• 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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Mente Materia Pt. 2

The Sweetie Chronicles: Fragments

Mente Materia Pt. 2

Based on the story: Mente Materia

Special thanks to my editors: Lammy, Magical Trevor, Masked Ferret, Nick & SuperBigMac

o.0.oo.0.o

“Are you sure that’s what they told you, Rarity?” Applejack asked for the third time as the pair followed one of the Solar Guards past one of the several checkpoints leading into the caverns. “That Sweetie somehow ended up on Earth? Despite the fact that we just saw her not ten minutes ago with the rest of the Crusaders?”

“I’m afraid I know as much as you. One of the Guard passed the message to me, and I had quite a fright until I was finally able to track Sweetie down,” Rarity said, worry coloring her tone. “The guard insisted that a mare calling herself ‘Sweetie Belle’ was definitely on Earth, and that she was going to be returning with Captain Harris. I don’t know if she’s simply confused and out-of-sorts or… well…”

“Or if she’s lying. Ah understand,” Applejack nodded. Her next statement was derailed when she banged one of her rear hooves on a loose floor panel, which drew a wince and a painful look at the scar running along her side. “Fluttershy asked that Victor fellow about the situation, and he seemed pretty confident that whoever this filly is, she ain't dangerous. But, he didn’t seem too keen on sharing why he was so confident.”

“A proper lady has secrets, but humans seem to elevate it to an art. Their secrets have secrets.” Rarity kept her voice low as they passed a pair of humans and other assembled workers who were also making their way deeper into the caverns. “I suppose we can at least be glad the humans say she’s not dangerous. After what happened here in the capital, they aren’t taking any chances.”

“Darn straight,” Applejack said with a small nod. “Hopefully we’ll be able to get this mare back to her family. She must be really scared. You read that book of Twilight’s about what happened to her while she was there. Earth ain’t exactly the most friendly place for one of us to be these days.”

The corridor opened up into the largest chamber yet. Multicolored crystals lined the walls and ceiling, and it was dominated by a massive marble platform in its center. Veins of crystal ran through the marble to create intricate patterns that pulsed to an alien rhythm that made both ponies slightly uncomfortable.

“Ten seconds!” An earth pony near some human machinery shouted, and the pulses of light from the platform began to increase. The flashes began to meld together into a single blinding light, followed by a snap of teleportation. The light faded to reveal stacked boxes and crates, as well as three figures standing in the center of the platform. The first was the grim-faced Captain Harris, who didn’t meet anypony’s eyes as he stepped off the platform to speak with one of the humans waiting nearby. The next was Firecracker, whose usually upbeat demeanor was significantly subdued. And the last… could be no other than Sweetie Belle.

But at the same time, it really wasn't the Sweetie Belle they knew. This was no filly, rather it was a young mare, a few years younger than them. She already had a cutie mark of her own, and seemed to handle herself way too comfortably next to dangerous, armored individuals. Her eyes were scanning the platform and soon centered on them, widening in obvious recognition. “Skaaidi! Tolaarbark!” she yelled happily while waving a hoof at the two mares.

"Sweetie Belle? But-you're all grown up! Wha—" Rarity choked. It then dawned on her that she hadn't understood a single word. "How can this be possible?"

Firecracker had just passed the two mares, but stopped and arched an eyebrow at the exchange. “Wait. Wait a minute,” she muttered, before turning back to the Sweetie Belle that stood on the platform. “Do you understand what I am saying?”

o.0.oo.0.o

Sweetie tilted her head when Rarity had sputtered something completely unintelligible, followed shortly after by Firecracker stopping cold, looking over her shoulder and asking her something in the same language. Probably. "What? I didn't get that, what language was that?"

The disguised changeling’s expression went blank for a long moment before finally bringing up a hoof to her face. “I can’t believe I didn’t notice it earlier. Slipping due to old age, is what it is,” she muttered before speaking up. “Sweetie, I have no idea how but the language you’re speaking is ‘English’, one of the human languages. I just didn’t pick up on it because of the translators that the humans use. It’s not a language that Equestrians know. Well, except for Twilight.” Firecracker explained, before presumably providing a similar explanation to Rarity and Applejack, who nodded in muted, yet surprised understanding.

Sweetie shook her head. "But... that's weird! Every world I've visited I've spoken the language just fine. Are you saying that all other worlds speak English except for this Equestria?"

Firecracker’s first response was to shrug. “You’re more of an expert on this than me. It’s possible I suppose?”

Sweetie looked from her to the baffled expressions of her interdimensional sister and Applejack. "Well, maybe how the magic works is that where I land I could automatically understand the local language... so if I landed on Earth, the local area spoke English?" She shook her head. "That doesn't help here though, how am I supposed to communicate with them?"

“Well, we’ve got some things we’ve been sharing with the humans to bridge the language gap,” Firecracker said, and she called out to one of the humans that was sorting through the crates still on the pad. The human in question pulled the small metal clip off his belt and offered it to Sweetie. “Once you wear that, you should be able to understand the native Equestrian languages here,” she explained before turning to leave. “If you need anything, please come see me, alright?”

Sweetie took hold of the tag and looked it over before putting it on her hair as a pin and turning to face Rarity and Applejack. "Um, can you understand me now? Does this thing work at all?"

Rarity nodded, looking at her up and down. "It does dear, it's just taking me a moment to come to grips with this."

Applejack nodded, walking around Sweetie and noticing her cutie mark, while Sweetie herself took note of the long burnt scar on Applejack's barrel, as well as a slight limp on her rear leg. "It's mighty unusual to meet a pony that not only looks like an older Sweetie Belle, but shares her name and seems to know us," she added, glancing warily at Sweetie.

Sweetie chuckled. "It's a long story, Applejack," she said. "But it boils down to: I am Sweetie Belle, just from an alternate world, where things were slightly different." She looked at humans. "Okay, very different. I ended up on Earth during my travels and XCOM decided to bring me here for my safety."

Rarity shared a look with Applejack, who shrugged. "Ah honestly can't tell if she's really tellin' the truth, but it certainly feels like she is. Ah think if she were an enemy, she'd given up the ruse after being confronted about the whole thing."

Looking at her sister and her friend, Sweetie couldn't help but notice that both mares seemed not only tense, but tired. There were slight bags under Rarity's eyes, expertly hidden by makeup unless you were looking for them, and while Applejack looked as strong as ever, there was a slight weight on her shoulders that wasn't her usual burden of a too-busy farm.

It made her think a little of the other Applejack and Rarity she had met in yet another world at war, not so long ago. Back then, she hadn't really understood that battle wariness, or that weight of seeing too much and being unable to do anything about it. She still resented what had happened there, how Rarity had reacted, but if she had visited that world now... well, she'd at least be less angry by the end of it... and Octavia wouldn't have died.

Sweetie shook her head. "It seems the paranoia from Earth has spread here..." She lowered her voice. "Is it... is it that bad? I heard Twilight is going through a tough time... how is everypony? Are Scootaloo, Apple Bloom and... my local self okay? How about you guys?"

“Almost everypony is… still alive,” Rarity said after a slight hesitation. “Those brutes have hurt a lot of ponies. Cloudsdale and Ponyville are… gone. Fluttershy and Zecora were hurt by the most horrifying monsters imaginable, and Princess Luna had to burn the forest to ash to prevent any from escaping. Pinkie did her part to help fight the good fight, and she was accosted by the accursed EXALT. I don’t care if they claim to be brainwashed by the aliens. Some things just can’t be forgiven.”

Sweetie nodded. "I saw some of EXALT while on Earth... it must be really hard figuring out who are your enemies when they look like your friends..." She glanced at the two mares, grimacing at their contained anger. It was a very understandable feeling, especially if they hadn't been much help in the overall fight. "Is that what happened to you, Applejack? Were you hurt in the attack? Nothing happened to Big Mac or Granny Smith, did it?"

“You saw those ruffians?!” Rarity nearly screamed, and before Sweetie could answer, her sister had closed the distance. “Did they do anything to you? Did they hurt you? Dear, you don’t know what they are capable of. Celestia as my witness, they will never get near you or any of my friends again!” All of her concern and worry seemed to boil over and she pulled Sweetie into a tight hug.

Sweetie flailed for a moment before finally chuckling weekly and returning the hug, patting Rarity's back lightly. "It's okay sis," she whispered. "They're all gone. I'm okay."

Applejack approached as Rarity finally released the younger mare, and she put a supporting hoof on her shoulder. "It's family that matters most, in times like this."

"Even if they're 'distantly' related?" Sweetie interjected with a wry grin.

"Yes, even then," she said with a chuckle. "Big Man an' Granny are both alright, though the farm is probably little more than kindling now." Applejack sighed. " Dash and I got hurt when those monsters attacked Ponyville. Just about everypony made it out before the attack, thanks to Pinkie Pie.”

"Pinkie Sense?" Sweetie asked, getting nods in response. "Twilight explained to me once how she attempted to understand how that works..." She shook her head. "And I knew before she even confirmed it that there are questions that will never be answered." She hesitated for a moment. "So... how am I taking it? The other me?"

The noise in the chamber gradually increased as the workers continued to unpack the boxes on the platform, and Rarity motioned for the other two mares to follow. “Sweetie… that is, my Sweetie is doing well for the moment. The Cutie Mark Crusaders are still up to things here in the capital, and Spike tries to keep them out of trouble. Of course, a certain dashing young griffon is doing an excellent job of making sure their plans are safe.”

“Here we go,” Applejack muttered under her breath.

“Oh hush, Applejack! You think it’s just as sweet as I do!” Rarity scolded the earth pony. “I’m pretty sure all three of them have developed a little bit of a crush on the High Talon. What makes it all the more delicious is that none of them seem to realise it’s happening! Alvar plays the role of the experienced and stalwart soldier for someone so young, so I suppose I can’t blame the girls for feeling the way they do.”

Applejack rolled her eyes as the trio continued to walk through the tunnel. “Are you sure you aren’t starting to feel that way, Rarity?”

The unicorn’s response was perhaps quicker and more heated than she intended. “Don’t deny me my vicarious romance! Besides, everypony seems to be developing a taste for the… exotic these days. Twilight rather adorably staked her claim, and Fluttershy has had a rather large number of heart-to-heart talks with that Victor gentleman. Apparently the humans don’t look favorably upon the concept of herds in a relationship, so I’m forced to get what I can where I can. Sweetie’s little romance is all I have now that Twilight took the latest Shining Hearts book right out of my hooves and hasn’t returned it.”

Sweetie giggled. "But! You could date Blueblood! I'm not sure what type of pony he is here, but he's turned out to be such a cool big brother in this one world..."

A borderline horrified expression crossed Rarity’s face at the mention of ‘big brother,’ only for it to switch to annoyance when Applejack smothered a laugh. “What was that, Applejack? I couldn’t quite hear you.”

“I didn’t say nothin’,” the earth pony mare replied, and she looked away with a barely suppressed smirk.

Sweetie chuckled and looked at her sister. "You know... it's been a while since I've had a chance to hang around normal versions of you guys. It's refreshing."

“‘Normal’?” Rarity asked with more than a little trepidation. “What do you mean by that?”

"You know," Sweetie shrugged. "Normal. Even your mention of Celestia when you swore on her name. It's just the normal Rarity, the normal Applejack and everypony else... even Twilight, although she's having a rough time."

Rarity seemed to hang on a couple of the roles that she had occupied in the previous worlds before rallying herself. “Well, I’m glad to provide even a small amount of stability for you, darling. For my part I'm still trying to understand how you are even possible.” The trio finally exited the tunnel and approached a guarded archway where ponies could be seen going about their business. “That you are my sister… I have no doubt, why, it's like… some sort of connection… I just know you are you, but… for the life of me, Sweetie, you're a grown mare!

Sweetie smiled, a bit self conscious. "I'm sorry, it's not by choice that I come to disrupt your life."

Rarity snorted. "Nonsense. You are here and I'll have to get used to it. Where do you want to go?”

"Where do I—" Sweetie paused. "I-I have no clue..." she said after a baffled moment. "This is the first time in years anypony has even asked me that." She looked around, at a loss. "I guess I'd like to see my friends and family? Maybe even reconnect with others that I've met in different worlds and just hang out?" She took a deep breath. "And I want to see Twilight, I might be able to talk to her a bit."

“Oh, I’m sure something can be arranged,” Rarity said as she led Sweetie past the armed guards and into the corridors of the castle proper.

o.0.oo.0.o

Applejack knocked politely before opening the door, and Sweetie followed her inside. The living quarters' spacious walls were decorated in a familiar Equestrian splendor; on the right day, sunlight beaming through the broad windows would have made everything gleam. For the present, the curtains were drawn and the room's occupants were huddled solemnly around the bed.

Sweetie knew Rainbow Dash and Fluttershy, but as she walked over to them, she could tell she had never met the plain gray mare who sat with a passive, stony gaze. For a moment, Sweetie almost didn't recognize the mare in the bed, either. Pinkie's usual energy and vigor had gone; they'd been replaced with a sleep that felt eerily serene.

Rarity closed the door behind Sweetie and Applejack, and they joined the other three around Pinkie's bed.

“Hello Rari--” Rainbow Dash started, but halted the moment she caught sight of Sweetie. She turned an arched eyebrow to Rarity and asked, “Did you pull a Twilight and have a secret sister you never told us about for years?”

Sweetie glanced at Rarity in mock surprise. "You didn't tell your friends about my marriage to the hydra king? What, were you going to wait until the invitation came?" she joked before smiling at Rainbow Dash, noticing the bad scarring on her wings. "Sorry, Rainbow, but I'm not a secret sister, I'm Sweetie Belle. All grown up."

“So… Cutie Mark Crusaders Time Travellers yay?” Rainbow Dash asked, confusion clear on her face and in her voice.

Applejack shook her head and rolled her eyes.

"It's a long story, but you're not completely off the mark," Sweetie said, walking slowly up to the bed and looking at Pinkie. "It's... weird seeing her so calm." She looked at the others and focused on the unknown mare, thinking she might be a doctor of some sort. "She'll be okay, right?"

“She will be fine,” the dour mare beside her bed said, the only change in her expression being a blink. “She’s just been through a lot and needs to rest.”

Sweetie shook her head, and looked at the others. "So how did she get like this? How did you all get like this?"

Several uncomfortable looks were shared, but it was the pony beside the bed who spoke first. “Lacerations from broken glass. Electrical burns from a stun baton. Various blunt force trauma. Shock from blood loss. I killed the humans that did this to her. Nothing hurts my sister.” The entire description of events was delivered in the same deadpan tone, as though she were listing something as mundane as a grocery list.

Sweetie nodded. "I understand… Never let anyone hurt family." She sighed, looking at the obvious marks. "Was this done by EXALT then? I knew they were trouble, but how did they even get to Equestria?" She looked up at the pony. "And I'm sorry, I'm afraid I don't know you, I'm Sweetie Belle."

“Maud Pie,” The mare beside the bed stated.

Silence stretched uncomfortably between the group before anypony worked up the courage to speak and cringed when Maud looked in her direction. “As for how those dreadful barbarians got here, I’m not certain anypony knows. The invaders arrive on airships from the stars, or so I’m told. They have airships as well but are more conventional… or so I’m told.”

"That is very strange, but I guess I should be used to weirdness by now..." Sweetie muttered, before her attention drifted to a small rock on the bedside cabinet. Sweetie stared at it, and then from it to Maud and back to the rock. "Oh, and who is this little guy watching over Pinkie?"

The earth pony in question gave Sweetie the same stare that she had since she had first entered the room. One hoof rose from behind the bed to prod the pebble on the table. “His name is Boulder. He likes you,” Maud explained.

"Hi, Boulder!" Sweetie greeted the pebble with a small wave of her hoof. "I like you too, buddy! You're pretty animated for a rock!"

Maud’s disinterested expression didn’t shift a single bit as her other forehoof came up to reveal another pebble. “This is his brother Tom. They don’t get along. I usually have to keep them separated.”

Sweetie nodded, apparently listening to the rocks, if her ears were any indication. "Well, it's understandable, Boulder being a metamorphic rock, has a few years on Tom. It's just regular sibling rivalry, with enough pressure they'll calm down."

“This has got to be the most bizarre conversation I have ever witnessed,” Rainbow Dash whispered to the other mares in the room, who gave a bewildered nod in response. The confusion immediately transformed into concern when Pinkie Pie began to stir.

“Pinkie, how are you feeling? Do you need anything?” Maud asked, showing more energy than she had during the entire conversation prior and completely focusing on her sister. “Maud is here, okay? I’ll take care of anything you want me to.”

The pink pony’s eyes opened just a bit and slowly focused on her sister. “Water… please.” Her tired gaze shifted to the rest of the room, and she managed a small smile. “Sorry I’m not… the life of the party today. I’m just tired…” Pinkie Pie drifted off mid-sentence, the small smile still on her face.

Maud placed a comforting hoof on Pinkie’s head before hopping off of her stool. “Pinkie’s really happy you all came to visit, but I think she wants to sleep now. I’ll let you know when she wakes up and is feeling better,” she said as she walked over to the pitcher of water sitting near the far wall.

"Alright girls," Applejack said, standing up. "How about we talk in another room?" She turned to face Maud. "Just let us know when she's ready to see us and we'll all make our way back to visit her."

The dour earth pony hardly acknowledged the group’s departure as she returned to the bed with a full cup of water in her hooves. All of her attention was on her sister as she slept.

The group walked down the hallway in Applejack's wake, with Sweetie taking in what had been said and trying to compare it with her own experiences with other versions of her sister's friends. The closest she could think of was the one where Rarity had… killed Octavia. The thought still pained her, but she realized slowly as she listened to them, that she had no idea how to really understand them.

She had fighting experience, and her own share of pain, but she had always had her home be safe, at least as far as she knew. Even Twilight's crazy fragment had shown her that her sister was still alive. Her losses were personal and always at her own expense… not somepony else's.

She remained quiet until Rarity spotted a room. "I'm fairly certain this is one of the rooms Shining Armor mentioned were free," she said, opening the door and peeking in before giggling and trotting inside, followed by the others.

It was another large room with a single bed, but the main difference was that across from it was a fully stocked bar with several comfortable-looking sofas arranged around it. Bottles of all sizes and shapes were stored inside, and a collection of different glasses hung from the top of it or were aligned on the back.

Sweetie quickly made her way to the bar and started rummaging through, levitating several bottles out as well as a metallic shaker. All those thoughts and memories were driving her mad and depressed and angry. And she knew the best way to cure that: "Who wants a chocolate martini?"

Silence reigned in the room before Applejack asked, “Rarity, what have you been teaching your sister?”

Rainbow Dash snorted and doubled over with laughter as Rarity sputtered between denying Applejack’s insinuation and trying to ask Sweetie where she had learned about alcohol before finally settling on the latter. “Sweetie, dear, please tell me that you had a responsible adult with you when you found out about such things?”

Sweetie blinked. "Oh, yeah, sure I did. I mean, there was Spitfire... and Soarin! And Vinyl Scratch was hitting on me. But, Blueblood made sure I didn't get too crazy... although I did end up throwing up over the gala guests the first time with them..."

When Rarity started sputtering, Sweetie grinned. "But the first time I got drunk was with all of you girls. Except Rainbow Dash, she couldn't drink with the foal on the way." Complete silence was all that answered her.

“Say what?” Dash asked. “I’m not certain I heard you right.”

Sweetie used her magic to cool down the metal shaker as she prepared her martini. "Well, you couldn't drink alcohol with a foal on the way," she repeated, fully aware of what she was doing, and yet trying to keep a straight face. "I have to say, I was impressed that you were so considerate... for a future mom."

Rainbow Dash tried several times to form an answer before finally finding the words she needed. “I’m not certain I understand what you’re saying.”

“Well, Rainbow Dash, when two ponies love each other—” Fluttershy started, but was immediately cut off.

“I KNOW WHERE FOALS COME FROM!” Dash shouted before fixing Sweetie with a glare to hide her embarrassment. “You! Make me a drink, and keep making them until you make sense!”

"Right-o!" Sweetie said, straining her martini into a glass. She levitated a couple of bottles and froze some water into a solid ice cube, which she dropped into a low glass, letting the contents of the bottles mix on top of it as they filled it up halfway. "Here you go! It's a stiff drink, but interesting!" She eyed her sister. "Want some, Applejack?" For Fluttershy I'm making something I had in Bitaly..." she started mixing again, waiting for her sister's reply.

Rainbow Dash didn’t hesitate for a second as she stomped up to the bar. She gave a narrow glare at Sweetie before slamming back the drink in one shot, drawing stares from the other mares in the room. “Keep ‘em co--” THUNK Anything else she might have said was lost as the pegasus’s head hit the bar.

Sweetie blinked and checked the bottles before looking back at Rainbow Dash with a frown. "Well... that was... something." She levitated a fruity cocktail over to Fluttershy. "Please don't down it." She quickly mixed another cocktail for Rarity and another one, apple-scented, for Applejack. "Here you go girls, let's take a seat and revive RD."

Fluttershy accepted her drink with a quiet nod and began to sip it slowly while the others sat at the stools. Rarity’s reaction was a mix of appreciation for a finely crafted drink and surprise at its source, while Applejack took a moment to give the glass a long sniff before smiling and starting on her drink as well.

Sweetie proceeded to mix yet another drink, but it was clear that she had used just the barest splash of alcohol in it in comparison with how full it was with juice. She then proceeded to empty a bucket of cold water on Rainbow Dash.

“SOLARIA’S FROZEN FLANKS!” The pegasus sputtered as she fell off of the stool and onto the floor. “Ugh… where am I? My head is killing me. And why am I all wet?” she asked as she stumbled back onto her hooves. “What did you give me? I haven’t felt this bad since…”

"It was a sipping drink, Dash," Sweetie explained, passing her the most recent mix she had made. "Usually when it has ice like that, you're not supposed to slam it down. Here, this one will be more enjoyable." She helped Rainbow Dash sit down on a sofa after using a spell to dry her coat, and then sat down herself. "Enjoy the drinks, girls!"

Several minutes passed as the group enjoyed their drinks before Rainbow Dash asked, “Okay, now I want you to explain to me, as simply as possible, what the hay you were talking about earlier.” All eyes went from Dash to Sweetie as she nursed her own drink.

"Well, I've visited different worlds and met you all in different stages of your life," Sweetie explained, opening a small portal and summoning her book through it. She pulled out a picture and passed it on to Rainbow Dash. "You can see for yourself."

Rainbow Dash looked down at the offered picture, and she nearly dropped her glass. “No. Way.”

“Well, RD, you certainly have that motherly glow about you,” Applejack said with a chuckle, which earned her a dark look from the pegasus. “There isn’t anything wrong with that, sugarcube! I know I certainly didn’t expect it from you, though,” she finished before retreating safely behind her glass.

Sweetie giggled. "If it helps at all, you were all about... three hundred years old in that picture? There were plenty of Apples there too, AJ, direct line from you, although the big competition was mainly from Fluttershy and her hubby... Big Mac."

All eyes immediately shot to the two mares. “What?” Applejack asked, “Apples come from big families, and Apples have big families. Is that so surprising? Though that age comment raises an eyebrow or two. I mean, a foal at three hundred? That’s just unheard of! Now what’s this about you having intentions on my brother, Flutters?”

Fluttershy said nothing, but her face was closer to Big Mac red than her usual canary yellow. “Um… no thank you?” She asked, and she seemed to do her very best to become one with her seat.

"From what I heard," Sweetie leaned in. "Eight foals. Eight." She chuckled leaning back. "It's another world, girls, but... well, you can see that you all were happy." Her smile became a bit sad as she ran a hoof over the picture. "You all had gone through a lot together, but apparently you got to be immortal there... in the end, you all were there for each other and you gave me a lot of hope when my journey began. I didn't ever get a sibling until Blueblood adopted me."

A pleasant smile crossed Rarity’s face at the compliment. “I’m glad we were able to help you there, Sweetie. There comes a point where friends can be just as close as family.” She swirled her drink around as her expression fell. “I suppose that’s a curse the princesses have to endure. Outliving everypony that isn’t blessed with both wings and a horn. I had never spared a thought about that, and I don’t think it would be right to ask Twilight about it now.”

She downed the rest of her drink, and proceeded to mix something else without even looking, although its golden color was reminiscent of what she had given Rainbow Dash earlier.

“Waitwaitwait, Blueblood?” Rainbow Dash asked. “Are we talking about the same stallion here? I mean, he might be totally different but at the Gala he was a total jerk to Rarity.”

Rarity gave the prismatic pegasus an evil glare. “If you knew he was a jerk then why did you laugh when I told you what happened?”

“Because it was funny at the time!” Dash answered, as though her reasoning excused everything. “Since then I have matured as a mare, and I realized that he was a bit of a jerk, okay?”

“The Blueblood we have here isn’t him, though. I had a chance to meet him during a Wonderbolts thingy. Looking him in the eyes and it was like staring into the face of one of Rarity’s marequins.”

“But the marequins don’t have faces…” Rarity said, only for Dash to whirl towards her.

“EXACTLY! There’s nothing going on in that head of his. His eyes, though…” The pegasus shivered on the stool. “I was wearing my Wonderbolts uniform and his eyes made me feel like I was wearing less than nothing. All kinds of creepy.”

Sweetie shrugged. "He had bad days." She sighed. "Anyway, yeah, Nightmare Moon is something that happens often too... one of the first worlds that I visited had her as the queen after the elements hadn't worked against her. She had Twilight in a skimpy dress, and a two day war against me and the other crusaders... you girls simply couldn't be bothered to deal with her since she was a massive prankster, so we got permission to wage a prank war in the palace. I even got to do the test for 'Nightmare Moon's School for Gifted Unicorns." She stood up and prepared another round of drinks for the others, taking care of the old glasses as she replaced them with a fresh one.

“Prank war?” Applejack asked.

“Nightmare Moon’s School?” Rarity added.

“Twilight in a skimpy dress!?” Rainbow Dash blurted out, before once again falling off of the stool laughing. When she noticed everypony was staring at her, she added, “Oh come on! You all were thinking that too!”

Grinning, Sweetie pulled out a piece of paper with a seal of approval declaring her acceptance into the school. "First attempt! And yes, a prank war... we painted Nightmare Moon's room pink, and in retaliation she glued all of the furniture in our room to the ceiling while we were asleep." Sweetie laughed. "It was a lot of fun, although as I grew older I realized there were a lot more implications to what had been going on there... especially when she told me that Twilight tasted like blueberries."

Rainbow Dash was having trouble breathing with all the laughter as she rolled on the floor. All Rarity could manage was an ‘Oh my’ before taking another sip from her glass. Applejack had started to show some signs of embarrassment or inebriation as her face turned red. All Fluttershy could manage was “B-b-b-” before looking down.

"Heh, I'd love to see Twilight's face when she finds out about this," Rainbow Dash added.

Sweetie nodded, her smile slipping a little. "Why don't… you girls tell me what's going on with her? Back on Earth they hinted at what went wrong, but they didn't really say much."

Rarity sighed and the others shared looks. "When Twilight disappeared due to Discord's magic, we thought she was lost forever. Luna and Celestia both spent months trying to figure out where she was..."

"Turns out she'd been dropped of at Earth," Applejack spoke into the small pause. "Y'know that she was there with X-com, but we found out later she was an experiment there for a while, of sorts… she made friends quickly but she was trapped, Ah guess is the right way to put it."

"She couldn't go out of her room, or look at the sky," Rainbow Dash said.

"And she didn't have anypony familiar there, or a way to talk to us." Fluttershy added.

"She grew close to her few friends there, a little tight group of humans in the middle of a base full of them that would shoot her on sight." Rarity sighed. "When some of them died in an attack… she lost it, and she almost died to… shot by one of those she was trying to protect."

"It took her a while to get better," Rainbow Dash said, taking a sip of her drink. "We… didn't understand. How could we? We'd never seen anything like it before. Pinkie took it hard. She saw Twilight there and insisted she wasn't really back yet."

"Eventually Twilight wrote what had happened down and… we read it," Fluttershy whispered. "I-it broke my heart."

Rarity chuckled a little. "Twilight asked me for a secret project in the meantime… it was strange to see her so… overwhelmed."

The group descended into silence, broken only by sips or the clicks of glass on a table.

"The friends she made," Rainbow Dash eventually spoke up. "They were close. Her only hope and comfort for a long time… when she watched one of her best friends die… something else died there and Twilight… she couldn't take it."

Sweetie gulped. "Well.. now I need a stiffer drink."

o.0.oo.0.o

The knock on the door caused a cacophony of groans and mutters as the group slowly regained consciousness. “Sweetie, are you in there?” A muffled voice called from the other side of the door. “Are the Element Bearers with you? Maud mentioned that you had headed in this direction…” Gradually the door opened to reveal Firecracker, who gave the general state of the room and its occupants an arched eyebrow. “Seriously?”

Sweetie yawned and stretched. "Oh, hey there Firecracker… glad you joined us." She glanced at the window. "The next day. What took you?"

Firecracker made her way into the room. Fluttershy and Rainbow Dash were still sleeping soundly on the sofas, while Rarity and Applejack were just beginning to stir as well. "Party hard?"

"Aw, I'll invite you next time, Firecracker," Sweetie said, rolling off of the sofa she had commandeered and bumping shoulders with the changeling, seemingly completely unaffected by the alcohol she had consumed.

“I’ll pass, thank you,” the changeling answered as she gave one of the bottles a dubious look. “Inebriation makes it hard to hold a form, and I’m not exactly comfortable going au naturale.” Her gaze fell just a bit before perking back up. “You mentioned that you had some ponies you wanted to meet, I’m assuming that’s more than just the Element Bearers?”

"Yes! I wanted to see if some of my friends from my travels were here and how they were doing. I was wondering if you knew Octavia Philharmonica? Or Vinyl Scratch? Fleur de Lis? Lyra Heartstrings? Bon-Bon?" she grinned a little bit. "They won't know me, but it would be nice to make sure they are okay anyway... maybe I could meet with the Crusaders as well?"

Rarity was the first to respond as she ran a hoof over her mane to try and smooth it out. “I’m sure we could meet the Crusaders in a bit." She hid her mouth with her hoof and they both could her a small burp. "I think I’ll need a little bit of time to freshen up," Rarity said sheepishly. "Do you think you could find something to do in the meantime?”

“I suppose we can go looking for the ponies you mentioned, Sweetie,” Firecracker said with a nod to both of the mares. “I’m familiar with some of the names you mentioned but I’m not sure where in the capital they’re staying.”

Sweetie shrugged. "I can wait, I'm just glad they're okay... with things as they are, it's always good to know good friends are safe. For now." She glanced back at the other passed out mares, then to Rarity. "I could just take a walk in the meantime while you girls... um... recuperate?"

She then looked back at Firecracker. "After you, my fair friend! Lest the hives run dry and the courts degrade into chaos!"

The euphemism elicited an arched eyebrow from Firecracker as she led the way out of the room. “I know in your travels you’ve had some experiences with my kind, but I would advise not advertising that fact. Mother dearest and all of my siblings aren’t very popular here in the capital despite our part in the war effort.”

"Ponies should learn to calm down," Sweetie said matter of fact. "I've had really bad experiences with... your mother," she lowered her voice when saying that. "But I learned quickly enough that not every place I go her children are to be feared, or incapable of personal objectives, even desiring peace... I would have never thought this but the mare that first helped me come to grips with... my history, after a really shocking experience, was just like you." She smiled a bit. "Only, she kept messing up her voice all the time... sometimes it would be normal, sometimes too high or low... It was endearing." She sighed. "I guess what I'm trying to say is that maybe the fear and lack of trust is well-earned, but we all have to look past things like that at some point if we want to grow."

“The hive follows mother dearest, and she uses my siblings to further her own goals. There are a precious few of my kind that retain enough individuality to break away, and have the motivation to actually do so,” Firecracker explained. “I suppose I can understand why. Individuality is scary when you’ve lived a life with your family just a thought away.”

Sweetie chuckled. "You must have been a spy or a scout or something, the ability to stay on your own like that in such a society can't be easy..." she glanced at Firecracker. "Maybe we're not so different after all."

“I wouldn’t be surprised about sharing similarities,” Firecracker said as the pair turned into a new corridor. A pair of black-armored ponies guarded the open entrance to the throne room, and the disguised changeling sped up into a trot. “And your earlier estimation of my role was an accurate one. Mother dearest tasked me with finding and evaluating destinations for the family…”

Sweetie, however slowed down. "Oh, wait! Let's check on the Princess! The court is open and I don't see anypony in yet! Come on!"

Firecracker nearly tripped at the suggestion and nearly galloped to Sweetie’s side. “Princess Celestia is quite busy and I’m afraid we’ve got a lot of ground to cover. Do you remember our discussion about the Alicorn Amulet? I was hoping to run a test using your particular skills…” Her speech was non-stop as she continued her efforts to steer Sweetie from the throne room.

Sweetie shrugged, heading straight for the throne room. "Oh nonsense, Princess Celestia always has time to—" she stopped at the edge of the court, eyes growing wide. "Wait, that's—"

Firecracker’s attempts to steer Sweetie from the throne room became much more direct as she began to push her back out into the hallway. “Not a word!” she hissed while pointing a hoof further down the corridor. The pleasant tone in her voice had vanished only to be replaced with steel and just a bit of fear. “We can discuss it in private, but not here.”

Sweetie raised an eyebrow, but clamped her mouth shut and smiled pleasantly as she turned and followed Firecracker away. They walked in silence for several minutes until Sweetie sighed, making sure nopony or human was around. "Fine, so it's not all as it seems," she said diplomatically. "Care to share? Because what I saw back there? That's not good."

Firecracker said nothing as she continued to lead Sweetie down another corridor and to a large vault door. A pair of gold armored earth ponies stood guard, and they visibly tensed when the pair came into view. “Arcanist Firecracker plus an authorized guest. Our entry to the vault will be on file,” the disguised changeling said as she stopped exactly three body lengths from the guards.

One of the guards sidestepped to a podium to check the list posted on it, but the other stood at the ready until the first gave a nod. “Fifteen minutes in the vault have been authorized,” the first guard said. “Do not attempt to touch or remove anything inside.” One hoof tapped on a seemingly featureless spot on the floor near the door, and a small surge of magic slowly pulled the door open. Firecracker trotted past the two guards and the massive door before giving a look back at Sweetie. Only when the unicorn had followed inside did the door begin to close behind her.

Once the door had closed and locked, Firecracker let out a ragged gasp and seemed to deflate. “That was close. Too close. I doubt mother dearest could have anticipated somepony like you showing up, but she should have.”

"Nopony expects Interdimensional Sweetie," Sweetie acknowledged. "But... that was just-How did that happen? Did the queen take down Celestia? Does anyone else know about this?"

“Princess Luna is aware of mother dearest, as well as the other leaders of the alliance here in Canterlot,” Firecracker said as she sat down and put one hoof on the side of her head. “Princess Celestia was… incapacitated during the first alien attack on Canterlot, and during the second, mother dearest rallied the defenders by impersonating her. I suspect she’s been looking for a way to remove herself from the public enemies list since the fiasco with Cadance and Shining Armor, and she used the alien attack as leverage to force her way into the alliance. After all, Princess Luna couldn’t attack her ‘sister’ so soon after the alien attack without severe repercussions.”

"I see," Sweetie nodded. "That seems like classic Chrysalis," she chuckled. "But you should be glad she's at least attempting that... other Chrysalises that I have met... well, they haven't cared as much and didn't end well. For themselves or their hives." She sighed. "I'm not entirely sure how I feel about this..." she raised a hoof at Firecracker's expression. "I'm not going to say anything but it is very unexpected. Am I supposed to just pretend that the changeling is Celestia if we ever talk? Or will you inform her that I know?"

The hoof on the side of Firecracker’s head began to work in small circles as she grumbled. “It certainly is a classic maneuver for her. Maximum risk, maximum reward. If she pulls this off, she’ll hopefully be in the good graces of the major powers on this world and on Earth. If she screws this up, it could fracture the alliance and get us all killed. Ideally I would prefer to keep you as far away from her as possible, as I don’t want to think about what she might try to do if she was aware of what’s in your head. I cannot emphasize enough that this must be kept secret, as Mother Dearest’s presence in Canterlot is only half of the problem. Princess Luna and I have done what we can to lay the groundwork for revealing my mother’s cooperation, but ponies might panic if they think there are changelings everywhere. Well, other changelings.”

Sweetie hummed, but shrugged.

Firecracker sighed. "Okay, we need to discuss something now, taking advantage of the fact that nobody can hear us." She gave Sweetie Belle a hard look. "What is the deal with you blatantly exposing yourself? Outsing ponies. Telling everypony your life story." She started pacing in front of Sweetie, who looked a bit taken aback.

"I'm not stupid, Sweetie, I see how you move... I look back on how silent you were, the maneuvers you pull unconsciously out of constant practice. I see you take measure of things, gauge usefulness, and take what matters into account, store information. You admitted yourself to being trained as a spy if not an assassin. You know the value of secrets and the need for them. You know the cost of life, and yet you babble about loss and what you went through as if you were over it… which by the way, you are not."

Sweetie cringed. "I—"

"Far be it for me to lecture you on hiding things, but this thing you've been doing since you arrived is… excessive." Firecracker interrupted. "Those mares up there throwing up in the room and recuperating from trying to drink at your pace already care about you… on top of everything else that is going on. You could at least take a moment to be honest with them instead of acting like humility is not part of your vocabulary. Sure, you have experiences, and sure you've been through similar things, but you don't need to make things about you all the time…" She peered under her frown at Sweetie. "So why do you?"

Sweetie shuddered, trying to not to look away. "I don't know what you're talking about."

"Yes you do." Firecracker all but growled. "You met me, and suddenly it's advance changeling politics and details I personally never really noticed until you brought them up. You met Shen; matrix design and theumatic theory. You spoke German to Moira. Why do you need to show off?"

"Because I need ponies to like me!" Sweetie snapped, facing Firecracker again. "Because under this," she motioned with her hoof in a sweeping motion at herself, "I'm a monster! Because I'm never going home and I only have limited time to make sure they know I'm not evil and that I can help!"

Firecracker sighed. "Sweetie. I understand what's happening… but you are not a little filly anymore. You can't depend on impressing ponies with sudden knowledge to convince them that you're of value or that you're not their Sweetie or a monster. There's no one to impress, no one that needs to know everything about you to trust you. At this rate you might as well print a resume to hand out every time you meet somepony."

"But… what if they don't trust me?" Sweetie asked in a small voice.

"Then they don't. You can't live depending on other ponies doting on you or trusting you implicitly. Who you are is something they will discover—or not—at their own pace." She paused. "Or yours, but not because you're desperate to share, but because you want them to know you."

Sweetie remained silent and Firecracker took a deep breath. "Come on, let me show you what we came for and you can think about all of that.

“This place is the vault, where Princess Celestia and Princess Luna store the various artifacts and arcane curiosities that they’ve collected over all the years of their rule,” Firecracker said, practically pouncing on the opportunity to change the subject. “Everything here is too dangerous to sit in a museum, either by being able to directly cause harm to the unwary, abused by the ambitious, or… misinterpreted by somepony who doesn’t have all of the facts.”

The disguised changeling waved a hoof into the dimly lit room, and glowing lights began to appear along the walls, revealing shelves and display cases lining the walls and down the center of the room. Firecracker began to trot down the aisle towards the back of the room, making certain to keep a body’s length from both the shelves and the tables in the center of the room. “If you’ll follow me, I had something to show you. And do follow the guardpony’s orders and don’t do anything besides follow me. An errant spell could destroy the room.”

Sweetie blinked at Firecracker's words and took a harder look around, taking in for the first time the spell patterns around her. Her eyes widened and she stood stock-still as the connections slowly made sense in her head. She followed it with her eyes, trying to confirm what she had assumed, and found to her horror it was correct. "I-I would be more worried with being instantly teleported to the surface of the sun than casting an errant spell..."

“It’s a security measure to prevent the discovery, theft or misuse of anything here,” Firecracker explained with no more concern than an art dealer talking about an alarm. The pair passed several seemingly mundane objects, including a wide-brimmed hat and a bangle of bells. “Nopony except the princesses are aware of everything inside, which is probably for the best.”

Sweetie took a deep, calming breath and fell in step behind Firecracker, still trying to avoid stepping on any nodes she noticed. "W-ell, then." She cleared her throat. "What did you want me to see?"

Firecracker remained silent as the pair continued past several more items before finally stopping at a display case. Four telekinetic blades rested inside the case and were engraved from end to end with glittering vinework, and at the center of the case was the familiar shape of the Alicorn Amulet. “Remember our discussion back on Earth?” Firecracker asked as she cast a wary glance at the contents of the case. “You had mentioned some differences between the Amulet that you were familiar with during your travels. You had also mentioned something about ‘personalities’ of different objects such as stone or water. I’m curious as to what you can tell by looking at the amulet here.”

Frowning, Sweetie approached the amulet, but didn't touch it. She blinked, opening her senses to the whispers of the world around her. Her shadow promised unintelligible secrets, the metal in the room was sturdy and silent, but now felt aware in some sense. But she tried to concentrate on the amulet. There was something off about it. "It's not saying anyt—" she stopped. There had been a whisper.

ill them...

She stopped, tilting her head. "Wait there's something..."

...killl...them!

Sweetie jumped back, recoiling as if stung, and eyes wide. "What are those things made of?!"

“The element was originally discovered by Clover the Clever, and was almost immediately banned by Princess Celestia afterwards, according to the records,” Firecracker said. She hadn’t moved an inch closer to the display case, and her eyes remained locked onto it as though it might jump and attack at any minute. “Clover called it ‘Arcanite’, and it’s used extensively in everything the aliens make. Everything from their weapons, to their ships, to the implants they put in their soldiers’ heads… I’m assuming this is nothing like the amulet you encountered?”

Sweetie shook her head. "This thing... it has intent. It's strong and it wants to kill. Anything. Everything." Even now, she could still feel it whispering. "Its voice is... it's dark. Demanding. If anypony... or anyone were to use them, it wouldn't bode well."

“That’s what I was afraid of. The humans had thought the loss of rational thought and violent impulses were as a result of the brain suffering overload from the power that Elerium brings. I suppose this is just a little more evidence that there is something a bit more sinister at work.” Firecracker motioned back down the path and away from the display case before walking back towards the entrance. “Have you encountered anything like it? Or have any theories?”

Sweetie shook her head. "Nothing like it. Not an element of all things that compels you to kill. There's enough cursed items that would affect your personality, but those are very specific spells, not a will coming from a part of it." She looked at Firecracker. "If humans are using these... there is a real chance that they might be influenced beyond help."

Firecracker simply nodded. “After Captain Harris’s incident, Princess Luna forbade the use of any device that uses Elerium until they could develop a way to control it the way the aliens do, with the exception of the devices the humans used on Earth to enhance their magic. The princess was quite specific that such devices would neither be allowed or used on this world again. There hasn’t been an incident since, so the humans must have found a way to control Elerium when it’s used in their technology.”

Sweetie gritted her teeth, looking at the amulets one last time before turning away from them and following Firecracker back to the exit. "Are you sure it's the aliens controlling the elerium? Because I'm not convinced."

“That’s something else that the arcanists have been debating. The humans have yet to catch one of the alien leaders alive, but they ran some tests on a body they recovered. The one that they found was several thousand years old and had none of the implants that the lesser species had,” Firecracker explained before knocking twice on the exit door. “It’s also worth noting that they are capable of magics powerful enough to fight the princesses, too.”

Sweetie sighed. "I think if this Equestria had been more prepared for war, the less tragic this would have been. Ponies can be very, very scary."

Firecracker suppressed a wince as the door slowly began to open. “I don’t think we could have ever been prepared for this. When you go to see the Cutie Mark Crusaders, I think you’ll see why. Now, why don’t we go see if Rarity has freshened up enough to take you to the three delinquents, yes?”

"Hey," Sweetie bumped shoulders with Firecracker. "I'm a crusader."

The changeling’s reply was led with a nervous grin. “I don’t know if you know these crusaders.”

o.0.oo.0.o

“Sweetie, I’ve been thinking,” Rarity said as the pair wove their way through the crowded Canterlot streets. “I don’t know exactly what we’re going to tell my Sweetie about you. For the longest time it’s just been the two of us so I don’t know if I could believably tell her that you’re a long lost relative.”

"Tell her I'm a version of herself from a dystopian future?" Sweetie offered with a small smile, still thinking about Firecracker's words. "The few times I've pretended to be somepony else, she caught on every time."

“Is that so? Well, I suppose she does have her moments of inspired genius,” Rarity mused as they turned a corner, and the traffic on the pathway abruptly ended. At the end of the alleyway, a pair of griffons in light armor stood guard, and they moved to bar the mares path as they approached. “Good morning, Halfast. Hard at work, I see?”

“It’s the afternoon. State your business,” the griffon on the right said without an ounce of humor in his tone.

Rarity took on a wounded pose. “Do you really have to ask? After all the times I’ve been through here, I would think you would recognize me.” When the griffon didn’t offer a reply besides a glare, Rarity let out a huff. “My name is Rarity and I am here with a friend to see my sister, Sweetie Belle. She is currently in the company of High Talon Alvar.”

The other griffon stepped past the gateway and had a short and hushed conversation with someone beyond before resuming his post and nodding. “Your intent has been verified and you are clear to visit the High Talon’s residence. If you deviate from the path, you will be escorted out of the enclave.” The orders were given briskly as both griffons resumed their original positions, leaving the way clear for the two mares to pass between them.

"Fun," Sweetie remarked, glancing at the pair before following Rarity and ignoring their brief glares. She instead studied the griffons around. "So... mandatory military service? They seem ready for a fight." She took note of the earnest seriousness the young griffons had towards their games, and the wary but resolute looks of the adults as they walked past. "It's hard to imagine such a strong race in this situation..."

“I don’t know all the details, but Rainbow Dash had a chance to speak with some of the refugees,” Rarity said in hushed tones. “Gryphos was attacked and destroyed in the course of a single night. The High Talon’s best soldiers were there to defend the city, and they weren’t enough. Dash said that perhaps one out of five of their soldiers escaped the capital, and less than half of the population made it to our borders. The rest are still there, or worse.”

Another pair of griffon soldiers stopped the pair at a second checkpoint, and the conversation at the entrance repeated itself almost word for word. Once they were cleared through the checkpoint, Rarity continued, “The High Talon was nearly assassinated when the aliens attacked Canterlot for the second time, and I can’t find it in myself to blame them for the inconvenience of all these guards. Alvar is their ruler now, and he’s the last survivor in his family.”

"Huh," Sweetie grunted. "So Sweetie is friends with the king, she's moving up in the world. And at such a young age too!" She grinned. "So tell me, just how many bridal gowns have you already designed in your mind?"

Rarity tried and mostly failed to suppress a giggle. “Oh I think she’s still a bit young to worry about anything like that. Plus she still has to realise how she feels before any sort of formal arrangement is made.”

"So…" Sweetie said after a moment. "Ten? Twelve?"

Rarity looked scandalized. "I would never! The level of assumption that would require does not befit a lady of my standing. I limited myself to eight." She pretended not to see Sweetie's raised eyebrow. "For now."

Sweetie giggled. "Well, I could always model for you so you get some good measurements," she teased. "Lord Alvar might be a handsome griffon, after all, and being an expert on myself, I can say I did notice colts at an early age. Even if I didn't really act on it." The smile wouldn't go away. "Granted, my first crush was a bit older than I was and I think you might have had some issues with it."

“Is that so?” Rarity asked, and she recoiled once the pieces came together. “If you tell me Blueblood was your first crush, I may need to thrash him on principle.”

Sweetie stopped and let out a very unlady-like snort. Then another. Then burst out laughing, leaning on Rarity, completely unable to control her mirth. She was laughing so hard it was getting hard to breathe. She didn't care if she was drawing attention to themselves, it was just too much for her and she sank to her knees, holding on to Rarity to keep from falling.

“I’ll take this as a sign that my guess was thankfully off the mark?” Rarity asked as as she waved off the numerous stares that Sweetie’s laughing fit was attracting. “I’m sure you’re old enough now to… appreciate the reputation he has. Plus he’s taught you far more about liquor than a mare your age should know in my opinion.”

Sweetie snorted and slowly stood up. "Hehe... sorry, sorry. In his defense he taught me courtly manners, history and value of heraldry as well as a plethora of spells. But, no, he was not my first crush." She grinned at her sister. "My first crush was a stallion named 'Dusk Shine'." When Rarity didn't react, her grin grew. "You might not remember what little I told you about that world where you were all the opposite gender... but he was Twilight's double. Only as a stallion."

Sweetie could almost hear the gears turning in Rarity’s head as she processed that bit of information. “Let me guess…” Rarity started, a devilish grin replacing the shock. “The only thing he wanted between the ‘covers’ was several hundred pages of boring history text?”

"Rarity!" Sweetie fake-gasped, bringing her hoof to her chest in pretend-horror. "I was but a filly! I wasn't thinking about such things! I just thought he was dreamy in this adorkable way... so studious and surrounded by books."

Both of them giggled as another pair of griffons appeared in the doorway to the large building at the end of the street.

Before either of them could speak, a far larger griffon emerged from within the building. Unlike the other griffon soldiers who had approached them at the other checkpoints, this one was covered completely in plate and mail armor from his head all the way to the tip of his tail. Several weapons were strapped to every convenient location on the armor, and his gauntleted talons were coated in glossy metal as well. The helmet covered the griffon’s entire face, and the eye holes appeared as two black pits as they locked on to Rarity, then Sweetie.

“Good afternoon, Myrmidon. My name is Rarity and we are here to see my sister and her friends,” the purple-maned unicorn stated without any attempt at conversation.

The larger griffon stared silently at Sweetie for several seconds longer before glancing back down at the other mare. Its head tilted to the side slightly before turning and walking into the building without a word. The two soldiers at the door stood aside, allowing Rarity and Sweetie to pass.

"Now that," Sweetie admitted, "Is someone I would rather not get into a fight with." She kept her eyes on the griffon before her, not caring if he or other griffons could hear her. "And look at that armor! It's fantastic!" she added animatedly. "You can tell the weapons are the highest quality! And... do you feel that magic signature? Whoever created this was knew far more than their own craft! Rarity, this griffon is more than a warrior... no simple warrior would wield such equipment with that grace!"

“Is… that so?” Rarity asked with a nervous laugh. “Rainbow Dash said he’s what the griffons call a ‘Myrmidon.’ There is apparently some cultural significance to the title, it seems.” Rarity’s nervousness was slowly replaced by an impish grin. “You know, dear, flattery is the first step into any stallion’s heart. I bet he’s blushing underneath that helmet. Why don’t you tell me all about that fabulous armor of his?”

Sweetie Belle blinked at Rarity, dragging her eyes from her sister to the armored griffon. "You... are you saying he might be interested?"

Some of the good humor left Rarity’s expression, though the smile remained. “Oh, I’m sorry, dear. From what Dash tells me, they’re rather committed to their nation and all that. Plus, I tried and struck out. Couldn’t get so much as a word out of him.” The last admission came with a pout and an aggravated look.

"Maybe you didn't get into the right type of conversation?" Sweetie ventured, growing into the idea. "You think if I showed him mine...?"

“You might have more luck if you tried elsewhere, Sweetie. Rainbow Dash also told me that the Myrmidons never talk, ever. Well, that’s what she told me after she stopped laughing when I told her why I was asking,” Rarity grumbled. “I swear I will have my revenge on Rainbow Dash…”

Sweetie chuckled. "Who would have thought? Sweetie and Rarity... smitten by the strong, mysterious and silent stranger in armor."

The two sisters shared another giggle which was interrupted by a sound that Sweetie knew very well but hadn’t heard in a while: the sound of an adventure.

To an untrained ear, it sounded like three fillies screaming at the top of their lungs. To Sweetie, it was like coming home. What was perhaps less familiar was the thump thump of heavy footfalls that punctuated the screams, and the sounds were coming closer.

The Myrmidon halted and stepped aside just as the source of the screams came barreling around the corner. A red, black and white golem much like the one Sweetie had seen on Earth sprinted down the hallway, though without the layers of bulky armor and weapons that the previous machine had carried. What it did carry, however, were the Cutie Mark Crusaders, who clung for dear life onto the rails mounted on its shoulders. The golem skidded to a stop and turned to reveal a griffon youngling with a gray coat and feathers in pursuit.

Despite panting for breath, the griffon straightened the moment he spotted the Myrmidon and the two mares beside him. “Ah, good afternoon, miss Rarity. I assume you are here to see your sister then?” he asked as he straightened the sword strapped across his back. His amber eyes crossed over to the other Sweetie, and he arched an eyebrow. “Who’s your guest?”

Sweetie bowed. "I am Sweetie Belle, young High Talon," she said, keeping a straight face and looking forward to her own reaction. "It's a pleasure to make your acquaintance."

The skeptical look never left Alvar’s expression as he turned slightly to the side. “Sweetie, I think you mastered time travel and came back to visit us. Or your evil doppelganger escaped from Organization X and wants to talk to you. Or was it EXALT now?”

Sweetie grinned at her flabbergasted self and raised a hoof. "Join me, and together we shall discover where Fleur de Lis hides all her chocolates. We shall be... invincible."

“We will never join your evil plot to steal all the chocolate!” Announced the younger Sweetie Belle from atop the shoulders of the golem. The other crusaders nodded in agreement.

"Good," Sweetie nodded solemnly. "It's good to see that the Crusaders are still a force for justice. You have passed my test." She smiled at the group. "Don't tell me that Crusaders have changed so much that everypony else is suspect?"

“The humans from Organization X are mind controlling everypony!” Sweetie explained.

“All of the Element Bearers have fallen under their power!” Applebloom added.

“Only we see them for the threat that they are!” Scootaloo announced.

“And we fight them every day,” Alvar deadpanned.

“OH COME ON!” Sweetie shouted in outrage from atop the golem. “You’ve got to put more enthusiasm into it, Alvar, or nopony will take us seriously!”

“I shall try and muster more effort into our heroic declarations, oh glorious leader,” Alvar surrendered with a bow.

Sweetie grinned. "It takes time to build up enough Crusader energy to fight the forces of evil!" She leaned in a bit theatrically, “but how did you find out that the Elements were under the control of Organization X? I didn't know until yesterday."

“Twilight Sparkle!” the younger Sweetie announced. “She was the first to fall to their diabolical mind tricks! Then it was Fluttershy and Applejack! They’re all acting fishy now! Rarity and Rainbow Dash aren’t taking us seriously, but it’s only a matter of time before they are taken by the conspiracy!”

Sweetie's eyes widened. "Not Rarity! She wouldn't! Unless... does the mysterious Organization X wear... clothes? If they do, we're doomed!" She looked back at her sister over her shoulder. "But don't worry! I will protect her, nothing will happen to Rarity as long as Sweetie Belle, warrior of justice, is here!"

Rarity hadn’t managed to say a word through the entire conversation. She was too busy trying to stifle the impulse to giggle at the whole scenario. “The temptation of having so many willing subjects to make clothes for… it’s so hard to resist!” she managed to say after collecting herself.

"Indeed, dear sister," Sweetie said solemnly. "But you know as well as I do that you must fight these temptations! If you do not, you might end up designing a whole set of uniforms, with so many pockets and stylish variations! Not to mention the berets! With encrusted gems on them!" Sweetie hummed. "And maybe capes. No evil organization should have stylish military uniforms without berets and capes to compliment the look."

“It’s all so true! Just think of all the accessorizing and color coordination I could do!” Rarity exclaimed, before apparently being overpowered by the forces of evil and fainting onto a couch that zoomed in just in time to catch her.

"So you see," Sweetie said turning to smile at the Crusaders, "We must remain vigilant. When not doing other stuff, of course." She glanced at Scootaloo and Apple Bloom. "So any ideas how my humble self can be of service to the Cutie Mark Crusaders?" She grinned. "It's been some time since I last crusaded, but I'm sure it's just like riding a bike."

o.0.oo.0.o

“Okay girls, I think we can sneak in just like last time,” the younger Sweetie explained to the gathered ponies before turning to the older Sweetie. “Zecora told us that she would need a couple of days to gather some things that will help us, but the agents of Organization X are everywhere, so we have to be careful.”

Sweetie Belle nodded. "I guess Zecora we need to find, if our plan is to unwind." She smiled at the fillies' bewildered look. "For a Zebra to heed, maybe speaking like them you'd need?"

Scootaloo snorted. "That one was pushing it."

Sweetie Belle chuckled. "True enough, but I'm guessing that if we're to avoid Organization X we do need to be stealthy. And for that we need to know the layout of where we're going. Have you been there before?"

“Yep! We’ve gone to visit Zecora before, and we were able to get in and out without any problems!” the younger Sweetie said as she waved a hoof at the large building that they currently stood in the shadow of. It had all the hallmarks of Canterlot architecture, but an unfamiliar set of banners hung from the upper levels and near the front doors. A cloaked figure stood near the front door with a spear resting against its shoulder, and the only indication that it wasn’t a statue was the careful movement of the hooded gaze as it swept the area. The younger Sweetie continued to explain the intricacies of her plan, oblivious to the sentry casting the group of fillies a long glance before resuming his scan.

"Hmm," Sweetie nodded. "I can see you three have been practicing stealth! Well done! But we'll need to be extra careful this time. If Zecora is helping us out, then no doubt being seen by any spies could put the whole mission in jeopardy." She forced herself to remain serious. "So, where do we get in?"

“Through one of the windows in the side street! It leads to an office or something on the first floor, and from there we can sneak our way to Zecora’s room on the second,” Scootaloo explained with a smirk. “For all of the zebras that we see coming and going from this place, it is kinda empty inside.”

Sweetie Belle nodded again. "Well, it's a big building, maybe they meet in other areas of it, right? That makes our job a little easier. Let's go inside! I'll follow you."

The younger Sweetie nodded and as she led the quartet into the side street she had mentioned earlier. The window in question was partially open despite the winter chill in the air. It took next to no effort to slide the window open further to allow the Crusaders to enter the building silently. Just as Scootaloo said, the room in question was some form of office, complete with a pair of desks and stacks of scrolls waiting to be read or mailed.

Sweetie Belle tilted her head and blinked. There was a mug of tea still steaming left on one of the desks, and the room didn't feel like it had been cooling down despite the open window. The guard outside seemed too competent for there not to be more in the perimeter, checking for weak spots, and such an obvious entrance would have been detected immediately. She had a nagging feeling she knew what was going on, but, for now she'd roll with it. She made a show of looking around carefully, checking obvious and not so obvious hiding spots before saluting the other crusaders. "Room secure!" she whispered.

Applebloom assumed the lead as she crept up to the office door. After several long moments of listening, she cracked the door open and glanced through. With the hallway apparently empty, she pulled the door open wide enough to allow the Crusaders to slip through. The hallway itself was sparsely decorated aside from modest carpets and rather bland tapestries and, like the office, was completely deserted.

Sweetie slid out without making a sound, her eyes scanning the hallway carefully. One of the tapestries moved slightly, as if shifted by the wind, but there was obviously no space behind it for somepony—or zebra—to hide. Which left...

Sweetie made sure the crusaders were distracted before she looked up. Looking down, and trying to hide a smirk, she followed after them. "So... Zecora's room is close, right?" she whispered. "You girls think she had enough time to make what you need?"

The younger Sweetie replied with a shrug, “She said a couple of days to get what we would need, and it’s been a couple of days, so…”

"Gotcha," Sweetie said, falling in line after the fillies as they lead her confidently towards their objective. They would stop and peer around corners, or hide under tables before moving, drawing more attention to themselves than if they had been walking in the middle of the hallway dressed in Pinkie Pie's Elements of Harmony costumes. Of course, she followed suit and her sneaking was so over-the-top that she could almost feel eyes rolling at her and the crusader's antics. She did pause to wave, once.

Eventually, and taking three times longer than needed, the stood outside a wooden door, where the fillies had paused. "Is... is this it?" Sweetie asked.

“Who is that I hear, who comes from nowhere near?” A familiar voice asked from the opposite side of the door, and the door slowly opened to reveal a tired looking Zecora. The smile that had been on her face morphed into surprise as she caught sight of the older Sweetie. “I can scarcely believe what my eyes see, but you appear quite real to me. I sense that you have come very very far, elder Belle, and that you have quite an interesting story to tell.”

Sweetie grinned. "And a long one! But it's always good to see you, Zecora." She motioned at the crusaders. "My fellow crusaders said that you were preparing something for them?"

Zecora nodded sagely at the young fillies. "To bring down the organization's tower, you'll need items of Ultimate Power."

Scootaloo frowned. "But they don't have a tower!"

Sweetie patted her younger friend's head. "It's a metaphor, Scoots. You'll understand when you're older." She yelped when Scootaloo bucked her shoulder.

Zecora smiled and nodded as she stepped away from the door to allow the four to pile into her room. Despite it being in Canterlot rather than Everfree, Zecora’s room was similar enough that she would have guessed its owner even without the zebra being present. Ancient books could be found along the shelves that lined the walls, as well as bottles of ingredients and various other things that Sweetie could only guess the purpose of.

“Be careful how you use these gifts,” Zecora said as she led the quartet over to a table on one side of the room and pulled the cloth off to reveal its contents. “For they will allow the power to shift.”

Three small torcs rested on the table, each crafted out of wood and intricately carved by hoof, if Sweetie were to judge them. The first was most likely meant for Scootaloo, with a feathered wing design wrapping around the length of the torc and a wheel in the center. The second belonged to Apple Bloom, with elegant vine-and-leaf engraving that sprouted from an apple in the center. As for the last of the torcs…

Straight lines were carved along the entire surface of the torc, which intersected with other lines to create sharp corners and angles that drew the eyes of the observer to the center, where Sweetie couldn’t help but stare at an exact replica of her own cutie mark.

“Zecora, where did you get the idea for this design?” She asked, unable to tear her gaze away from the symbol that couldn’t have existed in this universe prior to her arrival.

“Symbols have power, we all know this to be true,” the zebra explained as she eyed the elder Sweetie. “Dreams and insight led me to the first two, but I suspect that the last came from you.

Sweetie blinked. "But-that doesn't make sense!" She looked at the torc. "Not that my life ever does," she muttered. "How could you have even seen this one?"

"When I was lost in dreams, I told myself all is not that it seems," Zecora replied, shaking her head. "But it was not my voice alone that spoke, I saw myself step out almost like smoke."

"You mean that you saw yourself in that dream?"

Zecora nodded, turning to glance at a mirror. Her reflection looking right back at her just as intently. "We have secrets to share with spirits, and one such of me had similar merits. The other me was looking for a mare, and took a risk, very few dare." She looked back at the elder Sweetie Belle. "She said Sweetie had been lost in space, but she and others searched for her rightful place. Our conversation was short, but this image into my memory stuck."

Sweetie's eyes widened. "They're... they're searching for me?"

Zecora simply nodded, unable to add much more.

“This is AWESOME!” Scootaloo yelled, all thoughts of their ‘stealthy’ entrance apparently forgotten. None of the crusaders wasted a second as they lunged for their individual torcs and put them on just as quickly. “Thanks a whole lot, Zecora!”

“Yeah, thanks, Zecora!” Applebloom agreed as she looked down at the stylized vines and apple with a smile. “So how do we get them to work? Is there some kind of special pose we need to unlock the power!?”

“Poses are lame, I bet it’s a password!” the younger Sweetie said. “Like… Wonder Foals power… activate!”

“No no no, I’ve got a better one! By our powers combined, we are Captain Crusader!” Scootaloo added.

“Uhm… it’s morphing time?” Apple Bloom asked as much as said.

"For the powers of the amulets to understand," Zecora spoke up. "Much patience first you must command."

"What?" Scootaloo asked after a few moments.

"She means you have to understand them yourselves and that needs some patience and time," Sweetie Belle explained absent-minded. "Come on girls, we should try them out... out there."

As the fillies nodded and started parading out of the room, Sweetie's eyes rested on Zecora, shimmering a little bit. "They're looking for me?"

The Zebra smiled and nodded. "They are."

o.0.oo.0.o

Sweetie Belle spent the walk back to the Griffon Barracks in contemplative silence. She followed the motions of the other crusaders. Stopping when needed. Ducking when guards walked by. Sneaking behind humans who were all-too-aware of the crusaders and finally coming into view of their destination, where Alvar would take care of them.

Her mind, however, was in another place completely.

They know I'm alive, and they're looking for me! She thought to herself for at least the twelfth time. Could it be that they found out when the Crazy Twilight Fragment used that mirror to show me Rarity? She stopped, letting the crusaders walk in front, shaking her head. What if that wasn't the only time? What if they have been able to see what's happening to me? What if they have been trying to contact me and I haven't been able to hear them?

I always thought... I assumed they would've thought me dead. And then, just like that, there was evidence that they knew she was alive. That they had seen her cutie mark. That they were reaching out into the multiverse. Zecora had been with Rarity when they had seen each other through the mirror. Could Rarity also be dream-walking through time and space looking for her? Were they the only ones? Maybe... maybe the princesses were helping. Maybe the other elements. Spike. Applebloom. Scootaloo... maybe they all were trying... and she had never given a thought to them knowing.

What... what will Rarity say to me, if we meet like that? Will she recognize me? Sweetie thought, trying to sort her feelings out. She could almost hear Rarity speaking to her. She would say:

"Welcome back, Sweetie Belle!"

Her voice would be happy, and full of life, knowing her sister was okay and back safely.

"Sweetie Belle?"

Sweetie blinked, her eyes focusing on Rarity, who stood next to the crusaders and a couple of guards, looking at her with some worry. "Are you alright, dear?"

"I-I..." Sweetie stammered. "Oh. Oh! Yes. I am, just... distracted."

Rarity held her sister’s gaze for another moment before accepting her at her word. “So, was Crusading just as fun as you remembered, dear?” she asked with a smile.

"It was," Sweetie chuckled. "Although..." she leaned in. "A proper crusade would have involved more damage. Maybe the palace on fire, or a Minotaur catapulted to bring down a spaceship with his horns."

Rarity offered a polite laugh at the explanation, but her gaze held more than a little trepidation. “Is that the wisdom of hindsight I hear in that evaluation, or were you always aware of the… collateral damage your crusades tend to inflict?”

Sweetie chuckled. "We never knew just how bad our ideas were until the inevitable happened." She smiled a little self-consciously. "Later on we started to think a bit more, but it was usually just one of us who grasped what a bad idea something was, while the other two would be caught up in the moment."

“Well, I certainly hope that spending some time with you will help my Sweetie gain some sense of control over the plans the Crusaders come up with,” Rarity said, before smiling impishly. “From what I understand, she’s toned things down significantly once the High Talon became a regular for their group. Oh, you should see how she hangs on his every word whenever he’s talking about tactics or some military something-or-other.”

“NO I DON’T!” The younger Sweetie objected reflexively. “Alvar’s super cool and he treats us like adults! And he’s brave! And he doesn’t call any of our plans stupid or anything like that either. And he’s… well…” she trailed off and increasingly looked as though she wanted to melt into the floor as Rarity’s grin grew.

"He is handsome," Sweetie Belle nodded, smiling at Rarity. "Such a nice, strong leader too!" She added, well aware that her counterpart was decidedly uncomfortable. "I heard he stood guard over a whole wing of the hospital... that's beyond honorable. It's downright noble. It's no wonder Sweetie here listens to him."

Throughout the entire conversation, the younger Sweetie had begun to blush rather severely and actively look for places to hide. Rarity, being the loving older sister that she was, went for the kill. “Come to think of it, you mentioned that you would be willing to do some wardrobe testing with me, correct?” she asked the elder Sweetie. “After all, we cannot allow my dear younger sister to look anything but fabulous for her wedding with royalty, hmm?”

Sweetie tapped her chin thoughtfully. "No, I don't think we can. That would be... the worst thing! No. This is a crime that must not occur. I shall definitely allow you to do the testing. She can't look anything but fabulous for his majesty. To do less would be... unforgivable."

“Both of you suck!” the younger Sweetie wailed as she turned and bolted in the opposite direction of the two mares.

"I think Sweetie needs a milkshake," Sweetie Belle said with a weak chuckle. "I hope we didn't go too far."

“Heavens, no. Applejack and I have been having such discussions when Sweetie’s been nearby for at least a week, and we’ve just scratched the surface.” Rarity said before nodding and leaning forward conspiratorially. “Truth be told, I think she likes it. If she didn’t, then her ‘crusading’ would have hit my personal apartments with the force not unlike a hurricane.”

"Oh, so you do know me that well," Sweetie teased, grinning. She shook her head and looked at her sister. "Thank you for letting me go crusade a little with them. It was... eye opening, to see how unaware we really are about so many things. But, you know, I will never wish we hadn't done all that."

“I suppose it is a rather rare opportunity, to relive one’s youth not only as an active participant, but as an outside observer,” Rarity mused as her gaze drifted to where the younger Sweetie had dashed off to. “Before we had met the Crusaders, I do believe you had mentioned some other ponies you had wanted to meet? I must confess that I do not how how long it would take to track them down, but we can certainly look for them.”

Sweetie nodded. "Well, I don't know how long I'll be around. Could be a couple of days. Could be a month. I'm sure we'll have time... but... how about Twilight? Everypony seems worried about her, but I haven't seen her at all."

Rarity’s expression slowly fell at the request, and several moments of silence passed between the two before she finally spoke. “Twilight is… she’s trying to cope with what has happened. If you want to see her, I can take you. Just… don’t be surprised if she isn’t in a condition to speak with you. Alright?”

Sweetie nodded. "I understand..." She took a deep breath and let it out slowly before looking at Rarity in the eye. "I would like to see her... she was my mentor... there hasn't been one world where she hasn't been there for me, and I could do no less… even if I end up being no help at all."

Rarity gave a hesitant nod before turning down one of the castle corridors. An uncomfortable silence followed the pair for several minutes before the older unicorn spoke. “You probably are well aware of Twilight’s tendency for perfectionism. As I said, she’s taken recent events rather hard, and I think she’s trying to find out just where things went wrong.”

The pair stopped at a large doorway, where a black-armored stallion stood watch. Rarity gave a nod to the guard, who returned it. “This room is a memoratorium, and it allows the occupants to revisit their memories. If you want to speak with Twilight, you’ll need to go inside,” Rarity explained, before chewing on her lip. “If you see something in there that changes your mind about talking with Twilight, nopony would think less of you, Sweetie. Just… be prepared.”

Sweetie nodded. Hesitating at the door just for a second, and looking at Rarity. "She's strong. Every time. She'll pull through," she promised and then stepped into the room. The door closed behind her with a click, plunging the young mare into darkness.

You killed them.

The voice was stricken with anger, and accusation, and came from every direction. What was perhaps the most unsettling was that it undoubtedly belonged to Twilight.

You killed them all.

The darkness of the room was replaced with flashes, scenes of burning buildings and a trio of humans, man, woman and child, running down an alleyway. The clattering of claws on cement was the only warning Sweetie had as a nightmarish creature ran the man down and dismembered him. The woman screamed a denial which was cut short as the monster bolted from the first kill and tore her to pieces. Only the child remained, until the monster tackled it and repeated the process for the third time.

I’m so sorry...

The scene shifted abruptly to a room not unlike the one Sweetie had stayed in while she was on Earth. Doctor Vahlen and two other humans were in the room. The man near the door gave a comforting smile before pressing the button to open it, only for the monster from the first vision to pounce through the doorway and eviscerate him. The armored bulk of a Muton stepped through the doorway and levelled a weapon at the second human and reduced her to ash. Doctor Vahlen screamed a denial and charged, only to be backhanded into the wall-length mirror and crumple into a bloody heap.

You killed them all when you chose to do nothing.

I’m so sorry… I didn’t… I just…

A second voice answered the first, this one wracked with a palpable amount of guilt and despair.

Then you killed them all because you lost control.

I didn’t have any other choice!

Several scenes filled the darkness, flashing one after the other. The insect-like monster crushed in an alleyway. Waves of magic petrifying the alien monsters that Sweetie had seen back on Earth. An explosion in the night sky heralded the destruction of an alien airship. The steel-eyed gaze of a human shooting before being flung away. A second human slowly being mashed into paste with telekinesis while Twilight screamed her denials at what they had done.

You’re right, there is no choice. Killing is what you’re good at. Killing is all you’re good at. You just hadn’t realised it...

No…

The scene switched to reveal what appeared to be a hospital room of some kind, with a plethora of electronics and machinery present. A dozen doctors swarmed between the beds as medical alarms blared, but Twilight’s gaze was locked onto a single bed. Its occupant, a human woman with only one arm, twitched and trembled as the doctors swarmed around her, before going very still.

All you have to do is admit it. It’s your special talent, Twilight.

“I’m sorry!”

Sweetie’s ear twitched as the last denial didn’t come from whatever magic the room projected, but from the only other occupant in the room. She had missed it in the chaos of the room, but a figure sat in the center. Twilight stared up at the scenes around her, wrapped tightly in a blanket and with some form of stuffed toy in her hooves. With every scene change, she would wince and cringe, but she couldn’t look away.

Sweetie stepped through the memories until she reached Twilight's side. She sat down next to her and slowly wrapped her foreleg around Twilight. "Your voices... they're lying. That is not your special talent, Twilight."

The memories jumbled out of cohesion as Twilight turned her gaze towards Sweetie. Her eyes struggled to focus as the lights around the perimeter of the chamber slowly grew brighter. “You… you can’t be real. If you knew the truth you wouldn’t say that. You can’t be real,” Twilight said as she closed her eyes and hugged the doll in her forelegs tightly.

Sweetie shook her head, pressing Twilight in a tighter hug. "Of course I am, Twilight. And I'm telling you... that's not how it is, that's not who you are..." She waved a hoof at the now-empty room. "Those memories should show you that's not the truth. There's a difference between defending yourself and others and... and killing. I know. And I know you. You are punishing yourself for things you couldn't have controlled."

“But… but they’re all dead because of me!” Twilight nearly screamed. “If I had just been faster, or smarter, I could have saved everyone!”

Another, older Twilight's voice echoed in the room and illusion gave life to a more mature Twilight, still a unicorn, surrounded by her friends singing, of all things, a country song.

"Prestidigitation." A Twilight, younger—but closer in age to the Twilight cuddled next to her—said in a calm, motherly voice as she leaned forward a bit over the tome she had opened in front of her.

"P-pres... ti...di...gi...tation. Prestidgah!" A childish voice repeated. "I'll never get it right!"

"You will, Sweetie Belle, let me get you some tea."

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

“Yes, and even better, the pony that did this?” Sweetie's voice whispered. “She only took 4 hours to figure it out.”

The illusionary Twilight twitched and fainted. “Blueblood?” Sweetie called worriedly, “I think I broke her!”

A different Twilight appeared next. She was taller, regal even, exuding power and strange energies. She was also evidently drunk.

Sweetie's voice emanated from the emptiness around them. “You mean... you and my sister actually... you slept with her?”

“Well, not technically...” the illusory Twilight said, looking a little embarrassed, “I don’t think sleeping was actually involved. It was... more in the middle of a dance.”

Twilight stared up at the scenes as they played out around her, a look of empty confusion on her face. “What is all this? I don’t remember any of this.” Her attention came back to Sweetie. “Who are you? What are you?”

Sweetie grinned. "I'm your apprentice. Sweetie Belle."

The grief and misery in Twilight’s gaze lessened just a bit, and in its place was the familiar curiosity and hunger for knowledge that Sweetie was all too familiar with. This look continued for more than a minute, shifting from her self-depreciation to curiosity back and forth before she finally spoke again. “Time travel? No, that wouldn’t account for the memories, and they’re too detailed to be imagined. Dimensional travel? Operation of parallel worlds…” she muttered as her eyes drifted to the new images that surrounded her.

Sweetie was grinning now. "Well done! You have no idea how many times I have to explain to ponies I come from another dimension!" She chuckled. "But seriously, Twilight.. being here listening to that is not doing anypony any good."

As Sweetie spoke, the images of Twilight faded and flashes of moments sped by quickly: a large wolf-like creature about to attack a little colt was suddenly speared through with a spike of ice.

A huge cavern toppling over and around teenage Sweetie, Apple Bloom and Scootaloo as they fought a gigantic wyvern.

A ghoulish pony slamming with deadly force a little filly inside a protective suit of some sort against the wall; flashes in the dark and diamonds flying, gray fur, rapid breathing and blood.

Strangely colored changelings having an all-out battle with ponies in armor and in the middle of it Sweetie Belle battling against herself... the images continued for a few more seconds until they reached an empty hallway, huge and made of glassy black rock and yet somehow more foreboding and scarier than anything before.

Sweetie visibly shuddered and forced herself to stop thinking, chasing the images away just as a tall, bipedal figure started appearing on it.

Twilight’s eyes captured the scenes just as quickly as they appeared. She closed her eyes and seemed to shrink further into her blanket to try and escape them. “Why do these things happen? Did we do something to deserve this? Neither of us should have been forced to make these choices. We don’t deserve this, right?” The last question was pleading as Twilight looked up at Sweetie.

Sweetie shook her head. "You've told me yourself in other worlds, that sometimes we have to make a stand... we don't kill for pleasure, and if we find others that fight to defend themselves we can talk and solve things peacefully. The wolf-creatures were unable to do anything but kill. They destroyed families, hunted the innocent... killed just because somepony was there. We couldn't reason with them, even if they sometimes seemed to have the ability to think. If anything, when you found a smart one, you were fighting for your life even more desperately."

She sighed. "There's intelligences that don't care. They find amusement in our suffering because our sense of morality is as alien and as incomprehensible to them as their callousness and lack of empathy is alien to us."

Sweetie was quiet for a moment, hugging Twilight tightly. "Even if we were forced to only one option, if we didn't do anything, those we love would be gone due to our inaction. And I feel that, as long as we don't kill simply because we can, or because we simply wouldn't think of an alternative, we are not like them. And we still have hope."

Twilight quivered from the physical contact that Sweetie provided, before shrugging the blanket off and returning the hug with a fierce one of her own. She tried several times to speak, but couldn’t find the words. All she could do was return the hug with her forelegs and wings--

Wait, wings?

Sweetie blinked in confusion as the logical conclusion slowly dawned on her, but Twilight's hug was too desperate to pull back, even if she really wanted to see. Forcing her curiosity away for the moment, Sweetie leaned in, holding the other mare tight. This was not the time to freak out about Twilight being an alicorn.

Well.

At least not loudly.

There was, however, something that made her pause. The little doll Twilight had been holding. Sweetie blinked, and spoke up without even thinking about it. "Wait. Is that a little human doll?" She paused, thinking back to something Rarity had said to her. What had it been?

As Sweetie dredged her memories of the overheard conversation, the images in the room changed.

“Don’t deny me my vicarious romance!” Rarity snapped at Applejack, though there was no heat in her voice. “Besides, everypony seems to be developing a taste for the… exotic these days. Twilight rather adorably staked her claim, and Fluttershy has had a rather large number of heart-to-heart talks with that Victor gentleman. Apparently the humans don’t look favorably upon the concept of herds in a relationship, so I’m forced to get what I can where I can. Sweetie’s little romance is all I have now that Twilight took the latest Shining Hearts book right out of my hooves and hasn’t returned it.”

"Oh," Sweetie said. "So that's what she meant." She frowned. "Now that I think of it... it kinda looks like Matt."

“Wha-- no it doesn’t!” Twilight said hastily as she followed Sweetie’s gaze to the doll. “Why would you think it would look like Matt?” Before she had even finished her denials, the scenes in the room began to change again.

“Matt…?” Twilight’s voice asked, and the blurry figure of the human in question appeared. Unlike the scowling pillar of gloom and doom that Sweetie had encountered, he seemed concerned to the point of fear as he sat next to her bed. He wrung his hands as he waited for Twilight to speak. “Could you… scratch my ears, please?”

“No, stop it!” Twilight yelled at the room before turning back to Sweetie. “This isn’t what it looks like!”

His hands are so warm, and that feels so goo--

With no warning, Twilight teleported both of them out into the corridor outside of the chamber they had just been sitting in. Her face was red and she was breathing heavily. “You saw nothing in there, and if you say otherwise I’ll send you to the moon.” The lavender alicorn threatened, but her almost incandescent blush undermined her efforts.

Rarity and the guard both moved to approach the pair, but a quick look from Sweetie forced her to halt in place. She dithered for just a moment before turning to the guard and making enough small talk to divert his attention as well.

Sweetie considered the warning and gave Twilight a measuring glance. "So..." she teasingly said, grinning at how Twilight tensed. "Wings, huh? I think this is the first time I've seen you as an alicorn."

She chuckled when Twilight seemed to calm down a little and couldn't resist the offer. "Besides, you don't need to be embarrassed for liking someone, if you want we could talk about it..."

Twilight’s expression seemed to be three parts embarrassment, two parts denial, and one tiny part giddy hope at the idea. She opened her mouth several times to speak but either couldn’t decide which option to choose and simply elected to remain silent and follow. In Sweetie’s jaded opinion, it was a far better look than the tortured creature she had found in the memoratorium.

The pair had taken only a half dozen steps before Twilight froze, then teleported again. A second later she reappeared with her blanket and plushie firmly in tow. “Not a word,” the young alicorn again threatened.

Sweetie abided the instructions for as long as she could before she smirked. "Ah, to be young and in love."

"Hey!"

o.0.oo.0.o

It would have been an easy mistake to assume Twilight’s rooms were some form of storage space for the Canterlot library. Nearly every flat surface was covered in books, scrolls, or other assorted bits of paper. Subjects ranged from magical theory to history to etiquette. There was even a small stack of paperback books that appeared to be well-loved, judging by their bent spines and dog-eared pages.

Curious, Sweetie went over to take a look at them, levitating the one at the top of the pile, revealing a rather square-ish picture of a human boy. "Harry Potter and The Philosopher's Stone. Huh. Never read this one."

“It’s a human book that Charles gave to me while I was on Earth,” Twilight explained. “Before I ended up there, the humans had just folklore and legends about magic. The story is about a human boy who finds out that he’s the son of wizards, and learning how to use his gifts.” Twilight hopped up onto the sofa and carefully placed her blanket and plushie beside her before continuing. “I had been working on translating it into our language before all this happened here.”

"A kid gets taken out of the normal world and thrown out of his element, huh?" Sweetie asked, amused. "This sounds very familiar." She smiled at Twilight and looked around. "I like what you've done with the place, it reminds me of the Library.” She peered around the books. “Do you have a copy of Kinetic Fields: From the Simple to the Prismatic?"

Twilight’s expression went blank for just a moment before she turned to a specific stack of books. “The name sounds familiar…” the alicorn muttered to herself before producing a book and turning back to Sweetie. “It doesn’t look like I have that specific one. The closest I could find was A Guide to Shields: From Kinetic to Comprehensive. You’re free to browse it, since it might just be another quirk between worlds, right?”

Sweetie shrugged, sitting on the bed. "It's okay, I was just remembering. You know, that's the first book you pulled out for me to study from, and the first time I saw it I thought it was massive! I thought it would take me my whole life to get halfway through it!" She giggled. "I read it three times."

She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. "I love this. The smell of books, the comfortable feel of book covers, the rustling of pages with a passing breeze... I miss it. I really miss being your student."

Twilight’s expression fell as the tone of the conversation turned. “You can’t go back to the past, no matter how much you want to,” she said as she pulled both the blanket and the stuffed toy closer to her.

Sweetie shook her head and opened her eyes. "Hey, cheer up, Twilight... let me tell you something: yes, we can't change the past, but... do you know how amazing the multiverse is?" Her eyes shone as she grinned. "I'm a bit nostalgic, true but, I've had so many opportunities to learn from you and many others... one day, when I figure out how to control all of this, I'm going to come back here and tell you how much more I've learn from you!"

A small smile crossed the alicorn’s face then, only for her eyes to widen. “Spells, that’s it! I don’t know if you’ll find it useful or not, but my friends on Earth--” Twilight froze mid-sentence and closed her eyes. She slowly took in a deep breath and let it out before continuing. “There’s a spell I made that I think could prove useful for you, Sweetie, if you ever need to go unnoticed. A friend… a very good friend was very good at it, and I think you can put it to good use, too.”

Sweetie's eyes widened. "A new spell! Yes! Yes,yes,yes,yes,yes!" She chanted, springing around Twilight like Pinkie Pie on a sugar-binge. "Yes!" She repeated, finally stopping in front of Twilight. "I love new spells!" She cleared her throat. "And then, you can use it when we sit down to talk about coltfriends."

Twilight’s immediate response was a telekinetic pillow-throw directly at Sweetie’s head. “You’re just like Rarity!”

Sweetie remained stoic as the pillow hit her face. "Maybe." She smirked and tossed her mane just like Fleur had taught her, before striking a pose. "But unlike... other Rarities, I don't read romance novels."

A flat look was all that Twilight could manage before pulling a blank piece of paper and a writing tool from the desk. Intricate lines were drawn in quick succession as she spoke, “I think Rarity was a bit… disillusioned by the Gala. Now she keeps pestering all of her friends about the details about our relationships and buying those stupid books.

"You know," Sweetie said. "I know a universe where she married Blueblood." She tilted her head. "Although now that you mention it... I have heard rumors about a series of books about alicorns and humans..." She blinked and then slowly a smile spread on her face. "Oh. Oh I see. So I don't get to ask you about it, I need to read the book! That's brilliant, Twilight!"

“Absolutely not!” Twilight huffed. “And mom said the only way she would stop writing them is if there’s a royal decree. I can’t GIVE a royal decree without everypony asking why!”

"Human skin seems very sensitive," Sweetie mused, pretending not to hear Twilight. "I wonder... what do pinions feel like on it? Probably very nice... the slow caress of feathers, warm breath, soft fur... why, I bet that if you use your horn just rig—"

Twilight’s next projectile was the sheet of paper she had been writing on, and it struck Sweetie squarely in the face. “The spell’s name is Wallflower,” she explained forcefully, though her face was flushed a bit. “The underlying mechanics involve the inversion of the ‘Want-It, Need-It’ spell, where instead of attracting attention, it avoids it. I’m also not familiar with what types of spellcasting you were taught, such as alliteration invocation or aria self-hypnosis, so I drew the raw formulae for it. If you imagine channeling your magic in this specific pattern, you’ll get the desired effect. Just watch out, though. Only living creatures are affected by it.”

Sweetie took a glance at it and nodded. "This is a great spell, Twilight! Definitely more potent than a simple misdirection spell." She studied it a bit more. "And it appears to self-sustain for a good period of time too! I don't see additional variables to cast it on others... but... you should be able to make it work on non-living beings." She levitated another piece of paper and a pen, sitting next to Twilight. "Look, if we create a couple of nodes as long as the recipient of the spell is not moving, it would cast the illusion on all levels—even magical scans—that it's not there!"

Twilight watched closely as Sweetie laid out her ideas on the paper before she tilted her head. “It’s a clever work-around, but if we’re going this far with it, wouldn’t a simple invisibility spell be more effective with less complexity?” She gave a sheepish giggle. “To be honest, I had actually made up Wallflower on the spot to keep people out of danger. Full invisibility would have hampered them as much as their enemies, plus once it breaks, it’s done. As you mentioned, I’ve improved the formulae a bit to allow it to ‘refresh’ itself if the observer breaks eye contact with you. The humans have also had to find creative ways to spot magical camouflage like this.”

"Hmm..." Sweetie tapped her chin with a hoof. "Is that why you can't find a spot to hide with your humanfriend? How do you call it? It's not exactly coltfriend."

Twilight’s thoughtful expression once again switched to an embarrassed glare. “You’re not going to let that go, are you?” A sigh escaped her before she threw her hooves in the air. “Fine then, ask your questions, and remember that I can send you to the moon.”

Sweetie smiled sweetly. "Yes. And I have a picture of you as a belly-dancer that might make it to somepony in this world when you do. But we are not fond of threats, are we?" She grinned, then smiled more honestly. "Seriously though, Twilight... I don't want you to feel embarrassed. We can stop talking if you want, but I promise everything you tell me remains between us and I won't tell anyone about it. Pinkie Promise."

“If there’s any force even princesses fear, it’s the fallout of a broken Pinkie Promise,” Twilight said with a laugh.

"So, tell me a bit about why you like him," Sweetie said. "I've always wondered what type of... person, you would date. I never thought it would be a soldier."

A minute passed as Twilight mulled the question over. “Well, when I got to Earth, I was in a really bad place. I saw three people die right in front of me, then I had to take a life to save my own. One minute I’m in Ponyville with my friends and doing normal things, and the next I have blood on my hooves because I panicked. Matt was really sympathetic about what happened, which I suppose is understandable given what he went through. Then Lana told me that Matt thought I was cute, then we agreed to just be friends until everything calmed down, then the aliens attacked Equestria and the humans came to help, and Matt’s been really nice to me this whole time and I’m going to be quiet now.” Twilight’s rambling recollection of events halted abruptly as she wrapped herself in the blanket. By all appearances she seemed to be attempting to merge with the sofa with nothing but willpower.

Sweetie hugged Twilight, letting her calm down in her embrace. "It's okay, Twilight," she whispered. "You've gone through a lot, and the little bit of happiness you found had to be put on hold, but... I don't think you realize how brave you've been, and how strong you have been too." She shook her friend's shoulders lightly. "You probably don't feel that way, but you deserve some happiness, you really do."

“It’s not that I don’t think I deserve it, it’s just that I don’t really know what to do,” Twilight explained quickly, though she didn’t recoil from Sweetie’s hug. “There are some times where I think he forgets that I’m not human, and he’s a little jarred by it. Prior to Equestrians… and the aliens too I suppose, the humans were the only sapient life on their world, so I don’t know how I should really approach the topic with him. I’ve had plenty of chances to read into their history and less than a hundred years ago they had some seriously strict rules about relationships with other humans with a different skin tone! They’ve actually come a long way in the past-- Ugh, I’m deflecting again!”

Sweetie blinked. "Oh... I never even thought about that, but, if it's really an issue for him, I don't think he would forget you're not human. If their society was as hard on it as you read, I would expect him to be much more guarded than that." She sighed. "I don't know Twilight, it seems a bit difficult, but he's probably dealing with it too, and you running away might not be helping."

She rubbed her friend's back when she felt her tense. "I'm not saying you need to run in and declare your feelings to him, but, maybe you shouldn't run away. I saw him briefly, and he really looks like he needs somepony right now, and when you're there for him, wouldn't it make sense that he'll sort out his feelings about it too?"

“It’s not like I run away, exactly. When we’re together, he’s almost always relaxed and he seems happy, but he pulls back. Like when you are fumbling for something on your stove and a hoof gets too close to a burner, right?” Twilight explained, though her gaze fell as she continued. “I really shouldn’t be worrying about that now. We both lost a friend and with his current position, he doesn’t have anyone he can really confide in anymore. I should just try and be his friend, right?”

Sweetie bit her lip. "I'm not sure if that's all you should try, but I think he at least needs one right now. And if you were all close, it makes sense that you should be there for him." She noticed that Twilight was getting depressed again, so she dove in to keep her distracted. "Does he know you're... you know, interested?"

“W-well, I think so?” Twilight stammered before looking away guiltily. “I may have had Firecracker doing some surveillance on him and she says there’s something there. Lana was also giving me lots of encouragement, too. Plus, there was the time when one of the guards took issue with how we act around each other and… well, Matt said some really nice things.”

Sweetie tilted her head in confusion. "Wait. What did the guard say?"

“Well, he said that Matt should keep his distance and his hands to himself, because I’m a princess and such behavior isn’t proper from one who is ‘so far beneath my station’,” Twilight said flatly. “I almost stepped in right then and showed him just who was far beneath my station,” she added with a belligerent grumble.

Sweetie shook her head. "Twilight, I know I'm not a princess, but trust me. I've been around plenty of royalty and soldiers. So, I have some authority to say what I am going to say to you right now: You should have stepped in and put the miscreant in his place. He's a guard. And a random one at that, he's not your friend, not your confidant or a pony who should have an opinion on this, given your station and the diplomatic situation that could arise out of a comment like that. I sure hope he's not the head of your guards, and quite honestly, he needs a reminder of discipline, given that he spoke like that not only to a guest of yours, but also a commanding officer of higher rank than he is, who happens to be an ally in the military group that's helping to keep deadly enemies at bay." She sniffed disdainfully.

“Well, I was going to, but then Matt beat me to it and I may have frozen up while he was talking. I didn’t want to interrupt the moment, you know?” Twilight said with a small smile before she focused on the details. “At the time, Matt wasn’t in command, and the guard in question has been making a pest of himself lately now that I am thinking about it. I wonder if Shiny would let me switch him with a different guard.”

Sweetie shook her head. "That's one way of doing it, but you are a leader right now, and I think if this guard keeps giving the both of you trouble by being passive-aggressive, you should simply pull rank and get rid of him. Your relationship, whatever the stage, or whatever it will become, is none of his business, and it's unprofessional of him to butt into your life and it would do him good to remember his place from your own mouth." She took a deep breath. "Okay. I feel like you should take action, but I guess it's not my place to push you into it either. So just think about it, alright? Now, let's talk about something happier. When was the last time you had a chance to hang out with your friends?"

Twilight brought a hoof up to her chin. “Well, it’s been a while. A long while, really. With everything that’s been happening, plus ponies getting hurt, it’s been over a month at least.”

"Well, why don't we have a get-together, then?" Sweetie said. "Getting things sorted with Matt is not going to happen overnight, and I think you have plenty to think about with that, don't you? I did promise to play for Sweetie and the crusaders too."

“That sounds like a lot of fun,” Twilight nodded as she rose from her sitting position on the sofa and stretched. “Where to?”

A knock at the door and a voice preempted any response from Sweetie. “Twilight? Sweetie? Are you two in there?” Rarity asked from the hallway. “If you’re up for it, I’ve brought the others since they wanted to make sure you were alright.”

“Oh, uh, it should be unlocked!” Twilight shouted back as she tried to hop off of the sofa. Unfortunately, the blanket snagged one of her hooves and refused to let go, which sent her careening towards an unprepared Sweetie Belle.

Sweetie attempted to catch Twilight, only managing to wrap her forelegs around her as the pair rolled on the floor to land with a thump with her on her back, legs around Twilight, who had flared her wings to stop her fall, and their muzzles barely an inch from each other.

Rarity pushed the door open, stepping into the room with a smile. "Twilight! I hope that... that..." her eyes went wide and she took half a step back. "Twilight! That's my sister you're making out with! What will Matt think! This is the worst. Possible. Thing!"

The ponies behind her were knocked off their hooves when Rarity's couch forced its way through, just in time to catch her when she fainted.

Sweetie shook her head sadly. "Why does this keep happening to her?"

o.0.oo.0.o

Sweetie's bow slid through the strings back and forth, her head shaking with the momentum of the music, as if it were dictating her emotions half as much as she was playing them through the melancholic piece. It wasn't a slow melody, like most of her audience had expected, being fast paced and constantly evoking a sense of adventure, with little moments of calmer moments that somehow managed to build the expectation for when it would pick up again.

Finally, with a flourish of fast movements, she ended the song, and bowed.

Applause from everypony immediately filled the void left by Sweetie’s music, and what the sound lacked in numbers it made up for in enthusiasm. “Simply marvelous!” Rarity said above the din, and the other Element Bearers nodded in agreement. “What was the name of that piece, Sweetie?”

Sweetie Belle grinned. "Ode to the Empress of the Moon."

“I do hope my Sweetie outgrows all of this crusading and picks up the cello. If she puts half as much effort into that as she does with her plans for property damage, she would be a prodigy!” Rarity exclaimed happily.

Applejack chuckled before adding, “I wonder if I could get Apple Bloom and Scoots to do the same. Though some supervision might be good. We don’t need a repeat of their last concert, I think.”

Sweetie pouted. "Aww, you didn't like our concert? We even won best comedy act!"

“That might have been impressive, if that was what you and the girls were aiming for,” Applejack added flatly, before giving Sweetie an evaluating eye. “How long did you say you were going to be here? I think you’re probably going to be the only pony that those three actually listen to.”

Sweetie shrugged. "I'm... not sure. I spent about two weeks with the changelings and about two years with Blueblood. There's no... magical artifact to take me home, this time, so it's really out of my hooves." She gave Applejack a wary look. "But while I will admit little Sweetie, Scootaloo and Apple Bloom playing instruments together properly would be adorable, you should know better than thinking I'd be able to sway them."

“I think you’re selling yourself a bit short,” Fluttershy said, and she cringed slightly when all eyes locked onto her. “I haven’t seen you around the Crusaders yet, but I think they could learn a lot from you. I don’t mean to offend… but… I think that you’re ‘cool’ enough to be a role model for them. You’re also responsible enough to give them proper guidance. I’m afraid Rarity, Applejack, and Rainbow Dash don’t have that mix of traits and I think I’ll be quiet now.”

“Aww, yeah, I’m cool!” the chromatic pegasus cheered, before the second part of Fluttershy’s comment caught up with her. “Wait a minute, I can be responsible! Like, totally amazingly responsible! I’d responsibly show Scootaloo how to do an Immelmann turn out of a maximum speed dive to lose somepony who’s chasing her, for instance!”

Twilight’s brow furrowed as she opened her mouth to speak, but her question was immediately overridden by Dash. “Because it’s the coolest way to lose pursuit, that’s why!” Her enthusiasm was apparently lost on the others, which caused the pegasus to grumble and drop the subject.

"That sounds... extreme," Sweetie ventured. "And something she'd need a few years to master if we don't want her to break her wings or worse... Scootaloo really looks up to you. Here and in every world I've set hoof on. You have to be careful what you say to that filly, you're not just her hero, you're her role-model."

“What Fluttershy said makes sense, I must admit. I don’t know if I like being lumped into the drab, responsible ponies category, though,” Rarity said with a huff and a glance at Applejack.

The earth pony caught the glance and her face scrunched up like she had just bitten into something sour. “The orchard isn’t going to work itself, and I suppose it isn’t glamorous to get my hooves dirty doing real work.” The snipe at Rarity faltered halfway as Applejack let out a sigh. “The orchard is going to need a lot of work once this alien business is settled. Granny Smith is right, the trees can be replanted and the farm rebuilt… but it’s not going to be easy. I don’t think anypony’s even been out there since we had to leave last month.”

"Oh, I wouldn't say any of you are boring," Sweetie said, looking at the pair confidently. "You're just too close, and too familiar. I bet Apple Bloom would listen to Rarity more than she would listen to Applejack, and Sweetie Belle would pay more attention to Applejack too." She smiled at Fluttershy. "One of the few lessons that got through my head was from the sleepover we had at your house, Fluttershy."

“That’s a really good idea,” Twilight observed with a nod. “Having a bit of contrast in the ponies who watch them might be a good experience for them. They could also learn a bit about the responsibilities you both have.” The alicorn looked to Rarity and Applejack, who both nodded.

“Oh, oh! Me too!” Rainbow Dash added eagerly, and when she was met with a distinct lack of eye contact, she threw her hooves up. “Oh come on! Immelmann! Split S! Displacement rolls! I can teach them a lot!”

“I’m sure you can, Rainbow Dash,” Fluttershy finally offered to placate her friend, who simply resumed grumbling.

Sweetie nodded at Fluttershy. "Well, whatever you can each teach them, I'm sure that being with you girls is as important as finding their talent, and more so than me attempting to get them interested in music. We don't even know if they'll like what I play."

A knock at the door halted any further conversation, and the Element Bearers all shared a grin when they heard the voices of the fillies in question on the other side. What was a bit of a surprise was Firecracker’s voice as well. “Cutie Mark Crusaders prison gang, reporting for transfer,” she said with an official air through the door.

“We’re not prisoners!” “We haven’t done anything wrong!” “And that wall was totally broken when we got there!”

Twilight let out a small giggle before she spoke, “The door is open, and you can remand the suspects into our custody for the moment.”

The door opened and the trio of fillies sprinted into the room while Firecracker remained out in the hallway. “I’m glad you seem to be feeling better, Princess. If you need anything, please just let us know,” she offered before closing the door behind her.

Sweetie grinned. "Hi girls! Want to sit down and listen to something cool?"

All three fillies gaped at the musical instruments, but the younger Sweetie was clearly enraptured with them. “Was that you playing earlier? We were listening through the door bu--” the unicorn filly’s explanation ended abruptly as Scootaloo and Applebloom both planted an elbow into her barrel. “Er… I mean, the music was carrying down the hallway and we couldn’t help but hear it. It was really good!”

"I had very good teachers!" Sweetie said with a bit of a blush. "I hope you like the next one!"

Sweetie swayed with the music. It was very different from her previous piece, much more energetic, with almost wave-like sounds that went high and low and high again almost in time with her sways, the bridges in the melody were almost playful and seemed to draw the three fillies in. With a final swinging move she slid the bow creating a long, higher note that faded as she took a deep breath and bowed.

The roar of applause assaulted Sweetie’s ears like a tidal wave, forcing her to wince and cover her ears. She cracked one eye open to see just how her modest audience could be producing so much noise, only to see that everypony was frozen in place. Time itself had stopped.

“Bravo! Bravo!” a familiar voice said from behind Sweetie. She whirled around to see Discord clapping wildly and with a large grin on his face. “Simply unparalleled in its composition and execution!” he added as he stepped forward. He stopped his applause and brought his arms to rest behind his back, and the roaring sounds of approval halted immediately afterward. “I had no idea what to expect when you arrived here, Sweetie Belle, and I must say I am not disappointed.”

"Discord?!" Sweetie gasped, scrambling back. "How... why?" She fell to all fours, levitating her cello onto the table and adopting a fighting stance. "How did you get free? And what do you mean not what you expected? Did you know I was going to be here?"

Discord’s smile remained in place as he ‘tsked’ about her questions. “Now, now, Sweetie Belle, didn’t Twilight teach you anything about storytelling? You’re asking questions about the end of the story, when you really should be asking about how we got here. So, spoiler free answers! Planning, self-explanatory, and yes.” The avatar of chaos paused and let out a hacking cough, and what appeared to be a mangled barstool flew out of his mouth. Without missing a beat, he righted the damaged furniture and sat down in front of Sweetie. “Now, I’m afraid you’re going to have to ask the right questions going forward, or I won’t be able to help you.”

"Should I destroy you by turning you into crystal or make you into a sandwich?"

Discord’s eyebrow rose so high from the threat that it detached from his forehead. “Well now, she said you would be confrontational, but I didn’t expect that. I’ll go with… sandwich! I’m thinking… a jelly sandwich. With a side of Ambrosia. I expect it to be fit for royalty!

Sweetie grumbled and glared at him. "You know I can't actually turn you into a sandwich. It'd give ponies a stomach ache." She closed her eyes and took a deep breath trying to calm down... Then she snapped them open. "Wait. what type of sandwich did you say?" Her eyebrow twitched. "Oh. I see. Ha. Ha. That was you! Do you have any idea how badly I freaked out with that little stunt?!"

“Significantly less than when Twilight woke up with wings, if memory serves. Poor dear fainted on the spot once she saw them,” Discord replied, before waving his hands. “Besides, what’s a little discomfort and body alteration in the face of near certain death when surrounded by changelings, right?”

"I had to feed—mouth-to-mouth—a bunch of grubs!” Sweetie screeched in a fairly similar tone of voice to Rarity.

“The alternative would have been being fed into the mouth of one of those icky meat eaters, you realise?” Discord grinned as though such a fate were no more inconvenient than a bout with the cutie pox. Then, just as suddenly, his expression lost all of its good cheer. “You aren’t asking the right questions, Sweetie dear. The right question would be…”

"Bacon is tasty and it's meat," Sweetie muttered before she glared up at him. "Alright, I'll bite. How did you know I was going to arrive to this world? And who told you I was going to be confrontational?"

“Your first question is kinda answered by your second, but I’ll forgive that one. Though I will not forgive your threats and lack of follow-through. I have been threatened with just about every fate you can imagine, and I was rather looking forward to being a sandwich. Change of pace and all that,” Discord muttered before he perked up. “As for the who, that will require a bit of a story…”

SNAP

Discord’s digits heralded a change in their surroundings. The scene around them cracked like a pane of glass and fell away to reveal a pitch black void. “There are many theories about how reality came to be, from an all-powerful deity while another theory is that reality is merely the accumulation of flotsam and jetsam of other realities and possibilities that tried and failed to be.”

A series of lights appeared behind Discord, and slowly approached as he continued. “Truth be told, I do not know where and how this reality came to exist, but I do know about the architects of its maintenance. They were not gods, for they held no moral authority beyond the fact that none could rival their powers to challenge them, and they brought… order to reality.” The lights coalesced into the familiar and comforting shapes of the princesses.

“The alicorns?” Sweetie asked as much as stated.

“Alicorns? What, no, they looked nothing like--” Discord started before he turned around and scratched his chin. “Ah, I see. That’s what they look like to you? Tell me, which one is Celestia?” When Sweetie pointed a hoof at the one in the center, the avatar of chaos giggled and produced what appeared to be a permanent marker, and drew and exquisite moustache and unibrow on the solar diarch. “Now, where was I? Ah, the architects.

“The architects were known by many names over the countless aeons that they existed. The Architects, like I mentioned. Then there was the Travellers, the Old Ancient Ones, the Deep Ones, the Others, the Ethereals, the Wanderers, the dusty old meddlers who should mind their own business… but I digress! As I said, they brought order to this reality. Matter and energy were collected to create stars and planets, and when their mastery was great enough, they began to create life. Everything served its purpose in maintaining the order, and anything that did not serve that purpose was converted or eliminated.” Behind Discord, mindless drones plodded about like ants to operate planet-sized machines, followed by images of a few planets much like Equestria being snuffed out in an instant.

Just as quickly as the scenes appeared, they vanished and plunged the pair into darkness again. “This continued for millions of years, until one of the architects found something that shouldn’t… couldn’t exist.” Discord held out a paw, and the familiar shape of a Twilight shard appeared there. “It was a piece of a creature born separate from the order of the Architects, a creature of great power. The existence of such a creature was utterly alien to the Architects, who knew in their very souls that without their order and maintenance of the universe, it would fall into chaos and ruin. No creature could develop so… and yet, there she was."

"That's one of Twilight's fragments!" Sweetie gasped, looking at the projection in Discord's paw in awe. "But... if what you're saying is true that would have been billions of years ago! Just how far in time and space did I send her?!"

“That’s the start of this little story, not the end.” Discord smiled and the image of the shard disappeared. “The Architect that found the shard knew that he should report the anomaly, that he should erase it from the fabric of reality as an affront to everything that he and his brothers had made… but it made him dreadfully curious. And so he spoke to the shard, and the shard spoke back. It explained to him about its life in a little world called Equestria, in a little town called Ponyville, and of a concept that was as utterly alien to the Architect as the shard itself: Harmony. Not the black and white scale of order and chaos, but of a balance, and what can be achieved from it.

“It was then that the Architect decided to conduct an… experiment. On a little world far from the attention of his brethren, he decided to ‘unhook’ the creatures there from the system that controlled them all.” The surrounding darkness was filled with another world filled with the same drones that Sweetie had seen before, though one had stopped its work to look upwards to the sky. Time zoomed by as the immaculate structures and cities began to evolve in an almost organic manner. Art began to appear, change and disappear, as well as more creative and elaborate architecture. And then it simply vanished in a ball of fire.

Sweetie gasped in shock, eyes looking up to Discord for an explanation. He had yet to move from his sitting position but the look in his usually manic eyes was terrifying.

“It was only a matter of time that his brethren found out about the ‘malfunctioning’ world, and the systems there were purged to preserve the integrity of the larger whole,” he explained, the jovial tone gone from his voice. “After thousands of years of watching a race of people living and growing into their own brilliance without so much as a single ounce of anyone else’s power or control, they were snuffed out because they didn’t conform. It was then that the Architect realised the truth. What he and his brothers had been doing was denying each and every individual, countless trillions, the chance to live and grow on their own. It was pure order, and it was an evil on a scale that this universe has never known since.”

Discord again opened his palm to reveal the image of the shard. He looked down at it as he continued, “It was then that he struck a deal with the shard. It would lend power to the architect to seal away his brothers and their tyranny. It was a battle that had seen the universe torn asunder, but in the end, they triumphed over the other architects and sealed them within a dead world. Now all they can do is whisper sweet nothings through the broken debris of their once mighty empire.”

"So, what happened to this Architect?" Sweetie asked. "And what was his side of the deal with Twilight's fragment?"

“Those, my dear Sweetie Belle, are the right questions.” Discord’s grin grew far too wide for his face to handle, but when Sweetie blinked, it was back to normal. “His part of the deal was to watch, and wait. The shard told the architect many things about the filly who was collecting bread crumbs across an entire string of realities. The shard said that she needed to rest, be with family, and have a place to relax after all the years she would be searching. The shard made the Architect promise to provide all of these things as best he could, and to show her all the things she would need to know. She would need to be prepared for what lies ahead.”

Sweetie stared at Discord for a few moments, while her eyes widened slowly until they got as wide as they could be. "YOU?! You were the Architect?! And you made a deal with Twilight's Fragment to take care of me? Are you the one responsible for me jumping around without fragments to collect?"

As the realisation struck the mare, Discord broke down into giggles as he shivered. “Do you have any idea how good it feels to share a secret that I’ve kept for billions of years? BILLIONS! And everything she said came true! Vindication!” His little episode passed and he straightened again. “As powerful as I am, and as much as I would love to take credit for everything, I’m afraid I can’t. As part of our agreement, the shard has helped me reach across the realities that exist to provide assistance when we could.”

Sweetie groaned. "Why is it that I can't get drunk anymore? This whole mess demands passing out while telling my friends I love them repeatedly." She shook her head. "Is there a chance you could simply help me put Twilight back together and send us both home?"

The manic look on Discord’s face slowly resolved into sympathy. “I’m afraid that I cannot help you with that, Sweetie. When I realised the evils that my brothers were perpetrating, I swore that I would never deprive individuals of a challenge that I know they can overcome.” He held up a claw to hold off any interruption. “I may make meddling a hobby for the moment, and I may even empower a pawn or two when it’s needed, but I cannot do this for you. It isn’t just my own oaths that prevent this. Twilight also made me promise to not interfere.” He let out a self-deprecating chuckle. “Plus, my power isn’t quite what it used to be. The reserves that Twilight lent to me are almost gone.”

Sweetie sighed, shaking her head. "I guess there's a reason I saw myself getting out of the lake in Bon Bon's world before starting this part of the journey." Her shoulders sagged and she looked up at him tiredly. "I know the implication is that you think I can overcome this, Discord, but I'm so tired of all of it. I just want the journey to end in a positive note."

“As much as I’d like to say this will all end in sunshine and rainbows, I can’t,” Discord said solemnly, before grinning again. “That would be spoilers! For now, you should take this time and rest. Cause rampant property damage with your friends! Talk about colts with Rarity and Twilight some more. I’m sure those pesky aliens will be around sometime soon if you need a workout!”

Sweetie chuckled and smiled at him. "You know, I think the other me was right: you're not really that bad at all. I never thought I'd say this, but... it's been very nice to finally meet you, Discord."

All of the crazy expressions on Discord’s face disappeared before he looked away. “I think that’s the first time anyone has ever told me that. I wonder if she knew you’d say it… Anywho!” In a flash, the manic look was back on his face. “Twilight did want me to give you a little hint to help you going forward, though. ‘The key for progress is learning your lessons; beware when you wade through the Vortex towards the Lighthouse.’”

“What exactly do you mean by that?”

“Not my problem!” Discord snarked as he snapped his fingers. All the scenes that Discord had shared, as well as the avatar of chaos himself, were replaced by Twilight’s room and the ponies she was familiar with.

“AWESOME!” the Cutie Mark Crusaders screamed in unison, while the elder mares all grinned and clopped their hooves together in approval.

Sweetie staggered back, surprised at the sudden outburst. "W-oh! Yes! Thank you, thank you very much!" She grinned at the crusaders. "So, would you girls like to learn the basics of playing? If we get you some instruments, I can show you a little of what I know, although I am still learning."

“Sweetie, I know that modesty is a virtue, but I think you’re close to mastering your instrument as a skill,” Twilight said, and Rarity nodded eagerly. “I’ll see if there’s any instruments we could borrow from the schools in the capital.”

"Thank you, Twilight," Sweetie said, smiling a bit at the compliment. "I think we crusaders will have some fun playing." She looked around the room. "How about another song?" She asked, levitating her cello.

o.0.oo.0.o