The Enchanted Kingdom

by Monochromatic

First published

As an ancient alicorn trapped inside a library, Princess Twilight spent many a century dreaming of being rescued from her prison. Now, finding herself in an entirely new Equestria, she realizes she'd never planned for somepony to actually succeed...

It's easy to think about fairytales when you’re an ancient alicorn trapped in a library for centuries on end. It's easy to wonder how one would go about rescuing you, to think and devise and plot out how to free you in a blaze of glory, intrigue, adventure, and romance.

Or, rather, it’s easy until suddenly it happens and you’re forced to ask yourself the one terrifying question you’d yet to consider.

Now what?


PATREON!
Original story inspired by an old oneshot.
Chapter Art by Arctic Waters and lilfunkman// Graphic Design and Typography by Swan Song.

~ Prologue ~ The Storyteller of Luna Bay ~

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On the northwestern-border of Equestria and The Undiscovered West, at the edge of Luna Bay, rested a small forgotten village by the name of Moon Shine. It did not feature on most maps as there was nothing remarkable about it beyond twenty houses, a run-down shop, a small school, a tiny post-office, and an inn older than all of the villagers combined.

If somepony had asked North Ridge when was the last time he'd stepped into an Equestrian town, the only truly accurate reply would be thirty-two years ago. Though he'd recently shaved his beard, the wrinkles on his face betrayed his age. Many would say that the earth pony was not elderly by any stretch of the imagination, and yet, he felt old.

Thirty-two years of travels had aged his soul.

Nighttime had fallen long ago, and the frigid wind and snow from the northern mountains fell down upon his dirty cloak and the sleeping village. He had hoped to find a settlement in daylight and ask for guidance, but life had taught him hopes were a bit a bushel.

It was odd to be back in Equestria, he thought as he walked the main street, looking for some sign of life. Had things changed? Or were they all the same as when he left? He yearned for familiarity, and yet the idea of nothing having changed was disappointing somehow. No last adventures, no secrets to be discovered.

Finally, he saw some promise in the distance, in the shape of what seemed to be an open establishment, lights shining out the windows. He could not see too clearly through the snowfall, but he'd travelled enough to recognize an inn when he saw one.

As he approached, the inn door swung open and out stumbled a young unicorn stallion. It seemed somepony had drank more than they could handle.

He trotted towards the stallion and waved.

"Excuse me!" he called, straining his voice so as to be heard despite the wind and snow. "Sir!"

The stallion blinked at him, and North's nose crinkled at the stench coming off him. "Huh? You're talking to me?" he asked, studying the older stallion with wary eyes.

"I am, yes!" North replied, finding himself happy to converse with a pony despite the circumstances. He looked around and asked, "Where are we? I've been travelling, and this place isn't on my map." He looked southward, where a shore was visible in the distance. "That is Luna Bay, isn't it?"

The stallion snorted. "Hah! Figures Moon Shine wouldn't be on any map. Nothin' good ever happens in this good-for-nothing place. Sick of it." He coughed once, twice, thrice, and rubbed his runny nose with a hoof. "You should go somewhere else."

North smiled sympathetically. "I suppose drinks don't heal all wounds."

The stallion grimaced. "I didn't go there to heal any wound, old-timer. I went in there for a nice time, and then the prettiest mare I've ever seen tells me to get lost when I asked her to join me, and then the innkeeper throws me out for that!" He stopped and groaned, rubbing his forehead. "Ugh." He looked back at North. "You're not from here. What's your deal?"

"I've been away from Equestria!" North exclaimed, standing up straighter. He was a remarkable traveler, if he said so himself. "And I've just come back after thirty-two years of travels! I'm heading to Canterlot. How is Princess Amore, if I may ask?"

"Deader than my chances with the mare from the pub," the stallion bluntly replied. "And her daughter's gone crazy. Bad time to come back, old-timer."

A pang shot through North's heart. Princess Amore was an older pony when he left Equestria, so it made sense that her child—Princess Denza, she liked to be called?—was now the ruling monarch.

"Crazy, you say?" he asked, raising an eyebrow. "She always did seem a bit rebellious, I suppose. What did she do to make you say that?"

"Grab a newspaper, pops. You wouldn't believe me even if I told you," the stallion replied, walking away and rubbing his no doubt throbbing headache. "I just hope Seeking Night wasn't your favorite holiday 'cause we don't need it anymore."

North watched him go. Strange things said by a strange stallion, he thought before walking towards the inn.

A sign swung above the oak door, proclaiming the worn down building as The Moonlit Inn. What a delightful name! With renewed interest, he pushed the door open and stepped inside.

As to be expected from the late hour, the dimly-lit establishment was nearly empty save for a few patrons drinking the night away. He took his cloak off, put it on the nearby rack, and when he turned towards the bar, was surprised to see no innkeeper in sight. He approached the counter and rang the deskbell.

"Give me a minute!" a voice called from inside the kitchen.

"Of course!" he called back.

That done, he turned around to find a spot to sit and, if he was lucky, somepony to share a drink with. A stallion sat by the bar, his face resting against his crossed forelegs, and the snores coming from him quickly crossed him out as a viable option. He looked to the left, saw a couple snuggling their youth away at a booth, and an aching heart forced him to look away. Finally, upon glancing right, he found the ideal candidate.

A unicorn mare sat alone at a table in the corner of the bar, and though he'd long ago stopped caring for love, he could still appreciate her beauty despite the obscuring shadow of her chosen spot. The lights were off around her, and yet she did not seem to be bothered.

The first thing he saw was her well-kept indigo mane which fell over her face, as if hiding her away. His eyes traveled down her pale gray coat, searching for her cutie mark. The sight of it torn away by three jarring scars gave him a start.

Well, well, he thought, it seems I have found the infamous heartbreaker.

He saw no drinks on her table, and though he'd been interested in approaching, he now wondered if it that was a wise decision. The last thing he wanted was for her to assume he had ill intent. It seemed he would be drinking alone that night.

Or he thought he would, until she turned and looked straight at him, and he had the sense she'd known he'd been watching her. They stared at each other silently, both waiting for the other to react, and so did North approach her when she finally smiled at him.

"Hello!' he greeted brightly, nodding his head towards the spot opposite her. "Is this seat taken?"

The mare smiled. "That depends entirely on what you seek to gain from sitting there, sir," she said, voice melodious.

North chuckled. "I can promise you I don't seek what the stallion that just left was looking for," he assured. "I only want to hear a story I've never heard before, and you look like somepony who has interesting stories to tell!"

Her smile grew, apparently pleased by his statement. "You are a flatterer, aren't you? But you're also quite right. I have stories ponies would hardly believe." She tilted her head. "You seem interesting yourself, sir. Please, do sit down."

"I will, but first, a drink! It's been a long day," he said, having noticed the innkeeper’s return. "What will I be bringing you?"

"Nothing, I fear," she replied. "I don't have my bitbag with me at the moment."

North smiled. "You can repay me with a story, then," he said, and again asked, "What will I be bringing you?"

Finally, after a moment's hesitation, she accepted. "Whatever you're having will do."

Though the innkeeper had returned, his attention was hardly on his customers and more on the newspaper floating before him. The younger stallion's words echoed in North's mind, and he found himself trying to catch a glance at the front page, but only succeeded in reading as far as "Princess Cadenza Armor the Tenth's Shocking—"

"Evening," the stallion said, putting the newspaper away and giving North an expectant stare. "What can I get you?"

North hummed, looking upwards and scanning over the menu hanging on the wall. His first drink in Equestria! It had to be a very important and unique drink befitting such a momentous occasion.

"Black coffee, please!" he said, licking his lips. "Make that two of them. One for me and one for my new friend!"

The bartender's brow furrowed slightly, and North saw him glance at the mare for a moment. When she smiled, he replied.

"Black coffee it is," he said, finally. "Anything to eat?"

North hummed again. "A daffodil and daisy sandwich should do."

The bartender nodded and headed off towards the kitchen, giving North time to idle around. His new friend was still at her table, now entertained by examining her forehoof. What an intriguing mare, he thought. There was something about her, like she were trying to hide something away in that dark corner of the bar.

His mind wandered towards the newspaper again, and his curiosity clawed at him. He'd seen the innkeeper stash the newspaper away inside the counter, so… a quick peek at the front page surely wouldn't hurt? He'd once outrun feral lions; he could certainly read a newspaper before the owner came back.

He walked around the counter and spotted the stashed object. He inched towards it, taking a moment to inspect everything else behind the counter, and froze when his eyes met the wastebasket.

Inside it were a dozen or so scrunched up newspaper pages, and though that wasn't an altogether shocking sight, there happened to be a single page that had simply been thrown away rather than crumpled into a ball. It was because of this that he'd caught the word "MISSING" printed at the top in large red letters, and yet it was not that fact that caught his attention, but the photograph printed below it. Blinking, he grabbed the paper and found himself staring at a wrinkled photo of the very same mare still inspecting her hoof at her table.

At that moment, North Ridge learned three important details about his new friend.

One: Her name was Rarity.

Two: She had last been seen several days ago near a place called Dodge Junction which, if memory served, was entirely on the other side of Equestria.

Three: A mere two days ago, Princess Denza had launched a kingdom-wide search for her.

And yet there she sat, admiring her hooficure with unusual interest.

A sound came from the kitchen: hoofsteps drawing closer. North quickly threw away the page and returned to his spot in front of the counter. It had been quite some time since his heart had last beat as fast as it did now. There had only ever been one mare he'd found more fascinating than this Rarity, and that had been his own wife.

"Here you go," the innkeeper said, a tray with a plate and two cups of coffee floating behind him. "Enjoy."

"Th-Thank you!" North sputtered, trotting to the coat hanger and pulling his bitbag out the pocket of his cloak. "How much will that be?"

The bartender again glanced at Rarity before saying, "Don't mind that. It's on the house."

North blinked. "I—Really? Are you sure?"

"Yes," he said. "Just don't upset her, or I'll have to ask you to leave."

"Of course not," North said, bowing his head before taking the tray and walking back to his very interesting table companion.

"Here you are!" he exclaimed after setting down the tray, subsequently sitting across from the mare. "On the house, too! Lucky day for both of us!"

"Glass Drops has been quite kind to me," she replied, watching as he placed the cup before her. She then fluttered her eyelashes and added, "Though I do appreciate your intention." She leaned back a bit and tilted her head. "So, Mister…"

"North Ridge," he filled in. "And you?"

"Princess Rarity the First," she replied simply.

North blinked, raising an eyebrow. "Really?" he asked, and so did she giggle.

"No, but you cannot deny me the simple pleasure of making a stranger believe I'm royalty," she replied. Her ears then flickered and her brow furrowed. "Then again," she continued, and she lifted her hoof for a moment as if to grasp the pink broken crystal hanging from her neck, until she stopped and lowered her hoof. "I was hoping to be princess-consort. Or I may yet still be. I'm not quite sure anymore."

Rarity fell silent, staring down at her coffee, lost in thought. What was she thinking, he wondered.

"So, North Ridge," she spoke up, lifting her gaze towards him. "What is your story?"

North grinned. "Miss Rarity, I asked you that first."

"Indeed you did," she replied, "but a lady does not divulge her secrets to just anypony."

"Fair enough," North said, taking a big gulp of his coffee. When he put the cup down, he rubbed a hoof against his muzzle, deep in thought. "I am a traveler, if that tells you anything. I left Equestria as a young stallion to explore the lands beyond the western border, and thirty-two years later, I've finally come back home."

"Well! That is quite the story, if a bit too brief," she said, but the smile she wore clearly showed she was pleased. She leaned in a bit, her ears perked towards him. "Thirty-two years is quite a long time. What brought you back to Equestria?"

He did not hesitate. "My wife, Frost Flower."

Her eyes suddenly sparkled with life. "Really? She sounds lovely," she exclaimed and then giggled. "I can imagine she'd be quite worried if you've been gone for thirty-two years."

His heart twisted a little, and though it was a subject he did not share with others, he felt inspired for once. "Those who are gone do not worry about the living, Miss Rarity," he said carefully, and felt somewhat bad when the sparkles in her eyes vanished. "She was my companion not just in life, but in travel. Sadly, she's gone now."

"Oh. My condolences."

He waved her off with a hoof. "It's all right. As they say, time will heal all wounds."

Again, she seemed lost in thought, staring at her coffee. "You must miss her terribly," she said.

"All the time," he admitted. "I thought it would ease with the years, but it hasn't. I see her everywhere. It's like she's haunting me."

Rarity looked up at him, suddenly amused. "Love makes ghosts of us all, it would seem."

"How about you?" he asked in return. "Do you have somepony you love?"

It was the right question to ask for the intensity of her sudden smile surprised him. The sparkle in her eyes returned, yet something else was there, something sad, he could tell. But that smile. It was not the largest smile he'd seen, yet it was by far one of the most sincere smiles he'd ever gotten from a stranger.

"I do," she replied, sitting up straight. "I do, and I'm embarrassed to think about just how madly in love I am with her. My only consolation is that I'm quite certain she's just as madly in love with me."

A grin pushed itself onto his lips. What a painful yet heartwarming sight. It made him think of his wife, and he wished she were there. He was sure Frost and Rarity would have been fast friends.

"What's her name, if I may ask?"

Without hesitation, and with a smile, she replied, "Twilight Sparkle."

He thought about remarking on what a lovely name that was, but another question drifted into his mind. Those missing posters clung in his memory, and so did the answers he sought, prompting him to carefully ask, "And does she know you're here?"

"If you ask because of the missing posters—yes, I saw you looking at them—then no, she does not know I'm here," she replied. Her eyes softened, and the sadness in them deepened—as if that very fact of keeping secrets from her beloved wounded her.

"Miss Rarity, if I promise to keep your secret, will you tell me the story behind that poster?" he asked, having found an entryway into what promised to be a tale to remember. "I won't be leaving for Canterlot until tomorrow, and it's been some time I've shared an Equestrian coffee with a friend."

She hummed, inspecting him with her gaze. "I won't be leaving for Ponyville until tomorrow night," she said eventually, and with a tilt of her head, agreed. "All right, then. Have you heard of the Myth of the Four Princesses?"

"When I was a foal," he replied. "Once upon a time lived four beautiful princesses who slighted a terrible beast, and as punishment, he trapped three of them throughout the land, doomed to live as spirits while the remaining princess and her descendants were cursed to never find the others."

"And which princess is your favorite?" she asked, and the sudden seriousness in her expression was jarring considering the foalishness of her line of questioning.

"Is that relevant?" he asked.

"Absolutely," she replied.

He chuckled. "Then I would say the answer to be Princess Dusty Scrolls. I don't know what name you know her by, but that was the name for her in my hometown."

She frowned. "Princess Dusty Scrolls? That's the youngest of the princesses! What wonderful taste you have!" She grinned at him for a moment and then hummed thoughtfully. "Hmm… That would mean you're from Tall Tales, are you not?" she ventured, and so did she give a winning smile when he nodded. "I'm from Ponyville! We refer to her as Princess Booky back home, and—yes, yes, I know it's not the most original of names, don't laugh!"

North grinned at her. "And what does Princess Booky have to do with your missing posters, then?"

"Why, everything," she replied, and then leaned in, looking to either side conspiratorially. "I found her," she said completely and utterly seriously. "I found the lost princess, North Ridge!"

He stared at her for quite some time.

"Did you now?" he asked, amused. He didn't know what Rarity was getting at, but he could admit it was entertaining.

"I did! It's true!" she insisted, nodding her head. "I found her inside the Everfree Forest, and she now walks upon Equestria, free of her forsaken library. We've become very close, you know."

"Have you now? I must say I've met and seen all manner of creatures and beings during my travels, but I've yet to befriend an ages-old lost princess," he admitted, delighting in playing her silly game. "You have to tell me, then, what is her real name?"

And again, without hesitation, and with an even broader smile, she replied, "Twilight Sparkle."

North Ridge stared at her for what felt like years. He lifted his cup of coffee and took a lengthy drink before putting it down and looking at her again.

"The very same Twilight Sparkle that you're madly in love with, and who is madly in love with you?"

Her grin widened. "The very same, yes."

"Miss Rarity," he said, leaning forwards, "the conviction with which you say these lies is very impressive."

"Now, North! We're such frightfully good friends, and yet you doubt me?" she asked with mock-offense. "What reason could I possibly have to lie to you about such things?"

He thought about his answer to that for quite some time, staring at her coffee and noting she'd been talking for so long, she had yet to have a single sip.

"To be honest," he finally said, "I can't think of any reason, and more than that, I think I actually want to believe your fantastic tale." He gestured for her to continue. "You found Princess Twilight Sparkle, a spirit of olde, and then you freed her from her prison?"

"Not at all," Rarity replied, and in her voice he detected a great deal of pride. "She freed herself. My beloved escaped her personal Tartarus by fighting the fiercest of her inner demons, and she came out all the stronger for it."

He hummed. "I've learned in my travels that the fiercest of creatures were often forged in the harshest of fires."

"Precisely," she replied. "And my privileged role was simply to light the flame."

North took his cup for the third time, and finished it off in one go. When he put it down again, he examined her with the same curiosity as she had earlier regarded him with.

"You tell interesting stories, Miss Rarity."

She fluttered her eyelashes. "We are all stories in the end, North. I will be a fairytale, just as you will one day. Better make them interesting ones, wouldn't you agree?"

"I do! Very much so! That same ideology is what drove me to explore the west!" He licked his lips, wondering how many more cups of coffee would he be drinking that night. "So then, our fairytale princess saved herself from her terrible demons? What happened next?"

Rarity's response was simple. "She fell asleep."

He blinked. "She fell asleep," he repeated. "And what happened next?"

Rarity giggled, raising an eyebrow. "Isn't it obvious?" she asked. "She woke up."


~ Act I ~ Chapter 1 ~ The Princess Awoken ~

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Once upon a time, nestled in a comfy bed and somepony's embrace, an alicorn stirred awake. A yawn escaped her lips, and upon opening her eyes, she saw the night sky beyond the bedroom window, filled with stars and constellations. They were distant and faded, beautiful and clear all at once, and she named each one in her head.

At the back of her mind, she thought the stars in her dreams had never been clearer.

She closed her eyes, a smile blooming on her lips, and it felt like the soft pillow under her head had drained her every thought and worry, lulling her away into a peaceful sleep. Her chest rose and fell with every breath, as it unnecessarily had for a thousand years now, simply out of mere habit.

If one actually stopped and considered the inherent nature of dreams, the one she was currently having was stunningly vivid. She missed having dreams. This was the first she'd had in such a long time, considering that being displaced in time made it impossible to sleep.

Silence reigned for a moment.

In the dead of the night, Princess Twilight Sparkle jerked up to a sitting position, wide-eyed and completely and utterly alert to what now revealed itself to be anything but a dream. Her chest heaved and heaved with every quick breath, and her eyes darted around the unfamiliar room.

Old carved desks, mirrors, bookcases filled not with books but stacks of fabrics, this and more filled the space around her. It all looked familiar, but she was certain she'd never stepped hoof in a room such as this one.

Before she could properly ascertain the situation, she was interrupted by something stirring beneath the covers and a pair of small hooves tugging at her barrel, trying to hug as much of her as they could. She carefully lifted the bedsheets and was surprised to find a familiar silver filly curled up against her, her pale coat now bearing the same ink splotches covering Twilight and the bedsheets.

Sweetie Belle?

Sweetie was fast asleep, nuzzling her face against Twilight, and so did Twilight's memories come rushing back. The chaos magic, the barrier breaking, Discord's now seemingly baseless threat, her freedom, the fact that she could breathe now, and…and Rarity in the library, and their kiss, and the heavenly sensation of falling asleep in her forelegs.

For a thousand years, Princess Twilight Sparkle had been trapped in a lost library.

For a thousand years, she had been nothing but a spirit, doomed to wander the same halls, read the same books for centuries and centuries to come.

For a thousand years, she had abandoned all hope to ever be free of her mental and physical prison.

And just like that, she was now free.

And now she realized she was in the room of the one pony who'd gone above and beyond for her, fought dragons, and curses, and timberwolves, and all manner of demons for her.

She quickly looked to the other side of the bed, and to her disappointment, found that no pony save for her and Sweetie Belle occupied it. Though the necklace hanging from her neck glowed a bright pink, a longing sensation now filled her chest, and she realized she needed more than a quick communication spell. The only thing she wanted now was to see Rarity again.

She carefully extracted herself from Sweetie's forelegs, slid off the bed, and then stopped when she felt something—or, rather, somepony—tug at her.

"Princess Twilight…?"

She turned around to find Sweetie Belle looking up at her with sleepy eyes, horn lit up and magic holding onto the alicorn.

"Princess Twilight," Sweetie continued in a mumble, a tiny yawn escaping her lips, "where are you going?"

"I…" Twilight faltered. She didn't actually know where to look for Rarity.

"Are you coming back?" Sweetie continued, and it was obvious she was struggling to keep her eyes open. "You won't leave again…?"

A pang shot through the alicorn's heart. A voice inside whispered a reminder of the pain she'd caused, but she smothered it and instead smiled warmly at the filly. "I'm just going to go find Rarity, okay?"

Sweetie nodded, a tired smile drawing on her lips as she closed her eyes, her magic spell fading out.

Twilight turned around again, trotting towards the closed door and then faltering before it. Her instinct had been to use her magic to turn the doorknob, but she licked her lips and lifted her hoof instead, her breath catching in her throat when it landed firmly on the silver handle. Slowly, she opened the door, her ears twitching at the creaking sound of the door opening wide and revealing a dimly lit hallway.

A delighted giggle left her lips, her heart now pounding against her ribcage.

It was over. It was really, really over.

She stepped out into the hallway, closing the door behind her and trying to decide on where to go. Closed doors were scattered along the length of the walls, and her curiosity drove her to them. The first one was locked, as was the second, and when she made to try the third, distant noises caught her attention.

As she approached, the sounds of hoofsteps drifted up from below. She reached the stairs and walked down, her attention now caught by the framed photographs hung on the wall. The first was a picture of Rarity and her family, and Twilight's eyes lingered on the older ponies. Would they like Twilight? Did they even know about her?

She continued down, and again paused at the next photograph, depicting several excited ponies posing in front of a dark blue building, its walls decorated with crescent moon windows and paintings of stars and constellations. An ornate sign hung atop the door, identifying the place as "Lullaby's Dreamland" and below it stood Rarity and Pinkie Pie, both smiling widely.

Whatever that was, it had clearly happened after she'd… she'd…

She swallowed, creeping dark thoughts clawing at her mind, and she pushed on, taking in the sight of a third picture. A smile spread on her lips, observing a photograph of all her friends gathered around Spike, laughing and talking and being together while she was…

She looked away and closed her eyes, a lump forming in her throat. She'd been gone for nearly two years, hadn't she? It was what she'd been told, and it was jarring. She didn't feel like two years had gone by; she felt like she'd argued with Rarity only yesterday, and yet here was the evidence of that rift in time, showcased in memories formed without her.

Home is where the heart is and by that adage, she thought she was home in Rarity's embrace, but now? Only then and there did she realize that home might not be as she remembered it.

And if it wasn't, then what else did she have?

She took a deep breath and opened her eyes, stepping down the stairs and pointedly avoiding looking at the other photographs. She could look at them later, she told herself, ignoring the painful curiosity breathing down her neck.

When she finally reached the last step, her attention was caught by a brightly lit room, a wonderful smell wafting out of it. She walked towards it, drawn in by the smell, and her breath caught at the sight she found.

Rarity sat at the kitchen table, her chin pressed against a hoof, her gaze lost in the distance as her magic idly stirred the cup of tea in front of her. She’s beautiful, was Twilight’s first thought, and at the same time, she found herself intimidated by the mare.

Two years had gone by.

Ponies could change in two years. Nothing was constant in life, after all, and it concerned her to think she knew nothing of the unicorn she was helplessly taken by. Her eyes then landed on the three scars marking Rarity's flank, and so did a sharp pain cross her chest, pushing her back into the hallway.

Rarity was hurt, or rather, had been hurt. Physically and emotionally, and Twilight had been at the root of it all. Hadn't Rarity said as much in the library? That they would fight and argue, not then but eventually, and eventually was now, and… and just the thought of there being an issue between them was enough for her chest to ache.

She took a deep breath. She needed to fix it, whatever the problem was. Actually, technically speaking, there was a long list of things she had to fix, but Rarity was the closest and most important one, so fixing that issue would not only ease her chest pains, but also…

A blush decorated her cheeks.

Maybe then she'd be allowed to return a certain gesture.

She returned to the kitchen, forcing herself inside, and tentatively called out.

"Rarity?"

Though she did not raise her chin, Rarity shifted her gaze towards the alicorn, and so did Twilight's insecurities creep up as Rarity did and said nothing. She simply stared, her expression focused, no doubt deep in thought. As they looked at each other across the gaping threshold that stood between them, Twilight wished she knew what the other was thinking.

Was she mad? Happy? Regretful? These and more questions posed themselves to the alicorn awkwardly standing by, waiting for Rarity to do, well, something.

Finally, she did.

"Once upon a time," she said, her voice carrying out like a storyteller in front of an audience, a smile blooming on her lips, "there was a mare more beautiful than the sun and moon themselves."

A matching smile pushed itself onto Twilight's lips.

"Oh?" Twilight asked, her smile turning into a smirk, already predicting Rarity's reply. "And she lived in a boutique in Ponyville?"

Rarity fluttered her eyelashes and giggled, like no time had passed and they were back in the library. "Well, she lived in an ancient library, but darling, I'm flattered," she replied, and yet no sooner had she done so, her expression shifted from amused to pensive. She finally lifted her hoof towards Twilight, a silent beckoning motion, and so did Twilight assent. When she reached her, Rarity's hoof pressed against Twilight's cheek and she quietly asked, "How did you sleep?"

"I slept all right, I think," she replied, her eyes focused on Rarity, trying to stop herself from nuzzling into the unicorn's hoof. It was still electric, still fascinating, the mere idea and realization that they could touch now. She then belatedly asked, "And you?"

Rarity's hoof lowered, and she turned her sights to the teacup before her, her hooves wrapping around it. She chuckled. "I slept enough, all things considered." For a moment, her eyes darted back to Twilight. "I woke up several times throughout the night."

Twilight frowned. "That's weird. You always sleep soundly in the library," she noted. Had Rarity's sleeping patterns changed in the past years?

"I do! Or did, at least, but it's..." she drifted off, or cut herself off, more like.

"But?" Twilight pressed, her concern growing.

"But all this excitement is simply keeping my mind awake!" Rarity hastily replied, and Twilight knew that wasn't what she'd meant to say.

Her brow furrowed even more. "Are you sure?" she asked, and yet even as she did so, even after catching Rarity's split-second hesitation and knowing something had not been said, some part of her felt like the words unsaid were not words she wanted to hear.

Rarity smiled again, tilting her head to the side. "I am. Really. In any case, you've enough to worry about without me adding my silly sleeping troubles onto that, hmm?"

There was something wrong with that statement, which was the idea that Twilight would mind solving Rarity's troubles. It bothered her, in fact, that something was even troubling Rarity, but she did not press the issue for now.

"All right," she said, tearing her eyes away from the unicorn and looking around the room, her eyes dancing from object to object.

Some things she recognized as she walked to them, kitchen appliances that she knew from ages past, and others she had absolutely no idea what they were. She approached a white device with a whisk sticking out of it, her eyes drawn to the several buttons built into it.

She then looked up, at the cabinets and drawers, and her eyes landed on a clock, marking the time as half past six in the morning. Again, she thought it unusual for Rarity to be awake at such an hour, and though she again wanted to fix whatever issue plagued Rarity, she relented.

Her eyes continued, as did her steps, and so did she see a little porcelain salt shaker in the shape of… Cadance?

A gasp left her lips, and she levitated the object into the air. "Rarity!" she said, turning around and finding the unicorn had been silently watching her. She trotted towards her, levitating the salt shaker in front of Rarity. "Where's Cadance? And Spike? And Luna?! Can I see them?! Are they here?!"

Despite Twilight's flurry of questions, Rarity remained calm, her eyes following the salt shaker. "I imagine Spike is sleeping near the Everfree Forest. He was very intent on staying awake to greet you, but that dragon needs his twelve-hour nap, it seems! All he does is sleep; it's rather impressive. As for Princess Cadance," she continued, taking the salt shaker and setting it down on the table, "she is in Canterlot Castle! I didn't exactly know when you'd be joining the land of the awoken, so I booked train tickets for tomorrow instead of today."

"We're going to see her?!" Twilight asked, excitedly stamping her hooves against the floor.

"Yes, and afterwards we're going to Princess Luna," Rarity continued. She raised her cup and took a sip of her drink. "I don't think she, the girls, or the Professor took kindly to all of us just up and leaving home without any sort of explanation whatsoever."

There were several things that caught Twilight's attention in that sentence. She had no idea who 'the girls' were, and she assumed 'the Professor' referred to that stallion with absolutely ridiculous theories, but her mind, intent on pain as ever, clung to one word.

Home.

Though it had been nearly two years for Rarity, for Twilight it had been only a week since Rarity had returned to the library and she still remembered the way the unicorn had nonchalantly referred to the library as her home, and now…

Now, someplace else was home to her, because Twilight had pushed her away.

Dark thoughts rose in her mind, and the pains in her chest returned, amplified by the mere fact that physical pain had been foreign to her for such a long time. She'd hurt Rarity, one more pony to add to the list of mistakes she'd made, and a groan escaped her lips as she pressed her hoof against her forehead, wishing the intrusive thoughts would go far, far away.

Her actions did not go unnoticed by Rarity, however, and not a moment after she'd rubbed her forehead soothingly did her friend immediately rise up and rush to her.

"Twilight, what's wrong?" she asked urgently, her face marred by a concern Twilight immediately wished to fix.

"Oh, uh..." Though she wanted to, Twilight did not step back, and though she wanted to lie and say all was well, she forced herself to be honest. Hiding her feelings was what had caused such a mess in the first place, after all. "I..." She gulped down, shame burning her. "I was thinking about…" The words 'what I did' caught in her throat. Perhaps she could try to be more honest some other time. "Sorry. Bad thoughts."

Rarity's concern dissipated only slightly.

"I see," she said softly, and for a moment she lifted her hoof as if to touch Twilight, except she faltered and put it down on the floor in a noticeably forced way. "Thoughts can be terrible things, can they not?" Rarity continued, looking down at the floor, again lost in thought.

Twilight stood there, quite unsure of what to do. Well, no, that wasn't entirely correct. She knew she wanted to ask Rarity what was wrong, and if she was mad, but every answer her mind concocted again and again pinned herself as the terrible cause. Oh, it was tempting enough, to step back and run away, make a quick excuse and bury these obvious signs under tons of denial, but…

But she'd been freed under the promise to not run away again, and so she would not.

Or, rather, she could run in a different direction?

Gulping down whatever trepidation plagued her, she stepped forwards and nuzzled Rarity in a comforting gesture, not prodding at what was wrong but at least, well, trying to do something. Hadn't Rarity done that for her endless times before?

Though she did not protest, Rarity visibly held her breath for a moment, and yet Twilight soon realized she didn't actually care when faced with the staggering reality of Rarity being so so soft, and smelling so, so nice.

The softest pony in Equestria awkwardly cleared her throat, her hoof lifting and pressing against Twilight's chest. "Well, somepony's affectionate today, isn't she?" she asked, amused or surprised, Twilight didn't quite know or care because, oh Princess Celestia, she was so soft.

Twilight giggled at that. "Sorry," she said half-heartedly, and making absolutely no attempts to withdraw as she tried to decipher what scent Rarity was wearing, and how it was possible for her to be so warm to the touch.

Honestly, it demanded a dissertation at least twenty—no, thirty-six—pages long to be entitled "The Impossible Softness of Rarity's Coat: A Practical Study".

When she finally moved away, a somehow nicer surprise presented itself before her in the shape of a rather flustered Rarity, which did little to assuage the grin now plastered over Twilight's face. Just like that kiss, this too had made those thousand years worth something.

Maybe…a second kiss wasn't a bad idea…?

"Rarity?! Princess Twilight?!"

Twilight's musing on a second kiss was swiftly interrupted when Sweetie Belle barged into the kitchen.

"Sweetie Belle?" Rarity asked, moving away from Twilight. "Aren't you up early! It’s not even half past seven."

"Princess Twilight!" the filly exclaimed, ignoring her elder sister, shooting straight for the alicorn, tugging at the Princess's forelegs and blurting out a rapid-fire session of questions, including but not limited to: was she okay, how did she sleep, did she sleep at all, was she hungry, did she breathe, why was she so soft—

"Sweetie Belle, sweetest, you're not even giving her time to answer!" Rarity interrupted, halting the Q&A session with a loving and magical shut of Sweetie's mouth. "And, now that you’ve decided to wake up, it would do you well to take a bath. I'd rather not have to be scrubbing ink off my floor again."

"But Rarity..." Sweetie whined. "I want to show Princess Twi—"

"You'll show her after you're clean," Rarity interrupted, levitating her little sister out into the hallway. Once her sister was gone, she turned to Twilight and raised an eyebrow. “And you, Princess?

"Oh, uh, right," Twilight said, suddenly embarrassed and aware of just how much dry ink now stained her coat. She looked around, finding a large bowl, perfect for their current need, and levitated it over. She took it in her hooves and marveled for a moment at the fact she could hold it, and then asked, "Where's the well?"

Rarity blinked. "Pardon? The well?"

Twilight nodded. "Yes, the well. You know, where you get underground water from?" she elaborated, admittedly surprised to see Rarity didn't know what a well was. That was basic knowledge. "To fill the tub? Oh! Is your tub wooden or is it made out of marble? Not that I care! I know some of the higher classed ponies care, but marble is of a lower temperature than wood so I'll need to use a different parameter for the heating spell."

Rarity raised her eyebrow. "What do you even—? A wooden tub? Heating spells? Water from a well? Goodness, Twilight, where were you raised? The middle ages?" She paused. "Ah, you were, weren't you?"

"How do ponies in the future bathe, then?" Twilight asked with an embarrassment that only deepened when Rarity giggled in reply.

"Do you remember when you asked me quite some time ago what a shower was?" she said with a smile mixed between delighted and mischievous, trotting past Twilight and out of the kitchen. "Come along! And leave that bowl behind, we won't need it."


Despite her short time discovering it, Twilight found the future—present?—to be absolutely fascinating. The bathroom had been much more modern and efficient than she'd expected, even if Rarity got upset at her for trying to dismantle the 'sink' device and then the 'shower'. Regardless, she’d already read about Equestria’s many modern technologies, mostly through Rarity’s books and magazines, but to see them for herself was another more thrilling thing altogether.

Gathered inside Rarity’s workroom, Twilight watched with riveted interest as Sweetie Belle scribbled on a piece of paper with a fascinating portable quill-and-ink device called a pen. Apparently, even if they couldn’t be refilled, their stored ink pouch could last from a month up to an entire year! And not to mention how much time was saved by foregoing the constant dipping on the quill in ink!

“And anypony can buy these?” the Princess asked, taking the pen and writing her name down on the paper. She’d have assumed that such a useful device could only be purchased by wealthy ponies.

“Yep! You can buy one at Quills and Sofas, but it’s better to buy the boxes with ten of them,” Sweetie instructed. “And they come in different colors, too! I like the blue ones the best.”

Twilight thought about it. It wasn’t quite as...comfortable and elegant as her quills, but... “I wouldn’t need ink anymore…”

“No, and Inky Owl would be bereft of his family’s most loyal customer,” a voice said, and Twilight turned around to find Rarity standing under the frame of the door. The unicorn trotted towards them, took a pen and signed her name next to Twilight’s. “And poor Themis and Elara would be out of a job.”

“Come on, Princess Twilight!” Sweetie said, trotting away from the desk and towards the door. “Let’s look at the kitchen next! Scoots and Apple Bloom are coming with Pinkie soon to tell you about our surprise!”

Twilight got up, intent on following Sweetie Belle, but watched instead as Rarity made her way towards a nearby couch and lied down on it, using her hoof to cover a yawn.

“Aren’t you coming?” Twilight asked, hesitantly. As much as she enjoyed Sweetie’s company and enthusiasm, the little filly didn’t know nearly as much as her sister did, and Twilight wasn’t nearly as eager to share her discoveries with her as she was with Rarity.

Rarity smiled. “I would, dear, but I must confess that my lack of sleep is starting to get me, and the kitchen is so very far away,” she replied, sighing theatrically.

“Oh…” Twilight’s ears dropped. “Hmm…”

“Of course,” Rarity continued, sighing somehow more theatrically, “if you really want me to be there, I suppose I could drag mys—eep!” Now floating in mid-air and enveloped in the alicorn’s magic, a scandalized Rarity frowned at her friend. “Tw-Twilight! Put me down!”

“Why? I thought you didn’t want to have to walk to the kitchen,” Twilight replied, turning around and promptly leaving the room. “This way you won’t get tired.”

“I wasn’t actually tired!” Rarity protested. “I was just being a bit drama—! Oh, never mind.”

When they finally reached their destination, Twilight’s attention was immediately drawn to the assortment of objects Sweetie managed to pick in such a short time, some of which she recognized from magazines and her friends’ descriptions.

“Sweetie Belle!” Rarity exclaimed, aghast. “Fluttershy and I spent half the night cleaning, and look at the mess you’ve made!”

Twilight approached the table and licked her lips.

“Oh! This is a blender, isn’t it?” she asked, picking up a large device with a transparent container and floating it up to the now upside-down Rarity. She then turned back to the table and levitated another large object with the whisk sticking out of it. “What’s this?”

“A mixer!” Sweetie replied enthusiastically.

“Oh! Look, Rarity!” Twilight exclaimed, levitating the object up towards Rarity. “A mixer!”

“Yes, darling, so it is!” Rarity replied sweetly, trying to somehow swim her way down through the magic to the surface. “It is also quite expensive, so please put it back down, and then be a dear and do the same with me, won’t you?”

Rather than obey Rarity, Twilight promptly ignored her in favor of examining the other objects, asking questions about each one to Sweetie, and then excitedly repeating said facts to Rarity while ignoring the unicorn’s progressively half-hearted attempts to be put back on the floor.

Eventually, several knocks at the front door interrupted her questioning.

The front door opened in the distance and voices flooded the house. The Cutie Mark Crusaders came first, rushing into the kitchen and nearly toppling Twilight. Moments later, Pinkie Pie, Themis, Elara, and their owlettes arrived, the pink mare also practically throwing herself at the princess.

“Princess Twilight! You're awake!” they exclaimed, coming to a screeching halt in front of the alicorn as the owl family perched themselves atop Rarity.

“Oh, uh, good morning, everypony!” Twilight hesitantly greeted, not having expected such a reception. It warmed her heart, but also gave her a slight headache when they all immediately set off into accosting her with a barrage of questions.

Or, they did until Rarity cleared her throat, and all three pony newcomers looked up towards the floating unicorn.

"Oh, hi, Rarity!" Pinkie greeted enthusiastically.

"What's up?" Scootaloo asked, blinking at the mare.

"Besides you an' half your kitchen," Apple Bloom added.

"Oh, not much! As you can see, Twilight’s inspired me to reach for the stars!” she exclaimed, unaware of the blush that crawled up the alicorn’s cheek in reply. “Or the ceiling, more accurately.”

“Oh! That looks fun!" Pinkie gasped. "Is it fun?! I bet it’s fun! Me next, me next!"

Rarity brushed a hoof through her upside-down mane. “Well, grandeur such as mine is quite a dizzying affair, as I’m sure you can imagine. Though it’s entirely possible that’s due to the blood rushing to my head.” It wasn’t until she threw Twilight a pointed stare that Twilight finally processed the situation.

“Oh!” she exclaimed, putting the unicorn down on the floor next to her. She coughed awkwardly and then turned to Pinkie and the crusaders. "Er… Where were we?"

No sooner had she spoken did the barrage of questions resume, followed by an extremely convoluted recap of the two years she’d been gone as told by the CMC and Pinkie Pie, all at the same time. She, unfortunately, understood nothing of it besides that Pinkie had graduated to the next class with Miss Cheerilee, the Cutie Mark Crusaders had opened up a shop with three baby owls in Hollow Shades, and Themis and Elara had hatched the new Daring Do book.

“Wait, wait, wait!” Twilight blurted out, overwhelmed. “One at a time!”

“If I may," Rarity interrupted, “before we do that, would you like to meet the babies?”

“The babies?” Twilight asked.. “Oh! Oh!” She turned towards Rarity, cooing at the three little baby owls blinking at her from atop the unicorn’s back.

“Come now, darlings,” Rarity said, glancing over her shoulder and levitating the chicklets onto the table.

The three owlettes hooted joyfully, Elara flying over to them and quickly preening their feathers into a presentable state.

“They’re so cute!” the Princess exclaimed, lifting her hoof and gently petting the nearest one. Once again, a pang of guilt shot through her at the knowledge that she’d missed their birth, but once again she forced herself to push past it and turned back to the others. “Have you named them? How old are they?”

“They're two months old! And look!” Rarity said, her horn lighting up, eliciting a unanimous coo from the entire room when the chicklets suddenly sported a bow tie and ribbons. “Aren’t they absolutely precious?” She then cleared her throat and pointed at the gray owlet with white tail feathers and blue bow tie. “Now, this handsome fellow is Metis.” When he hooted in reply, she pointed to the chicklet with a white tummy and red ribbon. “And this beautiful lady is Amalthea.”

Twilight gasped, stamping her hooves against the floor. “Those are celestial bodies! You followed my naming convention!”

Rarity giggled. “Why, Princess, did you expect anything less of me?”

“We named the last one!” Scootaloo exclaimed, rushing to the table where the last owlet, the one with a green ribbon, hooted in reply. “It’s the coolest name ever! Right, Rarity?”

Rarity balked. “Ah. Yes. Quite.” She cleared her throat, smiled and pointed towards the unnamed owlet. “Finally,” she said with enthusiasm, “this gorgeous darling is…” She paused and swallowed, hesitant to say what Twilight now assumed to be an interesting name. “…Ginny.”

Twilight blinked. “Ginny.”

Well, that wasn’t as bad as she’d expected.

“Rarity!” Sweetie scolded, frowning at her elder sister.

Rarity smiled awkwardly. “Terribly sorry! Nicknames are so much easier!” She smiled a forced smile, tilting her head to the side. “This gorgeous darling is… Regina!”

“Rarity!” Sweetie exclaimed again. “Come on!”

Rarity’s smile vanished. “Twilight,” she said, tonelessly. “I want you to know that I did not condone their choice.”

Twilight giggled, raising an eyebrow. “All right, then.”

Rarity sighed the longest sigh Twilight had ever heard her sigh. “And finally, this gorgeous darling is Dame—“

“Rarity!”

“All right, all right!” she whined. “Sir Reginald von Fluffykins The Third, Esquire. There!” She turned her head around with a huff. “Europa was so much nicer for her.”

“Do you like it, Princess Twi?” Apple Bloom asked, completely ignoring the unicorn’s remark. “We gave her a name all fancy like you!"

"I think it's great!" Pinkie added, nodding her head. "And Princess Luna, too! Well, I haven't asked her, but she'll definitely think it's cool when I tell her!"

Twilight lowered her muzzle and nuzzled the three owlettes. "They're all perfect," she said, leaning back and looking to the three fillies with a bright smile. "Though it is incorrect as it would require her to be the third in a generation to be called Reginald von Fluffykins the Third."

Rarity giggled at this. "You haven’t changed at all, have you?" she said, giving Twilight what the alicorn hoped was a fond look.

No, she hadn't changed, but she couldn't help and wonder if she was the only one to have stayed the same. Her unasked question was interrupted, however, by the sound of her stomach gurgling loudly, and for the first time in a thousand years, Princess Twilight remembered what it was like to be hungry.

“Oh! Oh! We have a surprise for that!" Pinkie immediately blurted out, practically rushing out of the room. "We baked you the biggest cake ever! Follow us!"

Before she could do as such, the front door of Rarity's home had already opened and closed, followed closely by the three crusaders chasing after the pink mare.

"Wait, Pinkie! We wanna show her too!"

She heard the door open and close again, and it wasn't until silence reigned in the room that Twilight turned around and found Rarity busy putting her cooking devices back in their proper places.

"Do you need help?" Twilight asked, trotting over and levitating a few things into the air, eager to assist Rarity in her home.

"No, no, that's quite all right, sweetheart," Rarity said, putting a steel device into a cupboard and closing it. She looked around and relieved Twilight of the objects she was holding, putting them on the counter and then sighing. "It would do Sweetie good to put this all back herself later tonight."

Twilight followed Rarity out of the kitchen, excitement flurrying within her. She trotted towards a window and peered out into the streets, seeing ponies going about their normal daily routines. What did it feel like to them? Was this world as mundane and uninteresting as the library had been to her after thousands of years in it?

"I retrieved this from the library yesterday. There's no use in it staying there anymore," Rarity said behind her. "I've washed most of the ink off, though I suppose black marks on a black cloak aren't really too tragic."

Twilight turned around, and her heart twisted at the sight of Rarity's black cloak. Her eyes were involuntarily drawn to the unicorn's scars, and shame burned her at the memories seeping into her mind.

“Look at your cloak! The one you’ve been wearing every day since you came back! Look at it!”

"Why do you care so damn much about my damn cloak?!”

“Because it’s a reminder that you almost died because of me.”

“His revenge was making you come back for me.”

Her head began to hurt, but she pushed the thought away, stored it deep within her consciousness to resolve at some other time.

"O-Oh! Will you be putting it on?" Twilight asked, every syllable coming out of her probably sounding as forced as the smile plastered on her face. "It looks good on you."

Rarity did not look up from the cloak. "Really? It's been some time, but I distinctly remember you were quite fiercely against me wearing it," she said, almost absentmindedly, until she looked up, and no doubt saw Twilight's stricken expression, and must have immediately regretted her words. "B-Because clearly any matter of clothes can't compare to my natural beauty!"

Twilight couldn't bring herself to smile, looking away. "Clearly."

"Twilight, I—" Rarity sighed and stepped forwards, the cloak floating besides her. "I apologize, Twilight. That was uncalled for, but… I suppose coping habits are hard to kill, are they not?" She paused. "… Are you mad?"

Twilight licked her lips. She didn't want to argue, and a little voice inside her whispered and whispered that she was simply reaping what she'd sowed.

"That depends. What do you mean exactly?" she said finally, looking up at Rarity with a smile mustered with every ounce of her willpower, "Am I mad at you, or mad about you?"

And Rarity smiled brilliantly, and what a welcomed sensation it brought forth in the princess. The unicorn giggled, tilting her head and brushing back Twilight's bangs, drawing a pleased hum from the alicorn.

"Both, I hope!" Rarity exclaimed, before frowning and correcting herself. "Well, no, preferably more the latter than the former." She then looked to the cloak and continued, "At any rate, I'm not the one who will be using this. You are."

No sooner said than done, Rarity levitated the cloak over Twilight in a sweeping motion, covering Twilight's back and wings.

"Why do I have to use it?" Twilight asked. As far as she had been told, the custom to wear cloaks was exclusive to Pinkie's town, not modern Ponyville.

"Oh, I simply thought it gave you a mysterious air befitting your quite mythical status," Rarity said, standing right in front of Twilight and fastening the cloak around her neck. "And I do believe that an alicorn trotting around town might arouse suspicions we aren't ready to deal with quite yet."

Rather than reply, Twilight simply nodded, watching and feeling Rarity carefully tying the cloak's strings around her neck. It was still so new, still so electric to feel Rarity's careful touch against her coat; to see the mare so intently focused on her, ears lowered, eyes narrowed; and her necklace glowing brightly against her chest, the irrefutable proof that Twilight's actions had not severed everything.

It felt right. It felt normal. It felt like what Twilight had always imagined life to be like with Rarity back when escaping her library was nothing but an impossible daydream.

"There!" Rarity said with finality, sliding Twilight's necklace under and over the knot.

She patted the necklace in an oddly satisfied gesture, and when she looked up, she and Twilight gazed at each other in silence, her hoof still on Twilight's chest. They stayed there for what seemed an eternity, until she noticed Rarity bite down on her lip, her cheeks turning a shade of red that surely matched Twilight's.

Twilight wanted to lean in.

She wanted to lean in and, for a moment, it seemed like Rarity intended on doing the same.

But instead, she let out a soft nervous laugh and patted Twilight's chest, moving away before Twilight could complain about it.

"Look at you," she said softly, a warm smile spreading on her lips, like all was right for that moment in time, "Princess Twilight Sparkle, free from her curse at last."

"Because of you," Twilight replied immediately.

Rarity shook her head. "Because of you, Twilight," she corrected. Her ears fell almost indistinguishably. Almost. "Not because of me."

"Rarity…"

Rarity smiled, lifting Twilight's chin. "Now, dearest, let us not dwell on the past, and instead focus on the future, hm?"

Before Twilight could say anything, Rarity moved towards the door, lifted her hoof, but rather than open it, she gestured towards the doorknob.

"Shall you do us the honors, Princess?" she asked, fluttering her eyelashes.

Giggling, Twilight stepped forward and took a deep breath to regain some modicum of severity. However, as she lifted her hoof, all attempts at seriousness were shaken by Rarity's infectious giggling and, as she placed said hoof on the doorknob, Rarity proceeded to gasp most theatrically, shattering her exaggerated seriousness into pieces.

"Twilight!" Rarity said, stamping her hooves against the floor. "Look at you! You're touching it!"

"I know, Rarity," Twilight replied, turning to the enthralled unicorn and raising an eyebrow. "Are you going to get excited every time my hoof doesn't go through something?"

"Oh, darling, absolutely," Rarity breathlessly replied, gesturing her hoof in a forwards circle. "Come now! Don't keep me in suspense!"

With one final breath, Twilight twisted the doorknob and pushed the door open, looking into Ponyville's streets and what promised to be a new beginning.

"So, Princess Twilight," Rarity said, bowing her head, "After you?"

A new beginning with some kinks and mistakes to fix, but…

"No," Twilight said, moving aside. "Together."

She couldn't wait for it to start.


"You just stared at her?" North Ridge asked, adjusting his cloak.

She sighed, her eyes fixed in the distance, seeking something and nothing. "I did. She simply stood there, under the frame of the kitchen door like a frightened animal, and all I could do was stare."

She paused, as though she were back in her kitchen and staring at the princess of old, and then she laughed.

"Even now when I think of it… She'd been dead, North. She was as good as dead to me and the world, and suddenly she'd come back to life out of thin air, and all I could think was what happens now, what do I do, until..."

When she faltered, he pressed. "Until…?"

"Until she stepped into the kitchen," she said, "and, even if our future frightened me, for a moment all that mattered was that she was beautiful. She was so beautiful, North… and so alive."


~ Act I ~ Chapter 2 ~ The New Ponyville ~

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Though it was North Ridge who'd agreed to travel with her to Ponyville, Rarity was the one to list three conditions for their travels. First, they were to travel only during the night, when all ponies slept; second, he was not to speak of her to anypony without her explicit permission; and third, they would travel alone without exception.

With little hesitation, he agreed.

How could he not, knowing what he knew?


The sun shone over a normal Saturday morning in Ponyville.

Ponies trotted along the streets, heading out of their homes to greet the new day. Shopkeepers arranged the items on their shelves, their best wares displayed for all to see; fillies and colts played in the parks, free of homework and studies for the week; and cloaked princesses jumped in circles around unicorns, exhilarated because Rarity, I can touch the ground! Rarity, I can breathe! Rarity, I can—No, I can not calm down!

Standing in front of Carousel Boutique, Princess Twilight Sparkle stopped skipping around Rarity long enough for her to close her eyes and take a deep breath of air. Not because she had to, mind, but because she could.

It also helped that she could savor Rarity’s perfume. Speaking of which…

Her ears twitched at the sound of Rarity's giggles. A warm smile spread across her lips, and so she indulged herself by turning around and taking in one of the few sights that never failed to make her heart race.

Neither spoke at first, content with saying or doing nothing beyond looking at each other. Rarity's mirthful smile had faded now, leaving her quite pensive as her ears lowered. However, though her eyes betrayed thousands of raging emotions Twilight couldn't quite figure out, even her own demons couldn’t deny that tenderness was still to be found in Rarity’s gaze.

"What are you thinking about?" Twilight inquired, as she often did when faced with the unfamiliar. She then smiled with more confidence that she thought she ought to, and added, "And you can't say me because you've already used that line before."

A fierce blush streaked Rarity's cheeks. "W-Well, well, well! Rather forward today, aren't we, Princess Twilight?"

Twilight made no effort to hide a cheeky smile. "So, you were thinking about me, then?"

Despite the flush on her face, Rarity flipped her mane indignantly. "I'll have you know I was simply thinking how unusual it is to see you without your regalia," she huffed for emphasis.

Though she initially planned to make another teasing remark, the princess’s thought processes screeched to a halt at the realization that she was, in fact, wearing neither her golden necklace nor her crown—also known as the Element of Magic.

Also known as The Mistake, but that was beside the point.

“W-Wait! Where’s my crown?!” she asked with alarm, already imagining the hundred and thirty seven different ways Discord might have already taken it, and would wreak hav—

“In my bag,” Rarity breezily interrupted, opening her bag with a wisp of magic and levitating the crown out. She smiled teasingly. “I do hope you think I’m smarter than to leave it lying around with Discord at large.”

With great relief and appreciation for her hopefully-still-significant other, Twilight took the crown in her magic and… and so did a sinking sensation overtake her, memories flooding her like tidal waves. The other elements must have been based off the remaining princesses, she’d said, and the visual representation of her mistake had been permanently affixed to her head for a thousand years as a result.

Her magic faltered as she closed her eyes and tried to repress a groan.

“Twilight?” Rarity asked, alarmed. “Twilight, what’s wrong?”

“Thoughts,” Twilight said. “Bad thoughts.”

She blinked several times, and though she offered Rarity a reassuring smile, she couldn’t bear to hold or see the crown for much longer. It felt like a cursed object, and in many ways, it was.

“Sorry! I’m fine now,” she said before Rarity could voice concern. “It was just… like nightmares in the middle of the day. But I’m fine. I’m fine.

Rarity looked as unconvinced as Twilight felt, but whatever reservations she held, she did not voice.

Twilight levitated the crown back towards Rarity, eager to move far away from the demons knocking at her door. “Here,” she said. “Can you…?”

Rarity took it in her grasp, and instead of putting it inside her bag, looked coyly at Twilight. Then, she placed it on her head and the sight was adorable enough that it was almost able to cleanse the crown of its past.

“Shall I be princess in your stead? Darling, I’m delighted you’re finally seeing me for what I truly deserve to be!”

“Good, because I don’t want to be one anymore,” Twilight replied with a smile, even if she wasn’t entirely joking.

Unfortunately, the sight of the crown, and even Rarity’s words, clawed at her, and she found she didn’t want to have to look at it any longer. So, for now, even though Rarity looked adorable in it…

Poof!

Twilight liked it better inside the bag.

“You’re being silly,” she noted.

Rarity harrumphed. “Nonsense! You’re simply jealous I wear it better!” she said, and privately, Twilight agreed. “But I suppose we should move on. Pinkie and the others have a surprise for you, and perhaps that might take my mind off my denied princesshood.”

"Oh! You’re right!” Twilight exclaimed, her stomach grumbling. Hadn’t Pinkie said something about food?

She cantered off into the street, urging Rarity to follow. Or, rather, urging her to follow until she realized she had no idea where she was going.

With her tail between her legs, she trotted back towards the amused unicorn and with eloquence befitting a princess said, "Uhm…"

“Hm.” Rarity lifted her hoof and tapped Twilight on the nose, fluttering her eyelashes. "Shall I lead the way, perhaps?"

"Perhaps."

However, before Rarity could do so, somepony else interrupted them.

“Oh! Rarity! Princess Booky!”

They turned around, and saw an earth pony mare trotting towards them. She was waving effusively at them, and the smile on her face was much broader than one Twilight expected to receive from a stranger. A little filly trotted behind her, doing a poor job at hiding behind the mare’s legs.

"I'm so glad we didn't miss you!" the mare said upon reaching them, the filly now clinging onto the mare's foreleg and looking up at Twilight with wide eyes. "After that show you put on yesterday, I'm surprised half the town isn't here!"

Twilight gave the mare an owlish stare, and then shot Rarity a helpless one; they had not discussed the protocol to follow in such a situation. It only just now occurred to Twilight that, well, there were other ponies beyond Rarity, the princesses, and her friends.

Rarity thankfully stepped forward, offering a hesitant smile at the new arrival. “Oh, Amber! How lovely to see you!” she said at length. “And little Ivory, too!”

“And you, Rarity! I thought you moved to Hollow Shades!” Amber replied, lifting her foreleg and stroking the filly's head, who now chose to awkwardly paw at the ground. "And Princess Booky! Hello, it’s nice to meet you!” she continued, giggling and winking. “I thought you were a fairytale, but here you are! Thank you for saving us from the terrible spirit yesterday! My daughter can’t stop talking about it, can you, Ivory?” She nudged the filly. “Say hello to Princess Booky, sweetie.”

The little filly looked at the ground. “H-Hi, Pr-Princess Booky.”

Twilight stared until a light jab at her side jolted her awake. “O-Oh, uh!” She cleared her throat and, though a baffled, lowered herself to be at Ivory’s height. “Hello, Ivory. I hope the Spirit didn’t scare you.”

Ivory shook her head. “I wasn’t scared! I knew you would stop him ‘cause you’re the best!”

“Ivy, didn’t you want to show Princess Booky your drawing?” Amber asked.

Twilight leaned back, watching as Amber took out a folded-out piece of paper from her saddlebag. She made a move to give it to Twilight, until the filly protested that she wanted to give the drawing to Princess Booky, Mommy!

After doing just that, Twilight carefully unfolded it, and so did her heart swell at the sight of a extremely inaccurate but no less heartwarming drawing of herself and Ivory inside what looked like a library with only two bookcases. Twilight was smiling brightly in the drawing, too, and she somberly thought that small fact was perhaps the most inaccurate detail of the piece.

“Awwwww,” Rarity said, peering at the drawing. "My, what skill! We have a very talented artist in our midst!"

“Do you like it, Princess?” Ivory asked, trying to stand up on the tips of her hooves. “I drew it for you!”

“I love it,” Twilight said, smiling at the filly, who let out a big sigh and then a grin. “Would it be all right if I keep it?”

Ivory nodded so effusively, Twilight was afraid she might hurt her neck. “Uh-huh, uh-huh!” She then rushed forwards and hugged Twilight’s leg. “Thank you for saving us!”

A terrible voice piped up in her mind, reminding the princess that it was only right for her to save them from something she herself caused.

Twilight leaned down and nuzzled her, tears stinging at her eyes. Out of gratitude or remorse, she couldn’t rightly tell. She told herself it was gratitude. “Thank you for believing in me.” She stood up, and smiled at the mare. “And you too.”

When Amber and her daughter finally left, Twilight wiped away her tears and folded the drawing. That hadn’t been something she’d been expecting, but it was certainly something she needed.

However, when she turned to Rarity, the mare again seemed lost in thought, her brow furrowed and her eyes fixed on the alicorn.

“What’s wrong?” Twilight asked.

Rarity said nothing. She seemed to be doing that a lot, little silences that said everything without uttering a single word. She said nothing, did not share with Twilight the rushing thoughts in her head, but she did smile. Belatedly, but she did it.

“Darling, might I suggest you let me put the drawing away? Don’t want it to get dirty or wrinkle up, do we?” she suggested, and Twilight knew she was asking questions so as to avoid answering others.

“Onwards, then!” Rarity exclaimed once the drawing had been stashed away in her bag, after which Twilight followed her. Not after Rarity but beside her.

Why didn’t she want to answer? What was wrong?

As they walked, thoughts swirled around in her head, as they often did, all the time, unstoppable and immovable and more often than not terrible.

Terrible, terrible thoughts that spiralled and looped and pirouetted her into… into places she didn’t want to go to anymore, and so she would not.

She forced her mind out from its dark mazes and onto the bright streets of Ponyville and its happy citizens. The grass was soft under her hoof, and her ears swivelled towards the sounds of lives being lived around her, and of unicorns being silent beside her.

It was strange, really, to see this town that was so different from the Ponyville she'd known. Four houses, two dozen apple trees and a royal captain who’d uprooted his life and family to protect a princess who’d exiled herself. It certainly brought things into perspective, to see so vividly that life thrived without exception, went on with or without her.

Just as Rarity had for two years.

Rarity. Rarity. Rarity...

It was disconcerting to see Rarity keeping things from her, to see the tables turned. Rarity almost never kept anything from her before. She was admittedly ashamed to realize that not long ago, she’d kept centuries of secrets and thoughts hidden from the unicorn, and yet the idea that Rarity would be keeping something from her was nigh unthinkable.

And yet there they were.

She wanted to look at Rarity. Was she so quiet because she too was consumed with thoughts of Twilight? Was she too disarmed by the sudden unfamiliarity they were now confronted with regarding each other? She wanted to look at Rarity, but she did not. Instead, she turned to other ponies and with surprise found herself the center of attention of several passerbys. Stallions and mares seemed to frown at her, not with ill-intent, but trying to figure out where they knew her from, while fillies and colts gawked at her and whispered to each other.

They stared at her, young and old, and her cruel psyche reminded her of another time ponies stared at her, but decidedly less to figure out who she was and much more to shame her into giving a dragon in exchange for a mockery of peace. She swallowed, suddenly very hot under her cloak, and forced herself to stare at the ground and analyse the texture of dirt.

Stop it, Twilight, she chastised herself. Stop it.

And yet, she couldn’t stop feeling their stares. In fact, the only ones not staring at her were a couple that were too busy sharing besotted smiles to concern themselves with an anxiety-ridden princess. Who could blame them? She too could spend hours looking at her special somepony.

Speaking of which...

She really wanted to look at Rarity. In fact, she was oddly grateful towards the couple for allowing her to distract herself with Rarity, and yet she was equally irritated by just how distracting Rarity was. Her cheeks grew hot, and she became vividly aware of her hooves if only because she now increasingly wished she were able to hold Rarity’s.

Which she couldn't, but not because she physically couldn't, as was the case for a long time, but because it would be difficult to walk. Not impossible, no, but difficult and highly impractical and they would no doubt trip.

But she still wanted that affection, and that weighed on her all the more by a thousand years of lack of intimacy. Her wings twitched under the cloak, demanding to unfurl and pull the unicorn close, but instead she forced the desire away.

No.

Not yet, not now, because maybe Rarity didn't want that. Maybe she wanted to talk. Talking was still nice and pleasant and would pull her away from other very distracting ideas.

With that in mind, she turned around and Rarity’s name collided with her own when both spoke up at the same time. They stopped, surprised, and Rarity’s cheeks weren’t the only ones turning red.

"Oh, sorry!" they blurted out at the same time, the intensity of their blush only deepening at the fact.

"Oh, you go first!" they again blurted out in unison, resulting in both of them giving up altogether and looking away, trotting through the street in embarrassed silence.

Despite the flush on her cheeks, a victorious smile pushed itself onto Twilight’s lips. So, Rarity had been thinking of her! Except she might have been thinking bad thoughts, which would not warrant a victorious smile, but Twilight chose to believe they were good thoughts.

Hopefully.

They settled into silence, and yet the silence between them was anything but quiet. Rarity glanced at her every so often, sizing up the situation, and every now and then, the unicorn's tail would swish a bit too much, brushing the black cloak, and so would Rarity's blush increase and the tail swiftly return to a near-static state.

Now more than ever did Twilight hate the pesky cloak, her wings twitching and twitching below it.

"Twilight, I do hope you realize hiding your wings with a cloak becomes a fruitless endeavor if you keep trying to unfurl them beneath it," Rarity noted. "Do you want to fly to Pinkie Pie’s?"

"No," Twilight replied immediately, not wanting to disclose her wings’s true ambitions. She clamped them against her body and then cleared her throat. "What did you want to tell me earlier?"

"Oh, nothing important!" Rarity quickly said. "Don't mind me. What did you want to tell me?"

Finding herself under the heat of Rarity's curious gaze, Twilight looked towards the winding path, embarrassed to realize she hadn't actually thought of anything to say.

"Nothing important, either," she echoed.

Rarity opened and closed her mouth several times, as if about to press the issue, and though Twilight half-expected her to, she did not.

"If you say so," she said, drifting off. Silence settled again for a moment before she smiled. "I suppose we just simply enjoy saying each other's name, then."

Twilight grinned. "Well, actually, I was hoping to come up with something to tell you, but it didn't go as planned," she confessed.

"It didn't go as planned," Rarity murmured, like a thought accidentally said aloud. "I know that feeling all too well."

Twilight was thrown off by the comment, unsure of how to reply. What was that supposed to mean? Staring at Rarity with a severely concerned expression might be rude, so instead she decided to shift her concern towards the buildings they were passing by.

What didn't go as planned? Was it Twilight? Her return? Was that what was wrong? Taking into account how she came back, there was no logical way her return could have been planned, but that didn't necessarily mean it was a bad thing, was it?

"Are you sure there isn't something you want to tell me?" Twilight asked.

A pause followed. A short pause, but long enough to be noticed.

"Oh, as I said, it was nothing terribly important. I will be sure to tell you all about it when I remember." Rarity waved her hoof dismissively. "Besides, we're quite out of time. I can see Sugarcube Corner now!"

Twilight squinted and saw the most eccentric building she'd ever been confronted with in her life. It looked like somepony took a gingerbread house, covered it in frosting, and cast a magnification spell on it. She honestly wasn’t sure what to make of it. How was that even structurally sound?

"What is that?" she asked.

"A confectionary store!" Rarity replied. "A frightfully good one, at that. I spoke with the owners and they graciously allowed Pinkie to use their kitchen for the morning. She wanted to bake a surprise for you."

Twilight's stomach growled in delight. "Bake me one? She baked me something? Why?"

"Why? What a silly question!" Rarity chastised, playfully rolling her eyes. "Because your first meal in a thousand years should be special, of course! Judging by the description, it might be the tastiest cake she's ever made."

"Ooooh! Let's hurry!"

Twilight doubled her pace, Rarity trotting behind her, and the closer she got to the building, the more her nose was enticed with the scents of dozens of tasty treats held inside. Hunger now controlled her body, and she ignored Rarity's calls to slow down in favor of rushing to the door and—

SLAM!

Twilight tumbled back onto the ground, a sad side-effect of getting intimately acquainted with a thoroughly solid object. After a moment's disorientation and a painful groan, she glared at the door with teary eyes, her hoof rubbing her aching muzzle.

Stupid physical body.

"Twilight! Are you alright?!" Rarity exclaimed, rushing to her and looking her over for injuries. "What in Equestria happened?! Why did you—" She paused. "Twilight." She failed to hide an amused smile. "Twilight Sparkle, darling, dearest, sweetheart. Did you just actually try going through the door?"

Twilight's face burned. "No, I was interested in the construction materials used in modern Equestrian doors."

Rarity giggled, offering a hoof to Twilight and helping her up. "Of course you were," she said, fluttering her eyelashes. "Of course you were."

Twilight rolled her eyes. "Stop laughing, smartypants," she scolded, opening the door for Rarity with her magic.

A dozen patrons were inside the shop, most of them already seated and enjoying their mouth-watering pastries. Just like in the streets, it seemed a few of them recognized her, particularly the foals.

"Oh dear," Rarity said, coming to a stop and gesturing to a stallion reading a newspaper. "That explains things."

A photograph of Twilight fighting Discord was plastered all over the front page, below the headline "Seeking Night Preparations Come Early!”.

"Come along, we better hurry," Rarity continued, walking further inside the shop. "We can deal with that in a moment."

Twilight followed behind her, curious about the newspaper but not wanting to stay behind. Upon reaching the counter, an older mare greeted Rarity and 'Princess Booky', allowing them to walk behind the counter and into the kitchen area. Inside, they were greeted not only by the Cutie Mark Crusaders and Pinkie Pie, but by Applejack as well.

"Princess!" Applejack exclaimed, moving over to hug Twilight. "Am I glad to see you. Thought you'd be sleepin' longer than Granny Smith in the winter, the way you hit the hay yesterday. Surprised you didn't wake up. Took us a good while to get you off Rarity."

"More like get Rarity off the Princess," Sweetie Belle giggled.

"Oh?" Twilight asked, glancing over to Rarity who in turn quite decidedly glared at her sister.

Rarity cleared her throat. "Moving on from this fascinating conversation. Ladies, will you do us the honors?"

Applejack grunted. “Better be a mighty honorable cake, Pinkie, or I’ll never forgive myself for letting you get your way.”

Pinkie giggled. “Oh, come oooooon, Applejack! Princess Twilight can have one of your apple pies later!”

“Yeah, yeah. Just get it over with, filly.”

Pinkie cleared her throat. "Princess Twilight Sparkle!" she exclaimed, loudly enough that Twilight stepped back. She moved to the center table, and only then did Twilight notice something on top of it covered with a large box. "Princess of Books and… and…"

"Ghosts!" Scootaloo whispered.

"Princess of Books and Ghosts! We have brought you here for a sacred ritual, passed down for years and years since this morning to join us in being alive, if!" She paused. Her voice fell to a whisper. "If..."

"...If?" Twilight prompted.

"If you can eat your...first meal in a thousand years!" she exclaimed, gesturing rather dramatically towards the box, after which...

Nothing happened.

Twilight looked back and forth between the box and Pinkie, who incidentally was still dramatically pointing towards the box. "Uh…?"

"Sweetie!" Scootaloo whispered urgently. "This was your turn!"

"O-Oh, sorry!" the filly exclaimed, her horn lighting up and shakily levitating the box into the air.

"FIRSTMEALINATHOUSANDYEARS!" Pinkie exclaimed, again dramatically gesturing towards the box.

In all of her tumultuous life, Twilight had never seen a cake quite like that one, and that was considering her former teacher really loved them. Though the monstrous seven tier pastry towered before her, nothing was quite as impressive as the rumble her stomach let out in reply to it. The entire thing was decorated with what smelled like lavender frosting, and caramel jewels, topped with an edible marzipan figurine of Twilight herself.

"And ya gotta eat it in one whole sittin'!" Apple Bloom exclaimed.

"She has to eat all of that in a single sitting?!" Rarity asked, shocked. "That's ridiculous! Nopony can do that!"

Twilight stepped forward, running her tongue across her lips. The smell was calling her, more intoxicating than almost anything she'd ever come across. Her wings twitched besides her, and a predatory smile twisted her lips.

"Good thing I'm an alicorn, then."


Pain.

Pain like no other, crippling her body and her thoughts, and leaving her with nothing to support her but the table she was half lying on. Agony rippled through her body, leaving fire in its wake and a tummy ache for the ages.

She would have been fascinated by being able to reexperience pain if only she didn't feel like throwing up.

"Sweetheart, I'm sorry to say this, but I honestly don't know what you were expecting," Rarity said, leafing through the large medical book Mrs Cake had provided. "Perhaps had you not devoured it in three seconds like some sort of famished savage, you'd have given your stomach enough time to tell you it was full."

Twilight looked up, groaning some semblance of an intelligible reply.

"Now, Rarity," Applejack said, patting the groaning alicorn's back. "Ain't she in enough misery already? Poor thing was just tryin' to make up for all them years of not eatin'."

"Sis? Are you sure she'll be okay?" Apple Bloom asked. "She don't look good."

"Is she gonna die again?!" Scootaloo asked, staring at Twilight as though she expected it to happen at any moment. "We just brought her back! Like, yesterday! Literally!"

"She'll be fiiiiiine," Pinkie said, washing the remains of cake off the platter. She turned off the faucet and turned to the princess. "Besides, she loved it! Didn't you, Princess Twi?"

Though her body currently made it difficult to say anything more elaborate than a pained groan, she still put in the effort and nodded because oh Princesses, that had been so good. So, so, so good she'd eat three more of those cakes were they put in front of her.

"Well, the spell should take effect shortly. Regardless, we should head out now. Fluttershy must already be waiting for us with Spike and Rainbow,” Rarity said, closing the spell book and turning to Twilight. “Are you quite sure you’ll manage the walk to the valley?”

“Yes,” Twilight croaked. “Maybe. No. I don’t know.”

A bolt of pain shot through her body. Oh, to think the day would ever come she’d miss being displaced in time.

Stupid delicious cake.

Rarity levitated a newspaper and placed it on the table. "For now, I do believe there are much more pressing matters to discuss. Namely, the fact that the entire town saw you and Discord fighting."

"We tried telling everyone that it was real, but nopony believes us!" Scootaloo exclaimed, sticking a fork inside her piece of cake.

"Seems like the story folks are fine with believing that this is some sort of Seekin' Night joke. I reckon convincing them otherwise won't be a piece of pie, too," Applejack said. She gestured to Twilight's wings. "I was at the market earlier, and two mares kept talking about how realistic the Princess's fake wings were. One of them even wanted to find her to ask what spell she used!"

"Well, the foals certainly believe she's the veritable Princess Booky, and frankly, I think this works to our advantage until we talk with Princess Cadance," Rarity replied. "I wager she's not quite ready to deal with Equestria panicking not only over the princesses being real, but Discord as well.''

Rarity got up, putting the newspaper away in her bag and brushing a hoof through Twilight’s mane.

“Come now, Miss Gourmande. We shouldn’t keep the others waiting,” she said, and stepped away when Twilight heaved herself off the table. “Are you certain you feel well enough to walk there?”

“Yes, I am,” Twilight lied through her teeth. Every inch of her body protested movement, but unlike most other ponies, she was a prodigy at magic, and her body couldn’t protest levitation, now could it?

No.

No, it couldn’t, thank you very much.

Except that it could, actually, protest it. Thankfully, though, the kind owner of the pastry shop had no qualms with helping clean up the contents of Twilight’s stomach from her shop’s entrance, but that was entirely besides the point, and had never happened, ever, period.

Thankfully, Rarity wasn’t averse to levitating ill alicorns towards Spike’s valley.

As it turned out, Spike had not left Ponyville in the two years Twilight had been gone, making a home for himself in the valley adjacent to the White Tail forest, and even going as far as befriending the town itself. No wonder nopony was terrified by the ‘strange’ dragon barging into town yesterday.

Another in the line of life-changing events Twilight had missed.

As she floated above Rarity, Pinkie and Applejack, she watched them talk amongst each other, laugh and exchange pleasantries, saw them basking in a familiarity Twilight did not share, and it was admittedly making her sick. Or that might still be the cake. But still, it was enough for her to try to look away, and instead distract herself with the modern town.

Great, she thought bitterly, who needs Discord when I’m torturing myself just fine?

She looked down again, and her heart swelled at the sight of Rarity laughing at something Pinkie said. She allowed the unicorn to fill her vision, and the sounds of her laughter to counteract the noise in her head because, if anything, she was grateful she had her back.

As if summoned by Twilight’s thoughts, Rarity looked back towards her and smiled brilliantly, her tail swishing.

“Is our pampered princess feeling better or must she still be levitated about?” she asked. “We’re nearly at Spike’s.”

“Well, I was enjoying the sights,” Twilight replied, which wasn’t a lie if one considered Rarity a sight. Which she was. Scientifically proven.

“Yes, I gathered as much from how intently you were staring at me.”

In her mind, Twilight replied with something witty and crisp that would show Rarity she could not hope to best Twilight at a game of comebacks. In reality, she let out an embarrassed noise of alarm that did little more than widen Rarity’s victorious smile.

Rarity giggled. “Do keep up, dearest.”

Applejack cleared her throat. “If you’re done turning the poor Princess redder than an apple, we oughta hurry up.”

They stepped into a large clearing, and from her vantage point, Twilight saw her dear draconian friend in the distance, lying on the grass and apparently fast asleep. Two familiar pegasi flew above him, the yellow one seeming distressed at the blue one standing on him and, well, acquainting his face with her hindhooves. Repeatedly.

“Rainbow!” Twilight exclaimed, horrified. “Why is she kicking him?!”

“She’s not kicking him, silly!” Pinkie exclaimed, standing back as Rarity levitated Twilight down to the ground. “She’s waking him up!”

“By kicking him in the face?!”

“Now, now, Twilight! Rainbow may have, shall we say, unorthodox methods, but they are tried and true.”

Nevertheless, tried and true as they were, Twilight flew up into the air and watched as Rainbow smacked a hoof against Spike’s face and then landed on the ground, next to what seemed to be dozens of saddlebags. Relieved, Twilight began her descent towards the ground until Rainbow Dash extracted a heavy-looking tome from inside a saddlebag and—

DON’T HIT HIM WITH THE BOOK!” she shrieked, beelining towards the pegasus and practically ripping the object away from Rainbow’s forehoof. “Rainbow!”

Rainbow grinned. “Oh! Princess Twi! You’re awake!”

“Rainbow, what were you thinking?!” Twilight demanded. “You could have damaged something!”

Rainbow snorted. “What? Pfff, Spike will be fine.”

“I meant the book!”

“Oh. Pffffft, that’ll be fine too,” Rainbow said, flying up and landing on the dragon’s head. She smacked a nearby scale. “Come ON, you lazy sack of gems!”

“Princess Twilight!” Fluttershy said, landing next to the Princess and trying hard to ignore Rainbow’s duel with Spike’s head. “How did you sleep?”

“Oh, I slept well!” Twilight replied. No nightmares, no bad thoughts, just blissful sleep. “I really needed it.”

“That’s wonderful, Princess!” Fluttershy exclaimed, relieved. “I was worried it would be difficult after not sleeping for so long…”

Pinkie giggled, elbowing Rarity. “‘Specially when somepony was holding onto Princess Twi like frosting to a cupcake.”

Rarity coughed. “Curious. I don’t recall that at all,” she said nonchalantly.

Applejack smiled. “Sure ya don’t, Rares. Sure ya don’t.”

“I do not!” Rarity protested, her apparent irritation melting away when Twilight giggled. “Regardless! Rather than discussing such trivial matters—” She turned towards Spike and cleared her throat. “Spikey-wikey! Wake up, darling!”

A second of silence followed before Spike’s eyes fluttered open, a yawn escaping his lips.

“Mmm?”

“Seriously?!” Rainbow exclaimed, the second book she picked up and threw at him missing its mark only because Twilight caught it in her magic. “You wake up for her?!”

“Of course he does!” Rarity replied, flipping her mane.

Twilight watched as the dragon’s lethargic gaze traveled the length of their friends, only widening and practically sparkling when it settled on her. She impulsively smiled at him, her wings twitching at her sides, and yet before she was even able to greet him, a massive claw took hold off her. She yelped in surprise, and suddenly found herself cuddled—or smushed, rather—against his face.

Twilight laughed. “Sp-Spike!”

Spike ignored her protests, simply sighing and then nuzzling his muzzle against her entire body.

“It doesn’t feel entirely real, does it?” Rarity asked.

Spike shook his head, drawing giggles out of the poor alicorn being tickled all over.

“Wh-What doesn’t feel real?” Twilight asked, pushing Spike away with a hoof so as to try to have some space to breathe.

“You, sugarcube,” Applejack replied, taking off her hat. “You bein’ with us.”

Oh.

A knot formed in Twilight’s throat. Though Spike remained silent besides her, his grip tightened around her body, as if afraid she might disappear.

“Well,” she said after she regained her composure. She nuzzled Spike in return, a gesture of affection she sorely missed, and her voice fell to a whisper, “I’m back now.”

“Yeah,” Spike finally said, and opened his eyes, treating her to the toothiest grin she’d ever seen. He put her down on the ground before sitting up on his hindlegs and stretching out. “That was a good nap, but being awake’s better.”

Rainbow harrumphed, flying up into the air and playfully rolling her eyes. “Pft. You’re never that excited to see me.”

Pinkie giggled. “Awww, are you jealous, Dashy?”

Rainbow snorted, crossing her forelegs. “Yeah, right!” she exclaimed, only to yelp when Spike pulled her in for a sudden hug.

“Awww, I love you too, Rainbow,” he cooed, grinning when Twilight and the others laughed at the pegasus’s indignant protests of not wanting any of his dumb hugs, Spike!

It was strange to see all her friends talking and joking amongst each other. And yet, in that moment, it wasn’t strange in a hurtful way. In fact, a sudden sweeping wave of affection engulfed Twilight, and she felt being able to partake in their familiarity.

“Uhm, Rainbow?” Fluttershy asked once Rainbow had been released back into the air. She fidgeted slightly. "Shouldn't you tell them about the trip…?"

"The trip? What trip?" Twilight asked, ears perking up.

Rainbow blinked. "The trip to… Oh! Yeah! Princess Twilight!” She flew up close to her, clapping her hooves. “Okay, so, listen, Spike and I decided we’re gonna go to Canterlot too, so we’re leaving tomorrow morning and—”

Rarity gasped. “You are?!” She turned to look at the dragon. “Spike! Is this true?”

Spike crossed his arms, looking away. “Yeah, we are. I figure it’s been long enough and…”

He nodded towards Twilight.

Rarity stamped her hooves against the ground, her tail swishing behind her. “Darling! That’s tremendous news! Sensational, even!”

“Wait, what’s going on?” Twilight asked, wanting to share in the excitement. “Why wouldn’t you want to come in the first place, Spike?”

Spike grunted, still looking away. If Twilight didn’t know better, which she did, he looked just as he used to when she caught him misbehaving. “Long story, Twi. Don’t worry about it.”

“Well, I’d like to hear it anyway,” Twilight insisted, her curiosity melting into concern. Had something—Well, of course something must have happened in the thousand years she was gone, but what would drive Spike away from their true home? “This seems important.”

Rainbow landed in front of her. “It is! And you’ll hear all about it ‘cause it’ll take us like five days to get to Canterlot by hoof aaaaaand you’re coming with us!”

Twilight's ears perked up. “I am?”

Rarity frowned. “She is?”

Pinkie giggled. “Ooooooh, fun! Can I come too?!”

“No, no, no, wait!” Rarity interrupted. “Pardon me, darling, but she can’t go with you! If you’d taken the time to suggest this yesterday, then perhaps! But may I remind you I’ve already bought expensive train tickets for all of us?”

Rainbow waved her off. “Pshhhh, big deal, Rares. I’ll pay you back for the tickets, no biggie.”

“Rainbow, that’s not the point!” Rarity shot back.

Rainbow deadpanned her. “Rares. Trains are, like, total snooze-fests. Princess Twilight’s been stuck in a library for like a jillion years. The last thing she wants is to be stuck in a train for half a day! Besides, she definitely likes this idea better, right, Princess?”

Twilight faltered, chewing on her lip.

On one hoof, she badly wanted to see Cadance and be back home.

On the other hoof, she’d really missed Spike, and five days was barely enough—in fact, it was probably too little—time to catch up on whatever she needed to catch up on. Including his aversion towards Canterlot.

“Yes,” she finally said, determined.

“What? But, Twilight!” Rarity complained.

In return, Twilight smiled reassuringly. “It’s not a problem, Rarity. I’m sure Cadance can wait a few days so Spike can get there, and I’m sure we’ll have a good time, you’ll see.”

And to this, Rarity hesitated.

“We?” she asked, and so did Twilight’s heart drop.

Wait, what?

“What do you mean ‘we’?” Twilight asked at once, whatever excitement she’d held fading. “Yes, we. You’re coming with us! Aren’t you?” She turned to Rainbow. “Isn’t she?” Back to Rarity, who now looked away. “Rarity! But—!”

“I don’t know, Twilight,” she said, helplessly.

“What’d you mean you don’t know?” Rainbow asked. “Why wouldn’t you want to come?! I’m paying you back for your ticket, come on! It’ll be fun!”

“It’s not that!” Rarity whined with irritation, turning to the two mares. “I have commitments! I arranged to deliver a dress to a client in Canterlot tomorrow night, and it’s not as though I can deliver a letter rescheduling today! And, not only that, but it’s unfinished, and I was hoping to finish it on the train ride. I can’t do that if we’re traveling on hoof!”

“Psh, we can figure it out! Fluttershy has mad sewing skills!” Rainbow insisted. “And this is Twilight. I’m pretty sure your client will understand, and besides! All you have to do is pull one of your all-nighters again and finish it tonight, whatever. ”

“Rainbow, honestly, I barely slept last night! I’ll fall asleep halfway! And, once again, that’s not the point!”

Rainbow pouted. “Come ooooon! Stop making excuses!”

Rarity snapped.

“I’m not making excuses!” she said, a fire in her eyes that, admittedly, forced Twilight to step back. She stamped her hoof against the ground. “I can’t just drop things anymore for this! I have a business, and clients, and responsibilities to take care off! I can’t grind my plans and my life to a halt again!

And Rainbow didn’t reply.

In fact, no one else replied at first, and if they did, Twilight couldn’t hear them over the noise in her head. The noise drowning out everything but Rarity’s almost resentful words.

“Wow, Rarity,” Rainbow said, finally, stepping back. “Nopony said any of that. It’s just a trip. I… I just thought you’d like to come. Sorry…”

A wave of realization swept over Rarity, and now she stepped back as well, her eyes flitting between the almost shocked stares being directed at her. “I-I— I apologize, I didn’t—” She drifted off, frustrated.

“It’s fine.”

Twilight hadn’t processed the fact she’d spoken until everypony turned to her. But she’d said it. Because it was true. It was fine. Rarity didn’t want to spend time with her, or change her life for her, and it was fine, it was fine! It was fine.

It would be fine because Twilight would fix it.

Just like she’d fix everything else.

Rarity seemed taken aback. “Twilight?”

“It’s fine!” she repeated, forcing an almost manic smile. “I understand. You have your clients, and your life. You don’t have to come”— For a split-second, the words ‘if you don’t want to’ waited on her tongue, but she changed them. She wasn’t brave enough for that.—“If you can’t.”

“Twi’s right,” Applejack said. “Rarity’s business is important, and everypony knows customers tell one friend about the good apple they ate, but tell the entire village ‘bout the rotten apple they tasted.”

“Exactly,” Rarity said, though the intensity in her voice was long gone. An array of emotions again warred in her eyes, and Twilight could plainly see that the unicorn was avoiding meeting her gaze.

“Well.” Spike cleared his throat and clapped his hands. “I guess that’s settled…? So!” He got up. “I need to go get gems for the trip. Anypony coming with me?”

“Ye-Yeah!” Pinkie said, eager to get away from any discussions. She jumped up onto his tail and sat down. “Off we go!”

Rainbow, similarly, moved towards Spike after one last awkward apology to Rarity. She flew up into the air and settled herself atop his head, talking about a good gem spot she’d found.

Twilight herself didn’t quite know what to do.

“Why don’t you go with them, Twilight?” Rarity asked. She smiled apologetically. “I think my exhaustion might be getting to me, hm?”

“I… Okay,” Twilight relented.

“I’ll go with ya, Rarity,” Applejack said. “Been puttin’ off my chores at the farm long enough.” She rubbed her brow and moved in to embrace Twilight. “I’ll be seein’ you tomorrow, Princess!” She then hugged Fluttershy. “Don’t be out too long, you two.”

Rarity said nothing more beyond asking Fluttershy to take Twilight home later, and then offering the alicorn her crown back should it be needed. Once that was done, she merely smiled and trotted off, leaving Twilight to stand there and watch her go.

“She’ll be all right.”

Twilight looked to her side and found Fluttershy smiling warmly at her.

“And you’ll be all right too, won’t you?”

Twilight smiled. “I will.”

Sooner or later, she would fix everything. Sooner or later.


Night had fallen by the time she returned to Rarity’s house.

And an old feeling returned with it. Or was it new now, considering how much time has passed since she’d last felt it? Whatever the correct definition, Twilight was now feeling tired, her body heavy from all the movement during the day.

The day had gone by eventfully, or at least eventfully enough to keep her thoughts away from Rarity’s outburst. Pinkie had taken her to dinner at a lovely restaurant with the others, and she’d managed to confirm that yes, indeed, the entire population of Ponyville was convinced she was that good of an illusionist.

It was strange. All her life she’d hated her wings and the royal status they’d thrust upon her; now she was a bit disappointed ponies saw her as a pony and not a princess.

After dinner, they spent more time with Spike and Rainbow, as well as the Themis and Elara’s family who’d finally emerged with the sunset, and then she’d finally been escorted home by Fluttershy.

Elara, Themis and their owlets elected to sleep outside, and so silence greeted her when she stepped into Carousel Boutique. She closed the door behind her, and was reminded of how much she hated silence. The library had always been silent.

“I’m back!” she called, stepping further into the room, eager to talk to Rarity. Was she doing better? Maybe she’d changed her mind about the trip?

Silence again.

She pursed her lips, and trotted into the kitchen, finding it empty. Rarity’s workroom turned out to be devoid of Rarity too, and so did worried thoughts filter into her mind. Had… Surely, Discord hadn’t...

“Rarity?” she called out. “Rarity, I’m ba—!”

“Princess Twilight! You’re back!”

She turned around and saw Sweetie Belle rushing into the room.

“Oh, Sweetie!” she exclaimed. That was a relief.

“How’d gem-hunting go?!” Sweetie asked. “Is it true you’re going with Spike and Rainbow on a trip?!” She pouted and sat down on the floor, crossing her forelegs. “Rarity said I couldn’t go…”

“It is a long trip, Sweetie. And dangerous, too. She’s just looking out for you,” Twilight said, sympathetically. “Speaking of which, where is Rar—?”

Crack!

“Ah, Twilight, you’re back.”

Twilight yelped in surprise, turning around and tumbling down at Rarity’s sudden appearance. Her chest heaved, like her heart was about to leap right out of her chest, and yet Rarity had exactly no remorse for what she’d done. Instead, she simply stood there, smiling devilishly.

Rarity! You scared me!Twilight reprimanded, getting up and frowning at the unicorn. “That wasn’t funny.”

Sweetie Belle giggled. “It was a little funny.”

“I agree,” Rarity said.

“Well, I’m glad you can still teleport, at least,” Twilight said, her own frown turning into a smile. “I didn’t think you’d actually keep practicing with me gone.”

Rarity fluttered her eyelashes. “But of course! How else was I supposed to impress you with my progress once you returned, hm?”

Twilight blushed, leaning in. “Well, That’s ni—”

The sound of Sweetie clearing her throat interrupted her, and she quickly leaned back.

“Right!” Rarity exclaimed, clearly not blushing like Twilight. “It’s getting late, isn’t it?” She raised an eyebrow at Sweetie Belle. “And you should be in bed, young lady. Off you go!”

Once Sweetie begrudgingly left to get ready for the night, Rarity turned to Twilight. “And you too for that matter. At what time are you and the others supposed to be leaving for your little expedition?”

“Er... Seven in the morning."

“Seven? My stars, I barely slept! Do they want to kill me? Well, regardless, I talked with Applejack about it,” Rarity said. “She’s considering joining you all.”

“Really? That’s great!” Twilight said. If Applejack wanted to come, then maybe… “And you…?”

Rarity winced. “I… shan’t. I do have matters to attend to, darling, as I said earlier,” she said softly. “I do owe Rainbow an apology. I’m not sure what got over me. But...” She paused for a second, her brow creasing in thought.

“But…?”

“But it’s in the past now!” she said with finality. “And you need to get yourself to bed. Come along!”

Twilight followed Rarity upstairs, admittedly looking forward to sleeping again, but her path towards Rarity’s room was interrupted when Rarity stopped in front of Sweetie Belle’s room. With slight hesitation, Rarity peeked inside before turning to Twilight.

"I'm assuming you don't intend on sleeping in the library,” she said, “...So you're free to sleep in Sweetie’s room for the night.”

"Sleep in Sweetie’s room?" Twilight asked, frowning a bit.

Rarity nodded. “I’ll tell Sweetie to sleep in mine with me.”

Twilight didn’t reply. She didn’t want Sweetie to sleep in Rarity’s room. She wanted the filly to be able to sleep in her own room, while Twilight herself slept in Rari…

Her cheeks heated up.

What was the protocol for situations like these? Twilight had slept in Rarity’s room the night before, so it wasn’t wholly unreasonable for her to sleep there again, especially when Rarity was her… Well, right now, she wasn’t entirely sure they were officially anything, and if they were, Rarity wouldn’t be offering Sweetie’s room, so that…

Ugh.

"All right," she said finally, even though it wasn't what she wanted at all. "Thank you."

As it turned out, Sweetie Belle herself didn’t want to sleep in Rarity’s room either, but for wholly different reasons. She wanted to sleep wherever Princess Twilight was, and Twilight found some happiness in the fact that at least somepony in the house was thrilled with the arrangements.

It’ll be so much fun, Princess, she’d said as she snuggled under the covers next to Twilight. Rarity’s gonna be so jealous, she’d assured. Why don’t you tell me a bedtime story? she’d begged.

Ten minutes into the story, Twilight privately admitted she was impressed—and a bit offended—at how quickly she'd put Sweetie to sleep.

In the dead of the night, submerged in darkness and uneven snores, she stared at the ceiling and thought. She did that all the time, and more often than not, as they had in the last year, her thoughts meandered towards her.

She laid out the day in her mind, the many moments Rarity had held back, pushed something away from the light, signs that pointed towards something terrible, culminating in… the outburst, if that was an apt name for it.

How painfully fascinating that she'd literally been kept away from Rarity, and yet she’d never felt more distant than standing next to her during the confrontation.

Did Rarity not want to have anything to do with her anymore?

Did she not want to help? Was Twilight imposing on her? Or worse, had she… had she really stopped loving her in those two years…?

She thought back to the library. To that awful day, to… She hadn’t been there since reuniting with Rarity, and if she was honest with herself, she didn’t want to go back. She was afraid of it; it made her stomach churn, just the thought of… of what she’d become… and… it had been his fault. Discord had caused this. It had been all him.

Hadn’t it?

But then, memories resurfaced.

Nightmares in broad daylight, unbidden and unrelenting and excruciating.

Memories of the library, and yet...

And yet they were new, she thought at first. Unfamiliar, yet familiar. Memories of herself in the library, walking, feeling angry and bitter and resentful towards… Rarity? Towards herself? Towards everything?

The memories continued, like flashes, one after another, and yet she still couldn’t place the time until she saw splattered ink and black hoofsteps on the floor, and then she knew.

And then, like a dam had broken, more and more memories flooded her mind, of two years that seemed had not been fully suppressed. Her head began to ache, and so did a groan escape her lips.

She opened her eyes, trying to dispel the images, push them away, and though she succeeded, she feared closing her eyes would only bring them back. She wished she were able to fall asleep, but she was more awake than ever, and with the pain in her head and the ache in her chest, she resigned herself to a single fact.

She didn't want to sleep.

In fact, she knew very well what she wanted to do.

After several moments of consideration, she rose from the bed, careful not to wake Sweetie Belle as she made her way out of the room. She opened and then closed the door behind her, and exhaled a breath of relief when she was out in the hallway.

To her relief, light shone out of the unicorn's room, prompting her to tiptoe over and peek inside, finding Rarity lying on her bed, squinting at her sketchpad from behind her glasses.

For a moment, Twilight was perfectly content with simply watching her.

She’d hardly loved Rarity from the very beginning, but she had been fascinated by her from the start. The one element in her life she did not fully understand, the hurricane who'd stormed into a quiet desert, only to settle down and turn it into an oasis.

"Far be it from me to tell you what to do, as I too quite enjoy my own appearance, but might I suggest you admire me from a more comfortable location? You were walking around all day, after all," Rarity said, still drawing away on her sketchpad. Her eyes flickered towards Twilight, and she smiled. "I gather the sleepover isn't going too well?"

Oops.

Twilight walked into the room, smiling awkwardly. "Sweetie Belle fell asleep halfway through the bedtime story I was telling her."

Rarity raised an eyebrow, levitating her glasses on top of her head. "Really? That's not like her. Whatever were you telling her about?" She smiled mischievously. "The inner mechanics of thaumaturgic kinetics?"

"No, though that's a very interesting topic!" Twilight replied, standing in front of the bed. "I was explaining the architectural differences between modern Ponyville and the houses the Cobbler family built."

Rarity grinned. "Ah, mystery solved, then.” She gestured to the other side of the bed. "But, personally, I think that sounds fascinating! If you can bear a few minutes while I finish my design, I'd love to hear all about it once I'm done."

Twilight stamped her hooves on the floor. "Really?! I wanted to write a small dissertation on it; you can help me outline it, and—" She cut herself off. "And you won't fall asleep?"

"Twilight! Perish the thought!" Rarity gasped. "When have I ever been so impolite?"

"You fell asleep halfway through the foreword of Feyn Mane's Treatise on Quantized Enchantments."

Rarity coughed. "Well! Can you blame me? Who wouldn't be lulled to sleep with a voice as melodious as yours, hmm?"

Twilight giggled. "Right," she said, climbing up on the bed and lying down near Rarity. Not as close as she'd like, but not too far away either.

Even though she'd been wide awake and terrified of closing her eyes not even ten minutes ago, a sudden drowsiness overtook Twilight. She was comfortable now, like she was right where she needed to be, and the soft sound of Rarity's pencil scratching against paper was proving to be a soothing lullaby protecting her from ill thoughts.

If Rarity allowed her to sleep there yesterday, then perhaps she'd allow it again? It was a large bed, after all, and both of them and Sweetie apparently fit in it.

And if she pretended to have fallen asleep…

Determined to put her plan into motion, she paced her breath and cuddled into the bed, simulating the act of sleeping. Except she hadn't done that in a while. Could she even fake sleep anymore? Would pacing her breath be too obvious? But if it was too irregular, it would signal activity and unrest, and she couldn't pass it off as a dream since ponies only dreamt during the REM cycle of sleeping, which itself didn't start until ninet—

"Voila!" Rarity's voice chimed, jolting Twilight into a static position.

She heard Rarity putting the drawing on her nightstand, and for a moment she hoped the unicorn wouldn't get too close, as her own rapid heartbeat would no doubt betray her.

"Twilight?" Rarity asked after a while, and Twilight bit down on her lip. A few more seconds passed before Rarity's lovely voice sounded off again, the unicorn's hooves rubbing against her back. It was a heavenly sensation, and she was tempted to break her deception if only to hum in delight.

"Twilight, sweetheart? Did you fall asleep?" Another moment of silence before Rarity continued. "Well! I wish I could be cured of my insomnia that quickly. I suppose I have no choice but to let her sleep here, then."

If Twilight hadn't been so busy delighting over the fact that her plan apparently worked, she might have realized that was a very odd statement to say aloud. Instead, she allowed a satisfied smile to curve her lips and let out a content giggle—which she immediately tried to play off as a snore.

"Goodness," Rarity continued, tracing circles on Twilight's back, "that must have been the oddest snore I've ever heard! If I didn't know better, I'd have sworn Twilight just giggled! How truly fascinating."

Cursing herself, Twilight bit down on her lip even more, a desperate attempt to swallow down more of the giggles that wanted to come out. To her immediate horror, Rarity adjusted herself so as to brush back Twilight's mane and reveal her face.

"And look at this!" Rarity exclaimed. "She even blushes and smiles like a filly when she's asleep! This is absolutely remarkable!"

"All right, all right!" Twilight exclaimed, sitting up and puffing her cheeks out. So much for that plan.

Rarity, however, giggled with delight. "Awwww, is our silly princess pouting?" she said, imitating Twilight's expression, her ears lowering. "Might I venture she take acting classes elsewhere than with the Heart’s Haven changelings?"

"I don't need acting classes!" Twilight protested. "And I am not silly."

"Oh?" Rarity asked, lifting Twilight's chin with her hoof. "Now, now, you must admit you're a teensy bit silly, at the very least."

Twilight smiled. "Maybe a little."

A warm smile swept across Rarity's lips, and for a moment, like earlier that day, Twilight wanted to lean in to kiss her. However, before she could, Rarity looked away towards her desk.

"I..." She levitated a worn-out paper from her nightstand and then took it in her hooves, pressing the paper against her chest. "If it makes you feel any better, I have something very silly to show you. The little filly from this morning inspired me to look for it," she said, a blush creeping up her cheeks.

"What is it?" Twilight asked, ears perking up. This had her attention.

Rarity seemed hesitant. "You must promise you shan't laugh!"

Twilight shook her head. "I won't laugh, I promise."

Biting down on her lip, Rarity finally detached the paper from her chest and hoofed it over. Twilight turned it around and admired a very old drawing entitled 'The Princess and I', depicting an indigo maned filly having a costumed tea party with an ancient—and also extremely inaccurate—alicorn princess.

Even when the drawing inspired many emotions within her, Twilight didn’t initially know what to say.

"Do you like it?" Rarity hesitantly asked, and for a moment she reminded Twilight of the little filly from earlier, seeking approval from the one she so admired.

Twilight licked her lips and frowned. "I have some thoughts about it."

Rarity sat up straight, disconcerted. "...And those are?"

"There's at least fifteen things I can think of that are very wrong with having me wear a dress made out of book pages."

"Twilight! I was a filly! And what do you expect when you're called Princess Booky!" Rarity protested with a huff. "An 'oh, it's the most fabulous thing I've ever seen, Rarity,' would have sufficed."

Twilight laughed. "I think it's wonderful," she said, looking over the drawing with delight. When she put it down on the bed, she turned to Rarity and raised an eyebrow. "I guess meeting the real Princess Booky isn't something little Rarity was expecting."

Rarity hummed. "Oh? Dearest, you underestimate me."

"Do I?" Twilight asked, inching a bit closer to Rarity. "Maybe a little."

"Just a little," Rarity replied, and the way she smiled, soft and loving and playful, was enough to hitch Twilight's breath. "You honestly believe that I didn't plan all of this? That I didn't intend as a filly to grow up into the most beautiful mare in Equestria—"

"The most beautiful mare in Equestria. Right,” Twilight said with an insolent smile as she inched closer still.

Rarity fluttered her eyelashes. "The most, yes. I'm delighted you agree," she whispered, and she was so close now, all Twilight had to do was move just a bit more and lean in. "Grow up into the most beautiful mare in Equestria who would clearly meet and win the heart of the fabled princess."

"Clearly," Twilight replied, heart hammering in her chest as she moved closer one last time.

Bad thoughts rose in her mind, reminding her of Rarity's earlier unsettling actions, and yet...

And yet, at the same time, Rarity's mere presence acted as a barrier against them, kept Twilight safe from her own demons if only because their physical proximity forced other more heady thoughts into her mind.

"So…" Twilight said.

"So…?" Rarity replied, and for once, she leaned in slightly, so close their lips would touch if either one dared.

“So... you're responsible for all of this, huh?"

And then Rarity froze, her eyes widening.

And then she pulled back.

She pulled back, as if Twilight had struck her, and when she caught herself, she laughed nervously. "We-well, be that as it may," she stammered, her ears clamped against her head. "Be that as it may,” she repeated, looking around for the drawing and then levitating it back on the desk, "it is quite late, and you have to wake up early for your expedition!” She faltered. Briefly, but she did. “You should probably go back to your room."

To this, Twilight didn't know what to say.

She was sure that in ten minutes, her brain would torment her over it. She was sure that sleep would be hard to find that night, asking herself over and over what she did wrong, what was her mistake now, but in that moment, she did nothing but acquiesce.

"Yes, I probably should," she repeated without much emotion.

Without another word, but with a heavy heart, she got off the bed, and now did the questions burn her. Had she been too forward? Maybe Rarity didn't love her anymore? There it was again, plainly stated, the question she feared. She'd yet to say it, hadn’t she? Not once since they'd been reunited had Rarity uttered the three words, and perhaps now the unicorn had realized she didn't love Twilight anymore.

But, even so, Twilight couldn't help what she felt, and even at a cost, she didn't want to hide it either—not anymore.

She stopped, looked back, and spoke up.

"I love you.”

I love you, she’d said, and though this was and had always been very much true, even back when she didn’t realize it yet, it still hurt when Rarity hesitated in her reply, if she’d even planned one.

Finding she was too afraid to wait and see if Rarity was ever going to reply, Twilight spoke up again. "We-Well, good night. I'll see you tomorrow?"

Sitting on her bed, ears still lowered, Rarity's smile was much less bright than before.

"I would hope so.”

Twilight nodded, turning around to leave, and she wanted to, but…

But something was wrong. Something was wrong with Rarity, something Twilight didn't know about, and it would eat her alive. It would eat her alive because she couldn't fix a problem when she didn't know what the problem was.

Even if it scared her.

Even if there were a million other solutions she'd want to try rather than the most effective and terrifying one.

"Rarity?" she asked carefully, turning around to face the unicorn. "Is something wrong?"

Rarity sat up straight, pawing at the sheets. "Wh-Whatever do you mean?"

"Is it me?" Twilight asked, her voice steady. “Is it because I’m back?”

"No! No, no, no! Twilight, dearest, never, absolutely not!" Rarity said immediately, horrified. "Don't even think that!"

"Then what's wrong?" Twilight asked again, finding little relief in not being at fault.

"I..." Like a foal caught in her lies, Rarity looked down, away from the seeking stare. "I don't know."

I don't know.

Who knew these three little words could be akin to daggers?

Tears stung at Twilight's eyes, and she looked away. "You don't know," she repeated, slowly and painfully. "I can't fix this if I don't know what's wrong, Rarity."

Rarity's disposition changed. "Oh, sweetheart… Come here." She lifted her hoof, a beckoning gesture, and what could Twilight do but walk back to the bed and climb up right into Rarity's waiting embrace. Rarity nuzzled and held her close, her voice falling to a whisper. "Oh, my darling, you have nothing to fix, you silly pony."

"I am not a silly pony," Twilight half-heartedly mumbled against Rarity's coat.

Rarity chuckled sadly, stroking Twilight's mane. "No, you are not. I think I might be the silly one," she confessed.

When Twilight pulled back, a pained smile decorated Rarity's lips. She lifted her hoof and pressed it against Twilight's necklace, her eyes focused on the pendant.

"I think I need time," she murmured with finality. She looked up and wiped away Twilight's tears, letting her hoof rest on the alicorn's cheek. "Time to gather my thoughts and sort myself out. That forsaken magic made us wait two years, didn't it? So what's a little bit more waiting?"

"And then you'll tell me what's wrong?" Twilight asked.

Rarity nodded, looking solemn. "Yes. In fact, I shall make you an entire diagram explaining 'what's wrong', and afterwards, we shall sit together and write a dissertation on it to be entitled 'The Art of What's Wrong'. How does that sound, hmm?"

Twilight giggled at the stark contrast of emotion in Rarity’s voice and absurd content of her words. "Depends. How big are we planning on making it? I have a sixty page minimum."

Rarity grimaced. "Oh dear, I'm regretting my words."

"That's what I thought," Twilight replied, giggling and leaning in to nuzzle her again. When she pulled back, she licked her lips, happy that at least some of the weight on her heart was gone.

Rarity sighed. "Would you like to know why I didn't sleep at all? I kept waking up, expecting to be back in Hollow Shades and find out that this was all just a cruelly vivid dream." A sincere smile bloomed on her lips. "I'm surprised you didn't wake up considering how many times I kept tapping your shoulder to make sure you were actually there."

Twilight looked at her for a moment. "I… Can I stay here again tonight?"

Rarity didn't hesitate. "You are most welcome to do so."

Some time later, after the lights dimmed and two tired ponies lay under the covers, Twilight felt rather lonely until she took the plunge and scooted closer to Rarity, enveloping her in a timid hug. She feared Rarity would react aversely, push her away, but when the unicorn seemed to ease into her embrace, Twilight allowed herself a breath of relief.

She closed her eyes, taking a deep breath and the wonderful scent of Rarity's perfume. For a moment, she was scared she would never be able to let go. And as soon as the thought arose, so did the familiar insecurity, the guilt that plagued her for as long as she remembered.

I don't know, she'd said.

"Twilight?" Rarity asked, turning around to face Twilight.

Twilight's thoughts came to a screeching halt, but only for a moment before they came back at full-force. Her mind begged for her to do anything but to open her eyes. It begged to keep pretending to be in a wonderful illusion, to avoid what was certainly coming which was Rarity asking her to please move away, to please let go, to go back to Sweetie's room.

She willed her eyes open.

"Yes?" she asked, and when she did so, Rarity hesitated before leaning in, her forehoof resting on Twilight’s chest as she pressed their lips together in a gentle kiss.

Twilight’s heart leapt in her chest. It wasn’t a passionate kiss, yet this did not make it any less emotional. It was gentle, tender, and Twilight was endlessly content with following whatever pace Rarity wanted to take.

It was simple, and for now, that was enough.

When it broke off, their lips brushed together for a moment, shaky breaths intermingling before Rarity nuzzled Twilight's neck, allowing Twilight to wrap a wing and foreleg around her.

"I don't know what's wrong," she said, "but I do know that I love you, and… and I rather think that's a good place to start."

A wave of affection overwhelmed Twilight. She thought back to what Rarity said earlier. They'd waited two years, torn apart by internal and external forces, and in the end, the unicorn was right. What was waiting a little more compared to two years?

Twilight waited a thousand to be free of the library.

For Rarity, she’d wait a million.

~ Interlude I ~ A Near-Death Experience ~

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Face to face, he saw her only once.

In his dreams, however, he’d seen her nearly every other night; in dreams where his hindlegs still worked, still moved, where he was not crippled for life.



He was a painter by trade. Or had been, at least. He was more accurately a fool; a fool who’d embarked on an ill-fated journey to trap the world in paintings and now found himself trapped in the unforgiving claws of the forest.

He’d lost his supplies, lost his way, and he feared his very own life would soon follow. He’d scavenged whatever food he could find, whatever might feed him, and had been too blinded by hunger to realize he’d eaten a too generous hoof-full of poisonous duskshade berries.

The hallucinations, like nighttime, had descended upon him some time ago, but now he could barely walk, barely move as he pushed through the poison and deeper into the woods. Would he die alone?

He thought of his wife. He thought of his daughter, and his grandfoals.

The sound of a cascading, raging waterfall filled the dry air, intermingling with his ragged breaths. He reached a clearing and found before him a lake and waterfall larger than mountains themselves. He tried to make sense of it, tried to figure out where he could be, but the poison seeped into his mind and clouded his thoughts.

“He-Help…” he called out, to the night, to the stars, to whoever might listen. “He...Help! Please! Some...” He collapsed to the ground. “Somepony…”

...Little one...

He opened his eyes and looked up, a gentle voice whispering to him. Oh, he was hardly a foal, but he could not think to argue with a voice as motherly as that one. Was he dying? Had his mother come fetch him from beyond the stars and the earth?

...I am here, Little one...

“Whe…”

His voice drifted off, his eyes drawn towards the waterfall crashing down. He could see it; beyond the lake, there was a light. It called him, beckoned him, and his eyes widened when a faint golden magic enveloped the waterfall. He watched as it parted in two and revealed the entrance to a cave.

With whatever energy he could muster, he forced his body off the ground and walked towards the river. The water was as cold as the night air and yet, the more he stared at the light, the closer he swam towards it, the more a strange sort of warmth took over.

The more, it seemed, his pain faded away.

Perhaps he truly was dying.

Eventually, he reached the cave, climbing out from the river and into solid ground.

In the distance, where the light was, he saw the outline of a creature. He walked towards it—towards her. As he approached her, he could see the outline of a horn, and whatever spell she was casting was bright enough he could see her perfectly when standing before her.

He fell to his haunches and wondered if he was still hallucinating.

An alicorn sat before him.

An alicorn, tall and goddess-like and still as a statue. Her closed eyes betrayed no emotion, no sign of life, and her wings were firmly pressed against her body, nearly hiding the sun-shaped cutie mark she bore.

And her horn.

Her horn, he noticed with horror, was cracked, but it still glowed brightly enough he could see the tears rolling down her cheeks.

The beautiful creature was crying.

He stepped back, and a ripping sound on the floor caught his attention. Several dozen or more scrolls lay scattered all around, all of them in various stages of decay. He grabbed one and tried to decipher the faded out words, but it was hard. He was tired, and dying, and they were all written in big scrawling, desperate letters.

Pri c ss, it's me, Sp ke,

wh re are you??? ??

i c n’ find Twil g t, can t f nd prin ess Luna, Shin ng Ar or is g ne

plea e help us pl ase ple se pri ces wh re are y u

ple se an wer

“Is it commonplace now to read somepony else’s mail?”

Startled, he looked up towards the mare, and she looked exactly as she did before, save for the smile on her lips.

“Yo-Your horn,” he said, the only thing he could think to say. “It…”

“I am not in pain,” she replied in an almost heavenly voice, light and carefree and gentle. “Or, if I am, I’ve grown used to it.”

A sharp jolt of pain shot through his body, and he groaned.

“Are you dying?” he asked, when he managed to collect himself. He couldn’t rightly tell if it was meant for her or for him. Probably both.

“Am I dying? No, I no longer can,” she replied with shocking nonchalance. “In other circumstances, I would be able to, but it would take quite some time. My sister and I are ageless alicorns.” She paused, frowning. “My niece and my student aren't, however. I sometimes envied them for it.” She smiled. “It's all in the past now, isn't it? But now... time, life, and death are inconsequential for one in my current position.”

“Can you move?” he asked, even as his body began to fail him. “Can you heal?”

“I will never move again,” she replied. “But if I move and stop casting my spell, I could heal myself.”

“You...you must,” he said, suddenly clinging to the health of the alicorn. She needed to live, for he feared he would not, but if she survived death, maybe he too would be pulled from the brink. “Please… you need help…”

He collapsed onto the ground, the pain ripping him apart, and his vision blurring. He struggled to keep it focused on her.

“You are kind,” she replied, “but you were the one asking for help, weren’t you?”

Finally, she opened her eyes. She opened her eyes, and they were pitch-black. They were black, and sad, and she continued to cry. He wondered if he ought to be afraid of her, but realized he was afraid for her.

“Why are you dying?” she asked gently.

“Duskshade berries,” he said, his speech starting to slur.

“How long ago?”

“Time...is inconsequential...isn’t it?” he echoed, and found it in him to smile even through the agony. He thought about his family. “My wife, my daughter…”

She did not reply. He thought, for a moment, that she was waiting to watch him die. A weeping angel to look after him in his final moments. He thought of his daughter. He thought of his grandfoals.

“One pony.”

He looked up, confused by her words, and found her looking away. He realized she was not talking to him, but instead seemed to be talking to herself.

“One pony,” she said. “He is asking you for help, and you brought him here. One pony.”

She looked down at him, and the sadness in her eyes vanished. They were hard, and cold, and yet… kind at the same time. She was going to kill him, he thought. And he was too gone to fight it.

“Please stay completely still,” she instructed.

She took a breath, and when the spell stopped with a crackle of magic, she gasped in pain and nearly tumbled down. Before he could hope to try and offer help, she steadied herself and her horn glowed anew.

Except, now it was he who was enveloped in golden magic.

“Don’t speak,” she replied when he opened his mouth to do so. “We have little time.”

He did as told, and magic filled him with a burning heat, as though the sun itself pulsed through his veins. Except, though it burned, the other pain he felt began to fade, his limbs began to stir, and his vision clear. He realized that somehow, someway, she was burning the poison away.

And then, it happened.

A loud, deafening crack sounded off behind her in the darkness of the cave, and her eyes widened with unrestrained fear.

And a laugh.

Deep, raspy, terrifying.

“...hello, Princess...”

He saw them.

Two yellow terrifying eyes behind her.

“I am sorry, my little pony,” she said quickly, desperately, and before he could ask, she stopped the healing spell. Both she and him hissed in pain, but she quickly unleashed another spell. A barrier surrounded her, and again she sat completely still, her horn glowing and crackling.

“...oh, my dear, it’s too late now..."

She gritted her teeth and said nothing.

“...all this to save him? Threw it all away for a single pony? You really are a fool.”

The painter tried to speak, but his vision clouded again.

“I stopped the poison,” she said gently, and she continued to cry. “I stopped it, but I could not undo the damage to your legs. I am sorry. You must go. You…” She swallowed. “You have been here too long.” She smiled kindly. “Thank you. ‘Tis a long, long time since I’ve seen a pony.”

And before he could say much, before he could ask her name, her horn glowed as brightly as the sun itself, and with a final agonized groan, she cast a third spell.

When he opened his eyes, he found himself in an entirely different place. A road. He could see a town in the distance, and ponies moving about.

Exhaustion swept over him, and he tried to remember where he’d been, tried to remember what he’d seen, but the more he tried to do so, the more the details blurred away. By the time he fell asleep, by the time he was found, his memories of the past days had gone, and only her image remained.

The weeping princess who’d saved his life.

Her image, her voice, and those yellow eyes would haunt him until death.


~ Act I ~ Chapter 3 ~ The Boiling Point ~

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"A stallion asked for you earlier," North Ridge said, glancing towards the mare sitting beside him. "He saw us talking last night."

"Did he?" she asked, and a knowing smile graced her lips. "Thought you were my father again? Asked if he could meet me and woo me off my hooves?"

North let out a hearty laugh. "Indeed! You're quite the catch, Rarity!"

"And I am already caught," she replied. Her expression then shifted, turned somber. "Did you...?

And so did he lose his mirth. "I told him the same I tell the others. I am a traveler, and you were willing to give me brief directions."

"Thank you," she said with a smile. She then paused and looked away into the distance. "You know, I saw new missing posters. She's not giving up."

"You sound surprised," he replied.

"I'm not," she whispered. "It simply makes me miss her more."


From behind the window, she watched as night gave way to day, moonlight intermingling with dawning sunlight and creating a beautiful sight.

For the first time in over a thousand years, Twilight Sparkle appreciated her namesake. She lifted the mug she was holding and took a sip of her tea, the taste of berries and nuts warming both her body and soul.

She felt safe.

Hoofsteps behind her drew her attention. She tore her eyes away from the window and looked back into Rarity’s kitchen, watching as her sleepy significant other trotted in, covering a yawn with a hoof.

“Is everything okay?” Twilight asked, her eyes following Rarity.

“If you must know,” Rarity replied, “considering it’s half past six in the morning, I would probably feel better if my coffee machine wasn’t, shall we say, indisposed.”

A fierce blush bloomed on Twilight’s cheeks, and she forced herself not to look at the various machine parts scattered on the kitchen table. She was going to fix it! And it wasn’t even really her fault! Rarity should have known better than to ask her to use such a fascinating device!

“Ah. Right.”

Rarity sighed, boiling water in a kettle on the stove. She then made her way to Twilight, sitting down and leaning against her. Almost instinctively, Twilight’s wing unfurled and wrapped itself around the unicorn, eager to keep her close.

“Honestly, I don’t know what Rainbow was thinking having you all leave so early. There’s no rush to see Princess Cadance,” she whisрered, closing her eyes and snuggling to the alicorn. “It’s not as though she can even leave.”

Rarity!”

“Oh, Twilight, don’t be offended. If you think that’s bad, you should hear what she says about it,” Rarity teased, smiling wide. “Unlike you and Рrincess Luna, Princess Cadance actually developed a sense of humor regarding her situation.”

Twilight playfully rolled her eyes but said nothing in reply. Personally, she was glad that they were leaving as early as possible. Her heart ached to see her sister-in-law, and the sooner she was able to, the better.

And yet.

And yet, in the depths of her heart, fear and doubt lingered still. Was she truly ready to face Cadance again? Was she ready to face her old life again? Her parents… Shining...

The whistling of the kettle interrupted her stream of thoughts, and she heard Rarity sigh against her. What had she been thinking, Twilight wondered. Why did she sigh? And…

“Rarity?” Twilight asked when the unicorn finally tore herself away so as to go and silence the kettle. “Are you really not coming with us?”

Rarity lingered by the stove for a split-second before levitating a nearby mug and pouring water in it.

She looked at Twilight.

“Darling, you know that I…” She drifted off and placed the kettle on the stove. “I.. Do you want me to go?”

Yes, of course, Twilight wanted to reply, but what Rarity had said the day before still held true. Rarity had already done so much for her at the sake of her own life and career.

“I’m just worried,” she replied instead. “We don’t know where Discord is, and we don’t know what he plans on doing next. What if he goes after you?” Her eyes lowered towards the three scars on her marefriend's flank. "What if he tries to hurt you?"

“Then I shall simply have to deal with it,” Rarity replied. “We cannot let fear of him rule us, Twilight.”

Twilight wanted to protest, but a loud knock and the sound of the front door opening interrupted her.

“Rarity? Princess Twi? Y’all awake?”

“We’re in the kitchen, Applejack,” Rarity called, putting an end to their conversation.

Applejack trotted in, saddlebags hanging on her back, and to Twilight's surprise, Fluttershy followed behind her, carrying a large covered basket.

"Good morning," Fluttershy said, smiling brightly at both mares, but mostly at Twilight.

"Well, well, well, Twilight! Almost everypony's come to say goodbye," Rarity said, stirring her tea. "Except for a certain Miss Pie, who I presume is either fast asleep or baking."

"How did you sleep, Princess Twilight?" Fluttershy asked, taking a step toward her. Her eyes flickered to Rarity, enough that Twilight got the hint.

"I slept well," she replied, which wasn't exactly a lie. She slept little—most of her time occupied making sure the pony in her forelegs slept peacefully—but what little she slept went well enough.

"And you, Rares?" Applejack asked, helping herself to one of the apples on a nearby fruit basket.

For a moment, Rarity looked at Twilight.

"Oh, I slept wonderfully. Probably better than I have in quite some time," she said, a loving smile blooming on her lips. Twilight’s cheeks heated up, but before anypony could comment on it, Rarity continued. "So, then, will you be joining Twilight on her little expedition?"

"Sure am!" Applejack said. "Checked with Granny and Big Mac, and they can take care of things while I'm at Canterlot."

"Actually..."

Everypony turned to look at Twilight.

“Applejack, I think you should go with Rarity, please,” she said.

Applejack blinked. “I should?”

“She should?” Rarity asked, confused. “But, wh—” She paused, her brow furrowed, and Twilight knew she’d been caught. “Twilight…”

“If I can’t go with you…”

“Twilight!” Rarity exclaimed. “Applejack isn’t going to be my bodyguard! And I do not need one, for goodness’s sake!”

“But, Rari—!”

“Now, wait a darn minute here,” Applejack cut off, looking between the two mares. “What’s going on? Why’d you reckon’ Rarity needs herself a bodyguard?” She then paused and cautiously added, “You thinkin’ the Spirit’s going to come after her or somethin’?”

Before Twilight could speak, Rarity did.

“Applejack, Discord hasn’t done anything to us for two years! If anything, he’s more likely to go after Twilight! Which is why I asked you to keep Twilight safe first.”

Regardless of how heart-warmed she was by Rarity’s intentions, she was adamant about getting her way. She threw the mare a pointed-stare, something of a convincing mix between ‘I am a Princess, darn it, I have a higher rank than she does’ and ‘Pretty please’.

And yet, it wasn’t Applejack who spoke in reply.

“I’ll go with Twilight.”

All three mares turned to Fluttershy.

“You will?” Twilight asked, delighted. She very much enjoyed Fluttershy’s company. “That’s great!” She turned towards Rarity and Applejack. “See! Fluttershy can help protect me if Discord comes, can’t you, Fluttershy?”

Fluttershy hesitated for a moment and then nodded. “Mhm! I’ll certainly try my best.”

Rarity and Applejack stared at her.

Applejack cleared her throat. “Well, see, Princess, now I’m not saying that Fluttershy here ain’t…” She drifted off. “Hm.”

“Fluttershy, darling, you know I love you dearly as the sun itself,” Rarity said, clearly weighing her words, “but you are… well… now, let me be clear, when I say ‘you’re you’, I don’t mean this in a bad way, quite the con—”

Fluttershy giggled. “I know,” she said. “But we’ll be fine. Spike and Rainbow Dash are with us.”

“And I’m not helpless, Rarity!” Twilight sрoke uр again, stamping her hoof against the floor. “I can take on Discord! What’s the worst he could do to me?”

There was a pause.

“Twilight,” Rarity said, “I cannot believe that is a question you just asked right now.”

Twilight’s cheeks burned. “We-Well! That only means I’ve already gone through the worst he can do, so if it happens again, I’ll know what to do.”

Rarity stared at her. “Darling, for my own sanity, I’m going to pretend you did not say that.” She then sighed. “Would it really make you feel better if Applejack went with me?”

Twilight nodded. “Yes. It would.”

“Well, all right, then,” she relented, clearly unsure. “I can’t say no to that.”

“It won’t be long,” Fluttershy said. “Rainbow told me it would only be a three-day trip.”

“And we have the necklaces,” Twilight added, pressing a hoof against hers. “We can communicate whenever one ne—” She paused, realizing Rarity wasn’t actually wearing hers. “Where’s your necklace?”

“My necklace? Oh! I, er… I hadn’t even realized I hadn’t put it back on,” she said, pressing a hoof against her chest.

“Can’t blame you,” Applejack said. “Barely been wearing the thing for a year, after all. Reckon’ Pinkie’s more used to it than you are.”

Pinkie?” Twilight asked, thoroughly confused, her hoof pressing more against her necklace. “Why would Pinkie be used to it?”

Silence fell between all three Ponyville mares, which did little to alleviate Twilight’s confusion.

But before she could ask, or inquire, or prod, Rarity reacted. Her horn glowed, and the necklace now hung from her neck.

“Regardless! Here it is now,” she announced. Quickly. “So, I suppose we’re all set then, hm?”

Applejack looked at Twilight and Fluttershy. “You two shouldn’t be sticking ‘round here anymore. Rainbow’s not going to like it if you’re late,” she said, sitting down next at the table. “So, Rarity, what’s for breakfast?”

“Pardon me! Does it look like I’m running a diner here?!”

“Aw, I was just teasing,” Applejack said, grinning. She got up and trotted off into the foyer. “Come on! We’ll go to a real diner, and I’ll even treat you, Miss Prissy.”

Fluttershy trotted after her, followed by Twilight and Rarity. However, rather than following Applejack and Fluttershy into the streets, Twilight lingered behind with Rarity in the foyer.

“I prepared this for you,” Rarity said, levitating well-рacked saddlebags from a nearby chair. She waited until Twilight рut her cloak on before placing them on the alicorn’s back. “A few necessities for the road.”

“Necessities?”

“Oh, you know,” she replied, gesturing non-committally. “Snacks, a few gems for Spike, a blanket if you’re cold, aaaaaaaand…” She fluttered her eyelashes. “A notebook, and a new packet of ballpoint pens.”

Twilight gasped. “You mean the neverending-ink quills?! You know, I tested it, and you can save up to a minute on dipping with those.”

Rarity laughed. “Twilight, firstly, they don’t have neverending-ink, silly filly. But they are much less delicate than ink and quills. Wouldn’t want an inkwell to break inside the saddlebags, now would we?”

“I guess not, but… well, my calligraphy isn’t as neat with them. I wish I could combine the practicality of the ‘pen’ device with the nib of my quills…”

Rarity thought for a moment before lifting her hoof and adjusting Twilight’s cloak. “You know...” she said slowly, “Just because I adore you, I will look into inventing such an object just for you.”

Twilight blinked. “You will…?”

Rarity smiled widely. “I will! I’ve decided it! I will invent an object that works like a pen and has the nib of a quill. You know, I’ve even come up with a name for it. I’ll call it…hmm… a fountain pen!”

“Oh! I like that!” Twilight exclaimed, stamping her hooves on the ground. “I can’t believe nopony’s invented it yet…”

“Alas! Not everypony is as clever as me!” she said, tapping Twilight on the nose. She then looked down and pulled Twilight’s necklace from under the cloak’s fastener, allowing it to be prominently displayed.

“Rarity?”

Rarity looked up. “Mm?”

Twilight swallowed. It was hard to communicate. It was hard to ask questions she wasn’t sure she wanted to know the answer to. But ask she must, and she looked straight at Rarity when she did.

“Why has Pinkie been wearing your necklace?”

Rarity didn’t freeze, not really. It seemed more like she paused, took a moment to think her answer over. She looked down, brushing her hoof against Twilight’s own necklace, before looking up.

“It’s… Well…” She paused and smiled, lifting her hoof to touch Twilight’s cheek. “As they say, a watched pot never boils.”

Twilight took a moment, allowed it to sink in, and then fixed Rarity with a blank stare.

“Yes, it does,” she said simply, thoroughly vexed by Rarity’s ridiculously inaccurate statement.

Rarity frowned. “Wha—? No, Twilight, sweetheart, that’s a say—”

“Water will boil whether or not you’re looking at it,” Twilight cut off. “If you’re referring to the ‘observer effect’ from the physics book you gave me, then that refers to examples where observing and or measuring something requires some sort of action that will by necessity alter the state of the object being observed.”

There was a long pause.

And then Rarity giggled.

“What?” Twilight asked, nervous. Had physics changed in the two years she’d been gone? “Why are you laughing?”

Rather than immediately reply, Rarity sighed fondly, lifting Twilight’s chin. “Goodness, I missed you,“ she said, and then playfully raised an eyebrow. "And clearly somepony hasn’t been studying her idioms book recently.”

Twilight rolled her eyes. “I’ll work on it.”

“You should!” Rarity exclaimed, moving back. “And once you know what that means, you might understand why Pinkie wore the necklace in my stead, hmm?”

“I would know if you told me now,” Twilight replied, leaning in. “Hmmm?”

Rarity didn’t move, instead smiling brightly. “Hmmmmmmm…”

Hmmmmmmmm—”

“Will you two hummingbirds actually get on with it before Rainbow comes and gets y’all?” Applejack called from outside, briefly poking her head into the room.

“My stars, everypony’s a critic,” Rarity whispered, rolling her eyes. She closed the distance between their lips in a brief but wonderful kiss, and then leaned back and brushed Twilight’s bangs back. “Well then, dearest, anything else you’d like to tell me privately before you depart?”

Twilight licked her lips. “Do you… Do you still not know what’s wrong?”

“I’m working on it,” she said gently. “I have an inkling, but… I’ll think hard about it while we’re apart, all right?”

Twilight’s ears lowered. “You promise?”

“I promise, and you know I keep my promises,” Rarity said, moving in to nuzzle Twilight. When Twilight wrapped her wings around her, she let out a breath of air, followed by a characteristically cute whine. “You haven’t even left yet, and I miss you already.”

Well, if you went with—”

“I don’t miss you enough to change my mind,” Rarity replied.

Twilight’s eyebrows knitted together in a frown. “Fine.”

Rarity laughed. “Now, now, rather than pout, listen. I have the perfect idiom for this!”

“Distance makes the heart grow fonder?” Twilight ventured, and a smile pushed itself onto her lips when Rarity pulled back with a delighted grin.

“Twilight! You remembered!” She whined again, and her face puckered into a moue of quiet annoyance. “Drat. Now I miss you even more.”


The road to Canterlot Castle was a complicated one when it involved a fifty-foot dragon. There wasn’t a chariot that could sustain such a being, and Rainbow had assured Twilight that these ‘train-devices’ ponies regularly used did not transport massive dragons.

The group, or as Rainbow had dubbed them “Princess Twilight’s Rag-Tag Adventurers”, currently found themselves crossing Meadow Waters, the lake separating the Ponyville province from Canterlot Mountain. Rainbow Dash flew above them, while Twilight, Fluttershy, and five owls sat on Spike’s back.

Well, no. The baby owls and Themis all sat on Fluttershy, while Elara, ever her master’s pet, contented herself with perching herself on Twilight’s head.

“What exactly is Granite’s Rest?” Twilight asked, peering down at a map of the kingdom. So much had changed in a thousand years; she still felt like she’d stepped into a foreign land, not Equestria.

“It’s a ghost town at the base of Canterlot Mountain,” Spike said, only half-focused on safely crossing the river beneath him. “I found it a really long time ago."

"A ghost town?" Twilight asked. Had… Had Discord actually…?

"It means it's abandoned," Fluttershy elaborated.

A wave of immense relief flooded Twilight. "Oh…"

"It used to be a mining village," Spike continued. "At least, it was back when I first found it."

"And you say Rarity wanted me to see it?”

She couldn’t really think of any reason why Rarity would be interested in mining of all things. Unless it was to retrieve gems for her designs? In which case Twilight would make sure to bring her as many as possible.

“It’s not just Rarity!” Rainbow said, looking down at the Princess. “We’ve all been waiting for you to go!”

“But why?” Twilight asked. “Does this have to do with the Princesses? Or Discord?”

“Yes,” Fluttershy said, and continued before Twilight could ask, “but we think it’s better you see it for yourself rather than telling you what it is.”

“But why?” Twilight insisted.

“So I’m sure it’s what I think it is,” Spike replied. “There’s something I found there a really long time ago, and until now, the only other ponies who could actually tell me if I’m right or not were stuck in a library, a castle, and who knows where.”

“Yeah! So try not to think about it,” Rainbow said.

Regrettably, Twilight was not known for giving up easily.

“Is it something about Discord? Or Celestia? Is it about Princess Luna?” she continued. “It’s about Princess Luna, isn’t it?”

“Princess, we’re not going to tell you!” Rainbow exclaimed. “Quit askin’! Or ask about something else!”

“Uuuuuugh. Fine,” Twilight said, or grunted, rather, but a little smile pushed its way onto her lips when Spike laughed. She licked her lip, seeking a new topic, and settling on her favorite one.

“Did I tell you Rarity’s going to invent a device for me?” she asked, putting the map away in her bag. “She’s going to make a pen that has the functionality of modern Equestria’s pre-inked ones, but giving it a nib similar to my quills.”

Rainbow Dash landed in front of Twilight. “Rarity told you she’s going to invent that?”

Twilight nodded, her heart swelling with pride. “She’ll call them fountain pens.”

Rainbow snorted, crossing her forelegs. “Really? Wow! And what else did she tell you she’s going to ‘invent’, huh?”

“Nothing else yet, but I’m sure she’ll come up with something!” Twilight replied, trying to be cheerful. She was ecstatic Rainbow was impressed by Rarity so it was imperative she made sure Rainbow continued being so.

Dumb dresses in Canterlot.

“She also gave me a ‘notebook’ so I won’t have to alchemize scrolls anymore,” she continued, opening her saddlebag and retrieving the object in question. She flipped through the blank pages and smiled when Elara flew down onto her foreleg so as to inspect it.

“They’re not as nice as scrolls, though,” Fluttershy noted, her and the owls peering at the notebook.

Twilight huffed. Truthfully, a lot of things in modern Equestria were more practical but less aesthetically-appealing than their archaic versions. The only modern thing that was much more appealing than the ones from ages past was Rarity. Twilight had dated—long, long ago—but she’d never been as taken by somepony as she constantly was by Rarity.

Ugh. I miss her.

She was suddenly aware of her necklace rubbing against her chest and had to fight the desire to call the unicorn. Not that she couldn’t or there was something wrong, but… but something did feel wrong. She lifted her hoof and pressed it against the pendant, but as soon as she did, so did a thought enter her mind.

Rarity probably wasn’t nearly as concerned about Twilight as Twilight was over her.

Was she?

A watched pot never boils.

Why wouldn’t it boil?! Argh!

“Princess?”

Twilight blinked, realizing by Fluttershy’s expression that she’d gotten lost in her own swirling thoughts.

“Oh! Er, sorry,” she said quickly, her hoof shooting down from the necklace.

“Are you thinking about Princess Cadance?” Fluttershy asked carefully, and judging by Rainbow’s sudden intent stare, she realized that was a question everypony had on their mind.

“I…”

Well, she hadn’t been, but now she was.

“Hey, you don’t have to be nervous, Princess,” Rainbow Dash said, lifting a hoof and patting Twilight on the shoulder. “Princess Cadance is stoked to see you!”

“...Stoked…?”

Fluttershy giggled. “It means she’s excited,” she explained.

“Oh…” She looked down at the notebook, and then at the top of Spike’s head. “Have you seen her recently, Spike?”

A long silence followed.

“Spike?” she asked, her brow furrowing and her tone hardening. A thousand years could go by, and yet the dragon would still be her charge. “Spike, when was the last time you saw her?”

Another long silence, until he finally spoke up.

“I don’t want to talk about it.”

“Spike!” she exclaimed, putting the notebook down and flying up in front of Spike, Elara practically tumbling off her. “You haven’t talked to her?! You promised you would!”

The dragon groaned, pointedly looking down at the river rushing through his feet. “Did I? Sorry. I promised that two years ago, and I have bad memory,” he said dismissively. Except, when he looked back up, Twilight’s burning stare forced him to continue defending himself. “What! It’s not that easy, Twilight! The last time I saw her was, what, like nearly seven-hundred years ago? And I was a teenager and I…” He drifted off. “Look, it—”

“And you what?” Twilight asked, finally set on gleaming from the dragon the answers she couldn’t get when she was trapped in the library.

Red splotches decorated his cheeks. “I wasn’t very… I was angry, and said angry stuff,” he said eloquently.

Twilight’s ears lowered. “Spike…”

“I’m not proud of it, okay?” he said, chastised. “At least I’m going now… Not that I can even see her, anyway. I can’t fit inside that castle.”

"It's not like Princess Cadance tried hard to see him, either!" Rainbow defended.

"She couldn't," Fluttershy spoke up, softly but sternly.

"She literally couldn't," Twilight added, still flying in front of the dragon. "And just because she didn't make the first step doesn't mean you shouldn't have done it, either."

"I'm doing it now!" he protested, his gait changing to stomping. "You weren't there, Twilight! You don't know how bad it got! We had the curse, and Shining was gone, and those dumb changelings didn't make things better, and then Celestia's letter, and—"

Twilight's pending lecture on the importance of apologies ground to a halt.

What?

"Wait, wait, wait!" she exclaimed, and so did Spike come to a stop. "Princess Celestia wrote you a letter? When?! Why did nopony tell me about this?!"

"Because it happened centuries ago, Twilight," he said. His expression darkened, and he resumed his path across the river. "I'd been sending her letters every week, every month, every day, and nothing for years until I told her Shining was… You know... and I asked her to please tell us what to do, to help us, and well, she replied, and…"

"And…?" she pressed.

"It wasn't what we needed to hear."

She paused in the air for a second before continuing to fly next to him, an impending sense of dread growing within her.

"...What do you mean? What did she say?"

"There is no hope for us," Rainbow Dash replied. "That's what she said, right, Spike?"

Twilight's heart tightened in her chest.

"...She… She said that?"

"There is no hope for us. Centuries of sending her letters, and she only sent back six words," Spike replied, a strange sort of bitterness lacing his words. He laughed. "That was a really bad day for Cadance and me. A really bad day."

"But… But that doesn't even make sense!" Twilight protested. "What does that even mean?! Who's 'us'? What did she mean there's no hope for us?! What?!"

"That's what we said," Spike replied, cracking a small smile. "I didn't understand anything, and then I found The Weeping Mare of Granite's Rest."

"Will you just tell me what it is already?!" Twilight demanded, flying down and landing on Spike's head. Her heart thumped against her chest, and she was less and less excited to reach this Granite's Rest place.

"It's something by a pony called Indigo Glen," Spike said. "Nopony knows when it was done, and we only know the name of the creator because they signed it."

"And what's this thing?" she asked.

"You'll see," he replied. "You'll see."

Twilight sighed, getting the hint at the conversation being over. "Fine," she murmured, jumping off his head and landing next to Fluttershy on his back.

And again, for the second time, her hoof found its place on her necklace, and she wished Rarity were there.

"I'm sure she misses you too," Fluttershy said, softly, her eyes lingering on Twilight's hoof.

Twilight smiled. She wanted to agree, wanted to say that of course Rarity missed her, but… but Rarity would probably be there with her if it wasn't for… the two years and… and…

"I miss her," she said instead, pushing the negative thoughts away. The unicorn's absence left a hollow spot in her heart, and if not missing Twilight meant Rarity wouldn't be afflicted with a sore heart, then she quietly wished Rarity didn't miss her.

"Well, anyway, as I was saying..." Rainbow said, drawing the topic and the alicorn's thoughts away from Rarity, which Twilight was grateful for.

It seemed like Rarity wasn't the only one who had some thinking to do.


Looking at it from afar, Granite’s Rest was, oddly, exactly as Twilight had imagined it.

Well, no, that wasn’t true. It was impossible for it to be exactly as she’d imagined it, but it was somewhat similar to the diagram in her mind, and that was good enough.

Unfortunately for her, nopony in her rag-tag group of adventurers even bothered to do research or learn the history of Equestria, so she had no information on the town save for the fact that it was a mining town, there were ‘a bunch of big flat rocks everywhere', and it was old.

She didn't want to say it, but she did anyway.

"Rarity would have had research for me," she mumbled dejectedly, jumping off Spike's back and looking at the distant small town at the base of Canterlot Mountain.

Fluttershy laughed softly. "We could always ask a guide, Princess."

"I guess..."

She missed Rarity.

They'd been traveling for two days now, and though her friends were all great distractions for her mind, the nights were especially difficult. They would all be asleep, and yet she would stay up and stare at the stars so as not to stare at her necklace, hoping it would suddenly flash.

"I can't go there," Spike said, for obvious reasons, which Twilight personally took offense to. Spike was a wonderful dragon, and honestly, who wouldn't want to engage in conversation with him? "But Fluttershy should be able to take you to it"

"Are we staying here tonight?" Fluttershy asked. "It's almost night."

"Nah," Rainbow replied, perched atop the dragon's head. "We're staying at the next town over. Well, you two are, at least. Spike and I are crashing outside, but there's some dinky motel there that you guys can pass out at." She paused and added, "Er... Are you sure you don't want me to go with you now, though?"

Fluttershy shook her head. "I think it would be better if it's just the Princess and me," she said softly, offering a smile at the curious alicorn.

"But, Shy—"

"It's okay, Rainbow," Spike said. "Fluttershy knows what she's saying. She's dealt with… well.. You-know-who's…yeah."

"What? Who's you-know-who?" Twilight asked, finding she wasn't altogether happy with the air of mystery being shared among her friends. "Deal with what?"

"Princess, what you're going to see..." She drifted off, frowning lightly.

"It might be a shock," Spike finished.

A shock?

Her heart compressed in her chest. It was a distressing sensation, and she was almost starting to miss her previously ethereal state of being. She lifted her hoof and pressed it against her chest, a small action which brought her a small degree of comfort.

She frowned. "Well, this isn't making me feel better, you know?"

"What?! But, it's cool, though!" Rainbow quickly said. "You'll see! It's super old and scary!"

"Twilight, just go," the dragon encouraged, and as he did, so did five owls fly over and perch themselves atop their master's back. "We'll be here waiting."





Granite's Rest was a small, somewhat gray town.

The modest houses scattered about looked old and decayed, and yet nopony seemed to be bothered by the fact. Did they not care? It certainly wasn't intelligent or safe to live in outdated edifications. Worn-out signs hung over doors, exposing them as stores, festive locales called 'saloons', banks, a single school, and lots and lots of odd visiting ponies.

Some of them were posing for photographic pictures, wearing what looked like modern mining outfits. Others went into the shops, going in and out with little bags filled with decoratives items.

For a ghost town, the place sure was lively. Wasn't it supposed to be abandoned? Ugh. So many things in the future were off. Abandoned towns were filled with ponies, water didn't boil… It's like they all wanted to be confusing!

In truth, that was perhaps the most irritating thing of it all.

She didn't understand so many things about this new world, even if she wanted. It might have been the apprehension thrust upon her by, well, her friends' urgent attitude, but the more she thought about it, the more she realized she was quite lost without Rarity there to guide her.

"Princess?"

Twilight jolted back to life, only then noticing she'd been caught up in her own mind. Fluttershy searched her, doubtless trying to decipher what she'd been thinking, and Twilight was embarrassed by the fact.

She forced a hasty smile.

"There's a lot of ponies," she stated.

"They're tourists," Fluttershy replied.

"What are they touring for?"

"They're visiting," Fluttershy replied, clearly amused. "Just seeing sights."

They continued on the path, maneuvering around the ponies who unhelpfully stood in the middle of the street until finally, she saw a large sign pointing the way towards the town's star attraction: The Weeping Mare.

The closer they got to it, the more ponies walked alongside them, prompting Twilight to walk closer to Fluttershy and hope her wings were properly concealed under her cloak. It didn't help she kept attracting attention to herself due to the five owls hooting cheerfully at whoever got close enough.

Eventually, the path led them outside the town and towards the base of the mountain, where a crowd of ponies had gathered around a large granite slab resting against the mountain, their eyes all set on the Weeping Mare herself.

Twilight suddenly understood why Spike had been cautious.

A painting towered on the granite slab before her, depicting a horrifyingly familiar pale alicorn.

My faithful student.

Princess Celestia, or this depiction of her, sat alone, surrounded by a darkness as black as her eyes and the tears that streamed from them.

"Look at her horn!" a nearby unicorn gasped, horrified. "It looks like it's about to break!"

A violent sickening sensation overcame Twilight when her gaze reached her mentor's horn. It was glowing softly, but it was cracked. And above her… Above her, in the darkness, glowing and menacing: a pair of yellow eyes.

She heard Fluttershy calling to her, and yet she could not properly register it. Her friend's voice seemed distant, faraway as her entire world numbed around her.

"They say it's one of the princesses," a nearby stallion remarked to his companion. "You know, the Seeking Night ones?"

"What do you think happened, mommy?" a colt whispered to a mare.

"Princess, I— I'm scared. Please… Please don't go."

"Twilight, we cannot let fear of him rule us."

"B-But, Prince— If something happens to y-you, or— or Princ—"

"Then you will carry on for us, Twilight. As long as hope survives, Discord cannot defeat us."

"Well, she didn't live long, then, huh?" another stallion said, and Twilight’s knees began to buckle under her. Is the Princess dead…? "Bet that's the Grim Reaper watching over her."

"There is no hope for us. That's what the letter said, didn't it?"

And the nightmares came all at once, one after another, merciless and all-destroying. She closed her eyes, feeling short of breath as she in vain tried to silence them. They whispered, hissed, screamed that everypony she loved, one way or another and without exception, everypony—

"What can you tell from the painting, Princess?"

Twilight's eyes opened, and when she turned to Fluttershy, found the pegasus looking at the painting. She wondered, for a second, if she'd imagined the question until Fluttershy repeated herself.

"Wh-What?" she stammered, dragged back to reality.

Her eyes flickered towards the strangers surrounding her, and yet none seem concerned with her. They were all still transfixed, enraptured by this seeming fantasy depiction, smiling and nodding appreciatively. It was jarring. It was, really, if she had to sit there and think it, it was crushing.

They didn't know.

She… Twilight herself and her universe, their pain and trials and anguish… What was her entire life to her, was nothing but a simple fairytale to them. Entertainment to laugh and discuss and buy souvenirs of.

"Princess Twilight, focus on me." Fluttershy’s voice was kind, yes, but it was sharp as well, and it cut through the haze that shrouded Twilight's thoughts. When Twilight looked at her, trembling, Fluttershy lifted a hoof and gently placed it on Twilight's. "I don't understand much of unicorn magic," she continued, all of a sudden as casual as if they were discussing the weather. And yet, something in her tone was measured. "How could a horn crack like that? Could you try and explain, please?"

And Twilight did.

"I-It depends on the ci-circumstances, but a unicorn or in th-this case, alico—" Her sentence was cut short by her own inability to think properly. It was hard. It was hard to think, to breathe, and princesses, for a dark moment, she wished to be back in her library.

Instinctively, she reached out and held her necklace.

"It's okay. We're here," Fluttershy continued, moving closer and sitting next to her. Her eyes then landed on Twilight’s hoof. She hesitated for a moment and asked, "Do you want to call Rarity?"

Yes.

Yes, she wanted to, desperately so, to have the unicorn take charge and help and explain and comfort her, but… but Rarity had elected to stay away. To go against the unicorn's wishes now of all times was akin to a cardinal sin.

Her entire body trembled when she shook her head. "N-No," she said with some attempt at determination. She did, however, continue holding the necklace, drawing strength from its rose-glow. "I'm fine."

Fluttershy presented her with a believing smile. With but a gesture of her hoof, three baby owls landed in front of Twilight and stared back at her with curious eyes.

"Can you continue explaining to us, please?"

Twilight nodded. "Ye-Yes."

Fluttershy looked back to the painting. "Maybe Princess Sunshine's horn was damaged in a fight?"

"N-No. Princess Sunshine's horn wasn't attacked," Twilight managed, the foreign name allowing her to distance herself enough to start to properly examine the situation. It helped that Ginny, Amalthea, and Metis were all completely focused on her. It was imperative they learned proper horn care. "The… The pattern on her horn, the cracks are clean and diagonal. They're following the grooves on her horn."

Fluttershy nodded seriously. "Mh-hm. What does that mean?"

"We-Well! Well, unicorn magic travels through the grooves, but it's actually luminescent enough that it creates the illusion of the entire horn glowing," she explained, and the more words came out, the easier it was. She was even able to briefly look at the painting again. "But magic still has a presence. So, for Princess Sunshine's horn to be cracked in that way, it means she had to be casting a spell long enough that the magic would not only continually wear away her horn and damage its bone structure, but also prevent her magic from naturally healing it."

A small voice chimed in.

"But why would she do that?"

Twilight looked around and found the colt from before peering up at her, seeming quite concerned.

"I… I don't know," Twilight confessed.

She looked back to the painting, stared deep into the black eyes, beseeching for an answer. Why would Princess Celestia have put herself at risk for so long? Why would she sacrifice the structure of her horn?

A small hoof tugged at her foreleg, followed by the gasp of a mare.

"Honeycrisp!" his mother whispered urgently, trying to pull back the colt who insistently tugged on Twilight's coat.

"Why are her eyes black, Miss?" he asked, carelessly ignoring his mother and her hasty apologies. "Is she bad?"

"No, of course not!"

The words left her mouth with urgent immediacy. Just the thought of it! Princess Celestia was a paragon of benevolence and kindness, the most powerful alicorn in the kingdom, but…

But…

What if that was his goal?

The Princess's charcoal gaze pierced down on Twilight, drawing her in and drawing out memories Twilight had tried to suffocate and bury. Twilight herself wasn't evil. Even in the pits of her self-disdain, she could not truly sit there and designate herself as an unkind pony—misguided, yes, very very misguided, but bad? No.

And yet.

She moved forward, pushed past the crowd, their chatter forgotten as another voice called in her mind, beckoning her.

What does he want, Princess?

The answer is in his very name, Twilight.

Discord?

Discord. Disagreement. Conflict. Ponies turned against each other creates disharmony, and where there is disharmony, chaos lurks nearby.

"Princess..." Twilight whispered, speaking to the portrait itself.

But the Princess of the Sun did not reply. She simply continued to stare, as she often did when waiting for Twilight to reach conclusions herself.

"She's possessed," Twilight said, aloud, and when she turned, she found the colt and Fluttershy had moved to the front of the now attentive crowd. Twilight indicated the black eyes, certain of the answer because she herself had lived it. "The Chaos Magic is possessing her."

"Chaos magic?" prompted a nearby stallion.

Twilight didn't reply, turning back to the painting. She remembered being consumed by the magic. She remembered it, the suppressed memories coming back to light. She remembered hate consuming her, anger and bitterness and resentment.

She realized, then and there, how easily she might have been used as a weapon.

And, if that was the case, did that mean…

Celestia was protecting herself?

"This… When was this made?" Twilight urgently asked, turning to the crowd.

Most of them offered her blank stares, until a mare stepped up, brandishing an informational pamphlet.

"I work here!” she quickly announced. She cleared her throat, and stated, “This is actually a restoration! It was done about three hundred years ago by the painter Ochre Oil and then reinforced with a preservation spell. However, no information is available on the age of the original, as this is the only signed work of the painter Indigo Glen.”

Twilight returned her gaze to the painting, moving forward to inspect it in as much detail as she possibly could. As she did so, a tendril of her magic wrapped itself around the guide’s pamphlet and she levitated it over, her mumbled thank you losing itself amidst the ponies chatter.

Her eyes scanned the information on the paper, the dates and descriptions, but nothing on it actually helped! She didn’t want to know what the composition of the painting was! She wanted to know what it was depicting, what place, what time, what! Honestly, what kind of an informational guide was that, anyway?

“Uhm… Princess?”

Twilight looked down at the fidgeting Fluttershy, who glanced uneasily at the many tourists now pointing their camera lenses at the alicorn. Initially, she wondered why they were photographing her. Then, she wondered why Fluttershy seemed smaller. Finally, noticing her cloak on the ground, she realized her desire for detail had quite literally taken flight.

“Mommy!” the colt whispered urgently. “Mommy! She’s flying but doing magic!”

The tour guide gawked for a split-second before turning to the crowd, taking a nearby empty box and put it down on the floor. “Ladies and gentlecolts! What a surprise! What thrills! An alicorn-lookalike unlike no other! Brought to you by Granite's Rest Tours!”

Immediately, the ponies nodded and hummed appreciatively, some putting bits into the empty box while others resumed their photographing. Twilight frowned at them from above. Considering what happened at Ponyville and now there, it was terribly encouraging to see that ponies would still look for the word gullible if told it was written on the ceiling.

I can’t think of this now.

She returned her scrutiny to the painting. “What are you doing…?” she asked again, her eyes burning into the Princess’s cracked horn, hoping her mind would present her with some sort of epiphany.

Was… Is she trying to contain the chaos magic? Is she fighting possession? And why is Discord there? Is he waiting? Did he give up?

Wait.

What if…

What if he gave up on trying to have Princess Celestia possessed?

What if he gave up, and tried a different approach, or… a different target!

“Fluttershy!” She landed in front of the pegasus, trotting forward as the pegasus stepped back. “Fluttershy, when was the last recorded sighting of Discord?! Not with Rarity, but before that! Before she met me.”

Her friend gave her a stare more owlish than that of the owls themselves. “Uhm… I… I don’t know, Princess,” she replied apologetically, ears folding. “I’m sorry…”

“What? No! Why are you sorry? Don’t you understand what that means?!” Twilight asked, a smile sweeping across her face.

“Uhm…”

Fluttershy looked lost, which was perfectly fine, because Twilight was going to explain in a moment, anyway.

“If Discord had appeared before Rarity met me, if he’d done anything, Equestria would know! Cadance would know! But he didn’t! And now he suddenly led Rarity to me so that we’d fight and the chaos magic would possess me!”

“But… But why wait until now?” Fluttershy asked, and to that, Twilight had no immediately smart reply.

Why wait until now?

“I… I…” The words tumbled out Twilight’s mouth, her brain trying to put together some sort of… something. “I don’t know,” she admitted, finally, despite herself. “Maybe he couldn’t…? Maybe something happened? Or maybe he never could until… until Rarity became an opportunity…?”

And to that, Fluttershy’s eyes widened.

“The Book Bringer… The real one!” She gasped, her hoof flying to her mouth. “Zecora told him to stay away from the library! She never let anypony near, not even herself!”

Twilight nodded, her heart hammering in her chest. “But nopony stopped Rarity!” she continued, and a viciously victorious smile plastered itself onto her face. “He tried to use her to get to me, but it didn’t work. His plan failed. He couldn’t control me, and instead, Rarity freed me.”

She indicated Princess Celestia’s painting, and she could have sworn it was smiling at her.

“And now we can free the Princess! We can free Princess Luna, and Cadance, and Princess Celestia! I can fix this, Fluttershy!”

The words again tumbled out her mouth, a nervous thrilled excitement to them because princesses, for once, something was going right. Because Discord had led Rarity there to try and use her against Twilight, but instead, his weapon had become Twilight’s saving grace. Because even after the chaos magic had possessed her, it was Rarity’s impact in her life that ultimately freed her from it.

Never had she been more acutely aware of the necklace brushing against her chest as she was in that moment. She pressed her hoof against it, biting down a smile. Maybe it was a good thing Rarity hadn’t come, or else…

A blush flashed across the alicorn’s cheeks.

Anyway,” she said, eager to move on from the topic in her mind. She picked up her cloak and put it back on, ignoring the tour guide collecting nearby monetary donations for the ‘Alicorn Programmed Event’. “We should go back.”

“Oh yes.” She cleared her throat, and so did the owls all return to their several positions on top of Twilight. “I’m sure Spike and Rainbow want to hear your thoughts on the matter so we know what to do next.”

“What to do next…?”

Though it was obvious Fluttershy had said that innocently—why shouldn’t she? It was logical to assume Twilight would explain all to Spike and Dash—it still managed to jolt the alicorn’s nightmares awake.

She remembered the last time ponies had listened and followed her theories, and she remembered very vividly living the consequences it brought.

“Not yet,” she said at once.

“Not yet?” Fluttershy asked, confused. She cocked her head to the side. “Why not?”

“I want to think it over more,” she explained, smiling apologetically. “Until Rarity and Cadance are there. We might get a better idea on how to proceed if we all talk about it together.”

Fluttershy, at least, seemed convinced. “All right.”

“Let’s go,” Twilight said, throwing the painting one last less-pained glance before trotting off, feeling much more relieved at the prospect of having more time to think and analyze about what came next.

And yet.

And yet, no sooner had they taken five steps that Twilight stopped, her eyes landing on a mare walking off with a souvenir bag.

“Could we stop to buy a souvenir?” she asked. “Maybe Rarity would like something.”

“Of course! Rarity will be very happy.”

Twilight licked her lips, and without a second thought, turned around and marched towards the tour guide.

“Excuse me, some of these are for me,” she said, nonchalantly levitating a hoof-full of bits from inside the now generously filled makeshift donation box. She counted twenty-five whole bits, before looking back into the box and taking five more, which she distributed equally among her owls. “Can’t keep paying with chestnuts.”

The tour guide gawked at her. "But—! But—!"

Twilight blinked at her. "You did say I was a professional alicorn lookalike brought by your company, didn't you?"

"Well, yes, but—!"

"Then it's only fair I get paid for my work!" Twilight replied, offering the tour guide a shamelessly innocent smile. “Thank you!”

With that, she trotted back towards Fluttershy.

“Now, we can go!”


The moonlight shone brightly that night, its soft silver glow draping itself atop the lone building waiting to greet exhausted travelers for a night’s rest. A large glowing sign—neon, Fluttershy explained—announced the place as Journey Repose.

Behind it, Twilight saw shadows of the trail leading up the mountain, all the way up to the golden city looking down on the Kingdom. Artificial golden light shone from Canterlot, illuminating its swirling towers and meshing with the moon’s own light.

For the first time in a thousand years, Twilight found herself a stone’s throw away from home.

A home that had long ago forgotten her, save for the Princess waiting in the topmost tower.

She wondered if she could even call it home anymore when everything she knew about it had vanished into fairytales.

“Princess Twi? You okay?”

The cold breeze and Rainbow Dash’s voice roused her from her thoughts. She’d been following her pegasi friends down the winding path, and only then did she realize she’d trailed behind.

She nodded, even if it wasn’t altogether the truth. She was fine, certainly and technically, but emotionally… It had been a long day to cap off two even longer days.

“I…”

“Princess Twilight…?” Fluttershy asked, catching the Princess’s eyes. A silent exchange passed between them, a quiet understanding akin to the one they had earlier shared with the painting, and Fluttershy nodded almost imperceptibly. “We’ll go ahead.”

Rainbow hesitated. “Well... If you're sure,” she said, later turning around and trotting off towards the motel.

Once their backs were turned and she was alone, her muscles loosened yet did not relax. Did that make sense? It was an odd sensation, to be clear. She didn’t relax as much as she resigned herself to…

To a search for home and a place in this new Equestria.

Another deep breath of air, the chilled air in her lungs awakening her body. She returned her gaze towards the motel and resumed her walk. Ponies lingered outside, some with bags and other affairs, and some sitting down by the dimly lit tables set outside. She noticed what looked like a couple sharing a meal together; a group of friends, their laughter and chatter filling the night air; a mare with a thin black cape, sketching or writing on something; and a few others, going about with their life.

She observed them for a moment, and her eyes lingered on the dark silhouette of the sketching mare, seemingly lost in her own world as she had often seen Rarity do when drafting out new designs.

A smitten smile made itself a home on her lips as she remembered her earlier realization and the wave of affection that had overtaken her. Once more, she was aware of the necklace on her chest, and yet—

“A watched pot never boils.”

She tore her eyes away from the couple, setting them instead on the pegasi disappearing in the distance. She broke into a gallop, catching up to the two mares and asking them to stop, her voice barely audible against the chatter of the group of friends nearby.

“What’s up, Princess?” Rainbow asked. “Are you sure you’re okay?”

Twilight nodded. “I have a question,” she said, and yet when it came time to voice it, a jarring feeling visited her.

Rarity had deferred her necklace to Pinkie Pie, and now did Twilight question if she really wanted to know the motivation behind the action.

“...Okay?” Rainbow asked, blinking at the mare. “What’s the question?”

She tried to reply in some roundabout way, to pass off as unimportant what had for so long defined her relationship to Rarity, but she failed rather miserably. “Why has Pinkie been wearing Rarity’s necklace?”

The question rushed out of her mouth, and two different reactions to the question collided with each other. Rainbow replied with startled confusion, hastily asking how did Twilight even know that. Fluttershy, however, who’d been present to the scene from days before, replied with a sudden seriousness to her expression.

“I-I asked Rarity why, and she told me it was because a watched pot never boils,” she elaborated. “What did she mean by that?”

“It’s an idiom,” Fluttershy replied after a moment’s thought. “It’s referring to how something we’re impatiently waiting for seems to take a very long time.”

The Princess’s voice fell to a whisper. “Oh.”

That feeling, she understood very well. She’d been subjected to it during the harrowing weeks Rarity had been cursed; the phantom pains in her chest as she waited by the door for a unicorn that may or may not ever come back.

And she’d subjected Rarity to two years of that.

“But why was Pinkie wearing it?” Twilight asked again.

“Well... sometimes,” Fluttershy continued, “we’re waiting for that thing to happen so badly, we just wait for that and stop doing anything else.”

Oh.

Rainbow must have noticed Twilight’s expression at Fluttershy’s implication, because she swiftly stood by the Princess’s side, wrapping a foreleg around her.

“Hey, it’s okay, Princess!” she said, the encouragement in her voice appreciated even if it was doing little for Twilight’s spirit. “Don’t let it get you down! You’re here now, right? You’re not going anywhere again.”

Twilight met her and Fluttershy’s warm gazes, and even if it was more difficult than she imagined, returned their gestures with a grateful smile and a shake of her head.

“No,” she said firmly, to herself or to them, she didn’t really know. “I’m not.”

“That’s the attitude!” Rainbow exclaimed.

She lifted her hoof and presented it to Twilight, an action which honestly confused her somewhat. She stared at it for a second before awkwardly shaking the pegasus’s hoof, drawing a delighted giggle from Fluttershy.

“No, Princess, it’s a hoof-bump,” Rainbow said, shaking Twi’s hoof off and presenting her own again. “You have to, you know, bump your hoof against mine!”

“...Why?”

“Because that’s what cool ponies do when they’ve said something awesome!” Rainbow exclaimed. “You can do it! Just bump mine!” she insisted, and when Twilight gently bumped her hoof against hers, the pegasus grinned.

The future was so strange.

“We should hurry,” Fluttershy said, moving along. “It’s very late.”

They made their way towards the motel, stepping through the doors and into the brightly lit lobby. As with outside, a few ponies meandered about, and yet the one that caught her and her companion’s attention was the orange earth pony mare waving her hat at them from the front desk.

“Applejack?” they said in unison, and no sooner had the words left Twilight’s mouth did panic settle itself everywhere.

Why is Applejack here? she thought in a frenzy, followed by a much more terrifying question. Where’s Rarity?

“Howdy, y’all!” Applejack greeted when Twilight practically tripped over herself running to her. “Took you long enough to get here! ‘Fraid my hide was going to go sore from sittin’ here waiting for you.”

“Applejack, what are you doing here?” Rainbow asked. Her face twisted in horror. “Please don’t tell me Rarity actually sent you here to check that the Princess slept in a motel.”

Applejack waved her off. “Don’t be silly, filly. Rarity knew you’d keep your promise,” she said. “But don’t start getting ahead of me now.” She turned to Twilight, and her expression sobered. “How’re you holding up, Princess? You saw the painting today, didn’t you?”

“Where’s Rarity?” Twilight asked, determined on solving much more pressing matters before engaging in trivial conversation. “Is she all right? Why isn’t she here with you? I don’t see he—”

“Now, now, don’t get your apples in a bunch! Rarity’s fine an’ dandy,” Applejack said with a laugh. She put a hoof on Twilight’s shoulder and squeezed. “I promised you I’d keep her safe, and I ain’t breaking that promise anytime soon. We just came down here because she delivered her dresses on time. Since Pinkie's busy with somethin' in the city, Rarity got a bit antsy just the two of us, and well...” She cleared her throat. “Insisted we meet you halfway.”

Immeasurable relief pulsed through Twilight’s very being, so much so she might actually need to sit down just to sigh.

“She was waitin’ here with me about an hour ago, but I sent her off before she carved a darn groove in the floor,” she continued. “Told her I’d give her ten bits if she managed to draw the whole city before you came.”

Twilight’s heart jumped.

The mare sketching outside!

“So, you feelin’ all right?” Applejack repeated. “You know we’re here for you if you want to talk.”

“I am,” Twilight said, trying her best to focus on Applejack.

“That’s good!” Applejack replied. “Where’d you gals leave Spike and the owls?”

“Spike is going to sleep in the outskirts of town,” Twilight replied quickly. “The owls, as well.”

“Figures they would. Would’ve been mighty difficult to get a dragon to sleep here!” She laughed at her own remark and then continued. “So, what’d you think of Granite’s Rest? Lots of good folk running the place. Fun, wasn’t it? ”

Twilight stared. “It was all right.”

“Bit of tourist trap, though. Did you buy anything? Some souvenirs? They had nice keychains last time we went.”

“Uh-huh.”

Applejack nodded, rubbing her mouth. “You know, the mugs are good, too. Bought one for Granny Smith to use for cider season, and the darn thing hasn’t broken even after she’s—”

“Applejack?” Twilight cautiously interrupted.

Applejack blinked. “Huh? Yes, Princess?” Her eyebrows furrowed. “You want me to stop yammerin’ so you can go find your marefriend, don’t you?”

“Uhm.” A bright red tinge decorated Twilight’s cheeks. “Yes, please.”

Applejack rolled her eyes, smiling at the laughs of the two other mares. “Fine, fine. I swear, you and Rarity are like a couple of newlyweds.” She turned towards the nearby counter and gestured to a mug. “At least bring her some coffee. Don’t want her freezing her cutie mark right off .”

Levitating the mug into the air, Twilight thanked Applejack and the others before rushing off, heart hammering in her chest. She stepped outside and quietly walked towards the tables. She saw Rarity in the distance, a light shawl draped over her shoulders, still immersed in her drawing.

Twilight crept up behind her, careful not to be seen. She stood up on the tip of her hooves, admiring the hasty pencil sketch under the glow of a nearby candle. It was beautiful, Twilight thought, and in some strange way, it made her want to be home more than the sight of the actual city itself.

Without a word, she placed the mug on the table; action which Rarity did not seem to acknowledge until she spoke up.

“Thank you, Applejack,” she said, moving on to sketch out one of the castle’s east towers. She stopped briefly to adjust her shawl. “Goodness, it’s such a cold night. I hope Twilight is using the blankets I packed for her.”

She paused her drawing for a moment, tapping her pencil against her chin, still oblivious to the alicorn behind her.

“I still don’t know what I’m going to tell her! If they even get there that is,” she continued, returning to her task as quickly as the words left her mouth. “Maybe you were right! I made such a show out of not going with her, and now here I am, unable to stay away for even three days! Do you think Rainbow will come with her? I hope not. She’ll never let me live it down! I can hear her calling me needy already! And maybe I am!” A long theatric sigh followed, after which she levitated her drawing and turned around. “What do you thi—”

There they stood, gazing at each other, a mortified unicorn and an absolutely shamelessly delighted alicorn.

“Well,” Rarity said shortly. She put the drawing down. “Princess Twilight Sparkle.”

“Lady Rarity,” Twilight replied, the upwards curve of her lips almost villainous.

“Fancy meeting you here.”

“I could say the same.”

“So you could.” Rarity folded her hooves on the table. “Did you hear everything I said?”

“Every word, yes.”

“I see." She cleared her throat. “And do tell, how are you? I trust the trip was pleasant?”

Twilight’s smile vanished. “Mostly. There was one problem.”

Sudden worry marred Rarity’s face. “There was?” She lifted her hoof, cautiously placing it on Twilight’s chest. “Darling... Was it the… Was it the painting?”

“No,” Twilight replied, and a very smitten smile decorated her face as she put her hoof on Rarity’s. “It was that you weren’t there.” She then giggled maliciously and leaned down. “Lucky for me you’re so needy.”

Rarity’s giggling matched Twilight’s, her eyes sparkling with what Twilight knew to be unrestrained adoration--if only because her own eyes mirrored the feeling.

“Oh, be quiet, Miss Smartypants,” Rarity chastised, and earning herself an apologetic kiss from Twilight in return.

When they pulled apart, both mares sighed in much-needed relief, and Twilight settled herself next to Rarity, not caring if anypony saw her shamelessly nuzzling her significant other. She closed her eyes and, after making sure it was hidden under the cloak, unfurled a wing and wrapped it around Rarity, intent on keeping her close and warm.

“I missed you,” she said.

“I missed you, too,” Rarity echoed. She let out a soft laugh and craned her neck to nuzzle the alicorn. “I think I might have missed you a bit too much. It might be a problem.”

Twilight echoed her earlier words, injecting them with more intent than ever. “I’m here now,” she said, tightening her grip around Rarity. “I’m not going away.”

Gentle silence danced between them, both beginning to wander towards their different thoughts.

“Did you manage to deliver your dresses?” Twilight asked.

Rarity nodded, taking the pencil anew and tracing a few lines. “I did! Silver Heart was very pleased indeed, particularly seeing I was able to make some on-site adjustments.”

Twilight smiled, her tail swishing under her cloak. She shared in Rarity’s accomplishments, and it made her feel better about Rarity having gone to know it had been for the best.

Rarity fidgeted beside her. “Twilight, I…” Her statement cut off, drifting off into silence and meshing with the sound of charcoal scratching against the paper. Twilight was about to try and encourage Rarity to speak up but before she could do so, Rarity put the pencil down and leaned against her.

“I’m sorry I wasn’t there for you.”

“You needed time,” Twilight gently reminded.

The pencil levitated again, and a tower sharply began to gain color. “I know that, but…”

Again, she trailed off, and the pencil flipped upside-down, erasing the harsh lines before flipping again and filling the blank space with softer strokes.

She turned her head for a moment, enough that their eyes met.

“Are you all right? Was that… Was it her?”

Twilight nodded. “I’m nearly a hundred percent sure it was.”

Rarity looked crestfallen. “Oh, sweetest… I’m sorry...”

Twilight shook her head. “No! It’s not a bad thing. I mean, it is, but… but it’s something that can help us.” She leaned down and nuzzled Rarity again, wanting to relieve some of her worry. “I’m fine. I just need time to think and gather my thoughts.”

Rarity’s laugh filled the air. “Why! Doesn’t that sound familiar?”

“It does!” Twilight replied, and though she tried to join in on Rarity’s mirth, another thought forced itself way out. She needed to ask. “And did you? Gather any thoughts?”

She braced herself for Rarity to freeze up, as she had often before, but instead, the unicorn merely sighed dramatically.

“I did, yes,” she answered. “Not all thoughts, but some thoughts.”

Twilight nodded. “And…?”

“And I think, for now, I want us to be close,” she said, emphasizing her words by pressing her body against Twilight’s.

“Tired of waiting for the pot to boil?” Twilight ventured, and what a winning sensation enveloped her when Rarity snorted in a very unladylike manner, enough to set Twilight off in a string of giggles.

“Perhaps,” Rarity murmured in a musical voice. “Perhaps.”

Twilight turned her attention back to the drawing, and Rarity’s own gaze followed shortly after.

“I suppose there’s no point in finishing this now,” she remarked. “I won’t be winning ten bits anymore.”

“I want you to finish it. But before that…” Twilight said, opening her bag with a tendril of magic and taking out the souvenir she’d bought: a purple bitbag inlaid with several multicolored gemstones. “ Here. It’s for you.”

“Darling! This is adorable!” Rarity exclaimed, taking it in her hooves. “Wherever did you get this?”

“I bought it,” Twilight quickly said. “Do you like it?”

“I do, I do! But… You bought this? How? Don’t tell me somepony actually accepted Elara’s chestnuts as currency!”

“What? No!” Twilight exclaimed, aghast. “I paid for it with bits, silly!”

Rarity giggled. “Oh, good. We’ll have to pay Fluttershy back later, then.”

Twilight frowned. “Pay her back? Why? I paid for that with my earnings. I hope it’s okay I stored them in the bitbag for now.”

Rarity moved away so she might see Twilight. “Pardon me? Your earnings?” she asked, raising an eyebrow.

Twilight grinned. “From my new job.”

“Your new job?!” she sputtered. “You have a job? Well! This is quite—! I mean—! I’m impressed! I’m glad you’ve been able to so quickly integrate yourself into the working forces, dearest. Are you going to invite me for a spot of tea at your brand new house next? I’m dying to find out how this all happened.”

Twilight rolled her eyes. “Pffft.” She took the bitbag in her magic and opened it, retrieving two five-bit coins and placing them on the table. “It’s a long story, and you have a drawing to finish.”

Rarity took the pencil. “How lucky for me that it’s a big castle, then.”

She settled herself comfortably in Twilight’s winged-embrace, and Twilight quietly watched her draw, as transfixed by the lines and the castle coming to life before her as she constantly was by Rarity herself. For the briefest moment, she glanced back up at Canterlot City, remembering her earlier sensation, her longing for a home.

“Well?” Rarity’s voice caressed her ears. “Your adoring crowd is waiting for a story, Your Highness.”

And as she began to talk, Twilight wondered if maybe home wasn’t so much a place as it was a pony to be with.


~ Interlude II ~ Those Left Behind ~

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He would never learn the pain of being forgotten.

He had never sought out to be recognized in the eyes of anypony but those he cared about. Regardless of the passing of the years, he would never once care whether other ponies remembered him or not.

But he cared—painfully, agonizingly so—that ponies were forgetting her.

Ponies of all ages and walks of life trotted along the streets of Equestria's capital city, each lost in their own little worlds, their own little all-encompassing universes. That filly over there fretted over when she would next see her friends to play, that stallion over there wondered when he would see his beloved again, that elderly mare sitting at a table thought of her deceased husband, and many more avoided the young dragon stomping his way past them, his eyes glued to the dirty gravel path.

He didn't want anypony to see him cry, yet it was hard to not be stared at when he was nearly six feet tall.

As he made his way through the Moon Quarter, his bag thumping against his body, a scroll crumpled up in his claw, Spike the Dragon refused to look at others for fear he would show them nothing but hatred.

Fury.

Pain.

Resentment.

"Don't cry, Mister Dragon."

He stopped, dead in his tracks, his breathing ragged, and he turned around to find a filly looking up at him. Even though the elderly mare behind the filly could scarcely hide the fear in her eyes, the little filly seemed to be too concerned with his tears to care about his fangs and sharp claws.

"I… What?" he asked, taken aback.

"Don't cry," the brave filly repeated. "Wh—"

"Inkwell, dear," the elderly mare interrupted, pulling the filly away. "Let's not bother the—"

"Why are you crying?" the filly pushed on, seemingly determined to help him. He appreciated it. It was nice to feel like somepony wanted to help, for once.

"I… I can't find my best friend."

The words came out of his mouth unbidden, automatically, and yet to hear them said aloud was a much larger blow than he'd expected. It still hurt. It still hurt, even then.

"Mommy says everything I lose is always under my bed," the filly said, a tender warmth in her gaze. "Did you try looking there?"

"I… No," he replied. He looked at his claws, filthy and worn-down after weeks of digging under trees. Tears filled his eyes again. He hated it. Shining had told him to be strong. "I've tried everywhere."

"Young one," the mare said, and in that moment, her fear faded away. She stepped forward. "Have you asked Princess Rhythm's guards for help?"

He clenched his fists. "Princess Rhythm's guards can't help me," he said, a little more violently than he'd intended, judging by the mare stepping back. He balled his claws and felt the scroll crumple up further. "She… I have to find her. My friend."

"Where do you think she is?" the filly asked. She tugged on her grandmother's foreleg. "We can help look, can't we, Granny?"

The mare seemed uncertain. "I—Well—"

"She's under a tree," he said. "In a library."

The two ponies blinked, as they should when faced with such a statement. It was natural, yet their reaction only angered him all the more.

The filly reacted first, gasping. "Really?! That's just like Princess Parchment!"

It felt like a knife had been plunged into his heart. There was no other way to describe it.

"Twilight," he corrected immediately, trying to keep his irritation in check. Princess Parchment. He'd never hated a name more than he hated that one. "Her name is Twilight. Twilight Sparkle."

The filly nodded gravely. "Twilight... Maybe Twilight Sparkle found Princess Parchment!" she exclaimed, her complete and utter lack of comprehension only twisting the knife further into his heart.

But not as much as what her grandmother said.

"Inkwell, you know that's only a bedtime story, dear," the grandmother said, and her soft laughter sounded mocking to Spike. "Princess Parchment and the others aren't real."

"I know," the filly said with a giggle, and whatever else she had to add went unheard by the dragon rushing away, tears clouding his eyes.

Princess Parchment and the others aren't real.

He stopped again, opening his saddlebag and hastily exchanging the scroll in his claw for another, much more wrinkled, one. He unfurled it and tried not to feel the ache in his soul at the messy sketch of a unicorn reading a book.

It had been so long…

It had been so painfully long, he felt as if he constantly needed to remind himself of how she looked.

"Spike! Why do you keep that drawing around?! I look bad in it!"

"What? No, you don't! You look nice in it! And just because you don't want it doesn't mean I can't keep it, Twi."

"All right, all right. Silly dragon."

"Silly pony."

He wasn't altogether sure how he got to the castle. Well, no, he was, but he'd been too occupied with his thoughts to pay attention to the path. He only realized he'd arrived when he realized the pony he was now glowering at was one of the castle soldiers posted by the entrance.

"Ah… Master Spike," the guard said with hesitation, averting his gaze, clearly uncomfortable. And honestly? Spike wanted him to be. "You're back! The Princess was worried. How were your travels?" He faltered. "Good news, I hope?"

"Which one are you? You’re one of them, aren’t you?" he asked, bluntly.

He hated trickery and deceit. Hated it with a burning passion.

The stallion faltered again, his eyes darting towards the ponies walking by. "I… I'm sure I don't know what you mean, Master Spike," he said, readjusting his position and clearly struggling to keep eye-contact with the dragon.

Spike's nostrils flared.

He bent down, ever so slightly and carefully asked again, "Which. One. Are. You?"

The stallion lowered his gaze, and it wasn't until they were alone that he spoke.

"Th-Thespian."

Spike relaxed a bit. For a moment, he almost felt rude.

"You're new, aren't you?" he asked, and before the soldier could reply, Spike smiled thinly. "Of course she would bring in more of you. She always waits until I'm not home."

"I-It is my honor, Master Spike," Thespian said, voice trembling. "The Princess has done m-much for us. A-And my companions speak highly of you."

"Speak highly of me? Which ones? The ones like you?"

Thespian mutely nodded, and Spike leaned back.

"You know," he said, "just because you lie about the way you look doesn't mean you should lie when you talk, too."

"I… I…"

"Where is she?" He paused. "Sorry. Dumb question. She never goes anywhere." Before the stallion could even hope to reply, he stalked off into the castle, issuing one last request. "Tell the guards I don’t want to be bothered."

If there was one benefit to looking like a large bitter dragon, it was that nopony dared stop or question where he was going. The pony guards already knew him, and the other ones avoided him as much as he avoided them.

For the first few minutes, as he made his way towards the castle's private quarters, he was undisturbed. For a few minutes, he felt he would be able to rationally and calmly discuss the horrible news he brought.

But, like many things since the forsaken night he'd left Twilight's library, it didn’t go as he hoped.

Just as he stalked past the throne room, where unwitting guests thought they were talking to an alicorn princess, the chamber's two large doors swung open. He found himself stopping to take a look, only to feel burning irritation once again.

One of those pompous monocle-wearing nobles stepped out, head held as high as his ego, probably, and then… and then an elderly mare followed him, a royal crown placed on her head.

"Princess Rhythm, it was an honor," the stallion said, pushing up his monocle. "A shame dear Princess Melody is sick! I would have loved to see h—eek!"

The stallion jumped back at the sight of the glowering dragon, and though the pony looked afraid, the being masquerading as a pony beside him looked surprised.

She licked her lips. "Ah… Spike… What a pleasant surprise..."

"Your Highness," Spike dryly greeted.

The Duke was thoroughly impressed, inspecting Spike behind his monocle. "Oh! Good heavens, it talks! Why, Princess! How fascinating!”

“Yes, he lives in the castle with us,” the changeling said.

The stallion turned to Spike. “Young sir, you’re quite lucky ponies have taken you in! I mean no offense, but your kind isn’t known for their kindness," he said, completely missing the alarmed look that flared up in the alicorn's eyes. There was a message in them, a plea for somedragon not to burn off somepony's entire coat.

Your kind isn’t known for their kindness.

Dragons aren’t the kind ones when ponies eagerly agree to give a terrified baby dragon to a crazed spirit in exchange for peace.

Your kind.

“Lucky,” Spike hissed, and added before stomping away, “I’ll say I’m lucky. Luckiest dragon alive. Right.”


Towers of books surrounded him, and it was only in Twilight's room that he felt at peace. He sometimes swore it still smelled like her. Or he told himself it did, at least.

Despite the severity of the news he brought, he hadn't found it in him to go and seek out the pony he wanted. Instead, he'd retreated to his safe haven; the only place where he felt he could sit and think.

And miss her.

His belongings lay scattered on the nearby bed: a few gemstones, a few scrolls depicting the lost princesses, the heart-shaped emerald Discord had thrown at him and belonged to Twilight, and… and a single worn-out scroll, halfway unfurled.

Just looking at it made him sick.

He grimly thought that the Princess of Canterlot had one reprieve, at least. His anger towards her and the world had been momentarily replaced with rage, confusion and a sense of betrayal brought about by…

Ugh.

He grabbed a telescope and peered through it, desperate to get his mind off the scroll. He tried to focus on the distant lands, but his thoughts kept moving towards the scroll and… and he realized he was also a bit afraid of meeting with Her.

What he had to say, well…

It wasn't easy to say.

But, like many unpleasant things in life, they would come after him if ignored for too long. Time had a way of doing that, as it proved when three knocks sounded from the door.

He felt inclined, for a moment, to point out that there was no point with her knocking when she could just walk through the door. He felt inclined to not even answer, to wait and see if she would poke her head through. He felt inclined to do very many things, not all of them kind.

Three knocks again.

He walked towards the bed and sat down, dumping the telescope on the pillow.

“It’s open,” he called half-heartedly.

A tendril of blue magic wrapped itself around the doorknob, and when the door opened, Princess Cadance stepped in, a bright smile on her lips.

“Spike! Welcome home! I thought you weren’t coming back for a few more weeks,” she said, closing the door behind her. She looked happy to see him, and he didn’t doubt she was. He knew, somewhere deep inside, he was happy too, until he remembered the kind duke.

“I saw her,” he said, still sitting atop his bed. He knew no good would come out from telling her, no true catharsis, but he did regardless. “Coming out of the throne room with a duke. He was surprised a creature like me could talk.”

Her smile faded. “I heard,” she said, subdued, her ears lowering. “He didn’t mean—”

“Yes, he did,” Spike cut off. “There’s new changelings, too.”

She faltered, but her gaze did not lower. “We talked about it… Before you left, we did talk about it,” she gently reminded. “I know you don’t like it, but there won’t be any new ones for a while.” A pause. “Why don’t you try befriending them? They’re not bad, Spike. Not anymore.”

He scrunched the bedsheets in his claws. He felt like retorting something, anything to express disdain for these creatures that had harmed Equestria and now harmed any chance they had to find the others, but his eyes landed on the worn-out scroll instead.

She noticed, and he saw her noticing.

He unclenched his claws before he tore a hole in Twilight’s bedsheet. It needed to be in a good state for when she came back, he told himself, even if the letter on the bed said otherwise.

“Did…” She drifted off, for even she was afraid of what both of them had always dreamed of. “...Did Auntie Celestia write?”

“Yes,” he whispered, and tears bordered his eyes. “Yesterday. I sent her a letter, and she burned a message into one of my old letters.”

He didn’t have to say anything for her to know that did not bode well.

For over three hundred years, they’d had no hope. For over three hundred years, he’d been searching blindly, finding nothing after nothing, no princesses under trees, or mountains, or waterfalls. He wondered if it was stupid for him to look knowing he was literally cursed against it. He knew it wasn’t Cadance’s fault, he knew it was Discord, and he tried not to blame her, but…

But sometimes, at night, no matter how badly he felt about it, he did.

For over three hundred years, they had nothing, and the one time she replied…

Cadance levitated the letter towards her, slowly and carefully, like somepony awaiting terrible news from the doctor. She breathed in and out, in and out, a method she’d once taught Twilight, and then unfurled the letter. It had been singed, literally, as if fire had burnt through the scroll.

He could see the backward message.

“There is no hope for us,” Cadance read aloud, and what a sickening silence followed as the scroll got furled up again, revealing her stricken expression. “Oh.”

Oh.

Tears trickled down his eyes, his claws again clenching against the sheets. How could she say that? How could she say that, after he’d been looking for so long?

Cadance said nothing, for there was nothing to say.

He hated Princess Celestia. In that moment, he hated her as intensely as he’d ever hated Discord, with the burning fire of his own flames, with the heat of the tears rolling down his cheeks because how could she say that to him?

“M-Maybe it’s not true,” she said, putting the letter down on a desk and trying to keep hope because that’s all she had ever done. That’s all she and Shining and everyone else had ever done, keep hope no matter what, but hope was running thin now. Hope was dead to him, and it had died with six damned words.

“Yes, it is,” he said, the words leaving his mouth with as much intensity and fire as flames would. Hope was dead, and with its death, it had brought to life anger and sorrow like never before. “Yes, it is.” He stood up and he grabbed the telescope, Twilight’s telescope, and hurled it against the wall because who cared if it was ever used again when Twilight was as good as dead just like the rest.

Yes, it is.

“Spike!” Cadance exclaimed, but whatever else she had to say was drowned out by his yells.

What?!” he exclaimed, despairingly so. “It’s true! There is no hope! We can’t do anything! I can’t do anything! I can’t, no matter how hard I try!”

“That’s not true,” Cadance said, keeping her voice leveled and kind, and the kinder it was, the more furious he became.

“They’re forgetting them! They don’t even know what they look like! No one knows but me!” he roared, turning around and grabbing the drawing of Twilight. “You know who they remember?! Princess bloody Parchment, not Twilight! Not Princess Celestia, but Princess Sunswept! Not Princess Luna, but Princess Stars!”

“I know that, Spike—”

“Then do something!” he snapped, slamming his foot against the ground.

“I am, you know that,” she said, raising her voice ever so slightly. “I’m having the statues built, and—”

“That’s not enough! That won’t do anything! What’s the point now?! They all think they’re fairytales!” he interrupted, voice breaking both in anger and hopelessness. “All of them! You think anypony’s going to believe they’re real now!? I can’t even try and convince them because I’ll curse them!”

“Spike, I’m trying the best that I ca—”

“Are you?!” he demanded, wiping away his tears. “Then why are changelings ruling Equestria?! Huh?! Princess Celestia put you and Shining Armor in charge, not them! Why are they talking to nobles?! Why are they going out into the kingdom?! When was the last time you spoke to a pony?! Of course they didn’t care Chrysalis died when you handed Equestria to them!”

And now, now she reacted.

“Spike!” she snapped, agitated. “That’s not true! You know why I can’t meet with ponies!”

“I don’t care!” he roared. “I don’t care! They’re the reason no one remembers them! They’re the reason everypony thinks everything is fine! They and you and this lie and all of this! Ponies should know about this!”

“We tried telling them! The castle court! You were there! You were there, and you saw how they reacted! Imagine that panic all over the kingdom!” she said, and then made a noticeable effort to temper her voice. “Spike, you know we were going to tell them. You know Shining Armor accepted the changeling’s help because we thought we’d find them quickly.”

“Well, he thought wrong! He thought wrong, and now he’s dead!” he said, and it hit him to say it. He fell to his knees, slamming his claws into the floor, tear-stricken eyes closed because it wasn’t fair. “He’s dead, and I don’t know where Twilight is, and I can’t find her! I can’t find her because of your stupid curse, and we can’t tell anypony because of your stupid curse, and Twilight is stuck under a tree forever and—” He again slammed his fist against the floor, the words leaving his mouth out of anger and fear and pain.

“And I’m stuck with you!

And no sooner had the words left his mouth, a horrifying sensation swept across him, amplified and worsened by the deafening silence that followed. He looked up to the terrible sight of a muted Cadance looking down at him, eyes twinkling with unshed tears, and he knew he’d gone too far.

He’d gone too, too far.

“I-I... “ He stood up, horrified. “I’m s-sorry, I didn’t—”

“I know,” she interrupted quietly, but the tears did not stop. His or hers. She stepped back. “I… I’ll leave you to settle in now.”

“Wa-Wait, please!” he begged, horrified, wanting to reach out and stop her yet knowing he could not even if he tried. “I didn’t—! I didn’t mean it, I—”

“I know,” she repeated, and she still stepped back. “I… I just need time alone.” She smiled, and that hurt even more. “All right?”

“I… Okay…” he relented, for what else could he say?

She stepped back again, and then turned towards the door, wrapping her magic around the doorknob and swinging it open. He watched as she made a move to leave, but before she did, she turned around towards him and offered a smile.

“...Will you be staying for dinner?”

“I…” He stood up, wiping his tears away. “I… don’t know.”

“You don’t have to decide now,” she said before stepping out, “but I hope you’ll be there at seven.”

And with that, she closed the door and left the dragon to his thoughts, to his choices, and to his shame. He walked over to the desk, taking the letter and looking it over once again.

There is no hope for us.

He thought of Cadance and her undying hope, and he made a choice.

Quietly, he walked over to the telescope’s remains and scooped them up in his claw, taking them with him over to the bed. There, he packed his things into his bag: the gemstones, Twilight’s emerald, and even the fragmented device. Once it was done, once there was nothing more to take, he took his bag and crossed the length of the room, opened the door and turned around.

Turned around to look at Twilight’s room for the last time before stepping out and closing a door he would not be opening for a long time to come.

He did not know how long it took for him to leave the castle, or for him to leave the city itself. He just walked, and walked, and walked, every step harder than the last.

“Master Spike!” greeted the pony guard defending the city gate. “Where are you going? You just came back!”

“I have things to find, Lance,” he replied.

“Things to find? I see.” The guard adjusted his helmet and offered the dragon a toothy grin. “When will you be back? The others and I are having a celebration soon. We thought you might like to come.”

Spike looked back towards the castle in the distance, towards the lights beginning to shine through the windows now that night had come. Supper was waiting somewhere inside and with it the Princess of Hope.

“I don’t know,” he said, turning back to the guard. “I’m not coming back unless it’s with Twilight.”

And the guard blinked.

“Twilight?” he asked. “Who’s that?”

Spike stared at him. He stared at him for the longest time before reaching into his bag, taking out a drawing, giving it to the guard and walking away without another word. He kept walking even as the guard called to him and only stopping when a traveling pony walking past him called him.

“Excuse me, Sir?” the pony said, and Spike listened if only because of the respect he was shown. The young earth stallion gazed at him with wondrous eyes. “Sir, are you from Canterlot?”

“Yes,” Spike said. “Why?”

The stallion stepped back, stunned. “Sweet sugar apples, might you be…” He cleared his throat. “Your name? May I ask your name?”

Spike looked back to the castle and again made the choice.

“Seeker,” he said. “That’s my name.”

“Oh…” The stallion bowed. “Forgive me. I thought you might be somepony else.”

“I’m not,” Spike said, and without another word, went on his way and left a princess to dine alone.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

“Princess?”

Cadance looked up from the window, finding one of her guards by the door. Four entire days had passed since Spike had left, and she knew he would not be back.

“Yes, Thespian?”

Thespian cleared his throat. “Princess, there’s a stallion wanting to see ‘Princess Rhythm’. A farmer, apparently? He brings urgent farming news, but he doesn’t want to say what it is unless he’s spoken to ‘’her’ directly. He’s been coming every day, and we told him he needs to elaborate but he refuses and… well… Totem would like to…” He paused awkwardly. “Take your place and see what he wants, but we would like your approval as always.”

Cadance’s reply did not immediately come.

Why are they talking to nobles?! Why are they going out into the kingdom?!

When was the last time you spoke to a pony?!

She didn’t quite know how the curse worked, or how it spread, but she knew simply talking to her would curse them. But Spike was right.

“Are you sure he hasn’t come for any other reason?”

“W-We don’t think so, My Que—”

“Thespian.”

Your highness. We don’t think he has.”

She took a deep breath, even though she didn’t need to. She missed breathing. She missed the actual calm it used to bring.

She smiled. “Tell our visitor that Princess Melody will be seeing him. Please,” she added, before he protested or questioned her. “And tell Totem to prepare the throne room for me. The blinds need to be all mostly shut.”

“Yes, your Highness!”

After a dozen minutes, Princess Cadance found herself in the throne room, the blinds all closed and only a few torches spread throughout—enough that visitors could see, but too dark for them to realize they could see through her.

She stood before the throne, patiently waiting until the distant doors opened and four guards escorted in a young stallion. A smile graced his lips when his eyes fell upon her, and she returned the gesture, for a moment invigorated by taking an active part in the running of the kingdom.

“Your Highness,” he greeted, bowing down to her. “It’s an honor!”

“The honor is all mine. My mother was busy with other duties, unfortunately,” she replied with practiced serenity. “I apologize for the dark. I’m ill, and shadows help with my migraines.”

“Princess, not at all!” he sputtered. “Please, don’t apologize! Though…” He looked into his saddlebag and retrieved an apple. “Might this help? It’s one of the best ones we picked this season.”

She smiled kindly, and when she nodded, a guard took the fruit.

“My guards tell me you have urgent news?” she prompted, hoping to move things along. “Something to do with farming?”

And to this, the stallion hesitated.

“Well... “ He rubbed a hoof behind his neck. “Well. It’s not really about farming, but it is urgent.

Silence.

“What do you mean?” she asked carefully.

“I…” He cleared his throat. “I don’t want you to think me insane.”

Silence again, and Cadance took a deep unnecessary breath.

Hope died last.

“Can you please explain?” she asked.

For the last time, he cleared his throat. “My name is Fritter Cobbler. I… My family and I have lived in the farming community Ponyville for some time now, you see? And, well, a few months ago, my brother and I got lost in the Everfree Forest, and, well…” He smiled nervously. “Would you happen to know something about a Princess Twilight Sparkle?”

Cadance didn’t know what to say. She simply observed him, through the haze created by tears, and she smiled, for what else could she do?

She could only hide in her castle, stay behind the scenes, and never dare to hope again.


~ Act I ~ Chapter 4 ~ The Ladybugs Awake ~

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It was the first time North Ridge had seen him. He’d returned to the inn, intending on retiring for the night, and as he stepped into the hallway to find his room, he saw an older stallion exiting hers. The stallion noticed him as well, turning his yellow eyes towards North.

“It’s you.”

The words tumbled out of his mouth, and the foreign stallion smiled in delight. He did not speak, and instead, North watched with surprise as he vanished into thin air. Once the shock wore off, he rushed forwards, opening the door and entering the dimly lit room.

He found her by the window, as always, but when she turned to him, her eyes were filled with tears. He felt compelled to console her, and yet he knew he could not.

“He asked me if I’d changed my mind,” she whispered.

“Have you?”

“I don’t know. That’s what frightens me the most.”


“Are you scared?”

Twilight did not immediately reply. Though she knew the answer to be a very definite yes, knowing it and admitting to it were two very different matters altogether.

Sitting atop the head of a resting Spike, she kept her focus on the golden gates about forty yards away. The sun dawned over the kingdom, painting the city and its castle in hues of golden orange similar to the gates themselves. It was just like she remembered, and yet it wasn’t.

That was what scared her the most.

To have known something inside and out, and to no longer know it at all. She thought of Rarity briefly. She did that a lot.

“Yes,” she finally replied, and though she knew the answer already, she still asked him the same. “Are you scared?”

His laughter echoed through the air. “You have no idea.” Though his words were no doubt true, the way he said it made her laugh. Carefree and relaxed, two emotions that clashed with his statement. Though she usually didn’t like it when things didn’t match, this one was a pleasant exception.

Neither said anything for what seemed several moments, and Twilight had gotten comfortably lost in her thoughts until Spike brought her back.

“Do you remember the day we left?”

His cheerful tone was gone, interchanged with a more subdued one; more akin to the reminiscing of two friends, when all was well; the calm before the storm.

“Yes,” she whispered. As if it were yesterday.

She remembered leaving the castle with the Apple family. She remembered saying goodbye to Princess Celestia and Princess Luna. She remembered Princess Luna trying to stop her. She remembered saying goodbye to Cadance, and then to her parents and Shining Armor.

Her parents and Shining Armor.

They were dead. This was a fact she’d known already and thought she had come to terms with, having mourned them a long time ago, when she’d first learned of their passing. She had assumed that the pain would go away eventually.

She assumed many things in life. Most of them were incorrect.

The pain had not left, much like they would never be back.

The quiet of dawn spoke in their stead. Spike was without doubt as lost in his memories as she was. Her gaze drifted upwards, toward the castle of white and gold, and then lingered on the balcony from which Princess Celestia and Princess Luna used to address the kingdom.

If she had to be honest...

If she had to be honest with no one but herself, she knew the fear of everything having changed wasn’t the only thing consuming her. It was the fear of facing Cadance. The fear of facing the first in a long line of dominoes she’d tipped over with a single decision.

The fear of not being forgiven.

As soon as tears wet her eyes, she forced herself to look away from the tower, directing her gaze towards Applejack and Fluttershy. They were both engaged in conversation with the gate’s guards, having allowed the Princess and Spike a moment of privacy. Only they had stayed behind, Rarity and Rainbow Dash having gone to alert the castle guards of their arrival.

As if she’d felt Twilight’s gaze, Fluttershy looked towards her and offered a small friendly wave.

“Are things better with Rarity?”

Twilight froze.

“Why would things need to be better?” she blurted out, belatedly realizing her hasty remark might have betrayed her attempt at portraying sincere curiosity. She ransacked her brain, trying to figure out what she’d said to hint something was even wrong. After all, she'd made a constant effort to keep her setbacks with the unicorn away from others. “Everything’s fine.”

“Twilight…” Spike said, and Twilight felt her ears flatten against her head.

It was fascinating how, even still, the dragon had a way of drawing the truth out of her with just a skeptical utterance of her name. Some things truly never changed.

“She’s not here," he continued. "You can tell me."

“Why do you think something’s wrong?” she asked, trying to sound only mildly curious.

His sweeping snort caught the attention of their friends in the distance. Twilight waved awkwardly when they looked their way.

“Well,” Spike began, “not counting her freakout back in Ponyville, I’d honestly be really worried if everything was great between you two.” At the sound of her distressed whine, he laughed. “It’s not a bad thing, Twi. It’s only a bad thing if you’re not trying to work it out.”

Twilight arched an eyebrow, skeptical. “You’re one to talk, Mister Leave-The-Castle-And-Never-Come-Back!”

“Okay, okay, I get it.” He shook his head, nearly tumbling Twilight off. “But I’m being serious here.”

“I know,” Twilight said once she’d settled down again. In truth, she didn’t want to talk about it. Talking about it meant making it real. “I think we’re working on it. I don’t know.” She looked down, ears flattening against her head, her hoof tracing circles on Spike’s head. “She won’t really tell me what’s wrong? She just said she needed time.”

“Did she say how much?”

“No. Yes. She said ‘a little more time’? I don’t know how long that is! I wish she’d been precise. What if her perception of time is different than mine? I gave her Starswirl’s Complete Collection for a little light reading, and she told me that wasn’t little at all.”

“Twilight, only you would call fifteen books ‘a little light reading’,” he pointed out. Her good influence on him had clearly faded with the passing of the centuries. “Besides, if she’s saying that’s long and you think that’s little, then maybe she won’t need as much time as you're afraid of.”

She sighed wearily. “I hope so. I think she was doing better yesterday.” A small blush crept up her cheeks at her memories of the previous night. Even a smile managed to valiantly fight its way onto her lips. Last night was the first time since she’d been freed that she and Rarity felt completely synchronous with their feelings. “Yesterday was really nice.”

“Yeah? Well, considering how cuddly you two were this morning, you must’ve had a lot of fun.”

Spike!” she gasped, stamping her hoof against the top of his head. She was extraordinarily grateful he could not see her completely flushed and scandalized expression, which was not helped by his delighted laughter.

“Whaaaaat! You got to have a sleepover, and those are super fun! It’s not my fault you thought I meant something else,” he plaintively defended, instilling in Twilight the need to roll her eyes as far back as they could go.

“For Celestia’s sake... “ she murmured, pointedly ignoring his gleeful snickering.

Snickering which came to a sudden stop, interrupted by Applejack’s distant call.

“Here they come, y’all!” the mare hollered, waving towards them. “Get off your tushies!”

“Great,” Spike said, standing up and sighing. “He brought a whole bunch of ‘em.”

Twilight followed his gaze and saw two dozen soldiers marching their way down the castle’s main path. There had been very few times she’d seen such a large crowd of soldiers marching towards her, and the last time had been associated with a memory that still made her feel ill.

“Just like your coronation,” Spike said, voicing her unsaid thoughts.

Just like my coronation.

An event meant to guide her all the way to the castle, to present her as the grand savior of Equestria: she who defeated the Spirit of Chaos and acquired his willing surrender; she who then allowed the changeling armies to be defeated; she who allowed the Kingdom to enter a new age of peace and prosperity.

She who won through trickery and was rewarded for it.

She held her breath and let it out slowly. She adjusted her wings under her cloak and swallowed down whatever trepidations she had left.

This procession was her choice.

This procession was one she would walk with her head held high.

She jumped off Spike, landing on the ground just as the gates opened. The soldiers poured out from the city, led by Rarity, Rainbow Dash, and a certain guard Twilight recognized. Not because she’d ever met him before, but because she’d seen him through Rarity’s eyes and memories.

As soon as they caught Twilight in their sights, the guard signaled the others to stand down while Rarity doubled her pace and trotted straight towards the alicorn.

“I’m baaaack!” she sang in greeting, offering Twilight and Spike a brilliant smile. “Weep no more, my dears, for all in this cruel world is well once again now that you have been reunited with me.”

“Pfffft, I don’t see anypony weeping, Rares,” Rainbow exclaimed, flying past them and settling herself atop Spike’s head.

“Hey, I cried for her on the inside,” Spike rebutted.

“See! And Twilight here has simply exhausted all her tears already,” Rarity continued, tasking herself with readjusting Twilight’s cloak. She looked at the alicorn and fluttered her lashes. “Haven’t you, darling?”

Twilight playfully rolled her eyes. “All of them.”

It seemed for a moment as though Rarity was about to reply, but when Twilight noticed the earlier guard approaching, Rarity did as well. She quickly cleared her throat and moved aside, placing her hoof on Twilight’s chest when he arrived.

“Twilight, darling, this is Rift Shield. The one I’ve been telling you about. And Rift..." Her lips curved with surprising insolence and her eyes twinkled with uncharacteristic mischief. "This is Princess Twilight Sparkle."

Rift Shield gaped at her, mouth opening and closing several times. In truth, it was more than a bit awkward for the Princess, more so because he was only one of many more gawkers to come.

"Sweet Princess Cadance," he whispered when words finally decided to come out his mouth. He took his helmet off and blinked at her. "You really are the spitting image of the statue."

His eyes lowered towards her cape, and she could feel her wings rustling uncomfortably beneath it. To say she felt like she was on display would be an accurate assessment, which bothered her considering she hadn't felt nearly this self-conscious when meeting her friends. Was it because he was a changeling? They had once been her enemies after all, and even if she knew they’d reformed under Cadance, it was hard to completely see them as non-threatening—especially when she remembered the pain they’d caused ponies.

...And maybe it was also because she was very well aware of his previous feelings for Rarity. Was it silly to say she felt she was being judged by the competition?

"Frankly,” Rarity said, “that sorry statue hardly does justice to the charm and allure of the real thing.”

Rift laughed. "Geez, don't rub it in, Rares," he complained, which drew several questions into Twilight's mind, including but not limited to rub what where exactly.

However, before she could ask any of the questions she had, he stepped back and bowed reverentially.

"Princess Twilight, it's an honor to meet you at last," he said.

She heard Rainbow Dash gag behind her.

He straightened himself up and offered a grin. "I'm glad to see you're with us once again." His eyes darted towards Rarity for a split-second. "Your presence was sorely missed, I've heard."

Twilight froze.

He knew about Twilight's absence?

That was something she hadn't anticipated, and she wasn't altogether sure she liked the fact that he knew anything about the matter. It bothered her to think someone was privy to what she had done and said. What did he think of her? How much did he even know? Did he think ill of her?

Her eyes met Rarity's briefly, and her anguish must have been visible judging by the flash of concern that marred the unicorn's face.

Twilight forced a smile. "Hello," she said, trying to focus on other matters. "I've heard a lot about you too. You're a changeling, aren't you?"

Rift Shield didn't react initially. It seemed he had been prepared for her to know the fact, and as such kept a smile on his face.

"I am, Princess," he replied delicately. He caught her glancing at the rows of guards in the distance, and he continued, “They are ponies. Only a dozen or so of us actually work in the castle, Princess.” He met her gaze. "I hope that isn't a problem."

A thousand years ago, perhaps. Now...

"Not at all." Injecting as much sincerity in her statement as she could, she said, "Thank you for helping Princess Cadance while I couldn't."

Rift nodded, standing up straight and banging a hoof against his chest plate. "Of course!" he exclaimed. "It is my honor and pride to serve Princess Cadance and the Equestrian Kingdom, as has it been for every Equestrian changeling before me."

Twilight's attention was immediately caught by the loud snort from behind her. She turned around and saw Rainbow staring them down, a mocking grin plastered on her face.

“Ah, Master Spike,” Rift greeted with a smile. “We knew you’d come back one day.”

Spike snorted. “Sure you did.”

“We did!” he protested.

“Pffft, stop tryin’ to butter him up,” Rainbow said, rather rudely waving him off. “Get on with it.”

If Rift was bothered by it, he did not show any signs of it. He put his helmet back on and signaled for his guards to approach. A terrible weight intruded on Twilight’s heart at the sight. The time had come, whether she was ready or not.

Two dozen ceremonial guards marched towards them, circling the dragon in a square formation. Though Twilight knew their presence was necessary considering a large, unknown dragon was about to enter the city, it still made her uneasy. It brought much more attention to them than she wanted.

And, more to the point…

“How is he going to get to the castle?” she asked. Granted, she didn’t accurately remember the city’s layout, but she remembered enough to know Spike couldn’t possibly fit through the streets. “I don’t remember the streets being the proper width for a dragon to walk through.”

“I was thinking the same thing,” Spike added, raising an eyebrow. “I may have left a long time ago, but I remember the last time dragons came to the city, and none of them walked in.”

Twilight remembered that too. The fifth peace meeting. Races of all kinds crossing into the city, and the proud dragon tribe flying down into the main courtyard.

Rift was unconcerned. “That’s accounted for. The city’s layout was modified centuries ago. A dragon can easily fit through the main boulevard, so long as it’s clear of anypony.”

As soon as Rift moved away to order the gates to be opened, Spike hung his head, muttering under his breath. “Damn it.”

“Spike! Language!” Rarity scolded, earning a sneer from him. “Just because you don’t want to go through with this doesn’t mean you stop being a gentledragon!”

“Rarity, I’m a thousand years older than you,” he pointed out. “Besides, that’s not the worst swear word I could say.”

Twilight spoke up. “Just because you’re a thousand years old doesn’t mean you should swear, Spike,” she advised, smiling when he blinked and hung his head.

“Sorry, Twilight,” the ancient dragon mumbled much like a chastised foal would.

“What?! Sorry?!” Rainbow exclaimed, smacking a nearby scale on his head. “Swearing is what cool dragons do!”

“That’s not true,” Fluttershy rebutted. “Swearing is very ‘not cool’.”

Rainbow rolled her eyes, dismissing the pegasus with a hoof. “Come on, Shy! Bet you would be cooler if you swore too.”

An argument ensued, the majority of which Twilight thought was both ridiculous and pointless. It did, however, serve as a good distraction from her apprehension, up until she felt a gentle tap on her shoulder. She looked around and found Rarity nodding towards a solitary spot in the distance.

Leaving behind the riveting argument over whether swearing was cool or not, Twilight followed her belle, and once they were alone, Rarity smiled warmly at her, brushing a hoof against her cheek.

“How are you feeling?” she asked delicately. “A little scared?”

Twilight wanted to lie. She wanted to smile and say she felt fine, maybe just a little anxious, but in truth, she knew exactly how she felt. She knew it now better than ever if only because of who stood before her.

“I feel just like I did when we met in the library again after I… you know…” she confessed, ears lowering and tail swishing behind her.

However, rather than offer sympathy and comfort as she’d expected, Rarity grinned broadly.

“You feel just like that?” she asked. “You mean speechless and lovesick for the stunning mare before you?”

Twilight raised an eyebrow. “More like terrified and remorseful,” she corrected.

Rarity didn’t bat an eyelid.

“If that’s the case, darling, then you will be delighted to know that your reunion with Princess Cadance will likely go exactly as ours did!” She paused. “Well, no, not quite as exactly as ours did. That would include a kiss, and I must admit if that happens, I’ll need a sofa on which to be comfortably desolate.”

Rarity!” Twilight gasped. “She’s my sister-in-law!”

“True enough! And it’s not as though you could even kiss her.” She tapped a hoof against her chin, regarding Twilight curiously. “Goodness, can you imagine what it would feel like to try and kiss somepony who’s ethereal? I find myself regretting I never tried it with you! Maybe dear Cadance will allow me to satisfy my curiosi—mmph!”

Muzzling Rarity with her magic and hoping she didn’t look quite as hot as she felt, she fixed Rarity a pointed stare.

“Are you done?” she asked, receiving a quick nod from her significant other.

“Well!” Rarity said, harrumphing once she’d been released. “I hope you realize there are much more romantic ways of attaining my silence, Twilight.”

“No, there are not because then I’d be rewarding bad behaviors.”

“Oh? How strange of you to say that! I clearly remember how yesterday you—“

“Come on, y’all!” Applejack called. “We’re just waiting on you two!”

“Give us another minute!” Rarity called back, and when she turned to Twilight, all playfulness had vanished from her face. She pressed a hoof on Twilight’s chest. “Twilight, it’s completely natural to be scared, but you have my word everything will turn out perfectly. Though…” She trailed off, biting her lip.

“Though…?” Twilight pressed.

“Though you don’t have to go through with all of—“ She gestured to the guards. “—That if you really don’t want to. I talked Rift down to keeping it to as few guards as necessary, but if you feel uncertain, you and I can always wait until they’ve all gone before going ourselves.”

Twilight shook her head. “No, it’s all right. I can do it.”

Rarity made a moue of concern.

Really,” Twilight insisted.

For a moment, Rarity’s frown subsided, giving the illusion of believing Twilight’s affirmation. And then, she pressed her lips together and stared the alicorn down.

“Are you certain?”

“Yes, Rarity, I’m certain, positive, sure, and I’m even convinced,” she said, laughing when Rarity scowled at her. “It’s almost like you’re more afraid than I am!”

Rarity scoffed, putting her forehoof back on the ground. “Don’t be absurd! I am not! I am merely… concerned, if anything!”

“Then, what’s wrong?” Twilight asked, and finally, Rarity caved in, letting out a piteous whine as the bridge of her nose turned a ladylike pink hue.

“I...” The unicorn lifted her hoof once more and idly refastened Twilight’s cloak, her eyes pointedly set on her ministration. “I don’t know. I just want everything to go perfectly,” she finished, her eyes betraying genuine distress when she finally lifted her gaze and met Twilight’s.

Like with many other things that scared her, Twilight found herself a little less afraid if it meant giving Rarity peace of mind. How the tables had turned.

“It will be. This isn’t anything to worry about. They’re just escorting Spike and us to the castle and that’s it. Nothing more,” she said firmly, hoping to convince both herself and Rarity. She leaned in, planting a kiss on the unicorn’s forehead. “I promise I’ll be fine.”

To prove it, she trotted back towards the others, head held high.

Applejack extended a hoof when she arrived, patting her on the shoulder. “Don’t be nervous now, Princess.”

Fluttershy frowned. “It’s all right to be a little nervous,” she chided.

Applejack smiled, lifting her hat. “All right, you can be a lil’ bit nervous, but not too much ‘cause we’re all here with you to help, you hear?”

“It’s okay, Twilight,” Spike added, standing up straight and puffing out his chest. “Everypony’s going to be too busy looking at me to look at you.”

“Hah!” Rainbow guffawed. “They’re going to be looking at me, buster!”

“Okay, okay! You can argue about this while we’re on the way,” Rift interrupted. He indicated towards the gate, where already a rapidly growing crowd of excited onlookers tried to get the best view of them. “That’s going to get worse the longer we take.”

“Twilight,” Spike said, glancing down at her. “Whenever you’re ready, okay?”

With one final breath of air, Twilight’s nod became the signal for them to advance. Rift Shield motioned for gates to open and, with thunderous steps, Spike advanced into the city’s walls, leading the way for the Princess and her friends.

Rainbow Dash rode atop the dragon’s head, waving at the cheering crowd. Fluttershy walked next to Applejack, whatever nervousness she had distracted by Applejack’s constant conversation. And Twilight? Twilight froze at the gates until a worried look from Rarity willed her forwards.

She wanted to look around, to properly examine the city she’d once known, but it was hard to do so when everywhere she looked, ponies looked back. They were all around her, peering from the balconies of buildings, in the air, from behind the rope lines; from wherever they could see, the ponies of Canterlot gathered to witness the spectacle.

“Don’t look at them, Twilight,” Rarity whispered, walking close to the alicorn. “There is nopony here but you and I.”

But the reassuring whisper was lost amidst the sound of the city. Oh’s and Ah’s from the crowd bombarded her, screams for Spike to breathe fire, for Rainbow to fly into the air, for them to entertain. Her breathing became heavy, more labored the more steps they took forward. It was just like the coronation.

She forced her sight away from the crowd and kept it on the path, until she noticed Applejack and Fluttershy looking back at her, faces awash with concern. She imposed a smile on her face, but yet again images of her coronation flashed through her mind, of Canterlot calling her name in cheer at her ‘great deed’ while those who knew the truth glanced at her with worry.

She felt faint under her sweltering cloak, as though her body weakened with every step, making it harder and harder to breathe.

She felt attacked, by ponies and by her own mind alike. Her steps slowed, and it was clear from Applejack and Fluttershy's alarmed looks that she did not look serene. She struggled to keep her wings tucked under the cape, both appendages clearly wanting to follow her desire to fly away at once.

“Twilight?”

Twilight looked to Rarity, and only until she saw a tendril of her own magic wrapped around Rarity’s leg did she realize she’d been literally grabbing onto Rarity for support. She immediately let go, but her hasty apology was interrupted by the unicorn herself.

“Right. I knew this would be a bad idea, and it has gone quite far enough already.”

Rarity’s sharp, aggravated voice cut through the cacophony of sounds, and fear gripped Twilight’s heart when Rarity moved further ahead with intent.

“Wa-Wait!” she blurted out in a panicked voice, rushing forward to stop Rarity. “Where are you going?”

Though Rarity’s irritation lessened at the sight of an anxious Twilight, it was clear she was not content. “I’m going to tell Rift Shield to have the guards escort us out of here. I won’t allow you to con—”

“No,” Twilight cut-off, almost desperately so. She started walking, gesturing for Rarity to do so as well. “Please, I—I’m fine, L-let’s just go.”

“Darling, your entire coat is ashen! I thought you were going to have an anxiety attack! Twilight, please,” Rarity implored, anguish marring her face. “Is it because of the guards? Do you not want to make a fuss? We can teleport if you’d prefer. We’ll be out of here before they can ask what happened.”

A delighted voice broke out from the crowd, interrupting their discussion.

“Look!” a mare exclaimed. “It’s Princess Denza!”

Twilight’s head snapped up, and now she willingly grabbed onto Rarity. There, high above the castle’s gates in the distance, she saw a lone alicorn standing behind one of the castle’s larger windows, a guard standing at either side of her.

Cadance.

She was watching now.

Waiting, and it wouldn’t be right for Twilight to run away now, even if she wanted to. So she steeled herself, reigned in her anxieties, and stood as tall and strong as a Princess should.

“Twilight?” Rarity prompted cautiously.

Even if her every instinct rushed with fear, Twilight held strong. “Please,” she said in a trembling voice, not daring to look at Rarity for fear she might cave. She swallowed hard and steadied her voice as best she could. “I need to do it. For me.”

And she kept walking, the tension in her body ebbing when Rarity silently joined her—no more protests, no more questions asked, just a soft tendril of her magic wrapped around Twilight’s hoof. A gentle show of support.

They walked and walked, and she kept her eyes on the road, too afraid to look up and see if Cadance was still watching. What would she say? What could she even say? The words ‘I’m sorry’ felt hollow and small compared to all that had transpired, to all they encompassed.

But she did, eventually, reach the silver gates of Canterlot Castle, because as she’d been taught over and over again, time did not care for the fears of a regretful princess, and it did not delay atonement when it was long overdue.

The gates swung open, their creaking sending shivers down the alicorn’s back, and one by one, everypony crossed the threshold separating Equestria from a thousand-year-old deception. Rift and the guards went through, then Spike and Rainbow, followed finally by Applejack and Fluttershy.

But Twilight...

She stared at the mark on the floor, the worn-down groove on cement marking the gates’ path, and it reminded her of the barrier from her own library. The very same library she’d neglected to visit again for fear of…

A soft nuzzle distracted her, a gentle wordless push, and she stepped forward, over the line that bordered her past and her present. There was no turning back, she knew. No succumbing to demons for fear of dealing with them. No more running away, literally and metaphorically: the castle gate shut behind her as soon as she and Rarity were inside.

It was a stark contrast. The streets had been full of chatter and chaos, but the castle? The castle and its ground were empty and silent. No ponies walking in and out the castle, no merchants trying to sell their wares, nothing. Just two guards posted at every locked gate.

She wasn’t a prisoner, but she felt like one, like she were back in her library, and it made sense.

Canterlot Castle was indeed a prison, just not for her.

She finally looked up, towards the window, and found that Cadance was gone. She was gone, and as Twilight allowed her gaze to lower, a pained nostalgia soaked her gaze. The tower where she’d once lived, the windows she would look out from, even the cracked wall never repaired of the magic blast gone wrong.

Her eyes then found the armory’s tower, where the Captain of the Guard would spend most of his days. She remembered her brother. She remembered him, even as she’d tried for so long to forget him. She remembered his constant talk of a desire for a family.

She looked away, tears shrouding her eyes until again a soft nuzzle interrupted.

“Twilight…”

Twilight finally looked up, realizing all had quietly stopped to wait for her. Their eyes windowed different emotions, from compassion to support to everything in between. And yet, it was only Spike’s eyes that she sought out, for only he understood.

Only he empathized, rather than sympathized.

He shook his head, nudging Rainbow off it, and when she obeyed and flew down to the ground, he turned to Twilight and offered her a seat.

“Your throne awaits, Princess.”

She hesitated, but once again, Rarity nuzzled her.

“Come now,” she said, and with a gentle tug, Twilight’s cloak came undone and levitated away. No more need to hide. “He needs you.”

Her wings spread out, impressing the guards nearby. If they hadn’t thought she was real, they certainly did now, and even more so when she flew into the air and landed atop Spike’s head—the only throne she’d ever accept.

She sat down and lifted her hoof, firmly resting it on the spine on his head—not really out of need for support, but to show support. They continued their journey, all the way up to the immense castle doors, and a genuine smile bloomed on her lips at the sight of a small black owl perched on the sill of one of the lower windows. The rest of his family, she assumed, was nestled away somewhere close, waiting for night to arrive.

Themis took off into the air, landing on Twilight’s head and practically mimicking his master by holding onto her horn with a wing.

“Here we are,” she said, low enough that only Spike could hear.

“Twilight,” Spike said, his voice grave, “Would you mind if it’s just us?”

Twilight blinked. “Just us? What do you mean?”

“He means he would like for you and him to meet Princess Cadance alone,” Fluttershy said, having flown up to meet Twilight's gaze.

“But—But why?” Twilight asked. This had not been in the plan at all, and she didn’t think it very intelligent of them to change it at the last minute. Her gaze switched between Rarity and Fluttershy nearly as quickly as her heart was beating. Fluttershy smiled, and it was the kind of smile she’d given back at Granite’s Rest. The smile that tried to ease Twilight out of her own mind.

“Princess Cadance asked for it. She wants to meet you alone,” she said delicately, and then quickly added, “not because she’s upset.”

The panic tripled, darting across her body. Upset? Why would Cadance be upset? Is she upset?

“Lieutenant!”

A guard trotted towards them, his eyes lingering on Twilight for a moment before he saluted the changeling.

“Her Highness is ready, sir,” he announced, eyes again darting towards Twilight. “I suggest we proceed. Lady Rarity and the others are being insistently requested by the staff.”

Wait, Twilight wanted to say. Wait, no, I’m not ready, wait.

“Very well. Tell Captain Breeze that the changeling guards are all in position.” Finally, he turned to the door and knocked three times. “Open the doors!”

An unlocking sound emerged from beyond the doors, and Spike stepped back as the two large doors slowly opened outwards. Twilight backed up on Spike’s head, suddenly and viciously aware of what exactly was about to happen.

And, on second thought, she didn’t really have to see Cadance now, did she?

No, she didn’t! She could see Luna first. Or go to Ponyville, and then see Princess Luna. In fact, she needed to go back to the library! She hadn’t gone back yet, and there were probably books she needed to read, and maybe clean the entire place up, and then maybe she could meet with Cadance because right now…

She was not ready.

And yet Themis flew off and Spike moved forward, taking the choice away from her.

“Twilight!”

Twilight looked back, her desperate eyes fixing on Rarity, hoping beyond hope she would once again offer Twilight the option to teleport away, but she didn’t. She didn’t, and instead, her horn illuminated and her saddlebags appeared next to Twilight. Twilight shot her a pleading look, but yet Rarity said nothing., She simply lifted her hoof, pressing it against the glowing crystal hanging from her neck.

And Twilight could do nothing but reciprocate the gesture, her own hoof clutching her necklace even as Spike continued to advance and the doors closed behind them.

She stared at the main doors. She analyzed them, examined their designs, thinking to herself they had been changed in the thousand years she’d been gone. They had changed, and she was afraid to look back and see what else had changed.

“The Princess will be down shortly.”

Rift’s voice echoed throughout the hall, the only statement he could have said that willed Twilight into turning around. It was just as he’d affirmed, and she saw Cadance was nowhere to be seen. In fact, there was nopony to be seen. The immense entrance hall was devoid of anything and anypony save for the three of them.

But she didn’t care.

She was too busy fighting the pressure in her chest as her eyes roamed her old home. The grand staircases leading towards the upper levels, the ones she’d gone up and down countless times; the side doors leading to the kitchens, to the dining rooms, to the libraries, to…

Everything was the same.

And yet, if she went to the observatory, Princess Luna would not be there, arranging the stars or sleeping the day away.

If she went to the throne room, Princess Celestia would not be there to hold court or discuss policies and treaties.

If she went to the armory, Shining Armor would not be there, polishing his shield or devising new military tactics.

Her parents would not be in their house. Feather Scroll would not be dusting off books in the library. Bristle Loaf would not be in the kitchens, ready to scold her for sneaking pastries into her room. Spotless Heart would not be there in the mornings, knocking on her door to wake her up. Iron Cobbler would not be there, ready to follow her at a moment’s notice.

Everypony she loved was gone.

Name after name shot into her head, from cooks to maids, from librarians to scholars, even the nobles she’d debated with—they were all gone.

They were dead.

Dead, and the only one left alive in the castle had seen them all go.

The only one left alive, and Twilight didn’t know if Cadance would forgive her or not.

Forgive her for her role in a future that had been taken away from her and them and…

Tears bordered her eyes, trickling down her cheeks and onto the hoof pressed against her mouth. She missed home. She missed home, and even if everything around her was familiar, home was gone.

“Twilight?”

Spike’s voice, gentle and caring, the only home she still knew she had left, beckoned her, and she found she could not clearly speak.

“Sp-Spike…” Her words came out in a ragged breath, distorted and damaged, cracked to the point she wasn’t sure it was her own voice. “They’re gone.”

“I know,” he said.

“They’re gone,” she repeated, as it might change the fact, because she wanted it to be changed, she wanted it to be different, she didn’t want this pain, she wanted solace.

Her breath caught in her throat when a familiar blue magic enveloped the doorknobs of the doors above the staircase. It lingered there, the door fixed in place, and Twilight wondered if she was afraid, too.

Willing herself forward, she flew down and landed in front of Spike, turning her head to catch his eyes sparkling with tears. He looked at her, silently, the dragon who’d waited a thousand years to find her and bring her back.

The doors opened.

She turned around, watching as they moved and the Princess of Canterlot stepped inside, nothing and no one besides her save for what seemed to be an object floating behind her. There she stood, the Princess of Canterlot, her true name lost amidst the centuries, from Princess Rhythm, to Princess Melody, to more and more until Princess Denza took the mantle.

Both Princesses stared at each other across the harrowing gap of a thousand years, their emotions as veiled as the reality hidden from Equestria.

Twilight didn’t know what to say.

She didn’t know what to say even as the Princess moved forward, even as she walked down the steps, even as she reached the final one and took her place across the room.

It was her. It was her, from the cerise of her coat, to her mane in shades of purple and gold, to her crown, to her eyes. It was her, and yet it wasn’t, for in her eyes Twilight couldn’t see Cadance. She couldn’t see warmth, she couldn’t see a smile on her lips, she couldn’t see the love Cadance was known for.

The Princess looked down, the object behind her floating to the forefront and revealing itself to be a shield. A shield that, upon levitating towards Twilight, revealed a familiar, faded cutie mark that caused her hind legs to give way.

Finally, the Princess spoke.

“He would have wanted you to have it,” she said quietly.

Twilight took the shield in her trembling hooves, her tears dripping down her cheeks and onto her brother’s shield. She remembered her brother spending hours and hours polishing it, she remembered seeing him spar and defend himself with it, seeing it take beating after beating, the shield she thought was as invincible and immortal as Shining Armor himself.

And there it was, a ghost of its former self without its master to use it.

I will find you again, in this life or the next.

She was never going to see Shining Armor again.

When she could bear to look at it no longer, she directed her grieving gaze towards the Princess herself, she who had also lost what was precious to them both. And the Princess continued to watch, and the more she watched, the more Twilight hurt because she missed Cadance, she missed her Cadance, she missed her family, and to lose Shining Armor was devastating but to lose them both...

To know that Cadance might have faded away as the cutie mark on the shield had.

“Ca-Cadance?” she called in tears, much like she did once upon a time when a little filly sought the comfort of her governess.

The Princess said nothing at first.

Nothing until she tilted her head, her eyes sparkling with tears and her lips graced with a warm smile as she began to softly sing.

“Sunshine, sunshine...”

A lullaby, a greeting, a comfort Twilight had long ago lost and could now barely continue.

“L-Ladybugs awake,” she finally whispered, her voice cracking, barely restraining the choked sobs in her soul. “C-Clap your hooves and—” A sob cut her off, and she hid her face against the shield, her brother protecting her one last time from the world that hurt her. “Ca...Cadance… Shining A-Armor… He’s… I’m...”

“Twilight.”

Twilight looked up, eyes blurred by tears, and she saw Cadance kneeling down before her.

“Cadance,” Twilight said in choked sobs, clutching the shield to her chest. It was hard to talk, it was so, so hard. “I… I’m sorry. I’m sorry, please, I’m sorry, p-please forgive me, I—”

She drifted off, because this wasn’t something she could fix.

“Twilight.”

Cadance’s horn glowed and magic brushed Twilight’s cheeks, as warm as the home she’d once had.

“Twilight, there is nothing to forgive.”

And when the shield dropped to the floor, when Twilight reached forwards to hug her, when she went through Cadance, she began to weep. She began to cry, and cry, and cry, for those she’d lost, for those she’d never see again, for her home that was gone. She cried, even as warm blue magic cradled her and told her again and again that there was nothing at all to forgive.

Behind her, a sob alarmed her, and Twilight looked up to see Spike, tears trickling down his cheeks, biting down on his lips much like a baby dragon once used to do when proving to Twilight he was brave.

“Hello, Spike,” Cadance said, her voice as warm as the magic comforting Twilight. “Welcome home. Will you be staying for dinner?”

“Yeah,” he said, voice cracking. “I think I will.”


~ Act I ~ Chapter 5 ~ The Change of Perspective ~

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He hated to see her cry.

He wished Frost Flower were there, for she always knew what to do. He wished she were there all the time.

“Have I told you about Frost Flower?” North asked, poking at the campfire with a stick.

She looked up, eyes sparkling with tears. “Your wife? No, you haven’t.”

“I met her a few days after I’d first left Equestria. We were both going to Lake Iridescence by boat, and she was my cabin mate." He paused, and he ached for his wife. "Never seen a creature like her before! A pony with black and white stripes. I thought she was beautiful. Then she punched me right in the nose for staring too long.”

“She punched you? Dear stars,” she said with a laugh. “Better than a bookcase, at the very least.”

He laughed with gusto. “‘Wajinga! Stupid!’ she said. ‘You must be from Equestria’,” he continued and felt his eyes stain with tears. “I had a black eye for the rest of the trip, but I knew right there that she would be my first adventure.”


In her short time back in Canterlot, Twilight Sparkle knew two great pains.

The first was the pain of the past, of having to come to terms with the death of her family, of the disappearance of a life she once led. The second was a pain that rippled through her body, burned her cheeks, so agonizing it made her wish she was a ghost again. The worst of it was that it had been brought about by a very simple thing.

Stumbling upon her essays from ages past and being horrified to find they were bad.

Cadance had sent Twilight to her chambers to calm down and relax. It was just as she’d remembered it when she saw it through Rarity’s eyes during the mental connection. And yet, as much as she wanted to relax and gather her thoughts, there she sat on the bed with scrolls in her hooves, unable to tear her eyes away from these… these… attempts at writing.

It was horrific, embarrassing, and even lethal to realize all her mistakes! Prepositions were not words to end sentences with! Comparisons were as bad as cliches, which, incidentally, had to be avoided like the equine plague. She had been incredibly vague, instead of attempting to be more or less specific, too.

And!

And to make things worse, her assertions… Ugh! One should never generalize!

With a groan, she pushed the scroll away and looked at anything but her desk. Thank goodness she was never able to finish that shameful excuse for a dissertation on Magic Thermodynamics. Once she was able to stand reading it again, she’d redline it, do a major rewrite, have Rarity edit it, and then she could publish it.

Her eyes roamed the room, analyzing the papers stuck to the walls—diagrams of the Elements of Harmony, back when she mistakenly believed they were aligned with the Princesses strengths. Just like with the essay, only in retrospect did she see and understand the mistakes she should have foreseen.

If only she could go back in time and prevent her younger—and shockingly less eloquent—self from making so many bad choices.

She looked away from the posters and back to the essay.

But, if I go back and change the past, how will I meet Rarity? she thought, her tail thwapping against the floor. Unless I take her back to the past with me? Hm.

Three knocks at the door interrupted her machinations on how to convince Rarity to go back with her in time, and with the perking up of her ears, she turned towards the door.

“P-Princess Twilight?” an unfamiliar mare’s voice called from behind the oak doors. “Are you there?”

“Y-Yes?” she called out in reply, hastily rolling and hiding the scroll away lest anypony came in asking to read it.

“Princess, Queen Cada—”

Hyacinth!” a second feminine voice snapped.

“Aster, it’s fine,” a third male voice replied, which Twilight vaguely recognized.

Twilight’s brow crinkled. Queen Cadance?

“Princess Twilight,” the first voice called, louder and drowning out the discussion of the other two, “Princess Cadance requests your presence at the gardens, Yo-Your Highness!”

“Um, coming!” she replied, trotting towards the door and opening it to find three armed guards: a white pegasus who squeaked and quickly saluted her; a brown earth pony who saluted in a much more dignified manner; and, finally, Rift Shield himself, who grinned widely at Twilight.

“Princess Twilight! ” he said, bowing his head. He gestured to the guards. “I’d like you to meet Hyacinth and Aster.” A bright grin decorated his face, and Twilight felt some amount of relief at seeing it. She did know of the changeling’s feelings for Rarity, and she was glad it didn’t seem to be a concern. “Did you sleep well?”

“Er, yes,” Twilight replied, trying to keep her eyes on Rift but involuntarily shifting them towards the pegasus doing a disastrous job at not trembling like a leaf. “Is everything all right?” she asked her.

“Of course Princess Twilight!” The mare—Hyacinth—immediately jumped to salute her again. “It is an honor to serve you and the Equestrian royal family, as it has been for our village for generations since the founding of Heart’s Haven, and hope that you will please let us continue for generations more, please,” she said in a rush, and only after Twilight blinked at her did she clear her throat and smile nervously. “Yo-Your Highness.”

Aster rubbed a weary hoof against her forehead. “Oh, for the love of the Princess.”

Twilight was concerned, to say the least. “Why wouldn’t I…?” she asked Hyacinth, and the guard somehow seemed to shrink in size—which, considering she was all but indicating her true species, might have been a shrinking on the more literal side.

“I… Well, I…”

Rift cleared his throat, and the two guards resumed stoic positions.

“Princess Twilight, why don’t we discuss this later?” he suggested, subtly inviting Twilight to step outside. “I have strict orders from Princess Cadance and Rarity and a very excited Pinkie Pie to get you down there immediately.”

Rarity and Cadance she’d seen already, but Pinkie was the sole pony who’d yet to make an appearance since Ponyville.

Curious.

She closed the door behind her and followed Rift into the hallway, Hyacinth and Aster following behind, the former looking visibly relieved. Twilight had many questions, starting from why was Hyacinth afraid of her.

“You two are changelings, aren’t you?” she asked, receiving in reply two vastly different reactions. A single calm nod from Aster, and Hyacinth nodding so effusively, Twilight was reasonably convinced the changeling would give herself a headache if she didn’t tear her neck off first.

“Aster and Hyacinth are two of fifteen changeling guards living in the castle, Princess,” Rift explained, opening the hall door and allowing Twilight passage.

“Do… Do the rest of the pony guards know?” she asked.

“No,” Rift replied, now leading Twilight down the once familiar hallway. Ornate frames hung on the walls, paintings she recognized from her foalhood. “Only Captain Silent Breeze.”

“Is that why you’re in disguise as ponies?”

Rift shook his head. “No, we—”

A flash of light and Twilight blinked at the newly transformed Hyacinth, her pony disguise shed in favor of her natural insect-like demeanor as she bowed her body repeatedly, eyes slammed shut.

“Pl-Please forgive us, Your Highness!” she blurted out, and Aster slapped a hoof against her forehead in reply.

Forgive you?” Twilight asked, completely lost at what they’d even done, and yet somehow succeeding in agitating the changeling further.

“You won’t forgive us?!” Hyacinth exclaimed, tears welling in her eyes as she stepped back, staring beseechingly at Rift Shield. “B-But we—!”

“Aster.” Rift’s voice cut through Hyacinth’s stammering, his tone commanding yet not harsh. When Aster saluted, he smiled at Twilight. “Princess, Aster will escort you the rest of the way to the gardens.” Ignored the pained whimper from Hyacinth, he turned to the other guard. “Aster, tell Princess Cadance…” he drifted off, but Aster nodded regardless.

“Yes, Lieutenant!” she exclaimed. “Princess, please follow me!”

Twilight did not budge, distressed at the other’s distress. “But…”

“Princess, don’t worry,” Rift reassured, a grin again decorating his face as he stood next to the forlorn Hyacinth. “We’ll both be down soon.”

Though unconvinced, Twilight didn’t argue further, turning around and following Aster down the castle’s halls. It was an awkward and silent walk. The guard marched in clockwork rhythm while the princess debated the pros and cons of asking what had all of that been about.

I’ll ask Rarity, she thought finally, trying not to focus too much on it.

Instead, she shifted her attention to the changeling and bombarded her with questions, including but not limited to: when were the new portraits painted? Who was the artist? They were going to turn right at the next corner and then left, weren’t they? Had Aster noticed Twilight remembered the path to an almost eighty-seven percent accuracy so far? How long had Aster been working in the castle? Three years? How often was the turnaround for changelings? How old was Aster? Was that an impolite question? It probably was, but how old was she, anyway? Should Twilight add a thousand years to her current age? Technically speaking, her body didn’t actually age since it was time-displaced, but should she?

“I-I don’t know, Your Highness,” Aster helplessly replied, unable to keep up with Twilight’s racing mind and mouth. She opened the doors leading into the castle’s foyer and her expression somehow turned more distressed than when being questioned by Twilight.

Twilight followed her gaze, and she too was overcome with confusion at the beautifully disconcerting sight of two Raritys animatedly conversing by the castle’s front door, several saddlebags beside them. Twilight blinked, for a fraction of a second wondering if perhaps she’d somehow fallen asleep and was actually dreaming.

Or, so she wondered until the voice of the guard next to her reminded Twilight of the only possible way this could be happening.

“Er.” Aster cleared her throat. “Let me escort you to the gardens, Your Highne—Yo-Your Highness! Come back, please!”

Aster’s desperate plea went unanswered by the alicorn, who was far more interested in talking with duplicates of her marefriend, whom she dubbed Rarity-X and Rarity-Y to avoid any bias.

She carefully trotted towards them, noticing that both of them wore identical broken necklaces, making it harder to distinguish who was the genuine article—if one of them actually was the genuine article.

This would be a fun experiment.

“Oh, come now, darling, you must admit it’s a very interesting proposition!” Rarity-X said with a captivating smile. “We would have twice as many clients! It will be our most avant-garde idea yet!”

Rarity-Y raised her eyebrow. “Darling, you keep using that expression, but I’m not certain it means what you seem to think it means.”

Rarity-X rolled her eyes. “Hardy har har. Did you even see my designs? We’re so ahead of our time, we might as well have a time machine!” she insisted. “Trust me, darling.”

“Oh, I agree entirely,” Rarity-Y said, smirking. “A time machine to take the designs straight back to the Stone Age, you mean?”

Rarity-X scoffed. “Well, then! Everything I’ve done for you, darling, and this is the thanks I receive?! Unbeliev—”

“Rarity?”

The fact that they were both surprised to see her made it difficult to determine who was the real one.

“Well, well, well,” Rarity-Y purred, tilting her head and smiling. “If it isn’t Princess Twilight Sparkle herself, come to grace us mortals with her beauty.”

Twilight giggled, having found her marefriend. That was fast.

“Incantation!” Rarity-X gasped, stamping her hoof on the ground. “Will you stop flirting with my marefriend?! This is entirely inappropriate! You’ve just met her, for goodness’ sake! Honestly, darling, you know how important this was to me.”

Rarity-Y’s eyes widened. “Wha—? Me?!”

Twilight’s giggling stopped. Wait.

“Twilight,” Rarity-X said, turning to Twilight with a pained expression. “Darling, this funny little mare is Incantation, the assistant Pinkie and I hired back at our shop in Hollow Shades. She is a changeling, as I’m sure you’ve already ascertained.”

Twilight smiled insolently. “I think I have, yes.”

Rarity-Y blinked, her expression going from annoyance to curiosity. “Oh? I’m the changeling? I see. Well then, I shall find comfort in the fact that I have extraordinary taste in my choice of disguise.” She glanced at Twilight and winked. “Don’t you agree, sweetheart? Two of me? Doesn’t that rather sound like a wonderful dream?”

“Rarity!” Twilight gasped, cheeks flushed.

“Why, darling!” Rarity-X said, licking her lips and staring Twilight down. “I’d say it’s quite rude to reveal somepony’s nighttime imaginings like that, but I’m must admit I’m flattered by the idea.”

“I do not dream about that!” Twilight protested, which wasn’t untrue, mostly because she hadn’t even thought of it before, but now she had and— “I barely even sleep! And I couldn’t sleep for most of the time I’ve known you!”

Rarity-Y fluttered her eyelashes. “It’s hard to sleep when the thought of me keeps you awake, isn’t it?”

“Okay, okay!” Twilight pleaded, deciding on ending this spectacle before it got worse. She pointed to Rarity-X. “You’re the changeling!” And she then pointed to Rarity-Y. “And you’re Rarity!”

Rarity, previously identified as Rarity-Y, laughed victoriously, flipping her mane and shooting the other one a smug grin. “Well, well, well! And you insisted she wouldn’t recognize me! I don’t want to say “I told you so”, but I shall do it regardless! I told you so.”

Incantation, previously identified as Rarity-X, let out a resigned sigh. “Aw... I thought I was doing really well, though,” she said in a voice that was not at all like Rarity’s.

“It was a valiant effort, Ink,” Rarity said, offering Twilight the very odd sight of Rarity patting her doppelganger’s cheeks. “But one can’t hope to ever truly imitate perfection.”

“Pfffft, sure, Boss,” said Incantation, grinning at Rarity before turning to Twilight with an expectant stare. “So! What was it? What gave me away?”

“You said ‘darling’ six times,” Twilight replied.

Rarity blinked. “She did?”

Twilight nodded.

“She used the term of endearment ‘darling’ six times in about two minutes of conversation, which conflicts with your usual diction and habit to call others dearest, sweetheart, and their names alongside ‘darling’,” Twilight elaborated, and so did Incantation’s cheeks taint pink. “Not only that, but she marked her real self as your hired aid. In your earlier conversation, she was trying to sell you on a design idea, which is something an employee would do to an employer, not the other way around.”

Ink stared with owlish eyes. “She’s good, huh?”

“Yes, she is,” Rarity replied with pride, lifting her hoof and brushing back Twilight’s bangs. “And she is also late to our get-together. Be a darling, and go tell the others please, won’t you, Ink?”

Incantation nodded, shifting back into her natural form right in front of Twilight’s very eyes. A cheery changeling grinned back at her, her carapace tinted purple. A large blue bandana was tied around her neck, the initials LD elegantly embroidered on it in a recurring pattern.

“It was nice finally meeting you, Princess Twilight,” Ink said, lifting her forehoof and shaking Twilight’s. “I’d say I’m excited to get to know you, but I’m pretty sure I learned everything about you that one night the Boss had too much to drink.”

INCANTATION!”

Incantation burst out into a fit of giggles, grabbing her bags and rushing off. “See you later!”

“I’m firing you tomorrow!” Rarity thundered, her cheeks still burning brightly.

“You always say that!”

“I mean it this time!”

Once she was gone, Rarity rolled her eyes and turned to Twilight, whose raised eyebrow seemed to only fluster the unicorn more.

“Don’t you dare ask,” she warned, mellowing out at Twilight’s amused smile. “Well, that could have gone in worse ways, I suppose.” Her eyes grew tender. “How are you feeling?”

“What do you mean?”

Rarity’s brow furrowed. “Your meeting with Cadance…?” She seemed to be nervous about bringing it up, licking her lips as if choosing her words carefully. “She and Spike told me a bit about it, but…”

For a moment, Twilight’s heart shrank, and she could feel tears on the edge of spilling out. Is that how it was going to be from now? A single thought would bring back the pain?

“I’m fine,” she said, really wanting to avoid the topic, but at Rarity’s knowing stare, she amended her statement. “I’ll be fine. I think. I don’t know. I don’t want to think about it right now. I’m just glad it’s over.”

Rarity played with her necklace. “I… Are you sure?” She looked down, apologetic. “I… I’m sorry I wasn’t there for you. I thought you needed time alone with them, but—”

“I did,” Twilight cut-off, wanting to prevent any more worrying on Rarity’s part if she was able to. She then leaned in to nuzzle her. “But…”

“...But?”

Despite the pain, Twilight held her ground.

“Can you come with me when I…” She swallowed and took a breath. “Can you come with me when I visit them tomorrow?”

Rarity blinked. “Visit them…? Them where..” The meaning caught up with her and her expression fell. “Oh… Darling, I would be honored.” She lifted her hoof and pressed it against Twilight’s necklace, putting on a smile. “Let’s hope they approve of me, hm?”

Twilight couldn’t help but smile, leaning in slightly. “I don’t know,” she said. “Shining Armor is… Shining Armor is very protective.”

Rarity leaned in closer. “Oooooh? Well, Cadance has approved of me already, so I’m sure he does as w—”

“Come on, you guys!”

Twilight turned around to see Pinkie’s head peeking out from the hallway, waving what looked like an old rag.

“Everypony’s waiting for the party to start!”


The entire castle, as Twilight would later find out, had been closed not because she was coming—well, technically, it was because she was coming—but more so that somepony very important could attend.

“Pinkie, is the blindfold truly necessary?” Rarity’s voice came from somewhere around the left, her forehoof pressed on Twilight’s back as the alicorn cautiously moved further into…wherever she was going? The Gardens?

“Rarity,” Pinkie’s grave voice came from somewhere around the right. “Did you just ask if the blindfold was necessary?”

“I was simply making sure!”

“Geeeeeeeez, Rares. I can’t believe you asked that.”

“No kidding, boss.”

“Oh, for goodness’ sake! You know what? I’m never asking a question again!”

“Are we there yet?” Twilight asked, finding the darkness wasn’t all that inviting. Paving stones had disappeared under her hooves, replaced with what she hoped was grass. It felt like it, at least, but it was still such a foreign sensation.

“Come on, let her look already!” an altogether new voice piped up, and Twilight’s trepidation was replaced with relief at the sound of Spike’s voice.

Despite Pinkie’s ardent protests, Twilight finally took her blindfold off, and a great smile spread across her lips at the sight before her. A wide array of tables had been set out in the castle garden, each hosting dozens of different kinds of extraordinarily-smelling delicacies.

Following that, she saw a whole cast of characters already enjoying the festivity: Fluttershy stood by the banquet, helplessly trying to stop three little owlets from pecking away at the food while Applejack helped their poor exhausted owl-parents stay awake in broad daylight; Rainbow flew towards Spike, scolding him for having devoured half of the gem hoard set out on a table for him; Rift Shield barked orders at guards, who saluted and marched into the castle; Pinkie and Incantation straightened out the banner that had been set out, “WELCOME HOME, TWILIGHT AND SPIKE” written on it in uneven pink letters; and, finally, Rarity…

Rarity stood next to Twilight, as she always had, yet her eyes twinkling with tears.

Twilight nuzzled her slightly, a quick verification that all was well. “Rarity? Is everything all right?”

“O-Oh, yes, of course,” she said quickly, rubbing her tears away with a hoof. “I’m simply, you know, overwhelmed by how delicious the food smells.”

“Riiiight,” Twilight said, returning Rarity’s grin before stepping toward the food which, to be fair, did smell like nothing she’d whiffed in over a thousand years.

Before she could even properly appreciate what there was, Pinkie Pie jumped up from behind the table.

“Hi, Princess Twilight! Ready to eat?!”

Twilight nodded eagerly.

“Weeeeeeeell!” Pinkie rubbed her hooves together. “Let me tell you what we got!” She pointed to the furthest left side of the table, where all kinds of pastries were littered. “On that side, we have vanilla, lavender, and raspberry cupcakes; there’s also almond-chocolate cake, and—”

“Pinkie, should you really start with the desserts?” Rarity interrupted, and when the pink mare did nothing but stare at her, she coughed and stepped back. “What was I thinking.”

Pinkie turned back to Twilight, as though she’d never been interrupted.

“And triple-milk vanilla cake, and apple pie, and fruits soaked with honey and frosting, and the Super-Ultra-Pinkie-Stomach-Flipping-Surprise, aaaaaaand!” She turned to the right side of the table, where Twilight could see vegetables cooked in all sort of different ways. “And that’s the no-fun side.”

Thankfully, the decision of what to eat first wouldn’t be hard considering Twilight’s stomach was whining for a taste of everything.

“Twilight,” Rarity warned. “Do I need to remind you the stomachache you had a few days ago?”

Twilight licked her lips. “I’ll be fine Rarity,” she said, taking in her magic a french fry that dripped with butter. “I’ll be fine.”

An alarmingly short time and overgrown belly later, she desperately wished she’d followed Rarity’s warning.

“Don’t say it,” Twilight warned, chin pressed on the table as Rarity sat next to her.

“Can I think it?” Rarity asked.

“No, you can’t think it, either.”

Rarity sighed. “There’s a lesson to be learned here, you know?” she said, watching as Twilight levitated a steaming plate of apple pie right in front of her nose. “Clearly, you haven’t learned it.”

“Seconds, Princess?” Applejack asked with a grin, putting a second plate of pie down on the table.

“I think you mean sevenths,” Rarity noted.

“Technically, it would be my twelfth plate,” Twilight corrected, her stomach growling both in gluttony and horror at the deliciously-smelling pies.

Rarity opened her mouth to reply, but stopped and stared ahead. When Twilight followed her gaze, she saw three changeling guards standing on the opposite side of the table, their intense stares set directly on her.

Before she could speak, they did.

“Princess Twilight!” they all but yelled in unison, their forehooves flying to their foreheads in salute. “It is an honor to serve you and the Equestrian royal family, as it has been for our village for generations since the founding of Heart’s Haven, and we hope that you will please let us continue for generations more!”

Just like with the earlier changeling, Twilight asked, “Why wouldn’t I?”

The three guards froze in place, but more than stumped by the question, they looked at each other nervously and seemed afraid of answering. A dark thought crossed Twilight’s mind. What had the changelings been told about her that would make them be so afraid of her?

And again, like it did and would no doubt always do, the three haunting words returned.

It’s my fault.

Yet, as soon as they came, these nightmares as Rarity called them, so did Rarity’s voice soothe them away.

“Twilight?” she asked, turning to the alicorn with a meaningful gaze. “Didn’t you say you wanted to fetch one of the books from your room?”

The reaction was instantaneous, though it was not Twilight who reacted.

“A book?!” one of the guards blurted out.

“Which one?!” the second asked.

“We can get it for you, Your Highness!”

Rarity continued, narrowing her eyes. “Oh, I don’t remember… You said any book on magic thermodynamics would do, didn’t you?”

Though Twilight didn’t understand what Rarity was trying to achieve, she still tentatively played along with her marefriend’s game. “Yes…?” she said, and no sooner had she finished, the guards rushed off, blurting out promises of returning with the book immediately, at once, in a moment, Your Highness.

“Hoo-wee,” Applejack said, looking towards the distant door they’d disappeared behind. “Rift Shield ain’t a liar.”

Twilight finally sat up, her stomachache replaced with an altogether discomfort in her chest. “What’s wrong with them? Why are they all afraid of me?”

Rarity’s eyes were fixed on her. “There have been others?” she asked, and Twilight noted she hardly looked surprised. It was more as though she were simply confirming an existing suspicion.

“Yes,” she replied. “Earlier with Lieutenant Shield… There was another guard, and she said the same thing they did, and the entire time she kept looking at me like…” She faltered, the words unwilling to come out. “Was it something I did?”

Rarity replied, “Yes and no.”

“Yes and no,” Twilight repeated. “That explains everything.”

Applejack grinned. “You ain’t done nothing bad, Princess. They just reckon’ you’re going to give them a pink slip right out of Equestria.”

The longest silence followed as she regarded Applejack with blinking eyes.

“I don’t understand.”

“I know, but if you think about it a lil’ bit, you’ll see it makes sense for them to be thinkin’ that.”

Again, Twilight stared at her for the longest time.

“You ain’t got no earthly idea what giving somepony the pink slip means, do you?”

“Darling,” Rarity said, “the changelings are under the impression that now that you are free and about, their previously Princess-endorsed protected residence in the land now has an expiration date.”

And now that Twilight understood.

“What? They think I’m going to exile them?! Why would I do that?!” she demanded, finding herself hurt and confused by the mere thought that she would do something of the sort. Now more than ever, it seared her to see that she apparently did go down as an awful pony in certain places.

“It’s rather simple. The fact that you’re here opens up the possibility that Princess Cadance might get back her body’s physicality, so to speak, and if she does, then…” Rarity tilted her head to the side. “There’s no need for changelings to impersonate her, is there?”

Twilight faltered, looking down at her food and pushing the plates away. “I guess…”

“Not hungry anymore, Princess?” Applejack asked, and after Twilight shook her head, so did Applejack scoop up the pies into a single plate and take it away. “I’d been savin’ it for you, but if you ain’t hungry, might as well let Rainbow stuff herself.”

She watched in silence as Applejack trotted off towards Rainbow and Spike, letting out a rather audible sigh before turning back to Rarity and finding the unicorn fixing her an intense stare.

“What?”

“Are you very upset, darling?”

Twilight snorted. “No. I’ve always wanted an entire race to be afraid of me.”

“Twilight, they’re not afraid of you. They…” She gestured with her hoof. “You have to understand them. You’ve been gone for a thousand years, and weren’t the changelings from those days half-responsible for the First Chaos War?”

“Yes, and? That’s even less reason to be afraid of me,” Twilight huffed. “Why do they think I’m going to hold against them something that happened a thousand years ago?”

“I don’t know, Twilight,” Rarity replied, levitating a cup of punch over. “Why do you expect everypony to hold something that happened a thousand years ago against you?”

When Twilight had no answer for that, Rarity simply fluttered her eyelashes and took a sip of her drink.

“Th-That’s different!” Twilight insisted. “I was actually responsible for what I did. They aren’t. They’re not the changelings from a thousand years ago.”

“Twilight, that doesn’t matter. The guilt isn’t… Actually, you know what?” She looked around and stopped at the distant sight of Fluttershy and Spike talking to two Rainbow Dashes. “Incantation!” she called out, and when one of the Rainbows turned to her, she flagged her over. “Incantation, would you come here for a moment?”

Incantation trotted over, her appearance changing from Rainbow Dash to, once again, the spitting image of Rarity herself.

Rarity sighed. “Here we go again.”

“What’choo be needin’ from me, Bossy-O?” she said in a near-perfect imitation of Rarity’s voice, the accent only cracking at Twilight’s badly muffled snort. “I gots everythin’ you be needin’ ‘n more.”

“You’re not even trying,” Rarity said in deadpan.

“What’choo be needin’ from me, Bossy-O Darling?”

“I be needin’ you stop this immediately.”

“Aw.” Ink turned back to her natural form, and finally spoke in her true voice, “What’s up, Boss?”

Satisfied, Rarity finally gestured to Twilight. “Well, Twilight and I were talking about Heart’s Haven and the…” She moved her hoof in a forwards-circle. “...the interesting reactions she’s been receiving from the other changelings in the castle.”

Ink breathed in through her teeth, looking at Twilight for further explanations. “Oooooh. That bad?”

“Somewhat, yes,” Rarity replied. “I’m trying to explain to Twilight that they’re not afraid of her so much as they’re… well, you were all taught about what happened a thousand years ago, weren’t you?”

“About how our ancestors sucked the life out of ponies under the rule of Queen Chrysalis? And then how it allowed Discord to spread his influence through Equestria while ponies tried to figure out who was their friend and who was a life-sucking thief?” Incantation asked, apparently unphased by Twilight’s uncomfortable expression.

Rarity coughed. “Well, darling, I wouldn’t have put it quite that way.”

“Yeeeeeeeeah. I’m pretty sure the only reason we have school back home is so we can learn about what we did in the war in detail.”

“Which is why they’re so deferential and overly-polite towards you, darling. It’s not because they’re sincerely afraid of you, but because they want to make it up to you,” Rarity said to Twilight. She leaned back and took another sip of punch. “This seems to be Discord’s M.O., unfortunately. Guilt that spans generations. It gets tiring after a while”—She lifted Twilight’s chin with a hoof—”as I’m sure you of all ponies know best.”

Twilight giggled. “I think I know it more than I’d like to,” she said, the tension she’d been plagued with finally ebbing away at Rarity’s affection. However, as per the norm, once her mind was clear of fear and doubts, it gave way to her usual state of mind—unrelenting curiosity.

Specifically, regarding changelings and their new society.

“I don’t understand something,” she said, and she now wished she’d thought to bring her notebook. Maybe she could ask the guards whenever they came back with the book? “Why haven’t you integrated into pony society yet? I know you’re afraid of me remembering, but wouldn’t modern ponies have forgotten by now?” She gestured to Rarity. “She had no idea of what changelings were until I told her about them.”

“It’s not that simple, Twilight. You can’t just integrate a species that has been in hiding for a thousand years, though we are trying, at the very least.”

“You are?”

“That’s what I’m here for!” Incantation exclaimed, flashing Twilight a fangy-grin. “Among other stuff, like helping with Princess Luna in Hollow Shades.”

“And teasing me relentlessly?” Rarity added.

“That too, Boss. That too,” she replied innocently.

Rarity harrumphed before moving on with the topic.

“Incantation was hired to be my and Pinkie’s assistant, but more importantly, she’s the very first attempt to see if changelings can indeed live amongst ponies.” She turned to Ink. “Darling, you’ve been living in Hollow Shades for how long now?”

“Five months and seven days!” Incantation exclaimed, standing up a bit straighter. “And I’ve been employee of the month all five months!”

Twilight frowned. “Aren’t you their only employee?”

“Yes,” Ink replied, flashing Twilight another fangy-grin. “I live with Rarity inside Lulu’s Dreamland.”

“And…” Twilight faltered, uncomfortable by the question and its potential answer. If Incantation was living with Rarity, then… “How do you...uh… how do you ‘eat’?” she asked, hoping she wasn’t about to find out Rarity was willingly giving her life...love-force away.

Incantation smacked her lips. “Weeeeeeeeell, I usually visit Princess Cadance whenever I’m hungry.” She frowned, rubbing a hoof against her mouth. “I used to come every...uhm… two weeks? But now I can last waaaaaaay more,” she said, and the innocent smile she’d been showcasing turned into a vulpine smirk. “Especially after that one time I mentioned when the boss got dru—”

“Regardless!” Rarity interrupted loudly, her cheeks tainted pink. “Now you see there is no reason to think that they’re afraid of you.

“I guess...” Twilight murmured.

She fell silent, just in time for her eyes to land on the guard fast approaching them. She prepared herself for another speech on how great she was, and how honored they were, and how he hoped she would let them stay, but was relieved and surprised to see him act differently. Well, a little differently, at least.

“Princess Twilight!” he greeted, saluting her briefly before turning to Rarity. “Lady Rarity, I have an urgent matter to discuss.”

“An urgent matter?” Rarity asked. “What’s wrong?”

“There’s a stallion at the gate calling himself Knowledge Quill, and he’s demanding to be let in,” the guard replied. “He says he knows you.”

Rarity’s eyebrows knitted together. “Knowledge Quill? Who in Eques—” She let out a grand gasp. “OH!” She turned to Incantation with urgency, getting up from her spot. “He’s here!”

Incantation’s lips turned into a wicked smile. “I’ll get the camera,” she said, scurrying off, her excited giggling filling the air.

As she rushed away, the guard turned to Rarity, hesitant. “Er… What are your orders?”

“Bring him in!” Rarity said at once. “But take your time, and—” She moved to the guard, lifting her hoof and pressing it against his lips. “You are not to tell him what’s happening. Not a single word. You will only bring him here, and only when he’s here, you will go and tell Rift that we’re ready. Do you understand?”

The guard nodded, saluting Rarity and Twilight before rushing off.

Twilight, on her side, didn’t quite know what to do or how to interpret the events. “Who’s here?” she asked and felt the urge to step back when Rarity turned to her and regarded her with a smile almost as wicked as Incantation’s.

“Princess Twilight Sparkle,” Rarity purred, moving in closer, lifting her hoof and placing it on Twilight’s chest. “Can you feel that?”

Twilight’s eyes shifted to the sides. “Feel what?” she asked, wondering if she really wanted to know.

“The winds of satisfaction,” Rarity whispered, inches away from Twilight’s lips, before almost violently turning around and allowing her shrill voice to pierce the air. “Pinkie Pie!”

From across the party, Pinkie stopped her conversation with Fluttershy and Applejack and excitedly waved at the unicorn. “Rarity!”

“Pinkie, he’s here!”

Pinkie processed it for one, two, three seconds before letting out a yell somehow even more shrill than Rarity’s. ”He’s here?!” She turned to the others. “Everypony stay still! Except for me! I’ll get the camera!”

“Rarity,” Twilight prompted, putting her hoof on the unicorn. “Rarity, what’s going on? Who’s he—” Her question was cut short when Rarity turned to her, an intensity in her stare the likes of which she’d almost never seen before.

“Twilight, stand up,” Rarity said, and then pointed to the next table. “Sit there!” she said, and when a very perplexed Twilight obliged, she furrowed her brow and pointed to another spot. “No, there. No, no, there. No, not that either, there! There, perfect.”

Twilight decided not to mention she was sitting in the exact same spot where she’d started. Instead, she watched as Rarity lit up her horn and quickly moved the welcome signs out of sight.

Rainbow Dash flew over next, sitting next to Twilight. “What?” she asked when Rarity gave her a pointed stare.

“Darling! What are you doing?! Go back to your place!”

“What?! And miss this?! No way,” she said, waving Rarity off.

“Miss what?” Twilight asked, desperate at this point. “Will somepony tell me what’s going on?!”

“Rainbow Dash,” Rarity continued, totally ignoring her marefriend and stamping her hoof against the ground “I’ve waited nearly three years for this! You will not ta—”

Her statement was cut short when Incantation and Pinkie rushed into the gardens.

“He’s coming!” Ink called. “He’s like right here!”

“Quickly!” Rarity yelled back to everypony as she herself sat on the opposite side of the table, brushing back her mane as Pinkie quickly sat beside her. “Everypony act natural!” She then finally turned to Twilight and pointed a hoof at her. “You! Don’t move!”

Twilight, obviously, paid little mind to her marefriend’s request and instead directed her gaze towards the grand doors, wanting to find out just who this stallion was that had the entire party in a frenzy. Incantation was at a ready with the camera, and even if they were at a distance, Spike, Fluttershy and Applejack were all watching with interest. She waited, and waited, and soon enough two guards stepped out and then moved to the side, revealing a very irritated-looking unicorn stallion.

Who seemed...somehow...vaguely...familiar?

Twilight furrowed her brow, watching as he stepped into the garden. Where have I…

“Professor Meanie-Pants!” Pinkie called, waving so effusively with her hoof, Twilight was worried her foreleg might come off. “Over here! Over here!”

Twilight’s hazy recollections began to fill with details. She had seen him, she realized with surprise, as he stomped his way over to Rarity and Pinkie Pie. She’d seen him once through Rarity’s mind, when they were linked together!

As he approached, the Professor paid no heed to Twilight or Rainbow Dash, his sights set entirely on the two smiling mares.

“Well, well, look what the guards have brought us,” Rarity said with a radiant smile. “If it isn’t Professor Brazened Awe!” She giggled and tilted her head. “Or, shall I say, Professor Knowledge Quill? I’m delighted to see you using your true name again, darling.”

He was not amused. “I’m sure you are.”

“I’m terribly glad you’ve joined us, Awe, even though I find myself confused by your irritation!” Rarity exclaimed, blinking innocently. “But before you explain, would you like a drink? Pinkie’s made some rather interesting fruit punch with just the right amount of vodka, and I do think it will help you, shall we say, mellow out a bit.”

The Professor’s eyes widened. “A… A drink?! Are you—?! I’ve been worried sick! Princess Luna has been worried sick, and you’re sitting here offering me a drink?! Is this a joke to you?!” he demanded with a tone Twilight didn’t appreciate much. “It’s been over a week and the first I hear from you is a letter saying nothing else but ‘be a dear and come to the castle’?! Really?!

“Well, I say!” Rarity exclaimed, a hoof on her chest. “Are we supposed to tell you every single minute detail of our lives now? Shall I send you a letter every single time I do something?” She turned to Pinkie. “Darling, can you believe this?”

Pinkie shook her head. “No, Rarity!” She turned to Incantation, who was busy figuring out the camera. “Inky! Can you believe this?!”

Incantation looked up. “Huh?” She caught on and turned to the Professor, shaking her head with exaggerated disapproval. “What they said.”

“Rainbow,” Twilight whispered. “I don’t understand what’s going on.”

“Shhhh, keep watchin’,” Rainbow whispered back excitedly, gesturing in a shushing motion.

“I’m the one who can’t believe this!” Professor Awe shot back, indignant. “Are you somehow forgetting the state you two left in or that Princess Twilight summoned you?! I daresay I hope you did, because the idea that you remember and yet weren’t considerate enough to write me back immediately leaves me very unsettled!”

To this, Rarity sobered up. “You’re right, Awe,” she said, “and I apologize. It’s been… It’s been quite a week for me, as I’m sure you can imagine considering what…” She turned away and sighed in a comically disheartened way, completely missing Twilight’s raised eyebrow. “Considering what’s happened with Twilight and all…”

At that, the stallion’s anger evaporated. “Ah… I see,” he said, tone softening. “That’s… unfortunate.”

Rarity turned back to him with a gentle smile. “Now, now, it’s perfectly all right. You’ve arrived just in time! Twilight here was just telling us all about the wonders of being free, weren’t you, my darling?” she asked with a perfect smile.

No sooner had she done so, the Professor set eyes on Twilight, and his mouth fell wide open. Stammered, incomplete sentences came out of his mouth, intermingling with the sound of Pinkie snatching the camera from Incantation and taking a string of photos.

Seconds later, however, Rarity let out a ridiculously loud gasp.

“Oh, my dearest sweetest stars! I completely forgot to introduce you two!” She giggled, trotting towards Twilight. “Honestly, how silly of me! Where would my head be if it weren't affixed to my neck, I ask you.”

“Rarity, what are you doing?” Twilight whispered urgently when Rarity reached her.

Satisfaction, my love, sa-tis-fac-tion,” Rarity whispered before speaking up. “Twilight, darling, dearest, love of my desolate life!” She turned to the Professor and fluttered her eyelashes. “This fine stallion you see here is Professor Brazened Awe! And, Awe, darling, this—” She turned back to Twilight. “This beautiful creature is Princess Twilight Sparkle who, as you can see, is quite real and very much not dead.” She leaned forwards to kiss Twilight briefly on the nose before turning back to him, practically purring as she asked, “Well? Anything to say, Professor? Or are you too much in awe?

The Professor cleared his throat. “Well then.”

Having had enough of… whatever it was that Rarity was even trying to do, Twilight cleared her throat and nodded at the stallion, trying her best to remember what she could of him. “It’s nice to meet you, Professor,” she said, taking initiative. “Rarity told me about you.”

The Professor smiled thinly. “Did she, Princess?”

“Yes,” Twilight replied. “I was interested in discussing something she told me. You’re the stallion who thought Princess Luna and Celestia and myself had been assassinated by Cadance, right?”

There was a brief pause.

“On second thought,” the Professor said, clearing his throat and looking nearly as white as Rarity’s coat, “I’ll take you up on that drink, Rarity. Princess Twilight, it’s a pleasure.” He quickly nodded to Twilight before trotting off, a giggling Pinkie following him with her camera.

Twilight blinked. “I… Was it something I said?” she asked, finding Rarity offering her an almost malicious grin. “What?”

Rainbow whistled. “Geez, Princess Twilight, you could have warned him before you wrecked him like that.”

“Twilight Sparkle,” Rarity said, leaning in and playing with Twilight’s necklace, “Have I told you lately how much I love you?”

Twilight arched an eyebrow, wholly unsure of how she was supposed to interpret that question. Rather than try, she instead looked around the party, tuning out Rarity talking to Rainbow, and set her sights on Spike in the distance. She wanted to talk to him, mostly because it felt like he and Rarity were the only two individuals at the party who she really knew.

Well, technically speaking, Spike might have changed in a thousand years, so strictly speaking it was possible she didn’t know him at all, but she didn’t like the thought and decided not to dwell on it at all. Instead, she would go to him and prove she still knew him very well.

But what if she didn’t?

Her troubled thoughts were interrupted by noises behind her, more guards coming in. She heard prominently Rift’s voice, and thought she didn’t turn around, Rarity immediately did, smiling brightly at the newcomers.

“Well, hello there!” she said tenderly, and Twilight was surprised to find herself thinking that Rarity was being a bit too warm towards the changeling who had a crush on her.

Except, a moment later, one of the new visitors spoke up behind her and identified herself as the real target of Rarity’s warmth.

“Oh,” Cadance said, “I missed Knowledge meeting Twilight! Did somepony take pictures?”

Feeling more at ease in Cadance’s presence, Twilight initially intended on replying that Pinkie took dozens, but her reply was cut short when a single, much more important realization took hold of her.

Cadance was outside the castle.

Outside.

Of the castle.

Almost violently, Twilight turned around and indeed found Cadance behind her, as free as ever. She was still displaced, though, and it had never been more obvious, never her transparency been more visible and jarring than under the blazing sunlight, but…

But the fact remained that she had somehow left the castle.

“You—! But—! How—!”

The words stumbled out of Twilight’s mouth, her mind desperately trying to make some sense about everything. Why was Cadance outside? How was she outside? Except if she was outside, then why wasn’t she freed? And where was her barrier?!

“Rarity!” Twilight blurted out, reaching out to tap her forehoof on Rarity’s shoulder, her wide-eyes turning back and forth between the unicorn and the Princess. “Rarity, she—! What—?!”

“I know, darling,” Rarity said, voice leveled. “Princess Cadance doesn’t have a barrier stopping her.”

Twilight fell to her haunches, her mouth hanging open, watching Cadance in a daze. Her entire world had been rocked in less than a minute. Everything she thought she’d learned from her own situation, all the information gleaned was… useless now?

She was only brought to reality when Professor Awe returned.

“Knowledge Quill!” Cadance exclaimed brightly.

The Professor flinched before bowing his head. “Your Highness.”

“Knowledge, have you met Twilight already?” she asked, gesturing to the alicorn still reeling from there’s no barrier. “You know, the Princess I assassinated!”

The Professor turned white again. “You’ve been sitting on that one for a while, haven’t you?”

Cadance giggled. “Actually, it was Rarity’s idea.”

The Professor shot Rarity a dirty look. “Of course it was.” He turned to Twilight. “Princess, I… Is she all right?”

Twilight blinked at Cadance. “You… But… What… But… Barrier…?” she stammered, only vaguely hearing Rarity giggling next to her.

“I see.” He cleared his throat. “Princess Twilight, if I may...” He hoofed over his large glass of punch and vodka. “I think you might need this more than I do.”


~ Act I ~ Chapter 6 ~ The Breath of Truth ~

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In retrospect, she probably shouldn’t have downed that glass of punch.

“Twilight?” Cadance’s voice rang in the air as Rarity rubbed her hoof in circles on Twilight’s back. “Are you okay?”

“I’m working on that,” replied Twilight, massaging her forehead and looking up.

Gathered around a large table, her eyes scanned the plethora of strangers who awaited what she had to say, and… And it was a sobering thought, if she had to admit to anypony but herself and maybe Rarity; that out of everypony present at the table, she was the stranger.

It had never actually hit her so profoundly until that moment, when she realized they all knew each other in some way or another, forming friendships and bonds she had missed in the two years she’d been… gone. Friendships and bonds all intertwined and brought together by a single force of nature.

“Darling?” asked said force of nature, “is it too much to take in?”

If Twilight didn’t love Rarity, she would have doubtless offered a very sarcastic reply.

She did it anyway but added a small playful smile to make it better.

“You think?” she asked, and Rarity’s laughter helped clear her mind right up until she again felt everypony’s eyes fixed on her. It was uncomfortable, and yet she did not feel able to, well, ask them to leave. She was the main event, after all, and everypony at the party was there for her.

She turned to Cadance, seated at the opposite side of the table, and asked, “You really don’t have a barrier?”

The Princess shook her head. “No, but as I said…” She gestured to her transparent body. “I don’t need one to stop me from going outside. I didn’t even know there was supposed to be a barrier until I found out about yours and Auntie Luna’s.”

Twilight buried her face in her hooves. “But—! But it doesn’t make sense! Why did we have a barrier, then?”

“Didn’t you create that barrier, Princess?” Rainbow Dash asked. “Rarity said—”

“I said she was powering it,” Rarity quickly corrected. “Not that she created it. That’s what Discord had told me.”

“And you’re going to believe what Discord says? Come on, Rares!”

“But I was,” Twilight said, face still buried in her hooves. Truthfully, she had been avoiding the topic, been avoiding trying to dwell on her scenario and her reasoning, if only because she knew very well what the answer was. “I didn’t want to leave.”

“What? Yes, you did!” Pinkie protested.

“No,” Twilight said. “I didn’t.” She paused and finally looked up, feeling uncomfortable at the dozens of eyes set on her. If she had to confess her crimes, she wanted a jury of three, not twelve, but confess she did regardless. “I… I wanted to leave, and I was getting better because of Rarity and everypony else, but then…”

“Then you found out about me,” Cadance said, and Twilight noticed Rarity had stopped rubbing her hoof on her back.

“Y-yes,” she said, and yet she knew that wasn’t all of it. To find out everypony she loved from back then had been damaged by her actions was devastating, but the only thing it really did was convince her that she had no right to be freed.

It was Rarity who, ultimately, had sealed the deal by willingly deciding to throw her life away for Twilight’s then-hopeless cause.

“And if that doesn’t work?! Then what?!”

“Then we find something else! We find another way! I’ll find a way to free you even if I have to spend the—”

“The rest of your life?! And then you die, and what then?! I get to spend the rest of eternity sitting here wishing I could have died with you!”

She shook the memories away and continued. “But, if not having a barrier freed me, then why are you still displaced in time?” she asked, even though she was unsure of whether Cadance was displaced in time or not.

“I don’t know,” Cadance said after a moment. “Discord never told Shiny and me how to free me. Is it true he told you there was a map hidden in your library?”

Twilight nodded, shame burning her. “He said that he’d… that he’d trapped Spike, and only a map in my library could lead me to him, but if I left the library without finding it, it would disappear forever.”

“He told me the same,” Spike said suddenly, brow furrowed. “That he’d hidden your library under a tree in Equestria, and I’d have to dig out every single tree in the realm if I wanted to find you. He also…” He drifted off, lost in thought.

“He also what?” Rarity prompted.

Spike grimaced. “It’s not really something importa—”

“Is it the thing about coming back for you?” Rainbow asked, perched atop his head, and when Spike nodded, she turned to the others. “Yeah! See, tell them!”

“I told him I’d fight him when I was older,” Spike said, and Twilight could vividly picture a little baby dragon cursing the Spirit off. “And he said that he’d deal with me before I could even hope to grow older, except…” He faltered. “Well, I never saw him again until last week.”

And, inside Twilight’s mind, something clicked.

“But he came back for me.” The words tumbled out her mouth unexpectedly, and she was faced with looks of surprise from all around save for Rarity.

“That’s right! You mentioned that once, didn’t you?” she exclaimed.

Twilight nodded. “He said there was no map and I could walk out if I wanted to, and I didn’t believe him, but...” He hadn’t been lying, had he? “Did he ever come back for you?” she asked Cadance, the wheels in her mind turning and turning.

“...I wouldn’t know,” Cadance said. “Shining and I created a barrier to detect him if he went too far into the castle. If he ever tried to come see me, he wouldn’t be able to make it into the inner chambers without raising alarm.”

Twilight gritted her teeth. But why? Why would he… Why would he come to try and get her out of the library? It didn’t make sense! Why her?

“What are you thinking, Twilight?” Rarity asked, doubtless having noticed Twilight’s serious expression.

“Pinkie,” Twilight said, now looking at the mare in question. “Did he ever try contacting Princess Luna again?”

She shook her head. “Nope! Princess Luna never told me that he did, and she would tell me if he had because she tells me everything because I’m her best friend ever!”

Twilight paused for a moment, processing the facts and the idea that, in a thousand years, only she had seen Discord, until she realized she had not accounted for everypony.

“What about Princess Celestia? Why haven’t you contacted her?”

Silence fell at the table. A wide variety of expressions were thrown at her, ranging from confusion to severity to everything in between.

Professor Awe spoke first. “Rarity, you… Have you shown her the—”

“The painting in Granite’s Rest? Yes, she saw it already,” Rarity said, cutting him off before turning to Twilight and licking her lips. “Twilight, darling, what do you mean contact her? We don’t even know where she is.”

“I know that, but why haven’t you contacted her?” she insisted, and it was Spike who spoke before Rarity could.

“She won’t reply,” he said, having already caught on to Twilight’s intention. “I tried. I sent her a jillion letters, and she only ever replied once, and that was centuries ago.”

“Wait, wait, wait, I’m lost now,” Incantation chimed in. “Somebug explain to the new crew, please.”

“Spike isn’t any dragon. He’s a rare breed with magic fire capable of conveying messages,” Twilight explained. “Anything he burns can be sent to Princess Celestia, no matter where she is.”

“And, as I said, I sent her a jillion letters, and she only replied once, and it was to tell us there wasn’t any hope for you or the other Princesses.”

Twilight frowned. She seemed to be doing that a lot, and she had a feeling it wasn’t about to stop. “Did you ask her why?” she inquired as though it were the most obvious thing in the world, which apparently wasn’t the same idea Spike and Cadance had.

“Ask her?” Cadance asked.

Spike snorted. “Twilight, out of like a hundred letters, she only replied to one and it was to tell us that? What was the point of sending her a letter again? She wouldn’t reply, anyway.”

“What if she ran out of ink?” Twilight asked, and Spike gawked at her.

“Twilight, I—”

“Twilight has a point,” Rarity said, taking a sip of her drink. “I’m rather surprised this didn’t occur to either of you.”

“You’re just saying that because she’s your marefriend!” he protested.

“I am not!”

Applejack smirked. “Sure you ain’t, sugarcube.”

“Well, I never!” Rarity huffed, turning away.

“Spike is right,” Twilight said matter-of-factly. “It is a chemical, mental and survival instinct to agree with and support your desired partner and their ideas so as to avoid any potential conflict that might destabi—”

“Princess Twilight!”

She looked around and noticed the two changeling guards had returned, bringing with them the book Rarity had lied about Twilight needing.

Rarity sighed. “Thank the stars.”

“Your Highness!” one said in a breathless huff as the other hoofed over the book. “Your book, as requested!”

“Uh, thank you,” she replied, taking it and putting it to the side. “I need a quill, ink, and parchment now.”

“We can bring that, your Highness!” one of the guards blurted out, but just as he was about to reiterate in extreme detail that it would be his honor to serve Twilight as it had been for generations in his family since—

Hoo!”

The single most scandalized hoot erupted into the air, and Twilight smiled kindly at the guards. “Thank you, but that won’t be necessary,” she said, watching as a sleepy white owl flew up in alarm and then regarded Rarity with an equally alarmed stare.

“In my bag, darling,” Rarity said with an amused smile, prompting Elara, her mate, and their trio of owlets to fly off and then return moments later.

Amalthea and Metis set down before Twilight the spiral-spined notebook they’d brought, Themis helped Ginny put down the inkwell and, finally, Elara perched herself atop Twilight and pecked a white feather free from her wing, offering it to her master before turning to the guards and narrowing her eyes.

“Hoo.”

Twilight smiled at the guards and then proceeded to open the notebook and uncork the inkwell. “I’m going to write to her,” she proclaimed, not bothering to wait and see what the others thought. In fact, the only bother she had was the realization that she didn’t know what to write about. A letter to Princess Celestia wasn’t something she could take lightly! It required deep meditation and thought, as well as least seven drafts, plus editing, plus proof-reading, plus—

“Soooooooo,” Rainbow Dash said, having grown bored with waiting, “what’re you gonna write?”

Twilight hesitated. “Well… I was going to start with an introduction and the biographies of ponies I’ll be mentioning, as well as the locations, and then I was going to try and summarize the past thousand years in five to twelve pages, which should give me—” A polite cough interrupted her, and she noticed Rarity’s pained smile. “What?”

“Princess,” Fluttershy said, calling her attention. “The painting.”

The image of the painting arose in her head, of Celestia sitting with tears streaming down her eyes, maintaning a spell with her cracked horn.

“Twilight, we don’t know what condition the Princess is in. For all we know, that might be the reason she’s not replied, rather than a lack of ink,” Rarity filled in. “I don’t know if a…” She gestured with her hoof. “...A fascinating but long letter is the appropriate course of action. Why not start with a question?”

“Oh…”

She turned back to the notebook, daunting and unused. She dipped the quill in the ink and finally wrote out in large clear letters.

PRINCESS CELESTIA, WHERE ARE YOU?

- TWILIGHT SPARKLE

The words stared back at her, the question she’d not had an answer to in centuries, and… and she found she was afraid of its answer, or the potential lack thereof.

Forcing the thoughts away, she carefully tore the page from the notebook, along with the blank page behind it, and she folded them together, Elara’s feather trapped in-between. That done, she levitated her letter and the closed inkwell over to Spike, who regarded the objects with plain hesitation.

“Please, Spike,” Twilight insisted.

He relented, and a single burst of green flames shot out his mouth and turned the letter to magical ashes that floated off and disappeared.

A heavy silence fell, and everyone at the table did like Twilight and stared at the visibly uncomfortable dragon. Stared and waited, and waited, and waited for a reply to come.

An eternity seemed to pass during that silence, and yet the more seconds went by, the more Twilight’s mind filled in the silence. What if she wasn’t replying because she held Twilight accountable? What if she wasn’t replying because she didn’t want to be found? What if she… what if she couldn’t reply because she was…

Why couldn’t Twilight live for a single second without her brain tormenting her?

Her eyes turned to Cadance, who in her position could do nothing else but smile, and Twilight theorized once more about her barrier and Cadance’s lack thereof.

And it was, to be clear, a painful theory.

“Princess Twilight?” asked Professor Awe all of a sudden. There was a severity in his face that made her uncomfortable, and she shrank back when he continued to speak. “Princess Twilight, what happened to you during the time you were possessed in the library?”

Once again, one by one, all eyes at the table focused on her, and her chest compressed with memories. She tried to reply but was startled when her deeply rooted objections to discussing the topic were voiced not by her, but by Rarity.

“Professor!” she snapped.

The Professor didn’t flinch. “If we want to understand what happened with the Princess, we must know all the facts.” He turned back to Twilight. “Princess, I ask again.”

And again, before Twilight could reply, Rarity did.

“Professor, really,” she protested, and Twilight noticed the uncomfortable looks on every single pony seated at the table. “Discord possessed her, for Denza’s sake! That’s all there is to know!”

“No, it isn’t. Things are never black and white. Facts are what will help us here, not miracles,” the Professor insisted, yet unlike Rarity, he had not raised his voice. “She is the only one who was there when the curse broke. In fact, the more detailed you can be, Princess, the better for all of us.”

“That’s all right,” Twilight quickly said, trying to intervene before Rarity could. The Professor was right, after all, and the anxiety the memories of the possession had brought her were quickly beginning to wane compared to her growing distress at Rarity’s reaction. “I can ta—”

Rarity interrupted. “But Twilight, why—”

“Why not?” she asked, now wanting nothing else but to deconstruct whatever was behind Rarity’s words. She wanted answers, not roundabouts. “Why don’t you want me to talk about it? And you can’t say ‘I don’t know’. You have to have a good reason.”

Rarity held her tongue, and Twilight’s ears fell, finding herself torn between hurt and concern.

“Rarity.” Cadance’s voice was soft but firm, and Rarity’s disposition changed entirely, from thrown-off to chastised. “We talked about this, didn’t we? It’s better to know than not to.”

Rarity’s eyes traveled back and forth between Twilight and Cadance until, finally, they settled on the former. “Do you really want to talk about it, Twilight?” she asked quietly.

“Yes, I do.”

“Will it help you to do so?”

“Yes, it will,” Twilight said, hoping it wasn’t a lie.

“Very well.” Rarity relented, taking her empty glass of water. “I… Will you be alright if I go refill my glass of water meanwhile?”

Twilight would be fine, technically, but… “Yes.”

She watched Rarity trot off, and though her first instinct was to get up and go after her, it was Fluttershy who reacted first. “I should get more water too,” she said quickly as she rose after Rarity. “Wa-wait, Rarity!”

Princess?” Professor Awe said, once again capturing her attention. “Can you elaborate on the possession?”

Her eyes drifted towards Rarity and Fluttershy in the distance, the former talking animatedly to the latter, and though she was still bothered by the outburst, and though she still longed for her partner to be there with her, she sat down and faced the Professor and the others.

“Were you aware?” he asked. “Rarity told me you were possessed by a chaos magic force. Were you cognisant? Do you remember anything?”

Twilight swallowed. “No,” she replied with confidence, and yet it wavered moments later. She did remember, bits and pieces maybe, but she did remember. “Y-yes. Maybe. Some parts.”

“Some parts…” He narrowed his eyes, in thought for a moment, and then simply asked, “What did you feel like when you were possessed? Were you a puppet?”

Twilight’s wings ruffled beside her, and she began to wish she’d paid attention to Rarity. “I… No? I don’t know?” She closed her eyes and buried her face in her hooves, trying to make sense of something she did not want to make sense of. “It wasn’t me, but it was also me. I l-let it, I just wanted it to be over. I…”

A thought nested in her mind.

I didn’t want to be responsible anymore.

It was easier, she knew, to deal with her fears by letting herself be unable to deal with them at all.

“Were you in pain?” the Professor asked.

“I don’t remember. I think at first I was.”

Silence fell again, and just as she withdrew her hooves and looked up, the Professor asked, “Do you know what triggered it?”

“Rarity.”

The reply tumbled out her mouth with startling ease. Rarity had always been at the center of every recent change in her life, and so it had been the logical conclusion that she’d been at the center of the event that allowed her eventual freedom. It had been Rarity who’d given her something to lose, and something to fight for.

Rarity had saved her, she thought, and yet the looks on everypony else relayed a very different message.

“Wait,” Rainbow said, “you’re saying it’s Rarity’s fault Discord possessed you?”

“What? No!” Twilight immediately protested, the mere thought of such an idea horrifying her. “I never said that! I said she triggered it!”

“Princess Twi, that’s literally the same thing,” Rainbow said.

“No, it’s not!” Twilight protested.

“Princess Twilight, let me phrase it differently.” The Professor cleared his throat. “Would I be accurate in stating that, if Rarity had never intervened in your life, you would have never been possessed by The Spirit’s chaos magic?”

“Y-yes,” she said, and yet she felt wrong to say it, and she hated that she did.

“Right. Moving on,” the stallion said. “Rarity mentioned you were powering the barrier keeping you in your library. Can you elaborate?”

“I… I didn’t…”

She wanted to speak, but the words were stuck in her throat. It was hard to confess, hard to analyze when all her analysis and hypotheses only made her feel and seem worse than she already felt and probably seemed.

And to voice them in front of everypony?

She could only think of two ponies she wanted to freely discuss the issue with, and one of them had already excluded herself from that possibility.

“I’m sorry, everypony,” she said finally, smiling apologetically at the Professor and the others. “Can I have a moment alone with Cadance?”

Though it was clear everypony wanted to know what was to be said, nopony denied Twilight’s request. One by one, they all ambled off with hasty excuses, and the commotion was enough that Fluttershy and Rarity turned around in the distance.

For the briefest moment, Twilight met Rarity’s eyes. She wondered whether to keep looking or to turn away, but the decision was made for her when Rift Shield approached the unicorn and caught her attention.

“Are you worried about her?” came Cadance’s voice.

Twilight kept her eyes on Rarity, processing the question. “Yes,” she said eventually. Her ears lowered and she turned to her sister-in-law, who now sat next to her. “What did you mean?” At Cadance’s raised eyebrow, she elaborated. “When you said you had talked about it with her, what did you mean?”

“You should ask her,” Cadance said.

“What if she doesn’t tell me?” Twilight replied, and she wondered where was the line between resentment and concern. “I’ve asked her about other things before, and she didn’t really tell me what’s wrong? And then I think we’re doing all right, but then… then something like what happened today happens and it turns out we’re not. She keeps telling me she just needs time, but…”

“She loves you,” Cadance said, watching Rarity as Twilight had moments ago.

Twilight was thrown back. “I know,” she said, looking at her sister-in-law with a confused gaze. And?

“Then have some faith in her, Twilight.”

Twilight grimaced, heart heavy in her chest. It was so… so… frustrating! It was frustrating that ponies kept thoughts to themselves, and instead of streamlining the process of communication, it just made it complicated for everypony.

“It’s hard for her, Twilight. Try to understand. It hurts to hear about when your loved ones were in pain.”

Neither spoke for about a minute, each lost in their thoughts, and it wasn’t until Twilight’s eyes landed on the Professor that she remembered his question.

“Rarity mentioned you were powering the barrier keeping you in your library. Can you elaborate?”

“Cadance…” She weighed every syllable in her mouth, every word that betrayed things she did not want to confess or admit to. Communication was hard, but she was trying. “Do… do you feel guilty?”

Cadance turned away from the others and directed her entire undivided gaze at Twilight. “About what?”

Twilight gawked at her. “About cursing all of Equestria into not being able to find us,” she said without missing a beat.

“Oh, that,” Cadance said with surprising levity for such a… well, for that. And yet, much more than the levity, what really surprised Twilight was her reply. “No, I don’t.”

Twilight was at a loss for words, unable to comprehend the concept. Didn’t she feel a little guilty? Not that she wanted Cadance to feel guilty, but…

Cadance must have noticed her inner turmoil, for their eyes met and her expression changed. The levity vanished, the warmth dropped, and Twilight had the distinct impression that she was talking not with her sister-in-law anymore, but with the Princess of Equestria and all that this implied.

She was reminded of Princess Celestia, and she regretted asking her question.

“Do you remember what Auntie Celestia used to tell us whenever we had to hold court?”

Twilight nodded. She’d forgotten many things, it was true, but Princess Celestia’s teachings remained.

“Intent is what defines us.”

“Intent is what defines us,” Cadence repeated with severity, imitating Princess Celestia’s demeanor and inflection to near perfection. After holding the pose for a moment, she relaxed with a string of giggles and continued, “I remember how she’d say it! Just before one of her big speeches.”

“And then Princess Luna would roll her eyes,” Twilight added, a heavy smile pushing its way to her lips. She missed them. She missed Princess Celestia’s big speeches, and she missed Luna’s pouting and her own big speeches.

Their laughter faded after a moment, and Twilight’s momentary reprieve left her as Cadance’s severity returned.

“I always did what I thought was best,” she said. “I tried to do good, and not everything I do can be good, but… intent is what defines us.”

“But…” Twilight swallowed. “Does intent matter when everything goes wrong?”

Cadance was silent for the longest time until her sight set on Rarity and she asked, “Do you blame Rarity for what happened to you? Even knowing it happened because she met you?”

“Of course not,” Twilight said.

“Why not?”

“Because she didn’t mean to—” She looked down. “Oh.”

“Bad things will always happen, Twilight,” Cadance said, smiling down at the alicorn. “No matter how good our intentions are, bad things will happen, but… but feeling guilty or sorry for yourself will only stop you from doing the right thing.”

“Which is?” Twilight asked.

“Taking responsibility for your actions.”

Twilight didn’t know what to say to that. The two words sank into her like a dagger, having been all but called out. Guilt had stopped her from taking responsibility, and instead, she’d hidden away in a library.

“Shining Armor said that,” Cadance continued. She set her eyes on Rift Shield giving out orders to nearby guards. “He said that to the changelings who first worked with us before all this happened.”

“Because they felt bad for what they did?”

“Yes,” Cadance said. “And, as you can see, I don’t know how to make them stop.”

Twilight looked down, offering a humorless smile. “It isn’t easy.”

“That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try, though, does it?” Cadance asked, and she sighed. “I did feel guilty, Twilight. At first, but I had to take responsibility and do something to help.”

“Is that why you used the changelings to…?”

The Princess’s expression softened. “No. Well, not at first. I tried to tell ponies, I tried to be honest, but…” She closed her eyes, grimacing. “They were afraid, Twilight. I only told the Canterlot Council and…”

“And what?”

“And it went as well as you can expect. Spike was there. He must remember the confusion. The denial. The panic that followed. And I don’t blame them, Twilight.” She looked away from the changelings and towards the dragon in the distance. “I was afraid. Spike was afraid. You and my Aunties were missing, Discord was free, and I was…”

“But lying?”

“We thought we would find you,” Cadance said with difficulty. “We… we thought we would find you all, but we didn’t, and we couldn’t go back. We couldn’t give the throne to somepony else because they’d find out Discord was still free, and that I was a spirit, and then what?”

Twilight felt a knot in her throat.

“I didn’t want this, Twilight,” she said. “But I had to take responsibility, and the changelings wanted to help us. Like I said, not all of our choices can go as we hoped, but we have to try and make up for it because nopony will do it for us.”

“Right.”

Cadance breathed in. Mere habit, no doubt. “I just want the others to be free. I want this to be over, and after that…” She laughed softly. “After that, I’m giving the crown away and taking a long vacation.”

The two friends shared a sympathetic laugh up until a loud gagging noise caught Twilight’s attention and she looked around to find the source of the sound: Spike.

There he was, in the distance, wide-eyed and looking as though he was choking on something, his claw on his neck as he loudly coughed and hacked.

The first thing Twilight thought was that he’d eaten too much, too fast.

The second was too good to even hope for, and yet it miraculously came when he let out a thunderous belch, flames, smoke, and a folded letter coming out. Cadance wasn’t able to exclaim a single word before Twilight teleported herself to him.

Spike!” a scandalized Rarity gasped from the other side of the party. “Where are your mann—eek!Twilight Sparkle!”

Not bothering with Rarity’s protests, Twilight finished levitating the unicorn over in a peculiar silencing act and plopped her down on the ground.

“Really!” Rarity continued, getting up and brushing the dirt off her coat, oblivious to the letter everypony was staring at. “I’m starting to tir—” She blinked around. “What’s wrong wi—?” Twilight’s magic took hold of her muzzle and directed her view towards the letter. “Ah.”

There it lay on the ground, neatly folded, the first contact Twilight had with Princess Celestia in over a thousand years.

It was terrifying. It was terrifying to open it, and see what Celestia actually thought, if she hated or still loved Twilight, if she—

A cough caught her attention, bringing her back to the reality where everypony was watching and waiting, and even if it was scary…

She had to take responsibility.

With all the care in the world, she levitated the letter in her magic, took a final breath, opened it and… and frowned.

“Well?” Pinkie asked. “What does it say?! What does it say?!”

“She wants to know where I am,” Twilight lamely replied, turning the message around for all to see.

Twilight, where are you?

There it was.

Twilight’s first communication with Princess Celestia in over a thousand years.

And it explained nothing.

As everyone began to murmur between themselves, Twilight turned the letter back towards herself, trying to glean any additional information.

“Are you certain she wrote it?” Rarity asked, peering down at the letter.

Twilight kept her frown. “Yes, but…”

It was unmistakably Celestia’s calligraphy, and yet there was something wrong. The lines, usually straight and elegant, were shaky and messy but not in the way they would be when writing in a hurry, but more like when writing under some kind of magical duress.

“I don’t know what, but something’s wrong. Princess Celestia never replied to my questions with questions unless she was testing me or something was wrong,” she elaborated, hoofing the letter over for Rarity to inspect before turning around and teleporting the notebook over. “Rarity, do we have more ink and—?”

“In my bag,” Rarity replied, still looking over the letter.

Once she’d acquired new ink and a new feather, Twilight opened it up to a new page and wrote.

I’m in Canter Capitol with Spike and Cadance.

Are you safe? Where are you? What do we do?

The letter done, she quickly ripped it and another blank page before folding them and practically throwing them at Spike. She watched as his fire engulfed and turned it to ashes, and then...

Well, she waited.

And waited, and waited, and waited, and after a few minutes of waiting, she wasn’t the only one to feel impatient.

“So,” Rainbow Dash said to Spike, “you really never thought of just sending her paper and ink?”

His face turned several shades of pink, and yet instead of a protest, another belch came out of his mouth and with it a new letter.

Twilight snatched it in her magic, opening it up and reading aloud:

For now. Complicated. Free Luna.

“For now?” Cadance asked.

“Complicated?” added Fluttershy.

“Free Princess Luna!” exclaimed Pinkie Pie, hopping up and down in place.

Twilight allowed herself a minor breath of relief. ‘For now’ wasn’t the best reply she could get, but it at least meant she probably wasn’t in the situation depicted in the painting anymore. Only the knowledge of this made it easier to cope with the fact that she hadn’t disclosed her actual location.

“I don’t get it!” Spike exclaimed. “She said there was no hope for you, and now she’s asking you to save Princess Luna?”

“Spike,” Rarity said, “I rather think a pony can change her mind every other century.”

“But why?” Twilight asked, finding herself frustrated at the, well, lack of concrete explanations. What exactly had happened with the Princess? Was it Discord? Was it somepony else? And how did she expect them to free Princess Luna?

She opened the notebook again, dipping the quill in ink before writing down:

How do we free her?

There. The worst case scenario was that Princess Celestia would have no idea, but considering that was Princess Celestia, and Princess Celestia always had a plan, Twilight knew that she would know how to do it. Of course, then one could wonder why hadn’t Princess Celestia already freed herself but Twilight chose not to think about that too much.

Again, she ripped out the letter along with a blank piece of paper before folding them and repeating the process with Spike.

“What did you ask her?” inquired Cadance.

“How to free Princess Luna,” Twilight replied. It was straight and to the point, just as she hoped Celestia would reply.

“Can’t you, like, send her your necklace thing and that way it’ll be much faster than this?” Rainbow asked, prompting Rarity to put a hoof on her necklace in a defensive motion.

“The necklaces don’t work that way, Rainbow Dash!” she said, and then faltered. “Though our current process could stand to be less uncouth.”

As if her words had been heard, Spike belched again, and though a letter came forth, so did the inkwell and quill.

“Well,” the Professor said, “that’s one way of saying the conversation is over.”

Twilight took the letter, heart thumping in her chest. Pinkie had now rushed to her, practically crawling on top of the alicorn in an attempt to see the reply. If that letter held the answer to freeing Luna, then…

Without further delay, she opened it up and read aloud:

The Winter Moon Observance

“Even now, my brightest light is nothing but the remains of yours.”

An air of confusion swept across the creatures gathered together, marring all their faces save for the two princesses and the dragon, who all shared a worried glance.

“The Winter Moon Observance?” Pinkie asked. “That sounds fun! How come I’ve never heard of it?! Is it secret?”

“You wouldn’t have heard about it,” Cadance said. “There’s only been one Winter Moon Observance, and that was even before our first war with Discord. It was supposed to be a yearly event to honor Princess Luna, but it was canceled.”

Cancelled?!” Pinkie gasped, horrified. “By who?! Why?!”

“By Princess Luna,” Twilight replied, “and we don’t know why. Princess Celestia never told me.” She looked back down at the letter, pursing her lips. What did The Winter Moon Observance have to do with Princess Luna being trapped? And what light?

“Cadance, do you remember anything from it?” she asked, turning back to her friend.

Cadance shook her head. “No. It’s been so long, I don’t really remember anything.”

“What about Princess Luna’s room?” Twilight continued, the words trying to catch up to the speed with which new thoughts appeared in her mind. “Does she have any books about it? Or Princess Celestia? What about the library?”

Cadance blinked. “I… I don’t know, Twilight. I can have my guards look them over, but there are thousands of books in there.”

“We would only have to read books written before our imprisonment,” Twilight said.

“Twilight, that’s still several thousand!” Cadance pointed out.

Twilight blinked. “And? A book is about two-hundred and forty pages on average. Though it’s below my own reading speed, your guards should be able to read two pages per minute. Following that, ten guards could read ten books in two hours, and therefore a thousand books could be read by ten guards in two hundred hours. If you use fifty guards, that would mean each guard would read twenty books, one every two hours, and we could go through approximately a thousand books in forty to fifty hours.”

Rarity hummed. “Did you by chance consider the fact that guards need to eat and sleep?”

“Oh. That’s important.”

“I would think so, yes, darling,” she replied. “Not to mention that not all of us can read non-stop without getting distracted.”

“Distracted? But they’d be reading books! Why would you get distracted?”

“Tragically, not all of us can be as perfect as you, Twilight,” she replied.

Twilight groaned and rubbed her forehead. Ugh! Why were ponies so complicated? “What about shifts? It would prolong the search, but the pace would continue and we could have the entire library read in… fifty changelings… shifts of…. Multiplied by…”

“Princess Twilight, if I may,” Rift interrupted. “With all due respect, we can’t have the entire guard reading books for days!”

Twilight frowned. “Well, if we take into account that—”

“You could ask Princess Luna…?” said a soft-spoken voice.

Interrupted, Twilight fell silent and turned to find Fluttershy smiling nervously at her.

“You could ask Princess Luna why she canceled it,” the pegasus clarified. “I’m sure she would tell you.”

“She would!” Pinkie burst in. “And then we’ll know how to free her! And then we can do all the things I want to do with her when she’s free! Do you want to know what they are?!”

Spike laughed. “I don’t think you’re gonna give us a choice.”

And so, as she began to ramble on, Twilight kept quiet.

And then we’ll know how to free her, Pinkie had said, and yet she couldn’t believe it would be that simple. If her experience had taught her anything, it was that things were never as simple and straightforward as she wished. She watched Pinkie talk and talk, the twinkle in her eyes, the enthusiasm and drive, and…

And then her gaze shifted towards Rarity, and she found the unicorn did not share the rest of the group’s enthusiasm. There was no smile on her lips, no glimmer in her eyes, nothing but the mild apprehension that seemed to suffuse her every action.

Two years ago, Twilight thought, Rarity would have been the first to force Twilight to talk about the possession.

Two years ago, Rarity pushed and pushed and pushed through every defense, every barrier, every tangle of Twilight’s existence.

But now? Now Twilight struggled to find the fearless unicorn who’d faced dragons, spirits of chaos, and Twilight herself.

Their eyes met for a moment, as if Rarity had heard by Twilight’s thoughts, and so the alicorn quickly looked back down at the letter Celestia had sent.

Even now, my brightest light is nothing but the remains of yours.

Her eyes focused on the line, trying to distract herself from her troubled thoughts until she felt something shift and Rarity sit next to her, their coats brushing and the unicorn exhaling a long sigh. The conversation went on without them, Twilight only barely paying attention to the ongoing discussion between Pinkie, Spike and the Professor up until Rarity finally nuzzled her.

“Are you very upset with me?” she murmured.

Twilight avoided her gaze. “I don’t know.”

“Stars,” Rarity replied after a moment. “That is a frustrating reply to receive, isn’t it?” she noted, and Twilight couldn’t help but laugh.

“Maybe a little,” she said, finally allowing herself to return Rarity’s affection.

“And maybe I’m a bit of a mess,” she continued, levitating her drink and taking a sip. “A fashionable one.”

“I'm not sure that makes it better.”

“Well, it certainly doesn’t make it worse, hm?” She put down the glass and took hold of the letter, reading it over. “I wonder wha—”

“Rarity, why didn’t you want me to talk about my possession?” asked Twilight abruptly, the words tumbling out her mouth without her permission. But there they were.

A pause followed.

“If you were in my position, would you be able to easily stomach listening to my two-year long possession?”

Twilight didn't immediately reply, for she knew the unicorn was right. Just remembering the fact that Rarity had nearly been mauled by a timberwolf was still sickening to her, after all.

Yet something told her there was more, and Rainbow Dash’s words tore at her mind.

“Rarity, you…” She swallowed, for the idea of it made her sick. “You don’t blame yourself, do you?”

“No,” Rarity replied simply.

Nothing more, nothing less, and Twilight forced herself to believe it was true.


He sat in silence next to the fire, watching her with curious eyes.

“You told her no,” North Ridge said as she stared up at the stars. “And there weren’t any other reasons?”

“I feared she would blame herself,” Rarity said after a pause. “The thought sickened me. To hear her say those three little words. I can understand why she was afraid I’d feel the same.”

“But there’s something else,” he said.

“Isn’t there always?” She paused again, and her chest fell and rose with a breath. Mere habit, no doubt. “Care to share your thoughts?”

“Two years,” he said, “is quite a long time to think.”


~ Act II ~ Chapter 7 ~ The Boutique of Dreams ~

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“Crazy, ain’t it?”

North Ridge looked up from the newspaper, his eyes set on the vendor stacking up merchandise.

“Really? I’ve seen crazier things in the West!” he replied, smiling broadly. “A manticore terrified of a mouse, for one!”

The vendor shook his head.

“The Princess’s gone crazy. I always knew that Castle had secrets.”

North intended on replying, but the words caught in his throat as he turned the page. There she was, his charming friend, the word MISSING above her smiling face.

“Now, now!” he said, discreetly ripping out the page while the vendor looked away. “We all have secrets, don’t we?”


Flowers of all colors covered two old yet pristine statues inside the Sparkle family mausoleum.

They were arranged in all sorts of bouquets, droplets of clear water trickling down the petals and onto the cold marble. They were fresh, Twilight noticed, and though she was certain their presence was due to her sister-in-law, their beautiful arrangement was due to a certain artistically-inclined unicorn.

Her eyes lingered on the carvings at the base of the statues. ‘Twilight Velvet and Night Light’ it said, and an inscription followed below each name.

Gone, but never forgotten, said his.

In dreams, we are reunited, said hers.

And emblazoned beneath each promise was Twilight’s very own cutie mark.

Twilight didn’t know what to say. Well, that wasn’t true. She had very many things she felt and wanted to say, but she didn’t feel the need to voice them. So much had happened in the past few days, so many emotions, that even if she was sad and would probably continue to be so for some time yet, she was relieved to feel she was getting better at keeping her emotions reigned in. Maybe it was because Cadance wasn’t there, or maybe it was because she knew they would want her to move on and keep going.

Or, maybe it was because the company she kept made it hard not to feel better.

“Thank you,” she said, finally, watching as Rarity’s magic interweaved with the flowers and rearranged them slightly.

“It was the least I could do,” said Rarity brightly, followed by a quick frown when the bouquet she’d just finished arranging slid down again. She put it back in its place and nodded with satisfaction.

“I didn’t mean just the flowers,” Twilight continued, and despite it all, a smile stole onto her lips at Rarity’s soft harrumph when the flowers fell again.

“Darling, I’m the one grateful towards you,” Rarity replied, adjusting the flowers again. “It is my privilege and honor to be here with you, if only these damn flowers would—”

Twilight laughed. “They don’t have to be perfect,” she said.

Rarity stopped her fussing long enough to stare at the alicorn. “Who are you and what have you done with Twilight Sparkle?” When Twilight rolled her eyes, Rarity turned back to the flowers with a pronounced harrumph. “Not perfect, she says! I expect nothing less than perfection when it comes to my in-laws!”

They don’t care,” Twilight continued, her wing splaying open under her cloak and enveloping the unicorn, coaxing her away from her task.

“Well, I care!” Rarity finished, adjusting the flowers one last time by arranging some nearby pebbles at the base of the flowers to keep them in place. She then finally relented and leaned against Twilight, accepting the embrace. “I care.”

Twilight turned her sight back to the inscriptions on the statues, a sigh accompanying the action.

In dreams, we are reunited.

Gone, but never forgotten.

Two inscriptions on two statues, all meant for her, and even if she had accepted it, it still hurt that they were.

“In dreams, we are reunited,” Rarity recited softly. “They’re touching epitaphs.”

“They should have been about them,” Twilight quietly replied, “not about me. Epitaphs are supposed to honor the deceased, not the living.”

“Perhaps they knew you’d be here one day,” Rarity suggested after a moment’s thought, “and wanted to leave a message for you to read.”

“Do you think so?”

“I do,” she replied. “It’s what I would have done. A message only you would understand, carved in a beautiful marble tombstone decorated with dozens of bouquets. In fact, I just thought of the perfect one!” She extended her foreleg and waved it in a horizontal line. “For you, a thousand times over.”

Twilight frowned, finding she did not actually want to think of anything involving Rarity and tombstones. “Well, that’s an epitaph I don’t ever want to read,” she grumbled, frowning slightly. “Or ever think about. Or, hopefully, it won’t ever be written.”

Rarity giggled. “Oh? Would you prefer it if I just live forever and never die, then?” She leaned forward and planted a kiss on Twilight’s cheek. “I shall only do it if you promise to live forever with me!”

Twilight wanted to laugh, say a smart and witty retort, but was instead struck by a very real realization.

“I can die now,” she said, mostly to herself, but aloud nevertheless. She did not feel saddened, yet, or happy, either, but she was aware of it. Aware of it and all that it implied. “I’m going to die.”

“Well, not soon, I would hope!” Rarity said, leaning further into the alicorn. “Hm. Now I see why you didn’t want to talk about this.”

“But it’s going to happen,” Twilight continued, and it was… it was fascinating. It was oddly exhilarating, oddly marvelous the idea that for the first time in centuries, growing old was something she had to think about. She really was free, wasn’t she? She turned to Rarity, wings spreading out, her earlier sadness completely washed away. “I’m going to die, Rarity!”

Rarity raised an eyebrow. “Yes, Twilight, that is an unfortunate inescapable reality of life. Everypony dies eventually.”

“Actually, that’s not true,” she said matter-of-factly, always eager to teach new facts. “Not everypony. Princess Celestia and Princess Luna are natural-born alicorns and are ageless. They can’t die unless they’re killed, and there is no known way to fully kill an ageless pony. Not even Discord can do it.”

Rarity paused. “Not even Dis…” Her eyes grew wide. “Is that why he trapped them? That must be it! But…” She drifted off, frowning. “If he trapped them because they’re ageless…” Her eyes met Twilight’s. “Why did he trap you and Cadance? She isn’t a natural born alicorn, is she?”

Twilight shook her head.

“Then why didn’t he kill you?” Rarity asked, and Twilight flinched.

“He would never do that,” she quickly defended, because Discord had done terrible things, objectively, but he would never kill. When Rarity raised an eyebrow, she continued her point. “He wouldn’t! He would never kill, he would just—”

“Trap you in an underground library for a thousand years, taking away your physicality and right to a proper life?” Rarity said, cutting her off, unimpressed.

Twilight looked away. “Well, if you put it like that…”

“I’m putting it precisely as it happened, Twilight,” Rarity said without a beat. “If you are about to sit here and defend his actions, then let us lay them out exactly as they were.

And to this, Twilight had nothing to say.

Well, she did have things to say, just not about that very awkward topic she now wanted to desperately avoid.

“We—Well, that still doesn’t explain why he trapped me and Cadance! Without Celestia and Luna, she and I couldn’t really fight him, anyway,” she continued. “There’s so much of what he does that doesn’t make sense… Why hasn’t he taken over Equestria? Why hasn’t he—” She stopped. “What if…” She licked her lips, careful with her phrasing. “What if he regrets what he did?”

Rarity stared at her in complete silence.

Simply stared at her.

Her eyes narrowed slightly.

“I’m not saying that to defend him!”

“I should hope not, Twilight,” Rarity said coldly, turning away. “After everything he’s put us through. He could come beg at my hooves, and I would still be unable to find anything he’s responsible for even remotely worth forgiving him for.”

A heavy silence filled the room, less jarring but as intense as the mood shift they’d gone through. It was frustrating, ultimately, to see the disconnect she still had not just with Rarity, but with anypony who’d ever interacted with Discord. It was difficult for her not to defend him when they were once friends, yet also know that he had done things beyond forgiveness.

And yet.

And yet, there was one thing she did thank him for.

“I could,” she said. “I know something he’s responsible for that might make it worth forgiving him.”

Rarity snorted in a very unladylike fashion, still seemingly fascinated by the building’s wall. “Surprise me.”

“I’m not ageless like Princess Celestia or Princess Luna. I should have had a normal lifespan like any other pony,” she said.

Rarity scoffed, turning her head ever so slightly. “Did you want to be immortal?”

“No,” she replied, “but if I hadn’t been locked in that library for a thousand years, I wouldn’t have lived long enough to meet you.”

Another long silence, Rarity’s head turned just enough that Twilight could see her subtly bite down on her lip.

Touché?” Twilight ventured helpfully, finding it very difficult to suppress a giggle when Rarity’s lip bite turned much less delicate.

“Curious,” she said, still cool, still collected, still looking away. “You never told me you spoke French.”

Twilight perked up.

“Well, technically speaking, I actually initially learned of the word during fencing classes back when I was studying under the Princess, as it was required of me as her personal student to be trained in one of the more prestigious physical activities taught in the capital,” she informed. “It was through your modern dictionary and idiom book that I learned it was used when you’d won, or in your case, lost at a verbal duel.” She took a breath of air and, then finally said, “Though I did spend a thousand years reading books in a library, including the entire language section, as well as all twenty-seven translated versions of Starswirl’s the Bearded Magical Compendium, so yes, I do know French, or an archaic version of it, at least.”

She smiled smugly when Rarity finally turned to her, a playful grin on her lips.

“Oh?” said her beloved, moving closer, teasing. “Prove it, then, ma chère.”

Always one for challenges, Twilight smiled and recalled a recent poem she’d read while exploring Canterlot Castle’s library the night before.

Mon âme a son secret, ma vie a son mystère, un amour éternel en un moment conçu,” she said in a flawless accent she’d learned from phonetic books and many centuries of practice. “Elle dira, lisant ces vers tout remplis d'elle, ‘quelle est donc cette jument?’ et ne comprendra pas.”

By the time she’d finished, a little grin decorated her lips at Rarity’s wide eyes and lovely mouth curved into a perfect ‘o’. Twilight Sparkle knew she was impressive, but she still enjoyed the confirmation of the fact.

“So,” Rarity said softly, lifting her hoof and idly playing with Twilight’s necklace, “what does it mean?”

“It’s an excerpt from a poem about unrequited love,” Twilight explained, vividly aware of how close they were, how near their lips, and then asked, “What did you think?”

Rarity hummed softly, admiring the pink crystal. “I think this visit has been lovely, but we really ought to be on our way.”

“I—? What?” Twilight asked, thrown-off by the sudden change of topic. She felt the urge to pull back, and yet she was strangely held in place by Rarity’s hoof still on her chest. “Are we going to be late to meet the girls?”

“If we leave now, we shall make it with time to spare, but, more than that…” Her eyes met Twilight’s, and she tilted her head to the side. “It would seem that your linguistic prowess has had quite the effect on me, and I really don’t think a passionate kiss would be appropriate behavior in front of your parents.”

Twilight felt her cheeks burn up. “No, it would not.”

Rarity giggled, leaning over and leaving a kiss on her lips. “A small one, then.She then turned back to the statues and sobered up. “Any last things you’d like to say until our next visit, darling?”

Twilight turned to her parent’s final resting place. There were many things she wanted to say, but she settled on the clearest and more concise.

“I love you,” she said. “I promise I’ll make you proud.”

“More than you already have, thank you very much,” Rarity added, and Twilight laughed.

“More than I already have,” she repeated. She turned to her marefriend and, a bit awkwardly, asked, “Do you have anything to say?”

Rarity mulled it over. “Nothing we didn’t already discuss extensively last time.”

“Last time?” she asked, furrowing her brow. “You’ve been here before?”

Time slowed down, as though Rarity were debating whether to answer or not, until finally she did with obvious care.

“I have, yes,” she said, for the last time adjusting a stray petal here and there. “A few months after you’d… well, after your incident, Cadance suggested I come here to be with them. It was soothing to speak to somepony who…”

“Who…?”

Rarity leaned into Twilight, eyes still set on the tombs. “Who could relate.”

“Relate?” Twilight asked, her wing adjusting around Rarity. “What do you mean?”

The air seemed to shift, the tension in the air brushing against Twilight, as it always seemed to do whenever Rarity had something important—and, recently, painful—to say.

“The epitaphs. Their epitaphs and tombs being their last message to you,” she said quietly. “‘For you, a thousand times over’ is not a sentence I just came up with.”

Rarity fell silent and shifted against Twilight, gaze focused on the flowers. She was waiting, Twilight knew, for a reply or acknowledgement, and Twilight felt her anger rising at the idea that her own actions had caused Rarity to have to think about her epitaph.

But being angry would do nothing for her, would it? All she could try to do was doing what she liked best: making Rarity smile.

“That’s a shame,” she said finally, somberly, and before Rarity could say anything in reply, she continued. “Now you’ll have to use a less dramatic epitaph for your grave.”

Rarity’s laughter filled the small room. “Awful, isn’t it? One spends so much time crafting the perfect sentence to leave as a legacy, and then you had to go and devastate my efforts by liberating yourself. Rude, is what it is! What a lack of consideration! Now I’ll have something dreadfully boring like...” She bit down on her lip and then moved her forehoof in a horizontal gesture. “Rarity the Unicorn, died as she lived, a deathly beauty.”

Twilight snorted. “A deathly beauty?”

“Hush you, it only needs a bit of work.”

“Just a bit of work? Right,” she said, giggling when Rarity pulled herself away, flipping her mane and stomping off in a huff.

“Well, here’s one for you, then!” she declared, turning around and shooting the Princess an awfully smug smirk. “Here lies Princess Twilight Sparkle, who made a dreadful habit out of this when she was alive, anyway!”

“Hey!” Twilight protested, following after Rarity as the latter exited. “I wasn’t dead! I was displaced in time! There’s a difference!”

Rarity’s laughter echoed into the mausoleum from outside, and Twilight allowed herself a playful roll of the eyes. She offered her parents one final silent goodbye before finally trotting out into the Resting Gardens, finding Cadance and a few guards waiting for her. A large trunk floated behind them.

“Time to go?” asked Cadance, her smile not completely hiding the sadness behind it.

“I’m afraid so, Princess,” said Rarity, apologetically. “The others must be waiting already, and we don’t want to be late.”

“We’ll come back soon,” Twilight said quickly, for her and Cadance’s sake. Though she was about to see Luna, it still pained her to leave Cadance after such a short visit. She turned to Rarity for confirmation. “Can’t we?”

“Darling, unless something monumental happens in the next few weeks, we can come whenever you’d like,” Rarity replied. “Or, rather, you can come whenever you’d like. Some of us have jobs, you know?”

“If you promise not to take too long to visit, I’ll be happy,” Cadance told Twilight, her sad smile turning warm. “And don’t forget to write to say hello or if you have any news about Auntie Luna.”

“I won’t!” Twilight said.

Rarity cleared her throat, eyeing the trunk one of the guards was holding. “Princess, are those…?”

Cadance nodded, and the guard stepped forward and placed the trunk before Twilight. Curious, the younger Princess opened it up and felt her heart skip a beat at the sight of the shattered remains of the three Element of Harmony orbs she remembered having seen through Rarity’s mind.

There they were.

The three rocks she hadn’t been able to find herself.

The three rocks that might have prevented her… her mistake.

“I thought you should have them,” Cadance said, levitating one of them and looking it over. “If anypony can figure out how to fix them, it’s you, Twilight.”

Twilight levitated another in her magic, examining the cracks and grooves of a seemingly ordinary rock. “Are there any others? Is it just these?”

“I don’t know,” Cadance replied, “but I don’t think there are.”

She gestured to the chest, and Twilight noticed a large rolled-up scroll tied up with a ribbon.

“I made a scroll for you with all the information we have about them. I had to read over nearly two hundred of my diaries, but everything I ever wrote down about them is in there.”

“Thank you.”

With care, Twilight returned the orb to the trunk, and after Cadance did the same, she closed it and took a breath. It felt like some sort of odd reprieve, to not have to see the symbols of past mistakes.

Cadance turned to two of her guards. “Illumination, Sketch, please go with Princess Twilight and Lady Rarity and carry the trunk.” She then turned to Rift. “Rift, can you please tell Breeze that Twilight and the others will be leaving now?”

Rift Shield faltered. “Er, yes, of course, Your Highness.”

“Well then!” Rarity said, gesturing towards the distant castle gate. “Shall we be on our way?”

Though Cadance nodded and she and the guards followed Rarity, Twilight’s attempt to do the same was cut short when Rift Shield cleared his throat.

“Uh, Princess Twilight, a moment, please.”

Twilight stopped, turning to the severe-looking guard. This was the first time she’d ever spoken with him privately, and she realized she did so with a certain amount of trepidation.

“Yes?”

Rift cleared his throat and took off his helmet, a gesture that only concerned Twilight all the more. “Princess, may I speak freely with you? I won’t be long,” he added when he saw her glance towards Rarity and the others in the distance.

Cornered, she drew herself up. “Yes.”

He paused for a moment, seemingly weighing his words. “Over the past two years, I’ve been helping Rarity and, well, growing close to her and… Princess Twilight, you are aware of my feelings for her, aren’t you?”

Twilight froze. Of all the topics she wanted to avoid with him, that had been it. Apprehension clawed at her, and questions filled her mind. She had been under the impression that all he had harbored towards Rarity had been nothing more than a crush, but like many other things, it seemed that had changed too.

“Princess,” he continued, “I wan—”

“Did something happen between the two of you?” she blurted out, the most prominent question begging to be answered. Was he telling her this to assert his desire to fight for Rarity?

Rift smiled, and Twilight’s worst fears were confirmed up until he spoke. “No,” he said, and Twilight felt what it was like to really truly be absolutely relieved. “Nothing happened between us. Rarity is as loyal to you, Princess, as Rainbow Dash is to Spike, and believe me when I say that’s saying something. There is only you,” he said, and his smile vanished entirely. “And that worries me, Princess.”

“Why?” Twilight asked, even though she less and less felt like wanting to know the answer. But she pushed on, expression hardening. “There’s nothing wrong with that. I love her too. I would do anything for her.”

“That’s the thing,” Rift said. “So would she.”

And again, starting to feel unsettled and aggravated, towards him and the voices that hissed that she did not deserve Rarity’s devotion, Twilight repeated her statement. “There’s nothing wrong with that.”

As if having noticed he’d crossed a line, Rift stepped back. “Princess, I’m not trying to attack your relationship with her,” he said. “But you need to understand. You would do anything for her, and so would she, but… I spent almost two years getting to know her, and… I’m worried of what anything could be.”

And now, Twilight’s perspective changed.

“Oh,” she said, remembering very vividly that moment long ago where a unicorn swore to solely dedicate her life to finding a way to free Twilight.

“Twilight! Rift Shield!”

Twilight turned around to find Rarity waving at them, Cadance and the others waiting for them.

“Are you two done raving on about how wonderful I am?” Rarity called out, completely unaware of how close her joke was to the truth. “We will be late!”

She watched her, the unicorn who she would do anything for, who had time and time again proven to know the way back to her, and as her eyes landed on the glowing necklace on Rarity’s neck, the reply to Rift’s dilemma came to her without further thought.

“I trust her,” she said to Rift with finality, lifting her hoof and putting it over her necklace. “No matter what anything is.”
After a moment’s silence, he grinned and put on his helmet.

“Guess that explains why she picked you,” he said. “Glad to see she’s in good hooves.”


Glad to see I’m in good hooves?!”

Echoing through Canterlot city, Rarity’s indignant remark drew the attention of several onlookers as she led Twilight towards the modern carriage station.

“Rarity! I didn’t tell you so you would scream it to everypony!” Twilight whispered urgently, smiling awkwardly at the guards trailing behind. She then turned her flustered gaze back to her marefriend. “And he is right, you know.”

“He’s right?!” Rarity gasped, turning to Twilight with a hoof on her chest. “What about, pray tell?! About me being a damsel in distress that needs to be in somepony’s good hooves? Twilight Sparkle, if you agree with that, you and I need to have a very long, very severe talk!”

“I didn’t mean that part!” Twilight said. “I meant that he is right to worry about how, well, reckless you can be.”

Rarity turned to her and fluttered her eyelashes. “I do believe the word you meant is dashingly heroic, not ‘reckless’.”

“That’s two words,” Twilight pointed out, “and no, I did mean reckless. You once went into dragon-filled caves alone in the middle of the night!”

“And I found Spike and ended up recovering stolen merchandise! Do find a better example, darling.”

“All right,” Twilight said, keeping up pace with Rarity, “you then later confronted a dragon lord and then bluffed your way out by saying I would come for him!”

“Bluffing implies I was lying,” Rarity replied nonchalantly, as she swung her tail to the side and captured Twilight’s in it. “If that awful dragon had eaten me, wouldn’t you have come looking for revenge?” At Twilight’s silence, she giggled. “Point proven.”

Twilight furrowed her brow. “What about the timberwolf? When you went into the forest under the curse and…”

And at that, Rarity faltered. “W-well! Well, it was a brave rescue attempt!” she defended, losing some of her earlier playfulness. “That doesn’t mean I’m reckless!”

“No, but running away from your friends and going back in with an injured leg is,” Twilight shot back, drawing out an intense whine from her beloved.

“Twilight! Really, it’s like you want me to feel bad about every decision I make!” she said, coming to a stop and glaring at the alicorn. “Don’t you think I haven’t ruminated on the consequences of my decisions enough already?”

Twilight stopped, realizing perhaps she’d overstepped, and quickly tried to make amends. “I’m just worried…”

Rarity offered a pained smile. “I know, my darling, but now that you’re here, I don’t have to be reckless, hm?” she said, using her forehoof to lift Twilight’s chin. “In fact,” she continued, moving her hoof away, “I do believe it’s my turn to swoon as you perform recklessly heroic deeds to impress me.”

“Like what?” Twilight asked, raising an eyebrow.

“Well, I don’t know, Princess! That’s up to you to figure out, and me to swoon over,” Rarity said, tapping Twilight’s nose before trotting off. “But…” She dropped the playfulness. “I promise I will try to be dashingly heroic in ways you approve of, all right?”

Twilight smiled. “Thank you.” Feeling better, she looked towards the distant station. “Come on! We don’t want to miss the chariot.”

“Chariot?” Rarity asked with a mischievous smile. “I do think you mean train.”

“Train?!” gasped Twilight, her wings ruffling under her cloak. “Are we finally taking a train today?!”

Rarity grinned. “I did promise we would, did I not?”

A loud, booming distant whistle answered her question—a sound Twilight had never heard—and before Rarity could stop her, she had already galloped past the unicorn and towards the station Twilight had formerly assumed contained chariots.

She galloped into the large building connected to the mountainside and found herself inside a building of unfamiliar design. In the vast hall salesponies stood behind stalls, calling out for travelers to buy snacks, drinks, and magazines to read; ponies of all ages and genders walked past the Princess, rushing off towards the different parts of the station or looking up at the massive board listing out destinations and times. Manehattan, Trottingham, Rainbow Falls, Ponyville, Dodge Junction, and Hollow Shades, among others. Places she’d known of since meeting Rarity, and places which she thought she would never be able to see for herself.

“Hurry, children! Get in line, or we’ll miss the train!”

She turned around, finding a mare rushing three fillies off towards these strange contraptions with turning bars guarded by ponies in red uniforms. She quickly followed after them all the way up until she was standing in line behind them, waiting for her turn to be allowed onto the platform. However, as their turn approached, she noticed ponies presenting a small paper she did not have. She turned around, hoping to find the source of the tickets. Instead, however, she found that about twelve ponies now stood behind her, all looking very rushed and very irritable and probably wouldn’t be willing to save her spot in line as she tried to get a ticket.

The line moved again, and the uniformed pony threw a look their way, prompting the mare and her children to take out their tickets. He then turned to Twilight with a raised eyebrow that remained all the way up until it was her turn to cross the device.

“Miss. Your ticket.”

“Uhm.” When the gatekeeper’s brow furrowed and a stallion behind her grunted, Twilight grinned. “Where do I get tickets?” Ponies behind her groaned again, the gatekeeper gestured for her to leave, and she yelped in reply. “No, wait, wait!” she exclaimed, looking around and sighing with relief as the solution quite literally walked through the door.

A hue of magic enveloped her horn, and not a second later, a shrill shriek echoed throughout the train station, drawing the attention of everypony towards the scandalized unicorn soaring through the air.

“Twilight Sparkle! For Denza’s sake, will you stop doing this?!” Rarity yelled, finally huffing at Twilight when the alicorn stopped her unexpected flight right on top of the gatekeeper.

“We need tickets,” Twilight said helpfully, looking up at her scowling marefriend, and she was pleased when, even if she did so with a loud huff, Rarity opened her saddlebag and retrieved two tickets. Twilight quickly took them in her magic, not bothering to put Rarity down, and then hoofed the tickets over to the gatekeeper. “Here you are, sir.”

“…Go on,” he said after a moment’s inspection, his eyes fixed on the weary unicorn as she patiently waited for a fascinated Twilight to push her way past the odd device.

“Rarity!” she exclaimed once she’d moved past. “What’s—”

“A turnstile,” Rarity answered before she could finish, now holding onto her saddlebag as she floated sideways. “Darling, I don’t know if you’ve realized Princess Cadance’s trunk is still halfw—Well then,” she said, watching as Twilight effortlessly levitated the two guards and the trunk all the way over and past the turnstiles, much to the delight and surprise of the many ponies watching the casual display of magical prowess.

“Wa-Wait, their tickets!” boomed the gatekeeper. “They need to present tickets! They need to present their tickets!”

Ignoring Rarity’s immense sigh, Twilight carefully placed the guards on the other side of the gate, thanked them for their help and then went on her determined way, levitating the trunk and Rarity further into the station.

It wasn’t until a few minutes later that the Princess finally reached her coveted destination in the shape of a fantastically huge vehicle called a train. Large carriages were linked together via metallic locks, every one decorated with several windows from which ponies peered outside at the platforms. How did it work? Was it being powered by steam? Or by fire? Or magic? Probably magic, as magic was clearly the most efficient source of energy, but—!

Rarity!” she exclaimed, her mind already lining up the three dozen questions she wanted to ask. “Rarity, how—”

A book interrupted her.

Specifically, a book Rarity levitated before her, entitled The Great Railroad Revolution: The History of Trains in Equestria.

“I don’t see the others,” Rarity said, using her unusual position as a good vantage point to scour the station, “which means they’re already inside the train and, if all went according to plan, secured you the half-hour long interview with the conductor of the train.” She then looked down towards the alicorn and fluttered her eyelashes. “Twilight, I know you’re excited, but it’s not becoming of a Princess to have her mouth hanging open like that.”


Nearly an entire notebook.

Nearly an entire notebook had been filled in with notes, quotes, remarks, sketches, and stray thoughts that Twilight had jotted down during the two hour long interview she’d had with the train’s elderly conductor, Steam Stack. After that, she’d spent another hour interviewing train passengers, visited the restaurant compartment, was dragged out of said compartment by Rarity, went back in with Ink and Pinkie, was allowed into the train’s engine room, remembered what it felt like to be burned by coals, made notes on the experience, went back to the restaurant... In fact, she had been so enthralled, so transfixed, and so taken by this entirely new marvelous world, she had forgotten all about the fact she was about to meet Princess Luna.

Well, she forgot up until she stepped out of the train and into the shadowy train station of the hidden village.

“We’re here! We’re here, we’re here, we’re here!”

Pinkie’s voice boomed through the small station, every word accentuated with an enthused skip, hop and pirouette. She screeched to a halt in the middle of the platform, and Twilight couldn’t help but smile when the eager pink pony waved wildly at her, as though she’d been waiting on the platform rather than having taken the train with them.

The first thing Twilight noticed were the surroundings. Tall, imposing trees rose above them, whatever shade they threw over the town paling in comparison to the one that Foal Mountain brought, looming over the town like an immutable protector. Twilight, in a way, was reminded of her own forest back home, and though it was a truthfully unpleasant initial thought, she also knew that Hollow Shades was not like the Everfree Forest. No scary spirit or prison-like library awaited her there.

Next, as she walked towards Pinkie, trunk floating behind, she noticed the ponies walking about and, most of all, the black cloaks they wore. Another fascinating detail, she thought. Another perception shifted, as the symbol she had associated with Rarity’s scars and near-death was worn by these ponies as a sign of pride and communality.

She turned back towards the train, watching as Rarity and Incantation descended moments later, the latter having spent the train ride transformed as an ochre-coated unicorn with a braided blue mane.

“When is Spike arriving?” asked Twilight when the two mares joined Pinkie and her. “And the others?”

“According to Rainbow, it should take them a week to get here, not including naps and pit-stops,” Rarity said. “Applejack and Fluttershy should be stopping by next week with Sweetie and the girls, and Professor will return whenever he’s done with his affairs in the castle.”

“Come on! Why are you sillies talking here like sillies?!” Pinkie asked, bouncing towards the little group. “Princess Luna is waiting! Aren’t you excited to see Princess Luna, Princess Twilight?!”

“I am!” Twilight replied, even if she later faltered. “And she’s excited to see me too...?”

Pinkie stared at the alicorn as though she’d been slapped. “Is she excited to see you?! She’s TOTALLY super excited! It’s all she’s talked about the entire week!”

Incantation snorted. “You haven’t talked to Princess Luna for more than a week, Chief.”

Pinkie blew raspberries and then tapped Incantation on the nose. “I still know she’s been excited the entire week, you silly ducky.”

Ink blinked. “Quack?”

“There’s nothing to be worried about, dearest,” said Rarity to Twilight. “I can promise you that no matter how worried you are about Princess Luna, she’s just as worried. And, before I forget…” She turned her sights to the changeling, expression softening. “Come now, little duck. You know what you must do,” she said and immediately Incantation’s cheery disposition shifted into a fairly uncomfortable-looking one.

“But… I mean… We just got here…” she said, grimacing like a filly ordered to take nasty medicine and stepping back. “Come on, Boss…”

“Aw, Rarity,” Pinkie said, going to the changeling and throwing a foreleg around her. “Can’t she stay like this just a little bit?”

Rarity winced. “Ink, darling, you know—”

Ink interrupted. “Yeah, I know, Boss, but—”

“Wait, wait!” Twilight interrupted, wanting to understand whatever unsaid conversation was happening right before her. “I don’t understand. What’s wrong with Incantation?”

“I’m a changeling,” Ink said sourly, and Rarity frowned.

“There’s nothing wrong with that, Incantation, and I would appreciate if you refrained from saying that at all.” She turned to Twilight and sighed. “As you know, Incantation is the first changeling to try and properly live amongst ponies. Well, that also implies living as a changeling, not masquerading as a pony.”

Twilight’s eyes widened. “They know you’re a changeling?” she asked, and Ink nodded.

“Yeah,” she said, “and they don’t like me.”

“Yes, they do!” Pinkie protested, stamping her hoof against the floor. “Storytimes with Ink are the BEST nights of the week! Every foal comes for that!”

“And every adult comes too, just to make sure the scary changeling doesn’t act out,” Ink replied flatly.

Twilight felt her heart drop. “They’re afraid of you,” she said, a statement if only because no pony corrected her.

“They don’t know better, darling,” Rarity interjected firmly. “Just like they don’t know better about Princess Luna.”

Incantation’s ears dropped. “I know,” she said before shaking her head, taking a breath and grinning widely. “I’m fine now! Sorry, Bosses and Princess.” She then grinned at Rarity. “Let me stay like this until the shop, and I’ll do you the favor of organizing the wardrobes.”

“Do me the favor?! I pay you to do it!” Rarity exclaimed as Pinkie and Incantation gave each other a conspiratorial glance before running away in a fit of giggles. “Incantation?! Incantation! Pinkie Pie, don’t encourage this, for pony’s sake!” However, they were soon out of sight, and her displeasure was not alleviated when Twilight leaned in to nuzzle her. “Those two will be the death of me.”

“I like them,” said Twilight, walking in the direction the mares had gone off to. It wasn’t until Rarity was besides her that she spoke up again, tone more somber. “Are they really very afraid of her?”

Rarity sighed. “Not at first. When she first arrived, everypony loved her. She tells stories, you know? With her imitation abilities and the like. You should see her, it’s really something. I keep telling her she should pursue acting.” She licked her lips. “Regardless, everything was going well, until, well… somepony read up on changelings. One pony, Twilight, one pony is all it took, and next thing you know, ‘Princess Denza’ had to come here to promise dozens of parents personally that Incantation wasn’t here to harm their children.”

“That’s terrible…”

“It is what it is, but Incantation is frightfully good at taking it in stride most of the time,” Rarity replied, “though now you see that there is so much more at stake than just freeing Princess Luna and the others.”

As they continued their walk towards Rarity and Pinkie’s boutique, Twilight mostly entertained herself with admiring the village. The constellation designs on the homes were certainly very appealing, and despite the darkness the village was submerged in, the torches and friendly ponies brightened it up tremendously.

And the foals, as well, who all seemed excessively fond of Rarity.

As they walked on, many of the foals rushing around would stop and wave at them, saying hasty hellos before rushing off to continue their games. Some of them, even, seemed to stare at Twilight for a moment before giggling and running away.

“You’re, uh, very popular with foals?”

“Not to worry,” Rarity replied. “You’ll see why.”

“See why?” Twilight asked, blinking when Rarity came to a stop and pointed to the horizon.

“That is why.”

A tall building came up before Twilight in the distance, different from the Hollow Shades aesthetic yet somehow perfectly fitting in. She had seen it before, in one of the framed photos back in Carousel Boutique, but to see it in person was another thing entirely. There it was, Lullaby’s Dreamland, looking as though Luna had whisked Carousel Boutique away and re-modeled it in her own image. Much like the other houses in the village, the building’s blue walls were decorated with bright yellow star designs. Fake clouds lined the building’s exterior, stars and moons hanging from them in perfectly even intervals.

Finally, atop the large crystalline doors, was an oval painting depicting a very familiar lunar Princess.

“It’s quite something, isn’t it?” Rarity asked, pride soaking her every word as she moved toward the building. “Come now, Pinkie and Incantation must be inside already.”

Twilight followed, soaking up the design of the boutique up until they reached the crystal doors that barred them from the Dreamland. The first thing she noticed was the fact that there were two sets of crescent-moon shaped doorknobs, one at normal height and one at the exact height for a colt or filly to use.

“After you, Princess,” said Rarity, stepping back and gesturing toward the doors.

“Thank you,” Twilight said with a smile, intending on pushing open the doors had a deafening yell not interrupted her.

Rarity!”

Twilight turned around and saw a little pegasus filly in a blue dress rushing towards them, an older pegasus mare and a unicorn colt following behind.

Rarity!” yelled the filly, practically tripping over herself and screeching to halt before the unicorn. “You’re back! You’re back!”

“My, my, if it isn’t Princess Rhinestone!” Rarity exclaimed, bowing her head while Twilight set down the trunk with the elements. “Your Highness, what an honor to see you again. And, might I add, what a fabulous ensemble you’re wearing!” She fluttered her eyelashes. “You simply must tell me, Your Highness, who designed that fabulous dress?”

Rhinestone giggled. “You did, silly!”

Rarity gasped theatrically, lifting a hoof and placing not on her own chest, but Twilight’s. “Moooooooi?!I designed that marvel of a dress?! I simply can’t believe it! Did I truly?” She turned to Twilight. “Darling, look at it! I designed that! A dress for a princess!”

The older mare started laughing. “It really is a beautiful dress, Rarity,” she said, looking down at her daughter fondly. “I don’t think Rhy will ever want to wear her cloak again!” She then turned back to Rarity, intent on speaking, but her eyes landed on Twilight instead and she smiled widely. “And if it isn’t Princess Twilight! Out of the library, I see?”

Twilight stared at her. How did…? But…? What…?

“Uh, hello,” eloquently said the Princess, throwing Rarity a concerned glance and instead finding the unicorn very quiet and very focused, her eyebrow slightly furrowed.

“Mom!” chastised the colt, finally speaking up, rolling his eyes and groaning. “That’s not the real Princess Twilight!” He buried his face in his hooves. “Ugh.”

The mare laughed. “Oh, Dusk, let me have fun!”

“Actually...” Rarity drifted off, her brow furrowing further and her forehoof lifting to her necklace. She regarded Twilight thoughtfully for a moment before clearing her throat and flashing the mare and foals a brilliant smile. “Actually,” she said, “this is indeed Princess Twilight Sparkle.”

Twilight’s eyes widened. “Rarity!” she whispered urgently. “I thought we weren’t going to…” She drifted off at the curious stares of the three strangers and resigned herself to giving her grinning marefriend a pointed stare.

“Stop it, Ink!” Dusk said with a smile, trotting forward and tugging on Twilight’s cloak. “Come on! Show mom!”

Twilight cleared her throat, unsure of how to act. “Well, uh…” Again, she threw Rarity a pained glance, who again only smiled cryptically in reply. “I’m not Incantation.”

“Yes, you are!” said the colt.

Rhy poked Twilight on the foreleg. “Stop being silly, Inky! Rarity told us that the real Princess Twilight is fighting monsters in her library!” she added, much to the delight of her mother.

“Fighting monsters in her library?” said the mother, now leaning down to her kids. “With her big army of bunnies and owls!” She then looked up at Twilight and winked. “Isn’t that right, Princess?”

“...Yes?” Twilight said, throwing Rarity another helpless pointed glance.

Rarity cleared her throat, drawing the attention of everypony. “You don’t believe me?” She moved towards the boutique’s crystal doors, pushing them open and peering inside. “Incantaaaaation? Your presence is needed outside!”

Moments later, the door swung open and Rarity stepped aside to let a familiar changeling through.

“Oh! Rhy and Dusk! Always first in line for cupcakes. Pinkie just—What’s wrong?” she asked, following the two gawking foals line of sight and ending at Twilight herself. Her eyes flickered from the stunned foals, to Twilight, and to Rarity’s meaningful gaze and she quickly said, “Oh, Princess Twilight! Welcome to Lullaby’s Dreamland!”

“Uh, thank you,” Twilight said.

The mother frowned. “Oh, dear! Rarity, I…” She turned to Rarity and gave her a clearly pained smile. “I… You didn’t tell us we’d be having another… uh… special visitor!”

“I’m not a changeling,” Twilight said before Rarity could do so.

The mare laughed awkwardly, her gaze going to the still starry-eyed foals. “O-Of course you aren’t! You’re Princess Twilight!”

It was Rhinestone who reacted first, her wide eyes now turning to suspicious slits. “If you’re really Princess Twilight,” she said, “where’s your crown?”

“My crown?” Twilight asked, panic rising in her. She turned to Rarity, horrified. “Rarity! Where’s the Element of Harmony?! Do you still have it?! You still have it, don’t you? Tell me you—”

“Yes, I have it,” Rarity replied, digging into her saddlebags and carefully extracting the golden tiara adorned with Twilight’s cutie mark, much to the Princess’s relief and to Rhinestone’s awed delight. Rarity levitated the crown down towards the filly who in turn seemed almost afraid to touch it.

Her brother, however, had no such reservations.

“Cooool!” he exclaimed, taking the crown in his hoof and immediately putting it on before beaming towards the others, the oversized crown lopsided atop his head. “It fits me!”

“It does!” said the mother. “All you need is a suit, and you’ll be my handsome prince!”

“Or a Princess!” Rhinestone interjected. “Princesses are cooler!”

Dusk frowned and looked at Twilight. “Can I fight in a dress, Princess?”

Twilight blinked. “I… It depends on the make of the dress? But you can, yes.”

“Princess Twilight!” exclaimed Rhy, leaving her brother to muse on the art of the fashionable war and now tugged at Twilight’s cloak. “Why does your cloak have Rarity’s cutie mark?” She gasped and then pressed her hooves against her mouth, giggling as she eyed the two mares. “Do you… like-like her?”

Incantation snickered. “She does way more than like-like her. She—mmph!”

“Twilight,” Rarity quickly said, her magic proving to be an effective muzzle for the changeling. “Why not show them your wings?”

Awkwardly, Twilight undid her cloak’s clasp and then took it off, allowing her long wings to stretch out, again to the delight of the foals.

“Can I touch them?!” begged Rhinestone, already hoofing up at them and then gasping softly when Twilight acquiesced. “They’re so soft…”

Twilight smiled proudly. “Rarity showed me a strange liquid called shampoo to help maintain them.”

“Now, children, listen to me,” Rarity said suddenly, leaning down and speaking in a low hush. “Nopony knows Princess Twilight is here. This is our secret, understood?”

The siblings nodded gravely.

“Splendid!” exclaimed Rarity, drawing herself up. “Now, what can we do for you?”

Rhinestone cleared her throat, stepping back. “Uhm. I wanted to… go somewhere.”

“Me too,” said Dusk, similarly stepping back.

“Bye!” they both yelled, running off into town.

“Kids!” called the mother, stepping towards the foals.

“Goodbye…?” Twilight called out before turning to Rarity. “Did I do something?”

“Oh, don’t worry,” Rarity said, waving her off. “They’ll be back.”

“And the rest of the town’s foals,” Incantation added.

Twilight blinked. “Uh. All right, then,” she said, looking back towards the foals before yelping in horror. “Wait!” she gasped, running off in hot pursuit of the Element of Harmony currently rushing off towards the unknown. “WAIT! MY CROWN!”

Once she returned, crown levitating behind her, she finally placed the Element on her head, feeling very much as though royalty had once again been imposed on her.

“Well,” said the mother, smiling kindly at Twilight. “I’m sure that Rarity, er, discussed your visit with the Princess then?” She then turned to Incantation and quickly added, “Not that we mind, of course! The more the merrier!”

Incantation smiled thinly. “Of course! Anyway, I need to go inside to finish stuff,” she said before retreating into the boutique, her smile disappearing as she did so.

Once she was gone, Rarity turned to the mare. “Amethyst, Twilight here is a very real pony,” she explained carefully. “Incantation has been transforming as her.”

Amethyst blinked. “Oh? Oh!” she said, and Twilight was upset on Ink’s behalf to find the mare looking visibly relieved at the fact that she was not a changeling. “Oh, in that case, welcome to Hollow Shades!” Her wings ruffled at her side. “I’ve never seen prosthetic wings like yours before. They actually look real!” Before Twilight could inform that they were real, the mare met her eyes. “Your name is…?”

Twilight,” Twilight replied.

“Really? Oh, you’ll fit right in here then! A lot of ponies here were also named after the Princesses, actually.” She giggled. “Dusk, for example was named after the original Princess Twilight. I assume you were too, then?”

Twilight blinked. “...That would be technically accurate.”

“Well, I’m sure Princess Twilight would be flattered! Dusk is very proud of his name, you know. And speaking of which…” She looked in the direction her children had run off to. “I better go after them.”

“Well, Amethyst, it was lovely seeing you again,” Rarity said, bowing her head. “Pinkie and I are back from our little trip, so the shop shall be open until further notice.”

“Oh, that’s great! I know several of my friends were starting to have cupcake-withdrawals.” Amethyst smiled and nodded to Twilight. “It was very nice to meet you…” She winked. “Princess Twilight.”

Twilight smiled politely. “Of course. You have wonderful children,” she said, and then watched in silence as the mare trotted off, waiting until she was out of earshot to say, “Hm.”

“Darliiiing.” Rarity lifted Twilight’s chin. “Did you think it would be easy? Ponies readily willing to believe ponytales are more than just ponytales?”

“You did,” Twilight pointed out.

“I did,” Rarity said, turning towards the doors, “and I also wasn’t under the influence of chaos magic my entire life, unlike every single resident of this town. You know very well what it can do, and more than that, what it convinces ponies they are seeing. I saw sinkholes and illusions littered throughout the Everfree Forest, and they… well...” She brushed her hoof across Twilight’s wings. “They see ‘prosthetic wings’. I could have you fly across town, and the magic will give them any justification to keep them from believing.”

“What about Incantation? Changelings have nothing to do with Discord and they treat her like--"

“Incantation knows this is a process that will take time and effort,” Rarity interrupted. She cleared her throat. “Now, shall we go inside? Nighttime is still hours away, so I do think a tour will be a splendid way to pass the time until your meeting with the Princess.”

Twilight tore her eyes away from where Amethyst had gone off to and turned to the boutique, shaking off the bad sensations. Determined to not let her mood be ruined, she took hold of the doorknobs and pushed the doors open, making a big show out of cautiously stepping inside if only for Rarity’s enjoyment.

Whatever discomfort she’d been feeling evaporated as she took in the entrance hall. Several doors could be found all around, as well as a grand staircase with two small Luna statues at the bottom of the railings. What interested Twilight, however, were the foyer’s navy walls, decorated with every little object that could be found in Princess Luna’s starry domain: planets and moons surrounded by innumerable stars and constellations.

Twilight made her way toward the walls, surprised to see the positions of the stars were almost entirely accurate to the real ones. The only thing that stood out, actually, was a very foallike drawing of Pinkie Pie throwing a party on a planet.

“Oh, dear, I forgot to erase that from last time,” Rarity murmured, having joined Twilight near the wall. She levitated over a rectangular wooden block with green fur on one side and then used it to erase the drawing, leaving only the image of the planet.

“Did you do that?” Twilight asked, surprised. “The drawing?”

“Me? Oh, goodness no, it’s the children who do.” She gestured towards a trunk filled with dozens of multicolored sticks. “Every inch of this place is coated with chalk-friendly material for the foals. We have a celest—lunar event every so often where the foals learn about astronomy and form constellations.” She giggled and gestured towards a constellation depicting a five-horned unicorn on the other side of the foyer. “They can be, er, quite creative.”

A few feet to the left of the quinticorn, Twilight felt her heart skip a beat at the sight of closed yellow double-doors bearing Princess Celestia’s cutie mark. No sooner had she seen it was she already rushing to it.

“What’s this room for?” she asked as she walked, looking back to the unicorn and then following her gesture towards an inscription atop the door.

“...Princess Celestia’s Bakery?” Twilight asked, turning back to Rarity now with less wonder and more confusion.

Rarity coughed politely, hanging her saddlebags on one of the foal-sized coat hangers. “According to Princess Luna, Princess Celestia spent her days, as she puts it, scavenging the castle’s larders. She was very insistent this be the room named after her.”

Twilight rubbed a hoof on her forehead. Really, Princess Luna? Really?

“Well? Go in!” Rarity prompted, walking towards her. “Let us not keep Pinkie waiting.”

It was difficult to properly define the variety of smells that assaulted Twilight when she pushed the doors open. It was difficult to properly define them with any other word that wasn’t either heavenly or delectable or impossibly enticing. Rarity’s voice faded into the background, drowned out by Twilight’s gurgling stomach as it drove her across the room, past the small pink tables set around and to the counter at the end of the room where Pinkie awaited with a wide grin.

A menu was placed on the counter, blocking Twilight’s view of the assorted pastries caged inside the transparent counter.

“So, Princess Twilight,” asked Pinkie with a giggle. “What can I get you? Everything?”

‘Everything’ was Twilight’s first thought as well but, remembering Rarity was present, she smiled politely and gestured to the single most enticing cupcake she could see.

“Just that one, please,” she said, ignoring her stomach’s scandalized protest in favor of basking in Rarity’s delighted smile.

“Just one?” Pinkie asked with a gasp.

“Just one,” Twilight replied.

Really?”

“Yes, just one please.”

“But—! But—!” Pinkie turned her sights to Rarity, eyes narrowed as she simultaneously took out the single cupcake. “Oki-doki-loki.”

“Oh, don’t be so dramatic,” Rarity said, rolling her eyes. She levitated a napkin from a nearby table over to Twilight before turning around. “Come on! The tour must go on!”

Twilight’s gaze followed Rarity, and it wasn’t until the unicorn had left the room that she quickly turned back to Pinkie.

“Pinkie, I—”

“I’ll have one of everything on the menu waiting in your room for you,” she cut-off with a grin, lifting her hoof and tapping Twilight’s nose. “Plus a cup of hot cocoa with marshmallows.”

Twilight’s heart and stomach soared. “But what about Ra—”

Again, Pinkie cut her off. “Oh, you can eat them when Rarity’s taking her weekly three-hour long bath!”

Three-hour long bath?!” Twilight gasped.

Pinkie nodded. “Yep!” she exclaimed, looking over Twilight for signs of the unicorn before leaning in close to whisper. “Used to be five-and-a-half, but then we got our first water bill. She reeeeeeally didn’t like that.”

A voice called from outside.

Twiiiiiilight!” Rarity called. “When you’re done conspiring, shall we continue the tour?”

After making her way to the foyer with an only mildly satisfied stomach and the insistence that she was not conspiring, Twilight joined her marefriend, who waited for her next to another set of double-doors. These, however, were painted pink and bore Cadance’s cutie mark.

“Princess Cadance’s Theatre,” Twilight read aloud from the inscription above the doors.

“I would love to show you inside,” Rarity said, patting on the doors, “but it would seem a certain changeling”—She turned towards the doors and raised her voice—”decided to be an utter slob while we were away!”

I’m cleaning, I’m cleaning!”

“What’s upstairs?” asked Twilight, moving away from the door and towards the grand staircases. She took a moment to inspect the statues before climbing up towards the second floor where she found two double-doors, one single door, and a spiral staircase going up.

“That leads to the observatory,” Rarity pointed out, gesturing to the spiral staircase before grinning and gesturing towards lavender-colored double doors with Twilight’s cutie mark painted on them. “And that is Princess Twilight’s Library.”

As it turned out, the name was indeed very accurate, and in ways that made Twilight’s heart both soar and whimper. She was, for all intents and purposes, staring into a much smaller version of her own library’s first floor. Nearby tables, she noticed, all had owl-shaped inkwells with matching quills. The bookcases were organized in distinctive patterns, and as she strode through them, she was delighted to find the books organized in the appropriate Starswirl the Bearded Decimal System, as well as several perches for owl to stand on.

“We didn’t have floating chandeliers, but we tried our best,” Rarity said, drawing Twilight’s attention to the grand chandelier on the ceiling, which itself hung from what seemed to be several dozen nearly-transparent strings.

The walls, Twilight noticed, had been decorated much like the foyer, but rather than stars and planets, it had been filled with owls and baby dragons, interspersed with quotes from books.

When she finally returned to the entrance, tears sparkled in her eyes.

“Twilight, what’s wrong?” Rarity asked with alarm, but Twilight simply shook her head and wiped away the tears.

“Nothing’s wrong,” she said, looking back towards the library, a swirl of emotions running through her mind and body. The idea that the library that had for so long represented her prison was ultimately what others loved and associated with her in a positive way; she didn’t know how to feel about it, and so she decided not to dwell on it at all. “Uhm, wh-what’s next?”

Though still clearly concerned, Rarity did not press the matter. “Errr, what’s next? Oh, I know!” she exclaimed, turning around and guiding Twilight out of the room

They re-entered the hallway and Twilight followed Rarity towards an adjacent set of blue double-doors, sewing machines painted on them. Above the doors, in elegant white calligraphy, was the name The Royal Dressing Room.

The doors swung open with Rarity’s magic and Twilight stepped into a place that could only be described as wonderfully Rarity. An organized chaos of fabrics strewn about, of sketches and designs pasted all over the walls, of racks and racks filled with all sorts of foal and adult sized clothes, and a platform in the middle for ponies to model on.

More than the library room, she realized, that was the only room in the entire building that she felt completely familiar and comfortable in. The only room, perhaps, in which she felt safe to be herself.

“It’s a bit of a mess,” said Rarity, picking up some envelopes from her desk and looking them over. “I always tell that filly to leave the mail downstairs and she always…” She drifted off, extracting an envelope decorated with an owl stamp and then placing the others back on the table.

“And she always what?” Twilight asked.

Rarity did not reply, instead opening the envelope and reading the letter inside. She mumbled under her breath as she did so and just as Twilight was about to inquire on it, a grand smile curved her lips.

Twilight stepped forward, curious. “Is everything all right?”

“Yes, it is! Just a message from a friend,” she said, slipping the letter back in the envelope and placing it with the others. She then turned back to Twilight. “In any case, this has been my workshop for a little over a year now.”

“It’s very you,” Twilight replied, moving towards the unicorn to nuzzle her.

“I do hope you mean that as a compliment.”

“I do,” Twilight replied, placing her chin atop the unicorn’s head. “Mostly.”

Mostly?” Rarity huffed theatrically. “Well then!”

Twilight laughed, listening to Rarity’s grumbling as she again looked around the room, admiring the sketches on the walls. Or, she would have if she’d not noticed a single spot of the room that was decidedly un-Rarity-like.

Inside an alcove at the end of the room was a large circular window, a ray of sunshine filtering in through it keeping warm the assortment of pillows and blankets at the bottom of the alcove. It beckoned to her, and she found herself moving away from Rarity and towards this spot that seemed to have been made just for her.

“Is this where you sleep?” asked Twilight, approaching the alcove and finding that the inner walls of it doubled as bookshelves.

“Oh, goodness, no,” replied Rarity, still watching from afar. “I only rarely sit there, I must confess. I have a hard time relaxing in the same place where I work.”

Twilight jumped up on the sill and lay down, finding herself awash with an indescribable sense of comfort. It was ridiculously cozy, she thought, and more than that, it reminded her of what she loved to do most when she’d still been trapped in her library: listen to the low hum of Rarity’s sewing machine as she read.

“Then why have this?” Twilight asked, grabbing a pillow and fluffing it, stopping only to frown at Rarity’s teasing expression. “What?”

“Well,” Rarity began, carefully and slowly, “I recall a certain alicorn loved to read while I worked, and… And I suppose I never lost hope that she might one day visit.”

Silence filled the room as Twilight put the pillow down, unsure of what to say or what to do.

“Rarity, I…”

“There’s not many books,” Rarity said, gesturing towards the shelves, “but I personally am rather fond of them.”

Twilight looked towards the bookshelves, pleased to find she recognized some of them. She levitated one over and was surprised to see they looked brand new despite being books written in her own time period. It was oddly satisfying to know the knowledge from her own time was still valid in the present.

“Oh, I really like these,” she said, turning back to Rarity with an eager smile. “Thank you.”

“It’s my pleasure, Twilight,” Rarity said again, a soft smile on her lips. “They are yours, after all.”

And, again, as Twilight’s eyes widened, so did silence fall over the room.

She looked down at the book, an ancient book that looked brand new, and brushed her hoof against the cover, almost afraid to open it and find out. An eternity seemed to pass, Rarity waiting in silence, until finally she opened the cover and her own familiar calligraphy stared back at her.

Property of Princess Twilight Sparkle

She looked back up, back towards the arch, levitating a second book and opening it to find the sentence waiting for her again, and again in the third, and the fourth, and the fifth until fourteen books were spread before her, every single one bearing her name.

All of them intact, all of them there, and Celestia’s spell still protecting them when teardrops fell upon them.

“There’s two missing still,” Rarity continued. “I was ready to sell Carousel Boutique in order to pay what one pony was asking for one of them, but it was worth it if it meant freeing you.”

“But… But why?” Twilight asked. “Discord said that—”

“I know,” Rarity interrupted, finally moving towards her and sitting next to her on the floor, taking one of the books and brushing a hoof over the inscription. “I know he said these wouldn’t free you, but…” She turned back to Twilight, eyes meeting. “As I said, I never lost hope.”

“I… I don’t know what to say.”

Rarity leaned in and kissed the ever-willing alicorn. “I believe a simple ‘thank you’ will suffice,” she said when she pulled apart, afterwards moving in to cuddle the alicorn. “And moving aside, as well. This spot looks far too comfortable for you to have it all for yourself.”

No sooner was Rarity comfortably propped against her, Twilight wasted no time putting the books away so she could focus on snuggling the unicorn, enveloping both her forelegs and wings around Rarity. Affection pulsed through her, like little jolts of electricity only to intensify when she breathed in the comforting scent of Rarity’s perfume. Rarity sighed next to her, safe and protected and back in her home that Twilight was quickly growing to love.

“What… What would you have done?” Twilight asked, suddenly. “If you’d found all the books while I was still in the library?”

“Oh, I don’t know,” Rarity said airily. “Cry, I think. Cry and then march straight into that tunnel, throw them at that damned barrier and hope for the best.”

Twilight couldn’t help but laugh at the image of an irate Rarity chucking the books against the barrier. She snuggled closer to her, closing her eyes and sighing in contentment, feeling as though she could easily stay there for endless hours.

“As comfortable as this may be, shall we continue with the tour?” Rarity asked, and Twilight replied not with words but actions, her horn glowing and the door in the distance closing and locking soon after.

“Why, Princess Twilight Sparkle,” Rarity murmured, turning around to face Twilight with a sultry smile, her forehoof lazily brushing Twilight’s cheek. “I suppose that answers my question.”

“I suppose it does,” Twilight replied with a grin, leaning into her marefriend and revelling in being so close against her. How fantastic, it was, how new and exciting it still was to be able to hold her, and kiss her, and love her, and equally be very thoroughly annoyed by the sudden knocking at the door, forcing her to pull away from Rarity and glare at the door.

“Rarity?” Pinkie tentatively called from outside, and Twilight heard the unicorn beneath her hold her breath and keep quiet. Pinkie, however, was undeterred and she knocked even louder. “Rarity, we kiiiiinda need help with cleaning up downstairs ‘cause, uh, there’s a liiiiiittle line outside.”

“Drat,” Rarity murmured. “I forgot.”

Twilight bit down on her lip, her cheeks flushing. “Maybe we can, uh, postpone?” she suggested, even if it was the diametric opposite of what she felt like doing.

“I’d have strong words for the pony responsible for this,” Rarity whispered, “if that pony wasn’t me.” Before Twilight could ask, Rarity let out a long sigh, leaning up to kiss Twilight before dropping down onto the pillows with a huff and finally calling out to Pinkie. “I’ll be down in a minute!”

“Oki-doki-loki!”

Once she heard Pinkie trot off, she turned to her marefriend with a raised eyebrow. “How are you responsible for this?”

“If I’ve learned something in the year or so that I’ve had this shop, it’s that foals can’t be trusted to keep secrets,” Rarity said, gesturing for Twilight to look out the window. “And what did I tell Rhinestone and Dusk not to do?”

Twilight peered out the window as she replied: “Tell anypony that I was—Oh my gosh!”

There they were, the filly and colt from earlier, catching sight of her and waving furiously alongside more than three dozen other foals, all of them waving to her as excitedly as Rhinestone and Dusk, some of them even carrying hoof-made signs welcoming Twilight to town.

“Well, well, well,” said Rarity, lifting her hoof to close Twilight’s half-open jaw. “Welcome to Hollow Shades indeed, Princess Twilight Sparkle.”


~ Act II ~ Chapter 8 ~ The Dreams of Alicorns ~

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“Tell me more about her, North,” she asked as they walked under the night sky.

“About her?” he asked, clearing his throat. “About my Frost Flower, you mean?”

“Yes,” she replied, and he noticed she always asked about Frost Flower when she seemed to be missing her Princess the most. “You’ve told me so little of your adventures with her.”

He laughed. “Our adventures! We had many, indeed. Did I tell you the story of the bar we destroyed in Eventide Isle?”


"There's so many of them," observed Princess Twilight Sparkle, her muzzle pressed against the window and her eyes glued to the dozens of cloaked foals in front of the doors of the Dreamland waiting for her.

Rarity, having returned from her cleaning duties downstairs, trotted over towards Twilight and peered down the window. "That's not all of them," she said, ignoring Twilight's concerned whine. "There's still several missing." She then glanced at Twilight and smiled with mischief. "I'm sure they'll be along any minute now for the royal event."

Twilight looked back towards the children, just as Pinkie opened the entrance doors and allowed them to pour in, creating a commotion loud enough she could hear it all the way up to where they were.

Rarity jumped off the cushions and onto the floor. "Well then! Shall we head down? In my experience, it is not wise to keep them waiting," she warned as she trotted towards the door.

"Wait!" Twilight blurted out, following after her. "What am I supposed to do?!"

Rarity turned back, blinking. "Whatever do you mean?"

"Well, I don't know!" Twilight exclaimed, not understanding how what she meant wasn't obvious. "We didn't establish a protocol for this situation!"

There was a moment's pause before Rarity smiled teasingly. "Darling, not everything in this world needs to have a protocol in place, you know?" she mistakenly said before trotting off, missing Twilight's remark that yes, they did need a protocol, Rarity!

“The protocol is to act as yourself, then,” Rarity replied without missing a beat, to which Twilight had no rebuttal.

Bested, she followed the unicorn all the way towards the stairs, her growing apprehension only increasing at the sight of the entire lobby filled to the brim with kids holding welcome signs and makeshift princess crowns.

And yet.

And yet, out of all of the ponies gathered downstairs, the single most excited one wasn't one of the foals, but Pinkie Pie herself.

"Come ON!" Pinkie both somehow whispered and screamed as she rushed up the stairs, bouncing in place at the top of the stairs. "What're you two waiting for?!"

"Moi? Nothing at all," Rarity declared, trotting down the stairs and brightly greeting several nearby foals.

"And you?" Pinkie asked Twilight, staring at her with almost disturbingly wide eyes, enough so that they intimidated the alicorn into quickly following after Rarity, Pinkie right behind her.

The reaction was immediate.

As soon as she was in view of the lobby, silence swept over the young crowd. Mouths hung open, their conversation quickly forgotten; chalk drawings on the wall were left unfinished, the talented young artists dropping the chalks so as to stare; Incantation pouted, her transformation of a quinticorn fast forgotten in favor of the very real alicorn waving awkwardly at the foals.

And Pinkie, again, seemed fit to burst.

“Everypony, everypony!” she announced beside Twilight, barely contained giggles filtering in through her every spoken word. She put a hoof on Twilight’s shoulder and exclaimed, “Meet Princess Twilight Sparkle.”

It all went by in a blur. One moment, Twilight was clearing her throat, preparing to formally greet the children; the next, she was backing away in panic as a crowd of thirty or more foals charged towards her, belting out what sounded like a war cry.

They filled the stairs, pushed past Pinkie, backed Twilight up to the wall and then gave her a dose of her own medicine by barraging her with questions, including but not limited to: were her wings real; did it hurt if they were pulled on; why wasn’t she wearing a cloak; what was it like to be a princess; did she really live in a library for a thousand years; was it boring; could she do magic while flying; could she fly while doing magic; yes, there was a difference; how did she escape; did she beat somepony up; did she meet the Spirit; did she beat up the Spirit—

“All right, children, let her be!” Rarity finally said after five merciless minutes, and nearly all of them immediately obeyed and backed away, much to Twilight’s surprise. Only Dusk and Rhinestone remained firmly planted near Twilight’s side.

“She’s just as pretty as you said she would be!” a filly excitedly told Rarity, sitting down and admiring Twilight as though she were a precious painting.

“Of course she is! When have I ever told a lie, Princess Pumpkin?” she asked, and then a nearby colt giggled.

“During the big map hunt,” he said, and other foals partook in his giggling. “You said the Dragon Gauntlet wasn’t in Princess Luna’s observatory, and it was!”

Rarity scoffed. “What?! Don’t be silly! You know very well that doesn’t count!” she protested as she moved towards Twilight. “If I told you it was there, you would have found it and then the game night would have been over in the first ten minutes!” She then cleared her throat and gestured to Twilight. “Princess Twilight has arrived at our little shop after a long trip, so she’ll only be answering a few questions today, all right?”

Immediately, more than thirty forehooves shot up into the air, including Pinkie’s and Incantation’s.

“A few,” she repeated with a raised eyebrow. She then glanced to Pinkie and Ink. “From the children.”

Only Incantation lowered her hoof, transforming into a filly and then raising it again.

Rarity let out a rather long sigh.

“It’s all right,” Twilight said in reply. Now that the foals had settled, her trepidation had all but vanished, and she was eager to find out how exactly flying while casting magic was different from casting magic while flying. She licked her lips, scanned the crowd and raised a hoof. “Why don’t we start with… uh…”

A raspy voice interrupted.

“May I have the honor of the first question?”

The owner of the voice revealed herself to be an elderly pegasus mare standing near the entrance of the Dreamland, leaning on her cane as she fixed Twilight and Rarity with her gaze. Much like the foals, she too wore a cloak, and it was clear she was respected judging by how all the foals immediately greeted her.

“Elder Moonshine!” exclaimed Pinkie, and for a split-second, her cheer seemed to falter. “Welcome!”

“Why, Elder,” Rarity said next, smiling politely at the pegasus. “How nice of you to join us! We weren’t able to say our goodbyes before leaving with such short notice.”

“No, you didn’t, child. But now you’ve returned!” said the Elder, walking past the foals and all the way up to the stairs, her curious eyes focusing on Twilight herself. “And with a very interesting guest, no less.”

“It’s Princess Twilight, Elder!” Rhinestone exclaimed, tugging on the mare’s hindleg. “She’s free!”

“So she is!” exclaimed the Elder, and Twilight was very pleased to see some adult ponies did believe in her. The Elder bowed her head slightly. “Princess Twilight, an honor to meet you at last.”

Twilight stood up straight, smiling in kind. “The honor is mine, Elder,” she said. “Are you the leader of Hollow Shades?”

Elder Moonshine laughed. “You could say that,” she said with a wink. “Never ran for town council, but the only pony the villagers think has more authority than me is our crown Princess.”

“Well!” Pinkie exclaimed, wrapping her foreleg around Twilight. “Now there’s another crown princess!”

One of the foals waved his forehoof wildly in the air. “Are you going to help us rescue Princess Luna, Princess Twilight?” he asked.

“Are we going to fight the Spirit?!” Dusk asked next, tugging on Twilight’s foreleg. He then turned to the Elder, his wings flaring up. ”Can we, Elder Moonshine?!”

Elder Moonshine hummed, tapping her cane against the floor. “Only after I’ve spoken with Princess Twilight,” she said and then turned to the foals. “Alone.”

“Awwwwwwwwwwwww,” said the choir of disappointed foals, their little ears dropping and their eyes widening and filling with tears, all of them clearly having learned a thing or two from Rarity.

“Pinkie, dear,” Rarity said, looking to their friend, “I might be misremembering, but weren’t we scheduled to have our monthly free cupcake sampling today?”

Pinkie frowned. “We were?” she asked, and only when Rarity pointed to the elder did Pinkie continue. “I mean, we were! We totally super duper were!” At the sound of the foals gasping, she turned to the filly behind her. “Inky! You know what to do!”

“You got it, Chief,” said Ink, not bothering to turn back into a changeling as she trotted towards Princess Celestia’s Bakery and opened the doors, barely jumping out of the way of the tiny stampede that rushed past her.

The Elder chuckled, shaking her head and leaning on her cane. “One thing nopony can resist are your cupca—” She cut herself off, her eyes landing on Dusk and Rhinestone, the two siblings still firmly planted next to Twilight. “Don’t you two want cupcakes as well…?”

The two foals looked towards the door, and Twilight’s heart swelled a bit when they then pressed into her sides, shaking their heads.

“My, my. Look at that!” Rarity exclaimed, grinning at Twilight. “Two foals after my own heart.”

“Children,” said the Elder, affecting a more severe tone and gesturing to the bakery. “Please.”

“Aw…” Rhy said, head dropping.

“We can spend time together soon,” Twilight finally said, endeared by the two foals. They reminded her very much of the Cutie Mark Crusaders, and she found herself missing the three fillies.

“Are you still going to be here for my birthday, Princess?!” Dusk asked. “I’m gonna be thirteen!”

Pinkie gasped. “Of course she is!” She turned to Twilight. “Aren’t you?!”

Twilight turned to Rarity, seeking some sort of confirmation. “Err… Will we?”

“I believe we will, yes,” she said, carefully enough Twilight could tell she was thinking of something else. “Your birthday is a week after Seeking Night, isn’t it?” When he nodded, she noticed Pinkie and Rarity exchange a quick glance before she continued. “We will most definitely still be here, Your Highness.”

Dusk grinned, turning to Twilight. “Ha ha! Silver Note’s gonna be so jealous! Wait ‘till I tell him!” He rushed off, gesturing for his little sister to follow. “Come on, Rhy!”

“That’s not nice!” she protested as they ran off. “Princess Twilight is for everypony!”

“Mmm, I rather think some of us deserve a measure of exclusivity, ” Rarity murmured, low enough that only Twilight could hear as her tail brushed against the alicorn.

Once the siblings were gone, the Elder turned to Twilight. “So,” she said teasingly, glancing towards Rarity and Pinkie, “which one of them roped you into this?”

Twilight didn’t quite understand. “...Roped me into this?” she asked, and yet it was Pinkie who answered—or, rather, yelled.

“No!” she exclaimed with much more despair than Twilight thought was warranted, if only because she didn’t really understand what was going on. The mare stamped her hoof on the floor, ears clamping against her skull. “Elder Moonshine! She’s real! She wasn’t roped into anything!”

Oh.

“Elder Moonshine,” Rarity interjected, calm and collected, “I can assure you this is the real Princess Twilight Sparkle.”

“Now, child, these fake wings are good, but not that good,” she said with a laugh and a wink, to which Twilight herself couldn’t help but reply.

“They’re not fake,” she said, rustling the wings against her for good measure. It was true that for a very long time she had hated them, but that didn’t mean she wasn’t defensive over them.

“Yeah!” Pinkie exclaimed, helping Twilight’s affirmation by grabbing the nearest wing and drawing a pained squeak from the Princess by tugging on the wing hard. “See! She wouldn’t say ow if they weren’t real!”

“Pinkie, that really hu—OW! Pinkie!”

“See!”

Rarity cleared her throat. “Elder, we’ve told you several times that—”

The Elder waved her off. “That I’m under the influence of silly magic, yes, yes.”

Twilight stared. “Silly magic?”

Rarity kept her polite smile. “Chaos magic, Elder,” she said. “And yes, you are.”

Elder Moonshine sighed, leaning on her cane and giving Rarity a hard stare. “Rarity,” she said after a moment. “We’ve talked about this.”

Rarity’s smile, Twilight noticed, became slightly forced. “Elder, this isn’t about—”

“You have become a very important part of our town, yes,” the Elder interrupted, “but our traditions are our traditions, and they are absolute.”

“Elder, I do understand, and I am not trying to sway your opinion,” Rarity replied, “but Princess Twilight is free now, and with all the respect you know I hold for you, she is here regardless of whether or not you believe in her, or whether or not we can take charge of Seeking Night.”

Take charge of Seeking Night?

“I have always respected your decisions, Elder,” continued the unicorn, and now did her ears slightly lower. “I have never been here to impose my beliefs upon you.”

The Elder softened at that. “I would never think that of you, Rarity. If anything...” Her gaze landed on Pinkie Pie, whose chin she lifted with the tip of her cane. “I have you to thank for this little one not running off every other week, hm?”

Pinkie smiled brightly at that, and only afterwards did the Elder finally turn to Twilight.

“I don’t know if you’re truly who they say you are,” she said severely before smiling warmly, “but Hollow Shades is always open to anypony, regardless of what or who they are.”

“Unless you’re the Spirit,” Pinkie added. “Then you’re super not welcome!”

Elder Moonshine smiled. “Unless you’re the Spirit, yes.”

“Thank you, Elder,” Twilight said, bowing her head.

“Any friend of this little one is welcome here,” she said, adjusting her cloak and bowing her head. “I suppose I should let you go back to the children before we have a riot on our hooves.”

“Don’t you want cupcakes, Elder?” Pinkie asked, hopping in place. “We have your faaaaaavorite.”

The Elder grunted, pursing her lips. “...I don’t see why I can’t stay for one cupcake…”

“Hee! Nopony says no to my cupcakes!” Pinkie declared, jumping down the stairs and leading the Elder towards the bakery.

Once they were gone, Twilight turned to Rarity.

“What did she mean ‘take charge of Seeking Night’?”

Rarity sighed. “It was a… an idea I had, back when we thought you…. Well, you wouldn’t be free any time soon. I thought perhaps if I was allowed to organize the Seeking Night events here, I could, shall we say, influence the children in more positive ways, but Elder Moonshine is understandably less than thrilled by the idea of an outsider taking charge of the village’s most celebrated holiday.”

“Right.”

Rarity shrugged. “We just need to find another way, I suppose,” she said, trotting down the steps. “Things have changed now that you’re here, after all, so who knows what new options are available to us now.”

Twilight followed Rarity into Princess Celestia’s room and felt incredibly self-conscious when the previously loud room turned dead silent, dozens of eyes set on her save for the Elder’s, who was too busy regarding her six cupcakes. The Princess awkwardly strode through the room, smiling at the foals she walked past.

She found some brief reprieve when she finally reached the counter at the end of the room, upon which Pinkie set out a massive tray of multi-colored cupcakes with all kinds of designs. Some of them, she noticed, had her own cutie mark frosted upon them, and others bore the cutie marks of Princess Celestia and Cadance. Strangely enough, only one cupcake had Princess Luna’s cutie mark, and no sooner had she moved her forehoof towards it than Pinkie yelped and quickly picked it up.

“Oh, wait! Not that one! That one isn’t supposed to be there,” explained the baker, taking the cupcake and putting it aside on a plate. “That one’s for Princess Luna to eat.”

“For Princess Luna?” Twilight asked. “Isn’t she… Well… I mean…”

Pinkie blushed. “Oh! Uh, yes! She is, but you never know when she’ll be free! I make a fresh cupcake for her every day, just in case of a freemergency!”

Twilight giggled. “That’s very thoughtful of you, Pinkie. I’m sure Princess Luna will be hungry when she’s freed.”

She turned back to the tray of cupcakes, eventually settling on one that bore her own cutie mark, and when she turned around to eat it, she was again confronted with her expectant crowd.

“Oh. Uh. Yes. Right.”

No sooner had she spoken did dozens of hooves shoot up into the air, again including Pinkie and Ink’s.

From the back of the room, Rarity fluttered her eyelashes.

“Care to begin, Your Highness?”


Later that day, as she dragged herself inside Rarity’s workshop, her throat sore from talking, Twilight Sparkle internalized two new facts.

The first fact was that she had vastly, extremely and unbelievably underestimated just how exhausting it was to entertain thirty-something excitable foals.

The second fact was that her previous respect and admiration for Rarity had now tripled in size at the realization that she, along with Pinkie and Incantation, willingly put themselves through that on a constant basis.

“Well,” Twilight said as she threw herself on the pile of pillows and blankets, “that was something.”

“I thought you did splendidly for your first time,” Rarity’s said, the unicorn trotting into the room behind her. “The children were enchanted, and even Elder Moonshine seemed taken by you.”

“That’s good,” murmured the alicorn, “because I’m never doing that again.”

“Twilight, really, don’t you think you’re being a bit dramatic?” Rarity said with a teasing smile, arching an eyebrow and tilting her head to the side.

Twilight matched her teasing smile. “I’m sure you know all about being dramatic, Rarity.”

“Yes, I do, which is why I am the most adept at knowing when someprincess is being dramatic,” she replied. “Hm?”

“Well, I don’t think I’m being dramatic,” Twilight insisted, watching as Rarity trotted over towards a nearby desk and started folding fabrics. “I feel like I’m a hundred years old.”

Rarity laughed at that. “As opposed to being what you actually are, which is over a thousand years old?”

Twilight rolled her eyes. “You know what I meant,” she said with a yawn, grabbing a pillow and snuggling against it.

“Well, there is one thing you should be thankful to them for,” Rarity said, putting on her glasses and threading string into a needle.

“What’s that?”

“You look like you’re about to fall asleep,” she pointed out as Twilight closed her eyes. “So your meeting with Princess Luna will be very soon.”

Twilight’s eyes flew open. “Oh, Princesses,” she said, and immediately she rolled around, clutching her pillow because she was going to meet Princess Luna now after a thousand years, and she had forgotten, but now she remembered, and she also remembered that maybe Princess Luna might be angry at her and—

“Darling, spiraling isn’t good for you,” Rarity noted, and Twilight turned around, indignant.

“I am not spiraling!” she protested. “Whatever that means!”

“It means you’re letting bad thoughts get a hold of you,” she explained. “And is that not what you’re doing right now?”

“No,” Twilight exclaimed. “Maybe,” she amended. “Yes,” she confessed, burying her face in the pillow and groaning.

She heard Rarity put down her things and trot towards her, and even despite her stress, Twilight was still more than happy when the unicorn climbed up and settled down beside her for a comforting nuzzle.

Princesses, she really was soft.

“My poor darling,” Rarity, stroking Twilight’s mane and giggling sweetly when the alicorn groaned. “Twilight, sweetest, I know you’re concerned, but I promise there really isn’t any reason to be nervous at all.”

“There are at least fifty-seven reasons I can think of right now, and if you give me another minute, I can think of another fifty-seven.”

“And I’m sure Princess Luna herself has fifty-seven reasons she’s nervous about seeing you too. In fact…” She craned her head towards the door and called out. “Pinkie? Pinkie, dear, come up here, won’t you?”

“Huh?” Pinkie said moments later, trotting into the room and gasping. “Are we having a cuddle party?! Can I join?!” Without bothering to wait for an answer, she rushed towards them, launching herself and landing on top of the two mares, burrowing her way between them and grinning. “So, what’s up?!”

“Somepony’s about to meet with Princess Luna,” Rarity said.

Twilight snorted. “Not anymore,” she said. “I’m not tired at all.”

“What? But falling asleep’s so easy!” Pinkie exclaimed, turning to Twilight. “Do you want me to show you?”

Twilight giggled. “I think I can remember how to sleep, Pinkie.”

“Really? Then let’s do it!” Pinkie exclaimed before closing her eyes. “One, two, three, and slee—!” Her sentence cut off mid-word, replaced instead with what sounded a bit too much like an actual snore.

One, two, three seconds went by before Twilight poked her.

“Pinkie?” she asked and again was met with a very convincing snore. She turned to Rarity. “Did she just…?”

“Rather remarkable, isn’t it?” Rarity noted, unphased by Pinkie’s apparent narcolepsy. “She can do it anywhere. I suppose it’s the unintended blessing of her unusual relationship with the Princess.”

Carefully, Rarity moved away from Pinkie and got off the couch, the lack of Rarity to hug prompting the sleeping pony to instead latch onto the alicorn instead.

“Where are you going?” Twilight asked, trying to move Pinkie into a more comfortable position.

“I’m going to help you sleep,” Rarity replied, a flicker of her horn switching on the nearby sewing machine. She grabbed her dress and then smiled at Twilight. “You did say it helped, didn’t you?”

“I did,” Twilight said, closing her eyes and relaxing into Pinkie’s embrace. Though it wasn’t entirely accurate to say Rarity’s sewing put her to sleep, it did help with relieving her stress as it was very easy to let the constant sound fill her mind and silence the swirling thoughts in her head.

Minute by minute, she focused on the whirring machine, the faint scent of batter and flour filling her nose, and the more she focused on the noise, the more her thoughts began to wane, until a yawn left her lips and sleep finally found her.

She slept, lost in her own world, in the heavy silence and heavy darkness, all the way up until she turned the page of her book.

In the depths of Canterlot Castle’s Library, Twilight Sparkle read a book, as was her usual routine most days of most months of most years. She read, and read, and read, and learned, and learned, and learned so she could assist her teacher in whatever way Princess Celestia deemed necessary.

After finishing the page, she allowed herself a yawn and stood up to stretch, not wanting her hours of reading to give her a posture worse than the one she already had. She noticed a mirror in the distance and smiled at the unicorn looking back at her, waving at her own reflection and giggling at the fact.

Her silliness done, she sat back down and turned to her book, intent on finishing it before her next lesson with Princess Celestia. Her smile vanished somewhat as her mind focused on the words and the meanings on and in-between the lines, her ears only barely picking up on the distant hoofsteps of the librarian moving around to put books back in their proper places.

They did, however, pick up on her name being called.

“Twiiiiiiiliiiiiiiight,” a voice called in sing-song, echoing through the library and drawing a smile out of the unicorn. “Where aaaaaaare youuuuuuu?”

Technically speaking, the polite thing to do would be to call out and point out her location, but considering just who was calling out, she felt it more appropriate to remain silent and keep reading.

Again, the voice called out, and her smile widened as her gaze went back to her book and moved along the words, only stopping when a voice spoke right behind her.

“Hello, Twilight.”

She turned around. “Hell—oh?” she asked, finding nopony in sight. “Where did—?”

“My, my! Reading about how wonderful I am, are you?” said the voice, and she turned back towards her desk and found a pocket-sized draconequus standing on top of her book, his arms crossed behind his back as he peered down at the book.

“Hello, Discord,” she replied with a playful smile. “And no, I’m studying for my exam on Magic Thermodynamics.”

“No, you’re reading about how wonderful I am. It says so right here,” he insisted, pointing down to the paragraph he was standing on.

“No, it doesn’t,” Twilight replied, peering down at the paragraph and finding that her former book on Aerial Thermodynamics was now a scientific thesis on Discord’s alleged wonderfulness. “Hey!” she exclaimed, levitating the book up to take a closer look and toppling the draconequus in the process, who rolled on the table until he bumped into an inkwell. “Discord! I need this book to study!”

Discord got up and dusted himself off before crossing his arms and sticking his tongue out at her. “I’m a much better thing to study!” he exclaimed, and so did two other pocket-sized versions of him which appeared inspecting the first Discord with magnifying glasses and taking notes. “And you’re always asking to study my magic!” The three Discords looked up to her. “Will you ever tell me why?”

A pang of guilt shot through Twilight. “I’m just curious,” she said quickly. “That’s all.”

Definitely not trying to find out her friend’s mortal weaknesses in case of emergencies, not at all.

He seemed unconvinced. “Curiouser and curiouser.”

“Is that even grammatically correct?” asked the second Discord of the third, who only shrugged in reply.

“Discord,” Twilight said, putting her book down and arching an eyebrow. “Why are you here?”

With two poofs in quick succession, the additional Discords disappeared and the original jumped into the air, his body growing and growing until a full-sized Discord now floated above her.

“Well, first of all, I brought you tea,” he informed, and with a snap of his fingers, a cup of tea and a cookie appeared on the table before her. “It’s your favorite. Cinnamon with honey and a useful surprise.”

“That’s your favorite tea,” she pointed out with a laugh.

“I have great taste,” he replied, “so it’s your favorite, too.”

Twilight lifted the cup and took a sniff. It smelled very good, it was true, but… “And what’s the ‘useful’ surprise?”

At that, Discord smiled. “It changes depending on the weather! If it’s cold outside, the tea is frozen, and if it’s hot outside, the tea is scalding!”

She frowned. “...Right. Useful. And what if it’s neither hot nor cold outside?”

He clapped his hands. “Then, clearly, it comes with a raisin cookie!”

Twilight giggled. “Clearly,” she said, taking a sip of the tea and finding it did, in fact, taste as delicious as it smelled. She then put the cup down and gave him a stare. “So, now will you tell me why you’re really here?”

“What?!” he gasped, a claw against his chest. “I’m just here to enjoy tea with my good friend!”

“Discord.”

“All right, all right!” he said, crossing his arms. “I’m bored.”

Twilight smiled. “Really? And what am I supposed to do about that?”

“I don’t know!” he exclaimed, poofing onto the other side of the table. “Something!”

“I’m studying, Discord,” she reminded him, looking back to her book and being pleased to see it had returned to its proper state as a book on Spatial Thermodynamics. “Why don’t you go home and, I don’t know, make it rain chocolate milk?”

“Home?” he exclaimed with disdain. He snapped his fingers and ignored Twilight’s groan as her book disappeared and was replaced with a large map of Equestria. “This is Equestria,” he pointed out, gesturing to the large map before taking a nearby quill and circling a teeny patch of land north of Van Hoof. “And this thing is what the Princesses appointed as my home.”

“Discord, your domain is the size of a small village,” she said. “It should be enough for you.”

“Well, it isn’t!” he complained, crossing his arms and looking away. “I deserve bigger lands.”

“Then you shouldn’t have facilitated Chrysalis’ invasion of Equestria,” she rebutted, her voice losing most of its playfulness.

He continued to look away. “Well, nopony’s perfect, Princess.”

“I’m not a princess,” she said, turning back to the mirror and staring at her simple reflection once again. She had no crown to weigh her down and no wings to tether her. She was everything she wanted to be and nothing more.

“The Princesses defeated you, Discord,” she said as she turned back to him.

“No,” he replied, setting his yellow eyes on her. “You defeated me,” he added, tone undecipherable. “Fair and square.”

She did not reply and instead forced her sights on her book.

She felt sick.

“Wouldn’t you say it’s only right, Twilight?” he asked.

“What is?”

“That we reap what we sow,” he replied, and when she finally looked up to face him, horror struck her to see he was gone.

He was gone, but he wasn’t the only thing to be gone.

Gone were Canter Castle’s safe walls, gone were its library’s books, the ponies she knew and had grown up with, the home she’d once had. All were gone, and instead she found herself inside her underground library.

She stumbled back in shock, getting up on her hooves and looking around, trying to understand not just why, but how.

“Discord?” she called out in a panic, backtracking from the rows of haunting and towering bookcases. “Discord?!”

The sickness in her stomach grew and grew, horrified at the idea of being back in that library, and yet whatever discomfort she felt could not compare to the horror that filled her when she realized her backtracking had led her not to bump against a table, but through it.

Horror at the wings now affixed to her body.

Horror at the crown clinging to her head.

No.

“No,” she gasped, tears filling her eyes as she backtracked again and again. “No, no, no, no, please, no.”

The words came out her mouth in rapid-fire, desperate and terrified and increasingly so when her backtracking led her through another table, and when her gasp of horror filled her lungs with no air.

“No, I was free!” she protested, blinking through tears and confusion because how was it fair that everything was going right and now everything had been taken away. “I was free! Please! Anypony!”

She looked around, at nothing and everything at once, until her eyes landed on the distant tunnel. One, two, three seconds went past before she galloped towards it, to leave the library as she had before, and yet agonizing pain tore through her when she collided against the barrier and it threw her back.

Silence suffocated the library.

And she stood, shakily, painfully, and her body thrust forward and collided against the barrier only to be pushed back again, and again, and again.

Please!” she called, begged and pleaded. “It wasn’t my fault! I know it wasn’t my fault! Please, let me out, please!”

Yet the words felt hollow, and the barrier did not seem to cave or give in, and despair filled her because she had tried. She had tried to be better. She had tried to take responsibility.

“Get out.”

A voice.

Unfamiliar in its tone, strange in its diction, and chillingly familiar in its words.

With all the pain in the world, with every ounce of courage she could muster, Princess Twilight Sparkle stood up away from the barrier and turned around to face her cruelest enemy.

Herself.

“Why?” she choked out, staring at the distant alicorn’s black eyes. “Wh—why are you still here? I… I overcame you!” Her hoof slammed against the floor. “I overcame you, I beat you, I left the library! Why are you here?!”

The alicorn simply repeated her statement.

“Get out.”

“No!” Twilight protested, her horn lighting up. “Y—you get out! You don’t belong here! I don’t belong here!”

And the alicorn spoke again.

“Don’t we?” she said, and it was like a dagger to Twilight’s chest, the swirling thoughts that had plagued her for so long brought to the forefront once again.

She deserved her imprisonment, said a voice she could not stop, and more than everything that had happened, it was that thought that ripped her apart like no other.

The dawning realization that she was no better mentally than… than…

“I… I was better,” she insisted or pleaded, she could not really tell. Her voice fell to a whisper as she fell to her haunches and looked at her translucent forehooves. Why was she there? Why had she been taken away from Rarity, why had she been taken away from her home and the Dreamland and everything she had fought so hard to get back? “I was better, I was… I was f—free of this nightmare, I don’t underst—”

And the words caught in her throat.

A nightmare.

It all felt like a nightmare, and the more she thought about it, the more she realized… the more she hoped that...

It actually was.

“Princess…” The word tumbled out of her mouth, somehow surprising her at doing so. The terrible thoughts in her head continued, hissed and snapped that that was no dream of any kind, but hope died last.

“Princess Luna!” she finally called out, loud and clear and backing away from the alicorn that merely continued to stare. She looked up towards the ceiling and continued to call out, almost beseeching the Moon Princess to descend from above. “Princess Luna?! Is this a nightmare?! Princess Luna!”

And a voice replied.

No, a voice sang, hummed a beautiful and echoing lullaby that seemed to both soothe and invigorate Twilight if only because of the crashing relief she felt upon hearing it.

A crackling noise hissed to life behind her, and a quick turn revealed the barrier was struggling to exist, expelling magic static and sparks until it fractured like a broken mirror and fell apart.

Her first instinct was to run, so she did.

Without much care or thought, she lunged forward and let out a shaky laugh when she dived into the tunnel, no barrier stopping her way. Victory flowed through her, the satisfaction of the win, and she wasn’t able to stop herself from turning around to throw her cursed self a defiant look.

But she couldn’t.

Her other self, now stood waiting by the barrier, yet there was no anger in her face. No signs of having been overcome, of having been defeated, no visible reaction that would allow Twilight some shred of satisfaction or catharsis.

She was still there, Twilight knew, and would still be there in her mind, dream or no dream.

Twilight turned around and rushed down the tunnel, wanting to get out of there as quickly as she could. She jumped onto the spiral stairs and ascended them, pushing open the trap door and breathing a lungful of relief when she came out into a bright, sunlit valley.

She turned back towards the tree, quickly closing the trapdoor with her magic, and after waiting a moment and ensuring no distorted version of herself would come through, she fell on her haunches and breathed.

“You did it!”

Twilight yelped in surprise at the high-pitched voice and nearly tumbled down to the ground. She turned around, at first alarmed and then confused when she found Pinkie Pie behind her, stamping her hooves on the ground with an excitement that matched her grin.

“P-Pinkie?” Twilight asked, thrown-off. “Are you—? I mean—! Are you part of my dream…?”

Pinkie nodded. “Uh-huh!” she exclaimed and then paused and shook her head. “I mean, nuh-uh! Or wait, yuh-huh?” She sat down and tapped her hoof against her chin. “Both?”

“Both?”

“Yep! ‘Cause it’s me!” she exclaimed, jumping up and grabbing Twilight’s face with her hooves. “See! I’m super duper real! But I’m in your dream, so teeeeeeeeeechnically, I am part of your dream! Or maybe…” She narrowed her eyes and leaned in, her nose touching Twilight’s. “You’re part of my dream, hmmmmmmm? Bet’cha’ didn’t think of that, huh, Princess Twi?

“So, er, this is a dream, then?” Twilight asked, trying to speak through her currently squeezed cheeks. “I’m not actually back in Ponyville and I’m not displaced in time again, right?”

“Nope, and nope!” Pinkie exclaimed, letting go of Twilight and jumping back. “This is all a dream! And you did it! You figured it out! We knew you would!”

“‘We’?” Twilight asked, her heart accelerating in her chest. “...You mean Princess Luna?”

“Yup! See, ‘cause we saw your door cracking, and it was a really bad nightmare, and I wanted to come in here to help fight your meanie self, but then Princess Luna was all— Oh, wait! I can show you!”

She stopped talking, and instead, Twilight yelped as an almost comically serious Princess Luna herself appeared next to Pinkie, the older alicorn staring down at the pink pony.

“Pr-Princess Luna?” Twilight asked, panicked and horrified and feeling her anxiety very quickly escalating as she truthfully was not expecting her first meeting with the Princess to go, well, like that.

Pinkie blinked. “Huh? Oh, that’s not Princess Luna!” she quickly corrected. “She’s a dream construct! I made her up! Look, look!” She turned to the construct and put on a severe expression. “Princess Luna, who’s your best friend FOREVER?”

“Thouest arest myesth besteth friendeth FOREVERETH, Pinkie Pie,” boomed the alicorn in a deadpan voice.

Twilight frowned. “That… That wasn’t quite right.”

Pinkie gasped. “Whateth?! Yesesth, iteth waseth, thy sillieth-billieth!” she exclaimed. “Er, I mean, what?! Yes, it was, you silly-billy!” She let out a grand sigh and said, “Anyway, where was I?”

Twilight racked her memory. “Err… something about a door cracking…?”

Pinkie gasped. “The door!” She nodded her head and resumed her story. “See, your door was cracking ‘cause you were having a really super duper awful nightmare, and I wanted to come in to help you—” She gestured to the construct. “—but Princess Luna said—”

“If Twilight Sparkle is still the clever unicorn I remember,” a familiar voice replied behind her, as the sunny sky above turned into a beautiful starry night, “she will soon enough realize this terrible vision is naught but her own mind’s design.”

Twilight’s heart slowed.

“What?” Pinkie said, looking to somepony beyond Twilight. “That is SO not what you said! You said that you were concerned she’d be afraid to meet you, and I said it was more like you were afraid of meeting her, and you said no, and I said yes, and then I told you to just go and help her, and you said that—” She took a breath. “—you said ‘surely she will surmise this is a nightmare and wake up thus my intervention will not be necessary, and I will have more time to prepare’, and then I said ‘well, I’m going in’ and you said ‘do not go into her dreams, you foolish child’!” Pinkie took another breath and then continued. “And then you told me you would smite me and I was like, ‘WHAT?’ ‘cause I didn’t hear, and then I came here, and I found Princess Twilight and now this!” She breathed again and then blinked at Twilight. “What?”

Tears stung at Twilight’s eyes.

They stung at her eyes, and as if an altogether foreign being was taking possession of her, she began to giggle.

“Twilight Sparkle,” Luna thundered, and yet in her voice Twilight detected no anger, “we meet again for the first time in centuries, and you dare laugh at your Princess?!”

And Twilight continued to laugh, finally turning around to see Princess Luna, tears streaming down her eyes at the sight of the Princess, and she choked out, “You threatened to smite her?”

And she laughed and was overwhelmed with affection and relief and joy and many other things she could barely understand.

Princess Luna harrumphed. “In olden times, Twilight Sparkle, ponies would be honored to receive such a punishment,” she said curtly until her seriousness faded, a laugh left her lips, a smile shaped them, and joyful tears sparkled in her eyes “It is most pleasing to see you again, Twilight.” She extended her foreleg. “You were dearly missed.”

And Twilight could do nothing else but rush forward, burying herself in Luna and relishing a hug she could, for now, only receive in dreams.

“Oh, Princess Luna,” she whispered, her smile intensifying when she felt Pinkie rush in to join the hug. “I missed you, too.”


~ Interlude III ~ Behind Closed Dreams ~

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In the depths of the Everfree Forest, past abandoned houses, past Timberwolves and frightening beasts, was a trapdoor at the base of a grand old oak tree.

Blue magic delicately surrounded the handle and pulled. Dirt and dust rose into the air when Rarity opened the trapdoor. She stepped back, trying to protect her coat from the mess. When the dust settled, she had no choice but to remain there for a moment, taking in the implication of dirt and dust and time collected on the door.

She lifted her hoof to her chest, a habit so very hard to break, and she was surprised to be surprised at the fact that her hoof found no necklace to toy with.

Why should it?

She finally moved forwards, down the stairs that creaked under her step, and into the tunnel scarcely illuminated by her horn. There was light at the end of the tunnel, the sight of a library in the distance, and she was filled with… sadness? No, that wasn’t entirely accurate, was it? Resignation, perhaps? No, that too was a feeling long past.

At the sight of the library, Rarity felt acceptance, the final step in the so-called stages of grief.

She strode forward and soon enough was bathed in the light of the magic chandelier, powered by the alicorn lying on a blanket and reading a book.

Rarity stood by the entrance of the tunnel and allowed herself a moment to smile at Princess Twilight much like one would smile at childhood photos of days long, long gone. She felt quietly proud that sadness no longer haunted her.

“Rarity?” asked Twilight Sparkle, turning a page of her book. “What does ‘La La Land’ mean?”

Rarity stepped closer. “‘La La Land’? It’s… I suppose it’s a state of being more than anything. Somepony who’s always very fanciful or always lost in dreams and fantasy.” She grinned. “In other words, nearly the entire population of Los Pegasus.”

Twilight did not look up, but she smiled. “And you, too?”

Rarity laughed. “On occasion, perhaps.” She glanced at the book. “What are you reading?”

Galaxies Bleed Stars by Solar Rose,” she replied. “It’s all right.” She turned another page. “But you’re not here to ask about my book.”

A beat, one in which Rarity contemplated the alicorn and replied, “No, I’m not.”

She levitated a pillow over, placing it on the floor and planting her hindquarters on it.

“I went on a date today, Twilight,” she declared with a winning smile.

“You’ve gone on those before,” Twilight pointed out, turning back a page for a moment before returning it back to its proper place. “Was it Rift?”

“Goodness, no,” she quickly replied.

True, she’d pondered the idea before but … but he was too involved. Far, far too involved.

“Was it the scientist again?” Twilight asked, turning the page. “Crystal Beaker? Or the librarian? Page Turner?”

“No, no, neither one, no,” Rarity replied quickly. “It didn’t work out with either, though they were lovely ponies.”

“Why didn’t it work out?” Twilight asked, and the ghost of a smile passed through her lips.

Rarity laughed. “Now, darling, we both know the answer to that, do we not?” She took a breath and continued. “No, her name is Citrine Spark. She’s a unicorn like myself, and she has a very endearing affinity towards …” Rarity wrinkled her nose. “Explosions.”

“Citrine Spark,” Twilight repeated, slowly and carefully.

“We went on a lovely date today,” Rarity continued. “She asked me all about my newest designs! I’m working on my winter range, you know? Found myself inspired by floral patterns and so on.” She laughed softly. “I fear I might have been a tad too technical with my terms! The poor dear had trouble keeping up.”

“I didn’t,” Twilight replied, and so another page was turned.

“Well, If she likes me, truly and sincerely, she will learn the terms,” Rarity said defensively.

“Just like you learned the Starswirl Decimal System,” Twilight again added, and Rarity smiled.

“I didn’t think of you, Twilight,” she finally said, her tone losing its cheer and instead dripping with that silly little word so similar to resignation. She spoke with acceptance. “For the first time in over a year, I went on a date with a lovely pony, and I did not compare them to you. I did not think of you.” Her laughter nearly bordered on sad. “It was almost liberating.”

“Almost?” Twilight asked. “Why almost?”

Rarity’s voice fell to a whisper. “Now, my darling, we both know the answer to that, do we not?” Silence reigned, loud and screaming and haunting, and she felt muted.

“I can tell you what you want to hear,” Twilight said, still not looking up from her book. “If it’ll help you. Would you like that? Ask me your question.”

And Rarity did.

“How are you, Twilight?”

And finally, Twilight looked up with eyes black as the night and set them on Rarity.

“I’m fine, Rarity,” she said with a smile. “It’s only another thousand years.”

Eternity passed in a moment, until she heard hoofsteps behind her and a familiar voice.

“Rarity,” said Princess Luna.

“I really didn’t think of her,” Rarity said, staring at the petrified dream-construct of her long-gone hopes. Of a pony that had locked herself away a little over a year ago. “I really didn’t.”

“Pinkie told me,” said Princess Luna, her voice a soothing song. “She was at war with herself over it, but I am glad she did this despite her doubts. This Citrine Spark mare sounds most pleasant.”

“She was,” Rarity replied.

“Will you be seeing her again?” the Princess asked, and Rarity laughed humorlessly.

“I don’t think I shall. She was lovely, and I’m certainly glad Pinkie arranged the date, but… we’re simply not a perfect match, as it were. Which is no trouble at all, since I don’t think I even have the time to go on dates.”

Silence loomed.

“You still love her,” Luna noted. Not a question, not a theory, but a fact plainly stated. Life marching ever forward did not mean that feelings did as well.

Rarity lifted her hoof once again and placed it where a necklace would be. “I forget it’s not there, sometimes. I reach out to hold it, and it’s not there, and I can feel the panic setting in all over again.”

When she moved down her hoof, a bright pink necklace hung from her neck.

“Pinkie asked to guard it, did she not?” Luna asked.

Rarity laughed, shaking her head. “She was practically forced to! I don’t doubt ponies thought me vain! That strange unicorn that kept glancing at her necklace every other minute, diamond-obsessed surely, staring and staring and waiting and waiting for… for what? For it to glow?” Her voice grew quiet. “For it to not glow?”

“You wait for it not to glow?”

Though Rarity noticed the concern in the alicorn’s voice, she felt no inclination to alleviate it.

“I… I don’t wait for that. I would never,” she said, “and yet…”

There, in her dreams, in the most private thing she had…

There, she could confess what no other but she and Princess Luna were allowed to know.

“It frightens me, Princess Luna,” she said, and she could feel the tears hot in her eyes. “It frightens me even more now that I’ve moved on. Now that I look back and see. Now that it’s been so long. I want it so desperately, but I’m afraid.”

“You are afraid? What of?”

Her hoof brushed the necklace again.

“What will I do?” she whispered. “If it ever glows again.”