• Published 26th Mar 2015
  • 19,975 Views, 1,190 Comments

The Road Home - Pen Stroke


Discord tosses Twilight and her family into an unexpected adventure while the rest of Twilight's friend get to work on the new crystal palace. All together, they'll do everything to ensure that Twilight and her family have a place to call home.

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An Empty Palace

Author's Note:

[Note dated 9 days before Season 5 premier]
I've been working on this one a long time. Start writing it back when a slew of shorter stories were already being published on this site addressing the issue of the destroyed library. And it seems, with Season 5 looming, that the show's dedicating its 3rd episode to this very concept. Still, Past Sins has been a slightly alternate universe for a long time now. So hopefully I can deliver an enjoyable variation on the concept that has expanded into a much larger, more lighthearted story than I originally anticipated.

Also, as usual, I am grateful for readers who point out typos, but please do so through PM instead of leaving your corrections to linger in the comments.

Now, with all that said, I am pleased to present...

The Road Home

By Pen Stroke

Preread, Edited, and Reviewed By

Illustrious Q, BronyWriter, SaturnStar14, Applejack-fan, JustAnotherTimeLord

=====================================================================

Chapter 1

An Empty Palace

====================

The sharp snip of the golden scissors preluded the roar of the applause. Twilight stood under the arch of the gatehouse, smiling proudly as a marching band began to play a triumphant fanfare. It had taken a lot of work, but one of her first big acts as a princess was complete. Night Stone Castle had been renovated and reopened as a school, a university for higher learning. Princess Twilight’s School of Higher Learning was now open, and it was a place where anypony or any creature could come to broaden their horizons.

There was a school of magic, of course, but with the size of the castle and the renovations, there was space for so much more. Her friends had provided input, of course, and Twilight was happy to say it was as much their university as it was hers. Programs on agriculture, fashion design, zoology, veterinary medicine, culinary arts, history, and literature all stood alongside a strong athletic program. Maud Pie had even taken Twilight’s offer to be the head of a school of geology, much to Pinkie Pie’s delight.

Twilight had even tried, towards the end, to rename the school to something that reflected her and her friends, but they wouldn’t hear a word to the contrary. It was like another rite of passage as a princess to have a school of your own. To be like Princess Celestia, with her long standing school of magic, or like Princess Luna, who had recently reestablished her own school for the creative arts.

The achievement of finally being able to cut the ribbon and open the school had Twilight wearing a constant smile. The weather teams had ensured it was a perfect day for the event. Fall was just beginning; the trees were changing, and there was a crispness in the air. Breathing in was like taking a bite from a fresh apple. It was just so refreshing and energizing. Twilight couldn’t think of any way the day could be any more perfect.

“The school looks beautiful, Twilight.”

Yet the day seemed intent to prove Twilight wrong. With her smile widening, she turned around to see Princess Celestia. The solar princess beamed with pride, and she and Twilight quickly shared a warm embrace.

“I thought you couldn’t make it!” Twilight said when she pulled back from Princess Celestia.

“You can thank Luna and Cadance for ensuring I had time to come down here,” Celestia answered as the pair began to move with the crowd that was already flowing into the castle’s courtyard. “You really have done a great job taking this castle away from its origins and making it someplace wonderful.”

“That means so much coming from you,” Twilight said, struggling to contain her own joy. A princess should not hop for joy, but with each passing moment, Twilight found the urge to bounce around like Pinkie Pie grow more irresistible. “You should let me give you a tour. Really, some of the facilities we’ve put together are amazing. Rainbow Dash made sure the athletic fields behind the castle are some of the best in the kingdom. She really wants Ponyville to come home with more gold medals at the next Equestria Games.

“And you should see the new library. We modeled it after the main library in the Crystal Empire. Though Rarity, of course, gave it a unique flair of its own. She couldn’t stand the idea of us being outright copycats.”

“I remember Ponyville having a library. Wasn’t it... in a tree?”

The third, rough old voice came up from behind Twilight and Princess Celestia, causing them turn to look back at an old rust red pony with white mane. He was wrinkled and walked gingerly, as if any unevenness in his steps might cause his hip to pop out of place. He was familiar, though Twilight could not place where she had seen him before.

“Yes,” Princess Celestia said as she took a step towards the older stallion. “Tell me, what do you remember of the old library?”

“Oh, a few things,” the old pony said with a dry chuckle. “It had delightful little balconies, and... that one... she used to live there. Oh... I remember one other thing. I remem—” The old stallion broke into a cough, one that nearly knocked him off his hooves. He teetered, and it was only the quick actions of Princess Celestia that kept him from falling. She caught the stallion with a hoof, and he offered a genuine thankful smile. He then opened his mouth, as if to yawn or sneeze. It would have been an innocent expression for such an old stallion if not for one thing.

The fact that Celestia’s alicorn magic was flowing out of her mouth and into his.

“Princess Celestia!” Twilight shouted, trying to rush to her mentor’s aid only to be blasted back by a surge of magic. She hit the ground hard, bouncing once before coming to a stop. She gasped, trying to catch the air that had been knocked from her lungs, and she winced at the throbbing pain in her side.

“That’s right, I remember turning that pathetic library into splinters.”

Twilight struggled to pick herself up off the ground. “No! No, you can’t be here! Not today!” She looked up, body shaking in fear as she looked upon the familiar visage of Tirek.

“You give me far too little credit, Princess,” Tirek said. He held Celestia by her neck, her body hanging limp and lifeless as he dragged her along side him. “Do you think Cerberus just left his post that fateful day on a whim? No, that was an opportunity for escape I orchestrated, and it was simple enough to do a second time. Though, I’ll admit, that cage you added was a minor annoyance.”

Tossing Celestia to the side, Tirek reached out and grasped Twilight by the neck, lifting her off the ground. “Showing mercy has always been a weakness of ponies.” His grip tightened, Twilight struggling to breathe as she waved her hooves in desperation. “But I assure you, I intend not to make your mistake.”

Tirek opened his mouth, and Twilight felt the painfully familiar sensation of her magic being drained away. Like flesh being stripped from bone, the pain lasted through every moment of the process. It was searing. It was mind-rending. It was something Twilight could never hope to forget.

As the last of her magic was drawn away, Twilight went limp in Tirek’s grip. She looked to him, unable to voice a word while his mouth twisted into a grin. “Just as delicious as I remember. Alicorn magic truly is the most delectable essence, but do not pass out on me yet, Princess Twilight.” Tirek spat the words, finding no humor in such a frail creature holding such a title.

“Yes, I want you awake as I show you just how well I learned my own lesson. I will grind your fellow princesses into dust instead of imprisoning them. I will kill your friends instead of using them as leverage.” A sphere of magic formed between his horns as he sneered. “Yes, I learned my lesson from you, Princess Twilight, and I shall show no mercy.”

He unleashed his magic, causing fires and explosions to rip across Night Stone Castle. Rubble was sent flying, and the screams of ponies trapped inside ripped at Twilight's mind. “No! Stop!” Twilight pleaded.

“A little death will ensure the rest of this kingdom bows to its new king,” Tirek said as the flames surrounded him and Twilight. The heat became increasingly unbearable, and the wails of pain only grew worse. It was like a tornado of anguish that was swirling around Twilight, giving her no rest or reprieve. Twilight shut her eyes and brought down her ears, trying to drown it all out.

“Besides, I already took care of the two possible revenge seekers before you had a chance to hide them away.”

Twilight’s heart skipped a beat, and she looked to Tirek. “No,” she whispered.

“Oh yes,” Tirek answered, holding out his hand. In his palm lay two tiny things. One was a green scale; the other was a black feather. Twilight felt tears welling up at her eyes. She began to flail and fight against his grip, screaming at the top of her lungs. No, it wasn’t true. It couldn’t be true. She had lost the library. She couldn’t lose them. She couldn’t lose it all.

She couldn’t let Tirek take it all away.

~~~

“Twilight! Twilight!”

“Gah!”

Bolting awake, Twilight shivered and looked around frantically. Her forehead was dripping with sweat, and her hooves were shaking. “What... where?”

“Twilight, it’s okay. You’re safe. Now would you please put down my barn!”

The truths of reality began to sink back into Twilight’s mind. The school... it didn’t even exist yet. She had only submitted the proposal to Princess Celestia, Princess Luna, and the mayor a month ago. It had all just been a horrible, horrible dream. Nyx and Spike were safe. Tirek didn’t even know about them. She had hidden them with Zecora during the attack, and then sent them to her parents home in Canterlot straight after that. They were safe. She was safe. Everypony and everything was safe.

Except for, perhaps, Applejack’s barn, which was levitating a good dozen feet off the ground.

“Sorry! Sorry, I’ll put it down,” Twilight said, seizing control of her magic. She lowered herself, the barn, and everything else back to the ground, ensuring a gentle landing.

Standing up from her bed of blankets and hay, Twilight moved to the main doors of the barn where Applejack was climbing down from a ladder. “I’m so sorry. Is everything okay?”

“Everything’s fine,” Applejack said. “You just gave us a scare. Granny Smith nearly spat out her teeth when she saw our barn starting to float off.”

“I’m so sorry. I was just... having that dream again.” Twilight turned, heading back into the barn. She had somewhat taken over the space. There were stacks of boxes everywhere. It was everything she had been able to clean up from the rubble of the library. Most of the boxes were just full of ash and charred corners of books. Very few of the tomes from the library’s upper floors survived the explosion. Still, she was sure she could use magic to piece the ashes back together. There had to be a spell for it. She just needed to do some research, a task admittedly made harder without the very thing she was trying to restore.

“You’ve been having that dream for almost a week now, Twilight. Maybe you should talk to Princess Luna about it,” Applejack said as she folded the ladder and leaned it against the exterior of the barn. “That’s part of her royal duties, after all.”

“That isn’t how it works. If Princess Luna thought this was a dream I couldn’t handle, she would have probably come and helped me already.” Twilight sat down on the bed she had made, which was a mattress of hay with a few blankets to separate her from the itchy straw.

Applejack walked up to the edge of the bed. “Are you saying Princess Luna is making you have these dreams?”

Twilight shook her head. “No. At least, I don’t think so. I think this is my own dream, but Princess Luna is letting me have it. I just wish I knew what it meant.”

“Me too. I’d hate to think what else you’d start levitating if this goes on much longer.”

“I’m sorry. If you’d like, I could go stay with Rarity.”

Applejack waved her hoof. “Now, I didn’t say you had to go no place. When I said you could stay here as long as you need, I meant it. I just think I might need to start tying a few things down, that’s all.”

“It probably wouldn’t be a bad idea, or I can try wearing a magic suppressor to bed. I got a lot of practice in the dungeons of Night Stone Castle.” Twilight yawned and rubbed at her right eye. “What time is it?”

“A few hours 'til sunrise.”

Twilight pulled herself up from the bed, groaning as she began walking to a workbench she had assembled from a few stacked boxes and a wooden board. “Well, there’s no reason to try and go back to sleep then. I can probably make some progress on the repair spell if I’m lucky.”

Applejack walked to the far side of Twilight’s workbench, brow furrowed. “I thought you’d given up on that yesterday? I thought you were finally going to start figuring out what you need to do to move into the new palace.”

“I did, but then I had an idea before I went to bed. Some of the time spells from the Starswirl the Bearded wing in Canterlot might be able to help. If there's one that could reverse time, I could just turn back the clock on the library to a time before Tirek destroyed it. It and all the books could be just like new.”

“But Twilight, the library—”

“It’s gone. I know, but I can put it back together. I have a few more days before Nyx and Spike come back to Ponyville. If I fix the library before that, then it’ll be like it was never destroyed. Everything can go back to normal, and Nyx won’t even know anything happened.”

Applejack sighed, shaking her head as she turned to leave. “Well, all right, but you should try to get some more rest. Even if you don’t go to sleep, laying down and just resting your eyes would probably do ya a world of good.”

“I’ll lay down as soon as I try out this new variation on the repair spell,” Twilight answered, casting her magic on a pile of ash at the center of the workbench. It began to twist and swirl, changing colors and forming back together into a book. But before it was halfway restored, the spell flickered and collapsed, causing the book to change back into ash. Twilight groaned, starting to pick up little bits of the ash in her magic. “I must still have a piece of some other book in this pile.”

~~~

Applejack had to shake off a yawn as she walked amongst the orchard rows. She had gotten back to sleep after what happened with Twilight, but dealing with a floating barn had taken a good hour out of an otherwise restful night’s sleep. Still, she had worked a full day on the farm with less sleep before. She’d just need to try to make up for it later, either with a nap or by going to bed early.

That, however, was a long ways off, and Applejack had a lot of work to do. Fall would be coming soon, and that meant they were getting some of the last harvests off the orchard. It had been a good year. Her family enjoyed good sales during the Summer, and they had been able to squirrel away more than enough food to keep Ponyville fed during the winter. Even with the vampire fruitbat infestation, they had managed to come out a little ahead.

Making a slight turn, Applejack approached a tree still laden with fruit. The baskets had already been laid out by Big Macintosh. That was how work was going to be split today. She’d do all the bucking while he set out the empty baskets and collected the ones she had filled.

First tree of the morning and Applejack could already feel the peaceful joy she got out of tending her family farm starting to settle over her mind. This was a nice, simple, straightforward day of harvest. No pressure to get it done quickly, and nothing out of the ordinary. It was a day with her family and the orchards.

Turning, Applejack raised her hind hooves and gave a firm buck to the tree. The leaves quaked and rustled. The apples gently popped off the branches and fell. It was all going perfectly well. The short-lived rainstorm of apples would end, and she’d pick up any that missed the baskets.

This morning, however, the apples seemed to have a different plan. When they hit the ground they bounced like a rubber ball. Squeaking with each hit, the fruit began to ricochet in every direction. They hit the trees, the buckets, and a few would have bounced right off Applejack’s head if she hadn't dove for cover.

Hiding underneath an empty basket, Applejack watched the fruits bounce across the orchard. The volley of apples were starting to move away like an angry swarm, their ricochets taking them closer and closer to the barn. For a moment Applejack feared what would happen when the apples reached it. If they got inside while Twilight was casting her magic, who knew what could happen.

Climbing out from underneath the protection of the basket, Applejack was ready to sprint to prevent whatever magical catastrophe was about to happen. Yet she had to stop in her hooves before even taking a single step. The apples that reached the barn were bouncing off it and into nearby empty fruit baskets, where they abruptly stopped. In the span of a few seconds, every apple that had been acting like a mad pinball now rested peacefully exactly where they needed to be.

“I do say, this farming thing is very relaxing. It’s like a soothing massage for the soul.”

Applejack slapped her hoof against her face, dragging it down across her muzzle before she turned around. Discord was sprawled out in the branches of a nearby tree, a relaxed smile on his face. He used his claw to pick an apple from the branches. He inspected it slowly for a few seconds, turning it over in his claw. He then dropped it, and like the ones before, the apple bounced. Applejack had to quickly juke to the right to avoid getting hit on the head as the fruit ricocheted towards the barn.

“Discord, what have I said about messing with my apples?”

“I’ll have you know I haven’t done a thing to your precious produce.” Discord picked and dropped another apple. This one bounced around Applejack, not forcing the mare to duck or dodge. “The apples are perfectly fine. It’s everything else I’ve put a little magic into. The ground, the trees, it’s like one giant bounce house meant to help my dear friend.”

“And how exactly is this helping?”

“Why, I’m helping you harvest your apples. I’m saving you and your dear brother the numerous, monotonous trips of hauling them back to your barn.”

Applejack sighed, ducking her head once more as another apple soared within inches of her skull. “Well, I guess that means you're feeling better.”

“Oh yes,” Discord said as he snapped his claw. He disappeared from the tree and reappeared next to Applejack. He wore an orange button down shirt, with Applejack’s cutie mark on the back and an infinity symbol. He had on a matching brimmed hat, and a sports glove on one paw. “I am happy to report that after having my magic so rudely torn out and then lovingly put back in, I’m feeling completely normal.”

Plucking an apple from a nearby tree, Discord stood with it clenched in his claw. He rolled his shoulders a little, then reared back and threw the apple. With the speed and force of his arm swing, the apple should have soared through the air like a comet. Instead, it corkscrewed and swerved through the air until, finally, it bounced against the distant barn and landed in the basket with the other apples.

“I can tell,” Applejack said. “Now, did you want something or are you just here to ‘help?’”

“Ah, straight to the point as usual,” Discord said, snapping his claw to remove his sporty outfit. “I am here for more than just the pleasure of your company, but it would be rude for me to start without everyone else. I just went on ahead to figure out where you were.”

“And who else is coming, exactly?”

Discord swept his paw backward, and as if he had timed it perfectly, two ponies came into view a few orchard rows away. “Applejack, there you are,” Rarity called, she and Fluttershy turning and starting to walk straight towards their friend. “Granny Smith said you were in the east orchards, but we were having such trouble finding you.”

Applejack pointed a hoof at Discord. “So you sent him to come find me?”

“Oh no, he volunteered,” Fluttershy answered.

Discord floated up behind Fluttershy and Rarity, smiling as he clutched his claw and paw to his chest. “I was just trying to do the friendly thing.”

“Of course.” Applejack rolled her eyes before looking to Rarity and Fluttershy. “What are you two up to?”

“We were actually hoping we could convince you to take a little bit of a long brunch. Twilight’s been closed up in your barn for a week now, and Fluttershy and I thought it would do her some good if we got all six—”

“Seven,” Discord corrected, holding up his claw which now sported seven talons. Six of the claws were painted to resemble six particular mares while the seventh looked like the draconequus himself.

Rarity chuckled, though the tone in her voice made it clear that she wasn’t entirely fond of the seventh guest’s presence. “Yes, my apologies. We thought it would be good for Twilight if all seven of us had a nice meal together.”

“Well, you're more than welcome to go and try to pull Twilight out of the barn.” Applejack walked towards another fruit-laden tree, turning around to buck as she spoke. “I’m a bit too busy to go to town for lunch. These apples won’t buck themselves.” Applejack punctuated her words with a kick to the tree, a solid thunk that should have knocked every apple to the ground. Instead, the tree began to quiver, vibrating almost like a tuning fork.

The vibration began to spread, neighboring trees starting to shake. Instinctively, Applejack looked to Discord as the source of the odd behavior. The draconequus, however, was now wearing a suit of armor. Not a single inch of his body was exposed; even his tail was covered in plate mail. It was clue enough for Applejack to realize what was about to happen.

“Hit the dirt!” Applejack shouted, jumping at Rarity and Fluttershy. She tackled her friends to the ground just as the first apples began to fall from the vibrating trees. Within moments the orchard was a hailstorm of bouncing apples. Ricocheting off the trees, the ground, Discord’s armor, and one another, every apple in the orchard had become a concussion-inducing projectile. Even the baskets began to bounce, flinging about the orchard with dangerous speed.

The maelstrom of fruits lasted for a few seconds before the sound of the bouncing faded. Applejack slowly raised her head, cautiously looking around to see if the coast was clear. Everything looked fine. She couldn’t see any more bouncing fruit, and looking over at the barn, Applejack could see bushels upon bushels of apples stacked neatly in several dozen wooden baskets.

“Careful, Applejack. There’s one left.”

Discord’s warning came too late, and Applejack winced as one final apple bounced against the back of her head before landing in Discord’s armor claw. She turned and glared back at him, but he just shrugged and opened the visor of his armor. “I tried to warn you. Still, it looks to me like your harvest is done a bit early. So why don’t you come join us for brunch?”

Rubbing the small sore spot on the back of her head, Applejack gritted her teeth at Discord. “Y’all could have given us armor too!”

“And mess up Rarity’s mane by stuffing it into a helmet? Now, what kind of friend would I be if I did that?”

Rarity picked herself up from the dirt, cringing a little as she dusted off her coat. “Yes, well... though you may not agree with his methods, Discord did just save you and your brother a lot of work.”

Fluttershy nodded her head. “Yes, why don’t we just go get Twilight, go to brunch, and put this little disagreement behind us.”

“Alright, but it’s going to take a force of nature to get Twilight out of the barn,” Applejack said as she began walking towards the barn. “She’s still trying to figure out a fancy repair spell so she can put her books and the library back together.” Applejack stopped and looked back over her shoulder. “Hey, wait a minute. Discord, why don’t you just fix the library? It’d save Twilight a whole mess of trouble and actually put that chaotic magic of yours to good use.”

“Twilight already thought to ask me about that days ago.” Discord put his claw and paw behind his back and withdrew them, each now wearing a sock puppet. One looked like him, the other was Twilight.

“Discord, would you please fix my library?” Discord said in a surprisingly accurate impression of Twilight’s voice.

“I’m sorry, Princess, but I can’t. Besides, don’t you have a shiny new palace to live in?”

“But I miss my old library and all the fond memories I have there, like the time Cadance and I took care of you when you were sick.”

Discord chuckled, moving the lips of his own sock puppet while his real mouth remained motionless. “Yes, I do suppose any time with me is a fond memory, but I can’t fix the library. Oh yes, I could snap something together that looks like your library, but I can’t make what I don’t know.”

“What do you mean?” asked the Twilight sock puppet, as if speaking out for some some small foals that were watching the performance. “I don’t understand.”

“Oh, it really is very simple. I know very little about your old library. Yes, I know what it looked like and what you kept in the drawer of your bedside table, but I don’t know what books you had or the contents of your kitchen. I’d have to make up so much, and I think we can both agree you wouldn’t be happy with what my chaotic imagination can put together.”

“I guess you're right,” the Twilight sock puppet said before it and the Discord puppet disappeared. The real Discord then smiled, making a few theatrical bows to the three mares. “Yes, thank you, thank you. You’ve been a wonderful audience. Oh, really, no, stop.”

“We’re not applauding,” Applejack said.

Discord popped over beside Applejack, putting a claw on her shoulder. “Yes, but you are giving me a standing ovation. After all, you're standing here, aren’t you?”

“Now, Discord,” Fluttershy said. “I’m sure Applejack is thankful you helped with the harvest, but maybe you should stop trying to antagonize her.”

“Oh, I’m sorry, was I going too far? I thought I was just giving her a playful ribbing. Isn’t this something she and Rainbow Dash do all the time?”

“Why, yes, it is,” Applejack said. “Here, let me return the favor.” With no further warning, Applejack quickly turned, brought up her hooves, and bucked Discord in the side, sending him tumbling into a nearby apple tree. “See, wasn't that just a ‘playful ribbing?’” she asked with a smile.

Discord smirked as he pulled himself up from the ground and dusted himself off. “Yes, I suppose it was. Still, I would like to assure you that I would help Twilight if I could. Considering what she did for me during that whole Tirek business, I owe her that much at least. Unfortunately, I simply cannot put the library back into order, and I certainly can’t do anything to make that new palace more livable.

“That whole thing is a saturated in feel-good harmony magic,” Discord said with a shiver, as if the thought alone made him ill. “I might be able to summon a few things here or there while inside, but nothing I could conjure magically would last very long. Nope, Twilight will just have to move into her new palace the old fashioned way.”

“Well, she sure isn’t going to be doing it any time soon either,” Applejack commented. “She’s fixated on putting the library back together.”

“Can you really blame her?” Fluttershy asked. “That library was her home for three years. I don’t think any of us would be ready to move on quickly if our homes got destroyed.”

“I, for one, wouldn’t mind seeing the library repaired,” Rarity said. “The library has been part of Ponyville ever since I was little. You remember the old librarian? She used to have story time with the kids, and I took Sweetie Belle there a few times.”

Applejack nodded her head. “I remember. Big Mac and I used to take Apple Bloom to that story time every other week. I even remember seeing you and Sweetie Belle a few times. Still, repairing the library to what it used to be isn’t as simple as raising a barn. Sure, Twilight might figure out how to do it magically, but who knows how long that could take.”

“Even if she does figure it out, it may be too late,” Discord commented frankly. He snapped his claw, making a box appear in his paw. It was a simple, child’s picture puzzle, twenty five pieces that made a picture of the Golden Oaks library. “A little nuance to almost any repair spell Twilight could use is the need for pieces. You need all the pieces.” Discord opened the box, taking one of the puzzle pieces out and chucking it over his shoulder. “And the longer you wait, the more likely those pieces are going to get lost.”

“Well, how difficult would it be just to build a new library just like the old one?” Rarity asked.

Applejack shook. “Not easy. It was carved into a tree, after all, and ya can’t just build a tree. We’d have to rip out the old stump first, then plant a new tree, and then, even with magic, there’s no telling how long it could take for that tree to grow large enough to be used for a library.”

Rarity nodded gently with a small blush of embarrassment on her cheeks. “I do suppose that makes sense.”

“But I don’t know if I could bear to tell Twilight to give up on the library,” Fluttershy said.

“Well, something needs to change. Nyx and Spike are going to be coming back from Canterlot soon. Spike already knows what happened to the library, but as far as I know, they haven’t told Nyx. If this keeps up, she might end up finding out the hard way that her home got blown to splinters and that they all have to stay in my barn.”

“It’s almost a shame Twilight didn’t have some friends who could get the palace ready for her,” Discord commented casually as he leaned against a nearby apple tree, scratching his back against the bark. “Don’t you agree, Rarity?”

Rarity looked at Discord a moment, then her eyes wandered as a smile started to pull at her lips. Applejack and Fluttershy glanced at one another, able to tell immediately what was about to happen. Applejack even began to count it out, tapping her hoof against the ground while mouthing the words. “Three... two... one...”

“I just had the most brilliant idea,” Rarity said, nearly jumping for joy.

“Really, I couldn’t tell,” Applejack said, laughing to herself.

Rarity ignored Applejack’s sass, her smile only growing. “Discord is right. We should get the palace ready for Twilight. I have always wanted to try my hoof at interior design on a royal level, and how many times am I going to get a chance like this? The palace is one of a kind, but it is also a blank canvas on the interior. The only thing it has are the thrones in the throne room. Everything else, the furniture, the color scheme, the theme... all of it is just waiting for somepony with proper vision to mold it into something grand.

“Yes,” Rarity said as ideas took form in her mind. “It will need to be practical but regal. It needs to be bold and inspiring to visiting guests, but with homey comfort for private evenings. Of course there must be a library, and both Nyx and Spike could finally have their own rooms. Twilight wouldn’t have to keep that laboratory of hers in the basement anymore, either.”

“And where exactly are you going to get the bits for all this?” Applejack asked. “Furnishing that whole palace isn’t going to be cheap.”

“Maybe we could ask other ponies for donations,” Fluttershy suggested. “If everypony pitched in a little, then I’m sure we’d have no trouble. I’d be more than happy to donate some sweet little bird houses.”

“What about things like the plumbing we’d have to install, and what about all the ponies you’d need to haul in all this furniture. You're talking about a sizable workforce, one that would need to be organized and kept on track. About the only pony here that has experience organizing that many ponies is Twilight.”

“Oh, I can think of another,” Rarity said with a smile. She walked over to Applejack and put a hoof on the mare’s left shoulder, only to take it off a moment later when she realized how dusty Applejack’s coat still was. “A strong, honest mare who is one of the team leaders during Winter Wrap Up. A mare who knows how to motivate ponies to do their very best work and can keep them honest so they don’t cut any corners.”

“A mare who now has a lot of free time on her hooves because of the help she got with her apple harvest,” Fluttershy added, stepping over to Applejack’s right hoof side.

Discord joined in as well. He disappeared one moment only to reappear at a fraction of his normal size, lounging on the brim of Applejack’s hat. “A mare who honestly needs to get Twilight out of her barn so she can store all those apples out of the sun.”

“All right, all right. Y’all can stop beating around the bush,” Applejack said, stepping out from between her friends. “It’s a good idea, and I’d be happy to help, but let’s not put the cart before the pony. There are a lot of things we’d need to get done. We’d need to ask around to see if ponies would even be willing to volunteer for something this big. That and we’d need plans or blueprints of the castle, and those aren’t going to be easy to come by considering that whole building grew out of a magic chest.”

“Well then, we know where to start, don’t we?” Rarity said. “Fluttershy and I can head back to town and start asking around to see how many ponies would be interested. At the same time, you and Discord can go and start taking measurements of the palace.”

“Oh, yes, that sounds like a delightful idea,” Discord said as he hung down from the edge of Applejack’s hat brim. “It would be a wonderful chance for me and Applejack to bond closer as friends.”

“Then it’s decided! Come along, Fluttershy, we haven’t a moment to spare.”

Fluttershy took to her wings, gently hovering behind Rarity as the pair began to head off in the direction of town. “Um... what about brunch?”

Rarity stopped in her tracks. “Oh yes... well... that is the whole reason we came out here, isn’t it? Very well, we have enough time to get brunch, but then we shan’t have another moment to spare.”

Giggling a little, Fluttershy nodded as she and Rarity resumed their departure. Applejack was just left standing in her orchard, Discord hanging from the brim of her hat like a wet noodle as he waved farewell to Fluttershy. He then snapped his claw, appearing next to Applejack with a yellow construction helmet hanging from one of his horns. “We’d best be on our way too, Applejack. I can snap us together something to eat along the way. But oh, I’m just so excited to finally be able to strengthen my friendship with you. I mean, you're no Fluttershy, but you and I do share a few things in common.”

Applejack rolled her eyes as she took a few steps forward. “We’re just like two peas in a pod.”

“See what I mean? What other pony do I know shares my love of sarcasm?”

~~~

“Nyx, Spike, lunch is ready.”

Twilight Velvet set out the last piece to the meal, some market-fresh carrots, before stepping back to admire her work. It had been so long since she had prepared regular lunches like this. It had all ended so abruptly after Shining Armor was accepted into the guard and Twilight went to attend Celestia’s school. Before her children were even really adults, they were out of the nest. Sure, some ponies would say she was lucky to have such a great son and gifted daughter.

She would have been happy making lunches for them just a little longer, though, a year or two at most.

Still, even if it was just for a few days, Nyx’s and Spike’s visit had allowed her to step back into the old routine. Proper breakfasts and lunches for the both of them, and then a true family dinner every night. Some would say she was spoiling the pair, but that was her right as a grandmother. A right she was embracing thoroughly.

“Spike! Nyx! Where are you two?”

“We’re coming,” Velvet heard Nyx call back before the sound of hooves and claws on the stairs reached her ears. A few seconds later the pair entered the kitchen, Spike holding a comic book open in his claws while Nyx read over his shoulder. A comic book that didn’t come from The House of Enchanted Comics, as per her daughter’s very specific instructions, but instead from Spike’s extensive collection that was stored in the attic.

“Okay, you ready?” Spike asked.

Nyx nodded firmly, a bit of her mane bouncing against her horn. She wore none of her usual attire. It was safe to expose her wings and slitted eyes in the comfort of her grandparents home. “Yeah! Turn the page!”

“You can turn the page after lunch,” Velvet said, using her magic to levitate the comic book out of Spike’s claws. “And maybe after you go do something else for a while. You’ve been reading comic books since you got them down from the attic yesterday.”

“Sorry, we couldn’t help it,” Spike said as he climbed into a chair at the table as Nyx hopped up into her own. “It’s been so long since I’ve gone through my collection like this. I forgot just how many great comic books I have. Like Power Ponies number fifty six when Zapp has too—”

“La-la-la. I’m not listening. La-la-la!” Nyx sang to herself as she covered her ears with her forehooves.

“Whoops,” Spike said through a chuckle. “Forgot that’s the next one we were going to read.”

Nyx lowered her hooves from her ears. “It’s okay, I just don’t want you to ruin what happens next.”

“Well, I’m glad you two are having fun,” Velvet said as she began to serve lunch, doling out healthy portions to each plate. “But it’s too beautiful outside to spend the whole day cooped up reading comic books. I insist you take a break, go outside, and get some fresh air.”

“Can’t we at least finish the book we’re already on?” Nyx asked.

Velvet shook her head as she took her own seat at the table. “Nope, you're going straight outside after lunch. Trust me, the comic book will be here when you get back.”

“Awww.”

“Hey, don’t worry about it, Nyx,” Spike said as he picked up a carrot from his plate. He puffed out a little fire, quickly roasting the vegetable before popping it into his mouth. “After all, I heard the Mane-iac has built a secret base right in the backyard. She’s got a new doomsday weapon, and only two heroes can stop her.” Spike swallowed before pointing at himself. “Humdrum and—”

Nyx smiled, catching onto Spike’s plan. She levitated a carrot up from her plate and held it above her head. “And Fili-Second!”

“Really? You want to play as Fili-Second?”

Nyx lowered the carrot and looked over at Spike with her head tilted to one side. “What’s wrong with Fili-Second?”

“Nothing,” Spike said with a wave of his claw. “I just thought you’d pick somepony else.”

“Well, I like Zapp and Radiance too. Would they be better?”

“What about Matter-Horn? I was sure you’d like her.”

“Isn’t she just a unicorn who shoots magic? That’s something Twilight can do.”

Spike laughed as he prepared to fire-roast another carrot. “You have no idea.”

~~~

“Thanks for helping me clean up, Spike.”

The dragon picked up the last dirty plate from the table and carried it over to the sink. Velvet was using her magic to wash and rinse the dishes before putting them on a drying rack. “Hey, don’t worry about it. I needed to kill time while Nyx is setting up our super hero base in the backyard.”

“That was nice of you to share your comic books with her, by the way. I remember that, once upon a time, you didn’t like anypony in the house touching them.”

Spike pulled a stool over from the corner of the room. He then hopped up, grabbed a drying towel off the counter, and began to dry the dishes. “Well, I was already going through them, and you know Nyx. Once she’s curious about something, there’s no stopping her.” He sighed a little. “Still, I don’t know how I’m going to replace some of my comics. My Power Ponies number twelve, fifteen, and twenty-eight. My Fantastic Fillies numbers sixteen, twenty-three, and rare fifty-six misprint. All of them went up in smoke with the rest of the library.”

“I’m just happy books are about the only things that were lost,” Velvet said, putting a hoof around Spike’s shoulder and giving him a little squeeze. “I’d hate to imagine what could have happened if you, Nyx, or Twilight had been in there when that monster Tirek attacked.

“You know, you really need to tell Nyx what happened before you two get back to Ponyville.”

Spike nodded as he continued to dry dishes. “Yeah, I know, but how do I even start? 'Hey, Nyx, you know our library, the only home you’ve ever known besides your dark, creepy castle? Yeah, it got blown into a million tiny pieces. Yep, it and just about everything inside is gone. Want to go back to reading comic books?'"

The sarcasm left Spike’s voice. He held up a glass, inspecting a smudge before wiping it away with the drying cloth. “Honestly, not telling Nyx has been kind of nice. I kind of get to forget what happened when we’re hanging out, but that all changes the moment I tell her. It will be the only thing she’ll be thinking about. Then she’ll be in the dumps. Then I’ll be in the dumps, and that... that will just be the dumps.”

“I’ll admit, I’m no expert in breaking bad news,” Velvet said as she set the final glass in the drying rack and pulled the drain plug out of the sink. “Night Light and I never really had bad news we had to tell to Twilight or Shining when they were growing up. They didn’t have any pets that died, and we didn’t lose any close family members either. No friends from school got sick or injured. It’s really a miracle that Night Light and I never had to have such a serious talk with them.

“But we still need to tell Nyx what happened.”

“Okay, let’s make a deal,” Spike said. He finished drying the last glass before hopping down from his stool. “We’ll give Twilight a few more days. Trust me, the moment she’s repaired the library, I’ll be getting a letter with the good news. If we haven’t heard from Twilight before we need to get on the train to Ponyville, then I promise I’ll tell Nyx everything. It’s a long train ride, after all. Plenty of time to break some bad news.”

“I guess it’s only fair to give Twilight a chance. After all, she did just defeat another ancient evil. Fixing a library should be a cinch for my little girl.”

“Spike! It’s ready!” Nyx shouted from the backyard.

“Coming!” he shouted before looking at Velvet. “Well, looks like I have a day to save.”

“Have fun, and try to stay out of my flower beds. I don’t want my zinnias getting trampled. I still need to get my seeds for next year out of their pods.”

“You got it,” Spike said, waving his claw as he headed out of the kitchen and turned towards the door to the backyard.