• Published 21st Mar 2013
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Synthesis of the Atheist - BlackRoseRaven

Luna and Scrivener become the targets of a malicious, narcissistic psychopath. 8th story in the 99 Worlds Saga/Blooming Moon Chronicles.

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Reaping Our Labors

Chapter Four: Reaping Our Labors

Celestia smiled as she relaxed on the front deck of her sister's home, watching with warmth in her eyes as Luna charged with a wide grin towards the young stallion standing at the ready across from her, before leaping into an almost-vicious lash of her horn as she shouted: “Force me back!”

Antares' horn met his mother's, sending up sparks of energy as the aura-shrouded natural weapons smashed back and forth against one-another's. Luna pushed aggressively forwards as her son grit his teeth and parried each and every attack, leathery wings spread slightly before they flapped hard, giving him an extra boost of momentum as he pushed back with all his might and managed to knock Luna stumbling.

Twilight watched closely, her violet eyes only the faintest bit concerned: she had come to understand why Luna pushed the people she cared about so hard, why when she sparred, she held little back. It wasn't just because she wanted to ensure they were at the top of their game... it was a sign of respect. 'Babying' her friends or family, as Luna phrased it, would be an insult to their dignity.

Maybe there were other reasons, too, though, why Twilight had come to enjoy seeing this... but the Lich shook her head quickly, pushing those thoughts away even as she silently stroked a hoof over the stitching. Then she blushed as Celestia's eyes were drawn towards the soft rasping sound, before the ivory winged unicorn gave Twilight a gentle look, asking quietly: “Is it bothering you?”

Twilight Sparkle shook her head lamely, then looked up with relief when Scrivener Blooms stepped out of the front door, carrying a pot of tea and several muffins on a tray. The stallion smiled supportively at Twilight around the handle in his jaws, then winced a bit as, on the field, Antares managed to get a bit of distance from Luna and snap his horn forwards to release a blast of light.

Luna stumbled backwards, blinded and cursing loudly, and Antares winced and stared for a moment at the curses coming from his mother's mouth before he leapt forwards with his teeth grit, bringing a hoof back. His hesitation cost him though, as Luna flicked her horn up and created a sapphire barrier between them that her son hammered uselessly into, wincing and then shoving firmly off it to throw himself a good distance away.

Then Luna shook her head out quickly and growled, blinking a few times to clear her vision before yelling in frustration: “Damned illusions and misdirection! 'Tis just like Loki, or worse, foul old Odin, the lech always did abuse such tricks!”

Antares winced again as Celestia sighed and shook her head, and then the young stallion naively dropped his guard as he said awkwardly: “Mom, sorry, I... I mean, you wanted me to-”

Luna let out a shout of triumph and snapped her horn upwards as it flashed, and Antares had only a moment to stare dumbly before vines tore out of the ground all around him, snapping around the stallion's neck, limbs and body before they all yanked taut and dragged him to the ground, legs splayed out almost comically as he yelped in pain. Scrivener rolled his eyes at this as Twilight glared at Luna and Celestia only looked meditative, Antares squirming and wincing in pain before he stared up at his mother as she strode in front of him and leaned down with a wide grin. “Well, my cherished child, know that I can misdirect and elude too.”

“You just used completely the wrong word there, Luna.” Scrivener commented as he picked up a muffin, and Luna glared at him before her horn glowed brightly, and the baked good was yanked out of his hoof, floating over to her as Scrivener gave her a sour look. “Oh, yes. You really are a mature and reasonable adult.”

“Aye, I am.” Luna agreed, then she took a large bite out of the muffin, and Antares winced as crumbs spilled down over his face, before the stallion sighed tiredly as Luna looked down at him and asked cheerfully: “And now, my son, what do we say?”

“Mom...” Antares looked up pleadingly, but when Luna only glared down at him, the leather-winged unicorn sighed tiredly and dropped his face against the ground, saying in a dour voice: “My mommy is the best fighter in the whole wide world.”

“'Twas not cute enough! I demand it be said in a cuter tone!” Luna struck a pose, grinning cheerfully as her eyes gleamed with mischievousness, and then she huffed when Scrivener and Twilight both glowered at her and Antares mumbled to himself in a disheartened voice. “What? Thou knows the rules of the spar!”

“That's funny, little sister. After all, it seems like if anyone was using Odin's old tactics here, it was you.” Celestia commented, and Luna immediately turned a sour look on her older sibling, who smiled slightly in response. “Not to mention your... lack of grace even in triumph...”

“Oh shut up, Celestia, I am extremely graceful.” Luna retorted, and then she flicked her horn firmly, and Antares wheezed in relief as the vines around him loosened and he was able to scramble up to his hooves, before smiling lamely when Luna reached up and tousled her son's mane firmly. “And whilst I perhaps crowed a little loudly over my victory, 'tis only because thou art growing formidable, Antares Mīrus! But thou must learn that even if I am thy mother everywhere else, when I am thy enemy, thou must treat me as the enemy. It does me no good to defeat thee because thou wert too afraid to fight back against thy mother.”

“Not that you clearly won't take that victory and hold it over our son's head anyway.” Scrivener said dryly, and Luna slowly turned a horrible look on the charcoal stallion, who cleared his throat and shifted a bit before quickly turning his eyes towards Celestia, asking hastily: “So uh... you're okay with the whole book signing thing, right?”

Luna muttered something under her breath about Scrivener being an idiot as Celestia smiled, nodding to the earth pony. “Of course, Scrivener Blooms. I'll be glad to attend and help with the political aspects a little.”

“I hate politics.” Scrivener muttered, and Celestia gave him a kind look as Luna munched up the rest of her muffin, then poked Antares a few times when he began to turn away, the stallion wincing a bit but then nodding as the eyes of the trio resting on the deck all gazed up and watched the two get into position again. “I still wish things were... you know. Simpler. Part of me wishes that I had never even bothered with this...”

“Scrivener, you should be proud of this. I know it's hard on you, but... that's one of the costs of being... who you are. Of earning fame.” Celestia replied gently, even as her eyes continued to calmly watch as Luna and Antares resumed sparring, their horns sparking and clashing. “Look at yourself, Scrivener Blooms. Look at everything you've accomplished in life, and think about everything you survived and what you and my little sister managed to come back from. Compare the difficulty of that to trying to make nice for an hour or so to indulge some fans and patrons, then tell me which is worse.”

“Indulging fans and patrons by far. Being sociable is far, far worse than being beaten to death.” Scrivener muttered, and Celestia sighed and shook her head slowly, smiling despite herself before she cocked her head curiously when Antares suddenly countered one of Luna's swift cuts with his own rising slash, knocking her horn upwards and sending her staggering backwards before he swung a hoof out, just managing to clip the winged unicorn's nose even as she threw herself backwards. Even by Celestia's standards, it was impressive.

“He's getting good. He's learning faster from Luna than he ever learned from me, or even you, Celestia. And I know he learned worlds from you.” Twilight Sparkle said softly as she picked up on the ivory winged unicorn's interest, and Celestia only smiled again, her eye still locked on the combat even as the Lich turned herself away with a bit of a blush to pick up her cup of tea and turn her eyes towards Scrivener. “But... Celestia has a point, you know. You really should be glad for this.”

“Every time you tell me to be happy for something, you know I'm always tempted to turn around and do something awful to you in return.” Scrivener said dryly, picking up his own cup of tea and another muffin, and Twilight sighed tiredly before the earth pony muttered: “I just... never wanted this. And okay, maybe I'm afraid because... you know, the fall from up high is so much scarier than the fall from down low, when you're already in the mud.”

Twilight shook her head slowly, then Celestia said gently, as she gestured towards the battlefield: “But isn't it worth putting faith in something, pouring your soul into something, when the results can help not only yourself... but others, as well?”

Scrivener glanced up quietly, watching silently as Antares and Luna leapt towards each other before they both swung their front hooves forwards, grappling as their eyes locked. Antares had his teeth grit, and Luna was grinning widely before she attempted to sling her son to the ground... but in a feat of incredible speed and agility, Antares instead revolved his body entirely and caught himself low on all four hooves, launching towards Luna's underbelly and making the sapphire winged unicorn hurriedly leap to the skies.

And fearlessly, Antares pursued her, launching upwards as their hooves and horns swung at one-another in fierce rhythm. Finally, both of Luna's rear hooves managed to slip just past Antares' defenses and slam into his scarred chest, knocking him from the sky with a wince to crash down on his back before he gritted his teeth, looking up as he clearly expected some vicious follow-up... but instead, Luna laughed in delight as she slowly sailed down from the skies to land beside him, smiling warmly down at her son. “Excellent! Excellent, Antares, thou art strong and brave and I am endlessly impressed by thy growing skill and tenacity... one day, my son, thou shalt truly be as strong as I am.”

She nodded firmly as Antares relaxed a little on the ground, then winced when Luna reached down and easily hauled him to his hooves. Then she stepped back, and the glossy-black unicorn smiled before they bowed to each other, then stepped forwards and carefully tapped their horns together. The short, respectful ritual ended as always by Luna grabbing her son and hugging him fiercely, and Antares laughed despite himself as he reached up and awkwardly patted Luna on the back, saying lamely: “I'm... I'm just doing my best, that's all.”

“Thy best is by far better than I ever could fairly ask of thou, so I am only glad that 'tis given willingly, my beloved colt.” the winged unicorn said softly, and when Antares looked at her awkwardly, she shook her head with a slight smile. “Alright, alright. My handsome stallion. For 'tis what thou art.”

Antares only mumbled and shifted embarrassedly, and then Luna shook her head quickly before sniffing and straightening, grinning over at Celestia. “And thou, sister! So lazy, sitting upon thy haunches, drooling over the sport of others! Thou and I should spar, or perhaps thou and Twilight Sparkle. Twilight is growing almost as lazy as Scrivener Blooms these days, after all.”

Twilight shifted embarrassedly at this, but Celestia only shook her head, saying kindly: “We all have to look our best tomorrow, sister... but I've been thinking. Antares, do you remember when you and your friends went to Subterra for training? It ended up being relaxing once... everything fell into order, didn't it?”

Antares nodded curiously, and Celestia turned her eyes back to Luna, who had her head cocked curiously. “I was thinking that we could invite our other friends and family along, too. Turn it into a comfortable getaway for everyone. I'm sure we could work something out.”

“Like a cruise without the cruise ship or the ocean.” Scrivener said wryly before he could stop himself, and when Celestia gave him an amused look, he cleared his throat and glanced awkwardly away. “Sorry, sorry. But well... I mean, it's not a bad idea, even if originally this was supposed to just be a quiet vacation...”

“Quiet vacation. Thou art boring, Scrivy! Therefore, aye, it seems that for once my big sister has an idea I can agree with and wholeheartedly support.” Luna said positively, and Scrivener rubbed slowly at his face with one hoof, but Twilight smiled softly: she could tell just from looking at the charcoal stallion that he was fond of the idea himself, whatever misgivings and pessimistic thoughts he was also having about the whole situation.

Twilight Sparkle softened as she glanced back and forth between Scrivener Blooms and Luna Brynhild: so different, yet so much the same. And she fit so well with both of them. They both made her feel... safe... and that was the most important thing in the world to her, especially these days. And Scrivener comforted her and Luna kept her on her hooves and they both made her feel attractive and strong and... and...

Twilight realized that Antares was looking at her awkwardly, and the violet mare blushed before almost dropping her mug of tea, mumbling some half-excuse, half-apology as she turned to hurry inside. Scrivener frowned a bit at this, beginning to get up, but Celestia reached out and gently caught the charcoal stallion by the shoulder.

“Go ahead.” Luna said gently to Antares, who gave a surprised look to his mother.... then he smiled faintly and nodded at her as Scrivener Blooms settled back a bit, softening and giving his own nod of silent agreement... even approval, as the glossy-black unicorn hurried across the porch and into the house.

Antares slowed in the kitchen, hesitantly peeking around the corner and into the den, where Twilight was sitting and silently drawing a hoof over the stitching covering her chest. The Lich trembled, her eyes closed, her breathing irregular before she murmured quietly: “I... I just need a minute, I'm sorry...”

“Don't be, Mom... come on, what is it? Something's been bothering you for a while now.” Antares said quietly, striding into the room and reaching up a hoof to rest it comfortingly on one of the violet mare's shoulders, and Twilight smiled faintly over her shoulder before she sighed softly and closed her eyes. She remained silent, and Antares studied her for a few moments before he pressed quietly: “Is it about... your... feelings?”

“Yeah.” Twilight said softly, looking away, and then she slowly drew her eyes back to Antares, and at the concern and tenderness and love in those dark eyes that were so like his mother's, she felt her defenses crumbling as she whispered: “It drives me crazy that they knew to send you.”

“No, Mom, they didn't send me. I came because I'm worried about you, and Mom and Dad let me because... they're scared too, but I guess they know that... they'd be hard to talk to about this. Or maybe I'm just easier, I dunno.” Antares laughed a little, looking down before he said quietly: “Mom, you're not a monster...”

Twilight Sparkle shifted silently, looking down before she closed her eyes and murmured: “I don't know anymore, Antares. For... all the time your parents were gone, I understood what I was, and it hurt and... all I was ever aware of was the way everyone looked at me so strangely, or talked behind my back... but that I was lucky, too, yeah. Because I had you, and Celestia, and all my friends, even if sometimes it felt like... I scared them, too.

“And then your parents came back, and what happened then is such a blur... I just know that I hurt Burning Desire in more ways than one, and I entrusted my soul to their living bodies. That made them stronger and me stronger and linked us together, and it helped me forget about... the bad parts of being who I am.” Twilight halted, then closed her eyes, trembling. “But now that... they are... I feel good, being who... being what I am. I take pride in it, almost, and I'm scared, because... I feel so powerful. I feel things that I've never felt before, and these stitches aren't like marks of shame but... I'm almost proud of them, I almost...”

Antares looked at the violet mare silently, and she shivered before closing her eyes and whispering: “But I'm also aware I have a lot more to lose than just your parents, Antares. I'm so scared that one day, you and Scarlet Sage aren't going to be able to look at me as a mother anymore. I'm scared of losing my friends, and it hurts to think that one day I will... and it hurts even worse with... with how happy I am that I'll never lose your parents...”

“Come on, Twilight. This isn't like you.” Antares said softly, rubbing a hoof along her back gently and looking at her softly. “You're... you told me yourself once, that no matter how old we get or how much we learn, we never really stop growing up. This is just... growth.”

Twilight looked down quietly, and Antares studied her for a few moments, gauging her, feeling his acuity kicking in before he asked gently: “It's about that old story, isn't it?”

“Because Love Conquers All. Where I first... caught a glimpse of myself as a Lich.” Twilight closed her eyes and nodded, smiling faintly and seeming unsurprised by the way Antares had managed to pull one source of her worries out of the air. “But... I was selfish, and I was vicious. And I'm scared that's who I'm going to become, Antares. Your parents... they're stronger than me. Able to handle their own powers and emotions... Luna can control Nightmare Moon, and Scrivener...” She looked down quietly. “Sometimes I think I admire him even more than Luna. He's supposed to be a monster, but he takes all that darkness and evil and corruption inside him and molds it into... into that stupid, stubborn, protective jerk he is.”

“Dad's special, yeah... but Mom, you do the same thing. You've always kept yourself under control, and been... so compassionate, even to the worst of our enemies.” Antares replied gently, gazing down at her supportively. “If anything, I think... I think the link you've made with my parents is a good thing. It goes to show how far you're willing to go for those you truly care about and... that you can handle the very best and the very worst of them both.”

Twilight glanced up at him quietly, and Antares hesitated before lowering his head, saying softly: “I... I can't keep being upset over not having Prestige, and shutting everyone out... but you can't be upset over... always having Mom and Dad, Twilight, even knowing everyone else... won't be around. We're hurting because of different reasons, but we're hurting in the same way, and neither is good. We both need to... I dunno, grow a little more.”

“We need to let go, and move forwards.” Twilight said softly, and Antares nodded a little and then closed his eyes when the Lich turned and embraced him, sliding quietly closer to her and hugging her tightly in return. “You're right, Antares. You're... you're so wise, and so strong. Young, and you still make mistakes but... you've learned so much over so few years.”

Antares only smiled faintly, and then he shook his head as he straightened a little, gazing quietly across at the Lich as he reached up to squeeze her shoulders gently. “No, I've just been... really lucky with the ponies I've had to teach me and help me grow up. The people, I should say... I learned a lot from... from a lot of really different people, after all.”

Twilight nodded a little, then she sat up and looked down at Antares quietly, hesitating before asking finally: “What do you think I should do? I'm... I'm scared that... if I fully embrace this, I'm going to become... something else.” She closed her eyes and shivered a little. “I don't want to become Twilight Shadow, Antares, no matter how tempted I am by power and... other things...”

“You're not going to become Twilight Shadow, Mom... and look at Mom and Dad. They're linked at the soul, they care about each other so much and yet... they still put others first.” Antares glanced down, murmuring quietly: “I think maybe it's hurting and confusing you so much right now simply because... you're trying so hard to keep yourself distant. You love them though, don't you? And you want to be with them, forever?”

“I am with them forever.” Twilight Sparkle said quietly, looking up at Antares, and the glossy-black unicorn smiled a little before Twilight reached up and silently touched the stallion's scarred breast. “Yet... I feel like when I allowed myself to fully... be... with them before... this happened. You stopped us somehow, but that nightmare, that... I don't know what it was, that blip in reality that we all experienced, that none of us can clearly remember more than bits and pieces of...”

Antares reached up and gently took Twilight's face between his hooves, meeting her eyes and saying softly: “Mom, that's not important. Because when I think of that... nightmare, I feel like I caused it in the first place. I feel like... we all have to pay the price for our mistakes. They... echo, through time and space...” Antares frowned a little at these words, then shook his head quickly before returning his eyes to Twilight Sparkle. “I dunno where that came from. I just mean that... we always have to pay the price for our mistakes but... that doesn't mean we can't fix things, too.”

The Lich nodded slowly, then she reached up and touched his chest gently, saying quietly: “Maybe you're right, Antares. Maybe I should just... try. Let myself... fit. But that means that you need to... try and move on too. Don't miss out on life, Antares. Prestige wouldn't want that.”

“I know. It just feels almost like betraying her to try and move on... even if I sometimes think I feel her, pushing me forwards, reminding me that... she wanted me to be happy.” Antares replied softly, bowing his head forwards and nodding slowly. There was a moment of silence between the two, and then another fierce embrace before they pulled apart, and the young stallion sighed a little as he murmured: “Let's just maybe both promise to do our best.”

Twilight nodded, and then the two pulled apart and looked at each other before she smiled a little and reached up to touch his face gently, asking softly: “Why don't you go into Ponyville, tell your friends and your sister about our idea? Avalon and Aphrodisia can both pass on the idea to their parents and see what they think.”

Antares smiled a little at this thought, then he replied: “Yeah. I'll just go and say goodbye to Mom and Dad and let them know where I'm going. I know Mom hates it when I just go running off without saying goodbye.”

The Lich smiled as Antares turned, then hesitated for a moment before he looked over his shoulder, adding quietly: “You're a great person, Twilight. Don't ever doubt that, okay? I wouldn't look up to you so much if you were anything less than... than the amazing pony you are.”

Twilight gazed at him softly as he blushed a little and turned away, hurrying out onto the back patio as he opened his mouth... then halted and stared at his parents, who were pressed forehead-to-forehead with their teeth grit, shoving firmly against each other as Celestia slowly sipped at her tea and meditatively studied the two ponies.

Antares cleared his throat awkwardly, and Luna huffed a bit, not looking up as she said moodily: “I am busy teaching thy idiot father a lesson, Antares Mīrus. 'Tis extremely important.”

“Go away, Luna.” Scrivener grumbled, continuing to staunchly shove back with his head against his wife, and then he gritted his teeth and grinned a little when he managed to shove forwards a little further and force Luna to skid back a bit against the patio, muttering: “My head is way harder than your head. You use your horn all the time. That makes you a sissy.”

“I shall pummel thee horribly, Scrivener Blooms!” Luna shouted in frustration, and then she snapped her head down to whack Scrivener firmly with her horn, making him wince and allowing her to force forwards a little against the stallion. “Yes, we shall shortly see who the real sissy is! Thou art the sissy! Sissy! I shall make it hoof party in thy face's house if thou keeps this up!”

“Are you going into Ponyville, Antares?” Celestia asked mildly, glancing past Antares' parents, and when the stallion nodded lamely, his aunt smiled. “I'm glad to hear it. Don't worry, I'll look after your parents while you're in town.”

“We do not require a babysitter.” Luna said grouchily, and then she suddenly drew her head back, and Scrivener winced and flailed a bit as he half-fell before Luna's skull smashed down into his own, knocking the charcoal stallion flat with a wheeze. The sapphire mare gave a chortling donkey-laugh as she stumbled backwards, her eyes rolling in her head once before she declared dumbly: “See? Scrivy is... the sissy!”

And then Luna keeled over and landed heavily on her side, and Celestia sighed tiredly as Antares looked lamely from one parent to the other. But after a moment, Scrivener managed to raise a hoof and mumble: “Have fun in town, son.”

“I uh. I will, Dad. I'll be home for dinner.” Antares said awkwardly, and Luna mumbled something on the ground as she flailed a hoof weakly before the young stallion turned, shaking his head a bit and wondering as he sometimes did whether or not he was actually adopted after all, considering the way his parents behaved.

Twenty minutes later, and Antares was comfortably walking through the Everfree Forest, glancing back and forth with a small smile at the trees and noting that the leaves had started to change here and there. They were moving into an early autumn, and it admittedly made Antares excited: he knew it was childish, but one of his favorite times of the year had always and would always be his birthday. Not because of the presents or anything, but because he got to spend that day with all his family and friends around.

Then the glossy-black unicorn sighed a little, thinking of the one thing he always found himself missing on that day: Prestige Luster. Racist, determined, pureblooded Prestige... a love he still ached for. He wondered if he would ever get over the pain of losing her... but she hadn't just been his first real love, he had lost her when they had been planning on sharing... so much together.

He was well aware that for a lot of reasons, things maybe wouldn't've worked out with Prestige: they had clashed sometimes, and they disagreed on a lot, but... they had always been there for each other, too. And he wished that a lot of things had been different... that he had been... more forwards with her. More honest with her. Shared more with her.

Antares sighed... then he winced as something nipped at one of his hooves, stumbling backwards before giving a short yelp and leaping into the air, flapping his leathery wings hard to hover as he stared down at the swarm of bugs he had walked right into. There were more than a dozen of the silvery insects, skittering angrily around on the path with their dangerous stingers raised. They were ugly, thin little nasties that had started appearing a few months back... and since then, their population had grown exponentially.

Antares carefully flew over the swarm, landing on the other side and glancing over his shoulder with a grimace as he flicked one of his hooves absently. There were infestations of them all throughout the Everfree Forest, and they cropped up now and then in and around Ponyville, but they were usually pretty quickly stomped out. No one really knew what they were, some rare breed of scorpion someone had let loose in town or a bug migrated up from Helheim with a demon or... who knew what.

“Silverbacks. I guess they're not hurting anyone out here, though.” Antares mumbled finally, turning and shaking his head as he continued towards town, but now he was paying much more attention to the world around him, eyes lingering back and forth apprehensively. The nasty little buggers were very aggressive, and their stingers carried a more-than-mild toxin... ponies could get quite ill if they were stung a few times by the little monsters.

The poison didn't seem to bother him too much, though, and the bugs reacted to Luna the same way Bitterweavers and a lot of other creatures in the Everfree did: they ran away as fast as possible. So he figured he'd leave them alone: if they did one good thing, after all, it was that they kept the other nasty bugs in the Everfree in check.

Antares didn't have any further encounters on his way to town, and didn't let his mind linger on bad or bitter memories, either. When he reached the fields, however, he saw something was going on a short distance away, near where the enormous, barn-shaped animal care center stood. The glossy-black unicorn felt instinctively drawn towards this, even as part of him winced when he heard a loud, distinct voice that could only belong to a certain mare engineer: if her volume didn't give it away, then the swearing certainly did.

The young stallion strode through the field, glancing absently towards the outbuildings of the veterinary facility and unsurprised to see ponies leaning out of the windows to stare at what was going on in the nearby field. Fluttershy was standing awkwardly with Nirvana and a tall white unicorn stallion with a blonde mane and friendly golden-brown eyes, the last smiling brightly as the mare who was the source of all the noise chased something through the tall grasses. His cutie mark was a puzzle piece, and he always seemed... innocent, Antares thought was the word that described Ross best.

“Hi, Antares! It's nice to see you.” greeted the stallion when the glossy-black unicorn approached, and Antares smiled and nodded as the ivory pony added kindly and perhaps a little too emphatically: “Cowlick is working really hard, she is. She's saying a lot of bad words but she's not really that mad, nope, she's just working hard.”

“That's uh... good to hear, Ross.” Antares said finally, as the mare-in-question shouted a particularly vulgar curse, then finally skidded to a halt in the tall grasses, panting roughly in and out as she leaned against a large, barrel-shaped cage of some kind. The glossy-black stallion looked awkwardly over at the chestnut mare, her dirty blonde mane hanging over her sweaty features, piercings glinting in her nose, one eyebrow, and both ears. She had a bandanna loosely tied around her head and was wearing an old denim vest: one hoof was currently wrestling at a front pocket of this, trying to yank a box of cigarettes free.

She muttered under her breath, cutie mark of interlocked gears almost gleaming thanks to the sweat running down her body. “Stupid animals... too old for this crap... who designed animals anyway, god? Nature? Both of 'em suck, animals need a... stupid off switch or remote control or... goddammit...”

“Uh... hi, Cowlick. Do you need a hoof?” Antares asked lamely, and the earth pony glanced up before shouting a vulgarity at him, making Antares wince. She finally managed to get a cigarette free from the pack lodged in her pocket, shoving it into her mouth before yanking a lighter out of another pocket in her vest as the stallion leaned past smiling Ross and asked in a mumble: “What's going on?”

Nirvana only grunted, and Fluttershy hesitated before saying carefully: “Miss Kilby Kwolek was... kind enough to offer to help me... uh... take care of some of the animals today. But I'm afraid... poor little Ulysses is a little bit mischievous, and...”

“I got him, just... just gotta... catch my breath.” Cowlick muttered, as she took a long drag on her cigarette, then exhaled a plume of smoke. Slowly, Antares began to raise a hoof, and then he winced when the mare's blue eyes glared at him. “Don't you say a damn thing.”

“Not. Not saying a damn thing.” Antares mumbled, and Cowlick grunted before the stallion couldn't help but ask: “Don't you have... some work over at the labs to do or something?”

“Oh yes, I'm sure you must be very busy, and while I really appreciate all this help, Cowlick, I'd hate to take you away from all your own work.” Fluttershy added hurriedly, giving a slightly-too-big smile, and then she glanced awkwardly over at Ross as the stallion looked thoughtful. “I'm sure there's always lots of work to be done, right? Yes?”

“Oh screw you all, I know what I'm doing.” Cowlick said waspishly, and then she grunted and shook her head, adding in a mutter: “And right now there ain't. I'm waiting for a big order to get here from Manehattan, but it's gonna take at least two weeks. Greece got sick of me muscling in on all his projects, too, so the bastard and his Architect buddies locked me out of the testing room. Well, screw him too. Just wait until he comes begging me for help. Then I'll make him sorry, just you wait and see.”

“Sorry? But if you help him, he'll be really thankful. He always is, Cowlick, yes he is.” Ross said benevolently, and Cowlick smiled a little and shook her head slowly as she puffed on her cigarette, then straightened and tapped it.

“Guess you're right, Ross. That's just me bein' silly, that's all.” Cowlick said in a softer voice, looking affectionately at the stallion: her partner and husband in her eyes, who she always stood up for and did her damnedest to take care of. Who she always praised and was firm in her belief that he might be a little silly, but he was one of the best things to ever come along in her life.

For a few moments, there was quiet, and then Antares looked up and said finally: “So uh... Dad's going to be doing a book signing in Canterlot, if you haven't heard. And Celestia suggested that we invite everyone along to spend some time in Subterra together... the Thorn Palace has more than enough space, after all.”

Cowlick snorted at this, blowing out another plume of smoke as she muttered: “Yeah, and it's also full to the brim with demons, freaks of nature, and all kinds of nasty things.” She stopped, glanced at Ross as he fidgeted and looked at her for a few moments, and then she sighed and rolled her eyes before nodding hesitantly. “Sounds kind of silly but... Ross and I will think about it, okay?”

“Great.” Antares smiled a bit, and then he glanced over at Fluttershy and Nirvana. The two traded their own look before Nirvana rumbled and shrugged, and the Pegasus gave a warm smile and then a firm nod to Antares.

The glossy-black unicorn smiled wider, and Cowlick snorted in amusement before she finally tossed her cigarette down and crushed it under a hoof, muttering: “Funny. Your dad never really seemed like the type of guy who needed his hoof held, Antares, but hey. I guess I like him well enough, and your Mom's a hoot. Now okay, I think I got this.”

Cowlick glanced back and forth, moodily pushing through the tall grasses as Fluttershy said finally: “You know, usually Ulysses listens to me... if you let me-”

“No, hell no. I got the little bastard, just you wait and see.” Cowlick grumbled, and then she pounced forwards and landed on something with a short 'ha!' “There! Got you!”

Then the mare frowned before looking down and paling, before giving a yell and flinging whatever was in her forelegs into the air. It flew high, and Antares stared stupidly upwards as an enormous green caterpillar flew through the air with a glass hookah pipe.

They both crashed down in the tall grasses beyond as Cowlick wheezed and clutched at her chest, then glared furiously as a red-scaled, dragon-like head with mismatched golden horns poked out of a taller patch of grasses nearby, asking mildly: “You never take well to the advice of others, do you? Everything's a nail, is it Miss Hammerhead?”

Cowlick retorted with a vulgarity that made Fluttershy blush a bit, but the creature only sniffed disdainfully before it stepped out of the grasses and rose to its full height. With his tall, brush-like mohawk, he was well over seven feet of mishmashed Draconequus: one leg was a giraffe's and the other some kind of big cat's, with a thick purple kangaroo tail keeping his black-scaled, serpentine body balanced. One arm was covered in red fur and had a gray skinned hand gently cradling a purring kitten, and the other wasn't even made of flesh and blood, but solid steel, held on by a large cusp fitted over his shoulder and thick support straps.

This arm was armored with thick metal plates and ended in a large, dexterous claw, but it flexed and moved like the real thing as the Draconequus regarded Cowlick thoughtfully with his reversed, white pupils and black irises. Then he smiled kindly, holding the kitten out, and Cowlick yanked the feline away and tossed it into the cage, muttering under her breath as she slammed the door of it as the kitten lay sprawled dumbly on its back. “I could've gotten it, Bob.”

“You know, animals aren't like machines, to be just thrown around willy-nilly.” Discombobulation remarked mildly, and then he looked down thoughtfully as he laced his fingers together in front of himself, asking seriously: “But of course, I've always wondered who exactly this 'Willy' was and why he was so 'nilly,' and what that even means.”

Cowlick surveyed the Draconequus moodily, and the chimerical creature awkwardly turned away after a moment, translucent frill and shark-like fin on his back both flexing once as he instead asked Antares curiously: “Am I invited to Subterra too? Or is this some silly 'ponies only' thing? Because I could most definitely be a pony if I wanted to, you know. I just don't want to.”

Antares only shook his head, however, smiling a little despite himself. “Of course, Bob. You know you're always welcome. And I know that Celestia will really appreciate it.”

“Shut up, shut up!” Discombobulation waved his hands violently, losing his usual composure for a moment before he cleared his throat when most of the ponies stared at him, and Cowlick only snorted in amusement. The Draconequus carefully straightened, brushing at himself before glowering over at Cowlick when she continued to grin widely up at him. “Oh shut up, little miss gender dysfunction. Go drink a beer and talk about football and how you'd fit in great with all the other rednecks. You can listen to country music and go stickin' and muddin'.”

“Hey, screw you. I can fit in with whoever the hell I want wherever the hell I want.” Cowlick retorted, and then she added moodily: “And at least I ain't no giant goddamn pansy. Have I ever told you how I got Ross? I just walked up to him, grabbed him, and dragged him off. Why don't you try that? A little humping might go a long way.”

Discombobulation's mouth worked slowly as he struggled for a response and Antares, Fluttershy and Nirvana all simply stared, while Ross whispered loudly: “That's not something nice to talk about, Cowlick!”

“I think it is.” Cowlick replied blandly, and then she stepped over to the Draconequus and reached up to swat him firmly on the rump, making him leap forwards and then glare down at her. “I bet she still likes you plenty, you big dumb wimp. And you, Antares, you should do the same. Not with your aunt, that's gross, I mean with Meadowlark. Or maybe Avalon. I guess even Aphrodisia's fine... cousins are okay, right? Or is that still too close?”

“Oh Horses of Heaven I'm going now.” Antares said in a strangled voice, hurriedly turning around and half-stumbling, half-running back towards the road leading to Ponyville, ignoring Cowlick's loud laughter as he managed to add a strangled, hurried goodbye over his shoulder.

He ran through the gates, getting a few curious looks from the Nibelung on duty... but since things had calmed down since the book signing a few days ago, they didn't seem in any hurry to do much more than look up to make sure the pony wasn't being chased by anything.

Antares slowed a little as his hooves carried him down the street, falling into a more natural pace as he shook his head slowly at Cowlick's advice. The engineer could be even worse than his mother sometimes – not that he'd ever dare say that to Luna, or she would likely take it as a challenge – but Antares knew that all the same, Cowlick really did... want the best for all of them, in her own weird, weird way.

He softened a little as he made his way through town, his mind drifting to the subject it always did whenever he saw Cowlick and Ross: Rustproof, their son. A brave colt that Antares had been honored to know and to have had as a friend... who in spite of being younger, only an earth pony, a gentle, quiet giant... he had been more of a hero than Antares had ever managed to be.

But he had paid the price for that, too: he had died to save them all, to stop a monster that none of them had been able to. But Rustproof had always been so damn smart... even Prestige had admired him, he thought, and she had been raised to look down on earth ponies as nothing but 'slave hoofs' in the far north. That was just leading him to going over old memories again, though...

He glanced up quietly... then stumbled to a halt in surprise at the sight of the pink unicorn in Ponyville's main square, currently busy harassing a large red stallion with an oaken yoke around his neck, his green eyes looking at her sourly from beneath his messy blonde mane. Antares couldn't help but smile and approach as the pale pink unicorn tossed her coiffed silver mane, her metallic eyes glinting and the red flaw in one of them making her gaze all the sharper, as she asked distastefully in her sharp, commandeering tones: “And I suppose you would have me believe that these apples can cure diseases, too? Ten bits for the bushel.”

“Fifteen.” replied the red earth pony gently, not swaying. He had a cutie mark of a green apple half on his flank, and a scar over one green eye that was paler than the other: a close look made it clear that it was made of glass. He fixed his calm gaze on the unicorn across from him, but she was as undeterred as he was... although where he was calm, she was bristling.

“Twelve.” she grumbled finally, and the earth pony stallion looked thoughtful before she glanced moodily to the side as Antares approached, and the unicorn smiled a little, looking at him with surprise. “Hey, what are you doing here, kid?”

“I'm talking to people about going to Subterra. It's nice to see you, Rosewood... although I hope you're not giving Big Mac any trouble.” He paused, then asked curiously: “Wait, why are you here? You live in Canterlot.”

“Political duties, had to drop off some documents for Baroness Celestia.” Rosewood muttered, shrugging a little as Big Mac began to fill a sack with apples from the stand. Then she paused and glowered over at him, adding moodily: “Watch your clumsy hooves, I don't want any of those bruised.”

“Rosewood, come on.” Antares almost pleaded, and the pink unicorn sighed tiredly and nodded moodily. Then Antares smiled a little, saying quietly: “Hey, uh... my Dad's doing a book signing in Canterlot shortly... why don't you and Scutum come? I'm pretty sure that they'd be really thrilled to see you, and... you two did contribute to the stories, after all.”

Rosewood shifted uncertainly at this, and then she sighed a little as her horn glowed, opening the saddlebag hanging at her side and pulling free a small sack of bits she tossed unceremoniously to Big Mac the moment the earth pony put the full bag of apples on the table beside the stand. “I... I'll ask Scutum about it, Antares Mīrus, but I'm not sure if I can make it... we're both very busy with work for the barony and all...”

Antares only looked pleadingly up at Rosewood, however, and the mare sighed again before dropping her head and nodding grudgingly. “Fine, I'll ask the steward for a day off.”

“Well, Celestia's going to be there too. And technically she is the Baroness still, even if she's not dealing with anything right now, and you do work as a messenger and archivist for the barony.” Antares said carefully, and Rosewood looked at him moodily, making the glossy-black unicorn shift a little and grin lamely. “Just... you know. A thought.”

“Don't patronize me, you insolent little splinter-horn.” Rosewood grumbled, and then her horn glowed and hefted the sack of apples free, tying it loosely onto the straps that held her saddlebags in place. She glanced back at it, and Antares couldn't help but look meditatively at the cutie mark of a rosebush on her flank, wondering again if it meant her talent was being as mean as possible to every pony she met. “Fine, I'll be there, kid. But in return, get your father to read one of the excerpts about my daughter, got it?”

“I'll... I'll ask him.” Antares said softly, thinking for a moment of Prestige and closing his eyes... and when he opened them, Rosewood was facing him, looking down at him softly.

The mare studied him for a few moments, and then she reached a hoof up, gently touching under his chin as she said softly: “Antares, Prestige loved you and you're like a son to me, with her gone. Both Scutum and I have told you this but... you have to move on. I'm not telling you to forget about her, or not honor her... but you'd do a better job of it by... trying to move on with your life, like Prestige would have wanted, instead of moping all the time.”

Antares opened his mouth, and Rosewood flicked the tip of his horn firmly, making him wince and shrink his head back a bit. “Shut up. Because I know what you're going to say, but you are. You get a little happy sometimes, kid, but it rarely reaches your eyes. I want to see you smiling, and I want to see you moving forwards, do you understand me? Me and Scutum are trying to, after all. And we don't even have as many friends or family as you do.”

The stallion smiled a little, then he nodded slowly before Rosewood shoved him backwards, making him wince. She sighed and rolled her head on her shoulders, then brushed past and muttered: “I better get a copy of the book, too. And tell your mother to stay away from me, she bugs me.”

“Goodbye, Rosewood. It was nice to see you too.” Antares said blandly, and then he shook his head slowly before turning his eyes to Big Mac, who was counting out the bits from the bag Rosewood had tossed him. “Where's Avalon? Harvesting?”

“Nope.” Big Mac paused, then smiled to himself before he swept the three piles of five bits back into the little bag. “Try Sugar Cube Corners.”

Antares nodded, then he hesitated before glancing up at the large red stallion, saying finally: “And... you know, Rosewood doesn't mean... well. I guess she does mean to be a little insulting at least, but she's a good pony. She's just... you know.”

“I do. I think she just likes to argue. She's never once paid less than full.” Big Mac replied, and Antares gave the earth pony a look of surprise, but the red stallion only gave a calm shrug in return.

Antares smiled despite himself after a moment, then he shook his head and headed on his way, letting his hooves guide him towards the sweet shop. He was somehow unsurprised to see that Aphrodisia and Avalon were both sitting out in front, and the two mares glanced up as the glossy-black unicorn approached, the small Pegasus glowering and Aphrodisia smiling happily. “Go away.”

The stallion only cocked his head, and Avalon grumbled before buzzing into the air, doing a short circle, and then landing moodily on the table, making several empty bowls clatter... and Antares winced as he realized what this undoubtedly meant. “Boys are stupid.”

“You could make out with me if you wanted instead.” Aphrodisia suggested, looking up with a smile, and Avalon groaned and slapped her forehead before shoving herself backwards and landing back in her chair, grumbling and crossing her forelegs as the demon huffed a bit. “Hey, screw you. We had fun that one time.”

“Okay, I was drunk, and... shut up.” Avalon muttered, and then she looked almost pleadingly over at Antares, asking finally: “Why the hell do you guys all have to be jerks? Why are you assholes? Antares, like, do all guys have to bang other mares behind their marefriend's backs?”

“To be fair, Avalon, Meadowlark warned you about fifty times the guy was a jerk.” Aphrodisia remarked, and Avalon grumbled under her breath before dropping her face in her hooves. “You know, you have a problem.”

“Yeah, I do. You're a problem.” Avalon retorted, and then she grumbled and glared at Antares when he opened his mouth. “No. Shut up. Stallions aren't good for anything but... well, no, they're not even that good at that.”

Antares slowly rubbed his face, wondering if he should just leave, and then Aphrodisia said kindly: “Avalon, you judge ponies too much based on their popularity and how cool their talents are. Your problem is that you're looking at the world from a very narrow viewpoint.”

Both ponies stared at the demon, who paused to spoon up a good amount of pudding into her jaws before slurping loudly at her own muzzle. Then she sniffed and continued: “You're not actually trying to find a romantic partner, you're treating finding a coltfriend like you would an accessory: you judge it based on how 'cool' it is, based on some very shallow and rather silly measurements. But it's not an accessory. It's a thinking, breathing person, with their own desires and urges and hidden sides. And their talent may seem incredible from a distance but it could get very tiresome after a while... like the pony itself. I mean, Avalon, me and Antares love you to bits. But that doesn't change the fact you're an arrogant jerk sometimes, too.”

“Hey!” Avalon snapped, but she still looked too stupefied by the lecture she was getting from Aphrodisia to manage much more of a response before she shook her head quickly, then asked finally: “Well... then... what the hell do you suggest? And when the hell did you become little miss relationships expert instead of little miss... dumb filly?”

“Well, you know, I'm kind of a lust demon and all.” Aphrodisia remarked, and then she smiled as she slurped at her pudding again. “But I do have a really great idea.”

Both Antares and Avalon leaned forwards, listening curiously as Aphrodisia scooped up the last of her pudding... and then she leaned back and rose her spoon with a bright smile, her eyes gleaming. “We should all get pets!”

Avalon dropped back in her chair and threw her forelegs in the air with a groan, and Antares sighed tiredly and let his head fall forwards, looking sourly across at the demon as she beamed happily at the two of them through the pudding smeared around her mouth. Then the tiny Pegasus hammered her hooves against the table with a curse of frustration, glaring at Aphrodisia and snapping: “I am having a serious crisis here!”

“Oh you are not, drama llama.” Aphrodisia retorted, and Avalon ground her teeth together as her eyes blazed with frustration, before the demon sniffed and added in an almost disdainful voice: “Look, if you need to get your rocks off, I'm always here and you could probably drag Nova into bed sometime, even if he's still a cute little virgin.”

“I'm going to leave and never, ever going to come back, I think.” Antares said sourly, beginning to turn away. Aphrodisia whined in her throat as Avalon flitted up into the air with a grumble of agreement, and the glossy-black unicorn hesitated before adding moodily: “Also, Celestia said we should all go to Subterra together or something and... yeah. So... find out if Aunt Pinkamena and Uncle Sleipnir wanna go too and... you know.”

“Mommy and Daddy will love that.” Aphrodisia said positively, bouncing to her cloven hooves, and Avalon grunted something above before the demon halted and added: “And you know, I was kind of serious about the pet thing. It's something to take care of and... learn to look after and stuff. It'd be good for us, I bet, it really would be.”

“You just want a pet and know that your Mom isn't going to let you or Sleipnir get one unless everyone else you know has one.” Antares said flatly, and the demon shrugged a bit before looking at him pointedly, and he sighed and glance up moodily at Avalon, who continued to grumble as she did lazy circles slowly through the air above his head. “Avalon and I are going to go find Meadowlark, I guess. Thanks uh... for helping.”

“Anytime.” Aphrodisia said positively, and then she turned and headed quickly inside as Antares shook his head, then strode out into the street, Avalon winging along above him slowly.

Finally, he felt the tiny Pegasus touch down on his back and curl up, and she sighed a little, mumbling: “It is important, Mir. You know that, right? I mean, come on. This sucks. I'm hot, I'm talented, I've got a lot going for me, and yet apart from you guys...”

“It's okay, Ava. Come on, cheer up, better you find out this guy was no good now than later, right?” Antares asked after a moment, hearing the need to be reassured in Avalon's voice. And then he smiled a little after a moment, adding quietly: “And you know, you are... pretty amazing and all. I think you just... come on too strong sometimes.”

“Yeah... yeah, maybe.” Avalon mumbled, and then she sighed a little, stretching out a bit before dropping her head over her forelegs. And a moment later, she was asleep; Antares couldn't help but look enviously over his shoulder at her and the way she could always simply close her eyes and shut down any time she wanted. He, on the other hoof, was plagued by insomnia most nights... and if he really had inherited his parents' vitality – which was very likely, all things concerned – then one day he'd stop needing to sleep at all... but in the meantime, his sleep schedule was suffering tremendously.

He was used to it, though, and he rarely ever felt... tired, these days. At least, not in a physical sense... it was more emotional exhaustion that was taking its toll on him. Something he was only just now starting to understand he didn't hide as well as he thought he did... and the glossy-black unicorn sighed a little as he made his way towards the library.

He shook his head hurriedly to try and force these thoughts away for now, though... and then he glanced up and watched curiously as a group of ponies in uniform ran past, and he smiled a bit. Trainees for the Starlit Knights: the instructor running behind them and shouting at them to move, move, move made that clearer than their blue outfits.

“I'd kill the dude if he yelled at me like that.” Avalon mumbled, and Antares laughed and shook his head before the tiny Pegasus grimaced and cracked her neck absently, apparently already done with her cat-nap. “It kind of sucks not having you around these days, Mir. I really like working with the Knights and all, you should give a pep talk or something. Something about achieving your dreams.”

“I dunno if I'm the right pony for that, Aviator.” Antares said softly, and Avalon grumbled a little as she often did at the nickname, but then slumped down against him, and he figured that she had gone back to sleep.

He shook his head out a little and resumed walking, but a moment later was surprised when Avalon asked in a curious voice: “So when the hell are you going to finally take Meadowlark out on a date? Even just one little teeny tiny one?”

“I don't want to talk about that.” Antares said quietly, and then he winced when Avalon shoved herself off his back and flipped herself easily over his head, hovering in front of him and glaring into his eyes as she leaned in close.

“Well, I do.” Avalon reached out and shoved a hoof against his nose, saying quietly: “Look, Antares, everypony else is being nice to you about this still, but... dammit, stallion, it's time to raise your head up and look around. Because you're still alive and I'll be damned if you aren't one of the luckiest bastards alive with everything you got goin' for you in life. So please grow a pair and talk to Meadowlark, because I really, really hate her... and it drives me insane to actually feel sorry for her because you're so intent on blaming yourself for something none of us, not one of us, could have stopped, whether we'd known or not.”

“I...” Antares' arguments fell apart at the last bit of Avalon's speech, the stallion shaking his head and stumbling out: “No, I... wait, what do you mean-”

“Come on, Antares, we almost grew up in the same goddamn cradle.” Avalon said softly, and the tiny Pegasus let herself descend and settle to the ground in front of him, looking up at him quietly. “I know you better than you think, and like I said... you guys are... pretty much my only friends. Ponies like me, sure, I get fans and admirers, but if you ever have to play on a team beside me I know you learn to hate me pretty fast, and I understand that.

“I know you. And I know you know that Prestige would have wanted you to move on. But that ain't the problem... the problem is that you might have moved past what happened with Cancer, but you still blame yourself for Prestige dying. You still think you should have... turned around, and magically caught Cancer, or somehow stopped Prestige when he took her over and made her do all those things before she... she died.” Avalon said quietly, and Antares turned his eyes away, gritting his teeth before the Pegasus shook her head slowly. “But there was no way any of us could have.”

Antares just breathed quietly in and out, and then he finally stepped quickly past the Pegasus and strode hurriedly towards the library, and Avalon sighed before taking to the air and flying quickly ahead of him to one of the windows. She peered inside, and then glanced over her shoulder as the glossy-black unicorn approached, saying in a voice she forced to be a little more positive: “Well, she's in there, Mir, and alone. Are you going to do this thing or what?”

“Why is it so important to everypony that I move on? That I...” Antares gritted his teeth, and then he shook his head and sighed when he looked up at Avalon. Even upset and mad at her as he was, he could still see into her, and all the emotions running through her and the reasons she had and how she was willing to let him be mad at her if it meant he would... just push a little... and he slumped after a moment, closing his eyes and muttering: “I hate my special talent. I can't be mad at anyone and I see stuff I'm not supposed to and... everything sucks.”

“Yeah, sometimes. But I'm not going to stop pissing you off until you ask her, mostly because this is the only thing that'll actually get you to do something and I guess it's kinda stress relieving for me.” Avalon gestured at him, and Antares mumbled and glowered moodily up at her. “What, are you scared she'll say no?”

“What? Why...” Antares looked honestly surprised at this thought, and then he glanced nervously at the door, reaching up and rubbing a hoof through his mane as he tried to comprehend this idea. “Why would she say no...”

“Dude, that's more arrogant than me.” Avalon said pointedly, and when Antares glared at her, the tiny mare couldn't help but grin as she easily sailed back and forth through the air, saying mildly: “But lots of reasons. I mean... what if she already has a coltfriend? She's not going to wait around for you forever. Or hell, maybe she's stopped thinking you're all that, Antares, you don't impress her anymore. Lots of reasons.”

Antares shook his head at this, knowing that Avalon was baiting him, and yet all the same something lurched in his stomach at the thought that Meadowlark wouldn't always be there. That maybe... oh no, no, no, this is just a trap, this is...

Yet already, the stallion was moving towards the door, shoving it open and staggering into the library before glaring over his shoulder as his horn glowed, and it slammed shut just as Avalon began to fly down, the Pegasus crashing into it with a curse before she fell to the ground. He heard her yell another vulgarity through the wood, and then the sound of her little hooves scuttling around outside before Meadowlark asked awkwardly: “Are... are you okay, Mir?”

Antares looked up lamely, then he cleared his throat and nodded a few times as he looked over at the red Pegasus. She gazed at him worriedly from her chair, but the glossy-black stallion shook his head as he strode towards her, looking at her... and feeling the words dying in his throat as he met her eyes, and she met his.

There was silence for a few moments, before Antares said in a sudden rush: “I just wanted to ask if you wanted to come to Subterra with me!”

Meadowlark blinked in surprise, then cocked her head curiously, and Antares straightened and cleared his throat awkwardly before he said lamely: “I... I mean, my whole... family is going to Subterra. Dad's book signing in Canterlot and all, so... we're going to vacation in Subterra and... I'm trying to find out if my friends all want to come with me to Subterra to be there for... Dad's book signing and just to be... there. In Subterra. With us.”

“Are you okay, Antares?” Meadowlark asked awkwardly, and the stallion nodded lamely before the Pegasus shifted a little... then winced and looked up in surprise as Avalon hammered on one of the library windows and glared pointedly in at the glossy black unicorn. “What's Avalon doing out there?”

“Nothing, she just wanted to... get... air.” Antares said quickly, stepping between the window and Meadowlark and giving a lame grin before he glared over his shoulder, his horn glowing and causing the thick curtains to draw themselves quickly over the windows.

Then he sighed and returned his eyes to Meadowlark, and the two studied each other before he opened his mouth... and Meadowlark reached a hoof up to gently press it against his lips, smiling up at him faintly and saying softly: “No.”

Antares stared down at her, the color draining from his face as he felt a weight drop in his gut, and he rose a hoof stupidly. He didn't know what to say, what to do, as his mouth worked wordlessly... and then Meadowlark silently reached up to take his front hoof in her own, bringing it to her lips and kissing it softly as she bowed her head and closed her eyes. “I'll come with you to Subterra, of course. You're my friend, Mir... you always will be. But when you want to ask me... about something else... I want you to come here and ask me because you want to, and when you're ready. Not because others are pushing you or anything like that, okay? You're my friend, and you mean the world to me, but... I want things between us to be real. Not to be...”

She quieted, then smiled faintly and shook her head, glancing up at him as Antares sat silently back, trying to swallow what felt like a lump in his throat that just wouldn't go away. He shifted uneasily, and then Meadowlark said gently: “Go think about things and... wait until you're really ready, if you... ever are, and we'll talk about it and work things out. I'll be here, Antares. I'll always be here for you, okay? As your friend.... and... I just know that... other things between us... it might take time, it might not happen. We'll just... have to see.”

Antares hesitated, then he nodded slowly and dropped his head before clearing his throat and mumbling: “Yeah, yeah, I... I understand. I... I'll... I guess I should go then.”

“Okay.” Meadowlark said softly, and the two looked at each other silently for a few moments before the stallion slumped a little as he turned around, heading quietly back to the door and pulling it open. He glanced over his shoulder at the Pegasus, but she only gave him a small smile, and all he managed in return was a little nod before he turned his gaze back forwards.

Avalon looked up at him expectantly... and Antares simply shook his head as he stepped outside. The tiny Pegasus blinked in surprise, but Antares only shook his head before she asked incredulously, taking to the air and flying beside him: “What? What happened?”

“I guess... everyone really is moving on, one way or another.” Antares replied finally, dropping his head forwards with a sigh, and then he closed his eyes and murmured: “I just wish that I could too.”

With that, he fell silent as he strode aimlessly out through the square, and Avalon sailed down beside him to touch his shoulder gently, but she didn't know anything she could say to try and comfort her poor, confused friend.

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