• Published 19th Feb 2017
  • 1,870 Views, 23 Comments

Control Freak - Pascoite

The nightmares started… Twilight can’t remember just when. But they’ve gotten worse and worse, and why won’t Luna help, and now they’ve even stopped bothering her. That scares her more than any nightmare ever did.

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Chapter 6: Schism

“I… I’m not real?” Dawn Ember said as she huddled in her chair across the desk from Princess Luna. One massive fact, too big to fit in her head. She brushed at the hairs of her cutie mark. She felt real. But how would she know what real felt like if…

Her mind twisted in knots, and Ember tried to stop shaking, without much success. Who ever heard of a unicorn that couldn’t levitate nothin’? Maybe nopony had, because maybe there was no such thing.

“Twilight Sparkle created you, but that makes you of no less substance than the rest of us. You are alive, sentient, intelligent…” Princess Luna stood and walked around her desk to wrap a wing around Ember. “You are respected and loved, as well.”

Ember stared at the wood grain on her chair’s arm. Did it matter? “I guess…” A sharp breath, out through the nose. “I guess it never surprised me that I couldn’t remember any further back. It never felt wrong.”

“Because it is not wrong,” Princess Luna answered. “Only part of what makes you unique.”

Unique? No, she’d splintered off from somepony else, and—she swallowed—Luna wanted to put her back now. Not fair. Not fair, either way, to her, who’d forged her own life, or to Twilight, who’d had hers come crashing down through no fault of her own.

Princess Luna didn’t often hug her. She rarely hugged anypony. It couldn’t keep Ember from shaking, though. “I understand. And I agree—she’s more important. I just…” Ember forced herself to look her teacher in the eye. She needed to know. Fennel, Chanterelle… and Copper. “What’ll it be like?”

How would she tell them? Ember choked on the words, but she shoved them out. “After, I mean. Still myself, in her head? Or…” Strong. She had to be strong in a moment like this, not whimpering, not—Ember wiped away those stupid, cowardly tears as her voice rose to a squeak. “Will I die?”

Her face blanching, Luna held Ember even more tightly. “No, no! I apologize!” She shook her head vehemently and bit her lip. “I did not wish to give you that impression! You poor dear!”

Dawn Ember froze. She’d seen calm, angry, bored… once in a while, happy. But never this.

“No, you are complete,” Princess Luna continued. Her mouth agape, she flicked a hoof to spur the words out as she took a few steps back. “When the lawn develops a bare patch, you take some seed from the healthy part and plant it—it spreads on its own. You do not sacrifice the one for the other,” she explained, her words rushed.


Ember’s heart quickened a little. Why had she assumed that? Thinking that Princess Luna would have… But just knowing now, she couldn’t suppress a smile, and she hugged Luna back. “Ugh, I feel like such an idiot!” Sparks danced up her back as if she’d just caught herself before tripping off a very high ledge. Still shaky, but for a completely different reason now.

“No. Please. I should have explained better. You will be in no danger.” Luna rubbed a hoof down Ember’s neck, but her ears perked as Princess Celestia stepped through the door, nearly stumbled on the edge of the rug, and levitated a crown onto the desk. A crown that used to hold the Element of Magic.

“I-I’ve brought it…” Princess Celestia’s jaw trembled, and she stared at the crown’s polished surface. And in that moment, for the first time, Dawn Ember didn’t see her as some divine being. Just another pony, scared beyond her ability to cope. Not that eternally resolute face, the steady posture. For the first time ever, pain. Why didn’t Princess Luna do anything about it? Ember nearly flinched to hug Celestia, nuzzle her, do something. But it wasn’t her place. She’d only met Celestia a few times, mostly as a result of this business, and… it wasn’t her place.

And even… Ember fought off a tingle in her nose. Even with Luna’s reassurances, did that impulse mean anything? If she wasn’t really a pony? Especially when Princess Luna, a real pony, didn’t feel the same? She’d just held Ember when she needed it, so why not now, for her own sister?

“If—if this doesn’t work…” Princess Celestia said. Her knees shook almost as much as her mouth. “We should prepare a place in the Royal Mausoleum. I-I’ll see to her needs personally, make sure she is fed, comfortable. Warm. Safe.” Her voice cracked. “Not alone.”

Fed? But… in a mausoleum? Ember squinted at her mentor, but Princess Luna wore her usual stoic mask.

“Sister, perhaps somepony else should—”

I said I would see to her personally!” Celestia jutted her chin forward, squeezed her eyes shut, spun around, and trotted from the room, her wings dragging along the floor.

Princess Luna sighed and finally let a frown intrude. Then her eyes flicked toward Ember, and her mouth hung open. “We… had discussed what to do…” She squared her shoulders, but she couldn’t hide the tremor in her voice, the same one she’d had when she told Ember she might have to go away. “I am prepared to force a permanent sleep if we cannot find a solution. Banishment, of a sort.”

And again, Ember’s hooves ached to wrap around somepony’s neck and hold her close. Did real ponies feel this way, too? Even if not… Twilight would. No question. She didn’t… Well, she guessed she did know why she could say so definitely. Still. Twilight would. And despite Ember’s own doubts, Twilight carried that title: Princess of Friendship. If Twilight… if old Twilight would, then it must be right.

“I should get back to my experiments,” Ember said, already a few strides toward the laboratory. As much as she needed Princess Luna right now, the sisters needed each other more.

And a wistful smile glimmered on Princess Luna’s lips. She didn’t need to say it—she gave a small nod and walked out the door, in the direction Celestia had gone.

A sunbeam crept across the floor and illuminated tiny motes of dust that danced in their own intricate patterns. Patterns that ebbed and flowed slowly throughout most of the room, but swirled more erratically near Twilight Sparkle’s muzzle with each soft breath. The light relentlessly tiptoed over Twilight’s cushion and up her cheek until it finally rested on her closed eyelids. In response, she squeezed her eyes shut even tighter and nestled her head deeper into the pillow.

“Twilight,” a hushed voice called. Twilight wrinkled her nose at it—she recalled it from a troubled dream last night—and let out a snort before going still once more. Then a bit louder: “Twilight.”

She raised her head and blinked. A few paces away, Celestia lay on the bare floor. Her rumpled wings hung loosely from her sides, and dark bags underscored her eyes. Twilight instinctively smiled. Celestia! She tried to stand and walk over to her mentor, but her face fell as the magical restraints kept her rooted in place. The castle…

Luna had brought her here. A scowl formed, but just as quickly disappeared, and her heart raced. Luna… had promised her something. Luna… Luna loved her. But there was more.

“Twilight, we…” Celestia began, but she jerked her gaze away from Twilight and threw it to the far wall.

Twilight followed with wide eyes as Luna strode into the room, sat beside her sister, and placed a hoof on Celestia’s shoulder. With a sigh, she took up Celestia’s burden. “We have determined the nature of your… condition.”

Celestia’s burden. That was it! Luna had promised to bear Twilight’s as well. She raised her eyebrows and held her breath. This might all be over soon?

“I gather my sister has already explained much of this to you, so I will be brief.” Luna took a deep breath and leaned into Celestia’s side a little more. “We each have an innate ability to control our magic, to ensure that we use it responsibly. It is… akin to a conscience, but more subtle. Normally, it is not an issue—earth ponies and pegasi do not wield enough magic for it to overwhelm them, and very few unicorns do, either. That is, unless the unicorn is unusually powerful and ignores the warning signs. Or deliberately surrenders himself and allows the magic to seek its own ends.”

Luna shook her head and gazed up at the ceiling. “Twilight, your case sits firmly in the middle. And therein lies our dilemma. Celestia and I are the only known cases of the former, and likewise Sombra for the latter, at least that eluded our efforts to snuff it out immediately. We have no precedent for you.” Now her eyes wandered to the window.

The sky wouldn’t be any more help than the ceiling. Why wouldn’t Luna even look at her? A metallic tang lingered on her tongue.

“You truly wish to resist your magic’s dominance,” Luna continued, her ears folding back. “I can see it in your eyes. Your admirable progress in researching friendship shows that you retain an honorable heart. But…”

Twilight’s jaw clenched, and her shoulders knotted. Luna never beat around the bush like this. She didn’t want Twilight to know something. Luna—she’d lost! And she refused to concede. How arrogant must Luna be, that she couldn’t even bow out gracefully? But what was wrong with Celestia? Why couldn’t she bring herself to speak? Twilight swallowed hard.

“During your entrance exam, a rainboom startled you into releasing your latent power,” Luna said. Yes, Twilight remembered that day well. She cracked a smile as her eyes flicked toward her cutie mark. “Your magic sensed an opportunity at your distraction. It ejected your self-doubt, your connection to the natural energy around you, your internal checks on your own magic. And ever since, little by little, you have sought magic for its own sake and fallen victim to its assurances that no harm would come of it.”

Luna craned her neck back to the door and beckoned to somepony waiting in the hallway, just out of sight. A pale, yellow-green unicorn took a few timid steps into the room, then hurried to Luna’s side.

Twilight gasped. It—it was like looking into a mirror! Except for the color… and the cutie mark. She’d seen this unicorn around school once or twice before—Luna’s personal student, if she remembered correctly—but her mane had always been overgrown, unkempt… rustic. But now that it was trimmed, brushed, and not hiding her eyes, she was a dead ringer.

“When that happened, Twilight Sparkle, you created something new. Somepony new.” Luna nudged Dawn Ember forward a little. “She appears as an afterimage of you, and vice versa; stare at one long enough and see the other.”

Dawn Ember ran a hoof through her mane, blushed, and managed a weak smile. She extended a hoof, but that wisp of smile faded when she looked down at the restraints preventing Twilight from reciprocating. “I’m… Dawn Ember,” she mumbled, her eyes still locked on the fibers of moonlight wrapped around Twilight. “It’s nice to meet you.”

Twilight’s mouth hung open. Created? “I… made her?”

“Yes,” Luna answered. “But more importantly, she is a part of you. A vital part, and one that your magic saw as a threat.”

“How…?” Twilight could only stare at Ember. A new pony? All those years ago? Like me… Part of me… What’s she like? Could she be a friend? A colleague? With a faint smile on her lips, Twilight’s eyes glinted in the morning sun. A rival? Come a little closer, Dawn Ember. This won’t hurt a bit

Celestia snapped her head up and pulled Ember back to her. “Don’t approach any closer than this,” Celestia said, pointing at a chalk circle drawn on the stone floor. “She cannot harm you out here.”

“Twilight,” Luna called. Twilight turned her head but let her eyes linger on Ember for a moment. Ember would only stare at her hooves. Shame. But Ember wouldn’t play along, so Twilight finally gave Luna her attention and let the smirk disappear from her face. “When this first happened to Celestia, she fought it. Neither of us understood it, and I absorbed the darkness from her because I could not bear to see her suffer. I fought it as well, but we both determined that time was the key: I needed time to build my resolve against what I had become, and when I realized that I could not do that alone, to await my opportunity to break free.” She wrapped a wing around Celestia, who had begun crying softly. And Twilight had admired her. Such weakness, openly displayed. No wonder Luna chose this time to unleash her coup. “My sister needed time to regain her strength so that she could give me that opportunity. Or, as it turned out, to find another method for doing so, once we had forfeited our connection to the Elements.”

Twilight rolled her eyes. This rigmarole again. “So how long will you hold me here, then?” she barked, jerking her body against the magic tendrils. Letting out a little yelp, Ember retreated behind Celestia.

Luna sighed. “You do not understand the gravity of the situation,” she said as she raised her voice and squinted back. “On the one hoof, banishment worked because the magic had corrupted neither of us. On the other, my sister was forced to destroy King Sombra for voluntarily sacrificing his last shred of morality. Or at least attempt to destroy him.” Luna at last rose to her hooves and flared her wings with a frustrated snort. “What would you have me do?”

“You don’t have the guts,” Twilight spat. Or did she? The words hung there, echoing inside her head and rumbling like thunder, but she didn’t remember saying them. Luna looked so far away, as if at the end of a tunnel or… the top of a well.

A well… Yes. The occasional drip of water sounded, and Twilight sat on her haunches in cold, thick mud. Freezing! She lurched toward the flagstone walls and tried to get a hoofhold, but slime and slick moss coated the rock.

“Help!” she shouted, her voice reverberating in the stone shaft. She could barely hear Luna’s voice over the howling wind far above, but enough words floated down that she could understand the princess’s intent. Her heart raced, and her breath momentarily caught in her throat. “Help!” she cried again.

In reply, a purple mist seeped down from the sky and billowed out to fill the space above Twilight. Just relax, it seemed to say. It will all be over soon. It swirled around her and pressed in. She—she couldn’t breathe! C-cold, so cold, enfeebling…

Twilight coughed and choked on the smoke, fanned enough of it back to create a small air pocket, sucked a giant breath into her lungs, screamed. “Luna! I’m still here! Please help me!

As Luna waited for a response to her question, Twilight sat, motionless, at last emitting a barely audible whimper. “I am losing patience with you, Twilight Sparkle!” she roared. “Shall I obliterate you for the abomination you have let yourself become? And destroy a part of our hearts with you? She”—Luna jabbed a hoof toward her sister—“would never forgive me!”

And still a speechless Twilight gaped back.

“Or shall I send you into exile? Without even the basic means to combat your own magic, what good would it do?” Luna stamped a hoof. “After a thousand-year banishment, you would have no more self-control than you do now, and the magic would have long since consumed you entirely.”

Her body shaking harder and harder and her eyes blazing, Twilight pointed a hoof at Luna. She’d seen it all now, the full extent of Luna’s treachery. “Liar!” she screeched. “You told me you would accept banishment in my place!”

“Sister!” Celestia jerked her head around, and her jaw hung open.

“Does that surprise you?” Luna glanced at Celestia out of the corner of her eye. “Better than anypony, you should understand my reasons.” Celestia merely stared.

A new fire igniting in her eyes, Luna turned back to Twilight. “To what end would I take on your punishment? To find that after a millennium, it was all for naught? That you had devastated Equestria in my absence or later forced my sister to exile you anyway? Your magic is unconstrained! If I take it from you, it will just build up again. There is nothing we can do for you!”

Twilight wrinkled her nose and snorted. “You’re nothing more than a filthy liar,” she muttered. “You made a promise you never intended to keep, then pulled it out from under me.”

At the edge of the chalk line, Luna twitched forward and bared her teeth, but held her ground.

“Are you going to let her do this to me?” Twilight asked Celestia through her sudden rush of tears.

“I can’t intervene, Twilight,” Celestia replied quietly. “You’re too close to my heart for me to trust my own judgment. My sister has the right of it.” And still she wouldn’t look Twilight in the eye. What a sniveling lackey she’d become!

While Celestia squeezed her eyes shut, Luna leaned a few inches into the open space around Twilight, swept her wings forward, and clenched her jaw. “The only safe course is permanent banishment, Twilight Sparkle, a fate to which you might prefer destruction. I certainly would not relish eternal solitude.”

Her lip quivering, Twilight squeaked. “You—”

“No. I told you that I would serve your sentence if possible. And I have explained to you why it is not. The time for discussion is over.” Luna fell heavily onto her haunches once more and folded her wings in. “No more crocodile tears. No more baiting my sister. No more prodding to get a rise out of me.” A silvery, steely glimmer returned to her eyes, and she pursed her lips. “I had hoped that whatever contemptible persona your magic had manifested could realize that it already occupied an extraordinary position of power and be content. But if you are determined to play this charade until the bitter end, we can be done with it now.”

Luna!” screamed Twilight silently with her last breath into the well shaft overhead. The purple fog closed in on her, cold and damp. “I didn’t want this!

Luna backed up a step as Twilight clutched at her chest and flicked her eyes back and forth between the princesses. Twilight moved her lips as if to say something, but only a strangled gasp emerged.

“Oh?” Luna said with a raised eyebrow. “A bit of fight left in you, then? Good.” She placed a hoof on Dawn Ember’s shoulder and guided her out from behind Celestia. “Mark my words: she is your last hope. What you tossed aside as useless is the most vital part of your continued existence. If your magic would rather rule in solitude than concede, and if you cannot find the strength to fight one last battle, then so be it.”

A giggle rose in Twilight’s throat, and it soon grew into a cackle. Her? Dawn Ember had spent most of her time cowering behind Celestia, and she was supposed to be Twilight’s salvation? An immense, toothy grin clawed its way across her face. “You see? You see?” Her ears folding back, Twilight’s maniacal eyes bored into Ember. “They don’t even ask you! You’re just a pawn to them! They’d chew you up and spit you out without a second thought, all just to save their precious Twilight Sparkle.”

Ember creased her brow and shied back a step at the continuing laughter, then glanced up at Luna.

SILENCE!” Luna yelled, her Royal Canterlot Voice shaking the room. “Tomorrow morning. First thing.” She wheeled and trotted toward the door, Celestia and Ember hastening to follow.

If,” Luna added as she glanced back over her shoulder from the hall, “Dawn Ember finds anything worth saving.”

Dawn Ember winced at the princess’s words and missed a half-step on her way out of the room.

Left alone again, Twilight let her laughter echo into the corridor, but she soon bored of it. She needed a plan. Dawn Ember shouldn’t be too hard to intimidate, but Luna… Always Luna. Something soured in the pit of Twilight’s stomach, and she grimaced, shivering as she laid her head back down on her cushion.

Unable to keep her thoughts together, Dawn Ember scuttled about her room and tried to imagine what items she might need overnight. Toothbrush, washcloth, something to read. A pillow… Actually, no. She wouldn’t get any sleep, not with what Princess Luna had planned. A plan that she’d shared with Ember and nopony else, in fact.

But what good could she do? She had no magic to speak of—just the ability to read magic around her, not to use any. And poor Princess Twilight…

Ember certainly didn’t relish sleeping—well, trying to sleep—in the same room as her, in the dark. That maniacal look in her eyes. Ember shuddered. But then something deeper, behind all the posturing, like somepony trapped under the frozen surface of a pond, silently pleading for her life.

When Princess Luna had asked her, what other choice did she have? Of course she’d help. And Princess Luna had promised that Princess Twilight couldn’t get free of her restraints. Still, who’d want to spend the night through the bars from a snarling wolf?

With a sigh, Ember tossed her saddlebag back on the bed and picked up only her book. She wouldn’t feel like sleeping or eating anyway. And likely wouldn’t be able to concentrate on her reading, either, but something felt wrong about going empty-hooved.

She did take the crown, however. Princess Twilight’s old one—it no longer had the Element of Magic in it, but maybe it still carried some residual magic. Princess Luna had left it with her after that confrontation in Princess Twilight’s cell. Every little bit might help, she supposed.

Ember only had a little bit, and it had taken years for her to become convinced of even that.

“Was that Thrush with the mail?” Ember called out the front door.

“Yeah,” came Fennel’s voice in reply. “Letter for you.”

She wrinkled her forehead. Who’d write to her? “What is it?”

The old planks creaked as Fennel walked in and tossed the letter onto the table beside the trays of herbs she’d prepared for drying. “I dunno. ’S your letter.” He wore a smile that strained to keep something in.

Ember reached for the envelope and tore it open, only then noticing the Canterlot postmark. Quickly, she scanned down the few paragraphs, but really, she’d learned all she needed to know from the letterhead.

“P-Princess Celestia’s School for Gifted Unicorns?” Too much… She—

Her eyes misted up, and she choked on her words. “Y-you…” Ember pressed the letter to her chest and sniffled hard. “You want me gone?” she said in a harsh whisper.

Fennel’s face immediately fell, and he shook his head, but Ember didn’t wait around to hear what explanation he’d try to give. The letter fluttered down from her grasp.

“Ember, no!”

She dove onto her cot and pulled the blanket over her head. A one-room house didn’t exactly provide many hiding places. One of his ankles popped as he crouched down next to her, and she felt a hoof on her withers. “I can’t do magic,” she mumbled into her pillow.

“Ember, it was the response from Canterlot Hospital last week,” he said softly. “The nitro worked. A minin’ explosive worked as a heart treatment.”

“I know.” Ember sniffled hard. “It felt like the same color and warmth as the foxglove every time I went over to Copper’s.”

He gave her shoulder a little jostle. “Yes. It’s beautiful that you do that. Your talent.”

Nearly half a year ago… she’d cooked up some home remedy—Chanterelle helped with the stove, of course. Something minor, just to help with burns. When she’d finished, a small white mortar and pestle adorned each of her sides. But her parents had done this for decades.

“You ought to get yourself trained up. You know we’ll miss you somethin’ fierce, but no unicorn out here can do what you do. We’re holdin’ you back.”

Ember clenched her jaw. “I can’t do magic,” she repeated.

“Of course it’s magic. What makes you think it’s anything else?”

She didn’t answer. Yeah, magic. Everypony had a little, but unicorns especially. She couldn’t even levitate her books around school, which her classmates liked to point out. Except Copper…

The cot sagged as Fennel sat on the edge. Ember kept staring at the log wall a few inches from her face, all the burls and knots she could see plain as day, even in her sleep. “Ember, you have a very unique gift. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

“But it’s not magic. I can’t even levitate a stupid fork to eat dinner. I’d be two years older than anypony in my class, they’re not going to care about my earth pony gardening routine, and I can’t do magic!” She pounded a hoof against the wall. “Just let me stay here. Please,” she hissed. “Please.”

“Ember.” If she pressed her head into the pillow harder, maybe she wouldn’t be able to hear him. “Ember!” He took her chin and turned it toward him, but she kept her eyes averted. “What you do isn’t remotely close to earth pony magic. It’s time you understood that.”

“Yes it is. Just earth pony magic.” She was lucky she could do even that much. Not too many earth ponies had a horn, but… Who ever heard of a unicorn that couldn’t levitate nothin’?

“I just figure out what herbs and plants and minerals are good for what uses,” she continued. “Same as you. I learned everything from you.”

Fennel sighed and rubbed his eyes. “What you learned from me was only the beginnin’. I taught you all I knew, and you saw the patterns, made the connections. Then you went beyond what I know.”

Somehow, she felt that this had been a long time coming. She’d make him see. Even if it meant he didn’t want her around anymore. Even if it meant she’d be alone. She finally sat up and looked at Fennel.

“Ember, earth pony magic makes me able to recognize an herb, cultivate it, prepare it. But do you realize how I know what it does?” She waited for an answer, but… he had that dull gleam in his eye that said he was a rock that wouldn’t move. One earth pony trait she wished she had sometimes… The answer would have to come from her. She wiped her cheeks dry and shook her head.

“Luck. Sheer dumb luck.”

Ember stared back at him. She knew those words, but they didn’t belong there, hanging in the air between them. They shouldn’t be coming from him.

“Somepony a hundred years ago chewed on this leaf or that by accident or superstition and found that it actually did somethin’ useful. Even in the best case, maybe he saw an animal eatin’ it and figured out why, but the animal sure didn’t give it much thought, either.” He’d been talking faster and faster, but he stopped suddenly. Sure, he didn’t hear the colors, feel the scents like she did, but that was her way. He could do it, too. It was just different for him. It had to be.

“I know what chamomile does because my grandmother knew, and she knew because her grandmother knew. That’s it.” She scooted a little toward the wall. She didn’t like it when Fennel raised his voice. He never raised his voice. “We don’t do what you do. You figure it out. You see it. And every little time it happens, your horn is glowin’. That is magic!”

She’d… never seen him this upset before. He’d always just sit there, calm as ever, and wear her down with patience. He took a deep breath and smiled, only a little, but enough to make some of that warmth creep back into his eyes. “You owe it to yourself to develop your gift,” he said, pointing at her cutie mark. “It’s not somethin’ big and flashy. But it’s what an ember does: It burns long after the fire’s gone out, but just as hot. It keeps a flame goin’ inside, where nopony can see.”

He’d said his piece and been nice about it. Now it was time for hers. “I won’t get in. But if you want me to go away…”

Fennel sidled further onto the cot, next to her. “That’s not it at all. Do you know how much joy you’ve brought us? Didn’t you see that extra spring in Chanty’s step this past year? Don’t you see how you nearly bring her to tears just by callin’ her ‘Mom’?”

“She… does?” Ember fiddled with her hooves and breathed deeply. “Just didn’t seem like, y’know, I needed to. Like she understood.”

Fennel reached a hoof around her back and gave her a squeeze. “I’d love for you to stay here, but that’s just me bein’ selfish. I’m not gonna keep you hidden in the middle o’ nowhere only ’cause you’re my favorite helper. You deserve better.”

“But this is home. I-I don’t wanna go!”

He hugged her closer and kissed her on the forehead. “I won’t make you. You’ll always be loved and welcomed here. But please think about it. Think about what more you could do with the right schoolin’. And if after all that, you still feel like this is where you belong in the world, then there will always be a place for you here.”

Ember twisted her mouth into a frown and flopped sideways back onto her pillow. She didn’t want to think about it. If she did, it might start to make sense.

“I’m sorry,” Fennel said, pushing his mane back and leaning into the wall. “That didn’t come out like I wanted. Ember, imagine you had a little one o’ your own who was an amazin’ piano player. She’d plink away at the local schoolhouse and make all the children happy, and she thought that was enough. But you knew you’d never seen anything even close to what she could do, and the only one around who could teach her more was a fiddler—a good one, but still… They’re just too different. There’s only so far she could go like that, but you knew she should be playin’ in fancy concert halls in all the big cities. Wouldn’t you want that for her, even if it hurt to see her leave?”

It started to make sense.

Fennel patted her again and brushed a hoof over her cheek. “Think about it. Please. And whatever you decide, we’ll support it.” He stood and walked out, giving her one last backward glance, and left her to her thoughts. Thoughts she didn’t want to deal with right then. Not alone.

Twilight sat with her head up as high as possible, eyes closed and ears pricked to the little sounds around her. A good bout of meditation would focus her mind, and she couldn’t exactly do anything else. She’d lost all track of time, except that the sun had set a while ago. And nopony had brought her dinner yet.

Dinner. That’s what she got for losing her concentration.

Her stomach rumbled its complaint at being ignored for so long. But it too fell to the wayside when the door’s bolt shot open like a blacksmith’s sledge against his anvil. One of the pegasus guards—Twilight had never bothered to learn their names—poked his head in and announced, “Visitors!”

Dawn Ember strode in, followed by a dark green stallion and a gray mare, both earth ponies. Ember tossed a couple of careful glances in Twilight’s direction, but they otherwise paid her no heed, merely congregating around a small table in the far corner and striking up a hushed conversation.

A minute later, Rarity walked in, wearing a smile held on by frayed thread. She kept approaching—she didn’t know! Closer, too close! Twilight gestured her muzzle toward the chalk line on the floor and finally dredged up her voice. “Rarity, you should stay back. I don’t want…”

“Twilight,” Rarity said as she knelt directly in front of her, “Princess Luna has already warned us. But you’re my friend. It wouldn’t be right.” Rarity’s eyes remained fixed on a point just in front of her hooves, and the seconds ticked by.

No! Twilight wanted to say. It’s not safe! But just as she took in the breath that would give her words life, that familiar scent of oleander filled her nostrils. And as hard as she’d fought to speak, now she had to hold back tears. Her—her fr—

Rarity flung her hooves around Twilight’s neck. “No matter what, you’re a friend,” she whispered in Twilight’s ear. “Never forget that, dear. You’re a friend.”

She pulled back to swipe a hoof at her own tears and met Twilight’s gaze. “I’m sorry I’m the only one who could come. Of course, all of us know that you’re having some—” she waved a hoof in a circle “—issues, but nothing specific. Except… Fluttershy.”

Twilight’s eyes opened wide, and she looked away. Rarity’s hooves had flinched. Barely, but still…

Rarity pursed her lips and took a deep breath. “She’s fine, Twilight—just a little sore, but fine. She confided in me because she thought that…” A hoof flicked toward her horn. “Well, as a unicorn, I might have some understanding of what was happening to you, dear. I… didn’t have anything to tell her.” Rarity patted Twilight’s hoof, but when she continued, her voice cracked. “Is it bad?”

Twilight let her eyes drift thoughtfully to the side and shook her head. “Not right now. But… I’m losing, Rarity. I’m losing.”

“Nonsense,” Rarity replied with a scowl, but the slight curl of her mouth and the flick of her hoof belied her stern facade. “That’s why the princesses have you here, yes? It’s certain to be okay—you’re in good hooves. Look, I’ve brought you something—” She twisted to her saddlebag and levitated out an exquisite silver bracelet with a large star-shaped amethyst, then snapped it around Twilight’s foreleg. “I wanted you to know what you meant to me. Dresses, jewelry…”

With her eyes squeezed shut, Rarity waggled a hoof in front of her muzzle. Twilight had never seen Rarity get so flustered before. Unless she faced the prospect of getting dirty.

Rarity stifled a nervous laugh, and her face had fallen. “After all, how does one wrap a friend in the luxuriant fabric of one’s love? Not only pleasing to the eye, but granting her that beautifully warm lightness of knowing how closely—” she brushed off one of the tears trickling toward her nose “—and fiercely her friendship is treasured?” Her gaze wandering out the sole window, Rarity held a hoof to her chest.

Twilight couldn’t help but smile. Rarity was always off on some tangent, following a romantic flight of fancy. But this one was awfully direct. “I know, Rarity. I know. You—”

A twitch shot across Twilight’s cheek, and it became a jolt by the time it reached her chest. Rarity… love… “I-I’m sorry,” she quavered. “I wasn’t thinking, didn’t know what I was doing, i-i-it—”

Rarity blinked a few times and braced a hoof under Twilight’s chin. It—it helped her to stop shaking. A little. “Whatever do you mean? You haven’t done anything to me.” The first genuine smile Twilight had seen from her that evening crossed Rarity’s face. “And the princesses will have all this sorted out tonight. They’ve asked me to stay over so that I can hear their announcement in the morning.” She punctuated that fact with a sharp nod, and her shoulders bounced with her giggling.

Timidly at first, as if touching Rarity might burn, Twilight leaned toward her, then nuzzled her neck, gathering her in close like a bundle of fine cloth. “Rarity, I am sorry,” she rasped in her friend’s ear. “I hurt Fluttershy, I stole from Applejack, I—I tried to make you love me. I couldn’t help myself, but that’s no excuse.”

Rarity raised an eyebrow. “Certainly not! I’m sure I would remember such a thing!”

Twilight’s head shook in reply. “It’s not like that. It’s not what I wanted. Not that I never could—” Twilight snorted. When had words ever failed her before? But now that she needed them most— “No matter how I say it, it’s not going to come out right!”

Releasing her friend from what manner of embrace she could muster with only her head free, Twilight breathed deeply and stared at the same green pillow that had been her only constant companion since what felt like a lifetime ago. “I hope you can forgive me someday. But maybe you should go.” Her jaw set, Twilight willed away any more gathering tears. “I want you to remember me like this, before I—before I lose control again. I-I don’t want you to see that. You’re lucky it’s been this good while you were here.” She gazed into the amethyst on her bracelet. Her own eyes, for once not green, shone back. “I love it. I really do. I know how much thought you put into everything, and it means a lot. It’s not lost on us, Rarity. Really. But… you should go now. Please.”

Rarity drew back and frowned, then nodded and walked for the door, any bounce to her step gone. As she passed the guards, she called back, “You are a true friend, Twilight. In the end, that is what’s important. I’ll see you in the morning.” That hollow stare, though—like a mask put on to shield her from the outside world. Yes, like that silly dragon costume she’d made so they could chase after Spike. The truth locked up inside, where it couldn’t harm anypony, even Rarity herself.

“Good-bye,” Twilight whispered as she watched her friend go. Eventually, she couldn’t even hear Rarity’s hoofsteps anymore. All trace of her gone. Except—that bracelet was beautiful.

She didn’t know how long she’d stayed lost in that deep purple gem before the chattering voices across the room brought her back to reality. Twilight glanced over at Dawn Ember and her parents. At least she assumed they must be her parents. Where were hers? Oh, yeah… Off in the Crystal Empire visiting Shining Armor and Cadence, now that they’d made her second pregnancy public. The guards wouldn’t shut up about it yesterday.

Her mom and dad probably didn’t know what was happening—Shining Armor had only witnessed a little, which was pretty… noteworthy, she supposed, but even he didn’t realize the half of it. He must think he was still protecting her somehow.

Twilight sniffed and buried her snout in the cushion to stifle a sneeze, and next thing she knew, the dark green stallion had crossed the the room to her. He gave one last glance back at Dawn Ember and cleared his throat. “Excuse me… Twilight Sparkle?”

She nodded into her pillow, but didn’t look up.

“I—I don’t understand how, but Princess Luna tells us that you’re the one who… created our daughter.” Brushing his dreadlocks back, he lay down in front of her and continued in a soft voice. “So, you’re kind o’ her mother. Or somethin’. I just—oh, sorry. My name’s Fennel, and that—” he pointed at the gray mare still chatting with Ember “—is my wife, Chanterelle. We raised her since she was a filly, and she’s just the most delightful pony. I think o’ how full our lives have been since I found her. I felt… I felt like I needed to thank you.”

Out of the corner of her eye, Twilight saw him reach a hoof over to pat hers, but he hesitated, changed his mind. Yes, those restraints covering her must seem a little intimidating.

“We love her so much, and you must be a really special pony if—if she’s a part o’ you.” She finally chanced a look at his face, and his eyes sparkled as they roved around the floor. “Thank you. I can’t say it enough.”

Another sound of hoofsteps drew both of their attention—a bronze-colored pegasus, his wings held out to his sides with the tips turned down. “Copper!” Ember shouted and rushed to meet him halfway. “You’re here, too?” Tucking his wings back in, he gave her a light kiss on the muzzle.

“Childhood friend,” Fennel said through his chuckle. “But somethin’ more now.”

Cast aside. Was that another part of her that she’d let go? Didn’t she deserve—? No. She couldn’t think that way. Look what happened last time, with Rarity.

“I’m sorry. I should quit botherin’ you.” And just as quickly as he’d come over to Twilight, he headed back to his daughter.

His piece said, his conscience satisfied. Maybe he even thought that would make Twilight feel good. She did feel somewhat… warmer.

At the bottom of the well, Twilight still sat, but it had become rather shallow—she might even be able to climb out if she tried. No wind howled overhead, no purple smoke swarmed around her. Only broad, blue sky, rippling grass, and a few wispy clouds. “Is this how you get your last kicks in?” she shouted into the air. “Letting me have my mind back just in time to see my life crumble around me? Letting me see friends for what I know will be the last time? Letting me have control when nothing I do will matter?” As her voice rose to a scream, her throat burned, her body shook, and tears splashed in the mud. She reared up and reached her forelegs over the stony rim, trying to hoist herself out into the sun-warmed meadow and scuffling for a hoofhold—

Her own face stared down at her. “Oh, this isn’t the end. I can play a part as well as anypony.” The double burst into tears and clasped her hooves next to her cheek. “I’m so sorry, Princess Celestia! I don’t know what came over me, but everything is okay now. I’ve learned from my mistakes,” she blubbered.

“I won’t let you,” Twilight growled. “I’ll fly into a rage and hurt somepony if I have to. Anything to get you banished to where you can’t do any more harm.”

“See?” her twin replied, tapping a hoof on Twilight’s nose. “You can do what’s necessary when you need to. I’ve been telling you that all along. Oh, the things you could have learned from me.” She sighed, her breath stirring up a wind that only grew, smearing the few clouds around to blot out the sky. “But you no longer have any choice in the matter. I just can’t understand why you keep fighting me. All the knowledge, all the power—I can give you everything you’ve always wanted, if you’ll just let me,” she added, her hoof curled to her chest.

“And you never will understand.” Twilight leveled a harsh grin back. “Who I am is more important that what I am. You’ve never been a ‘who.’ You’re a thing, and it drives you crazy knowing it’s something you can’t ever have.”

Her jaw trembling, the double bent down nose-to-nose with Twilight. “And for all that, you’re still weak,” she spat, giving Twilight’s shoulder a rough shove.

Twilight braced her hind legs for the expected jolt a short drop down, but none came. Her heart leapt into her throat, and the tingle in her chest made her cough as she looked behind her. Rock walls rushing by, no bottom in sight, tumbling further and further into the blackness.

The heavy door thudded against the wall, and Twilight’s eyes jerked open. A bright lantern floated into the room, and she tried to rub the sleep and glare out, but… Right. Her legs were still tied down.

Squinting into the glow, she could soon make out Luna’s face lingering in the shadows. “It is time,” the princess declared simply. It was a fact to her, and nothing more.

Twilight held her shoulders steady through the urge to tremble. “I thought I had until morning.”

“It is morning—just past midnight.” Was that a little gleam in Luna’s eye? She was actually enjoying this. From off in one of the shadows’ deeper recesses, Twilight heard Dawn Ember roll off her cot and trudge over to the light. A smell like burnt coffee drifted in from the hall.

“I see,” Twilight said with a prim little nod. “If I hadn’t come here for help, I wouldn’t be imprisoned. I suppose that’s the type of treatment I can expect.” Her lips curled up, just a touch, at the sight of that bandage still covering Luna’s burned shoulder.

“Twilight Sparkle, you are entirely correct. If you had not acted when you did, this would have festered far too long before we discovered it ourselves.” Luna blinked once and regarded Twilight with an icy stare. “And no, we would not have afforded you the luxury of confinement in that case.”

Perhaps a show of submission… Twilight slumped her shoulders and hung her head. “Very well.” After a short pause, Luna closed her eyes, and Twilight’s bonds loosened. Luna strode forward with Dawn Ember across the chalk line, which blew away in wisps as a breeze swirled through the room.

In an instant, Twilight lashed out with a hoof, grabbed Ember by the neck, and wrapped a band of magic around her throat. Over Dawn Ember’s yelp, Luna gasped, backing off a step and lowering into a defensive crouch.

“You’re going to release these magical bindings,” Twilight said, her low, calm voice blending in with the stone. “Then you’re going to let me leave. Once I’m out of the city, you can have your precious student back.” Luna squinted and jutted her jaw forward, a glow beginning to spiral down her horn. Not so fast, Luna. The hostage wheezed harshly as Twilight tightened her grip and maneuvered to keep Ember between her and the princess. Kicking out a back hoof to disentangle it from the dimmed cords, Twilight tried to—

Luna whipped her head to the side, and the line draped over Twilight’s shoulder went taut. It flared to life, sucked in Twilight’s improvised garotte, and yanked her to the floor, her head cracking against the bare granite.

A flash of white, ringing ears, a torrent of pain. Somepony scurrying away. Voices, can’t breathe! Warm, trickling across her forehead, her face lying in it. But c-cold. She shivered, one eye blurry, the other—a dark shape loomed over her! “No!” she wheezed, dizzy, wincing away from the glowing horn. But it touched her cheek. No way out.

No… no more pain. Only numb. And a far-off voice, seemingly from her memory: “You may never know how much Celestia and I love you, Twilight Sparkle.” She nestled into the words, nebulous or not. At least until another voice sounded, a different voice, starkly real. Twilight finally opened her eyes.

“Hello, Princess Twilight Sparkle,” Dawn Ember said with a weak smile.

No. No! She shouldn’t have come, she… she shouldn’t be here!

Author's Note:

And we're almost at the end. Coming March 26, Chapter 7: More Than the Sum of Her Parts