• 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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This Platinum Crown Pt. 1

Author's Note:

Unusual to make a note at the top, I know. Anyway, this chapter covers what happened in This Platinum Crown, up until the end. If you've already read the chapters in This Platinum Crown, you can skip to the final part of this. The next chapter will be coming out in the next couple of weeks.

~Wanderer D

The Gala was in full swing. The three wings of the Palace Menagerie were full of ponies: ponies chatting, ponies dancing, ponies nibbling on treats and drinking cocktails. The discerning ear could pick up conversations in Prench and Germane as ponies from across Equestria mingled freely at the grandest social event of the year. Beautiful mares in serving outfits tended to a colorful array of noble mares and stallions in their finest formal wear, dignitaries from foreign lands laughed at jokes only they could hear, and esteemed guests walked the halls from entertainment to entertainment. In the Wonderbolt section, the flashes of cameras were almost like fireworks timed to the energetic background ambience.

“I’m back in the Gala,” Sweetie Belle realized as she took in her surroundings. “I can’t believe it.”

She smiled, despite herself, only to realize what that meant. Unless this was a new Gala, next year’s Gala, then it meant the Gala Loops had never ended, even after she left. Looking around, she tried to find any sign of this not being the Gala she knew. It could just be a coincidence, after all. So much of it looked the same… the ponies present, the three menageries, the decorations and styles of dress. It was spot on. Which also meant the worst. The loops had never broken. Blueblood had never gotten free.

Sweetie set her hooves against the floor, ignoring the looks from ponies at her lack of a dress, and pressed. Despite her efforts, the ground beneath her did not rumble or respond… It felt strange, somehow, but it was just as possible that things worked different here when it came to that sort of magic. That was both troubling and a little comforting. Schooling her features, she tried to move through the crowds, searching for a familiar face. And soon enough, she found one.

“Miss Fleur!” Sweetie called, smiling at the model as she approached. Fleur-de-Lis was as gorgeous as Sweetie had remembered her being. Tall, leggy, and gracile, she was a model in many worlds, and this one had also been the duelist who taught her I Quattro Elementi. Just as importantly, Fleur had taught her the importance of poise and beauty, not just in fighting, but in life.

Sweetie remembered how, so many times, so many loops, Fleur had smiled down at her and offered a hoof to help her up or to show her a new pose. For all the troubles she seemed to juggle and struggle with as a financially strained but noble-born pony, Fleur had always been a kind and friendly – even vivacious – mare to the young Sweetie Belle she had trained.

This time, though, Fleur de Lis looked down on her with an inscrutable look, appraising but dismissive.

“I – we haven’t met,” Sweetie said, hoping to introduce herself to a friendly face with some inside knowledge, “but I’m a big fan of yours and--”

“I’ll have to stop you there,” Fleur interrupted. “I don’t associate with fans or hangers-on.”

Sweetie’s eyes went wide at the biting remark.

“Why, look at her.” Another pony spoke up, a stallion with a trimmed blue moustache that took Sweetie a moment to recognize. “You don’t even have a dress! My word! How uncouth! Like a beggar off the streets or somesuch.” Fancy Pants looked down at her with a sneer. He didn’t even address her further, switching to the third person as he waved a hoof at her. “Do you suppose this ragamuffin snuck into the Castle somehow? Where are the royal guards when you need them?”

“I--”

“She’s still here,” Fleur observed, “Worse than that, Fancy, she’s trying to talk to us.” The haughty mare gently tried to herd Sweetie away with her hoof. “Shoo. Go on. I don’t have any bits on me. Go bother somepony else, why don’t you?”

Sweetie Belle shook her head and turned around, galloping away from her dueling mentor. Fleur had often chided or teased her during training, but it had always been playful. Never had a cruel word passed from her lips. Such a thing was too inelegant for the noble model. What in Equestria had gotten into her?

Sweetie galloped, swerving past older ponies all around her, putting some much-needed space between her and the pony who looked so much like her tutor but who just couldn’t be her. The Gala was a press of bodies around any celebrity or lordly noblepony, and the sheer number of adults she slipped through keyed her to the likelihood that somepony big had to be in the center. Sure enough, the crowd abruptly parted a respectful distance from the center of their attention, and Sweetie saw a familiar face emerge.

“Princess Celestia!”

“Oh,” the princess glanced at her, a displeased frown crossing her face. “You’re… Rarity’s sister? What are you doing here?” The tall Princess crinkled her one visible eye, and though her voice had been level, Sweetie could sense a hint of menace in the immortal pony’s tone. “No. You don’t belong here. How did you get here?”

Sweetie felt her breath catch in her throat as Celestia loomed over her like a mountain. The Princess was tall compared to an adult. She was a giant next to a young mare such as herself. Sweetie got the distinct impression that the Princess could simply stomp her underhoof, should she so desire.

“How did you get here?” Celestia asked again. “There’s something about you. Something different.”

“I’m sorry!” Sweetie, acting on some instinct, threw herself into a courtly bow. Her nose touched the tile of the menagerie floor. “I’ll leave right away!”

“Yes, that would be best.” Celestia shooed her with a hoof, and the ponies around her chortled in amusement. “I have no time to waste with you.”

Feeling the sting of the words, Sweetie stepped back, head down. ‘She said there was something different about me. Something different! Maybe they can see what I really look like…? Maybe… maybe they see me for what I am? Maybe I am a monster now. Is that why they’re treating me like this?’

It was then that she heard another very familiar voice.

“You are nothing! You are not my brother, hardly a stallion worthy of my sister, and little more than a pretentious, disgusting son-of-a-mule!” Sweetie Belle, another Sweetie Belle, dressed in a beautiful white dress growled with undisputable malice at some poor pony.

Sweetie Belle couldn’t help but approach.

This was her. This was another her. But how was there another her, here?

She ignored the mutters and glares as she made her way to the balcony, where she could finally see who her other self was talking to. Her breath caught in her throat as she saw the white coat and disheveled blonde mane. Blueblood looked miserable, his usually meticulous appearance sloppy and unkempt in a way Sweetie had never seen before. He wasn’t even trying to counter the mean-spirited Sweetie across from him with his usual wit.

For a moment, Sweetie couldn’t even think of what to say. ‘How did this happen?’

“But you… you said you and your friends wanted…” Blueblood’s voice was clipped, hardly more than a whisper. Sweetie had to press past the others to hear. “The last loop… it just doesn’t make sense…”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about!” Sweetie, the other Sweetie, threw something at him. She then stormed away, and Sweetie, the real one – or she thought she was the real one – couldn’t help but notice that the other ponies present treated her normally. But she was normal; that Sweetie Belle was still a pony on the inside and outside, so that made sense, didn’t it?

Left in her wake, Blueblood reached for her with a hoof only to curse and slam his hoof onto the floor. He was angry, Sweetie realized. The Blueblood she knew did not get easily angered. Indignant, yes; pouty, definitely; primpy and fussy, all the time. But angry? She watched on, stunned by the scene unfolding in front of her, as her brother from the time-loops hung his head in silent misery.

She saw him look up, look to Celestia, desperate for some sort of sympathy, and then turn away.

The Princess didn’t even seem to give the scene an iota of her attention.

“I said NO! Get away from me!” Blueblood snarled, pushing aside a mare Sweetie didn’t recognize. The pony looked noble, dressed in a beautiful dress of orange and crimson, but over hundreds of loops Sweetie had learned to recognize almost everypony who had attended the Grand Galloping Gala. She didn’t know all their names, like Blueblood did, but she knew their faces and color schemes. This black and white mare was somepony new.

“My Prince,” she said to his back. “Are you just going to let them treat you this way?”

Blueblood ignored her and stomped away, leaving the seething noblemare behind. Sweetie Belle resolved to follow Blueblood and snaked her way around the guests, trying to keep him in sight. In the confusion, she also tried to get a better look at the noblemare with the white mane, only to find that she had vanished into the crowd. Luckily, Blueblood was easier to keep track of. Sweetie almost caught up to him, only to notice herself… or rather her other-self approaching her adoptive brother.

It then hit her. Even if she was a monster, even if ponies would wince when they saw her or treat her like dirt… even if Blueblood himself was repulsed… she couldn’t simply watch a pony she loved be berated and abused by none other than herself.

Taking a deep breath, Sweetie moved faster, following her counterpart who was in turn following Blueblood to another secluded area of the Gala. If she had to guess, he was heading for the maze. It was a place where he could lose everypony else. He clearly wanted to be left alone, and she couldn’t blame him. Not with how ponies were acting! Had he done something during the day to make them so angry? She couldn’t believe it.

Just when she saw him slinking out of the sight of nobles, she managed to catch up with the other Sweetie Belle, just out of immediate sight from the other ponies and Blueblood.

“Hey!” she called, drawing the attention of the other Sweetie. “What do you think you’re doing?”

Her counterpart stopped and turned to face her.

“You – You’re not supposed to be here,” the native Sweetie said, almost mechanically, and scowled at her like she was some sort perplexing apparition. “You’re… me? But I’m me! What are you?”

“I’m not you,” Sweetie muttered angrily. “I would never, ever, treat Blueblood like that! What could possibly make you say those things to him? He’s one of the sweetest ponies I’ve ever met!”

“He’s a jerk! He’ll always be a jerk, and I hate him!” Sweetie yelled back at herself. She stalked forward with a cold, calculating expression of condescension. Sweetie wondered, for just a moment, if this was how she had looked that one loop where she had torn into Diamond Tiara.

“I hate him,” Sweetie stated. “We all hate him.”

Sweetie felt herself flush with anger.

“Blueblood,” she hissed, stepping up to literally lock horns with her contemptible counterpart, “is not a jerk. Not to me! He’s loyal and strong… stronger than you might think or could ever believe. He’s seen things you never have, done things you never will… he’s changed… and grown! And I. Don’t. Hate. Him. He’s my brother, the only one who could possibly even understand what I’ve been through… and if you take one more step in his direction, I will not hold back. You’ll probably just reset anyway, you dumb-belle, so don’t think I won’t take you down!”

The native Sweetie colored with the same rage Sweetie herself felt. They were eerily alike in that respect, and when her local counterpart smirked, taking a very obvious step back, Sweetie knew she was about to try something. The other Sweetie. This was all so confusing!

The local-her inhaled deeply, no doubt to cry for help. She would scream for her sister or the guards or somepony who would cause a lot of trouble. But Sweetie was a Sweetie Belle, too. So she didn’t just let the other her have her way. Rushing forward, Sweetie tackled herself and quickly clamped a hoof around other-her’s mouth. The angry scream became a muffled ‘rrrgh!’, and the pair tumbled out and onto the grass of the Palace gardens.

Both fillies separated as soon as their roll stopped and jumped to their hooves. Sweetie was dismayed when the local, evil version fell into the familiar stance of the I Quattro Elementi. She groaned. “You learned that too?! How?!”

Quickly shaking her head, she started slowly going around her opponent, only for the local Sweetie to match her movements. ‘Perfectly symmetrical violence never solved anything,’ a wise pony had once said. Fortunately, this was not going to be a fair fight. Not for her opponent.

She followed the familiar basic patterns of an I Quattro Elementi spar, settling into the familiar rhythm and exchange of basic spells. Clearly the local Sweetie was roughly at the same level as she had been before she left. Sweetie still wasn’t sure how that was possible, but it was just what she had expected. She imitated her opponent’s level, allowing the local Sweetie to think that they were on par, all the while whispers echoed around the pair until her other self finally heard them.

“What’s… that?” she asked, ears twitching. “Some sort of sound?”

“It’s the end for you,” Sweetie replied, cantering to the side.

The local Sweetie immediately reacted, trying to turn the right way to fend of Sweetie’s follow-up. ‘Tried,’ being the imperative word. Her legs refused to budge, and when she looked down to identify why, she saw, to her horror, that she had somehow sunken down into the earth. Her hooves had already vanished into the soft grass, and she couldn’t pull them free. Her eyes sought out Sweetie’s, full of indignation and confusion. “But… your horn didn’t glow!”

Sweetie smiled triumphantly as her other-self sunk further into the ground, letting the local Sweetie see a little bit of her true self slip through her illusion. “Don’t worry, nothing will happen to you.”

“You!” Sweetie gasped. “You’re not--”

Sweetie’s hoof cut the statement short.

“Sssh,” she warned. “It’s a secret to everypony.”

The local Sweetie could just gape in stunned silence as the earth closed around her. The remaining Sweetie Belle sighed as the whispers died away. That had cost time. Blueblood was gone. Taking a deep breath, she looked at the maze and stepped in. It had been a while, after all. She hoped she remembered the way.

- - -

She found Blueblood in the center of the maze. He wasn’t doing anything other than mutely staring at the obelisk containing the long list of Bluebloods through the centuries. It tore at her heart seeing him so despondent. It was as if he was about to give up. She knew how he ‘reset’ some of the loops back when they had been going through the Gala together. She knew, before she entered the loops with him, he had ‘reset’ the timestream for reasons other than expedience. Peeking around a corner, seeing him from the front, the empty, haunted, hopeless look on his face as he started at the names etched in his family monolith made her want to cry.

She carefully approached until she stood right behind his slouched form. “Blueblood? Are you okay?”

He didn’t seem to hear her at first, but his ears twitched in response. He shook his head and stared at her, and she knew he was expecting her to say something terrible to him.

“Blueblood,” she said, simply, and touched his leg with her hoof. “It’s me.”

“You?” he asked, blinking.

Sweetie’s eyes brimmed with tears. “Don’t you remember me?” she whispered, looking up at him. “After all that we went through? After how you took care of me and helped me?” She smiled a bit, hoping to coax some sort of emotion out of him, but he only stared forward. “I went away, but I’m back for a little while… I don’t think I’d rather spend some time with anypony else than my big brother.”

She looked around the gardens, looking for a way to convince him to believe her. “Do you remember how many times we came here? How many times we went into that pocket dimension with Twilight’s crazy fragment? Do you think I would have done all that with a pony I didn’t trust and care for?” Her voice softened. “Do you remember when I said goodbye?”

He muttered something under his breath and, even as she reached for him, he scooted back and away from her. His hoof was trembling, shaking, as he pointed at her.

“You reset!” he yelled, and though his voice lowered, just those two words ‘you reset’ echoed in Sweetie’s ears. “You reset… after the Gala… after you left… I tried, Sweetie. I tried so hard to make the best of things. You were gone, I missed you, but… but I tried.”

His hooves reached up to bury in his unwashed blond mane, head shaking back and forth.

“And then… then I thought I’d gotten out, too. I got to the next day! Rarity… Rarity she…” He couldn’t finish whatever he was trying to say. His breath just came in short gasps. “I must’ve died again. Some creature killed me, and… and when I did… I was back here. Back here. I’m always back here. There is no escape for any of us. All of it is… just a joke… just a horrible joke… and it never ends. Never ends!”

Tears welled up in her eyes and Sweetie rushed forward to hug her adopted brother as hard as she could. He was still in the loops. He was still suffering. And she had left him.

“No! No, it’s okay! You won’t be trapped! It must be some mistake!” she cried and tried shaking sense into him, accidentally ripping the corner of his suit shirt as she did. He didn’t even seem to care. “Please! Please, Blueblood, don’t lose hope! You’ve kept me afloat for so long! I wouldn’t have made it this far without you… please… let me help you. I’ll stay here for as long as you do… I - I’ll find a way to come back completely. Or take you with me! I won’t let you be alone in this.” She looked up into his eyes, and it was like her words passed right through him. Like he was already dead inside. “I’ll help you…”

Nephew.”

A chill ran down Sweetie’s spine at the frigid voice that had spoken just then. Sweetie looked up, past Blueblood, to the very top of the royal family obelisk. An alicorn with black wings perched there, glaring down at them with baleful, glowing eyes. Even as Sweetie watched, bats detached from and melded back into her body.

“Auntie,” Blueblood finally responded, tilting his head back against the monolith. “You always find me. Every night. Time…” He actually smiled, tears running down his cheeks. “Time to die again?”

“Our sister asked us to take care of you,” the terrifying visage of Princess Luna explained, and her body scattered into a thousand screeching fangs and leathery wings. “And so we shall,” her disembodied voice promised.

Sweetie closed her eyes and felt Blueblood pull her in close as the swarm descended.

And tore them to pieces.

o.0.o

“Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah!”

Sweetie Belle’s eyes snapped open as a deep, disturbing sense of deja-vu left her wondering where, exactly, she had messed up again. She turned in her bed, drowsy mind starting to recall last night’s sudden and horrific end when her snout bumped with… her snout.

Sweetie Belle looked into the eyes of the local Sweetie Belle and they both froze, staring at each other from opposite sides of the same bed. Finally the local Sweetie spoke. “You! You’re not supposed to be here… wait, what?”

Sweetie grinned. “Do you remember last night?”

Eyes wide, the evil Sweetie shook her head, slowly.

“Well then,” she said, with a widening grin. “It’ll make things easier if you don’t.”

Local Sweetie’s brow wrinkled into a frown. “What do you mean?” Slightly more alert, she started getting angry. “Rari-!!”

She stopped when Sweetie’s hoof touched her lips. “Hush now… quiet now.”

- - -

Sweetie Belle carefully closed the door behind her, locked it, and then broke the keyhole mechanism. She had enchanted her local self to sleep through the day, but just on the off chance she would wake up, she had taken a couple countermeasures. Like making the bed sheets unmovable. Even if local Sweetie eventually got out (the traps were not deadly, of course!) the dimension-hopping Sweetie was confident she would have enough time to get to Blueblood first.

Her hoof lingered on the door. She had missed this, just a little.

Okay. Maybe a lot.

Despite the whole trapped-in-an-endless-time-loop scenario, it had become… well… normal. It had even been comforting in a strange way! Every day she had woken up reasonably confident of what was to come, and better yet, she had always woken up knowing there was somepony out there looking out for her. She had never been alone in the loops, not like Blueblood had been. After everything that had happened to her after she left, the time she had spent here in this world and the lessons she had learned were some of the best times of her life.

The question now was if that artifact could keep her here until the loops were done again?

She shook her head. What did it matter? If anything, helping Blueblood would at least balance the karmic scales a bit for what she had become and everything she had done. For a second, her foreleg was not covered in soft hair… Sweetie shook her head, dispelling the mental image. Pushing herself away from the door, she headed downstairs. She had a Prince to meet. A brother to help!

It didn’t take long for Rarity to make her appearance. She did not look happy at seeing her little sister.

“Sweetie Belle.” She paused, blinking dumbly for a second before snapping out of the trance. “Just what are you doing here, hmm?” Rarity huffed, barely glancing at her sister while making her way to heat up some tea. “Are you trying to skip school? Is primary education too much for you, Sweetie Belle?”

Sweetie was taken aback by the venom in her sister’s voice. “I - I’m about to leave, sis.”

“Good riddance,” Rarity stated, calmly sitting down on her end of the table. She had only made breakfast for herself this morning. “Maybe Cheerilee will have more luck knocking sense into that rock you have for a head than I have, but from how disappointed she sounds every time she mentions your name. I fear she’s about to give up on you, too. Honestly!”

Sweetie cringed. Even after she had become Twilight’s student, she hadn’t entirely shaken how some ponies made fun of her for the occasional bout of foalhood obliviousness. How could Rarity – her own sister of all ponies – say something like that? Rarity had fussed about her little sister’s appearance plenty of times, but she had never made so hurtful a jab at so soft a spot.

“Sis…” For a moment, Sweetie didn’t even know how to respond. She shook her head in dismay. “What happened? Why are you being so… so mean to me?”

“I’m not being mean, Sweetie, just practical,” Rarity responded, taking a sip of her tea and unfolding one of her tattler magazines. “Even I have to realize when a wreck is a lost cause, and you, my dear, are one.”

Rarity sipped more tea, seemingly unconcerned by Sweetie’s hurt look. She didn’t even care when the incredulous expression turned into a glare. Sweetie opened her mouth to reply, to bite back or to cry, she wasn’t sure which, but she was interrupted by a series of rapid-fire knocks on the door.

"It seems your ‘friends’ have come to pick you up. You should count yourself fortunate to have ponies who are willing to help you like they are. Now, go off to school, and do try not to be an embarrassment.” Blue eyes peeked over the pages of Rarity’s magazine as Sweetie continued to stare. “Don’t tell me you need me to hold your hoof…?”

“Yeah, well, I mean NO! I can find the door perfectly fine on my own, you--” Sweetie forcefully clamped shut her mouth and stomped her way to the door, opening it so violently with her magic that she loosened the hinges.

“Oh, there you are!” Scootaloo said, with a bright smile, only to pause again. Just like Rarity had. She blinked, and it was as if a switch flipped in her. Her grin melted away like it had never been there. “Finally! I thought we’d have to go into your room and drag your sorry flank onto my scooter if we wanted to make it in time!”

“Yeah, nice to see you too, Scootaloo,” Sweetie muttered. “Good morning and all that.”

“Aw, don’t be too hard on the filly,” Apple Bloom playfully punched Scootaloo’s shoulder. “Not every filly needs a map ta find her own horn! It’s not her fault she’s havin’ a really hard time just makin’ it to the door. You can’t ask too much of her.”

“Well, yeah!” Scootaloo rolled her eyes. “I know that, Apple Bloom, but do we have to do this every day? Be her ‘friends’ and see her to school? Even Snips and Snails can make it there on their own.”

“You don’t expect her to make it otherwise, do you?” Apple Bloom asked. “Ah mean, she’ll probably walk straight into the mouth of a hydra if we don’t watch over her.”

“Maybe we should let her do that!” Scootaloo retorted, fluttering her little wings angrily. “At least she’d stop being an extra annoyance in our lives! Plus, she makes the Cutie Mark Crusaders look lame!”

Apple Bloom tilted her head. “Sweetie, what in the name of Celestia’s Golden Apples are you doing levitating a diamond?”

Sweetie, killer diamond quivering in her telekinetic grasp, gritted her teeth and tried to rein in her self-control. “I’m reminding myself that murder is generally looked down on by local law enforcement.”

Apple Bloom scoffed. “Oh, Sweetie, you couldn’t kill a fly. Literally. Ah’ve seen you try. Come on, it’s time for school. We don’t want to be late!”

“You know what, I remember how to get to school just fine,” Sweetie snapped. “Why don’t you and Scoots here go ahead? If I’m late, you can always tell Cheerilee I got lost.”

“Tsk, you know we can’t do that, Sweetie,” Scootaloo replied, testily. “Simply leaving you on your lonesome? Where will you be without us?”

“Extremely. Happy.” Sweetie’s eyes glowed for a moment as she took two steps back into the shadows. Scootaloo trotted forward to make a grab for her, only to fall forwards with a yelp as the unicorn filly vanished.

“Hey! Where did she go?!” Apple Bloom asked, turning around and failing to see Sweetie. “Aww, we’re gonna get in trouble if we lost her! And since when could she use magic?”

“Pffh! So she bails. What’s the worst that’ll happen?” Scootaloo asked, pushing Apple Bloom towards the scooter. “So you get grounded for a few days. Maybe we’ll get lucky, and a griffon will eat her. Come on, let’s go to class.”

Sweetie sighed from within the shadows and slowly emerged. “If this is what Blueblood’s coming back to every day, there’s no way he’s going to be sane.” She turned to look at the distant spires of Canterlot overlooking the valley and started trotting towards the train station. “I guess I should get going. I don’t think he’ll pick me up this time.”

- - -

“You'll be seeing Rain Booms!

Ooo-ooo-oooh!

Equestrian Girls, we're kinda magical!

Boots on hooves, bikinis on top!”

Blueblood remained in bed, letting the song – so often interrupted by his hoof or his magic – continue on to the end. The bed was empty beside him, a hole in it that never filled, no matter how many times he died. That one loop… that one impossible, wonderful loop… he had filled it, and now waking up alone and hearing that song... it was like a stake driving into his heart. Every time it still hurt. Every night he wished it wouldn’t. Every morning his one wish went unanswered.

“So put your hooves up, oh-oh-ohoh!”

As the song ended, the magical radio dissolved into static. Nothing ever played after the song. Just static. It was like the radio station didn’t care either. It was the Gala, but he didn’t need to look outside to know as much. It was always the Gala. It would always be the Gala. And every one was worse than the one that came before it.

‘There’s a ceremonial spear down the hall. Thirty paces. Brush past Light Touch and Sandy. Put it through your throat and sever the carotid artery. Hard reset. Painless. Pointless.’ His mind numbly ran through the possibilities. So far, the best loops had been the ones where he just ran away, rather than try to outright kill himself. Sometimes he could have hours of peace and quiet if he left a false trail for the Royal Guards pursuing him to follow.

‘That dragon from the other day was pleasant company,’ he recalled. The cave was only a few hours away by sky chariot or airship. ‘She ate me… but until she did, she wasn’t a terrible companion. And at least she was honest about her intentions. Plus, being eaten wasn’t the worst way to go. Yes. Maybe I should do that again today. I bet I could beat her in chess this time around, too! She always uses the Queen’s Gambit, and I can counter that in move sixteen….’

“My Lord,” Light Touch’s voice interrupted his daydreaming along with her gentle rapping on the door to his room. “Her Highness has requested your presence at the breakfast table. We must make you presentable.”

“Yes,” he replied, weary beyond description. “Presentable. Of course. Enter.”

Mechanically, he rolled off the bed and trotted over to the same spot as always. Light Touch and Sandy entered, as they always did, and began to comb and clean him for the day. One time, a lifetime ago, the brushes and the gentle ministrations had brought a measure of peace, even in the worst of the Gala loops. The two maidservants were no less competent than before, but even when he asked their names or made polite inquiries about subjects he knew they entertained, the pair wanted nothing to do with him. Where once he had even been able to coax a giggle out of shy maid Sandy – and a smile out of the dedicated, professional Light Touch – all that met him now was a stark and uncomfortable silence. He was nothing and nopony.

He was a pariah.

Then, to his surprise, Light Touch rested her hoof on his heart, bereft of a brush.

“It hurts, doesn’t it?” she asked, to his surprise. Those words…

Not sure what to say – “it does” or “how do you know?” Blueblood merely nodded.

Light Touch leaned closer to whisper in his ear. “It hurts because you let it hurt.”

The Prince recoiled slightly, and Light Touch motioned Sandy to gather up their supplies and leave. The maid’s words echoed in Blueblood’s mind as he tried to make sense of them. It hurt… because he let it hurt?

“I don’t understand,” he admitted. It didn’t matter how Light Touch even know what was in his heart. He reached for her. “How can it not hurt?”

“Hurt them back.” Light Touch contemptuously batted his hoof away. “That’s how.”

Blueblood closed his eyes, fighting the suggestion. How could Light Touch even say such a thing? Hurting others didn’t solve anything. He had learned that. He understood that. How could he ever look his Aunties or… or his Rarity… in the eye again, if he turned his back on everything he had learned from them? Even his old self hadn’t done more than hurt a mare’s pride. Light Touch had to be kidding.

‘Hurt them back,’ his own voice whispered. ‘Just once. Why not? They’ll reset. It’s all pointless. So why not hurt them back?’

Blueblood shook his head. “No. Never. Never again.”

‘Make all of Canterlot pay. Bring this vile city to its knees. You can destroy it. Show me how!’

“Equestrian Girls, we're kinda magical!” Blueblood sang, forcing himself to finish getting dressed and head down to the solemn solarium dining hall. “Boots on hooves, bikinis on top! Equestrian Girls, we're kinda magical! Boots on hooves, bikinis on top! Equestrian Girls, we're kinda magical! Boots on hooves, bikinis on top!”

The hateful thoughts faded away as he repeated the annoying diddy like a mantra. The trick worked, but it took longer and longer and got harder and harder with every loop. Blueblood found himself not just whispering the lyrics but outright yelling them at the top of his lungs to try and clear his mind.

It wouldn’t be hard to make Canterlot pay, he knew.

He still had the suicide spell he had used before to destroy the Palace. All he had to do was repeat it and make a few changes to the containment circle. But why bother being repetitive? The Bluebloods had hoarded the most terrible secrets and magic in Equestrian history. They were sworn not to use them, by all the old gods and the Princess and the living stars, but why not?

This Equestria had gone steadily to Hell. Why not bring Hell to this Equestria? Why not throw open the Gates of Tartarus itself? There were a dozen crisis-level magics sealed in The Black Box that even Twilight couldn’t be allowed to open or explore. Why not just let one or two loose to bring this festering pit to its knees? Why not find a high tower and a bag of popcorn and watch as everypony that spat on him screamed and DIED?!

‘Burn them all. Burn them all. Show me how! You know you want to!’

“Equestrian Girls, we're kinda magical! Boots on hooves, bikinis on top!” He announced at the top of his voice, once again driving away the spiteful, treacherous thoughts. He even added a pronk to his trot, pulling off his best Pinkie Pie as he sang out loud.

Finally stumbling into the dining hall, Blueblood noticed how Proper Place and Stylus, the Chamberlain and his assistant, the Keeper of Seals, began to conspicuously whisper. ‘They’re plotting against you. They loathe you. Look in their eyes.’ Even the serving ponies stopped to stare at him with contemptuous expressions. ‘They hate you. You know they spit in your food. You can taste it.’ Celestia, though, continued to demurely eat her breakfast of oats and apples. ‘You aren’t worth her time. She hates you. She hates you most of all!’ Princess Luna, eating dinner rather than breakfast, simply frowned at her nephew. ‘She’ll kill you. She’ll kill you. She’ll kill you. She’ll kill you. She’ll kill you!’

And, every night at the end of the Gala, Luna did find reason to kill him.

‘Kill her first. You know how. You know how. Show me. I’ll do it for you. Kill her. Kill her before she kills you. Show me how to kill her!!’

“Equestrian Girls, we're kinda magical! Boots on hooves, bikinis on top!” Blueblood blurted out, right there at the breakfast table, and the thoughts slowly receded. “Boots on hooves, bikinis on top…”

He tried to eat, but the food – all food – tasted like ashes in his mouth.

- - -

Mirrors.

Auntie loved her mirrors, but not for vanity.

Philosophers and romantics often said that eyes were the window into the immaterial soul. Mirrors, similarly, could be a window into the arcane and the otherwise unseen realms that surrounded ponykind. There were entire rooms in the Palace devoted to certain magical mirrors. As a Blueblood, versed in the mysteries of such things, he knew which ones could be used and, in many cases, how to use them. Standing in front of one such mirror, framed in Braygyptian gold and inscribed with faint geometric shapes that shimmered beneath his reflection, Blueblood imagined for a moment that he could plunge into his reflection and escape.

It didn’t even matter where. Anywhere was better than this.

“Which one of these did you escape through, Shimmer? Are you happy, wherever you ended up?” Blueblood lightly ran his hoof over the crystal. “Or are you dead?” He lowered his head until the tip of his horn scraped against the mirror. “I never thought the day would come when I ended up envying even you.”

‘Sunset Shimmer… one of Celestia’s two old students? Which mirror did she use? Was it this one?’

“No, it was… fifth from the end of the hall, on the right,” Blueblood whispered to himself, though he hardly understood why. “Every thirty full moons… I think…”

‘How strong was she? Is she a threat?’

“No, she was just…”

‘Is she a threat?’

“Maybe,” he finally said, if only to shut the nagging voice up. He growled and slammed his forehead into the mirror. “Damnit! I’m not crazy! Stop talking to me!”

‘You want to escape,’ his treasonous thoughts whispered, despite all his protests. ‘Act on your impulses. Do what you know you want to do! If you use the Archives, maybe you can see the other side of one of these mirrors. Show me! Show me what to do to save you!’

Pressing the flat of his hoof against the cold glass, Blueblood could feel the faint magic dormant in the crystal. It only yielded so much, however, before rejecting him. Like all the magical mirrors, Auntie had locked this one. There would be no escape. He knew that. But it was nice to dream.

Maybe, out there somewhere…

In that lost loop, the one that had lasted all those months, he had funded a project of his own. To construct a new and special mirror. To find a certain somepony. It was all lost now, but… the other night…

“Sweetie,” he asked himself, “was that really you?”

Could she really have been the same pony he had looped with? Could she really be the filly that three years of Gala loops had turned into a little sister? That same filly he had seen do the impossible and escape from the loops? His eyes watered as he remembered seeing her vanish that one Gala night. The Sweetie here was so like her, but… but not. Then, just last loop; she had come back and…

Had it really been her, or was it all just another cruel joke?

‘She abandoned you. You have no one. No one but me.’

His hoof slipped on the glass, and when Blueblood leaned harder to keep from falling, he glared at his reflection. The pony there was so tired. So damned tired. Maybe it was time to try something… different. That one spell hadn’t killed him, though it was supposed to utterly consume a pony’s soul, but there were others. There were… others.

Pressing his hoof against the glass, his eyes narrowed.

‘Do it,’ a voice whispered. ‘Show them all the folly of their ways.’

A magical neon-blue circle extended from the flat palm of his hoof, shining bright against the mirror. A second circle then extended over the first. As soon as it did so, the area between the two circles filled with magical sigils and runes. A third circle appeared, along with another layer of glyphs. Then a fourth and, finally, a fifth. Beyond that last circle, two squares separated, turning forty five degrees until they intersected, producing an eight-pointed star. Behind each point of the star, a large rune glowed white hot.

Blueblood then released his hoof and brought it up to his horn, cutting the frog – the flat – of his hoof enough to draw a few drops of blood. Reaching out for the magical mirror lock, he hesitated. Once the key was empowered and turned there would be no turning back. Twilight already had the dummy-access key, or she had back in that other loop. This was the personal all-access code that only the family heir could use. It would provide single pony teleportation through the security at Hockford. Right to the Black Box itself.

No. There would be no turning back after this.

“We don't know…” Luna explained, haltingly, after pondering his question. When you can't live and you can't die, and nothing you do changes anything around you, can you really say that you exist? How can anypony go on?

"Maybe our advice isn't the best,” she admitted, and he knew the root of why she felt that way. “This was why we didn't want to give it before."

The Princess of the Night smoothed back some of her mane and nodded to herself.

“But," she continued anyway. She looked up at him, and he could see there that she had come to see him as somepony close to family. It would all be gone by the morning, wiped clean by the time-loop, but for now, it was there. And he was glad for it.

"You should endure,” the dark alicorn told him. “And adapt. And grow. You do exist, nephew. My own immortality has cost me everything but what I have with me now." She gestured to herself. "And my dear sister, too, thank the heavens. The only thing we can do, as ponies, is move forward."

What would she think if she saw him do this? What would either of them think? The mares he cared most about in this world. Wouldn’t this be throwing away everything they had once seen in him?

Auntie Luna… Auntie Celestia… Rarity, and…

“Blueblood!”

He sighed. Even now, he could hear the voice of his Sweetie Belle… the one that cared. It was a cruel and malicious taunt. Giving him something precious, only to snatch it away? Would she pretend to be the Sweetie he had spent all those loops with, only to laugh at his face the moment he confided in her? Spit in his face as Rarity had, whenever her affection for him turned to spite? Maybe she would kill him, night after night, as his Aunties did?

‘Forget her. Turn the key!’

“Blueblood! I know you’re around here! Come on! Where are you?” Sweetie’s voice echoed again, making his head snap up and his ears perk up. Even if… even if a thousand times, she said ‘I hate you’ … wouldn’t it be worth it, just to hear ‘brother’ once?

Wasn’t that what he had sworn to live for?

‘She hates you. They all hate you. Turn the fucking key!’

“Equestrian Girls, we're kinda magical, boots on hooves, bikinis on top! Bikinis on top! Bikinis on top,” he whispered the lyrics, drowning out the voice. The knowledge. It was right. Everyone hated him. There was no escape. No end. No solace or joy.

“Bikinis on top,” he said, one last time. His hoof was still pressed up against the glass, the blue glyph-key stained red with royal blood. It was ready to unlock. Blueblood forced himself to take a breath and reassert control.

“I won’t,” he told himself, and even after he pulled his hoof away, the marks on the mirror lingered. Long seconds passed before the runes dissolved in black smoke. Cautiously, almost second-guessing himself, Blueblood stepped out of the room and looked down the hallway. At the crossing stood a little filly he knew… or had thought he had known… so well.

“S-sweetie Belle?”

Her head turned his way and blue eyes met green. Her smile was beautiful and honest. “Blueblood!” she galloped up to him, throwing her forelegs around his neck and hugging him tight. “I found you! Or you found me!”

“Is it you?” he asked, afraid to really believe it. “Really you?” He wrapped a leg around her and returned the hug, emboldened by the first act of kindness he could remember since that monster with Yumi’s face had murdered him during Rarity’s Art Festival. “Not – not the other Sweetie… the one that hates me?”

“I don’t hate you, big brother,” Sweetie’s voice sounded muffled, she was pressing her muzzle so hard against his neck. “I never will.”

This…

Was this real?

“But… how is this possible?” Blueblood stammered, shaking his head and pushing her back so he could look down at her. “How can you be here? You were free! I - I thought I was free, too… but… I think I died and came back here. Did you… you didn’t d--”

Sweetie shook her head. “I came close… but no… and I’m not trapped in this world… I think. And I didn't die. I came here; I went looking for you, because of..." She trailed off, as the words she had practiced died on the tip of her tongue. "Because..."

“Sweetie,” he said, relieved, but now terrified. Not for himself, but for her. “Sweetie, you have no idea how glad I am to see you, but… but you should never have come back here. This place is horrible, and – and no matter what I do, or say, it just gets worse. I don’t understand what’s happening, but you shouldn’t be trapped here.” He gritted his teeth and resolved himself. “You can’t be trapped here. I wouldn’t wish this on my worst enemy!”

“I - I know…” Sweetie looked up at him in confusion. “When I woke up today, there was another Sweetie there. The one that…” She couldn’t bring herself to say it. “A-anyway, after that… Rarity she just… she hated me. She was so mean, Blueblood… I don’t think it’s you; this whole world is just evil…”

“It was never like this before,” he said and quickly led Sweetie into another of the mirror chambers. A pair of royal guardponies were slowly making their way down the hall, and it was probably wise not to raise any further questions with them.

The mirror in this room reached almost to the ceiling, set in a mural of jade and silver. The rest of the room was comparatively bare, with empty shelves and conspicuous spiderwebs in the corners. Sweetie quickly realized why the giant mirror seemed vaguely off. Blueblood had no reflection in it… and her reflection…

“I couldn’t believe it after I died and ended up back here. It was… It was crushing,” he admitted, paying no attention to the giant mirror behind him or what it revealed. “Oh, Sweetie, you’d have been… you’d have liked how things turned out there, before all this!” He shook his head, not wanting to get off on a tangent. “But I ended up back here. It was the exact same at first. The usual Gala time-loop… except you were there, you-you, not the local Sweetie. That made no sense!”

“And you just kept resetting!” He almost spat the word, like it was a curse, and in a way, it was. “So even the you-you, wasn’t really you! And then you… then everypony… started to get worse! Everypony I tried to get close to turned against me.”

“But… that’s not how it worked!” Sweetie said, forcing her eyes from the painful reflection to look at Blueblood. “How could everypony just get worse? The resets should have left them normal… just like that time that I… that I tortured Diamond Tiara… She was fine the next day… She didn’t remember how horrible I’d been.” She shook her head in dismay - the loops shouldn’t just change their rules like this. “Why would it change? It doesn’t make sense…”

She took a deep breath, nodding resolutely. “Well, now you’re not alone, and no matter what, I won’t be mean or nasty to you. I’d… I’d rather die and reset a hundred times than say something like that… me… said to you.”

“Oh, oh, stars… Auntie Luna killed you last night, didn’t she?” he realized, just then, and reached out to Sweetie only to realize his hoof was still stained by blood. What had he been thinking? What had he almost done? Focusing a bit of magic on his hoof, he whisked away the self-inflicted injury.

“I’m so sorry, Sweetie,” he said, the rest of that last night came back to him. “She killed you, and I just sat there...”

Sweetie smiled a bit sadly. “Well, it wouldn’t be the first time I died right? Besides, you did do something… I felt you hold me close. I didn’t feel so lonely right then.”

Blueblood allowed a small, tentative smile at her light-hearted view on time-loop resets. “I must’ve half crushed you by the time Auntie finished the job…”

Then, to Sweetie’s shock – she tried to cry for him not to turn around – he glanced back at the mirror. Her shout died on her lips, and her hooves hit the ground with a ‘thump’ that filled the long silence that suddenly stretched between them. When Blueblood turned back to face her, she’d almost expected him to look and act as disgusted by her as everypony else was in this horrible, warped version of the Grand Galloping Gala.

When all she saw on his face was confusion and concern, she sort of expected a joke instead.

Instead, he sighed. “Sweetie,” he asked, simply, “what happened?"

Sweetie couldn’t speak. Her heart beat faster inside her chest, her throat felt dry, and her eyes watered. The illusion broke around her, and the smell of earth and rocks reached her nostrils, as surely as they did Blueblood’s. Whispers caressed her mind as she struggled to speak.

Sweetie swallowed, her eyes meeting Blueblood’s. Her lip trembled. “Y-you don’t hate me? You’re not… afraid of me? Or… disgusted?” She stepped forward and then collapsed, holding onto Blueblood’s chest as her whole form shook with sobs.

“I’m me!” she swore, desperate for him to believe her. “I promise I’m me! How c-can you not be scared? How can you not push me away?” she asked, her mind completely undecided on whether she should laugh, comfort him, cry, or be comforted. “I’m so sorry I left you… I’m so sorry this happened! I’m so sorry I left! I’m so sorry!”

“Sweetie Belle.” She felt his hoof gently rest on her shoulder. He had the sort of serious expression she only remembered from a hoof-full of times, but the concern was still there. “If you’re still you, then I couldn’t care less what you look like.” He coughed, hiding a tiny smile with his hoof. “Though I am sort of curious just what you did to--”

A hard knock on the door instantly caught the attention of the two ponies.

“Is that you, Your Grace?” a baritone voice yelled through the heavy dogwood. “These areas are off limits! Is somepony in there with you?”

Blueblood motioned for her to hide behind him, even as he yelled back, “Indelicate buffon! The mirrors in here contain the souls of deceased ponies! Do not interfere with royal business!”

There was only a brief pause.

“That can’t be,” one of the Guards whispered, too loudly.

“We are opening the door!” the first Royal guard roared back.

“Do so and your plebeian souls will be frozen in Iolite Crystal! Is that what you want, hmm?” Few ponies could sell a lie like the Prince of Canterlot. At least, Sweetie assumed it was a lie. She glanced anxiously at the giant mirror that had revealed her secret self only moments before.

“Now,” Blueblood bellowed, “resume your rounds before I put names to voices and have you flogged for incompetence and insubordination! I am Prince and Duke! Do not presume to question me! Your only concern is following orders. My orders! When I tell you to jump, you ask in midair, ‘is this high enough, your Grace? Should I keep going?’ Do you understand me?”

It was long seconds before the guards formed a response.

“The Princess will hear of this,” the guard promised, but didn’t dare to call the Prince’s bluff.

Blueblood glared at the door, and Sweetie heard under his breath, “As if there’s anything she can do to me that I haven’t been through before.” He actually started towards the door, a sneer on his lips. “But if you’re feeling so damned chatty, maybe I should remove that wagging tongue of yours while I still have the…”

“Um, Blueblood?” He stopped short when Sweetie caught him by the leg. “Why don’t we go somewhere else? I really don’t think being here in Canterlot is good for either of us.”

A dark shadow passed over Blueblood’s face as he continued to glare balefully at the door, a quick shake of his head and a whispered, “boots on hooves, bikinis on top” and he seemed to return to normal.

“Yes,” he agreed, talking a calming breath and nodded down at her. “You may be right.”

o.0.o

- - -

“…finally, Bon Bon--”

“Which one is Bon Bon again? Not the green mare?”

“You know who she is,” Sweetie said over the table and raised a hoof to cover up her horn. “The earth pony.”

“Oh, yes,” Blueblood mused with a little chuckle. “The one with candy on her flanks.”

“Maybe that’s how I should tell you about everypony I met. The one with a lyre on her flanks. The one with a bow on her flanks. The one with the wine glass on her flanks…”

“You’ll have to forgive me. I am a fan of flanks – neigh, a bon-vivant of flanks – so please bear with me.” He shrugged, helpless in the face of his stallion-dom. “Anyway, go on! How did a confectioner get her hooves on dimension shattering magical artifacts?”

“Well, the thing is… in that universe, she’s not really a pony… she’s a cha-a-aaa-something else!” Sweetie looked away for a second, mouth still running and threatening to say inopportune things. “I don’t think the artifact is hers… She just took me there. She said it was rightfully owned by all such as us. Um. Her.”

Sweetie took a big gulp of milkshake and grimaced at the blossom of pain that quickly prompted her hooves to fly up to her forehead. “Ah…! Brain-freeze! Why isn’t there a spell to prevent brain-freeze?!”

“There are limits to even magic,” Blueblood remarked with a laugh, and soon Sweetie found herself joining him. And the more she giggled, the more boisterously and freely he laughed, until it seemed like half the ponies in Sugarcube Corner were glaring at them. Best of all, neither cared what looks they were getting. They had each other again, after so long.

Blueblood reclined back, still chuckling, and bit off a corner of colorful vanilla and almond butter cake. Sweetie smiled to herself and finished the last of her milkshake before picking a soft, still hot cookie from one of the plates on the table. For a long while, the two ponies just ate and sipped and relaxed in each other's company. It felt good. It felt almost guiltily good.

“I missed you,” Sweetie said, half whisper and half declaration.

“I missed you, too,” Blueblood replied, and the smile on his face really did fill Sweetie with a peculiar sort of happiness. There was nothing in this world he had to smile about except her, yet there he was, finding at least some peace because they were back together. It had to be what Pinkie Pie felt and sang about back in Ponyville that one time, just wanting to see another pony smile.

If only it could last forever.

There were still fragments to collect, of course, but would it so bad if there was some way her brother could come with her? If only it worked out that way. More melancholy thoughts gradually crept to mind after that, and Sweetie Belle sighed, resting her head on the table. She looked up at Blueblood. Despite the joking before, she could see he was thinking seriously about something. Maybe even about her rather unique situation.

“You said you missed me,” she found herself saying, and the words began to spill out, even as afraid as she was to give voice to them. “But… I can’t go back to what I was before… You saw me. The real me. This change… it affected my soul, not just my body.” She sniffed and made a point to stare at the treats piled up on the table rather than risk seeing a dark expression on his face. “I don’t even know if I’m Sweetie Belle… after all that I’ve done and seen… how I’ve changed… how can I claim to be Rarity’s sister?”

She drew a little, wet circle on the table, using water condensed from her milkshake’s glass. “I haven’t even heard from her again. I don’t know if she’s alive. Twilight’s fragments… I don’t even know how many there are. I’m older, then younger, then older again, then I’ve never existed, or died a hundred years ago. How do I even… Do I even belong anywhere? Will this ever stop?”

Blueblood reached across the table to poke her gently on the horn.

“Wherever I am, Sweetie, you’ll have a place,” he promised, and just like that, she felt a smile begin to form on her lips. Because he meant it. He genuinely meant it. No matter what happened, no matter what she became, no matter what she looked like, there was at least one place in the multitude of universes where she would be welcome. One place where she could belong.

“Don’t cry,” Blueblood said with a pout. “You mares are so emotional.”

“Like you weren’t crying before!” Sweetie objected and laughed as she wiped away her tears. “You cry more than I do!”

“A stallion’s tears are different. They’re… dignified.”

“That’s dumb.”

They laughed again, together.

‘It isn’t just me,’ Sweetie realized, then. ‘He just wants me to smile, too.’

“Tell me all about the good loop!” she insisted, obliging him and grabbing onto his hoof, swinging it back and forth. “I want to hear all the juicy details!”

o.0.o

- - -

“Come now, Sweetie! Where’s that innocent little filly I remember? The one who didn’t even realize that crazy DJ wanted to scratch her record?”

“Wait, what?” Sweetie’s eyes went wide as, for the first time, some of what had happened on that drunken night started to come together and make sense. “She… Vinyl… She…? Eeewww!”

Blueblood laughed, unashamedly and untroubled by all the burdens of the loops. He banged a hoof on the table, even. “Oh, you spent the whole night – the whole night! – completely oblivious! It was wondrous to behold!”

“Ugh, Vinyl is weird no matter where I meet her,” Sweetie muttered and blew Blueblood a raspberry. “At least I looked like an adult at the time!”

“I’d have stepped in if things got too messy. I would, wouldn’t I?” he wondered, and the way he played out the question made it clear it was just a joke. “Yes, I suppose I would’ve had to,” he decided. “It wouldn’t do to have anypony else corrupt you but me. But it does seem like you picked some things up while we were away! Who told you about the naughty things us grown-ups do?”

Sweetie frowned at one particular memory. “I once went a world where Scootaloo and Apple Bloom were dating. Let’s just leave it at that. And yes! We were older in that loop, before you ask!”

Blueblood waggled his hoof teasingly. “Now, now, you know if you were my biological baby sister, we’d likely have arranged a marriage for you by now. Or a few! And you’d have the pick of the litter when you hit sixteen. Cadance…” He frowned a bit at the name, and his hoof lowered to the table. “She was your age when she met that chivalrous oaf of hers.”

Sweetie blinked. “She was fourteen?”

“No, I meant…” He trailed off, tilted his head, and boggled at her. “You’re fourteen?”

“Well, I didn’t stop aging! Okay, I did. Sometimes. But I counted most of the days! Even the birthdays you didn’t celebrate for me. Some big brother you are.”

“Fourteen,” Blueblood repeated and sucked in a breath. “I see. And, yes, I’ve been terribly negligent.” Leaning back in his chair, he called for a certain somepony. “Delightful Pink Waitress!”

“Yeesssss?” Pinkie Pie emerged from behind Sweetie without a hint of warning.

“Aaaah!” Sweetie jumped straight into the air and crashed next to the table. Looking up painfully, she glared at Pinkie Pie. “Why? Why do you torture me?”

Both older ponies seemed to ignore the frankly quite relevant inquiry.

“So, yeah, what do you jerks want?” this Pinkie Pie asked, her voice a lethargic, surly grumble instead of her usual hyperactive prattle. The supposed element of laughter had not been particularly enthusiastic when it came to serving Sugarcube Corner’s two loudest customers. She reached a hoof up to brush her limp, rose-pink mane out of her eyes.

“This filly needs six birthday parties,” Blueblood replied, pointing down at the prone Sweetie Belle.

Pinkamena’s left eye twitched. “Six.”

“Six.”

“Two sets of three?”

“Or three sets of two.”

“So six. Six parties. She needs six parties.”

“Six birthday parties, with six sets of presents and six sets of guests,” Blueblood ordered and leaned forward slightly. “You aren’t going to give me trouble with this, are you? I figure the one bloody thing in this whole universe that will change before this dimension completely inverts is your love of--”

PARTIES!!” The dour pink pony suddenly exploded. Her mane proofed up faster than a unicorn could cast a spell, and she immediately started to bounce. “Oh, oh oh! I do love parties! Even though that voice in my head keeps saying you’re a bad, bad pony, and that I should hate, hate don’t be late, even the worstest pony in the worstest world needs to party sometimes! And that’s only one voice, anyway! All the other ones want to have fun! Democracy rules!!”

In a spray of confetti, she blasted off to make the six-parties-in-one happen.

“Okay, you have proven that I’m not a monster,” Sweetie spoke up from her prone position under the table and pointed at the snickering Prince. “I can still feel fear. Six parties?”

“Six parties.”

o.0.o

- - -

“Ugh… do I need to make another wish?” Sweetie asked, glaring at the eleven candles on this cake. It was but one of many, each with their due pomp and circumstance.

“Yep! A wish for each cake!” Pinkie shouted in glee. “What will you wish for!?”

“Maybe she should wish for a cutie mark!” Diamond Tiara sneered.

“I have a cutie mark, you doorknob!” Sweetie retorted.

Diamond Tiara gaped. “What? No you don’t!” She blinked slowly, as if seeing the mark on Sweetie’s flanks for the first time, and instantly, her expression fell. “W-well! Wish for a new one! That one looks like somepony broke it!”

Sweetie rolled her eyes.

“Waaaaaaaaaait! Does that mean you didn’t have a cuteceanera either?” Pinkie Pie gasped, rising off the ground like a balloon, only to turned in midair and glare accusingly Blueblood. “Why didn’t you tell me? We can’t have six consecutive birthday parties and ignore the cuteceanera!”

Blueblood nodded somberly. “This is true. This is very true. And what do you suggest we do, Miss Pie?”

“Well, gee, I don’t know!” Pinkie put her hooves on her hips and pouted. “Maybe, uhhh, I’ve got it! A party!” she declared, her enthusiasm for the same thing never once diminishing. She adopted a thoughtful pose. “But we’re already having a party. Think, Pinkamena Diane Pie, think! She would have gotten it right in the middle, I would guess! So, after this birthday party is done, then we start the cuteceanera party, followed by the rest of the birthdays! WEEE!”

“Please,” Sweetie begged Blueblood. “Please, stop her. I’ll do anything!”

“Maybe that should be your next wish then?” he asked with a wink.

“Wish for an end to the parties?” Sweetie wondered, and turned towards one of her multitude of birthday cakes. “Okay. Why not?” She directed a half-hearted puff of breath at the candles, extinguishing the tiny fires. Then she sat down and waited for the magic to happen.

“Well?” Blueblood asked, nudging her with his hoof. “What was the wish? Do you feel it working?”

“If you repeat your wish, it won’t come true,” Sweetie informed him, crossing her forelegs in a pout.

“HEY!” Pinkie Pie announced, jumping between Sweetie and her Prench vanilla and blueberry cake. “You’ll never guess what just happened!”

“What?” Blueblood asked and Sweetie Belle sighed.

“It better not be--”

“I got YOU a CLOWN!” Pinkie cheered, pointing at the birthday filly. “His name is Homey the Donkey! I found him at the train station, and he seemed really reluctant to play around, but a few special brownies totally helped his mood! I’ll go get him!”

Sweetie was moments from grabbing onto Pinkie’s leg and asking, ‘Please don’t.”

When fate intervened.

With a pop, a pair of ponies appeared in thin air. One of them hit Pinkie Pie in mid-prance, butt-first, and the two crashed to the floor with a comical yelp. A second fell right into the cake, splattering it across half the room. For a second, nopony said anything. Then they began to point and laugh and jeer. It was par the course for the rotten ponies in this dimension.

“Well, at least I won’t have to eat that one,” Sweetie muttered as she edged away from the smashed cake. “I hope…”

“Why do I feel a certain irony in this?” Pinkie asked from beneath a black and blue rump.

“A-auntie!” Blueblood cried, rushing past Sweetie towards the alicorn that had face-planted their party planner. Princess Luna lifted a bare hoof – one conspicuously absent the normal royal raiment – and glanced around her in confusion. She did recognize somepony calling her, however, and quickly stood on all fours to face her equally confounded nephew.

“Nephew,” she breathed, joyfully, and reached out a hoof to him. “Thou art a most welcome sight! But… this is most strange. We had expected a dream, a nightmare, but not this… merriment… and why hast our speech regressed?”

“A nightmare?” Blueblood asked and even after he graced her noble hoof with a respectful kiss, he briefly touched her hoof with his own, as if to assure himself she was still something solid and real. “Oh, no, no Auntie. If you… if you aren’t her, then you’re trapped with me…”

“How do you know it isn’t her?” Sweetie asked, walking up to stand next to Blueblood. “Luna was never trapped in the resets.”

“I know my Auntie’s body language,” he explained, and Luna visibly huffed in indignation.

“We do not have ‘body language’!” she objected.

“Note the wing tips and how they curl slightly,” Blueblood told Sweetie, pointing to the ends of Luna’s outstretched wings. “Her pinions tense a little when she’s relieved or happy. I haven’t seen the Luna of the last hundred loops happy before. Usually it’s all shadows and brimstone and stomping my face in.”

Luna quickly shut her wings tight, fast enough to make an audible snapping noise, like a cracking whip. She coughed into her hoof and adopted a regal, proud pose, chest out and head held high.

“Hello.” Sweetie waved a hoof.

“Hello, Sweetie Belle,” Luna replied, inclining her head in a polite greeting. She smirked, too, though it wasn’t all too clear why.

“Sweetie,” Blueblood whispered, bowing his head to the side. She rolled her eyes and curtsied. This was one thing that would never change about her brother.

“But she thinks I’m like… eight!” Sweetie whispered harshly. “I bet she thinks my informality is cute!”

“Of course she does,” he replied with a shake of his head. “But cuteness and propriety aren’t mutually exclusive.”

“Fine, have it your way…” Sweetie rolled her eyes again, faced the Princess, and curtsied. “You know, Nightmare Moon was never one for formalities. She’d rather put a whoopie cushion on your chair than expect you to bow.”

“I can’t believe that…”

“A whoopie cushion?” Luna asked, walking up to the pair and glancing between them. “Ist that one of thy noise-making contrivances? The one that resembles an inopportune passing of vapors?”

The two ponies just stared at her.

“Yes?” Blueblood asked. “I think.”

“I do find those rather amusing! Vulgar humor, of course, but clever!” She laughed, and it sounded rather like a villainous ‘whahaha.’ Halfway through what would have been a good and proper cackle, she coughed again and shook her head. “But such things are not the reason behind my visit. Nephew, do you know where you are?”

Sweetie smiled smugly at Blueblood with a look that said, ‘told you so.’

“Oh, hush,” he whispered back, and then replied, “I’m at a party, Auntie.”

“Six parties in one!” Pinkie Pie corrected him, still partly flattened by the Princess of the Night’s abrupt entrance.

“A party that is also a part of a time-loop,” Blueblood added.

“A time-loop?” Luna asked, and her eyes settled on Sweetie Belle. “This filly is involved somehow? So she is the one I… To which I mean, she is Lady Rarity’s younger sister… but the Sweetie Belle I know does not have a cutie mark.”

“You would be surprised by how many ponies ignore that,” Sweetie quipped, looking towards Diamond Tiara. The other filly, like most of the other ponies in the room, seemed frozen. A few were in mid-bow, and others were just staring. It wasn’t as if they had completely stopped; a few looked like they were forming words, but caught in a tiny time-loop of their own. It was surreal.

“This isn’t… normal, even for what passes for normal here,” Blueblood observed, and Sweetie couldn’t help but nod in agreement.

“Nephew,” Luna tried to explain.

“Blueblood,” another voice interrupted, coming from the squashed cake. A light pink alicorn was on all fours, brushing bits of frosting and smears of blueberry off her coat. There was no mistaking Princess Mi Amore Cadenza, the pony Sweetie knew as Queen Chrysalis. Yet, she knew right away, this was no changeling Queen.

“Cadenza,” Blueblood said, and where he had all but run to Luna, he backed away from the younger Princess.

Sweetie looked from one to the other. “Uh…”

“Blueblood,” the Princess said. “You’re in a nightmare. We’ve come to get you out.”

- - -

“So this is all some sort of amped-up super-dream?” Sweetie asked, slowly swirling about the ice-cream head of her latest milkshake with the straw and watching Princess Cadance across the table. She had taken up the very same spot Blueblood had occupied only hours ago.

“How come you only got here now?” she asked. “Do you know what being – what feeling trapped in the loops again did to Blueblood?” She shook her head and lowered her voice. “He was about to do something crazy again when I found him in the castle. Kill himself, maybe, or blow it up… I don’t know, but it wouldn’t have been good.”

Cadance seemed extremely uneasy in a way that clearly had more to do with her just being in somepony’s nightmare. She had kept conspicuously quiet while Blueblood and Princess Luna went off to talk. “That is exactly what Chrysalis and Night Shade wanted him to do. Chrysalis wanted access to the most deadly spells and artifacts in the Family Archives. These… changelings…” The Princess of Love shivered in revulsion. “Just when I think I’ve seen the limits of their evil, they show me a new shade of cruelty.”

Sweetie looked away, more than a little guiltily. It was a good thing the Princess couldn’t see through her disguise.

“They’re… worse here than in other places,” she admitted, closing her eyes as she remembered how she had found her poor brother. This was all Chrysalis’ doing. Damn her. “He was… I had honestly never seen him so desperate… so alone. I thought for a moment that the loops had broken him, that the Blueblood I knew was gone. And if he been… don’t know what I’d have done. ”

Cadance cut short her first response and took a long look at the filly before her.

“All those months in this pit… and I never even considered Chrysalis would be so cautious with her prize,” the Princess said, softly, and forced her attention towards where Luna and Blueblood were having a private conversation. She was supposed to be catching him up to speed: on the changelings, on the wedding, on his abduction.

“How,” she asked, before Sweetie could speak up. “How long have you been here with him? And who are you, really?”

Sweetie sighed, knowing this was a more difficult question to answer than it seemed. “I’ve only been in these dream loops a few days, but the first time… in the real time-loops… I was there for more than two years with him.” She smiled, as the last question was the hardest of them all to answer honestly.

“Two years,” Cadance whispered, trying to wrap her head around it. Hundreds and hundreds of loops.

“As for who I am,” Sweetie continued, “There was an accident on my world. My Twilight Sparkle ended up really badly hurt, and I’m trying to save her, but the only way to do that is to move through dimensions and different version of Equestria. I’m Sweetie Belle… just… not the one you’ll meet on the outside. At least that’s what I keep telling myself, and what Blueblood insists I am.” She smirked and raised her milkshake in a half-hearted toast. “But like I told him, if I can’t trust my older brother, who can I trust?”

“You… he’s your brother?” Cadance squinted, clearly not understanding and taking the phrase too literally.

“My adoptive brother,” Sweetie explained. “I adopted him. Or he adopted me. We’re not very clear on the exact way it happened, but I think he insists that he adopted me because then he can show me off. I say I adopted him because somepony needs to be the adult.” She took in Cadance’s bewildered look. “It’s uh… just, sibling-like love. Not official. We spent a lot of time together in the loops. Did he… did he manage to talk to you at all?”

“Blueblood and I haven’t really talked in years,” the Princess explained and ran a hoof through her mane. “Not since his mother died. There was that time, well before the Gala, when I told him about Shining’s proposal. If that even counts as a conversation.”

Cadance sighed despondently at the magnitude of the task before her: making up with her adopted brother had seemed so easy in her head. She had been so confident in assuring Alpha Brass that she could do it. Now, finally face to face with him again, all she could conjure up was the memory of how he had declined to even attend her wedding. It seemed insurmountable, even in the face of the crisis in the waking world.

“I didn’t attend the Gala,” she told Sweetie. “Chrysalis had already…”

“Replaced you?” Sweetie asked. “I know. She was staying with the Sparkle family.”

“You knew even that?” She paused. “Well, I suppose Blueblood would, so you would, too. No offense, Sweetie, but I’m not really convinced you’re real…”

“So you think I’m a figment of his imagination?” Sweetie asked, sounding a little amused. “Somepony he created to escape being alone again? I guess that’s flattering.”

“He once told me he never wanted a sister,” Cadance whispered, joining Sweetie in watching Blueblood and Luna. “It makes no sense for him to invent one. I don’t think he’s…” ‘Lost his mind,’ she wanted to say, but didn’t. “Aunt Luna will know what to do. I guess… I just don’t…”

“Don’t?” Sweetie prompted. “Don’t what?”

“Don’t know why, if you are somepony he imagined, why you aren’t me,” Cadance’s voice dropped and Sweetie almost couldn’t hear her. “He has a sister. He had a sister. We were family once.”

“He did talk about you,” Sweetie tried to reassure the Princess of Love that she was anything but unloved. “He said you had a beautiful singing voice and that… you were nice.”

“That’s it?” Cadance asked, and Sweetie could see the conflict on the older mare’s face over how much she struggled to believe and how much she wanted to share. “Did he ever… visit me?”

“No,” Sweetie answered, truthfully. “I don’t think so, anyway.”

A flash of anger passed over the Princess’s expression, her brows creasing just a fraction. Sweetie could sympathize. Blueblood could be a very frustrating pony, even by stallion standards. Cadance tapped her front hooves together as she mulled over something.

“I - I was in the cell next to him,” she finally blurted out, careful to keep her voice down enough that only Sweetie could really hear her. “I could feel his heart weakening. Fraying. Chrysalis made sure I could. I know he… we… we’ve had our problems. I want us to… the whole point of this was to work things out, but… will he even listen to me? I wouldn't blame him if he hates me… especially when I tell him I asked for his abduction to be arranged just so I could escape.”

“You what?!” Sweetie whispered harshly, very nearly knocking over her milkshake as she leaned forward over the table. “How… how could you?!” She glanced at Cadance and then at her oblivious step-brother. “I don’t even--”

“It isn’t as if I wanted him hurt!” Cadance snapped, fighting to keep her voice low. She wiped her face with a hoof and took a deep breath to focus herself. “I didn’t want him to go through any of this. Chrysalis was supposed to just put him in the cell and taunt him. I expected she’d try and seduce him in my body or do something similarly depraved. Something to humiliate me. To rub in my face how powerless I am. She’s been torturing me for months, but she never used drugs or dream magic before. I - I made a mistake…”

“And!” she quickly added, gesturing off in the distance, somewhere beyond Sugarcube Corner. “Having Blueblood as an ace… bringing him here… stopping Chrysalis took precedence, didn’t it? I thought so. I thought… it was worth the risk.” She hung her head. “A Princess is the country. Nothing else comes first. That’s… what I was told…”

Sweetie shook her head. She could guess where Cadance had heard that phrase.

“You Bluebloods and your stupid, stupid traditions!” she muttered, but made sure it was loud enough for Cadance to hear. Sweetie visibly shook as she bit back words that would only make things worse. “If you do care for him… if you really want to be a family again… you will apologize, and I hate to say it but he’ll most likely forgive you…”

“You really think so?” Cadance wondered, a little hopeful, a little afraid to take the risk. The way she kept looking down, the worry in her voice… it was becoming very clear that she had never really hurt anypony before, not on anything approaching this scale.

‘She thinks he’ll see her as a monster,’ Sweetie realized. ‘She’s worried that after what she’s done, she really is a monster. And… what nopony knows is… I knew about Chrysalis, too. How would I feel about telling Blueblood about that, after all this?’

Sweetie felt her hooves shake at the thought.

‘Maybe we have more in common than I imagined?’

“He’ll forgive you,” Sweetie assured her – her sister of sorts. And, maybe, if he could forgive Cadance, he could forgive her, too. “I know he will.”

Cadance blinked, owlishly. She even smiled, to Sweetie’s surprise.

“That feeling,” she said, lowering her eyes to get a good, level look at the filly before her. “I can feel it… you love him. I knew he loved you, but you love him back.”

Sweetie nodded, slowly. What even needed saying?

“I suppose that’s proof enough for me that you’re real,” the young Princess decided and stole a quick look at her step-brother. “If what you said before was just as true, then maybe you changed him as much as these time-loops did. To love someone, and to be loved, is to build a bond that transcends reason or explanation…”

“He’s trying hard to earn your love and everypony else’s he cares about,” Sweetie pointed out. “It’s about time he gets it.”

“Sweetie,” Blueblood called to the filly as he and Princess Luna approached. He inclined his head to his other sister. “Cadenza.”

Cadance politely inclined her head in reply, but Sweetie jumped out of her seat – and maybe a little because she could – stole a quick, possessive hug from her big brother and best friend forever. She didn’t miss Cadance looking on with a wary expression, either.

Allow us to explain... what has transpired in brief,” Luna began, and Sweetie gave the Princess her full attention. A bit of magic and the dark alicorn conjured up an illusion to display a stern-faced unicorn mare with faintly glowing green eyes. Next to her was a dark, glass candle.

“My nephew was poisoned and brought to an unknown location that may, we suspect, be somewhere in the mountain range that is Canterlot’s foundation. It may even be directly under the city itself. His captors have ensorcelled and made use of this pony.” She gestured to the image of the mare. “Her name is Night Shade. The candle to her left is… well…”

Luna rubbed one leg against the other, an unusually shy gesture from the somewhat frightening Princess of the Night.

“The candle is mine,” she explained. “Luna’s Shadow Candle, it is called in this era. It was one of a pair I brought with me from the Old Kingdoms. Among other things, the ever-burning fires produce a magical fragrance. As you may know, when a pony sleeps, all of his or her senses are dulled.”

Luna threw up another illusion, this one of a sleeping pony. The stallion’s skull turned transparent, revealing the brain.

“Sight, sound, touch… these signals are stopped by the inner humor… the thamus it is called now.” A small part of the pony’s brain, buried deep, flashed red as little dots transmitted from the mouth and leg and ears. “Smell, however, is the gateway to the sleeping brain. With the proper magic, it is also the gateway into the sleeping world or the dream-time.” A series of dots propagated from the nose right to the brain itself. “That is where we are now.”

She drew down the illusionary candle until it floated in her upraised hoof.

“The candle adds substance and permanence to the sleeping world. It also allows a skilled pony to actively manipulate the dreams of another… to program it. Is that the right term? Program?”

Sweetie’s eyes lit up. “Oh, I see! So the smell from the candle triggers the dream effect, and Night Shade tried to use the thing that scared Blueblood the most against him, in this case being trapped in the loops again and having everypony he loves hate him!”

“I wouldn’t call it ‘scared’… exactly,” the proud Prince of Canterlot muttered.

“Terrified beyond belief?” Sweetie suggested instead.

“Disconcerted,” Blueblood insisted.

“If you’re here, now, then that means something changed,” Sweetie reasoned.

“Very astute,” Luna replied, nodding at the insightful filly. “Before we were partnered with the moon, we were the patron of dreams. It…” She almost said more, but shook her head, her starry mane swirling majestically behind her. “That is of no matter at the moment. What matters is putting an end to the nightmare here.”

“We were eventually able to sense my nephew’s distress and quickly realized that our vision was being obfuscated by our old candle. We could not penetrate the veil enshrouding our nephew’s nightmare, so we took certain measures… this is where you come in, Sweetie Belle. You were drawn into the nightmare, as the one pony our nephew most wished to have by his side. I had… honestly expected his subconscious would call to and summon our sister, Celestia, but given the details of these time loops… I can see why it was you. He also explained to me that you were similarly seeking him via alternative means. To provide a more modern analogy, it is as if your spell created the radio signal and mine provided the receiver and antenna.”

Sweetie nodded, seeing, for the first time, the broader picture at work. The different dimensions she had jumped through were not all set to the same time frame. Some were in what she considered the future, some in the relative past. It was no coincidence she had ended up here just when she did. Her efforts to reunite with the pony she had wanted to see again had coincided with Luna using magic to draw out a champion for Blueblood to help him with his nightmare.

“You brought hope back to my nephew’s heart and disrupted Night Shade’s control over the nightmare,” Luna continued, smirking. “We owe you our thanks, for that, and for giving us the opportunity we needed to strike. Night Shade is only a minor threat in the physical realm. Subduing her should be easy, but the greater part of her power and her menace will still be hiding somewhere inside the nightmare she crafted for you, nephew. She must be overcome.”

“So there’s a pony out there somewhere, waiting to do… what?” Blueblood asked. “Kill us?”

“Killing us seems likely,” Luna agreed, all too easily, and she used a wing to point to Cadance and then herself. She smiled. “We have not had a dream duel since our banishment. We hope we are not ‘rusty.’”

“But, usually if Blueblood or I die, we start the dream again,” Sweetie reasoned. “Why would it be different now for you two?”

“These loops are unusual, as you describe them. You and little Sweetie here may be immortal within this nightmare realm. You have looped, so you will continue to loop,” Luna speculated. “But we who have not looped…”

“Can die for real,” Blueblood guessed. “Lovely. Auntie, Cadenza,” he said, staring at the two who had come to rescue him. “Your being here is a risk.”

Cadance nodded but showed no sign of backing down. “It always was.”

“Our purpose here is unchanged, no matter the danger,” Luna continued, unperturbed. “I cannot rouse you myself, nephew. Your physical body must awaken on its own and overcome the magic keeping it here. If the candle were extinguished, that may occur naturally in four or five hours…”

“We do not have hours,” Cadance said. “We have minutes of real-time. At most.”

“Then you must break yourself out,” Luna concluded, pointing at Blueblood. “Cadance believes she can assist you in this. That, brother and sister, you will empower one another with common purpose and mutual affection.”

“Blueblood,” Cadance started to say. Whatever else she had meant to share, though, became buried by a long, awkward silence. “We should… talk.”

“One of the more bone chilling phrases a mare can utter to a stallion,” Blueblood noted, drolly, slowly coming around to the task ahead. “We’re going to air some dirty laundry, aren’t we?”

Cadance just nodded.

“Lovely.”

o.0.o

“Hello. It is a pleasure to make your acquaintance. Welcome to our home.”

Those were the first words spoken by the pony that became her step-brother: that it was a pleasure to make her acquaintance. The fifty-second Blueblood was close to her age, just a little older really, with a compass rose cutie mark that he had gotten just the day before her arrival. He was big for a colt, tall and barrel-chested, just like his father was big for a stallion. Where the elder Blueblood wore a serious-looking overcoat, the son was dressed in a little tuxedo with a blue waistcloth. His blond mane had been styled into a very soft wave and curl, and it partly obscured his right eye. Cadance felt a nudge and held out her hoof.

“Princess Mi Amore Cadenza,” she said, and he kissed her hoof gently but quickly. Too quickly, given the frown it earned from the middle-aged mare behind him who could only be his mother.

“Blueblood,” he introduced himself without title. “The fifty-second.”

The reigning Prince gestured his son away, and soon Cadenza’s world was taken up by the Duchess of Canterlot, Vernal Equinox. Lady Equinox was noble-looking but fairly plain mare. She made up for it with great poise and an air of a refinement. Her coat was a soft but clear pink, her mane and eyes both ocean blue. Cadance remembered her smiling warmly and pulling the filly into an embrace.

“My daughter,” she said with a squeeze. “My new daughter! Under our roof, you will want for nothing!”

Lady Equinox had been true to her word.

- - -

“You never spoke much about your mother or father,” Sweetie said, an observer to the nebulous memory, conjured in dream around them. It was a dream within a dream, almost.

In-between memory and nightmare, she stood by Blueblood, Luna, and Cadance. The four observers hovered near a fireplace in the manor house as the filly-Cadance met her new family. They were Celestia’s nephews and nieces, all: Equestria’s royal family, embodying all that was best of its noble unicorn heritage and great thousand year history. From a distance, they looked like a happy, little family, except, as Sweetie had said, Blueblood never seemed to find reason to talk about them. Any of them.

Blueblood grunted but seemed unwilling to explain his reluctance.

“He did once say that it was the duty of the Bluebloods to adopt alicorns,” Sweetie continued and turned this time to Cadance and Princess Luna.

“It is one of their most sacred duties,” Luna answered, taking in the scene before her with a neutral expression. “Celestia and I were likewise taken in by Princess Platinum’s family, a thousand years and more before you were born. Though, in our case, they were also our only living relatives at the time.”

“You met Princess Platinum?!” Sweetie’s eyes went wide. “That’s amazing!”

“We would not be here today if not for her,” Luna replied, but said no more.

“You had wonderful parents, Blueblood,” Cadance said, trying to coax the stallion out of his shell. “Your father was a true noble and gentlestallion, and your mother--”

“Must we prattle on about dead ponies?” Blueblood snapped. “I thought we were here to talk about--”

“Blueblood!” Sweetie whispered, cutting the irate stallion off. “They’re your parents!”

He grimaced and she saw his teeth clench. “Yes, they were.” He pointedly stressed that last word. “As you can see, we did our duty. We accepted the new Princess into our home. She was treated as well as anypony could imagine… the finest food…”

- - -

Another memory flashed by of a young filly Cadance sitting at a long table, her new father and mother seated a good distance away at the head. She was boggling at the vast array of foods and sweets that had been divided into courses and compliments before her. She reached with both hooves for a stuffed biscuit of raisins and roasted herbs, steaming and hot and filling the air with an irresistible fragrance. A faint magical aura stopped her, however.

“The Celestine prayer comes first,” Blueblood whispered from his seat next to her. Then, more loudly, he recited with head bowed, “Blessed as we by the bounty of peace. We thank you, Princess, for the harmony of Equestria and for those we are honored to share it with. We break bread, always with you in our hearts. Agimus tibi gratias, dilectissima Celestia.”

Cadance tried to join the three nobles in muttering the final verse and looked down shyly when it became painfully clear she had no idea what to say or even what the verse meant. Servants began to tend to the family, sitting primly before their plates. The lord and lady of the house spoke softly to one another while they waited. Cadance only looked up when she saw the roasted and stuffed biscuit she had wanted placed on her plate. She glanced to the serving maid and then to Blueblood, who had directed the food to be placed before her.

“You will learn, soon,” he promised and smiled warmly. “Don’t worry. I’ll help.”

- - -

“The finest tutors.”

- - -

Cadance glanced up at the stern governess her new family had hired. Blueblood sat at perfect attention next to her, and the withered old donkey jennet introduced a second pony, a tall and shapely pegasus mare with a flowing mane of seagreen and ocean blue. Next to her was another tutor, a stuffy and bookish-looking unicorn mare with thick, red glasses. They were to be her flight and basic magic instructors. When she was older, they said, she would be ready to enter the school for gifted unicorns.

Last, but certainly not the least, Princess Celestia stood behind the hoof-picked mares. She, too, would be a tutor, to teach the young Princess in what it meant to be an alicorn. As one, all the governesses and tutors bowed deeply to their new charge. Even Blueblood’s old crone of a governess lowered her head in respect. Blueblood, however, did not.

“You are Her Serene Highness,” Celestia announced and beamed at the filly. “Congratulations, my little pony, and welcome to our family.”

“Congratulations!” The other adults chorused as one, their heads still bowed. “Your Serene Highness!”

“Congratulations,” Blueblood said, a second later.

- - -

“You were taken care of like nopony but a royal could imagine,” Blueblood finished.

“I was given everything,” Cadance agreed. “A new home. A new future, a new...”

After the tutors in Blueblood’s memory vanished, they left only Cadance behind. The little filly trotted across the stately salon towards a voluminous painting of the royal family. In it, the great Duke of Canterlot stood proudly alongside his beautiful wife. The younger Blueblood was dressed in a tiny blue guard uniform, sitting next to his father. An empty cradle lay conspicuously off to the side, having been painted over at least twice. As yet, nopony had made plans to include her in the portrait.

Cadance turned away from the memory as the younger her tried to stand in front of the picture, finding a place where she fit in. “A new family.”

- - -

A knocking drew Blueblood across his immaculate, reneighsance-style bedroom. Clearly upset at being disturbed, he used his magic to throw open the great hardwood door. A tiny pink alicorn was standing there, staring at him with wide eyes.

“Not again,” the colt grumbled, but eventually gave in. “Very well. Come on.”

He channeled a hoof-full of magical sparks to pluck a record out of a drawer. It floated, like a flying saucer, through the air and over to a gramophone. A soft orchestral melody began to play, and Cadance quickly scurried up and onto her new brother’s bed. Blueblood followed with markedly less enthusiasm.

“If you kick me, I’ll knock you onto the floor,” he warned, climbing up onto his bed with a bit more grace and the benefit of both a few years and a couple extra inches of reach.

“You never did before,” the little Cadance commented, grabbing one of his pillows. She seemed to need something to cling to before she slept.

“This time I will,” he promised, turning his back to her and magically snuffing out the lights.

- - -

“Daaaaaaw!” Sweetie melted. “See? I told you you were a good brother!” She nudged Blueblood, prompting a roll of his eyes.

Luna nodded, somberly, suspicions already forming in her head as to what happened next. “There must be more, nephew.”

“As I said,” Blueblood replied asked and gestured to Cadance with a tilt of his head. “They treated her wonderfully. Do you know why?”

- - -

“Blueblood, you highland goat!”

“Cruciger, you old dog!”

The two stallions laughed and clasped hooves at the center of the waiting room. Lord Cruciger was a bay-colored stallion, large enough to dwarf the little colts and fillies standing near him. He even dwarfed Lady Equinox when he kissed her hoof in greeting. Cadance had stood next to Blueblood, groomed and dressed to receive important company. Her new brother had watched the whole affair with a bored expression.

The two fathers, Cadance had learned, were old friends, and Cruciger had visited to discuss family matters. From a present-day perspective, that could only mean the matter of the Blueblood succession and the arrangement of a marriage for the young Prince.

“Why don’t you children go upstairs and play?” Lady Equinox suggested, gesturing to a pair of servants.

“Come with me, young Princes,” a stallion majordomo had said, taking Blueblood and a young Alpha Brass away.

“Why don’t we work on a puzzle, girls?” One of the house governesses, a young one, gathered up the four fillies. They retreated upstairs while the adults talked in a study.

Cruciger had come to Canterlot with his wife and three daughters: Polished Jewel, Chalice, and Antimony. It was the first time Cadance had met any of them, and while she and Chalice worked dutifully on a large picture puzzle with the governess, Polished Jewel – being older and more easily bored – anxiously milled around. The youngest daughter, Antimony, still without her cutie mark, watched with half-lidded eyes as Chalice and Cadance assembled the puzzle. The younger filly’s eyes seemed to be red, like a pegasus pony’s, or an albino’s, but there was something unnerving about them, and whenever Cadance tried to get a closer look the little filly had shied away or covered her eyes with her hooves.

Eventually, Polished Jewel grew too bored to be content watching her sisters. She snuck off, much to the distress of the governess. Cadance had remained in the room with Antimony and Chalice, finishing off the puzzle and trying to entertain her guests. She had even gathered them around her for a little tea party, just like Vernal Equinox and the adult noblemares always had. Chalice had started out shy but she seemed very nice and even eager to play along. Antimony had mostly kept quiet and watched her sister. Finally, after how long, Cadance couldn’t say, Polished Jewel returned with their visibly shaken Governess.

The oldest daughter had then announced, “Father and Lord Blueblood are to duel.”

Three days later, on a cold, drizzly morning, Lady Equinox had returned with her shocked-silent son but not her husband. It was a full day before Cadance learned that her adopted father, the only father she had ever known, was dead.

- - -

“Oh…” Sweetie looked down. “I’m sorry.”

Princess Luna nodded her head in understanding, and her sympathy was sincere though less obviously articulated. “We have heard of this sad dispute… a duel of honor taken too far.”

“It wasn’t my fault,” Cadance said, though it was something they all understood. Mi Amore Cadenza becoming a Princess of the realm must have thrown into question the previously established arrangement between the estranged Terre Rare and their distant Blueblood cousins. What might have been a request to push back the engagement a generation turned, tragically, into a duel. But nopony could blame the Princess herself for this, surely.

Blueblood took his time in responding, and when he did, it was with a shrug.

“Nephew,” Luna said. “You must know…”

“‘Don’t blame her.’ Don’t you think I’ve told myself that?” he asked, and by the pained look on his face, he clearly wished he could say the opposite. He shook his head in dismay. “Can you really tell a pony how to feel? I’ve told myself a thousand times not to blame you. I didn’t really even figure it all out until the funeral… when mother told me. But how could I not think: if only she hadn’t come to us, maybe none of it would have happened?”

Blueblood let out a shuddering breath and turned away from the three mares. “It doesn’t matter. I want to put all that behind me.”

“Yet you cannot,” Luna stated, bluntly.

“Isn’t wanting to enough?” he turned and yelled, causing Cadance and Sweetie to flinch. Luna merely stared hard at him, and an instant later, he regretted the loss of control. “Auntie, Sweetie… Cadenza… isn’t it enough that I want to just move on? What happened in the past doesn’t matter. It shouldn’t matter anymore.”

Cadance lowered her eyes, but Sweetie reached out to touch his leg.

“You can’t just say ‘I want to forget it’ and trust in it to go away,” she said, trying to be encouraging. “You need to let it go if you want to leave it behind for real… you really, really have to forgive her.” Sweetie looked at his eyes, her own a bit watery. He had never spoken much about his foalhood, even in all their loops together, and now Sweetie started to understand why. “If you could stop being Bullyblood… I know you can do this too!”

Blueblood looked down at her, only to glance away, his brows knitted together. “It isn’t as if I don’t want to…”

Wanting it is not enough, nephew,” Princess Luna insisted. “Nor is this the only issue before us.”

- - -

It was snowing heavily when Cadance saw her step-brother leave Canterlot. Domed umbrellas floated overhead, shielding her from most of the downfall, but a layer of fluffy white had already accumulated all around the skyport. It trickled from where it lay on top of mooring lines every time the royal airship swayed in the wind. It was beautiful, but so cold. Winters of this severity, whether approved by the Pegasus Weather Bureau or not, were still alien to the young Princess from Bitaly.

Duchess Equinox held Cadance close as Blueblood saw his luggage moved onboard for his trip.

“You shouldn’t have to go,” she objected, and turned to her stepmother. “He shouldn’t have to go. I don’t want him to go!”

“A Princess is the country. Nothing else comes first,” Vernal Equinox told her. “That is as true of Princes as it is of Princesses.”

“But I don’t want him to go,” Cadance insisted and stomped her little hooves. “You said I could have whatever I want, and I don’t want him to go!”

Blueblood stood, facing the airship, his back to his mother and step-sister.

“I don’t want him to go!” Cadance repeated, her voice rising in pitch as she started to whine, and Duchess Equinox frowned helplessly at her new daughter’s behavior. “I don’t--”

“Stop crying.”

It was Blueblood’s voice, a colt’s voice and not a stallion’s, but it was as cold as the snow-covered docks around them.

“I want to go,” he said, still facing the ship and not his family. “I want to go, so stop crying.”

Cadance shook her head. “No you don’t!”

Blueblood seemed to glance upward at the falling snow and the cloudy sky. He was Duke of Canterlot now, technically, but his mother would continue to rule in his name while he was away. The city of lights and magic could be seen past the airship between the envelope of the balloon and the wooden bow of the ship itself. It was just around the bend of the mountain, and like the skyport, it sparkled underneath a layer of snow. There were fillies and colts playing in courtyards, building snowponies and defending snowforts, back in Canterlot.

“Goodbye, mother,” Blueblood finally said over his shoulder, his face still out of sight. His voice was tight and forced. “I will see you in four years.”

“Four years,” Vernal Equinox agreed. She said nothing more to her only son.

Still not looking back, Blueblood ran up the plank of the ship.

“Write us!” Cadance cried to him. “I’ll write you! Write me back!”

“Sssh.” Legs draped over Cadance’s shoulders and pulled her into a hug. Lady Equinox hummed a soft tune, and the two ponies remained in the snow until the airship finally left for Crown Roc, taking Blueblood with it. Cadance felt a kiss on the crown of her head, and heard her new mother whisper, “Just us now, my little pony. My little daughter. My daughter.”

- - -

“My Prince, are you--”

“Keep out of my way,” Blueblood hissed, pushing past the royal guard and into his cabin. The tears had frozen to his face; it hurt to try and rub them away with his hooves. Four years. Four years, he would be gone.

Maybe it was for the best.

- - -

“I said my mother told me about how your arrival caused the duel,” Blueblood growled, but fixed his eyes down at his hooves and not at any of the ponies sharing in that painful memory. “I thought she’d blame you, like I did, Cadenza. But she blamed me… for not being a daughter like the family needed.” He finally looked up and pointed at his step-sister. “Do you know why she treated you so well? Because you were the daughter she wished me to be.”

“How,” he asked, shaking his head in defeat and dismay, “how could I go back to being your brother after that?”

- - -

“Why isn’t he writing?” Cadance asked, holding up another letter for her mother to proofread and send to Crown Roc. “He’s using enough… um… postage, right? Maybe he’s forgetting? Should I remind him? I could write it on the back of this letter!”

Vernal Equinox smiled comfortingly at her adopted daughter, placing a hoof on the filly’s head.

“I am sure he’ll write when he gets the chance to,” she assured the little Princess.

- - -

“Three years, and you never wrote me,” Cadance said, her delicate features pulled tight into a frown. “Did you even get my letters?”

“I did,” Blueblood replied, stonily.

“Did you read them?” she accused. “You didn’t, did you?”

It was a long, heavy couple heartbeats before the Prince answered the question. “…No. I didn’t.”

“Why didn’t you write back?” Sweetie asked. “I’m sure you missed them… if I could write to Rarity… or you… I’d want to hear back!” She shook her head. “Blueblood… I don’t think it’s Cadance that you have to forgive… It’s your parents.”

“Your mother loved you,” Cadance said, trying to be supportive. It had the opposite effect, and Blueblood bowled right past Sweetie to glare into his step-sister’s eyes. She was an alicorn, but Blueblood was a large pony, even by stallion standards. He still had enough height to manage to look down on her.

“My mother replaced me the first chance she got,” he hissed and shook his head at Sweetie. “And my father, my stupid, noble, ‘heroic’ father… threw his life away in a pointless honor duel. You’d think my parents were dysfunctional? But our entire line is just one long legacy of buck-ups and betrayals!”

He pointed at Luna, who had been watching and listening with a straight face. “Sisters turn on sisters. Daughters turn on fathers. Sons depose mothers! Mothers manipulate their foals! Fathers march off and die! From that very first generation right up to the present! We persist, Princes and Princesses, and for what? For what?” He whirled on Cadance. “What? What justified us taking you from your real family? Do you even remember what your mother looked like? Your real one?”

Then he turned to Sweetie, heedless of the hurt look on Cadance’s face. “You remember Blue Belle? That - that is the true face of what we are!”

“For what?” he repeated and finally returned to Luna. “You’ll forgive me for holding a few grudges, Auntie. At least I didn’t turn on my own kin. Twice.”

Princess Luna’s wings flared and, without so much as a word of warning, her head surged forward to connect with Blueblood’s own. She turned slightly, so the impact didn’t involve either pony’s horn, but the sound of two thick royal skulls colliding proved wince-worthy. Blueblood yelped and fell to the side with the impact, hooves flying reflexively up to his face. Cadance gasped, a hoof covering her mouth, but only Sweetie really ran over to make sure he was alright.

“Blasted, bloody--!” his cursing, at least, indicated there was no brain damage. “That hurt!”

“Nephew, you know little of which you speak,” Princess Luna announced. Her voice seemed to be both soft with concern and bellowing with anger. The dark alicorn reached down and bodily picked the stallion up by his formerly immaculate suit collar. A bruise had formed over the dark Princess’s eye, but she hadn’t seemed to feel or notice the impact.

“We have never claimed to be perfect nor even the best role model,” she reminded him, pulling the Prince closer to her angry countenance. “We have the weight of many wrongs on our conscience, and we have regrets to spare! We have things left unsaid, worries, fears, insecurities… We let those things rule us once. It will never happen again. You, too, nephew…” She saw him start to stubbornly turn away and yanked him closer. “You are our kin, with all the potential for greatness… and all the potential for abuse. You know what we want of you. You know what is expected of you.”

“To endure,” he replied and slumped in her physical and magical grip.

“And press ever forward,” Luna insisted, releasing him to fall to all fours. “Nephew,” she began again, and there was a note of pleading to her voice. “Please. You are among ponies you can trust. Ponies who love you. Speak honestly… truly… openly… and endure. You are not and never will be alone.”

“Please,” Cadance spoke up, and for the first time, she tentatively touched his side. “I have things I need to say, too. Just please, I know you want to try, but you also have to believe you can succeed. If we cannot be at peace with one another here… I fear we won’t ever be.”

“Think about how you kept me sane and helped me escape the loops,” Sweetie said softly, leaning against his foreleg. “Without your belief in me, I would have been lost a long time ago. You had the strength to help me… to make the perfect Gala… to win my sister… and to let me call you brother… and you know I’ll always, always be your little sister and be here for you.”

“Sweetie,” she heard him say as he held her to his leg. He lowered his eyes and sucked in a ragged, distasteful breath. “Auntie… alright…”

Behind him, the image of the Blueblood monument from the center of the palace garden maze appeared. A young colt, perfect white coat and groomed golden mane, trotted slowly up to the edifice. It was dusk, and he was the only pony around.

“A sister,” the young colt lamented. “A Princess…”

At last, he came to the monument itself. It took only moments for him to read the names. There were fifty deceased Bluebloods recorded, one after the other in a neat line. At the very bottom, Blueblood saw his father’s name, then his, and then his replacement. A tiny hoof brushed against his own name, and with hardly a whimper of protest or a cry of surprise, a compass rose began to materialize over his flanks.

“My place in the world was made crystal clear that night,” the adult Prince said, head still hung low. He didn’t need to see to know what memories his mind had dredged up. “It was made clear when we adopted you, Cadenza… and when I left for Crown Roc. I was always meant to be just a name. I… I can’t even say I hated it. I was resigned to it. I accepted it. It made sense. It made sense like you count from one, to two, to three. There’s nothing wrong with just being the ‘two’ is there? I was a stepping stone, and… and I accepted that.”

The monument and the little colt vanished back into dreams.

“It all seems so pointless looking back,” he said, angry and confused and hurt. “Brother or sister, husband or wife… my parents and that stupid obelisk…”

He looked up at Cadance and steadied himself to say what he needed to. “I looked at you, and I never forgot how my mother held onto you and let me go. How she loved you, even on her deathbed. And how I…” He choked back his anger, but he couldn’t suppress his tears as they rolled down his cheeks. “How I… resented her for it. How, when she died, I felt… empty.”

The three mares listened as he mixed laughter into his crying.

“I paid for her funeral, and I gave her eulogy, and I felt like I was talking about a stranger,” he admitted, and it was more painful than any physical torture the loops had inflicted on him. He stared at Cadance, not just angry or hurt, but terribly, deeply conflicted. “I think… I think I wanted to take your place. I wanted to be somepony else.”

“You became somepony else,” Sweetie said softly, giving his leg a little shake for emphasis. “And you did it yourself. I saw it with my own eyes.”

“We would be most put-out if our nephew ceased to be the pony we know,” Luna added, beaming with a rare smile. It was only slightly marred by the welt over her left eye where she had viciously headbutted that same nephew. Jealousy, after all, was a sin she understood all too well.

“I never meant to--” Cadance began.

“I know,” Blueblood interrupted before she could explain. “I always knew it here,” he said, pointing to his head. “But never really here.” He pointed to his heart.

The thoughts, spoken aloud, conjured up a memory then, of the Prince and his oldest Aunt, the Princess of the Sun. He and Celestia sat in silence after he had made that first, impassioned plea for her to help explain his Gala time-loops.

- - -

"Nephew," Celesia finally said, placing a compassionate hoof on his shoulder. "You are free to search the Royal Libraries for an answer, but I think the problem isn't with magic. The problem…" she tapped his chest. "Is in here."

"Or maybe here," she added, gently rapping her hoof against his forehead. "Perhaps you should see a specialist?"

"Auntie!" the memory of the Prince protested, even as the dream turned to wisps around them.

- - -

“In here, huh?” he asked, still pointing to his chest. He took a deep breath and turned to Cadance.

“I’m sorry,” he finally said. “I am sorry, Cadenza.”

The youngest Princess in the realm remained tall as nodded in acceptance. “You said terrible things to me,” she reminded him. “Worse than that… the brother who made my new life bearable turned his back on me. Even when he came back, he was still gone.”

- - -

Cadance wept when they laid her second mother to rest. Equinox was beside her husband again, seen off by her friends, family, and a throng of well-wishers. The Grand Duchess of Equestria and Canterlot. A chorus of colts and fillies sang, their dulcet tones juxtaposed with the sea of black that everypony wore. It was a great state funeral and even the Princess herself had made an appearance, her golden regalia draped with onyx cloth. Even her aurora mane seemed to have subdued colors. The sky itself was dark, with only a faint light shining through.

Gradually, as the service came to an end and the earth ponies began to fill in the grave, a long line of ponies appeared before her and before her brother. All offered their condolences. A few quietly affirmed their loyalties. Blueblood had sat next to her, as the family heir, as the true Duke in both name and power. He remained by the headstone, thanking visitors, accepting commiserations, all into the night. Even when Cadance felt the last of her tears for the day begin to dry.

Until, finally, there were only the two of them left.

“Blueblood,” she finally said, knowing that she was the last. Knowing that all they had now were each other.

What he said next hit her like a kick to the stomach.

“I have nothing to say to you.”

- - -

Blueblood grimaced.

“Before you say anything else,” Cadance quickly interrupted as he opened his mouth to speak. “I… I always knew how you felt about your parents,” she admitted, and this time she turned her eyes down to the floor. “When your mother held me… and whispered to me and…”

She shook her head and sniffed before building up the resolve to continue.

“It was like I had a new mother. One that loved me.” She glanced up and there was a glisten of tears in her eyes. “I - I honestly don’t know if I wanted to share it. I’m supposed to spread love, and I could have… but I didn’t where it would… where it might have… if she loved you more than me, what family would I have? I…”

“I think I understand,” Blueblood said and held out his hoof. “I’m willing to forgive all if you are similarly amenable. Well, everything except you marrying that obdurate buffon of a royal guard--”

Cadance frowned through her tears and glared at his hoof.

“You’d best get used to your new brother-in-law,” she stated.

“He’d best get used to me, you mean,” Blueblood corrected her.

“It’s my fault you were captured by the changelings, too,” Cadance admitted, all too quickly. It was as if a little unburdening had unleashed a deluge. “It was part of my plan to escape and attack them from inside.”

“Really?” he asked, and stroked his chin. “From what I’ve heard, that’s not a bad plan!”

Cadance boggled at him and at the apparent lack of concern. “You – You’re not mad?”

Blueblood’s confident mask of a grin faded slightly, but he shook his head. “I am quite angry, and I would be lying if I said I held you blameless. But I meant it when I told you I want us to forgive all. Anger comes and goes, doesn’t it?”

The two royal siblings inched closer, hesitant, unsure, shy even. Cadance finally took a long stride forward and wrapped her forelegs around her one-time step-brother. The hug was a little awkward at first, but then the Princess and finally the Prince relaxed and laughed a little. Cadance tightened her embrace and Blueblood lifted one leg up to tentatively return the gesture.

“NEPHEW!”

Everypony turned to the only source of such a magically enhanced bellow, but Princess Luna merely stared back, her mouth closed. Those same eyes then turned skyward as the Sugarcube Corner cafe shook in its foundations. The ceiling trembled and bolts exploded from out of wooden supports before, with a creaking, groaning snapping of wood and plaster, the roof peeled away and off the lower floor, like the top of a can being removed.

A rush of heat and light blasted down into the store as the roof came free and flew through the air. At the center of the tumult was the source of the bellow from before. A white-gold figure hovered in midair, radiating magic and waves of flame. The heat alone was oppressive, melting wax candles on Sweetie’s birthday cakes and sending rivulets of dribbling marzipan off tables and onto the floor.

“Do not fear our sister,” Princess Luna declared, reaching a hoof up to her horn. “She is only as powerful here as you imagine her to be, nephew!”

“The problem being that I imagine her to be absurdly powerful!” Blueblood yelled, having swiftly hidden behind his alicorn sister. “Ugh! And to top it off, cake is flying everywhere!”

“She’s so bright! I can barely see her! I’ve never seen such a powerful Luminescence spell!” Cadance yelled, shielding her eyes from the inferno in the sky. She did, however, find the time to turn to glare at her would-be brother. “And why are you hiding behind me?”

“You’re big, and you have wings!” Blueblood explained, extending one of her wings with his hoof for emphasis. “I’m safe from the cake behind you.”

“He does that,” Sweetie told the alicorn.

“Well, he’ll learn to stop it!” Cadance bodily wrestled with her brother, “I’m the Princess! You’re supposed to be my shield!”

“Never!”

Nephew! Traitor! Enemies!” Celestia roared from on high. “Seize him, my little ponies! Seize them all!”

“Battle calls! Night Shade reveals herself!” Luna instantly took to the air, surging towards her dream-sister. A single beat from her wings sent everypony present flying and tumbling off their hooves. “HAVE AT THEE, IMPOSTER!”

“Auntie!” Blueblood yelled, reaching for her even as she took off, barreling into her evil sister like a bat out of Hell. The pair of alicorns grappled and tumbled away from the peeled-back roof of Sugarcube Corner, and the threat appeared to pass--

Except for the suddenly dark look in the eyes of everypony else at the party.

“Monsters!” Diamond Tiara screamed, and threw both plate and slice of cake at the three remaining ponies. Blueblood defly snagged Sweetie, ever alert for incoming pastry attacks, and ultimately used his magic to snag a table as a shield. At least inanimate objects didn’t object when you hid behind them.

“You heard the Princess!” another pony yelled.

“Traitors?” a hysterical sounding mare cried before fainting. “Ohhh!”

“Get ‘em!” yet another pony said, surging forward while others found yet more cake to hurl.

“S-stay away!” Cadance warned, holding up her hooves as one stallion made a grab for her. Blueblood snagged the offender when he made another lunge for the Princess, this time using him to absorb a barrage of cake slices.

“This may be where we make our exit!” Blueblood yelled. He threw the sticky and twitching cake-shield away without a care, much to Cadance’s disgust and chagrin. “How… exactly… do we make our exit again?”

Cadance muttered a reply as she ducked another slice of pie.

“What was that now?”

“I’m not entirely sure!” the Princess cried, smiling weakly. “I’m sort of winging it here!”

“Oh, wonderful. She’s winging it.”

“Well, if she can ‘wing’ it and we really control what’s happening here to an extent, then maybe I can dream I’m a lot more powerful than I really am!” Sweetie grinned, jumping from Blueblood’s back and releasing her glamour spell.

The advancing ponies stopped in their tracks at the sight of her, and she couldn’t help but wince slightly at their reaction, before remembering that it was really only one pony that controlled them all. Leaning down, she whispered quickly to the ground under her and for a moment the whole area was eerily calm… before the ground parted, separating them from the advancing ponies.

It was an impressive magical feat, but Cadance’s eyes were not on the tear in the earth, but on the filly that had caused it. She pointed at Sweetie and backed away frightfully.

“W-what…?” she gasped. “You aren’t a…? A pony? What are you?!”

Blueblood noticed Sweetie glance back over her shoulder at the Princess and sighed.

“My poor little sister… puberty hit her like a ton of rocks, you see,” he explained, earning a glare from both mares. “That is, what I meant to say,” he amended himself, waving a hoof to placate the female ire, “is that she’s had to walk down a rocky road… er, she took her time as a filly for granite? Metamorphically speaking, she’s been under a lot of pressure, you know… and she hit rock bottom before she came here, so I told her schist happens and fortune favors the boulder…”

“Blueblood,” Sweetie hissed. “Please. Stop.”

“So many puns,” Cadance gagged. “So many bad puns!”

“Point is, she’s still my Sweetie Belle,” he concluded, “Frankly, I think it would be strange for my sisters not to be odd. One being an alicorn and the other being…” his grin widened teasingly “…other.”

Sweetie could not hold her glare for long and finally giggled, recasting her glamour spell. Soon her coat was white and pristine, her mane wavy, and her horn looking exactly as the local Sweetie’s did. “There, big sis, is that better?”

“Y-yes,” Cadance replied after a moment of the new appearance sinking in, “but… I still don’t really understand…” Another thrown cake prompted her to turn her attention back to the angry crowd now separated from them by a rift in the floor.

“I still can’t believe that I was able to do that,” Sweetie said, dodging a slice of banana pudding. “Do you think it’ll buy us some time?”

“Oh! Wow! You can buy time?!” a voice asked, and Sweetie yelped in surprise, launching straight up into the air.

“I gotcha now!” Pinkie Pie announced, giggling and jumping forward with net-in-hoof. Said net, more suited to catching butterflies than escaping ponies, ended up snagged around Blueblood’s nose and ears.

“The Princess will reward me for catching you!” Pinkie announced with a lopsided grin. “I’ll ask for my own holiday! Pinkie Day! It’ll be the best, super-funnest--”

It was around that moment when Sweetie landed soundly on the pink one’s head, sending her sprawling with an audible ‘bonk.’

“Don’t let them escape!” a pony yelled from the other side of the fissure Sweetie had carved straight down the middle of Sugarcube Corner. They began to throw more pastries from the counters nearby and the conveniently located array of birthday cakes that had been ordered for Sweetie’s multiple birthdays. Though nopony wanted to get smeared, the real threat came from the pegasus ponies who took to the air, easily able to fly over the gap, and the hoof-full of unicorns who began to power up their magic.

A dark look passed over Blueblood’s face as he turned towards them. “As if a gaggle of common ponies could…”

A slice of lemon meringue cut the Prince off, splattering against his left eye.

“I’ll destroy you down to the last magical atom,” he announced, deadpan, only to yell right across the room in the full power of the Royal Canterlot Voice. “I despise flying cake!!

The sheer volume of the magical bellow sent ponies staggering and clutching their ears.

Sweetie had to sit down. “Blueblood,” she stage-whispered, “you have got to teach me that spell. I will never have to get out of bed again for food.” Her horn lit up and the legs of the table holding the pastries were ripped away from it, covering the nearest unfortunate ponies with several pounds of cake.

“Haha!” Blueblood cheered her on. “Yes! How do you plebeians like the taste of cake, mm?”

“Fighting them does no good!” Cadance yelled, her own ears still flat against her head. “All that matters is syncing up our power and… and working out however we get out!”

Blueblood shook the head and spun around, following his step-sister as she bolted for the door. Almost comically, Pinkie Pie seemed to still be holding onto him, this time wearing a hoof-ball pads and jersey with the ‘number’ 00 on it. He tried to shake her off, but she was basically latched on like an octopus. A crazy, giggling octopus. “And how do we do that?”

“Positive thoughts!” Cadance replied as she threw open the door to the store. “I’m sure of it! Positive thoughts and feelings of love will--”

Before them, a hundred ponies lined the streets of Ponyville. Every single one had a glower on their face and narrowed eyes firmly set on Princess Mi Amore Cadenza, Prince Blueblood the fifty-second, and one time and dimension displaced Sweetie Belle. A rather muscular stallion even brandished a pitch fork. They blocked the road through and out of town with sheer mass, and the skies buzzed with angry pegasi, flittering about like enraged bees. Altogether, the entire populace of the town seemed to be forming a living shell around the three objects of their ire.

“I’m not really thinking positive thoughts right now.” Blueblood was the first to speak. He reached a hoof up to his face to wipe away the cake, leaving a streak of lemon filling from his cheek to his forehead. “So maybe I’ll just…”

Without warning, he touched his hoof to Cadance’s side, and tagged Sweetie with his tail.

At the same time his horn glowed, in preparation to teleport--

Only to have the spell fizzle.

“It… it didn’t work?” he mumbled, dumbstruck. “My magic…”

“What didn’t work?” Cadance asked, confused and glancing down at his hoof, still touching her just behind the tip of her folded wing.

“You could always fight your way out!” Pinkie suggested, still holding tight to her prize even as Blueblood tried to free her with a kick of his leg. Clearly the promise of getting her own national holiday had magnified her already super-equine tenacity.

The suggestion, timely as it was, came only moments before the crack of a unicorn teleport spell split the air. A second later, and four lavender hooves landed on the street. As one, the entire crowd of angry Ponyvillains took a collective step backwards. The lavender hooves were followed by cyan, tawny gold, alabaster white, and finally butter yellow.

“Hiya, girls!” Pinkie cheerfully waved a hoof, still clutching onto Blueblood’s backside. “Don’t worry! I got this one! He’s all mine!”

“Twilight?” Cadance gasped, but narrowed her eyes at the hate-filled expression on the unicorn’s face. Celestia’s prize student, like all her friends, had only a glower of a welcome for her former foalsitter.

“You aren’t real,” Cadance repeated to herself, shaking her head and closing her eyes. “Come on, Cadance, get yourself together, now.”

“Alright, girls! You heard the Princess!” Twilight announced, pointing at the three of them. “Since Pinkie’s taken care of Blueblood, focus on Cadance and Sweetie Belle! Time to save Equestria! AGAIN!”

“How is this--” Blueblood drolly gestured to the pink mare trying in vain to tackle his rather substantial mass. “--being taken care of?”

“You just aren’t having enough fun!” Pinkie declared, and suddenly her legs were around his neck and she dragged him down with a shocked gurgle.

“Twilight! Stop this!” Cadance backpedaled, a blast of purple light narrowly missing her only to punch a hole in the side of Sugarcube Corner. “Stop this instant, young lady!” she yelled and squeaked as a rainbow-colored blur shot down and made a grab for her.

“What in the name of Celestia was that?” she gasped and tried to gather magic to protect herself. Sparks danced down the length of her horn and, just like Blueblood’s earlier attempt to teleport, her magic fizzled and failed.

“Oh! … OH! Blast!” Cadance cursed – what passed for a curse anyway – and dove for cover as another purple energy beam shot from Twilight’s horn. It was a simple telekinetic shock spell, basically a magical push amplified.

It also wasn’t strictly real. All of this was part of Blueblood’s nightmare. Just like she had said before: fighting anything in here was pointless! Luna needed to counter that version of Celestia, she supposed, but their focus had to be in breaking out of the dream. Princess Luna wasn’t physically present to wake anypony up, regardless.

“Blueblood! Can’t you…?” Cadance stopped, mid-sentence, upon noticing how the esteemed Prince currently had a pegasus holding him down. A rather timid-looking pegasus at that! The crazy pink mare from before was bouncing happily on his stomach and giggling, all while Blueblood just lay there.

“Oh. My. Celestia. Are you enjoying yourself?!” Cadance roared, already growing exasperated with her step-brother. “You are, aren’t you!”

“Oh, yes, this is truly my dream!” Blueblood yelled right back, even as Pinkie’s next bounce knocked the wind out of him with an ‘oof.’ “Alert the presses! My secret fetish and fantasy is to be double-teamed by an animal lover afraid of her own shadow and a hyperactive mare who smells like molasses and acts like a pixie!”

“You certainly aren’t fighting back!” Cadance’s hoof was not shaking with anger. Well, it was, but it was also trying to shake off a violent, Rainbow colored pegasus. “You’re just lying there!”

“I can’t help it,” he whimpered, pathetically. “Fluttershy… she’s… she’s really strong…”

Cadance’s next response was rudely interrupted by a blast of raw, unstoppable lavender that sent her flying. It would probably have launched a normal pony right into the side of Sugarcube Corner. In fact, it probably would have knocked that same pony right through the wall, into and through the counter by the register, through the pantry, and then out through the back wall to boot. Cadance set her hooves into the ground, flexed her wings, and dispersed the majority of the magic around her with a loud snap.

“Do you mind?” The Princess of Love asked, turning her indignation towards a new target. “We were having a conversation here!”

“Rainbow Dash!” Twilight yelled, pointing a hoof at the Princess. “She’s using earth pony magic! Get her airborne!”

Cadance glanced down at her hooves, momentarily stunned that Twilight had put together what had happened so quickly. She, herself, had mostly just acted on instinct. It had been earth pony magic, but it wasn’t as if she had really put any thought into countering Twilight’s magical blast. Princess Mi Amore Cadenza, as most of her friends knew, had never fought a duel nor felt the need to train herself for any sort of combat. She was the Princess of Love, after all.

Momentarily lost in her thoughts, Cadance was far too slow to react when that rainbow missile from before came in and plowed right into her side. Inertia and vertigo briefly turned her vision into an incomprehensible swirl, and then she felt the air rushing past around her. This was a feeling she knew… as an alicorn, yes, but first and foremost as a pegasus! Somepony was carrying her upwards.

She was reminded, for a second, of the old griffin game…

Rock beats scissors, scissors beats paper, paper beats rock. Just the same, unicorn beat pegasus, pegasus beat earth pony, earth pony beat unicorn. And an alicorn? Well. An alicorn cheated.

“I will not be mare-handled again!” Cadance cried, “Unhoof me, rainbow-colored mare! Or I will be forced to--”

A cyan hoof clamped painfully over her snout.

“Forced to what?” Rainbow Dash asked, mockingly. Her wings flapped as she reached her desired height, one hoof around Cadance’s mouth and the other holding firmly onto her left wing, keeping it from holding her aloft. She dangled in the smaller mare’s grip.

“This,” Cadance said, her voice muffled. With her free front hooves, she grabbed onto Dash’s outstretched leg. The very same one with the hoof clamped over the Princess’s mouth. Her horn then lit up with magic… fizzled… and discharged the chaotic magic right out of her body and into that of the cyan mare with the rainbow mane and tail.

“Aaaa-a-aaa-aaa!” Dash’s body shook and spasmed from the magical discharge, that same rainbow mane and tail turning frizzy and black as soot. For just a second, the pegasus pony’s wings continued to flap and hold her in midair, even though she more resembled a zapped bug than a weatherpony.

“Ow,” Dash said, in monotone.

She let go and fell away from Cadance, and the Princess also pushed off and angled herself towards the ground. Twilight was glaring up, a veritable tornado of purple magic swirling violently around her horn. Bits of debris had been whipped up in the little maelstrom. It was in that moment that Cadance understood.

She understood not just how powerful she always suspected Twilight Sparkle to be.

She understood that Blueblood – somehow – also knew just how powerful Twilight Sparkle could be. This Twilight was exactly as strong as he imagined her to be, and her stupid stallion of a brother seemed to have a very vivid imagination. With a howl, the purple magic around Twilight’s horn tightened and turned into a slender, drill-like spear of pure magic.

“Oh. Oh dear,” Cadance could feel her alicorn instincts reaching for an earth pony’s defense, but this high in the air… it was gone. There was nothing. And she didn’t know a single barrier or defensive unicorn spell. Right now, she was just a pegasus. A metaphorical scissor. And glaring up at her was the Queen Mother of all Scissor-Smashing Rocks.

“This – this is dangerous…!” she realized, almost dumbly. If she couldn’t avoid that magical spear, it would go right through her like a power drill through a stick of butter. She wasn’t like Blueblood, or even this strange Sweetie Belle pony. If she died in the nightmare…

Panic crept into her thoughts and she started to jerk and zag, wings frantically flapping.

“Somepony! A little help?” she called, and used a bit of the Canterlot Voice herself. “A little help! Please!”

A pony heard her. He was just in little position to do anything about it.

- - -

“Um, Mister Blueblood, could you please stop struggling?” Fluttershy had her front hooves pressed down firmly on his own, pinning him on his back like a helpless babe. What, did this crazy mare wrestle bears for a living or…?

Oh, actually, she did.

“Please?” Fluttershy asked again, looking down on him down big, turquoise eyes that seemed just short of tears. “I really don’t want to hurt you any more than I have to.”

“That’s right!” Pinkie Pie agreed, still straddling his midsection and helping to hold him down. She crossed her front legs and smirked, triumphantly. “We’ve got you trapped! Fluttershy and me are the ultimate tag team! Just be glad she didn’t have to use the steel chair on you!”

“Oh,” Fluttershy meekly objected. “I’d never use the steel chair, not unless they deserved it.”

Pinkie Pie seemed about to say something more when a flicker passed through the giddy mare, and her eyes lost a bit of their blue.

“That’s right,” she repeated, more to herself than to him. Though when she looked down at the Prince, there was no doubt who was on her mind. “That’s right. And you can feel it, can’t you? That’s Princess Cadance up there. Fighting. Do you really think she’ll win? Won’t she die for real if something bad happens? What are you going to do about that?”

Pinkie leaned in closer, close enough to tickle his nose with her breath.

“Isn’t Twilight Sparkle’s power something amazing?” She grabbed him by the chin and directed his eyes upwards as Cadance desperately tried to fend off her two assailants. “Since you’re as useless as ever, why don’t you just relax and watch her die?”

Blueblood crushed his eyes closed, but Pinkie’s words never left his mind. There was something entrancing about them. They were the truth. He knew it, just like Cadance did. If he died in here, like he had so many times, he’d just reset. Even Sweetie seemed to be safe, because she was connected to his memories of the Gala time-loops.

But Auntie Luna and Cadance? Cadance was a visitor to his nightmare. If she died here… who knew what would happen to her body? If everything she had said before was true – and he had no reason to doubt her – she needed to live. She needed to escape, but all his other magic fizzled.

Which only left…

A faint green light began to form around him, pooling into a circle.

“So,” he continued, “I won’t let her…”

The circle contracted.

Pinkie Pie continued to stare down at him, her grin widening. She was whispering something to herself, but Blueblood could hardly hear it over the pounding in his ears. It was his heartbeat. Two stellar circles and two reaping triangles. It was so simple, this one spell. The hard part was converting the soul into fire. None of these mares were real. He hated having to harm them… but…

“What is this spell?” Pinkie asked, looking around her as the air began to crackle with jade energy.

It was almost there. It was Almost Fire. He had used this spell, once, hoping it would kill him, body and soul. Before he had burned away himself, he had seen the results. It had destroyed much of Canterlot, and just to add insult to injury, it hadn’t even earned him an escape from the loops. This time, though, maybe it could do some good.

“Ow. Ow. Ow!!” Fluttershy cried, finally releasing him. She stumbled back, looking at her hooves with astonishment. There was no physical mark on them, but she had felt for just a moment what he felt coursing through his entire body. It was the opposite of the Fire to Life spell.

Life to Fire.

“I have to see it!” Pinkie declared, still with that dark look in her eyes. She jumped off him and scrambled away. “Do it! Do it! Do it!”

Not far away, he could see Twilight Sparkle. Her attention was fixed entirely upward, trying to pin down her target. The surging lance of magic coiled around her horn was enough to warp the air around her, giving the impression of a lavender mirage. Blueblood reached for her, feeling his soul begin to ebb out, bleeding and converting into the rawest, most elemental fire.

“Oh! This must be… Potassium's Propitiatory Phlogiston,” Pinkie’s voice came from behind him. “Do it, Blueblood. Do it! Kill her. Kill her!”

And that was when he heard a scream.

“No!” The party pony snarled, whirling on the interruption. It was Rarity.

Blueblood saw it, too, and in that moment he made a decision. He winced as the burgeoning Phlogiston – the almost fully conjured fire – bored back into his body. It flowed through the veins and crevasses of his soul like liquid agony, but it was nothing he hadn’t felt before. He had been fully consumed by Phlogiston once. He knew that pain, and it didn’t matter one lick of salt.

All that mattered in that moment was the sight of Rarity, screaming in panic and fear, as something cut through her fabric shield. It didn’t matter that the rational part of his mind knew she wasn’t even the real Rarity. It didn’t even matter that, last he had seen, she had been chasing after Sweetie Belle. He had imagined her fighting for her life before, against Antimony, and losing. That one thought had driven him to race halfway across Equestria.

His horn burned, and even though his magic fizzled, he still teleported.

And then she was in his embrace, tumbling through the air.

“You!” Rarity all but spat in disgust. “Unhoof me! Villain! Cretin!”

The pair of white unicorns rolled across the Ponyville street, ending in a tumble.

“I said, unhoof me!” Rarity yelled from under him, not caring that he was trying to shield her. She looked at him with anger and disgust. It was the only thing she had shown him in… in a long time. She pressed two hooves flat against his chest and pushed. “Unhoof me at once!”

“You Stupid. Annoying. Mare,” he growled, and smirked, heedless of the insults and the anger. “I love you, you know. No matter how much this version of you says you hate me.” She glared up at him, momentarily speechless. One of his own hooves ran through his blond mane and he glanced over his shoulder to where a small diamond hovered in midair. “Being a bachelor was so much safer. Sweetie… are you alright?”

Sweetie Belle had tears marring her face, the bladed diamond still hovering firmly under her control. She slowly shook her head no, not trusting her voice not to crack. Slowly, she pulled back the diamond until it was hovering protectively next to her head.

“Even this version of her, you…” Her throat constricted before she could say ‘love.’ “And I could only try to kill her.” She closed her eyes and sent her diamond away through another portal. “I have a lot to learn from you, big brother.”

“Well, I am pretty great,” Blueblood admitted, stroking his chin.

Just as Rarity kicked him squarely in said chin.

Blueblood rolled back and ended up standing next to Sweetie. Together, the two stared down Rarity as she struggled back onto her hooves. The dressmaker was trembling, her indigo fabric torn but slowly, defensively circling around her. A dark shadow moved around her, almost like an outline around her body.

“You can’t…!” she cried, yelling into the ground at her hooves. “That doesn’t make any sense! How can… how could… you can’t!”

“A hundred kicks to the face wouldn’t change my mind,” Blueblood said, smiling despite the purpling welt on his cheek where she had hit him. “You saved me from the Gala loops. Even just that once. Even it wasn’t the same you standing in front of me. You saved me.”

Rarity still trembled, even as she locked eyes with him, blue and blue.

“Now,” he said with a smirk, turning his attention upwards. “Cadance! Stop playing around, would you?”

Sweetie turned, too, just as Twilight finally released her spell to swat Cadance from the sky. Except, she, too, had started to convulse. The huge violet lance she had magicked into existence ripped apart under its own power and what did manage to surge upward into the sky was batted away, almost contemptuously, by the empowered alicorn Princess. Alone of the Elements of Harmony, only Pinkie Pie remained unfazed. Even Fluttershy and Rainbow Dash began to violently tremble, as if they were on the verge of flying apart.

And, in the sky…

Cadance shined like Celestia herself in all her fiery glory.

Sweetie sighed and looked down at the destroyed street outside Sugarcube Corner, drawing Blueblood’s attention. He raised an eyebrow, when he noticed her glance at Rarity and wince. He approached his adoptive sister and nudged her. “Sweetie… what happened back there?”

Sweetie pursed her lips and closed her eyes. “It was… back when I escaped the loops,” she explained, stomping a hoof angrily. “I went to another world, where I was taken under my so-called father’s wing. He was… a psychopath… but…”

Glaring down at her hooves, a small diamond flew protectively around her side to float in front of her horn. Sweetie snorted, her mood still sour. “But he… manipulated me. He made me fear and hate my sister… he trained me to kill her, and when she came and saw me… Blueblood, she didn’t try to talk to me, she didn’t try and see if I had been misled… she…”

Sweetie trailed off for a second, looking up at Blueblood in naked disbelief, even so many adventures later.

“She killed ponies, Blueblood.” Sweetie trembled at recalling that one particular dimension. That one place. “She killed ponies in cold blood, and she attacked me. She was going to kill me, too.”

She looked up at Blueblood and at the commiserating expression on his face, his eyebrows drawn together in sympathy, and tears began welling up in her eyes. “Sweetie.”

“Rarity was the one that was always, always, there for me in any world where she was still living!. Even in the one where she was a stallion, she was there for me. But… she destroyed that. I - I haven’t been able to – to…”

She struggled, trying to say more, to put into words just how that one terrible meeting had cost her the ability to trust the pony she loved as both a sister and a mother. Sweetie opened her mouth, knowing what she wanted to say, to explain, but still no words came out. Blueblood could only smile, comfortingly, and rest his horn gently against hers. She didn’t need to say it. He knew.

Sweetie sat back and batted away a piece of rubble that had once been part of Sugarcube Corner’s candycorn-like roof tile. “Maybe what I went through to become… this… maybe I deserve--”

A rather sizable hoof flicked her horn, and the sudden jolt disrupted both her magic and her dark introspection. Next thing she knew, Blueblood was leaning close. He even ruffled her mane playfully, like she was still the little filly he had first met during the time-loops.

“Don’t think silly things like that, Sweetie,” he said, and somehow, he made her feel like she was when they had pranked the Gala or gone on a milkshake binge, or even that one wonderful night when he and Soarin and Spitfire had taken her out on the town. It was still the first and only taste of nightlife – of a scrap of semi-adult normalcy – she had experienced, amid one trial after another. Her adopted brother didn’t say anything else; he just sat in front of her, one hoof on the top of her head.

“Remember the version of her waiting for you at home,” he suggested and turned slightly to glance back at the Rarity she had been fighting. The same Rarity that he had protected, impulsively, instinctively. “That’s what I do. Remember her. All the other ones will come and go.”

Sweetie sniffled and nodded.

“After all, I’m sure you’ve probably met half a dozen absolutely unbearable versions of me since you left!”

That earned a quick chuckle from her. “Usually you’re dead by the time I arrive, but yes, most of the time, if you exist, you are unbearable to say the least.” She stood up and hugged him tight. “Which is why you are so much more special than any other Blueblood in the Multiverse.”

He hugged her back, laughing triumphantly at his apparent superiority over his alternate selves. “I should’ve expected they couldn’t hold a candle to me!”

“If Cadance up there is the Princess of Love, you’re probably the Prince of Ego,” Sweetie remarked, bopping him on the nose.

“Hm,” he didn’t disagree, but he did consider, “So, not even one was…”

“Not even one,” Sweetie confirmed. “All jerks.”

“The Prince of Ego suits you, Blueblood,” Cadance added, landing with a serene halo behind her majestically flapping wings. She had grown in size, and her new appearance immediately evoked a certain comparison.

“And you resemble a bright pink Auntie Celestia,” Blueblood said, pointing at her. “How disturbing.”

“Not to steal a phrase, but it feels like your heart just grew three sizes today,” Cadance said, drinking in the wellspring of emotion only she could see and feel. “At least it did when you focused on Sweetie and… that other pony.” She turned to stare at the now frozen fashionista. “Rarity, was it? I never thought you’d have so much love in your heart, brother.”

She smirked, taking in her own up-sized form. “And, for the first time since we were little, I’m not closed off from it. Our hearts are open to one another again… It feels wonderful! Like I could move the sun itself!”

“As long as you don’t cover the sun and moon with a huge crystal heart and declare that ‘the love… will last… forever!’” Sweetie spoke up, air-quoting the last part. “I think we’re all glad you feel that way.”

“That explains the Big Princess look, atrocious though it is,” Blueblood replied, and Cadance pouted at him, clearly a little upset he didn’t appreciate her powered-up dream form. Maybe it was the mane? Too much flowing-Celestia look? Inhaling and slowly exhaling, she forced herself back to normal. As she shrunk down, the halo of magic around her grew even more brilliant.

“It was just a mirror of your own feelings as they coursed through us both,” she explained and coughed into one bronze-gilded hoof. “And, um, maybe a little imagination on my part.”

“So we got that we wanted, then?” Sweetie asked, and releasing Blueblood from her hug she quickly trotted back to take him in. “You’re the same size as ever.”

“Do you feel any different?” Cadance pressed, walking to stand next to Sweetie Belle. “The only one who can break us all out of this nightmare is you, Blueblood. How do you feel?”

“Like I’ve talked about my feelings enough for one day, or one hundred,” he answered and cupped his chin with a pearl white hoof. “But it feels like something’s missing.”

“Something missing?” Cadance asked, tilting her head slightly.

Blueblood nodded. “Something big and loud and destructive.”

Sweetie and Cadance both exchanged a curious look.

Then, a second after the words had been spoken, a thunderous shock rocked the town and very nearly tossed all three ponies off their hooves. A blast wave of dust shot out from the center of the street, and a wave of magic and air bowled over very nearly the entire populace of the town, assembled to corner the nightmare interlopers. Ponies were sent flying and rolling like tumbleweeds in a hurricane, crashing into walls and buildings that soon turned hazy and indistinct.

In a crater in the center of the town, Princess Luna held a now trembling and convulsing dream-Celestia by one hoof. A contemptuous huff later and Luna released the shocked Princess to fly effortlessly over to her nephew and niece.

“Twast mine arrival inopportune?” she asked, noting their gobsmacked expressions.

“Not at all, Auntie,” Blueblood said with a bow of his head. “We were just waiting for you.”

Cadance blinked, sucking in a breath. “Luna, too,” she muttered softly. “When did all this happen…?”

Sweetie leaned onto Cadance. “Remember what I told you about the loops? Blueblood is not the same… he really learned to love.”

“All that remains is to root out the source of this corrupt world. Night Shade. I had thought her to reside in that version of mine sister, but…” Luna took in a deep breath, no doubt to bellow out a challenge to the other dream-shaper.

“Auntie,” Blueblood interrupted, pointing back at a pink form that had stubbornly resisted both the Princess’s explosive entrance and the earlier emotional disruption. “There.”

“Damn you ponies,” Pinkie Pie hissed, stumbling towards them. It looked like her, but the voice was all wrong. A crackle of magic emerged from her forehead, briefly revealing a dark horn.

“Thy scheme lies revealed, Night Shade!” Luna thundered. “Mine niece and her accomplice have thee in chains in the real world, and you have been overpowered in the dream-time as well. Surrender thyself!”

Pinkie Pie continued to shamble towards them, laughing in both her normal voice and the foreign one.

“Surrender? Me?” she asked in both voices. “That has to be a joke! How can I surrender? I am… I am…”

Night Shade’s eyes, even in the nightmare she controlled, even in her guise of Pinkamena Diane Pie, glowed with the telltale green of changeling mind control.

“I am a servant of the ONE TRUE QUEEN!!” she screamed, spittle flying from her lips. “You should be begging! On your knees! To surrender to ME!”

“Really?” Sweetie asked, tilting her head. “Did she ever sing to you?”

“Sweetie?” Blueblood asked and she avoided the urge to turn her head and meet him face to face.

“Sing?” Night Shade asked, glowing green eyes settling on Sweetie Belle. “What…?”

“Queen Chrysalis only sings to her true servants… her changelings,” Sweetie explained. “The only creatures in this world she genuinely cares for…”

“Potassium's Phlogiston!” Pinkie-Shade hissed, and Luna gasped in recognition. “You know how to use it, my Prince. I know you do. I couldn’t get you to open the deepest archives for me, but I saw how you did it. All but the last part. Tell me.”

She threw back her head, half of her pink mane and coat melting away, leaving behind a unicorn with a black and white mane and deathly pale coat. “TELL ME!!”

“Thou art insane!” Luna roared, “You cannot begin to comprehend what you wish to unleash! Potassium's Phlogiston is among the blackest of all magics! What madness would even compel a pony to…”

The Lunar Princess paused, mid-declaration, and one eye shot over to her nephew.

Blueblood shook his head. “It hardly matters now,” he explained, his own eyes never leaving the half-Pinkie half-Night Shade abomination before them. “I will take Potassium's Phlogiston to the grave with me. Most certainly, I will not share such secrets with a madmare in thrall to a swarm of insects.”

“You say that with such conviction,” Night Shade replied with a laugh. “But I’ve had your mind in my hooves for so long. The seed has already planted and taken root. No matter what happens to my physical body, I can make your every night a literal Hell of fevered nightmares. Do you understand yet, you puffed-up, self-important bastard? I’ve only just begun to torture you, Blueblood!” A fleck of drool dribbled down Night Shade’s lip as she howled at the remaining quartet. “TELL ME! Or I will haunt your dreams until the day you die!”

“Not while we draw breath!” Luna snarled, wings flaring out threateningly behind her.

Night Shade’s sneer was nasty and cruel. “You’d be surprised what enough alchemy and magic can do, even in the face of your powers, Princess.”

“That’s true,” Sweetie spoke up, her voice little more than a mutter, just loud enough to draw everypony’s attention. “But there’s always other ways to solve things than violence. Even Queen Chrysalis knows that… not that she acts on it.”

The dream-mage’s eyes bored into her. “What do you know?”

Sweetie closed her eyes and began to hum. It was an innocuous sound, harmless, yet Night Shade felt herself grow still. It was as if her very mind and body began to grow numb. Her ears twitched, one pale, the other pink. Cadance, Blueblood and Princess Luna heard it, too – the melody – though they clearly didn’t suffer the same effects from it that Night Shade did.

“Wake up, little spider

the web grows tout

Wake up, little spider

there's a way out.”

Sweetie walked towards Night Shade as she sang, the dreamweaver frozen in place. All she could do was watch, mesmerized. The green in her eyes began to dim and spark.

“Wake up, the prey is gone

Wake up, the call is over

Little spider, the job is done…”

“Ugg,” was all Night Shade could say at first. Her throat constricted, and she fell forward onto her forelegs and knees. Green magic dribbled and pooled out of her eyes, running down her cheeks like fat, slimy tears. The half of her still wearing the guise of Pinkie Pie rippled and flared and spiked before finally, gradually, dissolving.

“What… are you… doing to me?” Night Shade cried, green magic leaking from her eyes and ears. “What is this magic?”

“Not magic,” Sweetie said, hoof touching Night Shade’s shoulder. “Just a song. The Queen’s song. Your mission is over. It’s okay… you can go to sleep.”

“But… but it’s so dark. I…. I can’t see… anything…” Night Shade reached for Sweetie Belle, her hoof trembling. “Whose dream is this?” she asked, and when she looked up, her eyes were violet behind all the suffocating ivy-green. “Is it… mine?”

Those same eyes closed as she fell forward in a slump.

Sweetie caught the mare and slowly settled her down on the floor, painfully aware of the gazes of three ponies behind her. She hesitated for just a second, before turning around to look at the three royals. “I don’t know how many times I heard that song…” she said, unable to look up at the one stallion standing in front of her.

“That really wasn’t magic?” Cadance asked, looking to the unicorn and alicorn whose esoteric knowledge surpassed her own. “What just happened?” One in particular she singled out for answers. “Aunt Luna, what was that?”

“Twas a pass phrase of some sort,” Luna surmised. “A deeply embedded one.”

Blueblood just stared at Sweetie Belle.

“That just raises more questions!” Cadance objected, glancing around her as the dream world began to fade away, taking Ponyville and all its residents with it.

“I’m so sorry, Blueblood,” Sweetie said, finally meeting his eyes with her own, scared ones. “At first… I thought it would be like in my world… that Chrysalis would be quickly defeated… it never crossed my mind how different things were here… how early it was… I thought I shouldn’t tell you or that I might change the future and – and you would die or my sister or any of the others…”

“I thought I could just learn what I needed… and she taught me to sing… but she also cast a spell on me, just like Night Shade… but deeper… she trained me to do things… to not make sounds, to stand in shadows… after a while she didn’t even need to cast the spell; she would say something and I would be hers… and then she would sing to me…” Sweetie’s voice lowered to a whisper. “I would wake up to singing lessons with Cadance… I forgot, I completely forgot about who she really was… I even talked to her at the Gala and then forgot she was Chrysalis… I just remembered the whole thing not too long ago, when I was… when I was a prisoner and this strange magic changed my soul and mind.”

She looked down. “I - I couldn’t carry on watching this whole nightmare continue and see you suffer even more… I wish I could have never told you… and never lose you.” She gave him a sad smile. “But I guess we can’t wish for everything.”

Sweetie took a deep breath and looked at the collapsing dream. “You should go… big br— Blueblood. I’m sorry… I know I don’t deserve it, but I’ll always still think of you as my big brother.”

The stallion opened his mouth, but just as quickly shut it.

Instead of saying anything, he turned his eyes skyward, hiding his face from view. Luna and Cadance both looked to him worriedly, but he stubbornly ignored them. If anything, the lack of a response seemed to hurt Sweetie more, though she had dreaded hearing any number of well-deserved invectives from his mouth. “How could you?” he should have been yelling. “You KNEW?” he could have spat in her face. “I trusted you,” he could even have whispered, and that one would have been the worst of all.

“Cadenza…” he finally spoke, and the half-melted dreamscape remained murky all around them, like a painting splashed with water. “Cadenza, you said you’d been replaced months ago so… so I should have known… I should – should’ve put that together. Of course, the Cadenza I sent Sweetie to… wrong one, wrong… one.”

“Oh, no.” Sweetie growled, marching up to him and poking him in the chest. “Don’t you dare blame yourself for this! I should have known better than to keep it from you when I could do something about it! You didn’t know! It most certainly is not your fault!” She hugged him, as tight as she could, just in case this was the one time when he finally – rightfully – pushed her away. “Please. Just… be happy. Get out of this nightmare. Go get my sister. My local self should learn to foalsit, anyway. Maybe Cadance can teach her.”

“Blueblood,” Cadance spoke up, sensing his emotional turmoil. “Who is to say what would have happened, even with forewarning? Chrysalis still had me… She may have killed me if her plans in Equestria unraveled. She may have found a way to kill you.”

“She speaks the truth,” Luna agreed. Even without her connection to his dream, she could read all she had to from his posture, inside or outside of a dream. She saw him tense and then relax a fraction, in resignation. “Nephew…”

“Sweetie,” he finally said and held the filly at leg’s length to look her eye to eye. “No more secrets after this, alright? I really do love you, but what you just said really, really made me want to throw you out of a window. And I have a feeling that if I actually tried, you’d kick my flank.”

Sweetie’s lips trembled, and all she could do was nod very fast before she jumped forward and hugged him again, burying her face in his chest, crying mumbled apologies and promises to never keep another secret from him. He sighed, and this time truly relaxed, the tension and emotion ebbing out of him. The runny colors of the dream world softened, but still continued to steadily dissolve.

“Hold,” Luna commanded, and a hemispherical bubble expanded from her, surrounding the four ponies – plus the unconscious Night Shade – and halting the end of the nightmare. “Before we return to the waking world, nephew, niece, we may wish to delve into this new font of inside knowledge. Our enemy is most devious and insidious. We would be wise to use every resource in combatting her.”

“That’s right,” Cadance said, only seeming to realize it that moment herself. “Chrysalis was smart enough never to share anything vital with me… All she did was torment me, but, Sweetie Belle, if she taught you to sing…?”

“You can help us defeat her,” Blueblood finished, Sweetie still buried in his chest. “Did you hear that, Sweetie? Now, this Queen Chrysalis, she wouldn’t happen to have a dramatic physical weakness we could take advantage of?” He punched with a free hoof. “Or, better yet, a sweet spot I could charm?”

Cadance made a very clear, choking ‘bleegh’ at that last suggestion.

Sweetie chuckled a bit, pulling herself from Blueblood’s embrace and standing on her own, looking at the others. “I know I can't come with you, but I’ll help any way I can!”

o.0.o

“Gah!” “OH!”

Blueblood and Cadance gasped in stereo, sucking in the dank air of the crystal prison that had been his home since his abduction. A third sound followed, that of Night Shade groaning and slumping into a boneless heap on the floor.

The first thing Prince Blueblood noticed, however, was not the bedraggled and filthy pink Princess and step-sister next to him. It was not the unconscious Night Shade who had tormented his dreams and trapped him in that horrible imitation of the already horrid Gala Loops. It was not the shocked look on the face of a mint-colored unicorn mare fretfully guarding the door, her horn lit up with a mixture of twinkling gold and shadowy black. It wasn’t even the shadowy apparition of his Aunt, hovering overhead.

“No. No. NO!” he cried, struggling desperately against the chains holding him splayed over what had to be a gruesome-looking medical bed. “What have these brutes done to my perfect, white coat?! My majestic golden mane?” He turned, wild-eyed, to Cadance. Her mane was a wretched mess, too, and it only seemed to set him off again. “You maniacs! You cut it up! Celestia damn you! Damn you all to Tartarus!!”

He wriggled and writhed beneath the restraints. “Oh, the horror! The horror…!”

“Is… is he always like that?” the unicorn by the door asked, deadpan.

“Unfortunately,” Cadance answered with a bereaved sigh. “Lyra Heartstrings, this is Prince Blueblood the fifty-second. The Unicorn Royal of Canterlot.”

Lyra waved a hoof in greeting. “Hey.”

Blueblood raised an eyebrow, seemingly over his earlier histrionics. “Well, hello,” he replied, suave despite struggling to move his front hooves with the table’s restraints taut around his wrist. “Finally, somepony who doesn’t look like a total mess. I do like what you’ve done with your mane, actually, and green is coming back this year for mares. Rarity simply hates green for some reason but--”

“Uh, don’t you want to get out of those?” Cadance asked, stretching her neck and leaning over him. She pointed to the thick leather straps around his chest and legs.

“Hmm? Oh! These? Yes.” He wiggled around again. “Quite tight. I take it nopony even bothered with a safety word or those wonderful emergency release buckles?”

Cadance opened her mouth to ask what he meant, but seemed to think better of it.

“Miss Heartstrings, how much time has passed?” she asked instead as, with magic and nimble hooves, she began to free him. “Have we been found out?”

“No, Princess!” Lyra responded, and she sounded as eager as she should have been afraid. “There’s been some rumbling, like an earthquake, but I’ve kept the door closed. We should still be good for our escape! And it’s only been a couple minutes.”

“Excellent, then… then! Oh, this thing is just…!” Cadance growled at one of the locks on Blueblood’s restraints. “I can’t seem to…”

“Could you please free my horn?” Blueblood asked, calmly.

Cadance nodded and ripped off the magical containment seals on the cylinder covering the Princes’ horn. It then came apart in two halves, revealing the horn itself. Unlike her own horn-restraint, the seals on Blueblood’s were fresh and untouched. Nopony had expected him to use magic in a comatose state. The precaution had only been applied once and then forgotten about.

The moment the horn restraint came off, Blueblood cast an unnamed spell. There was only a moment’s delay. Then, with a crackle and a snap, every belt, buckle, lock, and knot came undone, flying apart in some cases with a degree of violence. Blueblood immediately clasped his hooves together and stretched his legs.

“Braid’s Bond Breaker,” he explained, at Lyra’s wide eyed amusement. “Useful against both potential kidnappers and mares who leave you tied up… mostly the latter, honestly.”

Cadance shuddered at the implications involved, but kept on-task. “Miss Heartstrings. We’re making our escape. You’re the only one who knows the way out, so we’ll be following close behind you.”

“One moment,” Blueblood objected, floating his detached horn-nullifier over to the unconscious Night Shade. With a click, he locked it in place over the dreamwaver’s horn. He then coiled a loop of his blond mane around his hoof and ripped it free. His horn glowed again, and this time his star field enveloped the strands of hair. They promptly vanished and with a flick of his hoof, turned to ethereal fire.

“If this works as Auntie Luna said it would…”

For a moment, nothing happened, but then the fire circled around an area, where it slowly seemed to feed its glow onto an invisible shape, which slowly became the outline of a young mare. The silhouette's mouth seemed to move, but no sound came from her. She stomped a translucent hoof, but nothing happened again. Finally, the spectral silhouette nodded and turned to look at them, lifting a small hoof. Blueblood touched the ghostly spirit’s hoof with his own, bumping it gently. Then the shadow of a filly nodded, once, and faded away entirely.

o.0.o

Sweetie watched as the world around her melted into a cave, where Blueblood and Cadance met with Lyra.

"Blueblood!" she called, but there was no reaction from her adoptive brother.

Wincing, she observed as Blueblood broke free of his bonds, then walked towards her and cast a new spell. All of a sudden, she knew she could see him. "Can you hear me?"

When no reaction came other than sadness in his eyes, she shook her head and stomped on the floor. "Why do I have to say goodbye to you like this?" she cried, looking up to her brother. Shakily, she raised a hoof. "I'll miss you," she whispered as the world around her shimmered and faded.

Blueblood smiled, raising his hoof and for just one second she felt his hoof. Sniffing, she nodded and once more the world dissolved.

Blueblood, Lyra and Cadance faded from view much more slowly than during Sweetie Belle’s previous jumps, and instead of the usual flash, things seemed to shimmer into different shapes as the world became solid again around her.

Having left Bon Bon and Lyra before her last jump, she had expected to return to them, maybe even moments after leaving. As the world around her slowly came into focus, though, there seemed to be nopony around, nor did her new surroundings take the form of anything she recalled seeing before in Bon Bon’s universe.

Her hooves sunk into soft cushions atop a large chaise lounge embroidered in delicate floral patterns. A flag was draped lazily over the elevated half of the fainting couch and beneath her front legs. The room was dappled in light from a massive bay window that reached up to the decorative barrel ceiling inlaid with stenciled walnut wood. Silk curtains wafted gently in a warm afternoon breeze, permitted entry by eases in the great window. Arranged about the rest of the ornate room, she could see canvases stacked up against the wall or sitting on wooden easels.

There were buckets with all sorts of painting equipment, too, from brushes to little containers; her eyes caught all the colors of the rainbow in oil, waiting to be set to canvas. There could be little doubt. Sweetie had been in rooms like this before; this was a sitting room made over into an artist’s atelier. It was no poor artist, either. The room she was in was magnificent, even by Canterlot standards.

All that was put aside, however, when Sweetie’s eyes fell on one thing above all else; a painting currently on display; a half-finished work depicting no other pony than her, reclining comfortably but confidently on the same chaise lounge she had just materialized on. The her in the painting wore a loose pearl-white dress, almost sheer, and a crown of tiny velvet flowers in her pink and lilac mane. At least the curls were still there, if parted slightly and with more body—an artist’s exaggeration, no doubt. But it was undoubtedly her! An older her...

Sweetie eased off the couch and walked closer to the painting with a small frown.

"Did... I always look so condescending?" she mused aloud, tilting her head at the almost dismissive smile displayed on the image. "The artist must be taking some liberties..."

She pondered for a moment before levitating a pencil and a piece of scroll, saying aloud her words as she wrote. "Please make my smile more sincere. XOXO Sweetie Belle." And then she attached it to the side of the painting, nodding to herself in satisfaction.

o.0.o

To be continued...