• Published 11th Nov 2012
  • 13,969 Views, 209 Comments

The Wrong Place at the Right Time - Little Jackie Papercut



Why weren't the Elements of Harmony in a museum after a thousand years? What if they HAD been?

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Act 1: Summer in the City

My dearest, most faithful student Twilight,

You know that I value your diligence and that I trust you completely, but you simply must stop reading those dusty old books!

My dear Twilight, there is more to a young pony's life than studying, so I'm sending you to supervise the preparations for the Summer Sun Celebration in this year's location: Manehattan. And I have an even more essential task for you to complete...

"...make some friends!"

Twilight groaned as Spike finished reading the letter for the tenth time. When she wrote about the coming threat of Nightmare Moon, she had expected Princess Celestia to respond quickly and decisively to put a halt to the wicked mare's escape before it could begin.

Instead, she had put her in charge of a festival! The Summer Sun Celebration! There was no time for festivals or parties or music or... whatever else Celestia was expecting of her! Disaster was looming on the horizon, and the key to stopping it was in Canterlot, with the royal library and the Princess. What could she possibly do now?

"Look on the bright side, Twilight," Spike said. "The Princess arranged for you to stay in a library. Doesn't that make you happy?"

There was a moment's contemplation before Twilight perked up. "Yes," she replied, "yes it does. And do you wanna know why?" She now stood over the baby dragon, grinning broadly. "Because I'm right! I'll check on the preparations as fast as I can, then get to the library to find some proof of Nightmare Moon's return!"

Ahead of them lay the sprawling metropolis of Manehattan. They passed statues perched on each tier of the neoclassical architecture, at heights that would have been far above the tallest rooftop in many towns in Equestria, but Twilight paid them no heed. Nor did she take note of the impressive rivers surrounding the borough, or the patch of lush and beautiful green amid the urban sprawl. All she could think of was her self-appointed task, and oh, how seriously she took that task.

"Then... when will you make friends like the Princess said?" Spike protested quietly.

"She SAID to check on preparations," Twilight retorted, conveniently forgetting the final instruction in the letter and the emphasis that had been placed on it. "I am her student, and I'll do my royal duty, but the fate of Equestria does NOT rest on me making friends."

As she finished speaking, the pegasus guards pulling the flying chariot touched down on Mane Street. "Thank you, sirs," Twilight offered politely before trotting off down the busy Manehattan streets.

She hadn't gone ten feet before she bumped into another pony. "Oh, please excuse me," Twilight said, backing away a bit to see that she had collided with a blue unicorn mare. The mare was now staring at her with an expression of mild disdain. "I'm in a bit of a hurry, so—"

Spike cleared his throat beside her. "Twilight," he said, "she's not going anywhere. You could at least try."

Twilight sighed dramatically, then nodded. "Alright then. My name is Twilight Sparkle. What's yours?"

But the other pony didn't answer. Instead, with a bright flash of her horn and a puff of smoke, she disappeared. That semi-scowl never left her lips.

For a moment, neither Twilight nor Spike moved.

"Well, I tried," Twilight declared, resuming her march.

Falling into step behind her, Spike groaned. "Whoever that useless snob was," he muttered under the sound of the crowd, "remind me to chew on her ankle if we ever see her again." He raised his voice a bit to ask, "Well, what about seeing the sights? You just got here, you've gotta have a look around."

"Spike," Twilight said in a warning tone, "there'll be plenty of time for sightseeing after we save the world."

Spike ran a claw over his temple. "Fine," he said with a bit of a sigh in his voice. "Let's just get this over with."

"So, where to first?"

Spike scanned the list of preparations. The first item was food. It looked like a large catering company had been contracted to handle the event. "We need to check in with Orange Catering," he read aloud, pointing off down the street, and they set off. Spike read off the directions line by line, steering Twilight toward their destination.

Every now and then, Spike would become distracted by a storefront, or a food vendor, or some other display of the unique Neigh York culture. Without fail, Twilight reminded him of their present task with a quick telekinetic tug.

Spike grumbled as she dragged him away from yet another newspaper stand, where he had become entranced by the sound of strings flowing from a radio set upon the counter. The stallion manning the stand watched with an amused chuckle, then went back to perusing his own wares.

"I really liked that song," Spike complained.

~#~#~#~

Orange Catering was located in the back of the substantially larger building that housed the Orange Hotel. Twilight and Spike spent a minute surveying it from outside. One thing's for certain, she thought, in Manehattan they like things tall. The towers of Canterlot Castle were the tallest buildings she had ever seen before, and they were utilitarian, only barely rising above the castle itself, perhaps ten stories at the most.

The hotel in front of Twilight was at least thirty stories high, and even at that size, dwarfed by more buildings around it. In the distance, spires pierced the lowest clouds and kept rising. This city made Canterlot look like an underground bunker.

At her side, Spike cleared his throat. "Well? Are we gonna go in or what?"

Twilight started a bit, having almost been distracted from her task for a minute. "Of course," she said, resuming her businesslike affectation and striding forward.

The interior of the hotel was certainly... lavish. From the plush red carpet that her hooves sank easily into to the golden arches of the entryway, clearly no expense had been spared in the decoration of this place. In fact, the more she looked around at the gold-studded leather upholstery, the more the word "gaudy" came to mind, and she found herself hoping that the same caterer wouldn't be responsible for decorations for the Celebration.

Spike couldn't contain a low whistle of admiration at the luxurious decorations of the lobby... and Twilight somewhat suspected the gem-encrusted chandelier was a large part of that. "Spike, no eating the furniture," she cautioned him. "We're here on a mission, so let's stick to that, okay?"

Spike nodded absently, still staring. With a roll of her eyes, Twilight proceeded into the kitchen. "Hello?" she called. "I'm here to speak with the mMMPH!" She found herself cut off by a large spoon of some kind of sweet cream that had been shoved into her mouth by a pony in chef's attire. He was now studying her face for a reaction, so to appease him she gave an awkward smile. After a moment, he looked satisfied and went back to his work.

"Well, good morning to you," came a voice from behind her. Twilight turned to see a pale orange earth mare, about ten years older than herself, with an elegantly styled orange mane and tail. Her blue eyes shone with a matronly light, and her cutie mark, three orange slices, left little doubt who this might be.

Twilight cleared her throat. "I'm Twilight Sparkle. I was sent by Celestia to confirm the menu for the Summer Sun Celebration," she explained.

"Yes, I suspected as much," the older mare said with a light chuckle. "I am Orange Sherbet. I run the catering, as well as the hotel, along with my husband, Mosely Orange." As she spoke, Twilight found more spoons thrust at her from various directions, and tried to appraise them as well as she could while keeping her attention on the mare.

With a polite nod, Twilight tried to make her way toward the door. "Well, I was just sent to check on the food, and I can see that everything's good," she said, "so I think I'll just be on my way."

Sherbet's eyes widened with some inexplicable terror at the thought. "Oh, heavens, no, child!" she cried. "I have to insist! If Celestia sent you, you mustn't leave until you've had the final word on everything!"

Twilight swallowed a lump in her throat, which may have been fear, or may have been the cheesecake that had just been pressed into her maw. "E-everything?" she echoed, looking around at the full kitchen, which was scrambling to have a feast prepared for the Celebration.

The hope of escaping and returning to her work vanished in an instant.

"Oh, no, Madam Sherbet," Twilight said, shaking her head. "I'm afraid I simply couldn't—"

"Now, now," Sherbet interrupted, placing a hoof gently upon Twilight's lips to silence her. "You may call me 'Auntie'. Everypony does." Apparently, making sure to establish this nickname with its implications of familial affection was a high enough priority to come before Twilight's refusal. "And I'm afraid we really can't do without you. This is, after all, a feast for the Princess and for all of Manehattan. We mustn't let one poorly chosen dish or one undercooked ingredient escape our notice! How could we ever forgive ourselves if we didn't provide the best banquet possible?"

She paused for a moment there, seeming to consider what Twilight might be concerned about. "Of course," she continued, "I realize it must be dull for you, having to make sure everything is just so, so perhaps we could liven things up with some conversation. We could really get to know each other. After all, it's not often somepony of your standing is sent to us."

Twilight started to protest that she was just doing a job, but silenced herself. The more she attempted to get out of this, the more she realized she was acting like a petulant filly. "Auntie" was really eager to make sure she was doing things right, on top of being so aggressively polite. And besides, it was technically Twilight's job.

~#~#~#~

Spike nearly had to drag Twilight from the building; her mind was too focused on the feeling of her gut about to burst to properly move her legs. Orange Sherbet had at least been pleasant enough, keeping up a conversation as far as Twilight could manage to follow, but this was really hard to appreciate while buried under samples of every appetizer, entree, and dessert they could put together.

Plodding away from the hotel, Twilight wasn't even paying attention to where they were going or what they were doing. After a moment's contemplation, Spike took the opportunity to step over to a corner vendor's stand. Glancing surreptitiously back to make sure Twilight hadn't snapped out of it, he fished some bits out of a pouch.

The vendor seemed slightly taken aback when Spike hoisted himself onto the counter to get a look at the wares. "Uh... can I help you?" he asked.

"Yeah," said Spike, pointing to a figurine of a pegasus in flight, sporting an especially nice hat. "How much is that?" It struck him as a nice gift to help calm Twilight down later if she was still stuck in freakout mode when the Celebration came, and a decent souvenir otherwise.

"Ten bits," said the stallion, and the deal was easy; a Canterlot merchant might have charged twenty for the same. Spike shook the pony's hoof, which was a little awkward in their current positions, then took the figurine gladly and rejoined Twilight.

He pulled out the Celebration to-do list again and cleared his throat.

"They've got it under control," Twilight confirmed as she jolted back to awareness, taking a moment to realize that Orange Catering was well and truly behind them. "Where next?"

"We need to head to the Manehattan Weather Center to check on the weather team," Spike continued. When Twilight didn't respond he poked her in the side, causing her to groan and wobble as if about to fall over.

"Take it easy, Spike... I hope the walk is good for my digestion," she moaned.

~#~#~#~

The Weather Center, on the campus of the Manehattan University of Natural Sciences, was where the best weather ponies in Equestria were trained. The senior weather cadets handled most of the responsibility for large parts of the city; the instructors served as chief weather officers for the city as a whole.

The University was beautifully kept. Twilight was almost entranced by the stone walls, with carefully cultivated moss cascading down in exactly the right places and ivies climbing up to meet it. The coloring of it all was somehow emphasized by the muted light from the overcast sky. Flowering shrubs lined the front of each building, except for one. Twilight guessed, based on the topiary animals that stood outside instead, that it must be the zoology department.

Spike consulted the letter, looking for a map, but Twilight had already found the Weather Center. Knowing where to look, it was easy to spot. For training, the weather ponies needed a rooftop facility with a special storage area. Atop a nearby building, Twilight saw a bi-level platform, which was exactly the kind of setup necessary. The upper platform would be used for flight drills, and the lower one would keep materials safe and dry. She quickly found the sign identifying the building as the Weather Center and proceeded inside.

The interior was barren, uncut stone, which was no surprise to Twilight. It was the rooftop that really mattered. There was a very plain corridor stretching left and right from the entrance, and a set of stairs straight in front. Along the corridor were a few classrooms, and she could hear a professor lecturing his students on weather-related technology. The rest of the rooms were offices and storage. Twilight ascended the stairs, and found herself in an open-air bi-level structure oddly reminiscent of a cart storage unit.

Pegasi milled about aimlessly. Twilight's eye twitched as she observed the scene. These must be the weather ponies, but they seemed completely oblivious to the fact that they were getting further behind schedule.

"What are all you ponies doing?!" she demanded, stamping a hoof. "The Summer Sun Celebration is in less than twenty-four hours and not one pony is working on preparing the weather! Who is responsible for this delay? No, wait, don't answer that, you're all guilty!"

"Hey, shut up," said an irritable-looking stallion. "We've been running drills all week, and we're running on empty! I skipped breakfast just to be here today!"

"So did I!" added a mare nearby. "AND I had to miss dinner last night too in order to get enough sleep!"

"We sent Junior Cadet Blossomforth to get lunch a few hours ago," said another. "But it seems like she's stopped to smell the roses again."

Twilight looked up at the sky. There really wasn't time for this. She needed these pegasi in the air so she could get on her way. At this point, it occurred to her that there was only one way that was going to happen.

"Alright," she said with a sigh, "how about I go find her? Then you can eat and get started on clearing the sky, right?"

There was a general murmur of consensus, and without waiting for further confirmation, she descended the stairs again.

As she stepped onto the first floor, the sound of humming reached Twilight's ears. Sparing a glance to her right, she noticed a white pegasus mare with a mane she could only describe as watermelon-striped. The pegasus was busily hanging strings of flowers from the ceiling near the bend in the corridor. In fact, the walls, ceiling, and floor had been positively blanketed in flowers; the sheer volume was striking, and Twilight found herself approaching out of curiosity.

"Hello," she ventured, prompting the pegasus to whirl around. This, in turn, caused a few chains of flowers to fall, decorating the mare rather than their intended targets. "That's certainly a lot of flowers you have there."

"Oh, yes," said the pegasus with a small laugh. "I grew them all myself, actually. I love flowers..."

Twilight nodded. "I can see that. How long have you been down here?" From this angle, she was vaguely aware that beyond the bend, the rather long corridor had already been completely decorated, and a cart stood still bulging with more flowers.

"Oh, I just started. I was on my way to get some lunch, but I thought, you know... it's the Summer Sun Celebration, right? This place should look... sunnier! So I got some extra to spruce it up!"

It took several seconds for the actual meaning of that statement to dawn on Twilight. "Get lunch...? Wait, you aren't Junior Cadet Blossomforth, by any chance?"

The pegasus looked startled for a moment, then nodded. "Yes, I am. Who are you?"

"Twilight Sparkle, I'm here to check on the—that's not important, everypony on the the weather team is wondering where you are! You've been gone for hours!"

"What?!" Blossomforth looked at the clock, and her pupils shrank to pinpricks. "Oh no I've gotta go bye!" She grabbed her cart and rushed up the stairs, nearly knocking Twilight over in the process. Twilight righted herself, exchanged a glance with Spike, and followed the panicking pegasus back up the stairs.

On the roof once more, she saw Blossomforth scurrying to distribute flowers among the team. The stallion from before approached and raised a hoof, smiling as she passed him a particularly large bloom.

"Hey, thanks, Blossom," he said, before shoving it into his mouth. As the team finished devouring their meals, the stallion gave a whistle, which was echoed back throughout the group. With no further cues, they took flight.

~#~#~#~

Back on the street, Twilight couldn't help but be a little awed at how quickly the reinvigorated ponies were turning the situation around. She paused to watch the skies clear up. The pegasi pushed the clouds out over the ocean where they could be scattered to vapor without giving the city an unscheduled downpour.

"Alright, Spike," she said, once she was certain they were back on schedule, "what's next?"

"We need to stop at the Equestrian Museum of Supernatural History," he read. "Have to check on the decorations and make sure they're ready for the crowd, plus the Princess."

"Easy! We'll be done with this in no time!" With a grin, Twilight set off in the direction of the museum. Spike raised a claw to interject, glancing at a carrot dog vendor right next to them, but Twilight didn't seem to be paying attention and was moving at a pretty good pace, so he scurried to keep up with her, following her to the steps of the museum.

It was an impressively large building, though that seemed to be the norm in this city. Unlike many of the other buildings they passed, however, this one also presented them with an impressively large entryway. Stone arches and markers led to a large door designed to let a crowd pass all at once, flanked by smaller doors.

The museum was closed to the general public while it was being prepared for the Celebration. This was not a problem for them, since they weren't the general public. Twilight looked to Spike. "If you would be so kind?" Spike gave a nod of confirmation and rummaged through his pouches for the key.

~#~#~#~

Inside, the architecture was almost intimidating, dominated by marble arches and brass columns. There were no lightbulbs or candles in the entry hall, as light from open doors and high windows proved sufficient.

The thing that immediately caught their attention was a sepia-toned streak zipping around. After several moments, it stopped right in front of them, and Twilight realized that it was a bespectacled pegasus mare, hurriedly cleaning every surface in the museum. She had a tan coat, and a two-toned gray mane and tail. She also wore a bulky green sweater, and it wasn't until moments after observing this that Twilight noticed a chill in the building.

Spike backed out the door, not able to tolerate the temperature. "I'll just wait out here," he called. "Cold-blooded, you know how it is." He turned around and sat down, taking out the figurine from earlier to admire as he waited.

"Can I help you?" the pegasus asked, sounding a little tired. "I've got a lot of work to do before the Summer Sun Celebration, you know... getting ready to play host to Celestia herself..."

"Actually, that's why I'm here," Twilight explained, shivering slightly. "I was sent by—why is it so cold in here?"

"Thermostat's on the fritz. We'll have it fixed by tonight. Until then it's just gonna get colder. So you were sent...?"

The chill must have been slowing Twilight's thought processes, and it took her a second to respond to the mare. "R-right. Twilight Sparkle. Sent by Celestia. To supervise."

The pegasus rolled her eyes and gestured to herself. "Honey Do. Head curator. Don't need supervision."

"Th-that's g-great." Twilight nodded stiffly, trying to will her teeth to stop chattering. "I'm sup-p-posed to take a look around, anyway..."

Honey Do shrugged. "The main event's gonna be in the outdoor courtyard, which is straight thataway." She waved a hoof behind herself. "Have a look around, warm yourself up, and let me do my job."

Twilight nodded her thanks, and proceeded in the direction indicated. She didn't get halfway there, though, before spotting something out of the corner of her eye.

At her scream, Honey Do zipped to her location, and found her cowering on the ground, nose against the wall. Registering that, the pegasus looked to the other wall to see what the problem was.

"Heh, you too, huh?"

Twilight blinked in confusion as the pegasus picked her up, set her back on her feet and directed her attention to the remarkably lifelike representation of an incredibly large snake, a plaque beneath which read "Jormungandr (1/1,000,000,000 scale)".

"Man, that thing freaks me out all the time. I hate snakes." Honey chuckled. "If I'd known, I woulda warned you. Sorry about that."

Laughing nervously, Twilight shook her head. "No, it's fine. You didn't know. I should just—" Before she finished the thought, something more enticing caught her eye. "Is that what I think it is?" she asked, stepping toward it.

Seeing where Twilight's attention was drawn now, Honey beamed. "Sure is! The gen-you-wine authentic staff of Starswirl the Bearded! You would not believe how hard THAT was to get." She scratched her head. "Guess you're big on historical artifacts, huh? Then I've got to show you this!"

Honey Do put a hoof around Twilight's withers and steered her into a nearby room. Twilight winced. She didn't have time for a tour!

This room was filled with chalices and tomes and a lot of other things that were clearly very ancient, but Twilight didn't particularly care about any of that at the moment. She was more concerned with her search for an opportunity to escape. Now Honey was talking about each piece, gesturing animatedly. Twilight wasn't really paying attention to her words, but she did pick up on the fact that some of the gestures were violent, throwing punches and even mimicking archery. Suddenly, Twilight was even more nervous about continuing this.

"And this," Honey was saying, indicating an ancient-looking sun symbol, "was actually carried by Typhoon, the great explorer and granddaughter of three of the founders of Equestria, as a symbol of her devotion to Celestia, and was recently found in the possession of..."

Twilight spotted, in the far corner of the room, an ornate suit of armor, and an idea began to take shape in her head. Noticing that the curator had gone on to talking about a few unremarkable lumps of rock, Twilight cast a quick spell, giving the armor a push. It wobbled a few times, then hit the ground with a loud crash.

Honey Do's head whipped around, her sentence cut off in the middle. Upon seeing the beautiful display in a heap on the floor, she gasped and rushed over to it. "Oh, please don't be damaged," she muttered under her breath, picking up each piece of the set and examining it closely. Preoccupied with that, she didn't notice Twilight sneaking out the door.

~#~#~#~

"Okay, last stop," Spike said as elevator gate opened. "Music. One of Celestia's favorite musicians lives here, and she's been tasked with hoof-picking the rest of the band." The sound of a quartet playing floated down the corridor in front of them, and Twilight was followed them to a door at the end of the hall. She raised a hoof and knocked loudly.

Somepony played a sour note, and the whole song abruptly stopped. "One moment, please," came a voice from the other side. Several other voices were audible, but indistinct. The door swung open to reveal a gray earth mare. She stood aside and gave a smile and a bow, beckoning for them to enter.

Twilight stepped into a comfortable-looking sitting room. The far wall was a single window overlooking the streets far below. "I take it you're Octavia?" Twilight guessed, eyes on the mare.

The other pony nodded, but said nothing.

"Alright then! I'm Twilight Sparkle. I've been sent to check on the music. It sounded nice, do you think you're ready?"

In answer, Octavia smiled and raised a bow held in the crook of her hoof toward a door on the right, through which three other musicians were visible. For their part, they seemed slightly irritated that Twilight was questioning their preparedness, but took the gesture as a cue to resume playing. Octavia herself picked her instrument, a massive cello, back up, set bow to strings, and a beautiful sound flowed forth.

Twilight enjoyed their brief demonstration, but Spike seemed almost weak-kneed by the time Octavia removed her bow from her instrument with a flourish and took a bow.

"Well, that is truly amazing," Twilight said, standing up to leave and prodding Spike to bring him back to reality. "That's all I needed to hear, so it's time we get back to—"

Spike's stomach growled, and Twilight shot him a look. "What?" he asked. "I haven't eaten since we got here..."

Octavia giggled, sounding both politely formal and genuinely mirthful. "It is natural. 'The young are in a condition like permanent intoxication, because youth is sweet and they are growing.' Wait one moment," she said, slipping out of the room with movements so graceful Twilight was hardly aware of them.

Shortly thereafter, she returned with two plates on her back, a large slice of cake on one, and on the other a circle of rubies and sapphires. On her head, she bore two teacups. She set both plates in front of Spike with a smile, and passed a cup to Twilight, who stared into it for a moment before looking back at Octavia questioningly.

"I must provide for guests, mustn't I? It would be terrible to allow a poor baby dragon to go hungry," Octavia explained, and sipped her tea. "Corundum grows all over Equestria, so it often turns up as small-denomination currency, but I think this is a much better use for it."

Spike was once more dumbstruck, and Twilight caught an odd look in his eye as he picked up a gemstone carefully and bit into it. There was no telling what thought processes had begun in his mind. What she could tell, though, was that Spike wasn't about to hurry himself.

"Wow, look at the time," Twilight said, glancing out the window. "We really need to get going. Sorry to have interrupted! Keep up the good work!" She pulled Spike onto her back, causing him to drop a sapphire half, and trotted to the door.

"Oh, but wait," Octavia began, but they had already left.

~#~#~#~

"Finally! We've checked on everything, now we can get back to the library and do some research!" Twilight declared as she trotted down the street. "It's good to finally be alone, right, Spike?" Pause. "Spike...?"

"Huh? Oh!" Spike shook himself to attention. "Sorry, Twilight, I was listening to Octavia."

Twilight blinked, then shook her head. "Spike, we left Octavia's five minutes ago. You couldn't possibly hear her from her house."

Spike contemplated that for a moment. "You're right," he admitted. "I couldn't."

"Exactly, now stop being a little goofball and—"

"Because she's right behind us."

"Huh?"

As Spike stood up and waved behind them, Twilight glanced over her shoulder, and confirmed that Octavia was, indeed, following them, wearing a pair of saddlebags, trying to call out to them but inaudible over the bustle of the street. Turning her face forward again, Twilight ignored the mare and increased her pace, not at all wanting to stop for some trivial conversation.

"Hey! Twilight, slow down!" Spike protested, grabbing at her mane, either to keep his balance or to get her attention. "She wants to talk to us! Show some manners, would ya?"

Twilight winced at the pulling. She continued apace for a few seconds, but at Spike's insistence, she groaned and slowed down, though not without shooting him a glare. Soon the gray mare was keeping pace just behind them. She opened her mouth to speak.

"Hi, Octavia!" Spike interrupted, quite obliviously. "Sorry about Twi. Rude, right? I guess she's just in a hurry to get ready for tomorrow. I bet everypony in Neigh York will show up to hear your music. You must be excited about that, right?" He gave her a goofy grin.

Octavia blinked a bit, and nodded.

"And I bet it'll be the greatest performance of your life!" he added excitedly, before Octavia could comment. "You'll knock 'em dead! Your music will make the sunrise even brighter!"

With a slightly strained smile, she nodded again and drew in a breath to speak.

"I listened to records of your music all the time in Canterlot," Spike continued. "You're Celestia's favorite, you know, and it's easy to see why. I mean..."

Twilight sighed, shaking her head as she proceeded on, attempting to tune the rambling baby dragon out.

~#~#~#~

They were about a block from the library before Spike finally started to wrap it up.

"...so the Wonderbolts' flight plan got mixed up with the Fillydelphia Orchestra's score, and they were all going in circles for weeks," he finished with a chuckle.

As he seemed to contemplate telling another story, Octavia cleared her throat. "'Who listens once will listen twice.' You can tell me more later," she said. "I wanted to tell you that you dropped this." She reached into her saddlebag, and produced the figurine that Spike had purchased earlier. Surprised, he took it.

"Oh! Thank you," he said, staring at it for a moment before his face relaxed into a dopey smile. "It was nice of you to return it."

"Yes, very nice," Twilight broke in, "but as you can see, we're here, so I guess this is where we say goodbye." She pushed open the library door and looked back at Octavia. "So, goodbye, we'll see you at the Celebration, goodbye."

"Actually, I was—" Octavia began, but Twilight had already ducked inside and shut the door.

"Twilight..." Spike began, irritably, letting the word hang there.

"I'm sorry, Spike," Twilight said, as they began to walk through the vestibule, passing between intricately carved marble columns, "but I have to convince the Princess that Nightmare Moon is coming, and we're running out of time! I just need to be alone so I can study without a bunch of crazy ponies trying to make friends all the time!"

She walked through a doorway as she said this, and suddenly the room was illuminated in a variety of colors, accompanied by whistling and popping noises. This startled Twilight to attention, and she noticed that the room was packed with ponies, all staring straight at her. "Everypony," declared a booming voice, "please welcome our special guest!" Before she could let out so much as an "awp", Twilight found herself being lifted and carried to the center of the room, where a portable circular stage had been set up.

Twilight was placed near the center of the stage, and close by stood a blue mare, wearing a starry hat and cape. It took Twilight a few moments to recognize her as the same pony she had collided with upon arrival. Suddenly, without warning, the mare shifted into a bipedal stance, pointing one hoof at Twilight emphatically. "Greetings, Twilight Sparkle!" she said, in the same overdramatic tone. "I, the Great and Powerful Trixie, have arranged this special, one-of-a-kind performance all for you! I hope you are suitably impressed!"

"I'm impressed those fireworks didn't burn down the library," Twilight muttered.

"But of course!" The blue mare, apparently, automatically assumed this was a compliment. "Naturally, Trixie had the foresight to procure special fireworks for the occasion!" She turned to the audience now, gesturing to Twilight. "The Great and Powerful Trixie found this mare in the street, confused and alone!" She slipped a forehoof around Twilight's head in a slightly uncomfortable hug. "With no friends at all!"

Beside Twilight, Spike cleared his throat loudly, but Trixie didn't seem to hear him.

"She didn't even recognize the Great and Powerful Trixie! And so Trixie thought to herself, this cannot do! Trixie will perform for her, and invite as many ponies as she can fit into one building! Then, this mare will have friends, and moreover, she will finally know the Great and Powerful Trixie, and so she will no longer be miserable! Hear me, Manehattan? Let's have a round of applause for Trixie's newfound companion, Twilight Sparkle!"

Twilight could only stare flatly as the crowd erupted in applause.

As the roar died down, Trixie conjured a bouquet of flowers and offered them up to Twilight, who took them unthinkingly. Twilight's mind was on more important things and she barely even took note of the bouquet.

Until she noticed a giant bee in it.

Immediately, she yelled and dropped the bouquet, sliding away. The flowers disappeared in a puff of smoke as they hit the stage, leaving behind only a large, plastic bee. The audience gave a loud round of laughter, and Twilight's face reddened slightly.

"Don't be so nervous," Trixie said. "No harm done. Here, let's see if we can get a few volunteers, and then we'll put on a real show! I think," she mused with a sly look, "four should do it."

Trixie scanned the crowd, and picked out four excited ponies. As they were ushered onto the stage, Twilight wasn't even surprised to notice that they were Orange Sherbet, Blossomforth, Honey Do and Octavia. Why should that, or anything, surprise her now?

"Watch in awe!" Trixie proclaimed, as a curtain sprang up from the stage, surrounding the six ponies. "Can YOU spot which of these ponies is the REAL Twilight Sparkle?" There was a bright glow within the curtain, and then it retracted, leaving five Twilight Sparkles, and Trixie standing at the end of the line.

Spike approached the Twilights, looking from one to another. He smelled one, poked at another–both gave him disapproving looks. He scratched his head, then turned to Trixie with an exasperated shrug... and suddenly, his half-chewed meal from minutes ago reasserted itself in a bout of indigestion, causing Spike to let out a loud, fiery belch.

The magical flames dispelled Trixie's magic, revealing a slightly scorched Twilight Sparke where Trixie had just stood. Spike gasped, and the audience broke into laughter once more.

"'With eager feeding food doth choke the feeder,'" remarked one of the other Twilights, approaching Spike with a worried look on her face. "Are you alright?"

Trixie, having been the Twilight in the middle, dismissed her spell, and they all reverted to their normal appearance. She seemed to be suppressing her laughter, with small difficulty, if only because she was trying to speak. "So, how about it? What did you think of that trick?" she asked.

By way of response, Twilight turned and stomped off the stage.

~#~#~#~

The show continued without Twilight, to her annoyance. In a bed nestled between three bookshelves near the back of the room that had been prepared for her, she pressed a pillow over her ears to try and block out the sounds of explosions and cheering, but the effort was failing. Annoyed, she sat up and looked at the clock.

Spike entered the room with a slight stumble. "Hey Twilight!" he called. "Trixie's just conjured a giant hamster ball and we're all taking turns riding in it! Want a go?"

Twilight noticed that at some point he had gotten Trixie's hat.

"No!" she hissed. "All the ponies in this town are crazy! Do you know what time it is?"

Spike seemed to completely disregard the question. "It's the eve of the Summer Sun Celebration," he reminded her. "Everypony has to stay up, or they'll miss the Princess raise the sun! You really should lighten up, Twilight. It's a party!" So saying, he pivoted on one heel and returned to the scene. Behind him, Twilight did as much of a mocking imitation of his words as she could manage before covering her head once more.

"Ugh," she scoffed, "here I thought I'd have time to learn about the Elements of Harmony but, silly me, all this ridiculous friend-making has kept me from it!" Glancing up, she noticed the moon outside the high window, and climbed a ladder onto the bookcase behind her bed to see it better. She needn't have, however, because in her mind's eye, she could see nothing but the moon, and the sinister shadow of the dark mare. "'Legend has it that on the longest day of the thousandth year, the stars will aid in her escape, and she will bring about everlasting night,'" she repeated to herself, and noticed with some terror that the moon seemed wreathed by especially bright stars. "I hope the Princess was right... I hope it really is just an old pony tale..."

The moon was definitely beginning to set. She tore her eyes from the moon as Spike returned.

"C'mon, Twilight, it's time to watch the sun rise!" he said, beckoning for her to follow him. With one last glance over her shoulder, she descended the ladder and exited the library, her knees shaking as she made her way back to the museum.

~#~#~#~

Twilight trotted into the stunningly decorated courtyard nervously. The sight of the banners hanging from pillars and sparkling golden emblems eased her mind, but only slightly. She took a place at the front of the forming crowd, and was quickly joined by Blossomforth and Trixie.

"Hey," Blossomforth said, beaming ear to ear. "You ready for this? I've been looking forward to it all year. I bet the sunshine will be extra-nice this year!"

"Uh, yeah, right," Twilight said distractedly.

Trixie gently nudged Twilight with an elbow. "Don't be such a wet blanket," she said. "This is an event ponies will be talking about for weeks, so just take it all in!"

Twilight spared Trixie a brief, annoyed look before returning her attention to the stage at the end of the courtyard, where Honey Do had alighted.

"Welcome, everypony," Honey greeted the crowd. "This year marks the first time in this museum's one-hundred-fifty year history that we've been selected to host the Summer Sun Celebration. I don't think I have to tell you what an honor it is!"

The crowd gave a small cheer by way of confirmation, quickly quieting down.

"So to start us off right, Mayor Tux is here to give the traditional speech," she continued, moving aside and giving a small flourish in the direction of a brown stallion wearing a formal collar and glasses.

"Fillies and gentlecolts," he began, stepping onto the center of the stage, "as Mayor of Neigh York, it is my great pleasure to announce the beginning of the Summer Sun Celebration!"

The crowd cheered a little louder.

"In just a few moments, our town will witness the magic of the sunrise, and celebrate this, the longest day of the year!"

Twilight cast a glance at the moon, and bit her lip as the face of the Mare in the Moon seemed to vanish before her eyes.

"And now, it is my great honor to introduce to you the ruler of our land, the very pony who gives us the sun and the moon each and every day, the good, the wise, the bringer of harmony to all of Equestria..."

Beside the stage, Octavia placed her bow to the strings, ready to play.

"Princess Celestia!" Mayor Tux turned and raised a hoof to a balcony above him, the music starting as the curtains pulled back...

...and promptly fading out. Nopony was there.

It took Twilight a moment to register the noise beside her. She looked to her right to see Trixie stamping her hooves in applause. At Twilight's stare, the blue mare halted. "Well," Trixie said, "it is kind of ingenious, isn't it? Building suspense like this..."

Twilight shook her head and returned her attention to the balcony, wincing as she realized a black mist was coalescing upon it. "Oh no," she whispered, "Nightmare Moon!"

The mist coalesced into a coherent figure, one Twilight had only seen in a book: A black mare, the size of Celestia herself, with massive wings and a long, wicked horn. She wore a helmet that fit the shape of her head perfectly. Above it, her mane flowed free, not hair, but a trail of darkness, peppered with pinpricks of starlight.

"Oh, my beloved subjects," the mare said, slowly and calmly. "It's been so long since I saw your precious, little sun-loving faces."

"Halt, fiend!" Trixie cried triumphantly, disappearing from where she stood with a puff of smoke and reappearing on the stage with another. She grinned wildly as she pointed a dramatic hoof at the dark being above her. "Tell us where our princess is, or Trixie, the glorious defender of the realm, will—"

Trixie's declaration was cut off as Orange Sherbet grabbed her off the stage and shoved her under a dessert tray. "It's not a show," Sherbet whispered hastily, then turned around again, trying to look like nothing was wrong.

The mare of darkness, however, looked amused. "Why?" she asked. "Am I not royal enough for you? Don't you know who I am?" Not a single pony dared to reply, and their silence seemed to offend her. "Does my crown no longer count after a thousand years? Did you not recall the legend?" She reached out toward the orchestra, idly toying with their instruments with her odd, animate mane, then abruptly became serious, scrutinizing Honey Do and the Mayor. "Did you not see the signs?"

"I did!" cried Twilight, suddenly forceful. This was the moment she had been trying to warn the Princess about, and that emboldened her. She paid no heed to the fact that for a brief moment, every eye was on her. "And I know who you are. You're the Mare in the Moon–Nightmare Moon!"

Nightmare Moon seemed almost as shocked as any of the other ponies to hear Twilight speak, but quickly recovered. "Well well well," she said, amused once more, "somepony who remembers me. Then you also know why I'm here."

"You're here to... to..." Twilight stammered, looking around at all the helpless ponies, the gravity of the situation now truly beginning to sink in more than ever. Realizing the hopelessness of her position, she swallowed a lump in her throat.

Nightmare Moon chuckled before speaking again, this time more slowly than before, deliberately, emphasizing the idle menace of each word. "Remember this day, little ponies, for it was your last," she declared. "From this moment forward, the night will last forever!"

Her vicious laughter filled Twilight with an overwhelming sense of despair.

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