Cutting Ties

by fic Write Off

First published

Writefriends from all over Ponychan gathered in a war of words on the weekend of June 15. But who is the greatest a/fic/ionado? The decision is yours. Vote, rate, and choose your favourites!

Authors are anonymous, so you won't know who wrote what until the voting stage is over.

Voting Information

(See: for info on how the competition went down and for the discussion thread.)

Cover image by, captioned by Cassius.

Sins of the Sister

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The first light of morning played gently off of the Apple family’s breakfast table. All four of the farm ponies were awake, seemingly unfazed by how early it was. Granny Smith took small bites from an apple tart while Big Mac and Apple Bloom dug in to a freshly prepared fruit salad. Winona lay curled up under the table. Applejack was the only one of the group not seated, electing instead to pace around the kitchen. She put out an ember that had strayed from the fire under the stove as she circled about. Apple Bloom looked up from her plate inquisitively, wiping a bit of grape skin from her mouth before speaking.

“We’re goin’ to market today, ain’t we, sis?” she asked. Apple Bloom already knew the answer, and she was only just managing to hide the excitement in her voice. Applejack had agreed earlier in the week to let her sister have another shot at being a salespony, and Apple Bloom was sure that this time she’d be more successful. She looked up at her big sister, her eyes wide with expectancy.

“Sugarcube,” Applejack began slowly. She stopped her walking and turned to look at her sister. Apple Bloom’s smile faltered slightly, knowing that Applejack always prefaced bad news in this manner. “Sugarcube, ah caint take ya’ to the market today. Ah’ve gotta’ attend to some things that came up in town,” she admitted, hanging her head a bit as she finished the sentence. Apple Bloom’s entire disposition changed after this revelation.

“But, sis, y’all said we were gonna’ sell some of the harvest today! What’s more important than that?” she asked forcefully, slamming a hoof on the table for emphasis. The sudden noise caused Granny Smith to jump in her chair and knock over her glass of apple juice. Apple Bloom watched, wincing as the glass fell to the floor and shattered. Winona jumped up and started barking, equally surprised at the turn of events.

“Apple Bloom!” Applejack scolded. “Y’all know ya caint go ‘round startlin’ Granny like that.” Her voice softened after this. “But, just try to understand, ah really caint cancel these other plans. Ah’m sorry. Maybe you cain come along next time?” Applejack asked, smiling.

“But that’s not fair,” Apple Bloom retorted, climbing onto the breakfast table to be eye to eye with her sister. She never liked to have Applejack looking down at her. “Y’all almost never let me come to the market with you, and when you finally do, we have ta cancel. What’s so important, sis’?” she asked genuinely, her eyes fixed on Applejack’s.

“Ah...” Applejack began, her eyes inadvertently darting away from her sister. “Ah have to go deposit some bits in the Ponyville branch bank,” she said, her voice faltering slightly. Apple Bloom jumped on this.

“Y’all are a terrible liar, sis! Ah cain see it in your face, and why couldn’ you just go the bank some other time anyway?” she asked interrogatorily, surprising her sister slightly. Applejack hardened her face and turned to her brother.

“Mac, I ain’t got time fer this. Cain you just make shore y’all start harvesting the north field this mornin’?” she asked evenly.

“Eeyup,” Big Mac responded, giving Apple Bloom a look to try to calm her down. She rarely attempted to go against Big Mac.

“All ah’m sayin’ is that somethin’ stinks in the country of Equestria,” Apple Bloom added. Applejack stood still for a moment. She sighed deeply before grabbing a pouch full of bits from the counter and throwing it in her saddlebags. She opened the front door and began to canter down the dirt path outside. Big Mac turned and glared at his little sister.

“Have fun!” Granny Smith yelled from her spot at the table; oblivious to the details of the event that had just transpired.

Applejack never turned at the fork that would take her to Ponyville. She kept following the path, mentally preparing herself for the next few minutes.

Just keep a level head, and everythin’s gonna’ be alright, she told herself. You haven’t had any trouble before, and nothin’s gonna’ change today. Her heart began to beat slightly faster with each hoofstep she took. The scenery around the path was laden with tall trees and heavy underbrush, but she easily picked out her destination. She could see the old house standing off from the path, only a few hundred feet away. Her heart was racing, but she moved forward calmly, her mind running through a thousand scenarios all at once.

Applejack saw two pairs of hoofprints leading to the decrepit home’s door, and she knew she was running late. She increased her pace, and she was soon standing just outside the once—beautiful farmhouse. She tried to swallow, but her mouth had gone dry. She blinked a few times and then pushed open the door leading inside, the hinges squealing as she did so.

The house was stark, though that might have been because Applejack could barely make out anything inside. The tall canopy of trees afforded little light for windows to illuminate the home, and she was sure that there wasn’t really much to look at regardless. The silence inside the house was broken as the sound of hooves drew closer to her. After a moment, two large stallions appeared from the darkness, each smiling widely at Applejack.

“Gentlecolts,” she addressed them. The two muscular pegasus ponies looked at each other and sniggered.

“Hardly,” the one to her left replied. His black mane was slicked back, and he wore a brown jacket over his shining blue coat. He had a heavy accent, one that Applejack didn’t recognize, but had not intention of questioning.

“Yeah, hardly,” the other colt added. He was a deal bigger than the blue colt, standing at least as tall as Big Mac. His coat was gray, and he had a short brown mane. His eyes never pointed the same direction, but one of them always seemed to be trained on Applejack. The pair of colts both concealed their cutie marks; Applejack figured it was to make identifying them more difficult.

“Bucky, go stand by the door,” the blue colt instructed. His accomplice nodded and circled around the lone mare, stopping a few feet behind her in front of the home’s entrance. He unfurled his wings and began to gnaw at a few stray feathers.

“Caint we just get this over with, Salvatoro?” Applejack asked, her calm demeanor not reflecting her inner panic. “Ah’ve got yer money, so let’s just do this.”

“Heh, whatever you want Ms. Applejack. Drop the bits halfway between us, and I’ll come and collect them,” Salvatoro explained. “Even a pony like you can understand those instructions, right?” Applejack’s legs tensed up. She had to hold herself back. She could easily take Salvatoro down, but the addition of Bucky made her chances of doing so seem slim. She withdrew the bag of bits from her saddlebags, holding the simple pouch in her mouth. After taking a few tentative steps forward, she dropped the bag unceremoniously and retreated to her previous position. The smile on Salvatoro’s face was gut—wrenching. She had to fight every urge she had to run and buck him straight in the jaw.

“There, was that so hard?” he asked.

“Yeah, was that hard, Applejack?” Bucky chimed in from behind her, earning himself a scowl from Salvatoro.

The blue pegasus began to walk forward slowly, his gaze never drifting away from Applejack’s. His brown eyes were cold, impassive. He picked up the pouch from the center of the floor without breaking eye contact, and took a few calculated steps backward. Salvatoro then opened the bag and began to take a mental count of the money enclosed within it. Applejack looked on, her heart beating so hard she feared it must be making audible noise. After a few tense minutes of near silence, Salvatoro looked up from his task.

“Lady, do you take me for an idiot?” he asked, his voice resounding with anger. His wings had flitted out during the outburst. Applejack had half a mind to answer the question truthfully, but she bit her tongue.

“Ah don’t understand what you mean,” she said, her voice emotionless.

“Of course you don’t,” he replied smugly. “I don’t know if you thought Bucky would be doing the counting or something, but you must think I’m a mule if you want me to believe that this is enough to cover your flank. Where’s the rest of my money?” he asked, his voice changing to an almost polite tone.

“It’s all there, ah counted it this mornin’” Applejack replied, angered at the suggestion that they were the ones who were being cheated, “Four hundred bits worth of ten bit coins.”

“Ah, but you forget, Applejack, you showed up late to this meeting, and I’m afraid that, as you know, time is money. Now, Bucky and I can never get back the thirty minutes that we spent waiting for you to show up. You can’t really put a price on that, now can you? I think it’s fair to say that a bit for each minute will suffice, for now. So, thirty bits, multiplied by two since there are two of us, comes out to—”

“Sixty bits?” Applejack asked in annoyance.

“Good, you can at least do some math, it seems. That’s more than I gave you credit for,” Salvatoro spat. “So, how would you like to pay for that?” he asked, his smile growing wider.

“But ah only brought enough bits to cover today’s payment!” Applejack yelled, stomping her hoof. She narrowed her eyes at the blue colt across from her. “Y’all ain’t gonna’ get another bit out of me.” Salvatoro straightened up a little at the change of the conversation’s tone.

“I may have phrased it as a request, Applejack, but I wasn’t really giving you an option. I guess you need to have it spelled out. Give me the rest of my money.” Salvatoro still hadn’t looked away from the green eyes of Applejack.

“Ah ain’t payin’” she answered.

“And I really thought you were going to make my morning easy, Applejack. It’s a real shame. You’ve never given me any trouble in the past.” Salvatoro finally broke the lock between the two pony’s eyes. “Bucky, maybe you could help show Applejack here the error of her ways?” Applejack’s eyes widened. She spun around in time to see the grey colt’s powerful back hooves extending to meet her face. Her legs buckled and she fell onto her side.

Applejack had no idea how much time had passed when she finally came to. Her entire body was sore. She touched her face with her hooves, and immediately cringed when she felt her nose. Applejack could tell that her coat was caked with blood around her snout, and she knew she must look terrible. She staggered back onto all fours, managing to regain her balance after a few seconds. Gazing through one of the grime covered windows, she could see that it was a little after midday. She felt sick. Her insides were all wound up from stress, and she wanted nothing more than to get back home and rinse herself off.

Applejack found her hat near where she had fallen, and put it back on. She felt safer for some reason, like the father who used to wear it was actually there with her. She looked around for her saddlebags, finding them near the doorway to the farmhouse. They were a little tattered where they had been ripped open, and their contents, which had consisted of nothing more than an apple pastry and some water, were now missing. Dejected, she set off for home, not knowing where else to go.

“Ah jus’ don’t get why Applejack was actin’ so funny this mornin’, do you Big Mac?” Apple Bloom asked. The two of them were in the northern field of Sweet Apple Acres,. Big Mac was doing his best to make up for Applejack’s absence by working faster than usual, and his normally red coat was more of a splotchy maroon color as a result of his sweat. Apple Bloom trailed behind him picking up any stray apples.

“N—Nnnope,” Big Mac replied between bucking trees. He was panting heavily, and Apple Bloom wished she was big enough to help her brother more. The pair had begun work almost immediately after Applejack had left, and they hadn’t stopped since. It was surely afternoon by now. Apple Bloom looked around, but she couldn’t see her sister anywhere.

“Y’all think she’s alright, don’tcha?” she asked.

“Eeyup,” Big Mac answered.

“Do you have any idea where she might be?” Apple Bloom asked, stopping in place to look up at her brother. Big Macintosh similarly stopped what he was doing to turn and frown at his little sister.

“Nnnope, and we’re never gonna’ finish if ya’ keep asking these silly questions. Applejack is a big mare, and she cain take care of herself. Nothin’s gonna’ happen, I—”

“Mac, look!” Apple Bloom shouted, jumping and pointing at the crest of a hill behind her brother. “Ah cain see her from here. Hey, Applejack!” she yelled at her sister. Applejack didn’t seem to have noticed. Apple Bloom ran towards her, her short legs pounding away despite how tired she was. She was almost to her sister, just a few more yards. Apple Bloom jumped and wrapped Applejack in a tight hug, happy to see her after the awkward morning.

“Ow! Get off Apple Bloom!” she yelled, throwing her little sister off of her. She hadn’t been paying attention and was caught of guard by the filly’s sudden hug.

“S—sis?” Apple Bloom said softly after a moment, her eyes growing wide. She was about to mumble something when she noticed the blood around her sister’s snout. Her mouth fell open involuntarily. She couldn’t take her eyes off of the splotches that matched the hue of Big Mac’s coat. She looked up and saw that Applejack’s mane was dirty and matted with sweat. “Sis, what happened ta you?” Apple Bloom turned to face where her big brother was standing a ways away. “Big Mac, I think AJ’s hurt, come quick!” The burly bronco looked up, before running up the small hill to meet up with his two sisters.

“Ah’m fine, hey, stop looking at me like that, Big Mac,” Applejack demanded weakly. She looked tired, but she was trying not to show it.

“What happened at the bank, sis?” Apple Bloom asked, her voice quavering. She looked completely shocked at the situation.

“It sure don’t look like you went to the bank, AJ,” Big Mac added.

“Are y’all accusing me of somethin’?” Applejack asked, her voice gaining back some strength. She stood up a little taller. “Ah,” she stopped to cough deeply, and Apple Bloom thought she saw her sister wipe something away from her mouth, “ah’m fine. The last thing ah need if fer y’all to start questionin’ me all the sudden like this. Leave me alone.”

“Applejack, talk to me, yer brother,” Big Macintosh begged.

“Ah need to be alone fer a bit, alright? Let me be,” Applejack said definitively. She began to trot off into the eastern field.

“Aren’tcha gonna’ go after her, Big Mac?” Apple Bloom asked, sounding a little delirious.

“C’mon Apple Bloom, let’s get back ta work. Yer sis’ll come around,” he answered simply. He began to plod off to the section of trees where they had stopped working.

“But ya’ saw how she looked, didn’tcha? She’s in trouble and she needs our help,” Apple Bloom asserted while trying to drag her brother in the direction her sister had bolted off in.

“It don’t matter how much she needs our help; she has to want it.” With this, Big Mac scooped up his little sister and placed her on his back, still walking back to their harvesting spot.

Applejack didn’t want to think anymore. She hadn’t stopped thinking since early that morning, and she could add her brain to the list of her sore muscles. She was agitated at everything. She was mad at herself for getting knocked out. She was mad at Bucky and Salvatoro for their actions. She was mad at her family for trying to help her when she could obviously handle herself fine. But most of all, she was mad at the fact that she wasn’t in control. She hated not being in the driver’s seat in her own life.

She ate a few apples on her way through the orchard, the fruit being the only nourishment her stomach had received all day. She was feeling lightheaded, but she didn’t want to sit down. She had to do something, anything to take her mind off of her situation. She looked around and saw a number of empty buckets placed out under the trees in preparation of Applebuck season. Applejack smiled slightly for the first time all day and walked near the base of one of the trees. She turned around and, leaning forward on her hooves, kicked her legs powerfully back at the trunk of the tree. Nothing happened.

Applejack tightened her expression and kicked her legs back again, this time trying to put her entire body into the motion. Her front hooves slipped in the dirt, and the farmer fell to the ground with an audible thud. She was livid now. She got back onto her hooves, and imagined Salvatoro was standing behind her much the way she had been standing behind Bucky hours earlier. She braced her front legs again, this time taking a moment more to set herself, and kicked the tree with the entirety of her being. A second later, she heard the consoling sound of apples dropping into the baskets. Applejack grinned.

She moved to the next tree and repeated the process, and she did so for ten trees more. Her mind became set on its task, and soon she was alone, distanced even from herself. Nothing mattered but what was happening at that moment. It was bliss for Applejack. She hadn’t felt this way in ages. She didn’t have to consciously think about anything, her mind was on a sort of autopilot.

It was in moments like this that memories would come to Applejack. She never spent mush time reminiscing, but obviously her brain felt it was important to do so. As she proceeded down the line of trees, her thoughts drifted backwards in time, fixing themselves a few years ago before harvest season. Applejack kept bucking, but her brain played memories like a movie as she continued.

Losing their parents had been tough on Applejack and Big Macintosh. The emotional high of welcoming Apple Bloom to the family had been overshadowed by the toll of saying farewell to mom and dad. They still had their grandmother, but she was too old to work anymore. It meant that Applejack and Big Mac had to assume their parent’s roles almost overnight. Donning the hat worn by her father, Applejack had taken over as head of Sweet Apple Acres, and she and Big Mac worked well together. The first harvest had been a huge success, and the Apples had felt that their luck might just be turning around.

Then came the winter

Applejack could only run the farm on intuition, and she hadn’t thought to set aside extra money to get through the non—planting months. Times got real tough real quick, and soon there had been nothing left to keep the farm afloat. Applejack had tried to get a loan from the banks, but they turned her away because of her age. She didn’t know where else to turn. Apple Bloom cried constantly, not even a year old yet, and Big Mac joined her in tears more often than not. Something needed to be done.

Applejack had thought that the pegasus who had landed in her yard was a gift from Celestia herself. He saw the conditions of the family, and he claimed that he could help them. The loan sounded great, and Applejack knew that she could easily pay it off with time. Soon there was food on the table again, and it looked like nothing but better days lay ahead.

That year flashed through Applejack’s head in an instant. Her life had been shaped in those months, for better and for worse. She stopped her work in the orchard after the memories washed over her and looked up at the sky. The sun was nearly setting, and she had to get back to the farmhouse before dark or risk getting lost. She set off in the direction she had come from. What had transpired in the morning was nothing more than a distant recollection.

Applejack never told her family about what had happened, and the other three didn’t ask. Big Mac had managed to instill in Apple Bloom the idea that her sister needed to keep some things to herself, and so she managed to keep her curiosity at bay. Granny Smith, of course, saw nothing wrong with the situation. Applejack had healed up within a week, and life continued on as always.

The sight of her sister had been too jarring for Apple Bloom to ignore, however. She knew not to pester Applejack, but she had to talk to somepony to see if maybe they knew about what was going on. She decided to seek out the smartest pony she could think of, hoping that maybe they could quell her fears.

The door to the library was open when she arrived, so Apple Bloom ventured inside without knocking. The inside of the library was a bit of a mess; various books littered the floor, and a number of different pieces of paper were strewn about. Twilight Sparkle was standing over a podium at the opposite end of the room, engrossed in an old—looking book.

“Hey Twilight, whatcha’ readin’?” Apple Bloom called across the room. Twilight jumped at the voice before turning around and smiling at her guest.

“Oh, it’s just some magic literature, it’s not really important,” she answered. Twilight motioned for her to come closer. Apple Bloom did so, and soon the two ponies were standing directly across from each other. “So, what brings you to the library today?” Twilight’s face lit up at that moment. “Oh, are you checking out a book? That would be great! I’ve got a whole lot of books I think a filly like you might like! Oh, nopony’s checked out a book in ages, this is wonderful!”

“Uh, Twilight?”

“And you can even read here if you want. I know that it can get pretty noisy around town, so I’ve set up a nice reading room, and I can even have Spike make us some tea if you’d like that!”


“And maybe you’re special talent has to do with books! You should bring the Cutie Mark Crusaders over to have a reading day, and maybe Rarity and Applejack and Rainbow will want to come too! Does Applejack even read? I mean, I know she can read, but it’s not good to go for long periods without at least reading something.”

“Twilight, ah’m not here to check out a book,” Apple Bloom yelled when the bookish mare finally paused to take a breath. Twilight frowned slightly. “But, um, maybe I cain get one some other time?” she added in a softer tone, returning the smile to Twilight Sparkle’s face.

“That sounds great, Apple Bloom. So, why are you here then?” Apple Bloom was silent for a moment before answering the question.

“Twi’, ah’m worried about Applejack,” she admitted. Twilight looked puzzled.

“What do you mean? Is she sick? I haven’t heard anything about her in a while.”

“No, it’s nothin’ like that,” Apple Bloom assured. “It’s just... well, she’s been actin’ differnt lately. She lied to us about where she was goin’ one mornin’, and then she left the house with a bagful of money. She came back later, and,” Apple Bloom paused for a moment, not sure which details to share or conceal, “the money was all gone. She even had a story, but it didn’t really add up too well.”

“Is Big Mac aware of all this?” Twilight asked.

“Yeah, but he told me to just let things run their course,” Apple Bloom replied. “Ah’m just real worried is all. You know my sis doesn’t lie about anythin’, so that’s what’s got me a little on edge.” Twilight stayed very silent for a number of moments, her appearance one of a pony deep in thought.

“I don’t really know what to tell you, Apple Bloom. That doesn’t sound like your sister at all. Will you keep me posted on everything that’s going on? I’ll try to see if there’s any way I can help,” she promised.

“Ah definitely will, Twilight,” Apple Bloom responded.

“Good. Now, while you’re here, maybe you’d like to look at a few mystery novels? They can be really fun,” Twilight beamed as Apple Bloom sighed.

Weeks passed without incident. The Apple family was still focused almost totally on Applebuck season, and the three siblings worked hard to collect as many of the tantalizing apples as possible before the season was out. They worked daily, getting up early and then going off to the field, coming back at sundown tired and drenched in sweat. These were the weeks Apple Bloom loved the most. School was out, and she was helping out her two favorite ponies. She’d almost forgotten about the weird day a few weeks back.

Apple Bloom got up the next day energized, ready to tackle the next portion of the east field. She walked downstairs carefully and took her seat at the breakfast table. Big Macintosh was already present, spooning grits into his bowl. Apple Bloom was still half asleep, but she noticed her sister silently slinking out of the kitchen from the corner of her eye. It took her a moment to register this.

“Big Mac, where’s Applejack goin’?” Apple Bloom asked, yawning after finishing the question.

“Don’t know,” he admitted. Apple Bloom blinked.

“You’re just lettin’ her leave? What about what happened last time?” she shouted, getting up from her seat.

“Applejack is a full—grown mare, she cain take care of herself. She got better last time, and maybe now she won’t get hurt. Ah ain’t one ta tell her what ta do,” Big Mac replied, his face still impassive.

“What, so if ah just left right now you wouldn’ worry or nothin’?” Apple Bloom questioned her brother.

“You’re not yer sister, AB. You’re still just a filly. Applejack can do as she pleases. Ah caint stop her anyway,” he conceded. Apple Bloom agreed internally. Big Mac was a pushover when it came to dealing with Applejack. She figured she might have a shot at stopping her big sister though, and besides, Twilight had told her to keep an eye on her.

“Uhhhh, big brother, ah have to go to tha library today. Twilight said she had a real cool, um, mystery... novel... thing,” Apple Bloom lied. “Ya’ think maybe we cain take the day off?”

“Well, without you an’ yer sis, ah caint get much done. Might as well just take the day off. What am I supposed ta do, though?” he asked.

“Ah don’t know, talk to Granny Smith or somethin’. She’s got loads of stories you’ve probably never heard,” Apple Bloom said, already halfway out the door. Big Mac sighed and looked at his grandmother, who seemed very interested in the toast on her plate.

“Well, ah guess it’s just you and me, Granny,” Big Mac said.

“Yep, it is best to chew the peas, Manny,” the aging mare answered slowly, thinking that her grandson must have gone crazy to say something so ridiculous.

Apple Bloom caught up to Applejack easily. She stayed in the woods off of the main path, trying to evade her sister’s gaze when she occasionally checked behind herself. Applejack had on her saddlebags, which had certainly seen better days. Apple Bloom didn’t see any money on her, but it could be hidden in the bags. She tailed her sister for what felt like half a day, though it couldn’t really have been more than an hour or so. Apple Bloom would catch a glimpse of her sister’s face every now and then, and she was sure that Applejack seemed worried about something.

The canopy above Apple Bloom grew thicker as her sister continued on. Applejack’s pace began to slow, and she mumbled something to herself that was out of earshot for her sister. After a few more seconds, she looked to her left and then walked into the woods. Apple Bloom watched as Applejack walked up to and then entered a creepy farmhouse that she had never noticed before. She swallowed, wiped a little sweat from her face, and followed her sister’s hoofprints.

She wasn’t going to actually venture inside the home; that would be too risky. Apple Bloom did put her ear up to the door, however, and was able to make out some of the conversation inside. She strained and tried to listen to as much as she possibly could from her position.

Applejack was standing in front of Bucky and Salvatoro as she had many times before. Salvatoro was garbed in a finer jacket than during their previous encounter, but Bucky looked as dull as ever. Applejack had been preparing what she would say in this situation for weeks. This was her time to stand up.

“Ms. Applejack, I see your pretty face healed up quite nicely. It’s a pity we had to do anything to it last time, but you really gave us no other option,” Salvatoro began.

“Spare me the pleasantries, Salvo. Let’s get down ta what we’re both here for,” Applejack spoke back at the pegasus. His words had hardly registered with her. She was singularly focused.

“Well, it seems somepony is a little tense today. I’m only trying to be friendly,” he replied evenly. “But, you always have been one for business. Yes, let’s get down to it then. Bucky, get the door.” The gray colt nodded and made to start towards the house’s entryway, but Applejack held a hoof up in protest.

“Ah don’t think that’ll be necessary, Salvatoro. Ah said it last week, and ah think you mighta’ misheard me, so here it is again: ah ain’t payin’.” She smiled confidently at the ponies across from her, who looked genuinely surprised for a few seconds before Bucky finally spoke up.

“Should I kick her in the mouth again, boss?” he asked, each of his eyes trained on a different pony.

“No, no, I don’t think you should do that Bucky,” Salvatoro said. His expression was indiscernible. “Ms. Applejack here doesn’t want to pay anymore; that’s fine. She doesn’t have to give us anymore bits.” The room grew silent for a moment; the only sound was the heavy breathing from the towering grey colt. “You’re free to go, Applejack,” Salvatoro said, his face still unreadable.

Applejack hadn’t been expecting things to go like this. She was sure there would be some sort of scuffle between the three of them, but was content at least that she wouldn’t have to hide any new cuts or bruises from her family. She backed up, still not trusting the other two colts that much. She reached behind her and opened the home’s door before trotting out into the warmth of midday.

Apple Bloom hadn’t been able to understand everything that had been said. She could comprehend a bit of speech from her sister, but the only other thing she could get was that there were two other colts in the house. The clearest statement she had heard was her sister’s assertion that she wasn’t paying, but what did that even mean? She assumed it had to do with the bag of bits from almost a month ago, yet there was no way that she could tell for sure. Apple Bloom did know, however, that she had to go to Twilight Sparkle’s library, if for no other reason than to solidify her alibi.

“I’ll admit, Apple Bloom, that really doesn’t sound good at all,” Twilight stated after hearing the foal’s retelling of the story. “You didn’t actually see anything though, did you?” she asked before taking a sip of tea. Apple Bloom had approached Twilight under the guise of spending some time reading, but she soon brought up the events of the morning. The pair was seated in the library’s reading room, which, though cramped, was cozy and welcoming. It was nice to sit next to Twilight on the couch and sip tea, surrounded by a few shelves of exciting looking books. Apple Bloom felt safe talking in here.

“Ah was only able to listen at the door, Twi’. Mah sis was pretty close by, so she was the only pony ah could hear clearly,” she said. “Do you know what she might have meant about payin’?” Apple Bloom asked, looking up at Twilight Sparkle with her big eyes. The librarian wanted to help her, to at least be able to offer some comfort to the filly, but she was at a total loss.

“I really can’t tell for sure. I’ve got a number of theories, but that’s all they are at this point. I wish there was something more I could tell you, but,” Twilight looked down, “I’m sorry.”

“Hey, don’t be, Twilight. Y’all are a really good listener and all that. Ah know you’re tryin’ ta help me out as best ya can,” Apple Bloom responded, putting a hoof softly on Twilight’s shoulder. “Yer guess is as good as mine, right now.” Twilight smiled a little and leaned forward to hug her.

“Be safe, Apple Bloom. I appreciate you tailing your sister, but please, don’t do it again, alright?” she asked quietly. Apple Bloom nodded in agreement.

The days all run together when you do the same thing for weeks at a time. Applebuck season was always like one long day for the Apple family, each session of work only broken up by a short rest. Every morning followed the same pattern, and the rest of their waking hours deviated very little. Occasionally something interesting would break up the monotony; Big Macintosh might buck a tree too hard and knock a weak trunk over, or Granny Smith might cook up a weird family recipe for lunch. They family was confident they would be able to harvest all of the trees this year, but it would still take time.

Their task was made easier when they walked into the east field a few mornings later. Applejack and Big Mac stood opposite each other, and after a moment of setting themselves, each pony kicked the tree behind them. Apple Bloom prepared to run and pick up any stray apples, but there didn’t seem to be any. In fact, no apples seemed to have fallen at all. The three siblings looked at each other, an unspoken question resounding in each of their heads.

“What’s goin’ on?” Apple Bloom yelled to her brother and sister. “Are the apples not ripe or somethin’?”

“Nnnope,” Big Mac answered, pointing one of his long legs at the top of the tree he was under. Apple Bloom tried to see what he was pointing at, but she couldn’t see anything. It took her a moment to realize what that meant.

“Land sakes, the trees ain’t got any apples in ‘em!” Applejack yelled, her eyes wide in bewilderment. She craned her neck to look around at the other surrounding trees, and each had similarly barren branches. “Big Mac, go around an’ count up the trees that’re missin’ fruit,” Applejack instructed. Her brother nodded and began to canter through this section of the orchard, his eyes fixed on the trees.

“Sixty, exactly sixty trees are missin’ apples,” he called back after a minute of counting. “Sure is an odd number, ain’t it?”

“What in... how could this happen? Do y’all think the soil’s bad out here or somethin’? This field hasn’t given us any problems before,” Applejack said, her voice ripe with suspicion.

“Sis, it looks like somepony mooched the apples off of us. The branches are all snapped where there should be fruit. Besides, you’ve been through this field before today. Hasn’t there been apples here until this mornin’?” Apple Bloom asked, her face taut in confusion.

“Yeah, yeah you’re right AB. In fact, ah think I saw these trees just yesterday doin’ fine. Consarnit! Who would do a thing like this?” Applejack spat, stomping a hoof forcefully in frustration.

They couldn’t really have done this, could they? Applejack asked herself internally. Salvatoro’s got money coming in from all over Equestria, and I already paid him back at least four times over. He doesn’t need my measly loan. Applejack decided to write this off as a weird coincidence. Colts would sometimes sneak onto the farm and steal apples. That wasn’t uncommon.

“Might just’ve been some kids or somethin’,” Applejack said after a moment. “No use getting too worked up about it. Let’s move on to the next section of the field and keep goin’,” she suggested. Big Mac followed without a word, but Apple Bloom stayed behind for a moment. She knew that a few school ponies might take an apple or two, but even if her entire class from Ponyville Elementary visited the farm, they couldn’t finish off sixty trees worth of apples.

She shook herself after a moment and trotted to join her siblings, who had already resumed Applebucking in the next field. She made a note of the day’s odd happening and refocused her mind on helping out.

The season was almost over. The Apples had faced a few setbacks, but this Applebuck season was altogether one of the best they’d ever had. Apple Bloom was a little bit happy that today would be the last day of actual harvest. It was fun to work with the family, but it got to be tiring after so long. After today they would start sorting and storing the harvest, and then they’d start shipping out their bigger orders before selling the rest of the crop in the Ponyville market.

Breakfast was the same as it had been for what felt like months. Granny Smith had made up various fruit dishes and pastries, and the four Apples were all happily digging in to their respective plates. Applejack was shoveling chunks of melon into her mouth, stopping only occasionally to drink from her glass. There wasn’t much conversation. The Apples always said that a good meal was accompanied only by the sounds of chewing, and this was certainly a good meal.

“Sis?” Big Macintosh’s asked in his deep voice, causing the three mares also seated at the table to look up at him. “Ah know it’s askin’ a lot, but do you think ya’ could let me off of work t’day?” He looked down at his plate, not wanting to make eye contact with his sister.

“Mac, this ain’t an office or nothin’, of course you cain take off. Apple Bloom an’ ah were gonna’ finish up the last few trees today anyway, so it’s no big loss if ya’ wanna’ do somethin’ else,” she smiled widely at her brother, who returned the expression. “If ah may ask, what’s the occasion?”

“Well,” Big Mac looked down again, his already red cheeks growing a little brighter, “Miss Cheerilee wants to see me, an’ I haven’t had a chance to get over to her all summer.” He looked genuinely embarrassed, which was in stark contrast to his natural demeanor.

“Wait, are you still seein’ my teacher?” Apple Bloom asked, cocking an eyebrow. She giggled a second later. “Aw, that’s real sweet, Big Mac. Heh, she asks about you sometimes in class.” Big Macintosh’s ears perked up at this. Apple Bloom proceeded to clear her throat and try out her best impression of Cheerilee. “‘How’s you’re brother doing, Apple Bloom? Is he still working hard out at the farm?’” She accompanied this by fluttering her eyes, eliciting a laugh from her older sister. “‘Oh how I wish he would sweep me up in his hooves and kiss me like in those romance movies.’” Applejack was now laughing deeply, having to gasp for breath between chuckles.

“Hey, she does not say that,” Big Macintosh retorted, his face now noticeably redder than usual.

“Wouldn’t ya’ like it if she did, though?” Apple Bloom asked, barely stifling her own mirth. Her brother was shooting her daggers.

“Aw, lighten up, Big Mac. Yer sis is just havin’ a little fun is all. Shucks, I didn’t even know you two were a thing,” Applejack admitted.

“Well, it’s not really official. Look, cain ah just be on my way?” Big Macintosh asked, sounding only a little annoyed as opposed to angry. He got up from his place at the table and made his way out of the house as quickly as possible.

“Shore thing, Cassanova,” Apple Bloom called after him, educing more laughter from Applejack.

“I cain hardly believe Little Macintosh has a fillyfirend; seems like just yesterday he was playin’ with yer dolls, Applejack. Remember that?” Granny Smith asked, giggling to herself.

“I definitely do, Gran.”


The rest of the morning passed uneventfully. Apple Bloom was happy to just spend some time with her sister, and the two of them talked for a while, electing to work at a leisurely pace in the field. Applejack asked a lot of questions about Cheerilee, and Apple Bloom felt like her sister was almost being a little protective of their brother. Her position as head of the farm often led her to step into the role of ‘big brother’, regardless of age or gender. Applejack has always been a leader, and Apple Bloom wouldn’t have it any other way.

As the last apples fell from the last tree in Sweet Apple Acres, the two sisters lay back under one of the tall apple trees and rested. Applejack let her little sister wear her hat, and the two of them started talking about whatever came up. Their conversation was cut short, however, when the dinner bell sounded from the house.

“AJ, there’s no way Granny made dinner this early, right?” Apple Bloom asked, holding the hat up over her eyes. Applejack removed the Stetson from her sister and put it back on her own head as she got to her hooves.

“No, it’s hardly even noon now. She must need me for somethin’. Probably a package ah gotta’ sign for,” she said. “C’mon Apple Bloom, let’s head back and see what’s goin’ on.” The two ponies set off at a quick canter towards their house. It was only a five minute trip or so, and soon enough the sisters burst through the kitchen door and into their destination. Apple Bloom immediately wished they hadn’t.

“Applejack, your brother, he...” Granny Smith stammered, her legs shaking more fiercely than usual. She pointed at the colt’s hulking figure, though he couldn’t have been missed. Big Macintosh lay where the kitchen table would normally have been, though Granny Smith must have moved it. The first thing Applejack saw was that he was breathing, which allayed her first round of fears. She wasn’t ready to bury another Apple any time soon.

Her eyes then started picking up details. Her brother had a deep gash on the side of his head, but it looked like it had stopped bleeding. His side was dotted with purple bruises in the shape of hooves. Applejack counted at least fifteen before stopping. One of Big Mac’s eyes was swollen, and he had a few small cuts on his back hooves that he must have received from trying to fight back.

“Big Mac!” Apple Bloom screamed, her eyes wide in terror and her mouth agape. She galloped over to her brother’s head and was trying to wake him up. “C’mon, you caint just lay there, Mac, you have to do somethin’!”

“Wha..” Big Macintosh breathed, his eyes shooting open for a second. “Am I home?” he asked, coughing after he got the question out.

“Yes, of course you are,” Applejack answered anemically. “Tell me how you feel.”

“’Bout the same as I look, I guess,” Big Mac answered, forcing his face into a half smile. It did little to ease the three mares around him.

“What in the hay happened to you?” Apple Bloom shouted, her heart pounding as she phrased the question. She was standing right next to her brother, but she had lost any regard she had for controlling her volume.

“Never did get to Cheerilee’s,” he began, taking a few deep breaths. He rolled over and finally sat back on his hooves. “Ah hope y’all know ah’m not really in that bad shape. This guy hurts a mite,” he gestured to the cut on the side of his face, “but ah should heal up fine.” Applejack frowned.

“Well ah’m glad you’re all right, Mac, but please, tell us what happened to you,” she said sternly. Big Mac grimaced.

“Ah don’t know if Apple Bloom should hear it,” he answered back starkly.

“Hey, ah’m a part of this family too, and I deserve to hear what happened!” she contended. Applejack looked between her two siblings before letting out a sigh and nodding.

“Alright, ah guess. Ya’ see, ah was walkin’ to Cheerilee’s place, it’s outside of Ponyville, so I took a shortcut on a little trail between here and there. Ah didn’t even get halfway before ah heard somethin’ russlin’ in the bushes nearby. Ah tried to pick up my pace, but it was no use. I heard some colt say somethin’, and then a pile of ponies jumped on me. One of ‘em caught me in the head with somethin’ sharp, and ah kinda’ blacked out right then,” the colt explained, pausing occasionally to cough or take a breath. The silence in the room was tangible for a minute.

“Then how’d ya’ get back here?” Applejack asked quizzically

“Ah cain answer that,” Granny Smith said, stepping forward a little. “Right before ah rang that dinner bell, I heard a carriage comin’ up to the house. I figgered is must be some package or somethin’ for you, so ah went to go get a look at it. Right as I opened the door, ah saw some colt pushin’ Big Mac out of the side of the wagon before they got the heck out of Dodge,” she recalled.

“Well, I’m glad everypony’s alright. Big Mac, I cain call for Nurse Redheart and have her out here in a jiffy, do ya’ want that?” she asked, looking over her brother again. He got onto his hooves after a second before shaking his head.

“Nnnope. Ah’m really fine. This cut here needs to be washed out, but there ain’t nothin’ else wrong with me,” he contended, walking around to show that his legs were all still working. “Ah just want to know what all of this was about,” he admitted, his voice dropping. “Ah mean, those colts could’ve killed me if they wanted to,” he said grimly, receiving a gasp from Apple bloom. “What’re they after?” he asked genuinely. His youngest sister stepped forward, unable to hold herself back any longer.

“Applejack,” she began, “do you think that this has to do with—”

“Highwaymen!” Granny Smith yelled. “This is just like what happened back when my daddy ran this farm. First y’all tell me a field’s worth of apples are missin’, and now Big Mac’s been attacked; there’s only one logical conclusion.” Applejack looked nervously at her grandmother, beads of sweat beginning to form on her brow. “Us Apples,” Granny Smith began, “are under a curse!” Applejack exhaled at this.

“Now Granny, I really don’t think that makes much sense at all,” Big Macintosh said, trying to understand his grandmother’s claim.

“Aw, ponyfeathers! An evil presence doesn’t want us to have this land! It’s tryin’ to force us away somewhere else, and there’s only one thing to do about that,” she explained. She grabbed Apple Bloom and slung the filly on her back, taking creaking steps out into the living room. “C’mon, little Apple, we need to prepare for the warding ritual!”

“What? Granny, wait! Ah have to talk to Applejack,” Apple Bloom cried as her grandmother took her away from the kitchen.

“There’s no time! Go get your bunny suit from upstairs and meet me back here in two minutes,” the elderly mare yelled. Big Mac and Applejack had to laugh at their eccentric grandmother. Applejack was really happy she wouldn’t have to try to explain everything to Apple Bloom.

“Big Mac, ah might need your help with somethin’” Applejack began. Her brother smiled and then nodded. “Well, ah know you’re not in very good shape right now, but just listen to me, alright? Now, missin’ apples are one thing, but attacking you is somethin’ different entirely,” she continued, dropping off at the end of the sentence. She looked completely lost in thought, which was rare for Applejack.

“Sis, what do you wanna’ say?” Big Mac asked simply. Applejack sighed and looked into her brother’s eyes, trying to calm herself for what she had to tell him.

“Ah know why bad things have been happening to the farm.”

It hadn’t been easy to retell everything to her brother, but Applejack had managed. To her surprise, Big Mac reacted pretty impassively to the whole thing. ‘Everypony makes mistakes,’ he had said. ‘I can’t fault you for yours.’ The two of them had agreed to work on a plan in the morning, being that Granny Smith’s “warding ritual” had meandered into the kitchen while they were talking.

The entire Apple family joined together to help do various odd things at their grandmother’s command, and before long, they were eating supper and heading off to bed. They had to resume work the next morning, and nopony was looking forward to the dull task of counting and sorting apples.

Applejack was able to drift off to sleep easily. The past few weeks she’d been having trouble with the feat, but tonight was different. She easily got into her dreams, though she never could remember them the next day. It was relaxing for her. The warmth of her bed helped relieve some of the stress she had built up in her muscles, and soon she was dead to the world.

Something wasn’t right, though. Applejack could hear a faint noise in the background of her mind. It sounded familiar, but she couldn’t recall where she had heard it before. She tried to focus on it in her sleep, and soon she was able to hear it as Winona’s barking.

Applejack’s eyes shot open. She could clearly hear her dog barking at something downstairs. That was never a good sign. She rolled out of bed, having to take a second to scramble onto her hooves before shooting towards the staircase. The room felt stifling, and Applejack wondered if she might be having some sort of fever dream brought on from overwork.

She reached the landing and immediately wished her previous thought had been true. Winona rushed to Applejack’s side, before turning and pointing back at the kitchen where she had come from. Bright orange light spilled from the room’s entryway, and Applejack was overcome by a storm of realization.

They were really trying to burn her house down.

Applejack sprang into action, reacting on nothing but instinct. She rushed back upstairs and threw open the other Apple’s doors. She stuck her head into each room and yelled.

“Y’all need to get up right now, there’s a fire burnin’ right downstairs,” her panicked voice screamed. Apple Bloom and Big Macintosh got up almost immediately, Apple Bloom stopping to grab a few things before leaving her room. The three siblings helped Granny Smith out of her room and downstairs, before immediately turning and running through the front door of the house and into the cool night, Winona trailing close behind. The entire first floor was engulfed in flames within minutes.

Applejack didn’t know how long it took for help to arrive. Big Macintosh had run to the city as quickly as he could while the three mares sat and watched their house being consumed by orange flames. Windows cracked, and soon bits of fire licked at the second floor. Apple Bloom was crying, covering her face to try to prevent her sister from seeing. Granny Smith had no such compunctions against public tears. Applejack could see the thin lines of moisture on her grandmother’s face reflecting the blaze. Their entire life was burning in front of them.

Big Mac returned with the firecolts a while later. The inferno had taken hold upstairs, and even with magic, it took half an hour to fully extinguish everything. A black husk of a house stood before them. The firecolts came back after walking around and told Applejack that the fire was likely caused by magic. They suggested that the Apples get in contact with the Ponyville authorities, and then apologized because there was nothing else they could do. They left after asking if the family needed a ride somewhere.

Applejack didn’t know how long they had sat there before the silence was broken. Apple Bloom was hugging Big Macintosh, the two of them both sobbing and wiping at their eyes occasionally. Granny Smith sat by them, doing much of the same. Applejack just stared ahead at the wreckage, oblivious to anything else but what she felt she had caused. She should have just paid the colts what they were asking. She must have known, at least internally, that this wouldn’t be a clean break. She didn’t notice the hoof on her shoulder for almost half a minute before finally turning around.

“Applejack, Dear, I’m so sorry,” the voice said soothingly. Rarity still had her hair in curlers, but she looked immaculate given the situation. She opened her hooves to hug her friend, but Applejack frowned.

“Rarity, you’re gonna’ get terribly dirty if ya’ hug me in the state ah’m in now,” she said coldly. Rarity looked shocked at the comment.

“Nonsense!” she said, wrapping Applejack in an embrace. The farmer relented and let her friend hug her. It did feel sort of comforting, in a way. “I’m so sorry that this happened to you, I can’t even imagine,” Rarity continued, looking genuinely empathetic. “I heard the fire carriage on its way out here, and well,” she paused for a moment. “I wanted to offer you a place to stay, at least for tonight. I couldn’t bear the thought of you four having to go through this alone, and I’ve got a full guest room at the shop,” she said, smiling knowingly. “Please do let me offer you my home.”

Applejack was silent. She hadn’t come to terms fully with the situation, and she hadn’t even given a thought to her sleeping arrangements. She didn’t know what else to say. Rarity was being so kind in her offering.

“Thank you,” Applejack answered.

The walk to Rarity’s was surreal. None of the Apples really felt like any of what they were experiencing was a part of reality. It was like a waking dream, but nopony knew when they might snap out of it. Until reaching the dress shop, the five ponies hadn’t said anything.

“I hope you don’t mind, but the girls are all here. We wanted to be with you for a little while tonight,” Rarity admitted. Applejack nodded, and Rarity opened the door to the shop. The light from inside was blinding, and Applejack had to blink heavily for a few seconds before being able to see her friends inside. The Apples and Winona all walked in, with Rarity directing everypony but Applejack to the guest room. She returned after a moment, and soon the six friends were seated in the shop’s main room. Applejack looked to the other five mare’s faces, each showing a variation of compassion or sadness. As if on cue, the others got up and walked towards Applejack, enclosing her in a group hug.

“Thank’s, y’all,” she said as the other five returned to their seats. “It’s been a real tough day for the Apple Family.”

“I’ll say,” Rarity began. “Is Big Macintosh alright? He looked terribly beaten up.” Applejack crossed her front hooves uncomfortably.

“Look, this is a really long story. Ah’m not shore this is the place to get into it,” she explained.

“Well, I’d really like it if you did,” Twilight Sparkle said as five heads turned towards hers. “AJ, your little sister’s been coming and telling me about things out on the farm. I know that you’re going through something, but nopony can help you unless you share it with us.”

“Yeah, Applejack, talk to us,” Rainbow Dash said, the group now turning to face her. “We’re all here because we care about you, but we can’t do anything if you try to handle this alone.” Applejack sighed. She was tired of trying to solve everything on her own. The pain of admitting her faults was finally outweighed by the thought of getting her friend’s help.

“If y’all really need to hear the truth, here it is. Ah took out a loan back when ah had just started runnin’ Sweet Apple Acres. We needed the money badly, and ah couldn’t get it from anypony except a Pegasus who had actually sought me out. He said he could get me the money without asking any questions, and ah agreed to pay him back in installments. Ah’ve been payin’ back that loan for years now, and ah just couldn’t keep givin’ him my money every three weeks the way I had been. I told them I wasn’t going to pay them anymore. Then the trouble started.” Everypony but Twilight Sparkle gasped at this.

“So wait, you’re in debt to the mafia?” Rainbow Dash asked, genuinely surprised at what Applejack had shared with them.

“Ooh, the mafia like in the movies? Wait! Do you know Al Capony? Or Jimmy Hoofa?” Pinkie Pie asked, bouncing up and down where she was sitting.

“Pinkie Pie, honestly! Can’t you be serious for a moment?” Rarity said while glaring at the bouncing mare.

“Oop, yeah, I’m sorry,” Pinkie Pie answered, literally wiping her smile away and replacing it with a frown.

“Well, Pinkie, ah think the colts I’m dealin’ with are based out of Las Pegasus, to tell you the truth, by that’s just a guess,” Applejack said. The focus in the room shifted back to her.

“So, what exactly has been happening?” Fluttershy asked softly, finally speaking up.

“You know, it started with them roughin’ me up about a month ago. That got me real angry. Ah guess it was enough to make me finally want to get them outta’ my life. Ah wanted to get rid of that cloud they keep hangin’ over me. After ah told them that ah was breakin’ away, they stole from my orchard, beat up my brother, and now,” Applejack paused. “I don’t even have a home anymore. Ah just don’t want,” Applejack paused again, putting her head down into her hooves. “My family shouldn’t have to suffer because of my mistakes,” she mumbled. Her body was shaking, and her friends could hear weak sobs coming from under her hooves. Rainbow Dash knew that the situation must be almost hopeless to get Applejack this worked up. She’d never seen her cry once in the entire time she’d known her.

The other five mares let her cry for a few seconds, not really sure how to proceed at this point. Tears were running out of the eyes of Rarity and Fluttershy, and Twilight was just barely holding hers back. Within moments Applejack shook herself a little bit and put her head back up. Her eyes were red, and she had to sniff once or twice before continuing.

“Normally ah’d meet with the colts tomorrow to make my payment. Ah think they’ve been trying to scare me into coming back,” Applejack revealed. “Ah caint see any other reason for what they’ve been doin’.” Nopony spoke for nearly half a minute.

“What are you trying to say, Applejack?” Rarity asked, finally breaking the silence. Applejack looked around at her friends, a genuine smile growing as she met all of their eyes.

“Ah’m sayin’ that maybe ah should surprise them and actually show up.”

Familiar tension was building up internally for Applejack as she waited for Salvatoro to emerge from the shadows of the farmhouse. She knew he was here; he and his cronies didn’t even try to conceal their tracks. He had brought more ponies for this occasion, though Applejack wasn’t sure why. It was only a matter of seconds before the blue Pegasus emerged into the dim light afforded by the home’s windows. He was flanked by two ponies on each side, Bucky and another Pegasus to one, a unicorn and an earth pony to the other.

“I have to say, Ms. Applejack, I wasn’t sure if you’d actually come to see me today. I hope you don’t mind, but I brought a few of my friends here to see you beg for my mercy. I’ve gotta’ teach them the art of it somehow, you know?” Salvatoro laughed, before gesturing around at the interior of the abandoned farm home. “I will tell you that I looked around this place before you got here, and really, if you don’t mind termites, spiders, and whatever else might come out of the woodwork, you could live here. It’d be a step up from that old shack you called a house, am I right?” The four ponies behind him guffawed stupidly, until Salvatoro gave them a sign to be quiet. “You’re awfully quiet today, aren’t you? What’s the matter, did you burn your tongue on something?” Applejack was fighting to resist her instincts. She had to keep herself from hitting the colt; he was trying to get a reaction out of her.

“Salvatoro, you’ve taken so much from me for years. You’ve taken every extra bit ah make. You’ve taken away our security. And now, you’ve taken away the only place we have to live. Ah wish daily that you had never landed in my front yard that night in winter. But ah cain’t change that now. I cain only tell you this: ah refuse to let you win,” Applejack ended with an air of finality. Salvatoro seemed to be at a loss, the conversation taking a turn he really hadn’t anticipated.

“I know you farmer types can be pretty thick, but do you have a death wish or something, Applejack? I can have you killed where you stand if I so much as stomp my hoof! I’m holding all the cards right now, Applejack. There’s no way I can’t win,” Salvatoro boomed, raising his voice to a level that even surprised one of his goons.

“And ya’ see, ‘til yesterday, I might’ve agreed with you. But the game is different now. I’m not alone anymore,” Applejack replied calmly. Immediately after she finished her statement, her five friends burst through the door to the farmhouse, flanking Applejack with varying degrees of readiness and anger on their faces.

“Wait, this is your big plan?” Salvatoro asked, a grin creeping across his face. “What is this, the Technicolor dream team?” He started laughing, and his accomplices followed suit.

“Is that one actually pink?” The Unicorn cried between bursts of laughter.

“That one’s got a rainbow in her mane!”

“Is the yellow one crying?”

“Hah, well played Applejack. I can always use a good laugh on the job. I must tell you though, this,” Salvatoro gestured at the six mares across from him, “little display is not exactly intimidating. Not only that, but I really don’t have the time to put up with jokes like this. I’m afraid that you’ve just made your life less valuable than our loan, which of course is a nice way of saying that we will most certainly not be seeing each other again. Ray,” he turned to the unicorn colt, “would you like to do the honors?”

“Most certainly,” the brown stallion answered. “Sorry about this, girls, but orders is orders.” His horn began to glow a faint red.

“Oh no you don’t!” yelled Twilight Sparkle. She had each of the five colts in individual force field bubbles before the other unicorn could even remember what spell he was casting.

“Uh, boss?” Ray said, looking over at Salvatoro. Both were suspended in a glowing orb of purple energy, unable to move around or do much of anything. “I think we might not have given that purple one enough credit.”

“Alright Twi’, I think you can let Salvatoro go for right now,” Applejack instructed as Twilight released the leader of the colts from the spell. She then turned to Fluttershy. “All yours, pardner.” Fluttershy tentatively stepped out in front of her friends, cautiously taking a few steps forward towards the blue Pegasus sitting across the room from her. Her face was in an uncharacteristic scowl, and only the other five mares could have known the implication.

“Wait, you’re sendin’ her up against me? Oh, this is too rich! I thought I was in trouble for a moment,” Salvatoro laughed, though it sounded uncomfortable.

“You threaten my friend, your fun will end!” Fluttershy screamed, her face growing red as she stomped closer to the prone Pegasus. “You probably think you’re pretty tough, don’t you?” Fluttershy asked, staring directly into Salvatoro’s face. He didn’t respond. “ANSWER ME WHEN I’M SPEAKING TO YOU,” she yelled. The colt’s eyes dilated as he fell backwards.

“Uh, no, no, I’m not tough,” he stammered out.

“You think you can just beat people up and take advantage of them because they’ve fallen on hard times? You think that’s right? You think that because you let other ponies do your work for you, you’re the leader? You need to change your attitude this instant, mister,” Fluttershy commanded, no longer yelling, but talking forcefully right into Salvatoro’s face. “My friends and I here care about Applejack very much, and we don’t take kindly to losers like you who think that it’s ok to push her around. Didn’t your mother ever tell you not to hit mares, or were you just not listening when she taught you that?”

“I don’t know!” Salvatoro yelled, putting his hooves over his head in defense.

“You don’t know, do you? It sounds to me like there were a lot of lessons you missed out on. You probably didn’t have any friends growing up, so now you feel the need to surround yourself by a bunch of ponies who you can control, am I right?” Fluttershy demanded, her eyes fixed on Salvatoro.

“Yes, it’s all true,” he said, pulling his hooves away from his face.

“Well, mister ‘tough guy’, we’re not falling for your tricks any longer. My friends and I are going to leave now, and if I ever so much as hear that you’re thinking of coming to Ponyville to harass disadvantaged ponies again, I won’t think twice about flying to Las Pegasus, or wherever you may be, and putting you in your place. Do I make myself clear?” Fluttershy asked, now standing directly over Salvotoro and staring into his eyes.

“Yeah, I—I’ll,” he had to pause to sniffle, “I’ll change, I promise. Just please don’t kill me,” Salvatoro begged, tears now running from his eyes in earnest. Fluttershy stepped away from him and turned around, walking towards the still—open door of the house.

“Let’s go, girls,” Applejack said, leading the group outside. The door closed behind Pinkie Pie, and after a minute the force fields around the four other colts disappeared. Salvatoro was still curled into a ball between them, crying silently and occasionally wiping a stray tear on his jacket. Bucky kneeled by the colt’s side.

“Should I get you a tissue, boss?”

“Alright now Rainbow, just pull on the rope until the structure is standing up, alright?” Applejack asked, directing her friend as best as she could.

“You got it, boss,” Rainbow replied, chuckling. She grabbed onto the rope attached to the top of the frame and flew up with it, easily raising what would soon stand as support for the side of the Apple Family’s new home. A few days had passed since the fire, and Applejack had suggested getting an early start on rebuilding, being that winter was just around the corner.

“Are you sure this is how it goes, Applejack? These drawings have this step in the process laid out differently,” Twilight Sparkle said as she looked over the plans she had helped draw up. Pinkie Pie bounced over behind her and read from over Twilight’s shoulder.

“Oh, now you see the problem is that you have the map upside down, silly,” Pinkie giggled, turning the map around in Twilight’s hooves. “There, much better.”

“Well, Pinkie, that’s not actually how these drawings go, I had them right last time,” Twilight responded, turning the architectural paper back in the correct direction. Pinkie Pie seemed positively perplexed.

“But that doesn’t even look like a house! Where are all the walls and stuff?” she asked as Twilight sighed.

“This is just the structure of the house, Pinkie. You have to put this up before you can build the walls and everything else,” she explained. Pinkie didn’t seem to understand.

“Okey Dokey Loki!” she said, happily bounding off in another direction. Twilight exhaled in relief.

“Alright Rainbow, bring the frame a little more in my direction,” she called to her friend. Rainbow Dash nodded and began to push the frame in the specified path.

Fifty feet or so away, Rarity had set up a makeshift workroom, complete with bolts of fabric, a sewing machine, and her tailor’s tools. She had insisted on replacing the Apple Family’s wardrobe after they had decided to rebuild the house. ‘One simply can’t ignore the need of clothing, you know.’ She was currently trying to help Big Macintosh find a good saddle that would fit his figure.

“Here, this would look stunning with your coat, Big Mac. I know that fashion isn’t your top priority, but there’s no rule against looking good while you’re working,” Rarity said as she ran a hoof through her mane, “I certainly manage to do it.”

“Eeyup,” Big Macintosh replied. Apple Bloom was sitting on one of Rarity’s stools between the two different groups, taking a break from sorting apples with Fluttershy.

“Here, let me put this one on you. No, that’s not... Here, let me adjust it. No, I insist,” Rarity giggled as she slid the saddle onto Big Macintosh.

“Hey, don’t get any ideas, Rarity. He’s a taken colt,” Apple Bloom reminded the fashionista as she fawned over Big Macintosh. Her cheeks grew very pink.

“Oh, no no no no no, Apple Bloom! I would never dream of doing something like that; I apologize if you felt that way,” Rarity lied, chuckling uncomfortably. “Now, uh, let’s get you into a new work outfit,” she suggested to the colt.

Spike had come along with the group too, and was helping Granny Smith cook up enough food for all of the ponies out working. They had a basic kitchen set up from what they could throw together, and before long the tantalizing smell of cooked apples wafted through the entirety of Sweet Apple Acres. Granny Smith slowly made her way to the bell they had mounted on a tree nearby, and she rang it a few times before yelling out to the ponies scattered around the farm.

“Soup’s on, everypony!” That was all any of them needed to hear. Within a minute, nine ponies and a dragon were sitting around and complimenting the cooking duo between mouthfuls of warm apples. Applejack stood up as the eating began to wind down, and cleared her throat.

“Ah just wanna’ say thank you to all y’all for comin’ out and helpin’ us rebuild our house. Ah know ah speak for the Apple family when ah say that we’re all mighty grateful. Y’all have saved the farm once, and ah caint tell you what it means for y’all to do it again.” She looked at all of her friends; her closest allies time and time again. She had to keep herself from choking up to continue.

“ It’s been rough at times,” she turned to look at Apple Bloom, “especially on a lot of the ponies close to me,” she turned back, “but ah think it’s safe to say that part of my life is gone, and ah can finally get back to ranchin’ the way ah’ve always dreamed of. After all of this, ah feel like only brighter days can lie ahead,” she said, smiling wide as she finished.

“Now, who’s ready for seconds?”

Overthinking It

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I sighed, and closed my eyes.

Outside, the gentle babble of the brook brought about a deep, relaxed sigh. My nostrils twitched at the lingering, musty scent of animal fur and herbs.

I attempted to clear my mind. I imagined that I was back in the past, and I was simply waiting for Fluttershy to return from market because she had discovered she was out of Darjeeling tea, my favorite.

“I’m so sorry, Twilight. I should have remembered to check before you got here. I’ll be back as soon as I can. Could you get the water boiling while I’m gone?”

“Of course, Fluttershy. It’s no problem at all.”

A long, hopeless sigh escaped me.

Outside, the cheerful melody of chirping birds drifting into my ears, like a windchime dancing in the breeze. My heart cringed at the song.

Hush, birdies. Don’t remind me of her.

Wasn’t I just torturing myself?

She’ll be back any minute now.

I gave myself a mental slap. Don’t be so irrational. Of course she won’t.

Then why are you here? Why are you doing this to yourself? Just go back home and go analyze some stupid chemistry experiment. Go be completely rational, and get yourself into another emotional mess.

My eyes still closed, I snorted and slammed a hoof down on the bare floor, rattling the walls.

Rational. How I’ve come to hate that word. Overthinking. Overanalyzing. Of course, these are useful traits to possess in academic matters, but in other areas, they are a hindrance.

I couldn’t handle it anymore. I opened my eyes.

The cottage was just as barren as before. Sunlight streamed into the room through curtainless windows, illuminating bare walls. All the furniture had been sold off, leaving a sad void where it used to stand. No birdhouses hung from the ceiling, no critters scampered about, no pictures were hung. My eyes darted to the spot where we normally had a table set up for tea; I was met with empty space. The only thing that could remain inside was a stone fireplace against the side wall, cold and unused. Although the room was slightly stuffy, a damp coldness seeped into my bones.

I didn’t bother going upstairs; I knew I would just be met with empty rooms and blank space.

At that moment, it felt as if a sedative had been injected into my legs. I collapsed to my haunches and stared at the floor.

Everything seemed so... foreign. Unknown. This was a place I had spent so much time at, it practically felt like a second home at one point in time. Now, it was simply a potential place of residency, with nothing to give it its own identity.

I missed the songbirds that used to fly around, blessing the air with song and gentle wing flutters. I missed the simmering of a pot, promising a delicious soup that would fill my insides with warmth and comfort. I missed the relaxing aroma of herbs and spices, tempting me to slip into a deep sleep on the couch.

I missed her demure voice, so soft and delicate like a spring breeze, that it could melt any anxiety. Whenever I needed to talk, I came here, knowing everything would be all right.

Now, this hearth of comfort was just a mere shell.

I closed my eyes again, fighting back tears.

“Twilight?” Rarity’s regal voice was accompanied by a triplicate of knocks, each one a boom of thunder that pierced my thoughts. I flinched, but remained slumped on my haunches, faced away from the entrance.

The glistening sound of a magical aura reached my ears as the door swung open. I heard several slow, hesitant hoofsteps from behind.

I imagined Rarity peering over my slumped form, biting her lip and searching for the proper words. For several moments, all was still, save for the muffled gurgling of the creek running outside.

“Twilight, darling? Are you okay?” She took one step closer. I sniffled a couple times, choking on any words I attempted to speak.

She sighed, taking another step and laying down next to me. I continued to stare at the ground, as she gave my cheek a soft nuzzle.

A lump manifested in my throat, blocking another attempt to speak. Only a sputtering sob came out.

“Oh, Twilight...” Rarity’s voice cracked, and she sniffled. I continued to stare at the ground, not wanting to see the tears forming in her eyes. “It’s–it’s okay. I miss her too, but she isn’t gone for good. We’ll still be able to write her letters, you know.”

Somehow, I was able to force some words past the grapefruit in my throat. “I...” I sniffled again. “I know. But that’s not the same as her being here all the time.”

I tore my gaze from the floor and stared into Rarity’s shimmering eyes. “Why did she leave, Rarity? Wh–Why did she leave us?”

The silence hung heavy. Rarity bit her lip and dipped her head.

“She didn’t want to leave us. It probably was the toughest decision she ever had to make. But when opportunities come up... you can’t take a chance and let it pass by.”

Of course Rarity would say something along those lines. She knew about pursuing opportunities more than any pony I knew. I’m surprised she’s stayed in Ponyville for this long, given her success as a fashionista.

She looked up and managed a strained smile. “At least think of how happy she is now. You know how she adores the Canterlot Gardens, and now she works with the animals there all day. I mean, imagine if you received a job at Canterlot University. Would you not take it?”

“I...I guess I’ve never thought about it before.” It was true. I planned my life month to month. I suppose I never thought about accounting for unexpected opportunities popping up.

“Well, her opportunity came, and she took it.” Rarity spoke matter-of-factly, although I could hear the faintest tremor in her voice. “And–I don’t blame her for it. Neither should you.”

“I–” I choked again. I took a moment to let the bulge recede, then continued. “I don’t blame her. I’m not mad at her. I just–miss her.”

I’m mad at myself.

Rarity gave me another soft nuzzle. “We all do, Twilight. But honestly, you need to move on. Fluttershy’s gone now. She wouldn’t want to see you moping like this. You’ve been coming here everyday since she left.”

I wiped the tears from my eyes and forced myself to stand up, my legs feeling like lead weights as I pulled myself off the ground. “Sorry, Rarity. You’re right. I suppose it’s just been tougher for me, for some reason.”

Don’t lie to yourself, Twilight. You know exactly why it’s been so tough.

Rarity stood up and flashed me a smile. “Well, I know exactly what will cheer you up. Pinkie wants to have one of her spontaneous picnics,” she chuckled. “Come, now. You know she simply wouldn’t allow you to be melancholy like this.”

I managed a grin, and this time it didn’t feel like a burden on my cheek muscles. “Hehe, you’re right. Don’t wanna disappoint Pinkie.”

“Perfect!” Rarity clapped her hooves together. “I shall see you at the park in an hour, alright?”

Well, she sure cheered up fast.

I nodded, walking with Rarity towards the door. “Sure. That gives me some time to go get ready. I’m going to run home, then I’ll meet you girls in the park, okay?”

“Um, Twilight, darling?” Rarity chuckled as she closed the door behind us. “You do realize we both take the same path into town? We aren’t parting ways for several minutes, if I’m correct.”

“Oh!” I blushed. “Heh, I suppose you’re right.”

Rarity just giggled as we walked down the dirt road leading away from the cottage. A light spring breeze blew, carrying the relaxing aroma of flowers that were blooming on the hillside. I closed my eyes and inhaled deeply, letting the scent calm the the sorrow that still tugged at me. I basked in the warm rays of the sun shining down upon my face, and the rest of my heartache melted away. It was a glorious feeling. I felt completely normal. I still had four other friends in Ponyville, and I wouldn’t allow the absence of one to get in the way of my happiness. I was going to enjoy this picnic.

Think about it this way: if Fluttershy’s not there, she won’t be tormenting you like she did for all those years.

I froze as the words popped in my head like a pesky parasprite. I shook my head violently, as if to physically dislodge the thought from my brain.

I continued walking, trying to pretend nothing had happened, but Rarity caught my brief head thrashing. “Twilight? Are you okay, darling?”

“Oh, I’m fine,” I said, straining out a grin. “I was just trying to shake off a mosquito.”

“Ah, I completely understand. Mosquitos are quite irritable.”

I mentally sighed in relief; Rarity did not pursue the issue any further.

Okay, calm down Twilight. Get over it. You’re going to a picnic. You’re going to have fun. Just... forget about her.

I forced myself to lift my head up and put on a small smile. Rarity did not notice anything out of the ordinary as we made small chat until our paths split. We said our momentary goodbyes and went our separate ways. Several minutes later, I arrived at the library.

A purple glow enveloped the door as it swung open. I stepped inside and shut the door behind me.

I reveled in the familiar scene. Fluttershy’s cottage was barren, but at least my library hadn’t changed. The shelves of books, the telescope towering out of a nook, the desk propped under the window, all in their orderly places. I closed my eyes and inhaled the musty scent of books and quill ink.

Not a sound disturbed the stillness, save for the occasional rustle of tree branches whistling in the wind. Spike was in Canterlot on royal business, not set to arrive home for a few days.

I stepped over towards the mirror and gave a quick look over my reflection to make sure I was in a presentable state for the party. Hmm, mane looks just a little bit ruffled. Hooves are a bit dusty. I levitated a rag over from the counter before pausing. No, they’re just going to get dusty again anyway. I set the cloth back down on the counter.

As I stared in the mirror for several more moments, I squinted, a piercing beam of light shining directly into my eyes. I turned away from the mirror, eyes darting around the room as I searched for the source of the offensive glare.

My eyes came to rest on a letter resting on my desk, which was situated just under the mail slot. The sunlight streaming in through the open window shimmered off a golden Canterlot seal pressed onto the back of envelope.

Hmm, that’s odd. Is it from Celestia? She can’t very well send letters with Spike being gone. But does she really have something that urgent to tell me? Then again, I suppose she would just fly here if it were that important.

I shook my head to clear my rambling thoughts. I didn’t have to speculate, the letter was right in front of me. I levitated it in front of me and turned it around.

Ice shot through my veins, and my heart dropped into my stomach.

“Twilight Sparkle” was written with elegant, flowing calligraphy, the words so delicate that they practically danced off the letter. Next to the name was an all too familiar triple butterfly print.


My chest rose and fell with short, quick breaths. The name relentlessly echoed in my mind.

Everything’s fine, Twilight. She’s probably just writing to keep in touch as a friend.

As a friend.

Just a friend.

I dropped the letter onto the desk and collapsed to the floor in a bundle of despair, burying my head between my forelegs as hopeless, shuddering sobs escaped me.

It’s fine, Twilight. Don’t think about it. You’re going on a picnic soon! Relax! Have some fun!

The thoughts fell on deaf mental ears.

I couldn’t forget her. I couldn’t get over her.

I loved Fluttershy, but she could never know, simply because I am Twilight Sparkle.

I sniffled several times before slamming a hoof to the floor; a dull “clink” reached my ears as a quill fell over from its stand on the desk.

You think too much, Twilight.

You did this to yourself.

My eyes were shut as tightly as possible as I grimaced, spreading my hooves and bracing them into the ground. I felt my mane dance in the artificial breeze that I had created, carrying with it the sweet melody of wheat fluttering in the distance.

I was surprised I was able to feel any of these sensations, or recall the scene around me. As I struggled to lift the lumbering, now snoozing Ursa Minor, my horn felt like a white-hot javelin jammed into my forehead, pulsing with a magical force I didn’t even know I possessed. I dug my hooves into the ground even further as I carried the Ursa towards his cave in the Everfree Forest. It was like lifting a house through sheer willpower, and I could practically feel his crushing weight press down on my horn. Even though such a thing was impossible, the sheer mass I was commanding, combined with the magical energy I was expending doing so, made it feel as if my horn was going to snap off.

Purple sparks continued to jump off my forehead as I guided the Ursa into the cave and gently set him down. I performed one more quick magical scan to ensure he was in a deep slumber and wouldn’t return to ravage Ponyville.

I barely heard the muffled chorus of cheers that erupted over the magical buzzing that continued to pound in my ears. My lungs were on fire, and I still felt surges of energy exploding from my horn, more power than I had ever channelled before. I fought to take a deep breath and cut off the magic.

Oh no.

A lavender beacon of light exploded from my horn. My limbs thrashed about as I was helplessly thrust into the air, my fur crackling from arcs of power that danced across my coat. The light emanating from my body pierced the night sky.

Come on, Twilight! Shut it off! Spike said it himself, you’re the most powerful unicorn in Ponyville!

The panic did nothing to stop the outburst. The magic had taken on a mind of its own, tearing at every fiber of my being. I was blinded by the dazzling purple light, and a defeaning magical hum buzzed in my ears.

In short, I had no idea what my magic was doing to Ponyville.

Oh no. Oh no, oh no, oh no. I turned my parents into plants when I was just a filly.

Are the houses being turned into pumpkins? Will everypony be transformed into inanimate objects?

What’s happening now? I mean, my skills are so much more powerful than they were all those years ago.

This had to stop.

I forced my eyes shut and peered deep into my mind’s eye, searching for the valve to shut off the flood magic. My body still flailed around helplessly in the air as energy surged out of every pore.

It was no use. In the chaos that consumed me, there was no way to gently shut down the magic. I would have to forcefully cut it off.

My limbs continued to thrash about in the maelstrom. Through sheer willpower, I managed to stop my right front hoof was jerking around and instead hold it still. It was as if I was holding the hoof stationary under a waterfall. I let out a guttural scream as I slammed the hoof against my white-hot horn.

A bolt of seering pain shot through every nerve in my body, but the hurricane of power stopped. I tumbled to the ground, panting heavily. Immediately, I jumped to my hooves, eyes darting every direction in a panic.

Oh no.

Every direction I looked, where ponies should have been standing on the street, I was met with a towering, sloped wall of dirt, completely surrounding me. I choked on the dust that still lingered in the air.

The crater had to be at least a half mile wide. There was no trace of buildings or ponies, just dirt.

My veins turned to pure ice.

Did I--did I just--

Murder Ponyville?

Without even trying?

I awoke with a jerk, my chest spasming with short, shallow breaths. My body glistened with a cold layer of sweat, soaking the sheets. I jumped out of bed and ran to the window.

In the distance, I could make out the outline of buildings in the dull moonlight. The road was still intact.

There was no crater.

I took several deep breaths in an attempt to calm myself.

Okay, Twilight. It was just a dream.

Not a dream. A nightmare.

Ponyville is still there. Everything is fine. Calm down.

I turned around and surveyed the room. All I could make out was a hazy outline in the moonlight. My horn glowed to illuminate my surroundings... then I immediately cut off the light spell.

Wait, you think that lighting up your horn is going to cause you to lose control? Come on, Twilight. It was just a dream. It didn’t happen.

My horn glowed again, and this time it stayed lit. My gaze immediately jumped to a bookshelf next to the bed, filled with thick tomes...

...Containing evil, dark, powerful magic only I could cast...

I shook my head and stomped a hoof down. Stop it, Twilight. Think rationally. It. Was. A. Dream.

But could that actually happen? I mean, it didn’t happen... but next time you have to use that much magic...

I gulped.

Then, the lesson I had learned a week ago cut through the fear: Don’t be ashamed of your talents.

Yeah, but other ponies’ talents don’t let them destroy without even trying.

I slammed another hoof down so hard that a jolt of pain shot of my leg. “Stop it! Stop it, stop it, stop it! Stop thinking so much!”

What? But you wouldn’t be Twilight Sparkle if you didn’t overanalyze everything!

Face it. You’re one of only a handful of unicorns in Equestria that could vaporize a town

“No...” My legs gave out, and I slumped down to the floor.

It was just a dream. You probably couldn’t actually lose control like that.

But it all felt so real...

I could practically feel the arcs of magical power crackling under my coat.

It was a dream.

That doesn’t mean it could never happen. Face it, Twilight:

“You’re a freak.”

The words were so soft, I was unsure if I had even spoken them at all. My eyes shimmered with tears.

Do you know why everypony cheered you on after you saved the town from the Ursa? Gratitude, yes, but fear as well. Fear that if they stepped out of line, you would zap them.

“That’s not true!” I shouted into the darkness.

You don’t know that for sure. You can never truly know what another pony thinks of you.

Ponies fear power, Twilight.

Oh, why did Spike have to be in Canterlot? He could help. I could sob into his shoulder and hear his gentle reassurances. He was a bit childish at times, yes, but he knew how to listen. He’d spent his entire life with me. He would know just what to say.

You’re not a freak, Twilight.

I could repeat the thought a thousand times, but coming from me, the words meant nothing.

With a brief glow of my horn, I shut the curtains, dimming the room even further before immediately cutting off my magic. I lifted myself off the ground and pulled my body into bed, burying my head under the pillow and plunging my world into darkness.

At that moment, I was totally and completely alone.

I was a loner back in my days in Canterlot, yes, but this was by choice. I knew what other ponies thought of me: a bookworm and a shut in.

Now, I wasn’t quite sure how others perceived me.

You’re not a freak, Twilight.

It was useless.

I closed my eyes, and attempted to utilize my method of clearing my head: I pictured on a plain white square in my mind’s eye, and imagined all my pesky thoughts bouncing off the sides off the box. The shape was the only thing that existed in my mind; if I focused on it hard enough, I would calm down.

The box was instantly shattered by a furious barrage of thoughts.

I couldn’t do this. I couldn’t be alone. I would drive myself insane. I needed to talk with somepony, any pony. It wasn’t a desperate want; it was a need, much like air and shelter.

Okay. Let’s think. Spike’s gone, so I’m going to have to go to somepony’s house.

In the middle of the night. What time was it? I rolled over and glanced over at the clock: one AM. Erk.

Still, I didn’t care. I needed to talk.


She was certainly a good friend, and I had no doubts that she would be willing to listen, but I had the suspicion she wouldn’t be too comfortable with the whole “magic” thing. I could picture her stumbling over her words in an attempt to reassure me, which would only make things worse.

Rainbow Dash?

Heh. I bet that girl would let my concerns go in one ear and out the other, giving me blind reassurances instead. Empathy was not one of her strong points. Plus, I had no way to reach her cloud home.

Pinkie Pie?

That pony wouldn’t even be able to sit still for two seconds to hear me out. Pinkie Pie, having to be stationary and taking something seriously? Possible, but unlikely.


Possibly. Afterall, she was a unicorn, and would be able to relate to my problem the best. Still, she certainly wouldn’t be happy to be woken up at such an hour, which would most likely hamper her ability to be comforting.

Twilight, what are you doing? You’re analyzing your friends’ ability to be a good friend! They’re all good friends! No matter who you go to, any one of them will make you feel better. Stop overthinking it!

The stray thought caused me to chuckle. Given my despair, I was surprised I was even able to think analytically.

Still, it was a valid concern. I had no idea if this problem would go away on my own. Each of my friends had different personalities that could either help or hinder my ability to get over it.

As I lay on my bed, I put a hoof to my chin. I was forgetting somepony.

Ah, Fluttershy.

Delicate. Gentle, with the most demure voice I had ever heard. Not just demure, but genuine. Applejack may be the element of honesty, but any words Fluttershy spoke simply sounded honest, not to mention relaxing. And I couldn’t imagine her getting angry at an unexpected night visit. We could have a nice, relaxing conversation with no convictions.

I smiled. Just the thought of talking with Fluttershy pushed my demons into an almost forgotten corner of my mind. I pulled myself off the sweat-stained sheets and trotted down stairs. I then opened the door and stepped into cold night air.

The walk was not an entirely pleasant one. I was unaccustomed to strolling through Ponyville at night. Not a single light illuminated the buildings as I passed by, and an eerie wind howled through the silence. Not a soul roamed the streets, not a single merchant stand stood along the road. Thank goodness the moon was half full tonight; navigating the deserted streets through dull horn-light definitely would have been creepier.

Honestly, who would have thought such a vibrant city could ever be so desolate? Then again, I suppose that is the nature of night.

Besides the wind, the only sound was the lonely clacking of my hoofsteps upon stone. I felt as if I was walking through a ghost town.

You’re a freak, Twilight.

Outside the comfort of my library, and in the unfamiliar darkness of midnight Ponyville, the thought was intensifying its vicegrip on my psyche. If I wasn’t walking, I would have shut my eyes. Instead, I picked up my pace.

Several minutes later, I passed over the bridge that lay a short distance from Fluttershy’s cottage. With the buildings gone, it felt like I was standing in an endless void as the dark hills stretched into forever on either side of me. I took a deep breath to calm myself and kept my head forward. I walked a short distance further, and as soon as I knew it, I was standing at the front door of the abode.

Even Fluttershy’s house, normally bustling with animal activity, felt barren. No lights were on, no skimpering of animals was heard inside or from out back; the only sound was the gentle babble of the brook running behind me.

I really shouldn’t wake her... everything seems so peaceful.
I took a step closer to the door and raised a hoof.

It’s Fluttershy, though, she won’t yell at you. She’ll probably apologize for some reason. I chuckled at the thought, and knocked at the door.

Several moments of silence passed. The wind continued to howl. I made the motion to knock again, when a light came on in living room. I could barely make out the sound of hoofsteps, and I imagined Fluttershy quivering as she stood on the other side of the door.

“Um, yes? Who is it?”

Just hearing her voice made me smile.

“Hey, Fluttershy, it’s Twilight. Can I come in?”

With a soft creak, the door cracked open, and Fluttershy peered around the corner. Upon noticing it was me, she swung the door open, bearing a look of unease. “Oh, hello Twilight. Um, can I help you? It’s really late...” She cast her gaze away from mine, flinching as she uttered what she must have thought to be a major complaint.

A smile tugged on my lips. “Hey, Fluttershy. I’m really sorry to wake you, but...” I bit my lip.

You’re a freak, Twilight.

“Can I come in? I just... want to talk.” The thought became more and more embedded in my mind as I was forced to recall my motive for coming here. The smile vanished from my face, and I sighed.

I must look so pathetic.

“Of course, Twilight. What’s wrong? What do you need to talk about?” Her smile replaced mine as I stepped into the cottage. Fluttershy closed the door behind me.

The normally bustling home was completely still. I could spot birds sleeping in their houses that hung from the wall, but birds don’t snore, I suppose. My muscles relaxed somewhat in the bright surroundings.

“Um... well...” Another hopeless sigh escaped me. There was no point in making small talk. I had to get this out right away.

“Am I a freak, Fluttershy?”

She gasped, her eyes widening in shock. “What? Twilight, why would you ever think that?”

Even when she’s exclamatory, her voice is still so soothing...

The pure concentration of concern in those words brought tears to my eyes. I sniffled and dropped to the floor. “I... I had a nightmare. I–I dreamed that I was saving Ponyville from the Ursa... and....” I gulped as the words caught in my throat.

Fluttershy took a step forward and dropped right next to me. “It’s okay, Twilight. Don’t be scared.”

Don’t be scared.

It was all the reassurance I needed.

I took a deep breath, and continued. “...I lost control of my power, and turned Ponyville into a crater.” A shuddering sob escaped me. “Th–there was nothing left.”

I continued to stare at the ground. I didn’t want to see Fluttershy’s reaction.

Moments passed, the silence only disturbed by the constant ticking of a clock on the wall.

“Oh my. I suppose...”

I pictured her rummaging her thoughts in order to expertly pick out the proper words.

“I mean, I guess that would make you feel like a freak.” A shiver went down my spine as she leaned over and nuzzled my cheek. “But you’re not, Twilight. You’re a very special pony, and you just had a bad dream. My animal friends have them all the time. Everything is okay now.”

Oh, my. Did she rehearse this?

I never felt so comforted in all my life. Her words were a beam of sunshine cutting through the bleak fog clouding my mind.

But it wasn’t completely cleared, yet.

“Thanks, Fluttershy. Really, I mean it.” I lifted my head and managed a smile, my eyes shimmering as I gazed at her reassuring complexion. “I honestly don’t know what came over me. I guess... I never really never thought about it before.”

“Thought about what?”

I bit my lip, the words on my tip of my tongue, where they wanted to stay. I managed to force them out. “I’m one of the only ponies who could cause a tragedy like that. If I lose control of my special talent...”

I couldn’t say it.

She nuzzled me again, and I shuddered. Her soft snout was like a beacon of pure comfort. The fog dispersed even further. “But you didn’t lose control, Twilight. It was just a dream. Don’t worry about the what-ifs. Everything is fine.”

Everything is fine.

I sniffled again, wiping away the mist around my eyes.

Everything is fine, Twilight.

This time, the words came from within, and I believed them.

I smiled at Fluttershy. I had never noticed it before, but her silky mane seemed to form the outline of a heart. The smile she returned was the softest and most genuine I had ever seen

My cheeks tingled, and I turned to stare at the ground once more.

“Um, Twilight, are you okay?”

“Oh! Um, nothing, I’m fine,” I choked out. I turned away for a moment.

What’s happening to me?

I snuggled up closer to Fluttershy. I felt her body twitch at the motion, but she didn’t protest.

“Um... Fluttershy?”

“Yes, Twilight? What is it?”

Oh, goodness. Her voice. It feels like I’m snuggled up in bed with a nice book and a mug of hot cocoa.

I knew what it was, now. Any trace of a worry burdening me had completely evaporated. At that moment, I knew everything would be alright.

“Um... well...”

Wait, who’s Fluttershy here? Come on, just tell her! Tell her that...


The blissful sensation melted away. It had only lasted a few seconds, at most. My mind began to plot against me once more.

Do you really want to risk telling her? Wouldn’t that be incredibly awkward? Do you want to ruin this moment?

Isn’t it already ruined, though?

Yes, but you ruined it yourself by thinking too much. You’re over analyzing the potential consequences of your actions.

If you tell Fluttershy you love her, you have no idea what will happen.

The thought struck me like a brick.

“You’re a really good friend, you know?”

No! Tell her more! Tell her how soothing her voice is! How you want to hug her and never let go! That you want to stay in this moment forever!

And risk ruining your friendship? You have no idea she would react. It’s one thing to reassure a pony after she has a bad dream. It’s another to have a friend confess her affection to you.

Don’t take risks, Twilight.

It was a miracle that I didn’t scream. With luck, Fluttershy only saw a delicate smile on my face, and not the battle thrashing on in my head.

“Aw, why thank you, Twilight,” Fluttershy cooed. She stood up and smiled at me. “You know I’m always here if you want to talk about anything.”

As she stood up and the heat of her body left my bones, it was as if I had stepped into a blizzard. I want to feel her against me. I wanted to feel her heart beat. I wanted her to extend a soft wing and curl me tightly against her, to feel the tickling of her feathers.

I couldn’t have any of that. All I could do was smile and hug her. “Are you sure you’re not mad that I woke you up this late?”

I wanted to squeeze her as tight as I could and feel her silky mane against my cheek. Alas, all I could do was give her a hug that could only be interpreted as “friendly.”

“Of course not, Twilight. I’ll always get up if you need to talk.”

I had to fight back tears yet again. Tears of desperate longing.

“Thanks, Fluttershy. It means a lot to me, honest.” I did my best to fake a yawn. “I’m really tired now, though. I’ll see you tomorrow, okay?”

Fluttershy nodded, the light bouncing of her mane pounding the image of the heart shape deeper and deeper into my consciousness. “Sure, that sounds wonderful.”

With every shred of willpower I could muster, I broke off the hug and walked back outside into the lonely night. I closed my eyes and gathered my magic, before disappearing in a burst of energy. In a flash, I was back in the library next, standing next to my bed. I threw myself onto the still damp sheets and buried my head in the pillow as I sobbed my heart out.

I opened my eyes as the painful memory finally came to a halt. I levitated the letter in front of me once again, sniffling as I stared at the name printed on it.

Twilight Sparkle

Curse that name. I hated myself with a relentless passion at that moment.

I loved her, but I couldn’t tell her. The night that I had talked to her, I went over all the scenarios in my head. After I was done sobbing, I even made a list. A stupid, stupid list.

Fluttershy and I were such good friends. We still are, I supposed. I knew I could talk to her whenever, and everything would be all right, no matter how dark things seemed to me.

If I told her I loved her, and she rejected me, I risked the chance of ruining that bond forever. Sure, we would probably move on, but it wasn’t guaranteed.

I’m Twilight Sparkle. I don’t take risks like that.

Even if she was receptive to my feelings, what would the rest of our friends think, if there were four friends, and two mare friends? Wouldn’t things be incredibly awkward when we hanged out? Might that drive our friendships apart?

All those years ago, I discovered just how wonderful friendship was for the first time. I wasn’t about to risk throwing that all away. Even if Fluttershy and I kept it a secret, there were no guarantees it would stay a secret.

So, I forced myself to bottle up my feelings. I spent time with my friends, never saying a word. I never told Fluttershy how I really felt for her. I never even hinted at it. If she knew, she didn’t tell me.

To her, I was just another friend.

Because I couldn’t take any risks for the highest possible happiness, I had to settle for a guaranteed middling joy.

And then she got that job offer working in the Canterlot Gardens during a visit a few weeks back. I begged her not to take it, that I would miss her too much. That I didn’t want our time together to come to an end.

That was when I should have told her. That was the time to lay all my cards on the table, but rationality struck again. If she turned me down, then our time spent together in Ponyville would end on a sour note. Of course, it was more than likely that we would make up, and go back to being happy friends through letters.

“More than likely” is still an unacceptable risk, though.

The letter trembled in my magical grasp.

Just open it. Worst case scenario, it’s a friendly letter.

Best case scenario...

My heart pounded in my chest, each beat rattling my bones.

I took a deep breath and opened the envelope, gathering myself so the page didn’t shake so much.

Her handwriting was just as beautiful and elegant as her voice.

Dear Twilight Sparkle,

I hope life is treating you well in Ponyville. I really miss everypony, but I’m having a wonderful time working in the gardens.

It was an incredibly tough decision to leave all of you, it really was. I don’t want you to think I abandoned you. I didn’t. I just couldn’t pass up the opportunity to have the job of a lifetime. I’ll still be back to visit as often as I can, but that might be only once every few months. Not often enough to justify keeping the cottage.

There’s another reason I took the job though, Twilight.

I love you.

I had always suspected you felt the same way ever since you came to visit after your nightmare, but perhaps I shared your doubts about revealing this information. I mean, what if I was wrong? What if you said no? I couldn’t risk tainting our friendship like that. And what if our friends knew? I couldn’t risk ruining those friendships either. That is why I couldn’t tell you.

You know I’m a shy pony. When you don’t talk much, you have a lot of time to think things over.

I desperately hope I am right in my assumption. If I am wrong, I hope we can move on and keep being friends. If I am right... now there’s a way we can spent time together with no pony knowing. I’m sure you can find a reason to visit Canterlot, since you are Celestia’s personal student.

We don’t have to risk our other friendships to be together now. Even if we can’t spend every moment with each other, at least you know how much I care about you now. I can only hope you feel the same about me.

Please let me know. I’ll be waiting for you.



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Eternal darkness had no disorder, it was more orderly than anything. Imprisonment was one punishment, but lack of chaos was a brutal blow to add on. I had never hurt a pony in my life, yet she insisted on keeping me frozen in a stone prison. It was her last resort, and she did well in hiding that fact. I was condemned to watch the world around in my stationary position, only because Celestia could not find another way.

That was one thousand years ago, my imprisonment. Fast forward one thousand years later and everypony that knew me is dead and gone, all the books are burned, and she teaches that I'm evil. In her little perfect world of "harmony" she couldn't find even the most minute of corners for chaos, and quashed all of it that she could find. I should have known, too. Her words echoed in my head, all of them. Every sentence that she spoke to me came gushing back as if the dam had just been broken, but that happened every time I switched my focus to her. I couldn't stop it, I'd spend months building up the dam and one moment of thought about her would break it down. If only I could keep it from breaking, I would, but in the back of my mind there was something that kept her alive in me, something that tied me to her.

Memories flowed back to me as the water held back behind the dam came to the forefront of my thoughts. Back before I was encased in bitter resentment, back when Celestia's affection was all I cared for. Back before I was held in contempt of her. There was silence all around me, the statue that Celestia had placed me in was her final act. At its beginning, I was simply pawning for her affection, to see if a simple draconequus could win the heart of the pony that caught his eye.

"Oh Discord, you're so funny!"

I could hear her laughter, audible and crisp in the silence of the stone walls. She enjoyed it, the chaos and absurdity that I could conjure were humorous to her, and from that moment on I was hooked. I was chasing an unreachable goal, visiting her when in her castle whenever I had the chance, finding some way to make her giggle or laugh. She hid her face when she laughed, as if she didn't want to ruin her regal exterior. She would turn and hide her grin, as I watched, already thinking of my next retort or action.

The memories hit me faster and faster, flooding my mind.

I pushed open the castle door.

"Celestia!" I sang out, poking my head into the room. It was the dining room like always, the same one I had seen a thousand time before.

"Coming!" she called back, using the same sing-song tone I had used. I smiled and set my bouquet of flowers onto the table, brushing off the white cloth and straightening it out as I waited. Then she swept into the room, the embodiment of beauty. I felt as though I should hide the flowers, put them out of sight as they were not worthy enough for her. I remembered those feelings like they were yesterday.

Yes, every date, every picnic, every dinner, the same feelings. Love. But she didn't feel the same way. In my mind I squeezed my fist tight, but the stone prevented it. My blood was hot, the memories of love and happiness were glazed with my knowledge of the future. Back then it was just innocent visits and dates, two immortal beings enjoying life together. At least that was what it was for me.

She sighed, and nuzzled her way into my lap. My lanky body was propped up against the tree, the shade reaching out into the grass and keeping us cool. She was tired after the long walk from the castle to the field. She let out a sigh, her eyes closed. I couldn't help but look down and smile at her, out of all the ponies and other creatures in Equestria she had chosen me.

But she hadn't chosen me, the Discord of my past didn't know better, but I knew. I was cast into my stone casing because of I was chosen by her. Her precious harmony was all that mattered. Those six words: loyalty, laughter, honesty, kindness, generosity and magic.

"Their quite interesting, those elements," she said, her eyes still closed. I took a deep breath, looking out into the sky. The elements of harmony. Celestia mentioned them often, even though I was the spirit of the reverse. Chaos had no place in harmony, but without it harmony couldn't exist.

I snapped my fingers, producing a flash of white light and then a rose. A rose made of red cotton candy and green lickerish. I handed it to her, tapping her head gently so that she would look up.

That's when it began. I tried to squeeze my fist again, as if the pressure I applied would break open the stone. I heard her voice the clearest now, the three words that I could never forget.

"That's very... odd," she said.

"Really," I said, taking the flower away from her face and behind my back. She started to stand up, pushing herself off of the ground with the help of her wings. I reached my lion arm, attempting to pull her back into my grasp, but it was no use.

"I think we should call it a day," she said. I didn't respond. I just looked at her trot away, my mind breaking down what could have gone wrong. Each detail was run over, scrutinized. Absurdity was funny, and always had been funny to her. Absurdity was my talent, it was what I lived for.

The memories were tangible. With nothing to look at but pure darkness my thoughts projected on the screen that the void created. I forced myself to watch my past.

All I could do was passively watch myself fail one time after another. She stopped laughing at chaos, absurdity had lost its humor. She spoke even more of her precious harmony. Each day was busier and busier for her, filled with urgent meetings and full schedules.

"Meeting in the garden tonight," I said, combing the small bit of hair that hung from my chin. An event that we had planned months before. It was finally time, and although her schedule was always full that other days this had been on the calender for a long time, and it meant finally seeing Celestia again.

With a snap of my fingers, I vanished out of the room, and reappeared in the garden. I looked at the sun. I wasn't late. With another snap of my fingers I added a bow tie to my outfit, which was nothing before the bow tie, and straightened it out as quickly as possible. Celestia would be arriving at any moment.

Had the stone not been around my eyes, a tear would have fell off of the cold stone as I watched myself stand in the garden. There I was, waiting for the love that would never come. I stood all night, and finally flew to the Canterlot castle in search of her, only to be blocked off by guards. I only caught a glimpse of her in her room as they ushered me away, claiming she was sleeping.

That was the good memory I had of Celestia. I was only a disturbance, a rift in the harmony that Celestia wanted to engulf Equestria. I was too random, too chaotic, too absurd for her.

I pitied myself, watching the memories in which I went to the castle every day in search of her, only to be told she was off doing this or that. I wanted so badly to hit something, but Celestia final act kept me from doing anything. There, in the void, where the memories played so vividly, the gears in my heart shifted. They churned out the love and replaced it with anger. With nothing but memories to look at it did not take long to find that anger. Desire for revenge consumed me inside the stone, and that desire turned to motivation.

"Celestia! Come out!" I yelled. Guards rushed forth to push me away, but I had had enough of their resistance. They stood still, stuck in piles of cotton candy. Celestia peered out of the window and at me, watching me freeze her guards in place.

"Discord, stop this!"

"Just come talk to me!" I shouted. I felt like screaming at her, but I couldn't be harsh with her. There was something in my heart that kept me from resorting to brutality when it came to her. No matter how much I wished to yell at her for avoiding me, and keeping away, I held back.

"Discord, this needs to stop." She flew outside, demanding that I let go of her guards. With a snap of my fingers the cotton candy disappeared, and the guards stood still but alert as Celestia came down to the ground.

"What is all this about, Discord."

"Why have you been avoiding me? I just want to talk to you."

"There is nothing to explain Discord. I wish to keep peace and harmony in Equestria and by being around the spirit of chaos itself there is no way to do that. I tried to get you to realize that we could not be together, but you haven't gotten the message it seems."

My gaze hardened and my fist clenched. Harmony? All she did was speak of harmony. Anger welled up inside of me. Not at her, I couldn't be angry at her, but at the need for harmony.

"There is no need for harmony all the time, dear, sometimes chaos can be good. Look," I said. I brought the clouds in the sky together and made them pink, and frantically searching for more examples, I turned the roads leading up to the castle into soap.

"Discord, there is no room for chaos here," she said. My heart shattered. I was chaos, and if there was no room for it, there was no room for me. Out of blind fury I summoned a flash of lightning. I didn't wish to hurt anypony, but being unable to win Celestia's heart had destroyed my own.

The memories became blurry from that point on. All I could see was some more flashes of lightning, and then Celestia calling for someone. Another flash of light, but no lightning, and then darkness. The same darkness I had been staring at for a thousand years.

Every now and then, I would observe what I could from the statue I sat in. As a spirit, I could oversee the events that happened in Equestria, but was always brought back to the darkness. I watched Celestia banish her sister, removing the only other bearer of the elements of harmony. The very objects that had imprisoned me. She knew that without a connection to the elements of harmony, I would break out of my stone prison. She was smart, I watched her pick out knew guardians. Ponies that could put me back into stone if I ever got out.

She had cut the rope that held us together long ago, and never wanted to tie it together again. She even taught that I was evil, that I had deserved the imprisonment. But now, I do not feel the love that had attached me to Celestia. Before I had begged and pleaded for it, but all those feelings were gone.

I hear a mental snip. All ties with my past self fall apart. I let out a cackle, a crazy cackle about a joke that only I understand. Old Discord and his memories fade to gray. They are no longer a part of me. All the love that I had once felt shifted into resentment. Once a lover, I am now an immortal spirit. Celestia's love of "hamony" no longer binds me. What had once been only my source of humor is now my weapon. Chaos.

I continue to laugh. Nopony can hear me, the stone that they see is a quiet and motionless statue. But I know better than that. She wishes to keep me inside my stone prison forever, teaching that I am evil and that I deserve that punishment that I had received.

All the memories are gone. I can feel the spell becoming weaker with each day. Celestia is prepared, she knows that one day I will escape, but I am different now. Harmony beat me in the past because Old Discord connected himself to Celestia. But my past is gone. Harmony is no match for unbridled chaos.

There is a crack, I see light flood into the darkness. After a millennium of watching, and waiting, the door is open. I smile, and clench my fist. But this time it is not because I am angry, or sad, but because I am finally going to get what I desired. Celestia had made one mistake when she had removed chaos from her life.

She had not cut the rope, but burned the bridge. And now when she tries to cross over it again, there will be no bridge.

The stone cracked some more, the spell breaking under my will. There was nothing to hold me back. My mind was cleansed of anything my past self felt, all the ties were cut.

There is a second where the rock stops cracking, and then it bursts open. I am free.

I stretch out every muscle of my body, opening my jaw and flapping my wings. I let out another laugh. My mind is filled with chaos, absurdity. All my thoughts jumble together.

I fly off in search of the elements of harmony. Celestia would watch as I tore down her precious harmony, show her how I felt. She did not want harmony and chaos to coexist, and she would have her wish.

There is a twinge in my heart. I suddenly stop flying, look back at my stone casing.

I see Celestia in my mind again.

A small thread had been left alone. The scissors had not cut all the way through.

What We Leave Behind

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Dear Mr. Shining Armor:

We are pleased to inform you that your application to join the Royal Guard of Equestria has been approved by the Equestrian Military Council. You will report for training at 1300 at the Quartermaster’s Yard. Your possessions will be expected for transfer at the Royal Barracks no later than 1800 that same day. Your squad leader will be Mrs. Silver Hoof.

Best of wishes to you,
The Equestrian Military Council

M. Eagle Eye
M. Loyal Vision
Mme. Golden Petal

Shining Armor exhaled slowly, still smiling to himself as his eyes traced down the letter for what seemed like the hundredth time. Dear Mr. Shining Armor, the letter said. Not Shining. Not even Shining Armor.

Mr. Shining Armor, future guardspony of Equestria.

He pumped his hoof in the air, rolling over on his bed. The springs shook underneath him, and the mattress groaned as Shining’s hooves hit the floor. He was still grinning; he couldn’t help it. It looked like a lifetime of playing with toy soldiers and monsters had finally paid off.

Shining cleared his throat. “Shining Armor, reporting for duty.”

He turned his head and made his voice higher-pitched. “Oh, no! A hydra is attacking Canterlot!”

Shining nodded resolutely, turning back and returning his voice to normal. “No worries, ma’am! I’ll take care of it!”

The higher-pitched voice returned. “Oh, thank you, Mr. Guard!”

Shining Armor closed his eyes, smirking. “Oh, it’s no problem, ma’am. It’s what I—”

“Shining Armor! Stop daydreaming and help me move these boxes!”

Shining’s eyes snapped open. He swallowed. “Coming, Mom!” He threw open the door and dashed out into the hallway, skidding around the corner as he ran. He came to an abrupt stop as he slid to a halt, emerging out of the front door and into the yard.

“Come on, honey!” Velvet Glitter said, gesturing to a large pile of cardboard boxes. “We’ve got to get all of your stuff into the moving chariot before you go!”

“Wow. So she really does have you trained.”

Shining spun around. “Cadance!”

Cadance nodded, winking. “Yep! Though I’d come see you off. I think your dad is making Twilight her snack, so I had a few extra minutes to come and say goodbye.”

Shining smiled, blushing a bit. “Aw, thank you!”

Cadance chuckled. “You’re ridiculous. Now come on—let’s give your poor mom a hand.”

Velvet turned around, snorting. “About time!” She smiled at Cadance. “Thank you, dear. It’s hard enough getting him to do anything when he just stares at that silly letter all day.”

“Mo-om,” Shining moaned.

Cadance snickered. “I think she might have a point.” She reached forward, tugging on the letter that was still in Shining’s grip. “See?”

Shining rolled his eyes. “All right, all right.” He trotted up and closed his eyes, a light-blue aura surrounding his horn along with a particularly heavy-looking box. “So should I just put this in the chariot?”

Velvet nodded, pointing to a spot where two bored-looking pegasi were sitting in a beaten-up chariot. “Right over there, in the back.”

Shining nodded. “Got it.”

Velvet nodded back, smiling, but then frowned. “Come on, you two lazy bums. Get up and give us a hand!” The two pegasi jumped and nodded quickly, moving over to the large piles of boxes and picking up one of their own.

Shining hummed to himself as he worked, moving box by box into the back seat of the movers’ chariot. The all-too-familiar notes of the Guards’ Marching Theme danced in his mind. After a few minutes of work, though, something strange reached his ears: the sound of quiet sobbing.

Shining turned around, eyebrows furrowed. “Mom?” He trotted over, frowning. “Is there something wrong?”

Velvet looked up, smiling, but wiping away tears from her face. “It’s... It’s nothing,” she said, keeping the smile on her face. “Here, why don’t you let your father and the movers finish up, and you go say goodbye to some of your friends?”

Shining blinked. “Are you sure?”

Velvet nodded, sniffing a bit. “Of course! They deserve to have an extra farewell before you head out!” She winked, giggling slightly. “And maybe you can even share a last-minute cupcake with Cadance.”

Shining Armor sighed. “Thanks, Mom.” He turned to go. “Are you sure you don’t need my help?”

“Oh, get off it,” Velvet snorted. “Go! Have fun for an hour—I’ll see you back here in a bit.”

Shining smiled, chuckling and shaking his head. “All right. I will.” He looked questioningly at Cadance.

She waved a hoof. “Go on. Go talk to Cloud Runner or something. I’ll meet you at the Pastry Place in half an hour.” Cadance winked. “In the meantime, I think I hear Twilight acting up inside. No doubt your dad mixed up her juice with soda again.”

Shining nodded. “Right.” He turned to go, and waved. “See you in a little while!”

As he galloped off into the city, Cadance walked up and exchanged a sad glance with Velvet. “Think he’s ready for this?”

Velvet laughed quietly and snorted. “Him? I wonder if I’m ready for this. I’m certainly no young mare, that’s for sure.” She looked up at the sky, exhaling. “Still, I know that this is his dream.”

Velvet smiled, shaking her head. “All colts need to leave the barn some day.”

Shining panted as he ran through the city, his mane whipping in the wind behind him. He dodged around passers-by and tourists and finally came to a stop before a tall green building. Raising a hoof and taking a moment to catch his breath, he knocked four times on the building’s door.

The door opened slightly, and then wider to reveal a small, elderly-looking mare. “Ah, Shining!” she said, smiling. “Good to see you. Give me a moment, and I’ll get Cloudie down here.”

She turned, looking up the stairs. “Cloud Runner! Get down here! Your friend wants to say hi!

Shining chuckled as the sound of a confused grunt and a loud thump came from up the stairs. “Actually, Mrs. Chaser, I’m here to say goodbye.” He smiled sadly. “You see, my chariot’s leaving in two hours for Upper Canterlot, so...”

Chaser raised a hoof, shushing him. “Say no more.” She winked, glancing over her shoulder. “I’ll make sure my lazy grandson gives you the farewell you deserve...” She cut herself off, blinking, and then narrowed her eyes. “If he ever gets his flank out of bed! Cloud Runner!!”

“Ow, ack. Fine.” A lanky, blue-maned pegasus came limping down the stairs, rubbing his head and groaning. He looked up. “Oh, hey Shining. ‘Sup?”

“This young stallion is heading out to Upper Canterlot soon to become a Royal Guard, and you’re lying in bed and lazing about!” Chaser scowled. “The least you could do would be to have the common decency to say goodbye.”

Cloud Runner groaned again, rolling his neck. “All right, Gramma. All right.” He smirked at Shining as Chaser frowned at him.

Shining coughed. “Erm. I think you can probably go now, Mrs. Chaser.”

Chaser nodded, clapping her hooves. “Ah, of course! You two take all the time you need—I’ll be in the kitchen!” She tittered to herself, trotting out of the foyer. “Oh, my; I hope those sweetbuns aren’t burned!”

Shining chuckled as Chaser walked away. “Your grandmother is pretty great.”

Cloud rolled his eyes. “I know, I know.” He smiled. “So; a Royal Guard, huh.”

Shining nodded. “Yeah.”

Cloud snorted. “It’s not like it wasn’t freaking obvious to everypony since, well, forever.” He shrugged. “To be honest, I think you’re the last one who found out that that’s what you wanted to be.”

Shining slapped him on the back, laughing. “Yeah, right.”

Cloud raised his eyebrows, shrugging. “Hey. Maybe I’ll see you up there at the castle sometime.” He pointed to his own Cutie Mark: a slice of pie with a firework exploding around it. “I might even end up catering something like the Gala.”

“You wish,” Shining said. Cloud joined him in laughing at that for a bit. The two quieted down soon, though, and just stood in the doorway by themselves.

Cloud spoke up first. “So I guess that summer surfing trip’s off, huh?”

Shining nodded, biting his cheek. “Yep. I don’t think new guardsponies get much vacation time.”

Cloud snorted. “Whatever. I’ll let Lightning and Twinkle know that you can’t come—they’ll be pretty down about it, but they’ll understand.”

Shining smiled sadly. “Thanks.”

They stood there in silence for a moment more.



Cloud held up a hoof over Shining’s mouth, raising an eyebrow. “Shut up, Shining. Really.” He winked. “You’re one of the most fun guys I’ve ever hung out with, and it’s just been really cool.” He reddened a bit, scratching the back of his head. “I guess what I’m trying to say’ll do great there. So don’t sweat it.”

Shining sighed, smiling back. “Thanks, Cloud. That actually does kind of mean a lot.”

Cloud snorted. “Of course it does! I said it.” He offered a hoof, holding it up in the air. “You go up there, and you take those fancy-armor ponies by storm, you hear me?”

Shining smirked, meeting the bro-hoof. “It’s a promise.”

“Good.” Cloud frowned. “Well, what’re you waiting here for, you sappy filly? Get out there and see the town! It’ll be the last time you hit it for months!”

Shining started. “Oh! Right!” He gave a clumsy salute and dashed off down the steps, nearly crashing into a passing mailmare along the way. “Sorry!”

Cloud chuckled, shaking his head. “Idiot.”

He shut the door.

Shining trotted down the street, looking around at the passing buildings with something like wonder and sadness.

There it was, the old post office, right next to the new Japonys restaurant. He remembered going to drop off letters in the mailbox every week, saying hello to the postal worker on duty. Shining put a hoof to his chin, frowning. He’d never gotten a chance to try that new restaurant’s sushi.

I guess Twily’s gonna have to do it for me.

He smiled softly, shaking his head, and continued on.

“Hey, Shining!”

Shining looked up, his eyes widening. “Mr. Apple!”

The middle-aged stallion nodded, grinning widely at Shining. “I heard you’re heading out today—here, have an apple!” He tossed one into the street, which Shining caught with a quick levitation spell. “This’ll be your last chance to have a quality Apple apple; can’t say I know any of my relatives to be sellin’ up there in Upper Canterlot.”

Shining nodded quickly, bringing the apple closer. “Th-thank you!”

Mr. Apple snorted, turning back to his cart. “Now, you talk about these apples to them fancy ponies up by the castle, y’hear? I need my advertisin’, and I can’t let such a good customer’s experience go to waste.” He paused, peering over his glasses at Shining. “Right?”

Shining Armor nodded, smiling. “Right!”

Mr. Apple beamed. “Gravy! You have a good trip, son.”

Shining waved back. “You have a good day, Mr. Apple!” He resumed walking and took a bite of the apple. It was definitely a “quality Apple apple”—the crunch was perfect, and the fruit itself was nice and juicy. He munched loudly as he looked up at the Municipal Center, and past that toward the castle itself, sitting far up on the mountain.

The next time I see these buildings, it’ll be from up above, looking down, Shining thought, taking another bite of the apple. The people’ll look like ants—I wonder if I’ll even recognize anything?

I guess I’ll find out.

He shook his head and looked up at the clock tower on top of the Center.

“For now,” Shining said quietly, paling slightly. “It looks like I’m late for meeting Cadance!”

Swallowing, he galloped down the street, leaving a thin cloud of dust in his tracks.

The Pastry Place was fairly quiet today. Only a few other ponies were present, sitting down and chatting in the small bakery café as one or two waiters went around taking orders.

Shining slid into a booth across from Cadance. “Sorry I’m late.”

She raised an eyebrow. “You took your time.”

Shining chuckled awkwardly. “Whoops.”

Cadance rolled her eyes. “It’s fine, you dummy. I already got the chance to order for the two of us, so at least you don’t have to wait as long.”

“What’d you order?” Shining asked, blinking.

“The usual.” Cadance shrugged, smirking. “Haypetal cakes—what else?”

Shining licked his lips. “My favorite!”

Cadance winked. “Of course!”

She sighed, looking out of the window. “So,” she said after a minute. “You think you’re ready for this?”

Shining blinked, slightly taken aback. “Wha—?”

Cadance nodded, turning back to him. “You know. Being an official guard. Protecting my aunt and Equestria. You know.”

Shining’s expression became determined, and he grinned fiercely. “You know it! I’ll be the best damn guard that anypony’s ever seen! I’ll be—”

“Shining, you’re shouting and standing on the table.”

Shining flushed, quickly sitting back down. “Heh.”

Cadance giggled. “Oh, you’re ridiculous. But you’ll do great.”

Shining bit his lip. “I hope so.” He paused. “Wait, what was that about “seeing me off,” earlier? Won’t I see you at the castle?”

Cadance shook her head. “Not for the most part. I promised your mom that I’d help out with Twilight a bit more while you were first leaving. Not to mention that novice guards get very little free time. Add that onto the fact that we’ll likely be on opposite sides of the castle, and...” She shrugged.

Shining swallowed, a lump rising in his throat. “Oh. Right.”

Cadance smiled softly, patting him on the head. “Come on. It won’t be that bad. This is your dream, remember? You’ve been trying to get in for three years, now.”

Shining shook his head. “I know, I know. And I know that I should be overjoyed at this—and I am!” He rested his chin on his foreleg. “I just don’t know. It’ll be so weird, leaving everyone behind. And I know I’ll see them on vacations and everything, but...”

He sighed. “It just won’t be the same.”

Cadance put a hoof on his, and Shining looked up. Their eyes met.

Cadance smiled softly. “Even once you do leave, you have to remember that they’ll still love you anyway, even if it’s from that far away.” She pointed to her Cutie Mark, winking. “It’s my job to know, of course.”

Shining grinned. “Heh. Right, I forgot.”

Cadance leaned in, looking Shining straight in the eye. “And don’t forget why you did this. Because you wanted to protect your family and all of Equestria. Because you wanted to be honorable and strong.” She lowered her voice. “Because, above all else, you love your family.”

Shining chuckled. “Wow. It seems so...impressive when you put it that way.” He looked out of the window, staring into the sky. “But it’s not, really. I’m just a guy who wanted to swing a sword around and look good doing it. I’m not that special.”

Cadance snorted. “Shining Armor, you take that back.” She smiled. “Without a doubt, you are one of the best stallions I know.”

Shining swallowed, grinning weakly. “Thanks, Cadance. That means a lot, coming from you.”


Both ponies looked up, startled. A rather tall earth pony, carrying a tray of two delicious-looking slices of cake, set it down on their table. “Your haypetal cake, valued customers.” He winked at Shining. “Hope you enjoy these last sweets. I asked the chef to put extra effort into making them.”

Shining shook his head, chuckling. “You guys... Thanks, Chocolate.”

Chocolate Spoon bowed, winking. “But of course. My pleasure, you two.” He turned to go. “I’ll leave you be now.”

“Shall we dig in?” Shining asked as Chocolate walked away.

Cadance shrugged, fluttering her eyelashes. “Well, I don’t know. Do you think it’s safe, dear Guard?”

Shining smirked. “You’d better eat yours before I get to it first!”

Cadance scowled. “Oh, you wouldn’t dare!”

“Try me!”

Their laughter echoed through the café. It would be some time before it faded.

Velvet bit her lip as she eyed the loaded chariot. Boxes stacked up high in the back seat, and the two pegasi movers were hunched over by the side of the cart, panting and wiping away sweat.


Velvet whirled around. “Shining! You’re back!”

A lump rose in her throat.

Shining grinned, trotting over beside Cadance. “Yep. I said goodbye to Cloud and the city—I think I’m all ready.”

Velvet swallowed, smiling weakly. “Good. I think there’s one more thing we haven’t done yet, though.”

Two things, really, but I shouldn’t annoy him with that now.

Shining tilted his head. “Huh? What’d that be?”

Velvet lifted a hoof, pointing to one last box waiting by the door. “We never packed that one, because... Well, see for yourself.”

Shining frowned curiously. “Huh. Okay.” He trotted over, lifted the cover, and peered inside.

Within lay an assembly of items—tattered books, stained blankets, and old toys. Scratchy bits of artwork lay scattered inside the box, along with a few pieces of broken crayon. Shining’s eyes widened, and he looked up. “These are...”

Every one of the items in the box had his name on it.

Velvet walked up, something sad twinkling in her eyes. “Your father and I found that in the attic. We weren’t sure what to do with it, so we decided to take it out and let you decide if you want to keep anything in there, give it away, or...” She shrugged, and turned her face, mane obscuring her eyes. “It’s up to you.”

Shining exhaled, and suddenly hugged her. “Thank you, Mom.”

She laughed. “Oh, now you’re just being silly. A grown stallion, thanking his mother for taking out some baby toys? It’s just what I do.”

Something in the box caught Shining’s eye, and he slowly released his embrace, staring at the box. “Believe me. I think I might have something to do with it, after all.”

“Vroom, vroom! Whee! Whoosh!”

A knock came at the door.

Twilight Sparkle looked up from her book, setting her Daring Do action figure on the floor. “Who is it?”

The door peeked open, letting a muffled voice come through. “It’s Shining.”

Twilight’s eyes widened, and she turned away, sniffing. “Well, you can’t come in!”

“Huh? Why?”

Twilight scowled. “Cuz you’re going away, and that’s mean!”

There came a sigh from behind the door. “Twily...can I please come in?”

Twilight drooped. “Fine...”

In the hallway, Shining Armor sighed again in relief. He smiled sadly as he pushed open the door, trotting in. Levitating beside him was a large, somewhat tattered cardboard box.

Twilight’s eyes widened and she got up, trotting over and poking the box. “What’s this?”

Shining chuckled, setting it down. “Just a few of my old things. I thought I might pass them onto you once I go.” He closed the top. “Unless, of course, you don’t want to see...”

Twilight jumped up and down. “Wanna see! Wanna see!”

Shining stepped back, smiling. “All right. Sit down, Twily, and I’ll show you.”

Obediently, Twilight quickly sat her flank on the carpeted floor, though her trembling hooves betrayed her excitement. “What is it?”

“A few things,” Shining said, laying down on the carpet. His horn glowed, and a small object levitated out of the box. “You know what this is, Twily?”

Twilight frowned, making a face. “A notebook?”

Shining rolled his eyes, snickering. “Yes, but it’s definitely more than that.” He flipped open a few pages. “See these?”

Twilight nodded. “Uh-huh.”

Shining smiled softly. “They’re drawings that I made when I was younger. I wasn’t ever really an artsy kind of colt, but maybe you can use this—it’s still half empty.” He placed the notebook onto the floor. “You can use it as a journal or to make paper airplanes or something; whatever you like.”

Twilight stared. “Uh-huh.”

Shining reddened a bit, removing another object from the box. “And then there’s this!”

Twilight’s eyes lit up. “A book! Thank you, thank you, thank you!”

Shining chuckled. “But not just any book—it’s the Unabridged Edition of Equestrian History!” He snickered under his breath as Twilight’s eyes grew as wide as saucers. “I never really liked it when I was your age—too many words and not enough pictures, for one thing—but I found that as time went on, it became my favorite thing to read whenever I just wanted to relax.” He raised a hoof, whispering conspiratorially. “My friends thought it was weird, but I didn’t care.”

Twilight giggled. “Thanks, big brother! I love it!”

“Ah, ah!” Shining said, winking. “There’s one more thing, though.”

Twilight froze in the middle of hugging her new book. “Huh?”

A small, tattered object levitated out of the box and hovered in front of Twilight.

Twilight stared blankly into the button eye of the toy in front of her. “What’s this?”

Shining smiled softly, looking at the object with nostalgia. Something twinkled in his eye. “This,” he said, pushing it a little closer to Twilight, “is Smarty Pants.” He patted the toy on its patched head. “She was my best friend when I was little, and she’s been a little lonely for the past few years.” He bit his lip. “I was wondering if you might want to be her new friend?”

Twilight’s eyes grew even wider.

Shining reddened a bit, and he held up a smaller notepad that was attached to Smarty Pants. “See? She even does her own homework! She always helped me with math when I was your age.”

He grinned. “What do you think?”

Twilight was silent for a moment.

Shining’s smile grew a bit forced. “Twily?”

With a sudden squeal, Twilight sprang forward and grabbed Smarty Pants from Shining’s telekinetic grip, hugging the doll close to her chest and swinging it back and forth. “I love her!” she said. She looked up, beaming. “Thankyouthankyouthankyou!”

Shining laughed, patting Twilight on the head. “I’m really happy you like her, Twilight.” His eyes grew a bit sad. “Maybe she’ll tell you all about the adventures that we had together.”

“Nuh-uh!” Twilight said, sniffing and shaking her head. “We’re gonna have our own adventures! Better than yours ever were!” She paused, putting a hoof on her chin. “And we’re gonna get better grades on our homework than you!”

Shining beamed, grabbing Twilight and wrestling her into a noogie. “Get over here, you little squirt!”

“Help, help!” Twilight squealed. “He’s tickling me to death!”

“You’re not getting away that easily!” Shining said with a laugh.

Shining stared blankly at the chariot. It was filled, staffed, and ready to go. The two pegasi hitched to the cart snorted impatiently.

“So this is it,” Morning Star said, patting Shining on the back. “Looks like your ride is all set.”

Shining started. “Oh! Yeah, Dad.” He smiled weakly. “Looks like it is.”

Velvet was crying.

“It—oh—my baby,” she said. “He—you’re finally leaving.”

Shining bit his lip and trotted over. He put one hoof around her. “Come on, Mom. It won’t be forever—I’ll write, and I’ll come back on vacations and everything!”

Velvet hiccuped, wiping her eyes. “Of course; how could I forget? I’m such a silly old mare.”

Shining wiped a tear away from her face. “You’re anything but, Mom. It’s you who I have to thank for helping me get this far. Dad, too.” He looked up. “Without you both, I would have never become who I am today.”

Velvet swallowed, coughing quietly. “Thank you, honey.” She put a handkerchief to her face, trying to clear her bleary vision. “Thank you, Shining.”

Shining leaned in, his voice quiet. “I love you, Mom.”

Her sobs redoubled, and she hiccupped again.

“I love you, and I will never stop loving you,” Shining repeated. He looked up. “I will never stop loving you all, and I will never stop protecting you. Because that is my special talent, and I’ll stick to it for as long as I live.”

“The noble guard,” Cadance said from behind him, walking up. She sniffed, wiping one eye with a hoof. “I’ll probably see you sooner than they will the meantime, you’ll write?”

Shining nodded. “Of course.” He shook his head. “Every day if I can.”

Cadance laughed. “Oh, you foolish stallion. Focus on your work—goodness knows they work ponies hard enough up at the barracks.”

Shining nodded. “Right.”

He shared a final, silent moment with Cadance and then walked slowly up to Twilight. She was curled up on the ground, crying quietly.

“Ssh, it’s okay,” Shining said, petting her mane.

Twilight looked up. “B-but, you’re going away! Forever! How is that okay?

Shining shook his head, chuckling. “Oh, Twilight. I’m not going away forever.” He touched Smarty Pants, still held tightly in Twilight’s hooves. “And remember, so long as you have Smarty Pants with you, I’ll be there.” He smiled, bending down to Twilight’s level. “I’ll always be with you, Twily. In here,” he said, patting Smarty Pants on the head, “and in here.”

He touched Twilight’s heart.

Twilight sniffed, her eyes red and puffy. “Really?”

Shining nodded. “Really.”

Twilight sniffed again and a big glob of snot ran down her face. “You sure?”

Shining exhaled slowly, still grinning widely. “Surer than sure. I’m your big brother—how could I be wrong?”

Still holding Smarty Pants, Twilight leapt up and grabbed Shining on the leg. “I’m gonna miss you,” she murmured, rubbing her face on his neck.

Shining sighed, swallowing. “I’ll miss you too, kid.” His smile faded, though he didn’t let her see it. “Be—be good for Mom and Dad, okay?”

Twilight nodded. “Uh-huh.” Then, without any protest, she let go.

Shining Armor didn’t look back as he walked to the chariot, the two pegasi movers ready for him. He didn’t look back as he walked into the cart and shut the door behind him.

He didn’t look back when Twilight screamed out into the air.


The tears finally ran down his face. Twilight...I love you more than you could ever imagine.

But that’s why I’m doing this. That’s who I am.

I will always be there for you. But maybe, just maybe, today’s helped me realize something.

Shining looked up at the sky. The sun was rising high into the sky, nearly reaching its peak. It had left behind the comforting embrace of the sunrise horizon, but it was now almost at its zenith, cutting free of the morning and leaping with courage and strength into the day.

Maybe it’s not what we do that determines who we are.

Maybe it’s what—and who—we leave behind.

Shining looked straight ahead into the distance. Up above him, steadily growing larger, was the looming figure of Canterlot Castle.

I love you, Twily.

And that will never change.


View Online

Luna gave the liquid within her teacup another gratuitous swirl, ruthlessly annihilating the innocent reflection that stared back at her. She breathed a dejected sigh. All she seemed to be able to do lately was wreck things. First the breakfast table, then the library—the whole library—and now her poor, defenseless reflection. And that was just today! Just this morning, even!

Not that anyone besides Luna really minded, of course. Like her sister, she was a Princess, and the palace staff—regardless of having hardly even heard of her before two weeks ago—was all too happy to clean up after her endless string of disasters. Well, Luna wasn’t happy with it!

Without thinking, she set the teacup down on the parlor table in front of her. It touched down with a loud thud and liquid sloshed over the sides, staining the white tablecloth a dark brown. Confound these clumsy hooves!

She stowed the offending extremities on the pillow beneath her, where they couldn’t do any more harm, probably, and went back to glaring at her teacup. Taking a deep breath, she began to focus all of her will on the flowery ceramic. Lift up!

Fortunately, the cup chose simply to disobey Luna’s silent command, rather than up and explode like she’d been half-expecting. She tried again and again, scrunching up her face ever more as the inanimate object continued to defy her. After a minute or so, she finally let out the breath she’d been holding and hung her head. It wasn’t the cup’s fault…

“Luna? Is everything alright?”

Luna turned to her left and frowned at her big sister, who’d just come in from the balcony with a look of concern etched on her face. It was a look that Luna had become very familiar with over the past fortnight—just about everyone she met here in the palace wore the very same expression. She couldn’t really blame them though. In fact, she was starting to get more than a little worried herself.

“No,” Luna grumbled.

“Well, our bedroom is still intact, so it can’t be that bad,” the ever-cheerful Day Princess commented, striding over to arrange her pillows next to the hearth. Luna summoned up a glare that said this was no laughing matter and waited for her sister to turn around and see it. When she finally realized that Celestia was deliberately avoiding just that, Luna drew a resigned sigh.

“My magic still won’t work, Celly,” she pouted, letting her head flop down onto the table. “What’s wrong with me?”

“Hmm,” Celestia offered. After a long moment of waiting for her to expand upon that oh-so-insightful statement, Luna glanced over. Her sister was knelt down on the pillows she’d been arranging, her eyes closed and a faint smile adorning her lips.

Luna glowered at her. “‘Hmm’? What’s that supposed to mean?” Celestia made no response, not even a twitch. How could she not take this seriously?! It wasn’t as if Luna was fussing over a misplaced toy—her magic was gone! And she was stuck in this…this tiny, inept body to boot! How could she just— Wait a minute…

Luna’s eyes went wide. “You know something, don’t you?” she breathed. Shooting to her hooves, she hurried around the table, almost knocking it down in passing. Her attempt to tower meaningfully over her sister would probably have fared better if she wasn’t so blasted small! As it was, Celestia kneeling down put her at about head-height with Luna, much to the chagrin of the Night Princess.

“Celestia, please,” she said slowly, putting as much weight behind the words as she could. That did the trick—Celestia opened one eye and trained it on Luna, her smile faltering a little. “If you know what the problem is, please tell me.”

Moments passed in silence. Celestia’s unblinking expression yielded no hint as to what might be going on inside her head. She might have been considering it, or maybe she was just waiting patiently for Luna to drop the subject. For her part, Luna found herself shuffling restlessly in the face of her silence. After a minute or so, she couldn’t stand still any more.

“Ugh! I can’t stand this form for much longer!” she exclaimed, her wings flaring as she turned away and started towards the center of the room. “It’s so…restricted. Why can’t I use my magic?”

“Luna, your magic will come back in time,” said Celestia, mechanically.

“That’s what you said two weeks ago!” Luna snapped, rounding on her sister, who was still knelt calmly on her makeshift floor-couch. Her eyes were shut again, and she ignored Luna’s outburst completely.

In the face of her sister’s tranquil aura, Luna’s anger seemed completely out-of-place. She softened her glare and frowned sadly. “Sorry,” she muttered. “It’s harder to control my emotions like this…”

“No need to apologize,” Celestia assured her. Her eyes drew open and she turned to meet Luna’s gaze with a smirk. “I actually think it’s kind of cute.”

The heat rising to Luna’s face would probably have been enough to bring water to the boil in a matter of seconds. “C-Cute?” she stammered. At the sound of Celestia’s tinkling giggles, Luna leant forward and narrowed her eyes aggressively. “I…I am not cute! I am the Princess of the Night! I am graceful and mysterious and—”

Celestia’s giggling just grew louder and louder, the fire in Luna’s cheeks growing with it. She wisely stopped talking, as to avoid embarrassing herself further and perhaps even damaging her sister. Instead, she hung her head and pouted. Celly could have just been teasing, or she could have been trying to step away from the conversation by changing the subject. Luna knew that she should be able to tell one way or the other—having known her sister…well, forever. And that, for the two of them, was a very long time.

But she couldn’t. She told herself that was because they’d been apart for so long—it would take some time to readjust—or because her weakened form was hindering her intuition somehow. Why not? It messed with just about everything else.

Suddenly, she felt a hoof under her chin, lifting her head to meet her sister’s gaze. She’d stopped laughing, but her disarming smile remained, as always.

“Luna, do you really wish to know what I think the problem is?” she asked. Luna ignored a fleeting urge to make a snarky comment and nodded her head, prompting her sister to continue. “I think that, perhaps, you don’t want your magic back.”

“I…what?” Luna furrowed her brow in thorough confusion as Celestia gently withdrew her hoof. “What do you mean?”

“Just what I said,” Celestia confirmed. “It’s just a thought, but maybe some part of you doesn’t want your powers restored. Do you think that might be the case?”

Luna frowned at her sister. Cogs and gears turned frantically within her brain as she tried to comprehend Celestia’s logic. In the end, though, she came up blank. “I don’t understand,” she admitted finally with a shake of her head. “Can you explain it?”

The Day Princess gave another chuckle. She casually brushed a hoof through Luna’s mane, causing her to shrink down a little. “Sister, I think this is something you need to figure out on your own.” She pet Luna’s mane a couple more times and offered a last smile before turning to resume her post on the floor-couch.

As she watched her sister settle down and close her eyes, Luna pondered quietly. Don’t want my powers back? That’s silly—of course I want them back! She shook her head. While she might not have understood exactly what Celestia was getting at, she had a distinct feeling that she was on to something. Clearly, though, her sister wasn’t going to offer any more help on the matter. She probably thought that she was doing Luna a favor…and she was probably right, as usual.

Luna huffed and turned towards the door. If Celly wasn’t going to explain her theory, then Luna would have to go to the one place that might be able to do it for her. She just hoped it would survive another of her visits…

Luna leant forward to take another bite from the apple between her hooves, chewing passively as she studied the tome in front of her. Surprisingly, the author of this particular book seemed to have found a way to explain unicorn psychology even more drearily than the last dozen she’d read. And, not surprisingly in the slightest, it held slim to no information on the topic she was researching.

Gulping down her mouthful of fruit, Luna breathed a tired sigh—something she’d been doing a lot over the past five or six hours. She decided to give her stinging eyes a little rest, mercifully tearing them away from the text and surveying the library. It had, for the most part, been put back together after her earlier mishap—the cleaning staff certainly did work quickly.

The librarian was no-where to be seen.

“Have you found any more texts regarding magical seals?” Luna called out loudly, scolding herself immediately afterwards. There might not have been anypony else reading here, but that was no reason to forget her library etiquette.

A moment passed before a bookish unicorn mare leaned out from behind a bookshelf and frowned apologetically. “Um, just one, your highness,” she said quietly. “And I don’t think it will be of much help.”

“Please bring it anyway,” Luna said, in a tone more appropriate for the setting. Nodding, the librarian disappeared behind her shelf and emerged a moment later, hovering beside her a thin book. After timidly setting it down in front of Luna, the librarian stepped back and gave a quick bow.

Luna’s eyes fixed on the volume. It was different than the others—not only was it much thinner, but its cover was a great deal more colorful. The title shimmered in large, bold lettering on the front. “Larry the Enchanted Sea-lion,” Luna read slowly, measuring every word. What a strange title, perhaps it was some kind of clever metaphor?

She looked up at the librarian for some kind of clarification. The mare offered no such thing, instead choosing to purse her lips in a most unusual fashion. After that, it didn’t take very long for Luna to put it together. She looked to the book, the librarian, then the book again before finally adopting a thoroughly un-amused expression. “Oh,” she muttered. “I get it.”

The librarian, who seemed to be starting to quiver a little, offered a prompt bow before rushing off behind the bookshelves again. Luna silently blinked after her for a moment. When it passed, she shook her head and went back to her psychology book. Unless the librarian came up with another real book on the subject, then this one was her last hope…

She took a deep breath, found her place within the section titled ‘Magical Seals’ and started reading.

…Due to the rarity of psychologically-induced magical seals (otherwise referred to as ‘blocks’ or ‘locks’) there is very little information available as to how to break or counteract them…

That was not encouraging. Sure enough, the rest of the small section told her nothing bar the base definition of the term ‘magical seal’—which was, shockingly, a sudden inability to produce unicorn magic in any way, shape or form. She groaned loudly and slumped down on top of the open book.

That made a grand total of twenty books and only five or six hours utterly wasted. Reasonably speaking, she had actually made some progress—for one thing, she was now almost a hundred percent sure that she was suffering from this ‘magical seal’ thing. Knowing that did her absolutely no good though, since none of the books had mentioned anything of recorded causes or cures. Somehow, that—coupled with the knowledge that what she sought would not be found in this library—didn’t feel like very much comfort.

Absent-mindedly opening her mouth to finish off the last of her apple, she felt a loud yawn escape her. Another drawback of this form—she needed sleep. Daily. Anything less than that and Luna tended to become increasingly slower and clumsier, and she didn’t think the palace would last very long if that happened.

“I suppose a few hours sleep wouldn’t go amiss…” she reasoned to no-one in particular, closing the open book with her horn. After bidding a farewell in the vague direction of where she thought the librarian was, she tossed the apple core into her mouth and began crunching loudly as she sauntered towards the door.

About half-way there, she stopped, swallowed and turned around. She trotted back to her pile of books and picked up the Sea-lion picture book in her teeth. “I’m checking thish out,” she announced, figuring that she might as well walk away from today having read something at least mildly engaging.

Lightning crashed down around Luna, causing her to jump in fright. She found herself in some kind of rustic town, Ponyville perhaps? It was the dead of night, and one would expect most of the townsfolk to be in bed at this hour. Why was it, then, that there were dozens of them all running around in panic?

Luna’s head swirled a little as she tried to figure out what was going on. She could make out individual shouts and screams on the air, saying things like “Run away!” and “Somepony help!” Something told her that they weren’t just overreacting to this storm.

A quick glance around the area led her eyes to a young colt, who was pointing his quivering hoof up towards the sky. Following his gesture, she looked up and beheld an ominous mist hanging overhead. It was an unnatural, shadowy expanse, and Luna felt a shiver run down her spine at the mere sight of it.

She gasped as a dark figure emerged at the forefront of the fog, flicking its horn from side to side and sending magical lightning bolts crashing down behind the poor ponies who fled from it. The figure cackled maniacally, and Luna’s body froze up. No, no it can’t be!

As if sensing her terrified thoughts, the dark figure turned in midair and faced Luna, affixing her with an icy glare from those piercing, catlike eyes. Luna wanted to run, or to scream, but nothing would work. She was stuck, helpless!

With no warning other than a wicked grin, the Nightmare flicked its horn downwards violently. There was a blinding flash.

Luna smirked down as her lightning bolt struck its mark—just a few inches from where the petrified earth pony stood. To her great satisfaction, the target pony jumped high into the air with a scream before shooting off in the opposite direction. Luna let out another laugh.

Below her, ponies ran every which way, terrified of her power. It served them right! They had dared to forsake her beautiful night, to squander the hours of the starlit skies and the glowing moon that she worked so hard to give them. They slept through it. Many of them even feared it! Well, if fear was what they wanted, then fear was what they would receive!

Grinning madly, Luna cast bolt after bolt of lightning down to the ground. She would make them see how wrong they were to shun the night! A cackle built up inside her and she was forced to turn her head to the sky to release it. The night would last forever!


Luna sat bolt upright, pressing her fore-hooves up against her eyes to block out the images. No, no! I’m not Nightmare Moon again, I can’t be! She mentally repeated that over and over as she rocked there, sobbing. If she kept her eyes shut, it wouldn’t be real—she could still be Luna…the real Luna…and Nightmare wouldn’t be able hurt anyone.

Tears flowed in streams down her face, her efforts doing nothing to stop them. There came the faint sound of hoofsteps from beside her, but they only served to make her hunker down tighter.

“Luna?” came a familiar voice. Celestia… No, she didn’t want her sister to see her like this. And yet, she couldn’t help but trust a tiny hope that Celestia might be able to help her.

“…Who am I, sister?” Luna found herself asking. She wasn’t sure that she wanted to hear the answer. Scratch that—she was absolutely sure that she didn’t want to hear the answer. Celestia would tell her that she was Nightmare Moon, a cruel, wicked pony. But that would be the truth, and hearing it from Celestia would make it easier to accept…

As Luna braced herself for her sister’s words, she felt pressure on the bed next to her and something warm pressed up against her side. Following that, somepony draped a familiar, feathery blanket over her back and tucked it around her. Celestia’s gentle voice cooed into her ear.

“You are Luna—my sister, whom I love more dearly than anything in this world.”

In an instant, everything began to wash away. “Sister…” Luna repeated quietly, letting the word sink in. Yes…Yes, she was Celestia’s sister, Luna. She was who she wanted to be, and Nightmare Moon was nothing but a bad dream. It’s just a dream…

Luna withdrew her fore-hooves and wrapped them slowly around the warm something that was her big sister, keeping her eyes closed all the while. Celestia’s wing tightened around her, and Luna felt a familiar bubble of comfort settling around the two of them. A smile crept onto her lips as she nuzzled into her sister’s sweet-smelling coat.

“I love you too, Celly,” she muttered, though she wasn’t sure if Celestia heard. She would’ve tried again to make sure, but it just seemed like so much effort to even open her mouth again. So she kept it closed and simply smiled, cuddling with her big sister.

Sleep claimed her quickly.

“Nightmare Moon is gone. She’s gone, she can’t hurt anypony anymore,” Luna mumbled to herself as she trotted down Canterlot’s ‘Mane Street’. As many times as she told herself that, something in the back of her mind just kept on worrying. She was convinced that her troubles last night were more than just delirious ramblings, and the fact that Celestia didn’t even mention it when Luna awoke that morning made her all the more certain that she was right.

Okay, perhaps that was a tiny bit illogical, but who was counting?

Most of the ponies on this street were going about their daily routines, far too busy to notice Luna’s passing. That was, perhaps, one of the few benefits of this form—it was relatively inconspicuous. Still, she would sacrifice that little convenience in a heartbeat if it meant getting her magic back…right?

A newspaper stand caught her eye and Luna was suddenly overcome with curiosity. There didn’t seem to be anypony operating the stand, so she simply trotted over and leaned in to get a look at the headlines. ‘Princess Luna redeemed!’ it read. Directly below were two pictures—one of Nightmare Moon and one of Luna, in her current form, wearing a wreath around her neck. She frowned. No, both are of me…

Shaking the thought from her head, Luna turned her attention to the bulk of the article. It gave a brief summary of the events leading up to her banishment, ‘which many believed to be nothing more than an old pony’s tale’. The record was understandably quite sketchy—this had happened a thousand years ago, after all—but the important bits were all there.

The rest of the article detailed Nightmare’s…her return on the day of the Summer Sun Celebration and how the Elements of Harmony were used to ‘vanquish Nightmare Moon and return Princess Luna to her former self’.

Luna backed away from the stand and stared vaguely down at the pavement as she turned to continue down the street. She dearly wanted to believe that Nightmare was gone forever, but the undeniable truth was right in front of her. She was Nightmare Moon. Maybe not at that very moment, but she had been, and she had to believe that—as long as there was that kind of power within her—she could be again… That thought sent shivers down her spine.

Luna’s ears perked up at the sound of running water. Lifting her head, she beheld a large fountain in the middle of the street, adorned with a statue of her dear sister. It seemed as good a place as any to take a break from her walk, and she was feeling rather fatigued.

Settling down on her haunches, she peered over the fountain’s edge and stared down at her reflected self. The little Luna gazing back at her had droopy eyes and a solemn frown adorning her face. She dipped a hoof into the water, sending out ripples to distort the reflection.

She tried to picture what her mirror image would look like if she was able to regain her true form. She imagined a tall, strong mare with a flowing, cerulean mane, dark as night, and a midnight coat, darker still. This Luna was smiling.

This was Luna as she had been before, without the magical seal that was now holding her back. This was Luna as she wanted to be…

Suddenly, the image in her mind’s eye began to twist and turn atop the water, until Luna was staring down at a completely different version of herself. This Luna was also smiling, but her smile was nothing like real Luna’s. It was dark, sinister and cold. Above the smile was a pair of glowing, cyan eyes that seemed to burn with bitterness and spite. A thick mist began to rise up behind the Nightmare…

Shaking her head vigorously to remove the image, Luna found herself staring down at…herself, as she was now. She breathed a sigh of relief and rested her head on the fountain’s side. She’d given herself a lot to think about.

Luna poked her nose in through the bedroom door. “Celly? Can we talk?” she asked timidly.

“Of course, Luna,” came her sister’s immediate reply. Luna pushed the rest of the way into the room and allowed the door to slide shut behind her. Celestia was stood above her floor-couch, smiling at Luna and gesturing for her to take a seat. The two of them knelt down facing each other.

Luna stayed silent for a moment, collecting her thoughts. Celestia didn’t pry, she just waited, patient and calm as always, for her sister to begin. To be honest, Luna wasn’t quite sure why she was here…maybe she thought that Celestia could offer some advice, or maybe she just needed somepony to talk to. It didn’t matter, she was here now.

Luna looked her sister in the eye. “I know why my magic is sealed,” she stated firmly.

“Oh?” said Celestia, curiosity creeping onto her face as she cocked her head. “Do tell.”

Objections against continuing were already beginning to rise within Luna, but she promptly gulped them down. “It’s because…I’m scared,”

Celestia nodded slowly, her smile fading a little. “Of Nightmare Moon?”

“Of me,” Luna quickly clarified. “I’m scared of all the things I did, all the ponies I hurt and scared…”

“Luna, you know that wasn’t—”

“It was me!” Luna suddenly found herself on her hooves, standing barely an inch above Celestia’s eye level. Even in the face of Luna’s eruption, her sister remained completely calm. Luna coughed nervously and fixed her gaze on the floor. She shook it off and settled herself on the pillows again before continuing more quietly. “It was my fault, my choice. It wasn’t somepony else and I wasn’t forced to do it. I…I am Nightmare Moon, sister.”

“No, Luna.” Celestia shook her head. “You were Nightmare Moon. You aren’t anymore.”

Luna breathed a heavy sigh. “I know…but I could be again. And I don’t wanna be.” Heer, she forced herself to meet her sister’s eyes, making sure to hammer her point home. “I don’t want to hurt or scare anyone ever again.”

In the silence that followed, Luna’s gaze found its way to the floor again whilst Celestia closed her eyes, apparently deep in thought. After what seemed like minutes, Luna suddenly felt a nuzzle against her ear.

“Tell me, sister,” came Celestia’s gentle voice. “What do you want?”

Luna shook her head again. “It doesn’t matter,” she replied hopelessly. “I can’t risk becoming Nightmare again…”

“Luna.” Celestia’s tone was suddenly firm, though somehow still calm and soothing. She repeated Luna’s name until the Night Princess would look up and meet her eyes. “What do you want?” she repeated.

Luna sighed, but didn’t break eye contact for more than a second. What do I want? Well, that’s easy. “…I want to be myself again…”

“…I want to stand with you at dusk and help you paint the twilight. I want to light up the dark sky with stars and I want us to stay up all night, until the dawn, just like we always used to.” Luna found herself smiling. That was what she wanted most—for them to stand side-by-side and light up the world together. “But—” Her smile faded, just as Celestia’s did the moment she uttered that last word.

“No buts, Luna.” Celestia was staring at her very severely now, though there seemed to be something glistening in her eyes. Luna imagined that hers looked very similar. Celestia got to her hooves. “If that is what you want, then that is what we shall do.”

“No!” Luna yelled suddenly, kicking off from the ground and viciously beating her wings to keep herself aloft. Celestia wasn’t listening! Luna wanted them to be together—more than anything—but she couldn’t let it happen… She narrowed her eyes at Celestia meaningfully. “I won’t let myself become the Nightmare again!”

Silence fell over the room again, broken only by the rhythmic beating of Luna’s wings. Even that began to slow and eventually stop as Luna’s own words began to sink in. I won’t let myself… she repeated mentally.

“No,” Celestia said, her smile returning twofold whilst her proud eyes threatened to overflow with moisture. “You won’t.”

And Luna understood…albeit very vaguely. It was her fear of becoming Nightmare Moon that kept her magic sealed up inside of her. She was afraid that unleashing her power would give Nightmare a chance to come back. But, if she understood Celly correctly, it was that same fear that meant that she could take up her power again, because it would always be there to warn her against making the same mistake twice.

Luna stepped forwards, trying her best to blink the tears from her eyes as she pressed her head up against her sister’s warm, fluttering chest. Celestia gratefully returned the hug.

“I do want my magic back, sister,” Luna choked, smiling into Celestia’s coat. She felt her sister’s head rub against her in a nod, but neither of them was in any hurry to move.

When the long moment finally passed, the two of them drew back and met each other’s smiling eyes. Celestia gave a simple nod and turned to trot over to the balcony door. She held it open, allowing a chill, night wind into the room.

Luna felt the breeze wash over her, and a strange impulse suddenly began to stir. She trotted across the room and through the open door. Stepping out onto the moonlit balcony was like walking into a cloud of gentle, tickling electricity. The air itself was charged with energy, waiting for her to take it—to mold it.

Celestia closed the door and stepped up beside her. “Can you feel it?” she asked. Luna could. She could feel the Moon, reaching out to her. All she had to do was stretch up and touch it.

Slowly as she dared, Luna unfurled her wings and flapped them a few times for good measure. She threw Celestia one last smile before turning her attention skywards, gradually hovering higher and higher into the air. Stopping a fair distance above the balcony, she spread her arms wide and fixed her gaze upon the wondrous, full moon.

She hovered there for a few moments, just reveling in the touch of the magically-charged atmosphere, before smiling to herself and closing her eyes.

Warmth began to well up inside of her chest. She could feel the light of the moon embracing her, she could sense the new patterns the stars twinkled in—heralding the return of their Princess. All the power of Night poured into her and, when it touched that warmth in her chest, it culminated in a bright, white flash that Luna could see even through her eyelids.

In that instant, all of her senses became hazy and blurred together. She didn’t even know if her wings were still beating and, at the same time, she didn’t care. It was the most wonderful thing she could remember feeling—as if she’d been blind to an entire world of beauty, but now she could see.

And then the instant was over.

Luna’s eyes flashed open. She was hovering in the air outside their bedroom, though she was putting hardly any effort into keeping herself up there. Turning to left, the first thing she noticed was her mane—twinkling the deepest blue and flowing in perfect harmony with the night breeze. Huh, it worked…

She held a hoof in front of her face and, sure enough, found her coat to be as dark as midnight, just like she remembered. And, naturally, she didn’t forget the most important test. Luna’s horn lit up the instant she willed it to, and a second breeze manifested—reinforcing the first one and whipping Luna’s mane into her face. She smiled contently and released the spell a moment later.

It was magnificent—all this power at the tips of her hooves… And the best part? She didn’t even have the slightest inkling of an urge to use it to abolish daytime and banish her sister to the Sun. Quite the contrary, in fact—she planned to keep Celestia as close to her as possible. After all, that’s why she had wanted to come back in the first place.

As soon as Celestia had taken her place at the forefront of Luna’s mind, the newly restored Night Princess stopped checking herself out and relaxed her wings, allowing herself to float gently down and alight upon the balcony. Touching down, she drew a deep, soothing breath of the night air.

She turned on the spot and offered an honest smile to her sister. Celestia looked right back at her, mimicking her expression to the letter.

“Welcome home, Princess Luna,” she chuckled, tipping her head forwards. Luna took a step towards her and did the same, pressing her forehead against her sister’s and closing her eyes.

“It’s good to be home, sister.”

Curse, Bless Me Now

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The cute mare seated near the end of the bar had been watching me for a good ten minutes. I tried to keep a disinterested gaze directed down at the oaken counter and play it cool, but I couldn’t keep a smile locked away forever. Tossing back the last of my cider, I turned to look at her again, but found her already walking toward me. She slid into the seat next to me, winked, and said in a deep, scratchy baritone, “Hey, sleeping beauty. Do that on your own time.”

I blinked hard and raised an eyebrow at her. Leaning in a little closer, she brushed her forelock out of her eyes and opened her mouth to speak again.

A loud thud sounded directly in front of me. My eyes snapped open, overwhelmed with a sudden wash of sunlight, as I tilted back in my chair past the tipping point and crashed to the floor. Shaking my head to stir up the dust inside, I looked up at Stakeout and the file folder he’d flung onto my desk. “Nap time’s over, junior,” he growled through his one-sided smile.

“Yeah. Sorry.” I righted my chair and plopped back into it, the springs creaking their protest. “What’s this?” I flipped open the folder’s cover and leafed through the first few typewritten pages.

“Your new case. It’s time. We’ve gotta pick up the slack.” Everypony had been dancing around that particular topic lately. Golden Shield hadn’t been seen in over two months. Of course, his urgent cases had been taken up immediately by other detectives, but the lesser ones had languished until somepony up the chain of command decided that it was time to admit he wasn’t coming back. Which, apparently, was now. “You get the gem. Enjoy.” He relished that a little too much.

Taking the folder, I swiveled around to face out the window, where the spires of the royal palace towered above the city. Some were close enough that the early afternoon sun glanced off the stained-glass windows and left multihued spots strewn over the case reports. Check that—my case reports. I flipped right past the boilerplate forms. Everypony knows those are useless. Behind them were a few newspaper clippings. The first one—“Rare Colt Born in Canterlot”—finally jogged my memory.

The Curse. How could I forget? Oh, well. Gotta start somewhere. I pulled that column out from under its paperclip and unfolded it.

“Push, Blaze! You’re doing great.”

The mare lying in the bed gritted her teeth and took a sharp breath in through her nose. Shaking with effort, she bore down, finally ending with a gasp as more beads of sweat ran down her face.

“I can see a muzzle! C’mon, Blaze! Almost there.”

Star Blaze gave one last push, then collapsed into exhausted laughter as she heard an indignant cry. “What—what is it?” she asked, her legs trembling.

“It’s a unicorn, dear!” Star Streak answered, beaming at his wife. “A colt! Hi there, little Star Shine! Welcome to Equestria.”

Wrapping the foal in a blanket, a nurse carried him over to a scale and took note of his statistics. “Pulse good, lungs sound good.” She unwrapped one corner of the blanket. “Four little hooves,” she added, smiling. “Coat: white. Mane and tail: white.” Jerking her hoof away with a start, the nurse gingerly reached back over and pried an eye open. “He’s... he’s... albino!” she screeched, her pen falling to the floor with a clatter. She backed out the door, never taking her eyes off the colt, and galloped down the hallway.

“Honestly!” remarked the doctor, shaking his head. “To think that in this day and age...”

“Wh-what’s wrong?” asked Star Streak, a hoof raised to his mouth. “What does that mean?”

The doctor clicked his tongue as he shook his head. “Absolutely nothing. It’s an old mares’ tale. Albinos are quite rare, and some believe that they’re haunted by evil spirits. It’s utter nonsense. I’ve seen several in my time. Never a unicorn, but there was nothing wrong with any of them.” Smiling, he patted Star Blaze on the shoulder. “Congratulations on your son. Now, excuse me for a moment. I’m going to have a word with her supervisor.”

As he stalked out, the remaining nurse carried Star Shine over to meet his parents.

I stared out the window for a moment, wondering what that would be like. I’d always thought I’d like to have foals some day, but who has time for a relationship? Between recruit training, detective school, and working the past year as a member of the Canlerlot Police Department, I was barely likely to encounter my landlord’s scowling face, much less some pretty thing that might be willing to put up with me.

Back to the folder, then. The next thing in there was a stack of incident reports. More than a dozen. The first two were from over a year ago, but the rest were all filed within the past eight months, including three that had been stuffed in the folder after Golden Shield had gone missing. Remarkably consistent, all of them. A pony would be attacked by an unseen assailant and left unconscious, his skin shriveled as if dehydrated, and his coat flecked with gray. It didn’t sound like anything I’d ever encountered before. Sure, ponies’ memories can be unreliable, but having so many agree in that level of detail made it pass the sniff test in my book.

Seeing that two of the earliest victims had been the colt’s parents, and that the colt himself had been attacked on at least three occasions, I decided that these cookie-cutter reports just weren’t going to be good enough. The first was riddled with the usual spelling errors and uninspired monosyllables of the front desk staff, and the rest made liberal use of ditto marks. Clearly, I wasn’t going to get anywhere with these.

Tossing the papers back onto my desk, I leaned back in my seat and rubbed a hoof on my chin. The sun having advanced a bit more across the sky, the multicolored spots refracting through the palace windows had migrated over to my desk. I always wondered if the Princesses climbed those towers and looked down over the city. Do they watch us and make sure we’re doing a good job? I have to think they could solve most crimes pretty quickly if they had a mind to, but I guess they’ve got more important things to do. I smiled back up at the nearest spire in case Celestia was looking now. I’m trying my best. I really am.

With the sinking feeling that often comes from acting instead of just planning to act, I rose to my hooves, grabbed my hat and coat, and headed for the door. Oh! Forgot one thing—I stepped back to check the paperwork one last time and verify the Star family’s address. Rural area a short way out of the city. Perfect. I let my mind wander too much as it is. A walk in the country wasn’t going to help matters.

An hour later, I strolled up to a two-level house set back against the forest. A neatly-kept lawn and flowerbeds surrounded the front, and the neighbors’ homes stood a good distance away. On the opposite side of the road, a logging trail led out of the woods, where a few workers were hewing timbers for use on the newest railroad expansion. I stepped up onto the brick porch and knocked on the door while levitating my badge out of my coat pocket. Immediately, I could hear a small dog yapping and scratching at the door.

“Max! Hush!” rang out a voice on the other side. “Get back in the kitchen!” A light click-click of toenails on hardwood receded into the distance as a stallion opened the door. “Yes?”

“Mr. Star Streak? I’m Detective Gumshoe from the Canterlot Police Department,” I said, holding my badge up. “I’ve been assigned your case while Golden Shield is... away.”

“Oh!” he replied, a look of relief washing over his face as his shoulders relaxed. “I hadn’t heard anything in a while. I was afraid you’d given up. Please come in.” He led me to a couch in the sitting room and motioned toward it as he took the chair facing me. “Can I offer you something to drink, detective?”

“No, thanks.” I waved a hoof and smiled at his generosity, running my eyes over the dark-stained cherry furnishings, brass fixtures, and well-stocked bookcases. “I just wanted to go over your incident report again. The official version isn’t what I’d call useful. Can you describe what happened?”

He looked at the ceiling for a moment, then stared at the wall beside me. “I heard a sound like... whispering. Or rustling leaves. I was heading to bed, so I was groggy from napping on the sofa already. I just remember the hallway looking darker than it should. Next thing I know, I’m waking up with Blaze—that’s my wife, Star Blaze—looking down at me. She looked horrified.”

Streak hunched his shoulders up and shuddered. “I felt mostly okay, but a little weak. But when I saw myself in the mirror, I looked old. Very old. My skin was all wrinkly and shriveled, and I had gray streaks in my coat, mane, and tail.”

“Hm. You look fine now.” I floated out my pen and notepad from the inner pocket of my trenchcoat and scratched down a few details.

“Blaze took me to the doctor the next day. He didn’t know what to make of it.” Shrugging, he leaned forward and looked me in the eye. “By the next week, I was back to normal.”

“There were no signs of a break-in?” I waved a hoof toward the door and turned to see if there was any evidence of damage to the locks.

“Oh, no. It wasn’t in this house, anyway.”

“Oh?” That detail had escaped my eye in the report. Not a good start.

“No. We used to live in the city, but... things got a little testy after a while.” Giving a grim smile, he fidgeted with his hooves. “After several of the neighbors were attacked, they didn’t exactly want us around anymore. They started believing in the curse and got scared. You know about the curse, right?”

I nodded as I tipped my hat up a bit. “I don’t put much stock in that. Somepony’s taking advantage of it. And playing on a little colt’s fears will get him a quick introduction to the business end of my hoof before I haul him off to jail.”

One little snort of polite laughter later, he continued. “We moved out here to keep some distance from others. It’s worked so far, in a way. But Shine—he’s our son—has to live at school now. He’s in his first year at the School for Gifted Unicorns, and it’s too long a commute from here, so he’s boarding there. Whatever it is followed him. A couple of students were attacked.”

Jittering hooves held to his temples, he lowered his head and spoke through gritted teeth. “I was scared for him, but at the same time, thought he’d be safe. It’s never gotten anyone more than once so far, except for Shine—four times now—but just barely each time. Something’s toying with him, I think, but I can’t trust it’ll stay that way.”

He looked back up, pleading with his eyes. “Golden Shield assigned two officers to stand guard once the incidents at school began. It was our first evidence that somepony was following him. They never saw a thing, and yet three students were attacked. It’s been quiet since then, though. Maybe we scared whoever it was off. The guards were reassigned after Shield went away. What happened to him anyway?”

“I-I don’t...” Struggling to find an explanation I was willing to give him, I settled on an easy one. “I don’t know exactly. A leave of absence, I guess. When was the last time you heard from him?”

Rolling his eyes upward for a moment, he answered, “I remember it because it was the last time we took Shine back to school after a weekend break. He walked Shine to his room, checked in with the two guards in the hallway, and left.”

After jotting down a few choice pieces of information, I flipped over to a fresh sheet. “Do you mind if I speak to Shine? Is he here?”

Star Streak shook his head, then turned toward a faint growling sound in the hallway. “Max! Back in the kitchen!” he shouted, pointing a hoof. The little dog grudgingly obliged, taking the opportunity to get in one final grumble. “He’s been back at school for a couple of months now. Final exams are next week, then he’ll be home for the summer.”

“Since he’s a minor, I’ll need your permission to speak with him. I was planning on going by the school tomorrow. Is that okay?” I flipped my notepad shut and stowed it with my pen back in my pocket.

“Sure,” he replied. “Whatever will help.”

“And is Star Blaze around?”

“No. She’s gone shopping in town.”

I nodded, rubbing thoughtfully at my chin. That’s something they teach you in detective training. Always look like the wheels are turning. Always look like you know exactly what’s going on. “I think that’ll do it, then. Thank you for your time,” I said, standing up and tipping my hat. “I’ll keep you updated if we learn anything new.”

“Thank you, detective,” he responded, taking the business card I offered him before seeing me out.

The next morning, I headed into the office to do all the little unfortunate bits of busywork that any desk job entails, and administered my first dose of caffeine. Feeling a bit more chipper for it, I walked on over toward the School for Gifted Unicorns, which lay adjacent to the palace. I passed by Pony Joe’s on the way, feeling that next need for a stimulant tugging at me to make a detour, but I resisted. I had an appointment to keep.

I smiled up at the palace towers again until they disappeared from view behind the school’s administration building. “Detective Gumshoe, CPD,” I mumbled to the receptionist, flashing my credentials. “I’ve got an appointment with the headmaster.”

He flipped through the day planner on his desk until his hoof landed on the appropriate hour. “Yes, i have you right here. Mortarboard is in her office. Go right in,” he said, indicating the door behind him and to the left.

Knocking and poking my head in, I saw a petite unicorn mare seated at a large mahogany desk. She rose and nodded a greeting, walking over to shake hooves with me. “My, news travels quickly!” she said. “We only just found out, and I didn’t think the police had been notified yet.”

“Notified of what?” I asked, slipping into one of the richly upholstered guest chairs, some of my weight still borne on my shoulders as I sensed I might need to stand back up shortly.

“That another incident has happened. We just found the student an hour ago. He’s in the infirmary.” She peered over the frames of her glasses at me. “I assume you’ll want to speak with him, but perhaps we should wait until the nurse has said it’s okay.”

Nodding, I sank the rest of the way into my chair. “If we could, I’d like to discuss Star Shine.”

“Yes, a bit of an odd bird, that one. He has much potential, but he’s never managed to capitalize on it.” She steepled her hooves on the desk in front of her and looked down to collect her thoughts. “His talent level is exceptional, but not unprecedented. However, he chooses to coast as much as possible. He does extremely well on all of his exams, but quite poorly on homework and class projects. It all averages out to a passing grade, but speaks to a poor work ethic.”

“I’m sure the stress of these last several months must be affecting him. At least he’s keeping his head above water.”

Mortarboard frowned in thought and nodded. “Yes. You aren’t the first to suggest such an idea. I’m quite willing to see how he does in the next semester, but it may not improve if this... whatever it is... is still going on. Are you making any progress?”

By the book, I rubbed my chin, deep in thought, and nodded. “Yes. Is Star Shine available?”

“I’ll have one of the teaching assistants take you to his room.” She rose and went over to the door, casting her gaze around the lobby. “Copper Lamp! Could you come over here, please? I need you to take the detective here up to the first-year dormitory, and then on to the infirmary after that.” Leaning back inside the doorway, she added, “Is there anything else you need, Detective...?”

“Gumshoe. No, ma’am, that’ll do nicely.” I got up and followed Copper Lamp through a winding path of hallways, finally arriving at a third-floor room overlooking a large courtyard. Stepping inside, I saw a white colt with white mane and tail, leaning over an array of worksheets and textbooks. “Star Shine?” I asked, prompting him to turn a pair of pale pink eyes on me.

“Yes?” He swung around in his chair, and as he walked toward me, I noticed the lack of a cutie mark on his side.

“I’m Detective Gumshoe. I’ve taken over your case from Golden Shield.” Tension immediately melted away in his features as he ran up and hugged me, his ears down flat.

“I’m so glad you’re here. It’s been weeks since Shield was around, and he made me feel safe.” He looked up and into my eyes as the first few tears rolled down his cheeks. “I don’t know why it’s teasing. It wants me dead, but it’s playing games first, and now it’s started again.” His body shook now with the full force of his sobs. “At least it’s away from mommy and daddy now.”

I hugged him back and let him cry it out. Poor kid’s had a lot to deal with. Makes me think again about whether I’d make a good dad. “Shine, do you know the student that was attacked last night?”

He sniffled once and nodded. “My roommate. Everypony that gets close to me gets hurt. I wish it would stop!”

Kneeling down to meet him at eye level, I said, “It’s okay. I’m here to keep you safe. We’re gonna figure this out.” After a moment, he gave a weak nod, his eyes glued to the floor.

“What happened to Shield?” he asked in a small voice.

“He’s gone away for a while. But it’s okay. I’m here now. I’m gonna go talk to your roommate, but I’ll be back tonight to see if we can catch whoever is stalking you. Shield had the right idea of good old-fashioned surveillance. Okay?” Reaching down with a hoof, I lifted his chin up. He kept his eyes cast downward, but nodded again. “When did you last see him?”

“Last time I came back to school from break,” he answered sniffling as he brushed a hoof across his nose.

“Okay. I’m going to go talk to your roommate now. You let me handle this, and don’t worry about a thing.” He gave me another little nod.

“I’ll see you later, then. Copper Lamp?” Peeking around the door frame from where she was waiting in the hallway, she beckoned for me to follow her, leading me down two flights of stairs and to the far end of the building.

When I walked up to the young victim, the nurse was still dabbing a piece of gauze at a nasty gash on his side. His wrinkled skin and graying mane stood in stark contrast to his otherwise youthful appearance. “Are you Star Shine’s roommate?”

“Yes, sir,” he croaked, wincing with the effort of speaking. “Silk Ascot, sir.” Looking over the nurse’s shoulder, I could see the long cut running across his namesake cutie mark.

“It’s alright,” I reassured him, trying to give him as disarming a smile as possible. “It’ll come back in full color. They always do.” Directing my attention to the nurse, I pointed at the wound she was bandaging. “How’d he get that? None of the attacks have done that before.”

“He was carrying a letter opener when it happened,” she replied, shaking her head. “He fell on it.”

“Do you remember anything?” I asked Ascot, getting a solemn head shake in reply. I patted him on the shoulder and walked out without saying another word. I could have told him that it’d wear off soon, or that he’d be okay, but there’s nothing you can do for that raw fear except prove that it’s got no reason to be there. In this case, it did.

Copper Lamp led me back out to the main lobby outside Mortarboard’s office. From there, I returned to the station to pick up a couple of beat cops for that night’s watch. If that sick pony tried anything again, I was going to be there to stop it. I didn’t know how, but it didn’t matter. I’d find a way.

Two nights later, I was patrolling the dormitory’s halls for my third late night in a row. One of the uniformed officers stood outside Shine’s door, and the other watched the building’s entrance. And absolutely nothing had happened the entire time.

A drizzling rain had been falling for hours now, and as I nodded another greeting to the guard at the entrance, I poked my head out the door. The smell of damp grass greeted me. Not bad, but it’s not like that strangely pleasant, dusty odor when the rain first starts.

“Hold down the fort for me,” I said to the officer. “I’m going to go grab a few hours’ sleep.”

As I headed down the street in the direction of my apartment, I caught my head dipping a few times. I passed Pony Joe’s restaurant, all locked up for the night. Sure could use some of his coffee right now. Oh, well.

The clock atop the bank on the corner showed nearly two in the morning. That bar near my place would still be open a little longer. No harm in a quick drink before bed. I had to circle around part of a city block to get there, but found that familiar neon light blazing into the night. The only other soul in sight, a pony standing by the newsstand down the street, flicked a blade through the twine binding his package of wares, and tossed the newspapers onto his shelf to await the morning rush hour.

Funny how this place always lines up with a view of the palace. The sign’s bright green light gave way to the large, dark shape looming over it in the background, a few flecks of candlelight showing from windows here and there. I looked up at them, sending a stream of raindrops off the back of my hat. Are you watching, Luna? Am I doing a good job?

Walking past a smattering of patrons sitting by themselves, I slid into a stool at the counter. The bartender ambled over and gave me a friendly smile. “Another late night?”

“Yeah. Give me whatever cider is on tap tonight.” He nodded and drew me a frothy glass. Heh. Frosted Mug. His parents had some guts naming him that. There were more diplomatic ways of going about it, and it’d be years before he could even use one, anyway. Whatever. Suits him now.

I must have nursed that cider for an hour, punctuated by the occasional jangle of the bell on the door, and the short bursts of rainy white noise that floated through just after. Mug sat near the end of the counter, tapping his hoof to the soft jazz playing on the radio behind him and keeping to himself. Nopony wants to talk at this hour of the morning, anyway.

Tossing back the last swallow, I clinked a few coins and a generous tip onto the bar, then headed back out into the now-heavy weather. Maybe that wasn’t such a good idea. I was on my last legs to begin with, and cider doesn’t do a thing to wake you up. Starting to get cross-eyed, I stumbled down an alley toward the back way into my place. Nearly tripping on a loose cobblestone, I regained my hooves and shook my head. Then I noticed.

I didn’t hear the rain anymore. I didn’t hear anything. Well, not exactly. There was a faint sound, like wind-blown leaves. Leaning against a trash bin, I rubbed at the knee I’d scraped on the ground. As I bent down, something under the bin caught my eye. Some brown fabric. It looked familiar. I gave it a tug, but it was caught underneath, so I lit up my horn and tried to levitate the bin a bit. The sound got louder.

“Gumshoe?” The voice echoed in the darkness as I tried to attach some meaning to it.

“Gumshoe?” I felt something cool on my face and blinked my eyes halfway open, looking up into daylight and Pony Joe’s worried features. “Ah! There you are. Are you okay?”

I tried to sit up, but he pressed a hoof to my shoulder, keeping me down. “Whoa there! You probably shouldn’t move yet.”

“What...?” I began, but he was already answering.

“I just opened. Came back here to throw out my first load of garbage, and here you were.” His ears pricked up as his eyes brightened. “Hold on a sec. One of my customers is a paramedic. Don’t move.”

I groaned and rubbed my head, the narrow stripe of sky above me still spinning in a fog. Smells of fresh coffee and donuts teasing my nose, I was trying to sit up again when Joe returned. “Sir, please stay down,” the paramedic said. “You shouldn’t move until I’ve had a chance to look at you.” He looked at my eyes, checked my pulse, and scanned me over for any obvious signs of injury. “I don’t see anything alarming. I think it’s safe to bring him inside. Get a little coffee in him.” Glancing back down at me, he gave a scolding smile. “Have a bit too much to drink last night? Probably shouldn’t be doing that at your age.”

I shook my head. My age?

He and Joe helped me up and walked me through the back door to a seat at the counter, where Joe poured me a steaming cup of straight black coffee. “I haven’t known you to drink, Gumshoe, but you look like a wreck,” he said, shooting me a disapproving glance. It was then that I noticed I had been holding something in my left hoof the whole time. Looking down, I recognized it: a wadded-up detective’s trenchcoat, with a badly-frayed right lapel, just like Golden Shield always wore.

“I-I didn’t...” I caught sight of my reflection in a stainless-steel napkin dispenser. A few wrinkles showing. A few gray streaks scattered through my mane. I shoved myself back from the counter, sending the stool clattering to the floor. “It’s alright, Joe. I know what’s going on.”

I hurried out the door and galloped at top speed down the road, back toward the school. Only an emergency could tear me away from a cup of coffee at this hour. When I arrived at campus, there were already several uniformed officers milling about, and Stakeout was in an animated discussion with the one who’d been guarding the entrance.

“Celestia’s sake, Gumshoe, what happened to you?” he asked, stomping his way over to me. “You were due back here hours ago, and nopony’d answer at your place. Where’ve you been?” His tone of voice softened and his eyes shot wide open as he scanned me over. “No. No freakin’ way.”

“Never mind,” I yelled, shoving my way past him as I panted for breath. “Where’s Star Shine? Is he okay?”

“He’s in class,” Stakeout shouted after me. “You gonna file a report on this?”

“Yes! Later! And send some officers to the alleys around Pony Joe’s. I have a feeling they’ll find Golden Shield.”

I walked around behind the main office to where the auditorium stood, and went back to the rehearsal room. Through the window, I could already see Shine blaring away on his trumpet, holding out a long, extended note while the violins and flutes flitted through their ornamentations. The conductor motioned them to a stop as I stuck my head through the doorway, chest heaving. “Shine! Come with me!”

The conductor nodded, and Shine packed up his instrument, trotting into the hallway with me. When he saw my condition, he gasped and folded his ears back. “Y-you too?”

I nodded, waving off his concern. “I’ll be fine. But are you okay? Nothing happened last night?”

“No,” he replied, shaking his head. His eyes widened as he gaped at me.

“Good.” I let out a sigh and let myself sink against the wall. Forcing a cheery glint in my eye, I said, “I didn’t know they taught music here. What other classes do you take?”

Shine relaxed as a small smile crept across his face. “Orchestra, history... The rest are all magic classes. Final exams are next week, so I’ve been practicing my spells.”

“That’s great.” I patted him on the shoulder. “You don’t worry about anything except your classes. I’ll handle this business.”

He gave a meek nod as his gaze sank, lingering for a moment on the bundle I carried. “Is that...?”

“Yeah,” I said, following his line of sight. “I found it last night. I’ll take it in for evidence. Maybe we can learn something from it.” I looked back through the doorway, where the conductor had let the other students put their music and instruments away. “Looks like it’s almost time for the next class. Go on.” I nudged him down the hallway and watched him go as he cast one last wary glance at Golden Shield’s coat.

Sitting at my desk, I stared at the coat piled there in front of me. I’d looked over the exterior already without finding any clue as to how it had ended up in that alley. I spun around in my chair to face out the window, seeing those dancing lights atop the palace again. Halfway through cracking a smile, I saw Stakeout’s reflection as he walked up behind me. I turned toward him with an eyebrow raised, but his expression already answered whatever question I might have asked.

“We found the trash bin you described. Shield was about two blocks away, stuffed in a storm drain. Looked the same as the rest—gray, wrinkled... but worse.” His unfocused eyes stared at the wall as he shook his head.

My eyes shot wide open. Looking slowly up at him, I pricked my ears forward. “So, it’s murder, then?” He nodded slowly, gravely, his ears drooping. Tension ran like a shock up my back. Murder cases were extremely rare. They can make you or break you. Often both. “How could a pony...?”

Stakeout shrugged and ran a hoof over the stubble on his chin. “Congrats, junior. You’ve got the biggest case in the department now.” He actually wasn’t being sarcastic. He looked like he felt sorry for me.

With a sigh, I started going through the pockets of Shield’s coat. Badge in the left pocket, as usual, and nothing in the right. Inside pocket, empty as usu—

I pulled out a small notepad, identical to my own. Golden Shield never took notes. Why would he have started? The first page contained an appointment: Sunday, 1600. Only the second page contained anything else; the rest were blank. It read: Check exam dates! Then, down below: First one clinches it—heading back over.

I leaned back, resting my cheek against a hoof. I stood up quickly and rushed out the door, making sure to grab the case file—my case file—on the way. I had to get back to the school before the office closed.

I dashed into the school’s lobby while the receptionist was still locking up the file cabinets for the day. Out of breath, I wheezed, “I need to see Star Shine’s academic records! Now!” He looked to Mortarboard, who was just stepping out of her office. She nodded.

I took his quarterly grade sheets and spread them out on a table, adding the incident reports from my file below. Every date matched up. The first attack at school—three days before the first exams. The second attack—two days before the next test. The third test—nothing. Nothing? Why nothing? Moving on—midterms, third attack; exam, fourth. It kept going, right up until now. Me. Finals early next week.

What about the two before Shine started school? “Are these all the exams?” I asked the receptionist.

“Yes, all the graded ones.” His curious expression lit up suddenly. “Oh! There’s the entrance exam!”

First one clinches it, indeed. Good call, Shield. The true first exam also had a corresponding attack. And I have to assume the oldest attack was for practice. But why no corresponding attack for that third test?

History class. No magic.

“Is Silk Ascot still in the infirmary?” I shouted, grabbing the receptionist by the shoulder.

“Yes,” he replied, backing away. “He’ll be released tomorrow.”

“Where is Star Shine now?”

“At dinner, I assume. They should be dismissed in half an hour or so.” He began to tremble under my questioning.

I swept my incident reports back into their folder, and strode toward the dormitory. “I’m through with those papers. Thank you. And have a message sent to the police station. I want four officers here in exactly an hour. Send them up to Shine’s room.”

Becoming flustered, he tidied up the pile of records as he continued to shake. “But... my shift is over! I was heading home!”

Stopping in the doorway, I shot him a glare that told him obedience was not optional. “This is a murder case! Do you know how often one of these comes up?”

“M-murder?” He held a hoof to his chest and nodded emphatically. “Y-yes, sir!”

I dashed up to Shine’s room and took up a position where I could watch the door, wedging myself into a dark corner of the small lounge area at the end of the unlit hallway. Then I waited. And wondered. I’d suffered much milder effects than most of the victims. Why was that? What was I doing when it happened? Trying to levitate that trash bin. What difference did that make? It was too heavy to use as a weapon, and I’d barely gotten it off the ground anyway.

The sounds of voices and hoofsteps snapped my attention back to the stairwell. A few dozen students filed up, horns lighting the way, and meandered off to their rooms. At the end of the line, Star Shine went through his door, and then closed it behind him, the narrowing sliver of light from inside fading to nothing. After hearing the creak of his bedsprings, I waited in the faint evening light diffusing through the windows.

The pervasive silence felt like pressure on my ears. I jerked my head toward any little sound, but dared not otherwise move. Once I was satisfied that at least half an hour had passed, and that nopony else would be along, I stepped out from my hiding place and approached the door. A pale yellow glow engulfed the doorknob and turned it without a sound, then swung it inward.

Star Shine sat on the bed, his back to me. A single light bulb blazed from the ceiling, but somehow failed to penetrate the gloom, leaving the entire room bathed in thick shadows. Reaching up from the other side of the bed, a small tendril of the blackness touched him on the shoulder. “Just a little. I need to be able to study tomorrow.” He winced from the contact, and caught himself before falling over.

I stepped the rest of the way in and cleared my throat. His head whipping around to face me, Shine’s look of utter shock melted away as he averted his gaze downward and folded his ears back. “You found something, didn’t you?”

“Golden Shield’s notepad. I found the pattern of your test dates very interesting. I just don’t know how you do it.”

“So somepony knows my schedule. That’s all.”

“Including your entrance exam?” I took another step closer. “Maybe so. I’d thought of that. But Golden Shield came back later that night after you returned to school. You lied. He confronted you with what he knew, and you killed him for it.”

Star Shine was crying now, and his ears, initially perked at my intrusion, lay flat. “I didn’t want to. I really liked him. But this is all I have, and he was going to take it away from me. What would I be then?” I hadn’t noticed a change, but suddenly the room wasn’t draped in shadows as it had been when I’d first entered. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the black shape looming behind me, but too late. “I’m sorry. I liked you, too,” he squeaked.

A cold shock shot through my body as I hit the floor. My vision going fuzzy as it faded, I found myself unable to move, staring up and out the window.

It’s funny how your mind slows things down when they’re happening so fast.

In the distance, blurry pinpoints of light dotted the palace’s silhouette, drawing my eye to the highest pinnacle. Twinkling lights. Are you up there, Luna? I tried. I really did.

Overhead, the single bulb shone as it had before, its light keeping the shadows at bay. Bright light that the darkness wouldn’t approach. I remembered this feeling of being drained from some earlier time, but when? It seemed like ages ago. What had happened? I was trying to levitate something. I had lit my horn up to lift... Lit my horn up. Light. Something snapped a dam of thought in my head.

That’s why I hadn’t been affected as much as the other victims! I’d been casting a levitation spell at the time. I’d been creating light.

I mustered my last bits of concentration and flared the brightest light spell I could. The shadow released me immediately, scrabbling for the room’s recesses and gradually dissolving into the air as I kept my spell going for minute after minute. Panting heavily, I lay on the floor for a moment longer before passing out amid vague sounds of hoofbeats.

Two weeks later, I had mostly recovered and had been back at work for several days. Sitting at my desk, I signed the last form and filed it away. Celestia had already made her judgment, and that was that. Normally, a case wouldn’t be routed to her so quickly, but this was no normal case. I drummed a hoof on the desktop for a moment, then turned to look out the window, up at the palace’s towers. Did I do enough, Celestia? Do you approve?

I sighed and stood up. I owed the colt that much. Grabbing my hat and trenchcoat, I left the office and walked over to the palace. I made sure to grab a take-out cup of coffee at Pony Joe’s on the way. When I arrived, I tossed my empty cup in a wastebasket and trotted on to the sparsely-populated prison wing. Leaving my hat and coat with the guards, I stepped into the waiting area.

Princess Celestia stood there, gazing down the hallway.

Freezing in shock, I bowed deeply before she had the chance to turn around and notice me. “Your Highness.” I had never been this close to her before, save once—at my graduation—and even then, I’d never spoken to her.

“Gumshoe. Rise, please,” she said, inclining her head toward me. I stood and met her eyes. “I am pleased with what you accomplished on this case. You have made quite a name for yourself.”

I looked away and rubbed a hoof on the back of my neck. “Well... Golden Shield did all the detective work. I just followed his lead.”

“Do not discount your ability to understand the clues. But, more to the point, I was referring to your bravery. And your presence, here and now, attests to your compassion.” She gave me a warm smile that meant more than any medal could. “You know—sometimes, if I get a spare moment, I go up to one of the palace’s towers,” she said, waving a hoof toward the ceiling. “Only once every few months, maybe. I look down over the city, and am pleased to see it function so well. It reminds me that I have so many ponies of good character watching it for me, so that I do not need to do so myself.”

My mouth hung open as I sought in vain for a proper response, but Celestia just motioned me toward the guard that had arrived to escort me to Star Shine’s cell. He led me down the hall and into a large room with powerful lights shining from every angle, preventing any shadows. Flipping on a similar set of lights within the room’s smaller inner chamber, he unlocked the door and let me in.

I knelt down near where Star Shine lay huddled in the corner, ears straight back. “Hi there, Shine. How are you doing?” He shrugged and creased his brow a little further. I sank the rest of the way to the floor and waited in silence.

Finally, he said in a tiny voice, “I’m nothing now.”

“No, you’re not,” I said, putting a hoof on his shoulder.

“My parents both went to school there. I couldn’t let them down, but... I’m no good at magic. I needed help. Then I found it.”

“It made your magic more powerful?” He nodded. “And you think you needed that to define yourself?” He shrugged.

I raised his chin so he’d look me in the eye. “I’m like most unicorns. I can only cast a couple of spells well. Do you think less of me for it?” Unable to turn away, Shine rolled his eyes downward and shook his head as much as he could. “If that was really your talent, don’t you think you would have gotten a cutie mark for it by now?” I let his chin go so he could look at his blank flank.

“I-I never thought of that.” He looked back up, letting his shoulders relax and perking his ears up halfway.

I tousled his mane as I stood up to leave, casting a smile back at him. I was glad to see him in a little better cheer, but didn’t like the hint of a smirk I thought I saw tugging at the corners of his mouth.

Passing back through the waiting area, I bowed again. “Do not worry,” Celestia said, her mane somehow billowing in the windless room. “We will get him the help he needs. I will see to it personally. When we have that thing starved off of him, the real work begins: healing the mind, and somehow dealing with what he has done.” She smiled at me, her eyes twinkling. “I hope you will visit occasionally.”

“Yes, your Highness,” I said with a quick nod, then claimed my hat and coat on my way out.

Stepping into the sunlight outside the palace, I looked up and over my shoulder at the spires almost directly overhead. You don’t need to watch, Celestia. I do my best. I really do.

Long Live the Queen

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I don’t know why this happened to me. I'm really just a grown-up history student who happens to enjoy field trips. I’m the least qualified and least experienced of my entire team, and half the time when we go out on these oh-so-exciting expeditions, I’m relegated to the role of packmule, if you’ll forgive my language. While the team was making history writing about the war with the Dust Devils, I was busy carrying things too heavy for Dr. Gale and maybe making coffee. Even Empress Dawn and Princess Reverie commended me “for my good work” with the group, seemingly unaware that they were congratulating me for being a glorified intern.

I’m the low pony on the pole. Compared to my colleagues I’m a complete nopony. Yet I’m the one she chose...

Let me explain. It was a cold January afternoon, and I was lugging heavy packs not down a dusty ancient road or through wild underbrush, but across a nice hardwood floor. Although I didn't say a word the entire time, the young librarian at the front desk was conspicuously keeping her bespectacled eyes on me. I have since decided to believe that she was checking me out instead of wondering if I belonged there. I’m not bad looking; a unicorn like her, not yet middle aged, hardened and weathered from years doing work in environments that most ponies with my level of education do their best to avoid at all costs.

A senior curator met me as I made my way down to the end of the new wing. The results of my last few visits here were in plain sight: A gaping hole in the ground next to a pile of pried-out floorboards in a neat stack. "Thanks for accommodating me," I offered as I looped a length of rope around my waist and prepared to lower myself into the shaft. "This is the end of a very exciting journey for my team and I." I grinned at that, trying to show her my enthusiasm.

She answered me with a wordless nod. She did not roll her eyes at me this time, and in turn I did not flash her the exaggerated what-you-gonna-do-about-it grin that I had last time.

I was so eager to leave the stiff old mule behind that it was actually a relief to start my descent through the narrow, downward-sloping tunnel that we’d discovered a few weeks prior. Normally I hated spending time in this little space, barely wide enough to walk through without bumping the electric lamps bracketed to the walls every twenty feet. The generator had been given its own little excavated-away space near the Treasure Chamber, as we’d come to affectionately call it, and it made a terrific noise, but the Mayor had forbidden us from putting it nearer the entrance, where that noise would’ve echoed throughout the library instead of just the dig site.

We’d already cleared out the Treasure Chamber. Everything about the place had been photographed and analyzed, and all but a few artifacts had been taken either to the lab, or to the Empress’ vaults, or in one particular case to Princess Nocturne’s private collection, after we’d finished photographing and testing it, of course. With the tapestries, books, and fossilized plants removed, it now resembled nothing more than a featureless grey stone box, except for the relief of an alicorn that covered most of the far wall. My job today was to take a final round of measurements and photographs, and then pack everything in- generator, lights, and all.

Not glamorous work, but I was glad for the chance to say goodbye to the monarch adorning the eastern wall. The entire time we’d worked down here, she’d smiled down at us with that eroded, pupil-less stare. Her body was raised in a rearing position, her wings were raised in a U-shaped arc, and her hooves were positioned in front of her body, holding a smooth round ball with a design on it that had been long since destroyed by time.

I stared at her for a long time, hearing only the thrum of the generator and the buzz of the lamps, knowing that this would be the last time. I did not know her name yet, but I felt like she was watching me. Not just because of her appearance, either—I was sure, somehow, that her sightless eyes were locked on me alone. I never expressed this to the rest of the team; maybe I should have, but I doubt they would have listened.

So it is a good thing none of them were around to stop me from approaching her, reaching out, and touching the orb that she held in her hooves, as if I could somehow attract the stone queen's attention and ask her who she was and why somepony had hidden her beneath this library.

One touch. That was all it took. The alicorn in the wall felt my touch, and surged forward to engulf me. Magic flowed forth from her wings, her horn, and her stony eyes like streamers of silver-violet stardust. I should have shouted out in surprise, but instead I only stared in openmouthed awe. Where the sheets of magic brushed my body, they sent shocks of what felt like refined reality through me. Each wisp of light whispered to me of another time, another place, another Equestria where ponies played, loved, and hurt just as they did here and today.

As the magic of an ancient goddess engulfed me, I left my body where it stood with hoof against wall and began to see what she wanted me to see.

Solemn silence fell over the audience as the sudden appearance of a brilliant pillar of magic announced the arrival of the ruler of ponykind. When the obscuring light faded, she who raised and lowered the sun stood on on the grass with wings outstretched and head raised in traditional posture. She was every inch the majestic alicorn, beautiful and powerful, benevolent and regal.

The dress she wore had been designed by a true virtuoso—warm pink and gold ribbons danced across its draped folds through a wash of star-studded blue. The enchanted fabric glinted in the dusky light.

Day's end. Sunset. For this ceremony, it was especially appropriate.

The assembled Element-Bearers bowed their heads respectfully before taking their assigned places, yielding center stage to the Queen. They stood shoulder to shoulder, like guards forming a mismatched, colorful rank of five.

Their Queen stood with her back to them, facing the crowd. She did not speak at first, but instead raised her muzzle to the heavens, her horn flaring to life like a beacon to guide Equestria through the coming night. Her mane, billowing wide in a breeze that only it observed, glowed with the colors of the evening sky all around. She had planned it just so: The assembly was facing due west and the clouds had been arranged to her exact specifications, to ensure that was this the most glorious sunset Equestria had ever seen, followed by the perfect, somber, comforting twilight.

It wasn’t the ending of an age-- not exactly. This was a simple ceremony for an ordinary unicorn, or at least that was what she had requested in her will. Everypony here knew otherwise, of course. The deceased had never been an ordinary unicorn.

The Queen closed her eyes as she moved the very heavens with her magic, just as she had been taught. She had performed the same spell untold thousands of times now, but now she thought she could feel her teacher's presence by her side, chiding her, keeping her safe, just like her first time lowering the sun.

“Good,” a determined voice said from somewhere behind. “Pool the power. Let it build, like air filling a balloon. Feel the ecstacy, the majesty of your magic!”

Her horn flared like a dying star as she poured her being into the most powerful attempt yet. Her eyes were shut tight and her mouth was open in a silent scream, as if she were in pain—yet the glow of magic burned brighter and brighter with every moment, until—

“Enough!” Celestia commanded. “Cancel it!”

Twilight’s horn suddenly winked out, and she collapsed to the floor. “I’m sorry, Princess,” she sighed, resting her cheek on the stone tiles lining the observatory.

“If you’d lost control of the charge, the consequences would have been disastrous. You need to tell me when you’re nearing your limit!”

“It was stronger than last time!” Twilight pleaded, looking up at Celestia with a mix of frustration and disappointment. “That could have been it!”

“Twilight Sparkle,” Celestia said patiently, helping Twilight to her feet with a gentle nudge, “This spell is unlike anything you have ever attempted. Have faith in yourself. You can do this, even if you can’t do it on your first try.”

“I was so close, but I just didn’t have the power! I put in everything and it wasn’t enough!” Twilight turned her head away from her mentor, eyes shut again, teeth gritted. “If you’re going to tell me I have to stop for today, then I’ll go to the library and find some way to amplify my power. There has to be a way, and I will find it.”

There was a beat of silence before Celestia spoke. “You are the finest example of unicorn magic the world has seen in generations,” she said, resting a wing gently on Twilight’s back. “The techniques you will find in the library were meant to elevate ordinary ponies to your level. They can offer you nothing.”
Another pause, as Twilight let out a long, shuddering sigh.

“What’s happening with my training?” She asked, staring up directly into her ruler and instructor’s eyes with a pleading expression. “This isn’t the same kind of training at all! Instead of flowers and enchantment you’re teaching me force fields and trying to get me to move things a hundred times my weight, and now this... whatever this spell is. Princess, please, what’s going on?”

Twilight grimaced bitterly at the results of her words. Celestia had grown distant, standing regally upright and staring through the observatory roof to where she had set the sun burning in the sky. “The day will come soon when you need these skills, Twilight Sparkle,” she replied. “A delicate caress is precious not because of its light touch, but because of the restrained power behind it. So it is with magic. You have learned to manipulate gently. Now you must learn strength.”

Heat. Unbearable, pressing, scorching heat filled the air, and orange glare covered everything from walls to trees, making it look like the sky had caught fire. The streets were empty and Equestria had been gripped by a deathly silence; even the birds themselves were oppressed by the heat.

The sun was falling. Already twice its normal size, it was only a matter of time before the damage became irreversible. There was perhaps one hour before dry grasses would start to ignite. And fatalities... fatalities might have already begun.

Twilight stepped onto the palace’s balcony, alone.

Her pupil-less eyes stared down the oversized, furious sun, glowing with fury to match.

Her horn blazed. An orb of light formed at its tip, then quickly grew until it was the size of a beach ball, then the size of a pony, then the size of a house. Its surface did not shimmer, but was as smooth and featureless as that of a glass marble. It glowed the most blinding white imaginable, yet released no heat and refused even to illuminate the sharp shadows nearby-- all of its power stayed strictly within its bounds. It grew to the size of a barn.

And then it ruptured, exploding into a spiderweb of threads that expanded for the tiniest fraction of a half-second before their mistress forced them to fly upwards, towards their target. Each one anchored one of its ends to Twilight’s horn and then plunged into the sky, where it wrapped around the sun, netting it with energy.

The heat subsided, gradually. One by one, doors opened and ponies looked outside to see that their lives—their world—had been saved. But when they looked to the Princess’ balcony to thank their savior, they would not see her, only her student. Princess Celestia lay in her bed, unconscious and exhausted, lovingly tucked in under a thin sheet of satin.

The day after the ceremony, the Queen had arranged for a meeting with Lulu. A simple affair, just as the former regent would have wanted. Coffee and biscuits in a posh Canterlot cafe.

“Is it strange being without her?” She asked Lulu. “It had been such a long time, after all, and now... you’re without her, for the first time.”

Lulu smiled, as she always tended to do when presented with a difficult question. The wrinkles on her face were deep, but the mare beneath them was as lively and as graceful as ever. “It is strange,” she replied, “But I understand your question, and I feel no grief. She always told me that she was only sorry that she would never see me without her.”

“That sounds terrible!” The Queen furrowed her brow. “You mean she wanted to know what it would be like for you? Why?”

“Our destinies were always intertwined. For me, the journey began when I was hardly older than you were when we first met on that Summer Sun Celebration, so long ago.”

“Not long ago for you, I’m sure.”

“Allow me the vernacular,” Lulu chided. “It was a long time ago, not for you and I, but for an aging pony.” She smiled again, and her fading powder-blue mane was tossed by a sudden breeze.

As Lulu’s mane blew out in the air, the Queen imagined it billowing regally again, not hair but a portal to a strange sky studded with stars. Then it was over, and Lulu had a simple blue mane again.

“Your Majesty, you must understand. I am happy that my Sister has passed.”

“What?” The Queen failed to contain her shock.

“Was the ceremony not beautiful? Did remembering her, writing the final words in the book of her life, not please you, your Majesty?” Lulu’s wings fluttered involuntarily as she stared off into the sky, as if she could see her sister there, smiling back.

“No!” The lavender ruler’s face fell. “I was heartbroken, Lun... I was heartbroken, Lulu!”

“I am not. And she would scold you, if she could see you now.” The navy blue pegasus sitting across from the Queen stood, still smiling, and pushed her chair in. She still had the same Cutie Mark, though it had lost some of its meaning now.

“You mean,” said the Queen darkly, “that Prin...”

“Tia,” Lulu interrupted. “I mean that Tia has gone to a reward that she has waited for for many centuries. I only hope that I may join her when my own time comes, but if we are to be separated for eternity, I can rest knowing that neither of us has regrets. No regrets for our eons of life, and no regrets for the precious few more years we took in the process of taking our leave.”

The Queen said nothing. Lulu circled the table to nuzzle her ruler and old friend. “You consider yourself fortunate that you were able to take this journey with your five friends. I know this. And perhaps you are right. As well as allies, they will be a link to your past. But...”

Lulu crossed behind her Queen’s back to address her again from her left side. “When have you heard Tia or I talk about when we were young?“

Still no response. Lulu gave the Queen a kiss on the cheek before turning to leave. “That world is dust, your Majesty. Someday soon, I will be, too. Try to be happy for me.”

“The deed is done and cannot be undone. Twilight Sparkle, are you prepared to embrace your destiny?” Celestia recited solemnly, her steps echoing throughout the cave. The partial, magical light threw shadows across the faces of the eight assembled ponies

“I am,” Twilight replied.

“Rarity. Rainbow Dash. Fluttershy. Applejack. Pinkie Pie. Are you prepared to accompany your friend on her journey?”

“I am,” they said in unison.

“Twilight Sparkle, child of Canterlot, student of Princess Celestia, bearer of the Element of Magic and curator of the Ponyville Library, step forward.”

Twilight did so. A heart-shaped sigil had been drawn on the ground in the center of the chamber, and Twilight stood on its center while her friends formed an even circle around her. Celestia and Luna stood within the circle, addressing Twilight from both sides.

“Twilight Sparkle, tonight marks your last night as a mortal pony. When this ceremony is completed, your privilege and duty will be to serve and protect the whole of Equestria and ponykind,” Luna said.

“Ponies have been ruled by friendship, protected by love, since the beginning of the world. Now this responsibility falls to you. The title you bear will be a heavy one-- heavier even than ours, but a true Queen will be equal to the task.” Celestia spoke in a deep tone, occasionally glancing to the five other Elements of Harmony who stood at the perimeter.

Celestia and Luna simultaneously circled in front of Twilight, staring her down. She did not wither, but stood taller. Her heart raced, but wasn’t that to be expected? No need to be afraid... she had been trained for this, and in some ways, she had been born for this. She shifted her hindquarters imperceptibly, and with them her Cutie Mark, unseen in the poor light.

The heart at her feet flared pink and flickered as if with firelight. The chamber and the assembled ponies were bathed in magical light.

“Twilight Sparkle,” Luna said, “You stand on the very spot where the Heartfire, the Fire of Friendship that is born into every new foal, was kindled. It has chosen you as its bearer, just as it chose us, long ago.”

“With your heart, stand firm against darkness, unrelenting, unyielding.” As Celestia said these words, Twilight thought she felt a warming sensation in her chest, powerful and somehow familiar, as if she’d felt it before, though she knew she never had.

“With your horn, cast light into the dark corners of the world, to make them safe for your little ones, large and small, now and forever.”

“With your wings—” Twilight gasped as she felt a powerful vibrating sensation behind her shoulders— “soar over the land like a banner of hope, and beat back the oncoming storm.”

“With this crown, embrace your new existence, and become the rightful Queen.”

The fire of friendship encircling Twilight’s feet flared brighter. In the brightening light she saw her friends shuffling about in confusion and excitement-- Rainbow Dash crossing her eyes to get a look at her horn, Rarity fluttering her wings, Pinkie Pie looking rather excited about the whole matter.

Those sights were soon forgotten, though, as Twilight saw Celestia and Luna’s retreating faces. There was a happiness in their eyes that Twilight had never seen before. Their smiles were unreadable, and as they turned to leave, Twilight saw something that turned her stomach and would haunt her for many more years.

Celestia’s wings were beginning to shrink into her back, shedding feathers in a trail of brilliant white. As they fell, they disappeared where they touched the ground, leaving no evidence that they had ever been there. Before she disappeared around the corner, Luna turned her head and smiled at Twilight. Her head lacked a horn.

Horrified, Twilight started to follow, but was stopped by a hug from Fluttershy. “Twilight!” her pegasus—no, her alicorn friend squealed. “We’re so proud of you!”

“Thanks, girls,” Twilight laughed, spreading her wings to wrap around her friends as they piled onto her, one by one. Her smile went from forced to genuine as she felt Applejack’s muscular form slide up alongside her. “Thanks for everything.” She felt a wetness against her shoulder. Rainbow Dash was crying. Soon, so was she.

My name is Twilight Sparkle. You will know me as Queen Twilight-- if you know me at all. I created this cache so that the world might know my master and friend Princess Celestia and her sister Princess Luna. It is my hope that someday a brave explorer or wise scholar will find this place, and remember. I’ve collected a few personal belongings from each of the other five Elements of Harmony and preserved them here along with notes written in a language that I think will be easily translated even in two, three, four thousand years. For all I know, the Equestrian language might be nothing at all like it was in my time! Fortunately, the memory encoding in this capsule should make it so that anypony who accesses it should be able to understand my age’s syntactical patterns so long as...

I digress. Explorer, what you’ve just seen is the story of another Queen from another age. My friends and I shared many adventures, many happy and sad times, both before my anointment and after, but perhaps it is best if those things die with us.

Whether you tell your fellows what you have found here is up to you. Whether these events end up recorded in some prestigious journal or simply carried in a single pony’s heart until the end of his days, it is the same. Stories die. Ponies pass on. Books turn to dust. But beauty, and the hearts that we touch, carry on for eternity.

I was standing in an empty stone room buried deep under the earth, with my hoof against the wall. The grinding, blaring sound of the generator was making it hard to think.

I slowly lowered my hoof from the stone-relief portrait and stood on all fours again.

Trembling, tears running down my cheeks, I knelt in reverence before the last remaining evidence that there had even been a Queen Twilight Sparkle.


View Online

Rainbow Dash soared through the air, her multi-colored mane billowing freely in the wind. She loved the spring evenings in Ponyville. The air was cool enough to make flying a pleasant affair, and clouds were aplenty: left over from Winter Wrap-Up.

With one final spin through the clouds, she flopped upside-down on a nice fluffy cloud, thoroughly spent. From a corner of one eye, she watched as Tank flew towards her, and perched on her belly, giving her a nice tickle. That turtle must have followed her from home.

“Heh heh, Tank. Good to see you too. You’re... kind of cute, you know that?” For a moment there, Tank seemed to grin at her. His head disappeared into his shell and reappeared with a pink bow, which he placed on her chest.

“Oh no. You’re not putting that on me, Tank,” Rainbow admonished, quickly pushing the bow away. “That suits my sister better anyway...” she added softly.

Well, that soured her brief moment of rest. Memories of her past began to filter in, unwanted.

“Rainbow! Wait up!” her sister shouted.

“Aw, c’mon sis. It’s only a short gallop to Market Square!” Rainbow replied, cresting the top of the hill with gusto.

“You know I can’t run as fast as you! Wait up!”

“Fine...” Rainbow slowed her steps to a canter, her tiny wings folding and unfolding impatiently. The pale blue bob of her mane soon appeared over the cloud hill, her sea-green body following swiftly. The bigger pegasus came to a stop beside Rainbow, panting softly. Rainbow tugged at her hooves impatiently. “C’mon Sunny! We’re going to miss the show!”

Sunny Day smiled faintly at her little sister. “Alright, alright. Dad was right. You have energy for two ponies and then some.”

Rainbow was already zooming off, her tiny legs already pumping hard. “C’mon!”

The two soon reached the large square that marked one of the few flat spaces on Cloudsdale. A colorful crowd had already gathered, cheering and whooping. Rainbow tried to push her way past the legs of the adult ponies, only to be flung back time and again. She begin to feel tears welling in her eyes when she felt a pair of forehooves picking her up.


“Jeez, Rainbow, you need to slow down. Heer, let me help.” Sunny lifted her tiny frame and placed her on her head. With her elder sister as a makeshift vantage point, she finally found she had longed to see for a long time.

The Wonderbolts, here in person.

They were not performing today though. The lead Wonderbolt was appeared to be taking questions from the crowd, and occasionally scrawling his signature on the scraps of papers being shoved to his face. The other two Wonderbolts were doing the same, though they were following the lead of their leader.

Rainbow stared at them dreamily. “I wish I was as cool as them...”

Sunny gave a chuckle. “Oh, Rainbow. There are more things in life than being popular,you know?”

“Yeah, but look at them...” Already she was imagining herself in a Wonderbolt suit, standing in the spotlight and with hordes of adoring fan swooning.

The Wonderbolt finally raised her hooves and addressed the crowd. “Okay, that is all for today. Tomorrow will be our last day of Meet the Wonderbolts, so don’t miss the chance!” A wave of groans and muffled grumbling met the Wonderbolt’s annoucement. The Wonderbolt trio waved at the crowd, before taking to the skies, a trail of lightning and smoke in their wake.

“Can we come again tomorrow? Please?” Rainbow asked, putting own her best puppy eyes.

“Only if you do your homework first, Dash. C’mon, let’s go. Mom’s already waiting. We’re having roasted salad for dinner tonight.”


Rainbow shook her head. Mom’s roast salad was one of a kind, now that she thought about it. Even Ponyville’s best restaurant couldn’t match it. Or maybe that was her nostalgia talking.

She sighed and petted her pet turtle, her mind turning towards her flight school years. Specifically after she gotten her cutie mark.

“Congratulations, daughter! I see you finally earned your cutie mark,” her father said. His stern features was softened by a rare smile.

“Yes, dad! Isn’t it awesome?” Rainbow Dash spun around once for her parents’ benefit, her new cutie mark in full view. Clouds striking a rainbow-colored lightning.

“Now that you know your purpose in life, I assume you’re going to follow in the family business?” her dad continued, his tone losing all its levity.

Rainbow scrunched up her face. “Dad! I got my cutie mark while flying, not by doing boring stuff like weather en—”

Her father held up a dark gray hoof up. “Quiet now, Rainbow. Your cutie mark clearly indicates that you are gifted for weather manipulation. That Sonic Rainboom of yours would have many interesting applications. It could revolutionize—”

Rainbow stomped her hoof on the ground. “Jeez Dad, how many times do I have to tell you, I don’t want to be an engineer. I want to fly.”

“... Rainbow, cease your foolish notion of wanting to fly. A respectable job what you need and--”

“I’m going to join the Wonderbolts one day!”

Awkward silence reigned in the room. Rainbow could see her father working his jaw wordlessly. Her mother seemed to have shrank behind him. Even she was fearful of her husband’s wrath at times.

Finally, her father spoke, an emotionless monotone. “No. I forbid it. Your place is here with the family.”

“What? You’re joking, right?”

“I am not. You will go to college and you will get yourself a degree in Weather Engineering.”

“Listen to him, Rainbow. He knows best,” her mother said softly.

Between her mother’s pleas and his father veiled threat, Rainbow capitulated. “... ugh. Fine. Whatever.”

Rainbow Dash blew a strand of her mane which drooped over one eye. Dad could be a real pain in the rear now that she thought about it. He always been one humorless pony. She laughed bitterly. If only he could see me now. He would burst a vessel just by imagining his daughter doing field work.

She glanced over at Tank, who had drifted to a nice easy slumber on the cloud edge, his magical contraption silent for the moment. She reached over to rub his shell gently. “I could have been a weather engineer you know. Working at the Rainbow Factory or maybe Equestrian Weather Control.”

Fortunately for her, Junior Speedster flight camp intervened. Or rather her former best friend Gilda did.

Rainbow Dash wiped her sweat off her brow, her mane pasted stickily to her forehead. Flying was hard work. Flying fast and hard was doubly so. But she loved every moment of it. Promising her dad that she would do two months of work in exchange for this was the best decision in her life.

“Hey, dweeb. You seriously considering to be an egghead?” a raspy voice said behind her. Rainbow’s ears perked up, and she turned to spy Gilda leaning on a locker nearby, playing with her talons.

“Egghead?” Rainbow said, tilting her head.

“You know, whatchacallit.... weather enginnuh... something... You know what I mean.”

“Oh, weather engineer. Yeah. I’m pretty good at weather control, so I guess it’s only natural.” The doubt in her voice was plain even to the self-absorbed Gilda.

“Hah! Listen to yourself. Would you rather be sitting in a room doing egghead stuff, or would rather join me in becoming cool?”

“C’mon, Gilda, it’s my father. There’s no way I can run from this.”

“So ditch him. Simple really.”

“Ditch him? You’re kidding, right?”

Gilda shook her head. “Dash, how do manage to be so cool and uncool at the same time? Just ditch the loser. He has no right telling you what to do. Cool ponies don’t need niggly dads telling them to be eggheads.”

Rainbow was on the verge of angrily defending her father when a small voice in the back of her head stopped her. Underneath all that griffon bravado, Gilda’s words rang truer than she would have liked to admit. High school had been one hard dreary slog. She found herself struggling just to keep up. The fact that her sister somehow managed to sail past was a pretty ardent reminder of how out of her depth she was. Sunny had always been the smart one.

“So... what are you suggesting?” Rainbow asked cautiously, her ears folding.

“Haw. That’s easy. Do it the griffon way. Barge into the house and tell him to back off. Well ‘least that’s how we do it back home. You lame-o ponies don’t usually have the guts to do the right thing.” Gilda eyed her. “Do you have what it takes, Rainbow?”

Rainbow chewed on her lower lips. Dare she defy the one figure in her life that had always controlled her? Dare she go against all she had been taught? She bowed her head.

“I... uh... sorry, Gilda. I... I can’t do it.”

Gilda snorted. “I knew you ponies were too soft.” Then her beak crooked into an unexpected smile. She ribbed the pegasus good-naturedly. “But eh, Rainbow, you’re still one of the coolest ponies I met. Just not... griffon material, you know.”


Still, Rainbow wondered whether she had made the right decision.

“I could have ran off with Gilda then,” Rainbow said softly, stroking Tank’s shell. “Huh. I wonder why I didn’t. At least I could have avoided all the drama.”

Tank didn’t answer. He couldn’t, of course. But that didn’t stop Rainbow from staring at the turtle expectantly.

Finally, she got tired of waiting for a non-existent answer and flopped back on the cloud again, her mind drifting to the day of her fateful breakup.

“Rainbow Miriam Dash. Come right here this instant!” her father’s gravelly voice shook the cloud house. It was loud enough that Rainbow jumped off her bed, dropping her Wonderbolt Today! magazine. She groaned and trudged to the door, peeking outside.

“What is it, Dad? I’m a little busy!” Rainbow shouted back.

“You heard me the first time. Come down!” her father boomed again.

Rainbow grunted and quickly flung her magazine back on her bed. She grudgingly trudged down the stairs and made her way to his study, where he was sure to be waiting.

“Yes, Father?” she greeted curtly, as she entered the room. Reflecting her dour father’s personality, the room was sparsely decorated. Instead, it was filled to the brim with bookshelves of various kind, mostly on the intricacies of weather formation. In one corner, lay his desk, also stuffed to the brim with work material of various kind. Her father looked up as she spoke. A neutral unreadable mask.

Rainbow blinked as a book landed on her feet. A quick glance told her it was her report card from Cloudsdale High. Uh oh.

“Rainbow Dash. You only barely passed your exams. How do you plan into getting Cloudsdale University if you cannot even master the simple art of algebra?”

“But the teacher’s class was boring! It had all the numbers and stuff in it! Half of the class was asleep!” Rainbow protested.

“Nonsense. I expected better from you, Rainbow Dash. A daughter of mine should not be so shameful as to merely pass her exams.”

Rainbow felt an eye twitching. It wasn’t as if she didn’t try her best. It was all for his sake after all. Gilda’s words came rushing back to her mind. All her frustrations, her grievances, all boiled to the surface.

“You know what? Screw this. I’m not your slave to be ordered around,” she yelled.

Her father narrowed his eyes. “What did you say?”

“I said, screw you. Screw your weather engineering. Screw your degree. I don’t want any part of it. I want to fly, not bury myself in books.”

“You... you dare?”

“I dare. I’m sick and tired of being ordered around to do things I don’t feel like doing. I’m sick of having to beg you just for permission to practice flying and sports. I’m sick of seeing you comparing me to Sunny. I’m not Sunny, and I’m not the daughter you want me to be!”

A long silence descended in the room. Rainbow stared defiantly at her father, magenta eyes meeting steel gray. Her father’s nostrils flared as he breathed, but otherwise he made no other move. Finally, he turned around and gazed outside the window.

“You want to fly?”


“Very well. You’re no daughter of mine. Begone from this house.”

Rainbow was taken back by the sudden chilly tone. “W-what?”

“You have till tonight to pack your things and move out. I’ll make sure you’ll have a stipend to live off. I will not have it said I left my daughter to starve. But you’re no longer a part of this family.”

“... B-but... Dad...”

“Do not address me by that name. Now, begone.”

Rainbow stared at her father, once the pillar of her life. Now all she felt was anger and for the first time, hate. “Fine, Stormchaser. I’ll leave. I hope you’re happy.”

With that, Rainbow Dash stalked out of the room and slammed the door shut. That was also the last time she saw her father, his back turned on her.

Rainbow blew out a resigned sigh. She probably shouldn’t have exploded like that. Her father might had been more amenable had she just kept her cool. But, the past was the past. As much as she regretted it, she never did regret the freedom she gained afterwards.

“What do you mean, they moved?” Rainbow half-yelled at the impassive postmare.

“That’s what I said. The pony by the name Sunny Day no longer exists in this address in Cloudsdale,” the postmare replied. Rainbow sensed there would be no further answers/

“Never mind... thanks anyway,” she said glumly. She turned and trudged outside to the chilly streets of Hoofington. It had only been three months since she left her family. Even then, she still kept in contact with her sister through letters, though her replies are becoming shorter and shorter. Almost as if she was afraid to say too much. And now this.

Rainbow blinked as the first snowflakes began to fall on the street.

“Looks like I’m all alone now...”

“C’mon Tank. Time to head home.” She gently nudged her pet turtle awake. Tank stared sleepily at her, before nodding. He pulled the cord that started his magic flying device and got off to a hover. Rainbow chuckled. That had to be one of the best trick she taught Tank.

She took the scenic route home, taking the time to greet the various residents of Ponyville. Fluttershy outside her forest house. Twilight on the balcony of her library. Rarity and Pinkie Pie together in one of the cafes. Applejack on her farm.

Then she reached her own humble abode. Well, not so humble with all the additions she made over the years. Just as she touched down on the front door, she saw a her mailbox was flagged.

“Huh, I wonder who could be writing me letters,” Rainbow muttered as she opened her mailbox. It was a single white envelope, carefully sealed. No identifiable features, no sign of who might the sender be as well.

Rainbow crooked an eyebrow and tore the envelope open. The first line told her all she needed to know.

My dear daughter Rainbow Dash,

Rainbow dropped the letter and sank to the ground.

Father... after all these years... now only you write?

She briefly debated whether to burn the letter. It was just easier that way. Then she spied the ending of the letter.

Please accept my humblest apologies. After so many years, it was hard to believe that I was wrong. So very wrong about you. Please, Rainbow Dash. Come home.


Rainbow sighed. She folded the letter neatly and trotted into the living room. She still have a task to do, apparently. Searching about for her quill, ink and parchment, she began writing:



The Note

View Online

There's something special about the ponies of Ponyville that made me fall in love with each and every one of them, almost from the day I moved there. I'm not sure—I'm not even sure I ever can be sure—but I think it might be how much they care about each other. Even when they're a little bit unkind or don't understand each other, they never give up.

At the same time that means a little tiny problem can easily turn into an enormous problem because of how much they worry about each other, like the time Apple Bloom left the note.

Apple Bloom's not-so-harmless note was sitting on the night-stand next to her empty bed when Applejack found it. She had made Apple Bloom's favorite cinnamon-daisy hotcakes as an apology for the frustration and hurt feelings the sisters had shared over their farm chores the day before, and good smells, daylight, and bird song were just beginning to soak into the bedroom. Today was supposed to be a new day and Applejack meant to start it out on the right hoof.

But Apple Bloom had hitched herself to the stump of the problem before Applejack had a chance. The note told Applejack she was terribly, terribly late, and with shame gnawing a hole in her stomach, she read it again.


I'm sorry I was such a useless pony yesterday. AJ's absolutely right that I shouldn't just spout off ideas without putting in the work to make them happen. And there's no better time to start doing that than right now. Scootaloo's been talking about having a really big adventure, so I'm gonna ask her to come along. I promise to do the heavy lifting myself and not boss her around, and anyway, I figure you all will feel better if you know I won't be alone. Please don't worry about us.

–Apple Bloom

"Mac?" Applejack called. "Can I show ya this?" She picked up the note in her lips and half trotted, half tumbled down the stairs to the kitchen. Her brother sat at the table, a red mountain of a pony reading the paper and calmly making his way through a hefty stack of hay.

"Mornin', AJ," he rumbled.

She set the note on the table, and before he had a chance to read it, she cried, "She's run off, Mac! And it's my fault, too. I shouldn't have raised my voice at her yesterday and now we've gotta find her. Oh, Winona, I'm gonna need ya..."

Applejack raced back upstairs, her hooffalls a chaotic clatter on the treads and floorboards overhead. Winona looked up for a moment, but she wasn't an excitable puppy anymore. The leader of her pack was agitated about something, and that worried her, but she wanted to finish her breakfast at least.

Applejack returned with a ribbon, which she laid across a forehoof and held out. "Winona. Winona, come here! Track."

Winona gave her food a sad parting sniff and went to see what the boss thought was so important. It smelled like the little one, but they were in the den and everything smelled more or less like everyone in the whole pack. The boss was beginning to stink of panic, and that really worried Winona. She whined and sniffed at the floor leading towards the door. The boss followed.

"Applejack," Big Macintosh said, rising. "Settle down."

"We've got to get going, Mac! Who knows how far she's gotten by now?"

He laid a hoof on her back. "Probably as far as her clubhouse, and if not, you ain't gonna find her by running around like your tail's on fire."

Of course all that commotion had woken the last member of the Apple household, who tottered from her bedroom, blinking sleep from her eyes. "Now whazzall this ruckus about?"

Macintosh explained the situation, stepping back to the table to read the note for Granny, who didn't have her glasses with her. Applejack leaned against the counter by the door, tapping her hoof against the floor. Her barely-contained disrespect didn't escape Granny's notice, but the poor young mare's heart seemed to be in the right place and at least she didn't walk out in a huff.

Before Macintosh finished, Granny's mind was made up, but she paused anyway 'cuz it made her sound wiser. "I see. Y'all woke me up for this? Our little Apple Bloom's growing up an' loosening her ties with us, is all."

"But she left!" Applejack sprang forward, stamping a hoof on the floor with a heavy thunk. "Just left, in the middle of the night like that."

Granny sat next to the table. "I remember a filly who was gonna make herself a new home in Manehattan. She wasn't much older than Apple Bloom is and she turned out just fine. Apple Bloom's got a stout heart and fire in her gums! Ain't no reason for us to worry about her yet. Now that I'm up would you get me two a' those there hotcakes?"

Applejack groaned inwardly, but she set about serving her grandmother, setting a plate with cakes and syrup. "I wish she'd asked us and said goodbye like I did. And in the end I came back."

"That you did and so she will too," Granny said. "Sit down and let Macintosh get you a plate if he'd be so kind." Applejack sat and Granny leaned towards her, almost conspiratorially. "Apples always come back. It's in our bones."

Macintosh brought Applejack her breakfast and sat stoic and pensive. Waves of turmoil seemed to be breaking around him, but he couldn't tell if the storm had passed or was just beginning. He did the one thing he could do for the sake of peace. "AJ. I've got your chores today."

"Thank you, Macintosh," she said and took another bite of the cinnamon-daisy hotcakes. They tasted like ashes.

Winona bounded down the hill from Sweet Apple Acres, full of joy to be playing a game of "find the little one." Applejack was at least properly fed, watered, and outfitted with her "going to town" saddlebags, even if breakfast had done nothing to lift her spirits. They passed by picket fences and farm land, thatch-roofed townhouses and wound their way between the market stalls in downtown Ponyville. Merchants were just beginning to set up for the day, spreading fruits, vegetables, and flowers, gems, small goods, and even a tent promising fortunes told.

But before reaching any of that, the very first thing they passed outside the kitchen door was the new terraced garden that Applejack had been building with her sister.

Landscaping was hot, heavy work, and by afternoon the sun and cloudless sky made things twice as hot. The sisters grew frustrated and tired and began making mistakes that only fed their bad moods. A barrow-full of dirt dumped in the wrong place cascaded down the hill back to where it started, taking even more with it. The timbers for the retaining wall seemed to be twisted just a bit and didn't fit together quite as Applejack had planned. Apple Bloom struggled with the two-pony saw, and Applejack's comment, "Don't worry about how big or strong you are, it's all about technique," made her feel even worse.

Applejack decided to cope with the tension by falling silent and focusing on the job at hoof. Apple Bloom took up the ancient folk art of complaining. Either would have been quite effective on its own, but Apple Bloom's litany of "stupids"—stupid timbers, stupid dirt, stupid rocks, stupid garden on the stupid hill—reacted with Applejack's grim resolve and formed a toxic brew that soon had each sister at the other's throat.

"Apple Bloom, " Applejack said with deliberate calm. "We've gotta to cut them straight across or we'll have even more work to fill the gaps."

"Well maybe it was a stupid plan to use this stupid saw. I'm sure somepony somewhere has figured it out and there's a better tool."

"That would be nice," Applejack agreed. "if we'd rather spend all day hunting for tools instead of getting things done. If we buckle down, we can be done tomorrow."

"I need a break and then a bigger body," Apple Bloom complained. "Stupid one-and-a-half-pony saw." She walked away.

"Motivation," Applejack called after her. "Unless ya wanna be one of them ponies who just stands to the side acting like she knows the job better, even though she can't get her hooves dirty, learn to get things done."

As luck had it, in the marketplace Applejack ran into Twilight Sparkle. She was shopping and her saddlebags contained produce, lists, and bits. The produce replaced the bits, following the formula of the lists. It was a lot like math or magic and Twilight Sparkle was proud to be good at it.

"Applejack, is something wrong?" she asked. Applejack looked haunted somehow. She pushed through the gathering crowd in a hurry, her eyes scanning this way and that, and barely acknowledged Twilight as she passed.

"Nope, not a thing. I don't need your help, Twilight. Strictly family business."

Winona barked, leading her boss to the edge of the marketplace. Twilight followed both to a long building with a prominent clock in the center, The Ponyville Train station.

"Oh, horse-apples," Applejack said. "She could be anywhere in Equestria by now."

"Who?" Twilight asked, coming to stand alongside her friend. "Applejack, please, let me help."

"I've gone and lost my sister! Drove her away. Went to wake her up this morning, and found this." She took the note from her saddlebags.

Twilight levitated it to her face and read. Her heart sank in sympathy and she set aside her plans that day. Applejack needed her. "You're her big sister. She respects you more than you can imagine and I promise we're going to find her."

"No, but I'm..." Applejack gestured at the train station. "I'm not even sure that's a good idea, or if she'll hate me more for chasing after her. I did something similar myself and if Big Macintosh showed up then, I'd have figured he didn't trust me."

"Do you trust her?"

"That's the thing. She doesn't plan. I planned everything out, made sure to tell Granny were I'd be and everything. I more than half expected her to try to stop me, but she didn't. Now I don't really want to stop Apple Bloom and I can't believe she'd just cut and run neither..."

"But you want to know that she's safe," Twilight said.

Applejack took a few steps towards the station's doors but shook her head. "Don't matter now. This is a dead end. Winona can't track a train, there's no scent."

If there was any pony who cared a little too much about her friends, it was Twilight Sparkle. She looked at Applejack starting to despair, and from that moment, she was willing to do anything to bring the two sisters back together.

Anything at all.

"We're not beaten yet. I have a plan," she said and led Applejack into the train station.

The architect had called for a lot of wooden paneling and brass rails. The counter-tops were granite and so was the floor, though only the first was polished to a mirror shine. Plenty of windows filled the room with cheerful morning light. Applejack's shoes rang against the stone as she followed Twilight to the ticket counter.

"Hello," Twilight said. "I was hoping you could tell me about two ponies who may have departed last night.

"I'm sorry, ma'am, but we hold passenger records in the strictest confidence." The stallion behind the counter, a slate-blue unicorn wearing a uniform cap that was really too small for him, frowned apologetically.

"Of course," Twilight said, "but we're asking about a minor, my friend's little sister and her friend. We think they left last night."

"In that case, I'll see what I can do. I'll need ID. What time did they depart?"

"Late," Applejack said.

"Just the two of them? After seven?" The stallion turned around and levitated a record book from the shelf behind him.


He frowned and set the book down unopened. "In that case, I'm sorry. Company policy. No travel for unaccompanied minors between seven in the evening and six in the morning without parent or guardian permission."

"You don't know the pony who was working last night by any chance," Twilight asked.

The stallion looked to either side and leaned over the counter. "Look, ma'am, you didn't hear it from me, but Amethyst did mention this morning that two fillies came in about quarter of ten last night. Yellow earth pony, real polite, and an orange pegasus who wasn't once she heard they'd have to wait until morning. Don't know if that helps any but I hope it does." He drew himself back. "Is there anything else I can do for you?"

Applejack was beginning to feel faint yet warm embers of hope. Of course Twilight would help her and she was more than a little embarrassed that she hadn't immediately thought to ask her friends. She smiled at the stallion. "Thank you so very, very much sir."

"Always a pleasure, ma'am."

Twilight stepped back from the counter, hoping that she hadn't exhausted her cleverness but not seeing what she should try next. A conductor called, "All aboard for Hoofington, platform three," and a small group of ponies got up to board the train. A station unicorn focused his magic on a large board in the middle of the hall. Letters flipped, spelling out the names, numbers, and times of upcoming departures and arrivals.

None of this brought her any closer to figuring out where Apple Bloom and Scootaloo had gone.

"It's a dead end, ain't it, Twilight?"

"Not yet. We'll just look for clues someplace else, I guess." Twilight didn't even manage to convince herself.

Rainbow Dash had a terribly boring and not at all exciting day to look forward to. She just had to keep the sky clear, which might keep her entertained for a grand total of five minutes all day long—and then she had to give that job to the new pony, Tropical Breeze, who seriously needed to practice her cloud-bucking on something easy before being allowed within five miles of real weather.

That left Dash bored—terribly, dangerously bored. Boredom lead to getting antsy, which lead to crazy stunts, which tended to end in property damage, personal injury, and liability. All of which was fun in a crazy sort of way for a pony who lived on the edge, but without any storm bonuses in the forecast, her bank account could use a break. Dash was relieved to spot her friends exiting the train station. She swooped down from the town hall bell tower.

Applejack looked glum and Twilight hung her head low. Dash settled into a hover and figured they could use a little encouragement. "Hey, girls. Cheer up, you look like somepony died or something."

She knew at once she'd stepped in it. Applejack froze and squeezed her eyes shut. Twilight gave Dash a peeved glare and, wordlessly, floated a piece of paper in front of Dash. It was Apple Bloom's note.

"Oh," Dash said, dropping to the ground. "So nopony actually died, right? 'Cuz it'd be really awkward if somepony did."

"Can we please," Applejack said, "not talk about anypony dying?"

"I'm sure they're fine," Twilight said. "Rainbow, if you're not too busy, we could use your help finding Apple Bloom and Scootaloo."

"Sure thing. I can't believe that they'd do that, though. Just run off and have an adventure while I'm stuck here in Ponyville being bored. Stupid kids."

"Well, they did," Applejack said. "Up and left in the middle of the night and everything. Was all my fault for bein' too harsh with her too.

Twilight filled Dash in on what they had learned so far. She and Applejack planned to return to Sweet Apple Acres and see if they could find any more clues.

"You do know," Dash said, "that you don't one-hundred-percent need a ticket to ride a train if you know what you're doing, right?"

"Rainbow," Applejack said, "you ain't seriously suggesting that my sister would actually jump a train."

"Look, I'm just saying that maybe I should take a quick look around the yard and see if I see something. It's not a great idea so you should probably go with Twilight and I'll catch up with you."

Dash sped away, leaving Twilight, Applejack, and Winona to make their way back to the farm. Twilight was very excited to "try something," and before Applejack could properly object, she found herself wrapped in an uncomfortably close hug with her friend and her dog. The marketplace disappeared behind a flash of purple light and was replaced with Sweet Apple Acres.

Twilight looked around, confirmed that her passengers had teleported with her with all their parts in the right places, and let herself enjoy a giddy-proud giggle.

Applejack took a deep breath to settle the queasiness in her stomach. She watched Winona lurch over to a flowerbed and be pathetically sick into it, which wasn't okay at all. "Twilight," she said. "You will warn me before you even think of trying that again and you will not ever do that to my dog, you hear?"

"But, we saved minutes of trotting time and arrived fresh and unfatigued!" Twilight said. Life had given her a Problem, and if there was anything Twilight really appreciated, it was a good problem. She had the mind for it too, but sometimes she forgot to take care of other ponies' feelings along the way. That was how she started to go just the tiniest bit crazy.

The search for clues wasn't as productive as Twilight had hoped, leading her to believe that they had missed something significant like the exact way the sheets lay on Apple Bloom's bed or the precise number of steps between the farmhouse and each shed. The Problem was really starting to take root in her mind and she would feel so good to finally figure it out.

The facts most likely to be significant were that Apple Bloom's window had been closed but not latched, Apple Bloom had left a shed unlocked, and there were no hoofprints in the mud outside the door, which meant they had been wiped away by the rain the night before.

Applejack for her part, decided to not be mad about Apple Bloom carelessly leaving the door open. Compared to the big picture it just didn't seem that important. None of what they learned seemed to bring them any closer to figuring out where Apple Bloom had gone, but it sure felt better to be doing something rather than sitting and stewing in her own guilt.

By some kind of fate or instinct, they wandered back to the farmhouse kitchen, where Granny had warmed up a pie for them to share. She asked how their adventure was going and was calmly supportive, all of which was good for Twilight and Applejack: food and family and a nice day—it's easy for ponies to forget important things like that when something else comes up. Still, Apple Bloom was very noticeably absent, and even though the edge had gone off Applejack's worry, she was scared that her sister might not want to be with them any more.

"That smells awesome," Dash declared as she pushed open the door, "and I have found us some clues. First thing, though: pie, because the moment I tell you where they went, I'm not gonna get any." She had gone home for her saddlebags and a pith helmet and had somehow managed to get twigs in her mane adventuring around and being Dash.

Twilight thought that maybe Dash was taking her pastries a bit too seriously. It was preposterous for a bunch of ponies to sit around eating pie when they needed to find fillies who might be in peril! "Darn it, Dash, they could be hurt or scared, every moment we waste is... Fine. Eat your pie. See if I care."

Dash polished off the last of her substantial slice and looked up at the clock. "Eighteen seconds. New record!" She pumped a hoof in the air. "So anyway, there I was, flying circles around the Ponyville train yard looking for the tiniest clue that would lead me to the dastardly selfish ponies who went on an adventure and left me, the dashing Rainbow Dash, behind. I thought I spotted something so I swooped down just outside the hedge that marks the edge of railway territory."

"Land sakes, Rainbow, why didn't ya land inside hedge?"

"It wouldn't have been as much fun that way. Besides, are you telling this story or am I? Yeah, that's what I thought. To catch a crook, you have to think like a crook, or in this case think like a pegasus whose wings haven't grown enough for her to fly. I crawled through that thorny bush, barely making it to the other side without getting too many scratches and having to turn around. That was when I found..." Dash paused to dip her head into her saddlebags and bring out a small orange down-feather in her lips. "Thish!" She dropped it on the table.

"So they did sneak aboard a train," Twilight said. "But that still leaves the question of which one."

"I can't believe my little sister's a sneak and a thief," Applejack said. "And Rainbow, this is fun and all, but did you or did you not find out where they went? This is important, my sister's missing. It's not one of your Daring Do stories."

"Fine, fine, ruin my story," Dash said. "So I looked around for a little while more, then I got out of there and decided to pick up a train schedule. I mean, we're Ponyville, not exactly the biggest city around. How many night trains are there anyway? It turns out, only three."

She unfolded the schedule on the table. "And if you look at the destinations, it's not too hard to make a guess. I mean, if you're looking for an adventure at ten at night, you're probably not going to Little Hoof or Mareston because everything's closed just like in Ponyville. The closest big city, where you'd find anything worth doing, is Canterlot."

"Canterlot," Applejack said.

"I'd say that's a reasonable psychological model," Twilight said, impressed. "I guess that's where we're going."

"Already figured that out, too. I guess you two are gonna take the train, so how about the nine-twenty?" Dash pointed at the schedule. "I'm gonna fly ahead, scout around, and catch up with you when you arrive."

"Oh, good, I know how to solve this one," Twilight said, happy to finally have some control over the situation. "All I need to know is how fast you fly and how far it is to Canterlot both as the pegasus flies and the train goes and how fast the train is of course and are you going to leave now or later, but the math itself isn't all that hard."

As she spoke, parchment and quills took flight from her bags and floated around her head in a halo.

Dash sighed and pointed to the timetable. "You could do that, but I was just gonna start here in Ponyville and read down to Canterlot and keep an eye on one of the many clocks in the city so I can meet you at the station right after I see your train pull in. With some luck, I'll even have those two with me, okay?"

Twilight's mouth and ears drooped crestfallen and she returned everything to its place. "Or we could go with that. Sounds like a plan."

"Oh, and one other thing," Dash added. "Twilight, do you maybe know anypony inside Equestria Rail who could help me out with a tiny problem?" She took out one last piece of evidence, a slip of paper. "I kinda got a ticket for trespassing on railway property."

At just about the same time that Twilight, Dash, and Applejack set out for Canterlot, Apple Bloom and Scootaloo were in fact there, waiting in line for their return tickets at the train station. For Apple Bloom at least, the adventure was starting to wear off and their errand felt more and more like an... errand. Still, they had found what they came for and the only thing left to do was to get it home and then they could take a well-earned nap.

Scootaloo was taking her turn hitched to a small cart emblazoned with the trade mark of Rolling Stock's Portable Equipment Sales and Rental. It wasn't terribly heavy and came with a convertible tandem harness, and together the two of them had gotten it to the train station without any real trouble. Fortunately, it also came with a tarpaulin across the top, which they hadn't removed - fortunate because it had rained and thundered something awful through the early morning.

Apple Bloom was glad she took the few extra minutes to pick up her camping gear. They locked the cart to a hitching post in Puddinghead Park and bivouacked in her tent. It was a little too small for both ponies at once, and between the thunder and Scootaloo's snoring she hadn't gotten much sleep, but she was glad to be warm and dry at least.

When their turn came, Scootaloo pulled the cart up to the counter. She thought it had been a grand adventure from the moment they decided to sneak aboard the train up until sitting in a tiny little shop by the park for coffee and donuts. She was a little sad that it would be over so soon.

The mare behind the counter raised an eyebrow at the cart. "You're checking that? I'll need to see the rental agreement or proof of ownership."

"Sure thing, ma'am," Apple Bloom said and took the agreement from her bags. The mare looked it over carefully, then at Scootaloo, who wore a sheepish grin, and Apple Bloom, who was beginning to wonder what exactly was the matter.

"Aren't you two a little young to be renting power tools?"

Apple Bloom thought about that a moment. It was weird how ponies who weren't Apples treated her sometimes. "Well, yes, ma'am. I reckon we are a little too young." She looked the mare right in the eye and dared her to disagree.

Country ponies were the tiniest bit outside the ticket mare's experience. There wasn't any rule that said fillies couldn't travel with power tools, she just hadn't expected it. "Everything's in order, I guess. Here are your tickets. You can leave the cart right here."

Apple Bloom sighed in relief and helped Scootaloo out of the harness. If they had to stow away again, she had no idea how they'd deal with their luggage.

That's how the adventure wrapped up for Apple Bloom and Scootaloo. They sincerely meant what Apple Bloom had written, that ponies shouldn't worry about them, and there hadn't been anything to worry about, but like I said, ponies really care about each other in Ponyville.

By the time their train arrived in Canterlot, Twilight Sparkle didn't just have a Problem. She had a Plan and Applejack was beginning to worry. With some luck the girls would be safe and found at the station with Rainbow and there wouldn't be any need for the Plan.

With some luck.

But it didn't turn out like that. The Canterlot train station was a lot like the one in Ponyville only bigger and busier, which makes sense because they're both buildings for stationing trains. Canterlot's architect decided on more gold and marble, though, and instead of having torchiere-style lighting on the walls, crystal chandeliers hung from the ceiling.

Rainbow Dash was carefully hovering between two of them, waiting to whoosh down when she saw Twilight and Applejack, just like she promised.

She hadn't found the fillies. "It's a really big city," she said in her defense. "I looked everywhere I could but I didn't see them anywhere."

"Fortunately," Twilight said, "I have an idea. I grew up here, remember, so I know how big it is and I thought to myself, 'Self, how can we possibly search all of Canterlot within a reasonable time-frame?' Then the solution hit me, and here it is." She took a poster out of her bag and unrolled it on the floor.

It had pictures of Apple Bloom and Scootaloo and asked anypony who saw them to bring them to the train station.

"Now, I can hear what you're wondering; you're wondering, 'Twilight, how is one poster going to be seen by all the ponies in Canterlot?' and the answer is both simple and brilliant." She turned the poster over. A faint, sketchy duplicate image of the poster appeared on the back side in mirror image, like it was soaking through the paper. As Applejack and Dash watched, it slowly grew more solid.

"Once it finishes duplicating itself it splits. Then it's a simple charm spell to get somepony to put the new one up somewhere else and the whole thing repeats every ten minutes. The hard part was making sure that they wouldn't get too thin but I added a spell to regenerate the lost thickness from ambient magic and now everything is perfect!"

Twilight had been thinking about the Plan the whole way from Ponyville. She was really smart and talented with magic, and it was a very clever solution with one teeny-tiny flaw.

"Oh sugar," Applejack said as the full implications began to dawn on her. "Listen, that's a great idea, Twilight, and I'm sure it'll work and all, but can I try something else first?"

"Of course. Go right ahead. I'll even give you a few minutes head start."

Applejack leaned close to Dash and whispered, "We can't let her put that poster up. Dang things'll breed like bunnies and take over Equestria. I'm gonna ask at the ticket counter." She trotted away.

Dash felt her eyes grow wide. She knew what Twilight was capable of with a small town, a charm spell, and a swarm of parasprites or an old doll. Now they were in Canterlot and the fate of the capital rested around her neck—a well toned and strong neck, sure, but still only that of one young pegasus. And it was even worse than that: they were in a train station and what were the chances that posters wouldn't end up on trains going every-which-way, charming ponies across all Equestria?

"So, Rainbow Dash, you like races. How much do you think is a fair head start for Applejack?"

"W–well, you're pretty darn awesome at magic. I think h–half an hour. At least. It's no fun if you don't give the other pony a fighting chance."

Applejack found herself waiting for the customer service window behind a unicorn mare with a very serious problem.

"But the flier—look, can you read this for me?"

The earth pony behind the counter took the deep centering breath of those who deal with the public day after day. He read the fayer aloud. "Buy two tickets, get one free."

"Precisely. Now I am trying to buy two tickets. One for myself, and one for my adorable Mr. Precious Pusskins here." A pet crate sat next to the unicorn, its occupant surveying the goings-on with super I'm-better-than-you-a-tude. "Obviously I would like my ticket to be the free one."

"Well what the flier means, ma'am, is that you pay full price for two tickets. The intention was, for example, that two ponies could travel and bring their foal for free."

"That's a very noble intention, but it's not exactly fair to expect your customers to be able to read minds. I'm just asking that you go by what it says."

The customer service pony felt even his well-practiced temper begin to crack. "Speaking of fair, ma'am, you seem to be expecting us to conduct anypony anywhere in Equestria for the price of a small-animal up-charge, a fee which I may point out is a nominal flat rate."

"I just don't want to have to file a complaint for false advertising with the Royal Trade Commission." The unicorn said and smiled sweetly.

The service pony felt that the trade commission, or really anywhere else, would be a better venue for the issue. She probably was a member of their frequent plaintiff club or something.

He said, "Well, you have a point there. I'm afraid I don't have the authority to resolve your problem so I'm escalating this case." With well-practiced calm, he pushed the silent alarm behind the counter. "May I help the next customer?"

She stepped aside, turned to Applejack and said, "Good luck, ma'am. I'm afraid he's just a cog in the corporate machine. No real power to help the common pony like you or me."

Applejack held her tongue and spoke directly to the service pony instead. "I'm looking to catch up with my little sister, who might have come through here this morning, so I'd like to check with the unaccompanied minor records. Before ya ask, here's my identification."

The stallion was sorely tempted to declare his undying love for Applejack, the beautiful, well-informed, and remarkably sane young mare across the counter. He was, however, a professional and he restrained himself.

Twilight was growing antsy. Her mane had started to go frazzled and her eyes wide, exactly like what tended to happen whenever she had a Plan that wasn't going well for some reason.

She wanted—she needed to put that poster up somewhere. The reason why she couldn't was sitting across from her, blue forehooves holding her shoulders against the cool marble wall she was sitting against, promising, "Everything's going to be okay, Twilight." She muttered under her breath, counting down her head start.

Ponies were starting to stare. Dash had no idea what she would do if Applejack didn't come back before Twilight finished. They had agreed to twenty minutes and it was almost gone.

"Time!" Twilight grunted. "Let me up."

Rainbow looked behind, hoping that Applejack would be there. As fortune had it, she was, and she broke into a canter as Twilight threw Dash off and lurched to her feet.

"Twilight, it's okay!" Applejack shouted.

Twilight had the poster floating in her magic. She looked for the a blank spot on the wall. Perfect.

"No!" Dash cried, tackling the poster. At the same time Applejack crashed into Twilight, attempting to break her concentration.

The sticky poster crumpled against Dash's side, gluing down one of her wings. She crashed to the floor.

Twilight struggled in Applejack's grasp, screaming. "Don't you dare mess up my poster, Rainbow! My beautiful, beautiful poster!"

Applejack held on like she was wrassling an ornery hog. "Twilight, it's okay. They went back to Ponyville."

Twilight blinked and collapsed hard against Applejack. "B–back to Ponyville? But... my posters..."

Applejack rubbed her back. "It was a nice thought but it's all over now. Everything's okay. Let's go home."

The train station fell quiet except for one little colt's voice. "Cool! Mommy, are they making a movie?"

Apple Bloom and Scootaloo arrived in Ponyville and claimed their luggage without any trouble. It was already early afternoon and they were starting to get hungry, but Apple Bloom was eager to get the darn thing home and see the look on Applejack's face when she proved that she wasn't lazy and useless.

Then lunch and a nap would be very, very welcome. So maybe it wouldn't be perfect proof, but Apple Bloom was very close to finishing what she started, and that's what Applejack wanted.

That was the exact moment when I felt an itchy nose, twitchy ear, and thought I could taste asparagus. That usually means somepony is having an important homecoming so I looked out the window and down into the marketplace, saw the two fillies and their cart, and that's when I started to put things together. Of course the first obvious thing was that a parade would be just about perfect so that's what I started to plan.

But I've heard that a pony telling a story about herself is kinda boring so let's get back to the good part.

The train headed back to Ponyville wasn't crowded at all. There were plenty of empty seats, which was good because Twilight had finally stretched out to sleep.

"Sometimes she scares me," Dash said. She and Applejack sat on either side of Twilight. "Do you remember how quiet things used to be before she showed up?"

"She was a lot of help today. You were too." Applejack thought about her words carefully. "Do you think I'm too tough on Apple Bloom? I figure she's coming back today, but what about a year or two from now?"

"I..." Rainbow Dash shifted her wings, still kinda gummy. She took the train back because she had done a lot of fast flying and needed the break and they had this cool promotion where her ticket was free. But it put her inside a box and she didn't think as well there as she did in the open sky. "I can't say for sure what she thinks, but I didn't leave Cloudsdale because I hated anypony. I think she'll choose her own path someday, but don't ever think she doesn't love you, okay?"

"But do I deserve it, Rainbow?"

The train ran along the tracks, click-clak, click-clack.

"Did I deserve the Best Young Flier? I went out there and did what I did and let the judges decide. If you ask me, I see a pony who was ready to go across Equestria for her sister. And I thought I saw you help Twilight out at lunch too."

"Wasn't nothing. Just a pinch of dried moon's-tears in her drink to help her calm down."

"That's it? She must've been really worked up if that put her out." Dash took a moment to try to preen some more of the paste out of her feathers. "Hey, Applejack?"


"Do us a favor and don't ever turn evil, okay? Crazy Twilight is enough of an adventure."

The homecoming party was winding down by the time Applejack, Twilight Sparkle, and Rainbow Dash made it back to Sweet Apple Acres. Not that it was much more than a family thing, I got some of the ponies who were shopping to sing a little song and maybe carry Apple Bloom and Scootaloo and their cart of whatever it was to the Acres in a little parade—nothing serious. Only Scootaloo and Sweetie Belle stayed with the Apples, and I did too of course to ask questions and start to figure everything out.

We waited for the rescue party—even though they didn't end up doing any rescuing and weren't really a party—I could tell, I know a party when I see one.

Apple Bloom was really tired so she took a nap and let Scootaloo tell Sweetie Belle and me about their adventure. Most of the tool rental places in Canterlot were closed but they finally found one at about one in the morning that mostly does railway stuff and had exactly the tool that Apple Bloom was looking for. What are the chances?

So anyway we ended up playing Mareopolis, you know, the board game where it takes forever to force everypony out of business, and we were drinking cider when Applejack and the others arrived home.

"Well," Applejack said. "That sure was something."

Apple Bloom must've heard her sister 'cuz her hooves fell clip-clop on the floor as she walked in. "Sis, I'm sorry. I didn't think and I'm sure I made you–"

Applejack wrapped her sister in a long tight hug. "S'okay. I messed things up too. I reckon we should give the landscaping a rest for a day or two."

"Oh, but..." Apple Bloom sounded disappointed. "I went and got exactly the tool we need. Lemme show you." She headed outside and we all followed. Apple Bloom undid the straps that held the tarpaulin over the cart and took it off.

It was some kind of saw, even I could tell that. It had a table made of metal, a long kind of an L-shaped half-of-a-box, and there was a slot in the middle. The saw part was a little vertical chain-saw on an arm so it could slide back and forth across the box. If I knew then what I've told you now, I could probably have guessed what it was. Apple Bloom was really proud of herself.

"I know we use Birch-Cog fittings for the cider press so I made sure to get one that would work with our treadmill. I hope it works better than the two-pony saw on the timbers."

"But what is it?" Applejack asked.

"They use it to fix up the railroad. It's a portable mill for cutting ties."

Anyway it took me a while to discover the rest of the story. It's amazing how much a pony will tell you over a sarsaparilla. I'm not one-hundred percent sure I've got it all right but as far as I can tell, that's what really happened.

So Applejack didn't actually do any work on the garden that day. The next morning she marched Apple Bloom down to the train station and made her pay for her and Scootaloo going to Canterlot, and after that?

They finished up the garden and sent the tie mill back to Canterlot, and if you ask me, I'd say it worked out pretty good.

Standing in My Shadow

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For my final act, I’ve decided to tell the truth.

It’s all I have left to do now.

Happiness tends to come in small, if bubbly, packages before moving on while sadness likes to heap on more and more tragedy until a pony breaks. Sadness loves nothing more than watching a pony be torn apart by sorrow so it can steal the scraps away and prevent the poor soul from ever being whole again. This morning I found out that everything I know is a lie, but I didn’t have the good fortune to find the world swept out from under me; that would’ve been far too kind for sadness’ taste. At least then I’d have had the protection of shock and denial. But no. Things don’t work that way. They never do.

Instead, I uncovered one kernel of truth at a time in a near-perfect order. Each horrible discovery was still within the realm of possibility, denying me the chance to pretend what was happening couldn’t possibly be real. Each awful breakthrough left me unable to move anywhere but further down the spiral of depression that fate had so carefully crafted for me.

Listen to me waxing poetic about my suffering, as if I’m some sort of cataclysmically unfortunate martyr for my own innocence! That’s not my intent at all, and the fact that my words are arranged in a way that dares to suggest I deserve pity is only indicative of my own selfishness.

I can’t accept that the world is this cruel. I can’t. What exactly I did in the beginning is still a mystery, but I choose to believe I did something unspeakable. I choose to believe that somehow, all my suffering is due to my own mistakes and that I deserve nothing less than the crumbling house of cards that was my life I find collapsing around me. The whole succession of them, because as I’m well aware now... this isn’t the first. I have to believe that it’s always my fault because it’s the only line of thought that leaves me anywhere to run but straight into another precariously constructed house and a fresh case of hopelessly believing things will work out this time.

It’s always, always the same. I’m a bright-eyed and multi-talented mare with a promising future, but some invisible force guides me into situations I where I can’t win. Coincidence or misfortune or just plain bad luck rears its ugly head and forces me to stain myself with the blood of my chance at happiness. I choose the lesser of two evils, but it’s still evil enough to condemn me to a life of torment. I realize my fate is sealed. I perhaps even realize that this isn’t the first time. I tell myself that it wasn’t my fault and that I just need another chance, and I’m foolish enough to believe that lie. I am always the unknowing architect of my own labyrinth of despair. My past actions are always at fault for the murder of my future, no matter how innocent and benign they were at the time. I don’t know what awful, inequine, and unforgivable sin I committed to earn the construction of this prison, but by the very nature of my always inescapable scenarios of despair I know for certain that I am to blame.

I have tried and failed enough times that I should have realized the truth long ago. I have nopony but myself to chide for refusing to see the answer. The only place for me to run where I won’t trip over my own misguided attempts at salvation... the only way out of this pit of suffering I’ve dug for myself... is to find the courage - or the cowardice - to sever that last and most sacred bond. I’ve given up my appearance, my name, my trade, my friends, and even my memories. But it’s never enough to separate me from my sins. It never sloughs enough weight off of my soul to allow me to outrun my past because I’m always still tied to it by that one slim thread. My cursed, foul core - the essence which casts the shadow in which all of me must stand to avoid being lost to the infinite void of nonexistence - must be forsaken. I cannot escape what I am except by stepping out into the brilliant, blinding light of the gloriously radiant pool of beauty that is everything I am not. There is no cure for a shadow but to remove what stands in the way of the light.

I’m going to take up one last and finally literal knife so that I can cut down the unholy thing that is preventing happiness from reaching this one dark patch. This one scorched acre, blighted by my presence into refusing to allow the sprouting of even a single seed of joy without the roots thereof strangling the life out of much more promising - and deserving - beings. But before I do, it’s only right that I lay bare what details I know for certain so that when my body is found alongside this missive, any creature with the incredible misfortune required to have interacted with me will know where to cast their undying umbrage. Who to blame for all the wrongs they have suffered. They deserve at least that much solace, even if I’m too selfish to prolong my suffering in an attempt to provide them with the relief they deserve.

The first thing I remember is an orphanage. I had parents, and that was enough to earn the ire of my fellow foals. That I had known the love of a mother and father, however briefly, blinded them with rage and prevented me from forming friendships. I did little but cry.

My name was Razzle Dazzle, and the fire that consumed the Hoofington House Orphanage was my fault. The only other survivor was a colt named Calm Breeze. He did not know the truth, and I couldn’t tell him. My memory of what happened is hazy at best, but the fact that I was to blame for the accident is, and always was, crystal clear.

The two of us were moved to another pathetically ineffective cradle for young ponies without the nourishing warmth of parents. I lied. I told all the other fillies and colts that I’d never been fortunate enough to be cared for by ponies who loved me. I thought that if I didn’t repeat the mistake of making them jealous, I could have friends. I cried while I told them this. Though my words were false, my tears were not. I was ostracized for this. The kind little colt who lived through the blazing inferno I unwittingly unleashed upon dozens of innocent foals cocked his head and asked why I was saying something that wasn’t true.

The hatred focused upon me by unloved children who knew not the love of parents, but only the bitter jealousy of being unfairly denied them where much less virtuous ponies were not, was magnified tenfold by the fact that such a disingenuous and vile creature as myself had the gall to lie about it.

I ran away. Happiness among those who loathed everything about me was an impossibility, and so I tried to make a fresh start. I made up a new name for myself. I undertook the arduous trek to Canterlot and became an overly precocious urchin, skittering about the seedier streets of the city and subsisting on what scraps I could scrounge from the forgotten corners of the lowest rung of society.

By carefully selecting what I presented as the truth, I was able to make friends. Life on the street is difficult, to be sure, but not entirely miserable. From time to time, my friends and I found entertainment in the theater or a concert hall. We were never meant to be granted entry, but always found a way. Faux-normalcy provides intense comfort to the lost.

I earned my cutie mark. An arrow that bends in the middle and points in the wrong direction, but with a dotted arrow continuing straight on. I tricked a security guard into letting my friends and I into a show. That’s my talent - misleading others. As abhorrent as it is that deception is my calling, it was appropriate at the time. The show was a magician performing a variety of illusions. For a few minutes, I felt good about myself. Stage magic is a kind of deception, and it’s perfectly respectable.

One of my friends, Sunbeam, was selected to go on stage as a volunteer for the finale. We all encouraged her and cheered and smiled. We thought... we thought it was an occasion to celebrate.

My name was Foggy, and I was to blame for the accident that claimed Sunbeam’s life. I lied and cheated to “earn” our way into the show, and to mock me for the sincerity with which I believed my duplicitous nature could ever be honorable I was made complicit in the death of a dear friend.

There were other names. Other lives. After every tragedy, I abandoned the scene of the crime and tried to start again. I never gave up hope that the next time, I wouldn’t ruin everything. I learned enough magic to make use of my horn in hiding the past. I could change my mane or my coat so that ponies wouldn’t recognize me. Specializing in obscuring the truth, I could even muddle with my memories. I was reckless and merciless in doing so. I used the only thing I was good at to keep the spectre of myself from haunting me.

But I failed again and again. Somehow, I always came back. The magician Sunbeam went on stage with wouldn’t have been in Canterlot at all if the orphanage his sister ran hadn’t burned down.

So I tried harder. I scrubbed away more and more until I could barely recognize myself. I even developed a skill no other pony could boast of having. My powers of deceit were so great, I could completely mask even my cutie mark.

The mare you’ve found now was the result of my latest endeavor at finding happiness. I had gone further than erasing myself and invented new memories out of whole cloth. I had parents, but I didn’t get along with them so never spoke to them. I was rude and pompous, but only to mask the sensitive soul inside. The one detail that leaked through was my naive belief that deception in the form of magic was noble.

I became a travelling showmare with an attitude problem. I was rightfully put in my place by the locals and ran off, greatly upset by the ordeal. I decided that at such a low point, it was understandable to want to see one’s parents. So this morning I went back to find an empty house and no sign I had ever lived there. I hadn’t. I had only been lying to myself.

It hurt to have my past proven fabricated, but it hurt worse to know that I did it to myself. Realizing what I had done pulled down the first card. The modifications I’d made to my memories buckled under the weight of reality and I suffered a cascade of relived nightmares. I didn’t have the good fortune to be swallowed by a tidal wave of anguish and coated in the relative safety of numb shock. I was pulled slowly through each lie and forced to confront the fact that I was a horrible mare who ruined herself every step of the way. No end to my anguish was in sight, and so I made the only righteous decision in my life. I took off galloping back across my life in reverse, hoping against all odds that repentance would bring peace.

I retraced my steps to Ponyville, to apologize for humiliating those mares and bringing destruction upon them. I was not prepared to bear witness to the devastation I had truly wrought. Ruins lay in flames and ponies moaned in agony as all too few medical professionals frantically attended to one bleeding wound after another. There would be many casualties. This was not the result I had seen earlier from the minor heavenly creature that swatted at a few wooden structures. Something much more awful had visited the simple city. In truth, it was me.

My name was Trixie, and I was responsible for provoking the ursa minor that crushed several buildings. One Twilight Sparkle soothed the savage beast and removed it from the area, but even her great magic was not enough to remove my taint from the realm. The incident enraged the father, an ursa major, and very shortly after I left - he arrived. The result was a veritable apocalypse for Ponyville.

Today has been too much for me. I am a broken mare, and there is nothing left for me to do but run away one last time. As I cease dimming the world around me with each breath, I hope only that those who have suffered on my behalf can find some measure of peace in knowing that the villain of the story has been laid to rest.

My name is not important. I am deceit. I am lies. Though any given action I take may appear to be a minor infraction against the rightful way of the world, the consequences are always more dire than they appear. Each act of deception is a terrible seed that, in time, will come to ruinous fruition.

Departure of a Friend

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"Thank you for coming," Avant Garde said as he stepped back, allowing the dark blue alicorn to enter. "I know it was short notice."

The regal princess stepped into the room as various ponies embraced her with open forelegs and tears in her eyes. She hoped that she wasn't too late. It was always harder to keep track of time nowadays. She had made a promise to return to the inn someday, and it was time.

"How is he?" Luna asked.

One of the elderly mares shook her head and pointed towards the door on the other side of the room. "He's not doing so well. He's been getting progressively worse."

Luna glanced around the room. These were half a dozen ponies, friends and family of the bedridden pony. Many of the ponies waited for the inevitable and stared at the floor. She nodded, immediately understanding the situation. The time for departure was drawing closer. It felt like it happened too soon, but then again, it always was.

"May I see him now?"

Avant Garde, the owner of the inn, gave her a small nod. "I'm not sure if he'll know who you are, though. Pip can't see anymore." He sighed and continued. "He's still alive, but I'm not sure for how much longer."

The wife of the innkeeper approached them. "It's a shame. I know you came here just for him." A tear glided down her cheek.

"It is all right," Luna said as she wrapped a wing around the mare's shoulder. With her other wing, she wiped away her own tears that had collected on her cheeks. She had lived an eternal life, cursed to sit idly by, powerless to help as her loved ones went one by one. Slowly but surely, her experience had taught her that much.

After a quick embrace, Luna looks into the mare's eyes. "I still have plenty of stories to share with him."

Instead of smiling, the mare released another tear and nodded. "He always did love hearing your stories." Her sobs almost drowned out her words.

Avant Garde said, "I would ask if you wanted to rest before you saw him, but..."

Luna held out a wing to silence him. "That's fine. I'll see him right away."

Leaving them both behind, Luna slowly trotted into the hallway. There was very little time left now. Judging by what the mare had told her of his condition, he would probably breathe his last before the sun came up. Upon walking through the familiar hallway, she stared at the door that led into the bedridden pony's room. With a sigh, she slowly pushed the door open.

As she walked into the room, she noticed the frail form huddled in the bed. No one else was in the room, an indication that he had passed the point where the doctors could help him. Even if his sight was already gone, perhaps it wasn't entirely too late.

Normally, death first takes away the power of speech. Then the ability to see. However, the last sense to remain to the very end was the power to hear. Even if they had lost consciousness, it's not a rarity for the voices of loved ones to bring smiles or tears to the pony's face.

Upon a closer look, Pip lay on his side, his little chest rising and falling almost imperceptibly. Luna kneeled next to him and smiled. Gently, she strokes his face with a wing.

"Hello, Little Pip. I'm back."

The young colt stirred, but his eyes remain closed. Luna felt his forehead and realized it was burning up. He let out a soft moan. At first, Luna couldn't think of anything to say, so she just stood there and watched him sleep. Memories of an earlier time flooded Luna's mind.

"The moon sounds like it was a wonderful place," Pip said as he threw his hooves into the air.

"Quite." Luna nodded. "There are even places where you could actually eat pieces of it. It sorta tastes like blue cheese."

"Really? That's amazing!"

They both sat in silence in the lobby of the Inn. Pip stared out of the window with an gaping mouth while Luna chuckled nearby. They were exchanging pleasantries and random talk about various things in their lives, Pip being one of the very few that seemed interested in what Luna had to say.

"The night sky, it's so beautiful."

"Indeed, my little pony. It really is." Luna tilted her head at him. Even though Pip couldn't explore the world on his own, he still appreciated many of the adventures that Luna spoke of. No matter how boring of a subject it seemed to her, he would always pay attention to her every word, clinging like a mountain climber for dear life.

He turned to face her. "Promise I'll see you again?" he asked with a sad smile. He laid in a makeshift bench, his face pale and nearly transparent. "I always like hearing about your stories."

Luna nodded. She leaned closer and nuzzled him on the neck. "I promise."

"Ya know, I might never see you again," he said, leaning back. He coughed violently for a few minutes before regaining control. He placed a hoof to his head and moaned. Sweat ran down his forehead and he was noticeably a lighter color than normal, but he smiled. "Still, I'll wait for as long as it takes. Always for you."

"Of course."

The time gently slipped away, until finally the moon started to fade into the horizon, replaced by its celestial counterpart. Pip had fallen asleep, gentle snores drifting from his drooling mouth. Gently, Luna draped a blanket over him and walked towards the doorway. She took one last look back. "I wish you well. Do not worry, I will return someday." As she closed the door behind her, she shook her head. It was too soon, like always, but it always happened sometime. For this particular colt, his time was coming not in the distant future.

Luna snapped back to reality. It had seemed like such a short time since then, despite the fact that it's been many months. He had held on for far longer than anypony would have thought, determined to hear from Luna one last time. She didn't mean to keep him waiting, she had just lost track of time. But the last letter that she was sent sounded urgent and by looking over his figure, it looked like his time was up.

She sighed as she stroked a flock of his mane. Normally pony lifespans were already short enough, but his was about to end way ahead of schedule. Several years after he came to Ponyville, he contracted a disease that soon left him unable to walk.

"This colt will probably not become a stallion," the doctor told his foster parents.

Although he had to stay indoors, his enthusiasm never waned. The innkeeper who had adopted him always brought him into the lobby, where he could talk with many of the adventurers that had passed through. Robbed of his ability to experience life directly, he lived vicariously through others instead. As each new face appeared, he would ask, "Where are you from?"

"Where are you going?"

"Can you tell me a story?"

Occasionally interrupted by a fit of coughing, he would sit and listen with all of his heart. With sparkling eyes, he reassured the guests that he was fine and urged them to continue.

"And then? And then?" he asked.

When they had to leave, he would beg them to return. "Please come back and tell me more stories about other places. I'll be waiting." As they left the inn, he waved until they disappeared before giving one last lonely sigh and climbing back into bed.

The first time they had met, Luna thought Pip was afraid of her. She had just proclaimed that Nightmare Night was over. Yet, a little white colt approached her and asked her to come back next year, to scare the foals again. Little did she know was that he, as well as the other foals in Ponyville, loved being afraid. It was like an adventure, to not know what was behind the shadows, the lurking darkness, and what lay beyond the stars. The unknown was scary and yet, exciting... fun. Intrigued by the little colt, Luna promised that she would.

After Luna's escapade to Ponyville, she eventually wondered what had happened to her admirer. Upon a return visit, she found him at the inn. Like many of the prior passersby, she relayed her stories to him as well. Thankfully, her long life provided her with a wealth of stories to pass the time with. They spent hours upon hours just talking, Luna about her banishment to the moon and proceeding adjusting to the unfamiliar world and Pip asking his endless stream of questions. For once, Luna was thankful that somepony actually took the time to care. Finally, she had a friend. Even if she knew that it wouldn't last forever.

Year after year, she visited Pip, always relaying her experiences. Even after he was stricken by the disease, his enthusiam and spirit never seemed to falter. Luna did her best to come up with the most interesting parts she could think of, a warm glow burning within her heart as she told of her epic tales. She told him many things.

About the dolphin ride on the moon, about the time she had met an astronaut, about the mysterious shaped moon rocks that looked strangely like body parts. She made sure only to mention the good, never the bad. Instead of mentioning her loneliness and guilt, she talked about vast, bottomless sky, the patterns of stars, and the beauty of Equestria from her special vantage point.

After she talked about all she could about her past, she began talking about her more current adventures. About how she tried to use a fan, her obsession with socks, and her friendships with Twilight Sparkle.

But eventually, Pip began to get worse. Luna could do nothing but fear the inevitable, powerless. The feeling was worse than the loneliness she had felt while on the moon, and she gripped at the strings of hope, wishing that it wouldn't happen until the next year.

A violent cough brought Luna back to the present again. Pip had stopped snoring and was now laying on his back. Gentle breaths rolled across his lips, a slight wheezing whistled through the air.

"My sister says that the kingdom was invaded while I was asleep. I told her that I wish I could have helped but she reassured me that it was alright. I felt like she was pushing me away. Not letting me help with anything important or always treating me like a child. So I ran away. I ran as far as I could to the ends of Equestria. I came to a place called "Pangaea" where the ponies didn't believe in the power of Celestia and believed it was the work of a different god. Isn't that silly?"

Luna chuckled, and she could swear that she saw Pip's pale white cheek move slightly.

He can hear her. He might not be able to speak or see anymore, but he could still hear. At least, that's what Luna hoped. Wanting to believe with all of her heart, she continued her story.

"At first, I just listened and I learned that although they believed in a different god, they acted very similarly to the way we do. Some ponies seemed rather obsessive, but they weren't bad ponies."

She told Pip about their way of life, the fascinating ponies she met, and even about the admirers of the night sky.

"I wondered why they didn't believe that alicorns could even raise the sun and moon, so I asked. It was because they had never seen it first-hoof before. I wanted to prove it was possible, so the next night, I showed them. It took me a few minutes, but I made the most amazing constellations into an amazing patchwork of stars. It was a clear night and my best work yet."

Luna leaves out the part about the rioting, the madness caused by ponies having their beliefs shot down, and how some ponies couldn't handle the truth. There was no talk of the massacres that followed, how she had to run, how they had threw stones at her. Instead, she focused on the inquisitive young fillies, the helpful stallions, and the elder ponies with the stories of her own.

She sighed. Luna knows that this will be the last story she will ever share with him. Never able to see him again, to tell him stories again. Even as she relayed her tale, the night continued on, blissfully unaware. Just before dawn, when the darkness of night has reached its peak, long pauses entered into Pip's breathing. The frail thread that was his life was about to snap as Avart Garde and his wife enter the room. They watch over him, Luna turning away to look out the window. The tiny glimmer of hope and friendship that had remained in her heart was flickering.

Tears running down her cheeks, Luna turned back to Pip and said, "It'll all be okay, Pip. Pretty soon, you'll be able to walk again. To run again. You'll be able to experience the life that was taken away from you and you can do anything you want. At last, you'll be free."

"Someday, you'll meet everypony again. All of your friends and family, they'll be there." She stopped, trying not to think of the fact that she's not included. No matter what happens, time will continue to march on, but Luna won't be able to leave. Putting a hoof to her chest, she stuttered out her last words. "Thi- this isn't goodbye. We... we'll meet again someday."

She lied to him. She didn't want to, but she wanted him to know that death isn't a bad thing. After she finished, Pip's breathing gradually stopped, his face transfused with a tranquil smile as if to say "I'll see you someday." A tear slowly glides down his cheek.

Avart Garde placed the blanket over Pip's face, a stoic expression on his face. The wife is bawling her eyes out, using a nearby pony as a hankerchief. After saying her goodbyes, Luna slowly trotted out of the room and then, the inn. No thoughts pass through her mind, if anything, there is only nothingness. As she walked onto the hill that overlooked Ponyville, she could only turn back and stare. Wiping away her tears, she sighed. Just like that, another young life has been severed and her only friend was now gone. With nothing else pressing on her mind, she laid on the ground. Her mind blank, she gently drifted off to sleep.

The Mane Six in: Tie Fighters

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A long time ago, in a marketing department far, far away...

… a young writer was tasked with writing a tale that would stand the test of time. In typical corporate fashion, they gave him an obscene deadline and almost no direction beyond idioms and slogans. Spurred by the challenge (not to mention the fact that his job was on the line), this intern gave the task his all.

The resulting story was, at best, tangentially related to his original assignment. One benevolent board member saw potential in this misfit production, and wrangled for it a scanty budget from which to operate. Unfortunately, production costs drove the studio to bankruptcy, but not before a majority of the material was filmed.

In a stroke of genius, the young writer locked himself in the editing room, emerging days later with a feature film cobbled together from the second half of the script. Desperate, they released the film, in the hope that its revenue could finance a special effects department skilled enough to someday complete the first half of the work...


Episodes IV-VI

With Lightsabers and Stuff

Twilight Sparkle poured the stranger a glass of milk. “We don’t get too many travellers out here,” she remarked. “What brings you to these parts?”

Twilight set the milk down. The stranger, a bubble-gum pink mare, downed it in one gulp. “I’m looking for somepony,” she said, setting the glass aside with an air of detachment.

“That sounds ominous,” Twilight replied as she sat down across from her guest.

“Oh no, not like that!” giggled the stranger. “I need their help. I’ve got a super-duper-huge-enormous problem, and this pony is the only one who can help me.”

Twilight raised an eyebrow. “Who is it?” she asked, intrigued.

“It’s you, silly!”

The other eyebrow went up. “Me?” Twilight scoffed. “I’m a moisture farmer. What could I possibly help you with? Did you spill water on your library books?”

She stood up and took the stranger’s glass. “Wait,” she said suspiciously. “How do you know my name?”

“I was sent,” her guest replied, “by a friend. She’s super sorry she couldn’t ask you in person, but they hit a bit of a bump!”

The stranger smiled. Unnerved, Twilight stood up to take her glass. “Do you want more?” she asked.

“No thanks! I had a big breakfast.”

Twilight backed up to the sink, keeping her guest in view as she dropped the glass in. “So, what’s the message?”

The stranger cleared her throat and sat erect in her chair. “Twilight Sparkle,” she began, taking on an officious-sounding accent, “years ago, you served our Princess in the Discord Wars. Now we ask you to aid us in our struggle against the New Lunar Republic. I regret that I am unable to bring my request to you in person, but my space carriage has fallen under attack, and I am afraid my mission to bring you to Canterlaan has failed. I have placed information vital to the survival of the Rebellion into the memory systems of this—”

The stranger stopped suddenly. “Hang on, that can’t be right...” she muttered, pulling a large stack of papers out of her saddlebags.

She consulted them for a moment. “Aha!” she exclaimed finally, pulling a marker out of nowhere and making some annotation to the pages. “Sorry about that,” she giggled as she put the papers away. “Where was I? Oh yeah!”

She cleared her throat again. “I have given information vital to the survival of the Kingdom to this messenger. You must see her delivered safely to Canterlaan. Help me, Twilight Sparkle. You’re my only hope.”

The stranger relaxed. “That’s it!” she concluded.

Twilight stared. “Who are you?” she asked slowly.

“I’m Pinkie Pie!” piped her guest. “I brought this message just for you!”

“Yeah, I got that,” said Twilight flatly. “But what the hay is going on? I mean, sure, I was in the Discord Wars, but I’m retired! I can’t do anything now!”

She eyed Pinkie Pie warily. “Besides, I may not like the New Lunar Republic, but at least they’re not...” Twilight struggled to find the right word. “Crazy.”

Pinkie pouted. “I knew I should have done the song,” she said under her breath.

“Look,” Twilight said impatiently. “Why me? That’s all I want to know.”

“Because, Twilight,” Pinkie said, standing up from her chair, “You led the research on friendship during the Discord Wars. You know more about it than anypony else. If anypony can restore Harmony to the Elements, it’s you!”

She turned to rummage in her saddlebags again. “I brought you something,” she said, setting her delivery on the table.

Twilight gasped. “My old tiara!” She picked it up reverently. “Where... how did you...”

“It doesn’t matter,” Pinkie said. “The point is we have them, but without you we can’t use them, so they’re just a bunch of pretty paperweights! And paperweights aren’t fun, no matter how pretty they are to look at. Or wear.”

Pinkie raised a hoof to her neck. Twilight’s heart skipped a beat as she noticed the jeweled necklace her guest wore. “You...” she whispered.

Pinkie giggled. “Me!” she said. “You can trust us, Twilight. But we need to know we can trust you.”

Twilight looked down at her Tiara, then back at Pinkie. “I’m in,” she nodded.

“There she is,” Pinkie Pie whispered. “Act natural.”

They trotted up to the bar. Their target, an orange mare wearing a wide-brimmed hat, glanced sideways at Twilight but said nothing.

Hi there!” Pinkie Pie shouted, erupting from behind the pony in an explosion of confetti and streamers.

“Whoa nelly!” cried their target, falling off her stool. “What in the hay was that for?”

“My name’s Pinkie Pie! I need a ride off the planet, and I heard you can help! So can ya?”

The orange pony pulled herself upright. “Goin’ around sneaking up on ponies like that, I can see why folks would want’cha gone,” she grumbled. She massaged her freckled cheek and looked over her shoulder.

“Sorry about that,” Twilight introduced herself. “I’m with her. My name’s Twilight Sparkle, and she’s Pinkie Pie. I need to bring her to Canterlaan.”

“Charmed,” replied the mare. “I’m Applejack. And she’s right, I could give you two a ride. But keep it down, alright?”

Pinkie Pie ran her hoof across her mouth. “Mm-hmm,” she said, mouth zipped.

“Right. Come with me, I’ll give y’all the lowdown.”

They snuck out the back door of the bar and through a number of winding alleyways. Twilight kept one eye on her back – she rarely came into town, and the stories she’d heard were ample incentive to keep it that way.

“Here we are!” Applejack said, opening a door to admit her clients. “And there she is!” She gestured towards the spacecraft that dominated the hanger before them. A half-circle with a fifty-length radius, the chassis was wide from side to side, thin in front and thick in the back. The rear was covered in engine exhausts large enough to fit four ponies comfortably (if unsafely). From there, the chassis thinned to a rounded taper, like an enormous metal apple slice laying flat on its side. Where the core would be, a wide-angle viewport that bulged slightly out from the center commanded their attention.

“The Century Foxwhelp!” Applejack said fondly. “The ship that made the Kettle-Cook Run in under twelve parsecs.”

Twilight wasn’t very familiar with ships, but she doubted this thing was ready to kettle-cook anything except its passengers. “What a piece of junk!” she exclaimed, eyeing a dent in the landing gear paneling nervously.

“Hey now,” Applejack said. “She may not look like much, but she’s got it where it counts. I made a lotta special modifications myself – and with the help o’ my first mate.”

A cyan pegasus wearing a welding mask rolled out from under the ship on a mechanic’s creeper. “There you are, Rainbow Dash!” Applejack said. “Got us another job! This here is Pinkie Pie and Twilight Sparkle. They’re goin’ to Canterlaan, same as us!”

Rainbow Dash pulled the mask off, revealing a filthy full-spectrum mane, and took a swig from a pouch on her saddlebags. “Rah-g-g-g-g-g-g!” she gargled loudly.

Applejack glared. “Manners, Rainbow, c’mon!”

The first mate spat the concoction out. “Sorry, AJ,” she said. “I needed a swig.” She wiped her lips. “I’m Rainbow Dash. You two hop on board, we’ll be outta here in no time!”

Twilight eyed the ship nervously. “Okay,” she said. “If you’re sure this thing can hold.”

“Sure as sugar!” Applejack said with an emphatic nod. “Y’all get comfortable. Canterlaan’s a long trip, and the Pubs ain’t exactly fans of ours.”

“Pubs?” asked Pinkie Pie.

“New Lunar Republicans,” Rainbow Dash explained as she screwed in a loose panel. “They’ve been really cracking down on apple smugglers lately.”

“Like us,” Applejack said grimly. “Nothin’ to worry about, though. We outrun those goofballs every time!”

“Nothing to worry about,” Twilight echoed faintly. “Right.”

BANG. The hangar door burst open, and in stormed a squad of imposing-looking stallions clad in grey armor. “Halt!” commanded one of them. “You are all under arrest for conspiracy to commit treason!”

The troopers levelled juice rifles at the girls. “Uh-oh,” Pinkie Pie deadpanned.

“Inside, now!” yelled Applejack. Shoving Pinkie and Twilight aside, Applejack pulled a pistol out of nowhere and leveled it at the troopers. “Rainbow, bolt ‘er up!” she said around the gun in her teeth.

“Drop your weapon!” ordered the trooper. “You have three seconds!”

One-’hwo-’hree!” Applejack shouted, and opened fire. BLAT! BLAT! BLAT! echoed her applesauce blaster.

The troopers dove for cover. Rainbow Dash picked up her toolkit and scrambled to her hooves. “Done! Let’s go!” she yelled as she flew inside.

Applejack backed up the ramp, trading fire with the troopers all the while. BLAT! BLAT! One bolt whizzed within a nose of her face.

She kicked the ramp controls. “Up! Up! Go go go!” she shouted, holstering her pistol as she ran to the cockpit.

With a high-pitched whine and a bright green glow, the engines roared to life. The Century Foxwhelp rose into the sky, the troopers below firing their fruit juices uselessly at its underbelly all the while. FWOOM! roared the engines as it shot into space.

Inside, Twilight breathed a sigh of relief. “That... That was close!” she said, chuckling weakly.

“We’re just getting started.” Rainbow Dash bit her lip. “Look!”

Twilight leaned around the pilot’s seat. “What is that?!” she asked.

Standing out against the inky blackness of space, an array of tiny glowing satellites were floating directly ahead of their tiny craft. An enormous translucent purple barrier was filling in the gaps, like oozing liquid, between the hundreds of orbs.

“Nuts!” Applejack exclaimed. “They’re jammin’ us!”

Pinkie Pie licked her lips. “That sounds delicious!”

“It’s anything but!” Rainbow Dash gritted her teeth. “They’re putting up a wall of raspberry jam around the planet. I can’t get us up to heartspeed in time – we’ll crash!”

“Stinkin’ knockoff preservative consumerists!” grumbled Applejack. “We’ll show them a thing or two!” She pointed to Twilight and Pinkie. “You two! Get on the turrets with me! We’ll blast our way through!”

She galloped down the hall, grabbing a headset as she rounded the corner. Too fearful to argue, Pinkie and Twilight did the same. “Down there!” Applejack commanded.

Twilight jumped down the hatch and settled into position. “Big red button to shoot,” Applejack’s voice crackled in her ear. “Just line up them crosshairs, easy as pie.”

Suddenly, the ship lurched. A screaming noise passed overhead.

“Applejack! Those were Tie Fighters!” Rainbow interrupted on the intercom.

“Horsefeathers!” Applejack shouted. “The pie turrets fire too slow for ‘em. We’ll be sitting ducks!”

Pinkie Pie chimed in. “Send me outside! I can take ‘em!”

“How?” Rainbow asked.

“I have a lightsaber!” Pinkie replied. “They’ll never expect it!”

Twilight facehoofed. “Pinkie, that’s crazy!” she exclaimed.

“But it just might work,” Pinkie Pie countered smugly.

The ship banked sharply. Twilight’s face mashed against an ammunition monitor.

“There’s no time to argue! It’s our only option!” Rainbow Dash shouted into the microphone. “Pinkie, take the rebreather suit by the door! There’s an airlock just left of it. Do your stuff!”

“On it!” Pinkie’s voice crackled. She hurried to the door and suited up. “It’s time to cut the cake,” she declared with maniacal bravado as she pulled the helmet over her head.

She stepped into the airlock and kicked the lever. The WHOOSH of the vacuum propelled Pinkie right on top of the first Tie Fighter. “YAAAAAAHHHH!!!” she yelled, brandishing the pink-bladed energy weapon as she stabilized herself.

The fighter was flat and wide, but unlike the Century Foxwhelp most of its machinery was in a ball housing the cockpit. Two trapezoidal fins stuck out horizontally on the sides, giving the craft the appearance of a bow tie if seen from above.

A perfect perch for Pinkie to stand on as she made her move.

“I’ll teach you to go high-fructose!” she screamed as she hacked into the Tie Fighter’s wings. Inside, the pilot’s eyes widened in terror as his craft began to buck and weave out of control.

Finally, the starboard wing was severed entirely. Pinkie jumped from the craft a second before it exploded, sending the pilot flying back to the planet, parachute unfurling and a moping look on his face. “How you holding up?” Pinkie asked the girls on the ship.

“We found a faulty pod!” Applejack squawked back. “If we can just destroy a few next to it, we’ll have a hole big enough to leave through, lickety split!”

“Not if they keep shooting at us!” Rainbow Dash exclaimed. The ship barrel rolled to avoid a close shot of syrup, sending Twilight’s pie flying wide. “There’s too many of them! Hurry, Pinkie, I can’t keep this up forever!”

Pinkie grabbed a roll of streamers from her utility belt. “Never leave home without ‘em,” she said cheerfully as she tied a lasso and swung it at the next Tie Fighter.

With a resounding TWANG, the lasso caught, and Pinkie reeled herself in. “HEEEEEERE’S PINKIE PIE!!!” she shouted, sinking her lightsaber into the fighter.

When her sabotage had run its course, she jumped into space once again. “Two down!” she exclaimed. “They shoulda used candy coating!”

The turret ponies were having similar luck. “There goes another pod!” Applejack said happily as her apple pie artillery connected. “One more oughta do it!”

Twilight pounded the joystick, firing pie after pie at the berry-emitting balls. Without warning, a Tie Fighter flew into her firing arc – and collided with her shot.

“I got one!” she cried out happily. She looked up the ladder at Applejack. “Applejack, I hit a fighter!”

“Great, kid!” she replied, her jaw clenched. “Don’t get cocky!”

Dash’s voice sparked to life. “Watch out, girls, there’s more where that came from! Reinforcements off the port side!”

Twilight looked through the glass. Sure enough, a fresh squadron of Tie Fighters was closing in – along with an Star Destroyer.

“That destroyer’s a Windsor-Class Knotted Tie,” Rainbow whistled. “They really must not want you to leave!” She pulled the Century Foxwhelp into a steep dive. “They’ll be on top of us any minute! One more bombing run, girls, make it count!”

The Foxwhelp pitched sideways, giving both turrets a clear shot at the orb array. Twilight held her breath, fired–

BOOM!! The pod exploded in a splash of apple cobbler.

“We’re through!” Applejack shouted in delight. “Pinkie, get on board, we’re outta here!”

Pinkie yanked her saber out of her latest victim. “Aww, is the party over already?” she pouted as she kicked off from the tumbling Tie Fighter.

The Foxwhelp swooped in low, and Pinkie latched on with her streamer lasso. Twilight ran from the turret to help pull her inside.

“I got her!” she shouted, as she and Pinkie galloped up the hallway.

“Alright!” Rainbow Dash said with relish. “Let’s blow this popsicle stand!”

Applejack rejoined the girls in the cabin. “Strap in, you two,” she said. “Time to thread the needle!”

The ponies obligingly buckled up. Rainbow flipped a glass cover. “See ya, suckers,” she cackled, and hit the switch.

Safely past the blockade, the Century Foxwhelp hummed along at point-five past heartspeed, giving the mares time to collect their thoughts.

“A Windsor-Class Tie,” Rainbow Dash repeated in amazement. She took a swig from her canteen. “What’s a Windsor doing all the way out here? In the outer rim?”

“Probably looking for me!” Pinkie said cheerfully. “I escaped from a Kingdom star carriage that the Pubs were boarding.”

Applejack leaned back in the copilot’s seat. “Yeah, but you’re just one pony. What makes you so special?”

Pinkie Pie shrugged. “Probably my vanilla icing recipe. Mr. and Mrs. Cake always said it was so good it oughta be illegal. And here I am now...” Pinkie held her head in her hooves. “Where did it all go so wrong?” she asked, her voice cracking.

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Twilight chastised her, giving Pinkie a pat on the back to be safe. “She knows something,” she said, looking up at the smugglers. “When she found me, she said she had information vital to the Kingdom’s survival.”

Pinkie looked up. “I did, didn’t I?” she said, the smile back on her face. “Did you two want to hear the message?” She sat up straight in her chair. “Ahem. Twilight Sparkle, yea-mmph mmm-mmmph!” she garbled around Twilight’s hoof in her mouth.

Twilight sighed. “That won’t be necessary, Pinkie.” She withdrew her hoof. “But you never did tell me what information you had.”

Pinkie tapped her chin. “Well, if it wasn’t my icing recipe, it was probably the thing about the hermit.” She snapped her hoof (somehow). “That’s it! The hermit!”

“What hermit?” asked Twilight. “What are you talking about?”

“Rarity and I found this hermit on planet Froggibottodagobog. He didn’t say much, but he knows about the Elements!” Pinkie Pie stood up and began bouncing up and down. “He can help you to restore Harmony, and maybe even defeat the New Lunar Republic!”

“Really?” exclaimed Twilight. “Well, what are we waiting for? Let’s go!”

“Sounds like a plan,” said Rainbow Dash. “Next stop, Froggibottodagobog!” she exclaimed as she punched it into the GPS.

Applejack snorted. “Amateur. We didn’t need those in the old days.”

“I know, AJ, I’m just as old as you,” Rainbow said dismissively. “I just like having another reason to blame you when you miss an exit.”

Pinkie Pie stopped bouncing. “Uh, girls?” she asked, her head appearing between the two pilot ponies. “Aren’t we forgetting something?”

“I don’t know, are we?” asked Rainbow as she took another sip from her canteen.

“We have to rescue Rarity!” The rest of Pinkie’s body joined her head at the front of the cabin. “I’m the only one who made it off her ship! They probably took her to their prison on Cloudsdale!” She waved her forelegs in exasperation.

“But what about Twilight?” asked Applejack. “Her job’s important too. We can’t just pass up a chance to kick the Pubs for good!”

“So drop me off on the way,” said Twilight. “Come and pick me up once you’ve found Rarity. I’m a quick study, I’m sure I’ll learn everything in time.”

Rainbow shrugged. “Okay then,” she said. “Glad that’s settled.”

The girls fell silent. Pinkie reclaimed her chair, and for a while the four mares simply sat. Only the gentle hum of the engines followed them into their thoughts.

Finally, Rainbow Dash emitted a frustrated growl. “Applejack, how do you queue waypoints on this thing?”

Twilight waved as the Century Foxwhelp hummed back above the canopy. “Guess I’d better find this hermit,” she said, pulling out her flashlight.

She clambered onto a fallen trunk as thick as an alicorn was tall. “Wish I could see further,” she said. “Stupid tre— Oh.” Twilight clucked her tongue. “Trees. I’ll climb a tree.”

Twilight jumped down from her vantage point. “Aha!” she exclaimed triumphantly as she found one with enough low-lying branches.

She reached over the branch. “Hnnnnngh!” Twilight grunted, her eyes bugging as she strained to pull herself up.

CRACK. The limb snapped. Caught off balance, Twilight rolled down the hill and into a stagnant puddle.

“Bleaugh!” Twilight spat out the rancid water. “Not my best idea today.” She crawled out of the puddle and shook herself off.

Suddenly, Twilight heard a rustling in the bushes right next to her. She caught her breath. “Hello?” she called out. “Are you the hermit?”

She raised her flashlight, and gasped. Two lavender eyes were staring back at her.

They blinked.

“This is not gonna work,” Applejack muttered through her teeth.

“Sure it will!” Pinkie Pie squeaked. “Just act natural, like I did when I met you at the bar!”

Applejack facehoofed. “Right,” she groaned as the elevator doors opened.

Pinkie confidently led the three girls up to the desk. She and Applejack were clad in stolen NLR uniforms, while Rainbow Dash walked between them wearing (unclasped) hoofcuffs.

The guard at the desk looked up from his computer. “Where are you taking this... mare?” he asked, looking distastefully at Rainbow’s unkempt mane.

“Prisoner transfer from cell block one-one-three-eight,” Pinkie replied, falsely deepening her voice.

He raised an eyebrow. “I wasn’t notified,” he grunted. “I’ll have to clear it.” He gestured to the two guards guarding the cell doors, then reached for the intercom.

Uh-oh, thought Rainbow Dash. Thinking quickly, she threw off the cuffs and flapped her wings furiously.

Applejack caught on instantly. “Look out, she’s loose!” she cried, brandishing her juice rifle. She fired wide and downed the guard at the desk.

Pinkie followed suit, firing her own weapon wildly. “AAAAAHH!!!” she screamed, shooting out the camera cluster over the desk.

Within moments, the room was still. “Go, go!” Applejack commanded. The three of them ran down separate hallways and began searching the cells.

“Nope... Nuh-uh... No... Not here... Nope...” Pinkie muttered to herself, zipping from peephole to peephole. “No... Nuh-uh... Nope... No— Eew eew eew, gross!”

She backed away frantically, bumping loudly into the cell door directly across. “Who’s there?” cried a muffled voice from inside.

Pinkie Pie peered inside. “There you are, Rarity!” she exclaimed, pushing the console.

The door whooshed open. Inside, a snow-white unicorn was backed into the corner, standing atop the bench. “Get away! Get away you ruffian!”

She froze. “Hold on. Aren’t you a little short for a moontrooper?” she scoffed.

“Huh?” asked Pinkie Pie. “Oh yeah, the uniform.”

She pulled off the helmet. “Rarity, it’s me, Pinkie Pie! I’m here to rescue you!”

“Pinkie?” Rarity exclaimed. “Oh, thank goodness!”

They ran back into the cell corridor. “Applejack, I found her!” Pinkie Pie yelled.

A pony appeared at the front desk. “I found her, let’s get out of here!” Pinkie repeated.

BLAT! BLAT! BLAT! The pony responded by firing their fruit rifle up the hallway.

Aaaaahh!!!” Rarity screamed as they dove back into the empty cell.

“That’s definitely not Applejack,” Pinkie noticed, her voice perfectly level.

“You think?!” Rarity yelped. “We have to get out of here!”

“Hold on!” Pinkie said. Gunshots still echoed from outside. “Aww, they’re starting the party without me!”

Rarity restrained her rescuer. “No, Pinkie!” she exclaimed. “I lost you once already! I am not losing you again!”

She snatched Pinkie’s fruit rifle. “What are you doing?” Pinkie asked.

“Somepony has to get us out of here in one piece!” Rarity shot a hole in a grate near the floor. “In you go! We’re leaving!”

“But what about our friends?”

“They’ll be fine – I’m sure they can look after you better than you can anyway! Now go, into the vent!”

Rarity kicked Pinkie into the vent, then crawled in after her. Almost instantly, it began to slope downwards.

“Careful, Pinkie,” Rarity whispered. “It would be very easy to sli-aaaaahh!!!

Rarity rocketed down the chute and bashed into Pinkie Pie. They rocketed through the tunnel, bashing into right-angle turns and bumps until it abruptly spat them out the bottom in a tangled heap of hooves.

“Ughhh...” Rarity groaned as she stood up. “Where are we?”

The chamber they had fallen into was perfectly circular, with a number of large, convoluted-looking machines emitting a sinister red light around the walls. The floor was covered in thick metal grating, with the exception of a solid panel in the center of the room.

Pinkie Pie shivered. “I t-th-think th-that w-we-we’re in-n a f-fr-free-z-zer!” she said, her teeth chattering.

“It certainly is very cold in here,” Rarity agreed. “Still, at least we lost them.”

The moment she said this, a squad of moontroopers materialized behind them. “Cuff ‘em!” one of them barked.

“Aww, they brought the party to us!” Pinkie said cheerfully as the two of them were restrained. “How nice!” Rarity simply screamed.

“Silence!” commanded a guard. He gestured to the others, and they pulled Rarity and Pinkie to opposite ends of the room.

“Her majesty has a special punishment in mind for you,” he said, walking menacingly behind Pinkie Pie, “after your little escape. Or should I say, escapes.”

“Hey, you can’t blame me for that! I had a delivery to make!” said Pinkie. “If this was about the vanilla icing, I could understand, but—”

“I said silence!” the moontrooper barked. He pressed a button on a nearby console. Clucking noises began to echo from below the grating. “You won’t be troubling the New Lunar Republic ever again,” he growled, grabbing hold of Pinkie’s mane.

“Ow ow ow ow ow ow OW!!!” she yelped, but the trooper paid no heed as he dragged her to the center of the room. Her footsteps echoed on the metal plating. The clucking grew louder, as if her presence goaded it on.

“The cockatrices are ready, sir!” shouted one of the guards at the room’s perimeter.

“No!” Rarity screamed, struggling against her bonds. “Pinkie, no!”

A buzzer sounded above their heads. “It’s okay, Rarity!” Pinkie smiled.

“Pinkie...” Rarity looked pleadingly at her friend. “I love you.”

Pinkie Pie looked serenely back at Rarity. “I know,” she said quietly.

The platform sank into the cage. A cloud of smoke billowed out from below, and the clucking rose into a frenzy.

Rarity shook with fear. The smoke cleared, and before she could help herself, Rarity looked into the cage.

Pinkie Pie had been petrified.

Twilight took a cautious sip from her bowl. “This is delicious, but how soon can we go see the hermit?”

The tiny alligator said nothing. In fact, it had said nothing since Twilight had found it in the bush.

“I hate to be rude, really,” Twilight said hurriedly, “but he knows about the Elements of Harmony, and I need to learn how to re-master them so I can defeat the New Lunar Republic. The fate of the galaxy rests on me finding that hermit!”

The alligator blinked.

“Ugh!” Twilight huffed. “Fine, I’ll eat!” She finished her soup in resignation and set the bowl aside. “There, all done,” she said, standin upright. “Now, can we— Ow!”

Twilight rubbed the back of her head and sat back down. “Gosh, your ceilings are so low...” she grumbled. “As I was saying, can we please go and find him?”

The alligator slowly raised a leg into the air.

“Oh good, we’re moving.” Twilight breathed a sigh of relief.

But the alligator did not move. He simply stood, stationary, with his front right foot held into the air.

Twilight stared blankly at the lizard. Suddenly, something clicked. “You’re the hermit?” she asked incredulously.

“Eh-choo!” The itty bitty gator sneezed mightily, exposing an utter lack of teeth.

Twilight sat down eagerly. “Oh, this is wonderful! Please, tell me your secrets, hermit! I have come only to learn!”

She scratched her chin. “Well, also to hear all sorts of magical secrets that will help me overthrow a tyrannical, overbearing military regime and change the political future of this galaxy for decades to come. But mainly to learn!” she finished, nodding vigorously. “I like learning!”

The alligator slowly waddled out of its tiny hut. Twilight struggled to follow, eyes bulging as she squeezed through the front door. “Oh, this is so exciting!” she whispered to herself under her breath.

The alligator came to a stop by a ball of yarn lying in the dirt. “What’s this?” she asked.

The alligator slowly raised a claw again, then clambered on top of the ball. Once atop the yarn, it stood up on its hind legs, then on a single leg, then on its tail.

The ball did not quiver.

Twilight watched in awe. “Oooh,” she exclaimed. “That’s impressive! Is that my first exercise?”

The alligator blinked, but otherwise remained stationary.

Twilight turned around. Before her stood a boulder exactly as tall as she was. “Here goes nothing,” she said as she jumped up.

Once she found purchase, Twilight clumsily mounted the rock. Steady... she thought, struggling to concentrate as the rock ground against the dirt.

“Okay... Easy now...” she breathed, slowly raising herself onto her back legs.

Twilight felt the rock lurch. “Oh no,” she exclaimed as it began to roll. “No, no no no no no nonononono— OW!!!

She fell off the boulder and landed face-first on a stump. “Oww... SNERK!” Twilight rubbed her nose. “This is going to be harder than I thought,” she moaned.

The alligator sneezed again, never once falling off the ball of yarn.

Applejack fired her applesauce blaster down the corridor. “We have to find another way around!” she shouted over the noise.

“No!” Rainbow Dash yelled back, hiding behind a waste bin. “I heard Pinkie Pie yelling for us before. We have to save her, AJ!”

“I think we’re the ones who need saving right now,” Applejack said. She fired two more shots – BLAT! BLAT! – both of which connected with moontroopers by the front desk.

Applejack heard a pounding noise from the cell door next to her. “Keep it down in there, I’m busy!” she yelled, bucking the door.

Applejack’s hoof missed, instead mashing the control panel. The door hissed open, revealing a cream-yellow pegasus. “Oh, thank you so much!” she said faintly. “It’s so stuffy in here!”

A shot of raspberry whizzed past the door. “Aaaaahh!!!” she screamed. “What was that?”

“Berryfire!” Applejack shouted, tackling the pegasus to the floor. “Stay down!”

Rainbow Dash blind-fired around the trash can. “Great, another passenger!” she remarked sarcastically. “One rescue mission was crazy enough!”

“Rescue?” asked the new pegasus. “You’re here to rescue me?”

“Not you, Sugarcube, somepony else!” Applejack said, trying to see around the corner. “But as long as you’re here, come with us!” She withdrew as a barrage of berry syrup whizzed past.

The pegasus glared at the pockmarks in the wall left by the shooting. “How dare you,” she muttered, marching out into the hallway.

She held up a hoof. “EVERYPONY STOP SHOOTING RIGHT NOW!!!” she bellowed.

Incredibly, the moontroopers obeyed. The cell block fell deathly silent as she stormed up to the desk where they had taken cover.

“Look here, mister!” she shouted, nose-to-nose with the nearest guard. “Just because you’re wearing that armor, just because you work for the Republic, doesn’t mean you get to run around shooting ponies like that! How dare you? I have half a mind to go and tell your mother what you’ve been up to, young colt! And the other half agrees!”

She fixed her glare on the guard. He lowered his head, not daring to break eye contact. “But it’s my job...” he whimpered.

“Well, that’s a pretty awful job to have!” the pegasus thundered. “And I suggest you find a new one! Now drop the gun!”

With a tiny squeal, the guard dropped his rifle. She backed off a hair. “Now, you go on home and rethink your life,” she said. “And the rest of you, too! Shoo!”

The moontroopers scampered over each other back to the elevator.

Applejack and Rainbow Dash looked at each other, then back at the pegaus as she rejoined them behind their cover in the cell corridor.

“So, uh, you wanna go save Pinkie Pie now?” asked Rainbow Dash.

Without another word, they galloped down the hall. “Pinkie went this way,” Applejack said, leading them into the middle cell corridor.

“I gotta ask,” said Rainbow Dash, looking at the new pegasus. “Who are you? And how did you do that?”

“I’m Fluttershy,” she said, her voice once again barely more than a whisper. “And I really don’t know.”

They came to an open door. “This one’s open and empty,” Applejack said. “And look – the grate’s blasted open! I’ll bet they came this way!”

Rainbow Dash looked out at the corridor. “Well, nowhere else they could have gone,” she said matter-of-factly. “Let’s check it out.”

They dove down the chute. “Gosh, it’s cold in here,” Rainbow shivered once they reached the bottom. “But seriously, Fluttershy,” she continued, “that was really cool. What you did back there, I mean. What was it?”

Fluttershy hunched her shoulders. “My parents call The Stare,” she mumbled. “Everypony else calls it a Jedi Mind Trick. I don’t really know, though. I’ve just always been able to do it.”

Applejack pointed her pistol ahead and scanned the room warily. “Well, whatever it is, we might need it again,” she said, clenching the blaster in her teeth. “Stay close.”

Suddenly, an array of overhead lights turned on. The three of them winced, and Fluttershy tripped on the metal grating.

When their eyes adjusted, they saw a lone guard standing by a door on the far side of the room, fruit rifle leveled at them. “Halt!” he commanded. “You cannot trespass here!”

“Watch me!” shouted Applejack. BLAT! She downed him with a single shot.

“What are you doing?!” Fluttershy cried, horrified.

“He’s just knocked out,” Applejack dismissed her. “‘Sides, we ain’t got time to give every moontrooper in the building a talkin’-to!”

She strode forward – straight into a hole in the middle of the chamber. “Whoa nelly!” she cried, right before landing face-first at the bottom of a cage.

Applejack stood up and dusted herself off, then gasped – she was in a cockatrice cage.

“Not good!” she yelled, pulling a rope out of her saddlebags and keeping her eyes down. She was about to swing it up, when—

“Wait a sec.” Applejack noticed a curious rock in the cage with her. “That statue looks just like... Pinkie Pie!”

She tossed the rope up. “Pull me out!” she yelled, tying the other end of the rope around Pinkie Pie. “Put yer backs into it, girls, I got a passenger!”

Rainbow and Fluttershy bit into the rope, heaving the two ponies up. As soon as the grate was in reach, Applejack bounced up and helped them carry Pinkie the rest of the way out.

“Nuts, Pinkie,” Applejack muttered. “How do we fix you?”

As if in answer, Fluttershy jumped into the cage. Two seconds later, she flew back out, cooing gently as she carried a cockatrice in her hooves. “I need your help, friend,” she said, setting it down next to Pinkie.

The cockatrice ruffled its feathers. “Buccaw!” it exclaimed, opening its eyes wide and staring at Pinkie Pie.

With an ear-splitting CRACK, the statue exploded. The girls jammed their eyes shut as rock splinters flew everywhere.

Pinkie instantly sprang to her feet. “Girls! Thank goodness you came! They took Rarity to the hangar! We have to hurry!”

“Pinkie sense! I got stone-hard all over, it means Rarity’s been kidnapped! Now let’s get out of here!”

Too busy to argue the universal meaning of petrification, they followed Pinkie through the door and made their way to the hangar, a huge room with black tile floors and walls. White lines delineated floating and parking zones throughout the hangar. If the a number of diagonal-parked Tie Fighters and stray shipping containers was anything to go by, though, the moontroopers paid them no heed.

“Short trip,” Rainbow observed as they hid behind a cargo crate.

“Hush!” Applejack cut her off. “There she is!”

She pointed with her hoof. Parked right next to the Century Foxwhelp, a boxy-looking freighter was lowering its entry ramp. A platoon of guards stood in formation before it. Sure enough, Rarity was being held at gunpoint right in the middle of them.

“Double-parkin’ scoundrels!” Applejack growled as she un-holstered her blaster. “Come on!”

She pounced over the crate. “Let ‘er go!” Her shout boomed and echoed off the hangar walls.

The troopers turned around. One of them broke ranks and trotted up to Applejack. “Ha! What’re you gonna—”

BLAT! Applejack fired an applesauce round straight at his head. The guard crumpled to the ground. “That,” she answered.

The two guards holding Rarity ran at the transport. “Don’t just stand there, shoot her!” one of them shouted.

The platoon leveled their weapons at Applejack. Before the first shot rang out, though, they heard a voice from above. “Bombs away!”

They looked up, only to be greeted with face-fulls of apple pie. “Direct hit!” Rainbow Dash shouted, holding Pinkie Pie in her hoofs.

They swooped around for another pass. “Get to Rarity!” Rainbow Dash shouted to Applejack as Pinkie dropped more pies.

Applejack galloped through the disarrayed platoon, giving any that got too close a buck in the face for good measure. BLAT! BLAT! Two well-aimed shots downed the guards that were pulling Rarity up the ramp.

“Down here, with me!” Applejack shouted.

Rarity jumped down from the ramp without question, and together they ran behind a knocked-over shipping container.

Applejack leaned around the corner. “Get down!” she ordered Rarity as she fired her blaster back at the platoon.

“Thank you for rescuing me,” Rarity said, “but I certainly hope you have a plan!”

BLAT! BLAT! BLAT! Applejack let loose another round, then ducked behind cover. “Sure do, Miss Rarity.” She pointed across the hangar. “That’s our ship, right there. Soon as the coast is clear, we make a break for her.”

SSSSS-BOOM!!! A huge ball of purple goo soared past the cargo container, exploding in the space between the ponies and their ship.

Rarity looked at Applejack. The force of the explosion blew her hair in the wind. “Once the coast is clear,” she repeated faintly. “Of course.”

Applejack gripped her hat. “Rainbow, what was that?”

“They’re lifting off the Tie Fighters in the hangar bay!” Rainbow Dash shouted back. “We gotta get out of here!”

Applejack gulped. “Toss Pinkie their way, have her cut ‘em up again!” she ordered. “Buy us time to get inside!”

SSSSS-BOOM!!! Another Tie Fighter round exploded, this one closer to the ship. “Now!” Applejack yelled. She and Rarity sprinted across the open space. Applejack fired her blaster behind her for cover as they darted to the Foxwhelp. BLAT! BLAT Her shots went wide, but scared the pursuing moontroopers into diving for cover.

Rainbow Dash flew up to the hovering Tie Fighter. “Do your stuff, Pinkie!” she said. Grunting, she threw her pink friend into space.

WHEEEEE!!!” Pinkie shouted as she free-fell onto the Tie Fighter. In a blaze of pink, its wing was severed and the craft plummeted to the hangar floor instantly.

Pinkie rolled to the ground. “I love bringing surprises!” she squeaked.

She bounced away from the wreckage, lightsaber clutched illogically in her hoof. “Who else wants one?” she shouted to nopony in particular, and jumped in among the moontroopers.

Hearing her war cry, the guards turned to face their new adversary. But Pinkie was already on top of them – screaming at the top of her lungs, she lashed at guard after guard. Her lightsaber was a technicolor fan, deflecting their shots in all directions.

A raspberry blast hissed by her cheek. “Muffins!”, Pinkie yelled. “Are!”, she hoofed a trooper in the face. “Not!”, she slashed him with her saber. “DESSERTS!”, she bucked him into a crate. “And don’t you forget it!” she screamed with finality, as the crate fell on top of three other guards.

At last, Applejack and Rarity reached the Century Foxwhelp. “Argh, don’t tell me I left the keys inside!” Applejack grumbled as she turned to look in her pack.

Rarity smacked her hoof with her face. Her horn lit up, and a second later a densely-packed keyring floated out of Applejack’s saddlebags.

“Good thinkin’!” Applejack exclaimed, as a bolt of raspberry whizzed past. She pulled out her blaster again. “Qui’ shoohin’ me alreahy!” she shouted through the handle in her mouth, returning fire as she spoke.

The ramp opened. “Get in and start ‘er up! I’ll cover you!” Applejack shouted. BLAT! BLAT! BLAT! Another moontrooper fell over.

As Rarity ran up the ramp, Fluttershy landed in her place. “Where were you?” Applejack shouted, pushing Fluttershy up the ramp.

“I went around the long way!” she cried. “I couldn’t help it, there were so many!”

Applejack rolled her eyes. “Girls, come on! Time to fly!” she called out.

Rainbow Dash dumped one last volley of apple pies. “Aye aye!” she shouted, dive-bombing the troopers. She skimmed along the hangar floor and zipped up the ramp. “Didn’t even touch the ground!” she said, with a satisfied flap of her wings.

“Brag later, Rainbow,” Applejack chastised her as she bucked the door console. She galloped into the cockpit. “Buckle up, y’all!”

Rainbow followed and sat down beside her. “Punch it,” Applejack said she belted herself in.

“Stop! Wait!” Fluttershy galloped in behind them. “We forgot Pinkie Pie!” she exclaimed. “Look!”

She pointed into the hangar. Sure enough, Pinkie’s lightsaber was still out there, whirling like a dervish among the hordes of moontroopers. As the Foxwhelp’s engines roared to life, she stopped to stare.

“I’ll go catch her at the door!” Fluttershy said, running away.

Suddenly, another Tie Fighter lifted off inside the hangar bay. As it turned to face the Foxwhelp, Applejack saw Pinkie Pie throw something up in the air. Applejack blinked, and the next thing she knew Pinkie was atop the Tie Fighter.

“Fluttershy, that won’t be necessary!” Applejack called back.

Rainbow raised an eyebrow. “Why not, AJ?”

“‘Cuz she found another ride,” Applejack said as she hit the thruster.

The Century Foxwhelp soared out of the hangar. Pinkie’s Tie Fighter lurched along behind it, like a rodeo pony bucking its rider.

Applejack spun her chair around and flipped a couple of ceiling switches. “Mission accomplished, girls!” she said proudly.

“Uh, Applejack?” Rainbow tapped her shoulder. “We’re not out of the woods yet.”

Applejack spun back around and looked out the window. “Why, what’s goin’—”

Her jaw dropped. “Land’s sakes...” she whispered.

Floating just outside of the planet’s atmosphere was a two-thousand-kilometer-long star cruiser. Its body was long and flat, like the blade of a sword, with thousands of tiny nodes and towers dotted along its top. At the rear, a ball-shaped central control tower was pushed along by four red-hot exhaust ports – large enough to play cupholder for a small moon – that left smoky trails that stretched on into infinity.

The Windsor-Class Tie was back.

“Well, that’s just it then,” Applejack said. “No way we’re getting past that.”

A shadow passed across the viewscreen. “Wait! What’s that?” Rainbow Dash squinted out the window.

Something was blotting out the sun, and flying fast towards the Foxwhelp. “That’s a fighter!” Applejack exclaimed, pulling down a periscope as they drew closer. “A Hex-Wing class!” She scratched her head. "What's a zebra fighter doin' out here?"

“Hey girls!” a voice crackled suddenly through the radio. “Glad to see you all are in one piece!”

Applejack beamed. “Twilight! Boy are we glad to see you! We’ve had nothin’ but trouble since ya left!”

Static-laced laughter sounded through the comm. “Well, don’t worry, girls. I’ve got a spell that will fix everything!”

Rainbow Dash and Applejack hoof-bumped in celebration. “I guess you learned a lot from the hermit, huh?” asked Rainbow.

“He was a little strange,” Twilight said, “but very wise. I’ll tell you about it later. For now, let’s get you ponies out of here!”

As the Century Foxwhelp and its escorts steered towards the Windsor, red lights along its body began blinking slowly. A swarm of dots exploded out from the red lights and flew straight at the Foxwhelp.

“More jammers!” Applejack groaned as she looked through the periscope again. “And Tie Fighters!”

“Goodness, the fun never ends with you ponies, does it?” Rarity remarked.

“Save it, Rarity,” Rainbow snapped.

“Uh, girls?” asked Twilight on the comm. “There’s a Tie on your six as well.”

“Yeah, that’s Pinkie,” Rainbow Dash explained. “Hold o—”

She gasped in horror. “Pinkie Pie’s in space!” she cried.

The Tie Fighter came up alongside their ship. Pinkie Pie stood atop it, lightsaber in hoof, and her cheeks puffed out. She raised her saber in salute to the Foxwhelp. Then, flicking her streamer rope like a horse’s reins, she rocketed ahead.

“What is she doing?” asked Rarity.

“Hay if I know,” Rainbow said, taking a swig of her drink.

Pinkie brandished her lightsaber and steered her steed into the cloud of pods. In a flurry of pink, she bounced from machine to machine. “MMMPH-MMMM-MMMMPH!!!” she grumbled furiously. “MMMPH!!! MMMM!!! MMMMPH!!!

The other Tie Fighters quickly caught on to their comrade’s treachery. “Mmm-mmmph,” she said, as a raspberry blast rocked the underside of her Tie Fighter. “Mm-mm-mmm mmph!”

She jumped from her craft right as a fuel line ruptured. Metal debris raining around her, she lassoed another Tie Fighter and continued her assault. “Mmmmph!!” she screamed, cutting into a jamming pod with her lightsaber.

As Pinkie carved a swath through the NLR machinery, Applejack steered the Foxwhelp into the hole. “This is gonna get rough!” Applejack bellowed as they entered the mess.

“Need any help?” asked Twilight through the radio.

Rainbow mashed the intercom with her face as the Foxwhelp pulled up. “Don’t worry about us, Twilight!” she ordered, rubbing her snout. “Get in close to that Windsor, and see what kind of damage you can do!”

“On it!” Twilight rolled into a dive and flew close to the cruiser. “That trench looks promising,” she said, banking to avoid a raspberry round from the turrets below.

SSSSS-BOOM!!! SSSSS-BOOM!!! Two shots hissed across the nose of Twilight’s Hex-Wing. “Get! Into! Trench!” Twilight screamed. “Come on, I gotta get under the turret’s firing arc dive now oh Celestia no!

Twilight shoved the joystick forward an instant before another bolt soared near her craft. “Pull! Up! Grrr!” she groaned, clenching her teeth.

With all the eagerness of a pet rock on a leash, Twilight’s fighter leveled off, and she found herself in the trench. “Phew!” she breathed, wiping her forehead. “That’s the hard par—”

Twilight was interrupted by a blinking light on her console. “‘Enemy lock’?” she read from the label. “What does that mean?”

She looked in her rear-view mirror, and saw two Tie Fighters in hot pursuit. “You have got to be kidding me!” she complained.

On the opposite end of the Windsor, the Foxwhelp ducked and weaved through the field of demolished robotics. Rainbow Dash yanked the craft into a 90-degree right, following Pinkie’s lead as she hacked and slashed a path for the ponies to follow.

“Easy, Rainbow!” Applejack shouted as she banged her head on a cockpit screen. “Watch the G’s!”

Behind them, Rarity was turning green. “I’m going to be sick!” she moaned as the craft pulled a barrel roll around two jamming pods.

“I’ll take her!” Fluttershy offered. “Come on, bathroom for you,” she coaxed Rarity to her hooves, and the two ponies lurched out of the cockpit.

The door shut behind them. “Now we can concentrate,” Applejack said smugly, raising a hoof to adjust her hat.

“Look out!” Rainbow Dash yelped, yanking the control stick to one side.

For once, Rainbow was not fast enough. The Foxwhelp flew straight into a cloud of raspberry jam, coating the windshield in a goopy purple mess.

“Nuts and shoes!” swore Applejack as she tried to see through the gunk. “I knew I should have sprung for the wipers!”

Rainbow Dash rose to the periscope. “It doesn’t matter!” she whooped. “We’re through! Pinkie cleared a path! She did it!”

As if in response to Rainbow’s jubilations, Pinkie Pie suddenly mashed up against the windscreen. “Aaaah!” Rainbow cried out in shock.

Pinkie paid the pilots no mind. Instead, with a flick of the tongue, she licked all the jam off the glass, leaving it sparkling clean. Pinkie made a gagging face, then gave a hoofs-up to the ponies inside and jumped off again.

Applejack and Rainbow Dash looked at each other, then stared after Pinkie Pie. “I ain’t even gonna ask,” Applejack deadpanned.

Meanwhile, Twilight was pitching her Hex-Wing from side to side as much as she dared in the trench’s narrow space, trying to avoid the Tie Fighter’s fire. “I need to find a weak point,” she muttered, regulating her breathing so as to avoid another freakout.

She pressed a convenient-looking “MAGIC SONAR” button. Ping, it echoed, and a moment later a schematic of the Windsor appeared on her display.

“Perfect!” she said happily. She began to study the diagram between intervals of bobbing and weaving.

“Ooh, exaust ports!” she exclaimed after a minute. “That sounds promising! And there’s even one in this trench!”

Twilight reached for a switch on her foreleg rest titled “ARM PHOTON TORPEDOES”. “A little anachronistic, but it’ll have to do,” she sighed, giving it a flip.

Twilight peered at the diagram again. “Vent’s coming up soon,” she said. “Better lose the boys!”

She fired a torpedo down the trench. BA-BOOM! Her torpedo made contact with the trench wall, and the metal plating began to collapse.

Twilight punched the throttle. “Come on, come on,” she pleaded as her Hex-Wing surged ahead.

Just as the plating began to fall, Twilight’s fighter zipped through. “Haha!” Twilight cheered, watching in her rear-view mirror as her trap guillotined one of the Tie Fighters. A dull rumble told her that the second fighter was also too slow to go around.

Twilight looked down the trench. She had mere seconds to the vent. “And here... we... go!” she uttered, timing her second torpedo.

“It’s away!” she yelled to nopony in particular as she pulled up, her payload discharged.

As she flew out of range of the turrets, Twilight caught sight of Pinkie free-falling towards the nose of the Windsor. “What’s she doing?” Twilight asked frantically into the radio.

“Hay if we know,” Applejack replied. “But she sure is doin’ it!”

Twilight slapped her forehead. “No, you don’t understand! The Windsor is going to—”

She faltered as Pinkie raised her lightsaber overhead. “MMMMM-MMM-MMMMMMMPH!!!” Twilight heard her scream in space.

As she landed on the nose of the Windsor, she slammed her lightsaber down. Twilight watched in disbelief as the cruiser tilted forward with the force of her blow.

At that moment, a tremendous explosion rocked the middle of the Windsor. Twilight had to remind herself of her torpedo as the blasts chain-reacted out to the fins of the spacecraft. A concussive wave rocked Twilight’s Hex-Wing as the Windsor detonated, cleft in two by the force of the blowout.

“Sweet Celestia!” Applejack cried into the radio. “Did Pinkie do all that?”

“I may have stuffed a torpedo inside an exhaust vent,” Twilight’s admission crackled back.

“Come on,” Rainbow Dash said, nudging the Century Foxwhelp forward. “Let’s get Pinkie inside.”

They approached the smoking wreckage. At the tip, Pinkie Pie could be seen, laughing hysterically through tight-shut lips. Incredibly, she was still clutching her lightsaber.

“Bring her close,” Rainbow said. “I’ll get the hatch.” She unbelted herself and left the cockpit.

As Applejack pulled her in, she thought she saw a disturbance in the smoke. “Twilight, I think there’s... Oh no.”

A cloud of purple mist rose from the severed Windsor. “Twilight, look out! She’s here!” Applejack yelled.

“Who’s here? Where?” Twilight crackled back.

“Nightmare Moon!” Applejack cried, right as the purple cloud zipped into space.

“What?!” Twilight exclaimed. “But that’s— AAAAAHH!!!

What it was, she never said. The cloud tore through Twilight’s Hex-Wing like a pinata, flinging her to the wreckage below.

“Twilight! Twilight!” Applejack screamed.

“I’m alright!” Twilight replied. “I’m wearing a rebreather suit!” Using magic, she alighted on the nose half of the Windsor.

The cloud condensed before her, then materialized into a midnight-black horse that stood half as tall again as Twilight. She wore indigo armor with a teal crest on the neckpiece, and bore both wings and a horn.

“Nightmare Moon,” Twilight hissed.

“Twilight Sparkle,” the evil alicorn simpered. “I have been expe—”

Mmm-wmmph!” Pinkie squealed suddenly.

Twilight turned around to see her friend floating towards her. “Mmmph!” she shouted, and threw her lightsaber at Twilight.

She grinned. “Thanks, Pinkie!” she yelled back.

“Mm-mm!” Pinkie waved, and drifted back to the Foxwhelp.

Twilight ignited the lightsaber. “You were saying?” asked Twilight smugly.

Nightmare Moon rolled her eyes. “I have been expecting you.”

“Did you expect all of this?” Twilight gestured at the steaming pile on which they stood.

Her adversary shrugged. “A minor setback. I have something far better planned anyway – it’ll be here any minute now.”

Twilight smiled. “We took down your cruiser with only a lightsaber and a missile,” she said. “Whatever it is, we can handle it together.”

“I don’t see your friends now!” Nightmare Moon gestured around them. “Your last one just gave you a glowstick and floated away!”

Twilight took a deep breath and pulled her helmet off. “Impossible!” Nightmare Moon exclaimed, as she beheld the tiara Twilight wore.

Twilight re-sealed her helmet. “And what’s more, I know how to use it now – even without my friends by my side!”

“You lie!” her adversary hissed. “You can’t defeat me!”

Twilight sighed. “Your overconfidence is your weakness,” she said resignation, levitating her lightsaber before her.

Nightmare Moon conjured a lightsaber of her own, this one bladed purple. “Your faith in your friends is yours!” she shouted, and charged.

Their sabers clashed. Twilight staggered under the force of the blow. Nightmare Moon withdrew and vaporized.

“Oh, come on!” Twilight exclaimed. “That’s cheating!”

“Life’s not fair,” Nightmare Moon muttered. Twilight whirled around and parried the alicorn’s backstab, countering with a lunge of her own. A hair away from connecting, Nightmare Moon vanished again.

“Let me be clear,” her voice echoed. “I’m toying with you. And as soon as my new toy arrives, you’re gone.”

“You can’t throw me away that easily,” Twilight shouted.

“We’ll see,” Nightmare Moon replied, and materialized again. They traded blows once more, Twilight barely keeping the alicorn at bay the whole while.

“You’re getting tired, Twilight,” Nightmare Moon taunted the next time she vaporized.

Twilight panted, keeping her eyes up. A she scanned the arena, one glint of metal stood out. Her heart skipped a beat. That’s her lightsaber! Twilight realized.

Her horn glowed, and she snatched it out of the air. “Mine now!” Twilight said gleefully, as she levitated the two blades before her.

Nightmare Moon growled. “Fine! Keep it!” she said, pointing into space. “I’ve got a better one now anyway!”

A distant purple glow had appeared where the alicorn had gestured. With a WHOOSH, it began to twirl and expand, until it dwarfed the ruined Windsor they stood atop in size.

Emitting a horrible shrieking sound, a dark mass appeared at the far end of the wormhole. It grew and grew, until it took distinctive shape as—

“Behold!” Nightmare Moon declared. “The Moon!” She shot lightning into the sky for emphasis and laughed maniacally. “And, as it happens, my own little Death Star,” she added slyly.

Twilight gulped. Not much I can do about that, she thought to herself. Outwardly, though, she kept a brave face. “I’m still stronger than you!” she shouted, her voice quavering slightly.

Nightmare Moon laughed again. “Now who’s overconfident?” She leveled her horn at the Moon. “This bores me. Time to open my present.”

The alicorn’s horn pulsed once. A fragment of light drifted away to the moon. “ Say goodnight, Twilight,” she said, laughing once more. “After all, it’s the last thing you’ll ever see.”

Twilight wracked her brain. I was supposed to use the Elements against Nightmare Moon, not the moon itself! she thought frantically. There’s nothing I can do about this unless I—

“That’s it!” she cried aloud.

Nightmare Moon huffed through her nose. “I’m not even going to ask,” she said dismissively, instead raising a hoof in salute to the moon.

The speck of light reached the moon. One of its craters began to emit an eerie green glow.

Twilight braced herself, her own horn glowing so brightly it shone right through her helmet. As the moon’s light solidified into several green beams, Twilight’s tiara began to shine as well.

Suddenly, Twilight began to hear her friend’s voices in her head. You’ve got this, Twilight! echoed Rainbow Dash.

Go on! Show her who’s boss! Applejack’s voice joined in.

I believe in you, Twilight! Fluttershy said gently.

We all do, dear, added Rarity.

Show her what we do to ponies who use artificial sweeteners! Pinkie shouted zealously.

The moon’s beams coalesced into a single green laser. “Goodbye, Twilight,” Nighmare Moon said. She dropped her hoof.

PH-TEW!!! The moon beam pulsed at Twilight right as her tiara’s light burst. Nightmare Moon shielded her eyes from the explosion, laughing as the pyrotechnics went on.

But they did not subside. Instead, they shrank to a single rainbow-colored point of light above Twilight’s horn, and to the twin glows of Twilight’s eyes.

“What’s this?” exclaimed Nightmare Moon.

Twilight shrugged. “Ask Gummy,” she said, and leveled her horn.

Nightmare Moon screamed. “What the fu—


The rainbow stream erupted from Twilight’s head, blew right through Nightmare Moon, and stretched onward into the infinite blackness of space, leaving a gaping hole stretching the entire length of the wreckage.

It was, as Rainbow Dash would later tell Twilight over and over and over again, awesome.

“So, what made you pick this planet for the party?” asked Twilight. She levitated a drink off the squat waiter’s tray.

“I dunno,” Rainbow Dash admitted. “I heard something about Ewoks knowing how to get down, but...”

She looked down at the lower level. A crowd of pastel-colored teddy bear creatures were belly dancing with each other, giggling in high-pitched voices while a bad house beat oontzed from the speakers in the corner.

“... yeah,” Rainbow Dash said. “I’ve seen better.”

“Why didn’t Pinkie Pie throw a party?” Fluttershy asked.

“Yeah, Applejack said. “I thought that was her thing.”

Rainbow Dash smirked. “She did,” she said, trotting onto the balcony. “But it’s supposed to be private.”

She pointed down into the parking lot. In the backseat of their carriage, the friends could make out Pinkie and Rarity...

“... making out.” Rainbow Dash snorted.

Twilight rolled her eyes. “Alright. Well, let’s see if we can get the DJ to play a better tune.”

The four friends trotted inside, to enjoy a night of well-earned rest.

Now Departing

View Online

“This is a stupid idea.”

Apple Bloom picked her head up to meet Scootaloo's gaze. She was pacing back and forth before the bench, her wings twitching every so often. Her mane was a mess of unkempt violet curls and frazzles, looking as if it were purposely driven to look as chaotic as possible. Or maybe it was just from the winds of the early morning; she found it hard to tell.

“You promised,” she said, her voice glum and devoid of its usual pleasantness.

“I know and I'm here!” Scootaloo brought her hoof down, slamming down on the wooden platform. A tint of red quickly crept into her face from the number of ponies gazed at her, puzzled by her sudden outburst. “I just think you're doing something really stupid,” she continued a little quieter.

Apple Bloom's lips quivered and for a moment, she contemplated on telling her friend what to do with her opinion. The anger dissipated within the moment though, as she knew petty squabbles were a luxury she couldn't afford at the moment. She merely sighed and looked at the letter next to her again, taking in every single sentence one-by-one.

“I made up my mind.”

“You're stubborn.” Scootaloo huffed and grumbled some more, her wings unfurling. Most pegasi were slightly more careful not to let their wings reveal every single shift of emotion, but she could care less. “All three of us are,” she added, cracking a tired, somewhat sleepy smile.

“Where's Sweetie Belle?” Apple Bloom asked.

“She'll be here.” Scootaloo looked at the schedule again. She still hard more than thirty minutes left till departure. “She said she'll just have to be careful, because Rarity is like a hawk, while she's asleep.”

A smile forced its way through Apple Bloom's barricade of melancholy, although she fought to hold back the giggle following it.

“My folks are sound sleepers, especially Applejack. Granny says her snorin' keeps them Timber Wolves away.”

Scootaloo snorted and broke into a giggling fit, with her chiming in on it soon enough. Others were giving them glares of disapproval, but neither of the two young mares chose to care. They wanted to make the most out of the few minutes of unrestrained happiness they could get, knowing it would be their last for a while. The chuckles eventually faded into heaving chests and chattering teeth, once the chilly air did its work.

“Did you pack everything?”

“I didn't have much.” Apple Bloom opened up her little sack and rummaged through the contents for the umpteenth time.

A little food, a small blanket and a picture of her family were pretty much all that resided within the striped sheet. The most important was still the letter her under her guarding hoof through. So many promises were placed into those few, but very carefully chosen sentences. She still felt dizzy whenever she took the time to really think of the journey she was about to embark upon.

“You should have at least talked to them.” Scootaloo peeked into her friends fairly empty inventory, her disapproval clear as she scrunched her nose a little. “Granny Smith would have made you a pie. Anything's better than oatmeal.”

“I couldn't.”

She cast her eyes upon the letter again, as if it was liable to disappear into thin air. That little parchment held her future and nopony could take it from her. The words had burned into her mind; each and every word has rung in her head a million times already.


“I can't just done up and tell 'em!” Apple Bloom raised her voice, her face slowly changing to match the color of her hair. The ponies around them no longer paid any mind, far too used to the idea that the two would shout till the train's whistle drowned out their voices.

“Why?” Scootaloo asked, scowling at her friend. “You family is the nicest in all of Ponyville. They'd understand—“

“Understand what?” Apple Bloom snapped, only to immediately force herself to calm down as quick as possible. The last thing she wanted was to drive away the only friend who had come to see her off so far. “I'm sorry Scoot... I just... this ain't as simple as when we went crusadin' all the time.”

The pegasus was ready to argue, but couldn't find it in herself to refute any of her friend's points. She was right after all. Their crusading days were over now, especially now that Apple Bloom was about to leave. She always hoped to be the first to leave, maybe on a grand adventure with her idol, Rainbow Dash. This seemed more and more like something out of a childish dream. Something she should have grown out of already.

“I love the farm... and I love my family,” Apple Bloom mumbled, leaving Scootaloo confused whether she was talking to her, or no one in particular. “But I wanna see Canterlot and the Academy and... Scoot, I got accepted! The first time I didn't need any help and I got and done it on my own!” she sniffled, holding back the batch of tears that threatened to break through her dwindling resolve.

“You did it completely on your own.” Scootaloo nodded. She could hardly forget the day she got the letter and before it really sunk in. Apple Bloom had been the happiest pony in all of Equestria, laughing and crying like a madmare.

“Cheerilee was the first who noticed,” she said, recalling a story she'd been clinging to a lot these past few days. Scootaloo knew it by heart already, but couldn't find it in herself to interrupt her. “You remember Snips munchin' on those leaves he found?”

“Yeah, I remember, Scootaloo said, peeking over Apple Bloom. She could only to see a bunch of older ponies, but no white unicorn. “That and Cheerilee freaking out when you started giving them those berries, too!”

“But it worked! Those leaves woulda left some big ol' rashes.” she said, her face brightening up just from this little story alone. “Zecora' a great teacher.”

“Her soup is terrible though.”

“Hey, you take that—okay, I reckon it really was icky.”

Both of them started chuckling again as the light of the day brightened up the station. Apple Bloom glanced up and bit her mouth. The hands were drawing closer and closer to departure and there was still no sign of Sweetie Belle. Part of her wondered whether she'd ever arrive. She suddenly swallowed as an even worse thought ran through her mind.

“Scootaloo...” Her friend grunted and took her eyes off the clouds over the horizon to look back at her. “What if she got caught?”

“By Rarity?” she asked back, shaking her head a little. “She wouldn't tell anypony. You know her.”


Her hoof danced along the lines on the letter, circling around the insignia of the Canterlot Academy.

“Apple Bloom!”

“I know!” she snapped back, smacking the paper. The name at the bottom stuck out like a sore hoof, making her eyes sting. She covered it up again, feeling sick just looking at it. “I know...”

“Look, you know I don't like this. You know I think it's stupid. But I'm still here and I didn't tell on you. Sweetie wouldn't either.” Scootaloo rubbed her shoulder and smiled. “Crusaders stick together, remember?”

“Always and forever,” she said and leaned forward, pulling the unsuspecting pony into a tight hug.

Scootaloo gasped in surprise, but didn't try to squirm away and instead returned the hug. The somewhat disgusted look on her face was adorable and not even Apple Bloom could resist a chuckle. Some things just never changed.

A loud honk separated the two soon enough though. The hands finally hit the spot they both dreaded, signaling that the express line to Canterlot was to arrive in just a few minutes. Scootaloo heard the familiar rumbling and could already see puffs of smoke. For all the times she complained how slow trains were, she wished it was even slower. She took a deep breath and swallowed, nervous as if she was about to take her flight exam.

“Apple Bloom...” Scootalo asked, her voice already giving away the question that was eating her. “Are you sure you'll be alright?”

“I don't know,” she said. She wanted to hide from Scootaloo's piercing stare so badly. “I mean... the Academy will gimme food and stuff, but I only got a couple bits—no, no, I'll be okay.”

“Will you visit us?” Scootaloo had to raise her voice as the train approached the station. Regardless how much she wanted to be like Rainbow Dash, her legs were still wobbling and she felt a pressure in her throat as well.

Apple Bloom stayed silent and hopped off the bench. She placed the letter in her bag and walked towards the edge of the platform, her anxious friend in tow. Scootaloo could barely even restrain her wings as they kept twitching and flapping even, responding to her jumbled feelings.

“Can I visit you?” she was just about shouting, the train's noise drowning out her voice.

Apple Bloom waited until the doors opened and hopped through. She looked back to see Scootaloo's biting her lips in a failed effort to drown her tears with pain. A smile appeared on her face and she reached out to pull the pegasus close to her one last time.

“You'll be the best flyer around these parts. Come see me anytime you want to,” she whispered, only to hear Scootaloo bursting into tears with a loud cry.

Both of them had tears running down their cheeks by the time they separated. Apple Bloom rose a little higher and left a kiss on her friend's forehead before stepping back as the doors closed up. They kept staring at each other while the train prepared to depart, telling each other so much more with just a simple gaze.

A blur of white suddenly exploded into view, tumbling head over hooves through the crowd on the platform Scootaloo looked back and reached out to help her get closer, only for the train to sound its final honk. The engines flared alive with raw power and the old, yet endlessly dependable vehicle began its slow trek towards the seat of Equestria's power.

Sweetie Belle dashed towards the doors, but it was already too late. Apple Bloom ignored the popping sound next to her and waved, but could no longer leave the cart. She watched her getting held back by Scootaloo, as she tried to outright jump onto the moving train. The unicorn eventually stopped struggling and burst into bitter tears in her fellow Crusader's hold. She guessed she was cursing Rarity, the train, possibly even her. She wondered if the others in Ponyville would do the same.

A troubled sigh left her throat once the train picked up speed. She'd done it; she had left Ponyville, her family and her friends, all for the promise of a different and exciting new life. Starting tomorrow, she was to learn alchemy and herbalism in the Canterlot Academy, under the best tutors Equestria had to offer. Part of her hoped she'd even meet the Princess, since her sister was the Element of Honesty.

Yet all of that seemed so far away. Right now, only the pain of separation remained. She lowered her gaze and bit her lip, wondering what Granny Smith would say, if she found it she forged her signature for the admission documents. Perhaps in due time, she would visit her again and beg for forgiveness. She looked at her bag again, fueled by the fear that she may have misplaced the letter. Sure enough, it was there.

But the bag itself was nowhere to be found.

Apple Bloom's heart instantly rose right into her throat. She jumped around and scoured the cart for her bag, but apart from a few ponies here and there with their own set of luggage, she could see nothing. The bag she took from Sweet Apple Acres, the key to her past and future was gone. Fresh tears streamed down her face as she ran across, desperately looking for her belongings.

She tired out in a matter of minutes and slumped the nearest seat, her face one of pure horror. Not only has she lost the letter, but everything she had with her. No food, no papers, no money, no nothing. Her mind raced back to Scootaloo's question and she sunk deep into the cushy seat, wishing she could just disappear.

She had nowhere to go.

“Hey kiddo, is everything alright?”

The youngest Apple flinched and looked aside with empty eyes, only to be met with a friendly smile from the ticket collector, an older brown-coated stallion with a thick, bushy beard and the kindest look anypony could imagine. Apple Bloom wiped her face clean, but that did nothing to stop the rest of her tears. She was bawling like a baby filly, who hurt her leg while trying to buck a tree.

“This wouldn't be your bag, right?” he asked, holding up a rugged sack that seemed a lot bigger than the last time she'd seen it.

“Yes!” she cried, jumping up from her sit. “But how—“

“A sweet young mare found it in the other cart. She said the owner must be sad it's missing,” the old stallion chuckled and gave her the already approved ticket. “Have a nice trip now!”

Apple Bloom could barely even think as he left through the door, still in shock over the events of the past few minutes. So much of this felt unrealistic and odd, that she could just not shake the feeling that she had been toyed with. She wanted to feel outraged, but found she was just plain happy she managed to recover all her stuff and possibly more.

Opening up the bag, she found it stuffed to the brim she hadn't packed at all. Her chin hung loose from all the brand new things that were placed in her bag, although perhaps a bit hastily. She rummaged through all of them and found herself crying once more, but with joy this time.

A warm blanket full of various animal motifs was wrapped around a white box, in which she found the prettiest dress she'd ever seen. After brushing through a set of party accessories, she found a set of books, along with an assortment of quills, ink and such. She could see that pack was a little much to have been gifted by just one pony, but she was certain she knew which one of her sister's friends needed some help with gift-giving.

Hidden beneath these heaps of helpful accessories was the true treasure though. Apple Bloom pulled out a bundle neatly wrapped in a large and very familiar checkered tablecloth. She found herself almost afraid to unwrap it, her hooves trembling. She'd left without a word, never told them of her plans and she even forged her grandmother's signature. Even with the rest of the gifts, she wasn't sure her family would forgive something like that.

Sighing, she undid the loose knot and unfolded the tablecloth. She gasped, her hoof rising to cover her gaping mouth. Inside lay a small purse, half a dozen apples, a new bow and a still warm slice of apple pie. She found herself sniffling again for what she hoped was the last time, fresh droplets running down her cheeks. Not only were they aware of her plans, but they even prepared all this just for her.

Apple Bloom's sobbed and giggled as she packed everything away again, save for the pie and a piece of paper. Canterlot was still a long way ahead, but rather than guilty, she just felt excited now. She no longer dreaded what would happen on her arrival. She no longer feared anything at all. Once she examined the ticket back to Ponyville, she wiped her tears and took a hearty bite.

She never thought a pinch of salt could make a pie so much sweeter.

No Foals

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Rainbow Dash sighed, sitting comfortably within the small office. There was someone else there talking to her, but her focus was on the clear blue sky outside the window just past them. It was basically preaching anyway, accented by the scribbles of a quill on paper. They had been droning on for minutes about things Dash could care less about, even if they were important. Her thoughts were with the sky, the freedom it brought, and how little she had left.

“Dash, are you happy?” The question was a hard one to answer, and hardly important to boot. Dash was starting to wonder why she even agreed to come. All the questions and philosophical nothings were a bore, and there wasn’t anything to fix, at least nothing urgent. The couch was uncomfortable now, or she was just feeling cooped up as she shuffled slightly on it.

Dash was silent, still focused on the window. “Why wouldn’t I be?” she said, imagining herself soaring through the blue with the wind in her mane. What she wouldn’t give to be out of this room.

“Because other ponies seem to think you might have some problems in your relationship.”

Right, that was why she was here. Because everyone else wanted to think there was problem. There wasn’t. Things with Applejack were fine. Fine is better than bad, even if it isn’t as great as good. Dash sighed, finally tearing her eyes from the window to look at her inquisitor. “Twilight, do you have to be so formal about this?”

Twilight looked up from the notepad hovering in front of her. “I thought you might benefit from a bit of structure dur—”

“I’d benefit from talking to my friend, not a psychiatrist,” Dash stated as she shuffled in her seat. She stared back at the sky, and a pegasus flying by just outside the window.

Twilight sighed and placed the pad and quill down before waving her hoof in front of the window. “Fine. Then stop ignoring me, Dash.”

Dash shook her head before looking back at Twilight. “Sorry, just... other things on my mind.”

“That aren’t important?”

What’s really important anyway? “I guess,” Dash said, shrugging. “This isn’t exactly a good use of my time so far.”

“Because you spent all of it looking out a window.” Twilight pulled the shades over the window behind her, and all of the other ones within the room. Dash could still see the sliver of blue between the red drapes, but it was enough to take her mind away from it.

“Like you were saying anything insightful to begin with, after dragging me here.”

“I didn’t drag you here,” Twilight replied, scribbling something down on the notepad, now on the desk beside her. “I invited you over after hearing about the problems you’ve ha—”

“Not. Any. Problems,” Dash stated, folding her forelegs as she laid back on the couch. “And AJ suggested it, not you.”

“... After talking about this with Applejack, she thought it would be a good idea if you had a chance to talk about everything... confidentially.”

“Cause I’m sooo good at opening up, right?” Dash stared up at the ceiling. She didn’t even keep anything from Applejack, so what was there to talk about?

“She said things are rough.”

“Nothing is perfect.”

“That you argue.”

“Who doesn’t?” Dash heard more scribbles. Great, Twilight was playing psychiatrist again..

“That you don’t seem as happy as you used to, when you were dating.”

Twilight left the statement hanging for a few moments. Dash didn’t want to respond to it. After all, things change over time, even what makes you happy, and how much it does. She was happy then. She was content now. At least she wasn’t sad, like some ponies are, and marriage... Marriage was different than dating. It was still love; it just wasn’t... exciting? Eventful? Important? No, it was still important.

Dash felt uncomfortable. It was probably the couch again. She sat up, looking down at her hooves for a moment before glancing over to Twilight. “Things are fine. We’re both still happy. We have disagreements, but so does everyone. It’s just how we are. Like a competition.”

Twilight stopped writing when Dash looked up, hoping she wouldn’t notice. She was rather late on that. “Applejack mentioned that.”

“Then that’s all you need to know.” Dash looked up at a clock, tapping her hooves impatiently. “Can I go now?”

“We’ve only been here for ten minutes, Dash. You can stay a while longer.”

“And listen to silence and you talking to yourself?” Dash stated, staring blankly at Twilight.

“... I suppose we can call it a day for now.”

Dash groaned, feeling the morning light peeking through her window. She turned over and pulled a pillow over her head. Why couldn’t the sunrise ever be late? She managed to do it often enough, at least when AJ wasn’t—

“Mornin’, sugarcube.”

She knew she felt something while still dreaming. It felt like a head wind, nudging her back and forth as she soared through some new imagined obstacle course. More likely, it was just Applejack getting up before the crack of dawn as usual during harvest time. Dash pulled the pillow off of her head, looking face to face with AJ at the foot of the dead. She stifled a yawn, and stretched for a moment. “Oh, morning AJ.”

“You weren’t thinkin’ ‘bout sleepin’ in again, were ya?”

Dash dragged herself out of the bed, taking a moment to stretch her legs and wings. They were usually a little stiff after sleeping. “I don’t usually think about it, it just happens.”

“I told ya to try workin’ on that... I might need your help soon.” Applejack walked to the door, lingering long enough to watch Dash walk through it.

“I have! I haven’t gotten up past noon in two weeks.” Dash yelped as she felt a hoof jabbed into her side.

“You need to be tryin’ a little harder then.” Applejack trotted past Dash, letting her tail brush against her side. “Come on, I got breakfast ready.”

Dash paused at the top of the stairs, watching Applejack walk down and disappear around a corner into the kitchen. Wake up call. Breakfast ready. Probably the same food as usual, for months on end. Nothing new. She walked down and into the kitchen, not at all surprised at the spread of bread, eggs, fruits, vegetables, and muffins. The muffins were probably from yesterday. There were extras left over yesterday. And there were the two shiny red apples, one by each plate.

Dash sat down at the table, quickly digging into her food. She only stopped when she heard Applejack’s hoof tapping against the table. Rainbow Dash leaned back, licking up some crumbs from her cheek. “Yes?”

“Did you go?” Applejack asked. She took a few bites of food as she waited for Dash to respond.

“Yeah. Don’t see how that’s helping.” “You just need to give it a chance.” Dash idly prodded her food before starting to eat again. Her focus began drifting to the blue sky, just behind Applejack.

“You need to give it a chance, Dash. No one accomplished anything by givin’ up.”

They just find what’s worth trying. “Yeah, whatever. I’ll try again later this week. I have some work to do this afternoon.” That was a lie. Applejack probably already knew it was, and that Dash was going to say it before she did.

“I thought you said the weather team was giving you a few weeks off to help me.”

“Emergency. Trying to get ready for a big storm next week.” That last part was true, thankfully.

Applejack sighed, shrugging her shoulder gently. “Fair ‘nuff. Promise to help tomorrow?”

“Sure.” Compromise. Same as usual. Usually happened three times a week, maybe four.

Breakfast lasted for a few more minutes. Most of the food was gone, except for Dash’s apple. She left it on the table as she got up, walking over to Applejack. She gave her a short kiss and nuzzle. “I’ll be back tonight. Don’t buck too hard. A tree might fall down on you.”

“That’ll probably happen about the time you go crashing into somethin’. Wait, that actually happens now and then.” Applejack smiled after returning the kiss. “Do be careful.”

“Yeah, yeah.” Dash rolled her eyes. She glided across the room, grabbing her saddlebags. After a small pause, she grabbed her apple from the table, dropping it into her bag. She was at the door when Applejack called out to her.

“Oh, and Pinkie is hosting a birthday party this weekend! She invited us, so, make sure not to make any plans.”

“Yeah, I won’t,” Dash muttered to herself. She walked out the front door, taking a moment to look over the orchard of apple trees before soaring above it. It only took her a few minutes to be over the town square in Ponyville, and she quickly found a cloud to sit down on.

It didn’t take Dash long after that to start to doze off again. Letting her thoughts drift to about everything she could imagine. The weather schedule. Wonderbolts try-outs later that year. Old memories. Those didn’t last long. It just wasn’t worth lingering on.

“Dash, are you happy?”

Rainbow Dash turned over on the cloud, trying to push the thought out of mind. She was happy. She didn’t need other ponies questioning that. Especially her friends, and especially with other things to worry about. Fretting and worrying about small things only made them worse anyway, and important; once they were important, you just had to worry about them.

She groaned, sitting up for a moment before bolting into the air. She soared through the sky, weaving between clouds and buzzing rooftops and hills. It only took a minute before she was out of the town entirely, leaving it at her back as she flew towards the mountains. She landed on a cliff on the mountainside and turned back to look at Ponyville. It had grown a bit in the past few years, but it was still just a small town.

Dash pulled the apple from her saddlebags and took a large bite. It was juicier than normal. Probably freshly picked this morning. She didn’t know why Applejack put in so much effort all the time. Wasn’t... important. Dash knew what was important. Getting better. Getting faster. Tryouts. Work... Her work, right?

She dropped the apple and looked out down at Sweet Apple Acres. It had grown, a lot. It was at least twice its size when Twilight had arrived. At least that’s what Applejack had been saying for a few weeks. They’d been living out of their house since the orchard had grown enough. It at least gave them some privacy. Though that was apparently gone with AJ blabbing about there problems.

No, no. There weren’t any problems. Things were fine. She was happy. AJ was happy, mostly. She was happy with work, and happy with family. She wasn’t always happy with Dash, but that was expected, right? Applejack probably changed like Dash did. Even if she didn’t, it was... natural to not be happy all the time. Even Pinkie Pie had rough spots, and that was saying something.

Dash sighed, nudging the half-eaten apple off of the cliff. Maybe she should give Twilight another try, but just once. Maybe she could convince her to just drop it, and then everypony else would just fall in line. After taking a moment to clear her head, she lifted off from the cliff, flying straight to the library.

It had grown, thanks to a few additions Twilight had made. She added two stories and widened the base. That was probably due to ponies actually coming to the library, and that meant she needed more space. That and to keep Spike around. It was weird to see a tree grow while it was being used. That was magic for you, though.

Dash landed at the front door and stepped inside. Twilight was behind the desk she’d placed in the main room, reading over several books floating around her. Spike was across the room, placing some books back on the top shelf. He’d grown... a lot recently. Twilight said it was probably something that happened with most dragons, given how large they end up. Dash could still remember when he’d barely come up to her shoulder, and now he was practically twice as tall as her, and then some.

Twilight looked over as Dash came in. “Rainbow Dash? I... didn’t expect to see you again, at least this soon.” She closed the books and stacked them on the desk before trotting around to meet her.

“Yeah, me neither.” Dash sighed, stretching her wings against her saddlebags. She looked over at Spike. “Can we go upstairs again?”

“Umm, sure. Spike, can you make sure to watch the desk for me?” Spike finished placing the books away and walked over to the desk, grabbing a seat behind it. Twilight led Dash up the stairs to her office, and made sure to close and lock the door behind them.

Dash put her saddlebags down by the door and laid down on the couch once again. It still felt uncomfortable. She stayed quiet as Twilight took her seat near the window. Thankfully, she was smart enough to close the curtains before she started talking this time.

“What did you want to talk about?”

Dash needed a few moments to think. She had to phrase it right. “Why... do you think there’s some problem?” Her hooves were restless, tapping against the couch.

Twilight rubbed a hoof against her chin. “Well, Applejack said that so—”

Dash jabbed her hooves into the couch. “I said you, Twilight. Why do you think there’s a problem.”

Twilight was quiet, opening and closing her mouth without a sound for a few moments. “Well... I guess it would just be an... assumption.”

“Based on what, exactly?”

“Well, there are times where you two have been fighting or arguing.”

“Everyone does,” Dash stated, again, as she rolled onto her back. She thought Twilight would have something new to s—

“Because you both aren’t happy.”

“I am!” Dash shouted, jolting upright on the couch with her wings outstretched. It took a moment of silence before she relaxed and laid back down. “... We both are,” she added, looking down at her hooves.

“Applejack doesn’t think so. She says you’re moody, or off-putting a lot of the time. That you’re not as passionate.”

“Like you’d know anything about... Sorry.” Dash rolled over turning away from Twilight. “Why does everyone have to think that’s a problem?”

Twilight coughed to clear her throat. “Well, most couples are... stable and positive around each other. At least around others.” It was obvious Twilight was trying not to offend Dash.

“And lie.”

“Umm, what do you mean, Dash?” Twilight asked, trying quietly to take notes once again.

“Oh come on!” Dash sat up, hooves raised in the air. “You honestly think every couple in Equestria is all... lovey-dovey every second of their lives? That they walk around happy and cheerful when they aren’t around other ponies?”

Twilight continued writing, even with Dash staring her down. “I would assume most of them are, considering they chose to spend their lives with someone.”

“No, they didn’t. They chose to settle for someone.” Dash tried to look past Twilight to the window, but she could barely see the blue sky behind the drapes.

“Even if they were happy and in love while dating each other?”

“Dating is different.” Dash stood up, trotting back and forth in front of the couch. “When you’re dating, it’s new. You learn about someone, and every date, or moment, or thought with or about them is interesting because you didn’t do it before, even if you don’t learn anything about them. You’re so focused on making impressions or earning their love while they earn yours, that it’s a competition, to see who can make the other fall head over hooves for them. And it’s fun.”

“And, it’s still a competition for the two of you?”

“It wasn’t. Not like that at least, because... we...” Dash looked back at the couch. She felt uncomfortable again, like someone was jabbing her in the back while twisting her stomach into knots. “We knew each other before then. We didn’t have to pretend to be someone to... fall in love.” Dash said it rather flatly, as if the word didn’t mean anything anymore.

“Well, maybe you two should look back on that.”

I do all the time. “Yeah... maybe.” Dash walked towards the door. “Thanks, I guess.”

“Dash... do you really think you’re happy?”

Dash stopped and turned back to face Twilight. “I already said ye—”

“Be honest. As a friend to a friend. Are you happy with Applejack?”

Dash was quiet, tapping her hoof against the ground. “Yes. Yes, I am.”


Dash picked up her saddlebags by the door. “Because... we really do know each other. And even if we aren’t perfect for each other like everypony thinks you need to be, and we fight now and then, we’re still happy.” She opened the door. “Me? I’m happy because we don’t have to lie to each other or anyone else, and if we are messed up as a couple, at least we won’t ever be able to raise a kid in the middle of it.”

Dash shut the door behind her before Twilight could respond. She didn’t waste anytime in leaving, even as Spike tried to say goodbye to her. It was a waste to come back again. It would have been a mistake if she hadn’t left.

Dash sat in the living room, looking over the pictures plastered along the walls and mantle while she waited for Applejack. She could see the sun setting just outside the window. The party was soon. She expected AJ to be done already. She was actually surprised she wasn’t. Maybe I should go upstairs, she thought, right before she heard the hoofsteps coming down the stairs.

Dash stood up, looking back at Applejack. “Ready?”

Applejack nodded. “Yeah, let’s go.”

The walk was long just to get out of the orchard. They followed the thin dirt road, twisting in and out of the groves of apple trees and darted by empty carts and baskets. Applejack cleared her throat after a few minutes of silence, and turned to look at Dash. “Dash, Twilight told me about you going to visit her again.”


“I thought you said you were busy that day.” Applejack stopped walking, but Dash continued walking forward.

“We... finished up pretty quickly. I had some free time, and thought I’d take your advice,” Dash said, turning to look back at Applejack. “Hurry up, we’re gonna be late.”


Rainbow Dash groaned, rubbing her hoof against her forehead. “Can we not do this tonight? Let’s just go to Pinkie’s party and enjoy ourselves.”

Applejack frowned and trotted past Dash, knocking into her roughly with her shoulder. “Fine...”

Dash flew past Applejack, hovering next to her. “Applejack! I didn’t mean it like th—”

Applejack stopped, staring at Dash. “No, we’ll talk about it later.” She managed to erase her frown, but it was obvious she had to force even the slightest smile. Dash landed behind her, trotting to keep up as they made their way to Ponyville.

By the time they reached the town, it was night, and most of the ponies on the street were on their way home, unless they were headed towards Sugarcube Corner. The closer they came to the bakery, the more crowded the streets became, and there at the door was Pinkie, trying to funnel the guests.

Applejack leaned over to Dash as they neared the door. “Promise to be good for a while?”

“I am,” Dash whispered back, just before they came to the door.

“Hey guys!” Pinkie shouted as she turned back from the guests she’d just welcomed. “I’m so glad you both made it. I haven’t seen both of you at a party in forever!”

Applejack smiled. “We didn’t wanna go disappointin’ you after ya invited us, Pinkie. I’m sure it’s gonna be a fun get together like always.”

“Well, come on in and have some fun then!” Applejack and Dash smiled and walked into Sugarcube Corner. There were dozens of ponies already enjoying the party games, treats, and punch inside, but Applejack and Dash shuffled past them. They made their way to a corner, finding Rarity and Fluttershy together.

Rarity smiled and sipped from a cup of punch. “... hear that things are going fine for you, Fluttersh— Oh, Applejack, Dash. So good to see you both.” Rarity slid to the side. “Sit down. We haven’t had a chance to talk in ages.”

Applejack and Dash sat down, but Dash quickly ignored the conversation. Rarity and Applejack were playing catch-up about businesses, and Applejack was asking Fluttershy about seeing Winona. She was focused on watching the party, and the ponies still enjoying themselves with someone else. That wasn’t liable to last long.

It wasn’t long before Twilight and Pinkie found their way over to join the four. Twilight had brought over a few cups of punch and a tray of sweets. Someone mentioned Dash’s name; it was just enough to snap her back to reality.

“How are things with you, Dash?” Fluttershy asked.

Dash turned back to the table to see everyone looking at her, and felt a small nudge in her side from Applejack. “I’m fine. Just... been practicing for tryouts, and working with the weather ponies like always.”

“And tryin’ as little as possible to actually help me out,” Applejack added.

“I said I’d start waking up earlier, and I have been,” Dash stated, taking a bite of a cupcake.

Applejack chuckled. “Just be glad I still got Big Mac and Apple Bloom around to help me, or you’d be getting a buck out of bed instead of a nudge.”

“Whatever. It’s not even harvest time yet.”

Yet bein’ the key word.” The others laughed. Dash forced a chuckle as she looked at Applejack.

“So, you’re both still doing all right then?” Rarity asked.

“Well...” Applejack started before being interrupted by Rainbow Dash.

“Yeah, we’re fine.” Dash grabbed her cup of punch, turning to look back at the party.

Rarity blushed, setting down her cup. “I didn’t mean to offend, Dash.”

“Well, you didn’t. So, let’s just not worry about it,” Dash said with a smile, gulping down her punch.

“R-right...” Rarity rubbed her chin. “How are things with you, Twilight? Are you still planning to back to Canterlot next year?”

Dash felt Applejack’s hoof on her back, nudging her away from the table. “We’re gonna go get some air real quick.” Dash heard Twilight talking about studying at a university as she was led into the crowd, leaving her empty cup on the floor. Applejack only stopped when they reached another empty corner of the room. “Dash...”

“I’m fine, okay? She’s the one that brought up something stupid.” Dash looked back at the table, seeing her friends laughing. She was trying, like always. She knew her friends didn’t mean anything, but everyone else did. She could barely hear them during the walk from the table, but there was more gossip than she could ignore now.

“Do you think they’re fighting again?”

“Wonder what it’s about this time.”

“You think they could find somewhere private.”

Dash glared at the crowd, and as much as she tried to focus on the table with her friends, or Applejack standing just in front of her, she couldn’t. It only took one more comment and chuckle to snap the wire.

“How about you just mind your business, huh?!” Dash shouted at no one.

The entire party went quiet, and Dash could notice Twilight and the others trying to get through the crowd. It took a few moments before someone spoke up from the middle of the crowd. “And why don’t you just take it outside!” There were several “yeah”s that echoed through the crowd.

Dash growled with her wings flared. She could feel Applejack trying to lead her to the door, but she didn’t care anymore. “Why don’t you all just shut up about things you don’t understand, huh?!”

Twilight and the others were trying to get her out of the room, with little success. Twilight was at her side, whispering, “Dash, there’s no reason to make a scene.”

“Yes, there is!” Dash pushed Twilight away, giving the others a chance to start moving her towards the door. She kept struggling to get free from their grip, shouting as she was dragged from the room. “You all think we’re the ones with the problem! We aren’t, because we don’t lie about who we are!” She stopped fighting when she felt Applejack’s hoof over her mouth, stifling her outburst.

“We knew each other before then. We didn’t have to pretend to be someone to... fall in love.”

They’re the ones lying, Dash thought to herself as she saw the night sky above. They’re miserable and stuck, because they have to pretend, and we don’t have to. That has to be how it is. The sky faded to black as she closed her eyes.

Dash lay staring at the ceiling in bed. She could hear Applejack talking with the others downstairs, but that was done before too long. She leaned up when she heard the door close, face to face with Applejack. “Applejack—”

“Don’t even start, Dash.” Applejack avoided looking at Dash as she walked over to the other side of the bed. Dash didn’t intend to follow her advice.

“They’re the ones that—”

“Stop blamin’ everyone else, Dash!” Applejack stamped a hoof down. She took a few moments to breathe, relaxing enough to stay calm. “Every. Single. Time. That’s all you do! You’re the one that thinks it’s all about you all the time, and then don’t realise when you’re the problem!”

Dash tried to imagine the night sky above as she stared at the ceiling. “I don’t mean to.”

Applejack sighed. “I know you don’t, but you can’t push your problems on other people because you want to.”

Dash could practically feel the wind blowing through her mane and the cold chill of the night air brushing along her spine. She wanted to be up there now, even if it wasn’t where she needed to be. “I know it’s not always about me...”

“Really? Really?! You yelled at a bunch of people who weren’t even saying anything!”

Dash bolted upright and looked at Applejack. She could still imagine the night sky along the wall behind her. “Yes, they were! They were gossiping and insulting us behind our backs!”

“So what?! Who cares what anyone else says?”

“... I do.” Dash looked down at the bed. She closed her eyes when she started to imagine the faces of everyone talking about them right now. “I do, because they shouldn’t act like they’re any better.”

“Dash, I don’t care what anyone says about us.”

“Then why’d you tell me to talk with Twilight, huh?” Dash slammed her hooves into the bed. “Why was it so important that I talk to her?”

Applejack frowned and shook her head. “Because you’re the one that’s been getting worse, Dash. You keep worrying about the same old things and what people think about you, when you should be focused on us.”

“We’re fine! Things might be repetitive, and boring, and dull, but they’re fine! I don’t need to worry about us, because there’s nothing to worry about!”

“You’re gonna have plenty to worry about soon.”

“Is that about the stupid harvest again?! I told you I’m working on it.” Dash rolled over, turning her back.

“No, it’s not.” Applejack sighed and sat down on the bed. “Twilight told me, about what you said.”

“About what?” Dash kept her back turned and her hooves crossed. She tried to focus on the sky outside the window.

“About you and kids...”

Dash began to relax, slowly turning over. “... Well, it’s not like we can.”

Applejack closed her eyes. “I’ve been talking to a doctor for a few weeks... about doing it, you know, artificially.”

“... Why didn’t you tell me?”

“Why do ya think?” Applejack took a deep breath and turned to face Rainbow Dash. “I know you’ve been practicing more. I know you don’t want to have to worry about something like that now, but...”

“... and if we are messed up as a couple, at least we won’t ever be able to raise a kid in the middle of it.”

Dash crawled over behind Applejack, wrapping her hooves around her. She rested her chin on Applejack’s shoulder, gently nuzzling her.

“You know I’d be a horrible parent,” she said, trying to force a laugh.

“You aren’t that bad RD,” Applejack replied with a smile. She placed a hoof against Dash’s, leaning back against her.

Dash kept trying to think about the sky, but it was no use. It didn’t compare to this, it wasn’t important like this, and it certainly wasn’t warm like this. Dash swallowed hard, trying to stop the dryness in her throat. “Y-you know... I have no idea where that road goes, and I don’t know how bad it will be, or if it’ll end out okay, but...” Ponyfeathers, Dash thought, trying to hold back tears. “If you want to go there, then I’ll go with you.”

“... we really do know each other. And even if we aren’t perfect for each other like everypony thinks you need to be, and we fight now and then, we’re still happy.”

Dash smiled as she sat there, holding on to Applejack. Yeah, we’re happy, when it’s important.

Knot on My Watch

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Celestia’s sun hovered above the mountain tops, granting the first of its life-giving beams to the early risers of nature, from the lowly earthworm to the hulking buffalo of the Outer Deserts. The birds were chirping happily and there was a small breeze about; it would have been just another beautiful morning in Ponyville, if not for the repeated bangings of hoof on door, mixed with a squeaky whine:


Twilight Sparkle put down her books with a sigh and headed to the door. With a telekinetic flip, the top flap opened, revealing Pinkie’s panicking face. Trembling, jittery blue eyes met half-awake violet ones. It was better to have the upper hand with these situations, Twilight knew, so before Pinkie could say another word, she spoke:

“Pinkie, what is it now? I’m a little tied up as it is, sorting through the catalog of Pre-Banishment history books-”

“But that’s the problem! Everyone’s getting tied up, like, literally, from Applebloom to Blossomforth to Fast Track to Golden Hoof to-” Pinkie’s eyes settled on Twilight’s neck briefly, and the tension immediately faded from her expression. “Oh, wait, silly Twilight, you aren’t tied up! You’re perfectly fine! That’s good, and I knew it, or else I wouldn’t have come to you in the first place, because if you were tied up, then you wouldn’t be able to help!”

Twilight barely managed to dodge as a pink blur somersaulted into the library, rolling on the floor with a technique that would have given Daring Do a run for her money. If this had been any other pony, Twilight would have felt shocked, violated even - she had been brought up to respect the sanctity of one’s home, living among Canterlotian nobility - but now, all she could feel was a strange void where indignation, or at least annoyance, should have been. It had simply happened too many times for Twilight to muster up anything; that, and the fact that this was Pinkie Pie, whose occasional bouts of madness had been justified more often than not.

“Come on in,” was all Twilight had to say.

Pinkie bounced up and slammed the door shut. She rushed to the curtains and pulled those shut, too. Finally satisfied that they were safe, Pinkie let out a sigh of relief. “Okay. We’re safe for now.”

“Safe from what?” asked Twilight irritably.

“The monsters!”

“Monsters?” Twilight raised an eyebrow.

“Monsters!” Before she could protest, Pinkie had slung herself on to her back, wrapping her forelegs around her neck like a snake. “They’re long and loopy, and wrap themselves around ponies’ necks! Everypony I’ve seen outside today was trapped by them! They have all sorts of stripes, like blue and red and green and yellow and black, and they’ve hypnotized their hosts into thinking there’s nothing wrong!”

“Pinkie, I can’t breathe!” After a bit of magic-assisted coaxing, Twilight drew up a chair and sat down to think. “So what you’re saying is that there’s some sort of...”


“You’re saying there’s some sort of monster, wrapping itself around ponies’ necks.” Pinkie nodded emphatically. “And you’re saying they’ve brainwashed everypony into thinking that they’re not monsters.” Another nod. A flash of inspiration struck, and Twilight could not help but smile. She would have to tread carefully, but it could be done. “What if they’re actually not monsters, Pinkie?”

“What? But of course they are!” came the inevitable protest.

“Yes, yes,” said Twilight, waving a hoof, “but what if they aren’t? What if they’re just some sort of... new accessory? Like scarves. Are you sure those aren’t scarves?”

“Well, yeah, Twilight,” said Pinkie, “because if they were scarves, they wouldn’t be hypnotizing people!”

“Pinkie, are you sure you aren’t just being, well...”

Pinkie’s eyes narrowed, and Twilight was suddenly aware of a prickling feeling on the back of her neck. “Being what? Being what, Twilight?”

Two streams of thought, familiar and explored enough times to be counted as schools in their own right, coursed through Twilight’s mind and collided into a scruffy brawl. The first believed in something the early nobles called Inherent Understanding, which was fancy talk for common sense. It believed in logic and reasoning, and that everypony had these, that no matter what the situation, one could always appeal to good old rational thinking, given one’s skills with speech, as long as one pressed hard enough. The second was about the same, sans including Pinkie Pie in the group of “everypony”.

Twilight could count on multiple hooves the instances when Pinkie’s impulses had proven themselves justified, despite their far-fetchedness. Having to rebuild Ponyville was an experience that did not let itself be forgotten easily, and she herself knew first-hand the sensation of panic without an outlet, not without guilt. Not to mention, Pinkie was one of her best friends after all, and she did seem extremely worried about it. Also, if there was actually, no matter how slim the possibility, a serious invasion of mind-controlling monsters, Twilight had to do something.

That’s an extremely huge if, chided the other half of her brain.

Egad, those eyes. Like gimlets! begged the first, and won.


“Nothing,” sighed Twilight, yanking open the curtains and letting light shine through. After the glare had passed, she considered her friend, who seemed a lot more relieved. “Okay. I’ll help you look into this monster thing.”

“I knew you would,” giggled Pinkie, a completely different pony from before. “That’s why I came to you. I knew I could count on you, Twilight!”

“Wait, what do you mean?” Twilight frowned. “Aren’t you coming with me?”

“I have to go look for a cure for the hypnosis! Take Gummy with you, he’ll tell you what to do!” With a crash and slam, she buzzed out of her sight, leaving behind the baby alligator, whom Twilight swore had not been there before.

She shook her head and could not help but smile. Perhaps it was better to play along. It might even be fun.

“Come along then, Gummy,” said Twilight, picking him up with a cautious magical arm. She did not like the idea of letting him gnaw at her mane; Rarity had made jabs at the effects of such during their spa soaks with the convincing vehemence of a professional. “Let’s see what all the fuss is.”

I would suggest taking a walk around town first, said a pleasant male voice.

“Huh?” She spun around, looking for the speaker, and felt a chill rise up her spine when she realized that she was still alone in the library. “Who said that?”

Gummy, said the voice apologetically. Yes, it’s true. Please do not be alarmed.

“Oh, no, I’m not alarmed, just unconvinced,” she replied, scanning the corners of the room. “Come on, who is it? This isn’t funny.”

The fact that my voice is being transmitted directly into your mind should open it up to the last remaining possibility.

“And that would be?”

The impossible - or what you would think be the impossible. I ee, me, Gummy, being the mystery speaker.

“Okay. Oookay.” She let go of the alligator and backed up slowly. “This is getting a little too weird for my tastes. You, Gummy, whoever you are, you stay here. I am going to take a walk around town because I told Pinkie I would, but that’s that, and when this madness is over, I’m going to get back to my work! Do you hear me?!”

Crystal clear, said the voice, disappointed.

“Good!” Before it - he - could say another word, she swung the door open and stepped outside, breaking into a brisk trot until she reached the town square. It was not until she bumped into the crowd that she finally looked up.

The first thing that struck her was how similar it was to the scene during Trixie’s arrival. A large cart the size of a stage had planted itself in the crossroads. Between Twilight and it were what she guessed was the entire population of Ponyville, huddled together in a chatter-filled mass. Everypony wore “monsters”, just as Pinkie had said: strips of cloth, colored with every hue under the sun and a couple more, tied at the front of the neck, adorned the crowd. They looked familiar, yet from where, Twilight could not put her hoof on. Pinkie had given her a name, but the noise was making it hard to remember. She need not have tried; moments later, somepony took the stage and began shouting the answer through a megaphone.

“We are sorry to announce that we have run out of stock,” blared the pony, a Canterlotian judging by her accent. “We do thank you for your overwhelming support of Matador, and we hope to bring exciting new wares to local stores very soon. Until then, watch the papers and stay tuned for the release times of our latest line of ties.”

There was a roar of cheering as the stage folded up and made its slow journey down the road, drawn by a team of ten goats.

So that’s where I’ve seen them before! thought Twilight. Iron Will’s assistants! They wore those the last time they came, and so did Iron Will himself, come to think of it. Well, that solves the problem.

It made sense. She had never seen one until then, but ties were probably just the newest fad in accessories and clothing. Given Ponyville’s boundless enthusiasm towards trends and new things - she still could not fully accept the fact that Flim and Flam had somehow led the entire town in a song and dance routine - they would have been too occupied to answer any of Pinkie’s frenzied queries, ergo, Pinkie would have jumped to conclusions that only she could reach. It was all a silly misunderstanding, and that meant she could get back to work.

She turned, and would have made her uneventful journey back if her ears had not caught one word:


Her hearing started to pick out individual lines in the mumblings of the tight throng. She immediately spun around, aghast, as she realized just what the crowd was saying.

“Need... ties. Need more ties. Ties. Need more ties.”

“Uh, hello?” asked Twilight, tugging at the closest pony around her. “Are you OK?”

“Need ties,” replied the pony, as brightly as if he were saying “Good morning”. “Need more ties. Colourful ties.”

“You don’t have a tie, do you?” bleated a goat behind her. She faced him a little quicker than she would have liked. He was only half her height, and had a black tie around his shaggy neck.

“No,” said Twilight carefully. “Why?”

“Ah,” answered the goat, bending down to pick up the hammer at his hooves. “Gotcha.”

Her mind registered the danger one second too late, and was swiftly shut down as the burst of pain, spreading from the left temple, dulled into black unconsciousness.

Princess Celestia had been diligent in her teachings. Aside from history, arithmetic and advanced scientific principles, she had taught Twilight the proper measures to take when in an emergency. The measures had been tweaked as she grew in both size and skill. At first, it had been simply screaming and kicking. She had progressed along the stages of analyzing, and she had practiced many times tapping into the two-way leyline that she shared with the Royal Palace’s offices.

At her current rank as the Element of Magic, her first move was to blast the roof off, followed by any bindings holding her down, and her enemies if she deemed them to be dangerous enough to warrant it.

“I’m afraid not, hun,” crooned the old mare as she regained her focus. “We can’t have you setting off explosions like that, can we? At least, not without the proper preparations. If you know what I mean,” she grinned.

“Wha... who are you?!” yelled Twilight. Her brain went into overdrive, and she took in the scene speedily: her legs, spread and tied to some sort of inclined plane; something heavy, sitting on her horn, blocking her magic like a dam holding back a river; a curved, yellowed wall, bare except for a torch-holder, blazing brightly; a small table with a row of ties laid neatly across the surface; the creepy mare, mane a dirty blonde, an Earth pony with too much makeup on. She was wearing a checkered tie.

“You may call me ‘The Madame’,” said the hag, swishing her tail as she circled Twilight.

“What do you want with me?”

“Oh, many things,” giggled Madame, “and all of them illegal.”

“Stop... stop beating around the bush and get to the point!”

“Oh, why must you rush? There’s no fun if you don’t take it slowly at first. Ease yourself into a comfortable position. Ah, unless you’re the fast type, though I’d imagine it’d be a lot rougher there. Ohohoho.” Her tail brushed along Twilight’s bare stomach. All Twilight could feel was nausea.

“You... you’re a sick pony, you are! Let me go!”

“I’m afraid I can’t. You’re the second-last piece of the puzzle. Princess Celestia’s prized pupil.” The Madame was now face to face with her, and her eyes were a strange violet that twinkled despite the dim lighting. “The Element of Magic, so I hear... and resistant to the ties.”

“The ties?” gasped Twilight.

“Yes, mmm. You see, hun, we’re running a little campaign here. Us and the ties, of course.”

“I demand an explanation for all of this!”

“Wouldn’t you, though?” grinned the Madame. “So like you to rush into things. To... charge. Ohohoho. Pity the ties want you untouched, otherwise we could have had some fun times.” She gestured to the table, and Twilight half-expected the strips to jump into life. “I suppose you deserve to know what’s going on, seeing as you are a key piece, and you will know all of this sooner or later. Think you can control yourself until then, hun?”

“Do I have a choice?” seethed Twilight, yanking at the restraints desperately, with no success.

“That’s the spirit, ducky. Now then... where to start?” Another sickening tickle danced across a hindleg. “The ties, perhaps. Yes, we’ll start with that.

Simply put, they are higher beings. They used to be clunky beasts of lore, until a stray spell from Canterlot morphed one tribe into something more. Their form as you see it now was not their first, and will certainly not be their last. Over the years, they have experimented with shapes and sizes that allowed them varying degrees of access to the world’s hidden energies, and they found this one to be the best for now.

Of course, the obvious problem is that they can’t move on their own. So half of the tribe took on the forms of ponies, and the other half took on the forms of ties. There is something alluring about their shape, how long they are, that silky surface... it did not take long for the snobs of society to notice and claim the idea as their own. That’s where they struck, in the first factories, packed off unwittingly to shops all across high-end Equestria.”

“But that’s ridiculous! You can’t expect me to believe that!”

“When was the last time you saw somepony wear a tie, sweetheart?”

“Iron Will and his assistants.”

“Scouts, taking stock of Ponyville.”

“But... but what about the Doctor? He wears a tie sometimes, doesn’t he?”

“Whooves? Oh, he’s a hired hand, the one who opened the gates for us when we finally came, ohoho, the first one to clap and cheer as I gave our opening speech to introduce ties to your quaint little town,” said the Madame.

Twilight felt her lips go dry. “But none of this makes any sense!”

“Not now, at least. In fact, not even I can make out half of what’s going on!” The Madame frowned and gave her a once-over. “You are strangely immune to the ties’ mind-bending. Perhaps it is because of your element. Perhaps not. The ties are not happy, obviously, and this will no doubt mean you not being happy.”

Hang in there, said the male voice suddenly. Just a few more moments.

What? hissed Twilight inwardly.

Oh, so now you believe me, snorted the voice. But OK. See, I’m actually behind the table, fighting off the ties’ influence. No time to explain; just keep her busy while I figure out how to undo the lock on your magic. When you feel your horn become lighter, run your escape plan.

But I don’t have one! pleaded Twilight.

Twilight Sparkle? Not having a plan? Please.

“What’s going on?” The Madame’s voice snapped Twilight back into focus.

“Just... thirsty,” lied Twilight.

“You naughty mare, you,” came the reply. The Madame clicked her lips and trotted to one side. After a while, she shrugged and said, “I’m going to get you some water. The ties think it will help. Hang tight, dearie.”

“Not much choice there,” replied Twilight weakly.

There was the squeak of rusty hinges behind her, followed by a heavy slam.

Look, whoever you are, thought Twilight quickly, you’d better start-


She felt the weight lift from her head instantly, and a curious warmth started to spread down from the tip of her horn to the ends of her fetlocks. At the bottom of her peripheral vision, Gummy’s green form waddled into view.

Go for it, it said, and Twilight did just that.

She closed her eyes, gathered her energy and cupped it until she could hold it in no longer. Barely able to aim it away, with a scream, Twilight let loose a beam of destruction that seared the air with a hiss. The roof responded with a crash and the thuds of falling debris. The dust stung her eyes, but it was a stroke of a feather compared to the flood of pure, white light that shone from above. It penetrated her eyelids and burned coruscant patches on to the back of her skull, filling her, swallowing her, engulfing everything in its rush of white...

“Twilight! Twilight, you’re awake! Twilight, please, please, please open your eyes!”


“So you’re awake, hun. Welcome back.”

Twilight shot forward, raising a hoof defensively. “You!”

“Me?” asked Pinkie.

“No, you! Madame whatever!”

“Oh, her,” said Pinkie.

“Yep, me,” replied the Madame, lighting a cigarette.

“What are you doing here? And you, Pinkie! She’s working for the ties! She’s-”

“Not anymore, Twilight. It’s all OK now. Just relax,” smiled Pinkie, pressing down on her shoulders gently but firmly. “She’s not under their control anymore.”

“What? What do you mean?”

“I mean, I’ve found the cure. And it’s actually really simple, and I’m such a silly-head for not thinking of it sooner!”

“What is it, then?” breathed Twilight, heart pounding.

“You just cut the ties!” exclaimed Pinkie, brandishing a pair of scissors.

“You... what?”

“You could say that by cutting the ties, you cut the ties to the ties,” continued Pinkie. “Or maybe it’d be more fun to say that you can cut the ties to the ties by cutting the ties.”

“What she’s saying, hun,” cut the Madame, “is that cutting them breaks us free.”

“But... how?” stammered Twilight, getting up.

“Do you really need to know?” asked the Madame.

“I...” She looked at Pinkie, and then the Madame. The former was beaming and going on about her previous tries at getting ponies free. The latter was, true enough, tie-less, a pile of shredded bits littering the floor beneath her hooves. They were still in the previous room, if the rubble all around them was any indication.

“If it makes you feel better, I don’t know how Pinkie got here, either,” shrugged the Madame, sucking long and hard at the roll. “I do know what’ll make you feel better, though, does wonders for releasing the... tension,” she added with a lecherous wink. “Fine, just kidding, sheesh.”

Battling the oncoming headache, Twilight said, “Okay. Right. So just to recap, Pinkie’s here. You’re good now. And the only way to defeat these ties is by cutting them.”

“One of the ways,” Pinkie corrected. “Not sure whether there’s any more.”

“It’ll do,” murmured the Madame. “It’ll take forever to do it, but it’ll do.”

“We’d better get started then! Operation Trashing Insidious Extra-sensories, go!” bubbled Pinkie, producing a chest full of assorted blades, knives and scissors.

“What did you call them?” Twilight asked, examining a pair of shears suspiciously. She could not help but wonder where they came from, though it was better not to ask at this point, she knew. Sometimes, it was better to bend rather than snap.

“I didn’t call them that. Gummy did!” replied Pinkie cheerfully.

“Ah. Him. Right.”

“Anyhow, Gummy said that we should start off with the guards, because they’re strong and can help us get more done. Then the pegasi, because they’re fast, and Earth ponies to help carry the weapons as we move on forward, and also unicorns for teleportation, and when we’ve established a small base, we should sneak into Canterlot and get the Princesses! Ooh! And maybe we can stop by and free Doughnut Joe too because I haven’t had his doughnuts in a really long time, and they’re so, so so good...”

It had been, Twilight later reflected, like an long dream. It kept on going despite expectations, past every stage and twist and turn until at last, the last tie had been sliced into tatters, and it was all over. That night, she had went to bed with mixed feelings of triumph, relief and a disbelief that she could not shake off since the first day of the counter-campaign; the next morning, she had woken up to the smell of Spike’s cooking and the warmth of her blankets, as if nothing had changed since that fateful day. The sun was once more Celestia’s, and the lives of the ponies she lived with and loved were theirs once again, free from the bonds of the ties. They had fought tooth and nail, plotting hard and fast attacks. Gummy, or so Pinkie claimed, had been confident of their win all along, on the grounds that centuries of evolution had made the ties too proud to admit the possibility of defeat, and the poorly-defended, unorganized state of every town they had re-taken seemed to support that. Either way, they had won, and Twilight was glad.

There was a knock on the door, followed by a self-assisted entry. There was only one pony who could bypass double-locked doors like that, Twilight knew; she got up immediately to greet her comrade of three months with a hug. Three long months of living on the edge had done something magical to their friendship, and while Pinkie would always be Pinkie, Twilight found this fact a lot easier to not only accept, but appreciate.

“Good morning, Twilight!” chirped Pinkie.

“You’re right about the ‘morning’ part, at least,” grinned Twilight, stifling a yawn.

“Well, yeah! I have to start early because I’ve got a lot of ponies to talk to, and who else to invite first if not you?” She reached into a basket and handed over a pink envelope. “It’s an invitation to my Yay-We’re-Saved-Super-Special-Freedom-Par-tie-Par-tay!”

“Did you just say...”

“Par-tie?” grinned Pinkie.

Twilight could not help but groan. “That’s a low, even for you.”

“Yeah, I guess it is,” admitted Pinkie sheepishly. “Nah, what I wanted to say was that Gummy’s been mentioning something about hats recently.”


“No,” giggled Pinkie, “we’re having the par-tie after all. See you, Twilight!”

“You know,” Spike had said, after Pinkie had taken her leave, “I’ve always wondered about that. I can’t remember any of the battles that you told me about, or the storming of the castle, just going to Canterlot for that delivery, and then waking up back here. And there’s also a whole bunch of questions I have. Like, seriously, how did Pinkie get to wherever it is you were? And what’s with the whole Gummy thing? Not to mention...”

“Well,” said Twilight, raising a hoof, “given the circumstances, what with us trying to save Equestria, I was hoping you could forgive me for not... tying up the loose ends.”

“I hate you, Twi.”

“And I love you too, Spike.” She drew him into a hug, regardless of the protests and squeals, tighter than any previous one, with the warmth that only resolved distance and worry could bring. “I love you too.”

Cutting Ties with Pinkie

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Delicious scents wafted out of Sugarcube Corner and into the streets of Ponyville, enchanting any pony who came by - except for one. Rarity and Sweetie Belle cantered past the open door, but only one of them stopped to salivate.

“I’m kinda hungry...”

“We can eat something back at the boutique. Now come along, Sweetie Belle.”

“But Rarity-”

“I’m sorry dear, but I’m afraid we just can’t associate with that mare anymore.”

“That mare?”

“Pinkie needs to learn to respect fashion a bit more. And to be more wary of leering stallions.”

“And Applejack needs to learn to be less stubborn, and you need to learn to be less of a per...perf... perfectionist.”


“I just mean that nopony is perfect. Why is Pinkie Pie being Pinkie Pie a bad thing?”

“Yes, well, one can only handle so much of her.”

“You two are supposed to be friends!”

Rarity turned up her nose. “Friends don’t do... friends don’t do what she did,” she huffed.

Sweetie stared longingly into the bakery, her nose twitching, before turning back to her sister. “What if I only talk to the Cakes?”

Rarity sighed. “I’m going back to the boutique. You can do whatever you like - just be back before nightfall.”

Sweetie smiled and hugged her sister. “I will.”

Rarity smiled back before noticing Pinkie bouncing around on the other side of the doorway. She scowled and stormed off.

A knock at the door momentarily drew Rarity’s attention away from the box in front of her. “Just a minute,” she chimed in a sing-song voice. She folded and placed the last blazer before sealing the package, making a mental note to come back later as she trotted out of the room. With a flash of her horn, she opened the front door of the boutique to find Pinkie bouncing up and down.

“Yes? I’m a bit busy...”

“Rarity! I just had the best idea!”

Rarity raised an eyebrow and stepped aside.

Pinkie hopped in and the door clicked shut behind her. “You know how Gummy doesn’t have any teeth? Well I was thinking that-”

“This sounds fascinating, I mean that, but I’m afraid it will have to wait a little bit. I need to finish getting the business line ready to go before a new client shows up. He’s supposed to be here quite soon.”

“That’s okay. I can wait, or maybe I could even help!”

Rarity gave a nervous laugh. “I mean no offense, but I’m not certain you’re capable of assisting me with anything I’m doing today.”

Pinkie frowned. There was another knock at the door.

“I wouldn’t worry about it if I were you. Wait, maybe I would. If I were you that would mean that I was Rarity’s sister, and if my sister was super mad at me and didn’t want to be in the same building as me but we lived in the same building it’d be really hard to avoid fighting, and fighting is almost the opposite of partying because instead of laughing there’s yelling and instead of smiling there’s frowning and instead of hugging there’s kicking. Okay, so I might worry about it if I were you, but I’m not you so I don’t have to. And you are you and your sister isn’t mad at you so you don’t have to worry about it and I’m pretty sure the only way I would be you is if somepony messed up a spell really bad, but that hardly ever happens so you shouldn’t worry about it.”

Sweetie stared blankly and blinked twice. “Um... yes?”

“Yes what?”


“Here, cupcakes make everything better. This one’s blueberry,” Pinkie said, shoving a huge fluffy treat at the confused filly. “Rarity’ll come around. Sooner or later she’ll realize it was actually pretty funny. Then she’ll come to apologize to me and realize I’ve been trying to make it up to her but couldn’t because she wouldn’t listen and we’ll hug.”

“Are you sure?”

“Mhmm. Positive. This kinda thing’s happened a few times before.”

“Pinkie, please! I have everything under control. And for future reference, ‘buttering up’ a pony is about complimenting them and doing them favors, not actually coating them in butter!”

“Gotcha. No more dairy products on anypony, no matter how cheesy they are.”

“He’s just being flattering. He does seem to have taken a liking to you, though, so as long as you promise to behave you can stay.”

“And when he’s done, we can talk about my brilliant idea for making Gummy six times more fabulous?”

Rarity smiled. “Of course.”

Sweetie Belle closed the door behind her. “I’m back,” she shouted.

After a brief pause and some shuffling noises, her sister’s voice answered. “Oh, Sweetie. Could you be a dear and come help me back here?”

“Are you sure you don’t want some of this cake?”

Rarity came trotting out to meet her sister. She eyed the chocolate confection suspiciously. “Some day, Pinkie will learn that you can’t buy a mare with sweets.”

“Oh, this isn’t for what happened. This is just because. She said she has something way better to make it up to you, and that pretty soon you’re going to look back on this and laugh.”

“I hardly see how it was funny,” she said with a sigh, “but I suppose I can’t stay mad at her forever. Losing a client is no big deal, and I’m sure things would eventually have turned sour even without her, but I just don’t understand how she thought she was helping me.”

“Maybe you should leave.”

Pinkie’s bottom lip quivered. “What did I do?”

“It’s not you, it’s... he likes you a little too much.”

“How is that a bad thing?”

“He doesn’t actually like you, he just likes... you’re just eye candy to him.”

Pinkie smiled. “Candy is delicious!”

Rarity groaned. “Listen, Pinkie, I don’t think he’s a particularly good stallion. He would only end up hurting you. Please, could you just go so I can finish conducting business with him before he tries to conduct business with you?”

Her smile evaporated as the quiver in her lower lip returned. “But... but my idea...”

“If it’s really that important to you, you can stay out here until I’m finished. I just really don’t think the two of you interacting can possibly end well, that’s all.”

The sun’s rays bounced brilliantly off of the jewels set in Rarity’s stunning new hat while she sat waiting. Pinkie popped up over the horizon, trotting merrily down the path. Try as she might, Rarity couldn’t summon up any ill will toward her long-time friend and instead smiled and waved. Pinkie broke into a gallop.

“Rarity! Does this mean you aren’t mad anymore?”

She hugged her dear, dear friend and smiled gently. “No, Pinkie. I’m not mad.”

“So it’s okay you lost a client?”

“His value for my business didn’t outweigh his rudeness. I don’t blame you in the slightest.”

“And it’s okay that-”

“Yes, Pinkie. Everything is fine. I’d like to hear what your idea was, if you’d still like to tell me.”

Pinkie’s face lit up. “Oh! You know how Gummy doesn’t have any teeth? And you know how you like to put gems in things because it makes them sparkly and pretty and fabulous? What if we put gems in Gummy’s mouth? Then he’d have teeth so he could chew on things properly, and he’d look great doing it!”

Rarity winced at the thought of Gummy with teeth. She shook away her discomfort, smiled, and took off her hat. She carefully pulled the small, rounded gemstones out of their sockets and placed them in her saddlebag.

“Let’s go practice dentistry.”

“I thought you’d never ask!”

“And don’t you ever come back!” Rarity shouted as she slammed the door.

Pinkie bounced in place, smiling. “Yeah, you tell him Rare-bear! Um... what exactly are you telling him?”

“Nevermind Pinkie. Even if you weren’t offended by his... advances... it’s obvious that that is a stallion with no respect for mares and it behooves any classy lady to help make the lives of such stallions as inconvenient as possible.”

“Oh. So now what?”

“Now that I’ve cut all ties with him, I’ve got some business to take care of. Oh I’m going to be so busy trying to finish everything on time. I’m afraid I won’t be able to help you with... whatever your idea was. I’m sorry. I’m going to go use the powder-room and then get back to business. You’re free to do as you like, but waiting for me would be a waste of your time. Maybe tomorrow?”

Pinkie smiled sweetly. “Aw, it’s okay Rarity. I understand.”

“I’m glad. See you later?”

Pinkie nodded and turned around as Rarity trotted away. On her way toward the door, she noticed a fun looking box on the floor of a room and decided to go take a look.

“Goodnight, Rarity.”

“Goodnight, Sweetie. I’ll see you in the morning. I have to go replace all the merchandise Pinkie destroyed. I still can’t believe she thought she was helping me. I stepped into the room, and there she was shearing all those beautiful ties with a comically oversized pair of scissors! How is cutting all my ties supposed to help me get anything done?”

Sweetie stared silently at her sister.

Rarity blinked, groaned, and slapped a hoof against her forehead.


View Online

The reception of Shining Armor and Cadance’s wedding was a whirlwind of joy and laughter. Ponies from across the realm of Equestria gorged themselves on Applejack’s mouthwatering treats and danced to the thumping beats of Vinyl Scratch’s latest mix. Everypony was celebrating not only the defeat of the unexpected changeling invasion, but also the union of two ponies whose bonds of love had literally saved the kingdom.

Everypony, save one. Try as she might, Twilight Sparkle could not enjoy herself at the wedding. She sat at one of the reception tables, her head laying motionless on top of its surface. A half-nibbled apple fritter and an untouched glass of sparkling apple juice stood guard around her. Her depression did not go unnoticed; the first pony to approach her was none other than the stallion of the hour.

“Long day, Twiley?”

Twilight snapped upright, spilling her flute of juice. She plastered as broad a smile onto her face as she could muster. “Shining Armor! Congratulations again!” She gave him a tender hug. “I’m so happy for you and Cadance. In spite of that whole ‘invasion’ business, this week has been truly wonderful.”

Shining Armor grinned from ear to ear. He looked out to the dance floor and located his bride, who was dancing with a trio of rambunctious fillies. “Thanks, Twiley. That means a lot, coming from you.” As Cadance’s gaze met his, the two newlyweds waved giddily to one another. Shining Armor turned back to his sister, and his chest sank. He nuzzled Twilight gently. “Now, come on. Tell your big brother what’s wrong.”

“Wrong?” Twilight’s eyes snapped away from her brother. She levitated the barely-touched apple fritter, studying it as though it had become the most fascinating object in the universe. “Nothing’s wrong. Why would you assume something’s wrong? I never said something went wrong.”


Twilight Sparkle sighed. “We can talk about it after your honeymoon. It’s really not that important. Today is the most important day of your life, and it would be incredibly selfish of me to—”

“Hey.” Shining Armor placed a gentle hoof against Twilight’s face, turning her back to face him. “Twilight, you’re my little sister. Your happiness is just as important to me as my wife’s or my own.” He smirked. “I could never call this the best night of my life if I knew that my lil’ sis was down in the dumps.”

She nuzzled him back. “Thanks, B.B.B.F.F.” She sighed, absentmindedly twirling her empty flute. “I—Where to begin? I guess I should start at the beginning of the week. I had just gotten your wedding announcement. Shining Armor and Princess Mi Amore Cadenza.” She cracked a weak smirk and poked her brother in the ribs. “You’re still not off the hook for that whole ‘not telling me’ business, you got that?”

“I know, I know,” he laughed. “I’m sure you’ll be telling the grandkids all about it.”

“Anyway. It got me thinking, I guess.” Twilight fidgeted with the hem of her best mare’s dress. “Marriage. Committing your entire life to another pony. Somepony that you hold closer to your heart than anypony else in the world. It’s quite a statement. A statement of love, I mean. And well, the more that—”

“Don’t tell me!” Shining Armor’s eyes lit up mischievously. “You confessed to your secret special somepony.”

Twilight felt her stomach drop into her back left hoof. “What?! No! Who told you my secret? I don’t have a special somepony! How did you know that I did? I’m far too busy with my studies for that kinds of frivolity. You can’t tell another living soul!”

Shining Armor’s head tilted back as he laughed wholeheartedly. “Jeez, hold your horses! You can be a real spaz sometimes, you know that?” He gave her a knowing glance. “It’s a wedding, Twiley. Pretty much everypony’s thoughts turn to love at these things. Do you have any idea how many new couples I’ve seen here tonight? I feel like that one prince from the old legend—the one who invented that love potion. But my own sister!” He pulled her into a headlock, scruffing up her mane with a hoof. “The old grey librarian of Ponyville, bitten by the love bug! Never thought I’d see the day.”

The horseplay was enough to temporarily snap Twilight Sparkle out of her funk. She playfully shoved against her brother, trying to escape the noogies and laughing in protest. “Okay! Okay! Sheesh. You don’t need to sound that surprised. And stop messing up my mane; it took Rarity over an hour to get it looking this way.”

“So!” Shining Armor planted his elbow on the table and rested his head on his hooves, doing his best impression of a gossiping schoolfilly. “Who’s the lucky colt or filly who’s stolen my little sister’s heart? Anypony I know?”

Twilight Sparkle suddenly remember that there was an incredibly fascinating pastry sitting next to her. “Nope! She’s nopony. You’ve never met her. Or heard of her. She lives in Buenos Mares.”

“Okay,” said Shining Armor, rolling his eyes. “We’ll circle back to that one later. How did you do it, then? How’d you confess your feelings to our mystery mare?”

Twilight Sparkle felt her chest grow heavy, as if she were underwater. She felt a hot flush wash over her face. “The only way I knew how.”

Twilight paced around her bedroom in circles. The first few bands of the sunrise poked their way into her window, slowly rendering the room’s candles unnecessary. The sunlight illuminated the chaotic mess that was her bedroom. Amid spilled ink and snapped quills, her floor was covered almost entirely by a layer of parchment. Some pages had early drafts—heavily scratched-out, rephrased, and commented upon. Others had outlines, notes, or directions for what to change between the seventeen and eighteen draft. She had even resorted to stringing the pages together with red thread, visually indicating that the paragraph by the foot of her bed was meant to be interjected right after the soliloquy at the bottom of the staircase—except that the latter had a giant black X through it.

After a few minutes of reorganizing the physical web of the document, Twilight traced the red thread of the document and located the beginning. With a nervous glance to her bedroom door—Spike should still be asleep at this hour—she quietly read aloud.

“Dear Princess Celestia,

“The document herein is no ordinary friendship report. I consider this report to be a culmination of the last two years of study—a thesis of sorts. As such, I humbly beseech you to read this letter in private, where you can avoid distractions, interruptions, and the like.

“My ‘thesis’ is this: friendship is a magical and wonderful thing, and yet, there is so much more to life than friendship.

“At your direction, I have spent two years in Ponyville studying friendship. I started out small, with a tight-knit group of five close friends. As the years progressed, my circle of friends grew. I became friends with ponies from Canterlot to Appleloosa. I met unusual ponies, newborn foals, a variety of critters, and even a few rivals, all of whom I am now happy to call my friends.”

Twilight Sparkle frowned. There was a hastily written note at the end of this scroll, but she couldn’t tell if it was telling her to resume on page one hundred and ninety six, or page one hundred and eighty five. After some paper shuffling, she found the point to resume from.

“But all this time, something confused me. There was a piece of this puzzle that did not fit. There was one pony who felt strangely different. Despite the number of diverse friends that I was making, there was always a unifying, familiar sentiment between all of them. For this particular pony, the sensations were always inexplicably different.

“The pony was you, Princess.

“Please do not misunderstand. I am eternally grateful for your many years of tutelage, and I treasure our relationship. It is simply that I do not believe my feelings for you can be properly described as ‘friendship.’ I want to spend every day surrounded by my friends, but their absence is never quite as painful as when I have been away from you. I enjoy playing with my friends, attending parties, telling jokes, and so forth. Around you, these frivolities seem meaningless; I want the few moments we have together to count for so much more.

“With ‘friendship’ ruled out, I thought about alternative categories. Perhaps you were simply a ‘teacher’ or ‘mentor’? This didn’t fit. I’ve learnt so much from my friends in Ponyville, yet I’ve never worried that this dual role would jeopardize the friendship. Perhaps you were more like ‘family’? A ‘second mother’? Unequivocally no. My parents and brother mean so much to me, and you mean so much to me. Yet, these feelings are completely dissimilar.

“With you, Princess, every day feels like a warm spring morning, even during wintry months, e.g. December. With you, I feel lighter than air, as if I could fly alongside you, despite my obvious physical limitation of not having wings. With you, I feel as if the whole of Equestria slowly melts away, until only you and I remain—ignoring the absurdly of us surviving such a high melting point. It was only just recently that I was finally able to comprehend these quandaries, these rationalizations, and even these emotions, and put them into words—”

The words themselves were not present. This was as far as Twilight had made it in her thesis after an all-nighter of draft revisions. She knew now, though, that it was perfect. It stated exactly what she wanted to express, and she knew just how to finish it. She magically filtered through the room’s clutter for an undamaged quill, dipped it into her inkwell, and concluded the final draft.

“Q.E.D., I love you.

“Your faithful student, Twilight Sparkle.”

“A love letter!” laughed Shining Armor. “I shoulda been able to guess that one.” He threw his foreleg around his sister, pulling her close. “So, has the mystery mare written back yet?”

Her chest sagged. “No, not yet. She only received it yesterday.”

“She did, did she?” He smirked, scanning the dance floor. “If you know that much, then I’d wager she’s in attendance, visiting from... Buenos Mares, was it? Have you seen her face-to-face, then? What did she say to you?”

You have a lot to think about.

“T-Twiley!” He caught Twilight as her knees suddenly gave way. “Hey! Get ahold of yourself.” He gently propped her up, just like he’d originally found her, with her head resting against the table’s surface. Shining Armor rapidly motioned to a nearby waiter. The waiter, presuming that another guest had partied beyond their capabilities, raced over with a large pitcher of ice water and poured them two tall glasses. Shining Armor floated one of the glasses up to his sister’s lips. “Here, drink up.”

Twilight Sparkle took over the levitation from her brother, chugging down the refreshing water, trying to bury the rising sensation of nausea. She was covered in a cold, clammy sweat. She wiped the condensation across her face, at once cooling herself down and masking the tears that threatening to burst forth.

Shining Armor cringed. “I’m so sorry, Twilight. I should’ve been able to put two and two together. I didn’t mean to push the topic.”

“It’s okay. In truth, I was a foal for getting my hopes up like I did. But suffice it to say,” she said, closing her eyes, “she wasn’t pleased with me.”

You don’t know that! thought one part of Twilight’s mind. When she said that to you, you had just made a terrible accusation against Cadance. You turned out to be right in the end, but truth be told, you didn’t have any solid evidence at the time. That’s what Princess Celestia was disappointed over. You shouldn’t read too much into it.

The Princess’s voice played again in her head. You have a lot to think about.

No, concluded another part of her mind. Your first instinct was spot-on. She can be cryptic like that; you should know better by now. That scolding was as much about your love letter as it was about your outburst.

You have a lot to think about. Each replay of the rebuke brought a new type of pain— faintness, difficulty breathing, nausea, chills—most of all, a stabbing pain through her chest. Twilight covered her face with her hooves, wishing that her mind would stop torturing itself with this memory.

“I’m sorry, kiddo. Sometimes, these things aren’t meant to be,” Shining Armor said with a hug. “Just give her some time apart. Tensions will be lower, and the two of you can discuss things like grown-ups.”

“I guess you’re right,” lamented Twilight Sparkle. “I mean, between the invasion and the wedding, we’ve hardly said two words to one another. I mean, the most we’ve spoken today was when... when...”

The newlywed couple waved from the castle balcony, receiving a tumultuous cheer from the thousands of ponies who had traveled to Canterlot to behold the royal wedding. From inside, Twilight Sparkle and her five closest friends watched the procession, riding on the waves of high emotions.

Twilight felt a gentle hoof rest itself upon her back. She turned and looked upward, staring into the smiling face of her mentor. So serene. So beautiful.

“This is your victory as much as theirs,” said Princess Celestia. “You persisted in the face of doubt, and your actions led to your being able to bring the real Princess Cadance back to us.”

Twilight smiled back. In spite of everything, her brother had finally gotten to marry a wonderful mare, and Twilight herself was back in Princess Celestia’s good graces. Maybe her rejection of my letter isn’t the end of the world, after all. Maybe I can learn to move past this.

Princess Celestia closed her eyes, striking a pose which radiated sagely wisdom. She continued, “Learning to trust your instincts is a valuable lesson to learn.” She opened her eyes again, staring straight into Twilight’s. Twilight found herself getting lost in her magenta eyes, floating away on—

“My instincts!” belted Twilight Sparkle. She lifted herself up from the table’s surface, knocking her brother off-balance.

Shining Armor recovered himself. “What? Twiley, what are you shouting about?”

“She told me—” Twilight’s jaw snapped shut. He was on that balcony. I don’t want him to piece this together. Not just yet. “She told me that there might be a chance after all.”

“Awesome!” Shining Armor playfully ribbed her. “That’s my little sis. Don’t give up until all the cards are down. Just promise me one thing?” His jovial smile turned gentler, more sentimental. “Promise you’ll listen to my advice from earlier? Give her some time alone to think. Take things slow.”

She hugged her brother tightly. “Promise, B.B.B.F.F.”

Twilight felt awful about lying to her brother on his wedding day, but as she rationalized it, advice should be taken with a grain of salt. His heart’s in the right place, but he doesn’t know the Princess like I know her. He doesn’t know that the door is open, if only a crack. This might be my only opportunity to change the Princess’s mind. She drew in a deep breath and exhaled it sharply. I have to act tonight!

The guard who was walking alongside her, upon hearing the loud breath, responded in turn with a noisy yawn. “Tell me about it. Your brother’s wedding was delightful, truly, but I can’t wait for my shift to be over already.”

Twilight flinched. “Sorry about that. I didn’t mean for my audience request to keep everypony up even later.”

“Don’t worry yourself,” he said with a laugh. “Everypony in the guard knows how highly Princess Celestia thinks of you. My sarge told me that she approved your request without a moment’s thought.”

She thinks highly of me. Twilight felt butterflies threatening to tear their way out of her stomach. Everypony can see it! I can see it! Can she? Can I help her to see it?

The pair of ponies stopped in front of a set of grand double doors. “And here we are. Not like you need much help finding your way around, really,” he chuckled. “I just ask that, out of respect for the Princess, you keep the late hour in mind.”

“Of course,” she said with a polite curtsy. “Thank you for the escort. It shouldn’t take more than a minute.” Or perhaps it will take all night, she couldn’t resist adding. She suppressed her urge to giggle wildly.

As the guard slowly disappeared down the hallway, Twilight braced herself emotionally, took a deep breath, and knocked lightly on the towering wooden door. Did I knock too softly? She probably didn’t hear—

“Enter, please.”

A shiver ran down her spine. Twilight gently nudged the door open, entering into Princess Celestia’s private chambers. A roaring fire was ablaze in the room’s central stone fireplace. Circling around the room was an impressive astronomical mural depicting the stars, planets, and naturally the sun. In the back of the room, the balcony doors were open and letting in a gentle, warm summer breeze.

Princess Celestia was seated next to a low coffee table. She had removed her royal crown and slippers, instead wearing a violet silken nightgown. A brush magically ran itself along her flowing, luminescent mane, straightening it before bed. “Ah, Twilight,” she said warmly. “How wonderful to see you. Please forgive my appearance. Today has been such a long day, and I assumed that you wouldn’t be offended by the informality.”

Twilight Sparkle stifled a squeal of delight before it could escape her throat, making it sound more like a hiccup instead. She’s comfortable around me! She feels fine letting her guard down and showing me her true self. And sweet Celestia, that gown is—


Her eyes snapped back upward, meeting the Princess’s. “Yes! Yes, Your Highness?”

She motioned to a velvet pillow which rested on the ground beside her. “Come. Sit with me.”

Twilight walked next to the Princess, moving in a light daze. The majestic alicorn filled her field of vision as she approached. Even her perfume—lilacs, perhaps—was overtaking her consciousness. She bit her tongue, trying to keep her mind rooted in reality.

Princess Celestia set her manebrush on the coffee table and turned to face her guest. “Now, Twilight Sparkle, what is it that you wanted to discuss?” She smiled peacefully down upon her student. Her radiant mane rippled gently across her back, moving against a breeze only it could feel.

Don’t screw this up. You’ve got one shot! Make it count! “W-Well, Princess Celestia,” she stammered, “I’m glad that everything worked out in the end. We were able to stop Queen Crysalis, and Princess Cadance and my brother’s wedding was incredible.”

The Princess smiled, closing her eyes. “I too am glad. This was quite a series of events, but in the end, it was love—the love of Cadance and Shining Armor—which saved the day. Theirs is a wonderful example for all of Equestria.”

“That’s just it, Your Majesty.” Twilight Sparkle bit her lip. “There’s something that I still don’t understand. Something that has me terribly confused.”

“Oh?” She tilted her head. “And what would that be?”

Twilight felt her chest tightening again. Dozens of voices were screaming in her head, each giving rash, conflicting commands. Her heart banged against her rigid chest, threatening to escape and take the Princess for itself, should Twilight’s body not comply.

A look of concern came over the Princess’s face. She lowered her head, now sitting nearly eye to eye with her star pupil. “What is it, Twilight? Tell me.”

For the first time in her life, Twilight Sparkle didn’t think.

She wasn’t really aware of the kiss until it was nearly over. It wasn’t until she was pulling away that she became aware of all of the senses she was feeling. The soft touch of Celestia’s supple lips against her own. The faint taste of strawberries. The Princess’s hot breath gliding across Twilight’s neck. The sensations were nothing like Twilight expected them to be; they were infinitely superior.

Twilight pulled her head back and opened her eyes. She looked up at the Princess, trying to gauge her reaction. She saw... nothing. Princess Celestia’s face was stoic, unphased, and unreadable. Twilight was at a loss. Do I continue? Stop? I never made a contingency for her standing around like a statue! She said the first thing that popped into her head: “Well?”

Princess Celestia remained silent, causing Twilight to wonder if perhaps the Princess hadn’t heard her. After a moment, she finally replied. “I had hoped that you would have thought better than to act on this, Twilight Sparkle.”

No. No-no-no. Twilight felt as though a vacuum were sucking all of the air out of the room. This can’t be her answer. She’s the only pony I’ve ever adored! “B-But, Princess!”

“I am touched by the sentiment in your thesis and in... your actions. However, you have to have known that we could never share that type of relationship.”

“Known that—” Twilight stumbled to her hooves, awkwardly backpedaling off her pillow. “But today at the wedding! You told me to trust my instincts.”

Princess Celestia rose and walked toward Twilight, slowly closing the gap between them. “I had expected your instincts to be better founded in reality and maturity. The Twilight I know and care for wouldn’t leap upon such rash actions.”

Twilight’s jaw dropped. Rash? I’ve felt this way about her for years, and she’s calling me rash? She tried to speak her objections, but her voice refused to obey her.

“My most faithful student, I am the co-ruler of Equestria, and bound by all of my royal duties. I have lived for thousands of years, and will still be here long after you are gone. A courtship between yourself and I would never be tolerated by society.”

Twilight glared at the pillows on the floor, unable to bring herself to meet the Princess’s gaze. “I don’t care about any of that. I care about you, Princess. Who says we need to get everypony’s permission?”

The Princess sighed and unfolded her wings. Under normal circumstances, her magnificent wingspan would have stolen Twilight’s breath away, but these were anything but normal circumstances. “My beloved Twilight, please try to understand. I do care deeply about you. You are one of my most prized students. I have felt truly blessed to watch you grow, learn, and develop into the mare you are today. Your studies of friendship have been a true joy to behold, and have even reminded me of a valuable lesson on one or two occasions. It has been a great honor to know you as well as I do.” She stepped up beside Twilight and lowered a broad wing across her back. “However, this is the extent of my feelings right now. I do not—and fear that I cannot—reciprocate the kinds of feelings that you feel for me. It would be unfair of me to let you believe otherwise.”

Twilight Sparkle stared down at her hooves. Please, Princess. No.

Princess Celestia tightened her wing, pulling Twilight in close against her body. “Come now, Twilight Sparkle. Let’s not focus on what could have been. You and I share a truly special bond. While it may not be the love that you seek, it is still a bond that is quite strong and magical.” She smiled and gave Twilight a playful wink. “Perhaps you should start by amending your thesis with this new information?”

Twilight Sparkle felt an emotion bubbling up from within her heart. This sensation was unlike anything she had ever felt toward the Princess. It was not love.

She shoved the Princess away from her, breaking apart the wing-hug. “Are you mocking me?”

Princess Celestia’s ears fell flat. “Twilight? What are—”

“Is this your solution?” Twilight flailed her foreleg about, slashing through the air with each sentence. “Here I am, pouring my heart out to you, and this is your clever response? ‘I’m out of your league’? ‘You ought to know better’?”

“Twilight Sparkle! I—”

“Wait, wait! It gets better!” Twilight’s dry laugh echoed against the walls of the bedchamber. “‘Congratulations! Your confession has been rejected by Princess Celestia, almighty ruler of Equestria. Your homework for tonight is to write an essay about how getting dumped on your flank has been the greatest thing to ever happen to you!’” She paused for a moment, waiting for a possible reply, but none came.

“Let me tell you something, Princess,” she continued. “I love you, alright? Not like how some little filly loves ice cream. Real love. I care about you. I yearn for you. I want to devote the rest of my life to you. I don’t care if some stuffy Canterlot bureaucrat doesn’t approve. I don’t care that you’ll always be busy with royal responsibilities. I don’t care if I’ll only be alive for a sliver of your life. I don’t give a flying feather about any of that.” She punctuated her words with a stomp of her hooves. Even on the plush carpeting, her hoofsteps sounded off with a bold thump. “All I care about is you, Princess. Just me and you, together. And if I can’t have your love in return, the least you could do is not treat me like some stupid little filly!” Her chest rose and fell with heavy breaths. Her anger had sapped all of her strength.

Twilight focused her eyes back onto the target of her tirade. The Princess was silent, and her expression was blank, just as before. Unlike before, however, her emotions were not unreadable. Twilight felt a chill run down her spine, and an unnerving sense of dread.

“Is that all, Twilight Sparkle?”

Twilight’s hind legs collapsed, and her rump fell to the floor. Her ears curled up flat against her mane. “Princess, I am so sorry.”

“As am I.” Princess Celestia closed her eyes. “I had seen the signs. Known the risks. I thought that, in the end, your sense of logic and reason would keep you from acting recklessly.”


“Truly, due to my own inaction, I am perhaps more responsible than you are. I had been too afraid to address the issue head-on. Now that it has reached this stage, it is no longer possible to ignore.”

No-no-no, please, Princess, don’t do this.

Princess Celestia stared into Twilight’s eyes. The young student could see an emotion clear as daylight in the old teacher’s eyes—a depth of sadness. “Please believe me when I say that I never wanted for you to suffer. I naively thought that everything could work itself out. But now I can clearly see how much this is tormenting you.”

Twilight reached a hoof out toward her idol. “Princess! Don’t!” she croaked.

“We must do what is best for you in the long-term, even if it is painful in the short-term.” She turned and slowly stepped her way toward her balcony. “Namely, we should both take a step back from this situation, in order to see things more calmly. We should provide you with an opportunity to let your rationality—one of your most admirable traits—guide you once more. You need to gain perspective, yet your current assignment is preventing just that.”

Twilight Sparkle collapsed to the floor. She covered her ears with her hooves, hoping beyond hope that this could somehow prevent the Princess from speaking.

Princess Celestia did not turn back around to face her. “Twilight Sparkle, effective immediately and until further notice, you are no longer my student.”

Twilight looked up from the floor at the Princess who was no longer her mentor. She waited for yet another emotion to overtake her, but none came. She tried to talk, or scream, or cry, yet nothing worked. She couldn’t make any sounds escape her lips.

“The guards shall be returning shortly, and shall help escort you to your room for the night. After that point, your business is your own concern. Farewell, Twilight Sparkle.”

At last, Twilight found a set of muscles which proved to be functional. She rose up to her hooves, turned, and galloped out of the room. The grand double doors flew open with a surge of magic.

Princess Celestia turned at the last possible second, catching one final glimpse of her former prized student before she fled through the door and disappeared.

The next morning, Twilight Sparkle plodded along the cobblestone road leading east of town. Her suitcase from the wedding scraped along the road behind her, barely levitated by her magic. She took one last sorrowful look behind her. The towering majesty of Canterlot Castle was slowly fading away into the horizon. Beyond it, she could make out the tiniest glimpse of Ponyville. I’m not studying friendship anymore. I’m no longer Princess Celestia’s student. She faced forward, staring down at the stones that passed underneath her hooves.

From in front of her, she heard the sounds of an approaching carriage. She sauntered off to the side of the road, not bothering to look up. What does it matter? I’m no longer hers. I have no reason to go back.

“There you are!”

Her eyes dilated. That voice! She looked up just in time to be on the receiving end of a tight embrace.

“Twiley! We were so worried about you.”

She pried herself away from the hug and looked up at her brother. “Shining Armor! But how? Weren’t you supposed to be on your honeymoon by now?”

Princess Cadance stepped down from the carriage and approached her sister-in-law. “Come on, Twilight. Didn’t Shining Armor tell you last night? We couldn’t run off and enjoy ourselves while our favorite little filly was feeling miserable.”

Shining Armor winked. “Turns out Cadance cared about your situation just as much as I did. When I told her what you told me last night, she insisted on turning around and helping you out.” He blanched. “Uh, which, by the way—sorry about telling her your secret like that. Y’know, marriage, and not keeping secrets, and all that.”

Twilight didn’t pay heed to her brother’s stammered apology. She turned to Cadance. “But I don’t understand. How did you find me here? How did you know that I...” she said as her eyes dropped to the ground, “that I screwed up?”

Cadance set her hoof gently on Twilight’s shoulder and smiled. “Oh, just a hunch. Even though Shining Armor said that you had promised to take things slowly, I suspected that you might get carried away and make a move last night. Knowing Celestia, I can imagine what her answer was, and knowing you, I can imagine how you took the news.”

Twilight Sparkle’s jaw dropped. “How—”

“Wait, what?!” yelled Shining Armor. He stared wide-eyed at Twilight. “Sis, you’ve got the hots for Princess Celestia? You never told me that!”

“She didn’t have to.” Princess Cadance smirked. “Love is kinda my thing, remember? I sort of have an eye for this.”

Shining Armor grinned widely. “Wow, my little sister actually put the moves on Princess Celestia. I can hardly believe it!” He gently bumped her. “Gotta say, Twiley, I’m impressed! That takes some serious guts.” He winked at Cadance. “I guess ‘having a thing for royalty’ runs in the family, huh?”

Princess Cadance gave him a silent, admonishing glare.

He coughed. “Right. I’ll, um, I’ll just wait by the carriage.”

She returned her gaze to Twilight Sparkle. “So you confessed your feelings, but they weren’t reciprocated? What will you do now?” She looked at the suitcase lying discarded on the side of the road. “Run?”

“Cadance, you don’t understand!” Twilight Sparkle held out her hooves in protest. “All these years, I thought that I was getting closer and closer to the Princess. Now I learn that I was just a big mistake to her! A problem that she should’ve taken care of years ago. A silly little filly with a childish crush.” She heaved a deep sigh. “I can’t face her again. Not after that.”

“What about your friends?” Cadance asked, looking toward the speck in the distance that was Ponyville. “Is their love so unimportant that you would run from them too?”

Twilight felt a sharp kick in her gut. I never even said goodbye. “Of course my friends are important! I care deeply about all of them—I really do!” She buried her face in her hooves. “But the only reason I met them in the first place was... because she told me to. Ponyville just has too many memories tied to it now.” She shook her head. “Besides, the feelings I have for them is just ‘friendship.’ It’s completely different than what I felt toward the Princess.”

Cadance laughed, full-hearted and carefree. “Oh, Twilight. Of course it’s different! Love comes in so many different shapes and forms.” She pulled Twilight into a soft embrace. “Everypony that has played an important role in your life has loved you. Your parents and brother have loved you. Your favorite foalsitter has loved you. Your fellow Elements have loved you. Your young dragon assistant has loved you. The residents of Ponyville have loved you. Yes, even your teacher has loved you.

“Each of these individuals’ love is different and unique. No two ponies feel the exact same way about you. That’s what makes love so special and powerful.” She placed a hoof on Twilight’s chin, raising it until they were staring eye-to-eye. “Sometimes, as you just experienced, we wish that one pony could feel a different type of love toward us. Sometimes this is possible; sometimes it isn’t. But even if a pony cannot change the way in which they love you, it doesn’t mean that they don’t currently love you, in their own way.”

With a rush, Twilight felt her mind replay the conversation she had had the previous night. I do care deeply about you. You are one of my most prized students. I have felt truly blessed to watch you grow, learn, and develop into the mare you are today. She felt a hot sting as her eyes were overtaken with tears. “T-That’s what she tried to tell me! Oh Celestia, what have I done?” She fell into Cadance’s open forelegs, weeping into the alicorn’s shoulder. Shining Armor stepped forward and joined them, as the three family members shared a heartfelt embrace.

After some time, Twilight Sparkle lifted her head and wiped a foreleg across her nose. She looked up at her older brother and sister. “Thank you, both of you. I’m sorry. I don’t mean to take over your honeymoon any more than I already have, but could I get a ride back to Ponyville?” She smiled through her remaining tears. “My loved ones are waiting for me.”

Shining Armor smiled back and ruffled his sister’s mane. “It’d be our pleasure, kiddo. So, is all of this going into another one of your friendship reports?”

Her smile wavered. “No. I’m no longer Princess Celestia’s student. I don’t owe her any more reports.” She chuckled. “Besides, I honestly haven’t learned enough to write to her about this. Not yet.” She turned to Canterlot Castle and smiled. “But someday, I’ll know. And when I do, maybe I’ll send her another thesis.”


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It was the first time Celestia ever cried. She knelt at Prism Shine's side, her foalish limbs quaking with every sob that came out of her petite lungs. She clung desperately to her dear friend's wrinkled neck, trying desperately to make sense with her weeping breath what all her immortal words failed to convey.

An emerald glen circled the dew-laden bed of soft leaves and grass upon which Prism Shine lay. Everywhere around them, the eternal forest hummed with life, brimming with spiraling orbs of iridescent light still settling from the dawn of Creation. The air of the world was crisp and new, and it echoed with every rasping breath Prism Shine had to give. A circle of brightly colored fillies and colts surrounded the scene from a distance, their glossy eyes absorbing a new and somber shade of beauty that was just now drawing black lines across the immaculate face of the earth.

“Prism...” Celestia choked, her voice coming out in childish squeaks. “Prism, I am so sorry. I should have seen this was coming. I should have prepared you. I should have—”

“Shhhh...” Prism's gray eyes squinted through a mucousy film. A weak smile graced her alabaster face beneath a mane of rainbow strands. “Your M-Majesty...” She reached a shaking hoof up. Celestia gripped it in earnest as Prism Shine wheezed and fought the shivers to say, “You have... g-given me everything.” A single tear of jaundice bled from her sockets. Her horn shook, a fragmented thing reduced to calcified dust. “You have made the world. You have carved the oceans. All of my life, I have been surrounded by you... blessed by you. I've breathed in your glory and laughed in your divine c-company...” She coughed as her thin eyes tensed in a wave of fitful pain. “I do not know where I am going, my Princess. But wherever it is... you have prepared me.” She smiled as the scarlet in her cheeks showed for one last time. “You have... you h-have...”

“Don't... Don't sp-speak like you're just one of my subjects!” Celestia whimpered. A silver tiara rattled around her horn, almost too large for her tiny head. The Princess hissed through clenched teeth and fought to say, “You're more than the rest of Creation! You're my friend! You're my everything...”

“I... am happy to have been your fr-friend...” Prism Shine hoarsely said. She gazed past Celestia and smiled faintly at the silent ponies of the First Age. “But your everything w-waits for you and you alone, your Majesty...”

“No... No!” Celestia's bright pink mane shook in the glow of the new world. She collapsed, huddling by Prism Shine's side as her face glistened with tears. “Not without you! The world won't be the same!”

“No...” Prism Shine dizzily shook her head, gulped, and said, “It will be different, Princess. And it will be glorious... so long as your light is there to sh-shine on it...”

Celestia sniffled. She cupped Prism Shine's weak hoof to her face and nuzzled it, christening the elder's dry flesh with her tears. “Prism Shine...” She shuddered. “Please, tell me. Tell me what you want me to do.”

Prism Shine took a deep breath. A sudden jolt ran through her frail body. Her eyes briefly widened, grasping an invisible darkness that loomed above the zenith of all Creation. For once, she trembled like an infant. Her aged lips moved slowly. “Stay with me, my princess,” she dryly exhaled. “Don't leave my side, please.”

Celestia gulped and smiled at her. “Never,” she said.

Celestia's friend grinned, and then she did nothing. The world went silent as her body deflated like a dry pile of leaves, and Prism Shine was as still as the shadows of the heavy forest looming all around.

Celestia blinked. Her lips quivered. Her eyes clouded over with tears as she shook her head, thrashed, and buried her face into the unicorn's neck. “Nnngh-No! Prism Shine! Prism Shine, don't leave me!” Her sobs were fitful little explosions at first, but then they collected into grand wails that shook the foliage all around. Leaves scattered from overhead branches and flowers bent over on themselves. The ring of young ponies bowed their heads and trotted away from their mourning ruler, especially as a divine shadow settled upon the scene.

A glittering miasma of dull shades coalesced slowly on the far end of the glen. Hoofprints formed in the soil, around which fresh flowers of red and yellow and blue materialized and then burned to ash with each subsequent impression. Billowing upwards like a plume of smoke, a cosmic figure took shape. A glorious alicorn stood above Celestia's weeping form. His sprouting wings were colored with the brilliance of stars, and when he spoke it was as if thunder was rolling backwards into the heavens.

“Why is it that you weep, Celestia?” He orbited the earthen bed upon which the aged unicorn's body rested. A crater of growing and dying grass formed a shifting circle of life around the center of the glen. “Did I not foretell that this would happen? Were my warnings not enough to reach you through these bright decades of discovery?”

Celestia hiccuped, sobbed, and gazed up at him with pleading eyes. “Father! Father, please! Bring her back!”

A pair of eyes stared down at her, brighter than the birthplace of all stars. “I cannot, dear daughter.” The voice was neither joyous nor mournful. His breath carried the majestic indifference of crumbling mountains. “She was born unto nothing, and must return to nothing.”

“But why?!” Celestia whimpered. She wiped her face with a forelimb and gazed in anguish at Prism Shine's limp body and colorful mane. “She was so precious. So beautiful. Why must this be the fate of our subjects? Why must ponies come into being... only to someday not be?”

“Dearest Celestia...” He trotted over towards her and enfolded a wing of sparkling bands about her petite figure. She closed her eyes and nuzzled his effluent touch as he spoke into her ear. “There is one constant in the universe, and that is magic. This world we've created will never run out of it, but it will always run out of souls who can use it.” He raised her chin with a translucent hoof, forcing their eyes to connect. “We are the exception, daughter. We are eternally bound by magic, as magic has bound us to make order out of chaos. It is in our essence to maintain the balance of things. For that reason, we can only possess half of the reserves that the cosmos grant us. To carry any greater shares, to upset the order of birth and decay, would only make the heavens collapse in on themselves.”

“But...” Celestia's lips quivered as she gazed deeply into the eternal well of his mighty visage. “Why must there be death? I do not understand, Father.”

His eyes burned with immutable wisdom. “We are immortal, Celestia. It is not our place to learn, but to provide.” He turned and gestured towards the line of ponies watching from afar. “We must be a bastion of strength for them, my daughter. For it will be mortals like who determine the glory of this world, and how it chooses to blossom in the order that we have maintained.”

Celestia breathed slowly, her tears drying. Still, her face hung in a pained expression as she gazed lovingly at Prism Shine once more. “If I had known what I know now...” She shuddered. “I would have given her a sweeter taste of Creation. She was the first to walk this world we made, and the first to die on it. More than anything I have ever shone light on, she deserves permanence.”

“My daughter, look at me.”

Celestia obeyed with a pair of humble eyes.

“I love you, and I wish the best for you in the eons of labor you have yet to endure. So heed my words...” His shadow encompassed her as he gravely added, “When we planted light upon the fields of Creation, Celestia, it was a divine thing. But there will come a time when our brilliance won't be enough. It will take a great, unknowable darkness to test the luminescence that we have bequeathed life. That is an abyss that we can never, ever follow our children down, no matter how much we love them.”

Princess Celestia's rosy-colored eyes reflected the endless barren plains of the Equestrian Desert. She stood upon the port side deck of the Dawnmist as the gallant, royal dirigible carried her and dozens of her royal subjects, guards, and soldiers eastward towards Canterlot.

Far below, the rocky landscape stretched on forever beneath a bright, morning sun. There was no single scrap of green vegetation to be seen. It would be at least another two hundred miles before the arid rock gave way to the rolling plains and dense woods of the kingdom's capital.

In twelve short millennia, half of the gorgeous forests of Equestria had receded, so that the rougher skin of the world rose craggily to the surface, sucking the moisture from the air and choking the wind of all rain from horizon to horizon.

While Celestia gazed thoughtfully into the brown expanse, her mane of pastel shades billowing in the high atmosphere, Princess Luna marched forward and stood by her side.

“It's been two days since the Summer Sun Celebration, beloved sister,” Luna dryly stated. “Shouldn't you be resting for the duration of this trip home?”

“I was merely thinking...” Celestia murmured.

Luna gazed up at her. “And what travails upon your mind?”

“The colors of this world.” Celestia answered. Her nostrils slowly flared. “Sometimes it feels as though, with each passing solstice that I raise the Sun, there are fewer shades of them left to shine on.”

Luna emotionlessly hummed. “The Celebration was in Appleloosa this year. One can forgive your divine right of ennui. It's certainly not a very extravagant city.”

Celestia cast Luna a lethargic glance. “You know better than to question how I cherish the cities of our kingdom equally, dear sister.”

“I merely question your countenance.” Luna spoke as a heavy breeze kicked at their manes and the support ropes of the airship around them. “It has been somewhat jaded as of late.”

“Most things have been,” Celestia said with a nod. “But most things cannot be helped.” She turned and marched slowly across the deck of the Dawnmist as several servants and shipmates galloped from post to post around them. “I am glad to have orchestrated a peaceful Summer Sun Celebration this year But as much as it has thrilled our subjects, it hasn't done a thing to eliminate our problems. It's been yet another decade, and still the elusive army of dissident changelings has not been uprooted. Furthermore, the ratification of this latest treaty with the Mountain Griffons has vexed me to no end.”

“It is times like these when I count our blessings for being immortal,” Luna said. Her expression was as neutral as ever, but her voice trailed with the slightest ring of amusement, a tone that only her older sibling could detect. “Stress is only as everlasting as the adversaries of Equestria would trick ponies into believing. Our subjects will be safe so long as they have alicorns wise enough to protect them from despair.”

“I acknowledge despair,” Celestia said, her voice rising sharply for a brief moment. “But I do not acknowledge 'adversaries.'” She cast a glare in Luna's direction. “There was a time, Princess Luna, at the beginning of everything, when all life was at peace, when we communed under the shade of luscious gardens. I respect all creatures no less now than I did then, even in spite of their foolish treachery as of late.”

“I have always admired your penchant for adoration, dear sister,” Luna said. Her next expression had a glint of razor-sharp seriousness. “But that is not the only quality of yours I've come to respect.”

Celestia said nothing to that. She gazed down at her gold-plated hooves. Her pale coat had the same immaculate shine as when she first descended upon the blossoming world. Celestia knew that every subject under her command saw an immaculate goddess when she graced their presence. However, when she looked upon her own visage, she felt the same as when she gazed at the arid deserts blurring beneath the Dawnmist.

Just then, an elder mare in silver-plated armor marched up. Her faded orange wings folded respectfully at her side as she bowed before the two Princesses. “Your Majesty,” she spoke to Celestia first and foremost. “We are crossing past Zebra territory. Should we pay a customary visit to the King of Shadows?”

“Negative, Admiral,” Celestia said, eliciting a curious glance from Luna. “Make haste for Canterlot. There is much planning to be done in the defense of the Equestrian homeland, and I've tarried enough as it is for the sake of the Celebration.”

“Very well, your Highness,” the Admiral said with yet another bow. “I shall put the crew on double-shifts.”

“Be mindful that you do not overwork them,” Celestia said. “We are returning from a festival, after all. My subjects deserve to smile as much as they toil.”

The aged Admiral trotted away, barking orders towards her helmspony and fellow crew-mates.

Luna trotted to a perpendicular position next to Celestia. “Impatience is unbecoming of you, sister. I thought you greatly enjoyed the Zebra King's company.”

“And I have many years left to enjoy it even more,” Celestia said. “And so does he. Currently, our kingdom has several pressing issues. It takes planning and grace to know when to balance diplomacy with restraint.”

Luna raised an eyebrow. “Do you think me a stranger to such qualities?”

Celestia sighed. “I did not mean to imply that, sister. It's just that—” Her rosy eyes twitched. A brilliant glow illuminated across her horn. In the span of three seconds, the strobe ended as swiftly as it had begun.

“Sister?” Luna remarked in a curious tone. “What is it?”

“A presence...” Celestia murmured. She slowly pivoted about as her gaze scanned the desolate horizon. “A source of raw magical talent, the likes of which I haven't sensed in years...”

At precisely that moment, a soldier's voice shouted, “Hydra! Twenty-five degrees off the port deck!”

The Admiral fluttered over towards the shouting guard on the left edge of the hovering airship. “Such a creature?!” she exclaimed. “This deep into the desert?! How large is it?”

“I judge it incapable of harming the vessel, Sir!” The young pegasus replied. Nevertheless, he shook at the frightful sight down below and swallowed his courage. “However, there's more! Look! Do you see, sir?”

“Good heavens!” another soldier shouted. “A unicorn!”

“He's all alone!” yet another hollered. “How old is he?”

“I can't tell from this far,” the Admiral breathlessly exclaimed. Her violet eyes flashed wide beneath her helmet as she gazed the Royal Sisters' way. “Your Highnesses...”

Celestia and Luna were already trotting briskly towards the edge of the ship. From their vantage point, they could easily spot a hulking reptile with four heads down below, towering over a tiny gray speck. That very same speck was currently scuffling on four little legs in a desperate attempt to avoid the beast's razor sharp strikes. However, there was one thing the petite figure refused to do...

“He's not running away!” a guard exclaimed. “He will be hydra food in seconds!” Several pegasi unsheathed their spears immediately and began stretching their muscular wings.

“Soldiers!” The Admiral called out. Everypony stood dead still as she raised her hoof, then looked humbly over at the princesses. “Your Highnesses, shall I send my forces down?”

Luna looked towards Celestia, who was still gazing at the tiny figure. Just then, a spark of brilliant flame erupted magically between the unicorn and the roaring hydra above him. The desert rumbled from the sheer output of mana that the petite equine was producing. It was at that point that Celestia's brow furrowed, and she spoke. “No...”

“No, Your Majesty?”

“Stay here on deck, but lower the ship.” Celestia flapped her wings and took off in a gentle hover. Luna silently did the same, following her lead. “Slow to a stop and await our orders,” Celestia said. “We shall take care of this. There will be no need for the spilling of blood today, no matter how vile.”

“Understood, Your Highness.”

Celestia and Luna were already gliding down towards the frightful struggle. The closer they approached the fight, the slimmer the sweating unicorn's chances appeared as the hydra bore down on him and his flames.

“It looks like this fight has been taking place for far longer than we have witnessed,” Luna said.

“It would only waste valuable time to guess,” Celestia calmly replied. She glanced aside at her sister in mid-descent. “Would you like to do the honors, Luna?”

“Verily.” Luna's eyes burned white-hot as she blurred forward in a dark streak. With a crash of thunder, she landed directly in front of the hydra, forming a deep crater. She stood like a resonating black monolith before the monster's four gasping heads. “Foul wretch!” Princess Luna bellowed with the volume of a hundred wailing voices. “If thou wouldst spill the blood of even one of our beloved subjects, thou wouldst incur the wrath of all the world's shadows at our command! Begone, or we shalt toss thee to the moon in pieces!”

All four hydra skulls quaked in fear. The creature spun in its heavy tracks and fled, whimpering like a puppy into the nook of a deep crevice beyond a hill of arid stone. High above, the crew of the Dawnmist cheered and waved at the sight of the running beast. The vessel lowered to the earth, and upon Luna's signal the Admiral and her fellow guards flew down to join the alicorns' sides.

In the meantime, Celestia had quietly trotted up to the tiny, panting unicorn that had—until that very moment—been struggling just to stay alive. Upon close examination, it turned out to be a very young unicorn, a colt at that. A stone-black mane clung to his sweaty neck as he limped and crawled over the dirt, panting with exhaustion.

The closer Celestia moved towards him, the more he desperately clamored to get away. The foal was blinded by sweat and dust in his eyes. Celestia realized he couldn't tell the difference between her hooves and the rampaging talons of a ravenous hydra.

“Fear not, little one,” Celestia calmly said. She reached a hoof out to hold him still. “You are no longer in danger. You need not struggle any further—”

“Nnngh—No!” He shrieked, spun around, and flew open his eyes. Two orbs of brilliant plasma erupted atop his face. With a beam of light, his horn summoned a burning ball of energy between them. In the span of a single second, Celestia was covered from head to hooves in flames.

“Sister!” Luna called out. Frowning, she raced over to Celestia's side. By the time she got there, the cloud of ash had settled.

Celestia stood calmly, a shield of translucent energy erected around her. Puffs of smoke and trailing embers fell harmlessly to the ground around her unblemished features. She held a hoof out to calm her younger sister, all the while staring at the colt's writhing form.

“Fascinating...” Was all Celestia murmured. “A remarkable show of magical strength, to say the least.”

“Also volatile,” Luna droned. “Sister, perhaps we should—”

“Shhh!” Celestia suddenly hissed. She stared at the colt. The glow had left his visage. He stared up at the two princesses, his red eyes streaming with tears. Soon, his hyperventilation got the best of him. He collapsed in the dust, twitching fitfully in an unconscious stupor. The tell-tale signs of days of anguish stained his figure in the forms of scrapes, bruises, and dirty splotches. Along his rear flank was the image of a burning flame encircled with cosmic bands.

“Sister?” Luna gazed at Celestia, at the colt, and at Celestia again. “What are you thinking now?”

Celestia exhaled softly as she absorbed the frail image of the young unicorn. Her eyes closed.

When they reopened, they were brimming with tears. Holding her sobbing breaths in, the alicorn filly trotted gracefully down the golden halls of the Holy Palace. She levitated the brittle body of Star Bliss in her cradling magic. His breaths were spreading further and further apart, so she held him closer in mid-stride, nuzzling her pale cheek against his brown wrinkles.

Finally, they entered the patio of the Palace's west wing. The room was open, and beyond several platinum pillars there stretched a field of bright flowers that danced in the crimson kiss of a setting sun. Evening was falling across the virgin fields of Equestria. The distant roar of sapphiric waterfalls danced over the tall grass, casting a fine mist across the landscape and ultimately condensing over the polished marble of the Palace floors.

This patio was Star Bliss' favorite place to be. He spent days, weeks, months, years there: reading books and concocting the first spells to ever be committed to Equestrian parchment. Celestia knew this, for she spent every single precious decade with him, sitting with him, talking with him, teaching him.

Today, she laid him down on a bed of velvet cushions in the penumbra of the evening's dying shadows. His body was as light as feathers, his skin as thin as glass. When he stirred, his muscles resembled coiled rope shifting under loosely crumpled paper.

“We... we are in the reading hall,” Star Bliss said in a whispering breath. His dry lips cracked into a wrinkling smile. “I love this place...”

Celestia sniffled. She swallowed a lump bravely down her throat and pressed her forehead to his. “I know you do, my faithful student,” she murmured against his cheek. Her words and kisses were separated only by the breadth of warm tears. “You brought glory and wisdom to my Father's house. These hallowed halls belong to you as much as they do to us.”

“I was... blessed to have served you, my liege...” He coughed, sputtered. As Celestia gazed at him with breathless worry, he winced and added, “I am the last of a generation to commune with both the Father and Daughters of Creation. There... is no gr-greater glory...”

The princess shuddered. Smiling painfully, she brushed his straw-like mane out from his brow. “There are greater glories, beloved Star. There always shall be.” She winced briefly and whispered, “But none shall match your brilliance, your preciousness to me...”

Star Bliss gasped, his fragile body briefly heaving in a wave of pain. His face tightened, and then relaxed in a series of heavy exhales.

Celestia gnawed on her lip. There was a murmuring sound from behind her.


Ever so briefly, the princess glanced over her shoulder.

A tiny foal with a midnight-black coat stood pensively behind a pillar. A dark tiara hung loosely over a pair of worrisome blue eyes as the little alicorn gazed at the somber scene.

Celestia instantly looked away. With a forelimb, she dried her face, put on a brave countenance, and faced her younger sibling directly. “Come forth, Princess Luna. You...You must attend this.”

The foal merely shifted where she stood.

Celestia took a deep breath and smiled. In a gentler voice, she cooed, “Come, Woona. Come sit with Tia and Star Bliss.”

Nervously, Luna trotted over on tiny hooves. By the time she reached her sister's side, her eyes had glossed over. Her gaze remained locked on the dying sight of Star Bliss.

The elder unicorn turned over, trembled, and managed a weak smile. “Princess Luna? Is that you, your Highness? I am...” He coughed, hacked, and wheezed. “ by your presence.”

All Luna could manage was a tiny little whimper. Celestia cuddled her tight with her left forelimb. Quietly, she turned to face the unicorn once again and said, “Star Bliss, do you remember the first spell I ever taught you?”

“Yes, your Majesty,” he breathed. He squirmed deeper into the velvet cushions. The purple shadows of night's descent lingered as the two alicorns hovered about his passing. “It was a simple trans-location spell. You told me that magic is never created nor destroyed. It...” He coughed. “It's always there, waiting to be discovered, to be respected, and even to be mastered...”

“And what a fine master you've become, Star Bliss,” Celestia said, stroking his cheek as Luna trembled against her side. She smiled sweetly and added, “Thanks to you, the ponies of Equestria can control mana like a conductor and his orchestra. Teaching you was like a symphony in the making.”

“Your eyes...” Star Bliss remarked in a gasp, reaching a hoof up that Celestia instantly clasped. “When... When I mastered the spells, your eyes sparkled. There was magic there too, Your Highness...” He coughed, hissed in pain, the whimpered. “No. No, it was more than magic. For I remember that same sparkle... in my mother's eyes...” He swallowed and smiled as a tear rolled down his wrinkled cheek. “ it was in my daughter's. You...” He stretched his hoof further, quivering, until at last it touched Celestia's immaculate cheek. “You are as beautiful as I remember them... Then, now, and forever, my Liege...”

Celestia shuddered before nuzzling the end of his hoof. She stared into his eyes and said, “You tell them that when you see them, my good and faithful student.”

Star Bliss' breaths were now coming in fitful gasps. In between the last of them, he managed to spit forth, “Will... you f-forget me...?”

Celestia kissed his hoof. She breathed back, “Never.”

His ears flicked upon hearing that, then went limp. As the seconds trailed on the end of Star Bliss' last breath, Luna began to murmur in a low voice.


Celestia took a heavy breath. She lowered his hoof gently beside him on the cushions. “He's gone, Woona. Star Bliss has left us.”

Luna bit her lip. Tears began welling in her deep blue eyes. “Forever?”

Celestia slowly nodded and nuzzled her.

As a breeze from the distant waterfalls brushed over the two sisters, Luna buried her face in the older sibling's pink mane and murmured, “Did he go to the same pl-place that Father went?”

At that, Celestia clenched her eyes shut. It took all of her young strength to choke back a sob as she held Luna close.

“I don't know, Woona.”

She reached out and stroked Star Bliss one last time, smoothing his wrinkled brown coat to a pure shine. The shadows of the Palace gathered over his pale eyes.

“I don't know.”

The unicorn foal murmured unintelligible words as an ivory field of magic floated his unconscious body gently down into the satin covers of a large bed. Celestia stood above him in the royal cabin of the Dawnmist. An emotionless expression hung over her pale features as she stretched the comforter over him.

Halfway through, Celestia paused. Her vision lingered on the many bruises and splotches of dirt dotting the colt's exhausted body. It wasn't until a full minute had passed that she broke from her stupor. With a deep sigh, she lifted a basin of water from a nearby table. As the wooden body of the Dawnmist rocked from the outside winds, she dipped a cloth into the water and dabbed it over the colt's body, wiping the dirt of the desert away and cleaning out his wounds.

Minutes passed, and she had cleaned his gray coat to a pure shine. As she placed the basin and cloth away, she paused. She slowly turned to gaze deeply at his slumbering figure. The tiny unicorn's facial muscles were spasming, as if in the throes of a terrible dream. A tiny drop of moisture formed along the crease of his eyelids.

Celestia blinked, and she realized that her hoof had moved over to dry his cheek. Her heart stopped, as if suffering the stings of arrows as old as time, as old as herself. Her gaze fell from her horn to the mysterious cutie mark along his flank. She thought of the flame that had erupted between them, and how it tasted of the very same furnaces that spawned the firmaments of the world. Existence would likely last the span of a billion dying stars, and still she could not shake the embers of earth's foundation from her nose.

“Perhaps he would require sustenance at this point in time,” Luna's voice said from directly behind her sister.

Celestia jumped. She fumed angrily for a few seconds, straightened her mane, then calmly glanced back at her. “Sister, surely you know it is most uncouth to sneak up on your elder.”

“I did not realize that we had resorted once more to the rank of age,” Luna said with a raised eyebrow. “You do know that sooner than later in the course of things, your five hundred meager years of seniority will become moot.”

“Please, Luna, swiftly state your business.”

“Very well then.” Luna trotted up to the bed and gazed down at the sleeping colt. “I've told the Admiral to bring us back on course. We should reach Canterlot by late tomorrow evening, provided we are graced with a fair wind.”

“The pegasi will surely attend to that if need be.”

“Your desire to state the obvious, sister, suggests that your mind is elsewhere.”

“I did not ask to be analyzed by your audacious assumptions, Luna,” Celestia murmured. “I am merely concerned for the well-being of our new passenger.” She stared down at the stirring unicorn. “It's absolutely appalling to have found such an innocent soul in the middle of utter desolation. I can't imagine what pony under our rule would have been so cruel to have abandoned this child. I can only suspect that his family fell under tragic circumstances. On top of that, his display of magic is absolutely exceptional. Has it occurred to you that he is far too young to be bearing a cutie mark, much less one of such a dazzling design?”

“No,” Luna said, shaking her head. “However, it has occurred to me that you've ignored the substance of my inquisition.” She stared steadily at her sister. “I doubt very much that this colt is the sole reason for your distractions.”

Celestia slowly tilted her face up. She answered with a cold, silent deadpan.

“You know what's happening this week, Celestia,” Luna said in a low voice. “You've read the same letters I did before we even set course for Appleloosa. There is still time to change course from Canterlot—”

“Luna, we have been through this.”

“I know that I have been through this, but do you? I daresay you've pretended that those letters were never even written—”


“Things are different from what they were thousands of years ago. You've changed, Celestia, and sometimes I wonder if it was ever a good change. I know your mind is bent on protecting Equestria's interests. But your heart—”

“My heart...” Celestia flashed Luna an angry glare. “ employed in the preservation of this kingdom with no less fervor! And so long as you and I continue to perform the will of our Father on this earth, I must not let myself stray from that path! We are headed to Canterlot, and I do not wish to hear any more arguments in favor of the contrary! Do you understand me?”

Luna replied with a calm stare. Slowly, she said, “What I understand, dear sister, is that one time you could raise more than just the sun.” She made to trot out of the cabin, but not without gesturing once more toward the bed. “After all, is it too much straying to assist a mere foal in need? What part does he fulfill in our 'path,' I wonder?”

Celestia sighed, running a hoof over her face. “Are you quite finished, Luna?”

“Sustenance.” Luna repeated herself from earlier. “I give you that parting suggestion.” She was gone.

Celestia gazed into the shadows of Luna's absence. She looked once more upon the frail colt's body, then across the room towards where a table of prepared vegetables was lying in wait. With a soft breath, she trotted..

...across the granite floor of the Palace Sepulcher and stood in silent reverence before the tomb. A fresh stretch of polished marble rested before young Celestia's shining figure. Her mane had changed over the centuries, casting a prismatic luminescence across the rows of stacked graves. In the center was a brand new slab with a shiny bronze plaque reading one name and a lifespan that ended that very same calender year.

Celestia took a deep breath. Try as she might, she couldn't fight off the wavering shudder as she exhaled. Her face contorted in sorrow. She teetered upon the brink of sobs, but reined it in with remarkable grace. Swallowing, she read the name on the amber plaque over and over again until her lips finally produced the holy sound it demanded.

“'Dusk Song...'” It tasted just like yesterday. The Princess gulped and tightened her jaw. Her eyes moistened, then dried on their own. Despite the courageous feat, she whimpered aside, “Luna, I don't know how many more times I can do this.”

A young filly with a flowing blue mane stood beside her older, taller sister. “Then don't,” Luna said bluntly. “I've seen it. It tears at you. And yet you do it again and again.”

Celestia gazed and gazed at Dusk Song's name, until her pale face reflected in the surface. Suddenly she frowned and marched down the mausoleum hallway. “I have no choice.”

“You're the Princess of the Sun!” Luna called after her. “You always have a choice! You always have the authority!” She trotted quickly to catch up with her sister's furious gait. Together, the two marched swiftly down rows upon rows of graves. Bright red torches cast brown shadows as purple twilight lingered beyond the gold-plated windows. “Do you simply forget who you are every time you raise the Sun in the morning?”

“No, sister, I do not forget,” Celestia grumbled. “I remember who I am. Once more, I remember what our dear Father charged us with.”

“Celestia, our dear father,” Luna drawled, “abandoned us to a world cast amidst the cold-hearted dichotomy of life and death!”

“He did not abandon us!” Celestia turned to frown at her younger sister. “He left us in charge of enormous responsibilities befitting immortal alicorns! I do sincerely wish you would stop punishing the memory of him!”

“Sister, I barely have any memory of him to punish,” Luna said. “But I do know you, and I love you. And I would very much wish that you would not punish yourself.”

“It is not punishment!” Celestia hissed. She winced as her voice coldly bounced off of the maze of tombs surrounding them. She sighed and said in a calmer, quieter voice. “I cannot control the sun and maintain the realm of magic all on my lonesome. Neither can you master the moon and keep record of spells at the same time. We are not here to simply rule over these mortals. We have always been meant to commune with them, to nurture them, to help them in their fragile lives of discovery and understanding.”

“An impossible feat for even one immortal,” Luna said. “Much less a pair of them. I know you care about our Father's wishes, but can't magic be left well enough alone?”

“Of course it can't!” Celestia's voice rose again. The torches danced and billowed with scarlet fervor around the royal siblings. “We are not the only stewards this earth can afford, Luna. There may come a time when there's a force too great for even you and I to master. When that time comes, we'll need our royal subjects in possession of the elements of this world to combat any evil when or if it shows.”

“The only evil I've witnessed, Celestia, is the decay that gnaws on this kingdom we've established decade after decade, century after century. Look where we are...” Luna pointed towards the halls and towering stacks of graves. “Dusk Song isn't the first pony to make permanent residence in this place. A thousand years ago, our Father built this Palace to be a gathering of mortals and immortals alike. I swear, the only reason it's ever expanded to such an enormous size is to house sepulchers like this one. And it will not end, Celestia, no matter how much you and your faithful apprentices tame magic.”

“I know that it is endless, Luna,” Celestia said. Her majestic body slumped with a sigh as she gazed beyond the torches. “I thought that, with time, I would become used to it. I thought I would gain the neutrality and wisdom I witnessed in Father before he left the earth for greater things. But in so many centuries upon centuries, that hasn't happened. I can't pretend to change the way of all things. I just wished that all things would be easier. I wished that fate would fall differently on the apprentices I come to foster and adore.”

Luna stared at the rows of graves beyond them. She murmured aside, “Perhaps what you should address is that adoration to begin with.”

Celestia raised an eyebrow. She looked over at Luna. “Sister...?”

The younger sibling coldly returned the gaze. “You love and cherish those whom you mentor, Celestia. But perhaps that is your one timeless mistake. I would be lying if I said that there weren't occasions when I wanted to interrupt your magic lessons with Equestria's greatest sorcerers and attempt to diffuse the bond you have formed with them.”

“Luna...!” Celestia gasped as if struck with a dagger.

“Do not pretend that I am suggesting something obscene.”

“I care for each and every one of our subjects like they were—”

“Were what?” Luna's eyes hardened. “Our children? Do not be so naïve, sister. I may be younger than you, but that hasn't made me perceive the passage of time any differently. Dusk Song was once a young colt, studying in our largest libraries, giggling as he filled his eager mind with endless banks of knowledge. Then, in a blink, he was a frail soul clinging to you as you led him to the infirmary, just like all of the generations of pupils before him. I don't know how you do it either, Celestia, but I pray—in my sleep and in my dreams—I pray that you come to realize what is the true nature of our situation. We cannot call these mortals our 'children.' At best, we can only afford them as pets.”

Celestia grimaced upon hearing those last words. She looked ready to angrily retort, but backed off with a drooping of her ears. It was a foalish expression, like a pale shade of herself that had once collapsed upon a green field at time's beginning.

Luna took a deep breath and walked over to her. “Forgive the extreme color of my speech, dear sister. But I care for you. I barely see you in between the small gaps in time between the rising of the sun and moon. Those moments afford me dreadful pictures of a sad princess bathed in twilight. I do not wish to see that horrible visage any longer. I wish to see my sister again, as bright and as cheerful as the morning.”

Celestia's gaze fell to the floor as she muttered, “I fear that I no longer have it within me to be bright, Luna.”

“You can be bright, dear sister,” Luna said. “You just need to know where to position the veil, and it's come time you shrouded someone else than yourself.”

Celestia looked up at her. “I do not think I quite read you.”

Luna paced past a series of coffins, gently brushing her hoof across the plaques and names and dates that lined up like copper teeth beyond them. “The next time you foster an apprentice—and we both know very well that there will be a next time—I suggest that you impose a new order. Once you have sufficiently taught your student the ways of proper sorcery, you must make the bold move of severing all ties with said unicorn. From then on, your lives—both mortal and otherwise—will pursue separate courses, unbound by each other's joys or sorrows.”

“How...” Celestia wasn't protesting, she was merely curious. She squinted quizzically at her younger sister. “How could I possibly go about forcing such a separation?”

Luna stared at the floor for a prolonged time. She blinked, then glanced up at Celestia. “A fabrication.”

“You suggest that I lie to my very own students?”

“I suggest that you invent a necessary artifice that will legitimize your perpetual parting of ways,” Luna said, trotting slowly towards her. “After all, it wouldn't be the first time we've augmented the truth that we bequeath to our royal subjects. We have and always shall consider their safety above all.”

“But I do not think I could weather a personal breach of honesty with my very own personal protege—”

“And what would you rather do? Hmmm?” Luna's dark eyes were piercing, like knife edges. “Dusk Song died alone, childless, and in utter solitude.”

“Untrue! He had us—”

“He had timeless alicorns, Celestia,” Luna said firmly. “No matter how desperately we attempt to paint the truth otherwise, we are no family for a mortal. When these unicorns become the bridge between our realm and Equestria—when they carry the same burden that our Father has left us—they sacrifice whatever peaceful lives they could have enjoyed in the company of their fellow peers. We bless them with knowledge, and yet we curse them with destiny. Has that ever occurred to you, even once in all of these centuries?”

Celestia staggered back from that. She bumped into a wall of tombs and gazed up, breathless, as if all of the graves were caving in on her. She ran a hoof over her face as tears welled up in her eyes. Slowly, Equestria's Princess fell to her haunches and heaved through a slew of blossoming sobs.

“I never... never meant for any of this... for all of this to be so... so...”

“Dearest Celestia...” Luna was already nuzzling her, gazing warmly into her elder's distraught face. “We may be timeless, but we are not formless. It is never too late to change. That is the single, most dear message I wish to convey to you.”

Celestia's tears were flowing, but her face tightened upon a solid resoluteness she hadn't felt in a long time. In a firm breath, she...

...reached over and brushed the leafy edge of the celery stalk against the tiny colt's mouth. The little unicorn murmured in his slumber. His nostrils flared as he sniffed the fresh, crisp vegetable. His mouth watered, and his opening jaws pulled him out of sleep. With his eyes closed, he nibbled at the celery at first, then took a few healthy bites, then grasped the entire stalk with his forelimbs before finishing the rest of it fervently.

Once it was in his belly, he rolled over in the royal bedsheets and fluttered his eyes open. After one blink, he shot up, gasping.

“Be at peace,” Celestia said. She was sitting beside the bed in the Dawnmist's cabin, a plate of vegetables floating in a stream of white magic beside her. “You are safe in my royal vessel, young one.” Her voice was soothing, but unmelodious. The tone was only soft from its whispery edge alone. She emotionlessly lifted another leafy morsel from the platter and raised it before him. “Your body may be exhausted, but your stomach betrays what you really need. Please... eat heartily. It's the best grown celery in all of Equestria.”

The colt glanced at the green offering, then at the Princess. Gratefully, he reached two trembling hooves up and grasped the stalk. He chewed on it vigorously, filling his empty stomach. For several minutes and a few more helpings, he nourished himself in the presence of Equestria's ruler, until a healthy shade of red flushed across his cheeks, and he sat up in the bed bright and alert... but still pensive.

“There is more where that came from, in case you haven't actually had your fill.” Celestia found the words coming out of her mouth as if on their own volition. It felt as though deep banks in her mind were donating the sentences to her, a programmed act of fostering. She threw her wayward, analytical thoughts against the walls with a clearing of her throat as she placed the platter down and gazed calmly at the foal. “Do you have a name, young one?”

The tiny unicorn avoided her gaze, nervously running a hoof through his black mane.

Celestia stared at him. Liquidly, she gave a practiced grin. “I'll have you know, I am the Princess of Equestria. I could have you thrown into the royal dungeons if I so desired.”

He merely squinted at her. “Really?” his high-pitched voice squeaked.

Celestia blinked. It had been several decades since she last practiced humor. She suddenly remembered why. “Ahem.” She shifted where she sat on folded legs. “I wouldn't even think of it. Do forgive my awkward lack of grace, dear child. I am... quite simply flabbergasted to have found a young, talented unicorn such as yourself out in the middle of nowhere.”

“Talented?” The unicorn remarked with a scrunched face.

“Mmmmhmmm. Not even the largest, strongest, bravest stallion in Equestria is a match for a hydra. And there you were in the middle of the desert, fending him off on your lonesome, using remarkably advanced fire spells, no less.”

“Oh, right, that.” He winced and scrunched down in the bed, hiding his face behind a length of folds in the comforter. “Mmmmf... I'm sorry about that.”

“Sorry?” Celestia cocked her head to the side. She reached a hoof up and gently moved the sheet so that his face was no longer obscured. “Whatever for, young one?”

“Mmmm...” He stirred, glancing with nervous, darting eyes towards the walls of the place. “This is an airship...”

“Yes. Yes it is.”

“...and it's made out of wood?”

Celestia merely nodded.

“Yeah...” The unicorn hissed through wincing teeth. “You might wanna get me off this thing as soon as possible.”

“Hmmm...” Celestia gave a humored smile. “My young sir, I assure you, though I admit that you have remarkable spells, I swear to you that there is no single source of magic on this earth—equine or otherwise—that I would not be able to suppress in the event of an emergency.”

“Oh yeah?” He glanced up at her, his gray ears twitching. “You mean like changelings and the like?”

Celestia opened her mouth... but lingered. She wasn't quick enough to save her smile from fading.

He saw it, and his tiny ears then drooped. “Oh...” He slumped back down onto the bed. “I didn't think so.”

Celestia swallowed gently. She reached over and gently brushed the bangs of his mane. “Little one, tell me. Why are you so alone?”

His eyes clenched shut. His little body rose and fell with a sad sigh. “My parents died right after I was foaled. I barely got a chance to know them.”

“How, if I may be so bold to ask?”

“The war, of course,” he muttered, his jaw tightening. “Changelings got 'em. They got all the big ponies where I lived.”

Celestia murmured without stopping herself, “Las Pegasus...”

A tiny sound came from deep in his throat. He nodded his head, trembling, without opening his eyes.

The Princess bowed her head gravely. Her hoof rested tenderly on his shoulder. “You have no idea how it pains me to hear that. I have fought for so long to drive the changeling broods out of this kingdom. I had hoped to keep young, innocent ponies like you from sufferi—”

“The worse part was when they put me in this foster home,” he grunted. It wasn't an anger at Celestia, but a different kind of frustration. Something that had been fermenting deep inside him, hotter than the desert that they had found him in. “That's when things started catching on fire around me. That's also when they started calling me names.”


“The other fillies and colts I lived with. They called me 'Bad Spark,' 'Changeling Breath,' 'Ash and Stink.'”

“Those are such terrible, cruel things to call an innocent pony.”

“I'm not innocent!” He suddenly barked, his eyes flaring as he glared up at her. Vapors lifted from his horn. The flowers in a nearby vase wilted as the temperature in the room raised by about ten degrees instantly. “I make bad stuff happen! I catch things on fire!”

Celestia's face was stone-still. She stared directly at him, all the while pressing softly against his shoulder.

The unicorn hissed and heaved, but ultimately melted from her gaze and firm touch. He squatted back on the bed as the temperature in the room fell back to normal.

Celestia looked briefly at his flaming cutie mark, then back at his sad face. “Tell me, if you will, what is your real name? The one that your parents lovingly gave you, child?”

He sighed long and hard. The breath that came out of him choked a bit. “N-Nova. Nova Stare.”

She smiled. “That... is a very handsome name, Nova.”

He sniffed. He gazed up at her with moist eyes. “You... You really think so?”

She felt a chuckle coming out of her breath, unbecoming of a princess, but befitting the tenderness of the moment. “Yes. Your parents were undoubtedly very loving, and I know that they had every reason to be proud of you.”

“Wh-what for?” Nova Stare shuddered, sniffling again as he gazed out the darkening windows of the ship's cabin. “All I do is cause trouble. Back home, the more things I set on fire, the more the other ponies got mad at me and made fun of me. I tried to get away from them. I tried running... but then suddenly there were flames everywhere, and I was someplace else! And I still don't know why!”

“You...” Celestia's eyes narrowed. “You teleported? To the middle of the desert?”

“I dunno!” Nova whimpered, covering his little face with his hooves. “I don't know anything anymore! All I know is that I was glad to be alone, cuz I didn't have any ponies to make fun of me or worry about burning all at once! But then I was really really scared, cuz I didn't know where I was and I was hungry and... and... and...”

“Shhhh...” She brushed his hooves away and tilted his chin up so that his tear-stained face could absorb her gaze. “It takes strength to admit that one is scared, Nova. As a matter of fact, you have even more strengths. You have an amazing gift for pyrokinesis.”

“Pyro... what?” He sniffed and blinked.

“Hmmmmmm...” She crested the warm edge of a chuckle yet again. “It means 'a telepathic control over the animation of elemental flame.' I daresay, you have many talents in that department.”

“I... I do?” His tail flicked upon the exclamation.

“Very much so. But they are raw talents. Untapped. Unfiltered. What you need to do is learn how to tame these raw abilities and focus...” Her words lingered off as a painful expression wracked her face. Her pupils shrunk, as if bearing down the enormity of time's deathly hall of mirrors.

Nova Stare leaned his head curiously to the side. “Uhm... Your Highness?”

That address only shook Celestia even more. “Ahem. I... erm...” She shuddered and tried to compose herself. “What I mean to say is...” She looked at him. “Your powers can be tamed. And then you can live in peace again. I... We will find you a new home where you won't have to worry about causing accidents ever again, and where ponies will love you for who you are, and not for what they fear.”

Nova breathed easier upon hearing that news, but a part of his eyes lost their color, as if brought upon the brink of something spectacular, only to be dropped back into shadows.

“Well...” He gulped and smiled as his tears began drying. “That's... that's pretty swell, I guess.”

“Yes...” Celestia murmured, her voice distant. “It is... for the best...” She gazed woefully out the cabin windows of the Dawnmist. Outside, night was falling, and a pale shine was cast across the wooden panes.

Princess Luna sat on the new Palace balcony overlooking the bluffs and cliff-faces of Canterlot. She leaned on her haunches, her head tilted up in a meditative pose. Slowly, her glittering mane hair billowed in an invisible wind. Her horn was absorbed in an aura of darkness as specks of silver light rose off her coat, starting with her cutie mark, and then spreading all across her body.

Countless fathoms away, across a solid black horizon, the moon rose under her command. Its silver beams swam their way gently over the rolling emerald hills and plains of Equestria. Lakes glittered and rivers gleamed with white luminescence as the younger sibling performed her nightly task.

Once her labors were complete, she opened her blue eyes and gazed softly over her shoulder and into the torchlit center of the royal porch.

Celestia sat across from a petite alicorn mare. The two were concentrating on a beam of light as a liquid globule of gold and blue metals floated magically between them.

“That's it, Felicity,” Celestia spoke encouragingly to her pupil. “Concentrate. Don't force it. Allow the currents of energy to flow through your leylines and into the metal.”

“Nnnngh...” The green unicorn's ruby mane billowed behind her as her horn glowed hotter and hotter. She had her eyes clenched shut as she mentally forced the floating metal to take shape before her. “This... is a lot tougher than the alchemic spells we went over last month!”

“You're doing fine. Don't throw your concentration off by thinking of the past or future. Focus on the now, and remember the shape that I imprinted in your mind.”

“Yes, your Highness. It's forming together. I can feel it.” Felicity bit her lip, strained, and fell back with a huge exhale.

There was a bright flash of platinum light. When the glow dissipated, a starry crown was gently floating down to a cushion amidst a shower of sparkles.

“Amazing...” Celestia murmured. She smiled brilliantly at her student. “Felicity, open your eyes!”

The unicorn did so. Instantly, her sweat dried and her pained creases disappeared from her gasping face. “I... I did it!”

“This is a historic occasion!” Celestia proclaimed joyfully. She stood up, levitating the crown in a telekinetic grasp. “We now have a vessel for the first and most important element manifested for ponydom: the Element of Magic.”

“I... I can't believe I did it...” Felicity held a hoof over her mouth as her eyes welled up with tears. She was smiling the whole time, cracking forth a chuckle as she sniffed and gazed in awe at the reflective surface of the article. “Oh, Princess Celestia! You've worked and planned so long for this!”

“We've worked so long, my good and faithful student,” Celestia said. “During which time you've mastered the most difficult and dazzling of spells. I cannot begin to tell you how much your impact has had on Canterlot's security, or all of Equestria's well-being for that matter. We're just one hoofstep closer to constructing a magical enchantment to banish evil and maintain harmony in this land, and we owe it all to you, Felicity. I am so proud of you.”

Felicity sniffled and put on a brave face despite her tears. “I'm just... just so happy to hear you say that, Celes—” She went wide-eyed and covered her face. Blushing, she winced and squeaked forth, “I-I mean your Highness.”

“Hmmmm...” Celestia chuckled and reached down to nuzzle the unicorn. “It's quite alright, Felicity. You've been more than a pupil to me. You've been a close confidant, a friend. And what's more, I can't think of any pony more qualified...”

“Qualified?” Felicity blinked curiously. “For what?”

Celestia winked and levitated the crown directly in front of her. “For being the first to wear this kingdom's newest key to prosperity.”

Felicity's jaw hung agape. She gazed in disbelief at the crown, then at her mentor. She stammered, “You mean for real? I... I can...?”

“Go ahead, Felicity.” Celestia squinted playfully. “Before I change my mind!”

“Eeep!” The unicorn jumped up. She gnawed on her lip. She gently took the Element of Magic from Celestia in a translucent green grip. She took a deep breath, then lowered it to her head, just above her crown. “Eheheh...” She stifled a foalish giggle at the last second, cleared her throat, and asked, “How does it look?”

“You tell me yourself.” Celestia gestured towards a potted plant in the corner of the moonlit patio. “Or does my expert apprentice forget a simple transmogrification spell?”

“Heh! Not in a thousand years!” Felicity trotted over towards the plant. She tightened her jaw, squinted her eyes, and shot a bolt of magic out through her horn. Instantly, the potted plant turned into a looking glass. She stood before the mirror, seeing Celestia positioned next to her. The glittering sight of the Element of Magic shone between them in the pale light from the night's sky beyond. “It's... It's incredible...”

“Mmmm... Yes, indeed,” Celestia said with a slow nod.

Felicity lingered on a breath, then added, “Incredibly, goofily big! I mean... look at this thing! Heeheehee!”

Celestia joined daintily in the laughter. The two mares—mortal and immortal—became one in the levity and joy of the moment. Slowly, Celestia's eyes wandered to the very edge of the mirror, where she caught the reflection of Luna's calm, night-colored gaze meeting hers.

Slowly, Celestia's smile left her, melting away like candles lining a grave. Her face paled, curving painfully, and not for the first time in her life. She slowly stepped back from the mirror, her gaze bowed toward the polished marble floor of the Canterlot abode.

Felicity was still giggling. She wiped a tear of happiness from her face and glanced into the mirror. Celestia wasn't there. She blinked, then turned around. At the sight of the alicorn's calm stature, her smile went away under a flutter of winks.

“Y-your Highness?” Felicity murmured. “Is... Is something the matter?”

Celestia took a deep breath. She raised her face bravely to meet Felicity's eyes. Her smile was as soft as a cloudbank, and just as fleeting. “Hardly, my dear apprentice. As a matter of fact, everything is as it should be.”

“I... I don't understand...”

“When I adopted you as my apprentice, I told you something. Do you remember what it was?”

“Uhm...” Felicity shifted nervously where she stood as she suddenly had to reach into the past for something as familiar as her own name. “You told me that I had 'amazing talents in magic, but they were raw and needed to tamed for greater focus and mastery.'”

“And just what have you proven here today?”

“Well, heehee!” Felicity lifted the crown off her head and held it in two bright hooves. “We made the first in the line of several Elements that can help defend Equestria from dark magic and—” She paused once again upon seeing Celestia's piercing gaze. She blinked, and her facial muscles went limp. “I... I-I've become a master...”

Celestia nodded slowly. “And a master is no longer a student.”

Felicity's face scrunched at that. She searched the lengths of the room, and slowly her breaths started coming faster and faster. When she next looked up at her Princess and spoke, her voice came in a foalish squeak, “Your Highness? Does this mean—?”

“You are a beautiful, gifted, adult mare, Felicity.” Celestia took a hoofstep for every word until she stood directly before her pupil. She rested a hoof on her shoulder and gazed deep in her eyes. “Oh, how far you have come from the little foal who used to prance around my study each time she learned a new spell. Every day I spent with you was filled with joy and wonder, for I got to experience them through your eyes, just like all of my apprentices that came before you.” She took a deep breath, one that tore at her gut, before she finally said, “And that makes what happens now as difficult as it is necessary.”

“You...” Felicity fell upon the crest of hyperventilation. “You're s-sending me away?”

Celestia once again caught the gaze of Luna in her peripheral vision. She steeled herself and said, “Felicity, I have told you time and time again about the Rite of a Master's Journey—”

“But... But so soon?!” Felicity's face grimaced as the tears reformed in her eyes. “Princess—”

“As our Father left my sister and I to govern Equestria on our lonesome, we must leave those in our apprenticeship to go forth on their own and practice what they've learned, untainted and pure in form and beauty.”

“But there's so much more we can learn together!” Felicity whimpered, her shoulders heaving. By now, she was hugging the crown to her chest and shivering. “Please! Not this soon, your Highness! Imagine all the years we can spend discovering more Elements—”

“Shhhh...” Celestia knelt down and brushed a hoof across Felicity's cheek, drying it. She smiled dearly. “Dearest Felicity, imagine all the more years you now have to discover yourself.” She clutched her shoulders tenderly. “You are an adult, a sorcerer supreme, and yet you are not even halfway towards the glowing horizon of your journey. There are so many possibilities for you. So many memories to be had, and not all of them alone.”

Felicity choked. She clenched her eyes shut and hung her head.

“Felicity...” Celestia tilted her chin up. “Look at me.”

The Princess' apprentice obeyed her last command.

Celestia whispered, “I have and shall always love you, always cherish you, until the end of time—for it shall be my time. Now, I must send you forth to experience your time. For that is the way of the Rite of a Master's Journey. And I know that you are ready.”

Felicity took a shivering breath and murmured, “I know that I am r-ready now t-too, my Princess.” She smiled crookedly, but genuinely. “I am forever in your debt.”

“No Felicity.” Celestia shook her head, smiling. “You are forever in my heart.”

Felicity tried to smile back, but the next sob was coming on too strong. She almost collapsed, only Celestia was there to hug her, a final hug, the last contact they would ever make. By next morning, when the sun was raised, Felicity would depart from the Palace, never to return.

Celestia knew it, which is why as soon as her expression was out of range of Felicity's foggy vision, she allowed her face to break under the pressure that had built up for so many minutes, hours, days, months, years. This moment had fallen into her lap far sooner than she had hoped, but she wasn't about to tell Felicity. Instead she showed her, holding her tightly and stroking the tiny pony's back, like a treasure that would be lost just beyond the burning edge of a dismal morning.

“I will follow your wisdom to the very end, my Princess,” Felicity breathily exclaimed. “Please, I beg of you, don't be mad at me for wanting to stay your apprentice longer.”

Celestia lovingly stroked her mane. “Never,” she breathed, speaking with the eloquence of a eulogy. She steeled her shaking lungs for Felicity's sake. And when she looked out upon the veil of stars...

...they all seemed somehow closer than every apprentice she had ever once held, and just as numerous. Princess Celestia stood on the bow of the Dawnmist, staring out at the gray expanse into which her Father once dove, never to return, so that she wondered if she too had become the master of a domain as insignificant as a blink in a cosmic equine's eye.

So transfixed was she on the roof of the world that she barely noticed the hoofsteps of the Admiral until the aged pegasus came to a stop and cleared her throat.

Celestia slowly turned and gazed down at her. “Yes, Admiral?”

“I am terribly sorry to bother you, your Highness,” the Admiral bowed while speaking. “I only felt it was my duty to report that we are making decent headway. The royal navigator says that we shall reach Canterlot by noon tomorrow, provided that you raise the Sun as regularly scheduled.”

The corner of Celestia's pale mouth curved slightly. “And what makes you think that I would ever be tardy?”

The Admiral's wrinkled cheeks blushed a bit. “Do forgive my careless speech, your Majesty. That was unbecoming of me—”

“I am pleased to elicit many emotions from my subjects, the least of which is guilt.” Celestia turned and strolled past the Admiral, heading towards the royal cabins below. “I encourage you to speak your peace around me as you would with any peer. Carry on.”

The Admiral stood anxiously in place.

Somehow, Celestia sensed the unease. She stopped and turned around. “Yes?”

The Admiral glanced nervously at her.

“Is there something on your mind, Admiral?”

The armored pegasus turned towards the Princess, all the while keeping her head low. “If I am allowed to speak my peace, then perhaps I should express what I believe to be a valid concern.”

“Absolutely,” Celestia said, gazing at her patiently.

The Admiral's violet tail-hairs fluttered in the high winds around the Dawnmist. “It's the crew, Your Majesty. I have tried to keep them silently focused on their duties. I have used every extent of my authority to discipline them. However, I have failed constantly as of late to suppress an unfounded rumor spreading through the ranks.”

“What rumor is this, Admiral?”

“Well, your Majesty,” the pegasus struggled to say, “They're afraid. They do not know if they will make it safely home.”

“Fear is hardly a surprise in this day and age,” Celestia said with a nod. “After all, Equestrians have contended with the likes of conniving changelings and brutish griffons the majority of their generation.”

“The guards and soldiers do not fear our enemies, your Majesty.” The Admiral stirred awkwardly, then gave the Princess a courageous glance. “They fear for you.”

Celestia's eyes narrowed.

The pegasus continued, “They spread rumors of your ill-countenance. Many of the crew feel as if you have become afflicted with a horrible alicorn ailment. Some are even foolish enough to think that this sparks the end of the world, for if the Princess of the Sun is under the weather, what does it spell for Equestria's future?”

“Even if I was to meet such a paradoxical end, my dear Admiral,” Celestia remarked with a placid smile, “I trust my sister would be strong enough to handle the celestial bodies in my place.”

The Admiral nodded slowly. “You need not convince me of your well-being, your Majesty. I fear, however, that I am lacking in the necessary conviction to reach my crew as intimately as you could.”

“I assure you, I am not depleted of my usual energy, wit, or wisdom. If anything, I am merely...” Celestia fumbled for words. She bit her lip and gazed at the desert horizon beneath the field of stars. Rising and falling mountains sliced into the constellations like the bitter, black hooves of time. “Admiral...”

“Yes, your Highness?”

Celestia gazed steadily at her. “Do you have any children?”

The Admiral took a deep breath. She shifted in her armor and said, “I have foaled three times in my life.” Her face tilted up and gave a weathered smiled. “And of my children, two of them have also foaled.”

Celestia's lips pursed. “You are a grandmother...? That had not occurred to me, Admiral.”

The pegasus gave a dry chuckle. “I have much strength, but I also have many years. One, I am more apt to brag about than the other, your Majesty.”

Celestia's eyes fell to the airship's deck. She saw a frailty to the shape of the Admiral's hooves. It pained her to think that just yesterday those very same limbs were young and muscular. It pained her even more to realize she hadn't bothered to keep track of the Admiral's natural change. Life was too fragile to bother measuring in any breaths but Celestia's own.

“You must not see them that often.”

“Your Majesty...?”

Celestia's eyes raised to look at the Admiral's face once again. “Your children and grandchildren,” she said. “With all of the aerial missions I've made you perform these last few decades, it must be difficult to commune with your descendants.”

“What I do for your glorious kingdom, I do with utmost gratitude and honor, your Highness,” the Admiral said firmly. “I am blessed to serve under your command, for it means the protection of Equestria and all of your subjects, especially those who fall in my bloodline.”

“And your loved ones...?” Celestia heard herself murmuring towards the air. “Are they content to live on their own, fully knowing that their grandmother, the strong and beloved matriarch upon which their family rests, is so often absent?”

The Admiral stared at the Princess. In the glint of the pale moon, her regal armor was immaculate and impenetrable. Suddenly, though, all of it wasn't enough to shield the slightest shiver overcoming the pegasus' body. Her violet eyes became moist, but she said in a firm voice, “Their contentment... is n-not as important as their safety.”

Celestia gazed painfully at her. “Do you believe that?” she murmured.

“I shall always believe in what is necessary, your Highness,” she said. “What I give up is not nearly important as what I preserve.”

Celestia nodded quietly. “It is a very convenient truth, is it not?”

The Admiral said nothing. She darted her eyes towards the ship's deck. Her helmet looked like it weighed three times as much.

Celestia felt as if she had tortured the honorable guard enough. “You may continue with your duties, Admiral.”

“By your c-command,” the pegasus bowed, and marched off towards the front of the ship.

Celestia closed her eyes and inhaled slowly. The wind blew at her mane with a brief gale, as if carrying all the chaff of twelve-thousand years. It carried the sound of a giggling colt's voice.

Celestia's eyes fluttered open. She gazed down at the lit crease beneath the door to the royal cabins. Slowly, she turned around and marched down...

...into the central study of the Canterlot Royal Palace. Princess Luna was trailing after her, levitating a bundle of scrolls between them both while frowning.

“Sister! I insist! You must read these!”

“I am busy at the moment, Luna,” Celestia said in a tight, angry voice. She marched furiously towards a polished table covered in maps, data sheets, royal decrees, and architectural designs.

Outside the balcony window to her Palace study, half of Canterlot had fallen to ruin. Crumbled debris smoked as dozens of unicorns gathered in circles, conjuring water spells to stoke the flames. In the distance, several identical plumes of black vapor rose from random, battle-strewn spots in Equestria. The smoldering sky was buzzing with pegasi detachments who were working around the clock to put out the blazes.

“This is the fifth letter in a week!” Luna exclaimed, shuffling through the many sealed parchments in front of her. “How long must you ignore them? Or ignore me?!” She frowned, her eyes turning into boiling pools of blue fury. “Celestia, answer me!”

“Dear Sister!” Celestia stomped her hoof, frowning at her. “Does it look like I have time to bother with anything else at the moment?!” She gestured towards the table full of important ledgers and memos. “Half of Equestria is still on fire. The damage dealt by Discord has been phenomenal, beyond anything you or I could have ever conceived! Renovating this landscape will take more than the power of the six elements, much less a single alicorn. If you care at all about me or about this land of ours, you will stop your inane nonsense and lend your skills to the cause of reconstruction at once!”

“Nonsense?!” Luna made a face. “Sister, this is about Glowing Jade! She is dying...”

“I knew that her time would come sooner than later,” Celestia said in a cold murmur as she perused the many complicated battle reports before her. “It is a miracle that she survived long enough to see peace restored to the land that Discored had so mercilessly ravaged. If anything, we should be rejoicing...”

“For once, I am not concerned about what we feel,” Luna said, her eyes round and imploring. “Beloved sister, answer me. Have you read a single letter that has been sent to us?”

Celestia said nothing. She continued with her frantic study of the latest marks made on the Equestrian map.

“It's Glowing Jade's family, Celestia,” Luna said. “They are asking us—no—begging that you and I go visit her at her death bed.”

“Luna, I loved Glowing Jade dearly,” Celestia calmly responded. “I still do. But long ago, we cut ties with my faithful apprentice for a reason. You and I cannot afford to be distracted by personal bias when the entire fate of Equestria is at stake. Utilizing the Rite of a Master's Journey—however contrived—has been necessary in preserving the fragile balance that has allowed the Elements of Harmony to be forged over the past three hundred years. I assure you, long after Glowing Jade is gone, her contributions to capturing the Element of Loyalty will not be forgotten, especially considering how timely it was in ensuring Discord's defeat.”

“Celestia, do you...” Luna dropped the scrolls like they were dead leaves. With an incredulous expression, she softly trotted towards her elder. “Do you even hear yourself? Glowing Jade mastered the Element of Loyalty for a reason. She saw such power within us, within you. Or, at least, she thought it was there. Now, in her time of desperation and darkness, we are to ignore her in such a way as she never fathomed forsaking us?”

“The letters were written by her family, were they not?” Celestia muttered. “I imagine they are far too easily clouded by their own emotions to bother accurately reflecting her will—”

“Sister, these mortals and their emotions are the same! And they are just as fragile! Yes, Equestria has suffered great turmoil. Yes, there is a great deal of damage to be repaired. But you and I have thousands upon thousands of lifetimes to make things beautiful again. Glowing Jade and her family? They only have one, and it is about to come to a bitter end. Must we let them wallow in shadows alone?”

Celestia cast Luna a bitter glance. “You surprise me, Luna. Have you truly become so fickle to have gone back on your own wisdom? After all, the utilization of the Rite of a Master's Journey was your idea—”

“And I was wrong, sister!” Luna shouted. The shadows of the room doubled as the walls briefly shook. “I see that now! Why can't you?!”

Celestia's jaw fell as her eyes narrowed upon this angry alicorn suddenly standing in front of her. “What has gotten into you? I cannot afford to have you losing control of your passion in this time of—”

“Discord nearly tore this land asunder!” Luna said in a deep, angry voice. “You and I are the only Equestrian souls old enough to remember what it was like to breathe the crisp, golden air of Creation. In just half a decade alone, nearly all of that burned in ash and chaos. Never in my darkest of dreams could I have imagined our Father's land coming to an end, and yet it almost did!”

“Is there a moment when it will travail upon you to tell me something I do not know?”

“It is not a matter of what you do not know, sister!” Luna snarled. “It is what you do not feel! What you fail to see! You have been deeply courageous and strong these last few centuries, but I do not like the price that it has cost you, that it has cost me! I feel as though this is all my fault!”

“And why should you feel guilty for the preservation of this kingdom?” Celestia replied, her voice growing louder to match Luna's. “Sister, what we have done throughout the years with the apprentices in our employ: it has saved this land from eternal darkness! Everything you have feared, we have avoided because of our necessary aloofness—”

“Not everything I've feared, dear sister,” Luna said in a suddenly sad voice. She inhaled deeply and pointed out the window towards the ruins beyond. “There is more to that land out there than security and preservation!”

“Please, Luna...” Celestia sighed and ran a hoof over her brow. “I have important business to attend to. I have magic spells to cast and—”

“That will be a hollow magic,” Luna said bluntly.

Celestia glared at her. “I beg your pardon?”

“Father was right when he told us that there will always be magic,” Luna said. “However, magic is empty without the love and companionship of these fragile mortals who make it something worthy of respect. Without the communion of souls, magic will be as dead to this world as the blackness between stars.”

“I fear your eternal shepherding of the night's sky has made you put too much weight into darkness,” Celestia said with a slight chuckle. She turned away...

But Luna yanked her back, forcing their eyes to meet. “You think I do not know that?” The younger alicorn's frown was vicious. “You think I do not see you, day after day, century after century, millennium after millennium, enjoying the crux Equestrian life in the glory of the sun? The same glory that has been robbed from me by the very nature of my nocturnal task? You have it in your hooves to be a beacon of inspiration to these mortals, Celestia. Long ago, I suggested that you maintain a divine distance. I was concerned for the well-being of my sister. But now, after Discord has nearly turned this world to the same dust it was before Father breathed upon it, I know that you and I do not deserve any concern or pity. It's these souls, Celestia. It's these souls who deserve joy and glory for the meager lengths of their days. And what have we done to assure that over the eons? What have you done? I swear, if I had the same opportunities you do to reach out to these royal subjects and show them the true light of existence—”

“You would do what, beloved sister?” Celestia coolly retorted. “I fear your jealousy has driven your senses mad.”

Luna's teeth showed. The world outside suddenly fluctuated in wavering bands of twilight. Guard ponies and firefighting unicorns gasped in fright. Even Celestia was startled as she gazed out at the darkening sky, only to see the distortion vanishing as soon as it had begun.

“There are fates worse than madness,” Luna said, her voice briefly taking a ghostly tone. She calmed and closed her glowing eyes as she said, “Judge me as you wish for my jealousy, dear sister, but do not forget to look at yourself as well. I fear for the direction towards which our rule is heading. Magic, for all of its complexities, is but a word. Even in the brightest sunlight, there can be terrible darkness. I do not want to lose you to it.”

“Then don't,” Celestia said in a quiet breath, her eyes locked on Luna's melancholic expression. “Join with me. Stay with me. Help me rebuild this sundered kingdom.”

Luna opened her eyes. A tear fell down her cheek. “I cannot,” she said, and trotted out of the Palace room. “I have an old, dying friend to visit.”

Celestia stood alone, flanked by the fluttering sheets of her endless, royal duties. Solemnly, she turned around...

...and gazed into the candle-lit depths of the Dawnmist's cabin. She quietly watched Princess Luna as she knelt by Nova Stare's bedside, stretching a wing of midnight-blue wings around the tiny unicorn's shoulders and patting him encouragingly.

“That is a most brilliant sphere of flame you have conjured, young one,” she said in her deep, booming voice. She stared in wonderment at a floating orb of billowing plasma before the two of them. “Now, see if you are capable of altering the shape into something else with your thoughts.”

Nova Stare squatted on the very edge of the bed, his entire face tense with concentration. “I... dunno... if I-I can...”

“What is important is that you make an attempt, child. We very well cannot test the limits of ourselves by succumbing to fear and uncertainty.” Luna smiled softly and steadied his shoulders with a pair of gentle hooves. “Imagine as though you are molding a sand castle with your forelimbs.”

“The bullies... at my school said... that I could never go to the beach,” Nova sweated and stammered. “They said I'd just make... all the f-fish blow up.”

“Hmmm. How poetic.” Luna nodded. “Imagine you are molding the bullies' craniums instead.”

“Heeheehee!” Nova suddenly giggled. The ball of fire branched out like a bursting star in front of them. “Wh-whoah!” He gasped and flailed back upon the bed.

Luna erected a protection field of magic just in the nick of time. The fireball erupted, only to settle in an ineffectual puff of fluttering ash and ethereal shadows.

“Awwwwwwwww poop.” Nova pouted, folding his front legs against his chest. “I'm never gonna master anything.”

“I am most certain that you will, child,” Luna said with a soft smile. “Given enough time and application.”

“What about you, your Highness?” Nova looked up at her. “What kind of fire spells do you make?”

“Hmmm...” Luna shook a length of shimmering mane hair out from her brow as she gazed at the ashes. “Not very impressive ones, I'm afraid.”

“No?” Nova Stare blinked crookedly. “But... But your are an alicorn!”

“Just because I am immortal does not necessarily mean that I am omnipotent,” Luna stated. “It so happens that flame spells don't fall within my expertise.” She glanced ever so briefly into the shadowed foyer of the room.

Princess Celestia gazed back, holding her breath.

“However...” Luna cleared her throat and looked back at the young unicorn. “If you were ever wishing to learn elemental spells of frost or water, then I would be more than capable of teaching you several volumes worth of mastery.”

“Awwwww... Well that's too bad.” Nova licked his lips and tried to start a floating plume of flame in front of him. “Cuz I'd really like to get this fire stuff down. The Princess—erm... the other Princess, your sister—she says that I could master my talents if I learned to focus and stuff.”

“She is right about that. You would do well to listen to her wisdom, far more than mine. You see, I have lacked in the area of magical proficiency as of late. There was a time when I could have covered the entire sky of Equestria with a blizzard in a single blink.”

“Really? That sounds so cool!”

“Your witticism is as swift as it is juvenile.”

“Heehee. But... really...” Nova sweated as his eyes darted from the blossoming plume of flame to Luna's face. “What made you stop practicing magic so much?”

“Oh, it is a terribly long story...”

“Celestia says you're all taking me to a new home. I'm never going to have a chance to chat with the Princesses of Equestria again.”

“Hmmm... Indeed.” Luna leaned against the bed and stared into the tiny flame that the young colt was struggling to conjure. “Surely you are familiar with the malevolent entity named Discord.”

“Ew, him? Yeah. All the foals sing nasty songs about him. He wasn't a very nice guy.”

“No. He most certainly was not very nice,” Luna murmured. “He covered this land in chaos and destruction. He had no motive, save for the proliferation of suffering and anguish. He enjoyed causing harm, and he treated the fragility of life as a mere game. I detested him greatly.”

“But... But you and your sister got rid of him, right?”

“Yes. That we did. But it was only after much struggle and turmoil, during which we had to finish manufacturing the vessels for the Elements of Harmony. Those were bleak times, young one. Many ponies died, and the face of the Equestrian landscape was scarred forever.” She paused slightly, her face briefly blending in the shadows of the room. “I used magic as a weapon for the first time in those years,” she said. “All of my life, I had made it my duty to preserve order. Never in five thousand years did I imagine that I would have to wield magic destructively to protect that which I held dear. It... changed me.” She swallowed deeply. “When Discord was defeated, I awoke as if from a deep slumber, and I realized that Equestria had changed as well, and if I didn't do something drastic, then something that was precious and innocent about this fragile landscape would be hopelessly lost, even long after Discord's imprisonment.”

“Did you?” Nova murmured as the flame before him started to take shape. “Did you do something drastic?”

Luna's nostrils flared. She merely smiled at him. “Even immortals are capable of making terrible mistakes, young one. You are not the only soul in this world to have come so far, watching so many things burn.”

“Yeah...” Nova lowered his gaze. The fire began to fluctuate. “I wish I wasn't such a total klutz...”

The flames spat, flickered, and began to disappear. At the very last second, a platinum sphere of energy encased it. Princess Celestia marched into the light with a glowing horn. “Magic is never something harmful or awkward,” she said. “So long as there is somepony proficient in teaching it to you properly.”

“Your Highness!” Nova Stare glanced up at her, his jaw dropped as he watched how easily she preserved the flame. “Heeheehee! That's so amazing!”

“I see that you have decided to start your lessons early,” Celestia said as she paced around the locked flame. “It is awfully late for such an exercise, wouldn't you think?”

Nova's ears drooped. He gazed down at the side of the bed. “I'm sorry, your Majesty...”

“Don't be,” Celestia murmured. “I am hardly mad at you.” That said, she cast Luna a sharp but silent glare.

Luna merely smiled. “I think...” She stood up briskly. “...that I shall go and check on the moon. Heaven forbid that I should let it fall from the sky yet again.” She brushed past Celestia with a deliberate flick of her majestic tail. “I trust, dear sister, that you have the wherewithal to entertain our young guest.”

Celestia stammered to say something. She watched in a stupor as her younger sister swiftly exited the cabin and shut the door behind, leaving a master and apprentice together with their flame.

“She doesn't talk a whole lot,” Nova said in a gentle voice. “But when she does, I kind of like hearing what she has to say.”

Celestia took a deep breath and smirked slightly. “Yes. She has her own unique sense of... charm.” Clearing her throat, she knelt down and levitated the sphere of flame closer towards Nova Stare. “She does not give herself enough credit in her arts. Containing an element such as flame is simple for her, and I suspect it will come naturally to you.”

“But your Majesty, I was barely able to keep the fires afloat for half-a-minute without her help! How could I be a 'natural' at this?”

“Magic isn't something that belongs only to alicorns, child,” Celestia said gently to him. The stars rocked and danced softly outside the windows of the Dawnmist behind them. “As my Father once told me, it belonged to all life. Alicorns are merely entrusted with a larger share.”

“You have a Father?” Nova Stare remarked with a gasp.

Celestia hesitated. Eventually, she nodded. “Indeed. He and I built this world together. When Luna was born, he had her paint the canvas of the night. We wanted to build a world that was peaceful and full of order. Though my Father never said it, I truly believe he wanted there to be beauty in Equestria as well. Otherwise, he would have departed for the cosmos much sooner than he actually did.”

“He...” Nova squinted up at her. “He left you?” His throat gulped a sore lump down. “If it was after the creation of everything, then that had to have been a long, long time ago...”

Celestia's rosy eyes reflected the flame icily. “Yes. It has been a very long time.”

Nova Stare suddenly smiled, his black tail flicking. “He must have loved you very much.”

At that, Celestia's immaculate eyes twitched. She gazed from the flame and stared at the young colt. “You don't say?”

He slowly nodded. “Cuz you love your royal subjects so very much. Why else would you be taking care of Equestria after so many years, and making magic look so good and bright? It's kind of like your Father is loving all of us through you and Princess Luna, isn't it?”

Celestia breathed in deeply, her face lengthening as she digested those words. Gently, she smiled, then shuffled closer to the bed. Spreading one of her wings, she held Nova close while she raised the sphere of brightening flames in front of him.

“Nova Stare. Take hold of the fire.”

“Wh-what?!” He gasped suddenly, gazing with frightened, twitching eyes at the flames. “But... But that's way too big! I've never conjured that much before! How could you possibly expect me to maintain all that magic?”

“Shhh... Nova, tell me, from the bottom of your heart.” Celestia gazed deeply at him. “Did your parents love you before they died?”

His lip quivered. His eyes moistened. “Y-yes,” he whimpered.

She whispered. “Show me.” In that instant, she dropped the protection field. The ball of fire exploded right in front of them.

Nova squeaked in fright. His body twitched, flinching away from the shimmering tongues of heat. Panting, he realized that he wasn't on fire. His eyes opened, and he saw that there was another glow. His horn had become a brilliant strobe, masterfully controlling the twirling globe of plasma in front of him. The sphere was immaculate, without blemish, like a pure pearl of golden sunlight.

“It's beautiful...” He murmured, his eyes wide and awestruck. “Am... am I doing this?”

Celestia moved in closer to stare at the flames alongside him. “We all are, Nova. We are all fragile, all unique, and all made strong in the company of each other. Magic is an amazing thing, but it is only a projection of a substance that is far more precious and dazzling. There will always be magic in this world. However, the lives of those whom we love and cherish is as fleeting as dust, but immeasurably priceless and powerful. What your parents made together, what they gave you, is something no spell or incantation can ever hope to emulate. Once you realize that, once you've gained sight of all that is righteous in this world, then you can master even the most complex of magics, for you will have mastered the heart of life itself.”

Nova stared into the flame, and yet his tears were still streaming down his face.

Celestia looked at him gently. “What are you thinking, young one?”

He choked back a sob and murmured, “I had my doubts for so long. But... but now it's so clear.” He shuddered and smiled as the tears doubled. “They would be proud of me...”

“Hmmm...” Celestia reached her hoof over and dried his tears. “Yes. As I know... that my Father would be proud of me.”

He did something then that she hadn't expected. He leaned against her hoof and nuzzled it, his moist eyes shut as he smiled in the bliss of his epiphany. All the while, his concentration never wavered. The glowing sphere of flame remained as solid as ever, doubling in brilliance.

Celestia gazed at his tiny face's contact with her hoof. She then looked deeply into the fire as her expression paled over like a gloss of ice.

She sat on her throne, emotionless, lifeless. There were no guards present. None of the torches along the Palace walls were lit. Princess Celestia of Equestria was alone.

Through the walls of Canterlot Castle, the loud noise of roaring cheers and booming orchestras shook the foundation. From a great distance, a strobe of light kissed the shadowed hallways leading to the throne room.

For once, Celestia stirred. Her white wings flexed and unflexed. In a melancholic slump, she gazed at the far end of the room. Eventually, she came out of her stupor, trotting down the steps and crossing the distance from the throne to the chamber beyond.

Through the dark and abandoned hallways of Canterlot Castle, Celestia marched. Her hoofsteps made ghostly echoes against the rows and rows of shadowed pillars. Soon, though, even her graceful shuffle was masked by a loud noise of righteous euphoria emanating from beyond.

All of the guards and royal servants had been granted the week off. Any pony that could have been filling the halls of the Royal Palace were absent. As Celestia stepped out upon the balcony and graced a warm, shimmering glow, she was reminded as to why.

The entire city of Celestia was full of ponies from all walks of life. They were holding a candlelight vigil, filling every street and alleyway and corridor of the mountainous city with a lively glow under the purple shroud of night. Dancing hues of red and yellow and blue flickered as far as Celestia's rosy eyes could see.

In the center of the mass—heralded by hymns as old as time—an ornate, burgundy balloon was being lifted high into the starry sky. Hanging from the balloon was a bright platform, flickering. It was a funeral pyre, and the remains of one unicorn soul turned to ash and smoke from deep within the levitating blaze.

All over Equestria, ponies honored the memory of Starswirl the Bearded. In the far distance, just beneath the edge of the black horizon, similar celebrations were being held. The stretching, emerald fields came alive, sparkling in random clusters of rainbow-colored light. Several bright orbs lifted against the constellations as every city in the kingdom released burning balloons of their own in respect for the greatest sorcerer who had ever lived.

Celestia heard and witnessed it all, and nowhere in that grand reverie was there a single lament or a single wailing sob. As Starswirl's ashes billowed into the sky to join the dust of the cosmos, Celestia felt her breaths becoming shorter.

Everypony shared the same breath, the same song. Equestria was alive in the utter essence of communion. There was more magic there in the streets of Canterlot than there ever was at the foundation of the world.

The glorious sight of it all wasn't what made Celestia collapse. Neither did she weep when the glow of Starswirl's balloon finally died out. The Princess gazed up towards the heavens. She saw the Mare in the Moon. In a lonely breath of bittersweet release, she allowed the tears to fall as she spoke to the glowing body that was as far from her as her heart had long flown.

“You were right, dear sister.” She cried, and yet she smiled. Everything was somehow warm once again. “You were right all along.”

“His name was Starswirl the Bearded,” Princess Celestia said, her voice drifting past the candle-light to softly grace Nova Stare's twitching ears. “He became famous as the father of the amniomorphic spell. In his lifetime, he mastered chronotonic sorcery, allowing himself to live longer than any other pony in existence. In all the decades he was blessed to trot this earth, he spent every waking moment improving life for his fellow Equestrians. He was crucial in imprisoning the beasts of Discord's army within Tartarus, and he helped settle peace between the Minotaurs of Green Valley.”

“Wow...” Nova Stare cooed. He was lying on his side, halfway beneath the covers of the bed. He gazed peacefully at the Princess, his tired eyelids hanging low. “He sounds like a really spectacular unicorn.”

“Mmmmm... He was indeed,” she said with a nod. She stood beside him in the gentle rocking cabin. “But, just like all of my students before him, there was a time when he was no older than you, when he too listened to me tell remarkable tales of the past under the hush of candlelight.”

“Was he your last apprentice?” Nova asked.

Celestia's face grew long. She exhaled softly into the shadows. “No. No he wasn't...”

Nova blinked, yawned, and curled his legs against his chest as he murmured, “You taught him all you knew, didn't you?”

“Yes. That I did.”

“So, as awesome as he got in his magical talents, it was all because you shared it with him?”

“No, Nova,” Celestia said. “That would be a false assumption. You see, unlike all of my students before him, Starswirl knew that the only way to make magic stronger was to use it for the benefit of all ponies around him. This was something he elected to do on his own, long after I parted ways with him.”

“You and him stopped seeing each other?” Nova Stare blinked awkwardly. “Why? Did you two get into a fight?”

Celestia snapped him a surprised look. “No,” she breathed. “What would make you think that? I loved each and every one of my apprentices. I still do, even though they are no longer with me.”

“Then... why did you stop seeing him?” Nova asked.

“Because...” Celestia began, but fumbled. She tucked her large wings tightly along her pale sides. It was a foalish gesture, and she refused to look at the bed, for fear that an emerald glen my surround it in a blink. “Because I knew, Nova. I knew that there would come a time... when he would no longer be with me, no matter what either of us wanted.”

Silence filled the room, lulled to softness by the amber dance of the candles.

“They used to sing to me at night.”

Celestia glanced up curiously.

“My mom and dad,” Nova said. He stifled a yawn, stirred amidst the covers, and murmured, “Even long after they put me to bed. They sang me lullabies. Funny how easily I remember it now. It used to bother me a little bit. But I guess it wasn't because they were trying to put me to sleep faster. I think they just wanted to be with me a little bit longer. They had to do a lot of busy stuff during the day. Even when they were alive, we didn't see each other too much.”

“You were very precious to them, Nova.”

“But... even they had to know...”

“Had to know what?”

Nova bit his lip and gazed up at her. “That I would no longer be with them either.”

Celestia's eyes narrowed.

“It's... It's almost as if they knew somehow that they were going to die from the Changelings way before it even happened,” he said. “But... But if that's true, then it didn't seem to bother them. They wanted to be around me as much as they could. I guess it shows just how much I meant to them.”

“Losing a child...” Celestia slowly murmured. “ the worst thing a parent can go through. Some parents, Nova, are unfortunate enough to not experience such pain once...” She gulped. “But several times...”

He gazed up at her with soft eyes. “Why would those parents not want to be with their kids anyways? Like... every moment is precious, isn't it?”

Celestia's eyes grew moist. She gently brushed his mane aside. “Yes, Nova. Every moment is certainly precious.”

“Hmmm... Maybe...” Nova yawned and closed his eyes as he surrendered to the warm crater his body had made in the sheets. “M-Maybe that's why Starswirl mastered time spells... cuz he wanted to live even longer... so that h-he could have more of those moments with you...”

Celestia breathed in sharply. She gazed into the covers past him as her vision blurred.

“Mmmm...” Nova's voice was like a distant ship on the horizon. “Pr-Princess...?”

“Yes, young one?”

“Are you still there...?” He yawned one last time.

“I am here, Nova.”

“Will you... Will you b-be here when I wake up...?”

Celestia's lips hung open. Her face quivered. The world around her had turned milky white, like the gloss that had covered Prism Shine's dying eyes.

“G-go to sleep, Nova,” she eventually stammered. “It is... very late...”

He said nothing. He was long gone. The smile on his face had vanished, instead replaced by a gaping expression as he fell deep into the well of slumber.

Celestia felt her heart quickening. She was as wise as a dozen millennia could ever shape a pony to be, and still she felt the incessant need to touch the base of his neck. She did so, and his pulse was as real as the palpitations of her own heart. She clenched her eyes shut as the moisture sprang from her lids. She ran her hoof over her face and shuddered, for it was too late. The dam had broken, and...

...she was standing on the far side of the library, her body straight and resolute, as she spoke across the dusty interior.

“You have learned more than mere magic, my good and faithful student. You have learned how to live, and how to be in communion with your fellow peers. That is the key to a special kind of magic that can never be learned in books, or from my very own lessons. In all the years that we've known each other, it had been my desire to teach you all the lessons in life by allowing you to teach yourself. And you have gone above and beyond my expectations, dear pupil. You are more than ready to be a master of sorcery, for you have so many blessed acquaintances to share your gifts with, as well as yourself.”

“But your Majesty,” Twilight Sparkle gasped, staring wide-eyed up at Celestia. “There's no need for you to do this!” The adult unicorn shuddered where she stood. The library wall behind her was covered with accolades and Equestrian medals, as well as various detailed photos taken of her and her close friends in Ponyville. “I've grown to understand so many things! I know all about the Rite of a Master's Journey! What I don't understand is what you hope to accomplish with such a ritual—or what you've ever hoped to accomplish!”

“My dear Twilight...” Celestia smiled gently as she trotted over towards her. “If you have lived as long as I have, then perhaps you would understand. There are some lessons that only an immortal can learn. And then there are lessons that are meant for mortals, that the likes of Luna and I will forever be alien to, for we must be.”

“It just doesn't make any sense!” Twilight exclaimed, her eyes turning moist. “Princess Celestia, because of your guidance, I've learned that friendship is the most powerful thing in the world! How can I believe that and yet accept that you must leave me! I know you are my royal teacher but... but...”

“Shhh...” Celestia leaned over and nuzzled the adult unicorn. She wrapped a wing around her and murmured closely to her ear. “Twilight, our friendship will last forever, but our years together won't. I've made the mistake in the past of assuming that my apprentices could thrive on my wisdom and mentor-ship alone. But I was wrong, and when I sent them on their personal journeys, they had no other ponies to go to, for I had inadvertently encumbered them with all of my selfishness and need for attention.”

“You h-haven't encumbered me with anything, your Highness,” Twilight said in a wavering voice.

“That is because I let your spirit bloom with other ponies that love and cherish you as much as I do, my dear student, rather than lock you up within the bowers of my royal archives.” Celestia stood up and gazed lovingly down at her. “Twilight, I knew that this day would come, just as I knew that the moment would come when a single spark would imbue you with the magic to cleanse my sister Luna of her madness. Your magic is something built out of friendship, a harmony that is more beautiful and supreme than all of time itself.”

Twilight sniffled and gazed sadly up at her mentor. “A lot of that magic will die, your Highness, once you are gone from my life.”

Celestia's wings flexed, and for a brief moment her voice carried the neutral and majestic power of thunder rolling backwards. “Magic has always been and always will be. Cherish the few things that are eternal, especially then they've become a part of you.”

Twilight's lungs heaved a few times, but she slowly calmed down. She gazed over at the photos along her walls, at the many colorful faces of friends. She cracked a smile, briefly breaking the tributary of tears cascading down her face.

“Friendship...” Twilight cooed. “Has there ever been a more enchanting spell, your Highness?”

Princess Celestia held her breath, for she was already channeling the teleportation spell that would sever her ties with Twilight for good. She gazed longingly at her pupil, savoring the eternal image of her, frozen in time.

“Never,” she said.

Celestia's eyes were shut. A billowing wind blew at the duller shades of her mane. With a deep breath, she tilted her head back and pursed her lips. Slowly, her wings folded out, and the tips of her alabaster feathers glowed hotter and hotter.

At that very moment, the eastern horizon burned ahead of the Dawnmist. The morning sun rose over rolling, dew-laden hills as the airship finally entered the green kingdom of Equestria.

Celestia's body relaxed as she exhaled upon the completion of her task. As the glow of her horn dissipated, Luna was revealed to be standing right beside her.

“You always make it look so much more graceful when you do it.”

Celestia calmly smiled, her eyes still closed. “Please, sister. I only put on a show at each year's Celebration.”

“You may fool the common masses with that false humility, but not me,” Luna said with the barest hint of a smirk. “Every morning is a celebration when you shine light on it.” She exhaled softly. “I wished I could say the same for your every waking hour.”

Celestia's eyes opened thinly. She gazed lonesomely at the rolling green hills below the ship. “Dearest sister...”

“Yes, Celestia?”

“I did read the letters before we set course for Appleloosa,” she said.

Luna was silent for a moment. Eventually, she shuffled until she squatted directly beside her elder. “Did you, now?”

“I've never forsaken a chance to read any of those parchments,” Celestia said. “Does that surprise you?”

“As a matter of fact, no,” Luna said. “However, after all these years, I've known better than to expect you to respond to them.”

“Why is that?”

“You are asking me, sister?”

“Yes, I am.” Celestia looked directly at her. “Why, do you think, have I continued to do what I do, even after your return?”

“Do you want an honest answer?”


“You've been afraid.”

Celestia raised an eyebrow. “Afraid?”


“We are immortal, Luna. How can we possibly be afraid?”

“Quite easily,” Luna said, staring fearlessly into the sun's brilliant glow. “Fear, after all, is merely a different shade of loneliness.” She took a deep breath and closed her eyes. “I... have been afraid for a terribly long time.”

Celestia looked away, her face pale. “I know, sister...”

“But...” Luna reopened her eyes and gazed warmly at her again. “I fear you have been lonely much longer than I.”

“How could you possibly say that?”

“The rosy shade of banishment, Celestia, is at least it has a name,” Luna said.

Celestia's rosy eyes reflected the glimmer of the sun as she said, “I am starting to think that Father was afraid too, when he left us. If only he had known that we could have alleviated that fear, if only he had the faith to be with us longer.”

“Do you think he could afford to?” Luna remarked.

Celestia sighed. “I don't know, Luna.” Her jaw tightened as she suddenly stood up. “But I'm starting to learn just what I can afford.”

Luna watched curiously as Celestia marched towards the front of the ship. She got up for a better look. Soon, the elder Princess was approaching the Admiral and her helmspony.

“Admiral—” Celestia began.

“Ah! Your Highness!” The orange pegasus' armor rattled as she trotted over and bowed. “Great timing! We should be approaching Canterlot airspace soon—”

“Admiral Scootaloo,” Celestia said forcefully.

The Admiral froze in mid-speech. She gazed up at the Princess, blinking curiously. “Y-your Majesty?”

“Adjust your course. The Dawnmist is heading south.”

“S-south, your Highness?”

“Swiftly, please. Time is of the essence.”

Admiral Scootaloo jolted where she stood. The old mare saluted with a graying hoof. “Aye, Princess!” She turned around and shouted several commands to the crew on deck. Ponies and guards scuffled all around.

Luna marched up, gazing at the hustle and bustle as the ship veered hard to starboard. She gazed up at her sister. Celestia said nothing. She merely stood still, watching as the burning horizon spun around them.

Hours passed. The Princess' sun rose high in the sky. The Dawnmist's shadow coasted over hills, trees, rivers, and finally a sea of golden-thatched roofs. A quaint village stretched beneath the vessel as it slowly descended into a green field beyond.

When the Dawnmist made anchorage, Celestia flew to the earth. Her hooves touched down on springy grass. As soon as she folded her wings, she gazed ahead to see an enormous crowd of ponies gathered in the center of the village's downtown. They were all holding candles as they stood about, humming an ancient hymn. As Celestia marched past them, they each bowed in succession, but they gave no speech. She was not the spirit whom they were honoring that day, and she couldn't even think of protesting it.

She made straightway for the heart of the village. In the center, a gigantic stone tower stood. It was a fantastic sight, for at random intervals along its cylindrical height a dazzling array of leafy branches were sticking out, as if the structure had been magically grown out of the natural body of an ancient tree.

The crowd was thickest here, gathering in a thick circle of silent reverence as they all faced the tower. Only in one spot did the mass of ponies break up, and it was to make room for a gigantic purple dragon who stood as tall as the tower itself. Upon sight of the Celestia's approach, his green eye-slits widened. He bowed with as much space as was afforded him, murmuring in a booming voice, “Your Majesty...”

“Spike...” She merely nodded her horn in his direction. Solemnly, she approached the door to the tower. Spike reached over and opened it for her. She gently touched his scaled wrist, shared a mutual glance, and disappeared into the body of the structure.

Celestia's hooves echoed as she marched up the winding stairway. All around her, shelves and stacks of books stretched along the walls of the building's interior. Several ancient artifacts, magical relics, and marvelous inventions hung from silken strings. Maps and globes and illustrations of faraway lands dotted the walls. The further Celestia ascended the steps, the walls glossed over instead with photographs of ponies, dear friends who aged gracefully one frame at a time, diminishing in number upon each progressive flight of the stairs.

Through a final door, Celestia marched, until she entered a domed chamber at the very top of the tower. A doctor was there; his face was grave. A few elder mares stood along the edges of the room. A large window stretched open, through which Spike silently peered through from the outside. In the center of the luxurious dwelling was a bed of velvet cushions, beside which stood an frail orange farm mare. She turned to look at Celestia—and immediately gasped, lowering her brown hat.

“Heavens to Betsy,” she exhaled, her frail form jittering. “Yer Highness...”

“At ease, Applejack,” Celestia spoke. She smiled and placed a gentle hoof on the earth pony's shoulder. “Am I too late?”

Applejack's wrinkled face smiled dearly. Her green eyes watered as she shook her head. “No. Reckon there's still time. Not much, but just enough.”

“I'm sorry that I did not reply to the letters.”

“Don't sweat it, yer Majesty...” Applejack's voice lingered. She swallowed for composure as a tear streaked down her face. “She... She would very much like to see you...”

“She is not alone,” Celestia said. She took the bravest breath of her immortal existence and gently brushed past Applejack. She approached the bed, her eyes searching the purple cushions, until she was pained to see a wrinkled shape in the center of them that was barely stirring. She smiled regardless, bringing a glow to the room, both warm and pale all at once. “My good and faithful student...”

“Pr-Princess Celestia...” A smile shone back, one that was laced with dust and gray wrinkles. Most of her mane was gone. Her eyes were sunken in. She shivered constantly, her hooves curled inward like that of a little foal's. “I... I had hoped that I would see you again, your Highness. But... But I thought...”

“Shhh...” Celestia squatted down on folded legs and brushed the unicorn's shivering cheek. “Eternity is full of thoughts, dear Twilight. Do not question the power of what we must feel...”

Twilight Sparkle wheezed. Her glossy eyes reflected the lengths of the room around her, laced with every manuscript and treatise she had ever gifted Equestria with. “I... I wanted to see you... I wanted to thank you...”

“Thank me, Twilight?” Celestia breathed.

“You... You have given me so much,” Twilight said. “You have shown me the power of friendship, the love of one's peers, the lengths to which magic can fill lives with meaning and purpose.” She sputtered, coughed, and struggled to speak through clenched teeth. “I can understand why you had to let me go...”

“Twilight...” Celestia stroked her cheek lovingly. “The reason I let you go was because I was afraid... that you would not understand, and that you would not be thanking me like you are now.”

Twilight's moist eyes twitched and quivered. “How... How could I not thank you?” Her lips briefly spat, and she almost had to blurt out, “I love you. I always have...”

“And I always will,” Celestia cooed. “Forever and ever.”

Twilight smiled. Just then, her body started to spasm. Her eyes rolled back as she clenched her jaws tight.

Applejack flinched. Outside the window, Spike's face turned white.

“Twilight...” Celestia leaned closer and held the dying unicorn's face in her hooves. “Can you hear me...?”

“I c-can hear you...” Twilight whimpered. “But I can't see you.” She gulped hard as the spasms grew harder. “Ohhhh, after all my years of learning...” She moaned. “Nnnngh... Oh, it's so dark. It's so dark, Princess. Where is the light? I-I can't see...”

“Shhhhh...” Celestia leaned over and nuzzled Twilight before kissing her on the forehead. She breathed into her ear. “You are the light. Go forth and sparkle, my good and faithful student.”

Twilight heaved, heaved... and smiled. Her tears trickled into Celestia's hooves, and her limp face followed them. She lay still on the bed as a gentle breeze fluttered through the room, and then settled.

Applejack sniffled. She hugged her hat to her chest while hanging her head. A gentle sob rose through the ponies in attendance as Spike covered his face with a shaking hand of claws outside.

As for Celestia, she embraced Twilight's body with her wings and held her close. If she was crying, nopony could see through the glow her horn was giving off, announcing the passage of a sorcerer supreme to the rest of Ponyville below.

That night, as the melting sun set on a mourning Equestria, Ponyville responded with a dazzling light of its own. Ponies with candles gathered around a field as Twilight's burning body was lifted by a burgundy balloon high up into the air. Across the fields of the kingdom that stretched beyond, several identical lights rose in the somber air. With the death of something beautiful there was born a legacy as equally glorious. The villagers of Ponyville anointed the moment with a warm hymn, filling the air with a vibration of life not unlike the electricity that had hung low at the dawn of time.

Princess Celestia and Luna watched it all from the deck of the Dawnmist. Above and around them, lights glittered as the memory of Twilight Sparkle's life was celebrated across the face of the globe.

Celestia was calm, meditative, as resolute and regal as ever. She barely stirred, even as Luna leaned in and gently spoke.

“Spike told me how things proceeded,” she said. “I always said that you were capable of raising more than the sun, beloved sister.”

“I only wish more things in this world came back at dawn,” Celestia quietly replied.

Luna gazed at her sympathetically. “Do you feel regret, Celestia?”

“I will always regret,” Celestia said, gazing at the balloon. Twilight's ashes turned to bright embers and flew magically into the wind. “As I will always live.”

“Father would be proud of how strong you've become,” Luna said.

“He would be proud of both of us, but not for our strength, dear sister,” Celestia said, her eyes rising to meet the countless stars above. “He was right when he told us that there will always be magic. What he neglected to mention is that there will always be pain. That is something we had to learn on our own. Perhaps he knew that from the beginning.”

“Could that be why he left us?” Luna asked.

“If it is, then I might finally understand his reasoning... as well as his folly.”


Celestia swallowed gently and said, “All this time, I thought I was doing the right thing by cutting ties with my mortal apprentices. Only now, after so many millennia, I realize that the only way to maintain harmony and order among our subjects is to cut ties with ourselves. It is our burden to bare as immortals, after all. We must let our subjects experience the glory that can be gained in the brief fragility that is life. If they are to die, it is only right that we die with them, little by little, if only we can come to understand what it's like to be such precious vignettes of beauty. Maybe then, in the grand purview of all our impossible friendships, we'll finally learn where the magic is taking us at the end of all things.”

Luna bore a painful smile, gazing at the lights populating the dark skies of the endless horizon surrounding them. “I used to believe that there was another way,” she softly said. “That life could somehow be rid of both magic and pain, that all of the nightmares and darkness of uncertainty could be absorbed through a simple channel. My assumptions only caused this world even more heartache. Alas, it took me a thousand years to learn the truth you now know, dear sister.”

Celestia nodded. “And it's taken me twelve thousand,” she said somberly. She gazed over at Luna. She leaned over and nuzzled her lovingly.

Luna warmly returned the gesture, rubbing her cheek against Celestia's slender neck. With a shuddering breath, she gazed at all the lights and spoke. “I must raise the moon soon...”

“Yes,” Celestia whispered, still nuzzling her younger half. “As is your duty.”

“And what about your duty?” Luna returned.

Celestia took a deep breath. She stood up. “I know what it is, dear sister.” She trotted off, and as she did so, Luna could only smile.

Celestia approached the royal cabins of the Dawnmist. Along the way, she passed by a grave-looking pegasus.

“Your Majesty,” the Admiral turned towards Celestia and bowed. “Are... are you retiring for the night?”

“More or less. You're relieved of duty for the next three months, Admiral,” Celestia firmly said.

The old mare did a double-take. She took her helmet off and rubbed her violet eyes before blinking them crookedly. “Your Highness? I-I don't understand! Have... Have I transgressed?”

“Nothing of the sort.” Celestia paused by the door. “You are to take an extended leave. Go and be with your family.”

“But... But Princess! I have a duty to serve and protect you in all times, no matter how—”

“Go home, Scootaloo,” Celestia turned. She smiled sweetly. “Be with friends and family. Be with those who love you. I shall call upon your most esteemed services when they are desired, and I will expect you not to be tardy.”

Scootaloo's wrinkled face slowly warmed. Her eyes glistened as she tilted her head forward. “Thank you... Your Majesty...” She trotted off and fluttered her wings to join the crowd honoring Twilight's presence.

Celestia entered the cabin. She found Nova Stare standing at the head of the bed, peering out through the Dawnmist's windows at all of the lights and burning candles.

“Princess! Princess!” He exclaimed, trembling with excitement. “Something's happening outside! It looks like some sort of celebration!”

“Young one, what are you doing standing up?” Celestia gently chided. “I do not think you have yet properly recovered from your ordeal in the desert.”

He immediately squatted down on the bed, reeling slightly with dizziness but trying his best to hide it. “I just... I just wanted to know what was going on outside.”

“It is only the first day of remembrance. It will last into the next two days, as it did for Starswirl the Bearded.” Celestia sat down beside the bed. Her eyes darted left and right as she thought hard, then eventually said, “Most definitely, I will show you the sights tomorrow.”

“You... You will?” Nova Stare blinked wide, his tail flicking. “But... But I thought you were gonna take me to Canterlot. I thought you were gonna find me a new foster home where ponies won't make fun of me for burning stuff.”

“Mmmm... Indeed.” She took a deep breath and smiled at him. “But one thing at a time, dear student. It would be best that we got your body as well as your mind properly nourished.”

“Well, I guess so, but—” He stopped in mid-speech, his face scrunching. “Uhm... Princess?”

“Yes, Nova?”

“Did... Did you just call me 'student?'”

“Why? Would you rather I call you something else?”

His mouth hung agape as his eyes narrowed. “I... I don't understand...”

“Would you like to understand, Nova Stare?” She lowered her face down to stare squarely at him. “Would you like to see the sights and colors of this world? Would you like to explore the horizons, to smell the winds from the four corners of the globe and bask in the shores of every majestic ocean carved into the earth?”

“I... I...” He gulped. “Well, sure! If it means learning all about magic and history and...” He bit his lip. “But... But how?”

She reached a hoof out and brushed his mane lovingly. Her eyes were moist, but the warmth of her smile melted any tears away. “I can show you.”

“Show me...?”

“I can help you master your magic skills. I can help you become the most powerful and majestic sorcerer this age will ever know.” She took a shuddering breath and added, “I can help you find love, friendship, and a place to call home... if you would let me...”

His lips quivered. Tears started to form in the corners of his eyes. “Your... Your Majesty...” He hiccuped back a sob and hugged himself. “I... I don't know what to say...”

“Say what you feel. Say everything you hate, everything you love, everything you're afraid of, everything you look forward to,” she said. “Share it all with me, so that as you learn about the blessings in life, I may too learn, and be blessed too.”

He smiled. It was painful as it was relieving. He sniffled and ran a hoof across his moist cheek. “You mean... You mean you're not going to leave me? You're not going to just dr-drop me off somewhere and go away?”

“Oh Nova Stare...”

She reached over and scooped his tiny, happy body into her forelimbs. She hugged him dearly, her eyes closed as she nuzzled him close, as if embracing a sunrise just at the tail end of another day's righteous death.


Wings of Icarus

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Green stood in still preparation atop her makeshift runway. There were many in Appleoosa, but the clifftop overarching the apple orchard was always her favorite.

She looked to both sides—no traffic in sight. She closed her eyes and felt the cool, easterly wind breeze through her mane. She slid her forelegs into her glider’s two hoof handles and swiveled them about, and it responded with fluid grace. She opened her eyes and looked up to the sky. Its clear, blue greatness towered over the scene, with not a cloud present to take away from its beauty. She stared in awe at its majesty, imagining herself soaring through it like a pegasus.

Everything was perfect.

Now was her time.

She took off with a vigilant gait, slowly building from a trot to a canter, and then, when the wind picked up, to a full-paced gallop. The wind thrashed against the glider’s wings and grew louder and louder as her pace increased.

Every second, the cliff edge grew closer. Every second, she imagined herself flying higher and higher.

Then she reached the edge.

She closed her eyes jumped off in a leap of faith, arms outstretched and glider overhead. She held her forelegs out in front to keep the glider steady, and it did. It held steady. She opened her eyes and saw herself sail across the endless apple forest.

She was was flying.

Her face lit up with an ear-to-ear grin. Her eyes grew and glistened as she took in the scenery passing by all around her. She screamed at the top of her lungs. “Woooooo! I’m flying! I’m flying! I’m fly—”

A spoke in the glider bent under the pressure. Its wings collapsed, and the entire structure fell apart, throwing her into a harrowing descent.

She scrambled about in panic, half trying to find some way to soften the fall.

Crashing into a thick section of the orchard, she bumbled and tumbled through the leaves and branches as they tore her fragile glider to pieces.


“Urgh.” She writhed about in pain on the rocky grounds of the Appleoosa apple orchard. Some blood seeped out of her cuts and scratches and clotted up on her fur, but there were no gaping wounds. Her glider—or what was left of it—lay wrecked beside her.

She rolled over and looked up at the sky, the great, blue, clear sky. It was still as beautiful from below as it was from above.

A light smirk escaped her as she receded from consciousness.

Green awoke on a stretcher and twisted about weakly, groaning.

“Hey, she’s awake,” the mare holding the stretcher from behind said.

“All right,” the mare in front replied. “Don’t worry, hun. We’re nearly there. You’re gonna be all right.”

Green lifted her head slightly and saw the town coming into view. “I... I did it,” she said.

“You sure did,” the mare at the back said. “You sure crashed that thing real good.”

Green rested back down for a moment, then, finally realizing the mare’s comment, shook her head. “My glider! Where is it?!”

“You destroyed it, hun. We left what was left of it back there, but there wasn’t much.”

“No!” Green said, struggling to get off the stretcher. “We have to go back. We have to go back and get it.” But her body wouldn’t give, so she collapsed back down on the stretcher.

“Getting you safe is what’s important, hun,” the mare in front said, continuing the trek.

A mare scrambled wildly out of the town, screaming, “My baby! My baby!” She soon reached the stretcher and looked over it in panic. “Oh my gosh, Green, are you all right, dear? Are you all right? Is she all right?”

“Yeah, Mum, I’m fine,” she said weakly.

“Oh, my poor little baby. Oh, what are we gonna do with you? What’s gotten into you? Oh, my poor little baby.”

The stretcher arrived at the clinic, with Apple Brown Betty still following behind, rambling on about her poor baby.

The two mares lowered Green on one of the beds, then carefully slid the stretcher out from beneath her. One of them left the tent to fetch the doctor. The other turned to the frantic mother and said, “Listen, hun, I know you’re real worried about your girl. Don’t worry. She’s gonna be fine. Just wait till the doc gets here so we can make sure she hasn’t done any serious damage.”

“Okay, thank you so much,” she said.

Green endured five more minutes of her mother’s delirious concerns before the doctor showed up.

“Hello, Mrs Apple,” he said. “If you’ll excuse us, I’d like to be alone with her for just a moment.”

“All right. Just, please, make sure she’s OK.”

“I’ll do my best,” he said. Once Betty had left the tent, he asked Green, “How are you feeling?”


“You’re not feeling dizzy? No headache?”

“Nope. I feel fine.”

“All right.” The doctor walked around behind her and asked her to sit up. She did so. “Now, tell me if this hurts, OK?”


The doctor held her back upright with one hoof and methodically tapped her on the back in various places with the other. Satisfied with the response, he said, “Well, it looks like your back’s fine.”


The doctor then moved about the bed checking each of her limbs, each time stretching them out and bending them at different angles. “Does this hurt?”


“How about this?”


“And this?”


The doctor paused for a moment, then said, “All right, everything seems to be in order. Get some patches on those scratches and you’re good to go, though I’d still suggest you lie down for a few hours, just to make sure you aren’t concussed.”

Green ignored the doctor and leapt off the bed. “Thanks, Doc.” She galloped out of the tent and headed back towards the apple orchard.

“Green!” her mother called, but she ignored her and kept on running. “Get back here!” she tried, but to no avail. Green was dead set on her path.

When she arrived back at the orchard, she saw her glider and all its little pieces scattered about the crash site. She picked up the one part of it that could still be said to be intact, the left wing, and hugged it tightly, crying.

She held the wing out in the wind, hoping it would flutter about like a flag, but it simply wilted down in a crumpled mess. Her face dropped and she sniveled, and she rubbed her snout with the wing.

She dragged the wing and what other parts she could carry back home.

Apple Fritter stared at her sister across the dinner table.

Green paid no attention to her and continued eating her apple fritters.

“What were ya thinkin’, Sis? You coulda killed yerself!”

Green swallowed her food. “I don’t know what to tell you, Frits.” She took another mouthful.

Apple Brown Betty came into the room with a cooking pot in hoof and slapped a pile of apple sauce onto each of their dishes. “What are we gonna do with you, Green?”

“I don’t know.” Green stirred with her food. “You could help me rebuild my glider.”

“Help you rebuild it?!” Betty threw the pot down on the kitchen stove. “I’ll not have you building another one of those things ever again, young lady!”

Green dropped her cutlery. “What?! But how am I supposed to fly without one?!”

“That’s exactly the point.” Betty brought her dish to the table and sat down with the two girls. “You’re not supposed to fly.”

“Yes I am! I dream about flying every night!” she said, her eyes growing tearier with each word.

“I don’t care what you dream about. You’re gonna kill yourself. Can’t you see that? Can’t you think about how we would feel if something happened, about how I would feel if I let something happen?”


“No ‘but’s, missy. If I ever see you trying that again, I’ll have you sent off to your cousin’s farm in Fillydelphia, where there aren’t any cliffs or gorges or canyons for you to kill yourself off. You’re an Apple, and apples don’t fly. Best you just accept that now.”

Green hurled her plate on the floor, smashing it to pieces. “You—you just don’t understand!” she cried, and ran off to her bedroom.

Betty looked to Apple Fritter, who appeared unsettled by the ordeal. “She’ll be OK. She’ll come around. Don’t you worry.”

Green sat at the front of the classroom, trying desperately to ignore the snickering going on behind her.

“Can you believe her? She actually thinks she can fly.”

A paper wad hit her on the back of the head, and she turned around and seethed, “What?”

“Hey, Wingless,” the paperslinger said. “Maybe when you get your cutie mark, it’ll be, like, wings, and that’ll help you fly!” He laughed hysterically at his own joke. The rest of the children found it equally hilarious.

“Children, please, be quiet. Green, face the front,” the teacher said.

Green mumbled something as she turned around.

“What was that?” the teacher reprimanded.


The teacher eyed her. “I should hope not.” She then took a piece of chalk and wrote ‘Types of Ponies’ on the board. “Now, today we’re gonna learn about the different types of ponies. Can anyone tell me the three main types of ponies?”

The children shot up their arms. The teacher pointed to one of them. “Primrose.”

“Earth ponies,” she answered.

“Correct. And what are earth ponies good at?” the teacher asked.

She thought about it for a short while, then answered, “Farming.”

“That’s certainly one thing we’re known for,” the teacher mused. “Now, what are the other two main types of ponies?”

The children again shot up their arms. “Unicorns!” called one them.

“Jalapeno, don’t call out,” the teacher said. “But yes. And what are unicorns good at?”

“Magic!” Jalapeno said.

“Correct. And what lets unicorns do magic?”

Two colts at the back of the room snickered.

“Hey!” the teacher yelled. “You two got something to say?”

One of them managed to pull a straight face and answer. “Their ‘horns,’ Miss.” The two snickered again.

“What’s so funny about that?”

“Oh, no, nothing, Miss,” one replied. The other couldn’t help bursting out into hysterics, and the teacher had him sent outside.

The teacher tousled her mane. “Well, now that that’s done with, what is the third main type of pony?”

All of the children except Green raised their arms. The teacher smirked and pointed to her. “Green.”

“I didn’t put my hoof up, Miss,” she said.

“What’s the third main type of pony, Green.”

She hesitated to answer. “Pegasi.”

“Good. And what are pegasi good at?”


“And what allows pegasi to fly?”

“Their wings.”

“Exactly,” she said smugly. She turned and wrote ‘Earth pony,’ ‘Unicorn,’ and ‘Pegasus’ on the chalkboard. “Now, there’s one more type of pony, a very special type of pony—so special that there aren’t very many of them. Can you tell me what this very special type of pony is?” she asked the class.

A few of the children raised their arms. “Roseluck,” the teacher indicated.

“Alicorns?” she answered.

“Correct. Do you know the names of any alicorns?”

“Princess Celestia!” she said.

“Princess Luna,” another added.

“That’s right.” The teacher wrote ‘Alicorn’ in slightly larger letters beneath the other three types of pony. “Now, in Appleoosa, there’s not very many unicorns or pegasi, is there? And there certinaly aren’t any alicorns. In fact, I think everypony living here is an earth pony. Some of you might never have even seen a unicorn or pegasus before.”

“Excuse me, Miss,” Green interrupted. She rubbed the back of her neck. “Do you know how I could fly, like a pegasus?”

The teacher walked up to her and stood in front of her desk, with a completely serious look on her face. “It’s simple. All you’ve got to do is grow some wings.”

The children snickered.

“Quiet down, children,” the teacher said, returning to her desk.

Green raised her arm demurely.

The teacher sighed. “Yes, Green?”

“How do I... How do I grow wings?”

The teacher’s face dropped to a deadpan. “You don’t. If you were meant to fly, you would’ve been born a pegasus.”

When she got home, Green threw her saddlebags on the floor and ran into her room, her eyes red from all the dried up tears. She wanted to crawl up into a hole and never come out.

Just as she was about to throw herself under the blankets and never return, she saw a piece of paper—a letter—lying on top of her bed. She stared at it for a while, then sniffled, then unfolded it.


Never give up on your dreams. They’re what makes you who you are.

Meet me in the abandoned shack after school tomorrow. I have something I want you to see.

—-Your Friend

Green poked her head into the abandoned shack. Hay stacks were stashed in corners and piled on top of each other in bales, and various hoof tools lay on what looked to be construction tables. It was rather neat for something said to be abandoned.

“Um, hello?” she said, walking inside.

A weathered stallion walked into view. “Ah, Green. I’m glad you came.”

“Mister Palmer? I didn’t know you lived in here.”

The stallion chuckled. “Oh, I don’t live here. This is my little, how should I say, oasis? It’s where I come to get away from all the hubbub of town life.” He picked up a rolled up sheet with his mouth, then dropped it in front of Green. “And please, just call me Palmer. You’re gonna make me feel old.”

“What’s this?” she asked, pointing to the sheet.

He drew the sheet closer to himself. “Before I tell you, I need to know: How badly do you want this? How badly do you want to fly?”

She puffed her chest and answered, “More than anything.”

“What would you do to get it, what would you sacrifice?”


He grinned and pointed his hoof at her knowingly. “I see that spark. I see it in your eyes.” He placed the hoof down on one end of the sheet. “This”—he unrolled it with another hoof—“is a schematic for a personal flying machine. Not just any old glider like what you tried. We’re going to build you some wings.”

Green’s expression contorted into an amalgamation of ecstasy and disbelief. “Are you serious?! How? Why? Really? How? Is it really possible?” She was bobbing up and down worse than Pinkie Pie on a sugar bender.

He chuckled, somewhat taken aback by her enthusiasm. “Well, I’m not gonna make any promises, but I reckon so.” He waited for her to calm down. “Now, if we’re gonna do this, you’ve gotta promise me one thing: You don’t tell anybody about this. If your mother found out I was helping you... well, it’s a small town.” He looked her square in the eyes. “You got that?”

“Yes, sir!”

“You don’t tell anybody, ever.”

She nodded and saluted him. “Roger!” She giggled.

He cocked an eyebrow. “Anyway, it’s not just about building the machine. It’s gotta be built just for you, and you gotta learn how to use it, which sure ain’t no cake walk. If we wanna get the kind of lift that lets you fly, it’s gonna take some big wings.” He trotted over behind one of the hay stacks and pulled out a huge, feathery wing from behind it. “And flapping these big boys is gonna take every muscle in your body.”

She traced the wing with unbreakable focus as he fluttered it to and fro.

“Go on, touch it,” he said, holding it out to her.

She rubbed a hoof against its surface. Its hairs flowed through and tickled hers, and she shivered with goosebumps. “It’s so... soft.”

He laughed. “Well of course it is! I use only the best materials.” He walked behind the hay stack and put the wing back in its place. “Now, we’ve gotta figure out times for you to come practice. You can’t come in the day, because your mother would surely get suspicious. When’s your bed time?”

“Eight thirty.”

“All right. You’re a smart enough girl to get out the house without anyone noticing, aren’t ya?”

She nodded.

“Hmm. Meet me here at ten o’clock every Saturday night.”

On the first Saturday night, Palmer had her try on some shoulder straps. “There’s no wings on ’em yet, but this’ll be the main part of it. You gotta practice flapping these things so that your body can handle it. You see these three joints here”—he indicated to them—“those are connected to the strongests parts of your body. Flex it out well, and you’ll get the strength you need to lift those wings.”

He had her try them on, stretching her joints as she did so. “It’s very tight.”

“Yes-yes. I need to fix the shape up to fit your body. It’ll be better next week.”

The next week he had the shoulder-strap prototype rigged up to smoothly fit Green’s body. She moved about in it fluidly, as if she weren’t wearing it at all.

“All right. Now here’s the tail wing.” He handed her a contraption with two hoof holds in it.

She tried them on, putting her hind legs in the holds, and the tail sagged behind her.

“When you’re flying, it’ll help keep you upright. You gotta keep your hind legs nice and straight, in the direction you’re headed.”

She nodded.

“Now, give those shoulder straps a few good pumps. Get your body nice and used to it.”

The next week he had the shoulder straps fitted with placeholder wings.

“Now here’s the real challenge. Let’s see if you’ve got the upper-body strength and technique to flap those wings.”

She equipped the shoulder straps and tried flapping them as hard as she could. She tensed up, unable to do so fluidly.

“No-no-no. See here, you gotta relax your muscles. Let the machine do the work. You’re focusing everything on your lower-arm. You’ve got to spread the work out across all your joints.”

She nodded. “Okay.” She took a deep breath, then relaxed all her muscles. She flapped the wings up and down, slowly, then faster and faster, until she was flapping them at full speed.

“Excellent. When I’ve got the full model ready next week, I reckon we’ll be ready for a test run.”

When Green arrived home that night, Betty was waiting for her.

“Where have you been?” she said, a tone of anger in her voice.

“Um, nowhere...”

“Of course you haven’t been nowhere. You can’t lie to me, girl. Where have you been?”

Green stared down at the floor for a while, then confessed, “Mister Palmer is building me a flying machine. He’s going to help me fly!”

“That old runt,” she seethed.

“Don’t say that!”

“Listen here, Missy. I told you if I caught you trying to pull anything like this again, I’d have you sent to Fillydelphia. If you try to talk to that runt ever again, you’re out. You hear me?”

“Yes mum,” she said, tears welling in her eyes.

The next week, the shack door was locked.

When Green got home, Betty was furious.

“Can’t you think about someone other than yourself for once?! Why do you make me do this, Green? Why?”

Green hung her head down.

“You’re getting on the train tomorrow morning.”

“The train’s here, dear,” Apple Brown Betty said, carrying saddlebags which held the scant few things Green owned. “It’s time to go.”

Green moped along by the train station.

“I know you’re upset, but it’s for your own good.”

Green saw Palmer across the street dangling the keys to his shack. When he saw that she’d seen him, he jerked his head in the direction of the shack and dropped the keys from his mouth. He gave her a reassuring nod, then walked out of sight.

“Come on, honey. It’s time to go now.”

Green took off with a gallop, heading straight for the keys. She picked them up with a swift head maneauvour and continued running for the shack.

Betty charged off behind her, screaming, “Get back here, young lady,” repeatedly; however, the saddlebags significantly slowed her gait. “Somebody stop her!” she tried.

Green reached the shack and fuddled about with the keys. It opened quickly enough, and she ran inside to equip the wings. She put her two hindlegs in the leg holes for the tail wing and strapped the shoulder wings to her shoulders, sliding the controls in her forelegs. She ran outside as quick as she could and darted for the cliff by the apple orchard. The tail wings dragged along the floor and the shoulder straps loosened as she ran. She tried desperately to keep the wings up on her shoulders, but with Betty trailing close behind, she couldn’t afford to stop.

Palmer came out and started galloping beside her. He used his mouth as well as he could to reattach the straps.

“Palmer, you old runt!” Betty yelled. “You’re going to kill my baby! I’ll have your head for this!”

He got the shoulder straps attached and then collapsed, his old body unable to handle the sprint any longer.

Betty trampled past him, fixed on stopping Green. “You’re crazy, Green! You’re gonna kill yourself!”

Green kept on running, still dragging the tail wing behind her. All she could see was the cliff right ahead of her.

Closer and closer, her heart pumped.

Forty hooves. Thirty.

She looked up at the sky. It was filled with clouds, yet still to her as clear as ever.

Twenty. She closed her eyes. Ten hooves.

The final leap of faith. Her tail wing lifted from the ground and fluttered through the air with slient grace. She outstretched her wings and beat them up and down, pumping softly against the wind.

Betty stopped and gazed at the majestic figure, the wings growing in flight to that of an angel’s .

Green opened her eyes. She look down at the Appleoosa apple orchard; it was far smaller than she had ever seen it before. Every flap of her wings brought her closer to the clouds. Every flap the apple orchard became smaller and smaller. Tears fell from her eyes and dropped from the sky like rain. She soared through the clouds, feeling a soft, tingling sensation as they breezed across her entire body. “Wooooo! Woooohooooo!” she cried. “Hahahaha!”

She climbed the skies until they were clearer than a Summer day’s. The sun wrapped her in its warm glow, growing warmer and warmer as she ascended higher and higher.

When she had flown as high as she could, she looked down at Equestria and saw its ever-expanding landscape. From such a great height, she could see everything from The Everfree Forest to Manehattan.

Then from nowhere, a great magical flash centered around her haunches, and as soon as it had arrived, it disappeared, leaving behind a cutie mark of crossed feathered wings on her flank.

She’d done it.

The only thing left to do was...


Green dived from the pillar of the skies. The wind rushed past her, thrashing against her wings so heavily that she could no longer hear her own cries.

But she was in control.

The apple orchard came into view, becoming larger and larger with each coming second.

As she neared the ground, she repositioned her tail wing and parried the fall. Flapping harder than ever, she curved the fall into a majestic arc. She glided across the apple orchard and then the town before landing, met by the dropped jaws of several onlookers.

Betty stared wide-eyed at her daughter, mouth agape, unsure of what to say. She saw her new cutie mark and galloped up to hug her, crying. “I’m so sorry, baby.”

Green embraced her, envoloping her in her wings.

Palmer limped over to the two and patted Green on the back. “You did good, kid. You did good.”


View Online

It seemed that seven failed attempts at what the brothers referred to as “aggressive entrepreneurship” was one too many for the younger to bear. They had made their departure from Maretinsville in defeat but in high spirits, the familiar thrill of a crowd’s first enraptured reaction to the SSCS6K only as distant as the next town that happened to have an apple orchard. But as the Super Speedy Cider Squeezy 6000 made its way along a dilapidated cobblestone road to nowhere in particular, Flam faced a novel question from his brother.

“See here, brother of mine. What’re we going to do with this confounded contraption?”

Flam stared straight ahead. “Whatever do you mean, Flim? The SSCS6K is a top-class machine. Why, it’s positively state of the art!”

“Now don’t you try to pull the wool over my eyes, Flam. Ever since that quality control gizmo broke we haven’t had a hint of success with this thing.”

Flam turned to his brother and immediately took note of his unsettled brow. “Don’t you worry, Flim. We’ll make do. Nopony in all of Equestria can make cider faster than this here work of art.”

“But what good is super speedy if no one will pay for the cider squeezy, brother? Don’t you think we’ve carried this one on a little too long?”

Flam reached up and ran his hooves along either side of his mustache. “What else would you have us do, Flim? I’m all ears.”

“We aren’t colts anymore, Flam. What would be so bad about getting real salespony jobs?”

The contraption screeched to a halt. “What are you saying, brother?” asked Flam.

“I’m saying I mean to find another line of work.” The steel in Flim’s voice made the hairs on Flam’s neck stand on end. “I’m through selling this awful cider.”

Flam leaned towards his brother in his seat and crossed his front legs in front of his striped boating blazer. “You mean to tell me you’re putting the kibosh on the World-Famous Flim Flam Brothers? Just like that, Flim?”

“Just like that, Flam,” said Flim with no hesitation. “I’ve thought it through, and I’ve had enough.”

“You’re just going to leave your dear brother in the lurch, Flim?”

“You know, dear brother of mine, you could always find a real job yourself.”

“A ‘real’ job.” Flam snorted, ruffling his mustache. “And what, pray tell, do we have right now, Flim? Because from this traveling salespony’s perspective, you seem to be making the insinuation that we’ve just been wasting our time with the SSCS6K.”

“Oh, I’m not insinuating anything,” retorted Flim. “And I’m not just talking about this one, either. Remember that Neighjing Tea Scam, Flam? How about when we tried selling fake timeshares in Canterlot Castle? How many bits did we make with those harebrained schemes? Those were all your bright ideas.”

“Now you listen here,” Flam demanded, shaking his hoof in Flim’s face.

“Not to mention back in Ponyville. Doubling the power? Turning off the quality control gizmo?” Flim rolled his eyes. “Some job of taking us legit you did there.”

“Don’t you go blaming me for Ponyville, Flim! You could just as easily have stopped me! And how was I supposed to know it wouldn’t turn on again if we turned it off?”

“Oh, I don’t know, Flam, maybe because you were the one who designed this ridiculous doohickey in the first place!”

The blood rushed to Flam’s face. “Hey, I’m not keeping you hostage here! You want to go work for some big company, selling cutlery or model ships? Be my guest! All the more for me when I finally hit the big score, brother.”

Flim shook the pork-pie hat from his head. “You know what, Flam? That just might have been your best idea yet.” Then he took to his hooves and hopped out of the SSCS6K. His horn flared, and a pair of barber’s shears floated out from under his blazer, wedging one sharp end between his neck and its black bowtie before snapping shut and sending the neckwear streaking down to the cobblestone.

Flam watched his brother trot back towards Maretinsville with his mouth agape. He was by far the better poker player, and yet Flim—the younger of the two, if only by five minutes—had called his big brother’s big bluff.

“No matter, Flam,” he said to himself. “It may have been a bluff, but the reasoning was sound, old pal. All we need is one big score. Just one.” Flam fired a bolt of green energy at the SSCS6K’s antenna, and the machine jerked forward towards nowhere in particular at half speed.

The World-Famous Flim Flam Brothers were a classic duo: though born as identical twins, they were far from carbon-copies of one another. Each had their own strengths that complemented the other’s nicely. Flam was creative and inventive, and most of the pair’s schemes, harebrained or ingenious, sprang from his rapidly churning mind. But while Flam was a perfectly serviceable salespony, Flim’s skills of persuasion were truly nonpareil. His roguish charm and guile allowed him to draw even the most stubborn and curmudgeonly of ponies into friendly conversation when he wanted to. And by the time Flim fully engaged his mark, they were as good as stung.

The true challenge of going solo, therefore, hadn’t made itself known in the planning phase of Flam’s big score, and he rode into Fillydelphia, on a broken-down, half-powered machine loaded with barrels of apple tree slop, with all of his confidence intact. It had been a long time since Flam tried his hand at actually dragging in the marks himself—he usually left that for Flim to do. But he felt very good about his plan. Fantastic, even.

Flam brought the SSCS6K to a halt along a street of extravagant high-rise apartment buildings, just as their wealthy inhabitants were coming home from work. He hopped onto his back hooves and stood on the seat of his vehicle, and cleared his throat loudly enough to turn a few heads.

“Flam’s Fantastic Holistic Health Harvest Smoothies! Good for the mind, body, and soul!” A few more heads turned, and as he made eye contact with each of them they slowed their pace. It was a little trick he learned from watching his brother, and his ability to execute it himself only served to embolden the salespony further.

“Too busy to get your three square healthy meals of wholesome fruits and veggies? Get ’em all in one convenient potable and feel fit as a fiddle all day! Fresh from organic farms all across Equestria!”

Flam counted 17 ponies headed directly towards him and his cider, and a genuine smile crept upon him as he drew himself up to full height and took a deep breath.

“Half off for today only! This is concentrated stuff, fillies and gentlecolts; five bits for a grande cup is an absolute steal! Why, at this price, I’m actually losing money here!”

An onlooker lazed his rarified hoof into the air. “Why would you possibly sell that for less than it cost you to make it?”

“Ah, I’m glad you brought that up, my good stallion.” Flam hopped down from the SSCS6K and leaned forward into the crowd, which very subtly leaned towards him in response. He struggled to suppress a chuckle.

“Between you and me,” he began in a stage whisper to the crowd, “it wasn’t two weeks ago that I was selling these here smoothies to the fashionable citizens of Manehattan. I sold out faster than I’d ever imagined. So I’m convinced that you’ll feel the results of this drink on day one, and I just know you’ll come back when this offer expires tomorrow, my friends.”

Flam threw his front leg around the closest mare. “You look like you’ve a discerning mouth, dear.” The stallion next to her frowned. “Would you care for a tall cup of Flam’s Fantastic Holistic Health Harvest Smoothie, absolutely free?

The mare started to answer, but before she managed to choke out “yes!” Flam had already primed the tap and filled a cup, presenting it to the pony with a courteous bow and a magical tip of his hat. The mare sat back and took a sip. And as Flam fully expected, her face began to sour.

The salespony sprung into action. “Isn’t that just swell, my dear? All the fashionable Manehattan mares love the stuff, so I knew a mare of refined taste such as yourself would love it as well.”

The mare’s eyes shot open and darted around to her fellow not-quite-as-fashionable Fillydelphians. “M— mm...” she forced out. “I-It’s... marvelous...”

Flam’s smile threatened to expand beyond the boundaries of his face. “Can’t you just feel those holistic, organic ingredients massaging your delicate taste buds?”

The mare nodded.

“Well, there you have it, folks,” said Flam with a wave of his hoof. “Straight from the horse’s mouth. Please form a li—”

“Oh, look!” shouted the mare, springing to her hooves. “It’s my nutritionist!”

“Y-Your what?” Tiny beads of sweat began to form just above his shirt collar. “Oh, there’s no need to bother her.”

“I’m sure she’d be delighted to hear of such a healthy and fashionable new product being sold on the streets of Fillydelphia,” said the mare. “Oh, Leafy Green!” she called in a sing-song voice. “Leafy Green!”

Flam made a show of looking out towards the setting sun. “Well, would you look at the time, fillies and gentlecolts? I really must be on my way.”

The rarified hoof returned. “I say, something here isn’t right, salespony.” A soft murmur rose from the previously rapt audience. “A nutritionist is called for, and suddenly you make a hasty retreat?”

“Well, that is awfully suspicious...” said another.

Flam fired a bolt of magic at the contraption’s antenna, and the vehicle began to sputter and shake. “Fillies and gentlecolts,” he said, holding his front hooves up. “I mean only to produce more cider in light of this unprecedented demand!”

Flam’s smile was no longer genuine. He recognized his mistake as soon as he made it. Flim was an expert at cooling off the marks; his skill at calming the fears of suspicious ponies underwrote the duo’s audacious style. Flam had forgotten to account for this. But more importantly, he forgot what he was supposed to be selling.

Cider? I thought these were holistic health smoothies!”

“Who does this salespony think he is?”

“He’ll be hearing from my lawyer!”

“Mine, too!”

“Next town,” Flam whispered to himself. He shot another bolt at the antenna, and the SSCS6K jerked foward before rolling slowly away from the crowd. “Farewell, Fillydelphia!” he shouted, climbing atop his vehicle and turning to wave at the furious crowd of ponies shouting and waving their hooves in the air behind him as he pulled away.

He felt it before he saw it. The ground began to rumble underneath him, and it nearly shook him down from his perch on the contraption. Then, squinting against the sunset, Flam saw a small dust cloud on the horizon, growing rapidly in size. Heads with slicked-back manes emerged, followed by suits and ties. A legal stampede.

“Somepony said lawyer!” shouted one. “Somepony with money said lawyer!” They were gaining fast.

“Mr. Flam Flimflam, sir! Is that your real name? Where is your food vendor’s license?”

Flam rapid-fired bolts of magic into the vehicle’s antenna, forcing it into short-lived bursts of speed that sent barrels of apple mulch flying out of the machine. The lawyers leaped over them easily. “Come on, you old piece of junk!”

“On what test results do you base your claims that your product is good for the soul?”

The fastest of the lawyers made a dive for the SSCS6K and managed to latch onto a pipe with his teeth.

“Abandon ship!” cried Flam. He ran to the front of the vehicle, dove off into a somersault, and galloped as hard as he could, long after the lawyers had given up their chase in favor of easier, less athletic prey.

Wheezing and coughing, Flam stopped and fell to the ground. Above him sat a sign, which informed him that he was about to officially cross from the outskirts of Fillydelphia into a town called “Coltsville”. His mind, free from having to ignore the pain shooting through his legs and lungs, set upon assessing his latest failure.

The game was simply too big, he decided. Much as it pained him to admit it, without Flim there was no guarantee he would be able to get himself out of those sticky situations involving throngs of wealthy ponies and the resources they had available to them. Not everypony was as forgiving as Ponyvillians: of this he was reminded as much by the burning sensation in his chest as by the loss of his favorite invention.

Of course, a big score requires a big risk. And Flam was nothing if not determined. If he could not get his big score done without Flim’s skills, then it was a mere matter of developing Flim’s skills.

Flam’s mind continued its unending churn as he finally pulled himself to his hooves and started into the sleepy town, ignoring the sideways looks from the townsfolk, undoubtedly unused to unannounced visitors, much less those arriving on-foot in the evening, donning striped blazers and pork-pie hats. Off in the distance, the distinct outline of a train station lay at the end of the town’s main drag, and he trotted towards it.

To learn how to persuade and evade like his brother, he needed to find himself some sort of training ground. He needed a new kind of place, where the law wasn’t fully settled yet and where the safest place for your bits was in a pouch on the belt loop closest to the leg you bucked the hardest with. He needed a place like...

“Appleloosa!” called the conductor of the Friendship Express’s Western line. “All aboard that’s comin’ aboard!”

“That’ll do nicely,” said Flam, and as the conductor turned to sneeze, he crept onto the train and made his way towards the caboose.

Flam could hardly imagine a better place to get some practice in than The Salt Block, an old-timey saloon with swing doors, bad lighting, and an astonishing number of potential marks. There were no better ponies to try a few of his brother’s more advanced techniques than those woozy and preoccupied with their salt lick. The bartender looked like a no-nonsense character with his monocle and impressive mustache, but he clearly had his hands full serving a full house. And while the town was on the small side, nopony seemed to pay him any mind, despite his outsider status.

He settled on a mark—a toothless stallion with salt-flecked lips—and took a seat at the bar next to him. For nearly ten minutes, Flam did nothing more than sit and observe. He had on a well-worn vest, with a tell-tale lump on its lower left-hand side that belied the presence of a good amount of bits. And he was completely transfixed by his tiny portion of salt lick.

When the stallion had finished the last of it, Flam banged his hoof on the table. “Get this pony another salt cube, on me.”

“Gee, that’sh... awful kinda’ya, shtranger,” said the stallion. “Name’s... Salty.”

Flam rubbed his hooves together below the counter and grinned. “What a fitting name, my good stallion. My name’s Jam. It’s a pleasure to meet you.”

“Shhwhat’re ya... doin’... in Appleboloosa?” asked Salty between licks.

“Oh, you wouldn’t want to hear about my troubles.”

“Pssh,” he said, his eyes never straying from his tiny block of salt. “I’m... really... inshterhishted.”

And after straightening his mustache, Flam turned to his mark and crafted a story entirely on-the-fly. There had been no planning of the story he was to tell, not even a general outline. He drew inspiration from the ponies around him, from his experiences in Fillydelphia, and from his time watching his brother at work, and melded them together into an enthralling tale of love and betrayal, of battles won and lost, of the riches of an entire nation just barely within the grasp of a salt-addled stallion with a pocketful of bits.

“...And that’s why the Neighgerian prince needs this money up-front. So, whaddya say, Salts, old buddy old pal?”

Salty’s left eyelid fell just far enough to cover his pupil before snapping open again. “Wha?”

Flam put his hoof on Salty’s shoulder. “Just give me 30 bits, my friend, and you’ll get a lot of money soon.”

“Oh, hey! Thatshshouds like a b— good bargain! Why dinn...dn’t I think’a that?”

“You did, Salty, you did!

“Now just you wait one minute, you city-slicker,” said the monocled bartender, leaning against the counter and drying a mug he held in one hoof with a rag draped over the other. “How can Salty be sure that he’ll get what’s due to him?”

“Yeah, shlitty-sickler! How... how... how can I, be sure that you, will get what I, gave you?”

Flam smiled and reached into his blazer. “I’m glad you brought that up, my fine stallion. I happen to have here a check for 500,000 bits, signed and ready to go, with the exception of its intended recipient.” Salty was staring at the ceiling, and Flam nudged him with his elbow. “That, my friend, would be you,” he said, and the pony’s ears perked up.

Flam slapped the check down dramatically onto the counter and a pen floated out from underneath his blazer. “Pay to the order of... Salty,” he said, scribbling the flabbergasted pony’s name into the blank space of the check. Then he scooped it up with one hoof and presented it to Salty. “Now, Salty, I do request that you wait two days before cashing this check, as I’ll need to move around some funds after the transfer from Neighgeria.”

Salty snatched the check into his hoof and stared back at the salespony.

“Did you hear that, Sa—”

“Monkeybagsh,” Salty said abruptly, turning to the bartender, “chouldja do... uh... whateverthish pony said?”

Flam felt familiar beads of sweat at his collar. “What now, Salty?”

“I apologize for my brash behavior earlier, sir,” said the bartender, extending a hoof towards the salespony. Flam reached out and bumped it, all his energies focused on not allowing his leg to shake as he returned the gesture. “Name’s Moneybags: I own this bar, and my new Appleloosan bank opens in a few days.”

“Bank owner, you sa—”

Flam knew he was rusty. But not even Flim would have been able to escape his fate at that moment. Without so much as a single demand to explain himself, Moneybags had swung over the counter and connected squarely with Flam’s right cheek, sprawling the salespony out on the floor of the establishment.

Moneybags swung open the false part of the counter and stepped out from behind it. He halted just above Flam’s head and looked down through his monocle. “We don’t take too kindly to forgeries ’round these parts. You’ve got quite the nerve, carpetbagger, coming into our town and fixin’ a swindle one of ours,” nodding towards Salty, who was passed out with his head resting on the counter.

With one hoof, the mustachioed banker pulled Flam back to his feat. “I’m going to give you a one-minute head start, friend. And then I reckon I’ll call the sheriff, and I’ll recommend he get out the bloodhounds.” The banker grabbed Flam’s mane and put his mouth to Flam’s perked-up ear. “So you best get to stepping, boy. ’Cause I reckon they just might be the very last steps you take.”

The banker threw Flam by his mane towards the door, and the roughed-up pony carried the momentum, speeding through the door and galloping alongside the train tracks straight out of Appleloosa.

Flam trudged down the tracks with his blazer draped over his head, counting the cactus as he went and forcing himself to keep moving. He had no way of knowing whether the banker’s threat to go to the sheriff was legitimate or not and little interest in finding out.

After hours of marching through the desert’s blistering heat, Flam saw the shadow of something large flying overhead. “I say, are you buzzards circling already?” he shouted. “Foul, foul birds!”

“Birds? There are no birds out here, Mr. Flimflam!”

Flam whipped the blazer off of his head, and shielded his eyes with the pork-pie hat beneath it. A pegasus was hovering just above him, with a happy smile on her face and a letter clasped between her two front hooves.

“Special delivery!” she said, slipping the letter into his hat’s ribbon and taking off again, her flightpath into the distance following a pattern of slowly veering left or right before a quick correction, only to again veer off-course.

Flam ripped the letter open with his teeth and levitated it in front of his face. He gnashed his teeth, only stopping to read aloud those passages from the paper that he found especially offensive.

“Whinnyapolis... straight and narrow... real-estate... Real estate? Dear Celestia, Flim, have you left no sense of decency?” He flipped the letter over. “Happy... secure... visit... Oh, ponyfeathers!” he cried, tearing the letter into as many pieces as he was able. He flung the mocking confetti into the air and its pieces were scattered by a hot wind from the east.

Flam gave his head a hard shake and slammed his hoof into the sand. “All right, old pal, whaddya say? Are you going to let yourself get outhustled by your kid brother?”

Flam looked against the wind, and then down at the tracks that he’d been following. He hadn’t bothered before to figure out where he was headed, but if he knew his trains, then he was sure they led to Canterlot. “Not without a fight, I’m not,” he said, poking at his fresh black eye with a hoof.

Flam had arrived in Canterlot having fully convinced himself of his inevitable success. There was little chance of Good Samaritanship in a bustling city such as Canterlot, he told himself, and the steady influx of tourists would ensure a neverending supply of well-heeled marks. The anonymity afforded by the sheer size of the city was only an added bonus.

But Canterlot’s residents were all far too experienced to fall for any Flim-style confidence tricks, leaving Flam with nowhere to practice. And tourists were so much more easily identified by swindlers native to Canterlot that by the time Flam had identified a mark, they’d already gained a healthy level of experience, too.

Worse still, in a city crawling with perfectly legitimate—though no less heinous—bits and bobs and diets and get-rich-quick schemes, there was little in the way of excess supply for the more creative and inventive Flam-scams. And no matter how hard he tried, the only ideas of his with a hint of novelty to them in a town like Canterlot demanded Flim’s ability to get even the most jaded city-dwellers excited over something new.

“Find the Lady, here, Find the Lady! Chase the Ace!”

Flam sat on the cold, dirty sidewalk behind a cardboard box. On top of the box were three bent playing cards, and he shuffled them clumsily back and forth with his magic. “Double your money, fillies and gentlecolts, double yo—”

He turned abrubtly towards the wall, and pulled a scrap of paper from his fraying jacket, tucking in his chin and pretending to write.

“Brother of mine? Brother, is that you?”

Flam sighed through gritted teeth, then, turning to Flim, forced his lips into a genuine smile. “Brother, what a surprise! Put ’er there, Flim!” he said, extending a hoof.

Flim tugged at the lapels of his red blazer and met Flam’s hoof with his own. “What are you doing out here, Flam?”

“Oh, this? I, uh, do this for fun! I’ve got a great business selling health drinks now. It’s going just swell.” He ran his hooves along his mustache. “But I could ask you the same thing, Flim. Leaving Whinnydelphia already?”

“Oh, no, Flam, I’m just checking out a new property we’ve got for sale here in Canterlot. Prime real estate up here, you know.” Flim surveyed the flimsy cardboard box and the bent cards on top. “You... sure you’re doing all right, Flam?”

“Never been better, I...” But somewhere deep within the traveling salespony, a dissonant chord snapped. By now he knew that he would never live up to his own hype: the big score was a dream that Fillydelphia and Appleloosa and Canterlot had killed. Even false bravado requires a sliver of true self-confidence, and seeing his brother successful and happy had killed that as well.

Flam threw himself at his brother’s hooves. “Oh, Flim, it’s been horrible out here! Awful, I say! I’ve been chased by lawyers and beaten up by bankers and outhustled left and right in this Celestia-forsaken city and I don’t know what I’m doing anymore!”

Flim stared down at his older brother. “Flam...” he began, and Flam could see a great sadness in his eyes. “I’m glad you brought that up, brother.”

Flam scrambled to his hooves. “What’re you saying?”

“I’m saying that I can’t stand this company stallion life! All these rules and regulations and standards and bosses and paperwork: it’s just so boring! I miss our chase for the big score, brother! I’m saying... that its about time the World-Famous Flim Flam Brothers got back together.”

Flim turned his red blazer inside out to reveal blue and white stripes, and slipped it back on. Out of an inside pocket flew a bowtie that promptly tied itself around his neck. “So whaddya say, brother of mine? Next town?”

Flam wiped away the few tears he’d allowed to coat his lower eyelid. “Next town,” he sang.

Sweet Escape

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As Luna approached the writing room’s door, her walking slowed to a halt. Her sister would be inside. While she knew Celestia wasn’t doing anything private—the writing room was commonly visited clerks, statisticians, or just somepony looking for a quiet place—she still respected her sister, and with what she had come here to say, that respect demanded a knock. So she did.

“The door’s open,” the voice of her sister called out from the other side.

Luna took a deep breath and told herself to be strong. She was doing this for her sister. After using her magic to open the double doors, she calmly strode into the room.

Shelves of papers, scrolls, and ink lined the walls, while desks and tables dotted the floor. Many of the chairs had been moved closer to the windows, likely to give their last host an enjoyable view. The gardens below looked nice in the early afternoon sun, but Luna enjoyed them more once they were lit up at night. Celestia lay on a cushion with a scroll and quill suspended before her in the golden glow of her magic. A small plate with a slice of cake covered in pink frosting sat on the floor next to her. She scribbled lightly, then paused to consider her work. Luna stood still, waiting for her sister to take notice of her. Thankfully, nopony else was using the room at the time.

Satisfied with her work, Celestia rolled up the scroll and let it vanish in a flash of light, leaving her free to turn her attention on the cake. With the fork moving towards her mouth, she finally glanced up to see who had entered. “Luna,” she said pleasantly and rose to her hooves, setting the plate on a table. “I did not except to see you up so early. Are you having trouble sleeping?”

“No, dear sister. I chose to wake at this time for a reason. I have something I wish to tell you, and I required more daylight so that we may act upon it.” Luna flicked her eyes towards the untouched cake. She had arrived just in time. “I... notice you have some cake. Is there a reason for it?”

“Hmm? Oh.” Celestia looked down at the plate and lifted in front of her. “Today was Sergeant Brickwing’s retirement party. Forty-seven years as a royal guard. Can you believe it? I remember when he first entered training. I honestly thought he would quit within a week.” She chuckled and took a bite of the cake. She shut her eyes and smiled, a look of bliss on her face. “Mmm. This is the best strawberry cake I have ever eaten. I just had to take another slice with me for when I did my letters.”

“So, this is your second slice?”

“Third actually.” A slight blush briefly rose to Celestia’s cheeks. Easy to miss, but Luna knew what to look for. “But enough about the cake. What is it you wanted to talk about?”

This was it. Luna needed to address the elephant in the room before it got any larger. “The cake,” she said stoically.

Celestia blinked and looked down at her plate. “Pardon?”

“The cake is exactly what I wished to speak about. Have you noticed the increase in the number of celebrations and festivities that have contained cake, pie, or other baked goods both within and without the palace lately?”

“I don’t know what you mean.” Celestia shook her head. “We always have cake at a retirement party. You know that.”

Luna tried her hardest not to roll her eyes. “Yes, sister, but that is not what I speak of.” If Celestia wanted to play coy, then Luna would just have to hammer home the point quickly. “Last month was the National Dessert Competition, where you resided as one of the judges. That was fine, but after that, you held the Gathering of Pastry Makers, the Turnover Turnout, and a sugar sculpture-carving contest that was immediately followed by a sugar sculpture-eating contest. Do you not feel that maybe you have been overdoing it on the sweets?”

“What? No, no...” Celestia smiled weakly, and set the plate back on the table. “So we’ve had a lot of dessert based festivals lately. It’s not like I’m out of control or anything.” She laughed, but it sounded forced to Luna.

“Have you forgotten the impromptu festival you hosted only two days past?” Luna asked. The laughter stopped immediately. “The Cake-A-Palooza Cake Cake Celebration of Cake? You didn’t even try to subtly name that one.”

Celestia’s mouth opened and closed as she slowly shook her head. She regained her composure and looked hard at Luna. “Are you saying that I’m getting fat?”

“No, sister, I’m saying that you are fat.”

Celestia stepped backwards and bumped into the table, sending the plate clattering to the floor. She looked down at herself and began breathing erratically. “N-no, I’m not!”

“Surely you have looked at yourself in the mirrors lately?” Luna stepped up to a window and motioned for Celestia to follow. After sending some magic into the glass, it shimmered and rippled, reforming into their reflections. Celestia stepped up to the mirror and turned sideways.

“Have you not seen the bulge in your belly?” Luna continued, pointing it out. “The pudginess in your thighs? Even your cutie mark looks a little larger.”

Celestia gulped. Her eyes kept darting over her reflection. “Maybe a little, but it’s hardly noticeable.”

Now Luna had to roll her eyes. “If it’s so unnoticeable, then why did—wait!” Luna walked closer and stared hard at her sister’s face. “Don’t move. Is that... it is!”

Celestia frowned. “What? What is it?”

Luna held up a hoof to point at Celestia’s cheek. “The beginning of a jowl.”

“You lie!”

Celestia turned her head back and forth, getting a look at her cheeks from all angles. Her hoof rose to her face to push around her skin as if she could flatten it back out. “Nooo... how could this happen?”

“If we ignore the vast quantities of sweets you consume on any given day, the next logical reason would be lack of exercise. When was the last time you flew somewhere? And I mean by yourself, not being carried in your chariot.”

“I did see Twilight recently.”

“You flew all the way to Ponyville? You didn’t use your magic to teleport most of the way there?”

Celestia hung her head. “What do I do?”

Luna smiled. “I am glad you asked that, sister, for I have spent many days going through the markets of Canterlot, searching for a solution to your problem.” Celestia’s head shot up, her eyes wide. “Incognito, of course! I have found several pieces of exercise equipment and a book on their proper use that I feel will help you greatly. I had hoped you would see reason, so I took the liberty of setting it all up outside before I visited. I am very pleased that you admit to the problem.”

“I suppose I have been a bit careless,” Celestia said with a sigh.

“Have no fear.” Luna pulled her sister into a hug. “With me guiding your workout routine and you eating healthy, you’ll be back to your fit self in no time!”

“Eating healthy?”

Luna broke the hug and smiled at Celestia. “Yes, sister. Eating healthy! Consider yourself, from this moment, cut off from all sweets!”

Luna waited for her sister to respond, she had expected this point to be contested. Instead, Celestia remained still. Luna began to wonder if she was even still breathing.

“Are you alright? You seem to have gone a bit pale. Although, it is a little hard to tell with you.”

Luna led her sister through the open field behind the palace, pointing out the various contraptions and how each one was designed to make a different parts of a pony less fat. Celestia eyed the metal bars and benches warily but didn’t ask any questions; instead, she seemed resolved to her fate.

Their tour finished, Luna was finally able to show off the part she was most excited for: the outfits. For herself, a simple black wool cap and a whistle on a long chain. She didn’t know why trainers were supposed to wear this hat, but the book had been very specific. For Celestia, a pink sweat suit and a hairband to keep her mane pulled back out of her eyes.

Once finished dressing, Luna looked at her sister proudly. “Is all this not wonderful, sister?”

“How much did this cost?”

“An extravagant sum of bits, but it will be well worth it. The salespony that sold me all this assured me it would give you bagels of steel.”

“I think you mean buns, not bagels,” Celestia said softly.

“Buns?” Luna tried running the phrase through her mind several times, which only made it sound weirder. “Why would I want some rounded bread to be made from steel?”

“Well...” Celestia pawed the ground. “Why would you want me to have bagels made out of steel?”

“I do not know. It is a silly expression, and I will never understand why ponies now-a-days say it. However, this matters not. Let us begin!”

Celestia lay on the mat, her forelegs behind her head and hind-legs stretched out behind her.

“Come on, sister!” Luna yelled, using only a little of the Royal Canterlot Voice to add volume to her words. “Flap those wings!”

Celestia rapidly flapped her wings to raise her chest off the floor, and then slowed them to lower back down.

“Again! Good, good. Keep going. No hooves. This is all wing power.”

“This is not a canoe, this is a rowing machine. I want to see both legs moving!”

Celestia rowed in the machine made for a much smaller pony, pulling the bars towards her only for them to spring back into place when she relaxed.

“Good, you’re doing it!”

Celestia lifted the small weighted-bar with her mouth. She rose her neck, keeping it straight until it was as far back as it could go. She then lowered the bar and repeated.

“You call that lifting?” Luna yelled. “I’ve seen grandmothers lift more weight than that, and they’re missing teeth.”

Celestia glared at Luna out of one eye. “Are they ‘issing teeth ‘ecause of the ‘eights?” she hissed through clenched teeth.

“I do not know. I did not ask.” Luna blew her whistle. “Double time!”

Celestia tried moving a hoof, only to have it remain stuck in place. She looked around at the mess of wires and cabled that held her suspended in the air. “Luna? I’m not sure what I’m supposed to do here.”

Luna held a hoof to her chin as she inspected the monstrosity of a machine. “I do not think I set this one up correctly. Let us move on to the next.”

“Come on! It that all you can do?”

Celestia strained as she tried to pull her chin above the bar using only her forelegs. With just a few inches remaining, she cried out and dropped back down. “I can’t!” she said, hanging limply.

“So, you’re going to give up?”

“No...” Celestia shook her head, shaking a few drops of sweat loose.

“Are you just going to be fat for all eternity?”


Celestia roared as she pulled her chin above the bar. With her second wind kicking in, Celestia began doing chin-ups faster and faster. Luna nodded and smiled.

“Come on, sister, keep up the pace! Move, move, move!” Luna said as she flapped her wings, rising steadily alongside Celestia, who ran up the palace stairs while panting.

Whether it was through a misstep or just tiredness creeping in, Celestia stumbled and fell to the steps. She moaned quietly and shut her eyes, pulling her legs in close to her body.

Luna landed beside her sister and crouched down. “Do not give up! Not when you are so close. Look!” She pointed up the stairs.

Celestia opened her eyes and looked. Less than a dozen steps remained until she would reach the doorway leading inside the palace. She unfolded her legs and wearily rose. She took a step. Then another.

“Yes! You’re doing it!”

It was slow going, but Celestia managed to drag herself up the rest of the way. Finally on flat ground again, she fell to her haunches and collapsed forward, her sweat suit now a much darker shade of pink.

“Well done, sister. You did it!”

“I...” Celestia breathed heavily and slowly lifted her head. “I did?”

“Yes! You successfully ran up all these stairs. Now, hurry along. Next is swimming. Let us see...” A map appeared in a flash of silvery light. Luna unfurled it and poked a hoof to it. “We’re here... so the closest swimming pool would be... at the School for Gifted Unicorns! But I imagine you still want to keep this low profile, so that won’t do. I know! The pond in the garden should be deep enough for you to do the back stroke.”

“Luna... Luna, wait.”

“Hmm?” Luna looked up over the map at her sister, who was shakily trying to rise back to her hooves. “Something the matter? Don’t tell me you’re tired already. We have not even spent a half hour on this.”

“That’s just it! Why are we running from exercise to exercise instead of sticking to one? I understand the concept of muscle confusion, but I don’t think this is how it’s done.”

“Truly?” The map vanished. Luna tapped her chin in thought. “How strange. I have asked many ponies, and they all agreed that Training Montage’s methods are highly effective.”

Celestia turned away and walked through the palace doors.

“Sister?” Luna quickly followed. “Where are you going? We are not yet finished.”

“I’m getting a drink of water.”

“Oh, well, if you are thirsty I have this!” Luna lifted a sports bottle with her magic and sloshed the contents around. Celestia stopped walking to stare at it. “It’s full of vitamins, minerals, and... electro-somethings. Hmm... well, I’m not entirely sure what it is, but it is purple!”

Celestia resumed her walking and said icily, “Thank you, but water will be fine.”

Luna frowned. This sudden defiance was most troubling. She hurried after her sister and fell into pace besides her. “Perhaps I shall accompany you, then.”

“Why? Do you not trust me?”

Luna cleared her throat and let out a puff of air. “Well... you are heading towards the kitchens.”

“Which is the closest source of cold water.” Celestia upped her walking to a trot.

“It is also the closest source of cake.” Again, Luna matched her sister’s speed.

“You think I have so little self-control that I can’t even go half an hour without gorging myself on sweets?” Now, Celestia was galloping.

“You are trying to leave me behind!” Luna unfurled her wings to catch up, only to have Celestia do the same to stay out of reach.

Celestia stared back. “I thought you wanted me to exercise! Isn’t running and flying good for me? Don’t you want your fat sister to lose weight?”

“Calm down. I only do this because I love you.”

“I know, Luna, and that’s why you are never going to see the sneak attack!

Celestia’s body grew bright and Luna suddenly found herself in damp darkness and unable to breath. She landed and wrestled against the object wrapped around her head, eventually getting a hoof at a proper angle to tear herself free. She threw the sweaty clothes to the floor and glared at her sister, who rounded a corner, laughing about how she was finally free.

Luna swiped off her hat and brought the whistle up and over her head. “I have tried to be patient with you, sister, but now the gloves are coming off!” She blinked. “Ridiculous modern idioms. What is that even supposed to mean?”

Celestia slammed through the doorway. She stumbled briefly and righted herself just before Luna crashed into her, sending them both tumbling over the banister. They twisted in midair until Celestia broke free. Rather than fly away, Celestia dove towards to quickly approaching floor. At the last moment, she flared her wings. She hit the ground hard but managed to turn her crash into a roll. Luna landed and chased after Celestia, who struck down a hoof to flip herself up and land back on all fours, facing the opposite direction. Luna stopped, catching her breath, as her sister stared back and contemplated her next move.

All around the grand foyer, guards and servants came to a halt, watching the pair of princesses.

“Very clever of you to booby-trap the library like that,” Celestia said.

“Only returning the favor from the buttered floor in the ballroom,” Luna replied. She gave her wings a tentative flap. Her sister would resume her fleeing soon and she had to be ready to cut her off again.

“You are never going to win this, you know.”

“I will never give up.”

Celestia smirked and took off in a gallop. Immediately, Luna saw her sister’s escape plan: out the front doors, around the back, and into the kitchen. Not if she had a say in it. She gave chase, her horn glowing bright silver as she enveloped the large doors that covered most of the front wall in her magic. She pulled hard, willing the doors to close. Ancient things that they were, the doors groaned under the strain of being moved much faster than they were designed. Celestia increased her speed and looked to be about to pass through the narrow crack remaining, when she flapped her wings and skidding to a halt. The doors slammed shut in front of her.

Luna approached slowly, looking out for any more tricks. Then she felt it. A summoning spell and a very powerful one at that. Her sister was pulling something, from somewhere, to here in order to aid her. Celestia turned around, her eyes glowing like the sun. Luna gritted her teeth. Her sister wouldn’t go overboard, not with so many other ponies around, but with how hard she had pushed her today, she might—

The air exploded. Light and wind ripped at Luna, forcing her back. When the energy had died down, she risked lowering a foreleg from her face. Her eyes went wide as she saw the metal tip pointed at her head.

“En garde,” Celestia said calmly.

Luna’s eyes looked past the tip, down to the white, folded cloth, emblazoned with miniature versions of her sister’s cutie mark, and then further to the expertly carved, curved, wooden handle.

“Your umbrella,” Luna said flatly. “Seriously?”

Celestia smiled. “Oh, come on. We used to do this all the time when we were little.”

“Very well.” Luna rolled her eyes and began her summoning, using only the minimal amount of magic and not making an overly flashy show of it. Her own umbrella appeared before her: black fabric with a black-stained handle. She raised it to meet her sisters.

Nothing signaled the start of the duel and yet they both knew it had begun. The muffled fwhaps of the umbrellas clashing against each other echoed throughout the foyer. The princesses alternated between offensive and defensive stances, each trying to gain the upper hoof as they circled and weaved around one another. The guards helped the gawking servants move along about their duties and otherwise kept the floor clear of obstructions.

Celestia opened her umbrella and lunged forward. Luna easily batted it aside, but found her sister had used the cover to move unseen. She quickly turned and parried a thrust from Celestia’s horn, only to have the ignored umbrella bop her on the head. She cried out in surprise and backed off.

With the successful hit turning the battle in Celestia’s favor, Luna had been forced into a constant defense. The blows rained down, and she was quickly running out of floor to retreat to. It was then that she noticed Silver Watch, one of Celestia’s butlers, approaching with a cart containing a teakettle.

“There you are, Princess Celestia,” he said, using his unicorn magic to pull out various cups and jars. “I was worried when I didn’t find you in your study. Would you like to take your afternoon tea here?”

Celestia dodged under Luna’s slash and backed up towards the cart. “Yes, some tea would be wonderful at the moment. Would you care for some, Luna?”

Luna parried the thrust and launched into a riposte. “No, thank you.”

Silver Watch poured a single cup, placed it on a saucer, and looked up from his work. “And how would you like it, your majesty?”

Seeing Celestia’s plan, Luna rolled forward and came up between her and the butler. “No sugar!” she shouted, striking hard and driving her sister back. “No honey either.”

“Not even some cream?” Celestia stopped her attack and put on a pouty face.

Luna huffed and backed off. “A little cream,” she said as she passed by Silver Watch and resumed her defense. He quickly finished the preparations and passed the tea to Celestia.

Even while sipping tea with her eyes closed Celestia still managed to easily evade or parry Luna’s strikes. She sighed happily and placed the cup and saucer back on the cart. “Thank you. I needed that. Silver Watch, may I ask you a question?”

“Of course, your majesty,” he said while putting away his tea set.

“Do you think I’m fat?”

To his credit, Silver Watch didn’t even flinch. “A true gentlestallion never answers that question when a lady asks it.”

“And if I ask for your honest opinion as a friend instead of a gentlestallion?”

“Then I would say that you would probably be happier if you watched what you ate and tried to drop a few pounds.”

Celestia stood stunned, giving Luna her opening. The umbrella only sliced through air as Celestia leapt backwards and landed sideways on a pillar, her hooves glowing with magic.

“I’m sorry, Princess,” Silver Watch said, “but you did ask for my honest opinion as a friend.”

“Yes, I did.” Celestia nodded her head and sighed. “See you in the morning?”

“Of course. I hope you two have a pleasant evening and can resolve your little tiff. Good afternoon, Princess Celestia, Princess Luna.”

Leaving the departing butler behind, Luna jumped and landed on the pillar as well. She chased after her sister, who was leading her to the ceiling.

“See?” Luna said as she stepped carefully onto the ceiling. Her hooves held her body in place, but her mane and tail still hung upwards to the floor. “I am not the only pony that thinks you need to lose weight.”

Celestia huffed and readied her umbrella. Her attacks were limited with her being unable to do any fancy maneuvers without becoming unstuck from the ceiling. Luna, who focused more on the technique, soon gained the upper hoof and forced her sister back towards the chandelier.

Their umbrella struck together and held, each sister trying to push the others umbrella back through sheer force. “See reason, sister,” Luna said. “Come back with me to your training.”


“Why are you being... so... stubborn!” Luna shouted the last word in her Royal Canterlot Voice and pushed with all her magical might. Celestia’s umbrella broke loose from her grip and sailed away, spinning towards the ground. A maid below shrieked as the umbrella embedded itself in the floor next to her.

“Sorry!” Luna and Celestia yelled together.

Luna took her umbrella and saluted Celestia. “It appears I have you at an advantage, sister.”

“Appearances can be deceiving.”

Celestia’s smirk told of a trap. The wax confirmed it. Luna cried out as the candles from the chandelier melted and flew towards her, pressing her to the ceiling and forming into a waxy cocoon. Soon, only her head remained uncovered.

Celestia hopped off the ceiling and flipped herself the right way up. She flew in place for a few seconds, smiling at Luna, before sticking out her tongue and blowing a raspberry. She then laughed and flew away.

Luna struggled against the wax. It stretched but was cooling quickly and getting more difficult to move. She decided to help it along. Her horn glowed and frost began to form along the ceiling. She concentrated, dropping the temperatures immediately around her to sub-zero. With her spell over, Luna pushed again, shattering her prison. She flew down to the first pony she saw.

“Which way did my sister travel?”

The maid rose a shaky hoof to point out a hallway.

“Of course, she’s heading towards the kitchens. I should have known.”

The only way to get ahead of her sister now was to teleport. As she built up the magic, she looked down at the maid. “I am sorry for the mess I made. I am also sorry I nearly impaled you with an umbrella. That was not my intent. If you are feeling shaken, you may take the rest of the day off.”

“That’s cheating, Luna.”

Luna stood in front of the door leading to the kitchen, having just appeared there after picking up some reinforcements. Flanking her were two bat ponies, her own personal guard.

“Maybe so, but desperate times called for a bending of the rules,” Luna said.

“I’m terribly sorry about this, Princess Celestia,” the bat pony on Luna’s left said, “but Princess Luna is our direct superior.”

Celestia nodded. “I understand perfectly and will not hold you accountable for anything you do while under my sister’s orders.”

“Where are we?” the other bat pony said and yawned. “One second I’m asleep and the next I’m being told to keep Princess Celestia out of the kitchens? It’s too early. Not even dark yet.”

“I’m afraid your Guard can’t help you here, Luna,” Celestia said with a smirk.

“And why, pray tell, not?

“Because members of the Equus Chiroptera family are sensitive to bright lights.”

“Because...” Luna’s eyes widened in realization.

“It’s going to be one of those nights,” the bat pony on Luna’s right said as Celestia’s body suddenly emitted a bright flash of light.

“Grab her!” Luna shouted, squinting her eyes from the momentary blindness. “Argh, not me!”

“I can’t see anything!”

Luna heard hoofsteps next to her, and lunged in that direction. She felt satisfied to hear her sister cry out in surprise. “I have her, men! Climb up me and grab ahold. Ow! Watch where you are grabbing!”

“Would if I could, Princess Luna.”

Luna felt herself being lifted by magic and held on tighter. She blinked open her eyes and saw the blurry outline of a door opening. With a magical push, Celestia sent them all tumbling forward into the kitchens.

“Your majesties?”

Luna looked up into the face of Peach Sorbet, the current head chef of the day kitchens. She looked back with a worried expression. “Are you both... all right?”

“Ah, Peach Sorbet,” Celestia said, untangling her forelegs from one of the guards’ wings. “So good to see you. Is any of Brickwing’s retirement cake left over?”

“Of course. It’s right over there. Quite a delicious cake, wasn’t it?” Peach Sorbet looked at all the other chefs that had stopped working and then back at Celestia. “Um... would you like me to cut you a slice?”

“Yes, I—”

“No!” Luna scrambled to her hooves, leaving behind the groaning bat ponies. “No cake for my sister!”

Celestia humfed and stood up straighter. “Peach Sorbet? As Princess of Equestria, I hereby order you to serve me a slice of cake.”

Peach Sorbet blinked and moved towards the cake.

“And I order you to ignore that last order,” Luna shouted.

Celestia wheeled on Luna. “You can’t do that!”

“I can and did.”

“Then...” Celestia looked at Peach Sorbet. “I double order you to get me some cake!”

“Triple order you not to!” Luna scowled and moved her head closer to Celestia’s.

“Infinity order!” Celestia scowled back and bumped her forehead against Luna’s.

“Infinity plus one! No take backs!”

Celestia’s eyes widened and she pulled back at the mention of the highest order possible. “I...”

“Face it, dear sister, you have been out maneuvered.”

Celestia drew in a deep breath and slowly let it out. “Very well. You win, Luna. You have prevented Peach Sorbet from getting me any cake. So, I’ll just get some myself!” She ran forward towards the cake.

“What? No! Sister, think about this!”

“I am.” Celestia held up a plate with a perfectly cut slice of cake on it. “I think that the strawberry frosting on this cake is so good it should be outlawed.” She turned towards Luna “And that’s just an expression. You can’t actually outlaw strawberry frosting, so don’t get any ideas.”

Luna grabbed plate with her magic and pulled. “I won’t let you do this to yourself.”

Celestia held on tight. The plate hovered between the two, drifting one way or the other slightly but staying close to the middle.

“Let... go!” Celestia said.

“No! Think of your bagels! They’ll end up soggy like this cake instead of firm like... oh! I think I just got the meaning of that expression.”

“If you want it so bad... then take it!” Celestia let go of the plate. It flew towards Luna, who ducked at the last second. She watched the plate fly through the air and land on one of her guards’ faces. As she turned back to her sister, something hit her, knocking her over. The same something then sat on her side, pinning her to the floor.

“Noooo...” Luna cried out. “So much... weight...”

Celestia laughed from on top of Luna. “It’s over, little sister. I may be fat, but at least I have my cake.” She levitated the fork towards her mouth.

“That’s fine. You earned it.”

Celestia paused with the cake just past her lips. She pulled the fork back out and set it on the plate. “What do you mean I earned it? Is this some kind of trick? Did you replace the cake with health food?”

“No tricks.” Luna shrugged her shoulder upwards, slid out from under Celestia, and stood up. “We’ve been running around the palace like a pair of energetic fillies for almost four hours now. This was far more exercise than I was planning. Whew, I think even I could go for some cake, now.”

Celestia frowned at her cake. “You... planned for all this?”

“Not initially, but once I realized how much running around we were doing, I just went with it. I was fun, though.”

“Yes, it was.” Celestia smiled, then sighed and placed the cake on a nearby table. “I don’t think I want to eat this.”

“No really, sister. This isn’t a trick. It’s good to reward yourself so you do not get burned out from dieting. The book says so.”

“I know, but after all the work we did today.” Celestia shook her head. “It just wouldn’t seem right. I’m sorry, Luna. I may have gotten a little carried away.”

“We both did. I shouldn’t have been pushing you so hard.”

Celestia sighed and poked her stomach. “Well, it was for my own good.”

Luna drew in a sharp breath. She looked away from her sister. “Celestia... you are not fat. Or at least not as fat as I made you out to be.”

“What are you talking about? I saw how big I’m getting.”

Luna shook her head a looked at her sister. “The mirror I made was not exactly to scale.”

“Not exac— was this a prank?”

“No! I...” Luna sighed. “Do you remember the charity dinner we went to last week? The one with the Duke of Withers?”

“—and his wife!” Celestia finished. “I’ve never seen a pony as large as her. I actually thought he married some species of intelligent pig until I got close enough to see her pinkness was her fur. I felt so embarrassed for the Duke the whole night. Especially with those noises she made while eating.” She shivered.

“Yes. So when I saw that you were gaining weight, I...” Luna shuffled a hoof on the ground. “I grew worried.”

“Thank you,” Celestia said, pulling Luna into a hug, “but I don’t think I’d ever let myself get that bad. Especially not if we do something like this every day.”

Luna grinned. “You enjoyed my exercise routine?”

“I did.” Celestia nodded. “That is, once you stopped torturing me and we just had fun. I think this will be good for both of us, if you’ll agree to it.”

“Of course! I’ll even diet with you to so you don’t feel any temptations.”

“That will help greatly. Although, I think next time we may have to tone it down a little for the palace staff.”

Luna looked around the kitchen at the spilled cake, knocked over items, her guards being helped up, and the general look of confusion on all the chefs’ faces. She blushed. “Sorry, everypony.”

“Now that that’s apparently settled,” Peach Sorbet said, “will you two be having your dinner in your usual place?”

“Yes,” Celestia said and looked between herself and Luna. “We should probably get cleaned up first.”

Luna nodded. “It’s also almost time for me to raise the moon.”

“Very good, we shall be ready in say, fifteen minutes?” Peach Sorbet said. “Tonight’s meal shall be a watercress salad, and for dessert was to be a chocolate pie, but now...”

“I think some fresh fruit would be a better choice. Don’t you agree, Luna?”

Luna dragged her eyes away from the cake she would never get to try. “Maybe some strawberries?”

Secret Agent Cake

View Online

"You know, some mares in your situation would have an affair."

A stream of hot, brown liquid shot from Mrs. Cake's mouth onto Pearl's face and hat. It was a new hat, too, one she'd just been speaking of at length not ten minutes ago. Mrs. Cake coughed, wiping at her lips, while her companion levitated a hoofkerchief and dabbed at her sopping countenance.

"Oh my goodness, I'm so sorry, Pearl!"

"Oh, it's no problem, dearie!" Pearl laughed and squeezed her hoofkerchief into an empty teacup.

Mrs. Cake proffered up her own napkin, which Pearl accepted. "But how could you even suggest something like that? I love my husband!"

"Oh, well, gosh, I wasn't insinuating anything, if that's what ya mean, Cup." Pearl finished mopping the tea from her nose and proceeded to wring out her hat into the same teacup. "All I'm sayin' is, if you're unhappy with your life right now, there's nothing quite like a changeup to add some spice, don'tcha know?"

Mrs. Cake nodded. "Well, I suppose... But I'm certainly not doing... that."

Pearl nodded, the conversation shifted to other, more palatable, topics, and another hour passed before either of them took any notice.

"Oh, look at the time! I should be gettin' back before it gets dark, Pearl." Mrs. Cake stifled a yawn.

"I had a wonderful time, Cup!"

"Oh, me too, dear!"

The mares embraced, and Pearl walked her guest to the door. "We definitely hafta do this again soon."

"Oh, absolutely!"

"Bye now!"


The sun was sinking below the horizon, the light chill in the twilight air putting a bit of pep into her trot as Mrs. Cake made her way across Ponyville. She whistled a tune to keep her thoughts still, but the implications of what Pearl had said nevertheless roiled in her mind. But by the time she had gotten home, greeted Pinkie Pie, greeted Carrot, put the foals to bed, cleaned the kitchen, gotten Pinkie's head unstuck from the freezer (again) and climbed into bed, she was left with nothing else to think about.

"Unhappy with your life" was what Pearl had said. Am I, really? Cup glanced to her left, to her soundly snoring husband, then turned her eyes back to the ceiling.

All things considered, her life might be enviable. She had a loving spouse, two adorable children, so many wonderful friends, and a successful business. The problem seemed to be that that was all she had. Aside from the business, most married mothers in Equestria could say the same for themselves. Maybe she did need something more; not an affair, but something.

Right now, what she needed most was sleep. Of course, thinking about needing to sleep made it harder to get to sleep, and so she lay there, thinking of nothing and staring at the ceiling. Just as she finally started to drift off, one foal and then the other began crying from the nursery.

Carrot groaned and stirred, mumbling, "You get it tonight, puff pastry."

She sighed and slid out of bed. Was there anything more to life?

Morning came late. Though Cup appreciated Carrot letting her sleep in, she was miffed that he would let her miss out on her early morning baking. But, she always said that a good attitude made for a good day, and focusing on the kindness of his gesture did indeed help her day get off to a smiling start.

Trotting downstairs, the first thing she noticed was the front door ajar. In front of it, Carrot was speaking with a strange pony, clad all in black and wearing sunglasses. Odd attire, for a warm summer day. Just as she reached the bottom of the stairs, a sharp word was said by one of them and the door closed.

"Who was it, Carrot?"

"Oh, nothing, honeybuns." He trotted over and gave her a kiss on the forehead. "Enjoy your sleep-in?"

"I did." She smiled, then fixed him with a stern glare. "But you've kept me from my precious morning baking, Mr. Cake!"

Carrot shook his head, smirking mischievously. "Not to worry, sugarplum! Morning baking's done, the foals are fed, changed and playing with Pinkie in the back room, and breakfast is on the table in the dining nook!"

Cup tried to speak, but the words caught in her throat. The turmoil stemming from last night's conversation with Pearl flooded back, and she felt the heat of shame rising in her cheeks. However could she have entertained such a notion for even a moment?

"Oh, Carrot." She leaned up, kissing him slowly. "You're so good to me."

Carrot's eyebrows raised. "Well, thanks, honeybunch! I do try." He smiled warmly. "Now go eat, your food's getting cold."

Enough with being unhappy, Cup Cake. This is where you belong!

She seated herself at the table underneath the stairs. An orange, a glass of milk, eggs just the way she liked them, and half a loaf of fresh bread, butter nearby, waited for her. As she inhaled the heavenly aroma, she relaxed from tension she hadn't realized she'd been holding onto. A light breeze wafted in from the open window, carrying with it the sound of somepony talking aloud.

"The rooster is not, I repeat, not crowing at dawn. Operation Chicken and Hens to commence upon arrival of Agent One-Oh-Five."

Cup shook her head. "What a strange sort of conversation to have with oneself. Oh, but then I'm talking to myself as well!" With a laugh, she sliced the bread and buttered it, savoring the soft, rich texture that came only from getting bread straight out of the oven.

The pony who had been speaking to himself moved past the window, glancing at it before furtively scooting past. It was, she realized, the same pony who had been at the door when she came downstairs. She took another bite of her bread and soon the strange behavior was forgotten, leaving only the enjoyment of her morning meal.

Breakfast finished, she gathered the dishes and headed for the kitchen, eager to get the day's orders taken care of. Organization did make everything so much more pleasant, after all.

"...And so then Applejack and Rainbow Dash drop the net, and the Headless Horse is all, 'Oh neigh you di-in't!'"

"Pinkie, language!"

"Sorry, Mr. Cake."

As Pinkie rambled on about her latest adventure with her friends, Mr. and Mrs. Cake loaded the ovens with cookies: six dozen of Pinkie's own licorice ginger snap recipe, to be exact. The taste testing had gone surprisingly well.

"And then we used the Elements of Harmony and it was all like whoosh, boom, rainbow! And so the Headless Horse found his long-lost head! I'm telling you, it was the best adventure ever, you should have been there!"

"Thanks, but no thanks, Pinkie Pie," Mr. Cake said solemnly. "My life with Mrs. Cake is all the adventure I need. I'll leave the dangerous stuff to you younger ponies."

Cup couldn't help blushing. "Oh, Mr. Cake, whatever has gotten into you today? You're making me feel like a schoolfilly all over again!" She giggled uncontrollably, which only served to reinforce the feeling.

Mr. Cake leaned forward and swept her up into an embrace. "Do I need a reason to romance you, my sugarcheeks, light of my life?"

Mrs. Cake continued giggling, hiding her face coquettishly. "Oh, Carrot!"

"Aww, that's so sweet, I love you guys so much!" Pinkie burst up in between them, hugging them both before, then bouncing up and down. "Gummy and I promised Rarity that we'd help her find gems today, so I'm gonna go get him packed, and then after the cookies are done - I wanna double taste test and make sure they're extra-super-duper delicious, of course! - we're gonna head out, so you two can have all the time together today that you need!" With that, she zipped out of the kitchen and up the stairs.

Mrs. Cake couldn't help but laugh. Mr. Cake shook his head, sharing in her mirth.

"She's really crazy sometimes, but I can never get mad at her."

"She means so well, the dear, not to mention her cookie recipes have all been top sellers lately!"

The oven timer dinged, and Carrot opened the door so she could remove the trays. A quick check showed that the cookies had crisped just perfectly around the edges, and that the bottoms were even browner than before: exactly right.

"Speaking of crazy, Carrot," Mrs. Cake continued with a soft laugh, "do you remember that strange pony you were talking to this morning? Well, I heard him talking to himself outside the window while I was eating breakfast. It was the funniest thing, though I feel sorry for him. The poor dear must be soft in the head."

"Talking?" Carrot's tone took on a sudden nervousness. "Did you happen to catch anything he said, err... sweetbun?"

"Hmm? Well, no, not really. Just something about a rooster not crowing. Oh, and a number. One hundred and five, I think that's what he said. But who cares, it was just some silly pony rambling about nothing, right? Maybe he's a farmpony, though I've never seen a farmpony who dresses-"

"One hundred and five...?" Carrot's eyes grew wide and he rushed out of the kitchen. "No, One-Oh-Five!"

"Carrot, what are you...?"

There was a loud thump and she peered out to see Carrot and Pinkie, both sitting on the stairs and rubbing their foreheads.

"Pinkie, I'm afraid you'll have to cancel your plans," Carrot said hastily.

Pinkie looked stricken. "Cancel? But..."

Carrot grabbed her by the shoulders. "It's an emergency! We need to activate Operation Wheels of Steel immediately!"

The stillness that overtook Pinkie's entire body shocked Cup. She had never seen the pink pony stop moving for any reason, and certainly not while having such a steady and serious expression. Pinkie saluted, then vanished upstairs, and Carrot hurried over, nudging Mrs. Cake with his head.

"Sweetie, we need to pack quickly and leave. We can go to your mother's house for a few days-"

She planted her hooves and he began scraping her out the kitchen door. "My mother? But you've never liked-"

"Don't argue, dear, I'm serious. I'll close the shop, you get whatever you need-"

"Carrot, you can't just expect me to pack up and leave in the middle of baking! I mean, the cookies aren't even-"

"Cup, just trust me!"

He'd never raised his voice at her before, and the suddenness of it stunned her to silence. Lines of worry marred his face, sweat beaded on his brow, and the weight of his concern washed over her, quelling her protestations.

"I'll explain on the way, Cup, I promise," he murmured. "Just get. Packing!"

She nodded, turning toward the stairs, when the door burst inward.

"The only one who'll be packing is you, Oh-Seven-Four!"

Cup turned to see a tall, wide stallion, wearing a form-fitting leather suit. A black mask covered his face and he carried a pair of bulging saddlebags. His sudden entrance left them both stunned, and in the confusion, he surged forward, grabbing her around the waist.

"What? Unhoof me, you! Carrot, what in Equestria is going on?"

"Just stay calm, sweetie, I'll protect you."

Her assailant laughed. "I don't think so." He hoisted her up over his shoulder and made for the door, which was when she decided she'd had enough. Flailing with all four hooves, she screamed at the top of her lungs.

"Let me down this instant, do you hear?" A lucky blow caught the intruder square under the jaw and he staggered back, dropping her. Immediately, she drew back with a gasp. She'd never struck another pony in her life, and in that moment her concern for this poor wounded stranger overrode everything that had happened up to that moment.

"Oh my goodness! I'm so sorry, are you badly hurt?"

Reaching up to check on him, she was suddenly reminded of her predicament as he growled and slapped her hoof away. At that moment, a half dozen cookies sailed in from the direction of the kitchen, catching him on the back of the head and sending him ducking for cover.

"Come on, honey pie, upstairs, now!"

She needed no more encouragement. Carrot tossed three more cookies and followed her, not pausing on the staircase until they had reached the top. Below, the stranger was producing a line of hoof-held baked goods. Some strange feeling told Mrs. Cake that this did not mean pleasant things.

"Pinkie Pie!"

Pinkie popped out of the nursery, laden with a diaper bag that must have held every single one of the twins' toys, given its girth.

"They're going to Twilight's," she said, keeping her voice low. "We'll take the roof, they won't see us at all."

"Too risky," Carrot countered, shaking his head, "they'll have the obvious exits covered. Use the window in your room, and the balloon if you have to. We'll figure something out."

Pinkie saluted as a pair of cupcakes flew up the stairs, missing them but punctuating the direness of the situation. Pinkie ducked back into the nursery and reappeared moments later, dashing for her room in the loft, Pound and Pumpkin in tow.

The sight of her children, blithely being lugged about by Pinkie Pie, was what finally cracked Mrs. Cake. She hiccupped once and tears blurred her vision. More cupcakes impacted the wall behind them, leaving large dents, and Carrot grabbed her, dragging her towards their own room while she fought back against the tears.

"My babies..."

"They'll be fine, dear! We've got to get you out now!" he said breathlessly.

They ducked into their bedroom, and Carrot wasted no time in shoving the dresser in front of the door, jamming something into the crack between them before grabbing the lamp off the nightstand and smashing it. Hundreds of questions swirled through her mind, but the only one she could think to voice was, "How?"

As she alternated between staring out the second-story window and glancing fearfully at the closed bedroom door, Carrot was busy ripping bedsheets and tying them together. Wires from her poor lamp - it hadn't been her favorite, but it hadn't been cheap, either - twisted around the doorknob and ran behind the dresser to where she couldn't see. So much was happening so quickly, she didn't have time to sort anything out. But now wasn't the time for questions; he wanted her to trust him, so that's what she was going to do. Besides, the pounding on the door was keeping far more of her attention at the moment.

Carrot dragged the rope of sheets over to the window. A deft toss of his head sent the loop at the end up onto the roof, where it snagged on something. He checked it for stability, then climbed halfway out the window, holding a hoof out to her.

"Grab hold of me, powdered donut, and whatever you do, don't look down!"

As if she needed more incentive to follow him, the door began to splinter around the dresser, frosting spattering through the cracks. She stepped onto the windowsill, taking Carrot's hoof, and immediately looked down.

Goodness, it was high.

"Here we go, sugar dumpling, hold on!"

She held tight and squeezed her eyes shut as he kicked off from the window, and she heard the door smash inward behind them, followed by a loud explosion and some nasty swearing.

"What was that?" she shouted against the wind.

"Even Pinkie's cookies can be rigged to explode if you know how!" Carrot replied, explaining absolutely nothing.

They swung out around the side of their home, the black-clad pony watching them from the ground.

"The rooster has left the henhouse," he called into his device. "The fox has been spotted, One-Oh-Five respond!"

Cup Cake realized at that moment that whatever was going on, it was probably the most exciting thing that had ever happened in her life. Yes, it was scary, even deadly frightening when she thought about Pumpkin and Pound, but somehow, she knew that with Carrot at her side, she had less reason to fear.

"Tuck and roll, sweetheart!"


The arc of their swing ended and Carrot let go of the rope. Screaming, she fell with him onto the flat roof of their neighbor's house. She bounced on impact more than anything, and, staggered, nearly fell over the side. Carrot's hoof shot out, catching her at the last second, her rear hoof hanging over empty space.

"Cup, are you all right?"

"I... I think so." She shook her head, and her vision straightened. Carrot tugged her to the opposite side of the roof. Behind him, she caught sight of a dark figure skulking about atop Sugarcube Corner. She was suddenly glad that Pinkie's balloon was nowhere in sight. "This is just too much!"

"I know, sweetiebuns, but we're going to have to make a jump to that roof." He indicated the next house, which, while only a few feet away due to the swept-up architecture, nevertheless extended downwards for a few dozen feet that she could no longer take her eyes away from.

"Carrot, I can't..."

"You have to! We have to keep moving!" The worry came back into his voice, and she felt guilty in her hesitance.

She turned to look at him, fearful, remembering the thin, gangly colt that no filly had ever given a second glance. His nasal voice and bland manners had kept him from standing out among the crowd. It had been his kindness, his easygoing manner and his sense of humor that had caught her eye. She'd been such a wild filly back then, running amok with Pearl and the mare who would eventually become Mayor, but Carrot Bread, as he was named at the time, had been the stable rock that she'd needed to calm down, find what was truly important to her, and start living the life she had been meant to.

"I'm sorry," he said quietly, and she wondered what for. "I'll be right behind you, now go."

Cup gazed at her husband, standing on the roof, silhouetted against the sun, his little paper hat lost and his orange mane blowing in the breeze, and felt a lump in her throat and tears in her eyes. She nodded, mustering her courage, turned, and with a running start, leaped for the second roof.

It was a close call. All things considered, she should have fallen. Her nerve failed her halfway across the gap and she landed poorly for it. Something in her right hind leg tore as she scrambled onto the other roof and she cried out in pain.

"Cup! Hold on, sugarlump, I'm coming!"

That feeling stirred inside of her once again. Hearing the anguish in her husband's voice caused by her own physical pain, seeing him running toward her, she somehow knew that everything would be all right.

"Party's over, Oh-Seven-Four," said a muffled voice behind Carrot. He skidded to a stop, still on the first roof, and turned to face off once again with their masked attacker.

"Stay behind me, sweetpea, I'll get us through this."

"No need for the heroics." The masked pony shook his head. "Now that our plan's fallen through, it's just you and me, Oh-Seven-Four. Your mare ain't my target no more."

Mrs. Cake thought for a moment she recognized the muffled voice, a notion that Mr. Cake quickly confirmed.

"All right then, Joe."

The larger stallion doffed his mask, revealing a horn, strong tan chin and hard green eyes. "So you do remember!"

She gasped. "Donut Joe?"

Joe smirked. "That's Agent One-Oh-Five to you."

Carrot shook his head. "Never thought I'd see you like this again. It doesn't have to end this way, Joe."

"Sorry, Carrot," Joe huffed, "nothin' personal, but unlike some ponies, I actually follow orders. You might wanna tell your wife to cover her eyes; this could get messy." A donut, bursting with cream filling, flew out of his saddlebag and leveled at Carrot.

"Wait!" Mrs. Cake wailed. "Stop! What's going on? Why are you fighting?"

Joe spared a glance in her direction. "Ohhh, I get it! You never told her, huh, Carrot?"

Worry creased her face. "Carrot...?"

Carrot averted his gaze from her pleading look.

"I'm sorry, biscuit dough. I never thought my past would catch up with me this way. I thought, after we settled down, that life for you and I would be normal, and you'd never need to know about all this." He turned back to her, and his eyes blazed with shame. "I used to be a secret agent, Cup."

Cup shook her head in disbelief. She was on the verge of laughter. "A secret agent...?"

"Heh! Not just any secret agent," Joe said, still holding his donut forth. "Carrot here was Agent Oh-Seven-Four, the best of the best, aside from yours truly, of course."

"I..." Carrot swallowed. "I did a lot of very bad things when I was younger, Cup. That's why I kept it a secret. I've been lying to you all these, and for what it's worth, I'm sorry."

"Enough with the talkin' already!" Joe tossed the donut, which Carrot narrowly dodged. It exploded everywhere, cream burning holes into the roof as Carrot dashed forward and drove his head into Joe's chest, knocking the larger pony off balance.

Joe recovered and threw a right hook that Carrot blocked, countering with an uppercut. The two began a flurry of exchanged blows, seeming evenly matched, though Mrs. Cake had to admit she was hardly an expert judge of fighting prowess.

Fighting? She'd never seen her husband so much as utter an unkind word to a rude customer before. He'd always been the gentlest, meekest pony she knew, but now here he was, tussling with an angry stallion twice his size and holding his own. In fact, it seemed he might be winning. A hard left sent Carrot skidding backwards and Joe charged, only to be met with a full-body toss, landing on his back. Carrot pounced on him, pinning him down with an arm across his throat.

"Stop, both of you!" Mrs. Cake tried to stand, but the pain in her rear leg kept her in place. "I don't know about any of this secret agent nonsense, but think about what you're doing! Joe, you've always been our friend in the baking business! Why are you trying to kill my husband?"

Joe shifted his weight, but Carrot stayed on top of him, not falling for the deception. "Nnngh... Like I said, it's nothin' personal, Cup. Carrot here's got a head fulla state secrets, and the top brass decided it's time to remove the security risk, one way or another!"

Carrot shook his head. "You deserve to know the whole story, dear. When I was young, I was aimless: short, scrawny, not great at school, a blank flank until late in life. When I graduated, I tried out for the royal guard since I had nothing better to do, and got the results I'd expected. But somepony on the side noticed me, saw something in me, and that's when I was invited to try out for the Elite Guard."

"Elite Guard chooses its own," Joe added. "Everypony's got somethin' to contribute."

"Equestria has many friends in this world, and many enemies, too. Sometimes diplomacy fails, and so the Princesses call on the Elite Guard, for espionage, infiltration... assassinations." Carrot paused. "They're trained to be the best weapons-grade bakers, fighters and spies in all of Equestria. Like I said, I did a lot of bad things, things that at the time I thought were for the good of Equestria, but that I later came to regret.

"The final straw, my last mission..." He sucked breath in through his teeth, not looking at Joe or anything in particular. "Intel I had gathered resulted in the custard-bombing of a griffin village. Just a few words, and a whole town was leveled."

"Hah! That intel was faulty!" Joe chuckled and Carrot growled at him.

"I was set up!" Carrot's voice grew quiet. "There were griffin hens and chicks in that village; it wasn't a military target at all. They wanted it gone because it was on the border, so they made sure there was a reason to get rid of it."

He turned to her. "That's when I quit. I was ashamed by what I'd contributed to and disgusted with the ponies who'd made me do it. I realized that all I wanted from life at that point was to be a baker, a real baker making goods that ponies could eat." He snorted. "Joe's right. I know all kinds of secrets, things I wish I didn't know."

He was interrupted as a voice crackled near Joe's head.

"One-Oh-Five, what's your status?"

Joe grunted. "Little busy at the moment!"

Carrot leaned down towards Joe's ear. "Who is this? Is this Twenty-Six?"

"Oh-Seven-Four, you're alive? One-Oh-Five, what are you doing?"

"Not terminating him at the moment, sir! Maybe you should shut up and let me-"

"Hen and chicks..." Carrot shook his head, quivering with rage. "You were after Pumpkin, Pound and Cup! You were going to use them to get to me!"

Joe nodded.

"Twenty-Six, you listen to me!" Carrot shouted. "If you, and I mean any of you, ever come after my family again, I will hunt you down and make you wish you'd left me alone! Do you understand? You take that back to your top brass and tell them Oh-Seven-Four is through with this whole thing, and that's final!"

There was a lengthy pause from the radio. "Mission is compromised! The Elements of Harmony have gotten involved. I'm ordering a full retreat! All agents, stand down!"

Mrs. Cake caught the sound of metal shifting around them. From other rooftops, from the ground, from trees out to a hundred feet, ponies lifted their weapons, sheathing them, and stole away into shadows.

Carrot stepped back, letting Joe up to cough and catch his breath. The unicorn went cross-eyed as Carrot shoved a hoof in his face.

"I've kept these secrets for years, and I plan on keeping them until I forget them! I suggest you do the same, and forget about me. I'll say it again: I'm through with the Elite Guard! I have been for a long time."

Giving Joe one last long glance, he turned and limped over to where Cup lay, hopping the gap between roofs despite his injury. The outward manifestation of his pain caused her to forget hers and she stood, going to him.

"Oh, Carrot!"

"Cup, are you hurt, my darling?" He put an arm around her and held her tightly.

"Forget about me! Your leg!"

He laughed. "It's just a sprain, nothing serious. I'm more concerned about you."

"You big lug," she said, sniffing, and kissed him hard. "You're so good to me."

"Hey Carrot."

They turned to see Joe, hauling himself onto shaky legs and stretching, making pained faces as he assessed his own injuries. "This ain't gonna be the end, y'know."

"Joe, just leave. I'm not going to be a threat to anyone, so long as I can live in peace." After a moment's thought, Carrot added, "You know, I bet if you checked the 'top brass', you'd find out the order that started this mission didn't come from the Princesses."

Joe nodded. "Eh, I'll just tell 'em Agent Oh-Seven-Four is no longer an issue. Maybe they'll buy it."

Carrot nodded back, and Joe turned. With a hop, he disappeared over the side, to reappear moments later, a small jetpack taking him north towards Canterlot.

Mr. Cake gave a tremendous sigh of relief, and Mrs. Cake felt him slump against her.


"Can you ever forgive me?" His voice quavered on the verge of tears. "For lying to you?"

"Oh Carrot!" Her heart felt ready to burst. "Of course I can forgive you! You didn't tell me everything about your past, but... you're still the stallion I fell in love with all those years ago." Smiling, she nuzzled him tenderly. "Although... how did Pinkie know?"

"Yes, well..." He swallowed. "She doesn't know everything. I knew that in an emergency I could count on her to protect the foals, letting me focus on protecting you. I never thought it would really happen, but I guess my paranoia paid off for once..." His eyes trailed downward. "I really feel terrible about deceiving you for so long, Cup..."

She nodded. "I still forgive you. You were so brave, Carrot." She kissed him again and he flushed.

"Come on, honeybuns," he said, some of his usual mirth returning to his voice, "let's get you home. There's a lot of cleaning up to be done."

Once they had gotten their foals back from Pinkie Pie and Twilight Sparkle, there had been a lot of cleaning up to do: fixing doors, cleaning incendiary frosting off of walls, taking out the ruined dresser and lamp. It was more than a day's job. Berry Punch had initially refused their offer to help repair her roof, but eventually agreed to let them pay for it. She promised them first dibs on her next batch of brandy in return. Meanwhile, Cup found herself looking at her husband in a very different light than before.

Her husband, the former secret agent! Rubbing elbows with griffonic royalty, fighting dragons, sneaking about in disguise, narrowly escaping death time and again... All in the name of Princess and country. Thinking about it was more than she could stand, really, but there were two things she knew she could take away from this whole fiasco:

First, that her husband was by no means scrawny, bland, meek or uninteresting.

Second, that she was quite happy leaving the adventuring to the younger ponies.

She found herself smiling at the idea that Carrot had said goodbye to his past, that now this would be their life for the rest of time. Bake all day, take care of the foals, watch them grow up, support her spouse in his times of need and be supported by him in return. Having tasted danger and thrills, she could safely say that once was enough.

She lay on the bed, watching Carrot tidy himself up before sleep. Lidding her eyes, she put on her sultriest voice and called, "Oh Carrot! Come to bed, darling!"

Her husband's eyes widened as she beckoned enticingly to him, and he seemed all too eager to comply.

"Well, Mrs. Cake," he said softly, climbing into bed atop her, "what's the occasion?"

"Why, no occasion, Mr. Cake," she said, leaning up to kiss him gently. "We do need to keep our lives exciting, do we not? Add some spice every now and then?"

"Why yes," he said, a slow smile spreading over his face, "yes, we do."

He leaned down and kissed her, eliciting giggles as he intentionally prodded a ticklish spot. They froze at the sound of a creak, the door opening halfway as Pinkie Pie stuck her head through. A blush formed on her cheeks.

"Uh, oh, uh, I, uh, I just wanted to let you know that the foals are in bed and I was going to tell you about something else but Ithinkthatcanwaittilltomorrowhavefunbye!"

She vanished, the door closing softly behind her, and they shared a laugh.

"She's all the excitement we'll ever need in our lives, right, honey bunches?"

"How right you are, cookie crumbs!" She reached up and drew him close. "Now, where were we?"

"Hmm, I think I remember..." He grinned at her, looking deep into her eyes. She searched his face, finding herself suffused with a sense of love, peace and happiness as she gazed at him.

"Are you ready, Carrot?" she whispered.

"I'm ready, Cup," he breathed.

And they both fell asleep.

A Cut Above

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In the lavish city of Manehatten, there lived a posh family of pony elite called the Wundertooshes. A family of such posh, their entire fortune was built on it, for you see, they were a family of fashion modelers. For generations, these specimens of mare and stallion perfection sported the latest and greatest in pony clothing most befitting any upper-crust fop or socialite. Whatever they wore, anypony that was somepony would follow close behind. They practiced their craft well, for in their generations of pristine modeling techniques, they implemented the art of the well-dressed into the upbringing of their own children.

Turn now to the Wundertooshes’ latest male heir: Jacob Divine Wundertoosh the 2nd. The Wundertooshes, being the “model” of proper Manehatten style, set the example of high class by giving their children an extra-fancy foreign first name, such as Jerry, Elaine, and even Newman. However, Jacob didn’t care much for this extra prestige. In fact, it made him all the more miserable, but more on that later.

From a very young age, Jacob was taught, first and foremost, to dress properly, at ALL times. Every day at every hour he was clothed in some fancy attire, for every occasion, including the mundane ones. It would be rather absurd to say anyone has gone through life fully-clothed, but for poor Jacob and the rest of the family, that statement was a fact. Even at birth Jacob was quickly fitted in a newborn’s sports jacket, which his wet nurse constantly reminded him “looked simply smashing.”

Unlike the rest of his family, Jacob didn’t feel entirely comfortable in his decadent clothes. Even though he was dressed to impress, he never felt quite right. One day, as he and his father were out on a fanciful stroll, sporting the freshest of summer stroll wear, Jacob spotted some colts and fillies in a park playing, unclothed. At that pivotal moment, he finally realized what it was that bothered him: he never once experienced life bare!

That very night, he confronted his parents on the matter and asked: “Why do we never take our clothes off?” At first, his parents simply laughed at such an un-posh question. But when they saw the sincerity in their child’s eyes, they became infuriated. “Such questions our child speaks; how un-smashing!” they thought. They scolded little Jacob mercilessly, quelling his unfashionable curiosity in the most devastating display of passive aggressiveness. Poor Jacob was devastated, and with his spirit crushed, he took to his room in a two-layer sleep ensemble.

So it was that Jacob lived his life fully-clothed, adding on more and more layers of unsurpassable style as the years went by. And as did the complexity of his daily attire grow, so too did the misery he repressed deep in his subconscious. That was, until yet another fateful day, or night rather.

It was the biggest socialite gathering of the year. Rich gentry from every corner of industry came to bathe in snootiness and share talk much too fanciful for mortal ears to bear. The main event was the Grand Dinner, in which all the guests sat at the majestic and outlandishly lengthy table that was headed by the hosts of the night: the Wundertooshes.

Jacob, who had grown into a strapping-if-overly-dressed stallion, picked at his delectable yet meager meal in somber thought. While he poked at his peas, a maid passed by, carrying a large platter of silverware. Being a freshly-hired earth pony, the maid struggled to carry the silverware, and at that moment finally succumbed to her spit-polished burden. As cutlery fell and gasps arose, a stray knife flew in the direction of Jacob and planted its sharp edge into the table.

Jacob’s attention was grabbed by another wave of gasps, and he looked before himself to see the cause. In front of him was the planted knife, as well as a flashy and familiar piece of fabric. He quickly came to the realization for everyone’s shock: his tie had been cut! Lifting up his severed tie, Jacob felt himself filling with a strange feeling that grew stronger the longer he stared at it. In moments that seemed to last an eternity, something inside Jacob changed. Something incredible.

With a growing smirk, Jacob dropped the fabric and undid the remnants of the tie around his neck. After a pause, he took off his fancy top hat, followed by his monocle, then his pocket watch, then his overcoat, and so on. The social elites stood in shock and confusion as he continued to lighten himself of his clothes, until nothing but a dress shirt and horseshoes remained. He took a moment to take in the looks of horror and outrage that he had evoked, and then ran for the doors of the banquet hall without a word.

As he made for the lobby of the building, Jacob kicked off his gilded horseshoes proudly for all he passed to see. He made it to the front door and ran out into the darkened streets of the city. The night valet, appalled by the stallion’s behavior, desperately cried out, “Jacob, keep your shirt on!”

Jacob, however, having torn off his remaining garment, responded with a loud, defiant “NO!” He was liberated, and he wanted everyone to know it!

He ran well into the night and eventually reached the verdant greens of the outlying farmlands. There, beneath the glow of the Sun Goddess’s dawn, Jacob felt fully alive for the first time. He eventually made it to small farming town, where his lack of clothing was accepted with much celebration. Jacob dropped all but his first name, and took on the life of a simple turnip farmer. In time he took a fair and kind mare for a wife and had many children. Furthermore, in their household, clothing was always optional.

Thus in one act of buff defiance, Jacob cut all ties to his oppressive lineage, allowing his spirit and vigor to flap freely in the wind. And he lived happily, without regret, until the end of time…

“And that’s why not having clothes is totally awesome!”

Pinkie Pie gave her biggest smile at her stylish listener, who merely stood blinking in silence. Realizing that the party pony was expecting some commentary, Rarity willed herself to come up with a response, mindful of the persisting heat nearby.

“Well, that certainly was an interesting story, dear. But what exactly does that have to do with my house being on fire?” Yards away, a section of the burning boutique’s walls collapsed as though to further emphasize Rarity’s question. Despite the blazing inferno that was once her friend’s home, Pinkie hopped delightedly with a giggle.

“It simply means that there’s more to life than fancy clothes, Rarity. So there’s nothing to worry about!” she said, bouncing some more.

“Yes, well, it’s more than just clothes, though,” Rarity replied. “There was my food, personal effects, my workshop. Not to mention Sweetie Belle—“

“Hey, look at the time: it’s Party o’clock!” Pinkie interrupted, sticking a watch-covered leg in Rarity’s face. “We need to get to Sugar Cube Corner on the double! Gotta turn that frown upside down, and I bet Pound and Pumpkin would wanna help. Come on!”

Pinkie hopped off without delay, leaving Rarity standing in the shadow of her burning house. As the sounds of approaching fire wagons grew to match the chirping of nearby birds, Rarity dropped her head with a defeated sigh.

“Last time I let Pinkie Pie design a dress…”

His Other Self

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It wasn’t far now.

Sweet Cakes peeked her head above the bushes, her eyes locked on the house the unicorn had walked into. Her bright green coat meshed well with foliage, but her purple mane stood out horribly. If the unicorn turned around, he would have, at the very least, become quite suspicious. The evening sun fell slowly behind the house, moving out of Sweet’s eyes and giving her a clear view of the area. There wasn’t much to hide behind in his front yard; she would need to dash across it to avoid being seen. The wind fell over her and her cover, tainting the silent air with the sounds of rustling plants. Now was her chance.

She would know what he was up to, and soon.

A grin appeared on her face as she slinked along the yard, keeping low and quick. Soon she was up against the outer walls of the house. She maneuvered underneath a window and slowly raised her head to look inside. Her mark was nowhere in sight. Sweet figured he had gone out back. Ducking down again, she ran along the wall toward the backyard. Once it came into view, she spotted him.

He was looking at a pile of rocks.

Sweet frowned in confusion, but continued to watch. She had expected something more eloquent, or perhaps devious. The unicorn had been moving rocks from his old burned-down home for years now, one a day, without magic. He had even whipped up a special sling to hold the rocks in on the journey. He never spoke to anypony while carrying a rock, though some had tried to strike up conversation. For somepony to put that much work and time into something, and be so secretive about it, he must have some sort of plan. All Sweet could see right now, though, was a pony staring at rocks.

After considering the pile for a moment longer, the unicorn picked up his daily burden (no magic, still) and walked part way around the pile. He picked out a spot and deposited the new rock. Taking a step back, he inspected his work and nodded. When he turned back to the house, Sweet ducked back behind the wall. She shook with nervousness, listening closely for hoofsteps that may be getting too close. At that moment, she realized exactly how creepy it was that she had followed a stranger all the way to his home. Perhaps it wasn’t the straightest of ideas, but she was really curious! It wasn’t like it was an option for her to simply sit at home and wonder what he was doing anymore. At least, not with as much cider in her as there was. She made a mental note of that: curiosity could be suppressed indefinitely until cider is added. Then the crazy comes out. It was crazy to be out here, right?

The sound of the back door closing made Sweet jump. It was time to leave, now that he was back inside. For a single moment, however, Sweet considered confronting him. Just to say ‘hi’, or maybe ask what he had been doing all this time?

No, now that was the crazy talking.


“Huh?” said Sweet Cakes, jolting up in her chair.

Her friend sat down next to her and put their order on the table. “That unicorn you’ve been obsessed with. His name is Glass.”

She sat up. “Oh? Where’d you come across that nugget, Bon Bon?”

“Just asked around a bit.” Bon Bon paused to take a sip of her milkshake and pushed Sweet’s toward her. “Turns out quite a few ponies know who he is, though most don’t know much more about him other than his name. Well, that and what happened to his house.”

“Thanks for looking it up for me.” Sweet drank up some of her milkshake as well.

“You know, I’m a little concerned for you, Sweet. That stallion’s been bugging you ever since you first laid eyes on him lugging a rock around. He’s been keeping to himself for years and hasn’t told anyone what he’s up to ‘cause there’s no reason to ask about it. Then you suddenly decide it’s a great idea to follow him home just to see what the deal is? You do realize how much older than you he is, right?”

Sweet waved Bon Bon off. “I’m not blind; I know how old he is. I’m not looking for a stallion, I just, well, I had to know! Aren’t you the least bit curious about what he’s doing with all of those rocks? And why hasn’t anypony bought that land where his house used to be? It’s in a prime spot; he could make bank off of it! All he has to do is clear out the debris!”

Bon Bon leveled her face at Sweet. “You know why nopony has bought that land and why he hasn’t sold it. The poor thing must be as sentimental as they come. And as for being curious: no, hun, I couldn’t care less what Glass is doing with all that stone. He can build a house out of it for all I care. It’s his business; that’s the understanding everypony has had with him for the last three years and I don’t see why you gotta be the one to change it all now.”

“Ugh!” Sweet rolled her eyes. “Fine! I’m the loopy one here. Me and my crazy ideas about some strange pony who won’t say a word to anypony about a project he’s been working on every day and without magic. I can’t imagine even one day without magic! I don’t see how you aren’t wildly interested in it, but I get the message. I’ll stop going on about it.” She sat and sucked on her straw with a vengeance. She wanted the milkshake drunk as quickly as possible; she didn’t know if she could sit here much longer without bursting.

“C’mon, Sweet, you know I don’t mean it like that. I’m just looking out for you. He’s strange, that one. I don’t want you getting involved in something—or somepony—weird like that.”

“Maybe that’s what he thinks of us. Ever consider that?” Sweet stood up. “I know you’re only concerned for me, but I just cannot get this out of my head! I swear, if I just leave it alone I’ll explode!” She started trotting in place. “Even talking about it gets me wound up. You know what? I’m just gonna ask him. Gonna walk straight up to his door, knock on it, and when he answers I’ll spill it out.” Turning back to Bon Bon, Sweet thanked her for the milkshake and ran off.

“I swear, that unicorn is going to get in over her head one day, and I’ll be the one who has to drag her out of it.”

‘Gonna walk straight up to his door...’

Got that part down.

‘...knock on it’

Still working on that.

Sweet fidgeted on Glass’ front porch. She felt a little odd knowing she had only learned the way here during her escapade the night before. Would he be annoyed there was a complete stranger on his porch? Did he even like visitors?

A shaking had taken hold of her legs. Goodness knows how she had mustered the courage to get this far. And how would she ask? Approaching the subject would be very difficult. Sweet was sure he wasn’t used to obsessed mares inquiring into the deepest secrets of his routine.

She wasn’t really obsessed with him, was she?

“You gonna stand out there all day, or are you gonna knock on the thing?” called a gravelly voice from inside.

Sweet froze. Oh no, oh no, oh no—he saw me!

“It’s easy enough, kid. Ya raise yer hoof, move it up to the door, then whack it a few times.”

She remained motionless. An observer could have mistaken her for a statue.

“Alright, if ya don’t wanna ya don’t hafta. I don’t mind ya stickin’ around, but eventually that sun’s gonna come down and it’ll be cold and dark out there.”

She looked up at the sky. Midday. She still had some time to stand around. It was a pretty nice view from up here. This was a very serene place, she realized. It lay just outside of town, not too much vegetation but enough for some eye candy and the occasional wildlife sighting. Sweet wondered if this was the kind of place she would like to live.

A cough came from inside the house. I wonder how sarcastic that last statement really was.

Seeing no other option, Sweet took a big breath and knocked on the door.

“One sec!” Glass called. Sweet heard hoofsteps steadily approached the door. It soon glowed grey and opened up. Sweet looked up at him.

An odd sort of age rested in his face, like he was an old young unicorn... or was he a young old one? It was an age that showed experience, but still held the fire of youth. Sweet wondered exactly how young he was; she had never bothered to find out. The grey in his eyes and coat clashed with her own bright green coat and purple mane.

“What can I help you with, ma’am?” His gruff voice brought Sweet back into the moment.

Okay, now, don’t go crazy on him.

“Well, I was just watching you the other day, and I saw you carry a heavy rock around. I wasn’t really sure why you were doing it and I got kind of curious about it so I figured I would follow you home to figure out where you lived and then ask you about it.”

Nailed it.

Glass looked at her with a raised eyebrow for a moment before replying, “I’m not sure whether I should slam the door in your face or invite you in for a cup of cider.”

Sweet gave him a meek smile. “I think last time I had cider, I made some pretty stupid decisions.”

Glass grinned. “You make a convincing argument!” He motioned her inside.

Blushing, she tentatively strode into the house. It had a rustic feel, lit mostly by candles and built of brick and wood. The air smelt of oak. Covering the walls were various photos, mostly of Glass and a mare, but there were some of a foreign house, as well. The atmosphere didn’t really help put Sweet at ease. Although Glass had just opened the door and invited her in, she felt she was intruding, trespassing in a domain never meant for strangers.

“Take a seat in front of the fireplace over there,” said Glass, pointing to a couch in the nearby living room. “I’ll get us some cider.” He closed the front door and walked to the back of the house.

An anxious sweat had broken out on Sweet’s forehead. This had to be one of the most awkward situations in her entire life. She shook her head, trying to regain control of her rampant emotions. Even though she was about drink cider with a stranger in his house, she knew she was only there because she chose to be. The mystery behind this stallion would bother her no longer! She swallowed and walked over to the couch, taking a seat and staring at the empty fireplace.

The couch is nice.

A shuffling of hooves and the clink of glasses announced Glass’ presence in the room. “So, ya wanna know a bit about me? Fair enough.” He sat down on the couch next to Sweet, placing the glasses of cider on the coffee table. “But first, you gotta tell me what inspired you to come down here, and why it’s pickin’ your brain so fiercely.” He pushed one of the glasses toward Sweet and took a swig of his own.

“Uhh...” Sweet was drawing a blank. How in Equestria was she supposed to explain the situation without sounding exactly as psycho as she had at the door? “I... was curious?”

I’m on fire today.

“Filly, you look like you got a cold and a half. You’re shaking, sweating, and ya can’t speak straight. Cider’ll fix that righ’ up. Go ahead before ya start convulsing.”

“Oh no, I don’t really think that’ll help.”

His tone went flat. “Drink your Celestia-damned drink.”

Sweet grabbed her glass and chugged half of it before realizing what she was doing. As soon as her senses returned, she put the glass back down and licked her lips. Tastes pretty good, at least.

“Now,” said Glass after another swig, “why don’t we try this again? I’m Glasswind, but everypony calls me Glass. What do they call you?”

“Sweet. But my full name is Sweet Cakes. I’m a confectioner.”

“Alright, alright, we’re getting somewhere now. Could you tell me why you’re interested in my haulin’ rocks ‘round? And ‘just curious’ won’t cut it.”

“I saw you,” she blurted out.

Wow, that cider sure does help.

“I feel we’ve established that.”

Sweet shook her head. “No, I saw you. I don’t know what it was exactly, maybe it was the look on your face, or the way you carried the rock, or the strain in your step, but I saw you. And I decided that was a pony I wanted to know.” She gave a nervous laugh. “My brain is weird like that.”

Glass threw his head back and barked a laugh. “Ha! You’re ‘bout as sentimental as my old man! Though, I su’pose I ain’t any better ‘bout it.” He frowned at Sweet’s reaction. “Oh, now, c’mon, Sweet.”

She was blushing furiously and looking down at the floor, one hoof covering her eyes. That’s it! The second I get back to town I am turning myself in! Straight to the psych ward!

“Hey,” said Glass. He touched the hoof covering her eyes. “I ain’t laughin’ at you, I’m laughin’ at the irony o’ the situation. I’m a little touched, really.”

Slowly lowering her hoof, Sweet peeked over it at Glass. “You’re not messing with me?”

He waved a hoof at her. “Nah. Though you look awful cute when you’re embarrassed.”

That did little to help her blush. “Okay, I ponied up on my end of the bargain. Now it’s your turn,” she yapped.

“Oy! Don’t be goin’ off on me, I’m a unicorn of integrity. I’ll tell you what you want to know, but it ain’t so simple. Gotta start at the beginning.” He drank deeply from his glass. “Ahhh, that hits the spot. So!” he said, turning to Sweet, “the beginning is four years ago, when I got myself hitched with the most lovely mare in all of Equestria. Meadowbreak was her name. We’d been going steady for two years before I mustered up the guts to pop the question. Shoulda seen me back then. I looked mighty fine in a suit.” He leaned in. “Probably still do.

“Anyways, the year after we got married was the best of my life, to be completely cliché about it. Love was bloomin’ between us in all of its seasons—though Meadow had bloomed in other ways, heh heh.” He nudged Sweet while winking at her. “Oh boy, she woulda right smacked me for that, but that was just one a’ the reasons we fit together so well. We were both from Ponyville, so I figured it made sense to settle down here. Meadow had other ideas. She always wanted to take a trek. She thought we should move to Fillydelphia for a year, then off to Manehattan or some other such big city. Was a bit of contention over that, but the discussion was ended when I got myself a fine job workin’ for the city. Ya see, I’m something of a sculptor.” He gestured to his cutie mark.

Sweet had never taken a close look at it. The image was interesting; a drop of water breaking over a rock. She didn’t see the connection with sculpting, but then again, some cutie marks were more cryptic than others. Her own, a cake with a single lit candle on it, was one of the simpler ones.

“I make all sorts a’ statues, but I specialize in fountains and water-crafting. Water-crafting is forming a statue from a single stone by using magic-infused water to speed up weathering to where the effect is pretty much instant. I admit I had a bit of ego about my abilities, but it seemed well-founded to some extent, ‘cause the city paid me well to make and maintain their fountains and statues. Ponyville don’t have a whole lot of them, but when it’s just one pony doin’ all the work, it can get to be a bit much.

“Now Meadow and I had been living together nicely here for a full year when somethin’ funny happened. We were both asleep in the house I had bought us when the fire alarms started yellin’ at us. I woke mighty fast, but the fire had already done quite a number to the building. There was nothing that could be saved ‘cept myself and my wife. So I shook her awake, blasted out the wall with the mightiest spell I’ve ever casted, and we got out of there just fine. At least, I thought we did. In retrospect, I think I saw it in her eyes as we watched the place burn down. The look she had; I ain’t ever seen it before. It wasn’t fear or relief, wasn’t determination neither. I woulda loved to see that. But all I saw was apathy.

“Next day, she was gone. Up n’ left. Haven’t seen her since.”

Sweet stared at him, her mouth absentmindedly open. There were words she was supposed to say here, she knew it. What those words were, however, was escaping her. Just leaving like that, no words, seemingly no reason—it was not something she easily comprehended.

“Glass,” she started, “I’m so sor—”

Glass cut her off. “You stop right there. I’ve cried a lot of tears for her, filly, and Meadow had her due. She ain’t gettin no more from me. I appreciate the sentiment, but she’s not here anymore. Made her own choices and stuck wit’ ‘em, I’ll give her that.” Looked down at Sweet’s half-empty cider glass. “You done with that?”

She nodded in reply.

Glass grabbed the cup and gulped down the remaining contents. “Hate to see good cider go ta waste.”

Sweet looked down at the coffee table. She felt bad for Glass, even though it seemed he had gotten over Meadowbreak—at least, he said he had. The empty cider glasses said otherwise.

He hadn’t answered her question, yet, though. She still had no idea why he was carrying those rocks around and what, exactly, they were doing in the back yard. It felt far too awkward to ask at the moment, though. Won’t get anywhere if you don’t try. Sweet opened her mouth, but Glass spoke up first.

“I know what you’re thinkin’. I haven’t told you ‘bout my businesses with all them rocks. You should work on your spunk, filly. It takes guts to knock on a stranger’s door but ya have the hardest time spittin’ out what ya mean to say.

“Back where my old house is, in the backyard, is a fountain. Now, bein’ the only stallion who knows how to make a fine fountain in this town, you’d a’ thought I built it. But that ain’t the case. Ya see, back when I bought that house, I had a mean streak of pride in me. I knew I could make myself a fountain, but I wanted to throw my money around, show Meadow what an upstart I was.” He chuckled. “‘Course, lookin’ back on it, I imagine I was doin’ quite the opposite. Anywho, I had some guys come down from Canterlot and whip me up something. It turned out lookin’ pretty nice, and I paid ‘em well.

“The rocks I carry are from that fountain. I’m building another one, different from the original but with the same rocks, in the backyard a’ this house. I ain’t usin’ magic ‘cause the stallions from Canterlot didn’t either. What’s going up in the back here is gonna be my work, and my work alone, done just like those stallions did. I know I’m good enough to do that.” Glass stood up, grabbing the cider glass with magic and walked back to the kitchen. His walking stance was very rigid, Sweet noticed. Something else was bothering him, something he hadn’t said.

Spunk, eh? Alright, Glass. I can have spunk, especially when I got a bit of cider in me.

“What aren’t you telling me, Glass? Why do you have to use the rocks from your old house? Why haven’t you sold that land your old house is on? Why don’t you talk to anypony while you’re carrying those rocks?”

A moment of silence passed before the answer came back from the kitchen. “Filly, you weren’t kidding when you said were curious, were you? Ya actually said what you were thinkin’, I respect that, but I think I’ve said enough for today. I’ll make you a deal: you come back, same time tomorrow, and I’ll spill the beans. But none of that shaky stuff. I won’t speak up if you ain’t got the guts to do it yourself.” He walked back into the living room, a smile on his face.

Sweet looked back at him, contemplating the situation. She could push the point here and now, while she still felt at least somewhat comfortable here. Maybe he would give up if she was relentless, maybe not. If she came in tomorrow, she would have to build up this rapport all over again, and she wasn’t exactly confident in her ability to do that. Glass was an honest pony, and seemed nice enough. It wouldn’t be very polite to throw that offer back in his face. Best just wait for tomorrow.

She nodded. “You got a deal. Just don’t forget about it in your old age.”

Glass let out a deep laugh. “Oh, filly, there’s hope for you yet. I ain’t as old as you take me for, but I sure ain’t young anymore. Let me walk you to the door. I haven’t forgotten how to be a proper gent.”

Sweet got up and walked besides Glass to the threshold. The cider was wearing off, she could feel it. Nervousness started to seep its way back into her thoughts, and she felt her face heating up. She didn’t forget her manners, though.

“Thank you for the cider and the chat, Mr. Glass. I know I may have come off as a bit, well, odd, but you let me in just the same.”

“You still messin’ with me, callin’ me ‘Mister’ like that? Sounds all wrong. But you’re welcome. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got some rocks to move.”

Bon Bon was tending the counter of her candy store when the door burst open. “Welcome to—” she gaped at the pony who had entered, “Sweet Cakes?”

Sweet smirked. “What, you changed the name of the store on me?”

Bon Bon gave Sweet a dirty look. “What are you doing bursting in like that?” She gasped. “You didn’t—you didn’t actually talk to him, did you?”

“Aww, Bon Bon, I’m hurt,” Sweet said, faking a pout. “I thought you had more faith in me than that. I said I was going to ask him, so I did.”

“Forgive me, Sweet, but you are one to chicken out on occasion.” Bon Bon leaned forward and gestured for Sweet to come over. “But since you did talk with him, what did he say?”

Sweet came over, but eyed Bon Bon suspiciously. “I thought you weren’t curious.”

“Well, not curious enough to stick my nose in it, but if the information is readily available...”

With a heavy sigh, Sweet started telling the story. She may have left out exactly what she said to Glass when explaining why she had become so curious, but Bon Bon didn’t really need to hear that part. Everything else, she left in. When she finished, she looked at her friend with hopeful eyes. “Well?”

“I told you he was weird.”

“Gah!” Sweet threw her hooves up in the air. “It’s a sweet story! He’s building a fountain in his backyard by hoof just to feel like a stallion again because he blames himself for Meadowbreak walking out on him.”

“That’s what you got out of it?” Bon Bon raised an eyebrow at Sweet. “All I heard was a stallion who finally went off the deep end when his solitude got the best of him. Seriously, Sweet, what sane unicorn would build a fountain like that, especially when his talent is to use magic?”

“You said it before, Bon Bon, he’s as sentimental as they come. Don’t you think it’s at least a little bit touching?”

Bon Bon huffed, and reluctantly spoke up, “I suppose it is, just a little bit. I have to give him credit for sticking with it all these years. That Meadowbreak must’ve been something special.” Her tone took a more serious edge. “I’m afraid to ask: are you going back tomorrow?”

“Of course! He hasn’t fully answered my question yet! I don’t think he’s telling the whole truth about his motivations. He was walking funny after he gave his answer.”

“You think he was lying... because he was ‘walking funny’? You’re a confectioner, Sweet, not a psychologist.”

“Hmph,” spat Sweet, “I know what I saw.”

“Okay, okay.” Bon Bon’s eyes softened up. “Celestia knows I can’t stop you when you’ve got your mind hooked on something like this. Just be careful, okay? Maybe I’m the one not making sense to you now, but a little caution never hurt. You have a tendency to let your curiosity override that.”

Sweet nodded. He’s a danger to nopony, I wish Bon Bon understood that. She turned around and headed out the door, waving goodbye to her friend. Tomorrow couldn’t come fast enough.

Twenty-four hours can pass very, very slowly, Sweet realized. It felt as if the princesses were watching her, giggling to each other as they moved the celestial bodies excruciatingly slow. She ended up spending most of the morning and pacing around her apartment. She feared she may leave a permanent track on the floor where she’d been walking back and forth. About every minute, Sweet would check her clock, and, about every minute, it told her it wasn’t time yet. Knowing only half of the story was (almost literally) driving her up the wall. As soon as the afternoon did come, though, she sped down the path out of Ponyville to Glass’ house in the outskirts.

She was soon on the front porch, lifting her hoof up to knock on the door, when she thought, Shouldn’t I be nervous right now? I was a wreck last time I was here. What’s different? She paused and turned around, getting a good look at the surroundings. It was the same view as yesterday. They did have a nice conversation, she supposed. Maybe she just felt more comfortable around him. Although they had really just met, Sweet didn’t feel like they were strangers anymore. She had a hard time imagining they ever were. Shrugging to herself, she knocked on the door.

No answer.

Sweet waited a few moments before walking over to the porch window. Peering inside the house, she saw Glass was not there. Disappointment flashed across her face for a second before she considered Glass may be out back. That must be it. He said he’s a unicorn of integrity. She trotted over to the side of the house then turned into the back yard. Sure enough, Glass was there, though this time he wasn’t just looking at the fountain. He had a rock in the sling he had made and was on the fountain, about to carefully place the rock.

She smiled. “Hey, Glass! I’m back!” Sweet called.

The sudden noise, coupled with the weight of his load, caused Glass to lose his balance. He stumbled backward, rolling off of the fountain. The rock came soon after. It bounced off of the fountain and fell right toward Glass. His eyes went wide and he shouted, but the rock paid no heed. It landed on one of his back legs with a sickening crunch. Glass screamed in pain.

Sweet froze. Her legs locked up and her eyes shot open in shock. All she could do was stare at him as he yelled at the sky, writhing on the ground. Faced with a sudden decision, all Sweet had were two choices: fight or flight.

She fled.

The wind pushed back against Sweet as she galloped back down the path. Tears were streaming down from her eyes and flying off of her face from the force of her run. The scenery had become nothing but a blur. A million thoughts were running through her head, none of them helpful to her. All she wanted was to get away, to leave Ponyville and never be seen again. Glass most certainly hated her now, and she could only agree with him. Only a terrible pony would leave him like she did. She knew she should go back to help, but every time she considered it, all she heard was that terrible noise the rock made when it crushed his leg and the screams coming from his mouth. All she saw was the pain on his face and his pathetic squirming on the ground. It was the only thing she could think about, and the only thing she didn’t want to think about.

As she approached town, she wondered if she should talk with Bon Bon about it or not. She’d always given another good perspective on things, but this was so far out there. Bon Bon may have had Sweet’s best interests in mind, but she also happened to be close-minded at times. Sweet gasped. What if she turns me in to the police? I’m a criminal now! No, she would definitely have to go straight home and never leave again, lest the public mob her and drag her off in rage. Several ponies stopped to look at Sweet as she galloped by them, still crying, but she didn’t notice. She was in her own world of misery.

The moment she made it back to her apartment, she threw the door open, jumped inside and slammed it closed behind her. She threw all of the locks and even moved a chair up under the doorknob. As soon as she knew she was secure and alone, she walked over to the nearest corner and collapsed. The tears had stopped, but her face was still a mess. She sniffed and wiped her nose.

How could I have fallen so far? How could this have gone so wrong?

Sweet wondered what kind of punishment the law has for ponies like her. Would she need to go to jail for a year? Ten years? Maybe they had something special for degenerates like herself, like a public humiliation. She could see a crowd of ponies, all with anger in their eyes and hate in their words. They yelled curses at her while throwing rotten fruit. Sweet knew she deserved it. Bad ponies like her shouldn’t be allowed to walk around freely. What if Bon Bon hates me now, too? What frightened her most about the prospect was the fact that Bon Bon may be justified in her hate.

Doesn’t get any worse than this.

As the rest of the day progressed, she slowly became more willing to move around and her mind wandered to more neural thoughts. She wondered what the weather was like, so she walked up to the window. It was still clear, though the sun had fallen behind the horizon, giving way to the moon. A mild curiosity about the time motivated her to check the clock. The chair holding her door closed looked awkward where it was, so Sweet moved it back to where it was before. The bedsheets were messy, she decided, and tightened them up. She finally broke the mood when she got herself a glass of water. As she chugged it, she found it was pretty refreshing. And maybe, if this glass of water wasn’t so bad, then maybe other things could be okay too. A true leap of logic, by any means, but for a broken, scared, small little unicorn in her kitchen with nothing to hang on to, it was everything.

The next morning seemed rather bland to Sweet; the sun came up the same as any other day, the weather ponies had clear skies scheduled just like yesterday, and she was on her way to visit Bon Bon, just like so many days before this one. Sweet was unable to put her hoof on exactly was about this day that seemed so plain, but it helped, in a way. Terrible ponies like herself didn’t deserve nice mornings.

Arriving at Bon Bon’s place, Sweet knocked on the door. For the briefest of moments, she felt she should be nervous.

Bon Bon answered the door with a gasp. “Oh my goodness, Sweet! Your mane, your—you’re a mess! Come inside right now!” She ushered Sweet in, closing the door behind her.

“Who is it, Bon?” asked somepony from further inside.

“A friend, Lyra. We’re going to need some time, I think.” Bon Bon called back.


Bon Bon guided Sweet to the living room and sat her down on the couch. “I’m going to get you some water. Now, tell me what—or who—put you in this mess. I’ll be listening.” She walked off to the kitchen.

Sweet was still in a half-trance. She felt like she had just woken up and the feeling would never go away. “I’m a terrible pony, Bon Bon, that’s all there is to it. I’m a coward and the worst friend you could have,” she said flatly.

“That’s rubbish and you know it, Sweet.” She heard the sound of clinking glasses and water from the kitchen. “I’ve known you for quite a while and I can safely say, from a position of authority on the subject, that you are not a terrible pony.” Bon Bon walked into the room with a tray holding two glasses of water. She took a seat next to Sweet and set the tray down before continuing, “What could have possibly given you that idea?”

“Me. I ran away from a pony that needed me, and I don’t even know why,” Sweet said, staring forward blankly.

“What happened?”

“I... I went to visit Glass again.” She waiting for a comment from Bon Bon, but she remained silent, so Sweet went on. “He was working on that fountain. His footing was a little loose, and he was holding one of those heavy rocks. I called out to him, just to say hi, and startled him. I made him fall, and the rock fell on his leg. Bon Bon, it sounded so wretched. I swear I could hear his bones snapping. He started screaming in pain, and all I did, all I could do, was run. I just left him there.” Her lip started to quiver as the memories came back. That crunch, those screams...

“Hun, anypony would be traumatized by that. It sounds horrible. You can’t be so hard on yourself about it. I bet even I would have a hard time sticking around after witnessing that.”

Sweet turned to Bon Bon, a fire suddenly appearing in Sweet’s eyes. “But he needed help! I let him down. We were supposed to be friends, and I abandoned him. No, I didn’t just abandon him, I put him there. It’s my fault.”

Bon Bon shook her head. “Don’t say that, don’t even think that. It was an accident. You did not make him fall, he just lost his balance. Are you going to start accepting blame for every little trip and mess-up in town?”

Sweet became emphatic. “No, but you don’t understand, I was—”

“It doesn’t matter, Sweet. It’s not your fault. I know you too well, and I also know how interested you were in learning about Glass. You didn’t go there with the intention of hurting him, did you? You didn’t shout at him to cause him to fall, right?”

“I guess—I guess I didn’t. All I wanted to do was talk.”

“Matter’s settled then. You’re not a terrible pony.” Bon Bon smiled and nudged Sweet. “But one of us knew that already.”

Sweet sighed. “I still left him there, even if I didn’t make him fall. He’ll hate me forever for that.” Her head drooped down. “I guess I’ll never know the rest of his story now.”

Bon Bon coughed, causing Sweet to look back up at her. “Tell me, what do you normally do when you make a mistake that hurts somepony else?”

“You, uh, apologize?” Sweet said hopefully.

Bon Bon nodded. “So here’s what you’re going to do. Today, you’re going to spend the day with me and forget all about what happened with Glass. Tomorrow, you’re going to go find him, and you’re going to apologize the heck out of him. How does that sound?”

A grin slowly spread across Sweet’s face. “I can do that.”

Sweet took Bon Bon’s advice and spent a day with her, indulging in a range of activities carefully chosen to take the unicorn’s mind off of what happened with Glass. They went to a nice restaurant, took a stroll in the park, watched a terrible movie, and Sweet even got a chance to chat with Bon Bon’s roommate. It was all Sweet needed, and then some.

But now it was time to face her responsibility.

She had left her apartment and was striding down the road towards the outskirts of town when she ran into the very pony she had been seeking. Glass was in a wheelchair, using his hooves to maneuver down the road. Sweet presumed he was heading to his old house to pick up another rock. Not even a severely damaged leg could stop him. She imagined the doctors wouldn’t approve of his determination in this instance.

Glass was clearly straining to move down the road. His front legs were not used to rolling a chair, and Sweet could tell he was panting with effort. More likely than not, he’d be caught in the storm scheduled later today at the pace he was going. Smiling, she came up with an idea. She approached Glass, took a hold of the wheels on his chair, and began to roll him forward. As soon as Glass realized what was happening, he grabbed the wheels to keep them from moving and turned around to Sweet in order to glare at her. The anger in his eyes almost made her abandon her plan, but she held fast. She adopted a stern look, almost rivalling Glass’, before speaking.

“Okay, Glasswind, I’m going to be blunt here. I messed up two days ago when I left you after that accident. I’m here to apologize and make it up to you.” Glass’ glare only intensified. “You seem to be having trouble getting to your old house without magic, and that is partially my fault, so I will help push you there and back. I’m not going anywhere until I can help you with at least that. So unless you wish to test my stubbornness against your own, I suggest you move your hooves off of the wheels.”

Glass said nothing in reply, just as Sweet suspected. She smiled on the inside, but kept her face level. The fire in his eye refused to relent as he continued to seethe in his chair. Sweet could have sworn the chair was becoming hot to the touch. They remained that way, eyes locked in a fierce battle, for what seemed like hours. Sweet even thought she may end up losing; she had no idea how stubborn Glass really was. Eventually, however, he turned around and sat his front hooves in his lap, giving a snort in acceptance.

With a wide smile, Sweet grabbed the wheels of Glass’ chair with her magic and pushed him down the street, following closely behind. Their trek progressed silently. Sweet was still happy with herself for the small victory over Glass’ stubbornness, though she didn’t know what would happen when they made it back to his house. Would he accept her apology? Would he even acknowledge her? She craned her neck to the side took a quick glance at his face; all she could tell was that she wouldn’t have the answers until they actually got there.

Before long, the two arrived at the old burned-down house. Sweet tried to inspect the backyard through the debris, wondering what was left of the original fountain and how it looked, but she couldn’t see anything. Glass guided Sweet through the rubble with a series of grunts and gestures. It took some doing, but they finally made it to the backyard. Sweet frowned in confusion: it was empty. Had Glass been lying all this time? Where did those rocks come from? She was about to open her mouth and protest when Glass nudged her and pointed toward the center of the lawn.

A single rock remained.

Sweet covered her mouth in bewilderment. That’s the last rock? Today is the day he finishes the fountain? She didn’t know whether to feel honored or ashamed. A sharp poke brought her out of her reverie; Glass still needed her to push him up to it. Nodding, she grabbed a hold of the chair again and they approached the rock. Sweet held the chair steady as Glass reached down, sling in hoof, and brought the rock up onto his lap. He placed a hoof on it and sighed. Sweet gave him a moment, wondering what was going through his head. Maybe he was proud, maybe he was sad to see this part of his life end. He nodded and Sweet grabbed the chair again.

The voyage back home was eerily quiet.

Unable to hold on to any thoughts of her own, Sweet merely made guesses as to what Glass was feeling. He kept a hoof on the rock on the way back, looking at it attentively at times. His eyes wandered around the scenery for most of the trip, however. Perhaps he was thinking he’d never walk this route again, never look at these houses and landmarks the same way. It could be his way of saying goodbye. All Sweet could do was speculate.

Houses gave way to trees, trees gave way to open fields, and soon Sweet and Glass arrived at his house. Sweet moved to take Glass around back, avoiding the house, but he gave a grunt in objection. Sweet raised an eyebrow at him but wheeled him inside all the same. Once they crossed the doorway into his house, Glass leaned his head back into the chair and let out a drawn-out breath, relaxing for what was probably the first time in a long while.

Sweet remained outside. “Well, it looks like you’re back alright. I—well, I guess it’s time for me to go.” She began to turn around but Glass’ rough voice stopped her.

“Get in here, and sit down.”

Sweet merely gaped at him.

“I ain’t repeatin’ myself.” He wheeled himself toward the kitchen, leaving the door open for Sweet.

She stared at the open doorway. This was what she wanted, wasn’t it? Besides, she had come to apologize, too, and she hadn’t actually said ‘sorry’ yet. The decision wasn’t really hard at all. She stepped inside, walked over to the living room and took a seat on the couch. She set her hooves in her lap and rocked gently back and forth while waiting. A familiar anxiousness started to settle in.

Glass soon appeared with two glasses of cider. He floated them over to the coffee table and then rolled himself opposite Sweet. He pushed one glass toward her. “Drink.”

“I’m not sure—”

“Consarnit, mare, that ain’t a suggestion!” he barked.

She meekly picked up the glass and took a few sips, hoping that was enough to please Glass. He was absorbed in his own drink, however. Once he finished, he slammed it back down on the table and looked at Sweet intently.

“I’m runnin’ into all sortsa conflictin’ emotions with you. First, I think you’re more than a little odd, then I invite you in for cider. Next time I see ya, I think I hate ya, but here we are again, huh?”

Sweet just looked away. His eyes were so intense, and that iron stare wasn’t helping at all.

“I said I wouldn’t answer no questions if you didn’t have the spunk to ask ‘em, and right now you look as spunky as a foal suckin’ on her momma’s teat!”

Her eyes slowly moved back over to Glass. It almost seemed as if he wanted her to ask that question. She knew this was her only chance. If she left now, he’d probably never speak to her again. Bravery by necessity is better than none at all, I suppose.

“Why do you have to use those rocks? Why haven’t you sold the old property? Why a fountain? How come it has taken so long? Why are you really building it?” she blurted out.

“I ain’t Mare-do-well, Sweet, you’re asking a lot all at once. One at a time.”

Sweet took a deep breath. “Okay. Why haven’t you sold the old house?”

“Simple. Cause I wasn’t gonna let anypony else move those rocks, and I wasn’t planning on movin’ more than one a day.”

“So it’s really nothing more than sentimentality?”

He nodded. “Always knew I took after the old man in more ways than one.”

“You’ve been doing this for three years, every day. Are there really so many rocks to move?”

“Nah. I sometimes move ‘em back. I wasn’t ready to finish the fountain—in more ways than one.”

“So then, tommorow...”

Glass put a hoof to his chin and considered the implication. Sweet saw his eyes go blank and he enveloped himself in a world of his own. He held the pose for only a moment, though. “No. I’ll finish it today.”

“Why are you so attached to those rocks, then?”

“Cause of what they represent.”

Sweet leaned forward. “Do you still feel guilty about Meadowbreak? Is that it? You miss the time spent with her, and you feel you could have done more to—”

“No!” He slammed the table, causing Sweet to jerk backwards. “This ain’t got nothin’ to do with her! She’s gone and that’s all there is to it!”

“Sorry, Glass, but your reaction kind of says otherwise.”

“No, it don’t! I’m not mad ‘cause I ain’t over her, I’m mad ‘cause nopony ever considers that I might be! Every time, their mind is already made up about it, and they’re dead wrong. All my actions these past few years have no bearin’ on what happened with me an’ Meadow.”

“Then, that fountain really is just an object of pride?” Sweet asked, a bit dejected. She had thought Glass wasn’t that thick-headed.

“No, I’m makin’ it for somepony else. Somepony you may have met, even.”

Sweet’s brain quickly ran through all the possible ponies both herself and Glass may know, but nopony came to mind. “Could you tell me who this pony is?”

Glass grabbed her cider glass in response and chugged it. After letting out a contented sigh, he said, “I got a better idea. I’ll show ya. Wheel me out back, we got one last leg of this trek to go.”

Getting up and walking over to Glass, Sweet couldn’t help but let a small smile escape. She’d been looking forward to this for a long time. Although, now that she thought about it, she couldn’t nail down exactly what spawned her curiosity in the first place. What was it about Glass she found so interesting? Time to find out, I guess.

She wheeled Glass, rock in lap, out the back door and up to the rough construct of a fountain in his backyard. Now that she was getting a close look at it, the thing seemed fairly unpolished. It looked like little more than a basin with the back wall section coming up much higher than the others and leaning slightly over the basin. The rocks clearly were not in their intended positions, and at some spots the fountain looked outright dangerous with sharp rocks sticking out at odd angles. Sweet estimated it was about as tall as two full-grown ponies, and could hold a fair amount of water, perhaps a couple troughs full. She held the chair steady as Glass placed the final rock in its spot. He held his hoof there for a moment before letting go.

“Take me back a few steps. I want to see the whole thing before I finish it,” said Glass.

Sweet brought Glass back beside her, and they both beheld the result of his past few years of work. It was an odd thing, for sure. Sweet couldn’t quite make out where the water was supposed to flow from, or how it even functioned. There was no water line feeding it, as far as she could tell, and she wasn’t even sure if the basin was watertight. It made Sweet question whether Glass had ever been a sculptor at all.

“It looks... funny,” she said.

Glass grinned at the statement. “That’s cause it ain’t done yet. Watch.”

He grabbed a hose hooked up to a sprocket near his house and set it in the basin. The sprocket glowed grey as his magic turned the water on. The basin slowly began to fill. Sure enough, cracks between the rocks began to leak small streams of water, but the hose was working faster than the leaks.

“What—” began Sweet.

“Just watch.”

Rolling her eyes, she refocused her attention on the fountain. After the basin was nearly filled, a small trickle began to drop from near the top of the back wall, feeding back into the basin. Once it was adequately filled, Glass turned off the water and removed the hose. He closed his eyes and his horn began to glow again, this time much brighter. The water matched his horn’s glow, and one by one, the leaks closed.

“Woah,” said Sweet.

The water began to come alive, sloshing over the entire construct. Everywhere it ran, the rocks slowly began to smooth out, refining the fountain’s shape. The sun reflecting off of the water gave the surface a fine sheen. Glass grunted with effort as he continued to smooth the fountain out. Once the outside was pristine, he forced the water into the hole that fed back into the basin, widening and rounding it, giving it a strong flow.

His work done, Glass exhaled sharply and slumped in his chair. He looked up at Sweet with a smirk. “Pretty cool, huh?”

“Yeah. Pretty cool.”

The two ponies admired the fountain for a moment in silence; the soft trickling of water the only sound that filled the air.

“Alright, Sweet, I sup’pose it’s about time I came clean with ya. I want to ask ya a question first, though. We haven’t known each other all that long, and I’m still not sure how I feel ‘bout ya. But after all I’ve told you, if you had to guess why I’ve done all this; who I’ve made this here fountain for, what would your answer be?”

He talks as if I haven’t been trying to figure that out the entire time. It was just a guess he wanted, though, right? “Well, the only person you’ve talked about besides Meadow is... your father. So that’s my guess.”

Glass nodded a few times, thinking the answer over. “Not bad. Makes sense, too—but it’s wrong. Remember, it’s someone I said you may have met, and I doubt you’ve met my old man, he ain’t around anymore. There’s someone else I’ve been talkin’ about quite a bit, though in only an abstract sort of sense. A pony that’s been ‘round as long as me. One familiar with all my faults and strengths, the pony that put me where I am now.

“I’ve done all of this for my other self. The old me. The one that dies today, for good. The reason I don’t speak a word while I’m fetchin’ rocks is ‘cause that’s the time I have to speak with him. I promised that time would be for nopony else. It’s for me to figure out the faults I used to have, reflect on the mistakes my other self made. I built a fountain of those rocks because the old fountain represented the blind pride I had back then, and I had to tear it down and rebuild it into something fitting. Something I could be proud of because I made it, not ‘cause I owned it. This fountain is a gravestone for him: a way for me to remember he existed, but also a method for me to leave him behind forever.”

“So, what made you decide you were ready today?”

“My other self never woulda accepted help from you. He woulda blamed you for my leg and never given it another thought. If you had offered him help today, he woulda just glared and held onto the chair ‘till the sun fell and he was blue in the face. When you rolled me all the way there and back, and I didn’t stop you: that’s when I knew he was gone, and there were no more conversations to be had between us. Today, I said goodbye.”

“What will you do now?” Sweet asked, but Glass wasn’t able to give an answer before the air was shaken with the roar of thunder. The storm was coming.

“I think it’d be best if we went inside,” Glass said, turning toward the house.

“Actually, I think I should get home. You know, beat the rain.”

“Nonsense. There ain’t no way you’re gonna stay dry if you head home now. Best you just stick around a while. In fact,” he paused, looking at the cloudy sky, “you should probably stay the night. Wouldn’t want a innocent lil’ mare such as yourself get caught out in the cold, wet and dark night. ‘Sides, you still got an apology to get around to.”

Sweet blushed. She’d completely forgotten about that. As two headed back inside, Sweet spoke up. “I’m sorry.”

“I know.”

“Really sorry.”

“I know that, too.”

The rain soon came down in buckets.

The sun breaking in through the window was what finally got Sweet up. She blocked the light with a hoof and looked around the unfamiliar setting. She sighed, realizing she had just been sleeping on Glass’ couch. Living out on his own, Sweet expected Glass to be more of a morning pony, but the sun was well above the horizon and he hadn’t woken her up. Maybe he had just let her sleep in.

“Glass?” she called, but there was no answer. Yawning, she got off of the couch and called out again, still to no response. Maybe Glass was still asleep. She walked over to his bedroom door and knocked.

It swung open.

Sweet’s eyes widened in surprise. Curiosity getting the best of her, she slowly opened the door and looked on Glass’ bed. It was empty. Frowning, Sweet began to search the rest of the house, considering perhaps Glass was playing a prank on her. Every room was empty, however. With the house clear, there was only one last place to look.

Sweet went out the back door, scanning the lawn for Glass. All she found was the fountain, but there seemed to be something attached to it, flapping in the wind. She trotted up to the fountain; it was still flowing, giving off the same calming sound as before. Taped to the basin was a note.


First and foremost, I forgive you. Sorry I couldn’t say that last night, didn’t have the guts to. Easier to do it through a letter.

I’m glad I got a chance to meet you before I left. Probably never would have finished that fountain if I didn’t have somepony give me a swift kick in the rear. For that, I thank you.

I’m afraid there ain’t nothing left in this town for me that I enjoy, just bits and pieces of memories that belong only to my other self. You’re excluded, of course. Maybe I’ll come back and look you up one day.

If you’re ever curious about me again, head down to Autumn Avenue, and look at the statue near Davenworth’s place. That one’s my favorite. Took me two weeks to get right, longer than anything else I made except for the fountain out back.

By the way, I’m goin’ by Wind now. Ponies used to call me Glass, but now they’ll call me Wind. Only seems proper.

As for that question you asked, ‘What will you do now?’ I can’t say I have a real good idea about that, but I’ve made a few decisions. I think I’ll see the streets of Manehattan. I think I’ll watch Celestia raise the sun on a Summer Sun Celebration. I think I’ll sit under the waterfalls of Neighagra. I think I’ll look at the stars for once. I think I’ll dance with a stranger.

I think I’ll go on a journey.-Glasswind

“Oh, Glass... you already have.”

The Secret of Ponyville

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“Hey Twi’, where does this door lead?”

Twilight looked up from her latest report to the Princess. “What door? We’ve lived here for several months now and there’s never been one in the kitchen other than the one leading in.”

“No, I’m pretty sure that there’s a door here. Either that, or I’m going through some weird dragon phase,” Spike called from the other room. “And how would you know? You rarely ever go in the kitchen.”

Twilight sighed and rolled up the piece of parchment she had been writing on. Carefully placing it at the head of the desk, she walked around it. While she headed to the kitchen, she occasionally stopped to straighten a book or brush a bit of dust off a shelf.

Spike called from the kitchen again. “Come on, hurry up!” He fell silent for a few seconds. Suddenly, he gasped. “Whoa! I don’t think a whole pack of candles could even light this place up.”

Her curiosity piqued, Twilight put down a scroll she had been dusting underneath and hurried to Spike. “Okay, okay. I’m coming. Now what’s so important about this?” she asked. “I mean, it’s not like anything is down there, especially if we didn’t know...” She stopped short and blinked in surprise. Her mouth formed an ‘o’ and she trotted up to Spike.

“Yeah, oh. Doors don’t just appear from nowhere like this. Any idea where it could lead,” questioned Spike.

Twilight merely shook her head. “Nope, but I’m going to find out.” Putting on a brave face, she took a tentative step into the darkness. She looked back at Spike, who gave her an encouraging nod. She gulped and took another step in, lighting her horn.

The sound of a creaking door caused her to spin around. “Spike! Don’t let that—” she grunted in pain, the door having slammed right into her face. Stumbling back a few paces, she hit the fall wall. Leaning against it, she brought her hooves to her nose and they came away smudged with blood.

“Ow, ow, ow. Spike!” she called, but received no response. Walking over to the door, she pounded on it. “Spike! This isn’t funny. I think you broke my snout.

Wait a second. Why is the light green? My magic is... Twilight whirled around. In the center of the room was a large tome. It looked as if it were a thousand years old. The binding was torn and the pages were yellowed with age. The cover appeared to have been ripped off recently by somepony and the letters T. P. F could be seen clearly on the first piece of paper.

Looking around, Twilight tried to see if there were any clues about the room. There were none. It consisted of four walls, rotted with chipped paint. Nothing more.

Turning her attention back to the book, she approached it cautiously. As she went, she summoned a magical barrier between it and herself. Under the green glow of the tome, her shield shimmered a near transparent bluish brown.

As Princess Celestia always told me, “You do not approach any unknown magic without protection.” Carefully, Twilight extended a hoof wrapped in a protective bubble to touch the book.

Just before her hoof made contact, a white light exploded from the pages. A fierce wind whipped her mane around. Staring in horror, Twilight watched as her shield dissipated into fragments that blew away before fading.

Then, she screamed. Her forehoof had caught fire. In agony, she tried to cast spells ranging from cooling to water magic to no avail.

Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, she passed out.

“Ah good. She appears to be coming around, hehehe.”

Twilight slowly opened her eyes part way. She found that she had fallen flat on the ground. In front of her, just beyond her hoof were the legs of a yellow pony.

Wait! Beyond my hoof! Her eyes shot open and she stared in amazement. Her leg looked to be in perfect condition. In fact, when she stood up, the only evidence that there had ever been a fire were the bits of charred skin float around her.

Backing up in shock, she said, “W-who are you? Where a-am I?”

“I am sorry about the... crude teleportation spell. But it was necessary to get her here.” The pony, a yellow unicorn with a light green mane, turned and walked off into the gloom surrounded the area. “As for who I am? Ehehehe... why would she want to know that? She should know already. It was written on the book.”

“But, there I couldn’t see the cover and the only letters on...” Twilight paused, and frowned.

“Yes? Go on.”

“T. P. F” Twilight shook her head, confused. “But that can’t be it. That was the title.”

The pony appeared right beside her, causing her to cry out and jump back. “She’s partially right. It is the title... the title they gave me. For some reason, they found it necessary to state where I was from. In the end, I became The Ponyville Farmer. But the mare can just call me the Farmer.”

Twilight held her chest, trying to calm her racing heart before speaking. “O-okay. But farmer of what? The only two farms I know are Carrot Top’s and Applejack’s.”

The Farmer grinned wickedly and cackled, “Hehehe... no, the Apple family and the Carrots weren’t the only two around. Though, mine wasn’t very... well known until the later years.” He put a hoof around Twilight and pulled her close.

Looking into his lavender eyes, she could see that one pupil had shrunk to a portion of the size it should have been. The other was enlarged to be nearly twice the normal size. Looking down slightly, she could see that he was smiling toothily at her. What teeth he had were rotten, crooked, and filled with holes.

Twilight shoved him away and glared at him. “Please don’t do that again. And I would appreciate it if you could at least tell me where I am so I can teleport out.”

The smile faded off the Farmer’s face, replaced by an expression of anger. “I cannot do that. Do not ask again.” He passed Twilight and beckoned for her to follow. “But since she passed the first challenge, I can show her.”

Somewhere far above them, lights flickered on. And then Twilight screamed in pure terror. The room stretched on, disappearing into blackness. Along the sides were the bodies of many ponies evenly spaced out. Blood stains ran down the walls, along the floors, and into drains in the center of the room. Turning around, there were even more corpses. This time, she could see the far back of the room.

A table cluttered with bloody surgical instruments had been placed against the wall. On it lay a body fresher than the rest. Blood still fell to the floor from underneath it and flowed into a nearby drain.

Twilight closed her eyes and curled up and began to whimper.

“Get up! I’m about to initiate the second test. If she survives all three, she’ll be my new soul harvester,” the Farmer snarled.

“No! I won’t participate in any sick-minded thing you come up with,” Twilight cried.

The Farmer cackled insanely. “Hehehe... Oh, I think she will. Pain changes things. And being eaten alive hurts very much.” A click sounded in the distance.

Twilight could hear the sound of ponies groaning all around her. She grimaced as all around her, hooves hit the stone flood with a clack, and then shuffled slowly around.

Suddenly, a sharp pain erupted in her flank. Whinnying, she leapt to her feat and whirled around. The undead pony that had bitten her flew into another nearby zombie, knocking it over.

Twilight cast a quick healing spell and the marks in her flank disappeared along with the streaks of blood. Then she tried to teleport. But no matter how much she strained, no magic came to her.

“That’s the beauty of this place. Unless I say so, no pony leaves. Hehehe... Now dance,” the Farmer’s voice echoed around the room.

“You’re a sick, sadistic pony!” shouted Twilight. “I’ll.. I’ll...” She didn’t finish as the once living ponies slowly closed in.

Without another thought, she cast a magic bolt, sending a group of zombies flying. Strange, my magic seems to work fine unless... She tried to teleport again. Unless I try to leave.

With renewed hope, she cast a shield around herself and spun around. Lashing out, her hooves found zombie after zombie, either sending them flying or causing them to crumble into dust.

The undead bounced off her magical barrier for the most part, but a few managed to slip through. They bit and scratched at her, causing her to grit her teeth, a new determined look in her eyes. Quickly dispatching them, Twilight would turn her attention back to the main mass of rotting corpses.”

They began to dogpile on top of her. Struggling, she dropped the shield and sent bursts of magic through their ranks, but for every one she dropped, another two would replace it. Screaming in agony, she finally couldn’t take it anymore. With a violent burst of energy that radiated off her whole body, the entire pack of undead dissolved.

Once again surrounded in charred flakes of skin, Twilight collapsed heavily onto the ground. She was bruised, battered, cut, bleeding, and close to passing out.

“Excellent.” The Farmer trotted out from the shadows across the room. “she may be the one I’m looking for.”

“I’ve played your twisted game, now let me go,” screamed Twilight.

He levitated her off the floor and floated her over to a table, laying her down gently. When she began to struggle, he said, “Not yet, there’s one more challenge. Now quit struggling, she must not struggle. I don’t want to look into her and see what makes her tick... yet.” He leaned close and grinned. “No, she would not last if I just let her go.”

Twilight panted heavily, sweat pouring down her forehead. “Fine, what is this... test?”

“She must let go. Yes, yes, she has the skill. But can she actually do it? No... I do not think so. But only time will tell. Hehehe.” He backed up and disappeared from view. “Just cut the ties and she’ll win. Yes, maybe she can.”

“Let go of what?” Twilight shouted. “How can I cut the ties if...” She fell silent and stared in awe at the bright light that had appeared from nowhere.

From the light, marching towards her, where her friends. Rarity led the group. Behind her, Pinkie Pie bounced around, balancing a beach ball on her head. Rainbow Dash followed, helping Fluttershy carry a cooler. Applejack trotted up last. She had a beach umbrella leaning against her shoulder.

“Hey there, Sugarcube. We’re about to go to the beach. Want tah come?” Applejack tipped her hat.

“Oh yes! Please do, Darling. It just wouldn’t be the same without you,” gushed Rarity. The other ponies nodded in agreement.

Twilight looked around and in frustration yelled, “Is this it? You’re going to torture me with visions of my friends?”

The Farmer replied, “Oh no. She does not get it does she? They are her friends. She just has to... let go.”

Twilight looked back at her friends who stood there eagerly. Examining them closely, she slid off the table and slowly approached them. They seemed to nod a little faster, grow a little more antsy as she approached them. A few hoof lengths away, she stopped. Twilight glared at them suspiciously.

Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Pinkie Pie scratch. A small chunk of her mane fell away, revealing the skin underneath... or rather what had once been skin. Twilight backed up swiftly.

“I-I’m sorry girls. I can’t and I don’t think I’ll ever be able to.”

“Why not?” asked Rainbow Dash, a look of puzzlement on her face.

Twilight looked away and sighed sadly. “Because you’re not my friends.” As she said it, she could sense them fading away. The light disappeared along with them and she felt as if the room had grown dark, despite the magic far above her.

A flash of light in the center of the room caused her to look up. It was accompanied with a loud bang. A pony stepped out of the light. To Twilight’s amazement, it was Princess Celestia.

“Quick, my faithful student! If we hurry, we can get past The Ponyville Farmer before he realizes I’m here.” Celestia turned back to the light and frantically beckoned for Twilight to follow. “Quickly now!”

Twilight didn’t budge. “How do I know you’re the real Princess Celestia. I’m sorry, I will not go with you.”

“Yes, I am the real Princess. Now run through the portal or we’re doomed.” Celestia strained in an obvious effort to keep the gateway open. “If you don’t go now, we’re both trapped.”

Twilight closed her eyes. “I’m sorry Princess.” Running a quick spell through Celestia’s body, Twilight could feel the massive amounts of energy radiating from the alicorn’s body. “But I guess you are really the ruler of Equestria. I won’t ever doubt you again.” Twilight grinned, relieved at the good news. She broke into a run towards the portal.

Just before she reached it, and she could see Ponyville on the other side, something hit her hard, sending her flying into the wall and away from the portal. Groaning, she slowly stood back up, rubbing her head.

I’ll feel that one later. If I escape this mad world. Twilight looked up just in time to see a rotting version of Celestia charge her. Without thinking, Twilight rolled to the side, and the undead alicorn crashed into the wall.

Dazed, it stood back up and leapt at Twilight. With a quick burst of magic, she blasted it apart. It faded from view, leaving no trace of the zombie.

From the shadows came an insane laugh. “Hehehe... she nearly became another body. But in the end, she let go of her beloved... mentor,” spat the Farmer. “Now, for the final part.”

“Twilight?” The voice was shaky, scared.

Behind it, Twilight could almost hear the whimper. Turning towards the voice, she found herself nearly face to face with her family. Frightened, she backpeddled away. “Y-you’re not real!” She prepared a spell and sent it flying at her parents.

“Wait!” Shining Armor darted in between the magic and the rest of the family. A shield erupted from his horn and the spell ricocheted off of it. “It’s us... the real us. The Farmer locked us in another room. He said that we wouldn’t be able to see you unless you passed the tests.” He darted over and drew Twilight into a hug. “See? No tricks this time.”

Twilight’s will nearly broke then and there. This cannot be a trap. If it was anything like the others, I would have been killed when he hugged me. She looked over at her parents who stood there, their hooves spread wide waiting for a hug. She could see the fear in their eyes. They seemed to silently plead with her. But then again... nothing was as it seemed.

“I’m sorry... I-I can’t trust you.” Twilight had to choke out the words as she shoved her brother away. “I want this to be over as much as you, but I don’t know...” Tears threatened to overwhelm her and she blinked rapidly to hold them back.

Finally, she gained control of her emotions. Gulping hard, she turned away. “Good bye.”

“Ehehehe. She is ready.” The Farmer jumped from a ledge somewhere above and landed next to Twilight. “She passed the first test to see if she was smart. She passed the second test to see if she could handle herself in a dangerous situation. And the last test to see if she could let go.”

He ran his hoof through her mane. “Such a delicate looking thing. Didn’t look like she would survive, but go she must. Collect her first soul she will.”

Twilight closed her eyes, resigned to her task. “I’ll go.”

The Farmer laughed loudly, but as he did, it slowly got further and further away.


Twilight stirred slightly and opened her eyes and then quickly closed them.

Spike stood over her holding a lantern. When she twitched, he backed up. “Oh, I’m glad to see you awake! You took a nasty hit there. I look away for one second and the door whacks you. I managed to drag you into the kitchen and stop the bleeding.” He grabbed some kleenex off the table and handed her a sheet. “Though, it might start again.”

Slowly standing up, Twilight looked towards the door questioningly. She trotted over and heaved it open.

Is this it? He just sends me back and I collect something for him? But how do I know who to talk to?

Spike noticed this and walked over. “Still curious, huh? Don’t bother, it’s just an old storage room.” He shut the door before Twilight could see inside properly. “Remember when I asked you to help me move the fridge?”

Twilight nodded mutely.

“You sorta did it without looking. You were busy that day if I remember correctly. Funny that neither of us noticed the door. You’d think it’d be obvious,” Spike said. He shrugged and went over to the oven. “You were out for a long time. I thought you might be hungry.”

Twilight shook her head and blinked. “Sorry, I was only partially paying attention. Yeah... I am a bit hungry now that you mention it.”

Or maybe the door wasn’t there before and only revealed itself when the Farmer needed me.

“Spike, I need to leave now.”

Spike turned around and raised an eyebrow. “You what?”

“I need to leave.” Twilight frowned and turned towards the library exit. “I have to cut all ties to this life if I’m going to do my task.”

Because I might be called upon to collect your soul someday. Twilight thought sadly. She trotted out of the kitchen and took a look around her beloved library one last time.

Everything was as she had left it hours ago. Books were piled on each other in the center of the room. Dust had started to settle on the shelves again. Even the report to the Princess lay untouched on the desk.

“Twi’ look at me.” Spike’s voice came from directly behind her, an edge of desperation in it. “Just look at me and we can talk this out. Please. I don’t want to lose you forever,” he pleaded with her.

Slowly turning around, she said, “Fine, but I...” She screamed at what she saw.

Spike had transformed, taking on the appearance of a vicious, spiked thing. She wasn’t quite sure what it was.

“Now die!” the Spike abomination yelled.

Twilight closed her eyes, it being too late to cast even a simple shield spell.

This can’t be real. It has to be a dream. When will it end? When will I be free from the horrors of my own mind?

The screaming continued for a few more seconds before Twilight realized the cries of terror belonged to her.

“Whoa! Twilight! It’s me, it’s Rainbow Dash! Stop thrashing or you’ll hurt us both!”

Twilight struggled for a few seconds more, a pair of hooves pressing firmly down on her side. Finally, she stopped and looked up. She saw the concerned look of her friend and quieted down.

“Done?” Rainbow Dash backed off. “That must have been one heck of a nightmare.” She brushed her brow, panting heavily. “I didn’t think anypony could flail around that hard.”

Twilight looked around in a panic. “Quick! What time is it?”

“Five in the evening, when I always come to pick up the latest Daring Do adventure.” Rainbow Dash looked at Twilight quizzically. “Why?”

Strange. When I saw Spike, I felt like I had to let go immediately. Now... I don’t. Twilight sat back and looked at her hooves. They were perfect, as if she had just come from the washtub.

“So it was just a dream?”

“What was?” Rainbow Dash questioned. “Oh... probably. Though, you should watch where you decide to take an impromptu nap. It looks like you hit the desk pretty hard with your face.” She shrugged and picked a book off a nearby shelf. “Anyways, I got to go.”

Twilight rubbed her nose and a little blood came away. She examined it curiously and then called to Dash. “Wait, before you go... was there ever a crazy murderer in Ponyville?”

Dash turned and looked at Twilight strangely. “Why do you ask?”

“Umm... I’m s-studying criminal psychology,” Twilight said, stumbling over her words.

“Yeah, I think so. May have just been an old mare’s tale used to scare foals on Nightmare Night. Lemme think for a second while I remember his name. At least I think it was a stallion.” Dash tapped her chin thoughtfully.

Twilight leaned forwad, her heart pounding. She held her breath. “Yeah... what was it? Come on, think Dash!”

“Ah, I remember now. But only the name the ponies at the time gave him.”

“Well?” Twilight looked at Rainbow Dash expectantly.

“The Ponyville Farmer.”

The Pink Slip

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Another day, another meager earning at the Sugarcube Corner. Mr. Cake was used to it at this point, but he couldn’t suppress the disappointment at the “ca-ching” of the cash register opening, a sound that had given him so much joy in the past, only to reveal dust and a couple stray bits. Sighing, he grabbed the precious few coins out of the register and slammed it shut. Times had been tough on the old Sugarcube Corner. He’d picked a bad time to have kids, that was sure. Competing with Sweet Apple Acres was tough enough, but ever since she opened up a new candy shop, he’d been losing business left and right. Such was life, though, and Mr. Cake tried not to hold against her. “Tried” being a crucial word.

In the front of the shop, Mrs. Cake locked the front door, switching the sign on it from “Open” to “Closed” a hoof-full of what Mr. Cake was almost certain was bills that were delivered three days later than they were supposed to. He was going to have to talk to Ditzi Doo about that. Again. Mrs. Cake shot a hopeful glance towards Mr. Cake, and seeing the pittance he held, dropped it to the floor, softly sobbing. Mr. Cake jumped into action, putting a hoof around his wife.

“There, there, it’ll be alright,” he said. “We’ll be okay, you hear?”

“What are we going to do? We can’t go on like this. By the end of the month, we won’t have anything left for the kids!” Mrs. Cake said. “We might have to sell the store!”

“Shh… keep your voice down. You’ll wake the kids,” Mr. Cake cooed. “Sweetie, we’re not selling the store. You know as well as I we were born for candy-making.” He tried giving his wife a convincing grin.

“We could always work at that new shop. I mean, the wages ar—“

“I’d rather die than work for her!” That came out much angrier than he intended, and Mr. Cake bowed his head in shame. It wasn’t her fault; it was his for not seeing it coming. Even when he was just starting out, she had always come to shop, awed, talking about how she wanted a store just like his. He had even given her some tips about starting a business, and some insight into the candy trade. Fate was a cruel mistress, and business, even crueler.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to snap at you,” Mr. Cake said. “Tell you what, you scoot on up to bed, and I’ll check our records to see if there’s something I can work out. If I can cut a thousand bits from our yearly payment, we’ll have enough to live here for at least a couple more years.”

As Mrs. Cake ascended the stairwell, she called down to him, “Good luck, honey. I’m sure you can figure this mess out if you put your mind to it!”

Mr. Cake’s heart filled with confidence. He had the best wife in the world. He rushed to his desk, set in the backroom, knocking over the piles upon piles of bills that rested on its disorganized surface, searching for his business ledger. He found it lying atop several documents: Pinkie Pie’s Expenses, Housing and Heating Bills, and Costs for Pumpkin and Pound, which he casually tossed aside for another document called General Statement of The Current Fiscal Year underneath. He pulled out his seat from the desk and sat down. He grinned, this was going to be easy as pie. Like a well oil-machine, he began to work on finding the unnecessary bits.

Hours later, he was still no closer to finding anything worthwhile, almost giving up twice before convincing himself to persevere for his family’s sake. So far, he broke his back to cut fifty bits from the budget. Fifty bits. That’d get them, what? A month? Mr. Cake let his face rest on the desk and smashed it with his hooves, not caring if he woke the kids. Papers scattered all over the desk, and one in particular latched itself onto Mr. Cake’s face. He brushed the paper off, and to his shock, noticed that there was hope after all.

It’d hurt, hurt him right in the heart, but by Celestia, he’d have enough money to feed his family for the coming years. With that out of the picture, Mr. Cake estimated he had at least around two thousand spare bits saved yearly. Thrusting his hooves up in triumph and pushing in his chair, he rushed ecstatically up the stairs, ready to wake his wife in order to tell her the news. Well, most of the news. He couldn’t bear the sight of his wife knowing that they were in such a spot where that had to give up that.

Mr. Cake opened the bedroom door with such exuberance that it slammed against the wall, and a chorus of startled foal’s cries and a surprised yelp from his wife answered him.

“Honey, I’ve figured out the solution to our financial woes! We’ll be set for a good long while after I implement all these changes!”

Mrs. Cake, although groggy and a bit annoyed with her sudden awakening, was nonetheless caught up in her husband’s good spirits. “That’s wonderful, sweetie! What’d you change?”

“Oh, a little here, a little there, I’ll tell you all about it tomorrow.”

“Okay, big secret time,” she said with a smile.

“You just relax. I’ll go put the kids back to sleep.”

He walked up the kids’ room, only to find Pinkie Pie had already put them to sleep.

“Pinkie, what are you doing here?” Mr. Cake asked.

“I heard a big ‘BANG’ that woke me up, and I all super-duper panicked because the teeny tiny foals were crying, and I thought to myself, ‘Pinkie, you gotta helps those foals!’ So I did!”

Mr. Cake sighed in relief. “Good job, Pinkie. I’m going to head to bed now, catch some z’s, why don’t you? You got a big day ahead of you tomorrow.”

“Oh boy, is it a surprise? ‘Cause you know I love surprises!”

Mr. Cake looked away. “Yes, I think it’ll be a surprise for everyone. Goodnight, Pinkie.”

“Nighty Night, Mr. Cake!”

The document titled Pinkie Pie’s Expenses still lay on the desk, a red line dashed through its contents.

Thankfully, when Mr. Cake awoke, his wife was already up, so he didn’t have face any questions about what he was about to do. As he strode over to the mirror mounted on the door to take a long, hard look at himself, trying to prepare himself for what he was about to do, the familiar aroma of breakfast filled his nostrils. His wife was making pancakes. Pinkie’s favorite.

Placing a hoof against the mirror, he whispered, “It’s okay. You can do this.” He took a deep breath. “I’m really, really sorry I have to do this, but Pinkie, you—“

“Didja say something Mr. Cake?” Pinkie Pie stood in the hallway outside, Pumpkin and Pound in her hooves.

“Uh, ah, nothing Pinkie. Oh! What’s that smell? Is Mrs. Cake cooking pancakes? I think she is! You better get downstairs before they get cold, Pinkie.”

The foals giggled and smiled the sweetest smiles Mr. Cake had ever seen in his life when he said the word “pancake.” He took a mental note of it.

“Pumpkin could have sworn you said something, isn’t that right Pumpkin?” Pinkie said.

Pumpkin looked at Pinkie, and then to Mr. Cake, who was shaking his head violently.

Before she could utter a single “goo” though, Mrs. Cake yelled up to them, “Breakfast is getting cold!”

“Oki-Doki-Loki!” Pinkie called back, dashing down the stairs in a heartbeat.

Thank Celestia for his wife. Her timing was always impeccable. “I’ll be down in a minute, honey!”

He spent some extra time in front of the mirror. He couldn’t do this, could he? Pinkie had been somewhere between a daughter and a sister to the Cakes, and she’d been around ever since she was a filly. It was like telling your own blood to buck off and leave, and the thought left a surprisingly bad taste in Mr. Cake’s mouth.

“Honey, are you coming? We’re almost out of pancakes!” his wife called back up.

Mr. Cake didn’t feel like eating, but for the sake of appearances, he supposed he had to. He took one more reassuring look in the mirror before taking a deep sigh and walking down the stairs. Today was going to be one of those days.

The eyes were going to be the worst, those bright blue eyes staring at him with bright expectance, and then suddenly, sadness. Mr. Cake pushed that image aside and took a seat at the dining room table, where a stack of pancakes adorned with gratuitous amounts syrup and powdered sugar awaited him. Pinkie evidently had helped out Mrs. Cake in the kitchen. He fiddled around with his silverware, his stomach sick and refusing the sugar-laden pancakes in front of him. He kept the same old grin he had worn for years at breakfast regardless.

The instant Mr. Cake sat down, his wife took notice. It was that sort of special telepathy married couples have that they know when something is wrong with the other. Or at least that was how Mr. Cake would have explained it.

“Dear, are you all right? You look a little green around the gills,” Mrs. Cake said.

“I’m fine, sweetie,” Mr. Cake said, looking nothing of the sort. He tried to eat again, managing to slow take small forkfuls of pancake down without gagging. They tasted sugary-sweet, almost intoxicatingly so. It was the sort of taste Mr. Cake loved on regular days, but today, it was the most unwelcome and heinous taste in his mouth.

“So how are the pancakes, Mr. Cake?” Pinkie asked, Pound and Pumpkin still giggling in her arms.

He reluctantly took another bite. “They’re… good, Pinkie. Thanks… for making them.” He resolved that he couldn’t tell her until at least someone else had the kids. Not that she’d ever hurt them, but Pinkie could do drastic things when upset, like that one time he had come home and found a half-dozen random objects crowded around a cake as if it were a mock party, and his parent-senses told him that upsetting Pinkie while she had the kids was definitely a bad idea.

“I guess I’m not feeling too hungry today.” Mr. Cake managed a weak laugh as he pushed away the pancakes. “No breakfast for me.”

Mrs. Cake looked at him as if he gone mad. He always loved breakfast, and wouldn’t skip it for the world.

“Are you sure you’re okay?”

“I’m fine… really.” He did not sound convinced at all. Even Pinkie and the kids were looking at him like he had three heads or something. Pretending to sniff the air, Mr. Cake said, “Dear? Could you take the kids please? I think one of them has a dirty diaper.” The room was free of such odors, but Mrs. Cake took the kids anyways. She knew whatever was happening had to be important somehow, but hadn’t put the pieces together yet.

As his wife left for the changing room upstairs, Mr. Cake let out a sigh of relief. He couldn’t bear to do this in front of his wife. He opened his mouth to speak, but Pinkie had already gotten up.

“Pinkie! Wait, I need to talk to you about… something.”

“Oh something? My favorite kind of thing! Besides everything, of course.” She was full of energy, like always.

Mr. Cake steeled himself, taking a deep breath before speaking again. “Yes, something. You know we’ve been having financial difficulties since that new candy shop opened, right?”

“You mean Bon-Bon’s Bon-Bons? That place looks extra-special cool, I mean, it’s got all the pretty lights, and candy, and awesome music, and candy. Did I mention candy? That’s the most important, super-amazing part, you know?”

He winced at hearing her name again, but managed to keep his cool. For now. “Yes, that place. Because of… that place, we haven’t been getting enough business to keep this place open.”

“That’s terrible, Mr. Cake! I’ll work extra-extra-extra hard to get us all business from the ponies of Ponyville so we can save Sugarcube Corner!”

Bless her heart, Pinkie always thought if she just worked a bit harder, there’d be business. In the last few months, she upped her advertisement significantly, giving out fliers to everypony. But they still flocked to the new place and left Mr. Cake in the dust.

“I’m sorry, Pinkie, but we tried that already. It didn’t work out. What I’ve decided is that we need to downsize.”

“So we’re taking out the second floor? I don’t know, Mr. Cake, that seems like it won’t get us much business.”

Mr. Cake took another deep sigh. He stared at table blankly for a couple seconds, then looked back at Pinkie, whose face was as chipper as ever. “Pinkie, I’m taking about downsizing… you. We can’t afford to keep you here anymore. You can't stay at Sugarcube Corner anymore.”

Pinkie Pie’s face started off blank, but as realization began to dawn on her, she broke down, her blue eyes wide and full of tears. It was the stuff of Mr. Cake’s nightmares. He wanted to jump across the table and give her a hug, put her in his arms and tell it was all right. But it wasn’t. Nothing was all right. He had to be strong for this.

“I’m… I’m so sorry, Pinkie. I tried everything, I really did. You understand, right? You can get your things now, if you want.”

“I-Is it okay if I just sit here for a while?” Pinkie asked.


The silence that followed lasted an eternity. Pinkie patted the table lovingly, looking about the room as if trying to capture the memories. Eventually, she stood up, and left without a word. Once she was gone, Mr. Cake laid his head on the table, feeling like the world’s biggest scumbag. Frustration overtook him, and he lashed out at the stack of pancakes, causing them to fall to the floor along with the plate. Sticky syrup and plate shards coated the ground.

“Sweetie, I saw Pinkie run past me crying and I—“ Mrs. Cake said, walking down the stairs. “By Celestia, what happened? Look at this mess!” She darted to the rapidly spreading puddle of syrup and powdered sugar. “Carrot Cake, what in blue blazes has gotten into you?”

She used his first name. She never used his first name, unless she was really, really mad, or really, really, concerned. It was hard to tell which from which, and Mr. Cake didn’t feel like being the test subject.

“I’m sorry, I just accidentally knocked the plate over,” he said lamely.

“You’re lying! What happened?”

“I’m not lying, it’s just that—“

There was a loud, scuffling noise from upstairs. Mr. Cake was used to bad luck. As of late, it seemed to be in his blood, but a teary-eyed Pinkie Pie rushing out the front door, in clear sight of his wife, pushed his endurance to the limits. Why did everything have to go so wrong?

Mrs. Cake rushed to the door to call after her. “Pinkie! What’s wrong, where are you going?”

He could see her slowly put the pieces together. Dread began to burn in his heart, and he tried to beeline for the stairs, but his wife intercepted him before he could make it. The dread was quickly replaced by fear of the highest degree. He had seen his wife angry naught but once, and he never wanted to repeat that experience.

“Is that what you meant by ‘a little here, a little there’ ?” she asked, enraged. “Because this is not a ‘little here, a little there.’ This is one huge, gaping void. Look at what you’ve done, you know she’s going to be a wreck after all this! How could you do this to poor Pinkie?”

“Like I had a choice!” Mr. Cake yelled, the anger contagious. “I tried and tried to find a solution, and that was the only one I had! We have the money we need to survive now!”

“Is money all that really matters to you? When I said ‘we’ I meant Pinkie too! She’s as good a family, plus a loyal employee, and this is how you treat her?”

Mr. Cake didn’t have an answer for that. He just drooped his head in shame. The muted sounds of the twins crying filled the silence.

“Look, I’m going to give you an ultimatum. Get Pinkie back, no matter what, do you understand? Because there is going to be trouble if you don’t, quite a lot of trouble, you hear? We’ll figure out the financial problems later, with Pinkie.”

“O-okay,” he said, petrified.

“I’m going to take care of the twins now. If you come back, you better have Pinkie with you.”

Mr. Cake became acutely aware of how close he was to frying his own marriage then and there. The realization hit him hard. Could this really be it? He didn’t know, but he had to get Pinkie back. With that in mind, he dashed out the door faster than he thought his feet could carry him.

First stop on the list was Twilight Sparkle’s library. If anyone knew where Pinkie would go, it would be her. Luckily and unluckily for Mr. Cake, the library tree was but a short walk away from Sugarcube Corner— lucky because he could get there fast, unlucky since Pinkie probably had moved on.

His suspicions were confirmed once he arrived. There was no sign of Pinkie. Sighing, he knocked on the library door. The door creaked open, and would have immediately slammed shut had Mr. Cake not stuck his hoof in the gap. Pain shot through his foreleg. Great, she’s mad too. The door opened and shut on his hoof again, but Mr. Cake was not about to relent. Twilight finally opened the door.

“What do you want, Mr. Cake?” Twilight Sparkle asked, annoyance clear in her tone.

“I just want to know where Pinkie went. I need to make things right. Come on, Twilight, cut a pony some slack.”

“Maybe I will. Why’d you do it?”

“Twilight, I don’t have time for this, I’m in big tro—“


“A man’s got to feed his family, for Celestia’s sake! She was the only thing I could cut to save my family! Now do you know where she went or not? Because if not, you’re wasting my time.” He hadn’t meant to be that harsh, but desperate times called for desperate measures.

“She told me she was going to Applejack’s to see if she could get a job there.”

“Okay… Thanks, Twilight.” He started to leave.

“Mr. Cake, wait! Pinkie’s really, really upset with you right now, and talking to her might make things worse.”

“I have to take that chance, Twilight, or I’ll be losing more than just Pinkie Pie.” Mr. Cake sped towards Sweet Apple Acres with the hope that maybe, just maybe, he’d manage to catch Pinkie there. Unfortunately, when he got there, only Applejack was present.

“Howdy, Mr. Cake, how’s your day been?” Applejack asked.

“Terrible, and yours?”

“Aw, shucks. It ain’t been too bad, other than havin’ to turn Pinkie down for an apple harvestin’ job. She just don’t got the legs for the job, ya know?” Applejack bucked a nearby tree, sending a shower of apples down into the collecting buckets beneath.

“Yeah.” Mr. Cake didn’t know the first thing about bucking, but he said it anyways. He let the silence hang for a bit, hoping to gage Applejack. He wasn’t about to go the same route as he did with Twilight, plus a door slamming was nothing to what an Applejack-brand buck could do to a pony’s face.

Applejack stopped her bucking, and walked over to meet Mr. Cake face-to-face. He took an unconscious step back. She laughed.

“I ain’t mad. You know as well as I that business is business, and personal feelin’s shouldn’t be gettin’ in the way. What’d ya think I was about to do? Smash your pretty lil’ face?”

That was uncomfortably close to the truth. Another long silence followed.

Applejack’s tone changed from bemused to almost ashamed. “Was I you, I ain’t sure I wouldn’t have done the same thing.”

The words were a load off Mr. Cake’s mind. Finally, someone who understood. “Thanks, Applejack. You don’t have any idea how much that means to me.”

“You’re welcome, Mr. Cake. Now you were saying something about Pinkie Pie?”

“Do you have any idea where she went?”

“Now, I’m gonna tell you where she is, but I tell ya, she was mighty upset with you when I talked to her, so pursuing her may not be the best option, ya hear?”

“I don’t have any other choice, Applejack. I need her back, no matter what. She’s like family to me.”

“Well, okay then. It’s your funeral,” she said with a shrug. “She went over to that new candy shop, what’s it called?”

Mr. Cake could feel his blood boil.

“Oh yeah, Bon-Bon’s Bon-Bons!” Applejack noticed Mr. Cake looked like he had been punched in the gut. “You all right, partner?”

“Fine, thanks Applejack,” he said, already running towards that infernal place. Bon-Bon had gone too far this time, first stealing his business, then his loyal employees. He stopped himself mid-trot to examine exactly what he was thinking. This wasn’t her fault. She didn’t even have anything to do with it, yet he was still blaming her. He put his head down in shame, only raising it when he saw the bright neon lights of Bon-Bon’s Bon-Bons on the horizon. He had to look strong, both for himself and for her.

Bon-Bon’s Bon-Bons, christened the “hippest candy joint in town” by The Foal Free Press back when it was considered a reputable newspaper, certainly lived up to its reputation. Mr. Cake distinctly remembered throwing that particular edition in the trash as soon as he read those words. But even Mr. Cake had to step back in awe at the ingenious design. It was modern, it was cool, it had candy integrated right into the heart of its design; it was, in a word, breathtaking. And what did Mr. Cake have to show for himself? An old shop with a cutesy, antiquated look that would only attract foals and the nearly-dead. He couldn’t help but feel a little bit of jealousy as he pushed through the candy-cane doors. The store was dimly lit with neon lights, and a DJ in the corner was blasting some new-age music Mr. Cake wasn’t familiar with.

“Oh hey Mr. C!” a familiar voice chirped. “Man, it’s been forever since I’ve seen you! How’s the shop been?”

“Just… fine, Bon-Bon.” He found he could keep his temper under control if he just spoke very, very, slowly. How dare she ask him how the shop had been, she knew full-well that she’d been stealing his business for years now.

“What? I can’t hear you over the music. Hey, turn it down!” she told the DJ.

The DJ looked a bit offended, but did as she was told.

"Oh, it's such a delight to finally see you in here. I'd thought you forgot about your little protégé," she said. "I have to do something special for this!"

Bon-Bon grabbed a microphone off a nearby counter and motioned to someone Mr. Cake couldn’t see. He momentarily blinded by a flash of light before he realized he had been put under a spotlight.

“Everypony, here’s the guy that taught me everything I know about candy and more! Mr. Carrot Cake, proprietor of the famous Sugarcube Corner! Next candies are free in his honor!” She held one of her famous bon-bons in a toast, and everyone in the shop joined her.

Ponies cheered with delight, clapping and some saying, “Thank you, Mr. Cake!”

On an aside, Bon-Bon said, “You want any candy, Mr. C? Cupcakes, licorice, jawbreakers, or, of course, my famous bon-bons? I can even get you some, uh, ‘special’ candy for you and the missus, if you want.”

“Um, nothing for now.” He hadn’t expected this, not at all.

“Aw, you sure? Well, okay. Still, I can’t believe I haven’t seen you in so long! Remember when you were just starting out, and I was just a filly using your oven to cook on the slow days, and you told me, ‘Bon-Bon, you got talent for candy like I’ve never seen.’ You have no idea how much that meant to me. All of this is thanks to you.”

“Well, uh, you’re welcome.”

“So did you come here just to say hi? Because you don’t seem to be a customer.”

“Actually, I’m, uh, looking for Pinkie Pie.”

“She told me that you fired her, and that she wanted a job here. What’d she do? Drop too many trays? Overcook the cupcakes? What?”

“Nothing of the sort! Pinkie Pie was the best worker I’ve ever had the pleasure of employing!”

“Then why’d you can her?”

“Because…” Mr. Cake couldn’t continue.

“Because?” Bon-Bon asked, like they were two old friends sharing gossip.

“Let’s just say the family and I have been in a rough patch financially. We couldn’t afford to keep her.”

“Oh my, that’s terrible! Is there anything I can do?”

“You’ve done enough,” Mr. Cake said coldly. Seeing the look of hurt on Bon-Bon’s face made him instantly regret it. “You could, however, help me out by telling me where she is.”

“Whoa, attitude there buddy. Who ruffled your feathers? She’s in the backroom. Lyra is showing her the ropes on the oven.”

“I-I’m sorry. Thanks. We can talk about my situation later.”

“If you say so.”

Mr. Cake burst through the backroom door to find Pinkie and Lyra giggling over something. Upon seeing him, both of their expressions darkened, and Lyra leapt up to block Mr. Cake.

“Nuh-uh, I think you’ve already done enough damage, mister,” she said, holding out a hoof.

“Please, just let me talk to her. I’ve got something I need to say!”

“And what makes you think I’d want to talk to a meanie meanerson like you anyways?” Pinkie said.

Mr. Cake sat on his haunches, stunned. Was this the same pony? He couldn’t remember the last time Pinkie snapped at him like that. He didn’t think there was a last time. This just piled onto the scummy feeling he’d felt all day, the feeling you’re worse than dirt, and everything you’ve done only hurts people. He sank his head between his shoulders.

“Just… listen, please,” he said.

He couldn’t quite tell because of the angle he was facing, but he thought he saw Pinkie’s face soften a bit. That was the Pinkie he knew, and the Pinkie he had to be strong for.

“Pinkie, you can come back like nothing ever happened. Mrs. Cake wants you back. I want you back. We need you.”

“And what makes you think that she wants to go back, huh? We pay her twice as much as you ever did, plus she gets all the benefits you gave and more! Plus, we’ll never leave her out to dry like a dirty dish towel, like you did!” Lyra said.

Summoning the last of the courage, Mr. Cake said, “I don’t have anything extra to offer. We all know I can’t afford to match your pay. We know I can’t afford to even hire her back. But, I want Pinkie back, she’s been like family to the Cakes for years now, and the best damn employee I ever had. I didn’t realize what I had in her until I lost it. I’m sorry I can’t provide what these people can give you, and maybe it’s for the best you stay here. All I have is a warm home and welcoming face, nothing more. I’ll just go now.”

As he headed for the door, he turned as he heard a voice shout, “Mr. Cake, wait!” It was Pinkie.

“Of course, I’d come back if you just asked, silly! What would Pumpkin and Pound say if I said no?” she said, wrapping Mr. Cake in a warm embrace. “I was oh-so-worried that you didn’t want poor old Pinkie Pie anymore, and I got real upset, but now I feel better than ever. Like double the usual happy Pinkie Pie, Pinkie Piex2!”

Sweet, sweet relief at last. “Come on, Pinkie, let’s go home.” He opened the door, only to send Bon-Bon spilling to the floor. “Bon-Bon? What are you doing?” he asked.

“Hehehe… eavesdropping, bad habit of mine, sorry,” she said. “I just so happened to hear, with my ear firmly pressed against the door, that you were having a bit of financial difficulties?”

“I thought we were going to talk about this later!” Mr. Cake said, a bit flustered.

“Aw, come on now. I’m trying to be helpful here. So you’re a little down on your luck? Well, maybe this girl has a bit pride for her roots, what you think of that?”

Mr. Cake found it hard to answer. “It’s… good?”

“Exactly, and maybe this girl wants to show that pride by entering a partnership with her beloved old Sugarcube Corner, and maybe sprucing up the place to its former glory, how about that?”

“But, Bon-Bon, can we afford—“ Lyra was cut off.

“Lyra, my pride’s on the line here, any price we have to pay is worth it!”

“So what did you have in mind, Bon-Bon?” Mr. Cake asked.

“Well, we’ve been having some trouble keeping up with the lunch rush, and we’d love to have another place to be able to make spare pastries when case we run out. See, that’s where you come in, since you can prepare the spares. Of course you’d get your cut, and I’d even be so nice as to give you some free advertisement. Does that sound sweet?”

It did sound pretty sweet to Mr. Cake. Too sweet. “What’s the catch?”

Bon-Bon laughed. “No catch. What are friends for?”

“Oh thank you so much, Bon-Bon! You have no idea how much I need this right now,” Mr. Cake said. “Come on, Pinkie, time to go home.”

“Oki-Doki-Loki!” Pinkie said.

Once they were outside the store, Mr. Cake said, “It’s good to have you back, Pinkie. I don’t know what I would have done without you.”

Pinkie didn’t say anything, but somehow, Mr. Cake knew that his bad luck streak was finally coming to an end. He’d couldn’t wait to tell his wife.

Only Half

View Online

“Hey, blank flank bumpkins!” Diamond Tiara called, savoring the look on the other fillies’ faces as she approached. The way they stiffened with fear as she drew near was icing on the cake.

“Waddya want now, Diamond Tiara?” Apple Bloom asked, stepping forward as if to shield the other two from further taunts.

Diamond Tiara smirked her well-practiced smirk as their eyes met. Apple Bloom’s eyes shined with something like defiance, and Diamond Tiara let her gaze wander. They didn’t have much of a recess, and getting Apple Bloom riled up took far too long. Another glare caught her attention, this one tinged with anger and a hint of weakness. Perfect. She motioned for Silver Spoon to follow her lead.

“Oh, nothing much,” she finally said, starting to circle around the group. “Just wanted to talk, that’s all... say, Scoota—”

“What?” Scootaloo snapped.

Diamond Tiara’s steps faltered. She hadn’t thought up anything good yet, and had been stalling for time. She cursed inwardly. If she didn’t respond soon, she’d look like a idiot in front of Silver Spoon, and that couldn’t happen, not ever.

“We were really curious...” Silver Spoon chimed in, “you know, about being a pegasus... what’s it like to live in the sky?”

Diamond Tiara felt her smirk slipping into a genuine smile. That was Silver Spoon for you, always willing and able to pick up the slack. It’s why they made such a good team. She looked at her friend and nodded her approval. She wouldn’t let her brilliant idea go to waste.

“Oh, but you wouldn’t know, would you, Scootaloo?” she said as nicely as she could. She had learned long ago that nasty things said nicely always hurt the most.

“Yeah, you wouldn’t, would you?” Silver Spoon said with a giggle. Diamond Tiara joined in. They were a team, and teammates had to always stick together.

Scootaloo’s discomfort was wonderfully obvious. She was shifting her weight from one hoof to another, searching for an out. It was useless, though. There was nowhere she could go to escape them, not like this.

“After all...” Diamond Tiara said, watching Silver Spoon.

“You can’t even fly, right?” Silver Spoon finished. They both laughed again as Scootaloo’s face turned bright red.

Diamond Tiara turned to look at Silver Spoon, purposefully ignoring their target for a moment. Time for a little tag-team taunting.

“A pegasus that can’t fly?” she mockingly asked.

“What good is that? That’s almost as bad as a unicorn who can’t do magic,” Silver Spoon replied, staring at Sweetie Belle.

“Oh, I don’t know, an earth pony who doesn’t even know what their super special talent is even worse, don’t you think, SS?” Diamond Tiara watched Apple Bloom, gauging her reaction.

“Don’t be so harsh, DT.”

Diamond Tiara jolted, surprise and shame rising from the pit of her stomach. Had she gone too far? Why was Silver Spoon leaving her to hang like this? Did Silver Spoon hate her now? Fear gripped her heart. This was what Silver Spoon liked, right?

“Even an unicorn who can’t use magic or an earth pony without a cutie mark can get better, right? A pegasus whose wings can’t even lift her off the ground is just the worst!” Silver Spoon snapped her head towards Scootaloo, who jumped at the sudden attention.

“Oh, you’re absolutely right, SS!” Diamond Tiara breathed a sigh of relief. It wasn’t fair of Silver Spoon to scare her like that. “A pegasus who can’t even fly is just worthless, worse than icky bugs or a pencil nub!”

“Worse, even! At least somepony might be interested in collecting bugs and pencils!”

Diamond Tiara giggled at this, Silver Spoon following her lead. Through the laughter, Diamond Tiara watched the reactions of her three victims. Sweetie Belle was stunned into her usual, boring silence. Apple Bloom and Scootaloo’s faces were much more satisfying. Both were at their breaking points, Apple Bloom on the verge of anger and Scootaloo almost in tears. Serves them right! Just looking at them laughing during class had made Diamond Tiara feel nasty, all red-hot on the inside. Now, watching them squirm with Silver Spoon’s support, she felt a little better.

Apple Bloom seemed to be recovering first, opening her mouth for a rebuttal.

“Now wait just a gosh-darn min—”

“Alright everypony! Come back inside, recess is over!” Cheerilee’s sing-song voice echoed over the playground, carrying with it a warm authority.

Diamond Tiara shot Apple Bloom a smug look and laughed, running back into the schoolhouse, Silver Spoon right behind her. It was good to have friends.

The pencil rolled up the desk, teetered at the very edge, then rolled back down to her waiting hoof. Diamond Tiara let out an exasperated sigh and let her head droop against the rough wood. Miss Cheerilee’s lessons could be so boring sometimes, even if she did try and make them fun. Diamond Tiara turned her attention back to the pencil, giving it another flick. It wasn’t like she going to learn anything today that her private tutor hadn’t already covered. The pencil rattled up to the brink and flipped off. She groaned. Great, just great. Without something to occupy her mind, she defaulted to looking around the room.

The other foals were all paying attention to the chalkboard, some wearing blanker expressions than others. Her eyes came to rest on Silver Spoon, who was busily taking notes. She stared for a while, hoping stupidly for so much as a glance or smile in her direction, but it all came to nothing. Not that she had expected anything else, really. It was dumb of her to think that Silver Spoon would just magically know she wanted a smile, or a wave. Her gaze drifted again.

Something was off about the classroom, now that she thought about it. She made another round. Yes, something was definitely missing, she just couldn’t put her hoof on it. Diamond Tiara shrugged. She really didn’t care, either way. Class would be over soon, and then she could just go home and relax. She bent down to retrieve the fallen pencil.


The cry came so suddenly that Diamond Tiara immediately bolted upright, smacking her head against the underside of the desk.

“Miss Cheerilee! Miss Cheerilee! Help!” Apple Bloom’s voice cried from somewhere far off, the sound of hoofsteps growing louder. Everypony’s heads snapped towards the open door as Miss Cheerilee’s chalk bounced off the ground, the teacher’s mouth wide open. Diamond Tiara felt dense. That’s what was missing! Those annoying Cutie Mark Crusaders weren’t even in the room. No wonder she had been so bored.

“Apple Bloom? Apple Bloom! Everypony stay right where you are until I get back, okay children?” Cheerilee cried, still shouting as she raced out the door.

Diamond Tiara sat up and looked around, wincing and rubbing her head. Without a teacher, the classroom had exploded into excited, panicked chatter, and it wasn’t helping her newfound headache. She caught Silver Spoon’s eyes, confused and questioning. Diamond Tiara shook her head and shrugged in return. Silver Spoon’s eyes flicked towards the door, Cheerilee still barely audible over their classmates’ babbling. Diamond Tiara stared back, hard. Was she serious? Miss Cheerilee had told them to stay where they were, not go running off after her like little fillies. It had nothing to do with them, or so she told herself. Diamond Tiara jerked her chin in the direction of Cheerilee’s voice, trying her best to look noncommittal, but Silver Spoon just shook her head and trotted out the door. Diamond Tiara gave one last shrug and ran after her best friend – no way she was going to sit alone in the classroom.

Cheerilee was easy to trail, her bright coat in stark contrast to the surrounding hillsides’ colors. Diamond Tiara felt her heart sink as the panicked cries grew louder, now tinged with quieter sobs, as their destination came into view. It wasn’t a cliff, not in any sense, but it was still a bit of a drop. Diamond Tiara found herself wishing fervently that her dread was unfounded, and that her hunch was wrong, completely and utterly wrong.

Apple Bloom’s voice, now joined by Cheerilee’s, was coming from the base of the cliff.

She motioned for Silver Spoon to keep quiet and follow her, creeping as slowly as she could manage towards the edge.

“—ied to stop her, we really did,” a voice wailed. It sounded like Sweetie Belle.

“She just... j-just... wouldn’t listen! She said she had to, she said the drop would make it eas—” The new voice cut itself short, breaking out into sobs. Diamond Tiara crept forward, peeking her head just over the brink.

Red, so much red. Red and red and more red. She couldn’t look away, her eyes glued to the splash of color that streaked across Scootaloo’s stomach. Bile rose up her throat, and only a hoof quickly jammed in her mouth kept her from puking down the cliffface. She felt too sick to move.

“Everypony quiet down!” Miss Cheerilee snapped, “Scootaloo’s going to be fine, but I need you two to listen to me right now. Apple Bloom, untie your bow and give it to me, and Sweetie Bell, go get a doctor as fast as you can. It may look bad, but the cut isn’t deep,” Her voice softened. “I need you girls to be strong for Scootaloo, okay?”

Diamond Tiara watched Sweetie Belle gallop off, her vision blurring until she could no longer even see Miss Cheerilee. She touched her cheek, trying to wipe her eyes clear, but the tears had other plans. Diamond Tiara stifled a hiccup. She couldn’t let Silver Spoon see her like this, there’s no way she would ever talk to her ever again. Diamond Tiara bit her lip and forced the tears back. She was good at that. Her eyes dry, she turned to face Silver Spoon, but the other filly was looking away, her mane hiding her expression.

“We should go back before we get in trouble,” she whispered.

“Yeah... we should.”

Diamond Tiara rubbed her eyes with her hoof, staring out the window at the midday sun. The class had been given a full day off after the whole incident, so she had taken the opportunity to sleep in. Daddy wouldn’t like it, but Daddy didn’t get a say in what she did today. He’d gone off on another one of his business trips, visiting the Dealin’ trading company, or at least one with some stupid name like that. Diamond Tiara rolled over, burying her face in her pillow.

She’d dreamt about Scootaloo, Sweetie Belle, and even Apple Bloom, all of them crying. The dream had made her feel uneasy, worse than she had ever felt before. Worse than when she first joined the class, worse than when she saw her daddy crying at night, worse than when she felt all alone. She sniffled. Well, maybe not all alone. Silver Spoon liked her, she was pretty sure, but she made Diamond Tiara feel uncomfortable. Still, Silver Spoon was the only pony in the class that would still talk to her, that she could trust at all.

Diamond Tiara crawled out of bed, pulling her favorite tiara off the nightstand. The way the other foals had acted, they must have heard about Daddy’s business before she even joined the class. They thought that just because she had money, they could lie to her and use her like those fancy ponies had used her father. Well, she had seen right through them and their smiles. Diamond Tiara adjusted her mane, the little crown settling in to a perfect fit. She could at least trust Silver Spoon to be too wealthy to care about things like that.

She trotted into the kitchen and poured herself some oats. They were supposed to be sweet and light, but they just tasted like dirt. She ate them anyways – it felt like the right thing to do. A quick glance at the kitchen clock told her she had an hour before she was supposed to meet Silver Spoon for a shopping trip. She stopped mid-bite, staring at the spoon she was using. It was pretty weird, now that she thought about it. They didn’t spend much time together outside of class, or recess. Why was that?

Another mouthful of oats passed over her tongue, dry and tasteless. She didn’t know much about Silver Spoon at all, besides the fact that she also had a lot of money. Oh, and that she really hated the so-called Cutie Mark Crusaders. Sometimes it really scared her, how nasty Silver Spoon could be. Sure, Diamond Tiara didn’t like the Cutie Mark Crusaders either, but she didn’t hate them half as much as Silver Spoon did. Maybe that was the only thing they really had in common. She stared at the half-empty bowl. Just thinking about Scootaloo and her friends had killed her appetite. The clock rang out, and she pushed the bowl and thoughts away. No sense in keeping Silver Spoon waiting.

She was, anyways. The bored expression on Silver Spoon’s face was the worst, like she was blaming Diamond Tiara for making her wait at the town fountain, like it was her fault she had arrived super early. Diamond Tiara tried to hide her annoyance. It wasn’t fair to make somepony else feel guilty like that.

“Ready to go?” she said, leaning against the fountain.

“Sure, where should we go first?”

“I’dunno, Gilded Lilly’s?”

“Ooh yeah, she had a really cute dress the other day that I just have to have!”

Diamond Tiara laughed and fell into step, naturally matching pace with Silver Spoon. It felt good, it felt natural. A shadow of guilt over all the morning’s doubts crossed her mind. Silver Spoon had been a good friend, and it was stupid of her to think otherwise. Thoughts like that were dangerous. What if Silver Spoon thought Diamond Tiara didn’t trust her? Would she leave her too? Diamond Tiara shoved all the questions away. They weren’t important.

The tinkle of a small bell announced their arrival. Lilly’s shop was overflowing with elegance and frills, as always. They tried on dresses and hats, even a new tiara, giggling all the while. They might have been obnoxious, but they didn’t care. Lilly knew they had bits to burn, so she always let them have their way with the shop when they visited. Diamond Tiara smiled as Silver Spoon did another turn in a silly-looking pink dress. They weren’t really going to buy it, of course, but it was fun playing dress-up.

“How does it look?” Silver Spoon mockingly asked.

“Just darling, absolutely darling,” she replied, flicking her hoof in a just-so manner. They broke into another fit of laughter. It was the most fun, actual fun, she had experienced in a long time. Still, it didn’t take much for them to get bored, and they made their purchases and left.

They weren’t even halfway to their next shopping spot when she spotted them leaving the clinic. Diamond Tiara felt her happiness evaporating away into panic as she tried to steer Silver Spoon away from the three fillies, but it was too late. She had seen them as well, and it was inevitable. They were going to have to walk right past the Cutie Mark Crusaders.

She held her breath and wished with all her might that they would just pass by, that no pony would stop and everypony could just go about their day. She really wasn’t in the mood to torture them, no matter how nasty they made her feel. Her wish wasn’t granted.

The tension in the air was painful. This time, both Apple Bloom and Sweetie Belle stepped forward, blocking Scootaloo from sight. It didn’t do much, their bodies barely hiding the swaths of bandage that covered Scootaloo’s side and belly. Diamond Tiara’s stomach did a flip as the image of all the blood, the moaning filly lying in the grass, all of it came rushing back. She didn’t dare look at Silver Spoon. The silence between the two groups lingered on.

She knew what was expected of her. Silver Spoon was waiting for her to start, for her to lead their joint attack. Harsh, cruel words came to mind, but not one could make it past her lips. She could feel tears building up behind her eyes. Silver Spoon would absolutely leave her if she didn’t say something, anything to the other fillies, but she just couldn’t do it. So much red. If she hadn’t said anything at all, it wouldn’t have happened. Diamond Tiara couldn't deny it anymore. It was her fault that Scootaloo had gotten hurt.

Apple Bloom was the first, and last, to speak.

“Even’in.” And then they were gone.

Diamond Tiara breathed a sigh of relief, glad that Silver Spoon had decided to remain silent. Then it hit her. That was it, the end. She had just ruined the only real relationship she had with somepony else. After folding like that, in front of the Cutie Mark Crusaders she hated so much, there was no way Silver Spoon would ever forgive her. It was a betrayal of trust, of their common bond. Of their friendship.

The rest of the shopping trip passed in miserable silence. Silver Spoon was unusually quiet, but Diamond Tiara didn’t care anymore. She was too busy stewing in her own thoughts. She was being stupid, had been so very, very stupid. The look in Apple Bloom’s eyes, it hadn’t been hate. She could barely wrap her mind around the concept. After all she had done, all she had said, it just didn’t seem possible. She felt hollow, and old feelings welled up to fill the vacuum.

In the silence, she remembered all of it. How flimsy her connection to Silver Spoon was, how she managed to feel lonely even next to her best friend in the whole wide world. Not best friend. Only friend. Silver Spoon had never really shown interest in her, except when they were bothering the Cutie Mark Crusaders. Diamond Tiara didn’t even like taunting them, not really, but Silver Spoon just egged her on and on, and she went with it. What kind of friend was that? Diamond Tiara ground her teeth. Silver Spoon wasn’t even her friend. Friends make a pony better, nicer, sweeter, and happier. Silver Spoon just made her mean-spirited and unhappy.

The sound of trickling water snapped her back to the present. They had arrived back at the fountain. The day was over, and it was time to go home. She turned to leave, but the silence pushed her back. She turned to face Silver Spoon, maybe the only pony her age who would talk to her in all of Ponyville.

“Silver Spoon...”

The other filly stared at her, a strange expression on her face. All of her bottled-up feelings welled up at once.

“I don’t think we should—”

“I don’t want to be your friend anymore,” Silver Spoon whispered, not meeting her gaze.

Diamond Tiara’s brain stopped in its tracks.

“I... I’ve been quiet for a long time... but I don’t like the way you bully the CMC... I never did,” Silver Spoon continued.

Diamond Tiara blinked twice, put her hoof over her eyes and laughed bitterly as the red-hot tears splattered on the cobble.

Lyra Meets a Strange Ugly Creature

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"Ugh, it's too tight," Lyra moaned.

Bon Bon shifted her weight as she tried to get into a better position. "Stop fussing. You'll get used to it after awhile." She tried to make it fit, but her hooves slipped because Lyra kept fidgeting.

"Why are we doing this anyway?" When Bon Bon looked away, Lyra loosened her collar.

Bon Bon rolled her eyes. "It's a special occasion and you hardly ever wear it. You want to look respectable, don't you?"

"Not if it means I have to wear this," Lyra said, squirming.

"Nonsense, you'll look fine once we get it on. Now stand still."

"Ugh, do I really have to?" Lyra tilted her head as she shifted her weight from her hooves repeatedly.

"Yes, now stand still, I said."

Lyra let out a loud sigh and said sarcastically, "Fine."

Bon Bon fiddled with the tie for a few more seconds until she finally finished putting it on. "And... done!" She took a step backwards and smiled. "You look handsome."

Lyra's ears fell down and she blushed. "Aww, you're just saying that."

"I'll go get the coat, don't move."


Bon Bon quickly left, leaving Lyra alone in the bedroom. They had been getting dressed up for a party that they had been invited to. Normally Lyra hated going to fancy parties, but Bon Bon seemed so intent on going that she couldn't refuse.

Lyra looked down at her tie and grunted. Her face was starting to turn beet red. "Still too tight. Just need to loosen it... just a little." She fiddled with the tie, doing her best to stay concious until she could alleviate its deathgrip on her. After a few seconds of struggling, it finally untightened enough so she could breathe again.

"Oh thank Celestia." Lyra sighed in relief. "As soon as the party's over, I'm taking this stupid thing off."

Minutes passed as she tapped her hoof. "What's taking so long?" she muttered.

"Hehehehehe," echoed a voice from behind her.

Lyra spun around, only to see nothing. "What the?" She perked her ears, listening for the source of the sound.

"Hehehehehe," the voice continued, this time, it sounded like it came from underneath the bed.

"Ok-okay then." Lyra tiptoed closer towards the sound. She reached a hoof towards the bedsheet. Hesitating for a second, she gripped the blanket and lifted it up. There was nothing there. Raising an eyebrow, she shrugged and spun around again. "That's weird, I must be hallu—"

"Hi there."

"Ahh!" Lyra fell backwards and landed on her rump, startled by the surprise visitor. "Who, what, where?"

In front of her was a short, stout creature with wrinkly brown skin. Warts decorated his face and his body was covered in rags. There was a rank odor which hung around him as if he had gone dumpster diving in the buff. He had a huge X-shaped scar on his forehead. He reached out a stubby hand towards Lyra.

Wait, hands? He has HANDS? She responded by extending her hoof as well.

"Oh thank y—" To her surprise, the creature's hand went past Lyra's hoof and grabbed the tie she was wearing. With no support to help her up, Lyra fell back down on her flank. "Oof!"

With his other hand, the creature reached into his pocket. Unleashing a pair of scissors, he leaned forward and cut Lyra's tie in half. While laughing maniacally, he slammed the end of the tie onto the floor, it landing with a soft plush.

"Hey! What are you doing?!" Lyra shouted, rubbing her flank.

"I'm the Tie Cutter. None of your ties are safe! Rawr!" The gremlin leaped across the room and threw open the drawers of the cabinets. As he continued to cackle, he worked his way through each of the ties he could find. One by one, he snipped each tie neatly in half.

"Nonononono, stop that!" Lyra pushed herself off the floor and sprinted across the room. She dived for the creature, but he disappeared in a puff of smoke. "Ahh!" she screamed as she propelled herself into the open drawer. Her jaw slammed into the cabinet and she was knocked onto the floor. As she shakily got up, stars swirled around her head.

The creature reappeared on the other side of the room. "Nananananana." He blew a raspberry at her.

"Why you!" Lyra shook her head, trying to get rid of the stars. Cantering towards the goblin, she leaped at him. Once again, the goblin disappeared, his haunting laughter continuing the fill the air. This time, she was prepared and used her hooves to stop herself from running into the wall. "Stand still!"

The creature wiggled his behind at her and slapped it. "You can't catch me, I'm the Tie Cutter. Muwahwahwah." He gathered the cut ties into a stack like leaves in the fall before throwing them into the air. "Yes! Yes, mhmm, ties..." He grabbed two and started rubbing them over his body as he moaned.

Lyra stopped her canter temporarily as she stared at the spectacle. "What in the buck?" Her lips and eyebrows twitched. She wasn't sure what to make of the strange creature's actions. She heard footsteps approaching from outside the room. "Ah, Bon Bon!" Using her magic, Lyra seized the creature."

"What! Hey!"

Just as the door opened, Lyra lifted him upside down into the air. Bon Bon stepped inside the room. The suit she prepared for Lyra was draped on her back. Her mouth fell open after she spotted the mess in the room. "Lyra! Wha-what did you do?"

"It wasn't me, it was the Tie Cutter." Lyra pointed at the creature she held with her magic. However, instead of the creature, there was nothing there except the stack of cut ties floating in the air. Lyra stuttered, trying to make sense of what happened. "Bu-but... he was right there, I swear. I..."

"How could you?" Frowning, Bon Bon shook her hoof at her. "Have you gone utterly insane?"

"But..." Lyra's ears drooped as she tried to put together what happened. She gently lowered the pile to the ground. "He was right there..."

Bon Bon marched over to Lyra. "Ahh! I'll deal with this later. We're gonna be late if we don't get going. We'll go to the store on the way. Come on!" Reaching over, she gently nipped Lyra's ear and dragged her towards the door.

"Ow, ow. I'm coming already." As she left, she swore she could hear a soft echo of laughter bounce throughout the room. What the buck just happened? she thought, furrowing her eyebrows.

Later, at Ties-R-Us, Lyra and Bon Bon were shopping.

"Honestly, Lyra. I know you don't like wearing ties but there wasn't any need to destroy all of them." Bon Bon looked through the tie rack, trying to find a suitable replacement that would match the suit she had picked out.

On the nearby couch, Lyra threw her hooves into the air. "I'm telling you, it wasn't me!"

"Then who did?" Bon Bon stopped and stared into Lyra's eyes.

"The Tie Cutter!"

Turning back to the tierack, Bon Bon continued to sort through the ties. "And what on equestria is that? Is this another one of those weird obsessions of yours? First, you obsess about 'humans and hands' and now this. Sometimes I think your imagination is a bit too overactive."

"Well, he had hands too, but that's besides the point." Lyra sighed and sat back on the couch. "He's real. Why won't you believe me?"

"Because that's just too silly," Bon Bon said, shaking her head. Finally, she found the tie she was looking for and headed towards the counter. "Come on, Lyra!"

Grumbling, Lyra followed her. They bought their tie and went to the party without further incident. Meanwhile, Lyra wondered if she had hallucinated the whole thing and if she perhaps had been a bit too obsessed lately. So she cleaned up her act and becames a salespony, selling random contraptions to random ponies. Because of her former obsessions, she knew exactly who to sell to and she soon became an extremely rich mare. She showered Bon Bon with presents, who quickly forgave Lyra's odd tendencies. Then they lived happily ever after until the next random event caused Lyra to question her sanity once more, causing her to go on a rampage and freaking out her customers until she fell from grace and became a hobo. A hobo obsessed with finding the truth about hands in the bottom of garbage cans and dumpsters.

Whack a Mage

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“I’m sorry Mr. Phantomage, but we cannot pass you with that performance.”

“What?! WHY? Phantomage demands an answer!” the student declared, utterly furious. His performance had been outstanding, and nopony else had managed to do what he had done, nopony! He stomped his hoof in sheer defiance of their reply.

“Well Mr. Phantomage, as impressive as that display was, we cannot allow it at this fine school; our decision is final. If you wish to make an appeal, you may write a letter to the princess. Now if you don’t mind, there are others waiting and we still have to restore this mess you’ve made to proper order.”

He couldn’t believe it. Princess Celestia’s School for Gifted Unicorns was actually rejecting him. He, Phantomage the Unstoppable, had been denied. The very nerve of them; this would simply not do.

“Very well, Phantomage the Unstoppable shall go to Celestia, for he shall not be denied his rightful place among the elite. He shall return to put such insufferable worms as yourselves in their place. To the Princess!” Raising his hoof in resolution, the dark skinned unicorn turned and sped off toward the main castle, his black cape flapping in the wind. As he left, the sound of ripping fabric and cries of alarm in response to his glowing black horn, informed him that the professors’ ties had successfully been cut. He grinned. Nopony denied the talent of Phantomage the Unstoppable. Nopony.

He could just as easily have teleported straight to Celestia’s personal chamber, but what good would that do? No, he needed to make a statement; those blind foals needed to be shown their folly, and making an entrance as could only be done by Phantomage The Unstoppable would certainly deliver the message. Charging the enormous double doors at a breakneck pace, he lowered his horn and summoned the magic for this, the simplest of spells.


As the tip of his horn came in contact with the doors, he released the magic, firing a pulse of unrelenting force straight through them. Propelled by a wave of magic, the twin doors exploded into the room, flying from their hinges with a shattering crash, and coming to a rest near Celestia’s throne, mangled beyond non-magical repair. Taking up his rehearsed pose, Phantomage reared up onto his hind legs, and kicked his forelegs a few times before leaving them to rest there, his flowing cape undoubtedly adding to the impressive display.

“Phantomage the Unstoppable demands to be heard! He shall not be denied this request!” he declared, speaking in a well practice tone of authority. Celestia looked up from a floating piece of parchment in front of her. The guards approached on either side of him, but Celestia put out a hoof.

“That’s quite all right; I’ll deal with this one myself, guards. You may take your leave.” Celestia assured them. The guards turned and left, leaving Phantomage alone with Celestia, at last. Was there ever any doubt?

Getting up from her throne, which was really just a glorified seat cushion, Celestia strolled past the mangled twin doors, eyeing them as she did.

“Phantomage the Unstoppable, requests that you admit him into your school for gifted unicorns, as nopony can deny his unrelenting abilities.” Phantomage spoke with both respect and conviction. Surely the Princess herself could not deny his talent after such an impressive display of magic. She gave him a quizzical look, glancing between him and her fallen doors.

After a long silence, Phantomage grew impatient.

“Why do you hesitate? Grant Phantomage the Unstoppable admission to your university at once!” he demanded. Celestia smiled then, letting out a small chuckle.

“Calm down, there’s no need to get so worked up. Come, walk with me.” Turning, Celestia beckoned with her horn, and slowly cantered toward the garden just outside her chamber. Phantomage followed suit, unsure yet as to what Celestia’s true intentions were; nopony had so calmly deflected his demands before.

“Do you like bananas?” Celestia asked, summoning one from seemingly nowhere and offering it to him.

“Phantomage the Unstoppable has no taste for such fruits, and humbly denies your offer.” Celestia shrugged, and peeled it with her horn, taking a bite as they entered the garden.

“So tell me Phantomage, why is it you believe you should be admitted to my school?” Celestia asked with a gentle tone.

“Was his extraordinary entrance insufficient? Did not Phantomage clearly display his talents?” Phantomage replied, shocked by the princess’s lack of confidence.

“Now now, there’s no need to get so worked up.” Celestia rebuked him. “Your magic is certainly exceptional, but you should learn some manners if you expect anypony to grant you anything.” Phantomage trotted along in silence for a moment, pondering her words.

“Phantomage apologizes for the destruction of her majesty's doorway, but still sees no reason why he should not be immediately enrolled at PCSGU.”

A thundering boom rang out from seemingly nowhere, followed soon after by an explosion of magic from the lecture hall where the entrance exams were being held. A dragon’s head burst through the roof of the building, as glowing sparks of magic continued to radiate from the area. They both looked up in disbelief. Who dared challenge the magical prowess of Phantomage the Unstoppable?

“Well Phantomage, I’m going to allow you to attend for now, but mind you learn some manners or you won’t be permitted to stay very long.” Celestia said, turning to him.Phantomage blinked in surprise; he had not expected her to say yes so quickly. He turned to acknowledge her wise decision, but found that she had already disappeared.

“No matter, Phantomage the Unstoppable has been given what he came for. Phantomage the Unstoppable is victorious!”

“Hey Big Bro, how’d it go?” He was greeted by an adorable azure blue filly as he stepped through the entrance to their home. Upon seeing his little sister’s excitement, he launched into a perfectly dramatic recap of his latest endeavors.

“The foalish professors at the school were far too blind to recognize your brother’s genius, but Phantomage the Unstoppable, would not be denied. He ran straight to Celestia herself, who, upon seeing the amazing magical abilities he possessed, was overcome with admiration and gratefully admitted Phantomage the Unstoppable into her school forthwith. Never fear young sister, for nopony can stop the incredible abilities of Phantomage the Unstoppable”

The little filly’s face lit up with excitement.

“Yay! Big Brother got accepted! Now you can teach me all that magic stuff and you can get me in right? I wanna be just like you big brother. Then I can get my cutie mark for being the most magical unicorn ever!” she exclaimed. Phantomage chuckled, glancing to his own cutie mark, of a gray poltergeist wearing a wizard hat.

“Maybe someday sister, if you really work at it, you could be great and powerful, like me. But nopony will ever match the unstoppable magical prowess of Phantomage the Unstoppable.”

The next day, Phantomage returned to the school, ready to take up his rightful place as the most powerful unicorn to ever grace PCSGU with his presence.

“Phantomage the Unstoppable has arrived!” he proudly proclaimed as he burst through the door. The lecture hall was empty. Befuddled, Phantomage trotted toward the door at the back of the room. “Just where is everypony? How is Phantomage supposed to make his grand entrance when there’s nopony around to witness it?” As he opened the door however, he discovered that he was simply in the wrong lecture hall, and as he stepped through, he was suddenly surrounded by at least a hundred ponies.

Everypony in the room turned to notice him, including, the instructor at the front of the room, whom Phantomage recognized as the same pony who had rejected him yesterday.

“What are you doing here? You’re not supposed to be here.” The pony behind the podium asked, clearly shocked that Phantomage was present.

“You doubt the abilities of Phantomage the Unstoppable? Phantomage the Unstoppable cannot be held down for long; he has special permission from Princess Celestia herself to be here.”

“Yes, the Princess informed us this morning that you were to be admitted... next semester.”

“What?! Next semester? This is unacceptable!” Phantomage raised a hoof in defiance.

“Although personally I don’t think you should be allowed in at all, after that performance yesterday. The school simply would not survive for very long” The professor went on.

“Your school simply cannot handle the power of Phantomage the Unstoppable! He did nothing to deserve such foul treatment.”

“You destroyed the entire lecture hall! Why do you think everypony is in here now?”

“Phantomage the Unstoppable was harmlessly demonstrating his abilities. He will not stand for this injustice, and will be taking up the matter with Celestia. Pray for your sake she is merciful.”

Choosing this time not to repeat what was an amazing entrance, for the sake of originality, he chose to simply teleport straight to Celestia’s personal chamber.

“Phantomage the Unstoppable has returned!” He declared, as the main throne room materialized around him. Looking around, he found himself in a completely empty room, save for two guards.

“Now just where is she?” he asked aloud. “You there, Guards. Where is the Princess Celestia? Phantomage the Unstoppable demands to know.” The guards simply looked at him for a moment, and then to each other, before one of them responded.

“The princess is not here right now; she is helping her latest protégé settle in to the library. She will return here shortly.” the guard responded flatly.

“What? Protégé?! WHO? Phantomage demands to know who is so ignorant as to assume they are more worthy of Celestia’s attention.” Both guards gave him blank stares. “No matter, Phantomage the Unstoppable will handle this himself.” He knew the castle well enough, having lived in Canterlot most of his life. Twirling under his wizard cloak for effect, Phantomage released the magic and vanished into the library.

“Phantomage demands to know who this personal protégé of the princess is!” He declared upon arriving. He looked up to see Celestia herself speaking to a small lavender filly, with one pink streak through her dark mane.

“This is the unicorn who stole the spotlight from Phantomage the Unstoppable? She is merely a filly. How is such a young pony even allowed into your pathetic excuse of a school?” He inquired, bearing down on the offending filly. Celestia turned to look at him, and then looked back at the other unicorn.

“I’m sorry Twilight, would you excuse me for a moment?” she said to the filly.

Her smile was uncanny, creepy even, as she slowly turned and walked toward him.

“Do you like bananas?” Celestia asked when she was mere inches from his face. That smile was just sickening.

“Why- What an odd request. No, Phantomage said this yesterday; he has no taste for bananas. Why have you allowed an injustice such as this to occur?” He said angrily, indicating the small filly behind her. Celestia’s smile grew, if possible, even wider.

“I’m sorry, Phantomage, but that matter doesn’t concern you. Kindly leave before I am forced to expel you from the school before your term even begins.”

Her utter and complete denial of his request infuriated Phantomage. Nopony denied the talent of Phantomage the Unstoppable. Nopony

“Phantomage the Unstoppable will not be denied. He demands that you teach him instead of this miserable foal here.”

Celestia’s eyes narrowed. Her horn glowed, and Phantomage felt himself becoming intangible. Suddenly he was moving backward at an incredible rate; before he could blink the outer wall of the castle passed through him, leaving him out on the street. Dusting himself off, he got up and trotted home. “Celestia will rue the day she turned down Phantomage the unstoppable.”

As he walked through the door he was greeted once again by his little sister.

“Hi there Big Bro, you’re back so soon. Did something happen at the school?” she asked.

“Yes, Trixie, something did in fact happen at the school. Princess Celestia had the nerve to expel Phantomage the Unstoppable!”

Her lower lip curled, and she looked up at him with now watery eyes.

“You can go back though can’t you? You’re the unstoppable, Big Brother, you can’t be held down.” Her childish pleas were too much; Phantomage now had an idea.

“Of course sister, I will go back, but I have been banned from the school. If I am to return, I must have a disguise.”

He proceeded to summon as much magic as he could. Having never performed this particular spell before, he was not sure how much magic would be required. He stared at his little sister’s glistening purple eyes as he concentrated on the spell. Closing his eyes as he released the magic, he allowed it to surround and transform his body. As the surge of energy began to die down, he opened his eyes and stared into the two violet orbs in front of him.

“You look funny, Big Brother.”

Trixie giggled as she stared at him. Phantomage felt funny; something was... off, about the way the spell had turned out. His eyes widened as he immediately realized he might have made a mistake, he just hoped he wasn’t right for once.

“Mirror! Your brother needs a mirror, Trixie!” He exclaimed, gasping as his voice came out differently than he had expected. His voice was supposed to change, that was part of the spell, but not like this. Trixie brought him a mirror and, holding it up with his magic, he stared in horror at the reflection.

“NO! I knew it; I knew that spell was too difficult for me to try without further practice.” He cried. He tried to cast the spell again, but to no avail, it had been permanently locked somehow.

“Big Brother, what happened to your nose? It’s all tiny now, and why is your voice so squeaky?” Phantomage’s sister asked. Sighing Phantomage answered her.

“Trixie, your big brother has made a critical error; he was focusing too hard on you when he cast the spell, and was affected accordingly. Phantomage the Unstoppable, must now spend his days as a mare, until such a time as he can find a way to reverse this spell. Your brother is sorry Trixie, but he must now leave, as he had intended to anyway. Take care young sister; I know you will be the most talented unicorn in Equestria someday, just like me”

It had been nearly a year since her banishment, but Pariah had finally mastered the body morphing spell, cut all ties to Phantomage the Unstoppable - ridiculous name - and returned as a completely new mare. She had even grown accustomed to her smaller, more slender frame, as there were only minute differences other than her size. She was now ready for her revenge. Nopony would ever recognize her now, it was perfect. She had even grown to like her new azure coat, although her cutie mark had not changed at all. She hadn’t found a way to fix that yet, but maybe cutie marks were just beyond magical tampering.

Trotting up to the castle, she wasted no time in locating the same professor who had so unjustly kicked her out so long ago.

“Hello there miss, may I help you?” The professor asked, as he finished wiping off his chalkboard using his magic. There was the sound of ripping fabric as his tie, aided by a black aura, tore itself in two, from top to bottom.

“Why yes indeed there is, you can take off that ridiculous tie. What in Equestria made you think that was a wise fashion choice? Ugh! So ugly.” She said, before cantering across the room, an evil grin spread across her smug features.

“Why you little- Be gone you-” But Pariah was already summoning the magic. By the time the professor’s horn had begun to glow, she was already vanishing into the next room.

“My my, this is just too easy.” she chuckled to herself. As she walked over to the door beside her and opened it, she discovered a dragon egg just inside, sitting on a shelf. Grinning wildly, she gathered up the egg with her magic, and performed the same spell she had used to dazzle the examiners exactly a year previous.

In the aftermath of the second annual incident, everypony was running around frantically trying to clean up what was said to be the worst magical accident in Canterlot’s history. Pariah was able to listen in on what the story was as she aided in the cleanup effort, posed as another student.

“Where did it come from?”

“I don’t know, there was nothing about it coming from outside the castle, it must have come from inside.”

“But how did it get in?”

“Don’t ask me; it’s not my job to monitor the castle for disasters like this”

“It must have been from the exam closet.”

“You think so?”

“It’s the only logical explanation.”

Celestia herself had had to handle the biggest problem, and Pariah was laughing her little flank off on the inside as she cantered around, pretending to help, but secretly misplacing several boxes of quills, spilling bottles of ink, knocking over charred piles of books.

“Hey! What are you doing?” she turned to see one of the royal palace guards rushing toward her.

“Drat!” She had strayed too close to their watchful eyes, and been caught scattering some parchment. Just as the guard was bearing down upon her, Pariah quickly summoned the magic with her horn, and teleported to somewhere, anywhere else.

That somewhere else just so happened to be Celestia’s personal chamber.

“Excellent.” Nopony was around, not even the guards. They were all off trying to clean up the mess she’d made. “This is just perfect” she said, grinning. Cantering happily over to Celestia’s throne, Pariah made herself comfortable on the cushion that lay there.

Or... at least she tried to; the thing was hard as a rock. There wasn’t actually a cushion there; it was just thin fabric over a raised section of the stone. Sitting on the crude seat quickly made her flank sore, but she would not succumb to its distaste for her. This was Celestia’s throne only and she would savor the spite of it, no matter how painful.

“How does she sit on this thing all day?” Pariah wondered. Glancing around, she noticed a brown bag just behind the backing for the makeshift throne. Floating it over to her with magic, she peeked inside: It was filled with ripe yellow bananas. “My goodness Celestia certainly does love bananas.” Pariah said, chuckling at the irony of the situation. She picked up a banana with her magic, peeled it and took a bite. It was delicious! “Mmmm, no wonder she loves them so much, this is wonderful.”

Just then, a guard happened to walk past the open doorway and noticed her.

“Hey! You’re not allowed to be here, this is Princess Celestia’s personal chamber!” He began to charge her, but she was ready this time. Picking up the bag of bananas with her magic, Pariah ran straight at the guard, horn glowing brightly. His face grew worried, as though he were afraid he might smash into her, but she teleported just beyond him at the last second, seeming almost to pass right through him.

“Sorry, but these are my bananas now sucker!” Pariah called back as she ran through the open doorway, leaving the now disoriented guard behind.

“Guards, everypony, sound the alarm! Somepony has stolen the royal bananas from Celestia’s personal chamber!” called the guard from behind her. Almost immediately, guards appeared from behind every doorway, and a siren began blaring from every corner of the castle. Narrowing her eyes with anticipation, Pariah charged headlong into the fray, smiling as she managed to just avoid every single guard who dove at her.

“Nope. Uh-uh, sorry, missed me, nope, gonna have to do better than that, not even close.” Poofing left and right as she barreled through the army of soldiers, Pariah made a game of calling out to each guard as she dodged their feeble attempts to capture her. Galloping down the now open corridor before her, she called back over her shoulder. “Haha, losers. Can’t catch me! Hehehehe.”

She then had an even more fun idea. Turning to her left, she charged out toward the garden where the great hedge maze was located. Glancing over her shoulder, Pariah was pleased to see a horde of enraged castle guards speeding after her at a breakneck pace. She charged into the maze and took an immediate left turn, then a right, and two more lefts, following the path before her. Deciding she had run far enough, she turned and waited to see how long it would take them to find her.

“There she is!” called a voice from above her. Obviously not very long. Pariah looked up to see a pegasus diving at her from the sky, followed closely by two others. No doubt he was the one who had spotted her. Grinning wide, she stared him down, eyes narrowed, and simply waited. She waited until the last possible second, before teleporting a mere six feet to her right, on the other side of the hedge. It wasn’t long before a unicorn rounded the next corner, and the next round began. Once again she stared him down as he came, this time leaving a parting word as she left.

“Sorry, too slow.”

This game continued for the next hour: The guards would discover her, they would charge, and she would teleport to another location before they could capture her. She was growing bored; if they couldn’t defeat a simple teleportation spell, they were not worth her time. Focusing on the palace, Pariah summoned up some magic one more time, as two guards dove at her from either side, likely crashing into each other as she disappeared.

Blinking in the newly dim light, in contrast to outside, Pariah looked around at her surroundings. She was in the library again. Glancing around, she noticed a lavender unicorn filly to her left, absorbed in some books. The filly looked up at her upon hearing the flash of magic.

“Oh, hi. Where did you come from? Sorry I don’t usually get visitors” the little filly said.

“Pariah Dark, graces you with her presence, and what about you young filly, have you a name?” Pariah asked, gesturing with her hoof.

“Oh, my name’s Twilight Sparkle, I’m Celestia’s personal student here at the castle. I just love it; I’ve got all these books to read. It’s so fun.” Twilight smiled brightly as she recounted her excitement at living in a library.

“You... you’re Celestia’s personal... protégé?” Pariah asked.

“Yup, that’s me.” Twilight replied. Pariah was suddenly filled with vengeful jealousy, and summoned up the magic to torment this little filly, who had stolen her dream. And then suddenly she stopped. Pariah couldn’t figure it out, but for some unexplained reason she no longer wanted to hurt this little filly. The entire past year, her hate and thirst for spiteful vengeance were directed at Celestia and her school. But the filly before her was completely innocent, and had in fact, nearly mimicked her own entrance exam.

Redirecting her scorn, Pariah released the magic, took a kinder approach, and changed tactics.

“Well it’s nice to meet you Twilight, Pariah must say, she is very jealous of your... relationship with the princess. You must know so much about magic.” Twilight’s eyes lit up at this.

“Oh yes, yes I do, it’s so fun learning from Princess Celestia, but there’s so much more to learn too.” she replied.

“Well, you don’t suppose you could... *gulp* help Pariah with a certain predicament she is in?”

“Why do you talk in third person like that?” Twilight asked.

“Never mind Pariah’s speaking mannerisms, just answer her question please.” Pariah responded flatly.

“Um, okay. I’d be happy to help. What’s your predicament?”

Pariah could not believe she was asking a mere filly for help, but at this point she needed any help she might be able to find, and she also needed to avoid Celestia for now, so this would have to do.

“Well, um.” She gulped; this was harder to admit than she had thought. “Pariah attempted a difficult spell a long time ago, and now she is stuck in this form.”

“Huh?” Twilight asked, scrunching her face. “What do you mean, stuck in that form?” she asked.

“Oh, this is ridiculous! Pariah attempted to perform a body morphing spell, and screwed it up! Suffice to say she was not always a mare!” Throwing up her hooves in exasperation, Pariah fell backward onto the floor behind her, covering her face and rubbing her eyelids.

“Oh, the body morphing spell, I remember that!” Pariah’s eyes snapped open. In a flash she had her hooves around Twilight’s face.

“You know how to do the body morphing spell?!” she exclaimed.

“Well, yeah. I mean, I can’t quite do it myself yet, but Celestia showed it to me a few weeks ago. There’s a book over here with the counter spell.” Twilight turned and trotted over to the pile of books she’d been perusing earlier. “Ah, here it is.” Twilight held the book out toward Pariah, who could now see that it was a very simple counterspell.

“Okay, here goes nothing,” she said. Concentrating on the spell written in the book, she tried to channel her magic properly, but once again it simply fizzled out. “What! What’s going on?”

Twilight immediately collapsed on the floor, giggling.

“What is so funny? Pariah Dark demands to know!”

“Oh nothing, it’s just that—HEE HEE HEE HA—I recognize that fizzle.—HEE HEE—that’s Celestia’s troll spell—HA HA HA—it’s a joke she came up with: Anypony with that spell on them, is doomed to fail at the very next thing they attempt, and until it’s lifted, they will be unable to correct any mistakes they made. - HA HA HA HA - she must have put the spell on you when you met with her.”

Pariah eyes narrowed. Oh that Celestia, she would pay for this.

“Oh and one more thing.” Twilight went on, attempting to stifle her giggles.

“Yes? Pariah is listening.”

“Did she offer you a banana when she met with you?” Pariah’s mouth gaped, this could not be possible.

“Why... yes, she did in fact.” she replied, eyeing the brown bag of bananas that now sat behind her. This of course only caused Twilight to burst into another fit of laughter.

“Yeah—HA HA HA HA—I knew it, she loves to do that.” Twilight laughed.


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Disqualified Entrant: A Science-Fiction Story of Dramatic Space Fighting in the Future

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This submission was disqualified for reason: Submitted after deadline.

Author: Argembarger

“Look out, Red!”

Red wrapped his hooves around the throttle and yanked as hard as he could. His ship jerked violently and his guts sunk to the floor. The infinite expanse of stars streaked across his vision, and Red strained his head up to see a white missile pass at alarming speeds within mere meters of his cockpit.

“That was too close, brother. Thanks a lot. Mind paying that one back for me?” Red said through his headset, the adrenaline rush evident in his speech.

“Sure thing! Watch this.”

At least his brother was enthusiastic.

A few moments later, Red saw his assailant explode. Watching the hot scrap scatter in the void, Red felt a measure of relief—and excitement.

“Nice one, Blue! You really got him. Let’s form up. We should head back to base before we attract any more attention.”

The Shifter Brothers glided through the silent expanse of space, their hard-won prize in tow.

“I still can’t believe they’re going to let us do this.”

The Admiral leaned over the cowering pony. He watched the poor thing’s eye swell up, grotesque red and purple replacing the usual blue.

“Don’t you ever bring me news like this again. Do you understand me? This is a disgrace.”

“I’m sorry, sir! I’m very sorry.”

“Don’t give me apologies,” Admiral Black spat, “give me satisfaction.”

He kicked his lackey a couple of times for good measure, laughing at the futile attempts to stand up.

“Is that how we’re treating our messengers, these days?” a voice rasped out.

Admiral Black shrugged, turning to face his only superior. “It will motivate the rest of the fleet, don’t you think?”

Starbucker shot Admiral Black a glare that froze him on the spot as the messenger pony galloped out of the room.

“No. I disagree. When our troops have nothing to look forward to but abject cruelty, what exactly are they fighting for? You still have some lessons to learn, my young Admiral.”

Black bowed, staring at the ground in respect. “I apologize, sir. However, we’ve received news that one of our spearhead scouting parties—comprised of some of our finest pilots—has been decimated.”

Starbucker smiled, turned to the wall, and placed his hoof on a panel. “Show me where,” he said.

“In this sector, here. Do you suppose the rebels could really be launching attacks from there? That’s a pretty barren area.” Black bit his lip.

“I don’t suppose anything. I can feel it. They’re there. Ready the fleet.” Starbucker’s smile grew into a grin.

“Yes sir.”

“And Admiral?”

“Yes, sir?”

“Try to be a little nicer. I have some employee training videos that could help.”

“Yes, sir…”

Red lounged in his cockpit, waiting for the inevitable order to move out. They never stayed at base for more than a couple of hours. Just long enough to refuel, catch a short nap or meal, perhaps do a little reading. Blue was still out telling the general about their plans. Once he heard what the brothers had in mind, they were sure to be out of here even more quickly than usual.

He yawned into his helmet, and watched the digital time display tick ever onward. What could be taking Blue so lo—

An alarm blared into his ears and bright flashing lights drilled into his unprotected eyes. “Red alert! Red alert! All hands to battle stations! We have a Code E5 emergency. This is not a drill. All pilots proceed immediately to hangars one, two, three, five, six, and eight.”

An E5?

Red threw his hooves up in delight. He and his brother wouldn’t have to go very far at all to test their new secret project.

He saw Blue gallop out of a side-hallway with his flight suit and two large metal tubes in tow. He stuck one on the side of his fighter , pressing a small button on it. The tube stayed attached, blinking softly as Blue ran to attach the other to Red’s own ship in a similar fashion.

Red flung open the cockpit hatch. “I take it we got approval, then?”

“Of course. General Cloudtrotter couldn’t resist.”

“Excellent. Are you ready to go, then? Looks like the party came to us this time.”

Blue smirked and slipped on his helmet.

“You were right, sir. There it is: the rebel’s planet. We should have this war wrapped up by suppertime,” Admiral Black laughed.

“We’ll see.”

A messenger with a conspicuous lack of a black eye entered the room. “Sirs! The rebel base has been located. The standard offer of parlay has been extended and summarily refused by their leaders.”

Starbucker shrugged. “I suppose we have no choice but to launch a full assault. Send in the fleet.”

Black nearly jumped for joy. “I always love this part,” he giggled.

“War is always a tragedy, Admiral,” Starbucker rattled, “We really need to work on your empathy skills.”

Red and Blue Shifter took flight. The two rogue aces separated from the rest of the rebel ships and headed off to the side of the battle, as usual. They operated most efficiently on their own.

Red looked over at Blue. “Are you ready?” his brother called out over the radio.

“I was born ready.”

“Alright,” Blue said, “hold as steady as you can.”

Red saw a thin silver wire fire out from Blue’s hull-tube. It landed squarely in his own, and Blue laughed. Red, caught up in the moment, laughed as well. “They really won’t have any idea what hit them,” Blue said.

Red and Blue spent a minute perfecting their formation to ensure optimal tautness in the line stretching between their ships, before turning their attention to the countless ships of the Empire’s fleet.

They soared in like birds of prey, their starmetal-alloy razor wire slicing through each enemy craft as if it were butter rather than steel.

“Gosh, I sure do hate TIE fighters,” Red remarked as they sliced through dozens more of them, crippling the Empire’s army and ensuring a swift Rebel victory.

And that’s the story of how they saved the whole Galaxy.

Disqualified Entrant: Falling From Grace

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This submission was disqualified for reason: Submitted after deadline.

Author: Raharu

Hiding just out of their reach, she heard the sound of hoofs searching for her. She lay shrouded in the darkness of the forest. There was no doubt in her mind that they wanted to take her back, back to her father in Cloudsdale. She trembled. Her father would never understand; he would never permit it. Living on the ground is a disgrace, such a disgrace to a noble pegasus like her. She had heard it many times, but none of that mattered. She wanted to stay.

A chipmunk gently pulled pressed down against her hoof, looking for attention. She looked at it nervously and shook her head in a gentle way, so as not to make a sound. She wanted to watch her pursuers from a safe distance, and she definitely didn't want to be seen, but the chipmunk started pulling on her tail, like it wanted her to follow it.

“What is it?” she gently whispered to the chipmunk, but it just stared at her for a second, confused by the words, and then it pulled on her again. “No. Please stop.” But it didn't. Instead, a bird flew close to her and joined the chipmunk, yanking on her hair, pulling in the same direction. “What do you want?” she asked, trying to shoo the bird away.

“Who's there?” a thundering voice shouted in her direction. “Fluttershy?” She gasped and sat still, hoping that they would go away, but she could see them inching towards her, and she could hear their nostrils flaring. They have my scent, she thought.

The chipmunk bit down on her leg, and she let out a faint yelp. “Fluttershy!” she heard them shout in her direction.

Desperately, she turned towards the forest and ran, but her pursuers were right behind her. She had no chance. They're trained soldiers from the pegasus armed guard, and I'm just a little filly who can't even fly, she thought, but still she ran, hopeful that she could escape.

She had the advantage, being able to cut below branches with ease, but she could still hear their hoofs beating. She could still smell them, and that meant they could still smell her.

The woodland creatures followed her. They meant well, but they gave away her location. She ran, ran into the forest, into mist, and on all sides of her were small creatures, dozens on mice, chipmunks and squirrels. Above her were birds.

The mist grew stronger.

Her heart beat hard, and she couldn't continue running. She collapsed. Animals on all sides of her were panting too, too tired to defend her, and she could still hear the sound of hoofs, but strangely enough, the smell was different.

“Fluttershy?” She looking up, unable to comprehend what she saw.

Standing on two legs, its coarse and matted hair was furry and brown. Its hoofs made a strange echoing sound on grass, but that wasn't all that odd by comparison to the top half. It's top half was completely different, like it didn't fit. It was pale and hairless, with the exception of the head and face, like two different animals in one.

“La la la!” It skipped gayly around her while playing a flute.

“Who are you?” She asked, her eyes bulging, and her nose aching form the smell.

I took the flute out of my mouth. “I'm the writer of this story.” One of her eyebrows suddenly shot up.

“What happened to the ponies who were chasing me?” I stopped skipping.

“I'm bored... and out of time”


“I'm bored with this prompt.”


“I've tried. I really have tried, but I'm simply not a dark person who knows all about cutting ties. How the heck am I supposed to write about something I don't know?” She shrugged her shoulders. “Exactly. I was going to write all about this grand thing where you see me in the forest and you're all like 'whoa' and I'm all like 'yeah it's cool, right' and you're all like 'I can't stay here because I have evil parents', but you probably don't even have evil parents, do you?”

“Um,” she thought for a second in a cute way, “no.”

“Right. I mean, sure, they might be a little bit neglectful, letting a pegasus, who can't fly, live in the clouds and all, but it's just kind of weird trying to think up dark, evil pasts for ponies. 'Cutting ties'. Who the heck even came up with that anyway?” I sat down on a stump and sighed heavily.

“There, there, Mr. Writer.” She flew beside me and patted me on the back. “It's okay. You're not a bad writer, this just isn't your genre.”

“You think?”

“I'm positive. In fact,” she smiled brightly at me, “I thought the scene was really dramatic and intense.”

“Yeah?” I said in a hopeful tone. She nodded. “I wrote some really pretty scenery too. Look.” I snapped my fingers, and we were suddenly in a different part of the forest.

Sunlight poured onto a fine oak table, and all of the trees shimmered in the light, like they were drenched in morning dew. The surrounding area was covered with honeysuckle bushes and flowers, all of them coming up to about her chest, and a path lead to the table with grass that was warm to the touch.

“It's beautiful.” She flew up and twirled around the scenery, taking it all in.

“You don't think it was a little too... purple?”


“Yeah. It is. And the original story, man. It was just awful. This goat-human thing, that I'm supposed to be, was basically just a plot device.” I let out a puff of air in an attempt to laugh at myself. “I'm not really any different. I mean, all I am is this meta-character. I basically just failed at a self-insert.”

“Well,” she landed on my head, “all we have to do is develop your character a little, right?”

“I don't see how. I've already pretty much ruined the plot with my sloppy self-insert. I'm not even certain whose perspective we're in right now. Not to mention, there's no way we're accomplishing the prompt. It's not like-” I felt something warm and soft nuzzling the back of my neck, causing me flail wildly. “Fluttershy! What are you doing?”

“What's wrong?” she said, dawning her best bedroom eyes.

“What's wrong? What's wrong! For one, you're like four in this story! Not to mention the fact that you're a pony! I'm pretty sure cross species bestiality isn't allowed in the freaking write off.” I shoved my finger down my throat to signal my dislike.

“Well excuse me, princess. I didn't come up with this garbage!”

“Are you? I can't-You know what? Pinkie Pie is best pony. You and me are through.”

Disqualified Entrant: Grand

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This submission was disqualified for reason: Below minimum word count (1000).

Author: Dayanto

Her heart was rushing, it was almost time now. The planks beneath her feet, the fabric in the curtain before her, everything suddenly felt so real, more than anything had ever felt before. Turning her head to either side, she concluded once again that she was all on her own. Soon the curtains would open, drenching the stage in light. All of which would be pointed at her. And all around, the eyes of many hundreds of ponies would follow. She took a deep breath. It was only a matter of time now. Then suddenly, everything was bright. From the edge of her consciousness, she could vaguely sense the traces a massive applause. The light just grew stronger, engulfing her entire being, taking her far away. Then, as quickly as it all had started, everything turned quiet.

Slowly opening her eyes, the moonlight seemed blinding, seeking its way in through the window of the tree house. Silently yawning, Sweetie Belle sat herself upright. Lights, there had been something about lights… But what? She couldn’t remember. Only the rustling of the leaves broke the silence. Still snoozing next to her lay the remainder of the Cutie Mark Crusaders. The air was chilly; fresh, the way it only ever is during the night. She found herself gazing at the stars. It was now a year since their quest had commenced; a year of fun and great times, but also a whole year of failing their goal. She didn’t know how to feel. When was it going to be her turn?

Her eyes were lost in the stars. For a long while, the sparkling of the countless stars floating above seemed to be all there was until the distant hoot of an owl stole her attention. Her eyelids starting to getting heavy, she buried her head in the pillow. Maybe tomorrow…

Disqualified Entrant: To Find Where I Belong

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This submission was disqualified for reason: Below minimum word count (1000).

Author: Malevolent Spoon.

“Star Shine! Dinner!” came a call from the kitchen down below. However, there was no reply. Only silence for several moments before another call. “Star Shine!?” Again, there was no reply.

Frustrated, the elder mare climbed up the stairs to find her daughter’s door shut. However, a house rule called for it to stay open, so with an angry huff, she summoned her magic and opened the door with ease, and gasped.

The bedroom before her was empty.

“Star Shine?” she asked again, despite being sure that her daughter wasn’t inside. She was about to turn around to check the bathroom in the hallway behind her, when she spotted something on the bed. A small, curled piece of parchment, tied with a ribbon. “A... a note?”

With a flash of her horn, the paper was opened, on which was a letter:

Dear Mother and Father,

By the time you find this note, I won’t be “your daughter” anymore. I’ve figured it out. Sure, you guys could keep it a secret well enough, but not everypony in town felt the same.

How could you guys lie to me like this!? I have a right to know the truth as well as anyone! Do you know where they are!? Have you been hiding that too!? What kind of selfish, heartless

Look... I wanna thank you. You raised me as your own from long before I could remember. And even though I don’t think some of your methods were “appropriate,” there aren’t a lot of things I think I could do to repay you for that. But that’s not But, I know the truth now.

I’m leaving now, and I’m not coming back. I have to find them. At least for us to meet, face-to-face. I’m a full-grown mare now, I can manage on my own. You guys did your jobs. Don’t worry about me, I’ll be fine. Just... try to forget, okay? Don’t think about everything for too long. It’ll only make it harder.

I think that’ll do it. Goodbye, I really do love you, and I’ll never forget.

Star Shine

The letter slowly fell back onto the bed. The elderly mare didn’t shed a tear, her only visible emotion being a sad, empty stare out the window.

“What in the hay is takin’ so long up here!? I’ve been waitin’ for-” The mare’s husband, an old earth-pony farmer, stopped cold in the doorway. “... Honey? You alright?” he asked, slowly approaching his wife.

She turned to look at him, and as tears started to well up in her eyes, she embraced him tightly, letting out quiet sobs.

“What’s ‘a matter?” the husband asked, before he looked down and saw the letter. He took it into his hoof and read, and when he’d finished he sighed, and set the letter back down as well. Then, as he held his wife close, he repeated the same action, simply staring out the window, onto the single dirt road leading out of the farm, watching as the sun slowly set in the distance.

Disqualified Entrant: It Happens to the Best of Us

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This submission was disqualified for reason: Submitted after deadline.

Author: r8edmosth8ed

"Hey kid, where'd you learn to fly like that?" Her raspy voice squeaked to the muddy street.

"Rainbow..." Scoots splashed to the ground on her haunches.

They hadn't seen each other since the good old days. Scoots had grown now. Three years of cerebral palsy treatment. One summer in trekking over Equestria's mountains. One winter in the griffin skies. It's like all along, time was the only one to race against.

The mangy guard pulled at the net tighter. "I don't care who she saved back then. Right now, she's a danger to us all."

"Don't lock her up. I have a better idea." a desperate voice spoke.

Filthy Rich.

The good old days. The royal alicorns and Twilight left Equestria on royal matters. Twilight had somehow ascended everypony else, raising the bar for the more competitive of her friends.

"I hope that's rainwater in your eyes." The ragged pegasus peered through the rope.

Scoots didn't know what to say. "Let's go back."

"It's not that easy."

"Take her to the throne!" The mob shouted beneath her until she was flown off.

If you can hear past the wind blowing through the tall buildings of Ponyville, you can faintly hear that a song is hummed. As most of the citizens of the once-bustling city slept, the glow of one small cider house crept through small windows and into the narrow alleyways. Lonely souls drag their hooves to the clatter of foaming mugs, low voices, and slow music.

Heads turned and lips pulled up to momentary smiles at the sound of opening door. This is the greeting of the night. It is just the right amount of love. Hoof by hoof, the fastest flier in Equestria took a slow trot past quiet conversations and sat at a table in front of the band.

Hours passed. This was her last song of the morning. The mare on stage closed her eyes and pulsed her head to the piano. Her hums turned to words.

You are the warm to my cold

From the days of old

Sweetie's hoof spanned across the dark tables. A mug of hot cider sat unnoticed on Scootaloo's table.

My soul on fire, set me free

Creature, creature— why do you hide?

Sweetie opened her eyes and gasped, drawing glances.


"That's me."

She stepped off the stage and sat next to her old friend. The room applauded lightly.

"Where have you been?"

"With the griffins." She looked back at her wings. "I needed to catch up to somepony."

"Oh Scootaloo!"

"It's okay. I already found out."

"It was hard for her. No matter how fast she was, she could never be with her friends and the Wonderbolts at the same time."

"She pushed herself too far somehow."

Sweetie nodded. "While I was training with griffins, she challenged the dragons. She's been on the run ever since."

"Until tonight."

Patrons were saying their goodbyes to the owner, who began rolling barrels into the cellar.

Relief washed over Sweetie's face. "She was bound to face up to her mistakes. She'll be fine."

"I'm not worried. I just hope she gets better."

Sweetie spoke of how despite pony inferiority was law, Rarity found a way to keep most dragons in line. Her ability to control the gem market enabled her to become rich. Most ponies who did not stay in Ponyville followed Fluttershy into the Everfree in search of a new home. The Apple and Cake family, along with Pinkie Pie, work to provide food for the oppressed.

The owner had put away every trace of the night tavern when a beautiful white mare with a violet mane entered. She wore violet jewels and was escorted on both sides by scowling firebreathers dressed with the royal dragon flag.

"Rarity!" Scootaloo jumped up out of her nap on the table. The escorts stepped forward.

"Please, boys. Settle down. Old friends do not need to call me Miss Rarity. Wait outside." She shooed them away then put on a smile.

"It has been a while. You aren't part of the resistance, are you? I jest."

"No. I've just returned from a trip."

"I see. Everypony's been taking trips. Fluttershy is afraid of dragons, so I don't have to tell you that she left in a hurry when they started to settle. "

"Is there anything we can do to stop them?"

Rarity adjusted her necklace with a hoof. "I've given it thought, but with everypony so scattered, you may as well search for a new home. Even if the dragons leave, there are still diamond dogs."

Scootaloo started out the door. "Sweetiebelle, I'm going back to the skies for help."

Scootaloo entered the griffin skies for the second time. She was welcomed with open wings and awaited an answer. After thinking, the elder griffins made their decision.

"No. The final answer is no. If there is nothing in it for us, why should we care to burn our feathers?"

"Time is running out! If we leave now, we could free Rainbowdash. With her helping us, you wouldn't need to worry."

"Our answer is final."

A familiar punk griffin swooped in. "I'll go."

Canterlot was a city taken over. The dragons could not get through the magical barrier around the city, so they had diamond dogs dig under it in a sneak attack.

"Dragons don't seem like the type that would... you know... make plans." Scootaloo sped up.

"You know? I think you may be on to something." Gilda shouted over the wind.

A swarm of dragons patrolled the area, practicing their chomps and punches.

"If we go fast enough, do you think we can break through?" Scootaloo shouted back.

"Scootaloo, that's crazy."

"But it just might work?"

"No, it's just crazy!"

It was too late to argue. Scootaloo had already started gaining altitude. With a sigh, Gilda followed the orange speck into the zenith.

The clouds were far below them. The air was getting thin and tears trickled down Gilda's eyes. Something flashed downward next to her. Gilda heard a part of what she thought was a scream, but noted its resemblance to "C'mon!" A hole parted in the clouds below, revealing the rolling, green land of Equestria.

Is this pony nuts?

Gilda's head became light. Falling! She rattled her head awake and tilted her beak after Scootaloo. She had pumped into a few wingstrokes every last bit of her energy, so she could not lift them again. Her heart beat quickly from exhaustion and excitement. She relaxed for a moment, letting the air ruffle her feathers.

This is nothing like junior speedsters. I've missed this. This is Dash's flying.

Ahead of her, she imagined her buddy Dash in Scootaloo's place.


She tensed herself into aerodynamic perfection and quickly surpassed her highest speed.

"What took you so long?" Dash's smirk could be seen in her. The griffin inched up beside her.

A glow began to form, a rumble was heard, and then a flash of brilliant light appeared. In the city of Cloudsdale, blue flight suits were quickly dusted off at the colorful sight. The dragons scattered to the four corners and far depths of Equestria.

On the Canterlot castle grounds, Rainbowdash was being offered, net and all.

"You have what you all came for. She's the one you were looking for, now leave!"

Laughter rose from the throne. The dragon lord snarled through his yellow, crooked teeth.

"She did anger us, it is true. However," the shadowy figure shifted in the mobile throne.

"You must realize that I have acquired a certain... taste. A taste for—"

A rambunctious dragon threw out, "Taking anything we want."

Within an instant, the dragon was incinerated.

"A taste for sharing. We're trying to share with you our culture. We're trying to share the story of how dragons survive."

A long, sharp claw reached out of the shadows to stroke the cheek and caress the chin of a teary-eyed Rarity. "W-we m-must be—"

"Louder." The dark mass lowly rumbled."

"We must be— generous— to whomever needs it."

Two pointed claws reached toward Rainbow's net and lifted it with ease.

"We will need many gems for the journey back." A snort of hot smoke puffed into Rainbow. "Who knows how long it will take?"


A solid hoof slams into the dragon's jaw, creating chaos in the skies with the unorganized liftoff of a dozen dragons. No sooner than they could adjust their bearings, lightning cloudtrails swooped into the picture, tipped with Cloudsdale's heroes. It was Wonderbolts versus firebreathers. Beneath the blasts of fire and pegasus tornadoes, Rainbowdash's rope prison was cut by griffin claws.


The dragons flew into the sunset with a little less machismo than they once had.

"Why didn't you come see me? Why did you stay where you could get caught?" Gilda did not face her old friend.

"I've done a lot of thinking." Dash laid down in the tall grass. "I don't want to fly away from my problems anymore."

Scootaloo crash-landed nearby, out of breath. Dash dragged herself closer to the feathery heap.

"I'm not going to run away, but I'm not cut-out for this loyalty stuff. I think somepony else needs to be where I can't." Scootaloo's eyes were closed and her mane was in a mess over her face.

"So what now?"

"I'm leaving."

"You brought all of these friends together and now you're just going to leave? After all this, you're even going to let her wake up without you?" Gilda whipped her wings forcefully.

"Sorry." Dash was struggling to lift her head to the windblown Scootaloo.

"Pft. Whatever. The ponies who had the displeasure of meeting me forgave me. They'll forgive you too."

"I need to forgive myself first."

Gilda kicked up a plume of dust and turned around. "That sonic rainboom will bring them back! They'll all come back!"

She sat next to Scootaloo, asleep in the grass.

"I wish it was that easy."


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Another write-off, another round of great stories. It's been an interesting three weeks—that's for sure. I could make a speech here, but that would require, like, effort (and nobody reads these flavour texts anyway).

So without further ado, let's get on with it.

. . .


Top 5

Gold Medal
Sweet Escape by Bob From Bottles (7.31)

Silver Medal
Never by shortskirtsandexplosions (8.56)

Bronze Medal
Only Half by The Great and Powerful!Trixie (8.06)

Copper Medallions
His Other Self by I_Post_Ponies (7.21)
What We Leave Behind by Golden Vision (7.06)

Top 10

Murky Medallions
Wings of Icarus by RogerDodger (6.80)
Curse, Bless Me Now by Pascoite (6.69)
No Foals by Flashgen (6.69)
Overthinking It by Nicholas Taylor (6.33)
Resurgence by UnlicensedBrony (6.33)

Top 30

Participation Certificate
Thesis by Pav Fiera (6.14)
Now Departing by Zay-el (5.89)
The Pink Slip by Cassius (5.88)
The Note by Eustatian (5.33)
Secret Agent Cake by PresentPerfect (5.21)
World-Famous by Chocolate Milk (5.20)
Long Live the Queen by Tactical!Rainboom (4.81)
The Mane Six in: Tie Fighters by shazb0t (4.53)
Memories by TheOnly (4.50)
Sins of the Sister by DJnickbeta (4.41)
Knot on My Watch by Casca (4.38)
A Cut Above by Compendium of Steve (4.35)
Cutting Ties with Pinkie by theworstwriter (4.05)
Standing in My Shadow by theworstwriter (3.88)
Departure of a Friend by Dublio (3.71)
The Secret of Ponyville by LunarShadow (2.53)
Regrets by Anon (2.45)
Whack a Mage by Minjask6572 (1.88)
Lyra Meets a Strange Ugly Creature by WriterInTraining (1.83)

I extend again a congratulations to everyone who participated, no matter how well you performed!


Full vote breakdown: (also in the spreadsheet below)
Total number of voters: 20

Giant spreadsheet full o' numbers numbers and graphs and stuff:

The Judges
The final five were sent to a panel of five judges: Cassius, Corejo, Dublio, Filler, and Pascoite. Their comments and individual rankings:

Each judge ranked the final five from best to worst, 1st–5th. The scores for the finalists were calculated by the following: 25 – (sum of ranks). For example, a story that that was ranked 5th by all five judges would get a score of zero. Judge tally:

Global Results
Previous event statistics:


Now for the esoteric awards:

Most Controversial
A Cut Above (3.05)
Thesis (2.77)
No Foals (2.59)

Least Controversial
The Note (1.58)
Lyra Meets a Strange Ugly Creature (1.64)
Only Half (1.66)

Most Consistent Reponses
Never with 8 (10)s
Wings of Icarus with 8 (7)s

Least Consistent Reponses
Secret Agent Cake with 3 (5)s and (7)s
Sweet Escape with 3 (7)s, (8)s, (9)s, and (10)s
Thesis with 3 (6)s, (7)s, and (8)s

They're all in the spreadsheet ( Screenshots are for newponies.

Closing Notes
By request I've set up a mailing list to have you notified by e-mail when a new event is announced. If you'd like to be added to this list, send me an e-mail (roger.dodger.pony a saying so (or otherwise find some way to let me know).

Again, thank you all—voters, submitters, spectators, mathemagicians, etc.—for your participation in making this a great success!