• Published 11th Nov 2011
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The Sweetie Chronicles: Fragments - Wanderer D


Sweetie Belle must find Twilight by travelling through different Fanfic worlds...

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The Best Night Ever Part 4: Fade

Edits: Lammy & Fifth Alicorn / Proof: Super Big Mac & Trevor

Sweetie Belle sat up in her bed with a jolt, heart hammering in her chest and eyes wild. Head whipping back and forth as she frantically scanned the room, motivated by lingering stings of panic and fear, she gradually turned her eyes down towards her hooves, the same hooves Sweetie had seen... vanishing in the fire and...

She squeezed her eyes shut as hard as she could, trying to chase away the fleeting images and sensations of burning hair that had probably lasted only the instant she was still alive before she had been consumed by the magical blast.

“Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah!”

Sweetie opened her eyes again, hardly registering Rarity’s customary morning scream, and glanced down.

Her coat was undamaged. Her hooves were fine. Slowly, she felt her heart stop it’s attempts to burst through her chest and her breathing calm down, but she couldn’t take her eyes off her hooves.

She had died.

It hadn't been like that first explosion back on her world that had started everything... she could only imagine as to what had happened then. But here? Right now? It was undeniable.

The heat from the magical explosion, the sudden pressure of the wave of magical energies - like a kick to every part of her body all at once - then everything going white?

And, given the fact that she immediately began a new loop, it could only mean one thing...

She had died.

Blueblood had explained it to her, more than once but never in much detail, intending for it to be a reassurance and not a fright. But she had put the whole story together, bit by bit, including the parts he hadn’t meant to divulge. At some point before he met her, Blueblood had gone mad and attempted to end the loops by committing suicide. It hadn’t worked. He had woken up to the same morning, the same inescapable routine that was his curse, over and over and over again.

But she had never died.

Sweetie had been in danger of being killed... she had been scared. But she had never died. And now... her hooves were fine. She was in bed, whole and unharmed, with nothing but the memory of yesterday and the trace, lingering sensations of what had to be her own death to tell her what had happened...

“Is this... my future?” she whispered to herself. “What if... what if I get to the fragment, use it and wake up here again? I’m going to be a filly all my life. I’m going to die again, and again... and I’ll wake up here. The same as always. Nothing changed. I’ll go mad and kill myself. Over and over. Just like Blueblood... and I’ll just wake up here... I... I don’t...”

Her breathing, which had slowed briefly, started accelerating again as she wrapped her forelegs around herself and buried her face on the sheets. Her chest hurt as her lungs seized up, sharply and abruptly contracting, her throat clenching tight in a rising tidal wave of panic and terror. Sweetie couldn’t think. She couldn’t do anything but shiver and cry in silence as the world carried on around her, without any hint of ever stopping. Without any hint of ever caring.

When Rarity walked into the room much later, with every intention of scolding her younger sister for being late to class, she didn’t know what to do. Sweetie was still curled about herself, inexplicably shivering and crying. Dropping the materials she had been carrying with her, she wrapped her hooves around her younger sister and rocked her in silence, only pausing to send Scootaloo and Apple Bloom along to school, with an apology to Miss Cheerilee, telling her Sweetie would not be attending that day.

o.0.o

Unlike most mornings, Blueblood hadn’t shown up at the Boutique door at his usual time. Sweetie could only guess that he was giving her some time to cope. That or he was goofing off somewhere. Either way, the extra time he had given her was precious. She needed a few hours to start to calm down, even Rarity turning away her friends when they came by to take her to class had not been enough. The idea of repeating things with them again - even thinking about it - only brought back that ever present fear that she was trapped in the loops: that in the end, there really wasn’t a way out. That, even if she got the fragment, she would just reset again. Sweetie wasn’t sure if she could accept that. The world couldn’t be that cruel, could it?

By noon, though, she was at least able to roll out of bed.

That was when the entry chime sounded in the boutique. Leaving answering it to her sister, Sweetie quickly heard a rather surprised and delighted squeal of the sort Rarity only made when she found something particularly adorable: as when Opalescence actually behaved herself, or when she had found an especially exquisite gemstone. Now growing a little curious, Sweetie descended into the main room of the boutique, where Rarity was busy fussing over a well-dressed little colt.

Sweetie’s eyes narrowed.

She recognized that white coat on the little colt, to say nothing of the golden blond mane and tail. A hoof shot to her mouth to suppress a giggle.

“You are just the handsomest little colt I’ve ever seen!” Rarity groused, admiring the little stallion’s ivory white vest and jacket. “And these designs! Are they from Hoity’s Fashionable Mane Collection?”

“They are, ma’am,” Blueblood could be quite polite on the rare occasions he wanted to, though his voice sounded funny: a high tenor, though thankfully not as squeaky as most of the other colts in school. Miss Cheerilee would probably have cooed just as much as Rarity was now, albeit over his diction.

“Oh, there’s Sweetie Belle, now,” he added with a smile and a wave of a little hoof. Little compared to his usual self’s, anyway. “Is it alright to see her? She hasn’t taken ill, has she?”

Sweetie lowered her hoof, although she still struggled not to laugh. “I’m doing better already, Your Grace,” she answered him from across the boutique. “Thanks for coming by, Blueblood.”

“G-Grace? B-Blueblood?” Rarity stammered, eyes drifting from her little sister to the well dressed colt. “Oh, no no, Sweetie Belle,” she corrected, trying very hard to be both comforting and convincing. “Celestia’s nephew is a grown stallion...”

“My big brother,” Blueblood lied very smoothly. “I also have the honor of being named Blueblood.”

“My word, isn’t that confusing?” Rarity wondered.

“Terribly confusing, I’m afraid,” the little Prince replied. To punctuate being convincing, he smiled and Rarity squealed again. She never noticed him rolling his eyes the moment she looked away.

Sweetie Belle shook her head disapprovingly at the Prince’s impiety towards her sister. But then he grinned again, and she decided to let it slide, just this once.

“But,” Rarity felt she had to ask, as the situation settled somewhat. “Sweetie Belle, how do you know... I swear: none of this makes sense!”

“Oh, um, I met the younger Prince when I took singing lessons with Princess Cadance,” Sweetie elaborated. “Crusading can get you far, sis!”

“Singing lessons? But—” That only seemed to raise more questions. “That can’t be! Mom and Dad never, I mean, I think I would know if—”

“At words poetic, I'm so pathetic, that I always have found it best,” the little Blueblood began to sing, bobbing to an imaginary beat. “Instead of getting 'em off my chest, to let 'em rest unexpressed…”

He gestured with a hoof for Sweetie to pick up the melody, and she did so, prancing to his side and then behind him. A shimmer of magic, and she even found herself wearing a white and mauve dress the colors of her mane.

“I hate parading my serenading,” Sweetie sang, “As I'll probably miss a bar…!

“But if this ditty is not so pretty

But least it'll tell you

How great you are!”

She rounded the de-aged Prince, raising her voice as she got into the song.

“You're the top!

You're the Pegasseum.

You're the top!

You're the Levade Museum.

You're a melody from a symphony by Bouse,

You're a Bridle bonnet,

A Shy Spear's sonnet,

You're Tricky Mouse!”

Unbeknownst to the pair, the commotion inside the Boutique had already started to attract a few curious Ponyvillians, who soon started to crowd the windows and peek in through the still open door, watching Sweetie sing.

“You're the Nile,

You're the Tower of Pisa,

You're the smile… on the Luna Lisa!

I'm a worthless check, a total wreck, a flop,

But if, baby, I'm the bottom you're the top!”

Blueblood took one of Sweetie’s hooves in his own and spun her around. Letting her go he picked up the song.

“Your words poetic are not pathetic,

On the other hoof, babe, you shine!

And I can feel after every line…

A thrill divine,

Down my spine!”

He danced away from her for a moment and self-consciously straightened his white suit.

“Now a gifted pony like Sera Money

Might think that your song is bad,

But I got a notion,

I'll second the motion,

And this is what I'm going to add.”

He made a quick prance and paced around her briefly just as she had him a moment ago.

“You're the top!

You're the Lunar Lady.

You're the top!

You're Neighpoleon Brandy.

You're the purple light

Of a summer night in Plain,

You're the National Gallery

You're Garble's salary,

You're cellophane.

You're sublime,

You're early dinner,

You're the time, the time of a Derby winner!

I'm a toy balloon that is fated soon to pop!”

Not surprisingly, a certain pink pony appeared outside the window with a balloon in her mouth just in time for a unicorn to poke it with a loud ‘pop.’

“But if, baby, I'm the bottom,

You're the top!

“You're the top!” Sweetie countered, and the two little ponies trotted backwards in step. She pointed at him, hardly noting their growing audience.

“You're an arrow collar

You're the top!

You're a Canterlot honor,

You're the nimble tread

Of the hooves of Halter Dare,

You're a Burro drama…”

“You're the dalai llama …” Blueblood interrupted.

“You're belvedere!” Sweetie Belle retorted.

“You're a rose!”

A red bloom appeared in front of Sweetie and she took a bite out of it to the clopping cheers of the crowd outside the Boutique.

“You're Inferno's Dante!”

“You're the nose,” she countered. “On your favorite Auntie!”

“I'm just in a way,

As the Prench would say, ‘de trop.’

But if, baby, I'm the bottom,

You're the top!”

“You're the top!” Blueblood persisted, the two now dancing around one another.

“You're a dance in Barli.

You're the top!

You're a hot tamale!

You're an angel, you,

Simply too, too, too diveen,

You're a double take!”

“You’re Cup—”

“You’re Cake—”

“You're fine cuisine!” Sweetie sang, drawing out the note.

“You're a boom,” Blueblood declared. “You're the falls at Canterlot!”

“You're the moon,” Sweetie parried. “Seen from a luxury yacht!”

“I'm a broken doll—”

“A silly filly!”

“A flop!”

“But if, baby, I'm the bottom…!”

“But if, baby, I'm the bottom…!”

“You're the toooop!” they sang together and for a few seconds the ensuing cheering from outside almost made them forget the one pony they had originally been hoping to impress: Rarity stood in place, blue eyes wide and mouth hanging open in a rather undignified manner.

“Sufficiently convincing?” Blueblood asked, glancing off to the side at the gobsmacked boutique proprietor.

Rarity nodded, slowly.

“Cadance has been a really great teacher,” Sweetie felt the need to add.

“Now, with that done, I’d very much like to spend the afternoon with Sweetie Belle, if we could please have your leave, Miss Rarity?” She nodded again at his question. “Good!” he declared. “We won’t go beyond the school and the town market.”

Rarity’s mouth opened and closed without emitting a sound.

“I would take that as a yes,” Sweetie informed Blueblood.

They stepped outside, their little impromptu audience already having begun to dissipate.

“They didn’t join in at all,” Sweetie observed. And this was the perfect chance, too!

“It was a duet,” Blueblood said, smiling happily. “If you want everypony dancing and singing we can try ‘Blow, Gabriel, Blow’ or ‘There’s No Cure Like Travel’ next time.”

“Hey! We need to do ‘Friendship’ next time!”

“If you ever lose your mind, I'll be kind?” Blueblood asked.

“If you ever lose your shirt, I'll be hurt,” Sweetie informed him.

“If you're ever in a mill and get sawed in half,” Blueblood replied and chuckled, “I won't laugh.”

“It's friendship, friendship,

Just a perfect blendship!

When other friendships have been ‘forgate’

Ours will still be great!”

“‘Friendship’ next time,” he agreed. “I’m surprised you haven’t gotten a Broadway cutie mark yet with how quickly you memorized all those songs. By the way—”

Of course, the moment he was outside, and the two alone, he reverted to his usual jerkish self. A brush materialized out of thin air, a brush that Sweetie snagged in her magical grip.

“You have bed mane,” he informed her, his smile turning genuine.

“It was hard to get up today,” Sweetie admitted with a sad sigh.

“Do you want to get a bite to eat and hang around town for a while? After yesterday, I thought it might be wise to relax a little.”

Sweetie was silent. The brush worked its magic and soon enough she didn’t look like she had just woken up. Or been blown up. Or come back from the dead. She looked down at the brush and then to the pony by her side. “Blueblood...does... does it really get easier?”

Seeing her curls back to their usual selves, he flexed a bit of magic and the brush vanished with a puff.

“Dying?” he asked, and it was kind of ludicrous, the juxtaposition of the question coming from the mouth of a pampered little colt. “It does,” he admitted, at length. “It does get easier, but it takes something out of you, every time you do it. Getting killed is actually better than committing suicide.”

He smiled, and it was the sort of smile that wasn’t meant to dissuade suspicion. It was a Pinkie Pie smile - a smile that willed reciprocation.

“Never give up hope,” he said, looking her in the eye. “Just imagine life as a board game and you have infinite get-out-of-the-stockade-free cards.”

Sweetie Belle considered his words. “I-I don’t know if I can, Blueblood...” She licked her suddenly dry lips. “I mean... a game? Isn’t that a bit... dismissive?”

“Self-deludingly dismissive!” He promptly winced, glaring around at the rest of the world. “I must say, I’m not so comfortable being small again. I rather miss being taller than everypony else.”

“Don’t change the topic,” Sweetie said, and he grumbled at the rebuff.

“The topic is morbid,” he argued, but nodded slowly, accepting the rebuke. “But I suppose it may help to talk of it a little. When you woke up this morning... it must have been...” - he searched for a better, more polysyllabic word, but soon settled - “Hard, I would venture? The first time was unpleasant for me as well. May I ask what was on your mind then, and what is still on it?”

“I’m... very, very disturbed by this... and scared,” Sweetie said, shaking her head as the pair walked through town. She caught sight of one of Blueblood’s ever present Royal Guards perched on the top of a roof looking over the market below. During the course of the loops she had stopped actively noticing their presence, but she found them comforting today.

“Not too long ago, I met some undead ponies” - at least she thought that was the proper term for them, perhaps ’vitality-impaired’ would have been more friendly - “And even they had held onto their link to life.” she sighed. “And yesterday, I was blown to pieces... and woke up again, just fine... what-how can I even understand this? This isn't even the first time I've been blown up... but back then I'd always assumed that I was fine." She hesitated, looking at Blueblood with more than a little fear in her eyes. "But now... now I don't know. I've been inhabiting all these different bodies and I start thinking and... did I die? Is what's happening here the same thing that happened there?"

“You mean, did your corporeal being expire back then?” he stated the question. “Are you merely a ghost, jumping from host to host? And just what will happen when you actually do get home, and can’t find a body to inhabit again?”

Sweetie froze at Blueblood’s words. ‘Could it really be that I’m nothing more than a ghost?’ She took a couple of steps back. “What if I am? Do I have any right to be taking over other Sweetie Belle’s lives? Maybe I shouldn’t even exist... but, I’m here and I’ll die again and I’ll come back. And what if I die enough only to wake up in another body and repeat the whole thing? What if I kill another Sweetie because I get her in trouble? What am I, if I can’t die? Am I just destined to steal days or even months or years of life from other Sweeties?”

"Decanteres said, once, 'Je pense donc je suis' though Miss Sparkle may have taught it to you as 'Cogito ergo sum.' It seems self-evident: I am thinking, therefore I exist, but what is an 'I'? Is 'I' an unchanging constant, born one way, living one way, dying at the end? Or is 'I' a product of the moment? A fractional view of existence? Is there a different 'I' - a different me - a different Blueblood and a different Sweetie Belle, every minute of the day? The 'I' you've met is very different from the 'I' came before the loops, but I still think, and I am still me."

He reached over, and poked her in the side, just as she had done to him so many times before.

"You are still you, Sweetie Belle," he assured her. "Death doesn't change that. Death cannot change that. You will always be you. I wish I could guarantee that your body was as you left it, but I can't. I wish I could tell you that all this is even real. I can't, because I don't yet know that myself. There's a degree of faith you have to have, if you wish to keep going on. Faith in yourself most of all."

Sweetie Belle took a long, deep breath, closing her eyes and mulling over Blueblood’s long-winded, but not any-less-true-for-it explanation. When she opened her eyes, she did not look happy, but they were set with a firm, steely resolve.

“If anything,” she started to say, pausing to lock eyes with him. “If anything, the only way I’ll find out is by getting that fragment... whatever it takes.”

“If you like, you can always spend your existential crisis like I spent mine: playing board games and darts with Princess Luna.” He waggled his eyebrows playfully and inched in closer to whisper. “She’s terrible at them, too.”

Sweetie couldn’t help but smile slightly at that. “You’re incorrigible. And you’re making me talk like my sister.”

He laughed, and they resumed walking. “There are worse ponies to sound like.”

“And how do you know Princess Luna is so bad at darts? You said the same thing about Princess Celestia and her singing.”

“I’ve taught Auntie Luna to play, just so I know,” he promised, momentarily lost in a pleasant memory. “As for Auntie Celestia, actually, that comes from before the loops. She often sings in the bath and the shower. Billy Foal is her favorite.”

He tapped his hoof for a few beats.

“Uptown mare

She's been living in her uptown square

I bet she's never had a backstreet guy

I bet her momma never told her why

I'm gonna try! For an uptown mare

She's been living on her white bread fare

As long as anyone with hot blood can

And now she's looking for a downtown joe

That's why I’ll go!”

He raised his voice a little as he sang:

“And when she knows what

She wants from her t~iie~ime

And when she wakes up

And makes up her m~ie~ind...”

Blueblood laughed, interrupting his singing to add: “The best part is when she hits the five-four-six Oh-oh-oh-oh-oh Oh-oh-oh-oh Oh-oh-oh-oh-oh-oh! At least I think that’s how it goes?”

Sweetie giggled and stole a quick look at his cutie mark: still the same as when he was an adult. “Maybe you should have had a music note behind your compass, Blue?”

“I can only sing it because Auntie had basically burned it into my mind,” he joked, shaking his head in nostalgia-tinged dismay. “But, actually, it’s been... years since I last heard her sing that. It was just the other day, but... years for me. I think I actually miss hearing it...”

He gave Sweetie a knowing wink. “Regardless, it was still rather bad, but perhaps not as bad as I first thought when you asked about her singing.” Still smiling, he glanced up with a wistful look. “Actually, back when I was little - before my cutie mark appeared - sometimes I’d hear somepony singing at night and it would help me sleep. I used to think it was my mother, but it came from the balconies outside, and only when we visited the Palace. I never once heard my mother sing... so maybe it was Auntie? Who knows for sure?

“Anyway,” he said, dismissing the thought, “since I’m no longer the adult in charge for today, what do you want to do? Head back to the maze for another go, or poke around this strangely bucolic little suburb?”

Sweetie Belle walked alongside her now more size-deficient big brother, pondering just what she wanted to do with the day. “I think I need a drink,” she said, raising an eyebrow. “but since we’re both underage, I guess a milkshake or four will do. Oh, hey! Then, we can go meet with Apple Bloom and Scootaloo...! I think I feel the need to cause some property damage.”

“Sweets and vandalism,” Blueblood summed up the request. “You are perhaps the easiest mare I’ve ever had to shop for, although not nearly the craziest. I remember this one time with a mare named Colgate...”

o.0.o

Upon entering Sugarcube Corner, Sweetie’s smile immediately fell, turning into a wary glower. “Ugh, those two...”

Diamond Tiara and Silver Spoon, the pair having been in the process of eating huge servings of ice cream, paused to glance at the door and it didn’t take more than a second for Diamond Tiara to grin evilly... only to frown a half-second later when Blueblood stepped in next to Sweetie.

Her head snapped to look at Silver Spoon so fast Sweetie was surprised they didn’t hear the whip crack of vertebrae. Soon, both fillies were giving them confused and nasty looks as they whispered conspiratorially.

Sweetie recognized that behavior. Those two were up to something, and when Diamond Tiara and Silver Spoon were up to something, it meant bad news for whichever Cutie Mark Crusader had found herself in their crosshairs.

“Must not turn them into maggots. Must not turn them into maggots...” Sweetie Belle chanted. “They’re not that bad. I befriended them once,” she reasoned to herself. “Just not this time. They will survive. They must survive. I am relaxing.” She took a deep breath. “No turning them into maggots...”

Blueblood, meanwhile, considered the two Ponyville bullies.

“They remind me of... hmm, every single filly I ever knew as a colt, actually,” he said in a quiet voice. “Well, minus the horns.” Seeing Sweetie’s eye twitch in aggravation, not to mention overhearing her vow to herself not to polymorph the two fillies into various invertebrates, Blueblood held out his hoof invitingly to hurry her along. She didn’t miss him casting a minor glamour on himself, either, adding superfluous amounts of sparkle to his mane and a twinkle to his perfect smile.

“I’m rather good at being pretty, wouldn’t you agree?” he whispered as they took a booth in the shop. His long-perfected smile dropped as he noticed Sweetie glaring across the room. “Relax. Do those two really bother you that much?”

Sweetie shook her head. “By now, I’m mostly over them... but today’s not a normal day. I guess I could always blow them up—”

“HI!”

Midway through both thoughts and sentence, Sweetie Belle jumped clean out of her seat as the pink terror emerged from the shadows. As always. The Element of Laughter dropped a pair of menus onto the table, effortlessly juking to avoid the falling Sweetie Belle. Only then did she stare at her other new customer.

“Heeeey. You look familiar...” Pinkie Pie said, her neck stretching across the table for a closer look.

“You never recognized me before, but you do when I look like this?” Blueblood mumbled, before turning to question the object of his grumbles. “And, pray tell, just whom do I remind you of?”

Pinkie Pie’s blue eyes narrowed in deep thought. “Are you Prince Leon?”

Blueblood face hit the table with an undignified thud.

“No. I am most certainly not.”

“Oh. Okey dokey lokey!” Pinkie Pie moved onto the next topic quickly. “So what can I get you two today?”

“Bottomless milkshakes,” Blueblood said, frowning as he pulled his face from its imprint in the polished wood. With a quick shake and a sprinkle of magic he was back to looking fresh from a day at the spa. “A cinnamon brioche and a baguette with blueberry jam. Sweetie?”

“Pinkie,” Sweetie muttered. “Get me The Works.”

All conversation ceased upon the filly’s utterance.

“Um... Sweetie Belle?” Mrs. Cake called from behind the counter nearby. “are you absolutely sure you want that? You know what happened to Scootaloo last time...”

Sweetie nodded. “She woke up not remembering half of what had happened. And the half she did remember she could only recall in chartreuse, magenta and zaffre.” She looked at Pinkie Pie, who had a grin that would have sent most Ponyvillians scrambling behind the nearest solid object. “And bring it with bottomless milkshakes as well. Vanilla-strawberry swirl.”

“It will be my treat,” Blueblood explained, placing his hoof on the table. There was a flash, and a pile of golden bits glittered in place when he lifted his hoof again. “In fact, let’s have milkshakes all around. On me.”

“Oh, certainly!” Mr. Cake immediately said, his unsure smile widening to rival Pinkie’s best. “We’ll do just that for our our best customer and his fillyfriend!”

Pinkie Pie, meanwhile, spent the first few seconds with a surprised and happy look, her mouth stuck in an exclaimed ‘oh!’ before zipping into the kitchen to get the affectionately-named “sugar-attack special” ready. This time, due to the little Prince’s unusual generosity, their excitement was echoed by the rest of Sugarcube Corner’s patrons. Soon enough, the milkshakes were flowing freely to every table and pony.

“Are you really going to overdose on sugar?” Blueblood asked, as the spectacle died down a bit. “You won’t start bouncing around and talking at high speed, will you? I do believe that I’ve gotten my allotment of that from the pink one.”

“I honestly don’t know,” Sweetie Belle admitted. “I’ve never been a vic—” She cut herself off. “I mean... I’ve never eaten one of those. Scootaloo swore off most candy after that.”

“Shame I never learned the ‘conjure insulin injection’ spell.”

“Ha, ha...” Sweetie laughed mirthlessly.

“Ahem, like, why are you hanging around with this blank-flank?” Diamond Tiara asked, suddenly sliding into the booth right next to Blueblood. “A nice, handsome colt like you should be hanging out with fillies of class and style, like me and Silver Spoon.”

“Yeah,” Silver Spoon seconded."We've already earned our cutie marks, so we should all stick together!"

Sweetie Belle started to steam where she sat, squished up next to Silver Spoon. It had been inevitable that the two would butt in on things - they thrived on sticking their noses where they didn’t belong - but knowing it would happen and it happening were different experiences altogether. She felt the sudden urge to practice some of her less than friendly spells on the pair of vexing fillies.

Blueblood rested his cheek against one of his little colt hooves, meeting Diamond Tiara’s eyes and grinning pleasantly. “I actually didn’t notice your cutie mark. It must be very pretty.”

“It is!” Tiara chirped, pushing herself back onto all fours. She turned around and waved her flank, smirking at the one blank-flanked filly present as she did so. “Silver Spoon! You too!”

“Oh! Right!” the other filly agreed, as always, and mimicked what the alpha filly did.

“Look at that,” Blueblood commented, off-hoof. “Sweetie Belle, look. A tiara and a spoon. Very pretty cutie marks.” He waved a hoof at the pair. “Would you mind doing a little twirl? Like the models in Manehattan do?”

Sweetie’s eyes were half lidded as the two bullies did as asked, spinning around... and then around again. Neither seemed to really know what they were doing, so they kept slowly spinning. And Blueblood kept complimenting them. They seemed oblivious of how silly they looked.

“What lovely and appropriate cutie marks,” he said, agreeably. He asked Sweetie, “What were their names again?”

“Diamond Tiara,” she reminded him, “and Silver Spoon.”

“Ah. How convenient that their cutie marks match their names, too. Maybe one day your cutie mark will be a ringing bell?” He kept smiling pleasantly, charmingly, at the two fillies. “However did you get your cutie marks, girls?”

“I-I’d rather not say,” Silver Spoon whispered, suddenly stopping her twirling. “But,” she spoke up. “Tiara here could tell you her story!”

“Well,” Diamond Tiara held a hoof to her chest. “I was at home, brushing my mane in my mirror, when daddy came in and gave me this!” She pointed at the little tiara she wore on her head. “And when I put it on and looked at myself in the mirror, I realized this is what I was, and that I was worth all the diamonds in the world! And that’s when my cutie mark appeared!”

Sweetie Belle blinked. ‘Wait a second! That’s not the story she told me... Was she lying to me back then? Or did she just make that up now for Blueblood?’ She was about to ask when—

“That. Is. Fantastic,” Blueblood cheered, much to the rich filly’s clear delight. Sweetie Belle could almost imagine the offensive thought bubbles percolating out of Diamond Tiara’s head, coalescing to form a scene of her in a heart shaped balloon with a wealthy Canterlot unicorn, scoffing at all the little ponies below while they pelted them with copper bits.

Several seconds later, Sweetie Belle realized that she was not actually seeing thought bubbles.

“Sorry, couldn’t resist,” Pinkie Pie said, lowering the whiteboard and marker. The four youngsters watched her slink off, momentarily dumbfounded.

“Still, as nice as those cutie marks are, especially yours, Miss Tiara,” he told the already fawning love-struck filly. “I couldn’t possibly abandon my good friend Sweetie Belle. So I don’t think we could spend much time together today...”

Diamond Tiara’s face seemed torn between wanting to glare Sweetie Belle into oblivion, trying to force a cordial smile, and being confused, almost to the point of brain-freeze. She opened her mouth to argue, thought again of it, opened her mouth wider to yell something, then regretted it. Silver Spoon raised a hoof to make a suggestion, but got a light bop on the shoulder before she could take the lead.

“Sweetie Belle is... your friend...?” The word seemed almost painful for her, but she stressed it nonetheless.

“Sweetie is one of my very best friends,” he repeated, “why, she’s a personal acquaintance of Princesses Cadence, Celestia and Luna! She’s such a talented filly that even Miss Octavia Philharmonica was only too happy to teach her music, and Fleur-de-Lis herself taught her etiquette! Alas, her only fault is the lack of a cutie mark, but I just know one day her cutie mark story will be as... inspiring as your own, Miss Tiara.”

“I can only hope,” Sweetie lied.

The two fillies gaped at Sweetie Belle, their minds clearly overwhelmed by this sudden blitzkrieg of information. “I-I guess she can hang out with us then!” Diamond Tiara stammered, hopping back up to sit next to the little Canterlot unicorn.

Silver Spoon started to protest, “But, you said—”

“I said she can hang out with us,” the leader of the two reiterated. “Go sit next to our new friend, Silver Spoon.”

“...really?” The gray filly adjusted her delicate little glasses and sat next to Sweetie Belle with a forlorn sigh. To her credit, she quickly plastered on a very fake smile, but one that implied she was at least trying to be fake. Diamond Tiara merely ignored her new ‘friend’ altogether in favor of batting her eyelashes at her new crush.

“You know Octavia?” Silver Spoon whispered to Sweetie Belle, who looked at her in surprise, but nodded. Silver Spoon bit her lower lip and gulped, clearly regretting what she was going to say. “C-could you get me her autograph?”

“To show there are no hard feelings,” Blueblood continued not having even paid attention to Silver Spoon, and seemingly used to and comfortable with the unwanted attention. “Why don’t you pick up my friend’s tab? That’s how we do things in Canterlot, you know.”

“Oh! Oh.” Diamond Tiara did take a moment then to glare at Sweetie Belle, and to consider her allowance. “I... I guess that’s okay. She isn’t ordering anything too extravagant, is she? N-not that I care! I have plenty of money! I’m just, uh, curious, yeah!”

Blueblood laughed very slowly, and Sweetie knew he was going to milk this situation for all it was worth. The shocked look on Diamond Tiara’s face when her new friend’s massive Sugarcube Works Sundae arrived... and with a hefty bill no less... well, maybe Sweetie could put up with her for a little while. She couldn’t finish the huge dessert, but every bite did have a special little flavor of victory. Or maybe it was watching Diamond Tiara wince as she washed it down with one milkshake after another, Tiara’s treat.

o.0.o

SPLASH!

Blueblood’s ‘duck and cover’ skills were as awe inspiring as Rarity had described. Even as a little colt. Faster than a Princess’s apprentice could teleport, he zipped away from the path of the muddy water. Simple acrobatics were not enough, however. Rather than risk a drop of the suspiciously placed puddle sullying his vest or jacket or - dare he even think it - his immaculate coat, he proved his Royal Guards training by raising a magical shield. A magical shield named Diamond Tiara.

“My goodness!” he exclaimed, raising an angry little hoof to shake at the offending cart that had rolled by. “Terrible drivers! I almost got splashed! Did you see that?”

Sweetie was silent, her attention fixed on a drenched and dirty bully.

It wasn’t the first time she had seen Diamond Tiara with mud on her face, literally, nor was it the first time she had seen the mean little filly end up embarrassed by a little well-earned karmic retribution. It was, however, the second time ever she could recall seeing Diamond Tiara near tears.

And the first time had been Sweetie’s doing...

For the past two hours, Blueblood had made Diamond Tiara pay for their food, talked her into going to an arcade - where she had treated Snips and Snails, of all ponies, to some games, to her utter gall - she had endured thinly-veiled jabs by Blueblood at the ‘want-to-be well-to-do’ of Ponyville, and other poseurs, and even a few jabs at earth ponies who aspired to be like ‘proper unicorns.’ She had put up with all of it just for the occasional smile or compliment from the dreamy new colt that had caught her eye.

It was hard for Sweetie to admit, but she was starting to feel...

To feel...

A little... bad... for Diamond Tiara.

Sniffing, her breath coming in ragged gasps, Diamond Tiara turned to Blueblood for an apology or a word of support or, well, probably anything. He was still shaking a hoof at the passing cart and then, his ire apparently spent, he turned his eyes on his jacket to make sure it was clean. Diamond Tiara’s face scrunched up but she forcibly composed herself after a long, deep breath. Sweetie had to give her her dues for persistence, if nothing else.

“Oh! Oh, let me get that!” Silver Spoon raced past to try and help clean up her friend. She also turned at first to Blueblood for help, but then, shockingly, to Sweetie. “Can’t you, um... magic up a towel or... something?”

Sweetie bit her lip and nodded once. She had used this spell... many times before, to clean up her friends. She remembered all those loops when Diamond Tiara and Silver Spoon had mocked the three blank-flanked fillies. Now, with the situation reversed, Sweetie couldn’t stop herself from using her magic to help those who had laughed at her. Those who would laugh at her, if things had been as they normally were.

Light blue magic ran down Diamond Tiara’s coat and mane, removing much of the mud along with droplets of water. It was a very basic spell, really, but the two earth pony fillies looked to be eternally grateful for it.

For a second, anyway.

Then Diamond Tiara sniffed, dismissively this time, and turned up her nose. She seemed momentarily torn between indignation directed at her savior and staying the course, no matter the humiliation. The only gratitude she got was really from Silver Spoon, who took a moment longer before turning to look at Diamond Tiara.

Sweetie Belle knew other ponies who would have erupted in pure, unadulterated fury by this point. Whether he had done it on purpose or not, Blueblood still had a bemused expression on his face, though his eyes betrayed him. They were sharp, focused, and clearly waiting for something.

‘He did do this on purpose,’ Sweetie realized, but kept it to herself. ‘And he doesn’t even realize why I’m not laughing.’

“I should... go home,” Diamond Tiara finally whispered, trying to keep her dignity. “I think somepony mussed up my mane.”

“I’m sad to see you go,” Blueblood said, and not only was it a blatant lie, but there was an undercurrent of cold cruelty to it, too. It wasn’t his usual playfulness.

“I-I guess. Sorry.” She galloped off, Silver Spoon close behind.

Sweetie knew then that she hadn’t imagined what she had felt before. She really had felt bad for Diamond Tiara. It was silly, really, especially after all the mean things she had done to the spoiled princess in her own loops. Blueblood hadn’t lit her tail on fire or frozen her or turned her into a small animal or put a hex of Twisted Tongues on her in class.

So why did this feel so much worse?

“You’re upset,” he observed, back to his his usual self, or close to it anyway.

Sweetie Belle didn’t reply immediately, trying to sort out her feelings about this whole thing. She had exacted revenge on Diamond Tiara and Silver Spoon before, but there was something different this time.

She wasn’t proud of what she had done to Diamond Tiara during all those loops. Back then, it had been petty vengeance for the most part. Getting her back for what had been years of verbal abuse and being able to completely get away with it. Each act of bullying had been for a personal affront: insults. Petty abuse. Making Babs so afraid of being bullied again that the crusader-to-be had joined Diamond Tiara and Silver Spoon to escape. Blackmailing Sweetie, Scootaloo and Apple Bloom while they were trying to be journalists. So many things that she had forced herself to ignore or bear with because that was just how things were.

But, what she had done was petty and simple bullying in return. Nothing else.

Then it hit her: whenever she had used a spell against Diamond Tiara, it had been a quick thing that would simply get a negative reaction, even when she had overstepped her bounds and caused harm... she had never built up Diamond Tiara’s hope, and systematically abused her to the breaking point. Her own embarrassing period of revenge had never crossed that line into being a coldly calculated effort to utterly destroy the other filly.

This was bullying of the worst kind, and the fact that it had been Blueblood who had done it just made it all the more awful. She had never considered how he could be so... cruel... even when her sister had told her about the Gala, it hadn’t been this bad. Or maybe it had.

“Blueblood,” she finally asked, looking at him. “Don’t you feel bad for her?”

“For... her?” he asked, motioning back the way Diamond Tiara had run. He scoffed at first, but frowned. “Maybe. What does it matter?”

“It’s bullying!” Sweetie snapped. “It’s beyond getting into a fight, or proving you’re right! This... she was trying so hard to impress you, and-and she just... I never saw...” She trailed off a bit, trying to organize her thoughts. “Blueblood... I’ve never seen somepony being broken, piece by piece, by words and attitude, to the point of just...” She looked away. “If it had been me in her place, I would feel like dying.”

“You don’t mean that,” he said, stepping closer. “Sweetie, it was... I mean...” His frown deepened a fraction.

“Blueblood, the fact that it was you... I know that you’re a good pony, and...” Sweetie Belle bit her lip as she tried to explain just what she was feeling. “I’ve looked up to you for... I don’t know how long... It’s like you were another pony just now. One I would never ever want to know. And I remembered what my sister had said about you and how I used to think that she had to be wrong.

Sweetie’s eyes were pleading him to tell her it was not so. “Is this who you were? Is this who you are?”

He gave an exasperated snort, just an exhale of breath. “If she weren’t caught in the loop, she’d live through this and be the wiser for...” He quickly shook his head, realizing where that road led. “I mean, okay, yes, it was unkind of me. That was an unkind part of me you saw there, and I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t been like that before. But I thought you’d find it funny... or ironic or... something? I thought you hated that filly?”

“But it wasn’t just unkind!” Sweetie Belle pressed, looking him right in the eye and forcing him to flinch. “It was cruel! Diamond Tiara was never the nicest of ponies, but... even she...” her hoof pointed in the direction the pair of bullies had ran off to. “shouldn’t be abused like that! And even worse! What if you suddenly find yourself outside of the loops and wake up the next day after you destroyed a filly’s day? Do you think she would get over it that quickly? Or even at all? She’s not an adult, Blueblood!”

“What do you want me to do?” he asked, voice growing angry, maybe at her, maybe at himself. “Apologize to her? Is that it?”

“I know it sounds silly after pulling that prank on Rarity earlier, and... well all the times I did something to Tiara... but, if I had died... If I die tonight, or next time... I don’t want my last day here to be the day I broke somepony’s heart.”

“I can’t believe—” Blueblood began to raise his voice, but just as quickly deflated. He turned and ran back the way Diamond Tiara and Silver Spoon had gone.

He was a lot easier to follow when his legs weren’t longer than her entire body, like they usually were. At one point, he paused to motion to one of his guards, and the pegasus pony swooped down, pointed him in a direction, and he resumed running after a momentary groan. Sweetie Belle slowed to a stop and thought better about being in plain sight when Blueblood finally found himself at the Rich family house, in the nicest part of Ponyville.

Diamond Tiara’s family was the wealthiest in town by a wide margin, and their house was stately. Sweetie Belle had always thought so, especially when she compared it to Rarity’s Boutique which was beautiful, but not exactly very large. She could see now that it was also built in a faux-Canterlot style with decorative ironwork spires with tiny domes, metal-rimmed gable windows, elaborate stone chimneys and a glazed-tile roof painted with diamond in red and yellow and white where most ponies just made due with thatch.

She ducked down behind a green hedge, enough to see Blueblood get a berating at the hooves of Filthy Rich. She couldn’t hear much, but it wasn’t hard to infer what was going on. Eventually, though, Diamond Tiara herself came out from behind her father. Sweetie strained her ears to try and overhear, but they were too far away. It was impossible to tell if—

And then Diamond Tiara jumped at the coltified Prince, wrapping him in a possessive hug. Blueblood just managed to look over his shoulder and gag, as if to say, ‘Thank you so much for making me do this. Really.’

By the time he managed to extricate himself from the Rich residence, he was white as a sheet. Albeit, he was always white as a sheet. Whiter.

“She accepted my apology,” he growled as he passed the hedge she hid behind. He shuddered. “Now let us never come here again.”

Sweetie Belle hugged Blueblood, then, just as tightly as Diamond Tiara had moments before. “Don’t ever be that-that monster again,” she whispered. She stepped back a little and nodded. “How about we meet Scootaloo and Apple Bloom? They’ll probably be at the Crusader HQ.”

As if summoned to prove her wrong, she immediately heard the unmistakable sound of Scootaloo’s wing-propelled scooter. Sweetie blinked as Scootaloo performed a quick turn after bumping against a rock, twirling on her axis to land, shaken but smiling confidently in front of them. The ‘coolness effect’ was lessened considerably by the wild-eyed look on Apple Bloom’s face and how tightly she was holding on to Scootaloo.

“I thought it was you!” Scootaloo said, frowning at Sweetie Belle. “So, you skipped school just so you could hang out with him?” She adopted a sly, teasing grin. “He your coltfriend?”

“My—” Sweetie gasped. “He’s not my coltfriend!”

“But we saw you hug!” Scootaloo argued. “Why would you hug a colt unless he was your coltfriend?”

“Aww, Ah think they make a cute couple!” Apple Bloom said, a big grin adorning her face. “They’re adorable!”

“Apple Bloom!” Sweetie moaned, trying to hide her embarrassment. “Please!”

“Eww!” Scootaloo pretended to gag. “Since when are you into colts? Aren’t you a bit young to be chasing tail?”

“Oh, the things I could say,” Blueblood muttered under his breath.

“Blueblood!” Sweetie hissed.

“Wait,” Apple Bloom spoke up. “Y’all mean to say that Sweetie here has been chasin’ tail for a while now, and we didn’t know?”

“Has she?” Blueblood asked, feigning shock. He took a few steps to hold Apple Bloom’s hoof. “You must be the little sister of Miss Applejack, Apple Bloom, isn’t it? A true pleasure to meet you.” He let go of her hoof before she could shake too vigorously in reply and shot a level stare at Scootaloo. “Oh yes, and the filly who falls out of the tree.”

“Hey!” Scootaloo yelped, offended. “I didn’t fall out of any tree!”

“You will,” he promised.

“This is Blue... um... blood?” Sweetie put hoof to forehead, realizing she had just said his name a few seconds earlier. So much for a cover! “Anyway, he’s a friend. Just a friend!” She added that last line for Scootaloo’s benefit. “And why would anypony want to chase their tail?”

“Well, that’s pretty simple!” Apple Bloom exclaimed, happy to enlighten her friends with some down-home farm schoolin’. “Granny says that when a pony likes another pony very much—”

“Wait!” Sweetie Belle interrupted. “Wait! I get it. No, I’m not trying to sleep with anypony.” The moment it left her mouth, Sweetie clamped her hooves over the offending chatterbox.

“You don’t want to go to sleep?” Scootaloo asked, blinking. “Well, duh, it’s like, five.”

“Blueblood, can you please just explain this,” Sweetie Belle asked, exasperated by this one stupid topic coming up again.

“Explain it?” he asked with a chuckle. “Are you sure? I will, but just don’t try and get your cutie marks in—”

“We won’t!!” Sweetie all but yelled. “And in fact, don’t explain anything!”

“Ahh. Nevermind all that, then.” He smiled at the two other crusaders, ready as always with a convincing lie. “And don’t mind me. I just came in from Canterlot to see Sweetie Belle. We’re pen pals, you see? That’s all. It really is nice to meet her friends. I’ve heard so much about you both.”

“You have a cutie mark,” Apple Bloom immediately zeroed in on that one feature, above and beyond all others, now that introductions of a sort had been made. Blueblood’s little white vest and jacket, in stallion fashion, didn’t cover his flanks, and despite the age-regression magic, his cutie mark remained: an eight pointed star in ivory and gold.

“That isn’t a problem, I trust?” he asked.

“No, of course not!” Apple Bloom declared. “We’re just... surprised.”

“Yeah, IF you’re pen pals with Sweetie Belle,” Scootaloo got up to Blueblood’s snout. “How come she never mentioned you before? Unless she was trying to hide something.”

“I wasn’t hiding anypony!” Sweetie Belle objected, “Blueblood is just... Blueblood. He was always far away and I never thought he’d even visit a backwater town like Ponyville. With all the farms, and dirt and a forest... I never figured he’d be up to getting dirty.”

“Getting dirty for a good cause, that, I’m alright with.” He winked at the two crusaders. “Just between us, Sweetie’s last letter sounded a little melancholy, so I figured I’d show up and help her play truant. That way she can get her criminal-delinquent cutie mark!”

“Oh, Blue!” Sweetie tilted her head just-so and blink-blinked at him. “Is that so? Did you really come all the way here just to help me get my switchblade cutie mark?”

Scootaloo turned to look at Apple Bloom and mouthed the words ‘switchblade cutie mark?’

“Either that or a hoof with iron spikes on it,” he helpfully replied. “A life of crime, all because you skipped school. Tsk tsk.”

“I knew I could count on you, Blueblood,” Sweetie smiled demurely. “Please, show me the way of crime.”

“Very well!” he agreed, rearing up excitedly. “We can start with insurance fraud and work our way up to embezzlement! Just like my parents! Huzzah!”

Apple Bloom looked at Scootaloo and shrugged. “Ah’m up for it. Granny Smith did say the other day that we could end up as ‘good fer nothin’ ne’er-do-wells’.”

Scootaloo nodded. “That would definitely be cool enough for Rainbow Dash!”

“... are you three really that impressionable?” Blueblood’s demeanour turned droll very quickly. He looked from one overly enthusiastic filly to the next and sigh. “Stars and Aunties, you are that impressionable.”

“Sorry, girls,” he quickly explained, shaking a hoof at them. “But the truth is, the only thing I could help you get cutie marks in is government, and at your age, it’ll probably just put you to sleep.”

Our age?” Scootaloo asked, catching that slip up rather swiftly.

“Ah. ha. ha. ha.” Blueblood laughed, nervously, but didn’t even bother to try and explain away his slip of the tongue. “Let’s go find something safe and fun to do! Yay?”

The three crusaders looked at each other, then snorted. “Ah don’t think you really told your friend here what we do,” Apple Bloom said.

“No, he knows,” Sweetie Belle rolled her eyes. “But I don’t think he’ll believe me by just telling him. He has to experience it himself.”

“I heard Rainbow Dash talking about extreme cloud-surfing,” Scootaloo said. “How about we try and get our ‘X-treme Sports’ cutie marks?”

“Sounds good to me!” Sweetie Belle cheerfully hoof-bumped Scootaloo. “Feel like it, Blue?”

“Life and limb are but a small price to pay for cutie marks,” he agreed, nodding in a rather grim fashion.

“Well then, we have our plan!” Sweetie Belle grinned. “And I just so happen to know where we can get a ride up to the clouds...” Her eyes drifted to a nearby chariot yoked to a pair of royal guard ponies.

o.0.o

“I think I’m starting to feel my left hind leg again,” Sweetie Belle groaned, stretching the limb in question a little with a wince. “I’m just glad none of us got a cutie mark out of that.”

She stopped once the Carousel Boutique came into view. Rarity and her friends were all excitedly watching Twilight, Fluttershy and a bunch of mice.

“There they go again. Doomed to fail.” She sighed, and looked over her shoulder at Blueblood. “Was... was my sister really that bad? She wasn’t like Diamond Tiara, was she?”

Blueblood watched the six mares for a time, cracking a smile as Twilight’s newly transformed chauffeurs took off due to a sudden feline attack, leaving their quarry behind. His smile faded just moments after appearing, though. He knew it better than she did. All that preparation and excitement, and the Gala seemed predestined to disappoint them or worse.

“No. Maybe there were some similarities, but... as you reminded me earlier today, neither deserved what I did. Toying with a pony, just because I could.” His brows creased as he frowned, upset at himself, at his behavior, at the things he had once considered amusing.

“You know, for a few Galas... after that first one,” he told her with a sad shake of his head. “I ignored her. It didn’t make things better or worse, just more... awkward. I would always catch a glimpse of her following me, here or there, wanting to talk to me - wanting me to notice her and introduce myself. I could see near the end that she blamed herself if I just let her be. She probably thought she wasn’t pretty enough, or poised enough, or elegant enough to catch my eye.”

“But she was, and is.” His mouth set into a tight line. “That was why I was cruel to her. Because she was elegant and refined and she wanted to be with me. Adults... are stupid in our own ways, Sweetie Belle, but she didn’t deserve to have her night ruined. It just... what she wants to find at the Gala, the Prince that she believes me to be, isn’t there. It never was.”

Sweetie touched his shoulder with her hoof. “Blueblood, today you were a horrible jerk... and it was horrible to see, but you haven’t been like that at all to me, or to anypony else, at least since I met you.” She looked down at the grass under them, rather than look him eye to eye. “And maybe I’m just a filly that’s naive and silly... but I think you might be closer to that prince than you believe yourself to be. I don’t know if my sister is meant for you... but neither of you deserve to feel bad about who you are.”

He smiled at her, a grateful, genuine expression so far removed from the false smiles he doled out so often. “Thank you, Sweetie. I don’t think anypony’s ever said anything like that to me before.” He went back to watching Rarity and the others, his expression wan. “I’ve been a bit of a playcolt most of my life, having... sleepovers with one mare or another, but... I’ve always dreaded finding that mare.” He glanced back at Sweetie and explained, in the more common way. “That special somepony. In my social circles, it doesn’t mean what it does for most ponies. Just like you girls try so hard to get your cutie marks, ever since I was little, I’ve been trained to be a charming Prince... the better to attract a powerful partner. But I don’t like being charming. And I don’t think I’m even all that nice when it comes down to it.

“So I thought... why not just have my own sort of fun?” he asked, rhetorically. “Why not have fun at the expense of others? That first night, when I strung your sister along... I was laughing inside. That sort of thing, it doesn’t just go away, even if you regret it later. I’ve always had that bad seed in me, Sweetie Belle. But I’m trying to grow out of it... a little too late to make a difference now, but I’m trying anyway.”

Sweetie Belle sighed and looked away, letting her hoof slide down from Blueblood’s shoulder. “If I hadn’t seen what I saw today... I would have had a very hard time believing you capable of that.” She took a deep breath. “If I hadn’t seen—or met you—before this morning and I had witnessed how you treated Rarity... I would have never been able to forgive you.” She leaned into him. “But you’re trying. Really hard. Just... be careful.”

“Be careful?” he asked, a little confused. “Why?”

“Because you’ve come far, and I don’t want you to slip back into being... Bullyblood.”

“Bullyblood?” He laughed as he repeated it, nodding to himself with pleasure. “I actually like the sound of that now! Bullyblood. But I suppose that train has left the station. You said I was like a brother to you before,” he recalled, glancing at her with blue eyes and making an effort to sound nonchalant. “Did you really mean that?”

Sweetie smiled. “Yes,” she said without hesitation. “I think of all the ponies I’ve met, you understand me the most, and you’ve taken me under your wing. I’ve learned a lot and I couldn’t have done it without you looking out for me. If that’s not what an older brother does for his younger sister... I don’t know what is.”

“Well, if you’re to be my little sister, then, you shall henceforth be known as Princess Sweetie Belle!” he announced, probably too loudly. She nearly tackled him to shut him up before Rarity overheard. “When you do get back home, feel free to petition the local me for a castle and estate. And servants. No Princess should be without servants. Make Diamond Tiara one of them.”

Sweetie giggled, unable to completely muffle herself with her hooves. “You know, if there was an actual way for you to give me a royal edict with your signature and stamp, I’m sure I could pull that one off in at least a few worlds. But, I’m not sure I’m suited for a life with nobles. They’re so stuffy. Besides, are you sure a castle, estate and servants are enough for a filly like me?”

“I’ll arrange a good marriage for you, too!” he teased. “Do you prefer unicorn, earth pony, or pegasus colts?”

Sweetie paused. “I’ll think about it when you line them up.” She looked up as Rarity came back with a few stallions, ready to pull the cart that would take them to Canterlot. “I guess they’re about to go...”

“Your sister has impeccable feminine wiles, by the way,” Blueblood dryly observed, having also noticed Rarity’s improvisational wrangling of a few helpful ponies of the male persuasion. “I get the feeling half of the stallions in this town - and one dragon - would quite happily jump off a cliff if she batted her eyes and asked them nicely.”

“Maybe,” Sweetie shrugged. “But it takes more than a smile and being handsome to win her interest... or her heart.” She glanced at Blueblood. “She’s weird that way.”

“Darn. My smile and my looks are probably my best qualities,” he joked, and gestured for her to lead. “Let’s head inside. I doubt I’ll be able to stick around for long once Miss Rarity heads off to the Gala. We may as well plan for our own outing tomorrow while we still can.”

“We won’t have much time,” Sweetie warned. “Apple Bloom and Big Mac will drop by in a little bit to take me to Sweet Apple Acres for the night.”

“That reminds me, one of these loops I should meet Miss Rarity’s parents... get some insight into—” He suddenly seemed to realize what he had said, and trailed off.

Sweetie slowed down and stopped in front of the Boutique. “My parents...” she sighed. “Y-yeah, you should meet them. I’m sure they’ll like you.”

“Most mare’s parents I’ve met over the years either want to kill me or have me sign a wedding contract on the spot. Some even want both.” He leaned over to gently bump her side with his cheek, in the way little ponies often did to prod one another. “You should meet them. I get the feeling you haven’t yet.”

“I...” Sweetie shuddered. “Y-yeah, I will... I just... they were... you know,” Sweetie licked her suddenly-dry lips. “Dead.”

Blueblood picked up his pace to trot around and in front of her. He leaned in close, to be comforting, not intimidating. “I lost my parents, too, you know,” he said it quickly, and she hadn’t known. She hadn’t even thought to ask. He seemed to consider stopping there, but sucked in a breath and asked, “Do you remember them?”

“No,” She said after a moment of hesitation. “Rarity told me they were wonderful and caring ponies, and that they loved me very much. But I don’t remember much of them... Rarity was both sister and mother to me while we grew up.”

“She did a fine job of it, too,” Blueblood said, and reached up with a hoof to pat her roughly on the crown of her head, messing up her mane a little in the process. Since he was no bigger than her as a colt, he had to reach high to do it. “About a hundred times better than if I had ever had to raise a sibling, that’s for sure.

“If you want to talk about it, though,” he added, falling back down to all fours. “You know.”

“I-I just don’t know what to say to them!” She admitted. “What if... they can tell I’m not their Sweetie Belle? What if I mess up? What if they hate me?” She looked up to Blueblood with scared eyes. “I’ve never thought that I would have a real chance to talk to them. How do I talk to them?”

“I can’t say, but you seem to do alright with your sister,” he replied, blinking. “Right? I’d suppose: just go about it normally. Learn a little about them. Listen to them. There’s no pressure, and they aren’t going anywhere. Take it slow, as slow as you need.”

“I’ve tried,” Sweetie confessed. “Three times already. I get to just around the corner... and I see them and... I can’t.”

“Oh, Sweetie Belle! Sweetie! Where are—” Rarity’s voice interrupted the muffled conversation of the two young ponies. “There you are!” The two looked up to see Rarity trotting over to them at a delicate, measured pace, not rushed but clearly urgent.

“You’ll find a way,” Blueblood said to Sweetie in a whisper. He placed a comforting hoof on her shoulder, just for a moment, and then beamed to intercept the incoming element of generosity.

They only had a little time before the Gala, and then...

And then tomorrow, they would return to the maze.

o.0.∞.0.o

Sweetie Belle summoned the portal into the Fragment Dimension, as she had decided to call it, and stared in, unnerved.

She looked around the maze, the energy fluctuations around them had drawn the attention of the unicorn guards. Though they stood dutifully at attention, one could still see that they were obviously impressed. But they had no idea what was inside, waiting for her. They had no idea that the last time she had entered that portal, she had died.

“Sweetie Belle,” Blueblood said, his voice back to its normal adult tone. He held out a hoof. “Come on. Let’s give it the old Academy Try.”

But at least she wouldn’t be alone.

“Right!” she agreed, bumping her hoof into his. “Let’s do this. Hey! What’s an Academy Try, anyway?”

“It means getting drunk and using a crib sheet.”

“No it doesn’t!”

Together, they plunged into the whirling storm of magical energy.

O-oh! Guests!” Twilight Sparkle cheered when she materialized in front of them. “How wonderful! It’s Sweetie Belle! And... Blueblood.”

Sweetie Belle smirked. “He’s my adoptive older brother, Twilight.”

That gave the phantom unicorn pause. “Your...? Wait, what? How did that happen? Did he put a spell on Rarity? If he did, I’m killing him.”

“Killing me would be a grave inconvenience,” Blueblood stated, grinning his most charmingly false smile at the fragment’s shadowy form. He reached up to grasp one of her ethereal hooves. “And why would I put a spell on Miss Rarity... when I’m already married to my own, dear, Twilight Sparkle?”

“No.” The smokey form vibrated in what had to be a shudder. “No. No. That can’t be!”

“Search your feelings!” he implored her. “You know it to be true!”

“NO!” she cried, wavering in midair. “That’s impossible!

“Why, we’ve been happily married for a year now,” he explained to the panicking fragment. “With a little foal of our own on the way— Ow!”

Sweetie removed her hoof from where it had stomped on his own.

“I mean,” he smoothly corrected himself. “The one I’ve been pining for is you, my ephemeral beauty, my mare in the mist, my Princess in crystal— Ow! Stop that!”

“He’s just being silly,” Sweetie explained, before things could go further south. “He’s very nice once you get to know him.”

Blueblood waggled his eyebrows at the Twilight fragment.

“Rrrright,” the already-slightly-unhinged shard of the originally sort of crazy Twilight Sparkle drawled. She yanked her hoof from his grasp and the shifting, immaterial face of the fragment turned to Sweetie Belle for answers. “But... Sweetie... you look younger than the last time I saw you...? How? Ah ha! Yes! Of course! You must be travelling to different worlds! The Sweetie Belle here must be younger than the you I know. But didn’t you end up trapped in a crystal like I did?”

Sweetie felt a measure of deja vu coming on, a rather common sensation she had come to know intimately at this point.

“I... was just... look, I’ll tell you later, but... I just didn’t end up in crystals... I just keep jumping from body to body. And I need to find you so I can go to the next world and fix all this.”

Twilight’s eyes widened and then her smile grew crooked. “Tell me, do you... take the other fragments into yourself?”

Sweetie blinked. “Well yes...”

“Oh, that’s priceless!” Twilight clapped her hooves together. “I can’t wait until you get to me and add me to the other me’s!” Twilight chuckled and then gestured to the maze around her. “Welcome to the Maze of Death, created by Blue Belle! To get to me, you need only pass some tests! And, since I’m feeling generous, I’ll make the first one easy!

As the world faded around them and the now-familiar collapsing bowl of ether materialized in front of them, Sweetie sighed. “The worst thing about this test is just how tired I end up by the end of it.”

o.0.o

“Okay, I didn’t expect you two to go through that so quickly,” Twilight acknowledged. “Let’s see you handle this one!”

When the shades of Rainbow Dash and Applejack started to form and Twilight raved about the rules, Sweetie gave Blueblood a confused look. What was Twilight going on about?

His shrug in reply seemed to say, Beats me!

“Hm,” Sweetie shook herself off the distraction and glanced critically at their opponents. “Blueblood, is it me or does Rainbow Dash look... weak? Are you sure it’s fair to run against them if she’s just going to hold Applejack back?”

“What?!” Rainbow Dash’s incredulity was palpable. “Me? Drag her down?”

Applejack raised an eyebrow. “Ah don’t think I like the way you’re talking about me, Rainbow Dash.”

As the situation devolved next to them, Sweetie turned to Blueblood. “Okay, so, I brought a pencil and a lot of paper.”

“I have a topography spell that can...” Mid-sentence, he noticed something in the way she was looking up at him. Maybe it was just a little harmless incredulity. “I do have some spells, you know. Grand Veneur, remember? Auntie number one has the sun, Auntie number two has the moon, and I have my mighty maps. Of doooooooom.”

“Right.” Sweetie Belle snorted and started trotting up to the start line, where Rainbow Dash and Applejack were already kicking pebbles and being complete nuisances towards one another. “Well, let’s get started then, we’ll try your spell later on.”

It still took two tries before the bickering between ‘Applejack’ and ‘Rainbow Dash’ had sufficiently impaired their ability to function as a racing team. And before too long, they were blaming one another for “being slower than my pet turtle” or “showboatin’ when ya’ll should have been racin’.” Followed a moment later by Twilight’s correction that Tank was a tortoise, not a turtle.

Test number two: done.

It had only taken a little over an hour, too.

“Now the real hard part begins,” Blueblood warned, and to Sweetie’s surprise, he conjured up two glasses of water, ice cubes and all. “I’m ready if you are.”

“As ready as I’ll ever be... until tomorrow.” Sweetie nodded. “But let’s try and make it today.”

o.0.o

“Well, crap.”

BOOOM!

o.0.∞.0.o

“Quick! Quick!”

BOOM!

o.0.∞.0.o

“Well,” Blueblood remarked, scratching his chin and staring up at the tangled mess of blocks overhead. “That didn’t work.”

“Yeah,” Sweetie agreed, sitting on her haunches. “May as well just blow up now and save us the trouble of waiting.”

“Okay,” Twilight said.

BOOM!

o.0.∞.0.o

BOOM!

“AAAAAAGHH!” Sweetie screamed. “Don’t. Do. That!” She shouted after the retreating form of a maniacally laughing Blueblood.

She glared at the strewn pieces of balloon and started laughing herself.

o.0.∞.0.o

“W-what is all this?” Rarity muttered, staring up at the floating cone of papers that circled a magical projection of the twisted three dimensional puzzle. After getting blasted to pieces the last half dozen loops, neither felt much need to adhere to elaborate cover stories. Blueblood had simply walked in, spun some yarn about working on a puzzle with some young filly as part of a ‘Canterlot scholarship’ and hurriedly went to work setting up shop within the boutique.

“Scholarship!” Sweetie insisted.

“A prestigious scholarship,” Blueblood assured the elder sister, turning on just enough suave charm to make it somehow convincing. “But I hadn’t expected our young applicant would have such a beautiful sister. Miss Rarity, this is short notice, but... the Gala is tonight and...”

Sweetie grimaced as the two adults whispered and giggled.

“Gleh!” she gagged into her hoof as Rarity left the discussion, practically cantering on thin air.

“Seems I have a hot date for tonight,” Blueblood said, but quickly returned to the project notes he kept floating overhead. “Now, looking at all this, I do believe we have all the possible rotations down, and all the individual alignments. We just need some obsessive-compulsive pony to figure out how it all comes together into a cube.”

Sweetie nodded. “It’s time to fight OCD with OCD. Let’s fetch Twilight.”

o.0.o

“Twilight!” Sweetie Belle ran into the Golden Oaks library. Her horn flashed and the book Twilight Sparkle had been reading slammed shut. “I have a real problem for you to solve.”

“Sweetie Belle!” Twilight groaned. “I was looking at which spell to use for—”

“Simple polymorph with a 12-hour timer spell attached to it,” Sweetie interrupted. “I have something better for you to do.”

Twilight frowned at the supposedly magicless filly instantly solving her problem. “Shouldn’t you be in school and—”

“If you come with me and help me figure this out, I’ll tell you who Shining Armor is marrying.”

o.0.o

Twilight stared in silent awe at the paper construct floating overhead. “Okay, I admit, this is better than looking at books to figure out how to turn mice into horses.”

“Yes, and even better, the pony that did this?” Sweetie whispered on Twilight’s ear, making it twitch. “She only took 4 hours to figure it out.”

Sweetie Belle had never seen Twilight faint quite like she did then. She surely could have given Rarity a run for her bits, at least in speed if not in style. “Blueblood?” Sweetie called worriedly, “I think I broke her!”

“How fortunate I came prepared,” the Prince flexed his magic, and performed a little conjuration...

And a moment later, Twilight sputtered, soaked through by the upended glass of ice water floating over her head. She gasped, whirling angrily on the supposedly noble stallion, her eyes narrowing dangerously.

“All fixed,” Blueblood insisted, completely oblivious to being moments away from a first-hoof inspection of Twilight Sparkle’s complete works of spellcraft and pyromancy.

“Four hours,” Twilight said, shaking her mane vigorously enough to spray water at Blueblood - who naturally cringed and bemoaned his coat getting wet. “Four hours?” she asked, eyes darting over the notes hovering in the air. Sweetie could see the sparks flying behind her eyes, smell the ozone of crackling synapses, taste the hay fries Spike was baking while they watched Twilight work.

“These notes are very thorough,” Twilight muttered as she flashed through them. “I guess I could figure an algorithm just by reading them.”

“Could we add that to a spell equation to cast it and have it solve itself?” Sweetie asked.

“If not, I can just write down the quickest correct solution,” the Princess’s peerless apprentice reasoned, and gave Sweetie another curious look. “This is a physical puzzle, isn’t it? I don’t suppose you can you cast Melody’s Methodical Memorization?”

“I haven’t memorized it yet,” Sweetie admitted. “I once read about Melody’s spells, but never got around to learning any of them.”

Twilight’s eyes went to Blueblood for a split second, before centering back on Sweetie Belle. “We can go either way, although if we went for your spell equation, you’d need to be able to use Calm Spell’s mind canvas... it might be effective, but the mental strain to keep the equation alive in your mind through all parameters would be too much...” Her tone took a lecturing quality, one that Sweetie knew all too well. “Calm Spell’s canvas is very effective for simple, if powerful, equations. He was such a successful caster because he simplified most of the equations needed in his day to their most effective and basic expressions.”

Sweetie Belle nodded. “I see... and the equation for this puzzle would be incredibly complicated to maintain from its point of origin to the final resolution. So we are stuck with either finding out the correct sequence and recording it with Melody’s Methodical Memorization, or fry our brains and magic trying to sort out the equation in a mind canvas.”

Twilight nodded. “Exactly, therefore the most effective solution would be to use your already extensive notes and figure out the correct sequence. I could cast the spell and, if we have time, help you memorize it as well.”

“Let’s get started then!” Sweetie cheered. “I—”

She was interrupted by Miss Cheerilee passing out next to the door, where Apple Bloom and Scootaloo looked at the gathered unicorns sheepishly.

“Ah... Ah think Miss Cheerilee was worried that y’all were not studyin’ enough...” Apple Bloom coughed. “Turns out y’all are doin’ just fine. We’ll... uh... take her back to class.”

Sweetie, Blueblood, and Twilight all watched in silence as the two fillies hefted the unconscious teacher out of the Carousel Boutique and closed the door behind them.

“Okay,” Sweetie Belle cleared her throat and summoned her notebook. “I think I’m ready to learn!”

Twilight nodded, her mind already on the puzzle in front of her. “Four hours, huh... what kind of pony could solve this in four hours by herself?”

o.0.o

“That. Was. Amazing,” Sweetie Belle stated, looking upon the cube floating on top of their heads with undisguised awe. “How come I never thought to do that?” She glared at Blueblood. “How come you didn’t think to do that?”

“My skill is more in delegating tasks than doing them,” Blueblood admitted, also staring up at the completed duplicate puzzle with awe.

“Well, that was a ton of fun!” Twilight Sparkle exclaimed, nodding in pride and satisfaction at a job well done. “If you come up with any more of those, I’d love to try my hoof at them again.” The librarian stretched and glanced around for the time. “Now, let’s see. I need to go fetch Fluttershy and her mice for tonight... according to my schedule I have...” Her eyes quickly turned wide and panicked when she realized how much time had passed: it was well into afternoon. “Oh, Celestia, less than ten minutes!?”

“Relax,” Blueblood assured the mare with a confident chuckle. “I’ll be taking care of transportation. As long as your friends are ready and Miss Pie isn’t still bouncing on that infernal trampoline...” He coughed, suddenly self-conscious. “We should be fine. I’ll escort you personally.”

Twilight blinked in surprise, but managed to give a relieved sigh, her off-schedule panic receding just as quickly as it had appeared. “Thank... you, Blueblood, that’s really good to know! I’ll go gather the others!”

“And you,” Sweetie said to the Prince, “Are you ready to take my sister on her date, bro?”

“Just because I often choose to be a jerk, doesn’t mean I have to be,” Blueblood lectured, but not loudly enough for their resident bookworm to overhear. Luckily, Twilight had zipped off to prepare. “I can’t guarantee she’ll be home by the stroke of midnight, but I’ll try and keep her cake free...” He pursed his lips in what passed for a Princely pout. “That damned cake,” he growled, blue eyes glowing with quiet indignation. “Even when I eat those carnival fritters mocking them, that apple farmer still bakes the cake. Why? Do I have to destroy every oven in the palace? Force everypony to eat her food on pain of death? I’ll do it!”

“You know that’s not what I mean,” Sweetie admonished. “Just be polite and try to be you - the you I know - and I’m sure sis will have a nice night with you... maybe they all will.” She looked down at the papers and notes. “I have a lot to study tonight...” she muttered. “If my notebook didn’t reset after every freaking loop, things would be much easier. At least writing it will help me memorize it.”

Blueblood nodded, having gone through similar trials himself. He had spoken at length about how long it had taken him to get down even rudimentary teleportation. The only thing preserved by the loops was what a pony had in their head. Literally everything had to be committed to memory.

“That was actually what I was doing before we met,” he said, turning his head to catch a flash of color in the form of Twilight’s tail as she rushed down and then back up the library stairs after retrieving something: probably a checklist on how to get dressed.

“All six elements of harmony... they all come to the Gala, expecting the best night ever. After a while, the idea came to me that maybe that was why things were repeating. Maybe I just need to make it a perfect night? Maybe the elements of harmony chose me out of all ponies to do it?” He slowly shook his head, smiling ruefully at the thought. “Or maybe I just wanted to do it, because I hadn’t yet.”

Before Sweetie could say anything, though, he turned to her.

“After the Gala,” he said, suddenly, with an intense look on his face. “I mean, in the days and weeks after... did anything happen? I know Miss Rarity must have been quite upset with me, but... I didn’t precipitate some calamity by being, well, myself that night?”

Sweetie thought about Discord. And Chrysalis. And Sombra. “No,” she cleared her throat. “Nothing that you might have precipitated by making her night... unpleasant.”

“I’ll admit I’ve wondered, from time to time, what would have happened had that first loop merely been the end of it. Would I even have thought twice about what had happened except to cover my own part in it?”

Sweetie looked away; this was a bit of future knowledge that was probably harmless to divulge. “Blueblood... I can’t say much, but... up until a year or two later, you hadn’t showed up in Rarity’s life again. A-anyway, you’re not the same Blueblood as the one from my world, so don’t take that as a death sentence.” She shooed him away with her hooves. “Now shoo! Go woo my sister and let me study,” she grumbled.

“Yes, yes,” he relented, trotting off to see to the carriage and his eventful evening. “Maybe some loop, I’ll tell you what happened when I asked the crazy pink one to be my date. Oh, that was one wild night!” Before he left, though, he added, with a more serious tone, “Tomorrow. Test number three. Should be interesting.”

Sweetie nodded, offering her hoof for a hoof-bump. “Right!”

After the group was gone, Sweetie sat down to look at the notes she had taken on the spell, but her attention was drawn to something unexpected. Right above her notes, written in a spidery calligraphy, was a message. One she didn’t remember writing down herself.

Haven’t you noticed that you’re not alone?

Sweetie gasped and looked around, but saw nopony else. When she looked down, the message was gone.

“Did I just imagine things?” she muttered, massaging her forehead with a hoof. “This puzzle is driving me crazy.”

o.0.∞.0.o

“Wait just a minute! Are you two cheating?” Twilight’s fragment wafted around the explosive puzzle as it shifted and snapped and locked into position, segment by segment. The solution was fiendishly complex, involving partial solutions, breaking it halfway apart mid-way, and then finally fitting the three completed sections together.

“There’s no way anypony could solve this so quickly!” the fragment complained. “NO! You’re beating my record!”

A puff of magic revealed a very, very long list suspended in midair with the same initials “TS” repeated over and over with a list of times. Somepony had been busy. Or bored. Or both. A couple hundred years probably gave a pony plenty of time to engage her inner completionist.

“There are two of us,” Blueblood said as Sweetie’s magic finished snapping together another piece of the puzzle. “Perhaps you should double our time to make it fair?”

“A good idea!” Twilight’s fragment readily agreed. “Two against one isn’t fair, is it? That’s a very good idea! Maybe Rarity misjudged you when she said you were an arrogant, petty, self-aggrandizing son of a mule.”

“I take offense at that! My mother was a purebred unicorn!” Blueblood huffily declared, sticking out his chest and pure white coat. “Granted, the other judgments are fairly accurate.”

“Hey! Don’t talk about my brother that way!” Sweetie Belle snapped at Twilight Sparkle’s fragment, her magic twisting the puzzle closer and closer to its final resolution. “He’s trying to be a better individual! Maybe even a better stallion!”

“A little arrogance, pettiness, and self-aggrandizement can be healthy,” Blueblood chimed in. She frowned up at him, but his smile was all she needed to see to know that he was still glad she had stuck up for him.

“But with Sweetie Belle here, I’m afraid I do have to at least make a token effort to not be a complete cad,” he explained to the fragment overhead. “She’ll give me the look,” he whispered, easily loud enough to hear.

“I still don’t understand how in the wide, wide world of Equestria you two ended up partners like this,” Twilight’s fragment grumbled, mostly upset by seeing her record shattered. As the last few sections of the puzzle snapped together, finally coming together into a box, she gave an exasperated groan. “You actually did it!” she said, disappointed, but then a bit of pride slipped in. “No explosions, but... I am impressed. Sweetie Belle. I didn’t think anypony would ever solve this in the time Blue Belle allotted.”

“Well, I did have the most amazing mentor,” Sweetie Belle said. “And Blueblood’s been really great at getting me to learn a lot more. I could tell you all about it if you want to skip the rest of the maze?”

Twilight hovered there for a moment, considering, before it circled around Sweetie. “Nice try, but nope. Blue Belle and I spent a lot of time working on this!” the shard reproached her with an audible tsk-tsk. “I can’t disappoint her!”

Next to Sweetie, Blueblood gave a sigh. “I don’t suppose we could bribe you by bringing books next time?”

“Next time?” The Twilight fragment sparkled at the mention of books. “What do you mean? And what books...?”

“Why, thick... dense... technical books, strained to bursting with repressed... knowledge... That’s right. I bet I know just the kind of book you like, Twilie,” Blueblood said, reaching up to pull the ghostly fragment down into a conspiratorial huddle. “Leather bound tomes with iron spines, the type you need to open with a key... read by the light of a thick, flickering beeswax candle... tell me that doesn’t sound good?”

“It sounds...” A distinct reddish tint infiltrated the cheeks of the phantom Twilight fragment. Suddenly she blasted out of Blueblood’s hooves to materialize higher in the air, pointing an accusing hoof at him. “ARGH! You almost had me there! But the answer is still no!”

The pampered Prince stomped a hoof in irritation.

“Almost,” he muttered.

Sweetie Belle slowly clapped. “That was inspiring, really. I forgot how much of a sucker Twilight could be when books were brought to the equation.”

“Well,” Twilight’s fragment spoke up defensively. “When you start bringing up books, like say... ‘Starswirl’s Edicts of Eldritch Power’ what can a mare do?”

Sweetie smiled. “Yeah... the smell of old pages...”

“The faded ink...” Twilight added.

“The sketches done by Starswirl’s own hoof...” Sweetie nodded.

Both, fragment and filly, sighed contentedly.

Blueblood just shook his head.

Twilight’s fragment was the first to snap itself back to reality. “Well then, proceed deeper into the Maze. I shall have your next challenge ready.” That said, she floated away and into the deathtrap Blue Belle had constructed.

Sweetie sighed. “Well, I guess we should follow her. I wonder what comes next? Hoof-to-claw fight with a Manticore?”

“Perhaps we’ll get into a riddle duel with a dragon?” Blueblood suggested, taking the lead as they followed Twilight’s fragment. Around them, the pocket dimension began to rise and fall like the crest of a wave about to breach.

“Maybe a chess match against Discord, using anti-matter chess pieces?” Sweetie chimed in.

“Or an eating contest with Miss Pie?” he wondered. “Even Auntie couldn’t win that one.”

“Oh, it’s even better than an eating contest!” Twilight’s voice rang out, as the Prince and the filly approached a raised platform. A book rested on the lectern there, along with a quill. “Just sign your names and we’ll begin the next part of the maze... of death!”

“And that is?” Blueblood asked, examining the book and quill for another trap.

Twilight’s fragment clapped with her hooves. “You guys are going to love this next one. Not to brag, but I came up with it myself, and it’s my personal favorite. Just take a seat, and you’ll notice you each have two number-two pencils and an abacus. It’s time for a written EXAM! Oh boy!”

Blueblood groaned. “Kill me now...”

Sweetie’s eyes lit up. “Is it a magic exam!?”

“Nope!” Twilight cheerfully replied. “It’s a math test!”

Sweetie Belle slammed her face on the desk that had suddenly appeared in front of her. She barely paid attention to the rest of the room changing shape to resemble a classroom. She did raise her head when, with a burst of magic, a scroll appeared in front of her.

Trying not to groan, she opened the scroll and stared, mouth opening and closing in silence until she looked up to the Twilight fragment and levitated the scroll. “The octagon P_1P_2P_3P_4P_5P_6P_7P_8 is inscribed in a circle, with the vertices around the circumference in the given order. Given that the polygon P_1P_3P_5P_7 is a square of area 5 and the polygon P_2P_4P_6P_8 is a rectangle of area 4, find the maximum possible area of the octagon.” She slammed it down. “You’ve got to be kidding me! I’m just a Celestia-damned filly!”

“And I am but a handsome Prince!” Blueblood added, and Sweetie glared at him. How was being a Prince anything like being a little filly? He shrugged, helplessly. It just was.

“Yes, but both of you have proven yourselves very capable indeed!” Twilight pointed out. “I’m sure—”

“Also, I’ve forgotten how to use an abacus,” Blueblood admitted.

Sweetie’s forehead hit her desk with a dull thump.

“There are some problems that don’t need an abacus!” Twilight’s fragment pointed out. “Look at problem 25!”

Blueblood did. “If one train on the Friendship Express leaves Canterlot at 5:30 at sixty kilometers per hour and another one from Ponyville at 6:00 at fifty kilometers per hour, and they cross at 6:30, what was the model of caboose used in both trains? Oh, come on.”

“‘Between all the numbers of the alphabet, what is your favorite color?’” Sweetie read. “I have your answers right here!” she growled as flames erupted from her horn and—

o.0.∞.0.o

“So that’s what happens when you fail Twilight’s test...” Sweetie muttered, staring at the ceiling, awake in her bed at the Boutique. Apparently, written exams were serious business. She shuddered. “Time to study...”

o.0.o

Sweetie patiently waited until the last exam had been given in. This time, she had limited her essay to three pages and had used her mouth to write. Once the whole class had submitted their essays, Miss Cheerilee smiled. “Okay class, that was it! Are there any questions?”

Sweetie Belle dutifully raised her hoof. “Miss Cheerilee? I do have a question!”

“Yes, Sweetie? What is it?” Miss Cheerilee asked, ignoring the loud groans from the rest of the class.

“Well, I think I’ll need the blackboard to properly illustrate it; may I?”

“Sure! Okay, class, pay attention! Maybe one of you can help Sweetie Belle before I do!”

Sweetie Belle stood up and cantered towards the blackboard, levitating a piece of chalk. She proceeded to draw an octagon, and started naming sections with numbers preceded by a ‘P’. Once she was done, she turned to look at Cheerilee, who stood there with a frozen smile on her face. “So... here’s the problem...”

o.0.o

“Uh, Miss Cheerilee?” Silver Spoon raised her hoof. “I don’t think we can help Sweetie with this particular problem.” She waved her hoof in front of the paralyzed teacher. “Miss Cheerilee?”

o.0.o

The Royal household ate breakfast in silence, most mornings. Luna was not a very talkative pony after her night’s vigil, and Celestia - despite being the very avatar of the dawn - was a deep sleeper who took to mornings drudgenly. Most of the chatter came from the royal ministers or other personages lucky enough to be invited to the royal table.

This morning, Celestia herself looked up from her simple breakfast of oats and apples to stare, just a moment or two, at her erstwhile nephew. “Blueblood,” she said, gently. “What is that you have there?”

Luna, too, looked up from her dinner-as-breakfast, large eyes blinking and silently curious.

The Prince of the realm sighed, his royal dignity cast aside. He held up a piece of paper covered in scribbles and calculations.

“...Homework.”

o.0.o

The pair sat uneasily watching Twilight’s fragment grade their tests.

“Hmm,” the smokey unicorn muttered to herself, very diligent in her examination of their examinations. “Hmmm. Very sloppy. Did not show your work, your Grace...”

Sweetie Belle turned to see a bashful Blueblood shrugging in his seat.

“I was always bad at showing my work,” he admitted. Sweetie Belle could guess it was probably because he had cheated then, and was cheating now. Then again, so was she.

“Oh. Very good. Yes. Good. Good!”

Sweetie had to keep from swelling up with pri—

Wrong!” the fragment happily declared, marking one of the papers with a dramatic slash of her pen. “Close, but wrong. I’ll give you partial credit.”

“You know, most teachers aren’t this happy grading papers,” Blueblood muttered, and the Twilight Fragment glared up from over his exam... and then went back to grading a moment later.

“You got this one. Good. The hoofwriting could be clearer, but I think this one is right. Now for the multiple choice section...” There was much hmming and hawing for another few minutes before, without warning, both exam papers rolled up and floated back over to the pair of time loopers.

“Done!” Twilight’s fragment announced. “You both pass.” She glared at Blueblood. “Barely.”

“Yay!” Sweetie cheered. “Cutie Mark Crusaders Test Takers!” She raised a hoof for Blueblood to bump, but lowered it when she noticed that he was concentrating on his test.

His royal highness was frowning at his graded paper. “Hey!” he objected, suddenly. “What happened to the extra points I got for bringing you an apple?”

“I gave you an extra half-point!”

“A whole half-point. Wonderful. And why did I lose points here?”

“Where?” the fragment floated over his shoulder. She then leveled a glare at him. “You doodled in the margins of your page.”

“I thought you’d like it.”

“It’s a picture of me kissing another mare.”

“No! See the little bear under your hoof? This is a creative reinterpretation of you and Miss Lulamoon beating the Ursa Minor.”

“And then making out.”

“Yes. And that.”

“I’ve very tempted to fail you on principle,” Twilight floated away, blushing a bit.

“Still, a solid C,” Blueblood said, folding up his test. “I guess I can live with it.” Slowly, he raised a hoof to his side, and bumped with Sweetie Belle. “Cutie Mark Crusaders Test Takers. Hurrah.”

“Can I see the picture?” Sweetie asked, and laughed as Twilight dove between them.

“NO!”

“Aww!”

“Yes, yes, laugh it up.” Twilight’s fragment sighed, first disappointed, but then excited again. “I guess you can proceed to the next test! I never imagined anypony would get so far so fast, and on the first try, too!” She paused. “Not that anypony could try more than once, but you two are pretty good!”

Sweetie giggled and Blueblood chuckled, bumping hooves again.

“Don’t get too cocky!” Twilight warned them as she floated around overhead. “There are two more tests to go! Are you ready?”

Two more?!” Sweetie whined. “Why do we have to take more tests? Why can’t you just be a nice fragment and go with me?”

o.0.o

It was another maze, which wasn’t a bad thing. Blueblood had grinned at the prospect, confident in his skill at navigation. It was his cutie mark, after all, so he took the lead. After everything leading up to it, Sweetie felt more than happy to let her new big brother best friend forever give it the “old academy try,” in his own words. It was almost relaxing, walking through the quiet hedgerows, the gentle and comforting clatter of Blueblood’s hooves close by as he walked.

“Sweetie Belle...”

Glaring at the fragment, Sweetie pretended not to hear her.

“Sweetie Belle... I know you can hear me,” Twilight’s fragment said playfully. “Why won’t you answer?”

“Because there’s nothing to talk about,” Sweetie snapped. “I don’t trust you. You’d let me and Blueblood die in an instant to satisfy your sick humor.”

“Oh, don’t say that, Sweetie,” Twilight’s fragment whined. “You know it’s me, Twilight, I wouldn’t do that without good reason.”

“And what good reason could you possibly have for doing that?”

“Well,” the fragment raised a hoof to her chest. “I’m your mentor, of course! I have to make sure that you’re challenged appropriately, and let me tell you, you’ve exceeded all my expectations, Sweetie, and they were not small.”

Despite herself, Sweetie felt some pride swell inside of her, but quickly crushed it down. “So what? I need to be strong and diligent if I’m going to save you and get us home.”

Twilight’s fragment laughed. “Oh, Sweetie, you don’t have to worry about me! I’m Twilight Sparkle! The Element of Magic, personal student of Princess Celestia! I can take care of myself, but you, Sweetie, you’re just a filly. You shouldn’t be here, in danger. That’s what I was trying to teach you; you’re risking your life for nothing. You should be home, Sweetie.”

“The only way to get home is to gather all of the fragments together, and get Twilight back!” Sweetie growled.

Wel-l-l-l,” the ghostly unicorn drawled, “that’s not entirely true.”

“What?” Sweetie stopped to stare at the fragment, who nodded with a small smile.

“I’ve talked to the fragments inside of you,” she elaborated. “Well, as much as they would talk to me.” She frowned for a second. “After you passing my tests so quickly, I knew something was up, so I communed with them and found out you’ve been cheating!” She giggled, pleased at both her discovery and the look of shock on Sweetie’s face. “But that’s okay, we know what you’ve been through... Sweetie, there’s no need for you to carry on like this. Go home.”

“I can’t!” Sweetie cried. “Haven’t you been listening? I can’t do it on my own! I want to go home! I miss Rarity! And Scootaloo and Apple Bloom! My Rarity, my Scootaloo, my Applebloom! Not their counterparts here! But I can’t! I need Twilight to—”

“That’s the thing,” the fragment interrupted. “You don’t. There’s enough of us in you with the link to our home dimension, and with the massive reservoir of magic I have here, we can just send you back home.”

“What?” Sweetie looked at the fragment in complete bewilderment. “D-don’t lie to me...” She looked down. “Please... of all the cruel jokes...”

“It’s not a joke,” the fragment insisted. “Look, over there.”

Sweetie followed the fragment’s hoof to one of the walls of the maze, where a dented, silver mirror stood. “What is this?”

“A doorway,” Twilight’s fragment said. “And it’s open.”

Sweetie blinked. She could see Rarity, Fluttershy and... Zecora? The trio were talking, but she couldn’t hear what they were saying. Rarity looked gaunt. As if she hadn’t been eating well or maybe not at all, and she had a haunted look in her eyes. “W-what... what happened to her?”

“She’s been mourning your loss,” Twilight’s fragment said. “She thought you had died; she buried an empty coffin with your name on it, right next to your parents.”

“But... I’m not dead!” Sweetie cried.

“Oh, I know.” The fragment nodded. “And even worse, she knows that as well, now... Thanks to Zecora, she was able to follow you to another world, your most recent one, I believe... so now she mourns the fact that you don’t want to go home.”

“But I do!” Sweetie retorted, hitting the silver mirror with her hoof. “I do want to go home! Rarity! I want to go home! I’ll find a way! I promise!”

“There’s a way right there,” Twilight’s fragment whispered, flowing around Sweetie to hover over the mirror. “All you need to do is step through.”

Her hoof touched the mirror again and it rippled as if it were made of water.

Sweetie’s eyes watered. “I-I can go home?”

Twilight’s fragment smiled kindly and nodded. “You have earned it.”

Sweetie gazed at the three mares on the other side of the mirror. She knew that was her world, although how, she couldn’t tell. It was just a base instinct, she just knew. “Rarity... sis...”

“Sweetie Belle,” Twilight’s voice was warm and gentle, inviting. “Sweetie, don’t waste your chance. Go. Be happy.”

Sweetie raised her hoof until it hovered, almost touching the surface of the mirror. “I’ll be able to hug her... a-and, I’ll have dinner with her again and... I’ll see Scootaloo and Apple Bloom and tell them all about my adventures...”

“Yes, Sweetie, all you need to do is go through. Don’t worry about anypony else, you’ve suffered enough.”

Sweetie nodded. “I never wanted this... I just... want to be with my family. With Rarity and you and Spike and...” She looked up, a little frown crossing her face. “B-but Twilight, what about you?”

“I’m okay, Sweetie,” the fragment assured her. “We’ll all be okay. Go back, we’ll figure it out.”

“But, who would teach me magic?” Sweetie asked. “Who will take care of Spike?”

“Sweetie, it’s fine. Spike’s a dragon and you can learn more from—”

Sweetie stepped back from the mirror. “What kind of pony leaves her friends behind when they need her?”

“Sweetie, I—”

“One of you... one Twilight, she told me that I should look at the actions and morals of whoever is giving me advice before acting on it... How can you ask me to leave not only you behind, but to just let Spike suffer when he finds out you are alive and you didn’t want to go home?”

“Sweetie Belle,” Twilight’s fragment growled. “I’m your friend and mentor, you should listen to me. Your sister is there, waiting for you and this is your one chance to get to her.”

“And tell her and everypony else that loves you what, exactly?” Sweetie snapped back. “That you told me that what they also want is worthless? That I suffered through some horrible places and moments and then ran away from my problems like a little filly?”

“You are a filly!”

“But I’m not a coward!” Sweetie shouted, stomping her hooves. “And I’m not leaving without you! I’m not telling my sister, my friends or anypony else that I left my friend and mentor behind because a piece of her wanted to stay crazy!”

The fragment stared at Sweetie Belle in silence, then, in an almost whimsical move, she tapped the mirror again. The three mares on the other sided started and turned around to look their way.

Their eyes widened and Rarity took a couple of trembling steps her way, clearly mouthing the words ‘Sweetie Belle’ and hope filling her eyes... before the mirror became dull again.

Sweetie’s eyes filled with tears. “Why?” she whispered.

Twilight’s fragment didn’t answer immediately. Instead she looked at the mirror before looking back at Sweetie. “Because you passed.”

“I passed?!” Sweetie screeched. “That was just one of your stupid tests!?”

Twilight’s fragment snorted. “In part. But now you’ll never know if what you saw was real.”

“I hate you,” Sweetie growled. “I hate you so much. How something like you can even be a part of Twilight...” She shook her head. “Let’s get this over with. The less I see of you the better!”

“What was that?” Blueblood asked, and Sweetie suddenly realized that at some point she had stopped hearing the steady sound of his hoofsteps. It was back now, and so was he. Gone was the mirror from before, replaced once again by the seemingly endless green hedge of the maze.

“Now, now,” he said, placatingly. “I’m impatient, too, but we’ll be out of here soon, I promise.”

“I hope so,” Sweetie growled. “Or I might consider finding ways to destroy fragments.”

o.0.o

“Congratulations! You both made it through! It’s time for you to face the final challenge,” Twilight’s fragment announced as they reached the exit from the maze.

“Not to look a gift horse in the mouth, but did you not say that we had two remaining challenges?” Blueblood asked. “Unless you mean—”

“We passed,” Sweetie interrupted through gritting teeth. “Didn’t we, fragment?”

Twilight’s fragment snorted. “Barely, but yes.”

“Why do I feel like I’m missing something,” Blueblood muttered, and a gentle surge in the ground underhoof caused the stallion to pause. Sweetie felt it too, as her entire body was raised up and then down. The trimmed grass and cobbled stone of the hedge maze’s walkways came apart in a grid, the sections flipping over like turned cards.

On the other side, snapping into place beneath the two ponies, a new floor revealed itself like a slowly spreading puzzle. Colored tiles formed shapes against pearl white and hedges shattered into glassy shards, only to coalesce into marble pillars. The equestrian statues that Sweetie had seen before scattered throughout the replica maze, shot forward through the disintegrating greenery. The formerly inanimate statues grew larger, raising on hind legs and roaring as wings tore from the backs of the unicorns and earth ponies and horns erupted from the skulls of former earth ponies and pegasi. The newly christened alicorn statues towered over them, raising hooves to the sky.

Drawn by them, Sweetie stared upwards, and saw a latticework of magic and glass beginning to form over them, like a massive transparent bell. She heard Blueblood’s hooves move closer and felt him close by, protective at the sudden change of environment. Patterns arose within the bell-shaped dome, along with vines of decorative gold and iron... like tangles of thorny ivy. A few blushed with color, turning into roses as tall as a small home, suspended in midair. Clouds could be seen beyond the massive cage they found themselves in, swirling slowly.

Then, with a bright flash, a fierce globe of light the size of a pony erupted in the uppermost reaches of the bell. Smaller lights appeared next, circling the radiant glow along a rotating circle of brass. Finally, from below, buildings began to sprout like mushrooms after a rain, but they were small... so small... Sweetie recognized what had to be the town hall, and a tiny Sugarcube Corner, and even a miniature Carousel Boutique. It was Ponyville. A tiny Ponyville. Sweetie turned around, and she could see small rolling hills, covered with trees like grass, except dotted by speckles of red.

She gasped, about to ask if this was what she thought it was...

When the glowing orb overhead detached and crashed to earth with enough force to crater part of the Canterlot mountains outside town. Sweetie instinctively ducked behind one of Blueblood’s legs. Whatever had fallen did not lie there in the shattered mountains beneath it. If anything, the glow intensified as something began to move within it. A long burning tendril of molten metal, or blazing light, reached out to press down onto a tiny green field. Smoke coiled up from whatever it touched, and as the form grew higher and higher, it began to take shape, wreathed in black smoke and flakes of ash.

“Intelligence!” Twilight’s fragment announced, “Strength! Fortitude! Cunning! Even loyalty and courage! You guys passed all the tests!” The shadowy mare cheered as she materialized next to the glowing pony, now half cloaked by soot. “Despite what I’ve said, I want you both to know I’m really impressed! We didn’t make this easy, did we?” She turned to the smoking form. “Did we?” she asked, and shook her head vigorously. “Nah! I mean, I could have made it harder... and you guys didn’t do that great on the written tests... but overall really great! You should be super proud of yourselves!

“Now!” Twilight’s fragment declared, and with a visible strain, her smoky form began to coalesce and become just a little more solid. “You get to see the final test.” She tapped her chest, and a small purple crystal fragment appeared within, encased in transparent glass. “And surprise! The final test is us!”

The eyes of the burning pony opened, a deep, bright blue.

“I’m awake... again?” the ember-pony said in a strained voice that only took on a feminine tone at the very last word.

Through the flickering ash, a mare’s body emerged, with a white coat and a long blonde mane done up in tightly regimented curls. Her tail flicked to the side, now fully formed and with the same pure golden color. A long horn stood proudly atop her head, but it was tinted with a bluish hue that wasn’t just magic, as if the coat there had been stained somehow.

“Twilight?” she asked, only noticing the smoky pony next to her. The fragment nodded happily.

“Blue Belle,” she replied.

Slowly, Blue Belle’s neon blue eyes - literally glowing blue - settled on their guests.

“One of... my descendants,” she stated, and Sweetie felt the eyes single out her and her alone. “Or is that two? Oh. I see. This must be... the little apprentice. I knew you’d come to take away my Twilight,” Blue Belle growled, eyes narrowing dangerously. “You should have brought Aunt Celestia. Your final test... is me.”

“I hope you don’t mind!” Twilight apologized, pressing her front hooves together. “I told her all about you!”

“‘I hope you don’t mind!’” Sweetie Belle mimicked in a high-pitched, annoying voice. “Of course I do, fragment! Now I have to deal not only with you, but her as well?” Sweetie slammed her hooves on the floor. “Why must you insist on making things worse?

Twilight’s fragment shrugged. “It’s more interesting that way! And besides, what did you expect me to talk about for hundreds of years? Friendship reports?”

“Maybe that way you wouldn’t have forgotten them,” Sweetie snapped.

Those eight words sent a visible tremor through the fragment’s magic infused form.

“That’s... That’s a mean thing to say,” Twilight’s fragment hissed, making a clear effort to remain collected. She turned to the other pony next to her. “Blue Belle. Wash her mouth with soap, would you please?”

Blue Belle nodded slowly. “I will,” she promised, but first pointed at Sweetie’s companion. “You.”

“Moi?” Blueblood asked, pointing to himself. “I’m just a humble tour guide...!”

“What number are you?” Blue Belle demanded, her tail swishing behind her, still wreathed in burning embers.

The stallion frowned, considering making further light of the question, but answered honestly. “Fifty two.”

“Fifty two,” Blue Belle marveled. “So long? Was I asleep that long? I don’t... remember?” She turned to Twilight and the fragment rolled her eyes.

“It got boring. It all got boring,” she said, and Blue Belle’s expression fell, just enough to notice. “Anything gets boring after three hundred years, Belle.”

“But—” Blue Belle bit back her words, turning again to the two intruders in her, their, domain. “I guess... now isn’t the time. Fifty-two generations and the family resemblance is still strong, but don’t think I’ll go easy on you, boy. There is always another Blueblood to take the place of one who dies.”

“Sad but true,” Blueblood admitted with a smirk. “The only chess piece a pony can’t replace is the Princess, and a pawn can become a Prince by advancing across the board.” He reached out, pushing Sweetie behind him. “So.”

“So,” Blue Belle agreed, extending a hoof.

Sweetie felt the teleport and the heat, and a blink of her eyes later, there was nothing but sky. Green eyes frantically searched in every direction, her hooves digging into Blueblood’s white coat as they began to fall. Above, she could see the scaffolding and the slowly turning rings at the peak of the bell-dome, the gilded cage that surrounded the tiny Ponyville... the tiny Equestria.

Below...

Below, a bubbling cauldron of red and orange festered like a boil on fields of green and brown. Whatever had been there, including a strip of the town of Ponyville, had been melted away into runny rivulets, like glowing tears of iron from a forge. Fleur’s words momentarily came to mind, when Sweetie had been pretending to be Blueblood’s daughter...

“You wish to smite an enemy with a bolt from the heavens? ... If you desire a spell that can destroy any number of enemies, it should be at your hooftips.”

“Yeah...” Sweetie shuddered, answering the memory of Fleur’s voice. “Pass.” She looked around. “Are we going to land anywhere?”

“I’d rather not land at all,” Blueblood admitted, a rather frantic - even frightened - look on his face. She’d never seen him look that afraid of anything before in all their loops together. “That spell... that was Iridium’s Incandescent Irradiation. That spell is forbidden in Equestria for a good reason.”

“What does it do?” Sweetie asked. “Beyond the obvious, I mean?”

“It... reproduces a piece of Celestia’s Sun,” he explained. “But the light from it is poisonous. It shouldn’t - it can’t - be used in Equestria. Ever. So our family sealed it away.”

She felt him teleport again, and they were on the other side of the massive dome. Looking back, she had to shield her eyes from the intense light that engulfed a perfect circle of the artificial heaven. The gold and iron scaffolding had melted into a sloppy, dripping mass, like molten wax from a candle. The glass ran like water instead of shattering.

“What happens to me doesn’t matter, but if getting Twilight’s fragment back takes you out of the loops... you can’t get anywhere near where that has hit!” He turned to her. “Understand?” Seeing her nod, he patted her gently on the shoulder, despite her still clinging to his other front leg. “I’ll keep her pointing up. You deal with the fragment. I bet if you can grab it... or something... we’ll win this.”

Sweetie grimaced; so, it all came back to her and that fragment. “I’ve been thinking more on ways to destroy her than take her down, but I guess I’ll do my best.”

“I’ll be counting on it,” he replied, and she felt energy build up in his horn and all around them. Then, in the blink of an eye, they were back on the ground. Just feet away, Blue Belle was already looking over her shoulder. Crackles of electricity danced among the ashes billowing around her blue-tinted horn. This close, she could -

No, this close, she couldn’t use her Irradiation spell.

Sweetie felt Blueblood push her off his foreleg, before rushing, head lowered at his ancestor. The two bowled over and then vanished in a blink. Sweetie couldn’t be sure where, but she knew of one safe place. Close by, the smoky Twilight fragment hovered, watching her with dark purple eyes.

“So, it’s just you and me,” Twilight’s fragment growled, her voice lacking any of the previous energy. “You really want to take me away.”

Sweetie snorted. “After what you’ve done?” She started slowly moving sideways to the right. “I’d rather abandon you to your fate here, with no escape, destroy the scroll that has the clues for the dimensional portal and let you rot.”

“Really?” Twilight’s fragment floated back, her magical energies crackling around her. “Aren’t I the reason you came here? Didn’t you come over to rescue me?”

Sweetie paused, taking a deep breath. “Not you,” she said, then trotted quickly to her left, sending a blast of air towards the fragment. “I’m going to save Twilight Sparkle.”

“I am Twilight Sparkle!” the fragment roared, raising a shield to take the brunt of the attack. Keeping it up, she shot a series of flaming missiles towards Sweetie Belle, who turned in a half-circle, letting the flames pass her and ending with her head tilted just so.

Sweetie smiled, knowing she looked so arrogant it was downright beautiful. “You’re memories!” she taunted, her canter showering Twilight’s fragment with water, which splashed harmlessly against her shield. “A figment of who she really is,” Sweetie Belle added, her quick hoofsteps moving her out of the way of another of Twilight’s spells. She looked over her shoulder at her opponent and sent a quick burst of lightning towards the fragment, which dissipated against a shield.

“Would you just stay in one place?!” Twilight snarled, growing a little tired of playing with a filly who by all rights shouldn’t have been able to dodge even one spell from her. She dropped her shield and her horn lit up once more, tearing several rocks off the ground. She flung the first, which Sweetie dodged by prancing and jumping, drawing an irritated snort from the fragment. The second and third flew towards Sweetie, too large to jump over, but she quickly galloped in between them before they crushed the space where she had been standing moments before.

Sweetie tapped the floor once, then dodged, then tapped it again, sending two rivulets of fire towards Twilight’s fragment, who didn’t even flinch when they actually hit her. The flames washed over the phantom mare doing little more than rustling her mane.

“No, I won’t,” she answered the fragment’s earlier question. “You know I can’t. I have to bring Twilight Sparkle back, and sadly, that means bringing with me somepony who doesn’t even know why she’s fighting.”

Twilight snorted. “Of course I do! A little filly could never truly understand the loyalty that comes from love and friendship.”

“And what is that?” Sweetie huffed, stopping and facing Twilight’s fragment. “Living with fake friends in a pretend Ponyville?”

Shut up!” the fragment bellowed, casting a ball of water that splashed against Sweetie’s shield much like the filly’s earlier attack had against hers. It didn’t penetrate, but it did send her tumbling back off her hooves. “Blue Belle loves me! She gave me back my life! She brought me here and made me a world to remember my friends!”

“Your friends? And what would Rarity say if she saw you attacking her sister?!” Sweetie Belle shouted back, waving her hoof at the destruction around them.

“What would Pinkie Pie think of you destroying your little toy village? What would Applejack think of you just giving up instead of standing strong? Do you think that Fluttershy would smile nicely if she found out you designed deadly traps to challenge anypony that walked in here to help you?” Sweetie shook her head. “What about Rainbow Dash? I bet she would love to see how you would betray somepony you cared about.”

“Shut up! Shut up! Shut up!” Forelegs flailing, the fragment shook her head so viciously her mane and tail whipped her sides. “Three hundred years, Sweetie!” she screeched. “Three hundred years of the same, stupid games and the same damn memories! Nothing new!”

She stepped back, pointing an accusing hoof at her student. “You’ve been trapped like me; the other fragments told me! You know what it’s like! For you it’s only been two and a half years! Imagine three hundred! I can’t stand it anymore!”

Sweetie Belle gasped. Two years! I completely lost count! She shook her head and bit her lip angrily. And she’s been doing the same thing for three hundred...

Taking this as an invitation, the fragment edged closer. “You think I don’t know this is all fake!?” Twilight roared, and for a moment, the air wavered with the power of her next spell: a spell that Sweetie knew no shield of hers could block. But the fragment let the magic dissipate as she stomped a hoof against the ground, scraping it... and revealing formless white beneath the bright green grass.

“This place: look at it! It seemed so real at first - so perfect! And Blue Belle worked so hard to make it for me - but after a while, all I could see were the flaws,” she cried, torn between anger and frustration and despair. “The fake farm and the fake town and the fake books and the fake friends, swirling around and around in a glass bubble! Doing the same things over and over! There was a fake-you, and... I think I got rid of her, first. I hated reliving that... that damn accident that sent me here! But then the fake-Rarity noticed something was wrong. That she couldn’t interact with you anymore, so I had to get rid of her, too. And then, I just - I just... got rid of everypony.”

“I’m supposed to be Twilight Sparkle,” she reasoned in a softer voice. “I look in a mirror and I see her, but I... I can’t even remember which world is more real, anymore. The real one you say you’re from, or this fake one I’ve spent four lifetimes in?”

“Twilight...”

The fragment glared at her with tired, crazed eyes. “A part of me leapt for joy when you showed up, after so long. But another part of me... really wants to kill you!” She started to laugh, her body wracked by weak tremors, only to fix Sweetie with a predatory stare. “Can a fragment of a pony have fragments herself? All those times you died in here... I wonder if that me left behind laughed or cried when you were gone?”

Sweetie remained silent for a while, pondering Twilight Fragment’s words. She then closed her eyes and took a deep breath before speaking slowly. “What would Twilight have said if, three hundred years ago, Princess Celestia had asked her: ‘Would you give up?’” She asked, opening her eyes and meeting the fragment's glare without flinching. “What would the Twilight Sparkle of this world say to you, if she saw you giving up and then, when the way out is there, when your friend and apprentice came looking for you, you turned around and let her die over and over?”

Sweetie could feel the tears of frustration running down her cheeks, but she didn’t care. Let this thing see how much it had hurt her.

“What would the real Twilight Sparkle say? Do you need me to tell you?” she asked, taking a step towards the fragment. Despite all the power at her disposal, the fragment backed away. “Or do you already know, from looking into the other fragments? Did they give up? One buried in ruins, alone save for two werewolves for who knows how long? Did she give up?”

“She was unconscious for most of it...” the fragment tried to argue.

“What about the other one? Living with Twilight and seeing all but her closest friends die? Watching the world change, losing Spike, seeing her friends bury their children and their children’s children? Did she not suffer with her?”

“I—”

“One more, trapped in the Everfree forest, in the old Castle... how long?”

The fragment sagged. “A th-thousand years... but! She was asleep as well... for m-most of it!”

“What about the one Silver found?”

At that, the fragment smiled. “She had just arrived before you...” But the smile quickly faded as it realized what came next.

“And what about the one that saw the world burn?” Sweetie asked softly, stopping right in front of Twilight’s fragment. “The one that saw countless lives destroyed by spells not unlike the one your precious Blue Belle cast earlier? The one that had to live with undead ponies, trapped underground after it was found, a pet project to a monster that had absorbed Twilight?”

“She—” the fragment shrunk away from Sweetie.

“Did any of them, short stay or long, alone or with company... did any of them abandon hope? Lose sense of who Twilight Sparkle really is?”

“N-no...”

Sweetie leaned in, hugging the fragment as tears flowed freely onto the ghostly coat of her opponent. “Twilight...” she whispered into its ear. “You are my teacher, my friend... my beacon to find my way home... you’re not cruel. You're not a murderer or a killer.” She pulled back and locked teary eyes with the fragment’s. “Please, please, help me get you home.”

“But...” the fragment found her forelegs wrapping about the filly. “But—”

“If I’m wrong...” Sweetie buried her nose in the fragment’s mane. “Why have you been holding back? Why didn’t you kill me?”

“I-I don’t...” the fragment shook. “I just thought...” She reached for the filly, but flinched back, shocked and ashamed. “What I must have put you through! I’m so sorry, Sweetie Belle...”

Sweetie shook her head. “I’m sorry too, Twilight, I caused all of this, but... I’m trying to get you back. Please, stop all of this.”

Conflicted, the fragment slipped from Sweetie’s hold. “Sweetie, if I stop this... I....”

o.0.o

Blueblood galloped at full speed along the swaying, half-melted scaffold, his hooves burning from the heated, but still functionally solid, platform. Just how long it would remain solid, he couldn't begin to guess. There was little beneath it except sky and a thousand pony-length face plant into still very solid ground. He felt light headed and not simply due to the heat and the sweat that caked and ruined his normally immaculate white coat.

He was not built for this kind of madness!

This sort of daring-do was what he had walls of cannon fodder royal guards for! That was why they had such generous pension plans! That was why they had health insurance! Blueblood scoffed to himself as he skidded down a tilting beam, spotted another safe spot, and teleported. It was a shame, in this case, but there simply wasn't a pony shield in existence that would do much good. Which meant regrettably having to get a little dirty.

Lady Blue Belle, the Twenty Third of their line, rose up on gossamer wings and swooped forward. A white hoof shadowed in black ash thrust forward -

Blueblood blinked, teleported, but still felt the heat.

Glancing back behind him, he could see part of his luxurious tail missing. It wasn't even burned. It was gone. Also, past his tail, he could see another circular hole blasting into the massive magical bell that was this self contained pocket dimension. Melted glass oozed in veins of brass and iron like a gaping, pus-filled wound. Beyond even that, he could make out the magical matter that was the real dimensional barrier. It was unscarred by the attack, but a few more of those Incandescent Irradiations, and it would bring the ceiling down.

He couldn't allow that. Sweetie was still down there. This was her chance, maybe her best chance, to finally collect the fragment and escape the damnable loops. Nothing else had ever changed, not since that night he had fallen asleep after the Gala disaster. Nothing he did, nothing he ever did, was ever likely to have an impact on anypony. But Sweetie Belle... he could save Sweetie Belle. Maybe that would be enough.

Pity that he didn't really have a single offensive spell to his name.

"What's wrong with you?" Blue Belle asked, still flying with apparently little effort. Her sleepy haze from before had soon been swept away by the sort of focus that came from well practiced magic and battle. "Don't tell me ponies in your time have forgotten pegasus mimicry spells?"

Blueblood vanished again, but the royal unicorn only frowned.

"All you do is blink around," she observed, waving a hoof to casually deflect a thrown chunk of molten glass and iron. A dollop of it stuck to her, but the blue-blooded mare seemed unconcerned. Her lips formed into a circle and she blew, freezing the molten mass and shattering it. "You are the fifty second, so I'm not surprised you ended up at least a little weaker than me," she stated, gossamer wings flapping behind her. "But I suspect you aren't trying at all."

She spotted Blueblood again, and rather than use another Irradiation, her ice-tinted horn glowed and a cone of freezing fire shot out, wide enough to engulf a small dragon. It was not just a simple discharge either. It followed the frantic stallion, ripping a long, ragged trail along the top of the bell and along the slowly moving celestial scaffold. One of the small planets circling the empty globe that had been the astrolabe's sun became engulfed and shattered into a thousand pieces. The attached moon broke away and fell until it was hanging by just a string of steel wire.

"My goodness! Was that really necessary?!" Blueblood exclaimed even as he ran, pell-mell.

"Come now!" Blue Belle jeered at her fleeing descendant in the Canterlot Voice, just to be sure he could hear her. "Nopony will care if you use our spells here! This isn't Equestria and Aunt Celestia isn't here to punish you. Do you know Osmium's Overpowering Oration?"

Blue Belle opened her mouth wide and when she spoke next, it was a droning roar, like an elephant emptying its lungs into a tower sized horn. Panes of glass the size of houses shattered and then turned to wispy vapor, bolts ripped free from moorings and spinning astrolabe components. A titanic ring large enough to encircle Ponyville's real town hall and have room for half the marketplace ripped free, tumbling into free fall. Blue Belle ignored it with a contemptuous huff.

"No?" she asked, eyes searching for her distant nephew. "What about Strontium's Supernatural Summons? Ruthenium's Rebarbative Rebuke? You must at least know Aunt Celestia's Concentrated Conflagrant Circumference? Moreover, the family still has three of the four Alicorn Amulets, doesn't it? The ruby and the topaz and the emerald? Surely you brought one with you? Summon it!"

"Actually! To be quite frank, I don't know any of those spells!" Blueblood yelled back, breathing labored and curls of smoke rising from his right front foreleg. It was crusted with the lightest dusting of blue frostfire, burning and freezing at the same time... but it was no mortal wound. He stood uneasily on one of the tilting, broken astrolabe rings. "We lost one of the alicorn amulets more than a century ago," he admitted, and Blue Belle scowled. "I couldn't summon one anyway. I don't know how."

"Then what can you do, boy?" Blue Belle roared.

"I... I look rather dashing in a tuxedo!" Blueblood declared, puffing out his chest. "And! And! I can distinguish many fine wines by fragrance alone."

For a few long pregnant seconds, Blue Belle, the Twenty Third Blueblood herself, simply hovered in place. Then her right eye twitched.

"I see," she finally said, and raised her voice again to repeat, "I see! You've become weak, fifty second! In my time, no foal became a named Blueblood without mastering at least one five alliteration incantation. Are you really a Blueblood? You? Just a foal in stallion’s cloth? Maybe I should spill that blood of yours all over this dimension and see if I can find even a single drop that we share.

"Observe, learn, be illuminated and vanish forever," Blue Belle said, eyes squinting as she truly concentrated. Beads of magic began to coalesce around her horn, glowing bright as a miniature sun. "The spell that earned me my name! Iridium’s Intense. Incandescent. Irradiation. Imprisonment. The very spell Iridium herself used to slay an alicorn!"

With a chime, eight globes of light - blazing nuclear pinpricks - formed in midair.

With a flash, each one connected to the other, forming six planes, six walls, of pure solar light. The slowly spinning, tortured machinery of the great astrolabe ground to a halt as much of it ended up intersected by one of the planes of light and force. The barriers permitted no entry, no exit, no magical movement through and no escape. What was left of the mechanical device came apart as the stresses proved too much. Pieces rained like falling fragments of a miniature heaven.

"Within that cube, the sun itself shall bloom," she spoke, softly now. No sound could penetrate the barrier either. The victim would vanish from this world in silence. "No trace of you shall—”

CLONK

The barrier shattered as Blue Belle plummeted from the sky, the dislodged and fire-frost scarred replica of Equestria's moon slamming into her, Mare-in-the-Moon side first. Her delicate wings crumpled and spun lazily through the air after being so forcibly detached from the royal mare that had conjured them. Down and down-some-more the moon fell, until it crashed to earth and came to pieces amidst a cloud of dust and embers.

"Auntie's firm fantastic and fiery flanks!" Blueblood said, appearing on top of the smashed remains of the replica moon. He was filthy from soot, sweat, and even a little singed. It was really rather deplorable treatment for a delicate stallion like him.

"You can actually use a five alliteration Iridium spell," he continued, shaking his head in dismay but his voice truly astonished at the achievement. "No pony can do that anymore. Maybe Miss Sparkle, if we ever let her learn one... but to see it with my own eyes?

"Horrific," he concluded, glaring down at the rubble. "Monstrous."

"Mon... strous...?"

A blast of magic sent a twelve-ton chunk of moon flying.

"Ours is the legacy of magic!" Blue Belle raised from the ruins of the fallen moon like an avenging alicorn, blue eyes literally blazing with magic and fire. "Unparalleled. Unchallenged. With Lady Luna lost to darkness, we—"

"Auntie Luna is fine," Blueblood interrupted his unhinged great aunt. "Just had breakfast with her this morning."

"Yes... Yes, Twilight told me... told me about Lady Luna and the Elements of Harmony, but—”

"Let that magic remain in the history books," Blueblood told her. "Besides," he added with a smirk. "Charging up your horn for a big spell like that? It makes it quite easy to drop a moon on your head."

Blue Belle glared at the impudent pup for a second before cracking a grin of her own.

"I suppose so," she conceded, chuckling with real mirth. "Twi painted such an idyllic picture of her era, I... I only partly believed it." She looked up for a moment, laughing a bit more loudly. "I was just hit with a moon. My own moon! How embarrassing!"

The two Bluebloods, separated by centuries, laughed together in good cheer.

"Of course, I'm still going to destroy you," Blue Belle suddenly said, raising a grimy white hoof. Blueblood cursed inwardly, already feeling his coat begin to burn, his skin beginning to heat from within, his blood to boil beneath the surface—

And then it was gone.

The ground in front of him splashed upwards, like a wave of water in a pool. He collapsed, blinking, trying to catch his breath. He hadn't expected - hadn't anticipated - hadn't imagined that his insane aunt and ancestor would so suddenly... so suddenly...!

"Stop, Belle, please," Twilight's eerily calm voice snapped him out of his trance, and he saw how he had been saved. Blue Belle's hoof was pointed down, at the ground between them. The curve of a circular irradiation burn ended just inches from his hooves. He scrambled back without thinking. Blue Belle's aim had been forced off course, and it was because of the smoky lavender mare, one hoof on top of Blue Belle's.

The fragment looked almost... whole enough to be the real thing, the real Twilight Sparkle.

“Wow, Blueblood!” Sweetie grinned, walking around him. “You really got your flank hoofed to you! Well done!”

“We should’ve switched jobs,” he stated, still gawking at his ancestor and the mare who had stopped her. Finally, he tore his eyes away to look down at Sweetie and huff. “You battle the flying magnifying glass and I charm the cute mare into giving up.”

Sweetie grinned. “You know it wouldn’t be a fair fight, and then you’d have to battle me to restore your family honor.”

“I’d just bribe you with candy and milkshakes to say you lost.”

Sweetie pouted. “You know me too well.”

Not far away, another conversation could just be overheard.

“B-but Twi...” Blue Belle pleaded, whatever mighty and forbidden spells that had been at her disposal long since forgotten. The two mares were huddled close together, and if anything, Twilight was becoming more solid and Blue Belle more wispy and indistinct. “You can’t leave. I-I know you put me to sleep all these years, but... but we can still... there must be something I...”

“I have to go,” Twilight said, firmly. She craned her neck to nuzzle the mare who had destroyed half the landscape below with radiation and fire. Much of it still glowed, angry and hot. “And I’m sorry... so sorry for putting you to sleep for so long. I just—” She sniffed, shaking her head slowly into the shoulder of the royal mare. “I didn’t know what to do anymore. I was afraid and angry and... and I’m sorry.”

“All I wanted was for us to be happy,” Blue Belle said, her hooves becoming indistinct. “It wasn’t Ponyville, was it? Or your friends?”

“Well, you... did get Rainbow Dash’s mane wrong,” Twilight admitted, smiling at the now billowy unicorn. “And you used the younger version of yourself. We didn’t even meet until you were twenty eight, remember?”

“Oh. Oh, yes!” Blue Belle said, smiling back. “I forgot. Sorry... I-I don’t know why, but I have a hard time remembering...” She blinked, momentarily confused and only then seeming to notice she was fading away. “Ahh. That’s right. I-I’m the Blue Belle she made for you.”

“No,” Twilight told her, firmly. “You are her. The part of her that wanted to protect me... to make me happy. To be with me, even if...” She reached for one of Blue Belle’s hooves, but this time, it was the too-solid fragment who passed through the billowy mare. “Even if it cost you your life.”

Blue Belle craned her neck, studied Twilight for a moment, and nodded. Accepting.

“I don’t think... I did as good a job of that as I thought I would,” she realized. She turned her eyes upward, to the broken heavens of the pocket dimension, as if taking stock of her surroundings one last time. Then she fixed her eyes on Twilight. “Are you going back home?”

Twilight nodded slowly.

“Good,” the long deceased mare decided, tears in her eyes.

“I won’t ever forget you... even when I’m whole,” Twilight promised, and before Blue Belle vanished entirely, her lips gently touched those of the blue-blooded mare. She sniffed again, wiping a tear from her cheek, and even before her hoof returned to the ground Blue Belle was gone.

Sweetie slowly approached Twilight’s fragment. “I’m sorry, Twilight,”

Twilight shook her head. “No.” She smiled, “I couldn’t stay... I just couldn’t, not after remembering who I was - who I am. She’ll always be in my memories, but it’s time to let go.” She looked at Sweetie and nodded. “I’m ready to go home.”

Sweetie held the fragment close as the whole world around them slowly dissolved into white light.

“Blueblood!” Sweetie quickly turned to look at her adoptive brother. “If I don’t see you ag—”

The whole world went white before she could finish.

o.0.∞.0.o

Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah!

The scream made Sweetie Belle sit right up in her bed, a cold sweat running down her back, eyes wide and looking around for danger. After a moment, she realized she was in her room at the Carousel Boutique... “Wait a minute!” she screeched. “You can’t be serious! This has to be a joke! I’m doing the whole thing again!?”

“Is this how you wake up every morning?” Twilight’s fragment asked, hovering next to the bed. “No wonder you’re always so high-strung. It would drive any mare crazy to wake up to that scream over and over again!”

Sweetie sighed. “Tell me about it!” She shook her head. “But that’s not the worst thing! The worst thing is that I have to- have... to...” She blinked. Then blinked again.

Twilight smiled.

“Gah!” Sweetie shouted, rolling back on her bed, sheets flying over her head as she fell on the other side. “Y-you!” she roared, popping up from under her pillows. “You’re really here! What happened? Why didn’t we go to the next world?”

Twilight shrugged. “I think you were still too caught in the loops for us to simply go away... But I can feel the connection to this world unraveling... I’d say this is your last day here.”

“I-I have one more day?” Sweetie breathed out. “One whole day?”

“Eeyup,” Twilight drawled, nodding merrily. “Either that or I might reset instead. I’m not entirely sure. But the window for us leaving probably isn’t more than twenty-four hours. So, if you had anything you wanted to do before we left... this is your chance.”

Sweetie Belle glanced at the fragment. “You... you’re not crazy anymore. Right?”

The ephemeral fragment shrugged. “I don’t think so... for now, anyway. I mean, how do you know if you’re crazy? How do you know if you’re sane? But... I feel... content. I’m ready to let go and fade into you fully, like the others.”

Sweetie felt she understood that, just a little, herself. “Will we talk again?”

Twilight’s fragment shook her head. “Once you absorb me... very little will remain. Barely enough for another fragment to maybe communicate with me. The others have already faded...” she looked at Sweetie Belle and hesitated. “I... you should get ready, Sweetie. There’s a lot to do and so little time...”

“I... I need breakfast...” Sweetie nodded, standing up and dragging her sheets behind her as she walked out of her room. “And... I need to talk to Blueblood... and... my parents and... so much to do...”

“Sweetie,” the fragment muttered, in a softer voice. “About what I said. Before. And about what I did. I’m sorry I put you through all that. I...”

Sweetie looked back into the room. “Did you say something?”

Twilight shrugged, her smile never leaving as she faded away. “Nothing, Sweetie... Just one day. Spend it well.”

o.0.o

“What do you mean you’re skipping school today?” Rarity asked, glaring at her sister. “You are doing no such thing! You’re getting ready and leaving for school or so help me Celestia—”

“I’m not going,” Sweetie interrupted. “I already said so. I’m waiting for somepony.”

“And who is that?” Rarity asked, her eyebrows going up when there was a tentative knock on the door.

“My brother,” Sweetie smiled.

“Sweetie Belle, was that bump I heard in the morning you hitting your head?” Rarity asked, rolling her eyes as she made her way to the door. “We don’t have any brothers...” She opened the door and her mouth fell open. “Y-y-you’re P-p-prince...”

“Sweetie Belle.” Blueblood stood, as he always did, at the front door to the Carousel Boutique, despite it being out of business for the day. He had on an immaculate vest and jacket for traveling. Only a moment after he said her name, however, he warily smiled.

“You recognize me...?” he asked, tentatively, as if a little afraid to hear her answer. “Do you recognize me, Sweetie?”

Sweetie galloped past her gobsmacked sister and hugged Blueblood. “Of course I do! I could n-never forget my big b-brother!” she stammered, tears forming in her eyes. “At least... for one more day.”

“One more day,” he said it, not as a question, but as if it were a death sentence. Then his features hardened and he nodded, royal composure back in place. “One more day it is, then. It’ll be a good day.”

“Just- just what is going on?” Rarity interrupted, approaching the pair. “You two, you know each other but... brother? W-w—” She swallowed to try and compose herself as well. “Please, what in Equestria is going on?”

Blueblood looked down at Sweetie Belle, and the two exchanged a look. Probably the last one they’d share on a morning like this.

“Scholarship!” they chorused.

o.0.o

Sweetie looked with trepidation down the road at the house, the one she had avoided so far in spite of her dreams and fantasies to meet the ponies that resided therein.

“It’s kinda sad that it wouldn’t be until the day I have no other choice but to see them or lose my chance forever,” she whispered as she took a deep breath. Once again her legs refused to budge, her heart started to beat faster and her breathing became shallow. “No...” she muttered, “No! I’m not losing my chance!”

Unbidden, the image on the mirror came to her mind. Rarity, gaunt, tired, clearly not having slept much at all... standing with Fluttershy’s aid in Zecora’s hut, worried sick about Sweetie Belle. The look on her sister’s face... Sweetie cringed and took a deep, calming breath.

“I guess I have a choice to make...” she said, looking up. “...either I just become a victim and give up whatever little chances I get to be happy in my travels, or...” She took a step forward, followed by the next and the next. “...or I take my happiness into my own hooves.”

She slowly made her way down to where the two ponies were busily moving about, until the mare saw her. “Well, if it isn’t Sweetie Belle!”

Her voice surprised Sweetie. “You don’t sound like Rarity at all,” she said, stopping to stare at her mom. “You look exactly like the pictures...” Her vision blurred a bit. “Y-you just don’t sound at all like... Rarity...”

She was swept up in a tight hug. “What’s wrong, honey? Are you feeling okay?” her mother asked.

Sweetie Belle leaned against her mother’s shoulder. “Nothing’s wrong... mom. I just... wanted to spend some time with you and dad before you left.”

Her mother gave her a long, scrutinizing look before nodding. “But, don’t you have class today?”

Sweetie smiled. “It’s just an essay on unicorn history. I wrote it this morning and sent it with Apple Bloom and Scootaloo.”

Her mother nodded and called over her shoulder, “Dear! Guess who came over to help us pack?”

“Who is it?” Her father asked, walking out of the house in his favorite shirt and straw hat. “If it isn’t my little Sweetie Belle! Come over here, kiddo! I thought you would be at school!”

Sweetie galloped up and jumped, hugging her dad. “I’m done for the day, daddy, why don’t you let me help you with packing?”

“Magnum, Sweetie says that she did her essay already, why don’t we let her?” her mother asked.

Magnum looked down at his daughter with a huge grin. “Well, I’m not gonna waste time I could spend with my little girl on packing! Come on, Sweetie Belle, let’s pack this quicker than it took me to score my first goal!”

“Yay!” Sweetie cheered. “Maybe I can get my cutie mark in customs inspection?!” She paused. “Well... I hope not, but I’ll still help!”

Magnum chuckled. “With that much energy you’d best be an athlete! I bet any young team would take you in as a runner!”

“You think so, daddy?”

“I know so!”

“Sweetie Belle?” her mother called when the pair were inside. “Have you sorted out what you’re going to do tonight when your sister goes to the Gala?”

Sweetie smiled. “It’s okay mom! I already have plans! Hey, how about you teach me how to bake Rarity’s favorite strudels after I help dad?”

“Sure Sweetie!” her mom laughed. “I think we even have enough apples!”

o.0.o

“Excuse me,” Sweetie Belle ventured. Dressed in her princess suit, glistening with little gems and glimmering wings, she presented the veritable image of cuteness as she approached the orchestra in the middle of their preparations.

“Oh, hello,” Octavia smiled at the little filly, noticing that she had been levitating a case along with her.

“I’m sorry to interrupt,” Sweetie said, smiling up at her erstwhile mentor. “But are you Octavia Philarmonica? I’m a big fan!”

Octavia felt her face grow warm under her coat. A fan! “Wh-why, yes that’s me!”

“It’s a real honor,” Sweetie said, “I’ve loved all of your renditions of Sea Stallion Bach. In fact, you’re the one that inspired me to learn how to play the cello!”

Octavia’s smile grew warmer. “Why, thank you! I can see that you brought it with you...?”

“Sweetie Belle,” Sweetie said, looking down a little bashfully. “And well, I hate to ask... I mean, I got permission to do it but, well I wouldn’t want to without asking you first...”

Octavia raised an eyebrow. “What is it, Sweetie?”

“W-well, Princess Celestia told me it would be fine to play a little melody during the Gala, but, I was wondering if you would play with me? It would mean a lot to me.”

Octavia’s mouth fell open for just a second. This filly had permission from the Princess to play? Was she some sort of prodigy? “W-well, are you sure that Princess Celestia wouldn’t prefer it if you played alone?”

Sweetie shook her head. “It’s a personal dream of mine, to play with you. I’m sure she would let me play by myself but... well, I asked her if I could play with you.

Biting her lip, Octavia looked at the little filly in front of her. Given that she had permission from Celestia herself, she probably was a noble of some house, and could simply order her to do it. However, this little lady was asking her to play with her. The filly truly considered it an honor to play with Octavia... and, she couldn’t say no.

“Well, my lady,” Octavia said, “I think I would very much enjoy the chance to play the cello with you.”

Sweetie’s smile lit up the room. “Thank you! And please, just call me Sweetie Belle!”

“Well then, Sweetie Belle, why don’t you set up over here? You’d better get ready, the Gala will be starting soon!”

Sweetie nodded, putting down her cello and pulling it out. She grimaced.

“What’s wrong?” Octavia asked.

“Well, it’s a new cello...” Sweetie grumbled. “I played it a bit earlier but...”

“...it doesn’t feel right.” Octavia nodded. “I understand, here, get ready and...” she trailed off. Sweetie Belle, a unicorn, was playing with her hooves! She was standing on her hind-legs like an earth pony or a pegasus would!

Sweetie Belle balanced carefully. Her practice with the I Quattro Elementi had increased her body awareness immensely and she stood with practiced ease. She raised the bow with her hoof and looked at Octavia expectantly.

Closing her mouth with an audible click, Octavia assumed the same position, noticing peripherally that the rest of the orchestra had grown quiet and was looking at the pair in respectful silence.

It wasn’t often that they had seen a unicorn forego the relative ease of magic to learn to play like they would.

“I only know Prelude well enough to play,” Sweetie Belle confessed. “And you might have to save me a few times... I hope you don’t mind, Miss Octavia.”

Octavia shook her head. “Call me Tavi.” She smiled. “I somehow feel that you’ve earned the right. And don’t worry, I’ll take the lead.”

Sweetie Belle smiled gratefully and the pair began tuning, with Octavia’s whispered advice guiding Sweetie for the last time in this world.

o.0.o

The orchestra shuffled a bit as guests started to pour into the hall, making Sweetie a bit nervous. She felt a hoof press on her shoulder, and looked up in thanks, finding Octavia smiling down at her. “Don’t worry, when you start playing you’ll lose those jitters like they were never even there.”

Sweetie nodded and took a deep breath. Soon, the hall was half full and then she saw her. Walking into the hall in the Gala dress she had so painstakingly crafted, golden crown proudly on her brow, and looking a little lost, was Rarity.

For about two years she had relived the same day with her sister worrying over her, being happy for her, elated, scared, angry... every single time, Rarity’s love for Sweetie Belle had shone through, whether she had found out her real identity or not.

This is my chance to make it special for her, Sweetie Belle thought. A special goodbye for my sister... my guardian, wherever I go.

The lights dimmed and she saw a spotlight appear on a particular unicorn. Blueblood smiled welcomingly at the gathered ponies. “Royal peers, noble friends, welcome guests, Ladies and Gentlecolts of Equestria all, please allow me to interrupt the beginning of tonight's Grand Galloping Gala with a special surprise,” he said, slowly walking towards the raised stage of the palace's central menagerie, until he stood in front of both Octavia and Sweetie Belle, who were still covered in shadow. Around them, the instruments of the Canterlot Symphony Orchestra gave further hint of things to come for the night's entertainment.

Though the lights had been dimmed, the room was packed and trembling with curiosity and expectation for this unexpected turn of events in what was traditionally a very mellow and extremely predictable evening. Amid the bustle of colorful ponies, Sweetie could see Wonderbolts in uniforms, both dress and flight, two in particular standing next to one another. Around them was the crème of Canterlot high society looking up with bright eyes, a look mirrored by the surprising and controversial addition of guests from a tiny town called Ponyville that sat in the shadow of the mountains. Shops had been hastily bought out of inventory to provide dresses and suits for the townsfolk, who cavorted just a little too loudly for them to be mistaken for refined locals, no matter how well the were attired.

Sweetie could see Princess Celestia in the back, near a starry-eyed lavender element of harmony and her friends. Apple Bloom looked a little envious of her fellow crusader up on stage, and Scootaloo fidgeted with the laurel of flowers she had been forced to wear. A former hoofball star and his homemaker wife looked on in pride and more than a little surprise at their youngest daughter, and past them and into the crowd of less familiar faces, Sweetie could see one of the few mares not wearing a dress, watching the night unfold by draping leisurely onto the back of a bemused socialite with a monocle. Equestria’s greatest pop star was present as well, apparently well acquainted with the model and the fashionable stallion. At the last, sitting with her own procession in the back, a young pink-coated alicorn watched the Gala unfold with an aloof expression, as if not here by her own choice or not wanting to be around so many... ponies. Cadance's wings spread slightly as Sweetie's eyes met her own, but then she looked away.

“I have had the unique honor to meet and to sponsor a very special filly and a very special mare..." Blueblood continued, sweeping a hoof to his side to introduce them. "My gift to you: Octavia Philharmonica and her companion for this piece, Sweetie Belle.”

The spotlight swung to center on the both of them, and suddenly Sweetie could barely make out the ponies off the stage. However, Rarity had made her way to the front and was staring at her in complete and utter bafflement. A bafflement soon replaced by pure and complete pride in her beloved little sister. Sweetie smiled hesitantly at her sister, too nervous to do more.

Then she was following Octavia’s example, and bowing to their audience.

She took a deep breath and, drawing a gasp and murmurs from the crowd, raised to her hind legs and held her cello at the ready, waiting patiently for Octavia to take the lead, which she did with a slow slide through the strings, cueing Sweetie Belle’s turn to follow.

The melody unfolded, entrancing the gathered guests with its haunting notes, its turns, highs and lows. More than once Sweetie cut just slightly short, or trailed behind, only for Octavia to immediately cover for her, making the mistakes sound like artistic touches. Sweetie had to concentrate harder, rather than simply stopping and staring at the mastery of Octavia playing for real. Once again her physical training under Fleur and her lessons under Twilight Sparkle, Chrysalis and Octavia had saved her. The diligence and determination they all had demanded of her paid though and she was able to finish the piece to the applause of the guests and orchestra behind her.

Octavia smiled at her. “Very well done, Sweetie Belle, very well done,” she whispered as they both bowed to the guests once more. When they raised, Octavia was surprised to find herself the victim of a thankful hug.

“Thank you so much, Tavi,” Sweetie whispered fiercely. “I could have never done this without you. I’ll never, ever forget this.”

Octavia nodded and briefly returned the hug. “You’re very welcome.”

o.0.o

Sweetie Belle carefully replaced her cello in its case, and with a tap of her horn and a small burst of magic, used the command that Blueblood had given her earlier, when he had gifted it to her. Before her eyes, it seemed to flatten completely, then shrink until it was about the size of a bookmark. Smiling at the Prince’s uncommon ingenuity, she summoned her notebook and slid it in, before sending it away. It might not stay in there, if the loops messed with it, but it was a kind gesture, and certainly not one she would simply allow to go to waste.

She turned around to find Rarity standing in front of her, eyes watery and confused. “Sweetie Belle,” she hesitated.

“Rarity!” Sweetie hugged her sister. “Did you like it? I played it just for you.”

“Oh, Sweetie Belle,” Rarity returned the hug gratefully. “Of course I loved it! It was beautiful! I never knew you could play like that! How... when did you learn to play like that?”

Sweetie chuckled. “Well, you know us Crusaders... I thought I wanted a cello-player cutie mark so...”

Rarity laughed, wiping away a happy tear. “I’ll get the truth out of you someday.”

Sweetie Belle nodded and stepped out from the hug. “I did manage to get you a date with Prince Blueblood too,” she said and leaned forth, whispering conspiratorially. “He really likes your mane!”

Rarity laughed a little bit, still teary-eyed. “And what about you?”

“I’d like to say hello to some other ponies before my final gift of the night,” Sweetie winked. “I really hope you’ll like it.”

Rarity touched a hoof to her chest, brimming with pride. “I just don’t know what to say, Sweetie, thank you, I—”

“Sis,” Sweetie Belle interrupted, placing her hoof over her sister’s. “Don’t... this is my thanks to you and everypony else that has helped me. Go. Go have fun with Blueblood,” she insisted.

Rarity’s smile trembled when she hugged her little sister briefly, before departing to meet with her waiting Prince.

o.0.o

“You’re Lady Fleur-de-Lis, aren’t you?” Sweetie Belle asked, looking up as she approached the model, who looked down from her perch on Fancypants’ back.

“Oh!” The graceful mare smiled down at the her. “You’re the filly that played the cello! That was very well done!”

“Indeed,” Fancypants nodded, his smile genuine. “It was a pleasure to see such a talented young pony play in the Gala.” He leaned down. “Usually,” he whispered. “It’s the same musical approach as the year before and the year before that.”

Sweetie giggled. “It’s a waste of talent; Octavia is truly gifted; the fact that she saved me from messing up about ten times and made it sound intentional is proof enough.”

Fancypants’ eyes grew warmer still. “Ah, and humble as well. It is a pleasure to meet you, Miss Belle.”

“The pleasure is mine!” Sweetie said, looking up at Fleur. “Also, I wanted to let you know, Lady Fleur-de-Lis, that you’ve really inspired me in unusual ways.”

“Oh, really?” Fleur laughed, fluffing one of her curls and, as always, striking a pose. “Are you a modeling fan, Miss Belle?”

Sweetie giggled, making a half turn, and striking a pose of her own. A clear I Quattro Elementi move, which had Fancypants chuckling, but Fleur staring, wide eyed. “A bit! But you taught me something far more important; that there’s more to a mare’s step and poise than meets the eye... and that we should always try and bring beauty to the world.”

Fleur’s eyes were still a bit wide, but Sweetie’s words made her smile grow. “Indeed Miss Belle, and may I say, that was a very well performed turn.”

Sweetie bowed slightly. “Well, I did say I admired you.” She grinned. “Thank you, for your unusual lessons.”

“The pleasure is mine, Miss Belle,” Fleur replied, nodding slightly at Sweetie Belle, who took her leave.

“Why do I feel I missed something?” Fancypants asked. “I think there was more to that conversation than I understood.”

“Oh, it’s just mare-talk, Fancy,” Fleur chided the stallion. “Nothing for you to worry about.”

o.0.o

Sweetie searched around the back of the crowd, frowning. “I could swear she was around here...” she sighed and looked towards one of the balconies, which had the doors open. Acting on instinct, she made her way there, and looked outside.

Princess Cadance stood on the balcony, clearly taking a breather from all the noble ponies and socialites. Her eyes were settled on the distant dark mass of the Everfree Forest, her countenance pensive. Like Blueblood, she had royal guards to attend to her, though her pair kept to the shadows.

Feeling a strange sense of calm, Sweetie trotted up to Princess Cadance and without even looking at her, looked over the rail in the same direction.

“The glade is dark and quiet,” she said, her eyes drifting to the maze, but still not looking at the Princess.

“The spider’s web full,” Cadance replied, and Sweetie Belle finally looked up at the Princess, who was examining her intently. Usually, such scrutiny would have made her nervous, but oddly enough, Sweetie took it in stride. She didn’t flinch when Cadance inhaled, or when she frowned, not picking up a recognizable scent. Still, she knew the words.

“You must be new,” the alicorn Princess reasoned, and asked, simply, “Blueblood?”

“You don’t mind,” Sweetie stated, knowing the answer already.

“We can’t take the form of a mirror... yet,” she replied, and her darkening eyes fell on the little pony. “He isn’t important to me, but I am somewhat impressed. Love from that one is like blood from a stone. I do not know you, but you wear an impressive charade.”

“I’ve learned much from you,” Sweetie said, changing topic. “About the ways of ponies; how they lie and how they behave.” She tilted her head in a way that indicated she was still keeping her attention on the Princess. “And it’s been... remarkable and refreshing from the usual fare of smiles, games and songs.”

Cadance remained quiet, studying the little filly in front of her, but not betraying any emotions.

“I suspect you’ll be leaving early,” Sweetie continued. “But I couldn’t vanish without a word of thanks.” She stepped away from Cadance, taking a few steps towards the hall before stopping and looking over her shoulder. “Your voice was an inspiration to me, and I’m hoping to do it justice in the future.”

“My... voice?” Cadance finally asked, her back to the filly as she looked out over the balcony. She did nothing more than glance over her shoulder. “Interesting.”

Sweetie nodded and turned around, trotting happily into the Gala, leaving a thoroughly confused mare behind. Such as she was.

o.0.o

“This is it, Sweetie,” Blueblood said, leading her back up to the stage. She’d been so busy with farewells to so many ponies, there had hardly been time to talk or reminisce with the one pony she had spent more time with than any other.

“It’s been great, Blueblood,” Sweetie said softly. “Seeing all of them here at the same time and being able to thank them.” She looked up at him. “Thank you for helping me so much.”

“Before you go up there again,” the royal stallion began, glancing away, guiltily, “I’d like to say something: to admit to something.”

Sweetie raised an eyebrow. Blueblood looked like he had to apologize for something, but what was there to apologize for?

Before she could speak, he continued. “When I first met you, when I first realized you were going through the loops with me, I… I was elated, of course. Because I wasn’t alone and because, I started to think, maybe I was in this to help you. To help you on your quest. Maybe the fragment was causing it after all, or maybe it was just destiny or fate arranging things this way. I didn’t know, but... but I don’t like to think all this is just a coincidence.” He sighed, shaking his head sadly. “When we found the puzzle, and I saw how the time loops made it possible for us to solve it, I cheered inside. Maybe, finally, you’ll break me free, too. Maybe saving you would be saving me, too.”

“But even before we actually entered the maze, as it all came together, I started to grow scared, too. What if helping you doesn’t break the loops for me?” he asked, and Sweetie could see in his voice and his eyes that he still thought that, even now. “What if all I end up doing is losing the only pony who will ever remember me? I was terrified of being alone again. I’m still terrified of what tomorrow will bring.

“I wanted you to spend more time here. I didn’t want you to go. I… thought about sabotaging things; about trying to keep you looping with me,” he admitted. “I seriously did. I planned for it, even. I was so tempted, but… but I couldn’t.

“When you said I was like a brother to you...” he trailed off. “I couldn’t. I couldn’t betray my little sister like that. I know you have to move on. You have a future ahead of you, one I can only begin to see, and I know it will be great. I couldn’t hold you back from that.” He smiled, warmly, down at her. “Even I’m not that selfish!”

“Oh, Blueblood...” Sweetie shook her head. “I wish I could have helped more... if I don’t return tomorrow... I—”

Blueblood shook his head. “Don’t say it... I know.”

Sweetie nodded quickly in understanding. “I should go to the stage...” She hesitated in her turn. “I’m glad I was able to talk to almost all the ponies that helped me.” With a quick summon, she invoked her notebook into the world, and pressing her horn to one of the two jewels on the spine, she transferred her dress into it. She dismissed her notebook and carried on.

Well, she had talked to most of them. Sapphire Shores always seemed to be surrounded by a knot of fans, and being invited to her first Gala, the pop star had been busy making herself all too visible a spectacle. But still... her lessons had prepared her for Cadance’s own, and she owed the mare a lot... especially in helping her find the reason behind her sometimes uncooperative voice.

She would remember her as well.

Waiting patiently for the orchestra to finish, Sweetie indicated that she wanted to go on stage once more, and was rewarded with a smile and a nod from the musicians.

Taking center stage, she cleared her throat and cast her voice-amplifying spell. “Um, everypony? I-I have something to say.”

Slowly, conversations died as the eyes of all ponies in the menagerie turned to her. Sweetie gulped, but remembering her coaching, she took a deep breath and let it out before continuing.

“I guess it’s getting a little late for a filly like me to be hanging around,” she said, earning a few chuckles. “And I know that you already patiently and graciously listened to me play. But well, before I really go away, there are a couple of things I would like to say and... well, you’ll see.”

She cleared her throat again, and drew a shuddering breath. “I’m young and yet, I’m not as young as you might imagine,” she looked around, until she found Rarity, looking at her in silence and a little worry. “It’s a strange thing, being amongst so many faces I recognize, so many voices and inspirations that are unaware of just how far you’ve pushed me to better myself and how much you have truly taught me.

“I can’t even really tell you; I haven’t got the words to truly say how much all of you mean to me. Apple Bloom, Scootaloo... you’ve been and will always be my best friends. In times of darkness you showed me the light, and without your friendship, I would have never been able to survive long enough to be here as myself.”

The two fillies in question looked at each other in confusion and a little worry.

“Twilight Sparkle,” Sweetie called, getting the attention of the unicorn. “You’ve been a mentor and teacher to me,” she said, smiling at the bewilderment in Twilight’s face. “You don’t remember... but you were.” She winked. “After all, without a stable source of magic input, something as simple as a prestidigitation spell will do nothing but explode in one’s face. Even here, in this world... you were a source of knowledge and wisdom. Thank you.”

Twilight’s eyes widened and she turned to say something to Princess Celestia, who had her eyes set on Sweetie Belle. The Princess made a soothing motion to her student as Sweetie spoke once more.

“Rarity... it’s odd, having met mom and dad, telling you this...” Sweetie’s eyes became a bit watery and her expression half-apologetic. She closed her eyes. “Where I come from, it’s so different... we lost them, shortly after I was born. In their stead, you raised me. And I always called you sis. But... I don’t know when I will see my Rarity again. It’s already been two years of searching and travelling... so, I don’t want to wait to tell you, one of you, so that at least in spirit she knows... that I love you... mom.”

Rarity felt her cheeks wet from unheeded tears. She understood now, how Sweetie could know so many ponies, how she had learned to play the cello when she couldn’t have possibly learned at any point before without anypony noticing.

Sweetie opened her eyes and locked them with the other pair of blue eyes she cared for. “And Blueblood...” she lowered her voice for a second, just staring at him, sitting casually in the front row. “You’ve been my friend, mentor, companion and brother. I-I wouldn’t be here at all without you, I would have lost myself in my anger and fear. I’m sorry I have to go now, when you’re still trapped. I’ll miss you... and I will always cherish my time as your friend and little sister.” Sweetie took a long, shuddering breath and looked at all the guests.

“So, now you all are wondering what I’m talking about.” Sweetie smiled at the crowd of ponies. “Don’t worry... I’m just a filly with a song for those that I love so much, and to whom I owe more than I can ever imagine. I-I learned this song, which I found in... well, a notebook, in a place far away from here. The pony who wrote it... I think she understood loss and passion, dreams, hope... despair...” She smiled briefly.

“I copied it without knowing too much of any of those emotions. I thought... it sounded nice.” She looked around, her eyes pausing briefly on each pony that had touched her life in this universe, even Diamond Tiara and Silver Spoon, who seemed slightly annoyed at the attention being given to her. “I realize that I have a lot to learn about all of these, before I can even sing it like she would... but, I studied hard and I think... I think she would be happy with it.”

Sweetie cancelled her spell and in the hush of the crowd she called out.

“Allegria...”

She looked at her sister, her eyes still shimmering with tears, a small smile ever present, looking at her with so much love.

Her eyes then went to Twilight Sparkle, who was looking at her with a mixture of pride, wonder and hope.

And then she smiled at her fellow crusaders, who still looked confused... before looking back at Blueblood.

Her brother.

“Allegria... come un lampo di vita...”

Before the crowd, her song rose, a ghostly, clear sound that seemed to seep through their pores, making even Diamond Tiara stop her whimpering, and turn to look at Sweetie with surprise, which turned into confusion when Sweetie actually smiled warmly at her.

“Allegria

Come un passo gridar! Allegria!”

The feelings behind each word swayed through the crowd, drawing them in, making them look at the filly as she rose, effortlessly thanks to so much practice to her hind-legs and swing, turning in place, slowly as her voice rose.

“Del delittuoso grido, bella ruggente pena, seren”

For who hadn’t felt the pure ecstasy of the raging force of a scream of joy and sorrow? Certainly Princess Cadance seemed to know what she was singing about. Her eyes almost betraying for a moment, that one smile that Sweetie held in her memory.

“Come la rabbia di amar,”

The burning anger... She spun slowly in place, from one hoof to the other, losing herself as she extended her forelegs to the side, letting the world spin around her. Anger and love, simply set apart by an almost invisible division.

“Alegria! Come un assalto di gioia”

And reveling in her song, twirling in place like no pony had a right to, her magic flowing... she felt the universe give.

The gathered ponies gasped as light bathed the stage so suddenly it interrupted Sweetie’s song. She was shining. Her whole body glowed, but most of all, a brand new mark on her flank.

A familiar, purple, six-pointed star, broken into pieces through the middle by a musical note.

Sweetie gasped, dropping to all fours and turned around, looking away from her cutie mark and to the crowds searching specifically for a certain pony. “I-I’m going away.”

Blueblood was already lifting her up, and for the first time she could remember, this time he hugged her: a fierce, possessive, frightened hug that said more than words ever could. A part of her wished that somehow, by touching him, he could come along with her. That he could stay by her as she moved from world to world, joking with her and flirting with every mare they bumped into and even just walking alongside her: her big brother best friend forever. But whatever magic had a hold on her, he was unaffected.

She felt her hooves touch the stage floor again.

“Sweetie Belle,” Blueblood said, smiling down at her. His eyes were squinted, wet. “I won’t ever forget you, so don’t you dare ever forget about me.”

“You know I won’t,” she sobbed, reaching for his hoof.

“Look at that!” he declared, and took a moment to sweep a hoof towards everypony present and watching in awe. “You’ve stolen the spotlight!”

He turned back to her and began to clop his hooves against the floor in applause. It only took a moment for the rest of the hall, the rest of the Grand Galloping Gala, to follow. Hundreds of hooves beat against the floor, from her teary eyed sister to Celestia herself. They were all applauding... for her.

“Go on,” Blueblood said, and he became hard to hear his voice as she faded away. “I know you’ll be amazing out there.”

Sweetie nodded, tears falling freely as she faced everypony. “Goodbye,” she whispered. “I’m sure I’ll meet you all again, but you won’t know me.”

The light faded, leaving a filly standing on the stage, looking extremely tired and a little lost.

“R-Rarity?” Sweetie Belle asked, looking at her sister, who was for some reason crying. “I’m... sleepy...” Uncaring of the ponies around her, she curled up on the stage and was fast asleep, a blanket of purple magic still swirling around her.

o.0.∞.0.o

Blueblood lowered his hoof as the door to the Boutique opened. Tentatively. Too tentatively.

He craned his neck to the side and smiled at the sight of a two-toned purple and pink mane. A pair of green eyes stared up at him, at the strange pony knocking on her sister’s door. The little filly stared right back at him, blinked slowly, and then inclined her head to the side in curiosity. She looked so similar… but as he met her eyes, Blueblood didn’t see the one thing he had hoped against hope to find.

Recognition.

There wasn’t as much as a spark of it.

“Hello?” Sweetie Belle finally asked. “Can I help you?”

“You don’t… know who I am?” he asked, a bit plaintively. Of course not. Of course she wouldn’t.

“Sorry… no,” the little filly said, biting her lip and glancing back indoors.

“Sweetie Belle!” a voice from inside called. “Who is it? Whoever it is, do tell them I’m terribly sorry, but we aren’t open for business today!”

“Will do!” the filly agreed, and turned to look back up at him. “Rarity says—”

“I heard her, thank you,” Blueblood replied, smile still in place, but turned wan from seeing what he knew to be true with his own two eyes. He took a breath and tried to say, ‘Miss Rarity may wish to see me, regardless’ or ‘Tell her, Prince Blueblood wishes to see her about the Gala tonight’ or… a joke or… anything. It was why he came here. It was part of the plan. The Perfect Gala.

His lips moved, but he couldn’t speak.

Auntie’s hindquarters, words had actually failed him.

“S-so sorry,” he finally managed to say, “Wrong house.”

The blank-flanked filly smiled sweetly back at him, accepting the mistake and slowly closing the door to the Boutique. It clicked shut with a chime, and the sound was like thunder in his ears.

It was an unusually long walk back to his chariot; to his guards. To his life. To his fate.

Blueblood tried to smile, and not just the outward façade. Sweetie Belle - the Sweetie Belle he knew - was gone. She had done it! She was free. Free of the loops. Free to move on. Free to save her Twilight Sparkle, free to find her way home, free to grow up. He never had learned that age alteration spell. He supposed, at that thought, that all this saved him the trouble. Maybe one day, Sweetie would end up the old granny he had joked about zapping her into. He knew she would become a beautiful mare someday, and she was free. She was free. That was all that mattered.

He was happy for her.

He was.

“Sir,” the head of his guard detail, Sir Mercury, spoke up as the Prince walked by. “Is something the matter?”

“The matter?” Blueblood snapped and reached up to his face. He was crying. Crying like a foal. He couldn’t stop it, even with his smile. He couldn’t stop crying?

“No,” he assured the royal guard, shaking his head but not hiding his tears. “Nothing’s the matter. Everything is… normal. Carry on.”

The guard bowed his head, thankfully unquestioning.

Blueblood closed his eyes, lifted his chin, and let himself cry.

Tomorrow.

Tomorrow he would pick up where he had left off. Tomorrow he would go back to the plan. To the Perfect Gala.

But not today.

Not today.

o.0.o.0.o

The world seemed to become a stained window, with all the ponies from the Gala, from Blueblood to Rarity to Princess Celestia frozen in time. Then, before Sweetie’s eyes, the whole thing exploded into sharp pieces of glass and purple sparks against a completely black background.

The pieces swirled and spiraled around Sweetie, making her turn around in place, trying to figure out what was happening. Flashes of faces, both familiar and unknown, reflected for less than an instant on the spiraling shards, accompanied by voices and, worryingly, screams. The world seemed to heave around her and suddenly everything went bright.

“...never!” Sweetie growled and blinked. “Wait, what? Why did I say that?”

A scream made her turn around in time for her instincts to kick in. Raising a shield against an explosive fireball that had been sent her way by... some random pony... who was fighting the guard?

“Get that filly to safety!” One of the guards shouted, and right there, Sweetie made up her mind. Turning to face the unicorn who had attacked her, she cantered to the left and threw a blast of air that sent the unicorn rolling on his back.

“She’s with them!” Another pony shouted, and she had to quickly dodge out of the way of a blast of magic. Sweetie quickly replied in kind, freezing her attacker’s hooves long enough for a guard to cast a spell that pushed back her opponent. Falling into the patterns of the I Quattro Elementi, she concentrated on dodging and stinging when she could, slowly making her way back towards the guards. But there were so many enemies!

An explosion close to her hit Sweetie much harder than any of Fleur’s shoves ever had, sending her rolling on the floor. She quickly cast her spell, forming a shield around herself and cringing under the battering it was receiving; she concentrated and closed her eyes, trying to hold it as long as necessary for the guards to help her.

Suddenly, her assailants cried out, the attacks stopped and she heard shouts and cries of pain, as well as cheering from the guards. Slowly, Sweetie Belle opened her eyes and looked up, finding a unicorn standing protectively in front of her.

His coat was white, and his mane and tail a blood-red color. His mane, spiky on the top, but with a subtle curl at the bottom, seemed somewhat familiar to Sweetie Belle. He wore a harness and his shoulders were decorated with epaulets each with five stars within circles. He stared angrily at what little remained of the resistance.

“T-thank you,” Sweetie stuttered.

“Get up, and follow me, Sweetie Belle,” the unicorn replied, turning around and leading away from the battlegrounds.

“Wait! How do you know my name?” Sweetie asked, trotting after the official-looking unicorn. “Who are you?”

The unicorn looked back at her. “Hm, it would make sense for you not to remember me. My name is Esteem, Sweetie Belle, and you and I are very closely related.”

o.0.o End Chapter 6 o.0.o

Next: The Immortal Game