• Published 20th Oct 2015
  • 1,978 Views, 163 Comments

Norrath, Earth, Equestria. A Construct's Journey - Nimnul

A strange construct, or fancy golem, is displaced to Equestria. But Landshark is no servant, no mere automaton. She claims to be a renegade Bellikos. What and Who is she, and why does she just want to settle down quietly now?

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Facing The ...Unknown?

Twilight was on her way to Bon Bon's candy store near closing time. She hadn't immediately been able to work up the nerve to visit the other pony, but with Hearth's Warming closing in, it had to be done if she ever wanted to reconnect with Lyra. Naturally, the meeting had been set up beforehand.

She was accompanied by Fluttershy, who had indicated that she got along with Bon Bon reasonably well, but had staunchly refused to talk too much about her, not willing to betray the earth pony's confidence.

Twilight was a little nervous. She had been very surprised when she first heard that Bon Bon claimed to be a better fighter than Landshark, and apparently Lyra had taken note of her expression, taken offense, and then been stewing about it. Twilight had been mildly curious about Bon Bon since then, but she wished she had a nicer excuse to talk to her.

In hindsight she was certainly glad that Bon Bon hadn't visited the castle on her invitation, because bringing up the way the earth pony had talked to Trixie would just make Bon Bon mad and embarrass Twilight, since nopony else seemed to have been worried about it. She had been so concerned with Trixie getting along in Ponyville, she'd apparently managed to prompt Lyra into finally blowing up about Twilight's alleged issue with Bon Bon.

Since Landshark had remained more or less calm instead of flying into a rage, Twilight assumed that Lyra was being overly sensitive regarding the way ponies saw Bon Bon, and that Twilight's concerns about the couple's isolation had at one point not been totally unfounded.

She smiled wryly. Yes, as long as Landshark didn't pop her one in the jaw, she was probably not totally mishandling the construct's friends. A completely sensible standard to apply, clearly.

The two of them entered the store to find Bon Bon behind the counter, chatting with Ditzy the mailmare.

Bon Bon turned to the door with a bright, cheerful smile. "Hi! Welcome to Bon Bon's-" as soon as recognition set in, the earth pony's smile was replaced by an expression more at home on somepony who had just watched their pet get bucked through a pane of glass. Just as quickly, that was replaced with a bland little smile. "Highness. Right on time. Fluttershy." She inclined her head minutely in a nod. "Please flip the sign."

Ditzy offered a small wave and a "Hi!" trotting to join Bon Bon behind the counter.

As Fluttershy turned to flip the sign at the door to 'Closed', Twilight hid a sigh. She didn't much like it when ponies stood on formalities, but at least most ponies did it because they thought it was expected. It was worse when Twilight felt that it was being done to deliberately create distance. The earth pony's quickly disguised flash of anger didn't bode well, either. "There's no need to be so formal, Bon Bon."

It was almost fascinating. Twilight knew that Bon Bon was a complex pony, but standing there behind the counter, the earth pony looked like nothing at all. Colorless and devoid of personality and interest, completely interchangeable with any number of other store keepers across Equestria.

Bon Bon said nothing, but seemed to tilt her head expectantly, maintaining her smile. At the same time, her gaze started wandering. Twilight recalled Fluttershy mentioning that habit.

Ditzy and Fluttershy exchanged half-amused grins, perhaps each assuming the other was along for moral support. Twilight couldn't claim that was entirely wrong. Having Fluttershy along also served as a reminder that Bon Bon was a good pony, if very guarded. Anypony who got along with the Element of Kindness couldn't be too bad.

"I've made some inquiries, but well, it wasn't a big help. A lot of things magically redacted." It was a bad start, because Twilight realized she hadn't hidden her frustration particularly well. Who documented information only to strike it out? Being given access to that seemed like a stupid joke. "Would you prefer if I called you Sweetie Drops?"

"You're going to call me Bon Bon, Princess," the earth pony explained, maintaining a tone that only seemed patient and friendly. "Or you're going to turn about and walk out of my life for ever."

Ditzy leaned over to the earth pony and whispered something, Bon Bon nodded. "We have cider – non-alcoholic – and snacks."

The mailmare started making multiple trips into the kitchen to bring out mugs of cider and a bowl of hard candies. Twilight had seen ponies carry more things at once, but Ditzy had a reputation for being prone to accidents and was probably just being careful. Bon Bon slowly frowned, seemingly more in confusion than in annoyance. "Surprised they found much at all for you. Most of our files and the cabinets should have been burned and scattered to sea."

She tapped a hoof on the counter top, seemingly in thought. "I guess it's possible that somepony saved one of the home office's file cabinets instead of letting it get burned. If you've got a sufficiently good document recovery related cutie mark on a unicorn with a knack for scrying, they might be able to work with a piece of furniture that once held documents of interest." She shook her head. "Ah, probably a simpler explanation. Maybe Celestia kept some files for her own office when the whole outfit got shuttered. You got a line directly to her, after all."

Twilight felt off-balance. Destroying information intentionally felt completely wrong to her. That anypony would go to such paranoid lengths to do it offered just a glimpse into the world of secret government agencies that she could have really done without. If Bon Bon's first theory was close to the truth, it also meant that Twilight might have caused a lot of extra work for a lot of ponies with her request for information. The closure of the agency Bon Bon worked for was still a bit of a mystery to Twilight, and the way it had been handled an apparent cause of regret for Celestia. Perhaps she really had been quite overworked when she had been the only alicorn?

She briefly considered the significance of dumping the burned remains into the ocean. That didn't seem relevant to pony magic, but there were other forms of magic in the world which were said to be negatively affected by the presence of salt. Maybe when she next had some time to herself she'd do some research into how true that actually was. If she was really lucky, there'd be a fascinating conversation with Zecora in it for her! That would be a lot more appealing than the current situation.

Since the conversation was off to a slow and uncomfortable start, Twilight inspected her surroundings while Ditzy worked. What few seasonal decorations she spotted were not particularly ostentatious or prominently placed. "What made you decide to get into ... that line of work?"

"Math. If everypony relies on somepony else to protect them, nopony ends up doing the protecting. Some must fight so that others can live. Some ponies have to pledge their lives to protect their communities."

That was, Twilight thought, an admirable sentiment. She wished Bon Bon hadn't explained it in a sort of tone and cadence she might use to help a customer come to a decision about what candy to buy. It made it hard to tell if the mare was being honest.

Bon Bon frowned briefly, before her false cheer reasserted itself. "Now you might wonder why I would get into fighting monsters when I got no fancy magic artifact or a proper cutie mark for it. But that cutie mark is for life. Regular ponies are only young and fit once, though." She helped herself to some candy before continuing. "When I got recruited, I figured I'd put in a few good years and then start making candy someplace. That makes ponies happy too." There was real fondness in her voice then, the genuine article, however briefly.

Twilight found it reassuring that even a strange pony like Bon Bon could find some happiness with her cutie mark.

"Sometimes I think I should have stayed small-time, teaching the neighbors how to rig up firebombs to deal with timberwolves. But the agency's offer was good, and being on a team seemed nice. Travel Equestria and her allies. Protect ponies from monsters. But government work has a funny way of going bad, because the nobles get their hooves into just about anything the princess isn't micromanaging every day. And we only had the one, back then, obviously."

Bon Bon sighed and seemed to offer Fluttershy a real apologetic look. "We sure did help protect ponies, but I'm pretty sure we burned out a den of critters a time or two that just so happened to be in a prime spot for somepony's planned summer home, or golf course, or some other nonsense. That wasn't protecting ponies. We didn't cry about it, but we knew those beasts were just livin', too. You just kind of learn not to care too much."

It made some sense to Twilight. Equestria's borders contained large amounts of untamed wilderness. Not so dangerous as the Everfree, certainly, but still occasionally home to wild beasts. Making that sort of area useful for civic purposes probably wasn't precisely why ponies became monster hunters, even if it brought a benefit to society. Clearing land like that just so some rich ponies could enjoy it would be something worse altogether. It couldn't have seemed worth the risk, or perhaps even losses.

At some point during the explanation, the earth pony's cheerful shopkeeper act had slowly transformed into something akin to real emotion. "That sort of thing was hardest on the rookies. For me the job got worse gradually as the assignments got more questionable. But there's real despair there, when a pony goes through training and then the job feels nothin' like what they thought they signed up for. It’s worse when you find nothing to believe in, or love. And a good agent has to live it. Has to believe that the work has worth and purpose, and has to like doing it." She bit down on her candy with a crunch. "But nopony cares for those old stories anyway."

Bon Bon stopped talking and again regarded her guests with a polite, vaguely interested look that seemed to say 'I'm wondering if you're just browsing or if you're going to buy something.'

"I'm sorry it didn't turn out as well as you wanted," Fluttershy offered in a soothing tone, making it clear she wouldn't think less of Bon Bon for maybe killing some wild animals that weren't necessarily threatening ponies. Twilight wouldn't normally think that needed pointing out, but Fluttershy had spoken to Bon Bon before and would probably make the right calls.

Still, the situation was frustrating and beginning to verge on surreal for Twilight. The earth pony just kept hiding from her! Maybe she should try for some harmless conversation instead, for the moment. After all, if she had understood Fluttershy correctly, it was the princess who seemed threatening to some part of Bon Bon.

"Are you and Lyra looking forward to Hearth's Warming?"

Bon Bon shrugged. She remained distant, unengaged in the exchange, really. "What pony doesn't?"

Twilight bit her lip. She felt like she was being given the run-around, and didn't know how to change that without being antagonistic. At this rate she'd have seemingly pleasant small-talk with the mask Bon Bon had put on, then go home having gained nothing.

"It's a good thing to celebrate," Fluttershy spoke up quietly. "But ponies are even more excitable than usual. I'd rather stay home, where it's quiet, most of the time. Nightmare Night is worse. It's just not for me. I stay at home now."

Ditzy gave Bon Bon a light poke with a hoof and a scolding look. Twilight briefly wondered if the pegasus was here to keep Bon Bon in line, somehow.

"Fine," Bon Bon ground out, even her voice sounding rougher now. She shifted her stance and suddenly everything about the earth pony seemed taut to Twilight, an emotional and physical tightness bound by resentment and suspicion. The Princess was even more sure she wouldn't be offered any warmth or real welcome. But at least this seemed more honest.

"Why do you care, Princess? This isn't any of your business, not really. I pay my taxes like anypony, I don't get in trouble with the law. Why not just leave well enough alone?"

Twilight avoided flinching at the aggressive questioning. Bon Bon was obviously using it as a defensive tactic. The Princess mentally formulated, then dismissed, any number of possible justifications, none of which seemed promising. "Why does that matter to you?"

Fluttershy smiled and nodded, so at least she seemed to think the counter-question had been a good move.

"Don't be obtuse. You're not some interchangeable shrink trying to disarm one of their interchangeable basket cases." Bon Bon scoffed. "Gee, why would it matter to me why one of only four alicorns in the whole wide world wants to meet and get to know me, specifically?"

It was a little difficult to retain her composure, but Twilight reminded herself that Celestia had spoken well, if briefly, of Bon Bon, so Twilight was more curious than agitated. Besides, at least the earth pony had agreed to a meeting more easily than Moondancer initially had.

Bon Bon laughed bitterly. "Yes, yes, you're just Twilight Sparkle. Well, you know what, Twilight Sparkle stays at home working or reading unless there's a difficulty. So what is that problem?"

"Remember your breathing, Bon." Ditzy chided slowly and gently. "You know it w-won't go away if you don't deal with the princess." She was carefully enunciating every word, Twilight noted.

Bon Bon clenched her teeth and glared at Ditzy, trembling with sudden rage. To her credit, the mailmare didn't flinch. Ditzy seemed completely at peace as she answered the glare with a patient smile. There was something utterly tranquil about her, which seemed to say that there was nothing Bon Bon could do to push her away. It was strange to Twilight, who had thought she remembered Ditzy being easily flustered. At the same time, seeing Bon Bon's sudden anger made it more impressive to know that the earth pony had never gotten into any sort of real trouble with the law.

Bon Bon eventually lowered her head, breaking eye contact with Ditzy and taking several deep breaths. "Beg your pardon, princess. I'm feeling agitated during holiday season. Think nothing of it."

"Why don't you talk about it," Fluttershy prompted quietly. She appeared outwardly unfazed by Bon Bon's demeanor. "Maybe Ditzy would like to hear the explanation too?"

Bon Bon glowered at Twilight for a few moments before nodding. She closed her eyes, took another breath, and started talking in clipped tones. "There's lots of work to do, ponies buy a lot of candy. That's good. I get up earlier and work harder to meet demand. Outside of work, I want to isolate myself more. I'm more irritable and depressed. I'm useless around the house, most days."

She kept her eyes closed, but reached out a hoof to Ditzy. "I get angry easier. I get anxious about meeting anypony. Even just meeting my friends is harder. I'm happy I went, afterwards, but it's always a chore to make me go. Same with Lyra's parents. Good, understanding ponies. I like them. I'll agree to visit them over the holidays, but the closer we get to leaving, the worse I feel. S'always a fight."

"Do you think I want Lyra to be isolated?" It was almost a yell, and it seemed to make Ditzy flinch, more in surprise than anything. "I know I'm a damned millstone 'round her neck! I'm always telling her, I'm always saying to her, 'Lyra, go play your music, see your friends, I'll be fine on my own, don't do this to yourself, I'll keep busy.'" Bon Bon ground her teeth. "What can I do? It's her choice, and she's so stubborn."

"You're the l-love of her life, Bon," Ditzy insisted. "She has never, ever complained about the hard work. A-Always happy to be around you. Always trying to make things better for both of you."

Twilight supposed that she had wanted to get to know more about Bon Bon, but she wasn't quite sure yet what to do. Clearly the earth pony had bigger problems than forgetting something important about friendship until somepony reminded her of what mattered most, hijinks optional. She supposed that this was a decent explanation for why Lyra had been reluctant to introduce Bon Bon to their old friends. Adding to what Ditzy had said, she slowly offered, "Spend enough time with somepony, and you assimilate some of the feelings you shared. Your pain becomes hers – but your triumphs, too."

Ditzy offered a beaming, grateful smile to the princess.

Bon Bon lowered her head and sighed. "Triumphs, huh? It gets real hard to stay positive, this time of year. In the brighter months, maybe I can tell myself that I wouldn't part with these ghosts if I could. That struggling with it makes me stronger. Shark's big on that, y'know." She chuckled weakly. "Yeah, maybe that'll work. Before recently I thought half of my problem was just me bein' a huge jerk."

"But this time of year? I just feel like a sham whenever I'm happy around Lyra. I don't deserve any of this. Yeah, maybe Celestia says I'm alright – but when it's time to cash my chips, it's not her I worry about. I gottta look all those ponies in the eye who didn't get to retire and live happily ever after with a great partner." Bon Bon shook her head in defeat. "Survivor's guilt is a real killer, Princess. I don't recommend it."

Bon Bon sighed. "I'm so tired. You want to convince Lyra to take a step back and have a life outside of mine, Princess? Go ahead – you've got my blessing. She's done nothin' to deserve being bogged down with me."

Ditzy's eyes widened in surprise, then briefly focused on Twilight with a stern glare. "Don't dare." She turned to Bon Bon. "Don't say ... don't say things like that!"

Twilight watched the mailmare stare down Bon Bon with great intensity, but Ditzy seemed to be struggling for words with mounting frustration. A tiny, unkind part of Twilight was almost glad that Ditzy wasn't completely unshakable in the face of Bon Bon's emotional turmoil after all.

"Look ... y-you ..." Ditzy paused, closed her eyes and sighed in exasperation. When she started speaking again, it was once more measured, and very slow. "Ponies like you deserve all the happiness you can get." She paused. "I'm more thankful than I can say that ponies keep Equestria save for Dinky and other f-f-foals."

Twilight had honestly never paid Ditzy much mind. Perhaps she had even, without being conscious of it, taken up some dismissive opinions held by other townsponies. Clumsy. A bit thick, perhaps. But the mare patently wasn't stupid.

Thinking back to previous interactions with the ponies Landshark had befriended, Ditzy seemed to be, in her own quiet way, more mature and stable than she was credited for. Whatever difficulty she had with her speech likely made other ponies underestimate her. And it was, after all, true that she had been involved in some accidents around town.

Now that she had really taken note of Ditzy, Twilight was curious about the precise nature of her difficulties. On the other hoof, she would rather not upset the pegasus with a potentially insensitive question. At least not right now.

Ditzy took a deep breath. "Maybe other ponies ... other ponies didn't pay as much as you did. Maybe some others didn't survive. Luck of the d-draw. Life is not fair." The pegasus embraced Bon Bon in a tight hug. "Lyra loves you. We ... your f-f-friends love you, and the fillies too. Maybe hearing it again will help you through the season. I'm sorry it's hard. We'll still be there when ... when it's sunnier again. Just hold on. I can't make it b-better. But you're not alone."

Bon Bon seemed to pull herself together with a tremendous effort of will. "You're right."

It had to be a skill, Twilight decided. The earth pony had briefly opened up and displayed real emotion. Now she seemed once more completely nondescript, observing the princess with a bland little smile. She barely seemed to exist as a pony – in a crowd, her presence or absence would be equally unremarkable. It seemed likely that this had allowed her to take part in Ponyville's public life to the extend that she had. But now that Twilight knew what to look for, she'd never be fooled by Bon Bon's eyes again, because she never really seemed to look at anypony. Here was a mare who was clearly too alert for her own good. And the mask seemed brittle.

"I'm feeling anxious, princess. I need to do some work to calm myself." Bon Bon inclined her head minutely and vanished into the kitchen without any further comment. The remark had been made in a polite conversational tone that had betrayed nothing.

"Thank you for coming ... for coming along, Fluttershy." Ditzy sat behind the counter and didn't seem in any hurry to leave, or ask the visitors to leave. "I think it helped."

"Oh, that wasn't any problem." Fluttershy smiled kindly. "I'm just glad to be of some help." She nodded towards the door to the kitchen. "I was very impressed. You're good at this."

The mailmare blushed at the praise. Twilight found herself agreeing with Fluttershy. Still, she felt disappointed. "We didn't really achieve anything. We just made her mad and ruined her night."

"You can't take her serious when she gets ... when she's like that." Ditzy looked uncomfortable. "I'm n-not the right pony ... right pony to explain it. But some things change ... ch-change the way your brain works forever." She chewed her lip. "Hard training. Hard fighting. Rewires our meat brains. Landshark's words." She smiled briefly. "She said humans observed ... a little more about how the brain works. Ahead of ponies."

Twilight rubbed her chin. "Hm. Observing isn't necessarily the same as understanding. The brain is a fascinatingly complex organ, after all." She sighed. "I bet Landshark has no idea about the techniques and technologies involved, but I suppose even if she had been a human, the chance that she'd have such specialized knowledge would be remote."

Ditzy nodded, then grimaced uncomfortably. "Ponies like that ... have a hard time showing feelings. They ... they don't chose that. It's just ... just how they work now. For some ponies, it changes how you remember bad stuff. Loss." She rubbed her forehead. "Time doesn't ... there's never any distance, or resolution."

"I can't imagine that," the mailmare admitted slowly. "B-but when Bon remembers old friends, that pain always come back like new. Sleep is ... she hates sleep. She can busy herself to keep from thinking. But only when she's awake." Quietly, she added, "I don't ... I don't much like talking about it in her place. But ... the mare she used to be, she's gone. Not coming back. Shark said some barely change at all ... but Bon got unlucky and got hit bad by it."

Even before she pointed it out, it had seemed evident to Twilight that Ditzy was extremely uncomfortable having to explain something that she had no experience with. As far as Twilight could piece it together, Lyra had been trying to understand Bon Bon's difficulties for years, or at least had made the effort to handle the symptoms so the two of them could be a functional couple. Landshark, upon her arrival, had offered her own insights, likely also incomplete, but at least with greater understanding of the causes. Neither of those two would have been very constructive to have around in the current situation, Twilight judged.

Still, the explanation was reasonable enough that the princess was sure she could do her own research in that direction to gain better understanding, if she found the time. She'd definitely consider contacting her friends on the other side of the mirror and have them consult a human library. "That sounds awful, Ditzy. Isn't there anything that can be done?"

"Bon politely declined help from ... Princess Luna's help." She frowned, perhaps at the misconstructed sentence. "Sh-she's strong. No magic meddling." Ditzy shook her head firmly. "She doesn't want ... want your help. The rest of us ... we want you to s-s-see that Lyra and Bon Bon ... th-that they're okay together." After a moment, she nodded to Fluttershy. "We're allowed to mention the dog."

"Great." Fluttershy grinned with enthusiasm. "We're training a service dog for Bon Bon. Sorry, but I promised not to mention it unless allowed. It's a very sensitive matter, after all."

Twilight couldn't resist smiling. Being able to pair a pony with a pet never failed to make Fluttershy happy, and obviously this dog was meant to help Bon Bon in more ways than an ordinary pet. "Oh? What are you training it to do?"

"Well, the complete list would be a little overwhelming, but trust me – if it works out, Lyra won't feel like she has to be by Bon Bon's side all the time. Swampy will even be able to wake her from nightmares." Fluttershy nodded happily. "If you want, I can share our research notes. Landshark may know how Bon Bon suffers, but she doesn't know anything about brains, how to treat her – she suggested a service dog because humans were starting to try that, and she got Bon Bon to trust me enough to agree to try and train a dog to help her deal."

Fluttershy seemed to radiate a sense of quiet pride at this. Twilight had no difficulty understanding her enthusiasm. Bon Bon's trust seemed rather hard to win. Additionally, Fluttershy was likely proud of the dog's achievement in the matter, like a teacher might feel about a gifted student. "That's wonderful, Fluttershy. I hope that will help! I'm sure relying less on Lyra will make Bon Bon feel better too. After all, with a dog, it's her who's the caretaker, right?" Still, Twilight hesitated, turning to Ditzy. "Does this count as ... an acceptable outcome? I just wanted to get know the mare that Lyra seems to have dedicated her life to."

"This is a hard season for her," Ditzy shrugged, apparently calmed down and in control of her verbal tics again. "But I think it went okay. She dropped the mask. That's rare around most ponies. But you have to make your own peace with Lyra."

Twilight nodded seriously. "I still think my concerns weren't entirely baseless, Ditzy, but I also see that the two of them aren't isolated anymore." She turned her head to look towards the kitchen. "I think it would be good for Lyra to reconnect with our old friends more closely. Maybe only for closure, but they weren't mad at me and I was a worse friend. I'm sure they'll love to meet Bon Bon."

Ditzy chewed her lip, then shook her head. "It's more important for you two to make up. Lyra needs to know that it will work out. She seems to think you overreact when things aren't going like you think they sh-should. And in a princess, that's scary."

"It's not my business," she continued haltingly. "It's not my business to deal with princesses. I'm scared too, a little. I don't do well around important ponies. Nerves, I guess." Ditzy shook her head. "I hope Dinky's behaving her-s-self in your library."

It was a pretty clumsy change of topic, Twilight thought, but she was sure it had been done because the little unicorn was a comfortable topic. Younger ponies tended to be significantly less nervous around her than some adults now were, which Twilight enjoyed. She figured as long as Ditzy was willing to have her daughter visit the castle, the mailmare wasn't letting her judgement be clouded just from being a little nervous near important ponies.

"Oh, she's perfectly well behaved, really. Most of the time, anyway." No sense in being dishonest, she thought. "Occasionally she slips up and says something that almost seems cheeky." Twilight grinned. She meant nothing bad by that, of course. "I'm always happy to see ponies still checking out books, even if the library is in my castle now."

Ditzy gestured dismissively. "Sh-she's got a smart mouth on her, sometimes. She's still a good filly. I'm very proud." Doubt briefly marked Ditzy's expression. "She's clever. She understands the looks Berry and I used to get. Why others at school made fun of them. It frustrates her." She sighed. "I don't want her to turn bitter, cynical."

Twilight found herself wondering about Spike's future, although she felt more like a big sister to the dragon, considering she'd been quite young when he hatched. "I'm sure she'll be fine, Ditzy. There's nothing wrong with pushing back a little when other ponies are being unreasonable. There's no sense in pretending ponies are all good. It's praiseworthy to stay good when the easier way seems to get rewarded so often." Twilight grinned. "Looking at your friends, Dinky might turn out a little unconventional, of course."

This had been a bit of a sad lesson to learn for a younger Twilight, but since then she'd met her fair share of ponies that weren't particularly nice. Too many of those were nobles or otherwise in positions of power. Of course, as a princess, she'd have to look out for all ponies, no matter what. Within reason, of course.

Ditzy smiled warmly at the praise for her daughter. "Th-thank you, Twilight." The smile turned a little sadder. "She thinks I'm putting up with things ... putting up with things a little too much. That I don't push back enough. But there ... there are many who have it worse than me. We don't have much, and I work hard, but we have enough. "

The mailmare pointed at Fluttershy. "I know what I can do. There's no such thing as a small act of kindness. I'm there for ponies I love. Nothing ... nothing can topple me, when I'm supporting my friends. A touch, a smile, any sm-small act of caring, and they know I'm there. You understand?"

"I do." Fluttershy nodded. "I did say you're good at this."

"I'm glad you're not selling yourself short on that," Twilight noted seriously. "Knowing you've got a pony's trust and support can make all the difference when somepony is going through difficulties."

"I'm not so good at s-solving problems," Ditzy allowed before continuing with a small measure of pride. "But I make ponies stronger. A little braver, when they're scared."

Twilight found herself on the receiving end of a stern look. The fact that one of Ditzy's eyes wasn't fully cooperating did little to diminish the strange sort of gravitas the mailmare seemed to have suddenly acquired. "Neither Lyra nor Bon Bon are alone. You ... you sort yourself out with Lyra. Everything else'll fall into place. Tension with an alicorn will gnaw at a pony, I bet. She might be too stubborn to make ... to make the first move."

Twilight nodded. Being honest with herself, she found it was an exasperating guessing game to see which ponies would react differently to her, and in which ways, ever since she had ascended. Ditzy might be slightly nervous, but the pegasus had been honest about it and had not let it stop her from acting in the interests of her friends.

Trying to be optimistic about it, dealing with Bon Bon had at least been refreshingly free of bowing, nervousness or other grating behaviors ponies had exhibited upon meeting her. She also hadn't acted like she was entitled to something, which was common in Canterlot ponies. "You're probably right, Ditzy. I'll figure out something."

"It's beautiful, isn't it?" The curious comment was offered by Fluttershy. "Somepony all twisted up inside and in pain still found a pony who looked at her and saw something worth caring about."

The remark seemed to have hit the mark. Ditzy nodded firmly. "I know love when I see it. Those two ... yes, it's beautiful. That's not the same as perfect. It's worth more, if it works anyway."

"I never meant to stand in the way of that." Twilight wondered if the relationship between Bon Bon and Lyra gave Ditzy hope, in a way. That imperfect ponies could get their happy endings too. She didn't know the mailmare well enough to be sure, of course, but the pony didn't normally seem as firm as she was today. Ditzy didn't much care to be the focus of attention, Twilight assumed, but since none of her other friends were suited to be a calming influence in this situation, Ditzy accepted the demanding duty and carried it out to the best of her ability.

She was about to say more, but she heard the faintest noise and saw the kitchen door open again. Bon Bon stepped out, moving with no more sound than Fluttershy might have made.

The earth pony must have been listening, because she offered Ditzy a smile of real fondness before looking at Twilight again, with those bleak eyes over the fixed smile. "It's funny how public perception works, isn't it, Princess? Ponies are going to bring up the damage to town hall, or the mistake on the wedding invitations for Cranky and Matilda for a long time, whenever they need to remind each other what an idiot Ditzy is."

Bon Bon shook her head slowly. "Other ponies have done a lot more damage to the town. Made worse mistakes."

Twilight wasn't sure where Bon Bon was going with that remark. It was of course true that Ponyville tended to suffer some collateral damage, now and then, and Tirek had intentionally caused destruction. She simply took a guess. "The damage the Ursa caused wasn't Trixie's fault, you know."

"This isn't about Trixie. It's never been about her, for us." Bon Bon seemed to make an intentional effort to stare down Twilight instead of letting her gaze wander as usual. Although 'staring' suggested an intensity that wasn't really present, the princess thought. If Twilight didn't know what to look for in her eyes, the earth pony could not possibly seem less threatening.

Bon Bon had to be immensely strong, at least for a pony that spent all day behind a counter top instead of doing demanding manual labor, because Twilight had, to her regret, had a look at two dead changelings. Knowing where to hit somepony only got you so far.

Morbid thinking like that was alien and uncomfortable for Twilight. But Bon Bon didn't have the appearance of a strong pony. It took a conscious effort of will to remember times she'd encountered her about town. The earth pony could be so self-effacing, it made Twilight actively uncomfortable to contemplate. There was nothing aggressive or even confident in her posture. Bon Bon wasn't skinny, but she also didn't have the hard look that frequent physical work could give a pony. Maybe she'd been built on a frame of steel and whipcord under her flesh and coat.

That was ridiculous, of course. Bon Bon probably just took the edges off her appearance by indulging in her own products. When Twilight started to wonder whether that was an intentional part of Bon Bon's harmless shopkeeper disguise, she knew her thoughts and worries were threatening to run away with her.

"I know what parasprites eat and what they don't eat. Unless tampered with, of course." Bon Bon continued, looking impassive and sounding conversational. "It's a shame Pinkie didn't communicate better that she had things in hoof and knew what to do."

Bon Bon smiled slyly. "But then, who would believe that silly ol' Pinkie would have a plan for anything, hmm?"

Ditzy looked uncomfortable. "Bon, I don't think this ... this is a real good idea." She seemed to have some idea where Bon Bon was going, and didn't much like it.

"Sorry Ditzy, I've got to get this off my chest." Bon Bon actually appeared genuinely contrite for a moment as she cast a look towards her friend.

Twilight was curious and also a little mortified. Most ponies hadn't even known what a parasprite was, but apparently Pinkie hadn't been the only one to recognize them. The earth pony seemed to have deduced that Twilight had made the situation worse by making sure that after devouring a generous helping of the local food stores, the pests had switched to causing massive property damage. She supposed there probably wasn't another unicorn who would have come up with the idea in the area at the time. Bon Bon wasn't noticed much, but she clearly was observant herself.

Bon Bon smiled again. Twilight was frankly surprised how real it looked. "No hard feelings about that incident. But on the other hoof ... I know what compulsion magic feels like, Princess. Oh, sure, they try to condition you to resist that, but that's just a placebo. Doesn't work as soon as the caster really means it. Honestly, it's worse knowing what's happening and still not being able to stop it. At least ignorance lets you go with the flow while hunting that stupid doll."

"Although," the earth pony's smile widened into a nasty grin. "I suppose you can thank me, or my instructors, for keeping at least some grip on myself. 'Gee, Bon Bon, thanks for not hurting anypony while going for that enchanted doll. That might have made Celestia a little less forgiving!'" Bon Bon chuckled, slowly and with malice. "Has a nice ring to it."

"Or m-maybe you're just a good pony, Bon," the mailmare offered with a frown.

She seemed to ignore Ditzy's comment. "Of course, ponies don't really know those were your fault. Or maybe they just don't want to blame you. You were powerful before you were an alicorn. Didn't find a hint of any other comparable unicorn in the area that time. But I wasn't about to make a big thing out of it myself. It's just something I think about when ponies look down their muzzles at my friends."

Twilight would have preferred to face anger. She wasn't even sure what Bon Bon was trying to project here. Malicious cheer? She'd certainly succeeded in hurting Twilight by bringing up those incidents and possible implications. Perhaps it hurt Bon Bon when other ponies looked down on her friends, because Bon Bon knew better than most ponies that Twilight and her friends were just as prone to making mistakes as anypony. Perhaps Celestia personally supporting Twilight even when she made mistakes left a poor taste in Bon Bon's mouth. She didn't think professionals would get quite so much leniency from their superiors, after all. That might cause some resentment.

She very badly wanted to just teleport back to the castle and pretend this entire conversation hadn't happened.

Fluttershy wrapped a steadying wing around Twilight and met Bon Bon's eyes. "We've all grown a lot since those days. We trust each other more, and pay more attention to each other. We let Twilight down, that day." She sighed softly. "I guess it's a good example of the way ponies fear princesses."

"You're right. I've made mistakes" Twilight admitted carefully. "But Princess Celestia trusts me, and so do my friends." She re-adjusted her wings. "This really is my destiny. You, on the other hoof? Nopony really knew you, it was startling to learn what you could do. That's why I wanted to get to know you."

"Fair." Bon Bon nodded curtly, her earlier grin fading. "But it's interesting to think about, no? You've always been more dangerous than I ever could be." She shrugged. "Maybe I'm just dangerous to your world. I did right by other ponies, but got nothin' but issues to show for it. Virtue gets rewarded? Hah!" She barked a bitter laugh before continuing.

"I didn't stick anywhere close to my cutie mark. Well, I guess that just proves that we ought to listen to where our flanks slot us into life. We solved quite a few problems with violence. I'm a miserable jerk of a pony. None of it fits, huh? Maybe you should shoot a rainbow at me."

"Th-that's enough, Bon Bon." Ditzy moved closer to the earth pony, presumably to try and calm her down from being needlessly antagonistic.

Twilight knew she had to come up with a good response. Again, counter-arguments and justifications and rebuttals started lining up in her mind. She shook her head. The answer was easy, had been essentially hoofed to her by Celestia herself. "Bon Bon. I know the world is dangerous. Nopony is perfect. I'm not as naive as you think I am. Not anymore." She chewed her lip. "Thank you for protecting ponies. I'm sorry you were hurt. Maybe you don't care to hear it, but you're still one of Celestia's little ponies. You still belong, no matter what. Maybe some ponies made you feel like some part of you got too nasty to share. But you know that's not everypony. You didn't live your life wrong."

She offered a smile, then gestured at Ditzy. "Keep the mask on, you do have a business to run. But remember that there are ponies who'll be okay with all of you. Not just Lyra. You know this."

At least Ditzy seemed to think Twilight had hit the right notes. The mailmare again sent a bright smile her way as she brushed a wing over Bon Bon's withers in affection.

Bon Bon stared at Twilight for a long moment. Her facade didn't crack. Eventually, the earth pony nodded. "You're better than I figured, but it's time for you to go. Talk to Lyra, I won't get in the way. I don't like you, Majesty, but I don't owe anypony hate, and you do protect ponies." She hesitated. "No, I don't much like you, but you have to believe me. I don't resent other ponies for their happiness and good health. I got into the business so others wouldn't have to, and that's still true. I see carefree ponies come into my store and feel it was worth it. It's just a little harder during this season."

Bon Bon was almost pleading. She had been rather antagonistic towards Twilight and obviously didn't think too highly of Canterlot nobles either, but it was obviously important to Bon Bon to avoid looking like she was envious of less troubled ponies. Still, it seemed like she was working up to something.

"But you should know, that you were very lucky to be under Celestia's protection, back then. In more ways than you knew, at the time." She spoke with a calm earnestness. Very controlled, still, but probably entirely honest.

That was it, then. Twilight blew out the breath she'd been holding since she stopped talking. She honestly hadn't been sure how the earth pony was going to react. She had obviously carried a grudge about the Want-It-Need-It spell, and Bon Bon was a dangerous pony, ...

Twilight corrected herself. Bon Bon was a good pony with a dangerous set of skills she'd picked up to defend other ponies. She'd been injured, invisibly, by her work. To make up for that, Bon Bon was evidently a very controlled pony. Twilight didn't know the earth mare very well, but tried to imagine the boiling fury she must have felt at being unable to control her own actions, concerned about hurting other ponies. Twilight supposed that if she herself had been a rogue actor instead of Celestia's protege, Bon Bon wouldn't have simply let her walk away after putting a whole town under a spell like that. The earth pony might be retired, but she was still the sort of pony that was willing to get her hooves dirty for the sake of others.

The princess shivered, snapping out of her thoughts. "I appreciate what you mean." She looked away. "Your concern for others does you credit. You're a pony of merit, Bon Bon, don't let anypony tell you otherwise. I'll stay out of your life unless invited, once I've cleared the air with Lyra."

"Okay." Bon Bon turned about and stopped halfway. "I really am very sorry you two had to see this." She nodded at Ditzy and Fluttershy. "But thank you for being here to remind us that we're all decent ponies." She vanished into the kitchen again.

"It's better that she put it out in the open. It'll stop gnawing at her." Fluttershy hugged Twilight. "Your friends know you've come a long way. Even Bon Bon can see that. She just needed closure on that, maybe."

Twilight returned the hug gladly "Thanks, Fluttershy." She sighed, deeply, before addressing Ditzy. "We'll be leaving. Have a good night, Ditzy. And don't worry. Things will be alright." It was a promise. She hadn't meant for things to be difficult, she couldn't have known how Lyra would react, and she had had no idea about the way Bon Bon saw her, but she didn't want to be the inadvertent cause of any additional difficulties in their relationship.

"You two have a good night too. I'll close up behind you."

"She really is a good pony, you know?" Fluttershy had finally spoken up on the way back to Twilight's castle. "She's just ... bristly?"

Twilight chuckled weakly. "Bristly, that's good, yes. I've got a good idea concering Lyra, though. I'll contact my friends on the other side of the mirror." Quietly, she continued, "I don't think it'd be a good idea to tell Landshark and her friends that we have access to a human world. Landshark is so secretive about hers, I don't even have anything to tell by whether this is the same world or another parallel. Anyway, I'm hoping to find some suggestions for, well, additional coping techniques."

"That's a good idea. Write something down and suggest it to Lyra, she'll see it as a peace offering of sorts, and she'll appreciate it if you go through her instead of going straight to Bon Bon ... right?"

"Exactly!" Twilight grinned. "And Fluttershy? Thanks for coming along."

The world had room for all sorts of beings, and Twilight didn't want to be the sort of pony who couldn't leave it at that, but Bon Bon hadn't been particularly subtle while trying to push her away – Twilight wasn't convinced she'd ever be quite as seemingly unflappable as Princess Celestia when confronted with a cantankerous pony.

Fluttershy had been the ideal back-up to have, because the knowledge that Bon Bon was hurt on some level imbued her with patience and steadiness she didn't normally display when interacting with regular ponies.

"No problem. I did have a headstart on getting along with Bon Bon."

Twilight sighed. "I hate to see ponies hurt. It's hardly fair." She wasn't really naive enough to expect the world to be fair and kind, but that didn't stop the feeling. The world was a vast, uncaring thing, and it felt at times arrogant to expect that she could continue protecting ponies from it successfully. "Feeling a little helpless. I know we take risks all the time, but I suppose I didn't understand that the price to pay could look like that."

Fluttershy slowed down. "I love my animal friends, but ... nature, the world, isn't kind. It'll kill everypony eventually, and it's not always quick about it. Nature can torture you. It'll starve you, crush you, freeze or poison you, petrify you, even. And it'll give you nightmares." The pegasus regarded Twilight sadly. "There's no mercy or justice, either. It kills the best and the worst, the ones who were going to make life better for everypony along with those for whom death is a relief, and the worst tyrants. Makes no difference what the consequences will be for other ponies."

Shaking her head, she added, "I look at Bon Bon and ... well, you know me. I want to help. I'm helping, in fact. But I'm not surprised, because the world is very scary." Fluttershy blushed and looked at the ground, continuing to speak very quietly. "I know you find everything fascinating. You look at the world with wonder, because that's just who you are. But to me? Natural forces are powerful, and careless. No morals. Even the weather can kill you, if you're somewhere without a weather team. Which is most of the world, really. Discord's chocolate rain has nothing on that."

"Ponies taking fewer risks than Bon Bon did get hurt worse all the time. It's useless to wonder about fairness. I just help, when I can." Fluttershy made eye contact with Twilight again. "Don't overthink it. You can't fix Bon Bon. But if you find something for Lyra, you've done a little to help Bon Bon live, while she can. Like you and the others did for me. I'm still scared a lot, but I don't hide from everything." She grinned in amusement. "All my little friends are so good at enjoying their lives even when they're short, it's embarrassing I didn't learn it from them."

Twilight mulled this over. Seeing the world as a horribly uncaring place might well make a pony easily frightened. Or perhaps being easily frightened made Fluttershy view the world as a terribly scary place. It probably didn't much matter what came first. "Well, I suppose if you're easily scared, being kind in spite of the world is fitting, in a way. I hadn't looked at it that way before. I couldn't really tell if Bon Bon was telling the truth about her motivations," she admitted. "But she probably wasn't over-thinking it either. I didn't mean to give her anything to worry about regarding Lyra."

"Don't worry. I think those two have gotten through worse with each other, you getting Lyra angry isn't going to do real harm. This is just a silly misunderstanding." Fluttershy seemed confident, by her standards, in any case. After all, everypony involved were reasonable sorts. Twilight found the subtle optimism infectious.

"Sure, and in the end I got to know one of our neighbors better – although I'll probably wait until after winter is wrapped up to see if I can get on Bon Bon's good side."

Twilight thought the visit had been, if not pleasant, then at least satisfactory. Bon Bon wasn't trivial to get along with, but the mare obviously had a grip on herself. In Twilight's opinion, the earth pony would benefit from therapy, but she could hardly be forced to seek help. And it probably wouldn't be easy to actually find anypony experienced in dealing with such after-effects of combat. Bon Bon's friends at least deserved some credit for making her life easier, that would have to be good enough for the foreseeable future.

Now she just needed to convince Lyra that she didn't have overbearing intentions regarding their relationship.

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