• Published 7th Aug 2016
  • 3,017 Views, 465 Comments

Around the World in 81 Days (And Other Problems Caused by Leap Years) - GaPJaxie

When Twilight and Celestia have an argument about the existence of leap years, there’s only one possible way to settle their differences: a race around the world!

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Day 8: The Podhajsky Highway

“Hey, Spike!”

Spike shot awake in his seat, coming to attention with a garbled shout of greeting. His vision was dark and full of creatures more shadow than reality, but when he blinked hard to clear it, details resolved themselves out of the gloom. Will-o-the-wisps became street lamps, distant white clouds a marble building face, and the shifting mass of purple and pink in front of him, Twilight Sparkle. She was smiling, and her eyes were so bright, and without thinking, Spike smiled as well.

“Hey, Twilight,” he mumbled, scooting aside to make room as she piled into the back of the steam car. Her elaborate, voluminous court dress was singularly ill-suited for the back of a cab, taking up considerably more than half of the available space all on its own. Despite his small stature, Spike was forced to scoot off to the left, ceding the center and half his space to great puffy rolls of silk and the occasional sewn-in diamond. “What…?” he glanced up at the driver, who was still asleep, the engine silent. “What time is it?”

“About four AM. Sorry! I just got your message now.” Her tone was sing-song and her words came quick and bright. A few brushes with her legs managed to pull the rest of her long dress into the car, and her horn glowed as she removed her elaborate earrings.

Spike rubbed at his eyes with the back of a claw, shaking his head to clear the cobwebs. “You were at the ball until four in the morning?”

“Yes!” she giggled, using her reflection in the mirror to pick off some of the less comfortable bits of finery, including the silver ring that bound her horn. “It was ridiculous. Apparently it’s a rule here that the party isn’t over until the prince and princess leave. And of course Chain Link doesn’t tell me that, so I think we just keep going. And all the poor older noble ponies are trying not to fall asleep on their hooves, and the Emperor is all,” she lifted a hoof, and spoke in a booming, dramatic cadence, “‘It will take more than an alicorn’s stamina to shame my court!’ Fetch the band coffee and keep playing!”

Her eyes were still on her reflection in the window, and she missed it as Spike woke the driver with a swift kick to the back of her seat. Their vehicle had been the only luxury car Spike could find, but it served its purpose well. Perhaps fifteen feet in length, it was split into two clear sections, with the bulk of the car occupied by its spacious passenger compartment, with glass windows, two doors, and a retracting overhead canopy. The driver jerked awake in the other, forward section, with only a low windscreen and her driver’s goggles protecting her from the elements.

“Of course, by midnight or so we’re out of waltzes where the stallion leads,” Twilight went on, oblivious that anything had occurred, “and I’m getting worried that everypony will realize I’m faking it. So Chain Link takes an actual rose in his teeth and you can tell he’s trying not to crack up because he knows how absolutely ridiculous he looks and asks me if I know how to tango. And I ask him precisely how many romance novels he reads that he thinks that’s—”

Behind them, a loud hiss of steam emerged from the car’s rear-mounted engine. The driver was a tiny red-and-grey unicorn mare, so slight it seemed like her driver’s goggles and flat-cap probably doubled her weight. Her horn was bright though, its yellow aura flickering like the fire that now roared to life somewhere beneath the car’s boiler.

Twilight blinked like her own eyes were hazy, a little sigh escaping her as they refocused. “Oh, right. Sorry.” She glanced down at Spike. “Let’s head down to the train station?”

“We’re not going to the train station.”

Twilight frowned. “But your note said there might be trouble with our train tomorrow. Aren’t we going to go sort it out?”

“This isn’t the kind of problem new tickets will fix, Twilight. I spoke to some of the train ponies and Artificers and…” He paused, glancing up at her wide, expressive eyes, and down at her elaborate court dress. “They think there might be some problems. Like Griffonstone. If we want to get to Orlovia on time, it might be better to leave now. The bags are already packed and in the trunk.”

“I can’t run off in the middle of the night, Spike!” Twilight’s frown deepend. “I’m a visiting dignitary! Besides, I was supposed to get to hang out with the Prince tomorrow. It’s a goodwill tour. Making friends is the whole point.”

Spike’s shoulders tensed, and he held his claws tight together. It took him a moment to find the words. “You’re the Princess, Twilight. It’s your call. And we don’t know for certain that anything bad will happen. But I really think, if you want to stay on schedule, we should leave tonight.”

Twilight’s mouth drew into a line. She looked from the car, to the palace, then back to the car. Finally, she let out a rough cry of, “Uuugh!” and buried her face in her hooves. “Why does this always happen to me? Is it so much to ask for a train company to actually stick to the posted schedules?”

Spike said nothing, watching Twilight with his claws folded. The driver watched him. Twilight sighed again. “Fine, let’s go. But hold on a moment first.”

Pulling open the far door and rising up on her hind legs, Twilight stretched over the seats to wave at one of the nearby servants. “Hey! Excuse me, sirs?” she waved, until one of the palace staff approached, a light-grey coated pegasus in a sharp blue jacket. “I have a message for Prince Chain Link that needs to be delivered to him right away, and -- oop. Spike! Where’d you pack the parchment?”

It took a moment to find the parchment, and a while more than that for Twilight to scribble out nearly two pages of tightly written script. But soon enough, she passed the bound-up parchment over to the servant, who bowed and left. Spike shut the door, and gestured to the driver, who in turn gently pulled the throttle lever back. The engine let out a loud bang as it started, shifting to a more steady rhythm as the car pulled out of the palace gates.

“Ugh.” Twilight let her head fall back against the cushions. “Okay. Give me some help here, would you, Spike? I don’t think this dress was really made for travel.”

It took some time to extricate Twilight from the many-layered court dress, during which time the steam car gradually made its way through the dark and largely empty streets. Streetlights drifted and swirled around them, spots of light playing off the cabin seats and dancing on the window like flickering stars. Gradually, they grew fewer, fading away one by one as the car moved away from the city center, and there were no more lights to replace those left behind. The humm of the engine was steady and constant, and soon faded into the background.

“Huff!” Twilight let out a nicker, as she took a deep breath for the first time so far that evening. “That’s better. If I never wear another corset again it’ll be too soon.”

“Girls’ clothes are weird,” Spike agreed, tugging the fabric away as Twilight shrugged out of it, helping her shake the straps off her legs. “But, it sounds like the goodwill visit went very well?”

“Yes, Spike. I had a lot of fun.” Twilight smiled at him, giving him a little pat on the head with her hoof. “And… I don’t know.” She turned to look out the window, watching as the last buildings of the city rolled past and countryside became visible. “It gave me a lot to think about, too.”

“Anything you want to talk about?”

Twilight glanced back at Spike. Her ears pulled back halfway, then forward again, and she returned her gaze to the window. “There was some courtly politics, and Emperor Iron Cross was not subtle about the fact that he thought Chain Link and I would be an advantageous political marriage, hint hint. And I tried to tell him that political marriage isn’t a thing for me because Equestrians marry for love, but I don’t think he quite got it.”

“Ouch.” Spike put on a sympathetic flinch. “That had to be embarrassing. How did Chain Link deal with it?”

“Mmm,” she went on with a slower tone, thoughtful and distant. “Well, when his dad put him in the spot, he gave a rather graceful improvised speech about how love is one of the great magical forces of our world. Then he smiled at me and added that alicorns are both mysterious and patient, and will do whatever they very well wish to do regardless of what kings or armies have to say about it. Which was clever, and sweet.”

After a moment, she added, “But which was not, technically, disagreeing with his father.”

“Woah.” Spike sat up straighter. “You think he was like… intentionally trying to be all romantic and stuff?”

“I am almost certain he was under orders from his father to make sure I had a nice evening, yes.” Twilight nodded once.

“So why did you go dance a tango with him!?” Spike’s voice raised, and his arms went up above his head, his eyes narrowing sharply. But when Twilight turned back to stare at him, he slowly lowered his arms, and his gazed tilted down a few degrees. “Um, sorry.”

“It’s okay.” She went back to gazing into the distance. The streetlights were now few and far between, and it was not far to the point where they stopped entirely, and the road became darkness. “And because he was nice. If I thought it was all an act, I would probably have left early, but I do think he actually likes me. And besides,” she smiled again, “I said he was under orders to be charming. I didn’t say he failed.”

Spike stuck out his tongue and crossed his arms. It wasn’t until Twilight laughed that he realized she could see his reflection in the glass. The interior of the car was almost totally dark now, only the backwash from the car’s headlamps providing any consistent illumination. “Oh, hush, Spike. You’re being worse than Shining Armor. I can take care of myself just fine, and I promise, the tango is not an ancient mind control ritual that makes mares dot their i’s with hearts and start planning what their wedding dress will look like. Though I did enjoy it.”

Spike still grumbled, but less noticeably than before, and he uncrossed his arms as well to rest them on the seat. “Will you be visiting him again then?”

“I think he earned a second date.” There was nothing to see outside her window by that point, and so she turned her head forward to watch the road. The driver was only an outline by that point, the two bright flares of the headlamps leaving her edges fiery red and her back a pool of shadow. “And even if it turns out that we’re not compatible in the long run and I decide I’ve no intention of things going that way… you know? I like him. He introduced me to some new things. Even some things I wasn’t totally comfortable with. But he did it in a way that was really respectful. Now I know what it’s like to dance, and a lot about Aero-Lipizzian culture and…”

She sat forward, rubbing a chin with a hoof. “And even if political marriage isn’t a thing in Equestria, it is here. I could end up ruling this country one day. Or not. And it… I don’t know.”

“The world feels bigger than it used to?” Spike prompted gently.

“Yeah. Yeah, that’s a really good way to think of it.” She smiled and twitched an ear. “But it’s more than that, because I don’t feel like the world is so huge my actions don’t matter. It’s big, yeah, but I have a place in it. And that place is actually kind of important. I can make a difference. It’s a good feeling.”

She twitched her ear again. “The Emperor was super unreasonable about the whole slash-and-burn thing though.”

“I kinda figured he would be.” Spike drummed his claws over his scales. “So. Prince Charming. Did you kiss him?”

“That is so not your business.”

“I know!” He raised a claw as though to ward off the terrible accusation. “I wasn’t snooping. Just asking.”

“Well then,” Twilight said, matter-of-factly, “my answer is that it isn’t your business!”

“Sure. Sure.” Spike swallowed. “You kissed him didn’t you?”

Twilight looked back at him, and grinned ear to ear. The cabin filled with purple light as her horn glowed. She picked up the great mass of fabric that was her voluminous court dress and, with the most dainty, lady-like precision, attempted to smother Spike with it.

“Mmmph!” he called from under the crushing layers of pink. “Mmmmmmmph!”

“What was that, Spike?” Twilight asked, sing-song. “Was it, ‘I promise to respect Twilight’s independence and emotional maturity and right to pick her own romantic relationships?’”

“Mmmph! Mmmmmmuh!” The sound came rough through the dress's eight individually sewn layers.

“Good! I thought you’d see things my way.” She removed the dress, and Spike gasped for breath. “Fold this silly thing up and put it with the rest of the luggage, would you?”

As Spike managed as best he could with the dress and their series of suitcases, Twilight took the time to examine their vehicle, looking around and listening to the purr of the engine behind them. “Where’d you get this anyway?”

“The International Guild of Artificers, Tinkers, Mechanists, and Engineers. It’s part of something called a ‘motor pool.’”

“It’s a neat toy. I don’t understand why so many ponies outside Equestria feel the need to put steam engines on everything, but I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t interesting.” She tilted her head a moment, squinting at nothing in particular. “Ah, forget it, I’m not getting to sleep. Where’d you put my copy of Pegasus Migrations: A History?

And so, Spike put away her dress, and found her books, and let her read, and resumed his vigil at her side. But in time, another sound could be heard. There was a beat, a rising and falling mechanical drone, much like their engine, but not from the engine. At first both Spike and Twilight reacted with alarm, thinking their car had suffered some malfunction. But after a few moments it became clearer that the sound was coming from their right, not from within the vehicle.

“Is that… a train?” Twilight squinted. Then, she knocked on the window connecting them and the driver. The driver reached back and yanked a lever, and the window abruptly dropped down and away. A sudden blast of chill, damp air blew into the passenger compartment, a few stray drops of rain carried with it.

“Hey!” Twilight slid her forelegs over the lip of the barrier, standing up on her hind legs to stick her head out the window. The driver grunted in response. “Do you see that?”

Peering off into the darkness, they could see something now. There was a shape beside the road, off in the fields beyond. Something large enough that it could not be seen by staring directly at it, for its core was only darkness. It was only at the edges that it became visible, where the curve of a roof and the gap between cars flashed with starlight. A cloud of smoke, invisible on its own, could be seen where it occluded the sky, and the wind carried the faint click and clack of wheels on a track. But though it had the outline of a train, there was not a light to be seen on it anywhere. It had no head lamps, no carriage lights, and not so much as a firefly lantern inside what might have been the outline of passenger cars.

“What is that?” Twilight asked of their driver. With her head sticking out the window, the backwash from the headlamps illuminated her face more properly. Spike could see that she still had her makeup on. There was color in her cheeks, and shadow around her eyes, all of it running in streaks where stray raindrops struck her. She took no mind.

“Night Train,” the driver answered. “You see them out here on the tracks sometimes in the early morning.”

“Why are all its lights off?”

The driver glanced back at her for a moment. “No passengers going that way,” she said. “It’s empty. They’re just moving it back to another depot for a morning pickup.”

Twilight scrunched up her muzzle. “With the headlamps off? That’s really dangerous. What if somepony wandered onto the tracks and didn’t see the train coming?”

The driver flicked her tail, her tone flat. “Ponies around here know not to go near the tracks at night.”

Spike clambered up to the window beside her and squinted into the darkness as well. “Yeah, well, let’s follow their example.” He nudged his head towards the driver. “Get us ahead of it?”

“You’re the boss, boss.” The mare shrugged. Then she grabbed the throttle lever and pulled it back.

Steam hissed, the engine roared, rubber screamed, and the car shot off down the highway like an arrow from its bow. The night train faded behind them in the distance, and soon was lost to the shadows.