• Published 24th Oct 2012
  • 1,816 Views, 206 Comments

Absolution - BlackRoseRaven

A pony begins a journey to find his parents, lost heroes who vanished years ago.

  • ...

Still Just Kids

Chapter Eight: Still Just Kids

Antares felt much more like his old self the next morning, and he felt even better when he left the bedding in the back room of the library and found Celestia was already up and drinking tea. She looked a little ill and weathered still, but she was smiling faintly all the same... and by the time Twilight joined them – wearing a sweater that did little to hide the fact she was undead now thanks to the additional stitching she'd been forced to apply around her face and over her haunches – both Antares and Celestia had helped one another feel better about things.

The plan for today was to head over to Cowlick's engineering facility and see if the Nibelung had finished sealing off the sewer and maintenance tunnels. Cancer was likely hiding out somewhere down there, and if they could confirm it, they could work on flushing him out and driving him into Cowlick's trap. Antares still had some lingering worries about this, but Twilight seemed to have gained a little more confidence, pointing out that no matter how viral and toxic Cancer might be, no matter what it was, the creature had been severely weakened last night and would probably take a long time to regenerate its powers. If they could lock it in the sewers and strike within the next few days, chances were they could drive the beast out without any further problems.

The three were talking about this even as they headed out the door of the library... and found a group of ponies and Nibelung all staring at a group of three Draconequus currently engaged in a loud argument with one-another. Discombobulation had his arms crossed, looking serious as always as Allonym leaned on his cane, grinning slightly, a black fedora now on his head topping off his strange outfit, and the third Draconequus was scowling moodily back and forth at them, rubbing miserably at a jaw that had one large fang sticking almost comically out of the end of his muzzle as he snapped: “Puppy, don't argue with your biggers and betters. And you, poser, go away. No one likes you. Just because you want to be here doesn't mean we want you to be here, right, puppy?”

“Au contraire, Discord, I enjoy anything that makes you miserable, big dog.” Discombobulation replied mildly, and Allonym snorted in amusement. “By the way, have I mentioned today how much I love your outfit? You look like a musketeer. Or a fop. You're the foppish musketeer.”

Slowly, Discord's expression grew even more sour than it had already been. His red eyes narrowed beneath his bushy eyebrows as he reached his eagle talon up and tugged on his white beard in vexation: his horns were mismatched, one a narrow antler and the other a gnarled blue spire, and his tail was long, red-scaled and draconic: one brown leg ended in a hoof, the other green limb a green claw, and the forelimb across from his eagle's talon was a lion's paw. On the back of the slender creature were two mismatched wings: one was feathered and blue, the other imp-like and leathery.

Allonym paused, then he brought his cane up, poking Discord in the chest a few times with a slight grin and further rumpling the bright red, pinstriped vest he was wearing; it matched his puffy shorts, and the red beret on his head that was topped by a white feather. “Or one of those dress up dolls you find in the bargain bin. Say, are you two a set, Discombobulation? You look like an action figure with that arm of yours, after all.”

“You stole that from me! Charlatan! Thief! I was calling the little puppy an action figure long before it was cool!” Discord snapped in an injured voice, and then he huffed and awkwardly smoothed down his vest before glaring over at Celestia as she, Twilight, and Antares exited the library with smiles. “Oh, what do you three want? Can I go home now?”

“No, please wait here, Discord. I'm not done looking over these reports yet.” Celestia paused, then she leaned forwards, adding gently: “Why don't you try and relax a little? You've been granted a second chance.”

“Actually, no. I've been imprisoned here against my free will and forced to work as a frigging delivery boy. And I look like a licorice stick.” Discord grabbed at his uniform, looking down sulkily, and then he glared when Allonym covered his mouth to try and suppress his laughter. “Oh, be quiet, poser. You're not even real. Even the puppy is better than you.”

“Why thank you, Discord. And I was just about to remark that you look like a peppermint lollipop, not licorice. You know, with that stick wedged up your rump and all.” Discombobulation remarked kindly, and then he gestured amiably over at Allonym. “But I suppose you know all about that, don't you, Allonym?”

“Hey, I already questioned your sexuality first by implying that you and Discord are a couple. Show a little originality here.” Allonym replied mildly, poking at the metal-armed Draconequus with his cane, and Discombobulation winced and poked the end of this with one finger before carefully guiding it away. “Oh wait, look who I'm talking to.”

Allonym smiled pleasantly as Discombobulation and Discord traded looks, then Discombobulation rose his metallic limb and said dryly: “If you were twice as smart as you are now, you'd be stupid.”

“Ordinarily, people live and learn. You just live. But don't worry, I bet your brain must feel good as new, seeing as you never use it.” Discord added mildly.

“I can see why you're so often lost in thought, after all. It must be unfamiliar territory. And I think it's wonderful how much you love nature considering everything it did to you... then again, really, all you are you owe to your parents. You should send them a penny, that should let you break even with them.” Discombobulation continued.

“Of course, brains aren't everything. In your case, they're nothing. Yours is just like a steel trap, after all, always closed. I wonder what things must be like from your point of view but I can't really cram my head that far up my own ass.” Discord grinned, winking across at Allonym.

“In short, you are dumb and smell like fart.” Discombobulation finished, then he and Discord turned and traded a high-five as Allonym stared, slack-jawed, his cane slowly toppling from his hands to fall to the ground.

Both Discombobulation and Discord crossed their arms and looked triumphantly across at Allonym, and the purple-suited Draconequus slowly made a moue of distaste before he held a hand out. In a puff of smoke, a leather-bound, well-cared for journal appeared, and Allonym grumbled under his breath as he reached into his suit jacket, producing a black and gold fountain pen. He continued to mutter grouchily to himself as Antares, Twilight, Celestia, and the other ponies all stared, pen racing along the page as he wrote something.

Discord and Discombobulation both leaned forwards uneasily, and then Allonym finished writing with a sudden flourish of the pen before he looked up with a pleased smile, announcing: “We'll see who's laughing by the next paragraph.”

“What are you-” Discombobulation halted, coughing once as he hammered a fist against his chest, and Discord winced before the two Draconequus slowly turned to look at each other... and then they seized one-another tightly, moving to kiss one-another fiercely for a few long moments as hands traveled up through each other's manes, eyes closed and-

Then Discord and Discombobulation both froze in mid-kiss, eyes snapping open as they registered each other with horror, both Draconequus paling before they shoved one another away. The group around them was only staring, even Celestia's jaw hanging open as the two flailed wildly and yelled curses and obscenities, Discord spitting violently in every direction and Discombobulation rubbing madly at his mouth and tongue.

Then the two Draconequus stared slowly towards the third, Allonym looking pleased with himself as he shut the journal tightly, and it vanished in a puff. He took his time tucking his pen away before holding his hand out, cane flying back up into his grip as he asked mildly: “Want to see what else I can make you two do?”

Discord and Discombobulation both shook their heads violently, and Discord shot like a rocket for the library door as Discombobulation vanished into thin air. Allonym brushed himself off and adjusted his rumpled suit with a positive smile on his features at this, then he cleared his throat and gazed over at Celestia, Antares, and Twilight. “Well then. Shall we?”

“What... what did you do?” Twilight spluttered out finally, as Celestia managed to shake herself out and sigh, and Antares only continued to stare disbelievingly. “I thought... you said... but... what did you do?”

“Humiliated them.” Allonym said with relish, and then the Draconequus cleared his throat and shook his head quickly, saying mildly: “Well, I'm not entirely without the capability to defend myself. But it's not like if something horrible ever happened I'd be able to just sit down and write my way out of it. I can make some minor changes here and there, edit this in or swap this out, but that's about it. I can't just write 'and then so-and-so exploded' and it happens.”

The Draconequus paused, glancing back and forth around him at the crowd, and a moment later he cleared his throat and gestured awkwardly with his cane, saying finally: “But perhaps we should get a move on. I don't like all these eyes on me. Makes me twitchy.”

“Well, I have to admit... I'm almost as surprised to see you standing out here, waiting for us, as I am by your display of power.” Celestia said after a moment, and then the ivory winged unicorn took the lead, the Draconequus turning to fall into pace beside her as Twilight and Antares stared for a moment, then both hurried quickly after her. “You've never spent so much time with us before. Been so open, and we've never seen you in a public place...”

“Like I said, I'm excited. But if you want me to go, I can go.” Allonym said mildly, glancing aside at Celestia, and she only favored him with a slight smile, making the male huff a little as he spun his cane easily at his side. “I don't like how hard it is to make you react to anything.”

Celestia only continued to smile for a moment, before she glanced over her shoulder with interest as Antares hurried forwards and asked quickly: “Is something wrong, Allonym? Why do you want to help us stop Cancer so badly?”

“Because I am a kind and helpful person?” Allonym suggested, raising a finger, and when it became clear none of the ponies believed this, he grumbled and took his cane between his hands, squeezing along the metal body of it compulsively. “Because maybe you ponies can't stop him without my help?”

Antares frowned a bit, leaning forwards and studying the Draconequus, and this plainly made Allonym look uncomfortable before the young stallion said slowly: “No. No, it's not just about Cancer, you're not here because of him, are you? There's something else... something you're trying to change...”

“Oh, look at the time, I have a dentist appointment.” Allonym said hurriedly, reaching into his suit jacket and yanking out a pocketwatch. He pretended to glance down at it, but he didn't even seem to realize he was holding it upside down. “Yep, yep, very late, very rushed, very got to go. Bye.”

And with that, Allonym simply vanished, and Antares winced and staggered to a halt as Twilight gave the air where the Draconequus had been an uneasy look. Celestia only shook her head as she continued to calmly walk forwards, however, saying quietly over her shoulder: “He'll return in time, I'm sure. But you should be more careful with your talent, Antares... you may not realize it, but your directness while using your acuity skills can be very unnerving. Particularly for our friends who like to keep their cards close.”

“I... sorry.” Antares said awkwardly, quickly following after the winged unicorn as Twilight Sparkle smiled a little, the Lich striding up to the young stallion's side as he glanced at her. She felt his eyes studying her, felt him seeing into her... but by now it was a feeling she was well used-to, had even learned to be glad for. She kept no secrets from the pony she thought of as her son, after all. “You feel nervous about him.”

“Of course I am. He's got... some kind of interest in you, Antares, and I worry about what that means.” Twilight replied quietly, nodding slowly once, and Antares nodded hesitantly in return as Celestia glanced over her shoulder. “It's not that I think he's... evil, for lack of a better word, but he does want something. I'm worried about what the fact he won't simply come clean about whatever it is that he wants means for us.”

Antares Mīrus nodded slowly, looking down and murmuring quietly: “Because you're worried it has something to do with me. But I'm not that special, Twilight... I just... I'm just trying to live up to my parents' name, and work towards finding them and... help out my friends and family. Isn't that what every pony is supposed to do?”

Celestia laughed quietly at this, looking ahead as she said softly: “Perhaps, but there are many ponies, Antares, who don't always do what they've been told to.” She paused, then shook her head slowly. “You're... optimistic, almost to the point of being an idealist, dedicated and honorable. You're very much the same as your parents, and very different, too. I just want you to know that I'll do anything to protect you. And if necessary, I'll protect you even from Allonym.”

Antares smiled despite himself, nodding slowly, and then the trio fell silent as they made their way to the engineering lab. Outside, they found Apple Bloom and Scarlet Sage standing together and talking quietly, and Antares cocked his head curiously before he smiled when the two mares gazed warmly towards the approaching trio.

“Twilight, Celestia, Antares... I... I know you're probably in a hurry, but... do you have just a minute? I want to tell you something, I haven't... had a chance to yet.” Scarlet Sage said quickly, blushing deeply as she turned towards them, and Apple Bloom turned almost the same color, even as she reached out and gently took one of the Pegasus' hooves.

Twilight smiled softly and nodded as Celestia gazed curiously at the two, and Antares smiled widely as he stepped forwards as Scarlet Sage took a slow breath... then she looked up, eyes shining as she squeezed Apple Bloom's hoof gently. “Apple Bloom... asked me to marry her, and I said yes! I... I'm getting married!”

“Oh, Scarlet Sage...” Twilight smiled softly, the Lich straightening as her eyes grew warmer, gazing between the two. “That's wonderful! Your... your parents would be...” She caught herself, closing her eyes, then smiled firmly, looking up and saying quietly: “They will be so proud.”

“Congratulations to you both.” Celestia said softly, gazing from one pony to the other before tilting her head with interest. “Do you have any plans for the wedding yet? Have you told Applejack and Rainbow?”

“No, I just... I just worked up the courage to ask her today.” Apple Bloom cleared her throat, looking embarrassed as she rubbed at the side of her neck, and when Antares smiled at her she huffed a bit. “Now hey, I heard you didn't completely follow my advice either, mister. Besides, we... we got so busy and just... but I asked her right in front of Cowlick this morning, I did. Probably should have waited for her to leave, though, now that I think about it. Ain't never been so insulted and complimented by a pony all at once.”

Scarlet Sage laughed and shook her head, saying quietly as she gazed radiantly over at Apple Bloom: “Yeah, but you and I both know that's just the way she is, Red. And I wouldn't care even if she'd been serious, you're... you're what makes me happy.”

The two mares gazed at one another as Celestia and Twilight both smiled, and Antares brightened visibly, sitting back and nodding as he murmured: “I'm so glad, big sister. I'm so really glad that... despite everything else, you two found a way to be so happy. And that makes me happy and... and... I'm glad there's bright spots even in the darkness.”

“Light shines best in darkness.” Celestia said softly, then she bowed her head and added gently: “And this goes without saying, niece, but I'll gladly officiate for you. I'm sure it will ruffle a few feathers in the Royal Court for me to be marrying two mares, but...” Celestia smiled slightly. “Maybe I'm a little more like my sister these days than I should be, since I rather enjoy that thought.”

Scarlet Sage laughed again, blushing deeply as she looked up and nodded, and Apple Bloom bowed her head, mumbling awkwardly: “Thanks, Celestia. We... we didn't figure on getting anything more than... you know, some courtroom marriage, but we sure as hell ain't gonna turn down... well, you know. It means a lot.”

“You're family.” Celestia said gently, and both Scarlet Sage and Apple Bloom looked humbled, bowing their heads low before the ivory winged unicorn smiled and asked: “Are you coming in with us to speak to Cowlick?”

“Red and I are going out to the animal care center, actually... we're going to double-check the sewer entrance over there, make sure it stays closed this time, and Fluttershy asked me to look at some of the surviving animals. Poor things...” Scarlet Sage shook her head slowly, closing her eyes. “Fluttershy was really upset, and she and Nirvana have been working hard all morning with Sleipnir and a few others. Just... trying to get things stable, trying to fix the damage Cancer did.”

Twilight nodded, saying quietly: “Let her know I'll try to stop in later, okay? I might be able to help a little, too.”

Scarlet Sage nodded back, then she said hesitantly: “Only... if you're sure, Twilight. You... you look pretty rough. You look like you need... do you want me to head over to the hospital, first? I can ask the morgue attendant...”

“No, it's fine. I already sent a letter this morning.” Twilight winced, glancing down and mumbling: “Sometimes I wish I was evil enough to dig up bodies from graveyards like in that story, it'd be less embarrassing... but probably even more uncomfortable than it already is, too. I wonder if any organ donors or ponies who donate their bodies to the science or medical schools in Canterlot expect this to happen to them...”

The ponies only looked at her softly, and then the Lich cleared her throat and shook her head quickly, saying finally: “No, I'll go over after Cancer's dealt with to get the bodies and... I'll find somewhere quiet to reconstitute myself. But let's... let's not talk about that. Besides, we all are... busy and... we should stay... busy.”

Twilight rambled to a stop, looking embarrassed before she shook her head quickly, and Scarlet Sage smiled faintly before Antares reached up and gently touched the violet unicorn's shoulder, saying softly: “You're not a freak, Mom. You're just a little different from other ponies, that's all.”

The Lich smiled faintly at this, nodding slowly as she glanced awkwardly at the young unicorn, then Apple Bloom cleared her throat before saying finally: “Well, uh... okay then. Guess Scarlet and me will be off but... hey, why don't you come on by our house tonight for dinner, Twilight, Antares? And you're more than welcome to join us too, Celestia.”

“I'd appreciate that. Thank you.” Celestia said softly, nodding once. “Good luck, and remember... keep yourselves safe as well. You're both very important to Ponyville, especially during troubled times like these.”

The two mares nodded with smiles before Scarlet Sage and Apple Bloom left, the Pegasus gently nudging her younger brother as she passed with an affectionate look down at him. He gazed back after her warmly, and then he glanced over at Celestia as she tilted her head towards the double doors and opened them with telekinesis. “You and Twilight know the layout of this building much better than I do. To be entirely honest, I think it scares me a little. I have difficulty at times understanding Kilby Kwolek and her alchemy... it's really no wonder she and Luna got along so well.”

Twilight laughed quietly at this, nodding slowly as she and Antares headed in first, followed by Celestia: thankfully, almost the moment they stepped inside, the secretary at the lobby desk glanced up before smiling and calling: “Hello, Twilight! Cowlick's expecting you... she and Rustproof are down the hall in the testing room, do you remember where that is?”

“What are they testing?” Twilight asked almost nervously, and the secretary cleared her throat and went pointedly back to work behind the desk. The Lich turned a flat look at the doors, muttering: “Oh no. Maybe we should just come back later.”

“I think it's best that we face our fears, Twilight. Try to understand the things that make us uncomfortable instead of simply rejecting them.” Celestia said softly, and then she frowned curiously when Twilight only gave her a wry smile over her shoulder.

“I don't think this is going to help you very much with your uh... concerns about Cowlick.” Twilight said delicately, but then she nodded and sighed as she started forwards, mumbling: “But okay, we might as well get this over with.”

Celestia only looked curious... but a few minutes later, she was staring in disbelief at the sight of Cowlick as the engineer grinned widely, the earth pony gesturing cheerfully over her shoulder at the large, turret-like machine she had built, saying cheerfully: “Me and Rusty have been trying to get this piece of junk working for years and it's finally running smooth! My kid's a damn genius, and this proves it, he finally figured out the motor components and I supplied the rest... and... dammit, Rusty, are you smoking again?”

“Momma, the nav motor's overheating again!” Rustproof replied hurriedly, and then the enormous earth pony scrambled to his hooves and bolted away from the machine as Cowlick simply glared at the machine. A moment later, there was a loud pop, and then a blast of smoke vomited into the air as a few chunks of metal flew out of the side of the device, Celestia, Antares, and Twilight twitching but Cowlick not so much as batting an eyelash even as a large, half-melted gear flew past her head.

“Dammit, Rusty, I thought you fixed that!” she complained, then she sighed and turned her eyes to the device: it was composed of two distinct parts, one a metal chair sitting on a raised base, support bars standing out here and there amidst jumbles of wires and metal, and other part rested on a framework of bars and piping in front of the throne-like seat: it was composed of a set of grips and some kind of axis built into a large, cubical body, a panel open on the side of this to reveal an engine and a feeder system of some kind. And sticking out of the front of this body, where the feeder fed into, were six elongated barrels.

Cowlick referred to it as a 'vulcan cannon:' it was a rapid-firing gun that she been working on for years, and to this day Twilight had no idea why Cowlick, who often complained about being forced to use her talents to make things used solely for killing other people, had been treating this weapon for years as her pet project. The Lich could only stare at the weapon as Cowlick studied the chair, then she sighed and shook her head, muttering: “Well, fine. We'll figure out the mobility issues later, for now she'll make a damn good turret at least... and one day I'll be able to mount this thing on a rail system. Let's see those bastards from Hellhorse top that!”

“You're in competition with a weapons firm?” Celestia asked with a frown, looking up at this name. “I thought part of the reason you left Manehattan was to get away from Hellhorse's recruiters?”

“Hellhorse, Stampede Industries, oh a whole bunch of places wanted to recruit me, yeah. And I wouldn't say competition, Celestia. That's like saying it'd be a competition if you entered a 'best magic' contest meant for kindergarten kids.” Cowlick grinned, reaching up and patting the vulcan cannon. “But when I put Parsimony here out on exhibition, I'm gonna steal all their funding right out from under their hooves for the factory I wanna build.”

“You have plans for a weapons company?” Celestia frowned deeper, seeming surprised as Rustproof hesitantly strode back over the the turret, kneeling down to begin tinkering with whatever had just exploded.

“Hell no. I have plans for a security company, a real security company, not like the thugs that run Hellhorse and ESS and all those other fake-ass mercenary fronts.” Cowlick said disgustedly, shaking her head. “I don't want to manufacture lethal weapons like this. I want to design nonlethal weaponry and build armor for our boys, and I want to make sure that the killer weapons we do make go to the good guys, they aren't just sold for the highest frigging profit to crooks and criminal organizations and the kind of scum they hire on at HMH.”

Celestia tilted her head with interest as Twilight looked curiously over at Cowlick, before Antares asked slowly: “But then why build... Parsimony? What does that mean?”

Cowlick grinned widely, winking over at him. “Law of Parsimony, kid. The simplest answer is the right one.” She slapped the side of the gun, saying easily: “Hellhorse, Stampede, ESS, all of them have a kind of competition every year. Their best and brightest trot out all their new weapon designs and stuff, to secure funding from the rich folk who usually just want a private army while lookin' like they really, really care about the safety of the nation. Usually the winner is some stupid remake of an old invention, you know, a ballista they made lighter by changing out the coupling material or some kind of transport. Parsimony here will blow 'em all away... figuratively and literally.”

“I don't know if I appreciate your plan or feel like I should point out the many flaws in your idea.” Celestia remarked, and Cowlick only shrugged and continued to look pleased with herself. “But... Kilby Kwolek, we-”

“Cowlick, Cowlick, Cowlick, call me Cowlick. Nopony ever called me Kilby except for my mom.” Cowlick said dismissively, then she patted the motorized gun, adding: “Hey, you wanna see a test run? She handles pretty well, think we still got a belt of ammo here somewhere...”

“Uh, that's fine, Cowlick, but we should talk about the sewers and Cancer.” Twilight said awkwardly, glancing down the length of the long, concrete testing room: shelves and a few crates rested against the wall for about half the length, but the last thirty feet or so of the elongated room was made of a softer, almost-pliant looking material, and drains and narrow trenches lined the floor to the very back. Torn-apart paper targets hung from some kind of rail system, and the wall behind these was littered with cracks and bullet holes and discolored smears of cement patching.

The engineer looked almost disappointed, but she nodded and sighed, glancing over her shoulder and saying mildly: “Rusty, go find your dad and bring him to Conference Room A, and bring Greece too if you run into him or see him in the lounge or office.”

She paused, then glanced meditatively over at Antares, asking: “You wanna do me a favor? You know where we keep our records, right? Well, Meadowlark is over there right now, digging up old construction documents to make sure we ain't missed anything. Go fetch 'em for me. I think Prestige is there too but I'm fine if you just kind of forget about her.”

“Bring Prestige too if she's there, Antares, she is... my student.” Twilight said tiredly, and Cowlick grumbled as Antares nodded awkwardly. He smiled at Rustproof as the enormous colt walked past, the glossy black young stallion following his friend back out into the hall.

The two nodded to each other, and then Rustproof said softly: “Momma's got some funny ideas, but they're good ones, you'll see.”

“I know, Rusty.” Antares smiled after a moment, then he leaned over and nudged the colt gently before he turned down another hall, as Rustproof continued to amble straight ahead. “You should ask your Mom if she wants to use your project, too!”

Rustproof only chuckled, shaking his head, and then Antares turned his eyes forwards, looking ahead as he laughed a little and said softly: “I think sometimes Rusty's the most talented of us all. He always does what he puts his mind to, after all.”

Antares fell quiet as he walked onwards through the familiar halls: he'd spent a good bit of time here over the years, after all, helping out Rustproof, digging through records, working with the Nibelung. This facility housed both new and old together, after all, and as part of his training, Sleipnir had taught him how to work at a forge and do repairs to his own armor. He wasn't very good at it quite yet, but as always, his uncle had smiled and slapped him on the back and declared: 'give it time.'

Time... the unicorn shook his head a little, leathery wings flapping uneasily once at his sides before furling with a faint tickle of pain. He felt like time was against them, like in spite of everything, they were racing the clock... like maybe they were underestimating what Cancer was capable of. For some reason, Cowlick's plan still simply wasn't sitting right with him, and the unicorn sighed a little before he mumbled: “No, no. It's gonna turn out fine, it is... I just... concentrate, Antares, come on. Focus on this.”

The young stallion nodded firmly to himself, looking nervously up all the same as he headed through the halls until he reached a wooden door clearly labeled: 'Records.' His horn glowed, and Antares grumbled under his breath as he forced himself to focus a bit more when the door only shuddered in the frame, muttering: “Oh come on...”

After a few more moments, the handle finally clicked, and the door swung open with a groan on hinges that desperately needed oil. Antares poked his head into the musty room beyond: it was packed with shelves and cabinets all loaded down with papers and files of every shape and size, with a tiny table in the center of the room where Meadowlark was working with her back pointedly turned on Prestige. The Pegasus looked up with a sigh of relief when she saw Antares, smiling at him and putting a file quickly aside. “Antares! It's good to see-”

“Are we being called?” Prestige interrupted, and Antares and Meadowlark both glared at her, the unicorn sniffing loudly and disdainfully. “Oh please, you're the one who claims she has a talent for observation and intellectual analysis. The only reason Antares would be here is if he was sent by someone to fetch us... I would guess the Baroness, since the Lich will likely have to reconstruct her body.”

“Don't talk about my mom like that, please.” Antares' tone was more exasperated than angry, far too used to this by now before he added dryly: “And can you please show maybe just a little bit of empathy here, Prestige? She's a good teacher, even you know that, and you can't understand how much she suffers when she has to rebuild her body...”

“Oh, yes, I feel awful for her. She's only nearly invulnerable and personal adviser to the Baroness.” Prestige retorted, looking grumpily down at the papers in front of her, and Antares frowned at her as he examined her closer: she looked frazzled and exhausted, like she hadn't slept the night before. “Besides, do you understand what she goes through, Antares Mīrus? Or are you simply being her white knight?”

“I'm her son.” Antares said quietly, studying Prestige closer, and the young unicorn mare snorted angrily, glaring balefully up at him.

“Yes, that is also something I fail to understand and find disgusting. Luna is your mother, and Twilight is your mother. Your father must have been very fortunate or very wealthy.” Prestige said acerbically, and Meadowlark and Antares both glared at her. “Please go away.”

Antares shook his head, forcing himself to calm down before he walked slowly around the table, asking finally: “What's wrong with you, Prestige? Why are you being like this?”

Prestige only huffed, looking down as she muttered: “Nothing is wrong with me, splinter-horn, I simply reminded myself of where I was and... what you and your kind are. Go away and take the shorn-wing with you, I'll stay here and wait for something more worthy of my attentions than the welfare of slave hoofs and their preening protectors.”

“You're acting like a child because you feel bad that I fought Cancer last night and you curled up and cried like a filly in the clinic.” Antares said sharply, his eyes flashing, and Prestige shoved herself violently back from the table, but she looked more startled than angry, vulnerable... and Antares bared his sharp teeth as he felt his anger boil over in that one moment. “You're a genius unicorn, Prestige. Just like everyone else in your family. You hate me because I'm just like my Mom and Dad, and you're just like your Mom and Dad too, right?”

“Shut up!” Prestige yelled brokenly, tears forming in her eyes as she staggered out of her chair and looked almost as if she'd seen a ghost, breathing hard before she shook her head wildly and then simply barreled for the door. And Antares stared in surprise over his shoulder as the seething rage in him vanished and instead he was left feeling... ashamed, and awful.

It was made all the worse by the way Meadowlark was looking at him now, one of her hooves silently touching her lips, and Antares swallowed thickly before he looked down and rubbed at his head slowly, mumbling: “Oh wow. Oh... wow. I... I gotta go apologize to her. I... Horses of Heaven, what did I do...”

Antares shook his head quickly, hurrying around the table before he stumbled to a halt in the doorway, blushing as he looked over his shoulder and said awkwardly: “Conference Room... A, I think, uh... the one Cowlick always uses, I... I gotta go. Just... go and... fill me in later, okay?”

“Antares!” Meadowlark shouted, but the unicorn only shook his head hurriedly before he turned and ran out into the hall. His hooves guided him on instinct, and his sharp, analytical eyes glanced back and forth, picking up every little detail he needed to track the unicorn: here, papers knocked off a tack-board by someone, there, Nibelung that were glancing down the hall and talking in hushed voices about someone that had passed, there a door that was still ajar...

He ended up leaving through the rear doors, and hurrying down a short alleyway: he knew Ponyville well, and he knew Prestige better than she thought: the few fresh hoof prints he saw in the dirt that undoubtedly belonged to her were more than enough to tell him where she was probably going, and he hurried forwards before cutting down a side alley, to try and get ahead of her.

Prestige was faster than he'd expected, though, and her head start combined with how upset she was meant that she was already there by the time Antares emerged slowly from an alley: Prestige's favorite thinking spot... a bench behind the memorial park for his parents, that looked out onto the schoolhouse in the distance.

Antares silently, quietly made his way forwards, breathing slowly as he strode slowly past the statue of his parents, looking up at them silently as they seemed to look down at him with disapproval on their charred, carved features. The statue was blocked off by yellow tape and warning signs, and all around the park, the grass had been burned and sod torn up: there were still stains from the battle the night before even on the dusty, abandoned streets.

The young stallion cleared his throat as he walked up beside her, and then he carefully sat down on the bench beside the unicorn mare as she snuffled and rubbed silently at her eyes. Antares glanced over at her, and then he closed his eyes as he reached up and touched her shoulder, saying softly: “I'm sorry.”

“Leave me alone...” Prestige turned her eyes away, trembling violently before she suddenly turned, shouting at him in a hoarse, breaking voice: “Do you think it hasn't been hard for me, too? For years, trying to adjust to what feels like an entirely different society! Forced to be as equal to savages, to act like I am... am no better than some trollop earth pony who sells her body for money, like there are no differences between us! There are all the differences in the world, Antares, there are all the differences in the world!”

Antares only looked at her silently, and the young mare shivered before she dropped her head forwards, burying her face in her hooves before she sobbed: “I... I am special! I'm a unicorn! I'm twenty years ahead of my level, most unicorns never learn the m-magic I do! So... so... s-s-so w-why couldn't I... do anything...”

The young stallion sighed softly, then he wrapped a foreleg around her, and Prestige half-flung herself against him, grasping at him with her hooves as she buried her face against his neck and cried. Antares only looked down silently, trembling as he felt her emotions, her pain, her suffering beneath all her layers of arrogance and superiority, felt tears forming in his own eyes. He could see into her, feel her emotions... and it made his heart thunder with sympathy for her, as he whispered: “It's not your fault. I don't know what you heard but I'm no hero. I failed too, and I only escaped with my life because of a fluke.”

Prestige trembled, then she clenched her eyes shut and shoved herself up and away from him, tears still running down her face as she glared at him. “But you were there! You did something... I... I simply saw the sick and... I saw them, d-d-dying, and... I couldn't... I, I couldn't...”

“I know.” Antares closed his eyes, bowing his head forwards before he murmured: “Prestige, listen. You're not... a bad pony. You're talented, and you're smart, and you work hard. You helped us figure out how this disease was transmitted and you... you won't freeze up next time. I know you won't, because I know you'll never want to... be here, again.”

“But what if I do? What if I choke again, what if I can only... run and hide in a back room, hoping no one will find me...” Prestige shivered, clenching her eyes shut... and then she looked up at him, breathing slowly before asking abruptly: “How did you know about my parents? That my father...”

Antares shifted uncomfortably, and when Prestige trembled a little, he sighed and squeezed her reassuringly around the shoulders. She settled a bit, closing her eyes and dropping her head forwards, and the young stallion said finally: “It wasn't that hard to put together, Prestige... you... the way you talk about them sometimes, how determined you are to make something of yourself... things like that. A lot of things that come together and... well...”

Prestige only nodded silently, and then she looked up at him as he gazed back at her, her tears finally begin to slow as she whispered: “The worst part about living here is feeling second class, each and every day... being a unicorn means nothing here. And after all the time I've spent here, I think... I think that I'm never going to feel like being a unicorn meant anything special at all, no matter how I tout my banners. Look at me, Antares Mīrus... I am no inventor, no warrior, no... nothing. I was born with my magical power, I have no skills, no hobbies, cannot... c-can't...”

“Prestige, you've worked hard to become who you are and... and... I like you, when you're not being a pain and all hoity-toity, okay?” Antares said finally, then he sighed a little as he gazed at her silently. “Did you ever stop and think that maybe it's a good thing you're... you're learning all this? Don't you understand that... everyone here, they're who they are because that's who they want to be? Prestige, you can be who and what you want to be too...”

Prestige looked up at him, a few tears still spilling down her cheeks from her metallic eyes, accenting the red flaw in one iris all the more as her lips fell open, and Antares swallowed thickly as she saw pain and understanding and mercy reflected in the young stallion's dark, cyan-green irises. For a few long moments, they only stared at one another... and then slowly, Antares leaned down, and their lips met for a moment in a gentle, quiet kiss.

The kiss lasted only a few seconds... and then their mouths parted, and Prestige flushed red and shoved at him, sitting hurriedly up and looking away as Antares blushed and wiggled away from her, dropping his hooves in his lap and clearing his throat. For a few long moments, there was silence, and then Prestige reached up and rubbed violently at her eyes, mumbling: “Well... shall we... shall we return to that awful place?”

“Why don't we just go back to the library?” Antares suggested, and when Prestige looked at him measuringly, he said awkwardly: “Okay, why don't... you go back to the library, and... I'll get us something to eat at Sugar Cube Corners?”

Prestige looked pacified, shifting a little, and then she added finally: “And... Antares I... would prefer you did not go bragging to anypony that... you took advantage of my moment of clear weakness...”

“I don't know what you're talking about, at all.” Antares muttered, looking hurriedly away, and Prestige looked away as well... before the two unicorns slowly turned to look at each other again, studying each other for a few moments.

Then Prestige almost threw herself onto her hooves, mumbling as she hurried quickly off, and Antares sighed and jumped up to his own, blushing deeply as he turned to hurry off in the direction of the well-loved candy store, thinking about how this day couldn't get any more awkward. And then he winced as he felt a very distinct set of hooves land on his back, turning brighter red than he already was as he said weakly: “No. No, no, no, no, no. You did not see that.”

“Oh yes, yes I did.” Avalon said with relish, and Antares looked almost desperately over his shoulder at her as the tiny Pegasus grinned cheerfully down at him, her red eyes gleaming with gleeful mischief. “This right here. This makes my day. Prestige is your marefriend!”

“She is not!” Antares choked out, glaring horribly over his shoulder at Avalon, who cackled, then leapt up and easily began to buzz along above him when Antares tried to buck her off. “It was a... a... a moment of weakness!”

“Oh you are such a loser.” Avalon flipped upside down, making kissy-faces as she wrung her front hooves together. “Antares is all growin' up, he got his first kissy-wissy from a girl... but Horses of Heaven, even Meadowlark is a better choice than Prestige!”

Antares fumed and blushed deeper as he began to run, but Avalon easily kept pace with him, before she scowled when he said in a mumble: “Well, I'm sure it was better than your first kiss from a girl.”

“Oh, don't take it so personally, Mir! Seriously, I just... you realize she's probably going to plant her eggs inside you or something while you sleep, that's all I'm saying. Prestige is a scary piece of work. And everypony knows she's evil.” Avalon paused, then asked mildly: “Why are stallions so stupid? Do they like getting hurt or something?”

“Come on, drop it, Avalon. Please.” Antares pleaded, and Avalon grumbled, but finally nodded as she flitted down beside him, and Antares wheezed and finally let his pace slow as he dropped his head forwards, looking moody. “And Prestige isn't that bad, really. I mean... well, remember when we first met her?”

“How could I forget? She got her flank kicked by Aphrodisia.” Avalon looked almost dreamy at this thought as she landed beside Antares, the tiny Pegasus trotting easily in pace with him. “We were... what? Rusty's age? And she comes strutting in and Twilight introduces her and leaves us to make nice. Then she tries to order Rusty and Aphrodisia to go fetch drinks for her, gets mad at Apple Pie, and before you know it Prestige is crying and Apple Pie is sitting on her, preening.”

“We could have made a much better first impression.” Antares mumbled, and then he shook his head and added quietly: “But I mean, honestly, think about how she used to be. She's gotten better... she actually uses the words 'earth pony' now and then instead of slave hoof.”

“Yeah, because like. Pinkamena would turn her inside out for calling her daughter a slave hoof.” Avalon said pointedly, and then she cocked her head curiously as Antares turned suddenly towards a building with several tables set out in front filled by happy-looking ponies. “Hey, what are we doing here?”

Antares only smiled over his shoulder, replying mildly: “You complaining, Aviator? Come on, let's pick up some treats.”

Avalon snorted and bounced into the air, easily buzzing after him as she grinned and remarked: “Real nice of you, Antares. I see that Prestige already has you wrapped around her hoof, doin' whatever she pleases. Smooth cover, though, offering to get me candy too.”

The young stallion only sighed as he pushed his way into the shop, the bell jingling as he strode past the booths and tables towards the glass counter at the back, and a bright pink pony with a cotton-candy mane and tail looked up and beamed brightly. “Oh hi, guys!”

“Hey Pinkie Pie.” Antares greeted: apart from her mane and the bright colors of her body, she was almost the perfect twin of Pinkamena... minus the tattooing and sharp teeth, of course. “How are you doing?”

“I'm good... wish I could help out more, though.” Pinkie replied softly, then she laughed and glanced over her shoulder with her bright sapphire eyes at her cutie mark: a trio of balloons, two blue and the center yellow. “But Lemon Drop says that I can throw a big getting-better party for everypony after we deal with... that thing in the sewers.”

She shivered a bit, and then she glanced over her shoulder as a youthful-looking dragon pushed through the swinging doors at the back of the shop, striding easily on two legs. He smiled warmly at Antares, emerald eyes bright as he rose one violet-scaled hand. “Hey, Antares, Avalon. Nice to see you two.”

Antares smiled to the dragon: the scales on his underbelly were the same lime green as his ear frills, while a ridge of deep green fins went from his forehead and all the way down to the tip of his pointed tail. He was tall and lithe, but his build was athletic and handsome: years of training and working at the local forges. His looks were accented further by the runic band tattooed around one upper arm: an enchantment that stopped him from growing to full dragon size, and as much a symbol of his commitment to his wife as the wedding band around his finger that was topped with a single emerald stud. “I just wanted to let you know I finished repairing Pinkamena's armor and knives... and I really appreciate the snacks, too. Don't tell Rarity, huh?”

Avalon snorted in amusement, flitting down and poking easily along Spike's chest as she grinned at him. “You know, Dad says that when he first met you, you were this tiny little baby dragon, and you were all chubby and cute and stuff. I find that hard to believe... well, not the cute part.”

“Gee, thanks.” Spike laughed, waving an arm at Avalon, and the Pegasus drew back even as she flitted around him cheerfully. “But it's true, right, Pinkie?”

“That was so long ago, though, huh?” Pinkie Pie smiled warmly, looking both nostalgic... and a little sad, Antares thought, as he looked at her curiously. “Ponyville... wow, when I think of how far we've all come, each and every one of us...”

Spike softened, then he nodded a little as he said softly: “Yeah, it really was. And hey, Pinkie, thanks again... not just for the snacks, for the work. I know Sleipnir's a way better blacksmith than I am, but I appreciate getting to keep my hands busy. Twilight and Rarity were both really worried about me getting too close to the infection, just in case...”

Pinkie only smiled, however, shaking her head with a laugh. “Oh, Spike, you're great at your job, though! And besides, Sleipnir's been running himself so hard lately... he's as bad as Lemon Drop when it comes to not taking care of himself, I think. You helping out means a world... especially since I get to pay you in cupcakes and candy and all.”

“Just... again, don't tell Rarity.” Spike grinned lamely, raising his hands and waving them awkwardly. “She gets mad at me because I can eat all the candy I want and still look okay.”

“I'll say.” Avalon said with a grin, and Spike coughed and blushed a little before the tiny Pegasus hopped into the air and buzzed around Antares in an easy circle, beginning teasingly: “Isn't it lucky that Prestige doesn't feel that way about-”

Antares leapt up and grabbed Avalon, yanking her out of the air and covering her mouth, and both Pinkie and Spike cocked their heads curiously before the young stallion said hurriedly: “Sorry, uh... yes, Avalon was just reminding me that we're supposed to pick up candies for everyone and then run off for a meeting. Uh... we need a box of a whole bunch of... stuff and... some of Pinkamena's stuff, too.”

Antares grinned lamely, and Spike still looked confused, but Pinkie Pie only smiled brightly before she nodded firmly once, ducking under the counter for a moment to produce a large cardboard box before she began to flit around behind the counter. She easily picked up food from both the metal shelving as well as the 'darker' side of the store: in this area, the counter was solid stone, and the sliding racks were filled with treats shaped like hooves, body parts, and other somewhat disturbing things, clearly the design of Pinkamena.

Avalon grumbled and squirmed in his grip, and Antares released her before looking at her pointedly, and the Pegasus huffed but nodded as she flitted into the air with a mumble. Then both of the ponies looked up in surprise as Pinkie Pie closed the box and neatly tied a bow around it so quickly it seemed like magic, the earth pony smiling warmly and saying cheerfully: “Lots of stuff!”

“Thanks Pinkie.” Antares smiled, picking up the box with telekinesis to drop it on his broad back, and Pinkie winked at him in response before the young stallion turned and headed for the door, adding over his shoulder: “Take care, huh?”

“You too, Antares!” Pinkie called, as Avalon zoomed out after Antares, and then the pink pony smiled and glanced over at Spike, asking curiously: “So do you think he found a special somepony?”

Spike snorted in amusement at this, then he smiled warmly over at Pinkie and reached up to squeeze her shoulder, replying easily: “You think so too, huh? But it's good for Antares. Always seemed like he was growing up... too fast, you know?”

Antares Mīrus, meanwhile, was now grumbling as Avalon floated along beside him, the two heading towards the library as the Pegasus said mildly: “You know it's totally just a matter of time until everypony knows, right? Besides, what are you, ashamed of her?”

“No! It's not like that, because... it's not like that. I don't... I don't like her. I don't.” Antares mumbled, shifting awkwardly as he looked embarrassedly down at the ground, then he glanced up almost nervously and asked finally: “I mean. How much did you even see?”

“The crying, the groping, the kissing.” Avalon supplied easily, and then she grinned as Antares glared at her, visibly twitching, before easily zipping down to land on his back before she dropped herself flat with a yawn, smiling and closing her eyes as she curled comfortably up on top of him. “You are seriously in so much trouble dude. Meadowlark always liked you.”

This made Antares stumble a bit, blushing a little as he glanced awkwardly up toward the sky, then he shook his head hurriedly and mumbled: “I really... don't... it was stupid, Avalon. Besides, why are you making such a big deal out of this, anyway?”

Avalon yawned again, already well on her way to having a nap as she mumbled: “Simple, dude. Because if it's true it changes everything... we might have to actually start pretending to like Prestige, and I don't want to deal with that. You're kind of the leader, Antares... even the stupid stuff you do affects all of us.”

Antares swallowed a little at this, looking down before he shook his head, muttering: “No, no. No. I'm... I'm no leader, Ava. And how does the stuff I do affect anypony? There's no way I'm that important or anything, I mean... I make weird or dumb decisions all the time and no one complains, right? Right?”

But Avalon was already snoring away on his back, and Antares groaned and shook his head: even after all these years, the tiny Pegasus was still capable of simply flopping down and going to sleep wherever and whenever she liked, and more often than not took advantage of this odd little talent of hers to avoid any serious conversation or answering questions she didn't want to. Antares always found himself feeling strangely envious of this ability: he had trouble even napping for a few hours a night, after all, and even if he only rarely felt tired, he still often found himself wishing he could just magically go to sleep whenever he wanted to, wherever he was.

The rest of the walk back to the library was quiet, and Antares couldn't help but hesitate a little when he reached the doorway, studying it apprehensively before he finally steeled himself and mumbled: “Okay, okay, okay, you can do this, Antares.”

“Told you she was your marefriend.” Avalon's voice floated up, and Antares ground his teeth together as the Pegasus rose her head from his back, yawning loudly and adding: “You wouldn't be this nervous if you didn't like her. This is just weird, Mir, I don't really do so hot when the team roster changes, you know that.”

“Thank you for your concern, Avalon.” Antares mumbled, and the Pegasus nodded agreeably before the large, glossy black stallion sighed and then stepped forwards, pushing through the door and smiling awkwardly as the first thing his eyes settled on was Prestige, seated at the library table.

He looked at her, and she looked back, before the young male gestured at the box of treats floating beside him, giving a lame grin. Prestige gave a hesitant smile, and the two unicorns studied each other... and then Avalon stood up on Antares' back and put her front hooves on his head, leaning overtop the young stallion as she said cheerfully: “Do me a favor and don't make out while I'm eating, or I might hurl.”

Prestige turned scarlet as Antares winced and dropped the box of food, but Avalon dove quickly forwards, grinning as she caught the box just before it could hit the ground. She buzzed back up high into the air with a cackle, popping the box open and greedily shoving her head inside as she safely flew around the ceiling, as Prestige shouted angrily: “Upstart shorn-wing midget!”

“Ava, come on! It wasn't anything like that!” Antares pleaded, but the Pegasus only grinned widely as she continued to fly in an easy circle around the ceiling, and then Antares looked in surprise at Prestige when the young unicorn mare shot him a surprised, almost-hurt look, and he stared back at her before asking both her and himself: “Was... was it?”

For a few moments, the two unicorns only looked at each other, Prestige fumbling for words and Antares shifting awkwardly. But both of them were saved answering when Avalon cheerfully flung a cream-filled pastry at the unicorn mare and it struck the back of her head to explode in a great burst of sugary goo. Antares winced, Prestige stared, and Avalon seemed to realize she'd gone a little too far a moment before the library erupted into utter chaos.

After several minutes of wildly-thrown spells, shouting, shrieking, arguing, and threats, the three finally reached an awkward stalemate after Avalon crashed headfirst into a wall and flopped bonelessly to the ground, while Prestige fell over on her side, looking winded from both her emotions and her magic. Antares looked awkwardly back and forth between them, and then Avalon popped up to her hooves and simply shook her head briskly out before she winced as she looked up at the large crack she'd left in the wooden wall, mumbling: “Whoops. At least it wasn't a window this time.”

Antares sighed at this, then he looked awkwardly back and forth around the library as he headed slowly over to Prestige. Papers and books were laying in messes everywhere, crushed and splattered baked goods dotted the walls and floor, and here and there were scorch marks from Prestige's wildly-thrown spells and Antares' attempts to counter her magic.

“I hope it's not like this every time I tell somepony Prestige is my marefriend.” Antares mumbled to himself, as he leaned down towards the young unicorn mare... and her eyes opened in surprise as she looked up at him, and Antares cleared his throat and blushed before he began to babble some denial, some retraction...

But their eyes met, and they studied each other, and Antares saw into her as she saw her emotions reflected back again... before the young mare blushed and smiled faintly with the tiniest of nods, and he simply smiled in return before reaching down and carefully pulling her to her hooves, then into a tight embrace for a moment that she gladly returned.

Avalon made a retching sound, and Antares sighed as Prestige glared at her before the young mare huffed and stepped back from the young stallion. She rose her head imperiously as the Pegasus studied her moodily, and then Prestige twitched a few times before she forced out: “I hope in the future we can be better friends, Avalon. You are a very... talented... Pegasus.”

“Well. That's a start.” Avalon muttered, and Prestige ground her teeth before the before the golden-coated pony sighed and hopped into the air, flying easily across the room to land in front of them before she glowered up at Prestige. “I don't like you. At all. But if Mir likes you then I'll put up with you, okay? I'll even help sell you to the others. Not for you, but for Mir.”

Prestige looked grumpily down at Avalon, and Avalon narrowed her eyes before she suddenly shot up into the air, even Antares wincing backwards in surprise as the tiny Pegasus hovered just above Prestige and snapped: “But if you screw with his head or any of us, Apps and I will beat the crap out of you and shove your horn up your butt, do you understand me?”

“Avalon, I'm standing right here and...” Antares began, and when Avalon shot him a fuming look, the young stallion cleared his throat and turned awkwardly away. “I'm going to to grab you a cola to help you calm down.”

“I'm calm, I'm calm.” Avalon grumbled, then she fluttered down to the ground and mumbled while she stomped her hooves up and down as Prestige glared down at the tiny Pegasus. “Alright, guess we should clean up this stupid mess. Do you think Celestia will notice we wrecked up her library?”

“I'll repair the damage to the building, you and Antares can focus on cleaning up the mess.” Prestige replied distastefully, then she sighed and added morosely: “Please do not tell Aphrodisia I am dating her cousin. I wish to tell her myself at... some... point...”

Avalon only grinned as the young unicorn mare walked by, looking over her shoulder with a wink and saying mildly: “If I were you, pal, I'd be a little more worried about just how Meadowlark's gonna react to all this. Sparks are gonna fly, and not the good kind.”

“What are you talking about?” Prestige Luster asked curiously, but Avalon only grinned wider before she flapped her wings and flew quickly over the floor, beginning to gather up books to put them back on the shelves. Prestige frowned after the Pegasus, then simply sniffed and shrugged before she awkwardly turned to gaze towards Antares, watching as the young stallion headed towards the corridor... and a faint, honestly-thankful smile lit up her features for a moment before she hurriedly pushed these strange new thoughts and feelings out of her mind to focus on the task at hoof.