• Published 2nd Jan 2020
  • 2,850 Views, 83 Comments

Music Box Blues - PrincessColumbia

Principal Celestia gets help from a completely unexpected source when trying to find a gift for Sunset Shimmer

  • ...

The candles burning, you know I'm gonna wait, the clock keeps turning, but I know it's not too late

Author's Note:

Actual author's notes in an upcoming blog post, but this one is dedicated to my mom, who showed that a good mom knows she's not done when her kid hits 18 but sometimes needs to be the mom even when said kid is going through a divorce and second puberty at the same time at age 40. Thanks, Mom!

Official Author's Notes blog post here!

Celestia was, it must be said, far too used to Pinkie Pie to allow the antics of this new mystery visitor to rattle her too much, but it was still an unknown person in her living room! “Excuse me, but I’m going to have to insist that you tell me who you are and why you’re here!”

The under-ripe coconut shaped like an elf giggled, “Oh, silly Celly! Don’t you remember? Aurora told you all our names and what we’d be doing, it was only just a few minutes ago.”

The principal gave the other woman (barely old enough in appearance and behavior to be called such, really) a glare so level you could use it for carpentry measurements, “I have relived Sunset Shimmer’s childhood through the lens of Hearth’s Warming and repeated the same four hours over and over again so much that I’ve lost count. Humor me.”

The girl had the sense to at least appear chagrined. “Okay, okay. I’m Alice Giftgiver, I know all about gifts that are yet to be given. And, really, Celly, even after Bori helped you out this year you’re still going to get the FS5 version of Cogs of Combat 6 next year?” The girl rolled her eyes and tsk’d, “OK Boomer.”

This is the last one, just get through this and you can go back to normal, just worrying about a teenaged interdimensional unicorn who happens to have been the protege to the ruler of a foreign nation...yes, ‘normal.’ she seethed to herself. Sighing, she said, “Very well, Alice. Can we at least go through the door by opening it this time?”

Alice giggle-snorted, “Oh, you’re funny!” so saying, she whipped out a glowing coil of rope and, disturbingly, pulled out a loop and started twirling it like Applejack had during her presentation in last year’s Family Appreciation Day and, for whatever reason, putting on a pair of mirror shades. “Where we’re going, we don’t need doors!” So saying, she threw the lasso at the back of the living room. It phased right through the ceiling and somehow settled itself around the mystery door, which had appeared once again on the back wall. Celestia was so focussed on the twinned impossibilities that she only noticed Alice had tied the rope around her midsection when she felt the rope snug right above her belt.

As though in protest, the door abruptly seemed to dislodge from the wall, then started sliding to the side. Celestia then realized that it wasn’t just sliding, it was rotating away, one edge sinking into the wall before the door started disappearing into the drywall. That the door was not damaging the wall was small comfort as she started sliding along the floor, her footwear doing nothing to keep her from being hauled with the portal. Her brain finally caught up with this development, “Wait, what?!”

Just as Celestia was yanked off her feet, Alice waved and said, “See you on the flip side!”

Celestia had absolutely no shame for screaming in terror as she plummeted toward the wall, a sensation of plunking through like a stone in a puddle, her awareness suddenly went to nothing.

Sunset was enjoying one of the quiet times that weren’t rare for her, but she still had learned to savor them over the years. Perhaps it was a hold-over from her time as Celestia’s student when you had to cherish what little free time you had between studies and political obligations. Or maybe it was a habit she picked up as a high school student when she had to play catch-up in things specific to her new adopted home like history and computers while forwarding her schemes for ascendance and vengeance, and then when she’d abandoned those juggling friendships. Then again, it could be a leftover from her time spent as a costumed hero on that world (something she still did from time to time when she spent enough time around her friends away from the bar) because crime was a 24/7 business, and so crime stoppers had to manage their time and stress levels, so “time outs” became absolutely critical to her well being.

Whatever the case, she was quite content to simply let time pass as she had some music blaring through the bar (Beethoven’s 10th), a good book in her hands (The Half-Moon Hollow chronicles, on actual bound paperback...OK, they were silly romance books, but c’mon, a girl gets to have a little trashy entertainment in her life!), and some snack chips and a soda.

As sudden as it was unexpected, the bell on the door went absolutely crazy. Sunset looked up from her book and gasped. All the picture frames had a face she had not expected to see...every single picture frame, including the ones that hadn’t had pictures in them moments before. The pictures were of Principal Celestia. She hadn’t had much call to visit with the woman since graduating high school, but naturally as similar as she was to the other Celestia in Sunset’s life she had inherited a bit of the relationship that Sunset had with the Princess. Through it all, the bell was still jangling like it was fighting to get off the mount.

Sunset scrambled around the bar and out to the entryway...to find the bell suddenly stilling. It still bobbed a little on the arm that held it over the door, evidence enough that she hadn’t imagined it, but it was otherwise silent.

Confused, she stepped back into the bar and saw that all the picture frames were back to normal; the several dozen that had been filled with pictures she had taken were once again showing those pictures, and the empty frames were once again empty.

Sunset put her hand on her hip and scratched her head absently with the other hand as she pondered this new development.

Were Celestia forced to describe the experience of the world resolving itself around her, she’d have to say that it felt like she was being forced through silly putty that had been squeezed into a Celestia-shaped mold, frozen solid, kiln baked, and then held perfectly still while she was was rammed into the resulting shape. Oddly, not painful at all, just terrifically uncomfortable. As she fought her way through the disorientation, she blinked, trying to get her eyes to work properly to process her environment. She could tell she was seated in a chair, the air was still and warm, which seemed to indicate an interior space, and she heard...giggling?

Finally, her vision went from blurry and over-exposed to the sharp focus she was used to, and she realized she was at her dining table. A glance around and she recognized that, yes, she was in the breakfast nook attached to the kitchen. A medium-sized breakfast sat before her, which meant that this was probably Saturday, if this universe followed pattern with her own. As for the giggling, she looked across the table to see her sister and Sunset Shimmer practically sitting in each other’s laps and touching in ways that her mother would probably not be happy with having at the dining table.

Unwilling to let the awkward experience of her student and her sister...canoodling in front of her, she noisily cleared her throat.

...and made a mental note to never use the word “canoodling” again, even in her thoughts. Really, Celestia? she scolded herself, you’re going to sound like that old nag on the other side of the mirror if you keep that up.

Sunset at least had the courtesy to look abashed, “Oh, uh, right. Sorry, Celestia, but we’re just so excited about the wedding!”

WEDDING?! she mentally shrieked. Doing her best to keep herself calm without showing any of her usual outward signs, she plastered a smile on her face, “Yes, well, this is still the breakfast table. Perhaps you two should finish eating and that would allow you to take your…” she allowed a pregnant pause, hoping to find the right words.

“Public displays of affection?” offered Sunset with an impish smile.

“...yes, that, to your room?” the suggestion that they go to a room, as in singular, was a stab in the dark on her part. If they were this affectionate at the dinner table she couldn’t imagine that they were sleeping in separate rooms.

Luna hadn’t shown even the slightest bit of contrition throughout the dialog. “Well, we usually do, but then last night you banged on our door and told us to quiet down, so I figured that we just needed to stay quiet enough and that would be sufficient.” So saying, she slid her arm around Sunset’s shoulders with just enough suggestiveness to be somewhat provocative.

Oh, it is on sister! thought Celestia, allowing herself to get into the game of sibling rivalry, “Right in front of my cereal!?” she snipped. Please let that be a meme in this universe...and that it’s not too ‘dank.’ To her relief, the two lovers broke out into cackling mirth, proving that some things were just inevitable no matter the timeline.

The moment of familial camaraderie was interrupted by the buzzing of Luna’s phone vibrating against the table. Luna picked it up and gave it a flick, which was apparently the prompt for a tiny holographic display to pop into existence above the device. She could read the text in the message box, though since it was for Luna she was seeing it in mirror-reverse. Something about a...raid for the wedding reception? Luna gave a snort of amused irritation as she stood and pocketed the phone, “It seems the Nightmare Moon is needed in-game to make some arrangements with the admin of Bar23 for the online reception. Since we don’t have anything planned until this afternoon, do you mind if I log-on and get this out of the way?” The question was directed to Sunset.

“Of course not, love. Go knock some heads together.” she replied with a grin.

Luna kissed the younger woman on the lips and grabbed her coffee cup. Downing the remainder with a single gulp as she dropped her dishes in the sink, she padded down the hall to the room that, in her own universe, was Sunset’s, but was clearly intended for Luna’s game systems or computer in this universe.

Smiling slightly, Celestia turned to focus on Sunset Shimmer and found herself staring down the barrel of a gun. Beyond the gun was the orange hand that held it, coming out of the cuff of a leather trenchcoat that hadn’t been on the body of the person in the seat across from her moments before. Indeed, much about that body had changed in the brief moment that Celestia had watched her sister leave the room. This person was recognizably Sunset, just older. Some tiny scars could be seen that Celestia normally associated with veterans of combat arenas that had been in heavy fire-fights where the hot brass of bullet casings would nick against the skin and burn while the recipient of the burns was more focussed on survival. From the neckline down, futuristic armor covered the woman’s torso as far down as could be seen with the table in the way. The woman was poised, holding the gun as though she had held it and similar all her life. Deep auburn hair with golden streaks fell to her shoulders in a familiar way, though much shorter than Celestia was used to seeing.

“That magic surge was so strong I’d be surprised if Princess Twilight didn’t feel it back in Equestria,” said this much more mature version of Sunset, “Now how about you tell me who you are and what you’re doing in Celestia’s body before I have to explain to my fiance why I had to kill her sister?”

Celestia’s hands shot up to shoulder height in surrender. “Oh, boy…” was all she managed to squeak out.

After Celestia was able to get her adrenal response to let her have full access to her frontal cortex and vocal cords, she did her best to hastily explain. “...and so then I’m suddenly here, apparently in the body of your Celestia and have no idea what I’m doing here.”

The woman, who insisted she be referred to as ‘Desert Mirage’ when in this form, shook her head with a hint of a smile. “Well, that’s not horrible, but hopefully we get our Celestia back when this woman who sent you here takes you on to whatever the next leg of your journey is.”

The universe-hopper slumped her chin on her fist and gently pushed the plate and bowl in front of her away. After having a gun stuck in her face she had lost her appetite, “I certainly hope so, too. I just wish I knew what this one wanted. Bori was a nightmare.”

“Aawww, but she likes you!” came a voice from somewhere in the direction of the refrigerator. Both women turned in surprise, Desert Mirage drawing two weapons this time and slowly sweeping them side to side. As though walking through smoke, Alice walked into the room straight through the wall. She wore an outfit that screamed, “I’m loud and tacky and I don’t care that I’m assaulting your eyes.” The jacket and pants were silver Lamé, worn over a bright orange button-up shirt. A bolo tie completed the ensemble, and all Celestia could think was that any version of Rarity (even the space-octopus) would have had a grand-mal seizure just being in the same room with the thing. In one hand Alice carried an honest-to-Faust “stogie” cigar, and in the other was a brightly colored device that looked like someone heard what a smartphone might look like once and designed a device that almost, but not quite, completely ignored that description. Out of Lego.

Before Alice could continue or Celestia could respond, Desert Mirage drew twinned beads on the elf. “Don’t move, I’m a very good shot and you’ve made my trigger finger extremely twitchy!” the gunslinger snapped.

This brought Alice up short. “Wait, you can see me?!”

“You can see her?!” gasped Celestia at the same time.

Mirage sighed and looked side-eyed at Celestia, “Lemme guess, she’s with you? The ‘Alice’ woman you were talking about?”

Alice snorted, “Well...fine, you can see me. Doesn’t mean you can shoot me!” the young woman stuck her tongue out at Mirage.

Raising an eyebrow, the gunslinger “holstered” her weapons and walked up to the elf. While she did so, pony ears manifested and her hair grew out to nearly the back of her knees and somehow manifested as a knotted pony-tail. A hint of wings started to twinkle into existence just as Mirage flicked Alice’s ear. At the dimensional traveller’s startled, “Ow!” Desert Mirage dismissed whatever magic caused the long hair, wings, and pony features and she returned to a normal human appearance.

“If I can flick you, I can shoot you.” Desert Mirage growled. Alice paled, her earlier bravado completely gone.

Celestia sighed, “Sunset, stop being antagonistic…”

“It’s ‘Desert Mirage’ while I’m like this, I told you that.”

A fourth voice pierced the awkward conversation, “Is everything alright with you two?”

Celestia and Desert Mirage flinched and turned to see Luna. The blue skinned woman wore a pensive look on her face as she stood in the arch of the doorway to the bedrooms, blinking somewhat muzzily at the light streaming in from the windows, as though she’d been taking a nap.

Celestia and Mirage looked at each other, looked at Alice, then back at Luna.

For her part, Luna simply grew more agitated, “So there I am negotiating with the virtual caterers, when to my surprise I’m notified that my dear, beloved Desert Mirage has logged on. No messages, just suddenly online. The last time that happened the school nearly got flattened by a boss-mob.” Now she glared at the two, “So anyone want to tell me what’s going on?”

For a moment Celestia and Mirage were at a loss for words, how does one explain a situation so bizarre? Alice saved them the trouble, as Luna suddenly gasped and leapt back, eyes clearly focussed on the woman that, to Luna, appeared out of thin air. Alice slumped down, temperamentally flounced her way over to the living room and collapsed into one of the couch seats. “My sisters make this look so easy!” she whined. With a sigh, she put the stogie in her mouth and inhaled, followed by immediately hacking and coughing, tossing the cigar away in disgust. Before the lit tobacco product could hit the carpet, it puffed from existence in a burst of sparkles. “Bleh! How do people smoke those things?!”

Celestia sighed again and waved her sister into the room, “Take a seat Luna and...just let me tell the whole story before you react to any part of it. I’d rather not have another weapon pointed at me today.”

Luna wouldn’t stop staring, and it was beginning to make Celestia uncomfortable.

“Wait,” began Desert Mirage, “I just figured it out!” she slapped her knee and pointed at Alice almost accusingly but with a triumphant smile on her face, “The Gift Givers of the Grove! I knew I’d heard your name before! It was such an odd name for a pony that it stood out in my memory from all the Hearth’s Warming stories when I was a filly!”

Celestia began staring right back at this version of her sister. She wasn’t going to let a little thing like this being an entirely different universe get in the way of being Sibling Supreme.

Alice snorted indignantly. “Well of course it’s not a normal pony name, we’re reindeer!

Luna’s stare morphed into a glower.

Desert Mirage waved her hand dismissively, “We’re getting away from the topic, that being what you did with our Celestia.”

Celestia crossed her eyes and stuck out her tongue at Luna.

Alice shrugged, “Technically, she’s still right there,” she pointed at Celestia, “Just sorta...packed away. It’s like she’s sleeping, but she’ll remember what happened while the Celestia I brought along for the ride is in her body. That does mean that the travelling Celestia has full access to this universe’s Celestia, just not...instinctual access.”

Luna snorted explosively, which turned into relaxed laughter. Celestia gave her a relieved smile and turned back to the conversation, “What do you mean? I certainly don’t remember what happened to this Celestia yesterday. I remember trying to get the Hearth’s Warming decorations up while Luna was plugged into her Amusphere...no, wait, Sunset was in her room and depressed…” Celestia’s brows knit together as she struggled to keep two sets of memories separate in her head.

Luna relaxed at this, “Well, I am sorry, but you really should have told me you were pulling out the decorations before I went in. You know the game still doesn’t have a chat function for people outside.”

“Luna, we talked about…” she paused as she started to trip over two similar sets of responses that tried to come out of her brain at the same time. “We’ll talk about this later...or the me that belongs in this universe will talk about this later.”

The point,” interrupted Mirage, “Is that our Celestia is still just fine and still right here and we’ll get her back when you guys leave.” Her bearing relaxed as she turned an inquisitive gaze at Celestia. “Do you have a different relationship with your Luna than these two?” she waggled a finger between the two sisters before shaking her head, “It is weird to be talking about someone who’s here but not…”

Celestia looked at her sister in curiosity and Luna bit her lip and her eyes flickered about, as though to pre-emptively prevent eye contact. “Ah, well….” began the younger woman, “Back when we defeated Sombra and you and I decided that you should move in with us to save you money on apartment rent Celestia and I had a little talk and decided that we should, ah, put our usual sisterly squabbles to a minimum while you were around.” As Celestia’s visage morphed into a scowl, Luna grew huffed, “Oh, don’t start that with me, Miss 'Harmonious Household’!”

The taller sister took a turn to sniff indignantly, “Oh, and I suppose Dr. Canon never published his paper on the negative effects of suppressing disagreements in a household under the guise of false civility in this universe?”

Luna’s irritated confusion etched her face, “Dr. Canon? Who is that?”

“Doctor Head Canon, pioneered his field by studying his own family’s interactions to publish his graduating thesis from medical school. The first of his family to go into a field that wasn’t publishing books or the military.”

Luna rolled her eyes, “Oh, him. Yeah, he published, but all his theories were dismissed as toxic when the Japanese government revealed that they found out that the creator of SAO practically worshiped Canon’s work. Apparently based half his notion of turning a game into a real-life bloodsport from the thesis of,” and here Luna provided ‘air quotes’ with her fingers, “‘Needing to express your hostile emotions in plain view of those who might benefit from observing normal humans resolve problems in real-time rather than through the distorted lense of only ever seeing people from the perspective of the public facade they present to the world,’ End quote.” the darker skinned woman closed her eyes and swallowed in disgust, “I knew some trans-folk who killed themselves even after surviving that hell because their avatars had been stripped away and their so-called ‘real’ bodies were exposed to the world. They were horrified when they were outed by that madman’s philosophy.”

It was Celestia’s turn to be confused, “Ess-Ayee-Oh? What are you talking about?”

The room got quiet. Luna stared at her sister and Celestia had trouble placing the expression. Desert Mirage abruptly shifted back into the form of Sunset Shimmer and became fascinated with her hands. Even Alice grew somber. When she looked back to Luna, she realized where she had seen that expression. It was one of envy, and she hadn’t really seen it on Luna’s face since high school, and even back then it was tinged with anger, where this current envy was filled with sorrow. “...I think...I think I’d like to live in a world where SAO never happened. We have to teach about that event in schools, and we still get parents protesting about it.”

“Short-sighted assholes!” snapped out Sunset, “Might as well teach that World War 2 never happened!”

“Will someone please explain ‘SAO’ to me?” exclaimed Celestia.

Luna sat back, “Sweetheart,” she said over her shoulder to Sunset, “Can you get Celestia’s calming tea? This explanation will probably take a while…”

So Luna explained; first about the NRVGear headsets (“They strapped microwave emitters to their heads?!” Celestia protested indignantly), then about Sword Art Online. About the first waves of hundreds dying from well-meaning family and friends pulling off the headsets or shutting down the computers only to wind up frying the brains of the very people they were trying to save, then about the hundreds more dying as they grinded their way through the game levels in an attempt to defeat the monster that had trapped them in the game. They told about the comparatively minor headlines that announced the deaths of people who hadn’t been found before their bodies shut down from malnutrition while their minds were trapped in games of life and death and the especially tragic cases where a random computer failure or power fluctuation would trigger the battery backup in the headsets and cook the brains of the unfortunate souls. They told about the heroic but ultimately futile efforts of dozens of companies, hacker groups, and government agencies that all attempted to break into the game or disable the hardware without causing even more deaths.

Then they explained the fallout that happened after, about the government inquiries, the near brushes with outright war as some countries threatened others over the fallout, the days of mourning, the post-game suicides, the accidents where people forgot that the things they could do in-game couldn’t be done in real life and would fall to their deaths or step in front of traffic. They told Celestia about the shocking announcement that a new game with different hardware was released and the even further shock when many of the players that escaped SAO jumped right back into Gun Gala Online.

This, of course, led to a much less painful retelling of the game that brought together Sunset Shimmer and Luna as a couple, and incidentally also gave Sunset a whole new power-set and a much more diverse group of friends. By the time Celestia had finished her third cup of tea and the group had ordered pizza for dinner, she was frankly a touch overwhelmed. “Goodness; do you suppose that my Sunset is the same age as you?”

Sunset leaned back with a slice of pizza, automatically accepting the paper plate that Luna supplied, it was clear that the two had done that routine so many times that they thought nothing of it. “I’d imagine so, given what you’ve told me of your trip through her past Hearth’s Warmings.” she got a slightly nostalgic look in her eye as she quickly took a bite, chewed, and swallowed. “Ponyfeathers, but I do miss Hearth’s Warming. Not that Christmas is bad,” she reassured Luna, who merely snorted in amusement as she took a sip of soda, “But spending time with Celestia around the tree, drinking hot cocoa and getting into snowball fights...I’ll always cherish the last couple years with my new family,” she reached over and lovingly clasped Luna’s hand, “But there’s just something about the holidays as a filly that…” a happy sigh escaped her lips as she smiled at her lover.

Luna quirked a smile at her, “Well, this year’s Christmas celebration is somewhat overshadowed by the wedding in January, but I certainly wouldn’t object to visiting your homeworld this time next year.”

Unwilling to interrupt the exchange between her former student and her sister, Celestia turned to Alice, “So, when do we leave? Not that this hasn’t been fun, but if the point was to learn what Sunset is supposed to get for her Hearth’s Warming present, I’m afraid I’m at a loss…”

“Eh,” grunted Alice around a bite of pizza, “We’ll call this one a mulligan. A ‘practice run’ kinda thing.”

“Don’t talk with your mouth full,” scolded Luna.

Alice gave her a flat stare and pointedly chewed and swallowed. “The point is, we’re leaving soon, and next time hopefully we won’t set off, like, all the alarms.”

Sunset shifted back to Desert Mirage. “Hey, it sounds like you’ve got a busy night ahead of you if everything else you’ve told me is any indication,” she said to Celestia, “Let me give you something for your trip.” She hopped up and ran down the hallway.

Celestia glanced to Luna, who shrugged, just as befuddled. There was a prickle of energy that suddenly thrummed through the atmosphere before Mirage jogged back into the room. Without pausing, she handed Celestia a belt. It was recognizable as such in that it was a strap about as long as Sunset was tall, about as wide as a measuring stick, and had a recognizable buckle on one end. “Here,” she said as she handed the belt to Celestia, “It should automatically change size to fit you.”

Celestia stood, impressed at the claim and even more so when the belt did, indeed, size to fit her perfectly as she latched the buckle. Abruptly, a small screen appeared in front of her, holographically like the display for Luna’s phone had earlier. It showed some icons that looked like food and what was either some form of exotic blue liquor or, “...is that a health potion?” she waved her hand in front of her face, trying to interact with the display.

Luna giggled as Sunset blushed and caught Celestia’s hand. “No, it’s a heal buff, the icon just looks like a healing potion because the interface designers…” she trailed off as she saw Celestia’s confused look, “Never mind, yes, it’s a healing potion. I topped off the inventory slots available in the belt, so you should have easy access to it at any time. If this jumps universes with you, it’ll probably be really handy to have. Let me help you out with that, I’m probably the only person who can even see that display in this universe.” So saying, she transformed into her Desert Mirage persona and started guiding Celestia through the motions necessary to access her inventory.

“Don’t forget to show her how to stow something in inventory. If it’s got the most recent patch updates from the devs, it will have an auto-pickup feature, but even so she should know how to put stuff in as well as get it out.” pointed out Luna.

After about half an hour of instruction, the four stood in the living room, the two from another world facing the two who would soon be welcoming back their family member. “Well,” said Alice, “We’re ready, time to say goodbyes,” she turned to Celestia, “Make it count, if this goes right for the rest of the night you won’t be able to even tell people you’re not their Celestia, let alone wish them well.”

Heart heavy, Celestia turned and pulled Luna into a hug. “I’ve seen so many versions of you tonight...but every one of you is just as much my sister as the one I live with.”

Luna had warmed considerably to her temporary sibling, “Who knows, maybe one day we’ll come visit. Twilight Sparkle is making great strides in her research in jumping universes without the mirror.”

Celestia left the embrace and turned to face Desert Mirage, “Any advice on this gift I’m supposed to get my Sunset?”

To her surprise, Mirage pulled her into an equally emotional hug as her sister, “Find a way to let her know that she’s your Sunset. If she’s anything like me at all, she’s probably convinced she doesn’t have anybody and that she’s just imposing.” She stepped back and held Celestia’s shoulders, “I thought my friends didn’t really care about me because I thought they just saw me as a job to do, a task from Princess Twilight. It took them basically bringing me back from the dead to realize that I was much, much more to them than that. I don’t regret what happened in the end,” she released her former teacher and reached out to clasp Luna’s hand, “But if I had known from the start that I wasn’t just someone’s ‘chore,’ that I was surrounded by people who loved me, I may not have ‘died’ in the first place.”

Celestia blinked her suddenly wet eyes, smiling comfortingly to the cross-dimensional reflection of her student. She realized she no longer felt weirded out by Sunset marrying her sister in this universe, they clearly fit like hand-in-glove.

A sudden sniffle from the elfin woman to her side caused her to start slightly, “Okay, this is hitting me right in the feels! Time to go!” So saying, she started tapping buttons on her hand-held device, it letting out horribly jarring squeaks and squawks with each press, before tapping the surface facing her with a flourish.

Celestia turned to wave one final time before the world turned white.

Luna and Desert Mirage blinked at the suddenly bright white light that seemed to simultaneously swipe from side to side and explode outward at the same time. It took a mere second or two to fade, and the horribly dressed woman was gone. Celestia groaned and slumped, apparently unable to hold herself up.

Both women darted forward and caught their family member before she hit the floor. Celestia gasped in shock at being caught and suddenly clapped her hand over her eyes. “Oh, my head!” she slurred, “What happened? We were just eating breakfast and now I’m nearly passed out in the living room…”

Luna pillowed Celestia’s head with her lap as Desert Mirage turned back into Sunset Shimmer as she helped the taller woman straighten out from the tangle she had fallen into, “It’s OK, Celestia,” said Sunset, “You were just hit with a bit of a benign magic wammy. If you don’t start remembering what happened soon, Luna and I can explain it to you.”

Luna reached over to the nearby sofa and pulled off a pillow and throw and started situating her sister to be more comfortable. She looked up to Sunset, “Do you think she’ll be alright?”

Sunset tipped her head slightly to subtly direct Luna’s attention to Celestia’s waist. The belt that had been there was now gone. “Yeah,” said Sunset after a moment, “I think she’ll be fine.”

Celestia’s consciousness manifested with a blink of her eyes. Something was subtly different and wrong and she was having a hard time figuring out what.

Looking around at her surroundings, she realized that she was, thankfully, alone. Ah, good, I can at least get my bearings before having to BS my way through this. She took in the room and nearly fainted. Principal Celeste’s parents may have nicely secured their daughters’ financial future, but this Celestia (hopefully the name was the same) was clearly more wealthy than Logic Gates, Park Keeper, Peace Maker, and the rest of the world’s richest top ten combined. Artifacts that may or may not be magical were tucked into nooks on the walls, books of vintages ranging from this year’s best sellers to volumes that had to be at least three centuries old lined the bookshelves. Every last stick of furniture, every piece of trim and join of the room, even the clothing she was wearing spoke of high care, high value, and high price. And the unavoidable feeling of age steeped every surface. All of it was well cared for with not a spec of dust to be found, but she couldn’t shake the idea that this room may have been in existence in its current state longer than she’d been alive.

And a harpy had just tackled a dryad through the doorway, knocking the doubtless century-old globe off its stand.

Fortunately, the sphere seemed to be made of some fairly sturdy material, as it clanged hollowly against the thin carpet covering the hardwood floor and rolled away from the squabbling duo. “Quitit!” and “Makeme!” and variants thereof came from the bruhaha, along with a few select curse words.

Celestia cleared her throat, and the fight abruptly stopped. The tableau was so comical that the humor overwhelmed what little shock she could still feel at this latest weirdness. The harpy was very clearly Rainbow Dash, her arms replaced with wings and her legs resembling those of a bird of prey, complete with inch-long razor-sharp talons. Said talons were provably razor-sharp because the dryad’s...skin? Bark? ...was covered in parallel grooves, visible through the slashed clothing the dryad wore. Said dryad could only be Applejack, though the vines making up the girl’s hair had at first thrown Celestia’s recognition until she realized the hat laying off to the side where it had been knocked off was AJ’s signature cowgirl hat. Rainbow had some of Applejack’s hair-slash-vines in her mouth, one talon in the middle of the dryad’s back and the other pinning her opponent’s backside down and eyes staring in wide, panicked fear at Celestia. Applejack was similarly frozen, one arm pushing herself up and a leg cocked to get ready to power-lift herself off the floor.

From the hallway came a familiar voice, “RAINBOW, AJ!” Sure enough, Sunset stormed into the room, “It’s bad enough that you’re always goading each other on, you could have broken something...oh, uh…” the teen looked at Celestia and suddenly went from ‘angry and imposing authority figure’ to ‘little girl caught breaking a rule.’ “Hey, mom…” Celestia’s throat tightened up as she struggled to not react to this revelation of their relationship in this universe, “...I’m sure that Applejack and Rainbow Dash are very sorry and won’t ever do it again and oh man I’m so grounded and I’ll just go tell my friends the sleepover is canceled and get the toothbrush and bathroom cleaner…”

Celestia had to suppress a giggle, “Sunset, perhaps you should let your friends speak for themselves?”

Sunset’s unusually pale cheeks were tinged with a hint of a blush, “Right, sorry, shutting up.” So doing, she stepped aside and let her friends disentangle from each other and stand at something resembling attention.

Hat in hand, a tattered Applejack just barely started saying, “Sorry ma’am…” when the clip-clopping of hooves on wood could be heard from outside the room.

“...roughhousing like a pair of hooligans, completely ignoring proper decorum, especially in the house of a vampire lord...oh!” the voice interrupted itself as Rarity, this version a satyr with a unicorn horn stopped up short upon seeing Celestia.

Immediately on Rarity’s metaphorical heels came a...giant pink golden retriever. Or at least a wolf that could easily be mistaken for being a giant pink golden retriever. And this would be… Celestia began the thought. “Girls! Are we play wrestling?! Can I join...oh, uh, hi again Miss Celestia.” ...yup, Pinkie Pie. The universe-hopper had to make an actual effort to keep herself from slapping her own face in exasperation at the multiverse manifesting Pinkie Pie in such a way that mirrored her own thoughts back when the mess with Sunset started in her own universe.

That a fairy-winged Fluttershy swept through the door in Pinkie’s wake wasn’t surprising, but a very human-looking Twilight Sparkle was a shock, though this one was quite different from the one that had saved the school during the Fall Formal. The casual confidence the princess had carried wasn’t there, in its place was a nervous fidgeting and a tendency to try to hide herself in with the background much as Fluttershy was doing. The addition of the horn-rimmed glasses made it easy for Celestia to separate this person from the princess in her mind, however.

She realized that they were all staring at her, as though waiting for her to pronounce judgement. Smiling in amusement and having no idea what she was supposed to do, she opened her mouth to speak…

...only to be preempted by a Luna that was so pale as to appear ashen, where the whites of her eyes should be was only blood red, and a pair of rather deadly looking fangs dropped from her upper jaw line. The fangs were obvious because Luna was grinning so widely that any nearby prey animal was sure to panic. Indeed, she was dragging a bleating goat by a lead in one hand and a rather long utilitarian knife in the other. “Sister! It took herculean effort, but I managed to procure the traditional sacrificial goat for the annual solstice celebration!”

Poor Fluttershy bleated in alarm herself, fluttering off the floor nervously. Twilight Sparkle paled and put her hands to her mouth. Rarity turned green while Applejack and Rainbow Dash turned to each other in confusion. Only Pinkie didn’t seem negatively affected, panting in excitement. For her part, Sunset smacked a hand to her face, “Auntie Luna, we don’t sacrifice goats anymore!”

Celestia smiled, in a combination of amusement and relief, closing her mouth and tilting her head toward Sunset while keeping her eyes on her sister.

Luna deflated like a leaky balloon. “...but...no sacrifice…? ‘Twas my favorite part of Solstice…”

Seeing this apparently bloodthirsty vampire wilt was as heartbreaking as it was disturbing. Then again, she thought, If Luna is a vampire and still my sister, it’s likely that I am too… “Sunset, why don’t you take Luna with you, along with your friends except for Applejack and Rainbow Dash, and explain how Solstice has changed since Luna last had a chance to celebrate. Perhaps you could help her find a new favorite part of the holiday?”

The two troublemakers gulped audibly as Sunset sighed in something akin to relief. She gave her two friends who were to remain sympathetic looks as she led the way from the room. “Fluttershy, can you help the poor goat calm down a bit? Twilight, can you help me with the human perspective on history? I admit the Monster perspective is a bit...skewed…”

Celestia felt a bubble of pride as she watched her daughter in this universe take the lead so naturally. Luna remained crestfallen as Pinkie swept the vampire onto her back and carried her like a strange mount. “Don’t worry, Loonie,” began the werewolf, “I know lots of fun traditions for Solstice! Just leave it to your Auntie Pinkie to help you find a new favorite!”

Luna glared down at the pink furred shoulders she had found herself riding, “I’m several hundred years older than you!

Rarity couldn’t quite hide the giggle at her friend’s antics as she fell in at the rear of the group. She paused at the door and curtsied to Celestia, pulling the door closed without a word.

She returned her attention to the remaining two, who gave all the appearance of two of her students caught doing something they shouldn’t and sweating bullets at being hauled into the principal's office. This, at least, was familiar ground. “Applejack, please return my globe to it’s stand.”

The wood nymph nodded and rushed over to where the globe came to a rest and hefted it with the casual strength Celestia had grown accustomed to from across the multiverse. Rainbow was distracted with watching her friend set the sphere back where it belonged, so Celestia took a moment to take “inventory” of herself, starting with issuing the mental command to her belt to show her actual inventory status. The belt’s HUD popped up in her eyesight, invisible to the other two in the room. Seeing the status of the rations and healing “buffs” (as Sunset had called them) at the same level as before, she dismissed the display and ran her tongue over her teeth in her upper jaw. Sure enough, her canine teeth were quite a bit sharper than the other teeth, and she could feel an additional ridge in her gum line where the teeth would recede when she wasn’t feeding.

Thus it was no surprise when she absently picked up a mug that had been sitting on a warming plate and took a sip without giving much thought to what she’d be drinking...and discovered that she was drinking blood. She only barely kept herself from spitting it out, and found her vampire senses were practically begging her to drink more, faster, now. While as a human she found the taste of blood to be far too coppery and nauseating to do anything but make her want to retch (she was the principal of a high school, she’d caught the business end of a flying fist to her face or five when breaking up fights in the hallways), as a vampire it was like her favorite tea, a mug of hot chocolate, and the most delicious wine all in one.

Delicious vintage, human, in their 40’s unless I miss my guess, needs more iron in their diet but otherwise healthy, voluntarily given as there’s no hint of the sour taste of epinephrine, her subconscious supplied for her. Trailing along with that thought was a cascade of memories and facts about a full stable of humans that served her and her sister in their capacity as Vampire Lords. Humans that preferred the protection of a powerful monster over trying their luck in the walled cities that had sprung up over the last two centuries since they’d been recognized by the monster races as more than livestock. Celestia herself had kept herself out of the push for Human Rights, but it took a rather intense trauma to get her involved. She was grateful she had, because she now had Sunset. Sunset Shimmer who, to her absolute heart-bursting pride, had fought convention and social convenience to befriend a human from one of the human shelter-cities in the form of Twilight Sparkle.

All of this slammed into her head in rapid-fire, threatening to overwhelm her in just the seconds it took Applejack to finish re-mounting the globe and return to her position in front of Celestia’s desk. Disguising her disorientation with the action of putting her mug down on it’s warming plate, she leaned on her desk with her elbows. “Let me ask you two, how is Sunset doing? I know being my daughter is probably interfering with her social life.”

The seemingly off-topic question served its purpose and she used their confusion to gather her thoughts and stem the flood of a dozen centuries of memories vied for dominance in her head. As Applejack started speaking, stammering out her reassurances that Sunset’s social life was just fine, a white slit opened up in reality behind her. In less than a second, it slid up to a door-shaped portal flooding Celestia’s vision with bright white light, and a silhouette of a humanoid was visible. The silhouette stepped through the door, which slid shut behind them, and without the blast of light blinding her, Celestia could see that it was Alice. The woman was once again wearing clothes that stung the fashion sense, if not the eyes. A lime green suit over a horrifically neon pink shirt and a bow-tie nearly the size of her head. Instead of a cigar, she was bouncing a lollipop about in her mouth, sucking on it as though she were chewing on a stogie.

Celestia fought the urge to shake her head in irritation at the woman as she tuned her awareness back to the pair of youths before her. “...an’ honestly, Miss Celestia, I know people think there’s somethin’ fishy going on with you adoptin’ Sunset, but from what I see the people that matter most don’t see nuthin’ but what it is, you love your daughter an’ that’s all that matters.”

Rainbow Dash nodded, “Yeah! And the best part is she’s really awesome, too! I don’t know how a regular human turned into such an awesome vampire, but she’s super smart and helps us all out with our homework, she even finds ways to help with Flight School stuff that she doesn’t know anything about!”

Smiling with satisfaction and ignoring Alice, who was raising a curious eyebrow at the two monsters being interrogated by Celestia, she said, “And do you think Sunset is proud of the friends she’s made?”

This time the two realized exactly what the older woman was doing with her question and they both hung their heads in shame. Applejack spoke up, “Well, I mean...I know she wants to be...and she probably loves bein’ able to have Rarity and Fluttershy around, she can’t seem to get too much time with Twilight, and even Pinkie only ever means well, but I take yer meanin’...”

A dispirited Rainbow Dash spoke up then, “I...yeah, I’m sorry. I’ll go apologize to her as soon as we’re done here. If...if you want me to go home now I will.” The poor girl looked heartbroken, having the bearing of someone who wanted to stay by the side of someone they couldn’t imagine ever hurting, but realizing that their very presence was causing problems.

Celestia sighed, I’d say this lesson has been delivered, “No, I don’t think that would do any good, and it’s clear Sunset would only think that she had done something wrong if I sent you home. For now, just do your best to respect the home of your hostess...and by that I meant Sunset, since she’s the one that invited you over. Please show her how much you care about her by making this Solstice holiday a good memory for her.”

With a relieved sigh, the pair fled the room, Applejack gently tugging the door shut behind her.

Alice took the opportunity to speak up, “So the principal’s work is never done, huh?”

Celestia pinched the bridge of her nose and heaved a sigh, “So what am I in this universe for? I’ve already figured out that it’s mostly monsters and had a big memory dump that gave me some information.”

Alice looked a bit surprised and started stabbing at her tablet-like device, “Oh, well then you already know a lot of what I was going to tell you. Pretty much all that’s left is this Celestia, well, she feels like she’s just kinda going through the holiday motions. She wants it to be a good Solstice for her daughter, but she kinda lost the holiday spirit when her sister was sealed away by a monster hunter a thousand years ago. Now she’s gotta give her daughter and her sister a good holiday, but doesn’t feel like she can properly deliver.”

Celestia scrunched her eyebrows together, “So what am I supposed to do about it? I haven’t the faintest clue how to celebrate Solstice in this universe!”

Alice just threw a dead-pan look at her, “If someone had come to you and told you that their Hearth’s Warming was going to be absolutely ruined if they can’t get their precious dolls bought from the store by tonight and the only thing that can save the holiday is to have some Wacky Hijinks that culminates in them finally getting the MacGuffin Dolls from their grumpy neighbor or something, what would you tell them?”

Celestia just glared at Alice, “I’d tell them they watched too many Applewood movies about the holiday when they were a kid.”

“Exactly!” replied the gift giver, “The holidays aren’t about all the stuff we do that surrounds the day, it’s about the people we spend it with and finally being a family!”

Before they could continue, Luna burst through the door, “SISTER, THE PINK ONE IS TRYING TO GET ME TO DRESS IN A RIDICULOUS RED AND WHITE OUTFIT!” So declared, she ran behind the desk and huddled behind Celestia’s office chair.

Rarity poked her head in shortly after, flinching slightly as Pinkie’s voice could be heard in the background calling for ‘Loonie’ to stop playing hide and seek, “I do apologize, Miss Celestia. It seems that Pinkie has gotten into one of her...moods.”

The older woman sighed and stood. “Alright, let’s see what needs to be done to salvage this mess,” she said with a wink to Rarity.

Several hours later, they were gathered around a spectacularly stout yule log that the house servant (in the form of their loyal butler Carrion) was going to have to feed into the fireplace, which while gargantuan was still dwarfed by the tree that was brought in to burn for the holiday season. Pinkie had changed into her humanoid form and was straddling the unburned portion of the log, roasting (or rather burning) marshmallows. Rarity was positioned near the two vampire lords, mimicking the pair’s mannerisms without appearing fawning or sycophantic. Twilight hovered at Sunset’s side, and for Sunset’s part she was sharing a love seat with Celestia. On the other side of the yule log, Rainbow Dash had found a convenient perch in the form of a bust that had been given to Vampire Lord Celestia several centuries prior. Principal Celestia had dug through her counterpart’s memories enough to know that it was supposed to look like Celestia, but the vampire had secretly found it horribly ugly and would have no problem with the numerous gauges being left by the harpy’s claws. Fluttershy was tending the goat, who was now happily munching on some celery the house staff had managed to scrounge up. Pinkie’s jokes about “bloody bitters” went over everyone’s head but Celestia’s. On the one hand, it was nice to know that even as a vampire Sunset was a well-behaved enough teenager to avoid alcoholic beverages. On the other, she realized that this world might not even have had a Queen Bitters to have a drink named after her with tomato juice and celery as it’s distinguishing ingredients, which would have meant that Pinkie had made a joke strictly for her benefit.

She chose not to think about it too hard.

Applejack had taken to petting the yule log. When she’d been asked if the burning of the former tree was a problem for the wood nymph, Applejack shook her head with a bittersweet smile. “Naw,” she had said, “This here king of the forest had himself a good long run. He saw about twenty generations of his kids and knew his time had ‘bout come anyway. It’s makin’ the echo of his spirit happy to be used as part of a celebration ‘bout family and bringin’ the branches of the creature family tree together.”

The discussion about what “the echo of the spirit of the tree” was had taken the better part of an hour and a half, mostly with Twilight chasing down several lines of inquiry about how trees and wood spirits operated.

As midnight approached, the group was sharing the quiet, comfortable camaraderie of friends and family who actually enjoyed each other’s company. Not everyone had a chance at the spotlight for anything in particular, but that wasn’t necessary, as they all loved and supported each other equally.

After a bit, Celestia realized that Sunset was occasionally casting glances in her direction. She wasn’t seeing anyone else noticing this, and with a mental start realized that she was recognizing the behavior. This was far more subtle, but her own Sunset had taken to making similar glances in her direction of late. It happened when Sunset was feeling particularly in need of reassurance and support and couldn’t ask for it. Celestia realized that this Sunset may be wanting some form of intimate familial contact but was still not sure where the boundaries lay. She had stumbled onto a few memories of Vampire Lord Celestia watching Sunset grow up and realized that the girl was afraid of being rejected by her mother if she overstepped the bounds that she was used to when she was still just a human vassal.

Well, the vampire lord may be too old and stodgy to do anything about this, but I’m not, she thought to herself, making a little extra effort to burn the thought into her memory in hopes that she’d be somehow able to chastise the other version of herself when she “woke” after the principal hopped to the next universe. Almost casually, but feeling just a touch uncomfortable in pushing a relationship that wasn’t hers like she was about to, she gently reached her arm over the shoulders of Sunset Shimmer and pulled her close.

Sunset stiffened for just a moment, then smiled so broadly that her fangs dropped a smidge in reflex. Like a kitten she snuggled down against her mother’s side, and for all the girl cared in that moment the rest of the world could vanish into mist for a while.

Celestia smiled down at the girl and took a sip of her eggnog. Over the brim, she caught the slightly confused face of her sister and let a bit of a twinkle enter her gaze as she turned her sip into a quaff.

As she lowered her mug, she saw the smiling face of Alice. The elfin woman was standing pretty much in the fire but was untouched by it. The young woman nodded, “Bingo, that’s what you were here for.”

Celestia’s world went white.

Celestia felt the world resolve around her, then was immediately knocked off her feet and smacked her head against a solid object, thoroughly rattling her.

Cold… was her first thought. Wet, came shortly after. Where was she and what was she doing here? She found it hard to think with the pain ringing through her skull.

“Mom!” she heard Sunset’s voice cut through the disorientation. What’s Sunset doing here? Aren’t I in another universe? At least she’s talking finally, I wonder how we managed that?

It was about that time she realized she was somewhat concussed. She felt a pair of hands lift her head gently, feeling around for obvious injury.

“...Sunset...belt...lemme buff…” came tumbling out of her mouth as she absently waved a hand in front of her blurry vision. In stark contrast to the out of focus world around her, the belt’s HUD lit up starkly clear. She flailed her arm in the direction of the icon of the healing potion, almost accidentally slapping her limb through it, and activated the buff.

Instantly, the world slammed into focus and she could think clearly again. Over her was a very concerned Sunset Shimmer, older than the one in her home universe, but not nearly as grizzled as Desert Mirage had been. The pistol still held to the ready as the girl shifted her attention in battle-wariness showed that this Sunset wasn’t all that different from Desert Mirage, though. “Sunset…?” she blurted out.

The girl...no, young woman turned her full attention to Celestia. “Oh, thank god! How many fingers am I holding up?”

Before Celestia could answer, a familiar voice snapped through the crisp winter air, “Sunset Shimmer, you may be going to school for your nursing degree, but you aren’t one yet! Scoot your butt over and let a professional do her work!” Sunset was practically shoved out of the way by none other than Nurse Redheart. Practically bowling the younger woman over, Redheart’s face filled her vision. Holding up a hand with index and middle fingers in a ‘v’ shape, she said, “How many fingers am I holding up?”

Sunset glared at the nurse, “...really!?”

The bark of fully automatic weapons fire cut them off, the three of them turning to see Luna charging across the snow, weaving through stands of birch trees. She was focused on targets that Celestia couldn’t see, firing with a pair of MAC-10’s. As she ducked around a final tree she turned her attention to the group, “Sister, are you alright?”

Celestia waved off Redheart, somewhat disappointed that she could smell a rather strong alcohol on the woman, but as she didn’t know exactly what was going on, she chose not to comment on it. Sunset used her free hand to pick up a carbine rifle and hand it to Celestia, who took it with what she hoped was some sense of familiarity, the other three clearly saw nothing unusual about this version of her carrying a weapon like this. “I’m actually OK, blows to the head notwithstanding, what got m…oh!” she interrupted herself as she laid eyes on a rather desiccated looking corpse that had numerous bullet holes in it, including two through its skull. Disturbingly, she recognized the corpse as Sunset Shimmer. “...what?”

Sunset, in complete contrast to the full-grown bad-ass that was Celestia’s first impression, suddenly started mincing her feet, blushed tomato red, and refused to meet Celestia’s eyes. “Well, yeah, uh...there weren’t any clones of me last time, so I didn’t think we’d have to worry about it, and at least the clones aren’t carrying any weapons, that should make it easier to identify them, right?”

Celestia’s eyes widened, “Wait, ‘last time!’?”

A sharp, clipped voice interjected from behind, “Indeed. It seems your darling golden daughter has been neglecting to keep you fully updated on all her reports.” This statement was punctuated by the single bark of a fired bullet. Celestia whipped around to see a woman in a business suit, her only concession to the cold was a very formal, if stylish, looking winter coat. A quick glance in the direction the revolver the woman was now lowering had been aimed at showed a now dead Rainbow Dash with a single bullet hole between the eyes. It was only a minor comfort that the body decomposed far too quickly for it to be an actual human.

She turned back to the newcomer, “Nagatha…” she stated curtly. She honestly had no frame of reference at the moment. Every single person in this little group had a firearm, and they were all acting like it was completely normal to be killing apparent clones of her students. Of all the people she had expected to see as part of this motley crew, Nagatha Harshwhinney was probably near the bottom of the list.

Though speaking of clones, a trio of Pinkie Pies suddenly leapt from behind a hill, only to have one of them be speared through by a polearm wielded by a woman that looked to be about Sunset’s age with aquamarine blue skin and navy blue hair, an athletic build and wearing biking leathers. “Ember!” shouted Sunset as she pulled her second glock and fired on the remaining two Pinkies as they turned to face their nearest attacker. Harshwhinney and Luna opened fire as well, and before they could even take a step two more clones were turning into corpsicles.

Yanking her polearm out of the dead clone, the other young woman turned to the group, “Man, when you guys said you wanted to have a girl’s-only Christmas vacation, I had no idea it would be this much fun!” she cackled as she dragged the blade through the snow to wipe off the black liquid the clones used for blood, “My dad is gonna be so pissed he missed this!”

Celestia swore there was a buzzing in her ear for a moment, but was too busy trying to see any other threats around her to pay it any mind, until Sunset said, “So the clones can’t see you either? Good! I was worried that they could see past your...not-there-whatever since they were soulless abominations.”

Blinking in surprise, Celestia looked at her ‘daughter,’ then followed where the young woman was looking...to see a green skinned, green haired girl standing at her elbow. “FUCK!” she started and jumped two feet away.

The girl blinked, looking more irritated than anything else at Celestia’s reaction. The rest of the ladies around her giggled, even Harshwhinney’s mouth turned up at the corner. Sunset inadvertently came to her rescue, “Yeah, even we still forget Wallflower is there sometimes, and we live with her.”

As though to answer the question of who ‘we’ was, Applejack came leading a group of other young women, which consisted of a bespectacled Twilight Sparkle, a moderately curvy woman who looked to be about Sunset’s age in this universe with a spectacular poof of orange hair, and a bawling Fluttershy. “We lost Rainbow Dash,” announced Applejack grimly, “Plum fool took a handful of clones o’ me over a ridge with a full-on tackle. We looked down, but the forest floor was too thick to see any landin’. But from that height…” A glimpse from face to face revealed the dark truth to the words. As if Fluttershy’s face weren’t enough, even the apparent nonchalance of the other girl was betraying a few signs of distress.

Celestia felt a tug on her sleeve and turned in surprise to see the green skinned girl. Somehow, she had completely forgotten she was there in the few heartbeats since Applejack spoke. At least this time I didn’t nearly jump out of my skin, she thought, “Yes…?” she said simply, unable to remember the girl’s name.

“We should get back to the cabin. That’s where the girl that looks like Twilight is set up.”

At this both Sunset and Twilight were brought out of their shock at the news about Rainbow Dash. “You saw the Sparkle clone at the cabin?” exclaimed Sunset.

The girl nodded, “She’s doing the standard, ‘The world will see my brilliance,’ supervillain monologue with her army of clones as an audience. Oh, and she’s got wings.”

Twilight sniffed indignantly, “Not much of an audience, considering she’s powering them with her own soul.”

Harshwhinney’s left eyebrow went up, which Celestia recognized as an indicator that the woman was one good explanation away from tearing the recipient of the raised eyebrow a new superfluous orifice...metaphorically speaking. In her universe at any rate. “How long have you known this little tidbit of information?”

Seemingly oblivious to Nagatha’s darkened mood, Twilight explained, “Oh, well, after Sunset postulated earlier that the clones were different from the last batch we faced, both in number and in composition (the last determined after we killed the first one and were able to observe it’s decomposition), I theorized that they were created using a combination of what their original creator knew about making purely magical tulpa-like constructs using Equestrian methods and how I would approach the same problem using purely scientific methods and an awareness of Equestrian magic. From there it was fairly easy to deduce that…”

“Egghead, c’mon!” interrupted Ember, “It’s below freezing and we’re surrounded by zombies. Cut the technobabble!”

Twilight glared at Ember, “Don’t make me lecture you on the difference between…”

“Twilight,” interrupted Celestia, “I’m sorry but time does seem to be of the essence.”

The younger woman sighed, “Fine; while she is using magic to make them animate and probably to generate them from base materials, she’s likely using the biology texts we have to create the body templates, which means they don’t have any sort of independence. Like, well, traditional voodoo zombies instead of Frankenstein’s Monster.” The context of the statement let Celestia translate ‘Frankenstein’s Monster’ into ‘Freestone’s Monster’, a book written by a woman named Bitter Truth in her universe. She didn’t think she had the time to find out what the author was named in this universe.

A singsong voice cut through the air, “I heard a literary reference!” It took all of Celestia’s willpower not to react as the usually appropriately dressed language arts teacher at her school emerged from the woods from behind Twilight. Cheerilee was wearing...it was probably easier to say what she wasn’t wearing. She wasn’t wearing a proper weather-appropriate coat. She wasn’t wearing actual pants. She was wearing what looked like bleach-white pseudo-fur boots with heels that could not be practical, a white furred bikini set that honestly only barely covered enough to be legal but certainly not decent, and a white puffy ski vest that had to come straight from the 1980’s. On her head was a tuque that matched the bikini set. For some ungodly reason she had a pair of AR-16’s strapped to her back and was wearing an ammo belt as a bandolier.

Fortunately for Celestia, the entire group boggled, so even her dropped jaw (which she couldn’t quite control due to her barely contained shock) didn’t really stand out. “Cheerilee...what in the world are you wearing?!” asked Luna.

The woman didn’t react to the shock being thrown her way, “Just a pair of military grade rifles. Cranky told me to borrow them, you know how he is, can’t ever set back and have a good time.” She rolled her eyes playfully, “You just know he’s gonna gloat at all of you for not taking him up on his offer.”

Celestia’s golden standard, Miss Cheerilee!” exclaimed Sunset, “We’re not talking about the firearms, we’re talking about the…” she stammered out, waving in Cheerilee’s general direction.

Harshwhinny could be heard breathing heavily through her nose. “Miss Cheerilee, while I do understand that you have some form of...mental hang-up about wearing proper clothes while hunting, the level that you’ve taken this particular ensemble strains the bounds of credulity, if not good climate-aware safety measures.”

Cheerilee had at least some sense of chagrin for the outfit as she blushed. “Well, I mean, it’s what I wore to ski resorts back when I was in college, and I do still fit all my old outfits, so I figured, why not?”

“Well, then,” said Celestia with a tinge of hysteria to her voice, “Then let’s get to the source of the problem. Hopefully we can get this over with and get back to some eggnog.”

This was apparently the right thing to say, and Celestia was glad that she had guessed they were waiting on her. She did seem to be in some sort of leadership position, as the group hadn’t actually moved on...Wallflower’s(?) suggestion that they go to the cabin until Celestia had said to. She was also immensely glad that everyone else knew where this cabin was, because she was subtly following the group as she worked her hands to try and hold the rifle she now carried as though she had done so all her life like the women around her were.

Applejack spoke up as they moved, “Has anyone seen Pinkie? I aint seen her since we all split up when we left the cabin in the first place…”

As though in answer to her question, a loud and very cranky voice echoed over the snow. “I know you know how to use a pickaxe to fight, you trained under Ma and Pa just like we did, so why don’t you?”

Pinkie’s voice tumbled out in response, “Because a party cannon is more fun!”

As they walked, they saw a trio of girls, two with gray skin and the third with bright pink. The two with gray skin were carrying pickaxes stained black with the blood of the zombie-clones, where Pinkie didn’t seem to be carrying a weapon of any sort. They were far enough away that even though they could see one of the girls talking, they couldn’t hear what she said.

Pinkie turned to the quieter girl and patted her on the head, “Basic law of cartoon combat; large, unwieldy weapons will always be available just off-screen whenever it’s funny.”

The other gray skinned girl’s growl could be heard even with the distance separating them, “BUT WE’RE NOT IN A CARTOON!”

Applejack, Fluttershy, Twilight, and Sunset broke away from their group to run over to the trio of what Celestia now recognized as the Pie sisters. Well, minus one.

The girl with the orange puff of hair stepped up next to Celestia, “None of them seem to have noticed that Maud and Rarity haven’t shown up yet.”

Luna answered for Celestia, “That is a concern, Adagio, and it shows that you are progressing well in the lessons that Princess Twilight wants you to learn. Any idea where they might be?”

Adagio snorted, “Well, she may seem as hard and dull as the rock she carries in her pocket, but I suspect Maud has moves that poor Rarity was helpless against.” A lascivious grin crossed her face.

Harshwhinney frowned, “Did you have a flicker of your old Siren’s powers that let you sniff out lust or something? That girl was a challenge to read in high school, and she only got worse after she earned her doctorate. I have a hard time believing that a thousand-year-old sea monster from another universe would have any capability of reading human emotion on that girl.”

Adagio’s grin just gained a wicked gleam, “No, I just saw them making out in the pantry. Apparently Rarity believes she’s a ‘naughty girl’ and needs a ‘big, strong, stoic amazon’ like Maud to ‘punish her,’” With that, she cackled as a pinch of blush tinged Nagatha’s cheeks.

Luna frowned as the two groups merged as they moved, “Did you just make that up to get a rise out of us?”

The apparently millenia old girl snorted again, “Nope! That’s the best part, if you paid enough attention you could see the two flirting all week.”

Pinkie bounced between Luna and Celestia, “Oooh, oooh, are you talking about Maud and Rarity?! Isn’t it so cute? Maud always did have an eye for the shiniest rocks in the ground, and she found a diamond in Rarity, amirite?!”

Adagio just groaned and rolled her eyes, casually pulling a dagger from her hair and flinging it. A clone of Fluttershy fell to the ground from behind a tree it had apparently been hiding behind, serving as an excellent reminder that, though they were still literally in the woods, they weren’t out of danger. Weapons were brought to a more ready position all around as Adagio sauntered over to the rapidly decaying corpse and yanked her dagger free. “Pink, you could drain the life out of a party faster than a starving changeling at a Vegas wedding.”

Nurse Redheart’s forehead creased in confusion, “Wait, I thought she was dating that one guy she met at a convention, what was his name?”

Pinkie sighed, “Mudbriar, and apparently he was caught ‘in fragrant delicate’ by one of Maud’s old classmates and hasn’t shown his face since.”

A voice that spoke with practiced refinement interrupted as Rarity and Maud came from a tightly grown knoll in the woods they were passing, Rarity tucked protectively under one of Maud’s arms as the older, larger girl heaved a truly impressive pickaxe over her shoulder as though it were made of balsa, “The phrase is ‘in flagrante delicto,’ Pinkie darling, and you know it’s a sore subject for you sister.”

Pinkie looked over to the couple and gasped, “Oh, no! I’m so sorry Maud, I didn’t realize I was speaking so casually of your broken heart! Please forgive me, I hate seeing you so emotional in public!”

Maud blinked her eyes, her expression unchanged. “It’s okay Pinkie,” she replied, “One learns to live with the heartbreak.”

Celestia had seen a version of Maud in her home universe; she still wondered if the girl needed medication.

Rarity disentangled herself from her (apparent) lover and stepped closer to Sunset and Twilight. “You two should know,” she said in a somewhat hushed tone, “That your somewhat disturbing magically charged clone seems to be nearly identical to what you looked like during the Friendship Games in our final year of high school.” At Twilight’s frown, Rarity patted her arm, “I don’t believe she’s nearly as powerful, darling, but if she’s even a little bit as capable as you’ve proven, the fact that she’s ‘powered up,’ as it were, may require we modify whatever tactics you’ve used in the past against her.”

“Wait,” interjected Sunset, “How did you know what she looks like right now? The only reason we have any clue is because Wallflower managed to scout for us.”

At this Rarity blushed, “Well, as it happens, it just so happened, that is, I mean, well...a lady does like some privacy, even when her partner does get a bit excited at doing things...that is to say, well, I mean, Adagio wasn’t actually wrong about where we were...we stayed away from the opened food! Canned goods are uncomfortable when one has a bare back but are perfectly usable as a surface when covered in appropriately thick winter coats…” Rarity’s blush now made her face look as red as Sunset’s hair, “That is to say…” she was cut off as a gray hand settled onto her shoulder.

Pinkie giggled furiously, “Oh, my, gosh! I’ve never seen Maud so embarrassed!”

Celestia looked from Pinkie to the perfectly still and controlled face of Maud and wondered how Pinkie could tell anything of what her sister was thinking.

“We happened to be in the pantry when the strange copy of Twilight Sparkle started creating her clone army,” Maud supplied, “We stayed there until she had sent out enough clones to hunt down you all before we opted to make a break for it and join you.”

Rarity allowed her face to cool a moment more before she said, “Indeed, and it was quite good fortune that Maud had her pickaxe with her, I had wondered why she brought it along, but she said she thought it might come in handy…”

Pinkie nodded sagely, “Yup! It runs in the family, I mean, for me it’s my Pinkie Sense, but…”

One of Pinkie’s other sisters, Limestone if Celestia recalled correctly, interrupted, “Pinkie, we’ve talked about this! Hunters don’t actually have a sixth sense and neither do you! You just decided your itchy ears or wiggly nose or whatever meant something and started calling it Hunter Sense until you realized you didn’t have the stomach for the family business!”

The fourth Pie sister just let out a quiet, “Hmmmm!” This seemed to stop whatever reply Pinkie was about to make.

“Marble is right,” said Maud, “This isn’t the time to discuss family business.” So saying, she pointed.

They had reached the edge of the woods to find a clearing, probably three football fields large, with a cabin in the middle of it with several vehicles parked at the head of a nearby access path that, presumably, led to a road back to civilization. What would be a picturesque scene was marred by a horde of figures, all falling into five basic body types...or at least they thought it was five at first. While they saw the expected multiple copies of Applejack, Rainbow Dash, Rarity, Fluttershy, and Pinkie Pie, they also now saw clones of Sunset Shimmer, Adagio, Limestone, Marble, and Amber. There was no clone of anyone over college age (or college-age appearing, in Adagio’s case), and curiously also no Wallflower. That there were no Twilight Sparkles in the mix actually made sense, given the cackling form of the dark mirror version of Twilight that was hovering above the hoard. The mass of clones was silent, eerily so. Were it not for the occasional breath that seemed to happen automatically, the entire group was standing stock still, having turned only enough to face the group and simply stare.

“Whoah, now that’s creepy…” uttered Cheerilee.

Luna spoke up as well, “Rarity, Maud, I thought you said you made a break for it after she had sent enough out…”

Rarity looked even paler than usual, “We did, she only had a handful when we snuck out…”

Twilight, the one with their group, slapped her palm to her face, “Of course! She’s got a threshold of how many she can control, but when we were killing off the ones she sent after us, she could just make more, and with all the genetic material she could want in the cabin in the form of our hair and toothbrushes…”

A malevolent voice shouted from above the hoard, “Don’t forget other body fluids that I found in the pantry, Sparkle!” An amused cackle rippled from the overpowered clone’s throat, “You two aren’t nearly as discrete as you think you are! I just took a quick stop in the pantry after you, heh…’snuck’ away!”

The group collectively scanned the hoard of clones, then back to a furiously blushing Rarity standing next to Maud.

Rarity opted to speak for the pair, “Well, aaaah, Maud likes to...take her time. She tends to my needs before her own and the situation escalated rather rapidly before we could get around to tending hers…and it worked out in the end, right? Maud simply took out her...frustration on the zombie clones that were after us all quite well!” she finally stopped when Maud, to the relief of more than just Rarity, put a gentle finger to the white-skinned girl’s lips. Rarity sputtered out with an embarrassed giggle.

Redheart spoke up, next, “Yeah, but why only you girls? Why not me, Luna, or even Celestia?”

Twilight spoke up then, “Well, it’s probably down to the viability of the genetic material based on age. The older the body the DNA is harvested from, the more likely it is to break down before it can be used for her method.”

The darker Twilight hovered closer to the group without leaving the perimeter set up by her hoard. “Right on both counts germ donor,” she cackled, “I’ve already ensured one of your motley crew is out of the way, and when I wipe out the rest it will completely cripple the hunters for the entire coastline! Having not just one team of hunters gathered, but the bulk of four teams?! What were you all thinking? You just handed yourselves to a supervillain like me on a silver platter!”

Twilight Sparkle was nearly apoplectic, “Only because you made your villain’s lair at mom’s writing cabin! And if I’m your ‘germ donor,’ that makes...you...just...a bunch of germs!”

Adagio rolled her eyes while Sunset slapped her own palm to her forehead, “Twi...just stop trying to trash talk.”

The flying Sparkle roared with laughter, “I can’t believe I’m spawned from you! And Chrysalis just wouldn’t shut up about how much you made her life miserable! On the other hand, I guess she was really talking about your pony counterpart, the one who could actually get life right well enough to become a princess.”

It took Redheart’s, Wallflower’s, Sunset’s and Ember’s united efforts to hold Twilight back from charging blindly at her clone counterpart.

“Please,” spoke Celestia above the fracas, “I don’t know what happened that you’re so intent on killing us all, but surely there doesn’t need to be any more loss of life. Perhaps if we all put down our weapons…” she glanced over the unmoving mass of bodies staring at them, “...and maybe dispelled your clones, then we could talk this out into some form of agreement?”

Luna grabbed Celestia’s elbow and hissed into her sister’s ear, “What are you doing? We don’t negotiate with world-ending eldritch abominations, we end them!”

Celestia said nothing out loud, just looked Luna firmly in the eyes, flickered them over to where Sunset was getting Twilight to calm down, then back to Luna.

“...fine, but I’m keeping my guns handy, I refuse to trust her.” Luna conceded.

Celestia rolled her eyes and turned back to their apparent foe, “Well? Can we be civil about this?”

Dark Twilight rather blatantly made an act of thinking on Celestia’s words. “Gee, how about we go with, ‘NO!’” So saying, she turned her open palm to Celestia, a ball of purple light growing from pinpoint to golf-ball size in a heartbeat before launching through the air in her direction. With Applejack tackling Celestia out of the path of the energy ball, the detente was broken and weapons fire cut through the air, along with the shuffling, then running of the hoard of clones.

Just as Celestia and Applejack were drawing their weapons up to aim for the charging line of clones, more thunderous fire could be heard, and the entire flank of clones seemed to fall over sideways. All combatants who had their own agency turned to the sound, the clone army slowing to a stop, to see about twenty people wearing winter combat gear and welding M4 carbine rifles.

The winged Twilight howled, this time in rage, and began using magic to spawn more clones as the section of troops pushed forward in a disciplined row, save one who broke from the rest of the team and bounded over to their group. Ripping off her helmet, snow goggles, and balaclava, Rainbow Dash beamed at the group, “I told you all I saw a military base over that ridge! They don’t teach us how to recognize our own bases at the Academy for nothing...”

“Rainbow!” came the united exclamation from the girls, a group-hug preempted when Fluttershy dove at her childhood friend and promptly kissed her firmly on the lips.

An obviously startled Rainbow Dash did everything she could to steady the pair of them, carefully aiming the rifle at the snow and holding Fluttershy around the waist. The kiss lasted a long while, but eventually a blushing Fluttershy stepped away from Rainbow Dash, grinning somewhat stupidly and unable to raise her gaze to meet anyone’s eyes.

Sunset blinked and spoke in a surprised tone of voice for the group, “Wow…Rainbow, I didn’t know you two were like that…”

Dash looked about like she’d been punched in the face with a fist made of happiness and fun, “...uh...I didn’t either...but I guess we are...now?”

Fluttershy bleated happily and covered her face with her hands.

As another of the soldiers made their way over to the group, Rainbow shook her head to clear it and began gushing, “So guess who’s now officially a member of the super-secret Air Force Special Team 13!” her smile was so large it threatened to split her face.

“Oh, Rainbow, I’m so happy for you!” squeaked Fluttershy, finally able to pull her hands down.

The other soldier finally joined Rainbow, pulling off his goggles and tugging down his balaclava to reveal a chiseled and somewhat weather-worn face of a man about Harshwhinney’s age, “A team that won’t stay secret if you blab about it to everyone you meet, rookie!”

Dash waved away his concern, “Nah, colonel, they’re cool. That kaiju incursion you mentioned in the briefing?” at his nod, she continued, “These guys took care of it. Well, most of ‘em, anyway.”

This earned the group an appreciative once-over, and his eyes lingered a bit longer on Harshwhinny than the rest. “Say, didn’t I see you in a magazine a while back? I think you’re also in some of our classified files from back in the day.” he said with appreciation in his voice.

For the first time that Celestia could remember, Nagatha actually blushed and smiled a bit, “Well, yes, but perhaps we could discuss this later over a...debriefing?”

Adagio watched with an open smirk, Cheerilee huffed in frustration and started to cross her arms in a huff before remembering she was holding a rifle, Wallflower was just barely repressing a giggle, and the rest of the girls were boggling that Miss Harshwhinney seemed to be flirting with the Air Force colonel. He reached out his hand to shake Nagatha’s, “Colonel Wind Rider, at your service. Are you leading this band of rogues?”

Holding the handshake longer than was proper, Harshwhinney replied, “Oh, no, but I do my best to keep them on track. For our fearless leader, you’ll have to look to Celestia there.” She nodded her head to the principal, but Wind Rider didn’t turn his head to follow.

The crack of a side-by-side shotgun going off interrupted the tableau, “Not to spoil this moment, but we kinda got a situation on our hands here!” Applejack belted.

That served nicely to remind them that there was a battle for the fate of the world at hand, so the band of Hunters and the platoon of soldiers went about doing what they did best.

Twenty minutes later, however, it was proving that they weren’t making much difference other than keeping the flying Twilight Sparkle busy. “I have an ENDLESS WELL of magic at my beck and call! I can revive myself and my clones without tiring!” A few cracks of rifles led to the sound of an equal number of bullets fizzling harmlessly against a spherical purple shield trying to interrupt the tirade, “AND I CAN KEEP THE SHIELD UP FOR LONGER THAN YOU HAVE BULLETS AS WELL!”

Celestia sighed as she inspected the final magazine of her carbine before slamming it into place, “She’s right, this isn't working. We need some sort of plan…”

“Already on it,” Twilight Sparkle, the landbound one, replied smuggly while closing a flip-style cell phone.

Celestia, Luna, and Sunset, who had managed to remain in a group throughout the battle, turned to the bespectacled young woman. “How do you mean?” replied Sunset.

Before Twilight could answer directly, a SUV tore up the snowy drive and skidded to a stop next to the other vehicles. They watched the passenger side door pop open and a woman of medium height jumped out and crunched her snow boots through the snow with clear determination. Pulling her scarf down and her sunglasses off, the group saw the pale face of a woman who had clearly had just about enough and was about to put her foot down.

“TWILIGHT ELIZABETH SPARKLE!” roared from the woman’s mouth.

Luna and Celestia looked at each other and mouthed, ‘Elizabeth?’ with incredulous expressions on their faces.

The authoritative “mom” tone was enough to completely halt all activity in the clearing. The clones suddenly dispersed to component chemicals with a splash (getting some fluids of indeterminate origin on Adagio’s pants and boots, being the only combatant that had melee weapons that had to be used up-close) and the winged Twilight fell to the ground with an ungraceful thump. It spoke volumes, rather more than the woman’s earlier yell, that nobody took the opportunity to fire at the suddenly shieldless magical girl.

“M...Mom!” stammered the eldritch abomination.

The woman began shouting as she stomped over to her artificially created and magically powered up daughter, “What is this I hear about you trying to form an army to take over the world? I thought we had ‘the talk’ about world domination plans when you were nine!” Without preamble, Twilight Velvet grabbed the ear of the clone Twilight between a thumb and forefinger, pinching rather hard enough for the entire assembly of sentient beings to cringe.

“Ow! But I’m not your daughter, I’m a clone of your daughter, you’re not my mother!” the content of the words was belied by the somewhat petulant whine they were delivered in.

“I may not have gone into labor for you specifically, but I taught you better than to assume that meant you weren’t part of this family!” she began marching the winged girl back to the SUV, where the driver's side door opened to reveal Twilight’s father, who had a fairly long-suffering grin on his face.

“Hey, pumpkin,” said Night Light at the Twilight Sparkle next to Celestia, Luna, and Sunset, “How’s your Christmas vacation with your friends going?”

Twilight smuggly shrugged at her father’s question while throwing a triumphant grin at her clone as Velvet dragged her by, “It’s going alright. Ups and downs, but overall it’s nice to spend time with them. Can’t wait until I get to spend New Years with the family, though.”

The clone Twilight sputtered indignantly, “This is ridiculous, I’m not going anywhere with you!”

“Twilight,” began Velvet sternly, “No, we can’t call you both Twilight…”

Trying to regain some semblance of the command she had earlier held over the situation, the clone growled, “You’re right, I’m not Twilight, you may call me MIDNIGHT SPARKLE!

Sunset and her crew looked unimpressed, Harshwhinny, Cheerilee, and Redheart rolled their eyes, and the soldiers were unreadable in their protective gear. Twilight Velvet sputtered a laugh, “The name you insisted we call you during your goth phase?!”

And instantly, the clone went from intimidating world ending threat to angsty young woman who was emotionally stuck as a teenager, “IT’S NOT A PHASE, MOM!” whined Midnight.

Several hours later, things had calmed down significantly. The soldiers had hung around long enough to debrief the entire group, Midnight Sparkle had been made to power down and Twilight (with her mother’s permission) disassembled the cabin’s satellite receiver and television to cobble together a magic suppressing headband while Midnight was grounded “until she was old enough to graduate college again!” Rainbow was permitted by her new commanding officer to finish off her holiday leave with her friends, and the three groups of hunters and the Elements all gathered around the cabin’s fireplace indoors and the fire pit outdoors until the sun started sinking behind the horizon. Soon enough, Celestia and Sunset were the only ones left by the fire pit outside.

They sat in companionable silence, Sunset leaning familially against her adopted mother while the fire slowly died. “Well, that was a thing that happened,” she quipped.

Celestia, by now rather inured to the operation of this universe and ready for the leap out or bed, whichever came first, smiled down at this version of the girl she could now admit she was starting to think of like a daughter. “Do you wish you had a more traditional Christmas?” she said, using the name for the holiday she’d heard the locals use thus far. Still seems like an odd name for the winter solstice… she thought.

Sunset snorted in amusement. “For us? This is traditional. Certainly better than our first Christmas as a family. I still wake up from nightmares that feature Sombra’s ‘decking the halls’ with blood at the mall,” the girl shuddered, “But tonight? No, everyone lived, even the bad guy, and Twilight’s family even grew a little bit.” Celestia watched Sunset’s smile grow, “No, we don’t get the Christmas tree or the big turkey dinner or the family arguments around the eggnog. We get undead and aliens and interdimensional threats...but I’m with you and auntie Luna, and that is what Christmas should be about.”

Celestia let the rather profound statement hang in the air for a few moments, “That and a sufficient supply of ammo.”

When Sunset’s laughter exploded from her, Celestia watched a door of light slide open on the other side of the fire that Sunset couldn’t see. She rolled her eyes as Alice stepped through the door and waved casually at the pair. “Sunset, why don’t you go check on your friends, I’ll come join you in a little bit after I put out the fire.”

With the remnants of a laugh, Sunset said, “Okay, mom. See you in a few.”

As the young woman went into the cabin, Celestia grabbed a bucket that had been used to haul firewood from the stack at the back of the cabin and walked a short distance to where some snow had somehow remained undisturbed during the battle. Alice followed behind her, “Soooo…” said the ephemeral woman, “How’d it go?”

Bending down to scoop a healthy bucketful of snow, Celestia sighed, almost absently adjusting the carbine on it’s strap so it didn’t dangle down into the snow but was positioned between her shoulder blades, “Did you really just get here, or were you watching the whole time?”

Alice at least permitted herself to look contrite, “Well, not the whole time, but hey, you were doing just fine without me stepping in!”

Celestia walked back to the fire and dumped the snow on it, making sure it covered all the burning logs completely, watching it melt to water nearly instantly until the logs were cool enough to stop burning. “Some idea that I was part of a team of vigilante paranormal investigators with paramilitary experience would have been helpful at some point.”

Alice made a ‘psht’ing noise and waved dismissively at Celestia. “Like I could have told you anything you didn’t pick up from the clues around you. It’s not like they were trying to hide anything from you.”

Celestia dropped the bucket next to the doused fire and glared at Alice, “And you didn’t think I was out of my depth here?! I’ve never been in a firefight before! Breaking up a few fist fights in a school hallway doesn’t qualify me for defusing a supervillain threat! An alien from another world was threatening to take over the world right under my nose for three years and it took another alien to even begin to address the problem! You put...me in charge of a group of people who regularly save the world...what if I’d royally screwed up?”

Alice, instead of looking contrite as Celestia expected, merely smiled consolingly, “Oh, Celestia, if only you could see in yourself what you see in others so readily...even other versions of yourself.” She waved in the direction of the cabin, “Don’t you think the Celestia they all thought you were would have been ready to face this challenge?”

Celestia hooked a thumb through the strap over her torso and bumped the carbine with her elbow to illustrate, “Well, obviously!”

Alice waved around her demonstrably, “This Celestia has nothing you don’t have now, and even less than you’ll have in a few years. You already have the support and cooperation of the Equestrian princesses, it took this Celestia nearly a year to get that. You have no more magic than this Celestia has, and...well, there’s more to this Celestia’s story than I have time to tell, but the point is that you and she are nearly identical in temperament and personality...and qualifications to handle things like threats to those you love and care about. Sure, there’s a few obvious differences,” she pointed with her tablet device at the gun on Celestia’s back, “But they’re cosmetic. In the end, when it came to this Christmas...or Hearth’s Warming, what was it that really mattered to Sunset?”

Celestia thought back to the conversation she had with the young woman by the fire not even ten minutes prior, “She wanted to be with me...but why? What is it about being with me that made such a difference for her?”

A squawk from the device in her hands prompted a grin from Alice, “That is what your next leap is going to show you.” She stabbed at the tablet with a flourish, “Bango!”

Light exploded into Celestia’s vision, taking this familiar but violent world from her sight.

Normally (inasmuch as the events of the last subjective several days could be considered “normal”) Celestia entered a world where her counterpart was standing or sitting, perfectly still or nearly so. This time, she felt the distinct movement of some sort of rocking beneath her backside as her legs were straddling something that was moving her forward. As her vision cleared up, she realized she was on a horse, it’s reins in her hands and a fairly nice saddle and tack on said equine. She was concerned for a moment that the horse might be Sunset, but then she heard a second set of hoofsteps to her left and turned to see the very recognizable red-and-yellow striped hair on a face that, while in the spectrum of tan, still held the physical features she associated with the universe-hopping pony-girl.

Up ahead, she saw another horse bearing a figure that had hair that she had seen on some of the more magically inclined versions of her sister, the night-colored hair being completely replaced with a starfield seemingly affixed to Luna’s head. As if to confirm her suspicions, the figure turned, Luna’s familiar face in the unfamiliar light tan color that this world’s inhabitants seemed to all share but framed by the magical starfield hair, pointed ears on either side of her head, and a simple crown made of dark metal and a single point above a star shaped gem.

“Sister,” the other woman called back to her, voice tinged with happiness, “I recognize this place, it hasn’t changed nearly at all in the 1,000 years since I was here last!”

A voice flitted through her awareness, one that sounded like her, That would be because I did my best to keep it the same.

Mentally, she gave a bit of a squawk and had to focus on not ejecting herself from the horse’s saddle. What the…? she thought to herself.

A mental giggle floated through her thoughts, You can’t have expected a bit of pup-magic would be able to put a millennia-old aasimar to sleep, did you? When I felt the magic coming, I...negotiated with it. I have had precious little unexpected in my last several centuries, I thought I’d let this play out a bit before shutting it down.

The now expected door of light manifested on a nearby rock outcropping that was covered in snow. Alice stomped out, and like before her sneaker-clad feet didn’t disturb so much as a flake of snow. “Hey! Don’t be calling my magic ‘pup-magic,’ I’ll have you know I can bend timelines to my will!” she shouted at Celestia.

Celestia, for her part, was doing her best to keep any hint of the exchange from being noticed by her two travelling companions. She gave Luna a happy smile and nodded reassuringly. This seemed to be good enough for the other woman, who returned her eyes to the path before them.

My dear, responded the voice in her head, the one of this version of Celestia apparently, I have faced down gods and demons. I have weathered the storms of chaos and helped birth worlds inside new cosmos. Your use of this magic is creative, but rote.

“Listen, you old nag…” began the elf as the horse passed by the outcrop she was standing on. Celestia confirmed Sunset wasn’t paying attention and turned a glare at Alice before returning her gaze to the path like her sister.

Okay, so before we go too much further, you need to know my being here… she began.

...was not your doing, I understand. Just as you are able to peruse my memories as you’re sharing my body, so too am I able to view yours. While you may not be able to rifle through the multiple millennia of mine, your few decades were but a light Rest Day reading. Not that you haven’t had your triumphs, my young friend, the voice interrupted itself hastily, It’s simply so short in comparison to my own journals. What I do find interesting is these other memories that seem to be present, those of other Celestia’s...including a vampire lord, how fascinating! The voice was silent for a while, a fact for which Celestia was grateful. She wanted to have some time with her own thoughts before she had to interact more than conversationally with the people of this world.

There was the idle thought the Celestia of this world had mentioned; she still had the memories of those other Celestias in her head somehow? How was she not going mad from conflicting life stories?

Leaving that for the time being, she returned her thoughts to the girl beside her. Was she a transplant from another universe, like her own Sunset was?

Indeed she is, came the alien thought. Celestia nearly jumped out of her saddle again at the surprise intrusion. An ethereal chuckle graced her thoughts as the consciousness she was sharing a head with enjoyed her reaction. Sunset came to me via a curious mirror that fell into my possession some centuries back. It’s creator is unknown, but we...my scholars and I, that is, could tell that it used magic that could manipulate time and space, but the magics were so heavily intrinsic to it’s construction that we decided it would be fruitless to tinker with. Then it activated itself about 29 moons ago and out came Sunset...in fact, let’s see if I can simply show you…

Celestia was suddenly looking down at a desk and unable to control her body. She watched her hands holding a document and a quill and her focus scanned text that she didn’t have the ability to read, at least not natively.

~Oh, let me amend that oversight!~

Suddenly, Celestia was able to read the text. It wasn’t that it morphed into her native language’s written script, it was that the native understanding of it was suddenly added to her unconscious language abilities. With the realization that she was reading elvish script, she recognized that the document was about some tax law that even an educator like Principal Celestia could recognize as ill-conceived. Her hand with the quill scratched a long black mark through the text and made some notes to the author in the margins. “Blueblood,” it read, “I will not permit you to separate my people’s wealth from them to fund a new pleasure yacht for your indulgence. Try this again and I will see what my courts can do to prosecute you for crimes against the people. Sincerely, your aunt Queen Celestia.”

As she watched her hand finish the signature, a knock came from the door. “Come,” she heard herself say.

The door opened with the silence of a palace that was well kept by expert staff. The view looked up to see her captain of the guard, Shining Armor. Huh, thought Celestia, Cadance’s boyfriend looks pretty good in full plate...I’ll have to tease my niece about that when I finally return home, she thought.

~Oh, I had almost missed that in your memories, you have a niece named Cadance who is courting...a federal agent Shining Armor? How interesting…~

Celestia tried to tune out the commentary from her host as Shining spoke, “Your highness, the guards in the dangerous artifact storage are reporting a disturbance with one of the larger vaults.”

Celestia dropped the parchment and quill on the desk, “Lead the way,” she said.

Minutes later, they were at the entrance of the vaults in full armor. Shining had stopped along the way to don his and then ran to catch up to her, she simply willed hers onto her body from it’s storage medallion on her neck and it flowed like water over her form. She drew her blade, a long sword that was light enough to hold single handed so she could also summon her disk shield bearing her sigil if needed. That same sigil was stamped into the pommel of her blade, along with the elven glyph for ‘peace.’ Nodding at the guards at the entrances of the vaults, “Open the door,” she commanded.

As they did, she could feel with some sense she didn’t have a name for the magical tide coming from the mirror. Using that to guide her to the artefact’s vault, she set the course, her guard falling in behind her. Moments later, they were also undoing the rather comprehensive combination locks on the vault, until finally she gave a nod to the guard with their hands at the ready. The guard, including Shining Armor, formed to do a breaching entry. “Go,” was all the command she needed to give when the door was yanked open as fast as the two humans and the dwarf doing the pulling could.

Curiously, there was a red haired girl laying on the floor. She looked up with large, glistening eyes. “Oh, thank goodness, I fell through this portal and don’t know what happened to my body…” she trailed off as she saw the blade leveled at her.

“Do not move,” Celestia heard herself say, “I have been double-crossed by far too many creatures that have masqueraded as defenceless girls to take you at face value.”

Armor boots that were made for intimidation in combat stomped across the floor, sword tip unwavering from it’s target at the girl’s neck. Celestia’s hand reached down and the gauntlet automatically retracted at it’s owner’s mental command. Pads of fingers brushed the girl’s forehead until planting a thumb between the girl’s eyes. Celestia chanted a spell in high-elvish and the girl’s eyes glowed white.

Images flashed by, ones very familiar to the visiting Celestia, though showing much more detail than what she had previously been privy to. She saw the same little pony growing up from a young, talented, and ambitious filly to a star pupil under Princess Celestia’s tutelage. She saw Sunset’s perspective on the final arguments between the princess and student, then saw the frantic plan thrown together on the fly to leave Equestria through the mirror, use whatever she found on the other side of the portal over the course of 30 moons to grow her power into the alicorn princess she was shown by the mirror she could become, then return to Equestria in triumph.

No matter what it took. She swore it even as she fell to her face with the unfamiliar limbs and strange clothing that manifested on her body.

The vision suddenly ended and Celestia found herself tutting at the girl, “Sunset Shimmer of the Unicorn Tribe, eh? Your teacher didn’t teach you not to meddle with magical artifacts that are beyond your ken.”

The shellshocked girl gasped and a bit of a rebellious glint sparked in her eyes that the universe-leaping Celestia clearly recognized, “You don’t know what you’re talking about. I’m the finest student of my generation…”

Celestia flicked a wrist, and Sunset was slammed against the wall without being touched.

“You are but an apprentice whose ambition outstripped her tallent. A student that thought herself better than her teacher. There’s but a seed there, one that can grow if given fertile soil. Don’t seek to lie to me, young one, I saw all your teacher sought to show you, heard all the words of wisdom she poured onto that seed to make it grow. Your soil is poisoned by your pride.”

As Celestia spoke, the magic coming from the mirror suddenly stilled. She stepped over to it, ignoring the pained groans of Sunset coming from the other side of the room, and reached out with her magical senses. A touch to the mirror’s surface confirmed it, the portal had closed. She knew from Sunset’s memories that the girl had waited until the last possible moment to pass through so her mentor couldn’t send anyone through after her to bring her back. She intended this to be a long-term trip.

Shaking her head, she turned and regarded the girl, who was now watching her like a prey animal...though Celestia supposed that was technically correct given her birth form was that of a pony. “Captain,” she began, “Have the physicians check her form. Transmutation can be finicky, after all. Make sure it’s a stable change and that she’s healthy. Replace her clothing with something from the castle stores and confiscate her belongings for inspection by me at a later date. Once that’s done, bring her to my chambers. I feel I may have to take her on as an apprentice if I’m going to deliver her alive to my counterpart in her world.”

It spoke volumes of Shining Armor’s loyalty that he didn’t question a single word his queen said as he obeyed immediately.

And then Celestia was in the saddle of her counterpart’s horse, riding next to Sunset and behind her counterpart’s sister on the trail to a winter keep.

Celestia’s thoughts reeled as she realized that literally no time passed while she was being shown that memory. Never do that again! she mentally snapped.

How does the saying go, came the reply, ‘If you can’t take the heat, get out of the kitchen?’ You’re in MY body, young one. You may be, to use one of your world’s analogies, ‘in the driver’s seat,’ but you’re not the one that must suffer when the paint job is scratched.

Celestia scoffed, Yeah, well, rule number one of letting someone else drive your vehicle is DON’T DISTRACT THE DRIVER!

“Yeah, yah old nag!” snapped Alice from up ahead, who had enlisted whatever magic she was using to get ahead of the group without using any sort of teleportation that she could sense. And she realized that she could sense all sorts of magic. A sort of hyper-awareness was operating in the background of her subconscious at all times, keeping her so well aware of her surroundings that she could practically feel the insects burrowing through the veins and channels of the trees in the forest. To extend the automobile metaphor, it was like having a 360 degree HUD with complete active readouts of the entire state of the car, artificially intelligent path prediction for the surrounding vehicles, and three different GPS systems announcing her location in real-time.

Before she could get overwhelmed, the excess of senses suddenly stopped. She was back to her usual perceptions of the world and realized that Sunset was looking at her with concern. Schooling her features, she turned to her student, “Yes, Sunset? What’s wrong?”

The girl just grew confused, “I was actually about to ask you the same question. You seemed to...well, back in Equestria we’d have called it an anxiety attack.”

A touch of pink reached her cheeks, “Oh, just a bit of melancholy, my dear. I’m happy my sister has been returned to me, I’m happy my student is with me...it’s just the price to get here was very, very high.”

This was all strictly true. Had she received this question from her own Sunset, other than some of the...flowery forms of speech, the Queen and she at least could agree on that.

Sunset, rather than looking appeased or pleased at this, simply grew pensive. “What seems to be the problem, my student?”

The girl sighed, “Well...I mean, I guess it’s really not important, but it’s been nearly thirty moons since I came here from Equestria…and…” she trailed off, seemingly unable to continue.

Celestia slowed her mount a touch, trusting Sunset to do the same. They opened the distance between them and Luna by a stone’s throw before they returned to their previous pace, “Sunset,” Celestia said in what she hoped was a comforting tone, “Your feelings are valid, no matter how important you think they rate against the struggles and challenges I must deal with. I will listen, surely you know this by now, right?”

Sunset turned to Celestia with a slight glisten in her eyes. “Well, you know I grew up as an orphan, right?”

A quick thought-conference with her counterpart confirmed this, “Yes, it has come up.”

“And you know how Princess Celestia brought me in as her student, right?”

At this Principal Celestia’s smile became strained, a sentiment that Queen Celestia apparently shared, The fake elf calls me ‘nag,’ but nay, the obstreperousness and capacity for truly divine error belongs to that winged horse! So many ways, so many times this child practically begged for the attention of a mother, and yet she would only give the girl the time granted a ruler to a subject.

Celestia reached over and squeezed Sunset’s shoulder comfortingly before returning her hand to her reins, “I believe she may have seen you as more than that, but yes.”

This was apparently the right thing to say to bring Sunset’s true feelings out, as much as it hurt the older women to see the girl in emotional turmoil. “Well, she never showed it! You saw my memories when I first got here, you know how little she did to make me feel…” she swallowed back a sob, “Make me feel like a member of her family. When Cadence showed up…”

Celestia sighed, “Yes, I can see why that would have been the final ‘nail in the coffin,’ as it were.”

Sunset raised an eyebrow at the anachronistic turn of phrase with an upward tilt of her mouth before resuming her emotional disquisition, “She was basically everything I thought Celestia wanted in a daughter, everything I was trying to become, but she didn’t rate any higher a place in Celestia’s family than niece…” a tear trickled down the girl’s cheek, “And that’s when...that’s when I think I realized; I don’t think I thought it consciously, but I realized that she would never, ever accept me as a daughter, that’s she’d never want to be my mom.” With that tears really started to flow.

Celestia pulled her lips back and issued a short, two-toned whistle. Her sister turned to look as intended, and Celestia held out her gloved hand, palm out in the signal horse-mounted riders used to communicate ‘hold,’ then twisted down her pinkie and ring finger and tapped the air twice to relay that they needed fifteen minutes, to which Luna responded with a raised fist and the same double-tone whistle in reply, then turned her horse to find a path that would allow her to circle Celestia and Sunset in a perimeter roughly as wide across as twice their distance, as per standard procedure when riding the wilds between cities. The knowledge was practically instinctual thanks to Queen Celestia providing some assistance via her subconscious. She pulled the reins to stop her horse and Sunset did the same, almost unconsciously. Celestia guided her mount closer to Sunset’s and embraced the girl, holding her tightly as sobs wracked her body hard enough that she may have slid off her horse if not being held.

When she was able to control her sobbing, Sunset continued from the crook of Celestia’s neck and shoulder, “When you invited me to come with you with your sister, and she joked about being ‘Aunt Luna,’ I nearly cried. She didn’t know how much it meant to hear that…” another jag of sobs wracked the girls body before she was able to speak again, “...to have a family, even if it was just going to be for a week, just a little while. It’s torture, because I know it’s going to end, and I have to be so careful because I want to call you ‘mom’ so badly but I can’t because you’re going to send me away in less than a month and the closer it gets to the portal opening the less and less I want to go…”

Queen Celestia was astonishingly quiet, and when Principal Celestia let herself examine the feelings roiling in her head...she realized that the queen had grown just as close to Sunset as the former unicorn was to the queen. And in a disquieting epiphany, she realized that her own feelings for her own Sunset were nearly mirroring those of the queen’s...and she realized that she had probably been the last person to see it.

Shaking her head and smiling down at Sunset, she let a slight chuckle out. The girl pulled back a bit, clearly confused at the mirth while she was having an existential crisis, and Celestia let the emotions roiling in Queen Celestia’s heart reach her eyes. “Sunset, my dear sweet Sunset. If you had only known…”

No! No, you don’t...I forbid you to speak of…! Whatever Queen Celestia was about to say was interrupted by a computer-generated ‘SQUAAAK!!’ She glanced beyond Sunset to where she could see Alice had positioned herself, the humanoid reindeer now having a smug expression on her face as she held her tablet up in a triumphant pose, “CALL THAT PUP-MAGIC, YAH OLD HAG!” she sneered in Celestia’s direction. To Celestia herself, she nodded, “That’ll keep her busy. Make Sunset happy, and make sure the ol’ martyr there is happy in spite of her best efforts to remain otherwise!”

Celestia let even more amusement bleed into her grin as she fully focused on Sunset Shimmer, “If only you knew what was in my heart this last season. I have found myself wanting to bring you closer, bring you into my family. I feel...I feel as though you just fit. As though you were the…” she sought a suitable metaphor, then chuckled when she stumbled on a memory of Sunset’s discovery of one of the differences between Equestria and this world, “As though you were the cho-co-layt sauce to my vanilla icing cream.” she said, using the mispronunciation that Queen Celestia often tripped over. Hell, it was cute and funny, so why not?

This finally brought about a giggle in Sunset as happiness started creeping into the girl’s visage, but Celestia wasn’t finished. “I think your aunt over there,” she nodded to where Luna was continuing her patrol, “Saw it, she wouldn’t stop needling me about training you in the family sword style.” Sunset’s eyes were practically glowing with hope. I’m about to do something you should have already done, ‘your highness,’ and yes, I’m aware of the hypocrisy! she chastised within her own head, Don’t you dare go breaking her heart when I’m gone! “Let’s go to the keep and enjoy the solstice as a family, and when we return to Canterlot we can have Raven get to work on the formal adoption process...my princess!”

Laughter and sobs ripped out of Sunset’s throat as she pretty much leaped from the saddle and into Celestia’s arms. A startled Luna whipped her horse around and started toward them, only to see the odd tableau of Sunset practically dangling from Celestia’s arms over the snow, broad smiles on both of their faces. She immediately spurred her horse to go faster, and moments later pulled it to a stop, leaping off and pulling Sunset off Celestia, handling the girl like she was a ragdoll. Goodness! thought Celestia, These two rulers are strong! She hadn’t realized that she had been entirely supporting Sunset’s weight, holding her off the ground, until Luna had pulled her away.

Now holding Sunset so they were face to face, Luna’s own smile almost made her words slur as she boomed in the Royal Canterlot Voice, “DIDS’T MINE SISTER ACTUALLY ADMIT HER FEELINGS T’WARD THEE?!” Rather than reply verbally, Sunset just nodded, probably unable to speak from the tears in her eyes and what was likely a lump in her throat. Luna pulled the girl into a crushing hug and bounced and spun her around, “HUZZAH, HUZZA’Y!! THREE CHEERS AND RAH-HAH!”

“Luna, her ears are right next to your mouth,” Celestia chided good-naturedly through her own laughter, “Be careful with the Royal Voice!”

Only barely chided, Luna still bounced around the horses in celebration, though without her jubilant shouting, Sunset’s buoyant laughter could be heard. Celestia suddenly found herself caught up in Luna’s hug, though she was, of course, not going to let herself be tossed about like a doll. Suddenly anchored, the hug flopped apart, only to be immediately re-engaged as Sunset launched herself at Celestia. She let herself be tackled into the snow, Sunset’s laughter was proving contagious, as now all three of them were practically bawling with joy.

It took the better part of a quarter-hour, but the mirth finally settled down enough for the trio to collect themselves off the ground and straighten their mussed clothing. As Luna and Sunset chased after their mounts (which hadn’t actually gone far), Celestia gently patted her horse’s neck while holding the reins and used the pretense of making soothing noises to the horse to speak to Alice, “So, I’m guessing that was what Sunset needed in this universe? And I’m also guessing that I learned what I needed to here?”

Alice leaned against the horse’s torso and smiled smugly at Celestia. “Yup! And yes, next year the family comes back here to celebrate solstice again...and if I say any more than that I’ll piss off a goddess or two here, so I’ll stop, but you did good, kid.”

Celestia smiled at the ethereal guide, “That’s good to know...so why am I still here? Do I have to do anything more? Is there anything else at stake that I should know about?”

Alice shrugged, “Well, I mean kinda. Mostly it’s about letting the timer run out on the restraints I put on ol’ Queenie there,” she used her tablet as a pointer to indicate Celestia’s head, “But nah, there’s just one more thing left. I mean, why go to a world of High Fantasy and Magic and Wizards…”

Luna’s voice broke across the snow and in moments her horse carried her up to Celestia, “Sister! The keep, it’s been infested by harpies!”

Sunset rode up on her steed a moment later, clearly having heard her new aunt’s proclamation, “Harpies? I don’t have any experience with them in this world. In mine they’re a tiny tribe near the Tenochtitlan basin, they’re horribly xenophobic and are known to kill anyone that even comes close to their territory.”

Luna shook her head, “Nay, harpies here are denizens of the Chaos Realms themselves. They stink of the rot of deepest Tartarus and serve the fell Lords of the Pit as messengers. To find one here on the Prime Material Plane is either a mob of harpies seeking to carve out their own fiefdom or harbingers of the very devils testing our mettle!”

Alice smirked at Celestia, “...if you don’t get a chance to smite a few monsters with your kick-ass magic sword?”

Celestia allowed a smirk to cross her face, “Sister,” she said aloud, “It’s been a while since you and I cleared out a den of hostiles. What say you to leading the charge?” She realized she was falling back on the “ye olde” speech patterns from her days in the drama club in high school, but it did seem to fit.

The other woman drew her sword with a flourish, “Zounds, sister! ‘Tis a grand idea! Get thy rump upon thy steed so that we may slay these foul underworld denizens!” She then wheeled her horse around and directed it to charge up the path to the nearby keep.

Celestia mounted her horse and turned to Sunset, who was grinning fit to burst, “I do believe she just told me to, ah, ‘get my ass in gear,’” she said, mimicking the stilted way Queen Celestia pronounced Sunset’s Equestrian turns of phrase.

Sunset burst out laughing. “I didn’t think I ever said that in your earshot!” After admitting that she had used foul language in the presence of her new adopted mother, she winked at the older woman and spurred her horse after her aunt’s.

With a laugh of her own, she urged her mount to chase after the other two.

Minutes later, she was marveling at her sister and her student wielding forces that she would have sworn was impossible before the Fall Formal. She merely sat on her horse, watching stunned as the pair wielded their swords and their magic with absolute efficiency. There were words of High Elvish spoken, but they were spoken with economy and control and always preceded some form of magical attack. Sunset seemed to prefer fire-based attacks while Luna was using mostly electrical bolts of several varieties. While Luna was mostly casting with her sword as a focus, Sunset was using her hands, her sword, even a thrown sling bullet at one point.

Of normal speech, there was plenty. Luna was practically bouncing around, showing no more effort to her combat than a fitness instructor doing an ‘Aerobics for Dummies’ workout. “Sunset, ‘tis interesting, I thought you were an equine in your previous body before transversing the mirror?”

Sunset was at least showing more strain at keeping up with her aunt, “Yeah,” she panted, “A unicorn…” Her next move was obviously an attempt to impress Luna, as she made some complex motions with her hands, summoning a spectral sun, in the yin-yang style that Celestia had seen as her cutiemark in countless universes now. It coalesced and a pair of fireballs flew from either side of the twisted sun, launching at a bird-like creature that had as much to do with the harpy Rainbow Dash as the xenomorphs in that one horror movie her sister dragged her to when they were kids had to do with humans. The nightmare vulture with human arms sticking out from under it’s wings immediately lit with ‘whoosh,’ the inferno not stopping even when it dropped from the sky and into the snow. Keeping her sword arm ready, she put her other fist on her hip and grinned cockily at her aunt.

Luna just returned a matching grin and leapt off her horse. Before she could hit the ground, a pair of angel wings, every feather as black as a crow’s, and launched herself into the air. She began chanting and within the space of a few breaths, the sky seemed to turn black as night. A wolf’s howl could be heard as a massive crescent moon split the sky like a Cheshire grin, stabbing light down to illuminate the harpies. All but two managed to find their way under some form of shelter before a tremendous CRACK banged across the sky, and lightning arced down from the too-large crescent moon and hit the harpies. By the time the blindness caused by the flash of white-hot air exploding from the lightning had cleared, the creatures were collapsing in heaps of ash and bones. Luna landed next to Sunset with a smug expression, allowing her wings to collapse back to wherever these magical creatures kept them.

Sunset glared at Luna, but Celestia could see there wasn’t any real heat to the expression, and sure enough, a moment later, she dismounted and socked her aunt in the arm with a laugh, “Showoff!”


Ah, you’re back… she thought sardonically.

I’m not talking to you! the elder Celestia snapped back.

Well, you probably should, Celestia thought back as she dismounted, The remaining harpies are coming this way and I have no experience with this thing. So saying, she drew her sword and turned to face the harpies that were charging her, running instead of trying to take to the sky, especially smart given how easily Luna had dispatched the others with a skyborne attack.

Celestia could practically feel a growl echo through the thoughtscape they were sharing as the two vulture-creatures raised their polearms and screeched at her. Fine, snipped the thought, Then do this… A sudden torrent of thoughts, words (magic and otherwise), mental commands for how to move parts of the body, even whole mental states that needed to be held for certain parts of the sequence were slammed into Celestia’s awareness. It was too big for her to parse, too much to make sense of in the time available, she had only one choice, and that was to simply let the ‘thought packet’ do whatever Queen Celestia wanted it to do.

So she did.

Her body suddenly gained the lithe grace of a crane as she moved into what in her world was recognizable from martial arts posters as a common sword stance from oriental martial styles. She turned slightly so she was side-on to the charging creatures, one leg stretched out in their direction and the other bent in a half-squat at a right angle to the other leg. Her sword arm was curled to hold her sword above her head, tip facing the enemy and crosspiece pinched casually between her thumb and forefinger while the grip rested in her palm. Her other arm stretched toward the charging enemies, her thumb, ring, and pinkie fingers curled into a half fist, her index and middle fingers pointed outward. She chanted words she only barely understood and then flexed her wrist, bringing her pointed fingers up into a ‘V’ sign. She felt magic gathering as the two creatures came within whatever radius Queen Celestia had selected for what she was doing, then flicked her hand forward, as though to toss a pebble.

A gleam from above, as though the sun itself was lending her support, flickered across the snowy landscape. Before the harpies could take another step, twin columns of plasma, bright as the sun itself, suddenly appeared where the two creatures had been. The past tense being the correct word usage, for as quick as the jets of liquid light hit, they disappeared, leaving no trace of the creatures they obliterated, the only hint of their presence was a pair of twinned sigils in the ground, both perfect representations of Queen Celestia’s glyph of a stylized sun.

The other two were looking at her, Luna with an exasperated glare, Sunset with her jaw dropped. Celestia simply lifted her fingers to her mouth like the barrel of a gun and blew the imaginary smoke at her fingertips with a wink.

Alice’s insubstantial form walked out through the walls of the keep. With a grin, she just nodded at Celestia, “Bongo!”

Sunset chuckled at the ridiculous, apparently true story about a man, far too much drink, and a set of triplet ladies, “...and then he just looks up and says, ‘Bingo, Bango, Bongo!’”

She rolled her eyes as her visitor cackled over his triple-malt scotch. “You know, I imagine Al would probably tell that story better.”

The man simply grinned at her, “Hey, the man can’t be here himself, so someone’s gotta carry the torch.”

As cliche as it was, Sunset found herself running a towel over an empty glass for the fourth time as she chatted with her latest customer. She’d been learning that the multiverse held a handful of people like the pair of them; individuals seemingly untethered from their home timelines, apparently immortal (though none of them were ready to test the theory), and all dedicated to helping the people they interacted with in the only ways they could. Amusingly, the longer she did this “job,” the more she grew to understand her mentor from her youth. Someone so far removed from the people they helped, who’s lifespans were so fleetingly short that they may as well have been mayflies, but who she couldn’t do anything but help. The memories of those interactions may get lost to the ages such individuals lived through, but each and every interaction was special and sacred in its own way and Sunset couldn’t help but feel richer and more blessed with every person who came into her bar.

Without any sort of warning, a flicker of light sparked in the middle of open space near the bartop. Said space normally would have held a table, but the isekai had rearranged things for her guest, who had earlier asked if she had a piano that he could plink around on.

Sunset blinked her eyes in confusion and quickly glanced from the blossoming miniature star that was bursting to life in her bar and back to her guest. “Hey,” he smirked and saluted her with his beer from across the piano’s top, “Don’t look at me, this one isn’t one of mine.”

Sunset couldn’t help but triple-take as this flurry of light, which was even now starting to coalesce into a humanoid shape, in moments faded to reveal the form of Principal Celestia. The only thing that was significantly different about this version of Celestia from the one she remembered from her high school days was the presence of a belt that looked more like it came from a world where battle-gear was common enough to become casual wear. The woman stumbled briefly as she spun around to orient herself but recovered quickly enough that neither of the two that had previously been the only occupants of the bar needed to do anything to assist.

“Huh,” said Sunset’s piano-playing patron, “So that’s what it looks like from this side. Never seen anyone do that trick besides me before.”

Celestia spun around at the sound of a man’s voice and realized that she wasn’t alone. “Um…” she stammered at the man.

He sipped his beer and returned it to the coaster on the piano with a light thump and returned to playing the jaunty, somewhat melancholic tune that wasn’t quite a holiday carol but could easily be one. “Hey, don’t worry, you didn’t take anyone’s body this time, the unsteadiness is using your own body for the first time in a while. New Leaper?” he inquired and informed at the same time with a seasoned grin.

Making a confused sound, Celestia patted down her torso, felt the belt, and then looked around until she found a mirror. “Oh, boy…” she sighed in relief as she saw the same face she knew from the mirror. Naturally, she had been seeing nothing but other versions of herself all night, but being able to view the face with her own eyes was somehow different and reassuring. Without asking, she took a seat at the bar and slumped down, running her hands through her hair as she braced her elbows on the bar top.

“Rough night?” the familiar voice of Sunset Shimmer cut through Celestia’s fatigue. The woman looked up to see Sunset offering her a mug of eggnog that she could smell had more than a little bourbon in it.

Glancing around, Celestia realized that this was the first time since leaving Desert Mirage’s universe that she could probably completely relax around people that were fully expecting what had happened to her so far. She smiled at Sunset and took the offered drink, “That...would be heavenly, thank you!”

Nearly an hour later, Celestia had finished explaining her predicament. “...and so then here I am, and Alice hasn’t shown up yet.”

The man at the piano chuckled, “‘Alice,’ oh, that’s a good one, I’ll have to tell Al about this when I see him next, he’s gonna die laughing!”

Sunset turned an eye that glittered with mischief and irritation all at once to her guest, “That tune you were playing earlier, the Christmas-y one?” He nodded, “Play it again, Sam.”

Sam snorted, “You’ve been waiting all night to use that one, haven’t you?”

Without replying, she simply quirked a smile at him and turned back to Celestia. “So, what’s still bothering you that you needed to come to my bar?”

Celestia made an inquisitive sound as she filled her mouth with the eggnog Sunset kept refilling, “How do you mean?”

The girl smiled indulgently and explained, “My bar doesn’t show up in people’s lives that don’t need someone to talk to. Sure, you came about it in a slightly roundabout fashion, but here you are. And if I may say, for someone who hasn’t used their own body in four worlds, you sure do look like you’ve been through the wringer.”

Celestia looked up to the mirror she had glanced into earlier, the one that seemed to be omnipresent in bars across the multiverse, and saw what her hostess meant. She had dark stress marks under her eyes, so deep it almost looked like she had broken her nose. Her shoulders were hunched together, a clear sign of her subconscious holding on to some problem she couldn’t solve.

Sunset let her have some quiet for a bit, Sam’s piano playing keeping her thoughts moving as she tried to dredge up whatever was still bothering her after all this time of universe hopping.

She looked up at the girl tending her bar and realized that this was the perfect chance to get her question answered, the one that had started this whole mess. “Sunset?” she began.

The girl put down the bottle she had just pulled from its case and turned to her, “Hmm?”

“I told you the problem we’re having with my Sunset...what do you think was bothering her? Why do you think she fled to her room rather than stay and help with the decorations?”

Sunset sighed and leaned forward, crossing her arms as she settled down to ponder the question. “Honestly?” she said after a moment, “If I remember that first year after the Fall Formal right, I was...lonely. I needed to spend time with people, people that loved and cared about me. That’s what made the whole Anon-a-miss incident so...painful.” she gained her own look of pain briefly before shaking her head slowly, “The people I’d grown to depend on for that love in my life...just weren’t there. I mean, I get it now, and I forgive them. They were kids and I was leaning on them like they were six mothers, and I had my own bit of stubbornness mixed in. I should have just made sure Twilight opened the damn portal and stepped through and hashed things out with Celestia.” She nodded at her guest, “Which, funny enough, I eventually did have to do when something similar happened the next summer.” She winked at the principal, “But then, if I were to tell you that story, I’d be spoiling things for you.”

Sam chose to speak up at that point, “Oh, c’mon Sunset, you know the timeline is really more of a suggestion than anything else.”

The former equine snorted, “So says the guy who intentionally turned his own timeline into a ball of twine to prove a point.”

Rather than reply directly, he just gave her a look and went back to playing his piano.

Sunset frowned, gaze burrowing into the man as though to dig up whatever he wasn’t saying, “I hate it when he does that. When any of ‘em do that,” she said almost under her breath.

“‘Them?’” asked Celestia.

“People like us,” she indicated Sam and herself with a wave, “We’re...not linear creatures anymore. Problem is, I’ve noticed that the longer we’re at it, the more we start talking like...well, like oracles instead of people.”

Celestia sipped her eggnog, “I imagine I’ll probably be a bit odd, too, when I get back. I’ve seen my sister, my students, my...daughter in so many different ways that it will naturally color my perception of them. I’m going to have to be careful to not confuse any of them with their counterparts in other universes. That, and lookup if Nagatha ever modeled underwear in my universe.”

Sunset cackled explosively, “Nagatha Harshwhinny? Underwear model?” the question was clearly rhetorical as she was suddenly somber, “So you’ve decided to adopt her, then?”

Celestia tipped back the last of her eggnog and pushed the mug away to indicate she was done with the drink, “I...have, if she’ll have me.” And just like that, she realized the source of tension in her back. “But...what if she doesn’t want me? She hasn’t even been able to speak since the Fall Formal, so we don’t really know what’s going on in her head!” She realized her eyes were tearing up when the sight of the bar started blurring.

She felt rather than saw Sunset’s hand on hers, “If there’s one thing I know from my own story and that of all the other Sunsets I’ve encountered,” said the girl softly, “It’s that we prefer to show rather than tell.”

Celestia blinked her vision clear, her confusion at the odd statement clear on her face.

Sunset smiled as their eyes met, “We Sunsets...said things. Many things that were all about writing checks that, when it came down to it, we couldn’t cash. We didn’t lie often, but when we did it was iron-clad. When we manipulated people, we wielded words like an expert swordsman. Words...don’t mean much to us Sunset Shimmers.” she clasped the principal’s hands in hers, “It’s what we do that speaks of our hearts far more than anything we say. Your Sunset may not be able to say she wants to be with you, maybe even wants to be your daughter officially, but she’s telling you in all the ways that matter most.”

Celestia thought back to all her interactions with the Sunset of her world, the one she now thought of as her daughter, and her eyes started misting again. She thought back to growing up after the incident with Luna’s knife that changed both their lives forever. She could never stay angry at her sister for taking her ability to bear children, not for long, but whenever she thought of children of her own, there was always that momentary hot flash of anger that never quite went away, no matter how often she forgave her sister. And then another chance to be a mother walked into her life, and it turned out the girl who would be her child came from another world entirely.

And she realized at that moment that she would do anything, anything for her daughter, even go through a thousand nights like the emotional and temporal roller-coaster she just experienced.

Tears started pouring down her face as one of the most painful wounds on her heart, one of the oldest, started to heal. It had to be torn open one last time to do so, and she relived the pain of loss all over again, but in its place came the peace of knowing that she had a child at long last.

Sunset just held her hands as she buried her face in her arms against the bar top.

With a sense of relief, Principal Celestia stepped foot in her own living room under her own power for the first time since this surreal little adventure began. She glanced at the clock, and it appeared time was now flowing as it should, with the minute hand settled nicely at 15 after midnight. As bone-weary as she was, completely exhausted and emotionally wrung, she wanted nothing more than to crawl into bed. She turned as the door she just went through clicked and saw it start to fade from this world. She smiled as she watched it go, somehow feeling more complete than she ever had.

With a sigh, she felt down at her waist, pleased that she was still wearing the belt that Desert Mirage had gifted to her at the start of this final leg of her trip. Curious to see if it was still working, she tapped the touch control for “inventory” and was surprised to see a sword and a carbine rifle. Were she to take a guess, they would probably be similar to the weapons the other versions of Celestia wielded. Brimming with curiosity, she brought the sword out and checked it, and sure enough, it was nearly identical, save for the glyph on the pommel. Where the one in the blade’s homeworld was the symbol of the sun overlaid with the elven rune for “peace,” this one was what she now knew was the common cutiemark for Celestia across the multiverse with the elven rune for “teacher.” Chuckling with amusement, she put the sword back into the inventory slot, then after a moment’s thought did the same with the silver card that Sunset had given her to summon the isekai whenever she might need to talk.

“Sooo…” came the mischievous voice of Alice, “How’d it go?”

Celestia realized only after she did her next action that the only way she did it so readily and so well was because she was still carrying with her the memories and some of the instincts of the other Celestia’s whose bodies she had inhabited, two of which were extremely competent at combat. Her hand lashed out and she snagged the pointed ear of the elf-like woman.

“OW-OW-OW-OW! Stop it!” squawked Alice, “How are you even doing that, you’re not supposed to...OWIEOWOWOW!” she cut off as Celestia pinched tighter.

“Now,” she spoke with the harsh clarity of a high school principal who finally had the class clown dead to rights, “We’re going to make one more trip, you’re going to activate your magic and make sure we get there in one piece, but I’m driving.”

“But what about Sunset and Hearth’s Warming and...owowow!” whined Alice.

“Oh, you’re going to do that little trick with time where I come back to the same time I left. I don’t need to learn how to do it on my own, I just need you to make sure I get back so I can give Luna...whatever that video game was that I’ll be getting her next year.”

“Fine, just stop pinching, it hurts!”

“Not until we’re already at the next stop. You’re not slipping your way out of this.”

Alice grumbled at her and lifted her tablet up so she could see it without having to move her head in Celestia’s grasp. She taped a few buttons, and with much less fanfare than the other times Celestia traveled, they were gone from the living room.