• Published 7th Sep 2013
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Glory Be - BlackRoseRaven

Luna and Scrivener struggle to set right all the wrongs from their past and save their family and friends. Tenth and final story in the Blooming Moon Chronicles/99 Worlds Saga.

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Little Miss Screw You

Chapter Four: Little Miss Screw You

When night came in Ponyville, it was peaceful: the gates remained open, letting both late-night revelers and the less-often-seen citizens of the night pass in and out. Demons and spirits and other creatures roamed the streets freely, passing beneath lanterns and under the harsh electric lights with what would be boldness in many other towns... but in Ponyville, it was comfort. Ponyville had been among the first places to welcome these creatures: and now, many years later, they were as natural to the citizens of the village as any pony or Nibelung seen out and about during the day would be.

Canterlot, on the other hoof, was always buzzing with activity. Nightclubs opened their doors, and while Nightmares and demons roamed, they were a little more aloof, a little more cautious. In spite of the fact that in the massive caverns beneath Canterlot there was an underground city of darkness, Equestria's crown city was still less than welcoming to many of its nocturnal residents. In a place like this, that was so much larger and where the citizens had much less contact with the creatures despite living just above them, change took longer, and was so much harder to achieve.

While they were working towards that change, they had to continue to deal with the consequences of having ponies and other beings living uneasily with demons and creatures of darkness. Almost every night there was some complaint that ended up being due to a misunderstanding between the day-ponies and the night creatures. Over the years, the forces that protected Canterlot had learned to deal with this more effectively, however, and they had been given more funding and better training to form better and better peacekeeping forces.

One branch of these forces was known as the Thunderbolts: a section made up mostly of elite Pegasus Guard, all of them exceptional in the air. They were trained to take down any aerial threat that the standard aerial defense forces of Equestria couldn't handle, and were rivaled only by the Wonderbolts when it came to their aerial prowess. Except the Wonderbolts weren't trained be able to meet demons and dragons in aerial combat.

The Captain of the Thunderbolts – and the daughter of the stallion who had come up with the name and suggested the idea in the first place – was moodily reviewing a file over her desk in her private office. It was almost midnight, but she planned to spend the night here at the command post to try and catch up on her paperwork... even if the overeager, wild part of her that had never died was hoping badly for some kind of alert she could respond to, to work out some of her energy. She was almost forty years old, but still in her prime, stronger, faster, better than any other pony out there.

Well, almost any other pony.

She reached up, smiling slightly as she rubbed a hoof slowly through her mane: it was blonde streaked with red, styled into a brush cut as short as her cropped tail. Her coat was a bright sun gold, and she was wearing a black cloth jacket that, even with the sleeves hemmed up, was a little too big for her: but that wasn't because she was messy, but rather because she was roughly the size of a foal in spite of her strength and age.

The Pegasus sighed, then she reached up, rubbing slowly at a nearly-invisible scar beside one of her red eyes, fidgeting a little as she looked moodily down at the stack of papers on her desk. Expense reports, flight logs, budgets and all sorts of not-fun things. She shook her head, then looked moodily down at her cutie mark of a line cutting an apple in half: that was her talent, not giving up until she finished whatever job she was given. Enduring. Smashing her way through whatever the hell was in her way. She was going to do that here, too.

She shook her head quickly, then looked down... before glancing up in surprise as there was a knock at the door, and a Pegasus Guard quickly shoved it open and stepped inside, wincing and saluting as he said hurriedly: “Ma'am, sorry to intrude, but two demons are causing a ruckus downtown, near the Oasis Tower... the Royal Guard requested you send two of yours to deal with it.”

“To deal with two demons? Please. For one thing, all ten of my boys and girls have the night off. For another, two mischief-making demons don't require two of my pack. They shouldn't even require one.” the mare said distastefully, and then she shook her head before straightening and locking her gaze on the guard: even if the tiny mare was standing on the equivalent of a booster seat, she still struck terror into the soldier as she glared him down into the ground. “But you know what? Since I'm bored, I'll go ahead and deal with this myself. Tell 'em to set up a perimeter if they're too scared to get their hooves wet.”

“It's just... ma'am, we're using that new detection technology, and one of them is a First Tier demon and the other we can't make heads or tails of.” the Pegasus Guard explained awkwardly, and the mare frowned at this as her wings flapped, carrying her easily over the desk to land in front of the soldier. And even though she was less than half the size of the bulky Pegasus, he seemed to be looking up at her instead of her to him... despite the fact that even leaning down as low as he could go, she was barely at eye level with him. “They're making a scene but...”

“Fine. Fine, I'll deal with it. Good, I've been looking to let off some steam.” the Captain of the Thunderbolts grumbled, and then she shoved past the guard, making him wince as she strode out into the hallway and made her way quickly down to the locker rooms.

Ten minutes later, and the small mare emerged onto the streets of Canterlot in body-fitting steel armor with nasty, blade-like flanges and a helmet with an enormous, saw-like fin. Deadly bracers were locked over her forelegs, that each had four long, razor-like blades standing out at the compass points: crosshatch blades, weapons that were as deadly as they were difficult to use properly. Like her armor, each blade was marked by an emblem: a bolt of rainbow colored lightning coming out of a black thundercloud. A silent tribute to the father, who to this day was still her inspiration, her rock, her idol.

The Pegasus took a breath, then she leapt up into the air, becoming a golden streak through the night as she shifted easily in the direction of the Oasis Tower. She had a pair of goggles on to protect her eyes, although one had a thicker lens and a strange tint: these had been a gift from an old friend, and while one goggle was normal, the other saw the energy emitted by organic beings, letting her understand if she was looking at a mortal, a demon, or something else entirely.

She shot through the air, focused, sharp, unyielding... and in this moment, feeling free, in spite of the fact she was rushing headlong towards danger. She let herself smile for a moment, as her eyes narrowed behind her goggles: she didn't smile as often these days, though, living in her apartment here in Canterlot, away from her family, her friends, her real home. But she had responsibilities she couldn't drop, she was determined not to be the pony she had once been, but better: she wouldn't let someone get hurt again because she hadn't been there. People needed someone who could wing in and save them, and she was that pony.

She wouldn't let down another pony like she had let down her mother. She wouldn't ever treat something, no matter how small, like it wasn't important again... because she knew that it was the smallest little cracks that could erupt into the biggest wounds.

The Pegasus twisted upwards, almost brushing the clouds as she took a quick sweep of the entire area to ensure she wasn't about to fly into an ambush before she dove forwards. Her eyes focused in on her destination as she rapidly closed towards it: Oasis Tower, an omen of the coming age. A behemoth structure that wasn't just stone, but metal and glass, and stood out like a sore hoof amidst the rest of Canterlot's stone and fairytale architecture.

Around the rectangular base were clustered ponies and a few gawkers, pointing at the mass of dark smoke circling rapidly around the structure, cracking the glass here and there. Only a few windows had been shattered, but another figure was standing complacently in one of these, wearing a heavy cloak to conceal itself. All the same, the mare could at least read the energies of the creatures with her goggles, and she grimaced: the guard had been half-right. One was a First Tier demon, the other... she wasn't sure. Even if the cloak was muffling its energy signature somehow, it wasn't like anything she'd gotten familiar with over the decade she'd worked here...

Then the cloud of living smoke that was an incorporeal demon veered suddenly towards her, and the mare gritted her teeth as she flew up into a ready position and rose both her crosshatch blades. But to her surprise, the cloud of smoke twisted suddenly around, beginning to circle her violently even as she said coldly: “Listen to me, punk, if you don't cease and desist right now I'm going to smash you down to Subterra and drag you in front of the Overseer. Let's do this nice and easy, and we'll go through the Canterlot courts, unless you want a one-way trip to Helheim.”

Echoing laughter rippled through the air around her, and the tiny Pegasus gritted her teeth even as her brow furrowed slightly: there was something strangely familiar about that sound. But she shoved that away for a moment, shaking her head briskly before she said sharply: “Final warning! And believe me, I'm eager to hurt you and your...”

As the demon revolved around her again, the mare's eyes locked on the sight of the cloaked figure, and they widened slightly as she saw it draw back before leaping out of the building, angling its body to dive straight down with the cloak fanning out around it. On instinct, the Pegasus lunged forwards to intercept, but the demon that had been orbiting her shot downwards and twisted in a violent corkscrew around her, knocking her off-balance and sending her zigzagging wildly out of control.

It was only for a few moments, but by the time she regained her balance, the cloaked figure had hit the ground... and smashed right through a drainage grate in a flash of white magic, the mare cursing under her breath as she watched the First Tier demon quickly follow.

Without hesitation, even knowing this was likely an ambush, the tiny mare shot down after them, ignoring the yelling crowd, the other guards, everything except for her target. She lunged through the hole and twisted upwards to shoot through the tunnel above the shallow muck of the sewer, her eyes focused forward and her teeth grit as she just caught the smoky tail of the incorporeal demon twist around a corner ahead.

It was narrow, it was damp, it was cold, and the Captain of the Thunderbolts wasn't aware of any of these things: all she knew was that there were two freaks asking for a beating ahead, and she was going to make them rue the day they thought they could cause mayhem and then escape her wrath. With ease, she navigated the twisting tunnels, slowly gaining on them inch-by-inch until they reached a wide, open straightaway, and the mare bared her teeth as she thought: This is it!

Her wings propelled her through the air in a streak of gold, the force of her passage parting the water beneath her as she closed the distance on the two. But to her surprise, the cloaked figure was the one to react, not the demon she was ready to smash out of incorporeality: one moment, he was fleeing, the next he had twisted towards the wall, running up it before kicking off and flipping his body towards her even as she reacted on instinct and training-

She slammed face-first into a solid barrier of energy that formed out of nowhere, her eyes bulging even as she hit it with enough force to crack it, and for a moment she was stuck there with one foreleg raised. The demon was just a dark shape floating in the air as the cloaked figure laughed at her, even as he fell calmly backwards... and the mare's eyes blazed with fury before she slammed her front hoof forwards, smashing the magical barrier apart before she shot savagely down into the cloaked creature and flipped her body to slam both hind legs into him, shouting: “This is no goddamn game!”

The cloaked figure squeaked as it smashed into the brick wall of the sewer with enough force to send cracks through the brittle stone, but the mare didn't take any time to savor her victory. Instead, she was already moving again, flapping her wings hard as she kicked her hind legs upwards to hook her body in a J through the air, calmly dodging a wild dive from the incorporeal demon before the mare twisted her whole body around and into a savage smash of both forelegs, swinging the silver-edged crosshatch blades into the cloud of smoke.

The blessed weapons flashed on contact with the smog, and there was a cry of pain before a shape rocketed out of the smoke cloud as it dissipated, a demon with two large cuts across its back and shoulders smashing into the water below. And the Captain of the Thunderbolts was already in the perfect position to knock the rest of the fight of her enemy as she dove straight down, going into a wild corkscrew that turned her entire body into a deadly drill-

And then something happened that had only happened once before, in her entire life: she felt something leap fearlessly into her and pluck her from the air in mid-spin, tackling her to the side. A moment later, she slammed face-first down into a platform of solid energy, and the cloaked figure was on top of her and one of her forelegs had been yanked up painfully behind her back, where she couldn't move it because then the stupid crosshatch blade would likely shred the stupid base of her stupid wing.

She mouthed slowly and wordlessly, the large, circular platform of energy she was pinned into sizzling against her chick as the cloaked figure stood triumphantly on her back. There were only two ponies in the entire world that could have done that to her, and she looked disbelievingly up over her shoulder at the stallion holding her down as she asked stupidly: “Antares?”

“Hey, Aviator.” Antares flicked his head back, knocking the hood of the cloak off so he could grin down at her cheerfully, and the tiny Pegasus stared up at him as he looked placidly back down at her. “Pretty sure you owe both me and Apps a beer now.”

“Yeah, Avalon! That really hurt!” complained another all-too-familiar voice, and the tiny Pegasus gave a dumb laugh as Aphrodisia bounded up beside the platform, sniffing loudly as she splashed through the ankle-deep muck. “You're a big doo-doo head.”

Avalon Apple only shook her head slowly, looking disbelievingly from one pony to the other before she suddenly gritted her teeth, beginning to wiggle violently beneath Antares against the platform of energy he had made, shouting: “You stupid morons! This is why there was no suppression response from Subterra? This is why I was called? You goddamn idiots went and vandalized private property and caused mass panic through Canterlot because... because you wanted to say 'hi?' What the hell kind of thinking is that?”

“The kind you used to appreciate.” Antares said mildly, and then he lightly flung Avalon forwards, and the mare caught herself quickly in midair and spun around to yank her goggles up onto her forehead so she could glare furiously at the unicorn as he sat primly down on his own platform of energy, giving her a slight grin. “And it's not like Apps or I did anything bad. Minor property damage to some jerks who make half their money from peddling drugs and staying just ahead of labor laws. I know for a fact Rosewood's been trying to get rid of them, so... we did you a favor, really.”

Avalon stared in disbelief, and then Aphrodisia added brightly: “Also, we had fun, right? And we brought you out of sight and stuff, so you can sneak away. And we didn't kick your butt even though we really should because you're sort of mean.”

Aphrodisia paused, glancing pointedly over her own shoulder at the slowly-healing lacerations, and the Pegasus gritted her teeth before she shook her head fiercely and snapped: “Look, we're not judge and jury! I don't know how things work in Heaven and Hell, but my job here is just to catch who I'm sent out after and bring them in, then let the courts decide their fate, do you understand that? And I am not about to just... dick off with you two because you want to go have fun and drinks! Those days are over!”

The stallion shook his head sadly, and Avalon glared at him furiously before she spun around before the unicorn called mildly: “Never knew you'd grow up to be kind of a wimp without us around, Avalon.”

The Pegasus skidded to a halt in midair, knowing she shouldn't, knowing she should just leave... and then she slowly gritted her teeth before spinning around and retorting: “You two think you're really that important? Well, sorry, but I'm not immortal like you assholes, and neither are my parents! I needed to grow up and learn to be responsible and strong, to do my duty, because unlike you idiots I'm going to die!”

“We're all gonna die, Avalon. Hey, for all you know, we could end up dead long before you.” Antares said reasonably, and then he smiled over at Aphrodisia. “And me and Apps aren't going to end up in Valhalla like you when we die. We're just going to be gone. You and your parents, you guys are the lucky ones. You lose one life, you gain a whole new one. I lose my life, and because of all my exposure to Valhalla and just... what I am... I'll be gone.”

Avalon winced a bit at this, and then she shifted and felt... guilty for a moment, before Aphrodisia looked up and said softly: “It must be hard, Ava. I can't imagine what it's like, knowing what happened to your Mom and how old all the people we grew up with are getting... it hurts enough to see that Auntie Pinkie is getting so old. But this life is just... a cocoon, that's what I try to think. And death is just gonna be a transformation into... something new. Something better.”

Avalon shifted a bit, then she shook her head and muttered: “That doesn't mean I get to just dick around as I please. Hell, if anything, that means I gotta be even better than I'm doing now. Look, I'm busy, I have work, I have... mortal problems. You used to really understand that, Mir.”

“You used to be fun. And stupid. Also, Apps and I both have to head back to our jobs like, soon, which by the way, are much crazier and harder than your job.” Antares said pointedly, and Avalon glared at him as one of her eyes twitched, but the stallion only shrugged. “Hey, it's true. What do you do? Oh, apparently it's beat up your friends when they try to invite you out for a beer, that's what you do. Me and Apps save the motherbucking universe. I'd like to see you try and save the motherbucking universe. But you couldn't, because there's a height requirement.”

There was silence for a few moments as Avalon stared at him, her mouth falling slightly open as Aphrodisia giggled madly behind her front hooves, and then the stallion informed: “If I wasn't clear, I'm calling you short.”

Avalon roared furiously and threw herself at Antares, and the stallion grinned as he flung himself upwards, leaping high into the air. As expected, Avalon attempt to boost herself off the platform he had been standing on, but the moment her hooves slammed down against it they became stuck, the mare looking dumbly down before she snapped her eyes up in time to see Antares falling towards her, his horn glowing and a hoof drawn back, a wide grin on his face...

And then there was darkness and nothing but a haze for a little while. There was the vaguest sensation of moving, but also blurs of memory. Laughing with her friends, the mare she had used to be, the good times, how they had been friends, always looking out for each other...

Avalon shifted... and then she blinked a few times before opening her eyes and raising her head as she realized she was sitting at a table. She mouthed slowly as she looked back and forth, trying to make sense of her surroundings as her hoof knocked against something, then awkwardly caught it and lifted it before she could knock it over.

She looked down blankly at it as she realized it was a bottle of beer... and from the bad singing and the smell of alcohol, they were in a tavern on karaoke night. A glance to the side confirmed this as she saw the stage past the bar and the ponies who were just having fun on it, before the Pegasus ground her teeth together as she looked slowly across the table, focusing on Aphrodisia and Antares as they both rose glasses of whiskey and clinked them together. “You assholes. What did you do to me?”

“Angel taser.” Antares said mildly, winking across at her as he reached up and tapped his horn. “Nice big jolt of purification to short-circuit your nervous system. But hey, it was either that or have Apps take over your brain. I figure you'd like brute force more than mind control.”

Aphrodisia grinned, showing off needle-like fangs, and Avalon groaned as she sat back in her chair, shaking her head in disgust as she muttered: “It's been three years since the last time we hung out. I don't do this kind of thing anymore, you two. I'm not this person anymore. I have to get back to work and I want you two to leave me alone.”

“Okay. Go right ahead.” Antares said mildly, and Avalon frowned moodily as she stopped on the edge of her seat, while Aphrodisia cocked her head curiously. But the glossy-black unicorn was looking at the tiny Pegasus with a slight smile and a mischievous gleam in his eye, as he continued: “It's only been half an hour or so, and we're in a lower district so you can probably merge right into a patrol path to announce that you're back and make up some excuse for what happened.

“I know it's been hard. We haven't been able to be around much, get together much. You're here in Canterlot, and Apps and I are in Ponyville, so even when we do come to visit, we don't often see each other. It's been years, and really... almost a decade since it was me, you two, and T all able to be together like old times.” The stallion halted, then he shook his head and said softly, glancing up: “I'm sorry, I am. I wish I could spend more time with you, Ava. I wish I was here more often. I wish Prestige was able to leave Valhalla. I wish for a lot of things, but I'm grown up enough to know I can't just make my wishes come true. I'm also grown up enough to know that when I have a chance to hang out with my old friends, I should goddamn well take it unless I want to spend the entire week pissed off at myself because I decided I couldn't cut an extra hour out of work to have a beer and act like the pony I used to be instead of the hardass I am now.”

Avalon glowered at him, but she felt... guilt in her gut, too. And that brought up thoughts of her family and … to hell with it. “Fine.”

The Pegasus picked up the bottle of beer in front of her, then leaned down and bit off the metal cap, spitting it aside as she said sulkily: “Here's to being an irresponsible jackass, then.”

With that, she tilted the bottle back and guzzled half the contents before slamming it down, then she belched loudly and glowered over at Antares, saying moodily: “I guess you've still got those stupid eyes of yours, huh?”

“Acuity. It's my special talent.” Antares smiled slightly, shrugging a bit before he glanced up and added: “Here, see that guy over there? Beside him is his wife, but he's cheating on her with that younger mare across the table. That necklace she's wearing is a gift from him. They're already thinking about how they're going to have sex later, right under his wife's nose, because... she's her teaching assistant. She's a professor of... something in the arts field.”

Avalon glanced dumbly over the back of her chair, seeing the three ponies that were all laughing together at a table nearby, and the tiny Pegasus studied them blankly for a few moments before she scowled and turned around, glaring at the stallion. “You made that up. There is no way you've gotten that good.”

“The fun part is that it's not like you can just go over and ask them. Well, I mean, you could, but that'd kind of be awkward.” Antares said blandly, and then he smiled slightly when the Pegasus glared at him. “Okay, fine. Look at them again. His wife is wearing those big ugly glasses, has several books and papers sticking out of her purse, none of her jewelry is real and most of it is new agey. Her husband is keeping space between them and he's leaning towards the younger mare, and the young chick has almost all her focus on him and keeps touching the necklace; she thinks it's all an adventure, she's all excited, she's too dumb to realize how big the consequences are going to be if they're caught. Especially because there's deference towards the wife, too; the way she keeps her head low, the way she keeps making supplicating gestures.”

The Pegasus looked over her shoulder as Aphrodisia raised her empty glass and called to a waitress, and then Avalon turned back around and said moodily: “Okay, congratulations. I'm now freaked the hell out and not sure whether or not I want to hang out with you anymore. You better not be using your psychic powers on me.”

“I'm not psychic, and I already know everything about you, Aviator.” Antares said mildly, sipping at his whiskey, and when the mare glared at him, he added: “It's not like you're exactly hard to read, either. You tend to kind of throw your emotions at whoever's around.”

“You shut the hell up. You don't know anything about me.” Avalon retorted, and then she held up a hoof when the waitress approached, saying before Aphrodisia could say anything: “A pitcher of ale from the tap, and a glass of ice.”

“Refill, please!” Aphrodisia smiled, and the waitress nodded with an amused look, taking the demon's glass.

“Bring me a cup too, thanks. No ice, though, I don't need to water my alcohol down like some ponies do.” Antares said mildly, looking pointedly over at Avalon, who scowled back at him.

“Hey, bite me. For one thing, I'm supposed to be working. For another, I don't need to water down any of my goddamn ale, I just like it cold, that's all.” Avalon said grouchily, and Antares only shrugged placidly as the waitress headed away. The tiny Pegasus bared her teeth at the stallion, and then, before she even realized what she was saying, she pointed at him and snapped: “Fine, I'll drink you under this damn table, you hear me?”

Antares only shrugged, grinning slightly... and two hours later, the three stumbled out of the tavern together, laughing like it was old times, Avalon drunk to the point where she could barely keep herself on her hooves, her friends shielding her between them before she said in a mumble: “I'm... I'm gonna... this was the greatest night in... guys, guys... guys, thank you because... I just missed you guys and my family so bad and this... this really helped.”

“Hey, I'm glad for it, Ava.” Antares smiled down at her, feeling tipsy but... not nearly as drunk as the tiny Pegasus clearly was. Impulsively, he reached over and hugged her tightly with one foreleg, and she hiccuped even as she looked up at him warmly, then laughed when Apps grabbed her and hefted her up into a tight hug against her body.

Avalon hugged the demon tightly back, and then she almost fell when the demon let go of her, but the tiny Pegasus managed to catch the air with her wings before she looked up with a dumb smile and... happiness. Yeah, she was happy, as she stuttered out: “I'm gonna... I think... I'm gonna go now and go and... go home now and... you guys send me letters or stuff and... I'll read 'em! I'll... I'll see you guys soon. You guys better come visit soon.”

She didn't really hear what Antares and Aphrodisia said in response as she flitted up into the air, zigzagging back and forth before her body turned to guide her home. Home, where she belonged. Home, where she was always happy, because things were going to get better...

In the morning, Avalon woke up with a groan, feeling hungover and stupider than usual. Her friends were gone, and she wanted to regret last night and all the work she hadn't done, as she sat carefully up and the hay beneath her shifted. She grimaced a little, rubbing at her features, hating herself but more glad than she would ever, ever allow herself to admit about that time spent catching up with friends and being her old self...

She frowned as her eyes opened, looking around at the stalls, the old wooden walls, feeling a strange sense of familiarity and no sense of surprise despite the fact this wasn't her home... this was... this was...

Her eyes widened slowly, and she staggered to her hooves, hurrying across the sawdust-covered floor and sending hale flying in all directions as she all but erupted out of the bale. She almost rammed face-first into the ajar door, yanking it open to stare out of the barn and at the ranch house across the lawn... before her jaw fell agape as a familiar old red earth pony opened the door and trotted out onto the deck. Age had tanned his coat darker in places, and he had a scruffy, short gray-blonde beard now and had let his mane grow out a little more, but that piercing green eye was the same as it had always been, far more vibrant than the glass orb in the other socket.

“Breakfast.” he called to her amiably, as if nothing was out of the ordinary, and then he turned around and strode back inside.

Avalon mouthed slowly, then she strode dumbly across the yard, her wings flapping a few times to shake the last of the hay loose from her body. She reached the stairs and climbed them almost nervously, swallowing thickly... but it had been a long time since she'd been home. She sent them money every month, but rarely much of a letter these days more than standard well-wishes... she just never had time to reply to the letters she got with everything she was in charge of.

The tiny Pegasus headed to the door and pushed it open, tracing the familiar path to the kitchen, feeling such a powerful wave of nostalgia from the life she'd lived here... and how that only got all the stronger when she stepped into the kitchen, saw everything the way she had always remembered it all, saw her family all gathered there.

The big red stallion, her uncle, was sitting at the table beside a light blue Pegasus who grinned up at her, his features still handsome despite how much of his youth they'd lost. And at the counter, just finishing up pancakes, was her father: a Pegasus stallion with magenta eyes and a shaggy rainbow mane and tail, his coat blue, the emblem on his flank of a white cloud releasing a rainbow-colored bolt of lightning. Her father, her inspiration... and beside him...

Her mother smiled at her, a smile that made her green eyes light up and refute the wrinkles that covered her features. She was a goldenrod earth pony, with a mane that had once been blonde but had now turned almost entirely white, and she was thin, and... pretty. She held herself up well, in spite of the shawl wrapped around her neck; not because her mother was frail, but it helped hide the marks of all the surgeries she had gone through, these last few years.

Avalon swallowed a little, looking back and forth, and then her mother gestured at the table and said softly: “Go on and sit down, Ava, you look famished. Hurry up, Dash, Big Mac and Soarin' got work to do today, we ain't all as lazy as you.”

“Hey, I know what I'm doing, thank you very much.” Rainbow Dash replied pointedly as he turned back to the griddle, flipping the pancakes to check them as he added: “And you should go sit down too, Applejack.”

“I'm fine. Y'all are worrying about me for nothing these days, I swear.” the mare grumbled, and Avalon smiled despite herself as her mother pushed away from the counter and made her way to the table... a little slow, a little careful of her balance, Avalon noticed. She couldn't help but stare, and then she blushed when her mother glanced over at her and said: “Hey, sit down, Ava. Don't even think about runnin' off without eating.”

“I'm not, Mom. I'm not.” Avalon said when she finally found her voice, and then she quickly hurried to slip into her old spot at the table. She smiled embarrassedly, looking around awkwardly before she cleared her throat and mumbled: “So uh... it's... it's good to see you all. I... I guess I got confused trying to go home last night.”

Big Mac only smiled amusedly over at her, and Soarin' grinned as he leaned forwards, asking: “So how's the Captain of the Thunderbolts doing in Canterlot, anyway?”

“Great. Really... really great.” Avalon said unenthusiastically, and then she looked up with a smile as her father approached and placed an enormous stack of pancakes down on the table, the Pegasus changing the subject hurriedly: “How did you guys know I was here?”

Applejack only chuckled and shook her head, saying softly: “I was still up reading when I heard the barn door open. At first I though it might be someone trying to help themselves to some of our stores, but Dash went and took a quick look, and well...”

“There you were. In the same place you always slept in whenever you came home drunk.” Rainbow Dash said with a smile as he slipped in beside his daughter, and he nudged her lightly with his shoulder as he winked at her. “Your mother was a little worried until I reminded her that Apps and Antares had been around. You went out with them, I'm guessing, yeah?”

Avalon nodded awkwardly, and she thought she saw... relief, approval even, in the eyes of her parents. She shifted embarrassedly, then picked up a fork and cleared her throat before she asked finally as she poked at her pancakes slowly: “So how... how have you been, Mom?”

Applejack laughed quietly, adjusting her shawl before she said softly: “Don't you worry about me, Ava. Just seeing you... does me a world of good. And you don't have to keep sending us money, either, we've been doin' fine here...”

“No, but I like to. I want to help out.” Avalon said firmly, shaking her head, and then she frowned a little when Applejack and Rainbow Dash traded looks, both shifting a little. “What? What is it? Do you need more help?”

“No, honey, that's not it at all.” Applejack said quietly, and he glanced over at her big brother, who nodded firmly once before he reached up and squeezed Soarin's shoulder gently. The former Wonderbolt glanced up dumbly from where he was stuffing his face with pancakes and hash browns, and then he nodded lamely before quickly sweeping up his plate and excusing himself with the crimson stallion.

Avalon shifted uneasily, looking back towards her mother as she breathed hard in and out, expecting the worst. That she was going to be written out of the will, this was her last family meal, that... they were going to lose the farm and it was all her fault. She met her mother's eyes, already trying to form an apology that would never be enough, before Applejack said softly: “This ain't entirely fair, Avalon, but this farm has been our family's for generations, and I want to continue that tradition... at least one more time. I'm passing down Sweet Apple Acres to you, Avalon.”

“I... M-Mom, I can't... I mean... what about you and Dad?” whispered Avalon, and Rainbow Dash reached up to squeeze his stunned daughter's shoulder soothingly.

“Well, your mother and I haven't really thought that far ahead yet.” the stallion said softly, and Avalon turned disbelieving eyes up to him, before he explained gently, slipping a tender look towards Applejack: “Ava, I... your mom and me, we're both getting old now. And for so many years, we've been here. Don't get me wrong, it's been great, but your Mom and I never really got to live out all our silly dreams we used to have and... we want to, before...”

“Before the end.” Applejack said gently, unflinchingly, and she smiled even as Avalon turned worried eyes to her. “Oh, don't give me that look. I'm fine, still, and I'm gonna be fine for months yet. Long enough for one last pilgrimage around Equestria, see my family and explore the country and where the Apples came from... but I can't lie. A year? I don't know. Two years? I don't see any point in pretending that's likely. Three? I know I'll be in the ground before then.”

“Mom, don't talk like that. D-Don't talk like that, okay?” Avalon pleaded, but when Applejack only smiled again at her, her daughter trembled and lowered her head, biting her lip and whispering: “I'm so sorry...”

Rainbow Dash rubbed soothingly along his daughter's back as Applejack chuckled and shook her head, murmuring: “Now stop that. Ain't your fault, Ava, we were both doin' things we weren't supposed to. You were off bein' stupid but I was the one trying to do all the work by myself in the barn. I knew better than that, with my lungs all chewed up, but I was doin' it anyway. Would have been easy to find you, I'm sure, and easier to just wait, but I didn't. It's not your fault I broke my back... it was all that pride that finally did it.”

There was silence for a few moments, and then Applejack cleared her throat and straightened herself carefully before saying softly: “We're gonna travel around Equestria. I got that stupid brace that Cowlick made for me, and... we're not gonna worry about the farm, 'cause it's yours now. Big Mac will be around if you want some advice, but he and I agree the farm should go to you.”

Avalon didn't know what to say, or how to react. She swallowed again, trembling a little as she looked across at her parents, and then she simply nodded a few times, feeling tears forming in her eyes as she rubbed at her face and realized... how much this meant to her as she laughed faintly before bowing her head. “I just... I'm the Captain of the Thunderbolts now... I've got to be responsible.”

“I know. It'll take a few weeks to get all the papers sorted out and everything anyway, Ava, you got time to think about what you want to do. If you wanna sell it, that's fine too. I just want to pass this farm down to you... I know you'll do what's best.” Applejack said softly, and Avalon laughed faintly as her father squeezed her around the shoulders, and she only hoped that she'd live up to half of what her parents still thought of her after all these years.

After breakfast, Avalon had sent a letter off to Headquarters using the dragon statue they'd been given forever ago by Luna and Scrivener, claiming she was held up in pursuit and would be returning to base to make her report once she'd finished gathering some intel.

She left her armor at home... her home, Sweet Apple Acres. That felt so strange to think of, but she... she sort of liked it. Not that she thought she could just abandon everything and come live out here, but maybe there was someone who could help. Someone else she could look to for advice.

She didn't have to go far: just a little down the road, there was a beautiful little cottage, with little hutches and feeding bowls for animals over the lawn. Quite a few different creatures were helping themselves to food and drink, and Avalon smiled wryly despite herself as she made her way to the door of the pretty house.

And before she could even knock, the door was quickly opened, but it wasn't a pony who emerged. It was an equine that looked almost like it was black smoke made physical, with a smoky mane that half-curled over her face to shade her curious, glowing green eyes that lacked both iris and pupil, but were all the same expressive and gentle.

Her wings flapped a little at her sides, and then the entity smiled softly at Avalon, saying quietly: “This is quite a surprise. Are you looking for my okâwîmâw, Avalon?”

“I am, yeah, but... I have time today, Tender Trust, so... if... well, you know. Maybe you can help some too.” Avalon said softly, gazing at her friend with a small smile. Tender Trust looked back curiously, but she nodded before stepping back, gesturing for the mare to come inside.

Avalon followed her friend through the entrance hall and into a cozy den that smelled of flowers and woodsmoke. There was a small fire crackling quietly away in the fireplace, and a pot suspended above this in which charred herbs were emitting that almost-rapturous mix of smells, Avalon feeling herself loosening up just from the first few breaths, turning her eyes towards the couple on the couch as Tender Trust introduced politely: “Okâwîmâw, Avalon is here.”

“Oh, hello Ava... it's been a while since the last time we talked.” said the Pegasus resting back on the couch in a soft voice, sitting up with a quiet, warm smile. She was a sunny yellow, with her pink mane carefully pulled back from her eyes and held in place by headband, a cutie mark of butterflies on her haunch... but only a single wing furled against her side, the other missing.

Beside her, an almost-ethereal stallion grunted, nodding once as his black body seemed to ripple and twist like smog, green-fire eyes studying the visitor with interest. There were two others similar to this being resting on pillows at one side of the room as well, but they seemed somehow younger and more-physical. And when Tender Trust walked over to drop down beside one of them, and he absently attempted to shove her over, it became quite apparent they were siblings, while the ponies on the couch were their parents.

“Fluttershy, Nirvana... it's good to see you both.” Avalon greeted, and then she hesitated before glancing between the two, taking a deep breath and inhaling the relaxing vapors... and then she simply blurted: “So my Mom and Dad are passing down the farm to me and I don't know what to do.”

Fluttershy only smiled softly as Nirvana cocked his head, and Avalon cleared her throat at the unexpected reply... or the lack thereof. Then Tender Trust rose her head and asked curiously: “So when will you be moving back to your den?”

“Huh?” Avalon blanked for a moment, glancing over at Tender Trust, and then she blushed slightly and shook her head quickly, saying awkwardly: “Well, I mean... I guess I kind of want to move back, but I don't know a goddamn thing about running the farm... sure, yeah, I've done basically every chore and stuff but I could never actually... run the place...”

“You should talk to your parents about that, then, and ask them how it works. You're smart, Avalon... when we trained together, you learned very quickly. Your problem was always just a lack of focus... but from what I've heard, you've long conquered that.” Fluttershy said gently, then she picked up the cup of tea on the table in front of her and sipped at it slowly, before smiling over at the tiny Pegasus. “You have to go where you belong.”

“I... I don't know...” Avalon bit her lip, looking down and nodding slowly before she sighed when the two stallions beside Tender Trust rumbled and shifted. “Hey, shut up. You guys are lucky, you kind of... have your lives laid out for you, and all kinds of time to live. Ponies like me only have a few years compared to Phooka like you.”

The brothers traded looks, then both blew raspberries at Avalon, making Tender Trust giggle as Nirvana rolled his eyes and shook his head slowly. Fluttershy only smiled despite herself, then turned her eyes towards Avalon and suggested: “Why don't you go speak to your aunt, Apple Bloom? Perhaps she can help you.”

“I... yeah. Yeah, you're right. I gotta tell her anyway... Mom told me that she talked it over with Aunt Bloom too, but... she said that even if Apple Bloom works at the engineering building, she deserves to know everything that goes on out at the farm still.” Avalon stopped, thought of that morning, and then she laughed a little and shook her head as she murmured: “Forty years old and I'm still learning how much family is willing to do for you.”

“I know exactly what you mean.” Fluttershy said softly, smiling towards Nirvana, and the Phooka simply bowed his head to her placidly before the one-winged Pegasus turned her gaze back towards Avalon. “I hope you decide to do what's best for you, either way, Avalon... and please, after you make your decision, come back and see me. I'd like to know what I could do to help, either way.”

Avalon nodded awkwardly, and then she straightened and said after a moment: “It might... be a few weeks or something though, before I... you know, really... come to any decision, and of course I gotta fill out the papers and stuff and... you know. It might be a while.”

She smiled lamely, but Fluttershy only smiled kindly back and said gently: “That's perfectly fine. I have all the time in the world, and you know I'm always here or over at the care center. Here, let me walk you to the door...”

Fluttershy began to carefully stand, but Tender Trust hopped to her own hooves first, saying quickly: “No, okâwîmâw, please rest. I would like to go with Avalon anyway, to spend time with my friend. That is important, is it not?”

“It is. Very important.” Fluttershy settled back, nodding once as Nirvana grunted in agreement as well. Tender Trust smiled, then she turned to Avalon, as Fluttershy said softly: “Remember that I'm always here to help you, Avalon.”

“Thank you, Fluttershy. I will.” Avalon promised, smiling in return to the elderly mare before she turned, letting Tender Trust lead the way outside.

They strode to the street together in silence, and Avalon bit her lip for a moment before she finally glanced towards the half-Phooka, half-Pegasus, saying quietly: “So our parents are growing old, huh? Well... my family and your mom.”

Tender Trust only smiled a little, shaking her head and murmuring: “Okâwîmâw will be around for many years yet, Avalon. She lives well. She will be treated well. And we will bury her amongst our ancestors in the forest, so she may be with us always.”

Avalon grunted, then the young mare sighed and lowered her head, saying quietly: “I wish I could be more like you, T. Just... happy with things, able to take stuff in stride. Look at me, Captain of the Thunderbolts, the top combat flyer in the nation... and here I am, thinking that... just because Mom and Dad are going away and... oh, it's stupid.”

“It is not stupid. You are trying to balance what you can do for others with what you must do for yourself.” Tender Trust said softly, and Avalon glanced over at the smoky mare before the half-Phooka continued kindly: “What you must keep in mind is that you will not cease to be who you are, just because you go to a different place. In Canterlot you are still Avalon. Should you return to Ponyville, you will still be Captain of the Thunderbolts.”

“Not if I don't have the job, T. I'll have to give up the job, my position, everything, to come back here. Sell my apartment, and... say goodbye to all my... friends...” Avalon had trouble with the last, grimacing a little as she looked away, unable from reflecting that outside of the Thunderbolts... she didn't really have any friends. And even inside the unit, well... “Plus, you know, it'll be a lot harder to have one night stands.”

Tender Trust only looked at Avalon blankly, and the young mare winced and looked awkwardly away, mumbling: “I always forget that you're like, half my age. And from a completely different culture. And I guess Fluttershy wouldn't be the 'sleeping around' type.”

Okâwîmâw sleeps anywhere she likes.” Tender Trust said after a moment, and Avalon sighed... then slowly stared when the half-Phooka continues: “Sometimes she sleeps at home, with her husband. Sometimes she sleeps in the den, with whoever will host her. Sometimes she sleeps with many of our kin at once. The Phooka are always very eager to please my mother.”

Avalon mouthed wordlessly for a moment, and then she frowned and asked moodily: “Wait. Are you just making this up?”

“No, I am not. For the Phooka it is an honor to help care for my mother, for which we are very proud, and often she desires to be close to the tribe.” Tender Trust continued, then she paused and added calmly: “Sometimes she is even invited to spend time and special occasions with favored members of the den, who treat her to anything and everything she desires.

“So she sleeps where it most pleases her. But she does not have sex with them is that is what you are referring to.” A pause. “It is in my nature to take advantage of the gullible, I apologize.” Tender Trust finished gently, and Avalon groaned and rolled her eyes.

They didn't share much more conversation on the way into the village, and Avalon smiled wryly at the way the guards stumbled to attention and saluted her when they realized who was approaching. And as they made their way into the village itself, she was suddenly rushed by several younger ponies, who bounced around her until she awkwardly signed a photo one of them had of her and sent them on their way. It was almost enough to distract her from the way the air in the northern half of Ponyville felt so much heavier than everywhere else: a reminder of a battle they had lost, a decade and a half ago.

It wasn't something she would ever get used to. Once upon a time, the Wonderbolts had been the unrivaled masters of the skies, stunt-Pegasi who were even called upon now and then to perform high-risk aerial missions throughout Equestria. Then they had established the Thunderbolts... and shortly after that, started a rivalry when Avalon had openly declared that the Thunderbolts would be Equestria's most adept flyers, and the Wonderbolts had responded by challenging them to an exposition. A battle of two teams.

But what few of the current Wonderbolts roster knew was that Avalon had worked with former legends among their own organization. Spitfire, Soarin', and of course her own father, Rainbow Dash: she knew the entire Wonderbolt repertoire inside and out. And when the current Wonderbolts had made the mistake of letting them put on the first show of skills, she had simply taken her team of then-four and led them through an old Wonderbolts routine... then finished it with an imitation of her father's Sonic Rainboom.

She had stolen the victory for the start. And sure, she had gotten lectured about fair play afterwards from her parents, but it hadn't really sunk in then: she was too determined to do her duty. She wasn't treating it like a game or a contest; it was a fight, and the enemy had to be taken down by any means necessary.

The competition had been heavily in their favor as they continued to use the Wonderbolts' own repertoire against them, right up until the pissed-off team of stunt flyers challenged them to aerial sparring to show who was really in charge of the skies. It was a mistake, and now more than ever, Avalon regretted what had happened.

She was paired up against their new Captain, Skylash. Skylash was tough, was capable, was the only Wonderbolt who was able to consistently undermine the Thunderbolts. And Avalon knew that if she wanted to get the final word, she had to take Skylash down hard.

She forgot these were ponies who hadn't seen the things she had; she forgot these were aerial flyers who were used to being untouchable; she forgot that this was really just a stupid game, and didn't care that she had already more than earned the respect and funding she needed to fortify the Thunderbolts as an organization.

Skylash came at her, tried to use her speed to gain the edge and make a quick frontal attack: Avalon saw it, and could have handled it a thousand different ways. But as she always did, she chose the direct route.

Avalon dodged upwards, and then came down with the force of gravity and the weight of her armor backing the hammer hoof she brought down on Skylash's skull. With a single blow, she brought down the Captain of the Wonderbolts and made herself the Captain of the Thunderbolts. She sent another Pegasus down in a bloody mess and left her in a broken heap on the ground below, and first there had been silence... and then, cheering. Not for her, but for the show she'd put on. For the way she'd so viciously punished a pony who had only wanted to try and defend the title her team had held for generations.

Even a few days ago, Avalon would have still said Skylash deserved it. Now, she wondered uneasily where the Wonderbolts were these days: she knew that now, the Thunderbolts took care of war, and the Wonderbolts were just the entertainers...

Tender Trust nudged her with a wing, and Avalon shook her head hurriedly before she looked up and saw they were approaching the engineering building. She cleared her throat, then smiled weakly over at Tender Trust, saying once she felt she could trust herself to speak: “Sorry. I got... I got a lot to think about. I... I just got a lot to think about.”

The half-Phooka only nodded, and Avalon shook herself briskly before she turned back towards the enormous, strange building. It was massive and blocky, covered in peeling paint that had once been a mix of skillful graffiti and gorgeous murals, but had mostly decayed away now thanks to the constant wear and tear on the building from repairs, expansions, modifications and so many other structural changes.

Avalon approached the double doors and shoved them open, striding into a small lobby of sorts with Tender Trust following, and the small Pegasus made her way towards the 'Employees' Only' door before she scowled and looked up as the stallion at the desk in the corner asked loudly: “Can I help you, miss? I don't recognize you.”

“Just going to see my aunt.” Avalon said mildly, and then she reached up... and narrowed her eyes when she shoved on the door and found it locked. She glared at the stallion, but he was only looking at her with a disapproving frown, and the tiny mare flitted up into the air to cross her forelegs and lean forwards threateningly. “Listen, pal. You really don't want to go here today.”

“But we are here too.” Tender Trust said curiously, and Avalon groaned and rolled her eyes before glaring at the half-Phooka, who only shrugged. “I apologize. I do not entirely grasp what is going on. This place reeks of chemicals and things alien to nature, and my kind try to avoid it.”

“Great. Where the hell is Cowlick? Where the hell is Cowlick's old secretary, she knew me.” Avalon said flatly, and then she hammered firmly on the door. “I worked security detail here before, in the frigging restricted access wing, and if you don't recognize me-”

“I don't. Please step away from the door and I'll call someone to meet you in a few minutes.” the stallion said disdainfully, and Avalon glowered over at the desk clerk before she pounded on the door again. “I said, please step away from the door: don't make me call security, miss!”

“Dude, if you call security on me things are gonna turn out even worse for you.” Avalon warned, and the stallion reared back as if shocked before the Pegasus turned to pound on the door a few times again.

The stallion leaned over and pressed a large button on the desk, and a noisy buzzing filled the air. Avalon winced at this, and then the stallion said huffily: “Security will arrive shortly here to escort you of the premises. Please step back from the-”

The door rattled again, but this time it wasn't from Avalon touching it. The mare blinked at this, then flew backwards when the door was yanked open, an earth pony mare storming through and asking crankily: “The hell was this locked again, and who... I, hey! Hey, Avalon, is that you?”

Avalon grinned and nodded as she looked down at the mare: she had a short, messily-cut dirty blonde mane kept out of her eyes by a worn red bandanna, and her chestnut-colored body was streaked with grease and other chemicals here and there. Her cutie mark was of several interlocking gears, and combined with the stains, it made it pretty clear what her special talent was.

She laughed and shook her head, piercing blue eyes looking up at Avalon, as the piercings in her ears, her nostril, her eyebrow glinted, clearly more recently cleaned than the ripped denim vest she was wearing. She reached up and yanked a box out of her breast pocket, digging out a cigarette as she asked: “What the hell are you doing here? You need some better gear? Or hey, you finally go berserk on some poor punk and they make you toss in the towel?”

“Screw you, Aunt Cowlick, I'm better than that.” Avalon said firmly, even if the faint blush that rose in her cheeks made it clear she wasn't entirely sure she was. Then the tiny mare cleared her throat before she settled a little as the earth pony coughed a few times before shoving a cigarette into her muzzle, and Avalon asked: “Is Apple Bloom here?”

“Yeah, she's working with Shiny in the back right now, doing some repairs on him. Me, I was just going to go on lunch... I had enough of dealing with the psycho head on wheels.” Cowlick rolled her eyes, then she shook her head before frowning and leaning around Avalon, asking loudly: “Hey, jackass, did you lock this door again?”

The stallion smiled nervously, and Cowlick rolled her eyes before saying moodily: “You do that again, sport, and I'm gonna fire you. There are guns and security turrets and now an angry head floating or wheeling her way around these halls. No one's going to be crazy enough to attack us here, you got that? You're just a damn secretary, you're not a security guard. You let me worry about anyone who might want to kill me.”

The pony nodded sheepishly, shrinking down a little behind the counter as Avalon grinned a little, and then Cowlick turned her eyes upwards and smiled again, reaching up to squeeze the Pegasus' shoulder. “It's good to see you. And you too, Tender Trust, don't see your kind around here too much. Come on in, then, let's talk. You can spare a goddamn hour or two for me, and if you say no, then I'll cripple you for the day and you can try to explain that to your bosses.”

“I ain't gonna say no, Auntie Cowlick.” Avalon replied with a snort of amusement, shaking her head before she watched as the earth pony engineer turned around and headed back into the halls beyond. Avalon took just long enough to make a rude gesture at the humbled stallion before she followed after Tender Trust and into the halls of the engineering lab.

It was a sterile, busy labyrinth, brightly lit and the walls whitewashed and floors polished. And again, there was that strange sense of coming home, despite the fact Avalon had never really worked here that often. But she had been in here quite a bit, running messages, visiting her real aunt as well as the engineer here who'd sort of muscled her way into being an aunt as well, she thought she knew why. It wasn't just because it was familiar to her, it was because the people who kept this place going were all so familiar to her.

Then Cowlick halted and grumbled in front of a steel door, hammering on it twice before she grabbed then handle and shoved it open, then jerked her head at the room beyond, saying mildly: “Here. Had to move my goddamn office, but even if I'm somewhere different, guess it's all pretty much the same. I'll make you a coffee, extra whiskey.”

“Yeah, I think I get what you mean.” Avalon murmured after a moment as she stepped inside, smiling after a moment as she looked back and forth at the desk that was littered with papers, the shelves filled with trinkets and small machine parts, how it was all stuffed into a different place... but really, it was all the same as it had always been, even with all the time and way things had changed.

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