• Published 25th Jul 2013
  • 12,543 Views, 219 Comments

A Total Eclipse Of The Fun - Estee



The second anniversary of the Return is approaching, and all Luna wants for the celebration is one thing -- something Equestria hasn't seen in more than a thousand years. This could be a problem.

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Conjunction

Luna was beginning to feel bored.

Yes, the Canterlot personal visits were almost over. Some of them had been beneficial in more ways than simply getting the word out and making certain no pony suffered vision damage because of her desire to relive memory: the home-to-home tour had allowed her to meet ponies on a more personal level than she normally got to experience with the citizenry, and she felt it had brought several of them that much closer to accepting her as something more than a distant sighting, misapplied headline, or angry vocalization after dropping something on their own right front hoof. But for the capital, those moments had been eddies in a current of monotonous hoof-kissing, and she found herself longing for another drug dealer in order to liven up the last of her early evening.

Only a few left, though. Five full nights remained before the eclipse (with Return Day now feeling more like an excuse for it than anything else) and she only had a scant number of ponies remaining on the Did Not Show Up At Any Meeting list. She almost had a grasp on why Twilight Sparkle loved to check the things off so much: she herself had reached the point of more than merely wanting to see the thing finished already nights ago, which would be quickly followed by the non-librarian satisfaction of seeing it destroyed.

She was tired of going over the opening words on the memorized script. She was tired of moving through what seemed to be far too many neighborhoods in a city which had been magnitudes smaller when she left and hadn't even truly deserved the title of 'city' at all. She was very tired of making those who followed Murdocks sign every last copy of the glasses acceptance forms -- although sometimes she got the fun of pointing out that she knew their real names and falsifying documents was a charge she was personally more than willing to follow up on.

But now there were only a few left. And so she pushed on to the next door, which was within an 'apartment building' -- she kept thinking of them as inns where the rooms rented by the moon -- and had a rather strange odor just barely wafting from it. Something -- odd. She had scented that odor before, Luna was sure of it. She didn't like it in the least. But it didn't remind her of any drugs or their manufacturing techniques, and so her weary mind put it aside (while wishing her nostrils could do the same) as she knocked.

The door opened.

The unicorn stallion on the side looked somewhat familiar. Coat of a slightly strange red which almost seemed to glisten, deeper red in the eyes and a bleached bone-white for the unkempt mane. A very short horn. The weary, head-down, floor-regarding posture of a pony who hadn't slept well in some time, complete with layered bags under the eyes and more red shot through the whites of both orbs. His last bath might have been well over a week ago, which still didn't account for the totality of the smell.

Luna was almost sure she'd met him. But ponies had begun to blend together nights ago, and she couldn't be completely certain. If she could just get a look at the mark -- but his was on the portion of his body which remained within the shadows of the apartment: this stallion had just barely poked enough of himself out the gap to work with at all.

Well, as long as she had the eyes and ears paying some level of attention, all was vaguely briefing-well -- although she was wondering if she should be offering him the chance to get wake-up juice first: he still hadn't looked up. "Greetings, citizen," she told him, and tried not to yawn from boredom: sympathetic vibrations might have made him fall asleep on the spot. "As you are among those who have missed the town meetings concerning the eclipse on Return Day, I felt I should come to your residence in person and discuss it with thee --" oops "-- you, along with personally presenting your eclipse glasses. Do you have a minute or more to speak?" Generously, "Or would you wish to drink a portion of wake-up juice before we proceed?"

The weary stallion finally forced his eyes up and looked directly at Luna.

He blinked twice.

The scream was not a surprise. It could have been, but Luna had met too many of Murdocks since the preparations began and screaming generally came into their half of the dialogue somewhere. So did the slamming of the door, although this was the first to catch his own front right hoof with the first attempt, not to mention the repeat performance on the second. The third led to the sound of a full-scale gallop, or at least as much as it could have been with the freshly-added limp.

Luna sighed. It was nearly all she had strength left for. "Well..." She extended her senses, tried to feel. "...he is not teleporting, I hear no windows opening, we are on the fifth floor of this edifice and self-levitation is far more rare than the ability to go between..." She glanced back at the Guard on her left flank. Hoping she was wrong, "I am assuming that does not constitute sufficient suspicions of criminal activity for us to enter immediately?" Because that would take care of the boredom.

Unfortunately, the Guard -- Nightwatch, one of the first hires -- shook her head. "Sorry, Princess -- we've had worse from the ones in the 'loyal opposition'." The quotes were appropriately vicious and slashed the words away from the rest of the sentence, along with quarantining them from common sense lest they infect anything.

"I had guessed," Luna carefully did not sigh again: recreation -- well, perhaps only postponed. "But we certainly are entitled to knock a second time, and as we must deliver the glasses no matter what..."

More galloping, this time getting closer. The Guards tensed, moved into defensive positions.

The door flew open.

"Got glasses!" the unicorn gasped, and the almost liquid red field held them up. "Friend -- picked them up for me! Read papers! Read sheet! Got glasses! Won't go blind!"

Which removed most of Luna's prospective fun -- but still not all. "Yes, I can see them -- but citizen, with the exception of parents gathering for colts and fillies, other ponies were not permitted to take extras --"

"-- sick! Very sick! Couldn't go! Didn't know if I'd recover in time! Feeling much better now!" The unkempt mane went everywhere as the pony vigorously shook his head, setting bloodshot eyes to vibrating. "Got glasses! Promise to wear them! Swear!"

The hardest part to believe was the 'much better now'. "Very well," Luna frowned. "But I will still need your fieldwriting on the forms..."

The unicorn's field grabbed the paperwork and quill. He signed them. Repeatedly. Threw them back: her stallion Guard intercepted.

"Okay?" the resident gasped. "All good?"

Luna took the paperwork. The pony had signed the forms, all right. About thirty times. Everywhere. Some of them had even fallen on the right places, although she suspected that had been by accident. "It would not be legally adequate --" she squinted at the horrible fieldwriting "-- Sizzler? You missed this place, and this one --"

The papers were snatched back. Thirty more signatures were added.

"-- and now you have not," Luna noted. "Very well, legally, you have signified your understanding, whether or not you truly possess it --"

"-- good! All good! Got glasses! Goodbye!"

The door slammed again, at least on the fourth attempt. The receding sound of limping was considerably more pronounced.

Luna looked to each of her Guards in turn. "That was odd, was it not? It is not just me?" There were still times when she felt she had to check. She was almost certain this wasn't really one of them.

Nightwatch sighed. "It would have been odd if it was anypony but him, Princess. I didn't recognize him at first... But I've only seen him a couple of times, and hardly ever away from his -- station."

Cluster shuddered as his own memory was jogged. "Oh, him... I should have known that coat, not to mention the smell..."

Luna frowned. "I almost felt I knew him, but the memory would not come. Too many nights and days of this... well, you two clearly have the advantage of me in recollection. Who is this Sizzler?"

"He worked in the Solar kitchen," Nightwatch explained. "One of those whom Princess Celestia fired. He had the --" a instinctive, revolted shudder of her own, one which had no chance of staying locked within the practiced mien of Guard alertness "-- meat station."

Which got Luna to blink. "Oh... yes, now I recall him. Not a memory I wished to have, especially given that smell..." No wonder he hadn't wanted to speak with her: in his mind, he probably saw her as the one who'd gotten him fired, never mind that it had all been Celestia's decision and Luna had actually asked her sister not to be quite so defensive, noting that they'd both overlooked the obvious and if that reaction had been inevitable, at least they'd seen it well before the thing could have echoed through a few hundred more throats (minimum) and caused actual damage. Celestia hadn't wanted to hear it. There were very few things which could move her older sister to cold fury, and false accusations against Luna were high on that short list. In a way, it was comforting. In other aspects...

Luna was planning on waiting until after the eclipse so that her sister, relaxed and still basking in the warmth of memory, could be approached regarding rehire. She was willing to give second chances here and there. After all, one had been granted to her.

"...still, he has a place," the younger Princess concluded. "Even if that place might be somewhat more suitable in the Griffon Republic. Well, he has his glasses and we have his signed forms: the minimum is satisfied. Perhaps we should be as well and move on. How many more?"

"Fourteen," Cluster checked. "And then we're done -- assuming we can find all of them. Some of these ponies are on repeat visits, Princess -- between both sets of Guards and Princess Celestia, we've made multiple trips to a few homes with no results. We've confirmed some who are going to be absolute no-shows. I've spoken to enough neighbors: there are some visiting family, or on vacation, or just a couple who moved and haven't had it show up in the census data yet... but that still leaves us with fourteen ponies who haven't been contacted. Less than I thought we'd have, honestly -- but for the sake of keeping the lawsuits down, we've got to reach zero if we can."

Luna nodded. "Should all else fail, we can at least plant a few glasses where they will be found, but... yes, we need to try and complete this checklist." There was no thrill in merely speaking the word, and how Twilight Sparkle managed to get visible excitement into the writing of it remained a mystery. "To the next, then."

They moved on.

Within the tiny apartment -- now almost empty of furnishings after Chef had ordered the personal belongings of all others sold in order to finance the battle -- the pony who was even starting to think of himself as Meat trembled and waited for the Nightmare to go away.

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"And she didn't recognize you?"

"No. Not on first sight. We were only formally introduced once. I heard the Guards talking about me, but she didn't react. I think -- we're actually safe, Chef. She was just -- dropping off the glasses. With two Guards alongside her -- if they'd known anything about what we were doing, they would have arrested me on the spot."

"Naturally. Good job keeping it calm and collected there. The way you described yourself as holding steady in the face of Nightmare, not to mention what must have been so many thoughts of a mare taking your station... you almost performed at a level equal to a tiny fraction of a real chef. Almost. BECAUSE YOU DIDN'T TAKE THE CHANCE TO STRIKE! She was right there! You could have ended this once and for all! One simple move, and --"

"-- outnumbered!" Meat protested. "Three to one! Two Guards and one Princess!"

"She was holding the papers! You should have just hit her horn!"

"All she was doing was holding the papers! The most I could have done was make her drop them!"

"He's right," Saucier noted. The line cooks were familiar with backlash in the low stages, as they had to be careful not to inflict it on the unicorns among them while they moved about the kitchen -- and needed to guard Solar horns from the Lunar brigade, who were all too aware of the weakness common to every pony who could work that form of magic and loved demonstrating it. "Stage Zero, tops -- and some ponies say the Princesses can ignore that."

"...fine," muttered Chef. "Cowardice in the face of the enemy, fine... making excuses... one more failure like that, Meat, and you'll wish you were being cooked on your own station..." He blinked. Two minutes later, his eyes opened again. The others had held their positions exactly, just in case he came out of it before they could catch their own short naps. "...so we can probably expect more visits as they drop off our glasses, right?"

"Not me," Sous noted. "I had Princess Celestia visit me three days ago. She -- well, she just asked me if I'd found another job yet, told me to write her if I needed any references, got my signature, and left." He hadn't been able to detect any signs of enthrallment during the exchange, which just showed how subtle and complete the process truly was.

"Not me," Saucier said. "I attended a meeting and signed in there."

Pasta silently held up his copies of the forms.

"Fools!" Chef declared. "What if there's some kind of magic which can detect you by your signature? Like -- like being able to taste something and know just who cooked it by the flavors! Or in your case, by how underdone it is! It's the doctrinyabob -- thingasignature -- something or other of magical tracking! It could be anything!" His bloodshot eyes stared at them, or at least the point halfway up the wall where he currently wanted them to be. "Well, I won't fall for it," he whispered. "I won't go home. She won't get me. Won't sign anything. Ever. Maybe she gets your soul in your signature. Maybe you all gave them up in exchange for the glasses."

The other four exchanged glances while managing not to count just how many were being transferred. "Chef," Sous carefully began, "that doesn't make any sense..."

"Shut up, Sous."

"Yes, Chef."

"I won't let her get me," Chef insisted to the wall. "I won't sign anything and she can't get my soul. I won't sleep and she can't get my mind. She's weak. Once you know what her weaknesses are, you're safe. I'm going to stay safe forever. The rest of you might fall, but not me. Never me. Because you're just Scum and I... I'm a Chef..."

The ceiling, which his gaze had drifted to during the last burst of italics, agreed with him completely. He added it to his forces and promoted it over Sous. Then he drank another quart of wake-up juice.

Truly, it was amazing how poor the quality control on the last few batches was.

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The Summer Sun Celebration came and went. Celestia noted the continuing shift in numbers from those who attended the festivals to those who used their time to attend sales which could only pass as such because the prices had been artificially inflated two moons prior just so they could be dropped again on the holiday. Part of her wanted ponies to honor the Celebration as just that. Another was proud that they felt free enough not to attend. And still more was thinking about other, more distant things.

Glasses had been given to virtually everypony. There remained a few they simply hadn't been able to find, but she suspected at least one of them had left Canterlot in search of new employment, presuming he could find anypony who would be able to stand the interview, especially the part when he told them what an honor it would be for them to give over their bits into his possession. If they got past that, dealing with the open statement that he now pretty much owned the new place should be simple...

With no real time to locate fresh hires during the eclipse planning, the head of the Lunar brigade and her sous had been given temporary charge of both kitchens, along with plenty of paid overtime. The primary result seemed to be a considerable lessening of damage tallies, which had the added benefit of giving Luna one less thing to check her math on. The secondary was a distinct improvement in Celestia's food.

Eclipse Day -- no, Return Day -- was less than two days away. The eclipse itself was scheduled to center around noon. Luna had offered a mandatory grumble when they'd agreed on that, but they'd both seen it as the single best time for display, even if it required her younger sister to put in some very awkward hours during the holiday. And with that festival so close to commencement, Celestia had gone back to Ponyville for a check on how things were coming along.

The answer, much to her happy surprise, was 'very well'.

Solar colors, hung in every home and shop for the Celebration, had already vanished. Luna's dark blue and silver dominated the local color wheel, and it lightened Celestia's heart to see ponies smiling while they worked on putting up the fresh set of decorations -- ponies who didn't know she was watching at all, at least during those moments of first approach. Luna had been right: Ponyville took Return Day with some sincerity, and virtually none of it was because they were kissing up to the junior Princess. Luna had Returned in the town's nearby wild zone. She had first reentered the settled zones here. This was where she had personally visited on that one Nightmare Night, the place she had begun to truly reconnect with the citizenry -- and where they had returned the feeling to her. Of all the towns, cities, and settlements in Equestria, Ponyville loved Luna most -- and so her sibling felt most at home here.

In retrospect, the question of where to have the first restored eclipse had been a somewhat stupid one with an incredibly obvious answer.

Banners were being hung, and all had enough room for every required star-flooded letter. Schoolchildren had drawn posters showing what they imagined the eclipse to be, and proud parents had hung them in windows.

The Cakes were trying out Eclipse Cookies: a chocolate icing Moon over a butter creme Sun. Celestia had delicately sampled two. And then it had taken everything she'd had not to hoard another twenty. For Pinkie's sake -- and by extension, that of the Bearers -- she had to let the Cakes stay in Ponyville. But not hiring them to take over the castle's pastry duties was so hard...

Rarity was supposedly working on ways to make the glasses more fashionable. (Celestia wished her luck: the quartz had to be a certain (very blocky) shape and consistency in order for the smoke enscorcelling to be most effective, and there hadn't been enough time to refine that aspect of the spell.) The designer had also been putting in unpaid overtime trying to create an outfit which would look its best under eclipse light -- just a sample one, mind you, there was just enough time for Rarity to try making something for the unicorn's own build and in case it went horribly wrong, she insisted that no pony other than herself suffer the public humiliation which would be all her fault... Celestia loved listening to Rarity speak and often played a silent game of guessing which word would be emphasized next: it added a musical rhythm to the dramatics which even the Singing Shores might have paused for.

However, at the moment, the designer, moving up the street towards her and taking no notice of anything to the front, was -- distracted. Happily so. And Celestia had nothing to do with it.

"...and this is Mister Flankington's establishment. I must caution you: no matter what he says, no matter what he offers, do not eat there. Not even free samples. I am sadly familiar with the recovery times and you do not want to be stuck in a hospital bed when the eclipse begins." She stopped dead in the street, looked at her companion -- and then squealed, the sound of a happy filly who had just tasted her first-ever piece of candy, complete with the full-body wriggle of delight. "I cannot believe you are here!"

A wry, dignified chuckle came from her companion. "Neither can most of my compatriots, my dear. Which, quite frankly, was all the more reason to come here, hmmm?"

Rarity's smile had a touch of confusion to it. "I'm afraid I don't quite take your meaning..."

"Do you know the way to remain the best at dealing with the nobles of Canterlot? Taking some time every so often for not dealing with them. My job, such as it is, can often be described as one familiar to Miss Applejack: herding. The central difference is that the majority of those she and Winona corral can, to some degree, potentially stop their charge and think for themselves. Mine? Often cannot. No, wait -- there is another difference: many animals and sapients care whether their presence fouls the environment... At best, I try to keep them moving in a direction where the stampede does as little damage as possible and sometimes even brings some good, if I can but convince them that doing so either means potential elevation to a level above mine or that it was all their idea to begin with..."

Celestia did her best not to giggle as she trotted closer, the locally awed ponies beginning to fade into background awareness.

"But -- they're the upper class! They're the elite! Surely some of what rises to the top has to be the cream, yes?"

"Some," the older stallion agreed. "But the rest is the pond scum." He laughed, and the mustache vibrated in true joy. "Oh, the freedom, Rarity! The joy of being able to say that in the open, without concern as to who would gossip the words back! You will never truly appreciate it until you lose it -- and therefore, I hope you never truly appreciate it." He inclined his horn towards an approaching Celestia. "I believe you have the sense of it, though?"

Celestia laughed. This was one of the ponies she felt fully comfortable casually laughing around, even with this topic -- and it didn't hurt that the press had received no notice of this trip and was thus at least a full gallop behind. "Also the aftertaste on my tongue." (Which really confused Rarity, who had yet to give up on that dream. Celestia wanted to tell the designer that Generosity was best off in the place she knew and letting her garments be the ambassador to other social worlds -- but some lessons had to be learned for oneself.) "Hello, Fancypants. I should have known you would make the journey even if no others would. Perhaps especially when no others would. But -- where's Fleur?"

"One of those who refused to do so much as get within ten blocks of the train, let alone hire a private carriage or simply enjoy the gallop," Fancypants grumbled, with only forty percent of it being sincere. "She has yet to see the benefits of spending some time 'out in the sticks'... well, you're undoubtedly making more progress with your student than I am with mine."

"Don't be so sure," Celestia smiled. "I remember what she was like before you took her into your classes... Better be careful, old friend. Once the reporters arrive, there are going to be those who see you with Rarity and put a few assumptions in print."

"They already did," Fancypants told her. "After the first time she and I met. The central effects were making it much easier to introduce Rarity among my circle and putting Fleur into a two-week pout over whether my tastes would have changed that much." (Which in turn put Rarity into a four-second snit.) "Let them renew their tales: I only ask that some of them be vaguely amusing... This is a lovely town, Princess. I would put a summer home here if I wasn't so afraid that such would somehow cause the herd to mindlessly follow and completely ruin the poor place."

Celestia silently considered how much of the national budget's disaster relief fund had gone to Ponyville over the last two years, added an estimate for how much more would be required after an invasion of nobles and made a mental note to, for a very rare once, ask Luna for a check on her math because she was hoping that infinity symbol wasn't really supposed to be there. "The Hampiltionians suffer enough..."

There was a shout. It came from about two blocks away. It had an accent attached and hauled ten tons of pure rage along via sturdy rope.

Rarity's ears twisted in that direction. "Applejack?" She glanced at companion and Princess. "My apologies, but if she's yelling like that... she's too angry for it to be even Scootaloo, not unless somepony's hurt..." Thoughts of sisters were visible in the tensed posture.

"Go," Fancypants told her, and the white mare galloped away. He looked up at Celestia, and it was a knack of his for doing so in such a way that made her feel as though they were very nearly the same height. "And I'm guessing we're going to follow, yes?"

"Yes," Celestia confirmed. "I've hardly ever heard her that angry myself."

Hearing was the least of their problems. It only took a few steps for words to become distinct, especially as Applejack's were all being yelled and those of the ponies she was yelling at tended to carry rather well.

"...gonna get y'outta here! Jus' see if Ah don't! Ah know yer up t' somethin'!"

"My dear lady..." A stallion voice, smooth as cream -- or lightly-skimmed pond scum. "...I certainly have no idea what you could be talking about..."

"Nor do I!" proclaimed a second stallion, whose vocal tones came across as being from somepony a little younger. "We are simple honest traveling salesponies, in Ponyville for the unique business opportunity afforded by Return Day and the first eclipse in more than a thousand years, and I am frankly offended at the way you're disparaging our fantastic product!"

"Ah know you!"

"No, you don't!" declared the elder. "You've never seen us before in your life! We would have remembered such a distinctive voice!"

"Yes, Ah have! For three days! Two of which y'spent knockin' over mah fence an' the last which me an' mah friends used t' prove y'have no right t' sell anythin' 'cause yer ideas may sound good at first, but somethin' always goes wrong! Ah'm givin' you the count of ten t' get out..."

"Madame," said the younger, "we are simple sellers of eclipse glasses."

"We already got 'em! For free!"

"Not these!" the elder happily declared. "Ours capture the process of what you're looking at! Forever after, when you wish to relive the eclipse, you simply don them and watch it happen all over again! No need to wait for next year, folks! You just step right up and get a pair of these, only twenty bits each, and have the memory become real whenever you like! Yes, that's right, form a line..."

"They're clear!" Applejack screamed. "Anypony lookin' at the thing through these won't be seein' the pictures! Or anythin' else ever again!"

"I assure you, the glasses are simply transparent as a side effect of the image-capturing enchantment and will still protect," the younger vocally slithered. "Everypony is perfectly safe."

"Fine? Y'say so? Then put a pair on an' stare at the Sun! Right now!"

Silence.

Rarity had just caught up. "I feel she has rather a point, gentlecolts." The last word came out as the single biggest lie anypony had ever heard the unicorn utter. "Oh, and while I am here, I would like to speak on the matter of your fur dyes. They are inferior. Not only is the blending rather poor, but I can see more than a hint of your true color at the roots. Also, the theatrical contact lenses to change the hue of your eyes? Have very distinct visible edges along the whites. And then we have your pants. They are completely unfashionable. They are hideously striped. They are out of season, not that your style was ever in. They do horrible things to the appearance of your hips, and those were rather distinctively narrow to begin with. But most of all, they are the only item you can use to cover your cutie marks which will not wear away or be automatically dispelled within seconds."

More silence. It seemed to be going around.

"Dear lady," the elder protested to Applejack as if the farmer was the only other pony present, his voice about ten percent weaker than before, "the spells only activate during the eclipse, so --"

"Take 'em off," Applejack said. It was a no-arguing voice. It was a voice that had a lasso twirling above it looking for targets.

"...take what off?" the younger asked, far too innocent and just a little bit desperate.

"The pants. Take 'em off. Rarity's right. Can't use spells, can't use dyes, not for long. Jus' clothin'. Which you're wearin' full-body in the summer. Wanna prove you're for real? Don't wanna be run outta town? Take. 'Em. Off."

"After all, you are honest stallions with nothing to hide, are you not?" asked Rarity, pretending towards rhetorically. "Honest stallions whose voices and cadence of speech only happen to resemble those of ponies we have met before, especially when you become upset or worked up? Ones whose resemblance in feature underneath their addiction to inferior dyes is pure coincidence? Let us see your marks. If they are not what we believe them to be, then you might just be salesponies in the ideal market for their new product and the mistake could easily be ours: I will be the first to apologize. If they are not..."

The elder went exactly where Celestia had expected him to go. "You're not the law," he said, and there was still a jovial note to it. "You have no authority to conduct a mark inspection --"

-- and stopped talking as the shadow fell over him.

"Oh?" Celestia asked. "Are we in need of authority?"

A very tall, extremely distinctive shadow.

He slowly looked up, as did his brother. It took some time to cross the full distance.

They froze. They did not move. (Those were the most intelligent things they had done in several moons.) And they paled, which looked really bad against the horrible chartreuse dye.

"The ponies you are perhaps being mistaken for..." Celestia continued. "Well, the most common alias I have on file for them is 'Flim and Flam Fields', although I've managed to assemble two dozen others -- each. They are brothers. Inventors of either inherently flawed devices or ones whose faults show when inevitably pushed too far. Con artists. They are not stallions anypony wishing to make an honest living would ever wish to be confused with, gentlecolts. And so, in the interest of helping you along in your chosen profession, I'm going to clear this up for all of Ponyville right now. Under the authority of the Solar Throne, in the name of Equestria, and for the benefit of your business..." she smiled reassuringly, tilted her head slightly to the right, and let her horn's field corona go to the absolute limits of a primary as she momentarily adopted Applejack's accent for her own "...drop 'em."

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The entire Brinner Brigade got off the train on the third attempt. One was limping rather badly. The unfamiliar binding of pants hadn't helped.

They had chosen to take the cheapest route -- well, not quite that, as they had not trotted. Chef had felt that his position as leader placed him above moving on hoof from one place to another, even though Appcarrville (regardless of what the ignorant and very confused ticket seller had tried to call it) was a single gallop from Canterlot, with safe roads linking city and town, and could be visited with a somewhat casual effort for anypony with four working legs (which left Meat out), much less operational wings. And while the others were more than lowly enough to go along that way, the group should not be separated, at least not by more than standards, skill, and inherent class differences. So it had been the train, and many of the scum's nearly-worthless possessions had been sold to finance the trip. Except for their cooking equipment, as some things were sacred, if substandard.

But there were many trains. The most expensive ran directly between capital and town with no other stops. One special transport, which Chef would have avoided in order to stay away from the presence of so much stupid chemistry, ran but once a year for the National Dessert Competition, stabilized by dozens of vibration-absorbing spells and still moving along very slowly so as not to force the issue. But for ponies on a budget -- well, for those, there was the Extreme Local, which made stops along the way at various farms next to the track and picked up shipments. Those shipments took hours to load and unload. Sometimes the shipments got away and ran up and down the passenger aisles, shedding feathers everywhere. Sometimes they sat in the middle of the free lettuce leaves which was the only thing the Brigade had to eat for the entire journey -- well, four of them: Chef had taken a meal in the sort-of-first-class car, courtesy of Sous' bed -- and laid eggs.

That train got to Appcarrville. Eventually. The longest 'eventually' on their personal record, barring every minute between two and four at night when they still weren't allowed to sleep.

Weary, carried along only by patriotic fervor and the dreams of banishing mares from professional kitchens forever, moving ahead of any prospective signature-tracking magics, four of their number covered in feathers and one now smelling like the griffon delicacy known as Steak N' Eggs -- they entered Appcarrville.

In the name of Freedom.

In the name of Celestia.

In the name of The Biggest Portrait The Hall Of Legends Had Ever Seen.

But for the moment, in the name of Finding Enough Wine To Make All Of The Above Feel Like It Couldn't Fail.

The Nightmare would be stopped. By them. Or they would die trying.

Well, everypony except Chef would die trying, and any number necessary would die trying to save him. Those were Chef's orders. He could give no others. In fact, he'd spent four hours repeating them without being fully aware that he was doing so. He was entering a realm beyond wake-up juice (and was also running out of prospective lawsuits to file). So he'd gotten ahold of something -- stronger. Much stronger. He was holding it back until they all truly needed it and for this and this alone, he was going to -- share. The thought was disgusting, but necessity dictated it that it have twenty times the voice Saucier did, even at a hundredth of the intellect.

It was in his left saddlebag. It was rattling around inside a Fawkes Vial. Every so often, it made a sound like an Ursa Minor being burped.

They greeted ponies as they staggered through the streets, as that was what normal ponies who were no part of any splinter resistance counter-revolution cell did. Some of the ponies they spoke to gazed after them, as the presence of strangers who appeared to be speaking in foreign tongues was made possible by the eclipse, but words which matched up with no known language seemed more unlikely, especially when spoken with Canterlot accents. Other ponies waved at them and cheered, stomped applause against the ground and wished them success in their noble quest. Given that the later category of ponies were mere hallucinations conjured by sleep and dream-deprived minds, it was awfully nice of them to do so.

The Brinner Brigade would fight.

They would win.

And then they would sleep for a week.

Unless Chef said they couldn't.

Which he would.

After all, somepony had to lead the applause at the Hall's ceremony.

Oh, and before that, Saucier had to be fired.

Again.

Several ponies applauded that. None of them existed either, which might have been taken by a slightly more sane pony as a discourtesy.

Instead, Chef spent twenty minutes interrogating the hotel's bedside lamp to find out how it had learned about their strike force.

He never got it to crack.