• 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 7: More Than the Sum of Her Parts

A pale spark danced on the tip of Twilight Sparkle’s horn. The feeble light lurched outward into the dank space at the bottom of the well and pooled in the crevices and chips among the flagstones. Far above, a minute spot of sky served only to glint off the thin green slime coating everything. Even so, purple smoke intermittently blotted out the daylight as it roiled in the whirlwind and cast Twilight into shadow once more. Despite the shade, the atmosphere remained still, humid… oppressive.

Had somepony called her name? No, not here. She folded her ears back and closed her eyes to see if the images dancing in her head might show her whether Princess Luna had managed to free Dawn Ember from… Twilight grimaced and held a hoof to her forehead. No images in her mind’s eye, only blackness. But why did her head ache? She expected to see a trickle of blood when she pulled her hoof away, but nothing. Wait, why blood? She almost shook the thought from her head, but something told her it would be a mistake to move that quickly.

Another peek upward—the purple mist made no motion to come down and harass her. Maybe… Luna had done it. Exile. But to somewhere more permanent than the moon. She wiped a foreleg across her eyes to brush the sweat away. So humid here. But if this was it…

Twilight let her shoulders relax and finally opened her eyes all the way. Dawn Ember stared back, only a few paces away. Another one of those hallucinations, or whatever they were? At least she looked different—she wouldn’t be hard to tell from that other Twilight. After one more glance at the cloud overhead, Twilight cocked her head, squinted, and slowly reached a hoof out to prod her companion’s nose.

Dawn Ember’s mouth quickly wrapped into a smile, and she giggled. “You must be the real Twilight Sparkle.”

Twilight’s jaw dropped. That was really—?

Backing off, Twilight shook her head. “No! If you’re here… Princess Luna has to banish me! She has to! Go back and tell her. Quickly!” She dared a glimpse at the smoke above, then held up a hoof to ward off the intruder.

Ember approached anyway, pressing past Twilight’s trembling foreleg to place a hoof on her shoulder. “It’s okay! We have time. This,” she said, waving at the air and flicking her eyes around at the walls, “is in your mind. Princess Luna can keep it up for a while, if need be.” Twilight gulped hard and gave Ember an anemic shove, but Ember only gripped her shoulder more tightly and peered at Twilight’s forehead. “You hit the floor pretty hard. Princess Luna called a medic. I didn’t hear much before I came here—it sounded like you’d be okay, but you should probably take it easy.”

Twilight rubbed a hoof near her horn and widened her eyes. “It’s okay,” Ember repeated slowly.

“How…?” Twilight let her raised foreleg fall to the mud. She forced herself to draw a steady breath—Ember simply didn’t know what she was dealing with.

Ember grinned wider. “I’m dreamin’, too.”

Twilight finally returned the smile and slumped her shoulders. Both confined to a dream—yes, then time wouldn’t really matter. But still, Princess Luna had better know what she was doing. Wait, though—she’d heard a little about Dawn Ember before. Not exactly a magical powerhouse. “What can you do, though? Your magic is so… different.”

Her gaze dropping to the ground, Ember shrugged. “Princess Luna had a long talk with me to prepare for this. It’s not my magic that you need, but it should help.”

Twilight lay down in the muck with a sloshing sound and pricked her ears forward. After a minute of silence, Ember hadn’t continued. Twilight at least had the fuzzy picture, but Ember couldn’t assume she had all the details, right? “Um… So, about your magic?”

Her head jerking up, Ember folded her ears back. “Oh! I’m sorry. Um… Where to start?” Ember took a deep breath. “It’s like I can feel the magic inherent in things, especially nature, but most o’ the time, it’s just a frustratin’ guessing game.” Inch by inch, her eyes wandered up toward Twilight’s horn. “All unicorns have a little o’ this magic. It fades into the background, gives you a connection to the world around you, but it’s passive. And weak, I s’pose. You don’t even notice it’s there.”

Ember tapped a hoof at the murky puddle in front of her, then frowned at the moldy-smelling ooze clinging to her foreleg. “When it’s all you have, though, it really changes things. I guess that’s never happened to a unicorn before.”

Twilight rubbed her chin. That was fascinating! A unicorn bereft of normal magic, stripped down only to the underlying subtleties that guide it all. How would her own magic act without…?

No. She lacked that base herself. How had she learned Rarity’s gem-finding spell then? Without that link to the natural magic… Of course. Rarity had no sense for the gems’ inherent magic, only their presence. Twilight didn’t have that aspect to her magic. In a way, she was also unique. How did her spells perform differently as a result? How would Ember’s version compare—for the few ones she could cast? “That’s quite interesting,” she muttered, her eyes growing wide. “I wonder if—”

Ember held up a hoof. “While time is… pliable here, we can’t ignore it altogether. Let’s try to stay focused.”

“Oh.” Nodding, Twilight sat up again. “Of course. Well, since Princess Luna seems to have coached you, what do we need to do?” As she peered back at her sort-of twin, the leaden weight in Twilight’s heart hit bottom again. She had to let Ember try, but better to get this over with soon. Luna would really imperil her own student? Dream or not, Twilight couldn’t trust that they were in no danger. Why would Luna take such a risk?

And just as quickly, that terrible gravity tore her in two directions. Luna loved her. She really did. And that love would expose them all to a terrible evil. If only Princess Luna would exile her and stop grasping at fleeting possibilities.

“Princess Luna said that I needed to help you find what was lost—that you needed to be whole again.” She shrugged and flashed a grim smile. “I don’t know exactly what that means. I guess we’ll have to wing it.”

“But what I lost was you,” Twilight answered, jabbing a hoof toward Ember.

“Yeah. It’s kinda hard to explain, eh.”

Twilight smiled in spite of herself. Something had caught her ear—some tone, mannerism, inflection—that immediately brought her back. At her childhood desk, she’d stayed up all night after attending her first Summer Sun Celebration. She’d finished yet another magic book, wolfing down every piece of knowledge it had to offer. A weak purple glow lit the front cover of the next one, and it shuddered, lifted in fits and starts. And opened. There was that soft rustle of a page turning, and she—she hadn’t touched it! She wanted to jump up and down, but that energy would serve her better by delving even further into that volume, and the next, and the next. Another page flip sounded, but just under it, an even quieter whisper: “Don’t rush. Stay in control. All in good time.” Well, not a whisper. She hadn’t heard the words; they were simply there.

“This is going to sound odd,” Twilight said, “but… I remember you. Your voice, anyway. Not the actual sound, of course, but the feeling, the presence. When I was just a filly, telling me not to rush ahead with practicing my spells, saying I needed to learn to walk before I ran, warning me to take it one step at a time. Then it went away. I thought it was because I didn’t need it anymore.” She gazed off into the past and faintly shook her head.

“I don’t remember any o’ that,” Ember said to the mud. “Nothin’ before I woke up in the woods.”

“I’m sorry—I’m letting my mind wander again,” Twilight replied. Her mouth formed into a grin, but it was left alone in that sentiment. “I’m supposed to… find a way to recombine us?” She raised an eyebrow. “That’s just—I don’t even…”

“I’ll try to explain.” Ember squared her shoulders, shut her eyes, and bowed her head. “Princess Luna said that you needed something from me. That’s all—not a two-way exchange. I’m already… ‘complete,’ she said. I’m all I’ve ever been and all I’ll ever be. But you’re missing a check on your power, a ‘healthy skepticism of magic,’ as she put it. A few more bits, too, but—” Ember looked up and pursed her lips “—I guess you can live without those. I thought she already told you that, though. Hasn’t she?”

Twilight could only nod. Not everything, but enough, and she’d picked up the rest herself. Would she reclaim that magical connection to the world around her, too? And Copper. Would she…? “So there’s hope?”

“I-I don’t know. Princess Luna didn’t say what it would take to make it happen. She might not know, either. But she gave me this.” Ember twisted her neck around to pull the crown that used to contain the Element of Magic from her saddlebag with her mouth. With her mouth? Ember poked the crown toward Twilight a few times before she understood and took it with her magic.

“I’m sorry,” Ember said through her one-sided grin. “I can’t levitate somethin’ that heavy.”

“But it’s only a few pounds…” Twilight creased her brow.

“I know.”

“Oh.” Ember wasn’t kidding—she really had no use of even rudimentary magic. Twilight waited for the explanation to continue, but Ember didn’t chime in with anything else.

Twilight did catch her staring, though. “Sorry,” Ember said immediately. “I-I’ve just wanted to meet you for a long time. I would have expected to feel more starstruck, but… but now that I finally got a chance, it’s almost like I know you already.” She flashed a sheepish smile.

Twilight returned a sharp nod. “Good. I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

Ember’s eyes roved up to the stone walls all around them, and she raised an eyebrow. “Why don’t you just fly out of here?”

With a shake of her head, Twilight stretched out her wings. Ember wouldn’t have known, but… Ugh, did pegasi feel this way, too? She folded her ears back and glanced at the rows of skewed, bent, missing feathers. The more she held them out, the more they stung, and her wings shook, and…

She folded them back in, and her cheeks burned red. “Ever since I fell down here, they don’t work.”

Ember’s eyes shot wide open. “Oh! Sorry again—I didn’t mean to stare. But your wings… The missing part of you must be responsible for them, at least some. But… I-I know. Well, I don’t, but I know how pegasi can feel about… because of Copper.”

Twilight smiled back, a little, warm, cottony one. Ember did get it.

After lapsing into a stare again, Ember cleared her throat, then gestured toward the crown and Twilight’s head. “If this is what ends up working, I guess we’re supposed to use our magic somehow?”

Her ears drooping, Twilight sighed. “No, it produces its own magic when the wearer feels the spark of true friendship. At least it used to. I don’t know what good it would do without the gem.”

Ember’s eyes glinted, and she sat up straighter. “Oh! Well, you’ve certainly got good friends. I’ve heard plenty about the other Elements. And the pretty one who visited you?”

“Rarity,” Twilight grunted. And she was pretty. Her eyes focused somewhere beyond the wall. She could almost hear that silken voice, smell the delicate perfume. As before, a warmth suffused Twilight’s chest, but… different now. Like when she’d seen her Gala dress for the first—well, second time. Or when Rarity had helped make her first sleepover a success. But nothing like that travesty of a date. At least she could finally see it. She fiddled with the new bracelet on her foreleg. Yes, Rarity was pretty, and Twilight had twisted that in just about every way except the right one: the simple admiration of a friend.

“Yeah,” Twilight said, once the mold-slicked stone registered in her consciousness again. She jostled her head—wincing, she rubbed a hoof above her left eye before continuing a little more quietly: “They’re all something special. And you seem to be good friends with Copper. Was that his name?”

Ember giggled and blushed. “Uh-huh. Copper Miner. Gotta be the only pegasus to work underground. Fits with a unicorn who can’t cast spells, huh?”

Twilight laughed to herself. Yes, they were quite the collection of odds and ends. “So there’s no shortage of friendship here. Is that all it takes? I can’t believe it’d be that easy.”

Averting her eyes to the side, Ember angled her ears back. “I don’t think so.” She sniffed the air, and a dull glow surrounded her horn. “I don’t know for sure, but… it doesn’t feel right.”

“Oh, is that how it works?” Twilight asked, her ears pricked. “Your magic, I mean.”

“Yeah. I just sense how things are sometimes, feel the magic around me. It’s anything but straightforward,” Ember said, rolling her eyes and snorting. “It’s all about tryin’ to match patterns with ones I’ve felt before. I wish I could explain it.” Ember scuffed a hoof at the mud and etched a small crescent moon in the ground. “Princess Luna once said, ‘Nature whispers to you, but she speaks in riddles.’ I guess that’s the best description I’ve ever heard of it.”

“So… What’s nature saying now? It won’t work without the actual Element?”

Ember shook her head. “I don’t know. I normally have to figure it out against patterns I’ve seen before, but this is new. I don’t think it needs the Element of Magic. Maybe some residual magic still exists in the crown. But it’s not Magic you need—it’s friendship, and the crown still symbolizes that. At least Princess Luna thought it might help.”

“Well, I have to try,” Twilight said, struggling to her hooves. “At the very least, it’ll give you some data.” As Twilight slipped the crown over her head, Ember nodded. “Now, think of your friends at school.”

“I… don’t really have any,” Ember replied. Twilight laughed, but—the way Ember sat there, hanging her head…

“I’m sorry—I didn’t mean…” Twilight patted Ember on the shoulder. “I was just remembering my own early days as Princess Celestia’s student. It seems we’re alike in some ways, too.” After a brief sigh, she continued, “Think of Copper, then. The crown will draw on both of us.”

A soft smile wriggled its way across Ember’s face, and she shut her eyes. Her breathing slowed, and Twilight mirrored the gesture as she sank to her haunches. Eyes closed, horn extinguished—for now.

In Twilight’s imagination, a scene trickled in like daybreak flowing over the landscape. Pinkie Pie, grinning with her whole body, chattered away noiselessly and fussed with the bunches of balloons bobbing about. Next to the cake lay several boxes, the wrapping paper all torn and the contents hanging out: dresses, saddles, jewelry that Rarity had made for her over the years—a hoof moved instinctively back to that amethyst bracelet, its reassuring solidity making her sink a bit further toward the ground. Then Rainbow Dash, struggling to read. Fluttershy’s bandaged wing. Her chest tightened. That wasn’t a cake on the table at all. An apple fritter. Like the ones she’d stolen. So stupid! But no. That was the point!

Her skin tingled, her jaw clenched, but still that—what had Rarity said?—“beautifully warm lightness.” It started in her chest, then surged toward the crown, and even through her eyelids, she could see the growing illumination. The pain of a friend wronged—that had to be a part of it, too. That was real friendship, not something from a bedtime story.

Twilight’s eyes shot open, suffused with light, as the crown’s glow tore into the gloom. Ember too: floating, eyes awash in white, now barely visible in the glare. The luminescence filled the well shaft, wrapping Twilight in such warmth, safety, calmness… She gasped, swallowed hard, reached her forelegs toward the sky.

And the light died. Twilight and Ember fell back into the muck with a splat.

Her ears flattened, Twilight hung her head. She wiped the mud from her forelegs onto her sides, then leaned over to hug Ember. “Thank you for trying.”

“No!” Ember wiggled out of the embrace and backed off a few paces. “That’s not it. Don’t give up—listen, you must know some spells for puttin’ things back together.”

Twilight shrugged and straightened the crown on her head. “We can give it a shot. I suppose it’s possible the crown might incorporate the spell.” She lit her horn again—she’d probably need to coach Ember through the meditation—but Ember wore a frown.

“There’s still somethin’ missing!” Ember said as she punched a hoof into the dirt. “I wish I knew what it was.”

Twilight shielded her face from the splash of mud. Maybe acknowledging the pain she’d caused still fell short of the mark. But what else could she do? All of those lessons on friendship—a clue must lie in there somewhere. Which lesson might apply to—?

“Not now!” Ember shouted, and Twilight jerked her gaze over in time to see Ember swatting something away from her face.

Twilight bent closer, and—a little purple strand? Like a minuscule tendril of hair, it drifted on the air currents with the other motes of dust. “What’s that?”

Waving at it again, Ember said, “My magic. I haven’t seen it this annoyin’ in a long time.”

“That’s… worse than normal?” Twilight raised an eyebrow.

Ember snorted and glared at the wisp. “Yeah. But, y’know, I don’t have much magic. And control of it is kinda the reason I’m here. Yours must have gotten terribly big by now—what is it, the size of a cat or somethin’?” Twilight rolled her eyes upward and clenched her forelegs together. Following Twilight’s gaze, Ember gasped, drooped her ears, and gulped. “Oh…”

The massive purple cloud writhed above them, filling the well shaft and leaving only Twilight’s weak spark to provide light. A chuckle sounded, and a few ribbons of fog spiraled down beside Twilight and coalesced into shape—her shape.

“I hope I’m not intruding,” the copy said with a smirk. “It sounded like such an interesting conversation—pity for you to stop on my account,” she said, holding a hoof to her chest.

Ember gaped, and her eyes shot wide open. “It can talk to you?”

“Doesn’t yours?” Twilight asked, her brow creased.

“I’ll thank you not to refer to me as an ‘it.’ I am a pony, after all,” the double said, turning her nose up at Ember.

“I’ve never seen anything like this!” Ember shouted. She paced a lap around Twilight’s twin and took a close look at her mane, eyes, cutie mark.

Twilight groaned. It’d be dangerous to provoke the other Twilight, but Dawn Ember didn’t know any better. She rubbed her eyes and opened her mouth to speak, but—

The copy sneered at Ember. “Oh, I remember you. You’re the garbage I threw out all those years ago. Managed to convince somepony you were useful, did you?”

“N-no… I mean, yes, I-I…”

“Don’t give her the satisfaction,” Twilight muttered out the side of her mouth as she imposed herself between them. “She just wants to get a rise out of you. Don’t play along.”

With a snort, the double shouldered her way past Twilight. “So you know what to do with rocks and plants, huh? Congratulations. You excel at being an earth pony. Your real parents must be so impressed.”

Ember’s eyes glinted like knives, and she ground her teeth. “They are my real—”

With a pointed stare, Twilight shook her head slowly.

Ember drew a sharp breath and set her jaw. “I don’t know what you think you’re accomplishing. You’re gonna get yourself exiled and take her—” she jabbed a hoof at Twilight “—down with you? And for what? Just so you can say you never gave in?”

Purple mist swirled around the copy once more, and when it cleared… Twilight’s breath caught in her throat. She didn’t know it could do that!

Where the duplicate Twilight had just stood, a perfect imitation of Dawn Ember smiled back. “If you’re so concerned, why don’t you join us in exile? I could use a toy. Or better yet, go in our place.” The fake Ember lit up her horn.

Twilight’s stomach lurched, and she scuffled her hooves for a purchase, but… she was floating! No! She grabbed at the stones as she passed, but her hooves only slid over the slime-caked walls. And that infernal fake hanging in midair beside her, leaving Ember at the bottom.

“We’ll just head on over to your body. You can wake up in this one,” the copy said. “Be sure to tell Luna all about it. I’m certain she’ll believe you.”

Baring her teeth, Twilight built up her magic to attack—no, it wouldn’t work. That thing was her magic. She couldn’t use it against itself, and on her own, she’d only managed a simple light spell and evoking the magic already inherent in the crown.

She cocked a foreleg and braced to take a swing at—

“You’re scared,” Ember stated flatly while glaring up, her snarl curling into a knowing smile. Her look-alike turned and narrowed her eyes. “You’re scared, and you don’t know how to deal with it, so you lash out at any convenient target. You’re stubborn, you don’t consider the consequences o’ your actions, and you want instant gratification. I know exactly what you are.”

Released from the magic’s grip, Twilight fell back into a mud puddle. What she was? Just magic, right? She gaped at both Embers—the airborne one flew down nose-to-nose with the earthbound one, whose horn emitted a faint glow.

“Twilight, I can’t use much magic, but I can feel it,” Ember said, her smirk growing. “And I’ve encountered enough illusion magic from the first-year students to recognize it. She’s not what she appears to be.”

Well, of course. It’d changed from Twilight to Ember right in front of their eyes. “I know. She’s supposed to look like me.”

“No,” Ember replied, shaking her head. “I mean—think about it. Who would demand her way, throw a tantrum when she didn’t get it, and let everything go to Tartarus instead of relenting?”

“I-I don’t…” Wait. That would mean that all those years ago—Twilight stared intensely at the fake Dawn Ember.

“She tries to seem like you, as an equal, but she’s not,” Ember said. She sighed and smiled at the copy, but not that smirk from before—only warmth radiated from her face, and she bent low as if she were coaxing an animal from its hiding place. It glared back.

“She’s a child, Twilight. A child, lost, afraid, and alone.”

The fake’s eyes seethed while it took a few deep, measured breaths. Then the mist circled around it once more to obscure it from view, and when it dissipated, all went with it, leaving the now-unobstructed moon to shine silvery tendrils from the small patch of sky high above. And they illuminated a blank-flanked filly Twilight Sparkle, the fire gone from her gaze.

“Sometimes children can be the most cruel,” Ember said.

Twilight couldn’t tear her attention from that foal, its head hung low and its lip trembling—no, her head, her lip. So much flooded into Twilight’s mind, her thoughts trampling each other to be the first one out, but one had already taken root: a child, not an “it.”

“Twilight,” Ember continued, “the mist made sense, but not her. Magic shouldn’t manifest itself as a separate being, communicate on its own, speak with you. It’s just an extension o’ yourself.” She swatted away the purple fleck hovering in front of her face again. “Like that,” she added, giggling.

Twilight gasped and finally wrested her gaze from the filly. “That means—that’s why it didn’t work! You’re not the only missing piece!”

Ember nodded and reached a tentative hoof toward the child, but drew it back. “She couldn’t throw you out, too. Magic can’t exist on its own, after all. But she did create a fissure between you, and she couldn’t have anticipated the result: separated from any meaningful contact, stuck as a child herself, and playin’ along until she decided to make her move. She needed the real Twilight Sparkle, and that infuriated her.”

Twilight sighed over the sound of soft whimpering next to her. “The real Twilight Sparkle.” She snorted. “Or what’s left of her.”

“You’re not…?” Ember began, but Twilight held up a hoof to stop her.

“The Twilight everypony knows is a mix of her—” Twilight tilted her head toward the filly “—and me, mostly me. But I’m not Twilight Sparkle any more than either of you.” And that poor foal. Sitting there, shaking. All full of bluster not five minutes ago, but reduced to a heap now. Sometimes the truth only made things worse. If only she’d known—the horrible things she’d said, the signs she’d ignored. “I’m sorry,” Twilight whispered.

Her younger self sniffled, angled her ears back, and wiped a hoof across her nose. “Stop it,” she said.

“I’m sorry. I’m so, so sorry.” Fighting back her own tears, Twilight wrapped her hooves around the quivering child.

The filly’s eyes shot wide open. “Stop it!” she said again, at a shout this time, but Twilight only hugged her closer. Tears rolling down her cheeks, she coughed out another “stop it,” and then went still.

“I’m sorry. I’m sorry,” Twilight continued to whisper as she rubbed a hoof up and down the foal’s back. “I wish I’d known. It must have been horrible.”

“You told me I was a thing,” the double squeaked through her blubbering. “That I’d never know what it was like to be alive.”

“Shhhhh. I know. I know, and I’m sorry.” What good had all those lessons in friendship done her? Twilight clenched her jaw. Betraying her friends, one by one, and because she’d betrayed herself first of all. It’d never occurred to her to confront her magic with anything but violence and threats. To confront herself. There could be no mistake—Twilight shared every bit of the blame. She knew that.

As she stroked the filly’s mane, she could feel all those built-up years of solitude trickling down her back, and a few tears ran down her own cheek as well. “It’s time to make up for that, Twilight.”

“But that’s your name,” young Twilight replied. She pounded a hoof on Twilight’s shoulder.

“Shhhhh. It’s yours, too. Everything is yours, too—our name, our home, our friends. I love you, Twilight Sparkle.” She tucked the filly’s head beneath her chin and whispered into her ear, “You’re a part of me—one that I can’t live without. One that I don’t want to live without.”

Twilight closed her eyes and kissed her ward on the forehead. When she opened them again, all three ponies sat in a moonlit glade, the stalks of grass rustling in a gentle breeze. “I have to accept all that I am. Every part. Do you forgive me?”

The filly rubbed her eyes and nodded quickly. But that wouldn’t do. Twilight raised the child’s chin with a hoof and met her gaze. “Do you forgive me?”

For several long moments, the foal searched Twilight’s eyes. Then she perked her ears up, smiled, and nodded slowly.

“Thank you,” Twilight said. She nuzzled the little pony’s neck. “Are you ready to go home?”

“Yeah,” the filly answered, her bloodshot eyes fixed on the moon overhead.

“Thank you, too,” Twilight mouthed to Dawn Ember. She reached out a hoof, and Ember walked over to join them in a hug.

One last time, Twilight Sparkle closed her eyes. A warmth emanated from her forehead, and she didn’t need to look to know that the crown had bathed them all in its glow. She didn’t have to ask herself if it would work. She didn’t have to search for that spark.

She merely had to love what made her Twilight Sparkle. All of it.

Twilight’s eyes sprung open, and she sputtered for breath, cough after cough wracking her chest. Where was she? Her forehead hurt, her chest burned—she couldn’t stop coughing! Her head jerking each time—it only made the pounding in her skull worse, and why did it hurt?

She managed a gasp, and something metallic fell off her and clattered to the floor. Softness, like cotton, on her forehead, but when she tried to reach for it, she couldn’t move an inch. Then the light—a deep, midnight-blue glow right in front of her face. How had she missed it? Pr-Princess…

Lu—” she wheezed, but the coughing started all over again. Stars danced in front of her eyes, and the light turned even darker now. Smoke, purple mist, pouring from her mouth and nose, each particle of it carrying a little weight off her heart. And each flying into a tangled luminescent web, strung across her back and holding her to the floor. The strands’ glow diminished steadily until they had sponged up the last wisp of that darkness, finally becoming completely black and flaking away like rust.


A shaky hoof tapped at the bandage on her forehead, then she sank into her cushion, her chest heaving. Luna’s magic dissipated, and she stood there, watching, waiting. Twilight could feel it. As much as she wanted to honor the Princess—bow, give her a hug, do something—her body would only let gravity have its way.

She rolled her eyes up at Princess Luna. “Thank you,” she rasped, adding a faint smile when Dawn Ember appeared next to her. She tried raising her head—ow! Throbbing again…

She just needed to rest. A little rest, and she’d feel… Her eyes drifted shut.

“I can’t thank you enough, Princess Luna,” Twilight said from her chair on the balcony of her old castle room. “You did so much for me, and I’d blamed you for everything, even though it was my fault all along.” Luna’s mug of coffee steamed from the table between them. She must have gotten it from the kitchen for this wing of the castle, two floors down. The occasional clink of metal utensils rang through the windows below, and even more coffee aroma wafted up, slightly burnt. But it didn’t seem to bother her anymore.

“Not at all, Twilight Sparkle. I had hoped you would have the strength to persevere, and it seems I was correct.” Luna smiled, but… shouldn’t she be asleep now? Bags under her bloodshot eyes—yes, the last week had left her rather ragged, too. “I must warn you, though: Do not expect your magic to go easy on you. It has a certain nature that it cannot change. But you have the tools you need now.”

Twilight ventured a halfhearted nod and looked away. “You went out of your way for me. I can’t help feeling like you gave me special treatment.”

“I did what I would have done for anypony,” Luna replied with a wave of her hoof. “But your case was decidedly unique. I daresay we have learned quite a bit of valuable information from it. I never would have suspected the full nature of your malady.”

Twilight grimaced and squeezed her eyes shut. “Dawn Ember told you everything?” She glanced up to see the Princess nodding. Presumably, Luna knew how to exercise some discretion. Of course she did. She hadn’t gone blabbing about Twilight before, and wasn’t likely to start now.

Twilight maneuvered her blushing cheek behind her mane as best she could. “I’m sorry. Princess Luna, I owe you an apology. I blamed you for the nightmares, and…”

“You were under extreme duress. I cannot hold you personally respons—oh, it appears you have visitors,” the Princess said. She broke into a grin as a guard ushered in Fluttershy, Applejack, and Rarity. Everypony bowed, and Applejack slid her hat off, but Luna immediately clicked her tongue. “Please rise, my little ponies. Now is not the time to stand on ceremony. In any case, I have business that requires my attention this morning. I will speak with you later, Twilight,” she said before slipping past the new arrivals with a nod and heading inside.

“Oh! More of you showed up!” Twilight’s gaze remained on Luna’s retreating form for a moment before darting over to her friends. “Girls, this means a lot to me. Thank you for coming!”

“Shoot, o’ course we would, sugarcube! Spike, Rainbow Dash, and Pinkie Pie woulda come, too, but they’re back in town settin’ up your welcome-home party.” Applejack moved to take Princess Luna’s vacated chair, but Rarity slid into it first and made a show of wincing and rubbing her hooves. One sigh later, Applejack settled onto the stone floor and crossed her forelegs. “It was tough keepin’ Spike from comin’, but I figured it might be best. He’s still shaken up from the night you left.”

Twilight nodded gravely, but then her ears perked up. “Party?” Twilight asked, raising an eyebrow. “But I won’t be going home for a couple more days.”

“Oh, we know that, dear,” Rarity said with a flick of her hoof. “It’s actually going to take them that long. I… wouldn’t blame you if you showed up fashionably late.” She leaned over and whispered out the side of her mouth, “A day or so should do it.”

A brief giggle escaped Twilight’s lips, but… blame. Sometimes a single word could bring a good mood crashing down. She’d prepared what she wanted to say and rehearsed it dozens of times that morning, but walls don’t criticize. Or get hurt. She set her jaw and—

“I was so glad to hear Princess Celestia’s pronouncement that you’d been cured,” Rarity said, her eyes sparkling, “but of course you were. Why else would she have set up such an event, dear?”

Twilight choked down the lump in her throat and tried to ignore the tingling in her chest. “I’m glad you three are the ones here. I have something I need to say to you.” If not for the blazing sun, she would have sworn a frosty wind had just swept through. Fluttershy stopped her fidgeting and stared back at Twilight with the other two.

Eyes closed, deep breath. Then Twilight looked at Fluttershy and waited. Waited for Fluttershy to quit averting her face, waited until her eyes widened a bit as she mouthed a little “oh…”

“You first, Fluttershy, because you’re the only one who actually knows what I did to you. I was cruel. You are the kindest pony I know, and I repaid that with hate, mocking, and abuse. I wouldn’t blame you for giving me the same in return, but I hope I can someday earn your kindness back.” Twilight pursed her lips, and Fluttershy surrendered to the ground’s tug on her gaze. A light blush, but also—Twilight held back tears—barely perceptible movement: testing, flexing that injured wing. If the first one was already going to be this hard…

The whispering breeze might as well have been a gale-force wind for how it overpowered the heavy silence. Another gulp, and Twilight turned to Applejack.

“In the face of honesty, I lied and stole. I took a tart, an apple, and two fritters from your cart that day in the market.” Applejack gaped at her, then quickly shut her mouth and glanced around at Rarity and Fluttershy. She’d seen this before, once, when Applejack had caught Apple Bloom in a lie—the set jaw, the clouded face. And there came the first few tears that Twilight’s willpower couldn’t keep in check. Applejack waved a hoof and wore an easy “what’s the big deal?” smile, but… the way those eyes didn’t quite look right at her, the way she worked her hooves against her hat’s brim. Twilight had broken something, crossed a line irreparably. Like when a foal found out too young that Santa Hooves didn’t really exist—a wholehearted belief shattered, never to be regained in quite the same way.

“Petty theft, but I didn’t need what I took. I did it just because I could, because I’d twisted your actions into something that needed punishment. Apple Bloom saw me, and I lied to her, too. Of course, I’ll pay you for it, but more than that, I promise I’ll work to regain your trust. I-I hate the position I’ve put you in: having to keep an eye on me or very conspicuously not doing so. I’ll… send Spike to do the shopping until we have a chance to talk more.” Why did that have to hurt so much? Not the theft itself, but just knowing that Twilight was capable of it… Applejack shook her head, barely, but without stopping. “I’m sorry,” Twilight squeaked, then she reached for Applejack. But Applejack kept staring, so Twilight could only let her hoof dangle by her side.

Finally, Twilight faced Rarity, and like the previous night, Rarity’s features froze into a pleasant, attentive look, but her eyes focused on some other world. How much did she remember of what Twilight had already told her? Some ponies only heard what they wanted to hear…

Twilight had to keep herself from stamping a hoof—Rarity might think it was directed at her. What had Princess Luna just said!? She imagined shooing a small purple cloud away from her face and took a deep breath.

“Rarity… from one who gives so freely, I tried to take what wasn’t offered. And again, it wasn’t for any other reason than to prove I could. I trivialized you and your feelings, and I’m going to have to do the most to make it up to you—to feel worthy of this again.” Twilight tapped a hoof against her amethyst bracelet. “I… hesitate to bring it up, but our friends here can be kept in confidence, for your sake.”

Twilight glanced at Applejack and Fluttershy, who both nodded immediately. Rarity continued to stare off at who knew what.

“I forced you into a dinner date with me.”

Applejack raised an eyebrow and exchanged a sidelong glance with Fluttershy.

Though every fiber of her mind told her to look away, Twilight kept her sight centered firmly on Rarity’s eyes, but… was she even looking back? Was she listening? “We almost kissed, before I came to my senses. But I used a spell to mask your memory of it.” Rarity’s pupils narrowed just a touch and flicked over to Twilight’s muzzle, where those words had brought her back from wherever she’d been. For better or worse, Rarity was here.

Twilight concentrated for a moment and lit her horn, and an instant later, Rarity let out a quiet gasp. “Oh… Oh, my…” she said, holding a hoof to her chest.

A fresh rush of tears burned at the corners of Twilight’s eyes, and she blinked them back as much as she could. “I’m sorry, Rarity. I’ve risked your friendship most of all, and I beg your forgiveness. All of you.”

“Um…” Fluttershy said.

Twilight jumped—a sign of life from somepony who would always rather blend into the background? She clenched her jaw. No. Those were her thoughts from when she hadn’t been in control. She knew better now.

“But it wasn’t you who did any of that, Twilight,” Fluttershy continued, her good wing spread halfway. “It was, well, bad magical Twilight… thing…” She added a smile, even showing a bit of teeth.

Fluttershy, always willing to give somepony the benefit of the doubt. “But in a way, I did do those things,” Twilight insisted. “In part, anyway, and I have to take responsibility for it. I could only be… made whole again by accepting all of those pieces of myself, the good and the… misguided. That Twilight is still in here,” she said, tapping her chest with a hoof.

From inside, a door latch quietly rattled, and Twilight glanced into the dim room. She gasped. Princess Luna had been listening. A fire started in Twilight’s belly, but she quenched it just as quickly. The Princess had a right to know, and probably did already. She stood in the doorway to the hall, on her way out, but pointedly nodded back. “Good for you, Twilight Sparkle,” she mouthed.

“Sugarcube, you’re our friend,” Applejack said, jerking Twilight’s attention outside once again. “The Twilight we love is still in there, too, and we ain’t about to leave her behind. ’Sides, it ain’t like you didn’t suffer any.” She pointed her muzzle at Twilight’s bandaged head. “This here’s taken its toll on all of us, and we’ll all come through it stronger.”

Fluttershy nodded and flared her wings fully. Only a brief tic marred her cheek, but she held a firm smile the whole time.

“We’ll talk,” Rarity said as she reached over to take Twilight’s hoof in her own. “But after all the time we’ve spent together, I know you to be a pony of good character. We will be fine.”

Twilight’s eyes glistened—how did she even have a tear left in her body after the last few days? “Thank you, Rarity,” she whispered, patting her friend’s hoof.

Rarity peered through the railing and into the courtyard below, where a pale yellow-green unicorn trotted toward the castle gates with a bronze-colored pegasus. Rarity angled her head in their direction. “Isn’t that the mare who was in the room with you last night, Twilight?”

Craning her neck to see past the balcony’s edge, Twilight nodded. “Her name is Dawn Ember. She’s going to be studying with Zecora next term. I’ll introduce you all to her then—I think you’d like her.”


Twilight lay in her own bed in her own room in her own town. After a couple of additional nights in Canterlot Castle—to make sure her injury wasn’t too serious, ostensibly—she’d come home.

She knew the real reason for the extra days, of course, and she agreed wholeheartedly. It never hurt to play it safe.

Please. Please let it happen again. The last two nights, she’d had the most wonderful dream. Maybe Princess Luna had sent it and maybe not, but she preferred thanking the Princess for something she hadn’t actually done over failing to acknowledge something she had. Better to err on the side of gratitude.

Soft snoring from the basket under the windowsill again. It had taken Spike forever to fall asleep or even release Twilight from the bear hug that had lasted practically through the entire party, then all evening. And he’d insisted on staying in here instead of his own room, at least for tonight. But fall asleep he had.

“I am master of my own mind; I have control of my own thoughts, my own dreams, my own vision,” she said into the still night air, over and over again, until her eyes wouldn’t stay open without considerable effort. Even with that snoring echoing off the crystal walls.

She glanced out the window and up to the moon. “Thank you, Princess Luna,” she mumbled as her eyes drifted shut.

Twilight lay on her back against a hill’s gentle slope, the night sky spread out above her. On one side, Dawn Ember poured two cups of tea from an insulated bottle, and on the other, Twilight had a foreleg curled around a young, blank-flanked version of herself. No mirrors this time, no concealment.

Her hoof aimed just above the distant treetops, Twilight said, “See that one? That’s the pegasus constellation. And if you look away from it a little, you can see a smudge of light in your peripheral vision. That’s a galaxy.” The filly grinned and nodded with each new discovery, and did Twilight even feel her snuggling up a bit?

“I’m glad you’re here,” Twilight said as she turned to Dawn Ember.

Ember raised an eyebrow and glanced back and forth between them. “Oh, she’s not so bad. You do a good job of keeping her in line, and I help if things get out of hoof.”

Twilight hugged her look-alike closer and kissed her on the forehead. “I’m glad you’re both here.”

A wisp of steam wafted up from where Ember had set Twilight’s tea in the grass, then Ember chuckled and took her own place next to Twilight. She leaned back against the hillside and crossed her forelegs behind her head.

Warm, safe, calm. And not alone.

“You were always welcome here. Both of you.” Twilight smiled and reached for her tea—no, still too hot. She’d give it a minute to cool down. Instead, she hugged her free hoof to her chest, where a—how had Rarity phrased it?—a beautifully warm lightness was spreading throughout her.

Friendship. With all the wonderful ponies she’d met. And last of all, with herself. What else could simultaneously lift her up and bring her to her knees? Now, that was power. And she’d had it all along.

Friendship is magic.

Author's Note:

All done. And I'll never write something that long again. Still, it was lots of fun.

Of course, that's Dawn Ember in the cover art, but GaPJaxie commissioned a figure of her for me long ago, when I'd edited all of both of his Bioshock crossovers for him. Here it is on the artist's DA page.

Comments ( 7 )

You know, when I first saw this story I thought it'd be longer.

This isn't the ending I wanted, but it's the ending the narrative needed. Maybe the one I needed too.

Honestly, I didn't quite get it. So despite "liking" magic, Twilight was trying to fight/banish a part of this magic(not Dawn Ember part, I mean)?

I'm sorry I didn't respond sooner, as this completely slipped my mind.

I'm not sure where your confusion lies, but based on your question, I'm guessing it's one of two things. Either you're wondering why Twilight originally cast out Ember as a filly, or you're wondering why Twilight's battling her magic in the present. To the first one, Twilight didn't do it intentionally. Her magic acted of its own volition because it saw Ember as a threat to it attaining its full power, so it got rid of her. To the second, Twilight does love magic, but she realizes it's taking control of her, and she's losing her ability to do anything about it, so she'd rather neutralize it than let it become a danger to everyone. But through Ember, she has the possibility of regaining her ability to control it.

Interesting that you wanted it to be the Nightmare. because the people pre-reading it for me were prepared to be very angry if it did turn out to be the Nightmare, since they would have considered that a cop-out.

Damn... this fic is AMAZING.

Author Interviewer

So glad you didn't take the obvious, tragic, bittersweet choice for an ending. What's the point in saving a life if you end another? Why not save both? :)

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