• Published 23rd Apr 2021
  • 1,577 Views, 54 Comments

Who Needs Enemies -- Part I - Lets Do This



Twilight and her AP team face Discord. And he may have met his match. Yet the Lord of Chaos has an ace to play: he knows Twilight's new friends better than they realize. And how to get rid of them... by showing her it's for the best, really...

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A Fellowship... Reorganized...

"Hmm... loving what you've done with the place, Twilight!" Discord glanced around the top-floor workroom of the Advanced Projects tower. "So modern, So urbane. And yet somehow... still so you." He gestured at the books loaded on shelves and stacked in piles everywhere.

"Let's get to it, Discord," Twilight said. "How do we start?"

"No time for a chat, eh? Straight to business? Ah, me! Whatever happened to the old Twilight? The fun Twilight? The bookish little pony who'd freak out if she so much as found a quill out of place? You're so buttoned-up now, so straight-laced... so grown up!"

Seeing the look on Twilight's face, Discord relented, shrugging. "Oh, well. So be it."

He snapped his claw. And in the middle of the room, a tall oval portal appeared, like a shimmering mirror hanging unsupported in the air. "Now, this is a gateway," Discord explained, "through which each of you will be able to access the alternate reality I'll summon up for you --"

He paused for a moment, because both Twilight and Sunset had approached the portal and were staring into its shimmering surface.

"This looks a lot like..." Sunset began.

"... Star Swirl's mirror!" Twilight gasped. "The Speculum Vacivitas!"

"Well, obviously, Twilight!" Discord harrumphed. "Where do you think the old feather-brain got the idea in the first place? And when I think of all the precious hours he wasted, night and day, working so hard to recreate with technology and spellcraft what I could manage with a mere snap of my fingers! Oh, dear, dear, dear!" Discord covered his face with his paw.

Then he leaned around it. On both sides. "Remind you of anyone you know, Twilight?" his two heads chorused.

Sunset frowned at him. "Let's get on with it, Discord," she suggested.

"Yes, yes. All right!" Discord said, pulling himself back together. "Now, so nopony feels worried I might be sending you off to la-la land, with no way back, we'll leave the portal open right here until we're all satisfied. And I solemnly promise, I won't touch it. If you don't like what you find over there, you can come right back. I would, however, suggest that only Twilight and I go along with each of you the first time through, to observe your own individually-tailored realities."

Tempest snorted warningly.

"Oh, fine." Discord frowned. "You can bring along the four-hoofed armor museum, Twilight. If it makes you and her feel any better."

"We are allowed to discuss our choices, right?" Sunset asked.

"Of course! Do remember though, according to our rules only Twilight here will be aware of what each pony ultimately decides." Grinning, Discord rubbed claw and paw. "Well? Who's our first contestant? Come on down, everypony!"

The ponies looked at each other, uncertainly.

Except for Cheese, who waved a hoof. "I'll go first! Me, me! Pick me!"

Twilight looked at him. "Are you sure, Cheese?"

"It's perfect, Twilight! I'm not even one of the gem-bearing ponies, so there's no risk. And I'd love to check out an alternate version of my life. Maybe it'll give me some new party-making ideas!"

"You know, I take it back," Discord said, smirking bemusedly at him. "You are as much fun as Pinkie Pie!"

"Then let's get this party started, mister!" Cheese swung a forehoof enthusiastically.

"While you're doing that," Starlight said, "I'll go find Sunburst and the others and we'll look into rebalancing the Field spell, using different tribes of ponies..." She frowned at Discord. "Not that I think it'll actually change anything. I'm just being thorough, that's all."

"Of course," Discord agreed. "Teamwork in action! Am I right, Twilight?"

"Sure, Discord..." Twilight said uneasily. She glanced at Tempest, Cheese Sandwich, and then Discord again.

"All right, everypony. Let's do this..."

------------------------------

Twilight stared around, at the tall brownstone buildings with stone staircases and iron banisters, standing to either side of a street that seemingly stretched off to the horizon. "Wait... this is upper Manehattan, isn't it?"

"Top of the class, Twilight -- as usual!" Discord clapped a golden mortarboard on Twilight's head then strolled on, looking around at everything. "Though really I can't take credit. This is just the neighborhood where our friend Cheese grew up. Think you can spot him, Twilight? Oh, come on, you can do it! Think of it as like Where's Winnipeg? but played live with friends."

Twilight stared around, at a loss. There were ponies everywhere... trotting along the sidewalks, riding in cabs along the streets, leaning out of windows to call across to one another, or take in laundry from fire-escapes. Fillies and colts played stickball or jacks on the street, and called time for jump-rope on the sidewalks.

Still, there was no sign of the curly-haired pony anywhere. Twilight felt guilty for not being able to spot him.

Then Tempest, ever sharp-eyed, gently tapped Twilight's shoulder and nodded. And Twilight finally saw him: a small, meek, curly-maned colt, wearing black-framed glasses almost too big for his face. He was hunched behind the stone railing of a stoop across the street, peering out at the children playing all around him, paralyzed by shyness.

"Go on, Twilight!" Discord encouraged. "Talk with him. Show us the magic of friendship in action. And don't worry, you're not altering the past here. This is just a sample of how things looked, for context."

Twilight crossed the street, carefully dodging traffic, with Tempest close beside her. Discord by contrast strolled after them in a dead straight line, simply snapping his claw to teleport approaching cabs out of his way.

Reaching the steps, Twilight cautiously approached the shivering colt. "Cheese?"

"Hey, Twilight," he replied, and smiled sadly up at her. "This is incredible! It's exactly how things were when I was little, exactly how I remember it." He shut his eyes. "I was really shy back then. I couldn't talk to anypony. I was afraid to! Afraid they'd laugh at me. I just felt like... like a total nopony..." He sighed. "Eventually it got to be too much. So I... ran away."

"Oh, Cheese..." Twilight said sympathetically. "You're anything but a nopony. You've helped us all so much... with your songs, your laughter..."

"Yes, yes! Very touching," Discord interrupted sternly. "So Cheese felt lonely and ran off to join the circus or whatever. And then he stumbled by chance into Ponyville, where dear Pinkie Pie taught him to be a professional clown." He shrugged. "But why go to all that trouble?"

"Huh?" Cheese looked up at him.

"You didn't have to run away, did you? You could have done all that right here. All you needed... was a little confidence..."

So saying, Discord snapped his claw.

And Cheese suddenly took a deep breath, and trotted out from behind the stoop. He hesitantly approached some other children nearby, scribbling on the sidewalk with colored chalk.

"Hi," he said to them, nervously. "Want to hear a good one? What's a pony's favorite sport?"

The children looked at each other, then shrugged.

Cheese grinned. "Stable tennis!"

The fillies and colts groaned at the old pun... but they were smiling, too. Encouraged, Cheese went on. "What do you call a cow in an earthquake?" He glanced around, then beamed. "A milkshake!"

The children giggled. More of them gathered to listen.

"You know what else?" Cheese glanced around, and cautiously lowered his voice. "I wasn't sure whether Celestia really raised the Sun every morning..."

He paused, drawing out the heretical moment.

"... and then it dawned on me!"

The children stared at him... and then broke up laughing. Cheese sighed in relief, his eyes shining, his grin a mile wide. And he went on, for pun after pun, joke after joke. He swiftly drew an appreciative audience who hung on his every word.

Discord smirked at Twilight. Then snapped his claw.

Suddenly they were standing at the door of a classroom, looking in. Cheese was doing a hoof-stand on his desk, playing a harmonica held in his teeth, even as the teacher thundered at him to sit down and tried futilely to bring the class back to order.

Discord snapped his claw again. And now they were sitting in the audience in a drama classroom. Cheese was performing as the lead in the school play -- a comedy, of course -- happily mugging to the audience and causing them to laugh out loud.

Several more scenes followed, rapid fire, snap after snap after snap. They showed Cheese finding his role as a natural class clown, making ponies smile simply for the sheer joy of it.

Then after one final snap, they were standing in line inside a small delicatessen located in the southern, commercial end of Manehattan. Skyscrapers loomed huge and gray outside the windows, but inside the warm, well-lit store, Cheese Sandwich worked the counter, serving up sandwiches piled high with greens and melted cheeses. With every order he tossed off a quick quip or a snatch of song, making his customers smile.

"Hey, Twilight!" Cheese waved as she approached the counter. "Great to see you again! What'll you have, the usual?"

"Uh... Cheese?" Twilight asked. "You work here?"

"Don't I! Got my cutie-mark in sandwich-making, so the job's a breeze! And I gotta tell you, Twi, I was a little nervous at first but it's been a blast! I make ponies happy, I brighten their day, and I give them something warm and tasty to eat. And that's all I've ever really wanted... just to fit in and help ponies feel better!"

"I'm... really glad for you, Cheese," Twilight said. "So... you wouldn't change anything?"

"Are you kidding me?" Cheese stared at her. "This is the life! This is what I was meant to do, where I was always meant to be! Yay!" Darting away, he flipped a sandwich on the griddle, ran the milkshake blender, and danced along the counter, singing merrily as he doled out lunch and smiles to happy ponies.

Twilight stared at him, thoughtfully. And heard Discord whispering in her ear.

"What do you say, Twilight? Was I right or was I right? Do you honestly not believe, looking at him, that he's happier here?"

Twilight didn't want to admit it, but she had to. "He looks perfectly happy," she said. "He didn't need to be a party-pony. That just sets him apart from other ponies, so he has to work harder to reach them and make them smile. He only needed to be accepted, to fit in. This suits him... it really does..."

She turned away, biting her lip nervously.

And felt Tempest trotting along right beside her. "You don't have to go along with this, Twilight," she growled. "Just say the word, and I'll make that walking jigsaw puzzle put Cheese back the way he was..."

Discord flinched nervously, as her merciless glare swept his way. But Twilight shook her head.

"No, Tempest. Let's just... let's just leave Cheese be for the moment. If we change our minds, we can come back. Right, Discord?"

"Absolutely, Twilight! Any time. All you have to do is ask."

The three of them headed towards the door leading to the street. And Twilight paused at the door briefly, looking back at her friend. Cheese was so cheerfully busy: a completely ordinary sandwich-making pony. Just the way he really wanted to be.

Twilight sighed.

"He's made me smile so often... I just can't take this away from him."

------------------------------

When they stepped out of the portal and back into the tower workroom, the other ponies gathered around them.

"Well, Pinkie?" Sunset asked. "What did you think? Did Discord convince you?"

Twilight turned and stared. It was true: the radioactively pink party pony was standing right beside her, grinning back at her.

"Meh! I dunno," Pinkie Pie waved a hoof noncommittally. "I haven't really made up my mind yet." Then she stotted excitedly. "Ooh, ooh! Let's try it with one of you girls next, see what you think!"

Twilight looked at Tempest. And saw the Commander also staring at Pinkie Pie, a worried look on her face. Then Tempest looked at Twilight, questioningly.

Twilight forced a confident-looking smile, carefully giving nothing away.

After all, there was no way it could work that easily for the rest of them... right?

------------------------------

Despite her misgivings Moondancer volunteered to go next, out of simple curiosity. And Discord stared at her pensively, up and down, like a tailor sizing a client.

"Hmm... I'll admit, this one's a toughy," he finally said. "As I understand it, Moondancer, your whole deal was wanting to be friends with Twilight. And you've got that. I mean, how do you improve on being besties with the poster-pony for Friendship in all Equestria?" Pulling out an old-fashioned camera, Discord grabbed a quick selfie with Twilight, uncomfortably cheek-to-cheek.

"But never fear," he went on, blithely pitching the camera over his shoulder, "Discord is here! We need only look a little deeper. I mean, why was Twilight's friendship so important? Wasn't it... this?"

He pointed a talon at the cutie-mark on Moondancer's flank: the Moon and Stars... the mark of Nightmare Moon.

Moondancer winced. "I... suppose."

"Oh, let's be honest, Moondancer! Growing up, you had to deal with all the cruel jokes, the suspicion, even outright prejudice and hostility! All because you happened to have a cutie-mark resembling that of the most feared of historical ├╝ber-villains."

"I got used to it," she replied defiantly. "I became an expert on the Nightmare, and in the process made the mark my own. And," she pointed out, "it's not like even you could undo that, Discord. You can't just make Princess Luna's mark go away. The Moon-and-Stars is too firmly embedded in pony culture, in our history, our lore and mythology. It's part of who we are, as ponies."

"True," Discord agreed, "but who really pays attention to the classics nowadays?" Seeing Twilight's disgruntled look, he waved his paw dismissively. "All we need is to have ponies not pay it quite so much attention. I mean, they already believed Nightmare Moon was a myth. What if they simply didn't remember her much at all? Apart from Nightmare Night of course... but that doesn't really count. It's just a fun holiday for the kiddies. Nothing to take seriously."

"What?!?" Pinkie Pie bounded up onto the worktable to glare at him, eye-to-eye. "Holiday fun-time is no laughing matter, buster!"

Discord gave her a look. "Moving right along," he said, "we can simply adjust things so that Moondancer never experienced that kind of isolation, which made her need friendship so desperately. I think I can manage that without much fuss..."

He gestured with his paw at the portal. "Care to have a look, Moondancer?"

Moondancer glanced at Twilight, who smiled back reassuringly. And then, together with Tempest and Discord, they stepped through...

------------------------------

Once again they were looking through a classroom door. But this classroom was one Twilight knew very well. It was Ms. Flask's Science and Light Magic class... where Twilight had first met Tempest Shadow.

Twilight could see herself as a filly, sitting across the room at her old study table. With her snout buried in a book, she was oblivious to everything, absorbed in speed-reading the morning's assigned lesson. Beside her sat a very young-looking Tempest Shadow. The maroon pony glanced warily around the room, occasionally flipping a page in her own reader with a hoof.

Looking around the room, Twilight spotted the table at which Minuette was seated, gabbing away a mile a minute with Lemon Hearts and Twinkleshine. And also with Moondancer. The beige filly was laughing and joking right along with the other three, completely at ease, even when Ms. Flask harrumphed and warned them to settle down and focus on the lesson.

"You see?" Discord said, smugly. "Moon-Moon just needed to get out from under that cloud of self-doubt and isolation caused by her mark. When her parents moved to Canterlot to escape the humdrum, backward little hamlet they'd been living in, Moondancer got a completely fresh start. And she's made the most of it, as you can see."

"She seems happy," Twilight allowed. "But... she might be faking it? To try to fit in?"

"Why don't we ask her ourselves?"

"In the middle of class?"

"No, no! Don't be silly, Twilight." Discord shook his head. "During her after-school program, of course."

"After-school...?" Twilight asked. But Discord was already snapping his claw.

A blur of time and space, and they were standing in another room that Twilight knew well, though this time mostly by reputation. "The Canterlot Observatory?" She stared around at the circular, domed room, with its massive refractor and shelves full of chart-scrolls and stellar atlases. "What are we doing way up here?"

"Why, visiting Moondancer, of course!" Discord shrugged. "After all, she's done so well in class, she was assigned to the Observatory's internship program. Youngest student to achieve it, I might add!"

"Twilight!" Moondancer waved at them from one of the upper gantries. Hurrying around the platform, she slid down the ladder to land heavily on the main floor. Then she galloped over to join them, breathless and excited.

"Isn't it great? Professor Star Gazer was so pleased with my catalog of irregular nebulae that he assigned me to calibrate the chain drive of the main scope! And I've worked out a system that only requires three sightings to get it tuned for an entire night's work."

Moondancer grabbed Twilight's hoof and all but dragged her over to the central chart-table, which was covered with a huge sky-chart, plus dozens of scrolls and bits of scrap paper covered in calculations and tables of observations.

"I'm hoping I can show this to him later. It's a fully updated star-map, based on the initial list of corrections provided by the Princess."

"The Princess?"

"Princess Luna, of course!" Moondancer grinned. "Ever since you and the other Element Bearers brought her back from the Moon, she's been itching to get back into managing the night sky. And this is just the start, I'm sure. If I play my cards right, and come up with a strategy for organizing and prototyping all the adjustments she'll want to make to the constellations, Professor Gazer may assign me to work with her directly!" Moondancer's eyes went wide, a filly with a dream. "Can you imagine, Twilight? Me, working side-by-side with an actual Princess? Wow!"

Her gaze falling back to the star-chart, Moondancer leaned closer, having spotted something. Then she shuffled industriously through the scrolls and notes to find one in particular. Grabbing a quill in her magic, she quickly jotted a reminder in a book lying open on the table beside her.

Twilight recognized the book. It was the blue-jacketed volume with the crescent Moon on its cover, the one Moondancer had used as her journal -- in which she'd written all her private, personal notes addressed to Nightmare Moon.

The book was now filled with random tables, calculations, and other work-related jottings. And Moondancer had very nearly reached the last blank page in it.

Twilight listened carefully, nodding in encouragement as Moondancer rattled on, talking excitedly about the organizational system she'd developed, the regular meetings she was attending with the Observatory's senior staff, her plans to publish her own dissertation on stellar temperature and luminosity -- "since some things are constant no matter how the Princess arranges the sky" -- and especially the late-night gab sessions she was having with the other interns in the program while they worked together to prepare the Observatory for its nightly schedule of research.

Try as she might, Twilight couldn't deny that Moondancer looked perfectly happy. She was a self-taught expert in astronomy, lunar geography, and stellar mechanics. A perfect fit, it seemed, for her unusual cutie-mark.

"Oops! Gotta get back to work!" Moondancer said. "So much to do! But you're coming to the Stellar Cartographic Symposium, right, Twilight? We can chat during the breakout sessions and catch up properly. Okay?"

Solemnly promising she'd be there, Twilight reluctantly left Moondancer to her internship duties, and turned away. With Tempest and Discord accompanying her, she headed back through the portal...

------------------------------

... and was only a little surprised to find Rarity stepping out of it with her, on the other side.

However, Twilight was very surprised by the room they'd all stepped out into...

"How'd it go, Rarity?" Starlight asked. "Did you find yourself running that fashion boutique in Canterlot, like you've been talking about?"

"Oh, puh-lease, dahling!" the violet-maned fashion pony made a dismissive noise, and shook her head. "I'm nowhere near ready to branch out yet. I still have to make inroads amongst the Canterlot elite, build up my client list." She fluffed her mane importantly. "But never fear, I'll get there! In any case, it was an interesting adventure to be sure..."

Twilight wasn't listening. She was staring around at the room they were all standing in. It looked like it had been carved out of the inside of a large oak tree. Its walls were woodgrained, with knotholes and organic-looking columns and arches. The walls themselves were inset with bookshelves, chock-full of volumes of every size and description. In the center of the room there was a table, on which stood a tall wooden chesspiece sculpture. And to the side of the room was a desk, with a pile of books that obviously wanted re-shelving.

"Um... where are we?" she asked carefully.

"Twilight!" Rarity said, surprised. "We're in your library of course! I mean, really, that tower room in Canterlot on the other side of the portal was simply di-vine, but it doesn't hold a candle to your comfy home here in Ponyville, am I right?"

"My home in... ah, right," Twilight caught herself quickly. "So nice... to be home."

Twilight felt momentarily disoriented, as if she were dreaming. Given a choice, it was exactly the kind of home she'd have wanted for herself. Her hooves itched to reshelve the books on the desk, and then plow through the tomes on the shelves, searching for unexpected treasures.

She noticed Discord grinning at her, apparently enjoying her confusion immensely. Motioning fiercely with her head, Twilight trotted over into a quiet corner, accompanied by the draconequus and Commander Tempest. "Okay, Discord," she demanded, "what's going on here? I though you said we weren't affecting the timeline."

"But Twilight!" Discord looked shocked. "If I'm to properly swap in your friends from Ponyville, something's got to give. All I've done is make a few minor adjustments. I've arranged things so Princess Celestia had you move to Ponyville, shortly after Sunset joined the group." He leaned closer, whispering confidentially. "She felt you needed to broaden your circle of friends. Quite right, in my view!"

"Discord..." Twilight said, warningly.

"Twilight! I haven't done anything extreme here. I'm just making sure we can carry on with the conditions of our little test. But, fair's fair..." He held up his paw with a resigned look. "If you feel I've gone too far, you have only to say the word, and everything goes back the way it was." He eyed her craftily. "Of course, you'll have to admit to your friends you called a halt to things just when we'd barely gotten started. And what will you say to dear Princess Celestia, hmm?"

Twilight frowned, feeling unfairly cornered. Then she nodded. "All right. But no more surprises."

"Me? Surprises?" He materialized a halo and looked innocent.

Tempest snorted crossly. "Yeah, right... I ought to --"

But Twilight shook her head. "No, Tempest. I said we'd give this a try. So, we'll give it a try. But... help me keep an eye on him, huh?"

"Like I'm not already?"

------------------------------

"So, who wants to go next?" Discord looked around at the group. "Sunset? Think you're up to it?"

"Sure, why not?" Sunset said, amused. "After all, it's not the first time I've visited an alternate dimension. Though given how tight-lipped everypony's been so far I'm half-afraid of what I'll find over there."

"Only the world as it might have been," Discord assured her, "had things gone better for you. As per our agreement."

"If you say so. But if Rarity was a challenge, having her own shop and all, I'm probably a master class, what with me having been Princess Celestia's student. How do you top that?"

"Oh, I think you'd be surprised, Sunset." Discord grinned. "Because for you, it comes down to one thing: you wanted to be the best at everything, am I right?"

"No..." Sunset grimaced, ashamed. "I wanted to be The Best. Period, end of story. I wouldn't settle for anything less."

"Nor did you! From what I understand, you were such an eager beaver, you made Twilight here look like a slacker!" Discord materialized a dunce-cap on Twilight's mane... and then seeing the look on Tempest's face, hurriedly waved it away again. "Though in the process," he went on, "you pushed away some very important ponies who might well have been great friends for you. Like... for instance?" he hinted.

Sunset nodded. "Princess Cadance. You know, I still haven't really made up with her for that? I've meant to, but... well, let's be honest, I keep finding excuses. It probably doesn't matter anyway, she'll have moved on by now."

"So sad!" Discord tutted commisseratingly. "Well, what if you didn't have to apologize? What if you could have it all back? A do-over?"

"That'd be a tall order," Sunset said, shaking her head. "It would mean changing a lot. Like, if I didn't go through the mirror... if I stayed here as Princess Celestia's student, what happens to Twilight?"

"Oh, let's take a peek, shall we?" Discord suggested, gesturing to the portal. "You can see for yourself!"

Sunset looked at Twilight and Tempest. And then nodded.

"Okay, you're on!"

------------------------------

Twilight furiously steeled herself.

I am in a library, she thought, the Canterlot Archives. I am surrounded by well over a million books. And I am not going to be distracted. I'm not.

She focused her attention firmly on the reading table on the left side of the main hall. At which a very young-looking flame-maned filly was seated, with books stacked all around her.

Another book was open on the table in front of Sunset, spreadeagled like a dissection specimen under her stern, unforgiving glare. Sunset flipped the pages sharply with infuriated little bursts of magic from her horn, threatening to rip the aging parchment:

Snap. Snap. Snap.

Twilight winced on the book's behalf.

Then she heard hoofsteps approaching and turned to look. It was Princess Cadance. Much like Sunset, the pink, particolor-maned alicorn looked very young, almost still a filly herself. Yet somehow she already carried herself with the poise and gentleness that made her such an excellent Princess.

She trotted right by Twilight without even noticing. When Twilight looked up at Discord, he put a warning talon to his lips.

Perception filter, he mouthed silently.

"Sunset?" Cadance called gently. "A group of us are going down to the lakeshore to study together. Would you like to come along?"

For a moment, Sunset kept glaring at her book. It looked like she was going to ignore Cadance, or at best, toss back some curt reply.

Then Discord snapped his claw.

And Sunset Shimmer looked up, as if she'd suddenly come to an important decision. "Yeah. You know, I'm not getting anywhere with this. Maybe... maybe some time away from the books will help."

"I'm sure it will." Cadance smiled sympathetically. "It'll all still be waiting for you when you come back."

"I suppose," Sunset said. "Come on. Let's not keep everypony waiting." Together, the two of them trotted out of the library door.

With a grin, Discord reached out with his lion paw and swiped at the air in front of them. The entire scene before them slid to the left, and was smoothly replaced by another.

Cadance, Sunset, and a group of other fillies and colts from the School were gathered by a small ornamental lake. It was on the rim side of the parkland, close to where a waterfall tumbled away for hundreds of lengths to the plains far below.

The students chatted and laughed together, and ate sandwiches that somepony had brought. One of the ponies brought out a guitar and strummed capably on it. And Sunset nodded along to the tune, getting into it. Occasionally she glanced at Cadance and smiled, clearly pleased to have been invited along.

Another quick swipe of Discord's paw, and they were suddenly back in the Library again. And so was Sunset. But now it was late at night, and Sunset was just flipping shut the last of the books she'd been going through.

She stared at the stacks of books, shoulders hunched. Then she shook her head, regretfully.

"I just don't see it," she said, whispering even though there was no one else around to hear her. "Maybe..."

She winced. Then nodded firmly.

"Maybe that means I'm not the one to do it, after all."

Pushing back her chair, she got up, and then quietly, somberly, left the Archives.

With another quick swipe from Discord, they were standing in the Royal Audience Hall. Before them, Sunset was curtsying respectfully on the carpet before the Sun Throne.

"I've made up my mind, Your Highness," she said, "I made you a promise, to find a way to reawaken the Elements and defend Equestria. And... I think we both know I can't keep that promise. I'm just not up to the task you've set me."

"Sunset!" Twilight gasped. Then she slapped a hoof over her mouth, with a sideways glare at Discord. Thankfully, neither Sunset nor Princess Celestia had heard her.

"And," Sunset went on, "I don't want to be in the way if there's somepony else who can pull this off instead. That wouldn't be right. It wouldn't be fair, to you or Equestria. So... I'm not going to keep beating my head against the wall here. I'm going to move on, to something else. I haven't quite figured out what... but I will."

Celestia gazed down from her throne, at the miserably hunched filly before her. Her face looked saddened... yet also deeply understanding. "Are you certain, Sunset? Is this what you really want?"

Sunset looked up at her, eyes glistening with tears. "I'm not sure what I really want, Your Highness. I just want to stop disappointing you. I want you to be proud of me!"

"Sunset, I have always been proud of you," Celestia replied. "Proud of your energy, your determination... and most of all, of how forthright you are. You never give up, as long as you believe there's a way. And equally, you are honest with yourself about your options. You know where to draw the line. And know this, Sunset: I support you, no matter what you choose. With all the hard work you've put in, you deserve nothing less."

"Thanks for taking it so well, Your Highness." Sunset shrugged. "Well... I'll go pack my stuff."

"Whatever for?"

"You're not going to want me hanging around the School anymore, right?"

"Sunset!" Celestia gently laughed. "You are here at the School because you are a filly with amazing potential. Because it's the best place for you to be, to learn and grow as a pony and achieve what you want in life. That is all I've ever really wanted for you. None of that has changed, so why would I ask you to leave?"

"Wow. But... you're not going to want me as your personal student anymore, right?"

"Sunset..." Now it was Celestia's eyes that were glistening. "I am proud to be your teacher. I would never want that to change, no matter what happened, no matter what you decided. You are very special to me. That is why you are my personal student. It's not what you can do for me! It's who you are as a pony, what you have a chance to become someday. And if I can continue to help and guide you -- if you still want me as your teacher -- then I want that too. That will never change, Sunset!"

"Even if you have to find somepony else to wield the Elements?"

"Even if," Celestia confirmed. "After all, there's still time. Who knows what may happen between now and then? After a thousand years, I've learned to be patient, to trust in the future. Just as I trust your judgement, Sunset. Never let there be a doubt in your mind about that."

"Thank you, Your Highness!" Sunset smiled gratefully.

Celestia nodded. "You are most welcome, my faithful student."

Discord made a face. "Gag! I'd forgotten how soppy Celestia can be at times. Still, I think one more spin of the wheel ought to do it. Place your bets, everypony!"

Another swipe, and they were standing on the broad grassy quad in front of the Advanced Projects tower, adjacent to the Library Annex. But now, that familiar tower was merely an unregarded, nondescript storage building, currently unoccupied but having a somewhat better-kept top floor.

Twilight spotted Sunset sitting on a sunlit dividing wall, near the edge of the quad. She was older now, almost a full-grown mare. Yet she was still the confident, bright-eyed, smiling pony that Twilight recalled. She was strumming a small guitar, and humming along to herself. Seeing Twilight trotting towards her, she waved.

"Hey, Twilight! Haven't seen much of you lately. Not since you moved to Ponyville after that near-debacle with Trixie and the storage loop."

"Um, yeah. How have you been, Sunset?"

"Oh, you know... same old, same old. Hanging out with Cadance and her entourage. Nowhere near as exciting as your life has been." Resting a hoof on the guitar, she grinned. "But you know what, Twilight? I'm okay with that, really I am. I could tell you were going to be the one to figure out the Elements -- and you did! I'm so proud of you, Twilight!"

Turning back to the guitar for a moment, Sunset strummed the strings with her hoof, using her magic to work the frets.

"Yep, you're the Princess of Friendship... and me?" She grinned. "Well, don't spread it around, but Cadance is planning on asking me to serve as part of her court. Yep, seeing how good a job I did mentoring you, she wants me to go on doing it officially. There's some impressive title on the books, but she's taken to calling me her Princess of Empathy." She paused, considering it. "Princess of Empathy... I like that. I really do!"

"You don't... miss being Celestia's personal student?" Twilight cautiously asked.

"You mean her only student? Nah! She's branched out. She's got me, and you, and all the rest. That's good for her, and it's good for all of us, too. The pressure's off. We can succeed or not, on our own merits. That's how it ought to be. No pony is an island, so they say."

Sunset nodded, happily. Then she slammed out a fast riff on the guitar, and just as quickly pulled it back to a more sedate, mellow line.

"Fast or slow, it's how you go," she said. "Hmm... I should write that down, there might be a song title in that. You know, Twilight, I'm considering a side-hustle in music? Yeah! I'll write a few songs, play a few gigs. It'll help me get out and meet ponies, learn how they're feeling, what they need. After all, if I'm going to be Princess of Empathy, I want to do the best job I can. That's for sure!"

"I'm sure that you will," Twilight said. "I'm... I'm happy for you, Sunset. It's really working out for you." She looked wistful. "You'll come by and visit us, won't you?"

"You kidding? Ponyville's not that far away." She pointed a hoof at Twilight, a serious look on her face. "And any time you need me, you just yell. I'll be there. 'Kay?"

Twilight nodded. "Sure thing, Sunset. Well... I'll see you round."

"Don't be a stranger!" Sunset saluted playfully with a forehoof, then went back to playing the guitar, filling the air with comfortable, relaxing music.

Turning, Twilight trotted away, leaving Sunset to it. Just another promising student, with a potential career in music and in helping other ponies. No pressure to perform, to excel, and ultimately, to overdo. It was exactly the kind of life Sunset needed.

And her cutie-mark, Twilight thought. That flaming sunburst... it would make the perfect band logo if she decided to go that route...

She sighed, resignedly.

Discord, trotting alongside her, peered down at her nervously. "You are okay with this, aren't you, Twilight? This is a better life for Sunset, right?"

"Yeah..." Twilight nodded. "Yeah, it is. A much better life."

She abruptly came to a halt, and stared up at him sadly.

"Is this how it is for all my friends, Discord? Am I forcing all of them to be somepony they're not?"

"Well..." Discord shrugged. "There's still three more to go. I might still be wrong, here."

"I'm not sure." Twilight shook her head. "I'm not sure you are, anymore..."

------------------------------

They stepped through the portal into the Golden Oak Library in Ponyville. And this time, it was Fluttershy who stepped out of the portal with them.

"Well..." the butter-colored pegasus said. "I know I was afraid of what I might find over there. But really I needn't have worried. It was very pleasant, actually!"

"Still no hints for the rest of us?" Starlight asked. "About what we're likely to see over there?"

"Oh, I wouldn't want to bias anypony's opinion," Fluttershy replied. "Besides, it's different for every pony. Isn't that right, Discord?"

"Er, what?" Discord had been staring at her, biting his lip nervously. "Oh, yes! Completely personal, Fluttershy. No two experiences the same."

"That's good. It's just like when I take care of my little animal friends. It's the personal touch that counts."

"Uh huh..." Discord tapped his paw and claw together. "Speaking of which, is there anything you'd like, Fluttershy? Some tea... or... or maybe sandwiches?"

"It's good of you to ask," Fluttershy smiled. "I'm fine for now, thanks."

"All right..." Discord said, meekly. "Just... wanted to be sure."

Twilight ignored him and looked around the room, at the three old faces, and three new ones.

"Is everything all right here?" she asked. "Starlight?"

"Near as I can tell." Starlight nodded. "By the way, I've done a few test runs with Sunburst and the others, just to be sure I'm not fooling myself from the times we've used the Field with Pinkie and Fluttershy. And we don't have to adjust the spell all that much. With a little tinkering, I could probably even make it self-adjusting, so any combination of the three tribes could use it."

"Provided we have Tempest to launch the priming blast, right?"

"You know..." Starlight tapped her snout, thinking it over. "There might be a way around that. Maybe you, Rarity, and I could combine our power to kick-start things. A few more tests, we'll know for sure."

"Thanks for following up, Starlight."

"Oh, not a prob, Twi!" Starlight said. "You know me. I love messing around with the Field spell!"

"All right, ponies," Discord called briskly. He was suddenly dressed like an old-time film director, clapping for attention. "We're burning daylight here! Who's up next?"

"I guess it'll have to be me," Trixie said. "Starlight's still working on the spell, and Tempest is sticking to Twilight like glue." She eyed the draconequus warily. "But no funny business, Discord! Remember, there's a birdbath in the Sculpture Garden with your name on it."

"Fear not, oh Great and Powerful showmare!" In a flash, Discord was wearing a star-spangled magician's hat and cape, styled just like Trixie's. "Have no qualms or trepidations. I guarantee a thrilling and engaging experience, the likes of which you shall not forget, not in a millennia..."

He eyed her narrowly. "You should live that long..."

Trixie looked at Twilight, and smirked. "Starlight's not the only one who needs to work on her stage-patter." Then she squared her shoulders, as if hitching herself up to her wagon, and faced the portal.

"All right. Let's get this show on the road."