestia’s smile remained unchanged, like she knew Twilight was there the whole time. Perhaps not ‘like’. “Would you care to explain the Lady’s confession, my Twilight?”

Twilight stood behind the door, levelling a defiant glare. “Rarity’s just being a good friend, trying to buy me some time for a daring and dramatic escape. You’re familiar with the Lady, she’s prone to bouts of dramatic heroism and other forms of romanticism.”

“Yes. It did amuse Us to have her at court.”

“But if this were to play out like a story, let me guess; I dramatically escape, using my great wit—”

“I would expect nothing less from you, my dearest little pony.”

“—and you’d expect this. You no longer trusted Shining after so long being corrupted by my influence—”

“Correct.”

“—so he wasn’t actually dispatched home. Especially not so soon after making your move. I take it he’s held hostage?”

“Correct again.”

“You’d lure me back with threats of harm.”

“With evidence of Shining, yes. Don’t worry, he hasn’t been harmed yet. This is your reward for co-operation, dearest Twilight.”

Twilight sighed a breath of relief. She’d been anticipating... worse. A premature show of force. But no, Celestia knew Twilight would know this was not a bluff, and for all her faults of cruelty, malice was beneath her. Ruthlessly efficient apathy, certainly, but not malice.

“So, let’s skip the part of the story where I come back to protect my friends and loved ones, before they’re harmed in the first place.”

There was a silence. Rarity gawped at Twilight, at Celestia... this wasn’t how it worked in her books. In any of the stories. But then... those stories had happy endings.

“No. Let’s not waste anybody’s time here. I’m hoping, then, that the cast around your foreleg is genuine?”

“Wouldn’t do to annoy you, no. This isn’t a ploy. Not a question you’d ask if you were going to execute me now, then. Nor the method. Showing up in person, to see the look on my face? I’m aware of your fondness for snipers and poisoners. So that means you’re here to... what, imprison me and gloat? For what? Besides the usual treason. That never set you off like this before.”

“Yes, but this is an unusual degree of treason, Twilight, even for you. I have recently discovered your usefulness has been far outweighed by the risks you present, do you realize? The intense lights shining from the roof, repairs in the basement, strange guests, weather balloons... all that I could tolerate. Because it meant you weren’t yet trying to hide your activities from me. You were careless, reckless, and that brought comfort. So I thought I might still glean some usefulness from you, my dear Twilight, before you went rogue. Do you know what changed?”

Twilight grit her teeth. Her answer was perfunctory, as she agreed only to play her role in this conversation. Maybe it would help the others, from what Rarity overheard. “What’s that?”

“I stopped getting reports of strange activities. No more lights from the roof. Nothing suspicious at all. And you know what I think, my dear Twilight?” Celestia lowered her gaze until her eyes were level with Twilights and the cold, oh it chilled Rarity to the bone to see the coldness, something that lay in the gulf between utter madness and ruthless sanity, that lay behind those eyes. “I think it’s because you’ve gotten careful. It means you’re close to something truly dangerous indeed. Except now, now I no longer benefit from letting you continue. I no longer have anything to glean from you, Twilight, before you release the Nightmare from her prison and doom us all. I don’t know what you wish to gain from freeing Sister, Twilight... but I will learn it in time.”

Celestia herself levitated shackles onto Twilight’s back legs, and a pegasus guard was sent for a wheelchair. Twilight’s upper lip stiffened, and Rarity watched the librarian refuse to cry, not here, not now.

“The dungeons then?” Twilight sighed loudly, and now she was giving Rarity most interesting look as tears stubbornly denied her a moment of stoicism, “beneath Canterlot? Deep underground where I might never again see the night sky?”

“I’ve sent word ahead. It’s quite unusual for them to accommodate a guest of your status. They’re quite honoured indeed.”

“Would it be suspicious if I promised to go without a fight?”

The wheelchair was making its slow way up the elevator. When it arrived, Twilight would be gone, and Rarity was struggling for anything, anything she could say to make the situation better. To fix this.

But for the moment she seemed to be far too pre-occupied for not considering the absence of evidence being incriminating unto itself. The resulting shame-spiral was not conducive to deceptive thought.

Celestia snorted. “It would be incredibly suspicious.”

“Good. Then I’d like writing equipment, a desk, a good lantern, and access to notebooks. If I receive those provisions in my cell, I shall go quietly. Without fuss.” She sniffed.

“Already provided. It seems to be in our mutual best interests that you do not grow bored.”

Even as she sniffed and sniffled, Twilight managed to smile at that. An old joke between the two...? Curious. And the whole exchange had been so... almost amicable.

But then the wheelchair arrived. Twilight calmly sat in it, and went quietly as she had promised, moving only to wipe her eyes and snout with the back of an arm.

She was about to leave she was about to be taken from her, from here, Rarity you have one chance to say something—

“Ms Sparkle!” Rarity called, as professionally as she could muster,  her own tears held at bay until she could process the shock of the situation, of failing, “Don’t forget to write! We must stay in touch.”

Then, that amicable smile evaporated from Celestia’s face. She turned from Twilight’s side to look at Rarity and again, those eyes, made the Lady feel so very, very small... “No. You won’t.”

And that was when Twilight began to cry properly, as she was taken away.


The Student who Defies

They came and pulled her from her house, and they dragged her body through the street. The Sun was so hot she thought she’d catch fire and burn up in the spring air. Blood rushed to her face from the shame of it all, but she held herself with a quiet dignity in the chair. They weren’t announcing her arrest; it looked like she was just being escorted because of her infirmity.

What she allowed herself, then, was a brief look at Celestia filled with a deep and longing hatred. Many spoke of the glories of triumph over adversity: Few spoke of the darker joy of triumphing over the adversary.

"You know, Twilight," Celestia spoke casually, eyes not even looking at her, glowing mane drifting on unseen solar winds "I could have, and quite probably should have, done this at any time since our meeting at the palace.”

“I know.”

“Are you not grateful that I let you cling to your false hope so long?”

Twilight smiled, maybe in spite of herself and maybe not. This was actually an old game between them, and she had bittersweet memories of it. Sometimes she’d won. “Are you not apologetic for falsifying that hope?”

“Would it have been kinder to crush you at the outset?”

“You’re moving goalposts. Was it necessary to ‘crush’ me at all?”

“Clearly. Why did you make it necessary, Twilight?”

“Perhaps because, in your effort to take me by surprise and arbitrarily punish me, you didn’t actually warn me that I was crossing a line. How could I have known I was forcing your hoof, Princess, if you were trying to hide it from me?”

Celestia mulled that over for a moment. Nodded her acquiescence, admitting her defeat. It could have been a feint though.

“Touche. I admit, then, the fault is mine.” Twilight, sitting in her chair, smiled just a little. The Blame Game. Sometimes she won. Sometimes, though, you won a game of checkers to find that Celestia had been playing chess. “That child could not have chosen a better teacher, although I suspect you did his choosing. I’m very proud of you, Twilight. You’ve learned well from me.”

The worst part, the reason that Twilight’s stomach had taken up yoga all of a sudden, was that the Princess was speaking sincerely, with open pride. She really did think Twilight was emulating her, was using this child.

She wasn’t. Well, she was, but not like that. Well, she was, but it was to help him too.

Stars above, this is how the Princess sees herself, isn’t it?

The thought drew the blood away from her skin.

“I didn’t want to harm your friends, Twilight, I want you to know that,” the Princess said plainly.

The blood rushed back and she almost knocked herself out of the chair from the sudden anger and shock. “What did you do to them?!”

Celestia looked at Twilight equally surprised, eyebrows raised, and the gears in her head clicked together at last. “Oh! Nothing. I didn’t want to harm your friends, so I didn’t.”

“You just so happened to say it in the most ominous, awful way possible?” Twilight growled accusingly, looking down in her chair, trying not to make eye contact with the staring ponies.

Celestia seemed to frown herself, even sounded apologetic, genuine. “You’re right, my Advisor, I should have phrased that more cautiously. I admit, I’m used to being incautious in how I speak with you. I’ve always valued our mutual honesty, but even with our strained relationship it’s never come... it’s never come to this.”

“So long as you didn’t harm my friends.”

“I was hoping you’d see it that way. You understand, then, why I’ve ordered the guards to destroy your telescope then? And the additions to it nopony quite understands, but which put every lighthouse in Equestria to shame.”

It was strange but... “Because you could allow me my friends, or my equipment, but not allow me friends with my equipment?”

Celestia nodded.

It was strange, but Twilight understood the logic, and realized that Celestia had done what she considered a great personal favour, maybe even an uncharacteristic mercy. Twilight was dangerous to her. Worse still, in ways Celestia couldn’t understand, not entirely and not yet. To eliminate only half the threat, the threat that Twilight herself would resent the least...?

The crowds grew denser by the second as they got closer to the unfinished palace. A spectacle was a spectacle, and the Princess herself was a rare enough sight even if they didn’t notice the manacles around Twilight’s legs. Her dress covered covered most of it, blessedly.

And as Twilight was wheeled through a public humiliation -- that wasn’t really all that humiliating -- to the dungeons, she felt her frown soften. She still had her friends. And the dungeons, the dungeons weren’t exactly where she wanted to be, but they were pretty close.


There were a lot of things the guards had that Applejack could see. Big hammers, wrenches, crowbars, all sorts of wrecking tools. The two things that she couldn’t see among the lot, though, were volunteers or a set of balls between them.

“Well, I didn’t build it. Sure as heck didn’t design it.” She said to the assembled guards, milling about the beautiful, gorgeous piece of design like it was going to bite them, or explode. “But I can tell you, it’s just a lump of metal and glass like any other.” Well. Not like any other. One of a kind feat of the modern world, most sophisticated piece of engineering she’d ever seen, but it’s not like these dunderheads cared a whit.

One of the ponies, a sergeant by the chevrons he wore, stepped forward and took her aside, walked her along the balcony. Applejack took the opportunity to look far down the towering bookshelves at the ponies gathered below. Rainbow was holding Pinkie as she cried, and Fluttershy was playing character witness for Rarity as she got interviewed by the guards for her little outburst. Where the foals were was anypony’s guess.

“Alright,” he said, grimacing, “we heard that this thing flash-fried a pegasus clean in half. Cooked him through-and-through. Word gets around.”

“Well,” Applejack admitted, rubbing the back of her head nervously, “we did give ‘em fair warning, for what it’s worth. It only does that when it’s powered up, and you’re standin’ in front of it. Gotta be pretty stupid to do that.”

The sergeant grunted, turned his head to the side as if to spit but thought better of it. Good, because if he had, Applejack might near have bucked him in the jaw for it. Sergeant or no, this was a place worth respecting. “And what if you’re breaking it down? Careless swing of the hammer? Would it still be safe?”

“Well, don’t rightly know. Never been stupid enough to try it.”

“And you didn’t design it.” The sergeant continued lamely.

“Eenope.”

“Terrific. And we can’t get a unicorn within fifty feet of it, because they’re scared of whatever traps the Former Advisor might have laid. Rightly so.”

Applejack grunted, not really sure where this was going. “So, what are you gunna do then? Just leave sleeping dogs lie, yeah?”

The sergeant, an older pony with a mottled brown coat that seemed to contrast well with the red uniform he wore, sighed and shook his head. “No can do. Princess wants the thing torn down.” They both seemed to realize, if for only a moment, they had been addressing each other as equals, or at least colleagues. No, it was time for them to be Soldier and Scum again, it seemed. “We’re going to throw some charges at it and detonate it from a distance.”

“Gunna dismantle it and take it outside first, though, right?”

“Nope.” Sergeant wassname said simply. “Shame about the collateral damage.”

And something in Applejack’s chest hurt, hurt something fierce. All them books, the shelves, everything below... the domed roof above, the history of the place... all gone because some soldiers couldn’t get their bollocks into gear.

“To hay with that,” Applejack growled, “You folks don’t have the stomach for it? Gimme a hammer then. Show you how it’s done down on the farm.”

The sergeant started walking her back towards the men, and suddenly she had a new-found loathing for these folks whose cowardice probably got Braeburn killed in the first place. She damn near snatched a sledgehammer from one of them, daring him to comment on it. When she wasn’t shot for it, she marched up to the telescope, the laser array, the capacitors, and stopped.

Just stopped.

This here telescope was the finest piece of optics ever made, and she’d fixed it when it first broke. How she met Twilight in the first place. That laser was the reason Pinkie had been dragged out of hell in the first place, given a good new home. Those capacitors? Hell, she wouldn’t have known Dash to be anything more than a nuisance and a ruffian if it weren’t for them.

She’d built it, and what she hadn’t built she’d fixed at least once or twice.

Applejack gulped, put the sledge down a moment, and pulled her hat low over her eyes. She didn’t much have the stomach for this either. Had to be done, though, one way or the other, and she didn’t much care for the other.

She picked the sledge back up and held it high.

This piece was Twilight's. This one I made from scratch. This one I made later. This one broke, and I fixed it with my own two hooves. Now it's all one piece, cause I swung at it with this big ol' hammer.

The metal crunched hideously, and the stretching of metal plates sounded like a whining dog to Applejack, one that she had to put down. She’d try to make it quick.

Another hammer swing took out the levers and gears that worked the lens, sending the delicate controls flying in a shower of broken brass. Next one took out the gearbox under it, then she grabbed a crowbar and ripped out the seat she’d sat in to see Luna’s poetry for her own self, see the whole thing was as real as the nose on her face.

Pinkie’s additions crackled and ripped as so much fine glass fell like hailstones, rattling about in the dented metal casing that held them. The capacitors bent and buckled rather than broke, too solid. They were made to take a lightning bolt, after all.

She should know. She’d made that herself, too.

All her long months of hard work, stuff she thought at the time she just did for the money, she tore apart with her hooves because the cowards behind her were too chicken to do an honest day’s work.

She never realized how proud she was of this, of what she could do, until now, and wasn’t that the cruelest joke of all?

Three hours she’d been at it and the soldiers had still been too lily-livered to do much but gawk. “Reckon that’s as much as I can do it.” She panted, her voice hoarse. She attributed it to how much of a sweat she’d worked up, and not how much she’d been crying. “Good enough to not blow the whole dang place up?”

The sergeant stared at her, and AJ squirmed under it. Tried to lower her cap again, so he didn’t see just how puffy her eyes were.

Don’t be stupid, now, cowgirl. It’s only a thing. It’s only stuff. Don’t let them see you cry over a hunking heap of metal, now.

“We’ll be collecting the larger pieces, but that should be sufficient.” He agreed more at her than to her.  “Thank you for your services to the crown, ma’am.”’

Fine way to toss a little salt to the wound.

AJ didn’t supervise that last bit. Just quietly started off back for the farm, for a little while. She’d be back tomorrow, maybe the day after if nopony asked after her, when being here didn’t hurt so much.


Deep in the Canterlot dungeons, Twilight had been left to her cell. The Princess herself had parted ways at the great gates, sauntering back towards the throne room. There was no need for more escorting, not when Twilight was so close to the literal seat of the Princess’s power.

She was surprised at the conditions. She’d been expecting something relatively spartan, but it seemed the Princess really did still have some small amount of respect for her, either for their former relationship or for her current threat.

The cell was as large as two train carriages pressed width-ways. On the masonry floor carved into the mountain itself rested a queen-sized bed made of expensive wood, with soft purple-velvet curtains for privacy. In the far right corner, beside a toilet with a privacy wall, a shower with a hot water knob and more curtains, though cheaper gauze. All the necessities set up so that the guards could see her at all times, but she would never have to feel violated.

That wasn’t the biggest surprise though.

Exercise equipment and weights adorned the right wall between her bed and the ‘bathroom’. Bookcases across from them, filled with books she hadn’t read. A large writing desk near the front entrance, where the guards could look over her shoulder. All things to keep her sane and entertained in the confined environment.

Still, not the biggest surprise.

No, that honour was reserved for what lay in the back left corner, the part of her cell that was a blind spot to the guards. A fully stocked, expensive-looking liquor cabinet filled with crystal decanters of very strong liquors indeed.

Twilight approached it in a haze of wonder, walking past even the books without a second glance, and looked upon the liquor as if it were a mirage. She poured herself a drink into a lowball glass, tasted it. Wished she had an ice chest.

It didn’t taste poisoned. No, Celestia would have just killed her and her friends by this point if that was her objective. The Princess might have had a fondness for poisons, but she had a greater fondness still for not leaving loose ends. She’d already made the decision to leave them alive...

Unless the whole imprisonment was a charade to get her to go peacefully, she’d lied on the walk here, and her friends were dead already now that she couldn’t help them.

She looked again at the glass in her hoof with a newfound terror rising up her throat like bile.

If this glass was not poisoned, it was because the Princess had lied about her friends’ safety and they were almost certainly dead. This had all just been to get Twilight to walk into a cell with minimal resistance and let her guard down, thinking she had already lost. Or, the Princess had been uncharacteristically lenient to her for sentimental reasons, her friends were fine, and this was just good scotch that the Princess had given her... why?

Because being drunk would make this easier for her?

If her friends were alive, she’d live. If they weren’t, she wouldn’t.

She downed the glass without a second thought.

When she didn’t die, she poured another one and downed that too.


They were still meeting at Twilight’s. Rarity had offered her own place for the new location but... Pinkie refused to leave, Rainbow refused to make her, and Applejack was just looking for any excuse not to deal with the potential innuendo being invited to Rarity’s. Fluttershy just stayed where the books were.

So, still, they found themselves meeting in a circle of bookshelves near the coffee engine while Fluttershy’s very sombre cohort, and Applejack and Rarity’s little sisters, studied quietly in sections around the library.

Around a circular table sat five drinks. Applejack stood with hooves resting on the table and a glass of apple juice between them; she’d brought a crate with her. Fluttershy and Rarity had cups of tea in front of them, Spike had baked fresh scones with clotted cream and jam which sat on a silver platter between them. Rainbow stuck to hot coffee, strong and sweet, while Pinkie had taken to an iced coffee, stronger and sweeter still.

Fluttershy enjoyed matching the drink choices to the ponies drinking them. It was just a small thing, but it was always the small things that she appreciated the most.

“It was a nice dream.” Applejack declared, leaning forward into her hooves, “But I think it’s time we debrief. I don’t think—”

“We’re giving up?” Pinkie and Rainbow protested in unison.

“Twilight’s arrested. The guard destroyed the equipment. Luna ain’t interested in us, and there ain’t a prophecy tattooed on our butts. I reckon we get ourselves a new plan.”

Rarity sipped her tea thoughtfully, a silver knife cutting a scone in half and dabbing jam and cream on both. A thoughtful look toward Fluttershy, who nodded and smiled. Half landed on both their plates, and Rarity took a bite of hers without a second thought. It was just a small gesture.

“Celestia obviously doesn’t know about the tunnels. Pinkie Pie and Fluttershy have legitimate reasons to remain, and I’m sure I can lead Celestia to think we’re just taking advantage of the locale for selfish reasons.”

Rarity scoffed again, giving every pony around the table a very bitter look as she sipped her tea almost aggressively. “Believe me, the Princess only stops looking when she finds selfish motivations behind actions. We have all the plans. We have the resources. We have an exiled monarch within reach who may just save Equestria. And I have never, ever, Applejack, failed to follow through on a romance this cliche. This is not the end of the narrative, and we all still have roles to play.”

It seemed the whole ritual had been done just so Rarity had something to nibble on thoughtfully when she made her next remark. She did that a lot, Fluttershy noted.

“This ain’t some dang story, Rarity.”

“Oh, have some poetry in your heart, I was speaking metaphorically.”

“Now, hang on, say this is a story,” said Rainbow, and Fluttershy smiled. She noticed Pinkie did too. “That’d make us the good guys -- the heroes! -- and the evil Princess is our villain, right? So we gotta win, right?”

Rarity grimaced. “In children’s literature, certainly. Modern literature seems to have taken a turn for the cynical I’m afraid...”

Applejack snorted. “This ain’t a story, though. Truth is, Twilight never finished the magic engine. She got close, I think, but we’re missing some crucial parts. We can’t do this without her, we got no reason to do this without her.”

Rainbow scoffed. “I still want to go explore the aether.”

“I still wanna send somepony to the aether,” Pinkie agreed.

Applejack sighed. “Look... I hate to say it, but with Twilight in those dungeons—”

Rarity’s eyes widened. The scone dropped from her magic as she made a little ‘oh’ noise. She didn’t even pay any mind to the crumbs in her white coat, so lost was she in realization. “Oh. Oh, clever, clever girl...”

“Wassat now?”

Rarity continued, and she could feel the ideas click together in her head like puzzle pieces, each click sending electric signals of euphoria rocking through her. “Applejack, where are the dungeons? Twilight was very specific about it, and I have only now realized why.”

“Built beneath the palace, right?”

“Correct. Applejack... where were we planning to build the cannon?”

“In the caverns—”

Applejack stopped. Pinkie Pie’s breath caught in her throat. Rainbow looked as confused as Fluttershy felt, so she felt better about not having caught on herself yet.

Pinkie turned to Dash excitedly, and the words poured out all at once.

“Rainbow, Twilight-is-right-next-to-the-where-we’re-digging-place-we-could-break-her-out-maybe!”

The flat cap got pulled over the farmer’s eyes. “You don’t think she...?”

But Pinkie had already started running off towards the tunnels, Rainbow Dash following after her. Then Rarity sighed and pushed herself up out of her chair as Applejack was practically climbing over the table to follow them, and all of them started tearing off towards the site as if... something. As if something were to happen, and if they didn’t run, they could very well miss it.

Fluttershy and Rarity kept largely to the back, however, as they didn’t quite have the athletic gait or boundless energy of the other three.

Fluttershy hazarded asking a question. “What do you think...?”

“That I owe Twilight enough to try this. That to get my hopes up is ludicrous, but they’re raised anyway, because it would not be the least ridiculous thing I’ve seen from the Sparkle family. That I seriously wonder why you’re still with us.”

“There’s more than enough good food for us here. The books are immensely useful. The worst case scenario came and passed, and while Mirth has been worse the wear for it, largely we seem... fine. We’re okay.”

Rarity hummed and nodded. “All very reasonable and rational, my dear. But nobody asked you to follow us down here again, you’ve just wordlessly joined the fray again. If it were just for the reasons you’d mentioned, ma petite, you’d have stayed back there, and not come down here, don’t you think?”

Fluttershy felt her brow knit in thought. “Well, you’re my friends, I suppose, and...” she trailed off.

Rarity’s smile was bright enough to lead the way. “I suppose we are, at that, aren’t we? And isn’t that remarkably peculiar.”

Fluttershy took a moment to note that Rarity had said it as a statement, not even as a rhetorical question. Rarity plowed on, putting her thoughts in the air between them, as if telling Fluttershy this would help her understand it better herself.

“Isn’t it strange that beyond everything else Ms Sparkle might have accomplished -- which is much, I assure you -- perhaps her greatest feat yet is bringing us all together? I don’t know why I think that, but after joining this merry Les Six of ours... it’s hard to think of life going back to how it was before, isn’t it? And, while it would make my life considerably simpler, I’m not sure I could imagine life after it either. It’s interesting. Applejack’s been there since the beginning, so I’m not sure she even notices, but we two...”

“It all sounds so silly, to hear you talk about it,” Fluttershy agreed. “Within hours of meeting her, she’d all but bought Applejack outright, helped Pinkie leave the only life she knew, somehow convinced Rainbow to assault her boss, and put the idea into your head that burning the court down was a good idea...”

“And what of you?” Rarity asked, obviously amused by the summary. “Your biggest fear, your most determined driving force, was keeping those children of yours safe. Yet somehow Twilight shows up, and it seems the best place for them is in a building surrounded by guards at all times, ready to execute its occupants when ordered. And soon enough they’re all helping the silly girl violate the terms of her parole, of sorts, because it seems like such a good idea at the time. Why do you think that is?”

Fluttershy frowned. She hadn’t considered it at the time, but Twilight hadn’t been the only one put in danger by her little expedition in the balloon. She should have thought of that... but Brass Tacks and Flatcap especially had been so proud and excited.

“I don’t know,” Fluttershy murmured thoughtfully, so quietly that Rarity only heard her because of the way sound carried in those narrow stone sewers. “But it really did seem like a good idea at the time.”

“It’s the strangest thing, isn’t it? I think we were meant to be together, all of us, in this time, in this place. I truly do.” There was a gleam in Rarity’s eye that Fluttershy wanted to believe was madness, but made far too much sense. “Which is why I know, waiting for us at the nexus of it all, the place we will build that damned cannon to the moon of all things -- see how ridiculous it sounds when you say it out loud? -- we’ll find Twilight, locked in the dungeons of Canterlot of which nopony has ever escaped with their life, still somehow able to be with us.”

What was really strange, what made Fluttershy squirm a little in her own skin, was that now that it had been pointed out to her, she found she felt exactly the same thing. “What does it mean if you’re wrong?”

“I think the real question we should be asking, my dear Fluttershy, is what does it mean if I’m right?”


The thing about being drunk, Twilight decided, was that it made even the most boring things somehow wonderfully amusing.

She’d found her toilet had exposed lead piping that led down and out into the walls, into the sewers below. And if she was right about where it led, and Rarity was as clever as Twilight thought her to be...

Twilight sat in the corner of her almost-palatial cell, her back against the wall, and kicked her hoof into the piping where the outlet pipe joined the floor, thinking of fun things to kick in dots and dashes.

For the last fifteen minutes she’d been giggling to herself at something she’d picked up from Viola and Spike -- transcribing sheet music. She was amusing herself greatly by kicking the morse code that would be the letters in simple nursery rhymes.

At the moment, she was figuring out how to kick out “Three Blind Mice” with just the notes. If she got bored enough, she’d figure out a way to signify the length of each note as well, but without an agreement from the receiving party she might just have to spell out words like “quaver” and “semi-quaver” for every single-letter note.

Actually, the hardest part was not clonging it out to the beat of the music she held in her head. Communicating a rhythm-based medium in a different rythm-based medium was a strangely counterintuitive task. Definitely an interesting mental challenge, like the next difficulty level up from rubbing your stomach and patting your head.

Maybe not the most fun thing in the world to most, but in her giggly inebriated state -- she lived! She lived! Her friends must as well! -- this was the most fun thing in the world to her all the same.

Three blind mice, three blind mice, see how they run?

Came out as:

Clong clong clong clong clong—

Maybe she’d spell out the lyrics next run through?


Applejack was staring through the plans. Rarity had made sure to provide data on how close they were to the palace, before, so they could be aware of how likely they were to be heard, but in this scenario...

“Rainbow!” She threw a piece of chalk up, and the pegasus caught it with her pith helm held only by the chinstrap as she swooped, “Up there! Where I’m pointing. Higher. Right, right there, mark that spot. Pinkie, get us some scaffolding up there. I’ll help. Rainbow, get a chisel. I want that piece of wall you just marked to be completely smooth to give us our best chance of hearin’ anything.”

It was high up, to be sure, but only about as high as a telegraph pole. Twilight had ladders that big already, and they’d had some set up for cleaning the area over the past few months. Pinkie wasn’t used to setting it up, but Applejack was a dab hand and gave good clear instructions. Rainbow plinked away above them, having hammered a piton into the cavern wall and hung a harness from it, so she didn’t have to keep flapping her wings while she chiselled it out.

Applejack looked up suspiciously. “Don’t think you set yourself in enough, Dash. You secure?”

“Applejack?”

“What?”

“I still have wings.”

“Oh. Right. Carry on, then.”

The scaffolding went up, little bit by little bit, as pebbles clattered down from above. Rainbow was using her hooves as a mallet, punching the chisel up and along the wall. By the time Fluttershy and Rarity had caught up, Applejack was yelling at them to go back and grab a ladder and a nice tall glass of water. They headed back towards the library again.

“Can I have a drink too, please?” Pinkie asked, huffing and panting. They’d just got another stack up. Applejack tossed her a waterskin from a pile she kept underneath the ‘architect’s’ desk.

“Then why’d you ask for a glass?”

“Well, you think of anything more high-tech you can stick to a wall and listen through?”

Pinkie shook her head.

“I just asked for water so they’d be quick about it.

“Oh.”

Pinkie took big thirsty pulls from the pouch as Applejack lobbed another high. Her aim was true, and Rainbow managed to catch it with her hindlegs, somewhat grumpily.

“More warning would be nice. I don’t really have anywhere I can put the chisel you know?”

“Heh. Sorry about that.”

“Just be glad I didn’t drop it on your head!”

The waterskins and work were both finished about an hour later. Ladders were put up, the wall was smoothed, and Applejack and Pinkie unhooked Rainbow from her harness standing next to their newly chiselled-smooth square of rock.

Applejack took the emptied glass that Rarity and Fluttershy had brought back and cupped it to the wall, pressed her ear to it, as the other two mad-ponies studied her.

“I hear some plumbin’ but that’s about it, I’m afraid.”

Rainbow frowned. “What? We did all that for—lemme listen.” Applejack was all but brushed aside as Dash pressed her own ear to the glass and heard just about the same thing. “Sounds like rats in the pipes... That can’t be it.”

“Lemme listen,” Pinkie pleaded. Rainbow passed her the glass, even as Applejack shrugged. Pinkie’s eyes widened. “It is the plumbing!” she said excitedly. “Rainbow, where’s the chalk?”

Rainbow passed Pinkie the white chalk Applejack had thrown up to her. Ear still pressed against the wall, Pinkie started transcribing dots and dashes with little pauses.

“It’s just random bangin’, Pinkie. Plumbing does that. Metal expands and contracts in the heat, sewers right there. Dunno why we were so excited, it’s not like they’d put Twilight right next to us, is it?”

“Rarity!” Pinkie yelled. “Help me with this!”

“There isn’t all that much room—”

Pinkie shooed Rainbow off the platform. Rainbow bristled, feather getting all up and in a huff. “Hey! Hey, there’s a ledge here.”

“Duh! You have wings. Rarity doesn’t. So, shoo! Shoo!”

Rainbow stepped off the platform, holding her own weight. “... oh, right.” She shot Applejack a glare when she heard her snicker.

Rarity climbed up, Pinkie still filling in dots and dashes as she went. Rarity looked over the chalk marks in surprise. “Oh, now what is this? It looks random at first, but... There’s some repetition, certainly, Pinkie, do you think—”

“Yeah! But you’re better at it than I am. It’s a languagey thing. So what does it spell?

“Well, do you mind if I borrow the chalk, then?”

“I might miss some though—”

Rarity took the chalk lightly out of Pinkie’s grip and snapped it in half, floating half back to Pinkie. “Carry on, dear, I’ll catch up from the start.”

Pinkie continued scrawling dots and dashes as she heard them while Rarity began assigning them letter values.

Applejack scowled at the letters as they appeared. “It’s just gibberish! Doesn’t even look like code.”

“Well,” Rainbow said slowly, squinting at the apparently random letters herself, “that doesn’t mean it isn’t. The best code doesn’t look like code, I guess, because that’s the first line of defense against the enemy! Subterfuge, what have you.”

“Can I see?”

Everyone jumped at Fluttershy’s voice. She’d flown up behind them very, very quietly. Applejack darn near lost her hat, put it back on her head with a disgruntled snort.

Fluttershy looked at the letters carefully before smiling. Beaming even. “Three blind mice...”

“Hey!” Applejack, Pinkie and Rainbow protested as one. Fluttershy shook her head, went white as a sheet as she realized—

“No! No, that’s what this is spelling! It’s musical notes!” The pegasus grabbed Rarity’s hoof with surprising insistence and tapped it to a place on the wall. Rarity put down the chalk and hummed the first three notes.

“La, la, la.”

Oh, criminey, it was.

“We gotta figure out a way to message back!”

Applejack didn’t know much about the science of acoustics, but she knew a lot about brute force. “Rainbow! Get me the biggest piton we got. Fluttershy, biggest hammer you can carry. Pinkie Pie, Rarity, either-or, gimme something to hammer out. Let’s see if we can’t get the whole dang wall shakin’ with this one.”

Rarity beamed, and shared a look of significance with Fluttershy that Applejack just didn’t understand yet. Seemed to creep the bejeebus out of the pegasus, but Rarity could have that effect on a pony, now, couldn’t she? “I have just the message in mind, dearest Applejack. What do you think of this?”

The chalk whipped back up onto the wall, on the other side of their listening-patch, and spaced out big, long letters so as to fit the morse dots and dashes beneath them:

Can hear, still here.”

Applejack nodded. “Perfect.”


Things grew from there.

Twilight’s hoof thrummed off the pipe. The others had gotten all the way to the ‘i’ before Twilight found pen and paper to transcribe, but the rest of the message gave enough context for her to figure out the two letters she missed.

The joy from both sides of the wall was indescribable.

Applejack and Rainbow had taken to the wall like creatures possessed until they found the joining pipe. Fortunately it was so close to the cavern wall, or they might never have heard it. Rarity smirked whenever anypony, anypony at all, dared to call it a coincidence in her presence.

“Coincidences don’t happen in prophecy, nor love. You put the two together, and I’m afraid we’re dealing with fate and destiny.”

Reactions to that were mixed.

As Rainbow and Applejack dug through, Pinkie dug down, pushing pipe down deeper and deeper until the topmost was hot against her hoof. A dormant volcano didn’t mean a cold one. Rarity sent the plan to Twilight in code, and very specific instructions on times not to use the bathroom at specific periods, no matter what.

Valves were hastily constructed, prayers that a watertight pipe was also airtight, and a spring-loaded sphere designed to lightly maintain a seal. Inside could be sealed letters, written letters, that could be sent back and forth.

In less than a week they had attached the entirety of their modifications. If Applejack pulled a lever on the main pipe down, it worked as intended. But should the bright red handle swing back up, the sphere could be locked into place in the center of a Y pronged intersection of lead piping, and the connection was sent down to Pinkie’s valve. Should Pinkie then pull her own lever quickly enough...

There had been some misfires, and were it not from Brass Tacks’ constant scolding about mindfulness, Applejack might have ended up with worse scalding at one point, but if your prototype is safe it means it didn’t work. At the end of that week, though, a sphere could be blasted to Twilight, then sent back in the usual manner.

At 6pm every day, Twilight and her friends could exchange letters.

And on the moon, Luna watched for flashes of light that still would not come, running her long laps against the tide until they would again.


Brass growled as he strapped Rainbow back into the deathtrap. Thing spun faster than any pony had any right to survive, just to prove you could. Dumb display of hubris, if you asked him. But nopony did, so he took every opportunity to say it anyway until Scootaloo clapped him one upside the noggin.

First time they did this, Rainbow blacked out, and Matron had to get the smelling salts out. But they’d ruled no lasting damage, so now they wanted to do it again and see if the same thing would happen.

Bleeding mooks, the lot of ‘em!

Rainbow didn’t look scared to most ponies. Bravest face of all when she knew Scoots was watching, and wasn’t that just the jammiest of jams, but here in the cockpit of the whirlymagig where it was just him and her, he could see her true colours, no shortage of those.

He was just about to say something clever when Rainbow looked up at him, out from the fastened harness and the crash helmet, and glared. “Stop looking more nervous than me, kid, we’ve got boundaries to bust.”

He felt his face soften, in spite of this ludicrous bollocks. “You ain’t bad for a geezer, miss.”

That got an actual chuckle out of her. “Don’t write me off yet, lad. Remember, we’re doing this to find out how dangerous is too dangerous, then back away from that. We do this so we can fire me out of a cannon with the egghead safely, so o’course this is the scary bit. But you gotta tell me I’ll be fine so I believe it.”

“What did Pinkie say?”

Another chuckle out of Rainbow, weaker this time. “She shrugged. Said if she knew what was gunna happen, we wouldn’t need to do all this testing.”

“Oh.”

Crazy, every one of these ponies. Safer on the streets most days.

“Well, just know you’re gunna be fine,” Brass lied.

Not even a chuckle that time, just a weak smile before she closed the windshield hatch on the centrifuge carriage.

“You know, Cap’n's a much better liar than you. Some might even accuse you of being an honest pony.”

Ooh, that one stung, right down to his crooked little heart.

Brass ran as he heard the thrum of the motors being charged again, and bolted for the observation gallery. No chance in Tartarus if something went wrong, these ponies would be taking him down with them.

From here, the whole thing looked like... there wasn’t really anything to compare it to that existed. Thick banded coils stood in the center, a metal arm jutting out in both directions. On one, a counterweight like a sledge hammer head. On the other, the capsule Dash sat in which bore an uncomfortable resemblance to the one that had exploded on Twilight, even though those were different circumstances. Seemed jinxed.

Everypony came down to watch the second test. Nopony was too squeamish to ignore the call for support, or the need for extra hooves on deck should the whole enterprise go belly-up. Even the prissy Miss Rarity had stuck around.

These were good ponies, and maybe they were being a good influence on him. He could feel his mercenary nature slipping away! He’d worked so hard to cultivate it too...

Ah well.

Sliding Rule had showed him all the maths he’d done with Pinkie. It all seemed to check out, he said. The centrifuge didn’t actually have to go all that fast because of all the centripetal force. Same thing that made you dizzy when you spun around.

When he’d heard that, he’d made sure to fit out the ‘cockpit’ with some wax-paper bags.

But still, end result was the whole thing was fun if you took it slow enough, and probably not all that dangerous if you were careful at the controls. Since Applejack was the one at the wheel, things looked good.

It lurched into motion, and the air thrummed with electricity and something else... Is this what it felt like to have history’s eyes on you? Felt like someone walking over his grave.

“Alright, Rainbow,” Applejack’s voice chipped like tin through the electronic loudspeakers in the cavern, “we’re going to get you up to near the same speed as last time, and see if you can hold it. If we can keep you there for five minutes, we’ll stop. After this, we’ll break for lunch.”

There two loud cracks of hoof against the metal floor of the cockpit, for ‘yes’.

Applejack chuckled as she slowly pushed a sliding dial up along a console. The whirring and high pitched humming the filled the air, that you heard more in your teeth than in your ears, grew louder.

Everyone watched as the centrifuge sped up to where it was before. Five times the force of gravity, then ten. The centrifuge couldn’t accelerate as fast anymore, the next few crept up, eleven times the force of gravity and still climbing, twelve times the force of gravity, when it got to thirteen Applejack pulled her hoof off the dial and they watched.

They’d pushed her to fifteen last time before she blacked out badly. This was only a little less than that...

Matron had the stopwatch in hoof. It had only been thirty seconds when Brass had already thought it had gone on too long.

Cor, blimey and heck if it didn’t look like the sort of thing that ought to kill a pony. Like a mad scientist’s torture device, only without the ‘like’.

Scootaloo looked amazed, though, bless her heart. Worked double time to make up for the head on her shoulders, he had to give it that, this wasn’t the sort of thing that should impress a pony. Should scare ‘em stiff.

But he’d checked every nut, screw, bolt and rivet himself, he’d watched Applejack do the same twice. The only way this would kill the damn loopy pegasus was if it worked exactly as intended.

Two minutes, and no one said anything.

Two minutes thirty and she heard a long, heaving gasp. He realized Pinkie had forgotten to breathe in all this time. Girl had lungs on her.

Three minutes thirty and still no one had said anything. Not even asking if she was going to be okay, nothing like that. Only thing to do was wait. Rainbow’s eyes were still open, though, in the flashes Brass could see of her. She hadn’t hit the panic button in any case.

At four minutes forty seconds, Applejack cut the power slowly and let the whole thing start winding down.

It came to a complete stop in less than a minute. Viola asked if Dash was okay, and Brass didn’t know how to answer, yet. Matron nodded as she hit the timer on the stopwatch. Pinkie and Applejack started hurrying over double-time to the cockpit, which had the misfortune of stopping as far from their observation post as possible.

Dash’s blue hoof kicked the glass door open, like she was about to make a big damned hero’s entrance, but then she fluttered out like a drunken butterfly. Killed the drama, just a little, but Brass still cheered just as much as every other pony around him.

Rainbow waved him over, as Applejack and Pinkie threw themselves against either side to hold her steady. What Pinkie lacked in AJ’s muscle, she certainly made up for with enthusiasm, and the top half of her head might slide off if she smiled any wider. Applejack herself just looked relieved as Brass ran up to them.

Rainbow slurred like Cap’n did after a whole bottle of rum, and was smiling almost as much as Pinkie, all shiny white teeth. “See? Um Fihne.”

“Nah, you’re just safe. Still something very wrong with you, geezer.”

Rainbow looked more seriously at Pinkie, though she was still swaying between the two ponies. “Is just like doing a barrel roll, I realized. Jus’ hadta tense same muscles and it was a lot easier. Dun thing Twilight could do it.”

Pinkie’s face fell. “But that’s the acceleration we need... we were so close. But if Twilight can’t stay awake, then she can’t do the magic stuff, and you guys’ll just fall back down...”

“Dun thing she could do it yet. We got time though. She ain’t gunna like what she’s gunna need to do though...”

Now that got Applejack curious, Brass could see it even from behind as they walked past him, her eyebrow shooting up the way it did. “Sugarcube, what are you going to be making our poor little prison pony do now?”

“Pushups.”


Now that she knew her friends were okay, Twilight’s days fell into practiced routine.

Get up at 7am to a hot breakfast from the guards. Not as good as Spike’s cooking, but what was? From there, pick up a bottle of scotch and not pour it. Simply look at it intently, then put it back down on the shelf.

After that, Rainbow Dash had written her an exercise plan. It had been intimidating at first, and she might have put it off if she were anywhere else. But she wasn’t, so she didn’t. Today she would be building bulk and muscle mass, tomorrow she would be doing cardiovascular training, then continue in that alternating pattern until... until.

That would normally take three hours. After that she showered, walked over to the liquor cabinet, took a small glass of brandy as her reward for behaving so well with exercise, then it would be time for lunch.

Lunch was eaten at her desk, where she’d take idle bits of whatever ploughmare’s lunch platter had been laid out for her while she tore furiously at pages with engineer’s square and quill. The chefs were cautious to serve her food that excelled in room temperature. Anything that only tasted good while it was hot was likely to be pecked at and eventually forgotten, much to their dismay.

At six pm every day, whenever she had finished the full schematics of a component -- sometimes three in one day, sometimes only one in a week -- she would remove the S bend at the back of the toilet and flush the tube, waiting for it to be pushed back up with a blast of pressure.

After that was reading until dinner. Trashy romance novels that Rarity had put her on to some nights, penny-dreadfuls and pulp-adventure from Dash’s influence the next. Whatever dinner was, it was forgotten as she refused to put the book down before bed, racing a candle.

Every day like this she felt a little bit stronger. She felt a little bit closer to completion. She felt a little bit closer to talking to Luna again.


On the moon, far from the usual poetry, a new message went unseen.

“Please be safe.”


As Pinkie Pie and Applejack built the breech of the cannon, Sliding Rule and Rarity interpreted the designs Twilight had sent. Truthfully, neither of them were even qualified to read Twilight’s notes, but Sliding Rule was meticulous enough to copy the designs precisely and Rarity did not let pride get in the way of asking for clarification or questions whenever even the slightest detail was found ambiguous.

The magic engine was to be treated as even more dangerous than the explosives. They still hadn’t found the satchel of blasting charges that Applejack had insisted ‘wandered off when she wasn’t looking’, so it wasn’t the high benchmark Rarity wished it were, but it was true all the same.

Circuit diagrams and arcane diagrams flowed into each other and past each other on the work site, and a pony wouldn’t be blamed for not recognizing which were which, both were such an indecipherable riddle to the uninitiated. And to those who could understand them? Both might as well have been true magic for what the parts represented.

Applejack had another job all on her own, thanks to Rarity, and that was fundraising. The Apple Family had lasted longer than almost any of the other farms in the area, and they’d been buying their land up on the cheap for years, stretching themselves thinner and thinner, just to stay afloat. Now, though, they were genuine suppliers of staples to the Equestrian military and of the larger trading companies, any pony that wanted a genuine taste of home. You couldn’t grow apples in foreign lands, nothing edible anyway, so Apple juice was a genuine luxury commodity when it was exported, just like coffee was on the home front.

Building so much farm equipment so fast to keep up with the flood of orders, and being the center of a one-pony economic bubble, meant a lot of the orders ended up going through Applejack; the beautiful thing about replaceable parts was that they worked about the same if they ended up in a tractor or an aethership, for the most part.

Rarity had walked Applejack home one night, escorting Sweetie Belle and Scootaloo with them for a sleepover.

“It’s not how things used to be,” Applejack had lamented. Rarity had jumped; they’d been silent for a long time, and Applejack had just startled her out of her own train of thought.

“No. I don’t suppose it isn’t.”

“You know, though, while I don’t care for this very much,” Applejack grumbled, casting a side eyed glance back at the foals trailing behind them, “I don’t think I liked it much before, either. Just... clinging to how things should have been, and they never really were like that, were they?”

Rarity remained silent. Sometimes being good at knowing what to say meant knowing when to say nothing, Applejack thought. Prompted her into filling the silence again.

“But now we got a chance of making things... better. Maybe not now, maybe not soon, but—” She jerked her head back towards the foals, who were deep in an argument over whether chewing candy or sucking candy was better, “—at least for them. I think you were right, Rarity.”

“You’re going to have to be more specific, darling.”

“Hah! I suppose I am. I don’t think it’s about saving the past. I think, at the end of the day, it’s about building for the future. Never was much good for saving, but heck if I ain’t good at building.”

The heavy breech was built and set in volcanic stone. The huge chunk of metal, swirling with different alloys to withstand heat and pressure, would be the firing chamber for two ponies sometime not too far away. The vessel came next, as soon as they had enough of a barrel framework to house it in..

The frame for the barrel started building up from that solid base, ponies constantly manning forges and smithing tools as Pinkie dug down, constantly reassessing the heat they had to work with below. Boilers and valves were built and refined as the younger ponies took to the work with a skill and pride nopony had thought them capable of.

Pinkie was tense, and anxious. She missed Twilight, even though she got to talk to her. She had drawn a portrait of Twilight with the mouth missing and sent it to her one time. Twilight had sent it back, drawn with a smile, and had written on the back; “Very pretty. But I think it was missing something, don’t you?”

Pinkie smiled at that. She hoped Twilight’s for-real face wasn’t missing it too. They were all there for her, like she had been there for Pinkie, and that... She hoped it didn’t feel like it did behind the chalkboards, without real friends to talk to. Knowing there were ponies so close that she couldn’t be with. It wasn’t a good feeling. Pinkie hadn’t felt like that in a long time, and just knowing that made her feel nice, and happy, and safe. How did it feel to not have those things? It was hard to remember, because she didn’t want to.

She had written a letter, didn’t tell anypony about it -- especially not Dash -- and had even figured out how to buy stamps and send it all by herself! She was very proud of that. Then she bought a few more stamps just for herself, because they were pretty and she could even stick them on things she didn’t want to send, just to make them pretty too.

“Mr Spark

It’s Pinkie! Hi! Thank you for the money and the electronics. I’m having a lot of fun putting them together! I felt bad about not drawing things for you any more, and I had to make a new kind of switch today, and I thought it was pretty simple but I don’t think anypony has made something like this before, so just in case it helps I put it in here for you.

I just wanted to ask... When I have an episode outside, or in front of ponies, my friends don’t apologize for me. Or get me to apologize to other ponies for upsetting them. In fact, Rainbow Dash gets really angry if a pony tells me I’ve upset them when I can’t help it. They tell me it’s not my fault, and give me lots of hugs, and I feel better.

Why did you always tell me to apologize? Like it was my fault? Are my friends wrong about me? I haven’t asked them because, even if they were wrong, I don’t think they’d tell me.

That’s all, I guess

Hugs

Pinkie Pie

T.E.S.L.A

She hadn’t got a response for a while, which was fine, because she didn’t know how long mail was supposed to take.

Dearest Pinkamena

Come home. You’re very sick and you need help. You’re not safe to be around.

Your new friends are just that; new. They haven’t known you for as long as I have. They don’t know how dangerous you can be, that I was just trying to help you. If you stay, you are going to hurt somepony. Probably very seriously. That’s what they don’t understand about you.

I’ve respected your wishes, Pinkamena, because I had thought you’d come to your senses by now. I urge again; Come home.

Bright Spark

Pinkie didn’t message him back after that. Rainbow saw the letter, threw it in a fireplace, and got really mad.

She thought Dash was mad at her, so she promised she was trying really, really, really hard not to hurt anypony. And Dashie said it was absolutely not her fault, so long as she tried her hardest and didn’t mean to, because that’s what really counted.

Rarity had asked what they were talking about and why Rainbow was yelling, and Rainbow said “read the letter”, and Rarity said “I can’t it’s on fire” and Rainbow said “oh right” and explained it.

And then Rarity had made Pinkie some hot chocolate very quietly, and told Dash not to leave her alone that night, so Pinkie got cuddles all night and felt a lot better, and the next morning Rarity wouldn’t let her read the newspaper like usual, but Pinkie’s stipend got a bit bigger, and Mr Spark didn’t try to message her again either.

Then she got back to building antenna, so she could talk to Twilight even when she was all the way in the aether.

So many sensors and electrical components needed to be built to keep the ponies inside alive, so Rainbow brought the power, bringing her full abilities as a pegasus to bear once more. In a room that didn’t lack for ponies with charisma, she showed leadership far above and beyond the call of duty.

It was months ago that she had hidden under her desk whenever anypony went looking for their manager, tending to her plants and dreaming of better things. It was hard to remember that, sometimes, as she flitted between worksite barking orders, and erupting raw electricity otherwise.

But her biggest role was yet to come.


Twilight woke up to being groped and rolled out of bed in panic, away from her assailant, ended up pulling half the bedspread over on top of her, tangling her. Being trapped in it and blind didn’t help the panic, so she flailed a little more.

“Relax, Twilight,” Celestia crooned from the bed warmly, “I just wanted to feel these new muscles of yours. The guards have been telling me the most interesting stories. And according to the quartermaster reports, you’ve cut back on your drinking? Even the chefs say you’ve been eating more.”

“I don’t hurt as much anymore.” Physically.  “And alcohol is a dehydrant, made me feel awful after my workout.” She had cut back down to just her one glass of reward brandy, out of necessity.

“Mmm. So exercise is the new inebriant of the masses?”

“I don’t know much about masses, but for me, certainly.”

Celestia started deknotting Twilight, as if she were a friend, and setting the bed back neatly. It wasn’t just her voice up from the bed, Twilight could see now, but she actually dared enter Twilight’s cell herself. Without a guard, no less. Which just made her seem all the more dangerous.

“Came to feel me up, then?”

“Oh, your forelegs, certainly. I was trying to see if I could feel where the bone cracked, but imagine my surprise when I feel nothing but tight new muscle? You always were so soft, my little pony. Whatever would drive you to... all this?”

“What’s the matter,” Twilight tried to sneer but the effect was somewhat ruined by her still being sprawled on the floor in what sheets she’d fallen on, “don’t find me pretty anymore?”

“Quite the contrary. You’re even more beautiful now than ever before. Hardened, refined.” There was a soft, almost sad smile when Twilight recoiled at the compliment. “Don’t look so shocked, Twilight, you know not to ask questions you don’t want the answers to. Or you certainly should have learned by now. But that was a diversion, so please,” Celestia widened her hooves, as if to gesture to the empty cell around them as her witness, “answer my question.”

The best lies run parallel to the truth. “I want to be in peak physical condition when I break out of here.”

And Celestia smiled, as if Twilight had just told a wonderful joke, or... no, issued an interesting challenge. It was the same smile Celestia wore when another nation was suing for peace. “Is that it? Well, don’t let me of all ponies stop you. That would be the guards’ job, it’s what I employ them for. I will be very interested to see what you come up with.”

Twilight waited for the ‘but’. Or the ‘if’. But no, Celestia just sat on the bed, looking at her curiously. “That’s it?”

“That’s it.”

“No threats to my family? No warnings? No ultimatums?”

Celestia looked almost offended. Definitely disappointed, like Twilight had just failed some unknown test. “No, nothing of the sort. I’m genuinely interested to see what you come up with. You always were such a clever girl. Nopony has ever escaped the dungeons before, and I’ve ensured the residents have had long lives to make the attempt. If anypony would be the first, it might very well be you!”

Twilight snarled. “I’ll be sure not to disappoint you then.”

A far more genuine smile from the Princess. “Please, Twilight, if I’m to give you a condition at all, I would simply request that you do not make it boring.”

“My daring escape wouldn’t be interesting enough for you?”

“It’s not about about being enough for me, Twilight, it’s about being enough for you. You always find some way to exceed my expectations.”

Celestia finally unfurled herself from the bed, stretching, looking very much at home in the cell. Still, she was a visitor, and it was time for her to make her exit. She said one last thing over her shoulder as she sauntered towards the door. “So set them high, please. That way, when the guards find you and catch you again, I’ll know your second escape will be even more creative. And I will look forward to that as well.”

The door clicked open as Twilight said nothing, then slammed and relocked as she struggled to find anything witty to say. None came, even as the hoofsteps echoed further and further down the dungeon corridors. Today, Celestia would have the last word.


Forget the intrigues of court: the intrigues of magic and design pulled Rarity forward as she and Sliding Rule guided the construction of the aether-drive, the engine propelled by the sheer forces of magic. This would be her greatest romantic success yet, and it had all the added fun of designing some very special clothing indeed.

Working with Dash’s commentary on surviving incredible acceleration inspired her to design a suit that compressed the legs and chest, allowing a pony to stay conscious at yet higher accelerations! All about keeping the blood to the head, it seemed. Simply adding airtight seals to the neck, and a removable helmet, it would allow a pony to breathe in a vacuum! It was a whole new era of experimental chic, far ahead of its time, and oh did Dash look so... Dashing in it! Fortunately she had gotten Twilight’s measurements before. She hoped the new bulk wouldn’t throw off her design too much...

She had once hoped to spin the association with Twilight into material benefit in court, to cultivate a rebellious image. Counterculture, after all, was the most fashionable culture of all. But here she found that being creatively fulfilled meant so, so much more to her than her status ever had.

Considering how much she had hated everypony else in court, she wondered why the idea hadn’t occurred to her before. Probably because it was financially ruinous to realize it before. Hrrm.

The perks of her new career as a guerilla artiste-engineer were threefold.

1) Surrounded by ponies she actually liked, adored even

2) Creatively fulfilling in new and exciting ways, and magical artificery still required she use her favourite crystals and gemstones.

3) She got to stick it to that royal bitch.

And really, what more could a pony want in life?

“You know, Ms Matron,” Rarity had confided once while covered in ash and soot, not caring in the slightest much to everyone else’s shock, “I’ve assisted many romances that were destined to be, but for a little help. Captain Shining and Princess Cadance come to mind. But I must say, this is the first that was fated to be. And isn’t that something wonderful?”

The others had remained unconvinced, but Fluttershy had to admit... there was something strangely compelling about how the coincidences in their favour kept piling up. Now that Twilight was away, the days seemed to blur by, as if the world’s focus was off them.

“Not quite off us, no. This is the inhale before the sigh, my dear, and ah! If we aren’t in the eye of the storm. But I do mix metaphors now. Dreadful form. I blame Twilight, bless her heart.”

“Her bad poetry is contagious?”

“I meant the feeling of being in a spring as it is slowly wound tight, but that as well. See? Three distinct metaphors now. Atrocious.”

“A breath of spring wind,” Fluttershy said with a smile.

Rarity started at that, jumped. “Ooh, now that is a clever way to string them together. Would you like to do a reading with me later? I’m dreadfully out of practice.”

She was about to say no, that she’d have to look after the children, but that hadn’t been strictly true for quite a while now. She was still there for them because she was wanted, not because she was needed. It took some getting used to. “I’d love to.” Fluttershy smiled.

Oxygen tanks were filled and compressed. Toiletary systems implemented to work in a vacuum. Tins of soups and other foodstuffs that could survive launch were stacked high and strapped down. Thin walls reinforced with bulkheads. Thick windows installed, and cameras. The whole vessel pumped full to three atmospheres of pressure, creaking but never cracking. Sliding Rule’s insistence it not be shaped like a bullet, or a shell, but like a finned cigar.

Over a few short months, the aether-faring vessel was built.

Fluttershy and Spike packed lunches together in the kitchen, far away from the noise of drills and hammers in the library’s kitchen.

Mirth had left early with a packed sandwich and a bottle of juice. There was a university debate on today that he’d managed to find a way to sneak himself into, with a reference book. Tomorrow there was a trial he was very much interested in, and a cooked meal would just make it that much harder to sneak into the high court gallery.

It was definitely a change from having to take care of Viola, who sat practicing in the worksite with her instrument to the microphone, using the caverns as her own personal concert hall. There was an appreciation for her there that couldn’t be found on the streets.

Brass patrolled the other children with a hard hat and steely glare, berating anypony -- child or adult -- for carelessness, laziness, or anything that could put a pony at even the most theoretical of risk. Nopony complained—the foals here without exception had been victims at least once before. The new ones, whoever they could pick up off the street in the usual ways, were all given induction courses by him, corralled and sent to where their talents best lay.

Canterlot had no shortage of orphans with industrial experience, just a shortage of things to do with them.

For them she was cooking a hearty broth, far thicker than the ones she was used to, and for far more ponies than she could ever handle before. She had resources now, and work for them in a safe environment. An education and a future. And it was just a little bit illegal, which made her feel that much better about it. Any more perfect and she’d have been far too suspicious.

Flatcap and Scootaloo waited patiently in the kitchen for the next pot to take back to the caverns. An army of the poor, the hungry and the tired had come to Fluttershy’s doorstep over the years, and now she had a place for them.

Spike gave her a thumbs up, and Fluttershy loaded the big pot of fresh stew up between Scootaloo and Flatcap, who took off running for the tunnels, Scootaloo banging the side with a ladle to let the dinner cry ring out through the sewers.

And then she started asking Spike what there was for supper, and Spike showed her, for there was plenty to feed an army.

So, holding back tears she had held in for too many years now, feed an army is exactly what Fluttershy did.


The barrel was built around the vessel and built tall...

The heat of the volcano filled a steam reservoir beyond rational capacity...

The chamber was filled with valves that would allow the vessel to be launched evenly over the vast length of the cannon...

Electronic controls and monitoring stations and radios were erected...

Pinkie finally got to try building her reflective antenna idea she had doodled in a patent office long ago...

As money was poured into a hole in the ground...

And as Twilight prepared her body for the ordeal, day and night...

As the last rivet finally fell into place...

Luna took a deep breath of vacuum and stared up at something she couldn’t see, but she could feel, far above.


Twilight got her mail at 6:00pm as usual. The little sphere in the toilet was cracked open, she read the message inside.

Hey, Twilight?

Remember those satchel charges I told ya I lost?

Yeah, well. I found ‘em.

You might wanna cover your ears for this part. Duck and cover, fire in the hole.

Love

Applejack

P.S

See ya real soon, Sugarcube.

Twilight read and reread the letter three times. Yes, it definitely said what she thought it said.

A fourth time, it still hadn’t changed.

“Oh, dear.”

She dove under her bed, and was filled with a dreadful sense of anticlimax.

Nothing continued to happen as she stared out at the toilet from under her bed. There was a tapping from the door.

“Prisoner! What are you—”

Whatever he was going to say was cut off as an explosion ripped through the air, and tore a significant hole out of the cell wall. Twilight tore down it. The crude opening gave way to a short tunnel, mined out of the cavern walls. Behind it was a scaffold and beyond that she couldn’t see.

She nearly tripped as she ran over a divot in the floor, a neat line carved into the cave floor. As she ran over it, past it, metal bars fell behind her and slid into place, closing the passage off. In the time it took for her to turn and stare at it, a guard had caught up, slamming right into them.

Twilight didn’t stare a moment longer; he was already reaching for his firearm. She tore forwards, finding scaffolding with a spiral staircase, the walls covered with drop cloths. She held the center banister and barely touched the stairs in her descent, taking the stairs themselves as unwanted interruptions as gunshots tore behind her, kicking up ripples and billows as the thick canvas above her caught the shots.

Her hooves hit rock and she leaped forward as the guard above screamed to get the Princess. She dove through the opening of the scaffolding and saw it.

A great beast of brass and steel, reaching from the base of the volcano to the lip, tapering and narrowing just as it had in Pinkie’s model. Steam and heat hissed through the cavern, and a long and winding staircase rose to a bulkhead somewhere above the breech.

Rarity was standing beside her, looking as if none of this was strange in the least, greeting Twilight as she would an old friend and not as she would an actively escaping convict.

“Ah! So nice to see you! It’s been too long, hasn’t it? Now, give me a hug, there’s a good girl!” Rarity hugged Twilight when she couldn’t protest, being too busy being stunned and all. “Oh, my, you really have been putting on the bulk, haven’t you? It suits you, truly it does. Prison’s been very kind to you, I must say. Now, I have an outfit for you here, you can use the covered off area you just came out of as a changing room and then please proceed up to that—you already saw it, didn’t you? Yes, up there and through, and Rainbow will tell you the rest.”

Twilight stared openly, dumbstruck, as her aethersuit was thrust at her. Rarity’s warm smile became more of an annoyed grimace.

“Hurry, hurry, dear, your beau is waiting on you. It would be impolite to keep her waiting any longer? Oh! Also, we’re not sure how long we can hold off the guards. So there is that to keep in mind, as well.”

Twilight bolted back under the scaffolding, fumbling into the tight, rubbery clothing. She nearly shrieked when Rarity ducked in to help her but her tutting of disapproval waved off any actual objections she might have had.

It took a total of five minutes, with help, to get the suit completely on. Every second more and more guards could be heard from above, and she could hear they were trying to get explosive charges, trying to organize a search party from where she could have come up.

Every second the thought ran through her mind; This is where we all die.

But at least she would die with her friends, and that beat living alone in a gilded cage.

“There. Done. You look absolutely fabulous, Twilight, I’m sure Luna is going to swoon. All very dashing. You know, some stallions have bought fancy carriages to show off when they pull up to the lady’s gate, but I’m fairly certain you’re about to have them all beat, so, get to it then.” She started prodding Twilight’s flanks with her horn insistently, “Chop chop!”

Twilight ran again, focusing on the stairs. She heard an explosion, worried something had gone horribly wrong, realized it was probably just the guards breaking through the bars, realized that was only reasonably wrong, and kept running up.

The bulkhead opened and she crawled through a long, dark tube. There was light flickering at the end of it, humming. She came out into a cramped room with a padded chair covered in straps, windows looking out into a tunnel with light at the end of it, with instruments and dials and readings...

Rainbow sat beside her, buckled in, her own aethersuit equipped, smiling as widely as Twilight had ever seen her.

“Rainbow?!”

“Ah, our damsel in distress, what ho! Never fear, Twilight Sparkle, for the cavalry is here! We’re going to escort you somewhere safe.”

“This doesn’t feel very safe.”

“Oh, yeah, no, this is going to be stupidly dangerous. You’re probably going to pass out, everything’s going to hurt, we didn’t pack alcohol, I threw up in practice and you didn’t even get to practice, and we’re about to ride a chain of explosions right up into the aether.” Dash was grinning wildly, just about the most excited Twilight had ever seen her. “This is probably the most daft-barmy bonkers thing we’ve ever done.”

“But?”

“But it’s going to be fun, and I’m here with you, and everypony’s with us in spirit. We’re taking their hopes and dreams up here with us, and I don’t think you’re about to let them down are you?”

“No!” Twilight said, before she could think about the implications, or how she could not explode through force of will.

“Darn right! Also, Pinkie told me to tell you that the only safe prototype is the one that doesn’t work. Oh! Right, remembered now—” Rainbow pressed a button on the golden console in front of them. Twilight had expected to see more wood, but none could be found in the cockpit, just a gold-grey rainbow of metals shining in the dim electric lighting. “Pinkie, AJ, start the countdown!”

There was a hiss and crackle of static, and speakers in the cockpit filled with noise.

“Hiyah Twilight! Ten! Sorry we couldn’t be there to say hello in person! Nine!” Twilight felt vibrations rolling up her gut, felt the cockpit rattling. Dash looked unfazed. “Or goodbye again! Eight!”

“Sorry, sugarcube, plan was to stay in radio contact, seven, but we couldn’t figure out how to do this and get away from the guards, six, so we’re probably not going to be around much longer.”

Her dream.

This was just like her dream.

She tried to remember what happened next.

There was interference blasted over the radio, like hail on a hot tin roof, a constant and irregular pattering of plinks and high pitched cracking.

“But Dashie knows the plan just fine! Five. And we’ll probably be fine, four! Rarity has a plan and everything, three. And we quintuple checked all the maths, so you’re going to be fine! Two. Probably absolutely definitely. One. All systems go. Fluttershy, you wanna hit that big red button for me please?”

“Ah, they’re shooting at us...”

“Oh, just stay down and reach your hoof up.”

“Ah—okay.”

What? Shooting at—

Twilight remembered what happened at the end of her dream:

Everything exploded, and then she woke up.


The Mare Who Once Lived on the Moon

Pinkie had figured out the very limits of equine survivability, and taken about fifteen percent off that. Twilight’s bones would forever be a little wider than they had been, and her ligaments screamed through megaphones for her attention.

She clenched her thighs how Rainbow had instructed her and held. Her technique was flawed and imprecise, the result of learning through notes and not direct instruction, but it kept her vision as tunnels instead of blackness as she forced blood back into her brain.

They had been slowing down ever since they left the muzzle, the pressure getting easier and easier but the apex of their arc getting closer and closer.

They were far past the clouds already. What had been a slow and steady rise in the balloon was now a drunken, stumbling blur of motion, an acid dream not of flying but of dying and having your soul ripped to the heavens.

She felt the aether now. Not strong enough yet, but she knew what she was looking for through the throbbing of her temples and the tears streaming from her crushed eyes.

Another thing she was aware of, now, was that Dash was whooping with delight. Twilight didn’t turn her head, just darted her eyes as far to her left as she could until she could see the mad-pony, her face being stretched off her skull in the same way Twilight imagined her own, mouth open wide and eyes sparking with crazed joy.

It was contagious. For all the discomfort, all the panic, all the imminence of death... they were still the first two ponies in history to ever do this, to experience this, to survive this. Maybe even the last.

The adrenaline helped her stay sharp until the g-forces stopped crushing her down, the momentum disappearing. They were still moving fast — blistering speeds that heated the air in front of the capsule not through friction but from compression, from its inability to get out of the way fast enough — but they weren’t accelerating now.

The world fell further and further behind them, smaller now, and Rainbow’s cries of joy faded into stunned wonder.

Still moving up, still falling away from their world higher and higher, but now was the calm between crisis. The beauty of a frozen lake before you’re forced to test your weight on it, the moment between wonder and fear.

Rainbow broke the silence while Twilight started to tense herself for what had to come next. “It all looks so small from up here. Even when I’m flying, you just see Canterlot, the villages... Now I can see there’s the zebra lands, there’s us, there’s the griffons...” her voice cracked, maybe just from her shouts before but maybe not, “it’s all so stupid.”

“What’s stupid?”

“War. And stuff. Like, how many ponies died for that bit over there, which is about the same as that bit over there? And you couldn’t even tell what belongs to who. Like, when you look at a map, they draw the borders nice and neat for you.”

“You thought you’d be able to see them from up here?”

“No, I didn’t.” Dash tried to shake her head, her neck cracking for the attempt. A hoof rose to massage it as she winced. “I just... didn’t realize what that would be like.”

The radio crackled to life before Twilight could answer that, scattering Rainbow’s train of thought to the winds.

“Hello, Twilight, dear, all is well.”

“Rarity?”


In the cavern of a dormant volcano far below Twilight, Rarity smiled into a microphone as reassuringly as she could. Acting was a full-body effort, even if they could only hear her. “We’re all fine down here, darlings.” Another rifle shot pinged off the console above her head. Levitating a hand mirror up and over her barricade showed a lot of soldiers gathering at the scaffold, using it as a makeshift palisade, but advancing no further.

They seemed to be terrified of whatever they’d concocted down here. Rightfully so, but fear was the only thing keeping them from advancing at the moment. When that ran out, there’d be dreadfully little left to stop them, and nowhere to run.

This was the part of the plan simply listed as “Hostage Negotiation” in big, bolded letters. That they were the hostages being negotiated, and had no leverage to speak of, was just another little bump in the road that Rarity had to figure out.

Any second now. It would have been so much easier if she’d thought to ask Twilight beforehand, but it seemed like a bad idea at the time to lock into any plan when the whole ordeal would be so... chaotic. Plans are inherently rigid. An oak will snap under the weight of the falling snow where yew will bend, and Rarity preferred to be flexible in every way she could.

Stalling. All these thoughts were just stalling. She was still being shot at, another round whizzed over her head, cutting through the air with roughly the same ease it’d cut through her sternum...

Think, think, think.

“Twilight, do you have anything we could — and I don’t mean to alarm you, don’t fret if the answer is no — trade to the Princess for our lives?”

The answer was a long pause. Maybe it wasn’t all that long, and Rarity was just antsy because of all the bullets. Probably just the bullets, then. “This isn’t a hypothetical, is it?”

“Oh, let’s just say for the sake of argument that it is a rather urgent hypothetical. What would you suggest?”

“Give her the plans for the gun.” The radio crackled. Pinkie had never gotten around to making the full antenna; The original plan had been to act as ground control if anything went wrong, but when nobody could make a plan for how they’d be around to man it after Twilight’s breakout... it was mothballed. “Tell her you’ve shot me deep into the colonies, where I’ll be safe, and this is a weapon.”

“Your brother told me—”

“I said nopony else would die because of me, and that includes you. Especially you!” Twilight snapped. Snapped! Please, Rarity could keep her composure and she was being shot at. Well, Twilight had been shot, perhaps some nerves would be appropriate.

“Noted. Well, it’s been lovely talking to you again, Ms Sparkle. Remember everything I taught you. Fluttershy says hello. Try not to blow yourself up, we built the engine to your exact specifications, but it is untested, after all. Pity if all this were to end on a sour note. Fluttershy says hello! I’ll be switching communication to the loudspeakers now if that’s alright with you. Safe travels!”

“Good luck!” Rainbow shouted back as Rarity flicked a switch — with her magic, of course, no way was she raising her head — to change the input of the microphone from radio to loudspeakers.

“Attention, Royal Guard—” was as far as she got before a startled soldier took a well-aimed shot at the loudspeaker, destroying it in a shower of — she checked with her mirror — yes, definitely sparks.

Fluttershy raised a head out from under her hooves. “That pony was very quick on the draw.” She looked just as helpless as Rarity felt.

“Yes. And he didn’t miss either. Not particularly good for our chances.”

There was a loud hiss, a spitting flare rather than the crackle of electrical sparks, and Rarity’s eyes widened. Fluttershy just looked confused. Grenades were a fairly recent addition to the guard, but she had been fortunate enough to see some rather dashing officers being drilled with the ingenious devices. And now one of those handsome, daring men was lighting the fuse of one of those...

A metal sphere, like a cannonball with a candle wick, bounced over the top of the thick electrical console. Rarity grabbed it in her magic and pushed it as hard as she could, which wasn’t very far at all. Even with all her strength, it was like trying to stop a served ping pong ball by blowing on it.

As the fuse sank into the sphere, Rarity threw her body over Fluttershy’s, for what good it would do.

Rarity shuddered. Even covering her ears, her teeth rattled and her jaw clenched painfully down hard when it went off so close. She felt it, the shockwave hit the soft flesh of her gut, then rattled her bones like she’d been hit everywhere at once with a boxing glove. Fluttershy whimpered, though Rarity could barely hear it over the ringing.

There wasn’t enough magic left in her to do that twice.

She hoped the others were safe. Pinkie should have been helping the foals, Applejack making sure nothing blew up... Fluttershy and herself were downright expendable by comparison, all they were doing were negotiating the terms of surrender, and rather badly, at that.

“I don’t mean to alarm you, mon petite,” Rarity whispered, though it may have come out as more of a hiss really, “but we got lucky that time. If you have any brilliant plans, it would be more than I, I am afraid.”

“Hope they run out of ammunition?”

“Unfortunate. But it seems our best chance, yes.”


“Good luck!” Rainbow yelled into the microphone, before Twilight could respond. Then she pressed a button, and the radio went quiet.

“Rarity!”

“Radio’s off. We shouldn’t distract her.”

Twilight twisted her head as far as she could in the straps of her seat. “We need to go back and help them! I can... I can save them!”

Dash didn’t look convinced. If anything, she looked angry, furious, deep furrows of disappointment knotting her brow. She held eye contact with Twilight as she tapped a dial on their instrument panel. “Do you see this?”

She broke eye contact to look. It was an altimeter, still rising. Not as fast anymore...

“In about thirty seconds, you’re going to have to make a choice. This is about the last recorded height we got off your balloon before everything went scrap metal. We’re just about in the aether now, I reckon. Twenty five seconds now, you need to turn on that engine of yours or we’re going to start falling. We’re still slowing down. Twenty seconds, and you throw away everything we risked for you, because you’re scared.”

“But they’re in danger!”

“We just got shot out of a cannon! You’re not telling me,” Rainbow’s hoof smacked against the altimeter again, rapping it twice for emphasis with hard, loud clicks, “getting shot this high into the air by a ruddy cannon in a tin can was going to be safe?”

“Of course not!”

“But you did it anyway! And so did all of us! Ten seconds now, Twilight.”

It would be so easy. All she had to do was nothing.

All she had to do was shoot and miss.

Five seconds left, still rising, Twilight’s horn glowed and her magic scoured the vessel for parts she knew so well, even though she’d never seen them. She’d etched them out in their entirety, component by component, equation by equation.

She had a whole five more seconds to think, and her brain was working just as fast as when Twilight had a gun levelled at her face. Going through options and tables and flowcharts and it had all been for nothing, because Rainbow had been quicker, had been smarter in the moment.

Which is why she was sitting here beside her, instead of anyone else.

Second guessing her would have been a waste of a valuable five seconds.

Twilight’s awareness was projected in an intricate membrane, as wide as a photon, outwards in a disc. More and more magic poured out of her, pooling the disk outwards like pancake batter. The center around the ship thickened until the pulse of light and energy might have been molecules thick, stretched as far out in every direction as a locomotive engine and its coal car together were long.

The disc, an aura of purple-white that radiated in the space-between-space, bloomed down like a jellyfish’s body, pressing itself down into a parabola and pushing the aether with it, before pulling itself back into the thickened core and reforming at the top again.

This in and of itself was no great feat of magic. The precision to create it so thin, so as not to waste any of her strength, was still something that maybe the best fifty unicorns in the empire could accomplish, given enough time and an arcane focus. The strength to push against essentially vacuum? A foal could move so much of what was essentially a statistical-error away from “nothingness”.

What made the engine so important, however, was that she wasn’t just doing this once. She wasn’t even doing it at all, now that the spell was cast; Crystals fed into runes in the same way capacitors fueled a circuit. Once the spell was cast initially, once power was fed into the device, it would stay functioning for as long as Twilight kept it fed with mana from the aether. This was important; she would need to sleep, after all.

The real trick, and why the design of the engine was so important, was that it would be doing a full cycle, top to bottom to center to start position, dozens of times a second at maximum speed.

The theory, as she knew it to be, was sound. However, there was also the distinct realization that she had tried to invent the internal combustion engine after a lifetime around matches and having once seen a barrel of nitroglycerine go off, and surmising the two to be similar enough in theory.

All of this was an incredibly verbose way to say;

Don’t blow up, don’t blow up, please let the math be right and I don’t blow up.

The craft lurched forward again as beams of light eddied and rippled from the craft. Not fast yet, just two or three ripples a second, but also not exploding. No catastrophic failures. Just the gentle pressure of acceleration, like the first moments on the train as it left the station.

For the next thirty minutes, Twilight focused not on Luna before her or her friends behind her. She collected as much power from the raw aether, a force she had learned to recognize now that she knew it was even there, and poured it into her crystal batteries.

She called to the universe and was answered with power.

The craft pushed through space like a bullet pushing ripples through air. Or ripples pushing a bullet through the air.

Twilight pulled herself out of her deep meditation when she was satisfied with the energy she had stored. The planet was falling far behind them, the moon grew larger and Rainbow... was not in her seat.

“Rainbow?”

“Yeah?” The voice was behind her. Twilight twisted in her seat, unbuckling herself.

“What are you doing?”

“Unpacking!” Rainbow declared cheerily.

“Unpacking? Unpacking what?”

Rainbow threw Twilight a significant look from down the tube, like Twilight was the weird one for even asking. Here they were, in a submarine fired out of a cannon, and Rainbow looked more at home here than she ever had in the library.

The only question was, why did that surprise Twilight in the slightest?

“We’re going to be up here for a week. Three days there, three days back, give or take a little bit to go around the moon itself. Well, I’ll be doing that. You’ll be crushing on your one true love or something boring like that. Seriously, I think I get the better part of the deal here. I’m gonna get to see what the dark side of the moon looks like. Only pony ever.”

For the briefest of moments, Twilight was seriously jealous. Rainbow noticed it, smiled a little. Seemed to think about it, then smiled a lot.

“So one of the things I’m unpacking is a camera. Also have... let’s see...” Metal crates had been strapped down to all sides of the ship, wherever space could be found. Things bumped and shifted oddly, like they were just detailed balloons that had been made to look like the objects they represented. It was just, so far from the planet below, things had a way of getting... lighter. So it was that Rainbow threw a deck of playing cards towards her and it drifted drunkenly through the air.

Twilight caught it, mystified. Low gravity environments were something she’d hypothesized, but to experience it was another thing entirely. She hadn’t even noticed while she was concentrating, strapped to her seat, but now... She fought back the giggle threatening to rise from her throat. This was a very serious scientific accomplishment, tremendous, and to giggle at it would—

She giggled.

Rainbow snorted, hoof deep as she was in one of the crates. Then Twilight saw Dash had one eye closed for concentration, tongue stuck out the side of her mouth, and so she giggled even harder at the ridiculousness of it.

“Alright! So in here we have the chess board, because apparently intrepid explorers need to have intense mind games while they adventure. So I’m told. Pinkie taught me how, anyway.”

“She did? She’s surprisingly good.”

Rainbow smiled happily to herself. “Yeah, she’s a clever clogs alright. Like you, you’re a brainiac and a half, and make no mistake, but you think straight. Pinkie’s just all... corkscrews and sidewinders.”

“Miss her?”

“Yeah. She’ll be alright though. It’s just a week. Besides—” Rainbow fished a brown paper parcel out of the crate and bit the twine binding it off with her teeth. Floating over to her, looking over Rainbow’s shoulder, Twilight saw it was filled with...

“Letters?”

“Uh-huh. Supposed to read them in order, as the trip goes on, so we don’t get too lonely. Some for me, some for you. Oh! This one’s for you now.”

Twilight looked at the envelope flicked over to her. Caught it. The name on it said it Méliès. “Fancy name.”

“Spiffing little accents, right? Just dripping with foreign culture. Keep reading!”

To the Lady Twilight Sparkle

This was originally addressed to the Lady Rarity, but she insisted much of the credit was yours, so I am to oblige her. I will keep this brief, I’ve also been told you’ve been very busy. You have helped establish a record against Bright Spark that might save a humble director of cinematographical amusements.

Thank you, as well, for giving me inspiration for a film you might yet someday see. You’ll have to help me with the accuracies.

With Gratitude and Respect

Monsieur Méliès

“Apparently Pinkie Pie wasn’t the only pony Bright Spark was hurting... Who is this?”

“He’s a director! He does amazing stuff! Have you never been to a nickelodeon?”

Twilight snorted. “It’s just a dumb fad. The news reels lack the content of a newspaper, and there’s nothing that could rival the power of the imagination and a good book!”

Rainbow rolled her eyes at that, hard, and kept digging through the crates. “I was thinking of being an actress you know. Explore the wild new frontiers of cinema!”

“Oh, yeah?”

“I don’t think I’m theatrical enough.” Twilight bit the inside of her cheek hard, because Rainbow’s sombre expression made her think it would be a very bad idea to laugh at that. “But we also have books!”

Twilight couldn’t bite her cheek hard enough to hold back the squeal of delight. Some pulp science fiction, submarines to the bottom of the sea, holes drilled to the center of the planet. “Interesting.”

“Huh? Oh no, these are for me.”

“Huh! Really?” Book-buddies!

“Yuh-huh! No, I got these ones for you.” Books on etiquette, on courtship, on banter. Different from the ones she’d already read through, a lot more informal. Twilight levitated a copy of one and read through the chapter index. One eyebrow rose, arched hard up. She flipped to a few of the more interesting chapters. The writing was in informal language, made no assumptions about the reader, made no mention of any items that might denote wealth or status... Now both eyebrows were up.

“Did Rarity pick this out?”

“Nah. The Cap’n did, actually.”

“Huh. Mirth picked these out for me? That... explains a lot.”

“He’s a good kid. Thought the stuff the Lady was going to pick out for you was too hoity toity la-di-da. So she said, ‘Let’s see you do better!’ and so he did. And then she signed off on it.”

It was all so lower-class! A method of courtship focused far more on wit and cleverness than on rehearsed gestures and practiced manners. Thanks, Mirth.

She hoped he was safe.


Rarity held Fluttershy close as the shots fell from deafening crescendo to trickle. Seconds later only the echoes rang through the cavern and in their ears.

Rarity was lifting her mirror again. Fluttershy tried to see into it herself. The soldiers had raised their guns and were standing at attention. Oh, no. No, no, no.

“What do you think, dear?” Rarity asked her, her nose wrinkling.

“Princess.”

Rarity’s response wasn’t immediate, and it wasn’t verbal. Her body tensed and she winced in confusion. Then that confusion became realization and her whole body tensed, locked rigid, as if the Princess could detect movement. “Should we run?”

“They’d just start shooting at us again.” Hiding wasn’t doing anything either. “Hooves up?”

Rarity’s muzzle scrunched up in distaste. “I’d much rather run, honestly. If I’m shot in the back, I’d still be allowed an open casket.”

Fluttershy stood from behind their cover, hooves raised. Even then Rarity hesitated. A sharp glare was enough to draw a sigh out of her, and join her.

Fluttershy’s glare melted into a reassuring smile, just as it had so many times before for misbehaving children. “Well, you wanted to negotiate.”

The Lady said nothing, just faced their judgement.

It was a few more minutes they stood there, not being shot at, hooves held in the air.

Then the Princess of Mourning herself appeared from the scaffolding, wordlessly striding to the center of the cavern, moving to the great cannon in silent wonder. She rapped it with her hooves, and it rang out like a bell. Then she turned and locked eyes, not with Rarity but with Fluttershy herself. She didn’t expect that... A cold shudder ran down her spine, and she couldn’t look away no matter how hard she tried. It was like the Princess’s eyes had physically locked her neck in place.

She beckoned to them with her hooves. Fluttershy moved forward, teeth clenched hard so as not to cry out, and she heard Rarity follow behind her. Stare death in the eye and don’t dare blink first.

“You weren’t working alone. Where are the others? I remember more of you.”

Fluttershy sighed miserably. She was so far beyond fear now. “You’ll only kill them if we tell you.”

The Princess stood a little taller at that, so as to better look down her nose at the Matron. “No. I will kill them if they frustrate me unnecessarily. Killing you would be stupid. Admittedly, leaving you alive before was stupider...” A shadow passed over Celestia’s face. The madness in her eyes softened, and she looked... scared? Fluttershy had seen fear enough times to recognize it, but this kind of fear was almost childlike. “Why did I do that?”

It seemed like a bad idea to answer that.

Then the moment was gone, and the dark fires that burned behind those cruel eyes reignited, like a candle’s flame flicking back hard after a breath has passed over it. “No. So you will tell me.”

Fluttershy wanted to bite back, be defiant. Even say nothing. But she didn’t account for Rarity. “Applejack is beneath us, preventing this whole cavern from erupting. Pinkie is trying to get the foals to cover, since they’re relatively innocent in all this and it would be a shame if any of them were shot to death.”

Celestia didn’t flinch at the rebuke, but the guards flanking her certainly did. One of them looked downright nauseous. The ponies that were shooting her just minutes before weren’t monsters, then. That was nice.

“I see. And you stayed behind... why, exactly, Lady Rarity? And, I should say, accomplice.”

“To negotiate the terms of our surrender. We will tell you which of the colonies Twilight has been sent to, as well as detailed schematics on the operation of the device. This is, obviously, conditional on our survival.”

“I see.” The Princess’s burning eyes tore from Fluttershy’s for the first time, and it was like the steel rod through her spine keeping her straight had been yanked out through her front, and she sagged, catching her breath as it left. “What is stopping me from having our engineers study this over your corpses? Why not get the information out of you through torture? Tell me; What information do you have that I need you alive for?”

Fluttershy waited for Rarity’s clever retort. When it didn’t come, she turned to see Rarity afraid like she’d never seen her. The Princess of Mourning clucked her tongue.

“You have too little leverage to lie, Lady Rarity. I will take the schematics as a given. You have exactly one chance to survive this, the both of you. I will repay attempts at cleverness; yours with that of an artisan torturer, a particularly inventive one. If you are not going to tell me something I could not otherwise guess, then you better ask for the firing squad, as that is the only mercy I will extend to you.”

Fluttershy didn’t know who to look at, Rarity or the Princess. The tie breaker for Rarity was that she’d rather not see the bullet coming. The Lady looked so defiant, so ready to spit in the Princess’s face and call it a day, until she saw Fluttershy looking at her as well, and the rod holding her straight seemed to be yanked out of her too. Rarity sagged, and shuffled over to a filing cabinet. Riflemen kept a steady aim on her, though she didn’t pay them much mind. The false bottom was ripped out, and a sheaf of notes and schematics taken from them. She walked back, head held high, papers ahead of her offered in supplication.

“We sent Twilight to the moon. Here are the designs for the magical engine that would allow her to get there. I barely understand them, of course, but it’s all there, in my writing. Everything Twilight taught me of it.”

There was that flash of fear again! Longer, this time.

Celestia tore the notes from Rarity’s grasp with her own magic, and Rarity leapt back as if she’d had a hot pan held to her face. Her yelp was ignored by the Princess, who pored through the reams of notes, of sketches, of mathematics, her face growing more relieved by the second.

“And these notes are accurate to your design? Twilight never had time to fix these herself?”

“The dungeons hardly have a postal service.” Rarity snorted, with all the haughtiness she could muster with a gun pointed to her head.

“You answered around my question without addressing it. Don’t think I didn’t notice, and don’t think to try my patience any further. However. However, you were foolish enough to break her out with explosive charges and... what, some cell bars? No. This plan lacks any of the elegance I’ve come to expect from her. Evidence suggests she didn’t know of this...” Celestia’s magic circled some key numbers on several of the diagrams.

When she was done, the fear and fury had been completely replaced by something that wasn’t quite regret, wasn’t quite relief, but kept her expression balancing between the two.

“Guards, we’re done here. Escort these ponies off the premises and get the engineer corp in to study the work done here. Twilight Sparkle is no longer of any threat or consequence to us.”

Rarity and Fluttershy stared. Fluttershy felt numb from her scalp to her hooves. Neither of them asked why, and Celestia looked between them with a raised eyebrow. When she still got no prompt, she sighed in a bored and flat tone.

“No? Well, I suppose I might as well just say it. Your equations are wrong. These parentheticals are incorrectly placed, significantly changing the equation. As well, there seems to be some mishandling of proper distribution. The kind of algebraic mistakes I’d expect from a pony who had been taught well, but misplaced their tutor before the exam. No, with this information, I know that Twilight Sparkle is dead.”

Fluttershy flinched. But they’d been so careful! There had to be some way to warn Twilight, to—

“I’m not even going to execute you, my little ponies.” Celestia smiled warmly, smiled. “You’ve performed a great public service. I could not have thought of a more fitting execution myself. Oh, and how agonizing her final moments had been... Why, I might even have medals commissioned and delivered to your cells in the dungeon. Won’t that be nice?”

Guards surrounded Rarity and Fluttershy, guiding them back towards the hole they’d made in the wall, as a captain barked orders to find the others.


Dash still had one crate left to show Twilight, it seemed. A box of records, pressed vinyl discs with music on them. A recent technology, which made it one of the most expensive items on the ship, but much lighter than bringing a player piano, it was decided.

Clair de Lune was on top of the stack, which made it an easy first choice. Rainbow took to winding the gramophone while Twilight excitedly slotted the needle into the disc’s groove, anxious to see how it all worked. Excitable egghead had gone locked up way too long, and gadgets had moved on without her.

Dash had to admit, even though the music wasn’t her first choice, there was something appropriate about looking out the window of a spaceship while listening to classical music. Something right. Twilight told her to play “Flight of the Valkyries” next if she wanted something heavier. How’d she know that’d been picked out?

There was a surprise one Rainbow was holding, placed third from the bottom of the stack. If it was the bottom, it might be seen, and second from the bottom might be seen if a pony picked up the bottom. Third from the bottom was the safest place...

Viola and Sweetie Belle, Rarity’s little sister, had been practicing together, and while it cost an arm and a leg — she apologized to the Cap’n in her head for the expression — to get it made, they’d managed to get them an entire album to themselves.

She was saving it for the return trip though. It was a little too sombre for this early in, especially with their friends heavy on their minds. They’d be fine, though. Just... dreadful not knowing. Travesty. But Twilight was just going to worry if Rainbow showed any doubt, so no doubts at all. Their friends were spectacular, most daring blighters ever to walk the soil, they’d make it through just fine.

Just ruddy fine.

Dash looked out at the stars... a pony could have spent hours just looking out. To feel so detached, weightless and small in the vastness of the universe — to appreciate just how insignificant an individual was — was an indescribable experience. Twilight was trying her best to put it into words, of course, like “awe-inspiring” and “a moment of unrivalled serendipity” but...

Words can only create a sympathy or an idea in your head that relates to something you already know how to feel. Or an idea similar enough that you can put it together. The truth was, there just wasn’t a way to describe the feeling of this from whole cloth. The experience was so far removed from what any other pony had experienced, ever.

Dash could have spent hours just experiencing it, burning it into her memory so she could relive this for the rest of her life. However, they had days, which was rather too long. Twilight was getting stir-crazy too, didn’t seem to be much in a reading mood. Shocking!

Twilight carefully lit her horn every few minutes and the both of them played games together, with Dash talking about all the advances and world events that had gone on while Twilight was wrongfully incarcerated. Every time Twilight won a game of chess, Dash struck her down in a game of cards, to keep them both humble.

Sleeping without a natural sunrise was weird too. Twilight insisted they go to bed at 10 and wake at 7, to keep normal hours. It was hard to sleep though, Dash just couldn’t get tired like she usually would.

Life in the aether was weird.

Even food tasted weird. Nothing tasted right. Nothing felt right in her mouth. If Dash didn’t know for a fact AJ had cooked most of this, she’d have thought it was Rarity faffing about with some pots and pans. It tasted amateur, rookie. Bland. Dull. Like a daring adventure without a love interest and a villain. What was the point?

It was late in the second day when Twilight asked the harder question, over a game of chess.

“So, how do we land this thing on the moon?”

Oh. Uh, right. She was supposed to have explained this to the egghead by now.

“Actually, we don’t. We’re going to put you in a suit, drop you out the airlock, and I was going to steer this through the moon’s orbit and slingshot us back to Equestria, all neat and easy.”

“And pick me up on the return trip.” Twilight concluded, thoughtfully, pushing a pawn to attack Dash’s knight. But the pawn was in the open, so Dash moved her knight to attack it. Ha! “How?”

“How what?”

“How am I supposed to get back up to the capsule when I’ve gotten Luna?”

Dash had forgotten her knight was the only thing guarding her bishop, which Twilight took with her queen. Rats. Dash pushed her own pawn up to threaten it. “We, uh, never figured that part out. Bit of a blindspot really. We were sort of hoping you could magic your way back.”

“Magic my way back.” Twilight echoed, lamely. “Rainbow, it’d be like trying to fly by standing in a bucket and trying to pick it up.”

“Couldn’t you, like, try to throw the moon down instead?”

Twilight was so shocked by that, she moved her threatened pawn instead of her queen. Didn’t even flinch when Dash triumphantly took advantage, huzzah! “Dash, that might be the smartest dumb thing you’ve ever said.”

“Thanks?”

And just as fast as the inspiration hit, Twilight deflated again. “How would I take Luna with me?”

“Doesn’t she have wings?”

“If she could fly through the aether, I think she would have done so by now.”

“Oh. Right.”

“So what was the original plan, anyway?”

“Oh. Uh, Pinkie said ‘Twilight’ll think of something, she’s really smart’ and Applejack shrugged.”

Now Twilight flipped the board. Drat, Dash was finally winning for once! Bad sportsmanship all around. “Why didn’t you tell me! Or ask me?”

“We thought you already had a lot on your mind, what with the engine and prison and all!” Dash protested, scrabbling for the pieces. Now, what had gone where, did she remember? No? Darnit.

“So I have a day to figure this out!”

“Well. A day and eight hours for me to go around the moon, yeah.”

“If I go down there! Why would I trap myself on the moon if I had no way to figure out how to get back?!” Twilight was waving her arms frantically now, hyperventilating. Dash idly wondered how bad that was for their air. The carbon scrubbers had done well enough so far though, so it was probably fine.

“Well,” Dash thought, giving up on the board entirely and putting the floaty pieces back in the box, “if you don’t go, you can’t ask Luna for help, right?”

Twilight didn’t say anything, but Dash knew she’d said something dumb and important again.

She could take a hint at least. Some time to be alone with books would do them both good. Dash had just gotten to the good bit in this one, too...


Four ponies sat in the dungeons, unharmed, because Rarity had known to give Celestia her handwritten notes from before Twilight corrected them.

Math never was her strong suit in school. She much preferred theatre.


The first thing Twilight had done was figure out the velocity needed for lunar orbit with escape trajectory. Wasn’t nearly as fast as she thought, that would help.

The second thing she did was tweak the engine, so that the ship would slow down to that bare minimum. It’d give her more time on the moon with Luna, which might be bad if the suit didn’t have enough margin of error for how long she could be outside the capsule...

The third thing she did was try figure out how well Rarity’s suits could survive for. This was a wash, as she didn’t have Rarity to ask, or a safe way to test it, or a spare if anything went wrong with the testing, or written documentation...

Oh dear...

She’d figure something out. That’s what everypony else had said, anyway.

What Rainbow did know was how fast a pony could accelerate safely. That was important.

She would also have Luna...

Twilight didn’t have to lift herself. All she had to do was push the moon down.

Armed with that knowledge, and having absolutely demolished the recommended reading list Mirth had provided her, Twilight stood at the airlock. In the suit she assumed would be fine for the next few hours. Ready for Dash to release her into the aether and just sort of...

Fall.

To the moon.

Even though the moon was a lot smaller than Equus, it still looked really dang big right about now. Big enough to squish a pony flat. Squelch. Squashed. And nopony would ever know what happened, or find the squishy body.

Well.

Except Luna.

That was probably worse.

Parachutes wouldn’t work though. So there was just the guess that the much lower gravity of the moon would make it a lot safer. Hopefully.

This was a terrible idea. She still didn’t know for sure how she’d get back, just a really, really stupid idea that worked mathematically, but just because it worked mathematically didn’t make it any less stupid. It was ridiculous. It was childish. It was something Dash would think of.

She was having second thoughts.

“Rainbow! I think I’ve changed my mind!” She shouted into the airlock.

Dash didn’t hear her, because it was an airlock. She just smiled, gave her a big hooves up, and pushed the button that dumped Twilight into the aether. 

Twilight had just learned a very important lesson about vacuums: In the aether, nopony can hear you scream this is a bad idea.

The craft looked beautiful from the outside.

The brass, cigar shaped core with fins gleamed unnaturally bright in the light of the sun, in the light of the violet magic ripples. Like a bullet, travelling through the still waters of heaven itself. It felt almost wrong to Twilight that she didn’t leave a trail herself...

The moon, too, when she twisted to face it, was beautiful. She was falling to it faster than she’d hoped, but not as fast as she’d feared, which at least gave her enough time and presence of mind to appreciate the white sands. It really did look like what a pony would describe if they were asked to describe a place of pure night.

It looked like what it would be like to live inside God’s own hourglass, counting away the life of the universe.

Far below she saw a blue speck, running towards her. Racing towards her.

I’m really falling for her.

Twilight’s legs flailed a little more as she giggled helplessly at that.

This wasn’t like the last time she’d fallen from a great height. She wasn’t in shock. Her leg wasn’t broken. There wasn’t broken glass in her. She didn’t know she’d die. She wasn’t falling back under house arrest.

She was falling to the moon. To meet her girlfriend. Was that presumptuous? She was more scared of being presumptuous than the fall.

Wait.

Now that she was closer, Twilight could get a sense of scale from Luna. She was running fast, far faster than any pony she had ever seen, but Twilight was falling far faster than she thought too.

Conservation of momentum. She hadn’t been dropped out of a motionless shuttle, even though it didn’t feel like it was going all that fast. It’s hard to get a sense of speed up here, like this. Twilight had essentially been thrown down. And, unlike Equus, there wasn’t air resistance to slow her down.

Okay.

Okay, panicking now.

Strangely, panicking was what finally put her mind at ease. She’d gone through this before and survived. Not exactly this, but this all the same. It felt a lot better than waiting for the inevitable and hoping for the best.

Think, think, think.

Twilight grabbed out with her magic, channeling the monumental power of the aether, and tried to grab at all the nothingness that she could. If it worked for the magic engine...

It worked for the magic engine because she’d designed it specifically for that, she quickly realized. While it worked in principle, in practice it was like trying to knit a parachute out of rope. Maybe if she wasn’t so rushed and falling out of the sky.

Luna was getting closer, but the ground was faster. If Twilight didn’t do something now to slow herself down, Luna wouldn’t get to her fast enough to help.

Well, she’d already thought of the moon’s surface as looking like an hourglass. Except instead of the sand falling as the countdown... what a nifty last thought.

Wait.

The stupid, terrible, dumb idea.

The Dash idea.

Twilight reached out with her magic again, but far down this time instead of around. She grabbed as large a chunk of the moon itself she could manage and pushed against it.

Every action has an equal and opposite reaction, and so she felt to her satisfaction that pushing the moon down buoyed her up a fraction. She pushed down harder and spun down below her horn, her body the counterweight balancing itself has her center of mass shifted to a place it had no right to be. It hurt a lot, actually. The more pain she could take the safer she’d be, so with grit teeth, she tucked herself into a ball and prepared to cannonball the moon.

Twilight tried to work out where, exactly, her life had gone so awry that this was where it had ended up. It was hard to point to any one exact moment that led to her preparing to land butt-first on the moon with the force of a meaty meteor. Probably when she first saw Luna through the telescope was this fated to be.

There was a thump and Twilight felt a huge surge of force to her side. She was still falling, and that was the wrong direction for the ground, but it felt solid all the same. She opened her eyes, winced shut from concentration and fear, and saw blue. Dark blue mane like night trailing over her shoulder, a deeper, lighter blue fur like lapis lazuli surrounding her, pinning her to Luna’s chest.

She laughed, wildly and manically and happily and all those wonderfully wonderful ‘ly’s. Luna gave her an odd look, and asked... something. Something that Twilight couldn’t hear, but she could see her lips move as they fell, her mouth make the shapes.

And Twilight’s heart kept plummeting. She’d come all this way, all this way, and she still couldn’t hear her voice.

All she could do was be saved and cradled in her arms, and hold her close.

By the time they’d landed, Twilight felt far more than she heard. They’d hit the soft moon dust with a whumpf, spraying a cloud of white up and away. Luna hugged Twilight tight, not letting go for a few long seconds. Then she finally let go, and for the first time Twilight saw her face, brimming to burst with excitement and happiness and crying smiles, eyes shining as much with joy as with tears.

She was barely a step back when Twilight leapt forward and swept her up in another hug.

I came a long way for this, she whispered into the suit, I’m not done with you yet.

She couldn’t feel the warmth of the hug through the suit. As much as the distance between them still figuratively killed her, to remove it would be the literal death of her. It would have to do for now, and she’d make it count for every bit that she could.

Until Luna leapt away from her, terrified. Twilight looked behind her, trying to see what Luna was suddenly so scared of, and saw nothing. When she turned back, Luna was sitting stock-still, miserable, thirty feet away from her.

I am not safe. She wrote in the sands. In me there is a Nightmare.

        A Nightmare?

Luna nodded.

This was my prison, until the Nightmare could be contained. I’m afraid—

        Describe it

It is a creature of dark magic that rots the mind. It makes a pony jealous and hateful. It is subtle, so subtle you do not even know it is there at first, but it makes you bitter, and hurt the ones you love.

Oh.

Oh, no.

        And you do not feel it now?

It is most insidious like that. I fear

        

Did Celestia banish you?

I tried to do such terrible things, to her, to our kingdom—

        Did Celestia banish you?

Please forgive her, I—

The one good thing about communicating strictly by writing at each other was that it was much, much easier to cut somepony off. And dramatically repeating yourself just required a pointed underlining in the dust.

        I think I understand now.

Luna’s head tilted to the side, confused, as Twilight scratched out everything else to give herself more space to write.

        Celestia is mad.

I had not expected her to forgive me, as kind as she is—

        She is not kind. She has a madness. A sickness. Paranoid. Warmongering. This is not the sister you remember?

No! Luna was shaking her head fiercely as she wrote. I was when afflicted with the Nightmare, but Sister w

Then Luna understood, and fell backwards, collapsing on her butt with the weight of the realization.

I did not take the Nightmare with me.

        Celestia was once kind?

Even through the vacuum, Twilight could hear Luna’s heart break at the question, just by watching her spine sag, her shoulders slump.

But the Nightmare was not hers. Luna was safe. So Twilight approached her again, and Luna flinched for a moment when Twilight leaned in close. But that was before she realized, realized there was no longer a reason to be afraid. There hadn’t been for a very long time.

So for a little while, Twilight just held her.

That was nice.


They had hours together. Twilight’s greatest fear was that it would be awkward, that Rarity would have been right. They didn’t really know each other! How could writing letters, even for so long, amount to actually knowing someone. And love?

They wrote to each other, directly.

I’m glad I waited

        I’m sorry I wasn’t here sooner.

You’re here at all.

        I can’t wait to get out of this suit and be close to you. Speak to you.

Luna started writing, hesitated. Then grinned mischievously and wrote it anyway.

I can’t wait to get you out of that suit either.

Twilight cheeks burned hotly, even in the cold. Then Luna decided to push it that little bit further still, and ridiculous smile on her face she wiggled her eyebrows. Twice. Emphatically.

That did it. The awkwardness, the amazingness, but above all the surrealness of it knocked Twilight on her side, kicking pinwheels in the air, laughing.

Luna seemed a little put off, actually.

Was I not smooth?

From lying on the ground, Twilight wrote.

As silk.

A touch nervous.

        Yet still so forward!

Luna smiled, genuinely. There was a nostalgic, wistful edge to it.

I am the Princess of the Night. Of art and of passion. Though I am long out of practice.

        Well, we have hours. Practice on me! Twilight beamed through the visor.

Luna wiggled her eyebrows, twice, and again came the blush. Now it was Luna’s turn to fall over laughing while Twilight furiously erased her last message, scrawling over it—

        You know what I meant!

She punctuated it with an indignant hoof stomp which seemed to make Luna laugh all the harder.

An exercise in honesty, then. In truth, I have long adored you for your mind, Twilight Sparkle. I had not expected such a warrior’s physique to love as well!

        Prison was kind to me. She agreed.

Prison? Is that why I have not heard from you in so long?   Oh, Twilight.

        Oh. Right. Celestia arrested me for treason.

Luna considered that for a moment. She always was the strongest of us. Still I dread what the Nightmare would have done to her mind over a millenia.

        We’ll save her.

Together?

        I didn’t get this warrior’s physique to not use it. Together.

We shall use your warrior’s physique together? I have no complaints.

Twilight was about to reprimand her for that one, but there was no eyebrow wiggle. Luna just looked pensive, thoughtful, staring at her own writing. She’d just been flirting too... why?

        Worried about your sister?

I do not wish to dwell. I had hoped my rescue be a more merry occasion. I had not thought of the Nightmare in so long, not until I thought of how it could have affected you here. To know it has already hurt you, to hurt so many, in my absence.

        It was defeated before.

Not enough.

        You know more now.

I am not enough

        I was not enough to get here. I had help. You have help too.

I have you.

Twilight bounded forward in the low gravity again, and leapt into another crushing embrace with Luna, as if the sheer force of her hug would be enough to crush some reassurance into her. It seemed to work, at least.

How do we...?

        Right. I have a ship.

Did it not leave?

        Going the long way around.

Twilight drew a diagram of the moon on its surface, drawing the ship, trajectories, the equations for orbit. She didn’t expect Luna to understand, but it helped her explain the problem of getting back up.

She absolutely did not expect Luna to start copying her equations, rearranging numbers, rebalancing the algebra until it was a matter of solving for escape velocity.

This is how fast we need to be going?

        Yes.

Luna scored the ground in a line where she was standing, then took long even strides far away from Twilight. Twilight just watched curiously as Luna got further and further away from her, the same even steps each time.

Then, just as suddenly, Luna turned and ran, faster and faster, until she was the same streak that Twilight had seen while she was falling. The Princess took a leap, not up but ahead, and blazed across the line she had scored, head directly down.

She turned and cantered, long loping jumps in the low gravity of the moon, until she reached Twilight again, puffing a little. Breathing the aether...?

Am not 

Puff, puff

Fast enough.

        I could not either.

Problem.

        Solution is workable but silly.

Am okay with silly.

        Remember you said that.

Twilight began drawing another equation, this one the moon, and two ponies... throwing each other. The Rainbow Dash solution. Though, as much as she meant it sincerely, it was really more a solution she had come up with when she was still a filly. Dash had just reminded her.

When Twilight was still in her early tutelage, one of her teachers, a nasty lady by the name of Ms Persimmon, had presented her with an interesting conundrum. She had asked; “Could a unicorn fly by standing in a bucket and lifting it?”

“No,” Twilight answered.

“And why not?”

“Because they’re not strong enough to do it properly!” She had answered, proudly.

The teacher whapped her desk with a yardstick, crack!

“No, Twilight, you silly girl. Try again.”

“But a unicorn could fly with a bucket, if they were strong enough!” Twilight insisted, the first hint of tears welling in her eyes.

“No, Twilight. Again.”

“It’s true though!”

Celestia had been brought in to mediate. The tutor was determined to prove that the Princess had made the wrong choice in her new prodigy. The Princess of Mourning regarded Twilight coldly, with a raised eyebrow.

“Very well. Whichever of you is wrong shall be flogged and thrown out of my school, and a more suitable replacement found,” she declared. “Should Ms Persimmon here agree?”

“Of course.” She hadn’t hesitated a moment.

“Twilight, then. Present your case.”

So Twilight had shown the solution she thought was so obvious. The unicorn who was strong enough didn’t need to stand in the bucket. They threw it very, very hard, then caught it. So long as they had put more energy into the bucket than would be lost by accelerating the pony up — and being the good little girl that she was, she had shown all her work — the pony would fly wherever she had thrown the bucket.

Of course, no pony could do it properly like that. None of them were strong enough. So it’d make sense to try it the way her teacher had suggested.

Ms Persimmon had been so smug when she declared the challenge. Now her sour-yellow coat had faded pale-white. “This isn’t standing in a bucket and lifting. This is—”

“I said that was wrong!” Twilight shouted, sick of Ms Persimmon ignoring her. “I said a unicorn could fly with a bucket if they were strong enough to do it properly! That’s how you do it properly!”

“I rather agree, Persimmon.” Celestia didn’t call her “Ms”, because she was even scarier. “Twilight, this solution is ingenious. You’ve truly applied yourself to your studies. I’ll be sure your teachers can keep up with you in the future. Persimmon? I believe you made a wager.”

Ms Persimmon didn’t run very far before they caught her. As much as Twilight didn’t like her, she didn’t show up to the flogging. She didn’t feel bad about it, but she didn’t want to enjoy it either.

She was just happy that the Princess had been so proud of her.

It was a bittersweet memory. She’d been happy at the time, but the filter of her adult memories tainted it, poisoned it.

Still, the equation she was writing now was very similar to the one she had written as a filly all those years ago.

Luna, of course, was a strong enough pony. What she hadn’t accounted for in the original equation, however, was what if the bucket was strong enough to catch the unicorn?

Twilight made for a pretty good bucket, mathematically speaking.

The equation was a little more complex. Take the velocity they needed to intersect the shuttle. Multiply that by their combined mass — not weight! It was different up here — to find the energy total. Then apply that energy to Twilight’s mass alone and solve for velocity, which would be much greater.

Then it was a matter of throwing Twilight up at that velocity, and her pulling Luna up to her until they were at the same velocity! Her velocity would decrease as the energy was shared between them.

It made complete sense on paper. Moondust? Try as hard as she could, she couldn’t see a reason why this wouldn’t work. And with the much lower gravity of the moon, it was even possible this was easier than she was suspecting.

She stared at it, Luna reading over her shoulder. She did her own calculations, coming to the same conclusion, before rolling onto her back laughing silently, her legs pinwheeling freely, kicking wildly.

Not the answer she was expecting, but at least it probably meant she understood, and the math checked out for her too. It was only funny because it would probably work.

If you fall I will catch you.

        If I don’t, I will catch you.

Luna smiled and nodded.

There was a while until they’d need to do it, and it was getting cold, even through the heating and insulation of the suit. Twilight began to shiver until two large, feathered wings wrapped around her and held her close again.

If Twilight held her hoof to Luna’s chest, she could feel the gentle, nervous heartbeat through her suit. She focused on it, let it carry her into a timeless moment that was at once seconds and hours.

It lasted until Luna’s head snapped up, her eyes focusing on the moon’s horizon.

Now is the time.

        You see her?

Feel her. I sense her mind.

        Really?

I once walked the dreams of all ponies. Luna smiled, this is but nothing.

        You always knew when I was watching

Yes.

        So you know I saw the calzone before you erased it, then?

Not until now, no. Luna’s stoic and stone-faced expression would have been unreadable if not for the fantastic blush that threatened to turn her whole face red.

        Ready?

Twilight nodded.

        Only one chance.

Unless we figure out how to do this all the way back to Equus...

        Re-entry would be problem.

Wings?

        Plan B then.

Luna nodded twice, sharp and short, as her horn began to glow blue. Twilight was lifted up, feeling weightless and then heavy again as she accelerated, shooting up like she had from the cannon without the safety of the vessel around her. No atmosphere meant no air tearing at her, though, and she reached out with her mind to grab Luna.

She slipped once, twice, fumbled as she spun out into the void. Still, those flailing attempts had been enough to get some momentum behind Luna, and Twilight pulled again.

She felt herself pull towards Luna just as much as she was pulling Luna towards her, and the pain in her head and neck was intense. Equine anatomy was not built for this kind of use and abuse! There was no ground to dig her hooves into, to brace herself with.

Luna ploughed into her, wings outstretched, and they tumbled into the void together, Twilight held to Luna’s chest like the Princess was a parachute and her legs the straps. They stabilized slowly, spinning as a brass speck caught the light, its purplish shimmer looking like a pebble skimming the surface of the aether in all directions.

It was moving faster, but not impossibly so. It was higher than them, but not unreachably so.

Enough that Luna’s horn glowed again and, over the course of minutes, altered the trajectory of the vessel until they lined up. Twilight guided them the rest of the way, towards the ship’s airlock.

It felt that they drifted as lazily as two children on a slow river, even as they moved at speeds that would compress a pony into a two-dimensional object should they run into anything truly stationary.

After collecting on the side of the ship like barnacles — Twilight was a little disappointed when their mass didn’t even cause the hull to wobble, the tingling film of magical ripples breaking over them corrected the deviation so quickly —  it became the simple, highly ridiculous task to shimmy their way along the brass plates towards the airlock.

It was fascinating the way she couldn’t hear the brass clacking against her hooves with her ears, but the sound seemed to travel dully through her bones. She caught only the bass tones of it, like a distant booming drum.

She opened the airlock with her magic, carefully. She didn’t need a repeat of the balloon incident. There would be no mattress awaiting her this time. The reinforced bulkhead opened into the room which seemed spacious when she left. Now, with Luna following after her, it was unusually intimate.

Luna jumped, back arching, when the light switched. She must have been able to hear the sudden hiss of air as the room repressurized. She all but jumped into Twilight’s arms at the shock.

There was no more moondust to write in. She just held her hoof and squeezed it reassuringly.

Luna’s eyes were wide, and her breathing shallow and fast. Her tongue smacked in her mouth, like the roof of her mouth had been coated in peanut butter. Twilight had seen enough of Pinkie’s panic attacks to recognize the signs.

A thousand years on that vast and empty ocean. Claustrophobia? When they were stuck in such a confined space? A problem. It looked like even getting used to something as simple as breathing air again was strange to her.

It was Twilight’s turn to hug Luna close, to reassure her. The Princess’s eyes were screwed tightly shut, and her head pressed so hard into the top of Twilight’s it was like she was trying to make them of one mind, and damn any skull or helmet that got in the way.

Slowly, Twilight’s suit began to deflate as the pressure equalized. Slowly she began to hear the air rushing in, herself.

As soon as the red safety light flashed green, she tapped Luna twice on the chest. The Princess paused in her hyperventilation just long enough to lean back, to see what Twilight meant. Just long enough for Twilight to unscrew her helmet and rip it off, throw it to the floor.

Her fur was matted with sweat. Her mane matted and unbrushed. Her breath surely smelled of the vodka solution she’d been using as mouthwash — but not swallowing!

It was still the first face Luna had seen in a thousand years. It was enough for the Princess to slow her breathing, for her eyes to focus again, blinking away the tears Twilight hadn’t seen until now.

“It’s okay, Luna. I’m here. You’re safe.”

And that was how Twilight was blessed with her first kiss.

She had no idea what to do with her teeth, or tongue, or lips, or anything. But Luna was very determined to lead, and Twilight was not going to protest. She usually prided herself on being a fast learner, but Luna was not of a mind to teach. This was not so much a conversation as a monologue.

That was fine. All high-order functions of her mind were black, blank, electric, and drunk in a way her recent foray into hardened alcoholism hadn’t prepared her for.

But unlike Luna, eventually she had to come up for air. She broke the kiss with a long, ragged gasp.

She pulled back, blinking sleepily. Her eyelids felt heavy for a moment, and the butterflies in her stomach were at gale force. She felt electric, tingly. Luna, her Princess, looked smug for a few seconds... then apologetic. Then almost panicked, again.

She thinks she’s done something wrong.

Luna opened her mouth to apologize, damn her!

And that’s why Twilight stole her second kiss, and this time she pressed the attack with vigor. It was sloppier, but no less fierce. This one Twilight broke with harsh, almost hoarse gasps, and a slight bruise on her bottom lip that threatened to break her down into a pile of giggles.

“Hey,” a rather amused voice caused the pair to jump, half up and half out of their skins. “So you both hit it off, it looks like? Rescued your Princess and all that.”

Mortified, Twilight buried her head in the nearest surface she could hide it in, namely Luna’s chest. Which didn’t... help the issue. She felt like a foal caught with her hoof in the cookie jar, except her hooves had fortunately been wrapped around Luna’s withers. Rainbow hadn’t caught anything too untoward.

Unfortunately.

Luna’s chuckles erupted through her chest, making Twilight all tingly.

ALL SEEMS TO BE WELL.” Luna shouted. Tingles gone. If Twilight’s ears hadn’t popped from the depressurization they surely did now. “YOU WOULD BE RAINBOW DASH, I PRESUME?

The force of Luna’s voice had forced Rainbow back a step, then another. Then further still, as she couldn’t find a purchase in microgravity. “Woah! Ah, Luna, right?”

“IT IS A PLEASURE TO MEET YOU.”

Oh heavens.

She’d been deaf for a thousand years.

Twilight tapped Luna on the chest, and her head snapped down quizzically.

“YES, MY LOVE?”

“Ah, Luna... Could you lower your voice a little, please?”

Luna’s head lowered, instead, down to Twilight’s ear height.

“IS THIS BETTER?”

Ohstarsthatwaspainful. “I mean, quieter. Softer.”

“SOFTE—oh. Softer. Is this better?

“A little!” Rainbow shouted encouragingly, pressed into the back of her pilot seat on the other side of the craft by the force of Luna’s shouts.

“HOW ABOUT THIS? I CAN HARDLY HEAR MYSELF NOW!”

Alright now it was still painful, but less genuine concern for permanent tinnitus. A step in the right direction!

“Try whispering?”

“I AM WHISPERING.”

Oh, dear.

“Try whispering softer.”

Luna’s eyes screwed shut in concentration for a moment.

How... is... this?”

Oh, wow.

Her voice was beautiful and regal when it wasn’t being projected with the force of a locomotive.

“That’s just lovely. We’ll have to practice that.”

“I had... not anticipated... this problem... I’m afraid.”

“Neither did I!” Twilight reassured her, pulling her back down into another hug. Tall, dark and gorgeous, certainly, but she’d have to adjust to how much taller. She lowered her own voice. She’d been yelling over the ringing in her ears. Best not to start it all over again. “There’s a lot of things it’s going to take some getting used to.”

Luna looked around pointedly at the cozy interior of the spacecraft as Twilight topped up the mana reserves. The acceleration started again as the moon fell further and further away from them.

Luna frowned thoughtfully. “What was that?”

“Oh! That was the engine. Here, I’ll show you how it works.” Twilight kicked off the back wall, pushing up towards the center of the ship that was wrapped in the faintly-glowing wires, crystals and sigils.  “See, this is the mana battery, these crystals, and it feeds into this spell matrix. If you’re familiar with a traditional hex grid, it’s a self-cycling net that focuses a levitation cantrip into a kind of—”

Luna’s horn lit up, and the engine glowed. There was another jolt as the ship lurched, and Luna’s eyes went wide with comprehension.

You designed this?

She answered after she was done being forced back against the opposite wall, making sure her hoof didn’t hit anything too fragile. “Yes?”

With a flap of her wings, Luna was beside her again, nibbling on one of Twilight’s ears in a way that made her melt just so. “You... have a beautiful mind, little one... I’d love to explore it. Just how creative would it be... if put to—”

“Hate to interrupt!” Dash added hotly, “But I’m still... here. There isn’t very much else I’d be able to go, I’m afraid. Not much options in terms of giving you two some alone time.” 

The Princess of the Moon blinked, blushing like a hot coal. Oh, yes, they had an audience, didn’t they? And looking around for some privacy seemed to be causing the claustrophobia to rise back up again. Twilight was beginning to recognize it in the twitches of her wings, the tautness of her neck.

“This is... small. I had forgotten... what it was like... to be inside?”

Twilight smiled apologetically, reassuringly she hoped. “This was the biggest thing we could throw.”

“THROW?” Luna forced her voice lower again, “Sorry. Surprised. You did not build it in the aether?”

“We couldn’t.”

“How, then?”

Twilight thought how much to explain. Cannons were fairly recent invention. As was gunpowder. As was the steam engine. Hrm. “A lot of fire.”

“TRULY? Continue to... astound. I suppose I can... forgive the... confined space. I just have... a request... for my nerves?”

Twilight smiled as warmly and reassuringly at her Princess as she was able. “You can ask me anything.”

“May I stick my head out the window?”

“... what?”

“It might... make me feel better.” Another pause, this one for thought as opposed to the usual lulls in staying quiet. “I don’t need to breathe.”

“Well. Yes. But we rather do.”

“Oh.”

Rainbow shouted from her pilot’s seat again. “Sorry for eavesdropping, but there’s still no where for me to sod off to, yeah? Why doesn’t she just head back out the airlock and hold on, I guess? It’s not like she’s going to fall off.”

Luna beamed. “Oh, that would be wonderful. Doesn’t that sound like such fun?

“Quiet out there too, I think.” Rainbow added chipperly.

Luna was already sitting in the airlock, sitting, looking nothing more than an excited puppy holding its leash, ready to be walked. It wasn’t a face Twilight could say no to.

“You should go with her.” Dash added, “Be romantic. Isn’t stargazing such a spiffing idea for a proper first date? And what a view for it!”

There was a little sniffle.

“Dash, are you... crying?”

“No,” she lied, wiping her eyes with the back of her hoof. “Maybe a little.”

“You are!” Twilight accused. “Why?”

“It’s stupid.”

Twilight looked at Dash, sitting in the pilot’s seat of the rocketship powered by happy thoughts they’d fired out of a cannon to meet a pony that didn’t need to breathe and lived on the moon that they’d collected by throwing themselves back into space, and the look dared Dash to find anything left to deem too stupid.

Dash cleared her throat, point taken. “The stars look different from the shadow of the moon, Twilight. You can see all of them. It’s not like... you look up at the sky, and you think maybe we’re just a pearl in a big ocean? But it’s more like... we’re the grains of sand on a world that’s a grain of sand for a sun that’s a grain of sand on a beach that goes on forever.”

“It is beautiful.” Luna agreed, and there was a breathlessness to her voice that was from a sense of sombreness rather than the forced carefulness, “I think I spent a hundred years at least trying to count them all before I gave up and deemed it a fool’s errand. It is a sight that changes you, though.”

“It’s humbling.” Rainbow agreed, wiping her eyes again. “It’s like you feel so small against all of that, but also like a giant, because you’re there, you’re all alone in a way that makes you feel...”

“Special?”

“Impossible,” Dash agreed.

And Twilight felt her heart tug at her, as she realized Dash and Luna were bonding over something that she would never experience, unless one day she came back. That seemed unlikely enough. But to see the stars in the shadow of the moon, with none of the sun’s light pollution?

They had shared something she couldn’t. She was jealous, she realized.

“You should go with her!” Dash exclaimed suddenly, pushing back off her seat and floating to Twilight cheerfully. “Stick your head out the window! You’ve already fallen out once and that went fine!”

“True.”

“And it’d be an excellent chance for some privacy! You can talk with flashing your horn, right?”

“Right...” Luna continued to pull the puppy act, all but pawing at the rear airlock door. Twilight furrowed her brow. “But why don’t you go out and give us some privacy in here later? So I don’t have to wear the suit?”

Rainbow’s cheerful expression muted rapidly, almost instantly. “No. Not until we’re back on planet.”

“Why not?” Twilight all but whined. Luna’s puppy act was contagious.

“We don’t have showers. And as you said, we can’t open a window.”

“But—Oh. OH! I didn’t mean—!” Twilight protested.

“Sure you didn’t. So you’re saying you wouldn’t, if you got the chance?”

“Well—I mean—that’s a very—I can’t—

Rainbow smiled back at Luna as she shoved the stammering Twilight towards the airlock, and her spare oxygen helmet. “It’s been an absolute pleasure meeting in the flesh, Princess. The world’s changed a whole heaping motza, it has, it has, and we’ll be sure to show you around once we’re there. But for now, I’m sure you have some stars to gaze at.”

For the rest of the long trip back to the planet, Rainbow was sure to throw the pair out the airlock whenever they got too... happy to be united.

Rainbow thought it was sweet, honestly. She was a little jealous herself. Sometimes she’d see the pair out the window, holding tight to the smooth brass hull however they could, Luna pointing out constellations, rapid flashes going on between the two of them as they talked how they’d gotten so used to... But she offered no mercy when the pair got a little too heated back on the inside of the ship, usually after Twilight had finished eating or sleeping or whatever it was that had distracted her from her paramor. No mercy indeed! Rainbow was captain of this mare’s ship, what ho, and there’d be order! No hanky panky under her roof, consarnit!

...

She wondered how Pinkie was.


Pinkie was starting to see things again. She thought she saw Gummy in her toolbox just now, before she remembered.

Rainbow wasn’t here to help. She just had a work crew, at the moment, and the boss yelled at her whenever she got too distracted from herself.

He was a nice pony, a lieutenant, dark blue with a silver mane, but if he didn’t yell at Pinkie, then Celestia yelled at him and that was really bad. She didn’t hold it against him. He was nice enough when she did thing right, but he still wasn’t... Dash.

He didn’t smile like she did. He didn’t wear the same silly outfit — his was too sensible. He didn’t give amazing hugs, or hugs at all.

Her other friends were still in the dungeons, even though Pinkie promised Applejack would be amazingly helpful. Too much of a risk, they said. They wouldn’t even let Rarity make clothes for her!

She’d been told black-and-white stripes were very slimming though. She hated looking like a zebra though.

She also hated that she was being asked to rebuild her laser as a weapon.

Mounted on top of the Palace, it would be the ultimate deterrent for the weaponized airships of the far continents. It was sort of okay, if she thought about it like that. They weren’t taking it to other ponies lands, it could only be used in self defense. But then she overheard some of the sergeants talk about putting it onto carriages...

The little pinheads of light crackled across her vision again, and the edges of her sight went black. She was about to—No, no! Deep, calm breaths.

Someone was yelling. Not at her, for once, but at the sky.

“Incoming!”

High, high above there was a streak of fire and light. A white pony gunnery sergeant jumped into the hard metal seat of the laser and began spinning it, keeping the laser aimed at the streaking light.

“Princess Protect,” he breathed, “Moving faster than any shell I’ve ever seen.”

The Lieutenant threw Pinkie a telescope, which she caught after only two or three teensy fumbles. It was big and unwieldy, and he seemed to keep forgetting she wasn’t a unicorn for some reason.

“I’m warning the Princess. Sergeant, keep it in your sights, this thing hasn’t been tested yet. Don’t fire unless you absolutely have to.”

“Yessir.”

“Pinkie, you spot for him. Keep your eye open for other salvos.”

“Yeppers.” Pinkie proudly saluted.

He cringed, like he was about to rebuke her, but thought better of it. He turned and ran, instead.

Deep breaths. If she ignored the creeping black at the edge of her vision until after everything was okay, everything would be okay.

“Sorry, I’m not feeling well.” Pinkie admitted. “But I’ll do my very best to tell you if it’s absolutely real or not.”

The Sergeant had the same expression the Lieutenant had before he ran off, but he quickly turned back to the laser and kept the fire in his sights.

“You have a better eye than me, Specialist Pie, what’s it look like?”

Pinkie squinted down the barrel of her telescope. It was big, certainly. And long, and a little bullet shaped. It was brass, and—

Oh!

“Yes!” Pinkie screamed, hugging the Sergeant so hard he just about fell off his chair. “They’re safe, they’re safe, they’re—!”

He shoved her off him, grunting. “Who’s safe? What is it?”

“It’s Twilight and Rainbow Dash! They’re back! And—No! Stop!”

The gunnery Sergeant was powering up the laser in a hurry, trailing the ship, about to hit fire. “Oh, no way in Tartarus is that happening.”

Pinkie prised the telescope like a crowbar into some exposed gearing and levered, just enough to twist the laser off-course. It fired wide, harmlessly off into the aether. The telescope was ruined.

The Sergeant tried for another shot, but without a pegasus like Rainbow Dash assigned to the device yet — combat flying was a priority well and above weather management in the Guard — they still had to charge it the old fashioned way.

The second shot hit, but it wasn’t nearly as devastating as the first would have been. The great machine fell asleep, exhausted.

“No! No, no, no—”

The Sergeant tackled her, twisting her hooves behind her back. Now everything was going black, and her eyes screamed in twisting sparkles whenever he shifted his pressure.

“You fuckin’ traitor! What in the—What were you trying to do?!”

“They’re my friends!”

“No shit! One of them blew the top off the mountain getting up there!”

Well. Pinkie had helped, but she didn’t say that right now.

Big gold horseshoes appeared in front of her eyes, clicking on the stone of the parapets, resting in front of her eyes.

“Did you say that was Twilight Sparkle up there?” The Princess asked, warmly. “You’re saying she’s safe?” She sounded... hopeful?

“Yeah.” Pinkie nodded, because it was all she could do pinned to the ground as she was. Pew, more sparks, more fireworks. “She’s home!”

The Princess howled like a rabid dog, rearing up her hooves. Pinkie winced, she was about to come down right on her skull, squish her head like a grape under those big metal hooves.

Then there was a POP and she was back in her cell, all alone.

Her head was decidedly not squished. Just in a very bad place.

Pinkie crawled into her cot, wrapping the blankets tight around her so she couldn’t hurt herself too much when all the blackness swallowed her.

Maybe, when she woke up, her friends would be there this time! They were home!


Falling, Twilight thought, must have gotten too boring. This would have been the third time she’d been falling to her almost certain death.

The first time was novel. Falling from the upper atmosphere. But she had a parachute, so that was fine, ignoring all the injuries.

The second time things were escalated, sure. It’d been faster, much faster, and no parachute, and not even any air to slow her down.

So just falling back like the first time, with a huge metal capsule to break her fall, with one of her truest friends and her... girlfriend?... beside her? It’d almost be trite. No tension.

That was obviously why she had to be falling and shot at this time. Otherwise things ran the serious risk of getting too boring.

That being said.

That being said she wished Rainbow would stop screaming in her ear.

“Dash?”

“AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA—”

“Dash.”

“—AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA—”

“Dash, please.”

“—AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA—”

Oh.

She was laughing.

That was different then.

Twilight really wished Rainbow would stop laughing in her ear.

Pray tell, has she gone mad?”

“Ladies and... Ladies!” Rainbow hollered, tears in her eyes, as the air in front of them caught fire just as if the ship were a match head going down a tunnel of lighter strip, “If you could all brace for landing, that’d be spiffing of you!”

“We’re already strapped down, Dash.”

The cargo hold is surprisingly comfortable, for the curious.”

“I mean, do the magic thing. A shield would be nice.”

“Rainbow, we can’t. We already modified the engine for... we can’t use it for this. We wouldn’t have enough aether left.”

“Oh.”

“Please don’t scr—”

“AAAAAAAAAAAA—”

“Darn it, Dash.”

“AAAA—” Rainbow choked a bit on her own tonsils, spluttering her out of it. Ground was coming up faster and faster. She wiped off some spittle with the back of a foreleg. “Alright. So the airbrakes are bust. We try to use them like this, the models the girls made say we’d spin so hard our organs’d come out.”

“Let’s not, then.” Twilight agreed. Her mind was a blaze of formulas and calculations right now, of damage control.

“But if we open the parachute at this speed, it’d just shred.”

“Mmhm.”

“So we need to slow down on something, and I can’t exactly get out and push.”

“No.”

“You’re awful calm.”

“Just thinking.”

“Good. You have a plan?”

“Yes.”

She’s so beautiful when she thinks, is she not?

“Luna, you’re strapped in behind the seat. You can’t even see me.”

As if I need to.”

“Flirt.”

Rainbow coughed again, more politeness than clearing her throat. “We’re still, you know—”

“Right! Plan. More of an idea. So the fastest way to slow down is to crash, right?”

“We don’t want to crash, Twilight.”

“Where’s your gumption, adventurer?” Twilight declared brightly, as now the trees were coming up to being the size of pinheads. “We just have to crash into the right thing. Something to slow us down.”

“Water landing’s no good. We’re too heavy, we’d drown, the impact’d kill us—”

“Exactly. That was my first thought, it was a bad one. Can you pull up a little more?”

“We’re as aerodynamic as a brick!”

“Bricks fly pretty well at, oh, fifteen times the speed of sound, I’ve heard.” Really, they were just below mach 8 at this point, but it was still enough to melt the hull in places. It was the force of the air compressing, and not the friction, that made it get so hot, interestingly enough. Her mind was going a mile a minute, even as the ship went a mile a second. “No, we just need to crash a little bit at first, and then we can open the parachute.”

“Crash a—And still be high up enough to open the chute?”

“Oh, yes. But we’d need a very good pilot. Are you up to the challenge of threading a needle faster than your eyes can see?”

She does seem a worthy champion!” Luna cheered helpfully, smiling warmly from her place strapped to the wall. They really should have fit an extra seat for her...

“There we go. We both believe you can do this.”

“What? Do what?”

Now they could make out the colours of individual ponies. The vibrations rattled everything, teeth, bones, screws, hull plates...

“The Unfinished Palace, Dash.”

“What about it?”

“They never got around to reinforcing it all that well. And it’s still very high up.”

Rainbow was silent. It was coming up alarmingly fast, anyway...

“Luna? Help me hold the ship together?”

Of course, my love!

“Well, Dash. Take us through the Palace!”

She was sick of being scared about falling to her death, she had decided as soon as the laser struck. This time? This time let Celestia be scared about it.

The mountain was coming up. The ship twisted almost imperceptibly — Canterlot had always been the plan anyway, just not like this. They’d managed to pull almost horizontal. The glide ratio was atrocious, but if you come in fast enough then it takes a great deal of time for gravity to catch up.

There was no cheering, no screaming, no whooping like action heroes as the castle came into view. The two mages were doing their best to hold the ship. Shining had taught his little sister a lot about shields, but she’d never put in the practice. A clever mage would have made several fragile layers to break, one after the other, gradually growing stronger and slowing the ship down that way.

A desperate mage held everything tight and treated the whole enterprise like balling a fist, hoping the punch broke as few bones as possible.

Twilight was somewhere in the middle of the two: There were smart ways to throw a punch, too.

The Unfinished Palace, the monument to everything the Mourning Princess represented, was shot through its core by a righteous fireball. Chunks collapsed in the dust cloud left in its wake. Scaffolding erected to refurbish the charred court clattered like matchsticks under a mallet.

A small strip of cloth flagged in the fireballs wake and it slowed.

Another three followed in its wake, and the fireball falling towards the fields below revealed itself to be a great, melted weapon, like a slug fired from a mortar.

One final, last canvas strip wider than any hot air balloon cut along its diameter and spread burst out, and the great weapon began to drift downwards.

And the Mourning Princess, Sol Invictus, The Unconquered Sun, opened her dread wings to face it.


The Stars Will Aid in her Escape

The Sol Invictus descended from on high, the dust clouds of her shattered palace catching the light of the setting sun.

Rays of dusky sun caught behind her wings and cast her shadow against the crater far below.

She was wrath and anger and judgement and law and cleansing fire.

She was white and light and purity and wisdom and eternity.

She was the unconquered sun.

Below her was heresy. Below her was a challenge to her rule. Below her was the original treason.

Her sister, the Nightmare Moon. Her student, the False Prophet. And an accomplice, a loyalist to their evil cause.

She would smite them for she was good and she was just.

The False Prophet had garbed herself in gemstones and gold, in a necklace that entwined her, in a tiara that wound around her horn. A mockery of the Sun’s regalia.

Her sister, her beloved sister who had betrayed her out of petty jealousy, stood beside her, naked and proud. She stood straight, determined.

The accomplice stood resolute. She had denied her own chance at mercy.

Sister!” Luna the Betrayer cried, “you must listen!

“We know the truth about the Nightmare,” Twilight Sparkle, her beloved student the False Prophet who scorned us stated calmly.

“Luna is cured,” she said lied.

The Nightmare is insidious. It was not sealed within me, as we thought,her Sister declaredthe Nightmare lied. “It remained behind.

“There was a good pony in you once!” Twilight pleaded, desperate, her loyal student, who had tried to show her so much kindness once, whom she had loved as a daughter once.the Traitor mocked, as if she were unaware that she was the great evil here.

Twilight’s regalia weapon glowed, charged with potent magic, magic that could cleanse herkill her.

Like the magic of the Elements that had been used to banish her sister.

                                                                                                 defeat the great evil

                                                                                                               What then?

                                                                                 What will this magic do?

                                                                                        Destroy us!

                                                                                                 But we are innocent

                                                                                                            They are Evil.

“We destroyed the Elements!” Celestia roared spoke calmly. “What magic do you have that would match it?”

“That’s the thing I never understood about magical artefacts. Someone had to make them the first time. It’s not like we have fewer tools now than we did then.” Twilight tapped her golden tiara and smiled sneered. “Besides, I think mine’s probably going to work better anyway.”

I’m so sorry sister,” said Luna, wrong this is wrongfor not realizing sooner. We were waiting for you to forgive us. We should not have...

“We could never forgive you for what you did. What you became!”

Luna nodded sadly, tears in her eyes. agreeing.

Celestia gathered her strength in the waning glow of the sunset. She had to finish this now, before night fell. The sun fed her power, and what she had stored over the day would fade quickly with the light.

She fired a bright and righteous beam at the greatest threat; Twilight, her loyal student. She’d been so very proud of underestimated her time and time again. Now would be the last.

Luna dove in front of her, horn glowing with its own charge, and a wall of liquid night slashed through the air, smeared from the tip of an invisible brush. Celestia fired again and twice her sister defied her, again the brush smeared on dusky canvas and swallowed the beam of light.

“If this doesn’t do it,” Twilight cried, purple lightning snapping and crackling from her shoulders and horn, grounding itself in the devastated field around them, “Dash, I’ll need you to zap me, hard as you can.”

“Sounds dangerous. Gotcha!”

The accomplice was terrified, beneath the bravado. Rightly so. So she was a source of power for them?

Celestia took to the skies and fired down at the rainbow-maned insurrectionist, firing directly at her with a crackling bolt of plasma, like boiled the surface of the sun from which she drew her power.

Luna threw another shield up, ragged and exhausted, but only around herself and Twilight. The wrong target.

Celestia had the menace dead to rights.

It was unjust, then, that Rainbow dodged and took to the skies herself.

Celestia hesitated a moment charged after the pegasus. She fired again, weaker beams this time, conserving her strength.

They were no less deadly, and a task she would have left to the guard if they had followed her quickly enough. This was a job for a rifle, not for the Unconquered Sun, but if she needed to get her hooves bloody, so be it. Anything to stop Twilight.

She screamed in pain surprise as a bolt ripped across the back of her neck, and the wound felt cold.

Know that I am not fighting you, Sister,” Luna spoke coldly, the whites of her eyes turned black and rimmed with misting shadow. “I am fighting the Nightmare within.

Is the Nightmare within us?

Of course she was fighting the Nightmare. She was losing, as she had lost before. That was why she had shot at her own sister. The Nightmare was still within her.

Again Celestia’s horn charged a beam of rippling plasma, but a sharp crack hit her ribs from beneath. Rainbow had flown beneath her sightline, thinking herself clever. The wound would bother her some, but really—

She caught Dash effortlessly with her telekinesis now that she was within range, and tossed her towards the hills like a ragdoll.

—it was a mistake on the pegasus’ part.

“Stand down, Nightmare Moon! I will not let you harm my ponies any longer.”

Then everything was purple and white, white and purple. The coldness warmth she had felt down to her bones tore, clawing and screaming and rending its way towards her mouth, seeming to crawl out of it.

Celestia screamed.

Celestia screamed, with her own voice.

Light burned through cracks in her mind, rending from it some great parasite that... There was no beat in her thoughts, no feeling of the eraser catching as the pen passes back, no skip in the record. It was a parasite. The great parasite was ripped from her mind, excruciatingly, blessedly.

With it, her strength.

Her wings stopped supporting her weight.

She fell.


The great chunk of the gold-and-crystal arcane engine wrapped around Twilight’s neck, her back, her horn. Once Luna had told her what the Elements were, what they did, she’d been able to recreate them from found parts. It was fortunate that the found parts were originally the most sophisticated magical device yet built by ponykind, or else this whole plan might not have worked.

Quartz batteries originally meant to hold charge while she was absent or sleeping, to keep a rocket propelled for hours at a time, were burnt out in seconds, and she’d still worried it wouldn’t be enough. The excess heat still lit small fires in her hair, charred her horn, and left a great throbbing welt under her right ear where it had brushed against copper wire.

There was no heroic-looking way to stop, drop and roll. Standing dramatically in a field, slightly smouldering, might have been the more adventurer-looking thing to do, but it absolutely wasn’t the smart thing to do.

She lay sprawled in the dirt as the last of the fire went out.

Even if the plan hadn’t worked, Celestia was certainly unconscious, and she’d fallen from a great height before Luna caught her. Twilight felt safe turning her back to her.

Unless she was still alive.

She’d still be a threat.

The Princess had tried to kill her and Luna. Committed great atrocities. If she still had any magic left at all, it would be her moral imperative to finish the job.

To not miss.

But she’s unconscious. That would be murder in cold blood. She can’t defend herself right now.

She’d have to think do something about it.

A few things stopped her at once.

Twilight lived a lot of her life inside her own head. She was very familiar with intrusive thoughts she didn’t particularly want to think about, but now there as an unusual feeling to them. It couldn’t have just been from firing so much magic at Celestia.

She’d have to think about that more.

What also stopped her was Luna, the one who may have been the most affected by Celestia’s actions for a thousand years now, was cradling the suddenly-much-smaller Princess to her chest, crying.

The sight filled her with sadness anger.

Twilight tried to think.

Something was wrong

Everything          fine.

And that was the third realization that stopped her.

Her thoughts were not her own, pushing her realization through the new colander-like entity that filled her mind. Luna had told her the Nightmare was subtle, it changed your thoughts so slowly you didn’t realize where your own ended and its suggestions began. But it was being reckless bold. There was no subtlety, no slow build.

She knew the Nightmare was scared completely in control..

It no longer tried to hide itself from her thoughts, but was now showing itself in her mind as this overwhelming shadow thing.

          Hungry

               Powerful

          Dominant

                 Victorious

She could feel its pain. It was weak from the blast.

She could feel its pain. It was weak from the blast.

She could feel its pain. It was weak from the blast.

That wasn’t quite right, but she was starting to come to a conclusion. If she thought about something hard enough, long enough—Luna was saying something to the Princess, the Princess was saying something back, she couldn’t hear, guards were approaching—she could feel the outlines of its tendrils, the shape of the magic moving through her thoughts.

Now it was trying to rip the conclusions from her mind. She’d had something, felt it slip. And yet it let her keep that thought. Why?

To demonstrate its power. To show that it was in complete control.

Playing on her fears, but not her actual conclusion.

She was still wearing the magical engine. She smiled.

If she focused it inward she could destroy the Nightmare Herself the Nightmare for good.         

She was winning, or at least learning, but it was becoming harder and harder every time. Because the Nightmare was feeding on her strength, was growing from her. And if she resisted it, the more willpower it would gain for itself, the easier it would win each time.

Not her own thought, but based on contextual evidence, one she didn’t doubt the truth of.

“There’s a whole wing of pegasus guards approaching. Dragoons, I think. And I think Celestia’s out cold. It’s going to be hard to explain this one.”

And she’d been concentrating so hard she hadn’t noticed Rainbow limp up behind her.

“Dash,” Twilight said calmly, “I need you to—” her mouth clamped shut.

“To?”

Twilight’s mouth stayed shut. She desperately thought, zap me! She could focus the magic of the engine-device inside her, hold it steady on the Nightmare, or she could fight it, but not both. She was already losing that battle, had already lost, needed to give in.

“If you want me to be quiet, you need to actually say it,” Rainbow grimaced, wearily watching the approaching guards. They would definitely be within rifle range, but not close enough for carbines yet. Not with Celestia still on the field so close.

“So Celestia didn’t recognize me, right? Because I wasn’t one of the ponies that stayed behind. I got a plan...” Rainbow went on. “You gotta trust me though. Remember that time we ‘fixed’ your plumbing?”

Was Twilight allowed to nod? She was.

“I reckon if we fake a fight—”

And Twilight’s head filled with blood and tearing and anger at this mare that had stopped her before, who she had tossed like a broken ragdoll already and just came back, and Twilight didn’t fight it.

The Nightmare was curious why Twilight so readily kicked Dash in the shin, hard, but was delighted all the same.

When Twilight ducked and weaved all of Rainbow’s clumsy, feigned blows, it cackled in delight. When another punch connected with Dash’s gut, it roared in her head with triumph.

So when Twilight had the idea to taunt the scared and surprised little pegasus, she let the notion pass unhindered.

“You aren’t powerful enough to beat me, Dash.”

And immediately the cowardly pegasus fled, turning towards the sky. The Nightmare tried to grab at its magic to rip her back down, but found itself blocked. Twilight was still holding onto it fiercely, to the exclusion of everything else.

No matter. It was a simple matter to—

A bolt of lightning crackled from Rainbow’s wings and grounded in the magical artifact twisted around the Nightmare’s head like a crown of thorns.

The searing light burned at it again, but as it tried to flee one last time, to dominate that insufferable, indomitable pegasus' mind... It was pinned in place, held down.

No, I think that’s enough of that, Twilight agreed as tendrils seared the Nightmare away from her thoughts.

The last of the Nightmare howled, then whined, then hissed and fizzled like a drop of oil on a cast iron skillet, and then it was no more. Twilight opened her winced-shut eyes and smiled at Dash, even as the dragoons swarmed overhead.

She’d still been struck by lightning, unfortunately. Rather took the legs out from under her.

Fainting seemed the right way to go.

The last thing she caught before passing out? Dash shouting the words “Citizen’s arrest!”

And then—




Twilight stood by the open bar in the old palace gardens, watching the crowd. Letting the crowd watch her. The music was nice enough, played by a very talented quartet, but it did little to settle her nerves.

The unfinished palace had been destroyed. That was fine. The new palace would be smaller, less ambitious. Dedicated to its new function of bettering the empire.

Shining and Cadance stood on a balcony above—one of the few rooms that had undergone its new construction—guarding Twilight, as was the duty of the Captain of the Royal Guard. He’d had a lot of experience with it the last year or so. Twilight kept glancing up at the pair of them, and Shining would always wave back and smile. It helped.

Enough of feeling awkward at the bar, then. Twilight downed the last of her non-alcoholic cider—even though she craved the fizz of the hard stuff more than anything right now—and squared her shoulders.

Once more unto the breach.

Groups of ponies parted for her as she moved through them, others trailing in her wake. She nodded at them, shook hooves when appropriate, gave a few genuine smiles where she could, and a practiced one when she couldn’t, until she found the one true socialite amongst them. All she had to do was look for the shape of the crowds; rings formed around Rarity like ripples in a pond from a dropped stone.

As Twilight skimmed towards her, she noticed that she was forming little rings of her own wherever she had paused. That was... new.

“It’s such a shame the Marquis wasn’t so inclined, or else I’d never have gotten the stains out of his—oh, forgive me a moment.” Rarity stopped as soon as she saw Twilight, smiling just as genuinely. All the tension dropped from her shoulders. Shining could guard her at the party, but it was Rarity who protected her from the party. “Twilight Sparkle, in the flesh, as I live and breathe. Finally decided to rub shoulders with us again?”

“I think I’ll stick to shaking hooves, if you don’t mind.” Twilight smiled, and got a few chuckles from the ponies close enough to hear them clearly. “Thank you again for doing this.”

And again Rarity smiled, but this was the smile Rarity wore with teeth and a dangerous glint in her eyes, that flash when there didn’t seem like any light should have caused it. “Oh, darling, it was the least I could do. Truly, the very least. Thank you for coming out, tonight, as well, my dear! I know this is a far cry from a night in with a good book.”

“You’ve saved me from a mountain of paperwork, at least.” That was a half truth. True that she had a mountain of paperwork she’d otherwise be doing, but if she were being more honest, that was where she’d rather be right now. “Still, it’s a skill I’m happy to practice.“ That was a more honest truth.

Rarity nodded, and seemed to think hard on something, thoughtfully swirling the glass of red wine she had. It matched her lipstick. Twilight wondered if that was intentional...

Then Rarity seemed decided on something and nodded, and spoke quietly enough that only Twilight heard her, even surrounded as they were. Another skill she’d have to learn. “Don’t worry about anyone thinking you’re doing something wrong. None of this has ever happened before, to any of us. They don’t know what the right way to go about this whole mess is, and it is up to you and you alone to decide it. So no matter if you think what you are doing is right, or what you are doing is wrong, you will always be correct.”

Then, more loudly, ringing her glass with some careful taps of her magic. “A toast, I say! To the new Princess! Long may she reign!”

“Long may she reign!” the crowd agreed. Some out of fear, some simply because it was Rarity leaving the toast, and some again because they genuinely believed in it. But all of them agreed for their own reasons, and that was important.

“Now,” Rarity continued, “how are you finding your dress tonight?”

“It’s beautiful, it’s the most precious thing I’ve ever worn.” It was true. The dress was the perfect pink to complement her coat with a subtle corset around the waist, to make her figure ‘pop’—according to Rarity—with a modest white train and soft yellow accents.

“Good. I still have all the measurements. So you have no objections to me designing your wedding dress?”

Twilight blushed furiously. “Rarity! That was supposed to be a secret!”

“Twilight, half of Canterlot heard Luna scream ‘yes’. If you wished for it to remain a secret, you had two options; either don’t propose from a balloon, or propose to a quieter fiance.”

“Rarity!”

“Besides, I already said this was an engagement party on all the invitations. So it’s rather too late to be coy about it now.”

“You did what?!”

“Oh, don’t be so dramatic. We really must work on your poker face, Twilight, one of these days it’s going to get you into dreadful trouble. Just screams ‘diplomatic incident’ waiting to happen, dreadful. Now, let’s try this again; I put ‘engagement party’ on all the invitations, so it’s rather too late to be coy about it.”

Twilight stared blankly. Rarity beamed in response.

“Much better! We’ll make an ambassador of you, yet.”

“Rarity...” Twilight spoke in a low, warning tone that Rarity cheerfully ignored.

“Oh! And I spoke to the architect about the new palace. Since, you see, these little garden parties and soirees I’ve been throwing have largely been paying for it, I thought it seemed only fair I get a voice in it.”

“If you’d just asked—”

“Not nearly half as fun, Twilight dear, do keep up. So I saw what you were trying to do. Something very boring and functional. Unbearable. If I’m going to keep spending so much time in such an insufferable place—though I’m sure I’ll see the atmosphere improve under the new administration!—it needs to be gorgeous. So we tweaked it a little.”

“How much is a little?”

“I had a sketch commissioned. Here, I’ll show you.” Rarity unfurled a roll of paper she’d been keeping... somewhere in her dress.

Both mares were now so focused on their conversation, they were completely ignoring the gathered herd of nobles and socialites who were hooked on their every word. Well, at least Rarity looked like she didn’t particularly notice them.

Twilight considered the plan reasonably, and opined in a casual tone; “I could order you executed, now, you know?”

“But then you’d have to find somepony else to make your wedding dress, now, wouldn’t you? And I don’t think either of us sees that happening.”

“It looks like you bolted a wedding cake through the middle of it.”

“Well, without it, it just looked like a big capital E. Dreary.”

“I like letters.”

“And I like wedding cake. Yours will be vanilla, by the way. Fruit cake is traditional but nobody likes it, so I’m hoping we can start a better tradition.”

“Mmm. Agreed. Well, what is all... this.”

“Oh, that means this is all going to be covered in colonnade, with a big beautiful portico at the main entrance!”

Twilight massaged her temples with her magic. Her shiny gold shoes were beautiful, but horribly unsuited for the job.

“What’s a portico?”

“Like a colonnade patio.”

“What’s colonnade?”

“A beautiful long line of columns joined by their entablature. Oh! The portico is going to have the most beautiful triangular marble pediment placed above its entablature.”

For the first time in her life, Twilight decided it was better to stop asking questions. And there again was the smile with teeth.

“But now aren’t we being rude? This is a party, and what a party it is. Don’t worry, don’t worry,” and again Rarity’s voice lowered to a whisper. Another mare who tried to lean in to hear them wasn’t subtle enough, and Rarity’s glass of red wine accidentally spilled all down the back of her lovely white dress. “We’ll throw something much more... intimate for your real engagement party. Though it’ll have to be soon, or we’ll miss Pinkie and Rainbow.”

Twilight smiled knowingly. “And we’re going to miss them anyway, right?”

A playful punch on the shoulder, though Twilight swore she heard a choked gasp from a stallion. She was starting to notice the ponies around them again, nerves were rising again. “Of course. They’re hardly refined, but they’re both brilliant in their own ways. Now! I have some business to attend to. Some ponies to cheerfully extort!” Rarity said that loudly and proudly, and got some delighted laughs from the crowd, because only Twilight could see the teeth. “Why don’t you go rescue Fluttershy from this? I’m sure she’s around here somewhere.”

“She came?”

“Of course she did, of course she did. Who else do you think I’ve been throwing all these charity events for? Myself? Heavens, no, far too much work, and they all get—present company excluded—” she said as if to the ponies around them, but only making eye contact with Twilight “—rather dreary after a while. But it’s all for a good cause, isn’t it?”

“I’ll leave you to your blackmail, extortion, and fashion sniping, then.” Twilight nodded, making to split the crowd again. Rarity tittered.

“And I’ll look fabulous doing it, I assure you. Go, go, you have your fun and leave me to mine, then? Meet up again when all’s said and done?”

Twilight nodded, and began moving through the crowd. She’d found her rhythm, now, watching Rarity had reminded her of how Celestia used to do it. Eyes ahead, acknowledge everyone but nod in such a way as to lead their movements away from yours. Look like you have an objective, and you’re busy with something.

It’d take a lot of practice. Especially since she didn’t know where Fluttershy was. She’d be hiding from the crowd, so...

Ah. Ah ha.

To find Fluttershy in a crowd, look where the crowd is not.

She gave one last wave to Shining and gestured inside the palace. This time Cadance was watching her too, and she practically bounced on her hooves waving back and blowing kisses until her doting husband pointed out she was making a scene.

Then Cadance started blowing even more kisses and giggling louder, because Cadance didn’t give a damn.

Twilight laughed the whole way back inside.

The palace was still under construction—in earnest, this time!—but there were still grand archways and columns providing plenty of corners and alcoves to hide in and around.

The other ponies were mostly out in the gardens. The free drinks were out in the gardens. It was still nice and quiet in here.

Twilight stood in the center of the quiet space, away from the mingling couples that were looking for privacy of their own, and waited. If Fluttershy didn’t want to be noticed, she wasn’t going to be noticed.

“Hi.”

She jumped halfway out of her skin, and nearly the whole way out of her shoes. Even expecting it...

“Oh. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to scare you. I just thought it’d be rude to...”

“No, it’s fine, Fluttershy. I was actually looking for you, so, thank you for helping me with that.”

Fluttershy smiled too, and like only a very select few of her smiles, this one reached her eyes. “This isn’t your sort of party either, is it?”

“But I’m going to have to get used to them. Actually, did Rarity show you the invitations she sent out...?”

“Oh, yes. Congratulations, by the way. I was on Flinders street when I heard the news.”

“Who told you?”

“Well, your balloon was over Somersby...” Fluttershy trailed off, smiling even wider.

Right.”

“Princess Luna’s very lovely. I can see why you fell for her.”

“Far too much of that, actually.”

“Pardon?”

“Just a... private joke,” Twilight coughed. She looked over her shoulder, half expecting some of the courtiers that had been quietly following in her wake to have followed her here as well, but two guards had materialized at the archway. She’d have to remember to thank her brother at the end of the night, he really was very good at his job when he wanted to be. “I just thought I’d keep you company, see how you were doing.”

And now Fluttershy looked brim to burst with good cheer. It was a strange look... not bad. Very good actually, just one Twilight was not used to seeing on her. “Oh, it’s wonderful. Rarity’s helped us raise so much money for the orphanage. And... Twilight, did you know how dangerous those books were when you gave them to the children?”

“Yes. Absolutely.” Twilight nodded. “Why?”

“Well... We had enough bits to pay for labour, and we made sure to treat the children who came well, and pay them fairly. And Brass got really angry hearing all their stories about their old jobs, because children are disposable, right?”

“Well, no, but yes, I know what you mean.”

Fluttershy nodded so hard her head just about snapped off her neck. “Yes, well... uh... do you know what a union is?”

“You’re joking.”

“So Mirth had been reading these books on collective bargaining and some economics, and Brass was mostly just really good at explaining to everypony why it was in their best interest to pay attention so now... well, now it’s suddenly become a lot harder to let foals work in dangerous conditions anymore.”

Twilight laughed, and laughed and laughed, and Fluttershy kept smiling politely, giggling quietly to herself.

“So long as I can keep paying them a stipend, of course, or letting the worse-off have a place to sleep... But it’s much more above-board than it used to be! But so far I’ve managed to keep a lot of them busy with the new building...”

“Well, if you ever need help—”

“We’re very proudly independent, thank you.” Fluttershy’s smile became a little less genuine, a little more insistent. “Thank you so much for... for everything. But I’d like to keep at least that much.”

“I just meant we’re going to need a lot of apprentices working on the new palace.”

“Oh! Well... that might be just perfect...”

A tray of hors d'oeuvres appeared just at the edge of Twilight’s periphery. The waiter had just snuck up behind her, she hadn’t heard his hoofsteps at all, not even on the stone floor.

“No, thank you, Mirth, I’m rather full.” Fluttershy nodded.

Well, would you look at that.

He was taller than she remembered, and older looking. He was managing to grow a fair few whiskers now, which she was sure he was stupidly proud of. She’d have to get him a shaving kit for Hearthswarming... The eyepatch was gone, and the long scar now passed over a white glass eye, like a billiard ball. The cheap wooden prosthetic that looked like it had been part of a barstool at one point had been replaced by... would you look at that as well, a scroll case, just like the one Applejack and Pinkie had talked about when she broke her leg.

He was dressed up in a waistcoat, a white button-up blousey shirt, and a tight red bowtie someone must have helped him with. He carried the tray with his good hoof.

“Well aren’t you looking dapper.”

“Thank’n you muchly, Y’r Highness.” Mirth nodded. “I told Ms Rarity that I wanted to see how she got to be so good at... I don’t know what to call it. Politicking? And she told me you need to not be noticed. Well, I was good at that already, but she said I need to be good at not being noticed even when a pony looks directly at you. Sees you without seeing you.”

He offered her the tray. She took some stuffed vine leaves and a maid-of-honour tart, giving a brief curtsy as a thank you. Mirth matched her with an even deeper bow, and a wicked smile.

“Well, she said, there are two kinds of ponies that are real good for that. Servants and seamstresses. And I didn’t much care for sewing. So here we are. You wouldn’t believe what ponies will say around you while you offer them a plate of nibbles. And just take special care of the ones that have been around the bar...”

“Let me guess. Rarity’s also put you in charge of topping up her glass tonight?”

“Rightly so. Don’t know why she’s so insistent on it. Never seen the miniscus drop below the half.”

“Thought so. Where’d you learn a word like miniscus?”

“Flatcap’s been reading some science books, too. Shared that one with us. Great word, innit?”

“Reckon so,” Twilight said before catching herself. Their vocabulary appeared to be colliding. Oh, dear. Fluttershy giggled, herself. Mirth raised his eyebrow and apparently Rarity had been giving someone whispering lessons or, maybe far more dangerous, he just had a natural talent for it.

“Matron’s on her third flute of the bubbly, if you catch my meaning.”

“Ah.”

“How many you reckon it’d take before she tried to snog ya?”

“Mirth!” Twilight hissed, holding back the giggles.

“Because I reckon five’s the lucky number.”

Mirth!

“Only take four before she tries to snog Ms Rarity again, just you watch. Or Applejack’s brother if he were around, way Applebloom tells it.”

“Little one,” Fluttershy said calmly, all hint of the smile gone unless you watched her eyes, still, very carefully. “Maybe you should take Ms Sparkle’s drinks order and go practice your listening somewhere else?”

“Oh, I reckon so.” He unfurled some blank parchment from his wooden leg, and flicked a quill from the case after it. He cleared his throat, and suddenly his voice was... well, like a posh toff’s. “Just juice for you, yes, Your Highness?”

Twilight was immediately jealous again.

“I’ll be fine, for now, thank you. I think I’ll be heading towards the dungeons again, for the night. I’ll see you both later, yes?”

They both nodded in understanding. Fluttershy receded behind a column and suddenly she was gone, and Mirth silently drifted back into the crowd, a perfectly expressionless look about him.

That left her to take a guard escort. She borrowed the pair from the entranceway and asked them to take her down to the last part of the palace left untouched.

The dungeons were a cool reprieve from the humidity of the night above, and so many ponies making so much heat in so small a space. It was calming.

She didn’t have the fondest memories of her time in the dungeon, admittedly, but it hadn’t been exactly bad either. Productive! Productive was good. The great thing about books is they read the same no matter where you are, as long as you have good light.

Celestia had been kind enough to house her comfortably down here. It was the least Twilight could do to return the favour.

She saw Luna sitting outside Twilight’s former cell. She turned to dismiss her guards, but they’d already gone. Shining really had trained them well.

“Hello, again. Come to keep us company?” Luna smiled softly. All the time spent in the narrow stone corridors talking to Celestia had made for an effective crash course on “indoor voice”.

“How’s she doing?”

“Sleeping,” Luna sighed softly. “She’s doing better. Worse than I did, but...”

“It wasn’t with you for as long,” Twilight finished. They’d talked about this a lot since they’d been back.

“Do you think she knew, at the end? That she was still fighting it?”

She hadn’t asked that before. That was a question Twilight hadn’t thought about before either.

The easy answer was that she didn’t know, didn’t have a frame of reference for what Celestia was like before. The hard answer was that she didn’t think so. But the hard answer wasn’t necessarily the correct answer, either; She thought that, but only because she hadn’t thought about why she thought that.

Time slowed as Twilight’s mind pored through the evidence, her entire filing cabinet on Celestia spilled upon mental carpeting and scattered, new connections being drawn. There were times when she was cruel, and kind. When she looked on Twilight favourably. The sick pleasure she took in Twilight chastising her on how wrong she was.

Something she had always resented now took on a strange new context. She knew how the Nightmare worked now. Or at least, she knew how it acted when it was desperate. It changed your thoughts, censored others, shaped them. Pushed and nudged.

What if she valued Twilight so much because she was the moral core the Nightmare didn’t allow Celestia to have for herself?

What if Twilight was Celestia’s way of fighting back.

She breathed in, sharp and through her teeth as the idea hit her. “The stars will aid in her escape... “

That wasn’t the answer her fiance expected, but she’d learned enough to be patient. She waited for the rest of Twilight’s thoughts to connect. Twilight at least did the favour of collecting them out loud.

“I still don’t know how much was her, and how much was the Nightmare. And I thought after a thousand years, there couldn’t possibly still be much of a difference. Which is why these trips have been so difficult for me,” she explained, factually. It always hurt Luna to hear, but Celestia had hurt Twilight as much as anyone. In some ways, more. “But I think she was fighting it. And I think she was fighting it in ways the Nightmare didn’t understand it could be fought. I might even have been a weapon she was using against it...”

“She still doesn’t remember so much.” Luna sighed. “And I refuse to make her.”

It was part of the reason no formal charges had been laid against Celestia. Luna insisted that, devoid of the Nightmare’s influence, she would hold herself accountable for everything she had done, and it would be best to help her through that rather than reinforce it.

“I think... may I talk to her?”

Luna smiled, then frowned, then raised an eyebrow with a neutral expression. “She’s asked to see you many times before.”

“I know.”

“And you’ve always refused.”

“I know.”

“But now I ask you a question and you—” Understanding.  “You’re curious, aren’t you?”

“Yes.”

“Be gentle with her. I don’t know how—Please, be gentle with her,” Luna reiterated, opening the door.

It was never locked. It never needed to be.

Celestia rose from the bed. The curtain rattled as she pulled it aside. It was almost perverse seeing the Princess so vulnerable. The rippling colours in her hair had faded to the pink of the late afternoon sky, and she was barely larger than Twilight herself now. She unfolded herself off the bed, stretching slightly, and made to step closer but stopped herself, hesitated. It would have been up to Twilight to close the distance between them, but she was too unsure right now herself.

“Good evening, Celestia,” Twilight said with a little bow, not entirely sure what else to do.

“And to you, Princess.” Celestia smiled shyly, nervously, her eyes going to the floor at Twilight’s feet, at the wall just above her head, but never quite at her. She was terrified.

“It’s nice to finally meet, for the first time,” Twilight said calmly. Celestia weighed the implications of that, let the layered significance of it unfurl, like reading a scroll as fast as it could be pulled, while being careful not to tear it. “Would you like me to get you anything?”

Celestia was silent, still processing, still reading Twilight. Shaking slightly. Twilight came to a decision.

“If we’re going to do this, we’re going to do this properly,” she declared, as much to herself as to Celestia. She was as unsure about this as ever before, but the pony she saw before her meant—She had to be the strong one, for the first time. She had to take the lead. “I’m going to go get us some cake. Red velvet, maybe, or black forest. Something with lots of chocolate and cream. Your favourite, yes?”

The other pony was speechless, could only bob her head in surprised agreement. Twilight forced a smile and took her leave.

She gave Luna a peck on the cheek as soon as the cell door closed behind her. “Have you told her about us, yet?”

“No.”

“So she’s the one pony in all of Canterlot that doesn’t know. I’ll keep that in mind, then.”

“Oh?” Luna’s inflection rose in surprise,  “You read the paper this morning as well? I thought I had hidden it well...”

“Wait, it was—”

“You were going to ask us something, my betrothed?”

“Right. Yes. Is it still a drinking problem if it’s soaked through cake?”

“I—what?”

“How much alcohol can I have in the form of cake and it still not count as a relapse or remission?”

Luna eyed Twilight seriously, somewhere between maternal concern and exasperation and desperately concealed amusement. “That you have to be asking means you either want me to give you the okay, or to be talked out of it. Or for me to decide which for you.”

“Yes, please.”

“You may have one cake, and if you ruin it with too much sherry, then that is your punishment.”

“You are wise and fair above all else, my love,” Twilight intoned with utmost solemnity.

“Don’t think I haven’t been noticing your attempts to bury that delicious body you worked so hard for,” Luna accused sternly. “Though we appreciate a little bit of softness, one cake should be plenty regardless of its alcohol content.”

“Well, your sister has all my exercise equipment now, so—” Twilight stuck her tongue out and made raspberry noises over her shoulder as she left, because Luna had already said yes. She didn’t need to try to impress her anymore. Sucker.

Stars above, she loved her.


The kitchens had been refurbished rather quickly. With all the construction efforts underway, it had been the practical first step, just after the bathrooms. The new kitchen was a long strip of three islands, each dripping steel utensils from the roofs and hiding ovens where there weren’t drawers, drawers where there weren’t cabinets and cabinets where there weren’t ice boxes.  

The floor was white tile, always gleaming, so that even a single speck of dropped anything would show like a signal flare. The floor was spotless.

And all throughout were a dozen chefs, bussers, washers and cooks turning produce into product.

They’d managed to find a local supplier on short notice, someone who’d managed to score a few military contracts recently and had been hoping to diversify. The huge influx of local produce had blessed the palace with the finest foods it had experienced in decades.

“Ah’ll have you know Princess Twilight asked for this on real short notice. You just sign off on this, and she’ll bite my head off for it later, not yours.”

Of course, because that supplier was Applejack, she was still haggling over the price of the garden party delivery when Twilight came to ask for cake.

The bean counter that Applejack was haggling with coughed into a hoof and gave Twilight a meaningful look, and Applejack spun around with the biggest, broadest smile that nearly fell off her face. “Well, speak of the devil, howdy there, pardner. Been too busy running a country for the likes of such a salt-of-the-soil farmgirl such as me, eh?”

“Salt of the—Way I’ve been hearing it, you’ve got Canterlot haute cuisine wrapped around your hoof, with all those officers coming home ranting about your juice,” Twilight accused. “And my palace, it seems.”

“Well, s’cuse me, Princess. Ain’t my fault hard work pays off.” Applejack’s hat swung off her head and clutched to her breast in the biggest ‘aw, shucks’ gesture Twilight had ever seen. “What are you doing down here, anyway? You’re interfering with a good bit of bartering.”

“I’m getting—hang on,” she turned to one of the chefs covered in flour, he seemed the sort to ask, “Cake? Just for myself and a guest. Anything with cream will do.”

The baker nodded, slammed the oven at his station shut, flicked a timer on, and scurried off into the maelstrom of activity beyond where Twilight could focus on him, like a shell game but with tall white hats.

Applejack snorted. “Hope that ain’t the wedding cake. You aren’t allowed to elope, sugarcube, and leave us all hanging.”

“I—how’d you find out?”

“Folks down the farm hire a fella to read the paper while we pick. Got a good chuckle, you betcha crown on it.”

Gah. Ack. Moving on, then.

“How much is she overcharging?” Twilight addressed to the victim of Applejack’s bartering. Even with her newfound authority, the kitchen didn’t miss a beat, didn’t pause. Ignoring the Princess might have been treason, but overcooking tourin d'ail doux was heresy.

“Overcharging? Ah’ll have you know it’s a perfectly reasonable 20% rush-rate surcharge. Had to hire on extra help and everything to meet such a large order.”

Twilight sighed, moving deeper into the kitchens as busboys spun around her. She could swear one of them had a peg leg, now that she was looking for him... Oh, what the heck, she already knew anyway. “Ten percent, and I’ll let you be a maid of honour.”

Applejack grinned and they shook on it. “Ha! I’d have gone down to five.” The beleaguered administrator rolled her eyes and went back to count inventory, probably, see that Applejack hadn’t under-delivered. She never did, but it didn’t hurt to check.

“Madame! Your gateau.”

Black forest. Perfect.

“You’ve been treating my pantry well, though? Nothing boiled, bottled, salted, sealed, canned, tinned or frozen?”

“Nope. Know just how you like it Princess Twilight. Wouldn’t dare poison ya with anything inferior.”

“Oh? But you’d poison my nobility, and the army?”

“You betcha.”

“Fantastic.” Twilight didn’t smile, because there were ponies watching. She was very careful to make it sound like she was being sarcastic, and she had a reputation enough to make it believable. But when Applejack smiled back, she wondered if Rarity had given her permission to borrow it. And with that, Applejack went back to yell at another pony with a big wooden crate, farm-fresh.

Twilight carried the cake with her magic the whole way back down to the dungeons, but not before pilfering a drink from an icebox...


They lay on the bed, each with their own plate of cake and some of the chocolate milk she had nicked. Celestia was practically inhaling hers. Twilight stared openly, and got a few sheepish glances back for it.

“What? I’ve always liked cake.”

“Well. Yeah. That’s true,” Twilight admitted, rubbing the back of her neck super awkwardly, “It’s just weird. We haven’t done anything like this since I was way younger, and even then it was never like... this.”

Celestia nodded. “I haven’t always been myself.” There was the tone of amusement to it, like they were just talking about a particularly bad cold, and that could be all there was to it as long as neither of them looked too hard at it, thought about it too long.

Twilight’s spoon clattered against the plate and she sat up straighter. “And that’s weird! It’s weird, and it’s strange, and it’s taking me a while to process. Because you did terrible, awful things, but it wasn’t you, so it feels wrong to be mad at you, or angry, even though I am! But the thing I was angry at, that thing I killed. Obliterated honestly. So the part of you I am actually angry at, I fixed. So why can’t I just not be mad at you?”

“For the same reasons I can’t forgive myself, Twilight.” Celestia nodded, no sadness in her voice, just a matter of fact statement and another serene bite of cake. “That’s not how this works. So long as my actions still cause pain in this world, I cannot be absolved of my crimes. Which is why I’m so proud of for you for taking my place on the throne.”

Twilight gulped, mouth suddenly dry. Another mouthful of chocolate milk helped. “I was thinking about a change to a monarchistic democracy—”

Celestia shook her head, no. “Eventually. But you would be fighting against a thousand, a thousand-thousand measures I took to make sure such a system would fail. And the world needs a strong leader at the moment. Luna is new, and she still has so much to learn about the world. But you, my most trusted advisor, know so much. You know how things were run, and how things could be run. You know the ponies with power and they respect you, even the ones who don’t like you—you never made an effort to be liked, little one. You alone have the experience, the position, the talent and the aptitude to fix what...” Celestia choked on her own words a little, wouldn’t quite come out of her throat. Another spoonful of cake seemed to dislodge them. “What I did.”

Twilight watched Celestia cut herself another slice. The cake was blurry. Everything was blurry. Her cheek was wet. “It... it really sounds like you’ve put a lot of thought into this.”

“Of course I have!” Celestia exclaimed with a light chuckle,  “Why else do you think the Nightmare was so terrified of you?”

That took a moment to sink in.

Then Celestia smiled again, outright giggled at her own joke, and went back to cake. Twilight raised an eyebrow.

Celestia remained silent, pursed lips.

Twilight raised her eyebrow higher still.

“Oh, fine.” Celestia wiped the mutlitude of crumbs off her lips, and rolled her eyes like a bratty teenager. “I was just going to tease you about Luna. Play the role of big sister. I just thought better of saying it.”

Twilight flushed and flinched. Spluttered. Choked on her own tongue. Stalled by thinking of synonymous phrases.  “Luna said she didn’t tell you!”

“I suppose that’s true, yes. She didn’t. But I am neither blind nor stupid, that much is also true.” Celestia looked at Twilight seriously, head angled down, the effect only ruined a little bit by the fact that she never stopped taking spoonfuls of cake as she did. “Now, running my Empire? That I trust you with in the space of a breath, Princess. But my sister’s heart? I might need some more reassurances.”

There was a spray of chocolate milk from her nose as Twilight died that moment. Certainly her heart stopped in her chest, as did her breathing. There was a spike of neural activity, then that too was blank.

It was very unfortunate that it was temporary. Everything kicked back in.

“Gurk,” Twilight said. “Ack.”

More or less.

“Gracious me. And here we had discussed what a poet you had become.”

“Grargh?”

“Truly, a ballad for the ages,” Celestia said without a hint of sarcasm, which somehow made it more sarcastic. Not helping.

“How?”

“How did I know? She doesn’t stop singing your praises, it’s obvious she has feelings for you. Also, apparently you bite, and Luna hasn’t thought to cover her neck.”

Twilight had chosen the wrong moment to take a reassuring sip of milk. It, too, went up and down her nose. She spluttered on that again. Celestia eyed her sternly.

“Really, Twilight, that’s a very good way to get sick.”

“You’re not... mad?”

“Well, you look silly, and it might be considered impolite in most company, but no. Hopefully you have a kerchief on you, though?”

She did. She stood off the bed to wipe her face with a kerchief from a pocket in her dress, Rarity wouldn’t allow her to leave the house without certain practicalities. “I meant about seeing Luna.”

Celestia stood up as well, and though she didn’t loom like she previously had, it had been so easy to forget she was still taller than Twilight. She inclined her head and her eyes narrowed around the edges, her lips thinned slightly... She was terrified, and she was trying her best not to show it.

“Are you honestly asking, Twilight, if I feel I have even the right to be mad at you? No. I have nothing but gratitude. Now, it’s been lovely meeting you, but I suppose we should leave things off for another time, here? It’s getting quite late.”

Another time. She was terrified, at that. There was pleading behind the politeness.

“Another time. When I’m not saving the world,” Twilight agreed.

“Or marking your girlfriend,” Celestia added slyly, just the hint of a raised eyebrow Twilight recognized well on that face. Smugness! That’s what it was.

Well, it seemed this conversation had been a little one-sided in that regard. And she was leaving...

To hell with it.

“I’ll mark my fiance as much as I darn well want, thank you very much,” Twilight declared, spinning on a hoof to leave the room. A quick look back over her shoulder and Celestia had the most wonderfully blank expression, slack-jawed and drunken blinking.

As Twilight got through the door, two realizations hit her at once:

Celestia was going to be her sister-in-law, and she’d left the cake behind. Ah, drat. There was about a quarter left, and she’d only gotten two slices in...

Drat.

...

Wait, what was that first one again?


The platform was covered deep in ponies, burbling and crowding. Everybody loved a spectacle. The sun was sharp and clear, the sky cloudless—Rainbow had made sure of it for her special day—and the wooden deck of the royal airship yard creaked and bent under the weight of such a crowd.

Dash stood at the helm of the Spirit of Adventure, payment for services rendered to the new Princesses. Twilight was emphatic about paying back her debts. The oiled canvas caught the light around the curves of its big, rocket-shaped balloon, about the dimensions of three legless elephants standing head-to-tail. Particularly large elephants at that.

The hull that hung below the balloons was a sleek, teardrop shape with long rudders. Its sky-blue painted hull, invisible against the clear sky, had two giant electric-motor propellers at the front in steel cowling, humming and thrumming like a heavy stormcloud, and two more in the rear were much smaller and flatter, barely the size of big bass drums tipped on their sides, their energy more like a whine.

Neither could match the raw energy of the excited Pinkie Pie, who bounced from port to starboard, aft to bow, busying herself with every possible thing she could as a final check. When she finally gave Twilight a hoof’s up, static cut through the din of the audience for just a moment, and all was silent but for the engines.

Luna had offered to be by Twilight’s side for this, having no small fondness for Dash herself, but this was something Twilight wanted to do alone. Not least because it meant she could only use her fiance as an excuse to leave if she wasn’t already here. She’d need that escape when she got completely emotionally exhausted by all of this.

“Citizens of Equestria,” Twilight declared from her pulpit high above, her voice booming over the crowd through speakers strategically placed around the dock. “We are gathered here to celebrate the journey two very special ponies close to us are about to undertake. They carry with them the hopes of their new Empire, and the desire to spread its virtues. I can think of no two ponies better suited for the role. I know whatever difficulties these two face, they can overcome in their mission to spread love and kindness to where there has only been taken hate.”

“Laying it on a bit thick, aren’t we?” Dash shouted back, leaning lazily against the big wheel. She was loving the sap, though, Twilight could tell. Was just playing things up for the crowd.

Well, both could play that game.

“I trust you two both to spread the word of this new age of peace, and to bring back knowledge that could otherwise have been lost to us. May you find these new lands with understanding and compassion, and may they follow your example, too. And know that you will always be welcome home.”

“That’s all very sappy, Princess,” Rainbow called back again, hooves cupped around her mouth, wiggling her eyebrows, up-down-up-down, and putting on the most roguish look she could muster, “but we’ve already been to the moon. This is just a little holiday, this is.”

Laughter washed over everyone. They’d all heard the stories, but it was still a question of how many believed it. It still made for a good joke, either way.

“Well. You did,” Pinkie pointed out, as the laughter died back down.

“Oh, right...”

“Hey, wait!” A pony rushed up through the thick mass of the audience. “Hold up!”

“Mirth!” “Cap’n!” Rainbow and Pinkie exclaimed, and Pinkie kicked the plank back down. Mirth ran straight past her, affording her a wink—something he’d apparently been practicing for a while now—and up to the bow of the ship.

It was easy to see why he got through the crowd so easily, now that he was out of it. He’d been carrying a large, curved sword.

“Heard you can’t be a proper Captain without it, Miss,” he explained, kneeling down, presenting it above him. Dash took it graciously.

Rainbow started blubbing like a little baby, and swept him up in a big hug. Another roar rose up from the crowd, and Mirth got a hero’s welcome as he was sent back up, hoisted over a sea of shoulders towards the Princess’s pulpit in the center.

He stood quietly by Twilight’s side, who might also have been blubbing just a little now that someone was close enough to point it out to her, as the Spirit of Adventure launched, Pinkie blowing kisses over the back railings of the ship as it drifted lazily off Canterlot mountain, picking up speed towards destinations uncertain.

“That was great,” Mirth sighed happily. When Twilight looked, the young man seemed to be backing away slowly. “Nobody noticed Scootaloo stow away at all, then? Can’t believe that worked. If Matron asks, I had nothing to do with it. Speaking of—”

He disappeared in a blur, his peg leg punctuating his gallop every other step, and now that she was listening for it, Twilight could also hear Fluttershy’s panicked shouting...

The Princess of Equestria wondered if that was a problem that could at least wait until after her wedding.