Rules of Hospitality

by I-A-M

First published

While trying, and failing, to mend a friendship broken by harsh words, Twilight Sparkle finds herself at the bar of the Last Note Lounge sharing the company of a singularly strange bartender.

In the City of Canterlot there is a bar, a very singular bar, that is tended by a singular bartender. The Bar of the Last Note Lounge is a place where a person can order any drink and get exactly what they wanted and needed, in exactly the right way, and the ability to do so is something that Sonata Dusk prizes.

Twilight Sparkle is trying to mend a friendship broken by rash words and a terrible argument, and she has come to the Last Note on more than one occasion hoping to find the courage to do so.

Predictably, that hasn't really worked out.

Maybe she just needs a good drink.


Cover Art is a WIP by Rhealm.

1. A Kind Roost

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I don’t belong here.

I don’t need to be a genius or a savant to be able to tell that I don’t belong here, and even I’m not socially oblivious enough not to notice the looks I’m getting.

“Can I get you a drink?”

My mood must have shown on my face because the moment I looked up at the man who asked me that question he held up his hands defensively and took a quick step back.

“Uh, n-nevermind,” he backpedaled away and retreated, vanishing into the crowd, and I sighed.

“Are you alright, Twilight?” Fluttershy leaned on the table across me with that look of pure concern on her face as she reached out and laid a hand over mine. “U-uhm, you don’t have to tell me why you wanted to come with me, but… but I’m here if you want to talk.”

“I don’t think a strip club is a great place for a heart to heart, Fluttershy,” I replied quietly. “Also I… I don’t think I’d be able to take an in-depth discussion of my issues seriously with you dressed like that.”

“What do you mean?” Fluttershy cocked her head curiously before glancing down at herself.

Fluttershy was not what you’d call outgoing in most senses of the word, at least not normally, and her wardrobe tended to reflect that. We usually shared a lot of tastes in that regard when it came to warm, fluffy sweaters, baggy and comfortable pants, thick jackets, and so on.

Usually.

The second Tuesday of every month was the day that Fluttershy’s other wardrobe made its appearance.

Tonight she was in leather, like pretty much everyone else in the Last Note, and it was incredibly distracting.

Her very generous curves were on display for anyone to see with her skin-tight, belt-buckled, leather corset and pants, variety of spike-studded bracelets secured to both arms, and three-inch stiletto-heel boots that were matte black and could not possibly be comfortable to move in.

What’s more, Fluttershy’s long, luxurious pink hair was tied back in what I could only describe as a historical warrior braid and woven with what I thought might be actual barbed wire.

I never checked and didn’t quite have the chutzpah to ask.

“Well, uhm… I know this kind of thing isn’t really your cup of tea,” Fluttershy said with a soft, genial smile, “but would you like to join us? We’re going to be spanking the subs in a few minutes, it's very liberating… on both ends.”

“Uhm, no, I’m… I’m good,” I replied with as much tact and grace as I could muster. “You uh… go on and have fun, okay?”

“Okay Twi, if you’re sure,” Fluttershy gave my hand a squeeze as she got up and trotted off, loosening the straps that secured her riding crop to her hips as she did.

“Su~per sure,” I mumbled as I turned away and stared sullenly at the table.

The Last Note Lounge was done up in a riotous cascade of blacks and reds for the evening, and I sighed as I looked around, watching the dancers gyrate and the waiters bob and weave around the packed tables. There was a low, sensual beat in the background that I couldn’t quite identify, but all of it felt very distant, and it all seemed to be telling me the same thing.

I don’t belong here.

Sighing, I stood up and started to wander idly. I hated how much I stood out here, but then again I guess I hate standing out in general. You would think that someone wearing a sex-dungeon’s worth of leather would be the one who wouldn’t fit in but when absolutely everyone is dressed in some flavor of that or other, then that becomes the norm.

And me, with my gray cardigan and periodic-table t-shirt, casual jeans, and hair tied up in a functional ponytail, stuck out like a nun in a brothel which I might as well have been.

The more I moved the more uncomfortable I got, so I gravitated away from the masses until I reached a line of empty stools and slid up onto one.

I don’t belong here.

‘Get the hell away from me.’

A shudder ran through me as I clenched my eyes shut and wrapped my arms around myself, my gut twisting in on itself as I tried to keep the tears in.

‘I… I’m sorry.’

It didn’t help, and the tears trickled onto the clean, smooth wood finish of the bartop, I could keep in a quiet, wracking sob that sent a tremor through my body. I took several deep breaths trying to calm down but it wasn’t helping. It felt like there was a red-hot steel spike jammed into my heart and someone was twisting it over and over again.

“I’m sorry,” I mumbled the words as I pulled my glasses off and set them shakily onto the bar. “I didn’t mean to…” it didn’t matter how many times I repeated the words, they never came soon enough, and I buried my face in my arms as I cried into my sweater. “I didn’t mean to…”

There was a clink of glass by my head and I ignored it, someone had probably ordered a drink, and I didn’t want them to have to see my red-eyed, tear-stained face, so I waited, trying to hold in my sobs until I could feel reasonably certain they were gone.

A few seconds passed, and then there was a small nudge at my shoulder.

“I don’t want anyone to buy me a drink,” I said in a tight, angry voice.

“Well, that's okay, since it’s on the house,” came the gentle, completely non-plussed reply from behind the bar, “you don’t have to drink it if you don’t want to, but it'll make you feel better.”

I took a few uneasy breaths before glancing up.

Sonata Dusk somehow managed to remind me of both Pinkie Pie and Fluttershy. There was something in the softness of her eyes and the way she tilted her head that gave me the same sense of ease that Fluttershy could inspire, but she had the energy and, for lack of a better descriptor, flounce of Pinkie.

I glanced down at the glass in front of me that was gently fizzing away. It looked like someone had distilled rubies into a liquid and pour it over ice.

“I… I don’t really drink alcohol,” I said quietly, not wanting to offend her. The drink did actually look really good.

“It’s a Shirley Temple,” Sonata replied as she leaned back, picked out a dirty glass from a tray, and started rinsing and polishing it. “It’s virgin.”

“Oh… uhm,” I continued to stare down at the drink for another moment before sighing and deciding I’d jumped to a few too many conclusions about people’s negative qualities lately. “I… I guess I can try it.”

I picked it up, relishing the chill of the glass, put it to my lips, tipped it back, and swallowed.

Happy.

That was how the drink tasted.

I’m not… not really sure how else to describe it.

The drink tasted happy in the same way you can feel nostalgia when you’re drinking or eating something you used to eat or drink when you were a kid. I took a long drink, and the flavor of cherries riding the fizz and pop of the soda water danced across my tongue and down my throat.

I went for another drink almost immediately, savoring the smooth taste of the beverage as I did before setting it down, completely emptied.

And I was smiling.

“See?” Sonata said brightly, “sometimes you just gotta have something sweet!”

“That sounds like advice my friend Pinkie would give me,” I replied with a small laugh as I stared down at the glass. “Uhm… m-may I… uhm…”

Sonata smiled again, and felt a small smidgen of comfort edge its way past my melancholia.

She was so pretty.

Not… not beautiful, like Aria, who I always saw as having that kind of dangerous appeal you get when your staring at something you know you shouldn’t touch but really want to. Nor was she stunning like Adagio, who could walk into a room and give everyone whiplash from the speed of their own heads turning.

Sonata Dusk was phenomenally pretty, sure. But just… just pretty.

Unlike all of the other employees of the Note who were dolled up for Leather Night, Sonata was still wearing her immaculately starched white blouse, her black vest, red tie, and black slacks. Like me, her two-tone hair was pulled back in a simple ponytail, and despite her more than impressive curves, she didn’t give off any of the ‘seductress’ vibe that her sisters wore like a voluminous cloak.

“Another?” Sonata asked, still smiling, and I nodded.

I watched Sonata pluck the glass from the table with practiced grace and slip it away somewhere where, I assume, the dirtied dishes went, and replace it with the one she’d been polishing. Three thick, heavy cubes of ice went next, falling together in the glass with a muted clatter, followed by a drizzle of some sweet, saccharine scarlet syrup. A nozzle with a length of tubing was pulled up a moment later as the syrup bottle vanished and the refreshing scent of soda water filled the air as she filled the glass two-thirds of the way up.

Finally, she drew out a long, thin bar of metal that was curling along the top third of its length, and down the other end tapered to a weighted ball of metal. Sonata dipped it into the glass and caught all three cubes of ice with a single flick of her wrist as she gave the drink three quick stirs counter-clockwise, and one stir clockwise.

Tap-tap-tap went the metal bar on the rim of the glass, then the finished drink was pushed to me, fizzing and popping just like the one before.

And all in what felt like less than ten seconds.

I picked it up, smiling as I did, and took a sip.

“It’s good,” I said after a moment, my smile refusing to go away as the playful flavors filled my senses. “I never knew…”

“It’s just chemistry,” Sonata said with a giggle, “ratios, temperatures, measurements, and timing… all coming together to make something new.”

I blinked a few times as I processed what Sonata had just said.

“Just chemistry…” I repeated quietly, staring down at the half-filled glass of ruby glee. “I guess I’d never thought of it like that.”

“Thought of what?” Sonata asked honestly, her heading cocking to the side in an inquisitive fashion as she met my eyes.

“Alcohol,” I clarified, holding up the Shirley Temple before blushing and lowering it, pushing back a few errant strands of purple hair from my face as I remembered it wasn’t alcoholic. “Alcohol is a base, it’s been used to suspend all kinds of different remedies since ancient times… but for some reason whenever I think of alcohol I just think of people going to parties to get drunk and… yeah.”

Sonata giggled lightly and nodded. “I guess that’s fair, but it wasn’t always like that. I spent a year and a half learning brewing and distilling from some monks in the Alps, and to them it was sacred.”

I stared for several moments before it registered in my brain that I was talking to a woman who, despite all appearances, was well over a thousand years old.

“How did you end up in the Alps?” I asked after I found my voice again.

“Good question!” Sonata replied brightly before going back to cleaning.

I waited for her to answer my question but after a minute passed, then another, I realised I wasn’t going to get one. I wasn’t sure if that was because she didn’t want to answer my question or because she genuinely hadn't realised that I wanted to know. I’d only been talking to Sonata for a little while but I already got the impression that she was a bit of a, as my dad would put it, space cadet.

Slowly, I polished off the last of the drink, savoring the tingling sensations of happiness it left behind in me.

“So uhm…” I mentally fished around for a topic, I wanted to keep talking but what social skills I possessed had more to do with anthropological observation than it did interacting with other people. “Why… why aren’t you dressed up? Like everyone else I mean?”

I gestured around, even the waiters and waitresses had thematic leather-clad outfits, and the dancers (the ones who still had any clothes on anyway) had gone full-bore when it came to the dom-sub theme.

“Because I’m a bartender,” Sonata answered with a wry little smile. “Why would I dress up?”

“You’re a bartender at a strip club,” I said with a chuckle as I gestured around again, but froze at the flat, neutral expression that passed over her face all of a sudden.

“I’m a bartender,” Sonata said tersely, “at a bar.”

Sonata made a gesture of her own, passing a hand over the immaculately cared-for wooden bartop, the perfectly organised racks of glasses, and the immensely solid shelf behind her that held dozens upon dozens of polished bottles.

At that point I realised something: there wasn’t a single speck of dust on anything in the- no, in her bar. Every inch of it was kept spotless and clean, gleaming and ready to serve its purpose. I’d been to more than a few bars, you can’t be friends with Rainbow Dash, Applejack, or... or Sunset, and not go barhopping every couple of weekends, and I don’t think I’d ever seen a bar that was this tidy, well kept, or… well loved.

“This is my world,” Sonata said in a small voice, nodding to the bar around her, and I saw her hands tighten around one of the glasses as she did, “and that, out there, is my sisters’ world, okay? It’s different.”

“I’m sorry,” I said quietly.

I’d done it again.

Open mouth, insert foot.

Why did it always take getting the problem metaphorically smacked across my face before I realised what I was doing? If I’d been paying attention it would have been obvious how much Sonata cared about her bar, and I’d called it ‘a bar in a strip club’. Maybe if I’d been really paying attention to what was going on I might have made a new friend instead of an enemy.

Maybe if I’d been paying attention I wouldn’t have pushed away Sunset.

I sniffled, got to my feet, and made a small bow as I retrieved my glasses.

“I’m sorry,” I repeated, trying to keep the tears out of my voice.

I don’t belong here.

“Wait.”

I felt her hand come to rest on my shoulder from across the bar, and I looked back.

To my surprise, Sonata actually looked apologetic, and I felt a pang of guilt in my chest as I saw her nod back towards my vacated seat.

“Why?” I asked quietly.

I didn’t return to my seat, but I didn’t pull away either. I’m not quite sure why, to be honest, since every inch of my instincts told me to leave before I made things worse yet again.

“Because a bar is a place to rest,” Sonata replied gently. “When you’re weary and everything hurts, and the world outside the heavy doors,” she gestured to the broad, weighty crystal-glass doors of the Note, “is getting too dark… a bartender is someone who’s supposed to be kind, it’s even in the name.”

I blinked for a moment, not following, and it must have showed on my face because she smiled, a small, charming quirk of her lips that managed to tug a small smile from me in response.

“Bartender,” Sonata said, “One who tends to the place of rest, without the bartender, a bar is just a cold length of wood filled with bottles of poison,” she nodded up to the shelves of alcohol, “but… with me here, it’s different, and the last thing I want to do is chase away someone who needs me.”

“But… I was so rude,” I said after several seconds of hesitation.

“Did you mean it?” Sonata asked, and I could hear the genuine question on her lips as she cocked her head slightly.

“NO!” I all but shouted the word. “I… I mean… no, I didn’t, I just… say prodigiously stupid things sometimes because, despite having a two hundred and fourteen I.Q., I’m kind of an idiot.”

“And then you said you’re sorry,” Sonata affirmed as she finally let go of my arm and leaned back behind the bar, “right?”

“Y-yeah,” I nodded, and she mirrored the nod, angling it back towards the seat.

“Well, then I forgive you,” Sonata said finally.

Have you ever watched a dam breaking? I mean, really breaking. Like in disaster movies, when the floodwaters become too intense, or the villain’s bomb goes off because the protagonist couldn’t disarm it in time? How the cracks spiderweb out like a living thing, taking a solid, indestructible-looking structure and rendering it down to component parts in the span of seconds as every tick of the clock puts more and more pressure on the shattering bulwark?

That was me the moment Sonata said ‘I forgive you’.

I know that what I’d done to Sonata, that is: being rude and thoughtless, wasn’t even comparable to how badly I’d messed up with Sunset. I know that sticking your foot in your mouth with someone new isn’t even all that uncommon, even for people who aren’t socially kneecapped.

But I barely managed to stumble into the seat at the bar before the tears started coming, hot and fast, down my face, and no matter how much I wiped at my cheeks and eyes they wouldn’t stop.

“Ugh, I’m sorry,” I sobbed, trying to mop up my mess of a face, “I’m just… I’m sorry…”

Sonata smiled again, that small, warm, welcoming smile, and reach out to take my hand. She gave it a strong squeeze before pulling away and cobbling together another Shirley Temple.

Rather than pass it to me, she lifted the glass to her own lips, but she didn't drink. Instead, Sonata pressed a kiss to the rim of the glass, and I watched in confusion as she closed her eyes and for a moment I thought I was hallucinating.

The beverage began to glow.

Just slightly, faintly enough that anyone else would confuse it for the lights reflecting off the glass and ice.

Not me though, I watched it shine with a warm, crimson radiance for a brief second, then it faded.

Sonata set the glass on the bar and slid it across to me. I stared down at the liquid like it was a serpent. I knew what she’d done, I wasn’t an idiot, I knew magic when I saw it.

“Do you trust me?”

I snapped my gaze up to Sonata who was staring guilelessly back at me. Her eyes were a soft, gentle color of fresh pink berries, and for a moment I felt frozen.

She squeezed my hand again and I realized we were still touching, and I felt a small blush grow on my cheeks.

Come on, Sparkle,’ I chided myself, ‘grow a spine and just answer her!

Taking a slow, shaky breath, I nodded.

I took the glass in hand, picking it up, and put it to my lips.

Realistically, I knew that what I was doing was unwise, if only because I’d learned a long time ago to be wary of any kind of magic. With that being said, I had a really hard time not trusting Sonata, which made me feel like the worlds biggest hypocrite for the things I’d said to Sunset.

I drank down a swallow of the Shirley Temple and-

-HAPPY-

-my eyes flew wide as the first splash of flavor struck my tongue. Emotions rolled through me along with the taste of cherry and soda, and the soothing chill of the ice.

I lowered the drink, still crying but this time it was because I felt happy. It was the kind of light-headed, delirious happiness that comes along with the best sorts of experiences.

The kind of happy I hadn’t felt since I was a child.

Fear surged in its wake as I felt the sensation fading, a part of me terrified that it would leave a gaping hole where it had been, but instead of leaving a vacancy in my heart there was a lingering warmth.

It was like high tide at the beach had flowed in and was filling up all the little tide pools.

“What was that?” I whispered the words as I stared down at the drink, and then up at Sonata. “What did you do to me?”

Sonata shook her head.

“I didn’t really do anything,” she said with a small smile, “I just reminded you of what you’ve already felt, that’s all.”

“I thought… didn’t you lose your magic?”

I met her eyes and Sonata looked away with a faintly guilty expression. “Yeah… and no… they lost everything, my sisters I mean, but… I’ve always been different.”

“So you still-?”

Sonata shook her head. “Not exactly, and yes at the same time… it’s more like I just understand our nature a little better than Ari’ and ‘Dagi, that’s all.”

“Do they know?” I asked, keeping my voice low as I leaned in.

“No,” Sonata replied, looking a little guilty. “It’s not like I could even really teach them either, they’ve never had the knack.”

“Knack for what?”

Sonata just shrugged again, smiling that odd little enigmatic smile of hers.

“You’re not very helpful you know,” I said jokingly as I took another sip, noting that the intensity of the emotion had faded to a pleasant hum of background radiation.

“I get that a lot,” Sonata replied, still smiling as she answered a few orders from the bar, her skilled hands sliding drink after drink, each one unique and beautiful, across the bar to their owners. “But I try not to interfere, y’know? Other people’s business is their business, I just make the drinks and lend an ear sometimes.”

I fidgeted for a few moments with my drink, staring down at the slowly melting ice cubes, the rivulets of chilled water slowly diluting the perfect flavors of the cocktail.

“I messed up,” I said after a moment.

Sonata just nodded, her faint smile never fading or changing as she flicked her eyes over to regard me for a few seconds before turning back to her glass.

“I… jumped to conclusions about something, and I really messed up,” I couldn’t stop myself, the moment I started taking the story began falling from my lips without end. “Sunset… she’s my best friend,” I sniffled, “was my best friend, until I tried to get between her and… and Aria, and I really thought I was doing the right thing but I was wrong and… and now she hates me!”

“Hate is a strong word,” Sonata said in a gentle tone of voice.

There was no judgment in it, she wasn’t telling me I was wrong, she was just… commenting on my verbage.

“Alright, maybe… ugh, I don’t know if she hates me,” I muttered, polishing off my drink. “I just… keep hoping I’ll be able to fix what I broke but I have no idea how.”

“She’s in the back, you know,” Sonata said after a moment, looking up to meet my eyes, and I felt ice sluice down my spine as she reached for a small intercom on the bar. “Want me to ring back to Aria’s room? I’m sure she’ll-”

“NO!” I almost bit my tongue as I barked out the word, and a few of the patrons started around me, but Sonata didn’t even shift other than to nod and pull away from the button. “I… I mean, no, I just… I don’t…”

I sagged in my seat and thumped my head to the sturdy wooden counter of the bar.

“Why am I such a loser?” I groaned.

“Don’t ask me,” Sonata joked back, “I’m just the bartender.”

I let out a frustrated grumble, blowing out a breath that caught my bedraggled tangle of hair in a gust of irritation.

“I don’t belong here,” I grunted as I pushed back from the bar.

“Are you sure?” Sonata asked, raising an eyebrow.

I gestured out towards the myriad of stages, the poles, and all of the leather-clad beauties, studs, and sundry and gesticulated.

“Look, I get it,” I said angrily, “you’re a Siren, so… you wouldn’t understand, but this stuff? It’s… it’s not my thing, okay?” I grimaced and lowered my arm, realising I was making a spectacle of myself. “This kind of stuff… it’s Sunset’s thing, and Fluttershy’s thing, and… and basically everyone’s thing but mine, okay?”

Even though Sonata’s smile never changed its shape, not even the faintest twitch of her lips, for some reason, I got the feeling that it had suddenly become… sad. Maybe it was something in her eyes, something that I didn’t really have a word for.

I wrapped my arms around myself and shivered.

“Maybe if it was my thing, I wouldn’t have screwed up so bad,” I said bitterly, trying to push back my tears. “Maybe… maybe if I wasn’t broken I wouldn’t have lost my best friend.”

Finally, Sonata’s expression changed. The faintest narrowing of her eyes created an expression almost like anger that looked oddly alien on her gentle features.

Then it was gone.

“Come back tomorrow night,” Sonata said briskly as she turned and began the process of making several more drinks. “It’s slower on Wednesdays.”

“I just told you don’t belong here,” I replied coolly.

“Yeah, but you also said you’re broken,” Sonata replied without looking back at me, “which means you’re probably all kinds of wrong about a lot of other stuff.”

Despite the clamour of the Lounge, it felt like there was a sudden dampening of noise around me, and the click and clatter of Sonata’s drinks felt deafening. I had the distinct impression I’d trodden too close to something, but I wasn’t sure what it was.

“I’m not-”

“You’re wrong,” Sonata cut me off as she set the last drink she was making down in front of her and sent it sliding to its owner with just slightly more force than necessary.

“I’m-”

“-Wrong,” Sonata cut me off again, and this time she looked up at me and I felt pinned in place, her mild eyes now almost burning. “You’re. Wrong.”

I worked my jaw a few times as I took a step back, and then it was gone. The expression on her face vanished like it had never been there, and she was suddenly as bright-eyed and bushy-tailed as she had been when I’d first spoken to her.

“So come back tomorrow night, okay?”

I swallowed, nodded as I got up, then said: “O-okay.”

“Wait!”

Before I could move away there was a loud clatter, and I looked up to see Sonata fixing me with the most unsettling look, her eyes were wide, and they gleamed with something I couldn’t readily identify.

In front of her was a simple, six ounce cocktail glass, it’s flared rim gleaming in the gentle lights of the bar.

“Before you go,” she said, that look on her face unchanging as she met my eyes, sending an odd shiver down my spine, “how about one for the road?”

“I don’t-” I started, then stopped as I glanced down at the glass, then up at her, then sighed. “Okay… just one.”

The look on her face softened as she relaxed, and slowly drew out three bottles, and I grimaced at the sight of whiskey being the first on the table, followed by vermouth, and then something that started with a large, stylised ‘C’.

A mixing glass joined the motley assortment, and suddenly Sonata was moving. Her hands gripped a pair of tongs that sent several thick cubes of ice tumbling into the mixing glass.

Then she gripped all three bottles by their necks, the rye and vermouth between the fingers of her right hand, and the final bottle in her left, and tipped them each at the same time. Sharp, rich colored liquor spilled from the spouts fixed to them, and they each filled the mixing glass in perfectly even quantities before being withdrawn, tiny gem-like droplets flourishing from their spouts as Sonata pulled them away and tucked them back under the counter.

That thin metal bar was suddenly out and woven between Sonata's fingers as she spun the mixture with deft, gentle flicks of her wrist. As she did that, an orange seemingly appeared in her other hand. She gave it a firm, sudden squeeze, then brought it down to a blade fixed onto the inner side of the bar and twisted, cutting a thin spiral of peel from it that she snatched as she tossed the orange onto a small tray beside her.

The metal bar vanished as she gripped the spiraling strand of orange-peel, and she lifted the mixing glass, turning it slightly and tipping it so a thin, graceful stream of gold-and-amber liquid poured out and into the cocktail glass.

The mixing glass went away, presumably to where the bar had gone, and held out the twisted peel, gripping one end between the finger and thumb of her right hand, while the left brought up a match, and old-looking match at that, that she struck on a piece of metal beneath the bar before raising the flame and pass it three times across the peel, just barely letting the flames touch it.

With a flourish, Sonata flicked the match out, and dropped the peel into the glass before pushing it towards me.

Applause broke out around us, and I looked up to realise that somewhere between her setting down the glass and beginning the process, and now, a small crowd had gathered.

Well, I hated whiskey, but I couldn’t exactly not try it after all that.

I took the glass delicately by the stem and lifted it, and as it neared my lips I realised I could smell the faintest aroma of oranges.

That gave me pause, and for a moment I just inhaled, letting the faintly refreshing, citrus scent fill my nostrils, backed by something more… robust. I saw Sonata smile as I did, and I knew that was what she had wanted, at least I could do something right, I guess.

“Here we go,” I muttered as I pressed the rim of the glass to my lips and took a tentative sip.

Crisp, powerful flavor like exotic spices rolled over my tongue. It wasn’t sweet, not exactly, although I could taste the gentlest expression of orange underpinning everything and, yes, somewhere in there was whiskey, but really what it tasted like was… waking up.

My eyes widened as everything seemed to color and saturate, lights were brighter and smells were more intense, and suddenly my appetite, which had been sullen and unresponsive prior to this, was starting to make itself known.

I lowered the glass and stared down at it, realising I had drank better than half of it, with the spiraled peel of orange resting a third deep in the remaining liquor.

Licking my lips, I drank the rest, closed my eyes, and smiled.

There was warmth in my chest, and an odd, crisp, heat on my tongue, and for a moment I felt-

-Welcome-

-like I belonged.

“What was that?” I asked, and I swear I could taste the flavors of the air itself as I said it.

Sonata just smiled, enigmatic and appealing as it was, and shrugged.

“A drink for an old friend,” she replied.

“But we’ve only just met,” I said, raising an eyebrow as I did.

“Maybe,” Sonata allowed as she took back the glass, “but when you’re a bartender, everyone at the bar is an old friend.”

I met her eyes then, and for a moment I felt alone. No… not alone, I was alone with Sonata, like it was just her and I and the bar between us in all the world, and the lights were low, and the Lounge was empty.

Just her and I, two old friends.

“Who are you?” I mumbled the words to myself, but Sonata just shrugged again and went back to cleaning.

“Come back tomorrow night,” she repeated.

With an effort, I let out a breath, nodded, and broke eye contact, and suddenly the sounds of the Lounge seemed to come back like an aural wall, and I shivered. Without looking back, I turned away and made my way out of the Lounge, past the security guard, and into the cold December night.

For some reason, I still felt warm.

2. A Heavy Door

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“Ya’ll sure about this, sugar cube?” Applejack asked, tossing a loaf of bread into her basket as she did. “I mean, I trust Sunset but I ain’t sure I trust the Sirens yet, even if Aria’s makin’ a good case for’em.”

“That’s the thing, I’m not sure,” I admitted, shifting uncomfortably as I walked down the grocery aisle by her side. “Sonata is… weird, and yes, I know, pot and kettle.”

“She’s somethin’ like a million years old,” Applejack jibed, nudging me good-naturedly with her elbow. “I’d be shocked if she weren’t an odd duck.”

“Except I’m pretty sure she’s weird even by their standards,” I replied, rolling my eyes as I judged her back.

“Talkin’ about Sonata Dusk, right?” Applejack asked, nodding to herself as I grunted in the affirmative. “Alright, yeah, I’d buy that.”

“So… what do I do?”

I was fidgeting nervously with a box of protein bars. Not because I wanted them, I just needed something to fidget with. My mom bought me one of those spinners a few years back when they were popular, which proved to be a mistake.

My hand-eye coordination is such that I sent the little bastard spinning into Spike.

Applejack gave me a considering look that lasted a few moments before she shook her head and sighed.

“Look, Sugarcube, I’m all for givin’ folks second chances,” Applejack started, showing a few big bags of cereal, “but I ain’t gonna tell ya it’s the right thing to do, ‘cause the fact is I got no clue. You gotta make that decision, you gotta decide if you’re gonna trust her.”

“Is it… is it awful that I want to trust her?” I asked in a small voice as we made our way to the self-checkout.

Applejack gave me an odd look.

“Why would it be awful?”

I bit my lip and looked away, grimacing as I asked: “why do you think?”

“Ah, right, the Sunset and Aria thing,” she said after a moment, “Well I ain’t gonna say it’s a great look, but refusing’ to admit you were wrong ain’t exactly better.”

I flinched at that.

“Especially if she really is trustworthy,” Applejack pressed as she swept her purchases over the reader. “Then you’re doing her a disservice ‘cause of somethin’ she ain’t had no part in.”

“She’s Aria’s sister!” I countered

“And that don’t mean a darn thing!” Applejack snapped, her tone turning forceful enough to put me back a step. “She ain’t her sister’s keeper, never mind that she’s the youngest sister outta all’a them.”

I looked down, unable to meet her eyes. She wasn’t wrong, but I hated being called on it.

“Now listen, Twi’,” Applejack said calmly, her voice more relaxed now, “I ain’t sayin’ you gotta trust her, but she deserves the same thing anyone deserves, and that’s to be judged as who they are, not who they’re related to, y’hear?”

“I… guess I can’t really argue with that,” I replied with a grimace, “it’s hard to separate them, though.”

“Aria ain’t wronged you s’far as I know, Sugarcube,” Applejack said and I felt a flare of irrational anger.

“She took S-” I started the bite the words out, but choked on them as Applejack gave me a flat stare.

That was unfair and I knew it, and I hated myself for even having the thought. No one had ‘taken’ Sunset away from me, Sunset wasn’t an object, I had been awful and driven her away all by myself.

But it was so much easier to blame Aria. To blame any of the Sirens even if it was unfair.

“Sorry,” my voice came out hushed as I paid for my own small purchases and followed Applejack out of the store.

“Ain’t me ya gotta apologize to, hon,” Applejack shook her head, putting a hand on my shoulder as she did and squeezing. “Look, ya’ll want my advice ‘bout this Sonata business? I say give’r a fair shake, ain’t less than anyone deserves, y’know?”

I sighed and stopped outside the grocery store, shuffling a little as I wrapped my arms around myself. It was cold outside, it was a rare almost-cloudless winter day, but nothing could really warm up the Canterlot winter, so I pulled my purple sweater more tightly around me.

“AJ?” I looked up and the farmgirl cast me an inquisitive look over a shoulder. “Am… am I a bad person?”

Applejack grimaced and shook her head.

“Nah,” she answered with her own sigh, “you’re just hurtin’, when folks hurt they swing wide.”

“What’s wrong with me?” I looked up at Applejack, pleading for an answer. “This… this isn’t who I’m supposed to be.”

“Ain’t sure anyone’s supposed t’be anything in particular, Sugarcube,” Applejack said gently, giving me a friendly nudge. “You’ll be just fine, though, at least that's how I reckon it.”

“Glad someone thinks so,” I grumbled as I followed Applejack to her truck and helped load up our groceries. “H-hey… AJ?”

“Ayep?” Applejack asked as she pushed a bag into place behind the seats.

“I think I’ll go back and talk to Sonata,” I looked up at her, and Applejack smiled at me.

I’d always loved Applejack’s smile. It was so wide and warm, and it was impossible to feel anything but welcomed when she did it. Those bright, emerald eyes of hers sparkle clear and clean in the winter sunlight, and I smiled back almost reflexively.

“Good t’hear, Sugarcube,” Applejack said with a nod. “For what it’s worth, Aria ain’t that bad when ya get t’know her. Me’n Rares have been on a couple double dates with her’n Sunset, and I reckon her sister can’t possibly be worse.”

“I guess that’s fair,” I replied with a half-smile, feeling the same sting in my heart I always did whenever I thought about Sunset. “Thanks, AJ.”

“Anytime, darlin’,” Applejack replied as she slid into the driver’s seat and coaxed the ancient Ford to life. “Now let’s get on home, you can have a bit a‘fore ya take off.”

“That… sounds pretty great actually,” I said, smiling a little as my stomach grumbled in agreement.


The thumping bass rumbled and rolled even through the crystal-glass double doors of the Lounge.

I knew I was dithering but I’d never actually come here by myself before and I wasn’t really sure how to do it.

The first two times I'd been with Rainbow Dash, the third time was with Pinkie, and the fourth was the time I’d met Sonata at the bar after coming in with Fluttershy. All of them just sort of… walked in like they owned the place, and with the best will in the world the only thing I can own while walking into a place like this is a panic attack.

I had tried to get more in the groove of the place with a new outfit, but I’m not sure even Rarity’s skills could make me less mousey. I adjusted the calf-length black jacket she’d lent me, still feeling uncomfortable in the lacy, curved-hugging blouse and tight slacks she’d picked out.

It’s not that I didn’t think I looked good, I just can’t really… walk the walk, as Rarity would say. If I ever got onto a catwalk I’d probably make it three wobbly steps in before face-planting off the edge.

All said, the clothes were nice but they didn’t really help my confidence.

“Name?” The massive bouncer stared down at me and, intellectually, I knew he was a perfectly friendly man even if I’d never had a conversation with him myself, he was never less than cordial with everyone after all.

He was still… very large, though.

“T-t-t-Twilight S-Sparkle?” I’m not sure why I said my name like it was a question, and that got a raised eyebrow, but he looked down at his clipboard, thumbed a few pages, nodded, then motioned for me to pass.

“Welcome back to the Lounge, ma’am,” Backstage said with a warmer smile. “Good to see you again.”

“G-good to see you, too, I guess,” I tried to smile at him, but I think all I managed was a weird rictus.

He laughed a little, though, which was probably the best outcome I could hope for, and waved me in.

“Miss Dusk said you’re welcome at the bar whenever you arrive,” he called after me.

“O-oh, okay!” I tried to smile at him again, and I think I did a little better this time because I got a friendly nod from him before he turned back to his duty at the door.

Sighing, I wiped the sweat from my brow and shuffled inside.

As Sonata had promised, the Lounge was sparsely populated compared to Leather Night. A part of the small gathering of clientele, I suspected, was because I had come in quite early, but I didn’t have anything else to do. Finals had come and passed a week and a half ago, and I had a few weeks to burn, including Christmas and New Years, before the new semester started.

Winter vacation wasn’t quite as relaxing as I wanted it to be, though.

“Move it or lose it, short stock.”

I stumbled as someone shouldered past me, and I realised I’d be standing and fidgeting in the doorway of the Lounge for a minute or two.

“S-Sor-” I began, turning around, and then froze.

Aria Blaze was staring impassively at me, her dark, glittering gem-tone eyes fixed on me, and I felt like I was being pinned to the wall and examined. She was wearing a voluminous winter coat the color of coal, and her hair was tied back near the base of her skull, sending her long two-tone locks in a narrow stream down her back.

Her signature green cap was sitting on her head, turned backwards.

It was while she had me in her sights that I got my first real chance to get a good look at her.

I mean… sure, I’d seen her before, but I’d mostly avoided looking at her because she was almost always next to Sunset. That meant that, other than when we’d met in the Marexican restaurant at the Crystal Emporium, this was the first time I’d had the chance to really look at her.

There wasn’t any getting around it… Aria Blaze was gorgeous.

She had the slight, slender proportions of an old Roaman athlete, all long legs and whipcord muscle, backed by a perfect complexion, sharp patrician features, and piercing eyes.

“Sparkle, right?” Aria said gruffly, and I nodded.

She knew who I was, we’d been at a few of the same friendly get-togethers that Pinkie threw since she and Sunset had basically become accepted as a ‘thing’ that was going to happen whether everyone liked it or not.

“She’s not here yet,” Aria said after a moment of awkward silence.

“W-Who?” I asked dimly, and then had to mentally restrain myself from slapping my palm to my face. “I…. I mean, no I’m not… I’m not here to see Sun-... h-her, I’m here for something else.”

Aria raised a single delicate eyebrow that told me she didn’t quite buy my story which was probably fair. I wasn’t entirely sure I bought it either, if I’m being honest.

“Right,” Aria said, her tone dry and disinterested. “Well, like I said, she’s not here now, but she will be if you wanna talk to her.”

“Why would I want to?” The words came out bitter as I glanced away, but not before I saw the look on Aria’s face instantly darken.

“Yeah, more like why would she,” she spat, her voice suddenly venomous, and she shouldered me out of the way one more time before moving past me. “Bitch.”

The last word came out like a dart to hammer straight into my chest.

“Fuck you!” I snarled, whipping around as red washed over my vision, and I snapped an arm out to grab her by the hair, and yanked her violently back towards me.

Aria let out a high, startled shriek of surprise as she overbalanced, and I already had my arm cocked back to take a swing at her while she was off-balance.

Except she wasn’t.

Aria twisted and folded like a piece of human origami, contorting around me to seize me by the wrist as I brought my arm around to land a blow. I can’t even really account for where she was at any given time… it was like trying to identify a specific patch of water in a moving river the way she flowed around me.

One moment I was standing, feet planted on the ground getting ready to literally slap a hoe, and the next I was sailing through the air weightlessly for a brief moment before I was brutally reacquainted with the ground vis a vis our mutual friend, gravity, and her bitch of a wife, physics.

“Ow,” I groaned, stars spinning around my eyes as my strained for breath and stared up at the ceiling of the Lounge. “What… how did I-?”

A set of treads that I was vaguely able to identify as converse before they were planted on my face pinned my head to the ground. I realised, belatedly, that I must have lost my glasses somewhere between my flight and crash-landing.

“You’ve got some real fuckin’ moxie, Sparks, 'cause there’s only one girl in this world that gets to pull my hair,” Aria hissed in a deadly tone, and my one eye that was free of her shoe was staring up at a pair of violence-crazed amethysts. “You think you’re purple now? By the time I’m done with you you’re gonna be ultra-fuckin’-violet.”

What was I THINKING?!

I just took a swing at Aria Blaze! ARIA BLAZE! I just tried to hurt Sunset’s psychotic girlfriend for whom Sunset is, unabashedly, equally psychotically devoted to! And I did it right in the middle of her workplace which meant she could probably beat me into a fine paste and no-one would say a thing!

Aria raised both hands, still staring down at me as she curled her right hand into a fist, put it to her left palm, and cracked her knuckles.

It sounded like popcorn.

Honestly, I’d always thought that kind of thing only happened in movies, and at the time I thought it was pretty cheesy, not to mention kind of silly.

Realistically, it was actually terrifying, made moreso by the look of unrestrained murder in Aria’s eyes.

“I’m gonna enjoy this way more than I ought to,” Aria said, her face splitting into a violent grin as she tensed and flexed, and I took the cowards way out by closing my eyes.

Well, that was a fun life, hopefully I’m less of a moron in my next one.

Urk.”

That was an odd sound, and I blinked and opened my one eye that was free of boot-sole.

Aria was bent double with a look of excruciating pain on her face, her body trembled, spasming and twitching in equal measure as if she was rapidly losing control her muscles. I looked past Aria and up, not really knowing what to expect, but somewhere in the back of my mind I imagined it might be Sunset, back to rescue me again.

To my shock, Sonata Dusk stood over her older sister with her left hand gripping Aria’s neck from behind, her fingers flexed like a claw and digging into the bared skin at several points around her spine. As Aria spasmed again, I looked lower and saw Sonata had driven two fingers an inch and a half deep into Aria’s side just below her floating rib.

“Aria,” Sonata said in a voice that was as cold as a granite mountainside. “Go to your room.”

Rather than reply, Aria just let out a strangled wheeze, and I swear I heard Aria’s spine crackling. It took a few moments, but eventually Aria let out another, slightly different sounding wheeze, and gave a vague approximation of a nod.

The tension dropped from Sonata’s body like it had never existed, and Aria stumbled drunkenly away. She only looked back once, to glare at me as I sat up floundering for my glasses, and then paled as she glanced over my shoulder before staggering away towards the VIP section of the Lounge.

I looked over my shoulder, perching my glasses back in place as I did, to find Sonata smiling beatifically at me.

“W-what-?” I gasped as she held out a hand to pull me to my feet. “What was that?”

“Acupuncture,” Sonata said with her usual vacuous grin.

“I’m… I’m a strong seventy-five percent sure that wasn’t acupuncture,” I replied with a dumbfounded stare.

“That means it was at least twenty-five percent acupuncture, though!” she chirped in reply as she took my hand and began guiding me towards the bar.

“Okay, I am one hundred percent sure that’s not how statistical likelihood works,” I shot back with a dry, disbelieving laugh. “What did you do to her?”

“I stopped her from hurting you,” Sonata replied a little more seriously as she got me to a barstool and help me sit down. “That’s all.”

I sat down gingerly, my whole body still throbbing, and I rubbed the back of my head before pulling my hand back and glancing down at it with a flash of panicked certainty that it was going to be covered in blood.

It wasn’t.

“You just… shut her down,” I said, still in shock, “she was beating me like a drum and you just-”

“Pssh, like that’s the first time I’ve ever had to pull Aria off of someone,” Sonata said with a laugh, waving a hand and laughing a little before picking up a glass and pouring a measure of liquor. “Once, back in Byzantium, Aria got into it with this copper merchant who tried to short us,” she slid one shot to me and poured another for herself, “and Adagio was drunk off her poof on grain alcohol because we’d just been banished and that’s kinda her thing when she’s moody.”

“What happened?” I leaned in and picked up the glass by reflex.

“So he gets out his ledger, right?” Sonata laughed before taking a sip, “and he’s showing her the transaction, but Aria can’t read, so she just gets angrier, and then she grabs his ledger and starts beating him with it!”

“Aria can’t read?!” I asked in shock, but Sonata just shook her head.

“Well, she can read now, but before we got banished she was a Myrmidon, that’s our warrior caste, see?” Sonata killed the rest of her shot and poured herself another. “They’re not exactly warrior poets, the Empress liked her army big, strong, and dumb, so Aria never got taught formally. She figured it out around… ugh, I dunno… the Crusades?”

“Wait? Big and strong?” I glanced back towards the way Aria had gone. “But she’s so…”

“Right?” Sonata chortled, slugging back another drink. “Isn’t it hilarious? Back in Equestria, Aria was like… half again as big as me and a few lengths bigger than ‘Dagi, but then we get over here and she’s all runty!”

I snorted, laughing despite my aching ribs, and lifted the glass to my lips and drank without thinking.

It was sweet.

Fruity-sweet, and it burned a little going down, but it was delicious.

“What was that?” I asked in disbelief, staring at the glass.

Marillenschnaps,” Sonata held up a dusty-looking bottle of amber glass. “It’s a Germane brandy made from apricots! Fruit and berry liquors are my jam! Get it?”

“That was awful,” I replied dryly, before holding out my glass. “Another.”

“Ooh, looks like we found a winner!” Sonata cheered, filling my glass again as she did. “It’s one of my favorites, too.”

I couldn’t help but smile a little as I knocked back the shot.

It was strange, I’d always avoided alcohol for a variety of reasons, but mostly because of the culture surrounding drinking in this county, but with Sonata it was… fun.

“So… why’d you pick a fight with my sister?” Sonata said after a moment, staring down at her own refilled glass, and I stiffened in alarm. “I’m guessing she provoked you?”

“Y-Yeah,” I replied uneasily after a moment, then shook my head angrily, “but I shouldn’t have reacted like that, she just… hit a sore spot for me.”

“What happened?” Sonata killed her drink and met my eyes evenly, “talk to me.”

“We… got into it over Sunset,” I replied, ducking my face in shame. “I said something I didn’t mean, and she shoulder-checked me and called me a bitch.”

“You said something about Sunset, huh?” Sonata said quietly, and I flinched but nodded. “Yeah, that’s pretty much the only thing that really riles up Ari’ lately.”

“I really screwed up with her,” I hung my head and stared down into my empty shot glass. “Sunset I mean… and Aria too I guess… Applejack was right, she never actually did anything to me.”

“Well, until she clobbered you into the floor,” Sonata pointed out with a laugh as she swept my empty glass from my hand and tucked both hers and mine into the dirty dishes. “Here, have some water.”

“Thanks,” I took the taller glass she offered and sipped at it. “I hate that I reacted like that… that I’m so sensitive about crap like that.”

“About what?” Sonata began mixing a drink someone ordered without looking away.

“Being shoved around… it reminds me of when I was bullied,” I said quietly. “I basically had no friends growing up, and I was bullied for being smaller and smarter than most of the other kids since, ugh, kindergarten, I guess.”

“Wow, that sucks,” Sonata said with a wan chuckle. “And Aria is kind of a bully, I won’t lie…”

“But when she shouldered me I just lost it,” I said angrily, gripping my water glass hard. “I saw red and I just lost it.”

“So you’ve got a temper problem, it’s not the end of the-”

“I don’t have a temper problem!” I snapped viciously, slamming my glass into the countertop.

There was a loud cracking sound and my hand was suddenly wet. Sonata looked down sadly and I followed her gaze to find that the water glass was cracked up the middle where it struck the hard bartop, and leaking water everywhere. I blinked in confusion, staring at the growing mess on the table, and I realised with a sort of distant shock that there was a faint tinge of pink mixing with the water.

Pulling my hand away, I stared at the sharp cut on my palm, and all of the sudden the pain from it hit me like a baseball bat.

I swore under my breath, covering my hand clutching it to my chest. Sonata had already swept away the broken glass, and a towel had been thrown over the spilled water.

“Hey, Mixer,” Sonata said calmly, calling out to one of the other bartenders. “Hold down the fort, one of the customers cut herself on accident, I’m taking her around back.”

Mixer was a tall, wiry young man with a fashionably windblown mop of azure-blue hair, a long, pleasant face, and a languid smile. He was wearing an identical outfit to Sonata, and I had an instant of premonition that said he endured a lot of flirting from both sides of the street in his job.

“I can take her back,” Mixer said, his brow furrowing in concern. “I’m just a junior-”

I’m taking her,” Sonata repeated, and that stony weight was back in her voice.

Mixer froze for a moment, then nodded. “Yeah, sure thing boss.”

Sonata came around from the bar and put a hand on my shoulder, gently guiding me back towards the VIP section.

We passed the rope partition and moved around a raised stage with a gleaming silver pole in the center, then headed back towards a door on the right. Sonata pulled out a long, old-fashioned key and fitted it to the lock, turned it, and pulled the door open before ushering me through.

“We have first aid kits all over the place, but the best stocked ones are in our rooms,” Sonata explained as she closed the door behind her. “I need to make sure that cut isn’t too deep, if it needs stitches that’ll get dicey.”

“I’m sorry,” I said, finally finding my voice. “I… might… maybe have a little bit of a temper problem.”

I half-expected Sonata to say something snarky back to me like: ‘duh’ or ‘y’think?’ but she didn’t. She just guided me gently through a dark hallway, around to the right, and past a few doors, one of which had Adagio’s name on it under the title: General Manager.

The door to Sonata’s room was simple and unadorned, and it looked almost identical to each of the other doors lining the hallway. The constant throb of my hand made the short walk seem many times longer than it probably was, but within moments I was being ushered into a dimly lit room, then immediately to the write to a bathroom.

Sonata helped me sit down on the corner of the bathtub before she turned and pulled a first aid kid from a white metal case bolted to the wall. It was large and surprisingly extensive, and when she cracked it open I had the faint notion that she was about to perform surgery on me.

Instead, she just pulled out some disinfectant alcohol, a few swabs, and a roll of bandages, then took my hand.

“How do you feel?” Sonata asked quietly as she knelt and began cleaning the cut.

I hissed as the alcohol burned on the open wound, clenching my eyes shut as tears sprung up reflexively against the pain.

“P-pretty bad,” I hissed, then grit my teeth and scowled, staring at the corner of the room. “Pretty stupid, actually.”

“There’s nothing wrong with having a temper, you know,” Sonata continued cleaning, not looking up as she spoke, and I bit back the instinctive, acidic reply.

“Yes, there is,” I said instead, and I tried to keep my voice calm but the words still came out sounding strained and tight. “Temper forgoes logic, it spoils calm calculation with crude emotion, and it leads to mistakes.”

Sonata didn’t reply right away, instead just taking my hand gingerly and turning it this way and that to get a good look at it in the light, then nodded, seemingly pleased with whatever it was she saw, and sprayed a little antibiotic gel onto it before placing a soft pad of cloth over the cut and then starting the slow process of wrapping the bandage.

“That’s diminishing something pretty complex, there, Twi’,” Sonata replied as she wrapped my hand. “You talk like emotion and logic are opposites, and that logic is the better one out of the two.”

“It is,” I said bluntly, narrowing my eyes at her.

“Typical,” Sonata said quietly.

“What?” I snapped, pulling my hand away angrily before she could finish. “You have a better idea? Go on then, tell me! What’s your argument about emotion being better than logic?”

Sonata stared up at me with wide, distant eyes, and I got the strangest and most sudden impression of something entirely… not human drifting behind them.

“If I rule a nation,” Sonata started quietly, reaching out to take back my hand to finish her medical ministrations, “and I know that taking a portion of land to my south will prevent my citizens from starving through the winter, should I?”

“Of course!” I replied with a dry laugh. “I assume you’d have to conquer it, though?”

“Mhm,” Sonata nodded. “And it’s jealously guarded, like any agricultural treasure, right? So If I want it then I’ll have to spend the blood of my soldiers.” Sonata closed her eyes as she finished wrapping my hand, and her expression became strained. “I have two thousand good soldiers in the area, another three hundred mercenaries, and in the best case scenario, fifty-six per cent of them die in order to successfully take the land, realistically I calculate the number closer to seventy-nine per cent.”

I started to feel an odd chill go up my spine as she spoke, and I didn’t like how… grim her voice had become. I’d never heard Sonata talk like this before, not that I’d spoken to her very much but this kind of tone seemed… at odds with her personality.

“That comes to an approximate death toll of one thousand, eight hundred, and seventeen,” Sonata continued in a voice that was approaching monotone, her eyes were terribly cold and distant now. “That’s not counting the enemy forces who are worse trained and more poorly equipped, but far more numerous, nor the citizens who have no combat training, but will resist to protect their homes.” She looks up at me and breath catches in my throat at the dark, icy depths of her normally vibrantly berry-colored eyes. “The death toll now calculates closer to seven thousand, by approximation… seven thousand dead, can you imagine that, Twi’? Can you really imagine what that would look like? That many bodies? What that would smell like? The wet heat in the air from the blood and sweat? Can you imagine it?”

“This… this isn’t hypothetical is it?” I asked in a quiet, pained voice.

“No, it isn’t,” Sonata replied, still kneeling and staring at some distant point somewhere I couldn’t see. “Me and my sisters, we were traveling north, through some Russian principalities in the… uhm, early thirteenth century, I think, and ended up the Khagan’s court, Aria danced for the Khagan and he liked her, Adagio wormed her way into becoming something like his spymaster, and I was his advisor for the logistics of his army.” Sonata closed her eyes and shuddered. “I told him how many of his men would die, and how many of the other side would die, and he wouldn’t listen.”

“Why didn’t he just try to trade with the south?” I asked, horrified.

“Because of logic, Twi’,” Sonata said wanly. “He said to me: ‘Why should I blather for a full season over trade concessions and risk my people starving? My soldiers exist to fight and die, they are coin of another sort, and one I’d pay for certainty of victory.’ and the thing is, he was right in a way.”

I swallowed hard as Sonata stood up and smiled that strange, distant, smile of hers at me.

“He got the land, his people didn’t starve, and only sixteen hundred and twenty-two of his soldiers died,” Sonata recited the figures and I had another grim premonition as she continued to speak. “More than… than ten thousand of the other side died too, though… and-”

“Sonata?” I broke in and she seemed the start, as if she’d forgotten I was there for a moment.

“H-huh?” Sonata looked around herself, an air of confusion about her for a moment, then she turned back to me and smiled vacantly.

“Do you… do you remember all those figures exactly?” I asked warily, and she blinked owlishly at me for a moment. “The… the death toll, and the logistical numbers and… all of that? You remember all of that?”

“Sure,” she replied easily. “Why wouldn’t I?”

“Because… Sonata, all of that happened over seven hundred years ago,” I said, feeling a cold horror well up in my gut. “How,” I swallowed back a knot of bile in my throat, “how much do you remember?”

Sonata blinked at me a few more times, her eyes taking on a glassy sheen for a moment before her gaze sharpened, she shook her head, and shrugged.

“Everything,” Sonata replied. “I remember everything, but not all the time.”

I leaned back from her, brushing away a few stray locks of purple from my eyes as I stared up at Sonata Dusk, the ditzy, air-headed youngest sister among the Siren sisters, and felt… grief.

“So yeah,” Sonata continued, her carefree smile coming back to her face with its usual soft strength. “Logic isn’t all that great all the time if you think about it, and sometimes you gotta let your heart tell you when something is right or wrong, y’know?”

I nodded, standing up and staring down at my bandaged hand.

“If I don’t have logic, though,” I said quietly, my voice reedy and weak, as I stared the cleaned and cared-for injury, “then what do I do? I… I can’t just flail through life… I can’t.”

A warm palm came to rest on my cheek and lifted my head to stare into eyes that were terribly, terribly old for someone who looked so young.

“You’ve gotta find a balance, Twi’,” Sonata said gently, “logic, emotion… that stuff only fights each other if you make it fight, because they’re supposed to work together.”

I sighed and moved past her, still cradling my hand that throbbed painfully, but significantly less so now that it was cared for.

“I wish I could just be like other people,” I said angrily, feeling the sting of tears build under my shut eyelids. “I wish I wasn’t so… so fucking broken.”

A pair of hands came to rest on my shoulders and, with surprising strength, turned me around. I glared up at Sonata through red, watery eyes, shaking as I tried not to just start crying.

“You’re not broken,” Sonata said, smiling gently. “I promise.”

“All I can manage is logic!” I snapped furiously, pulling away from her. “And apparently that makes me a fucking monster! I can’t do emotion right because people make no sense! I can’t even feel-”

I clammed my mouth shut before I damned myself further and turned my back on Sonata, stomping away towards the door like a five-year-old.

“Neither do I.”

I came to a hard stop at those words, then turned and looked over my shoulders. Sonata was still standing there, her hands folded in front of her, her eyes sad and fixed on me.

“So what, though?” Sonata continued. “My sisters still love me, right? Just because all the sexy-stuff my sisters get so into gives me the heebs doesn’t mean I’m broken.”

She held out her hand to me and waited, and I felt tremors roll through my body as I stared at the proffered limb like it was a serpent. A moment passed, then another, and I realised she was going to keep waiting until I reacted, either to take her hand or… or not.

Slowly, I reached out the hand that Sonata had bandaged for me, and laid it in hers.

Her fingers and her palm were warm and soft, and she tugged me a little closer, and I let her.

“And neither are you, Twi’,” Sonata said quietly, reaching out and wrapping her arms around me and pulling me into a delicate hug. “You’re not broken.”

I buried my face against Sonata’s shoulder and cried, hard and ugly, against her blouse.

“Then why do I feel broken?” I sobbed, “why do I feel like I’m missing something! Every time I’m asked when I’m gonna have a kid, or get into a relationship, or…” I let out another sob and clung to Sonata. “it just reminds me that I’m… I’m wrong!”

“You’re not wrong,” Sonata said quietly.

My life is… odd.

That’s an understatement, actually, considering how I met my current and so far only crop of friends: that is, I met them while trying to destroy the world. So maybe it’s not so out of character for me to having a huge, emotional moment with my bartender in the backroom of a strip club.

And I’m not too proud to admit that, of all the people I expected to have a sudden and emotional breakdown in front of, Sonata Dusk wasn’t even in the same zip code of people on the list. I always kind of thought it be Sunset, she'd always been supportive, and I loved her for it, but I know that she’d never really understood that side of me, and I never admitted that part of the reason I didn’t sleep in our dorm room was because, with the best will in the world, Sunset gets kind of loud.

Even when she’s alone.

Everyone else had been mostly polite enough to try to be sensitive about bringing up certain subjects around me, which really just made me feel worse because I hate feeling like I'm putting people out, and having my friends walk on eggshells around me wasn’t a great feeling.

“Why are you here?” I asked after a moment, still resting against Sonata’s shoulder as she hummed some tuneless melody. “I mean, like this, with me… aren’t you supposed to be working? And… and you don’t even know me that well.”

“I dunno, I think we get along okay,” Sonata said brightly, still holding onto me. “And besides, I’d do this for a complete stranger… everyone deserves to feel like someone understands them, y’know?”

“Thank you,” I squeaked, burying my face in her shoulder again.

“You’re welcome,” Sonata replied, and I could hear the smile in her voice. “Also, sorry if being this close to someone else heebs you out or anything, you just looked like you needed a hug.”

“No, it’s good… I like hugs, actually,” I replied, and I wasn’t lying.

Actually I kind of hoped she wasn’t leading up to the subject that hugs made her feel uncomfortable, because this hug was really nice and I wasn’t quite ready for it to be over yet. Something about Sonata just made everything feel a little softer, a little easier, and… I don’t know… a little better.

“Me too,” Sonata said cheerfully.

I think if it were anyone else, the length of time that hug went on would have gotten incredibly awkward, but between how comfortable I was, and how apparently oblivious Sonata was to any kind of social awkwardness, we ended up standing there for a good ten minutes.

Which, it turns out, is just long enough for my leg to start cramping up.

“Ow-ow-ow,” I grumbled, hitching up my leg as it started to twinge, and Sonata laughed a little as she lent me an arm and walked me over to her bed.

It was large, poofy, and covered in stuffed animals. It had five enormous pillows, and the whole bed, from comforter to sheets, was varying shades of teal and bright pink, and as I sat down I just… sank into it.

“Wow,” I groaned as I laid back and sank into the bed. “This bed is way too soft.”

“I like it!” Sonata cheered as she sat next to me and sank into beside me. “It just sorta… swallows you up, and then you can make a cover-cocoon.”

“I do that too,” I admitted, blushing a little as I did. “I always feel childish when I do, though.”

“When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up,” Sonata said with the air of recitation. “I always liked that… what’s the point in being all serious,” she screwed her face into a cartoonish scowl, “if you can’t just have fun and enjoy silly stuff now and again?!”

“I guess so,” I replied, turning on my side and looking over at her. “Everyone always says to act your age, though.”

“What’s that even mean?” Sonata threw up her hands in mock distress. “If I acted my age I’d just be playing dead all the time!”

“PFFHAAHA!” I busted up laughing, wrapping my arms around my ribs as they twinged from my early scuffle.

But still, I laughed.

I laughed long and hard and loud, like I don’t think I’ve laughed in a long, long time. Maybe… maybe I haven’t ever laughed like that.

Everyone always said I was an uncommonly serious child.

“You’ve got a pretty laugh,” Sonata said cheerfully as she turned on her side and stared back at me, and my face flushed scarlet. “I like it… I wanna make you laugh more.”

“I… can’t really think of a reason to say no to that,” I replied, fiddling with my glasses as I did.

“Hey Twi’?” Sonata asked, reaching out to take my hand as she did.

“Uhm… y-yeah?” I felt a strange, unfamiliar sensation in my stomach as I stared at Sonata, losing myself a little in that bright, feverish light of her eyes.

Sonata scooted a few inches closer and squeezed my hand. “I… I wanna kiss you, would you mind?”

“I… S-Sonata, you know I d-don’t-” I began, but Sonata just shook her head.

“Just a kiss, that’s it,” she said quietly, “and it’s okay if not.”

I swallowed hard and stared at her for a few minutes, mulling it over, and thinking particularly hard about how good her hug felt. I didn’t want to have sex with Sonata, I knew that, but I… well, I wasn’t exactly opposed to kissing her. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to was the problem since I’d...

“Uhm, m-may I ask why you want to,” I chewed on the word for a few seconds before finishing a little weakly, “y-y’know, do that? With me?”

“Because you’re pretty, and you’ve got a pretty laugh,” Sonata answered, then brought her other hand up to brush a few strands of purple hair from my eyes. “And I like you.”

“O-Oh,” I curled up a little, but really couldn’t come up with a good reason to say no.

I did kinda want to know what kissing Sonata would feel like.

“Well, o-okay,” I said finally, scooting a little closer until our faces were barely an inch apart. “Just so you know… this is kinda my first kiss.”

Sonata smiled back at me as she reached out and gathered me up in her arms. I let her because honestly I was still kind of low-key missing our hug.

“Wanna know a secret?” Sonata said with a small giggle, and I nodded, a little baffled. “It’ll be mine, too.”

My eyes widened at that.

Then she kissed me.

Sonata’s lips were warm and so, so soft, and the way they pressed against mine made me want to lean into her all the more. It wasn’t some furious, passionate thing, like in the movies. It was slow and gentle, and by most standards of kisses it was probably only a step or two above a peck, just a tender, insistent meeting of the lips.

I… I really liked it.

When she pulled away, I was breathing a little hard, and I licked my lips as the sensation of her touch left them.

“So… whadya think?” Sonata asked shyly, and I melted a little.

Do you have any idea how hard it is to keep up any kind of emotional guardrails against that kind of, for lack of a better word, innocence? I know she’s seen things I can’t even imagine in my worst nightmares, okay? I get it. So maybe it’s a willful innocence, but to me that’s… kind of even more impressive.

“I think… I kinda wanna do that more,” I admitted, smiling back at her.

It was weirdly liberating; the idea of kissing someone without worrying that they were going to try and get into my pants. I think if it had been anyone but Sonata I might’ve been suspicious about it too, but…

“Are you sure?” Sonata asked with a quiet smile.

“Y-yeah,” I replied, “I, uh, I trust you.”

I don’t think I could have brightened up her day more. Her face split into a wide happy grin and she curled up closer to me until we were cuddled together. The sense of warmth and comfort was intoxicating all by itself, at least I was fairly certain it was just that and not the shots of schnaps I’d had earlier.

Well, maybe a little of both.

“I want to but I’ve gotta get back to work,” Sonata said a little dolefully. “The evening rush is gonna get into swing in like, half an hour, and I can’t really leave Mixer and Highball alone.”

“Can I stick around, then?” I asked hopefully, I was still holding her hands in mine and honestly I wasn’t quite ready to let go. “Until you’re done?”

“Sure thing, Twi’,” Sonata said happily, before bouncing up from the bed and stretching, then carefully flattening out all the little wrinkles on her outfit before extending a hand to me.

She pulled me up to my feet and made to leave.

“Mind if I wash up a little first?” I asked, nodding to the bathroom.”

“Go for it,” Sonata waved her hand dismissively. “When ya come out, take a left, then a right, then go straight and out the far door, that’ll put you in the VIP area.”

“I can find my way from there, thanks,” I said, smiling as I trotted off to the bathroom.

I heard Sonata leave as I turned on the faucet and splashed some cold water in my face. It was chilly but bracing, and woke me up a little from the pleasant doze I’d worked up laying on Sonata’s bed. That thing was deceptively comfortable, especially since I generally prefer my beds to be a little firmer.

Or maybe it was just the company.

“I wonder if this can work,” I mumbled as I dried my face, staring into the mirror as I did.

A tired young woman stared back at me, and I grimaced. There were bags under my eyes from where I’d lost sleep, and my complexion was suffering from the same problem. My hair looked good mostly thanks to Rarity’s expert hands, but normally it was a mess. All of that was ignoring the fact that, at least in my opinion, I was pretty plain.

All of my friends had something going for them in the looks department. Rarity was pretty much a fledgling fashion model, Rainbow was sporty and fit, Fluttershy was practically angelic, whatever her bedroom tastes happened to be, Pinkie was a bombshell, and Applejack had the country-girl charm down pat.

I, on the other hand, had thick glasses, dry hair, tired eyes, and I was starting to put on weight thanks to my metabolism finally slowing down.

With all that in mind, the idea that Sonata actually liked looking at me was a little odd, but she was so guileless that I couldn’t really call her a liar.

“Okay, well, let’s see where this goes, Twilight,” I tried to cheer myself on, and I think it half worked as I dried my face off, put my glasses back on, and left the bathroom.

I locked Sonata’s door behind me, reasoning that it seemed the polite thing to do, and followed her directions. The hallway was dim but not too dark, and I passed what I assumed was Adagio’s room quickly enough, then turned the corner and-

“Ow~” I staggered as I thumped into someone, and backpedaled as I corrected my skewed glasses and looked up.

Sunset Shimmer was standing in front of me, black leather jacket on over a tight-fitting scarlet top and black jeans, and she had the strangest look of cool neutrality on her face.

I felt my heart seize up for a moment as I worked my jaw, trying to get past my shock and surprise to say something.

Anything.

“H-hey, Suns-”

Her right hook caught me just under the jaw and sent me spinning to the ground, and I heard my glasses clatter and crack as they bounced off the wall and hit the ground beside me. I tasted blood and realised I’d bit my cheek, and then it took me another half a second to realise that Sunset had just… hit me.

Like, really hit me.

Hard.

This wasn’t like in our dorm room when she’d slapped me out of raw pain and anger, either, this was…

I looked up at her and saw an ice-cold furnace of fury burning behind Sunset’s eyes, her face twisted into a rictus of ire as she knelt down to a knee and glared at me.

“If you,” Sunset hissed, pointing a finger at me and jabbing it at my face, “ever lay a hand on my girlfriend ever again, then I don’t care how good of friends we were… I will put you through the fucking wall, Twilight.”

Oh, right.

That… that had happened.

Sunset stood up, cracked her knuckles, turned on her heel, and stormed away, taking a right down a set of stairs. I heard a door slam further down the hall.

I probably should have just let Aria beat me to death.

3. An Open Chair

View Online

I left the Last Note in a daze with my jaw throbbing and my head pounding. I think I remember walking past some of the employees and I think some of them even said something to me. I ignored them, clutching my glasses in my shaking hands, every so often fumbling and fidgeting with them as I stared at the cracked left lens.

I think a couple people asked me if I was alright, but I wasn’t really paying attention.

If I thought my odds at reconciling with Sunset were poor before, then they were practically nonexistent now. Before she had taken a swing at me because we’d been in an argument, tensions had been high, and things had gotten out of hand.

This time though…

I had only rarely seen Sunset truly angry.

She was passionate, sure, and she had a temper, but she also had control of it nine times out of ten. The time she’d slapped me was the one time out of ten she’d been pushed too far.

This had not been an example of Sunset losing her temper.

This had been Sunset, in no uncertain terms, threatening me for trying to hurt Aria, because the one thing Sunset had in spades was a fierce protective streak.

One that, once upon a time, extended to me.

I was at least passingly certain that was no longer the case.

The winter night felt especially cold as I stepped outside, and my jaw hurt like the dickens. I moved my tongue around inside my mouth, carefully feeling for anything loose, and was a little relieved to find nothing out of sorts.

“You okay, ma’am?”

I looked up and the bouncer, Backstage I think was his name, was giving me a concerned look.

“Uhm… no, not really,” I answered, too emotionally worn out to pretend. “I’m just gonna go home, I think.”

My parents home.

I can’t exactly go back to the dorm.

Even if Sunset does spend most of her time with Aria, I have no idea when she’ll be back there and I can’t… I can’t face her. Not anymore, not after what just happened.

With a pang of gut-wrenching anxiety, I realise I’m not just upset or angry.

I’m scared.

I was scared of Sunset.

“Hey.”

I let out a sharp, strangled squeak of alarm and staggered back from my little Civic that I’d been absentmindedly pulling out the keys for which dropped from my fear-numbed fingers down into the slush beneath me.

Pinkie Pie was standing just across from me wearing a fluffy blue and pink striped parka, thick blue winter pants, and heavy-treaded boots. Her hands were shoved in the front pockets to keep them warm, and her eyes were… sad.

“P-Pinkie?” I stared at her for a moment in shock, then looked down in a panic for my keys.

Without even looking, Pinkie knelted, pulled one hand from her pocket, made a quick twirling motion with her index finger, then darted her hand down into the slush and pulled out my keys.

“Here ya go, silly,” she said brightly as she stood up and held them out. “Gotta keep your keys on a chain or something.”

“Yeah, I… I guess I do,” I stared down at the keys, then looked back up at Pinkie who was still giving me that sad smile. “Why are you here, Pinkie?”

“Because I need to be,” Pinkie replied in a manner that reminded me strangely of Sonata. “Because you need me to be.”

“How do you know what I need?” I asked a more bitterly than she deserved.

She didn’t rise to my admittedly childish bait, though, and shuffled a little closer as she opened her arms. “C’mere.”

I sniffled, lifted a hand to my stinging jaw, then nodded and stepped forward into Pinkie’s arms. Say what you will about her slightly tenuous grip on reality, but Pinkamena Diane Pie gives the best hugs. Every second that it lasts, you can feel the warmth coming from her, and not just the physical warmth, but the emotional warmth.

The spiritual warmth.

It’s that feeling of nearness to another human being turned up to eleven, and Pinkie just exudes it like an aura.

“S-She hit me, Pinkie,” I sobbed, burying my face in her chest, and Pinkie just hugged me harder. “She r-really hit me!”

“I know, I’m sorry,” Pinkie said quietly, making gentle cooing sounds that, although patronizing, did actually make me feel a little better. “She shouldn’t have done that.”

“Shouldn’t she have?” I moaned, gripping Pinkie’s parka harder. “I lost my temper and tried to hurt Aria! If I wasn’t so inept I actually might have!”

“Friends shouldn’t fight,” Pinkie said firmly. “Friends talk, even if that talk… even if it ends with them not being friends anymore, they owe each other a talk, even if it’s a last talk.”

It felt like my heart was casing over in granite, thick and heavy and painful in my chest.

I didn’t want to have a ‘last talk’ with Sunset, that was part of why I had avoided talking to her even though I’d gone to the Last Note multiple times and had every opportunity to. I could have just asked any of the employees to page her, I could have taken Sonata up on her offer to call Sunset up directly.

Hell, even Aria had offered to help me talk to her in her own stiff, awkward way, I realised.

But I was too stinking scared.

“Come on, let’s go get some cocoa,” Pinkie said with a warm smile, linking her arm with mine and dragging me towards her still idling car.

Pinkie’s car was a beat-up little Volkswagon Bug from the eighties that was painted garishly bright pink, and whenever Pinkie turned it on it always sounded like it trying to decide if this was going to be the day it died for good but, for one reason or another, the old engine always turned over.

I thought about resisting as Pinkie tugged me over to the passenger side door, but I decided I’d alienated quite enough of my friends today, and honestly hot chocolate sounded kind of good. Call me stereotypical, but some primal part of my brain was demanding that I drown my sorrows in chocolate.

Kicking the clutch open and shifting gears, Pinkie pulled out of the Last Note parking lot and got on the freeway heading south, out of the ritzy end of Canterlot and into the Commons.

The drive was silent, with me leaning against the door, the sore spot on my face pressed to the icy chill of the window as I stared at the lines upon lines of christmas lights festooning all the various places of business in expectation of the holidays.

Once we were out of the North End and into the Ponyville Commons the decorations became a lot less extravagant, but no less enthusiastic. Strings of cheap christmas lights lined apartment windows and little decals of Santa and his Reindeer could be seen on the glass. Here and there was a small lawn decoration set to the side of a porch or awning, and it occurred to me that everyone else in the world seemed to be getting along just fine.

I found myself mildly offended by that.

A few minutes later Pinkie pulled us into the parking lot of her workplace, a friendly little cafe called Sugarcube Corner, and a place that had a lot of happy memories for all of us as friends even after high school.

I couldn’t move for several moments, my guilt and anxiety hitting me hard as I remembered all the times I’d spent there with Sunset. All the times that were gone now and might never happen again because I’d done something stupid.

The car door creaked open sullenly, and I started in surprise before realizing it was just Pinkie opening it up.

“C’mon, lets get warm,” Pinkie helped me out of the car, which was always just a little too low to comfortably move out of without Pinkie’s natural hopping gait.

The door to the Corner jingled merrily as we entered, and my nose was suddenly filled with the smell of various chocolates, pastries, and other sugary confections.

“Two emergency hot chocolates! Stat!” Pinkie demanded in mock severity as she tromped up to the cash register.

Missus Cake smiled good-naturedly and started working on the drinks.

One of the things I loved most about Sugarcube Corner was how genuine their food and drink was. I watched the matronly proprietor break up several thick bars of dark chocolate while the milk was steaming. The chunks went into large mugs, followed by the milk, a thick dollop of homemade whipped cream each.

Pinkie dropped several bills on the counter to pay and scooped up the mugs. As she turned, Missus Cake shot me a wink, swept up the bills, and dropped them in the tip jar.

Most of those tips went to Pinkie, I knew. She was their main employee and half the reason that the Corner was so popular. Pinkie Pie was probably more of a fixture at the little cafe than any of the actual fixtures.

I smiled back at her as I turned to follow Pinkie to our table. There was a large booth near the back that the lot of us had been using as our regular hangout spot for near on a decade now, and we still showed up here now and again.

Less often than we used to, maybe, we all had work and lives after all, but… we never lost touch.

Until now.

I took a seat across from Pinkie and rested my hands on the warm ceramic mug. The smell of chocolate and rich cream rolled up from the beverage and, as miserable as the night had been going, it still made me feel a little better.

“I guess you know what happened?” I asked although it was mostly a statement.

For one reason or other that none of us have ever been able to parse, Pinkie always seemed to have an uncommonly firm grasp of events that happened despite being nowhere near them at the time. The Princess, my Equestrian doppelgänger, theorized that Pinkie might be one of the rare humans who are naturally able to channel magic, even if only in minute amounts, but it was never proven.

“I dunno,” Pinkie said quietly, “what did happen?”

I scowled, then raised the mug to my lips and took a slow sip of the piping hot drink. It was delicious, just like it always was, and the thick, creamy chocolate warmed me up from the inside out.

“I don’t know,” the words came out after a long pause, and I stared at my drink in dismay as I realised it was true. “I just… I’m so angry, Pinkie… I thought I was angry at Aria, but I know that’s irrational, so… I guess I’m just angry for no reason.”

“Nah,” Pinkie shook her head, then took a large bite out of the whipped cream that was topping her drink before washing it down with some chocolate. “You’re our friend, Twi’! You don’t do stuff for no reason, heck… no one does stuff for no reason, sometimes the reason is just silly or weird, but there’s always a reason.”

“Except I didn’t have a reason!” I snapped, gripping my mug tighter. “There was nothing rational behind my actions. I just lost my temper and attacked Aria!”

“See, you do have a reason!” Pinkie said brightly, ignoring my irritation. “You lost your temper! That’s the reason.”

“That’s not a reason, Pinkie, that’s just a loss of control,” I grumbled as I took another drink. “And it never should have happened… and then Sunset slugged me for attacking her girlfriend, which I guess I don’t blame her for.”

“Hmm…” Pinkie mumbled thoughtfully into her hot chocolate, blowing little bubbles into it as she did, before looking back up at me with those startlingly blue eyes of hers. “You remember when we all went and saw the new Halloween movie together? At the old Multiplex?”

“Uh, y~eah?” I raised an eyebrow, trying to figure out where this non sequitur came from. “Still not a big horror movie fan…”

“Yeah, neither was Sunnybuns, even though she tried to hide it,” Pinkie giggled and I couldn’t help but smile at the memory.

Sunset had tried to put on a brave face, but the movie had clearly freaked her out. A part of that, I had always theorized, was because her culture just didn’t have any kind of equivalent to horror movies. Movies themselves were a nascent production in Equestria, according to the Princess, and back when Sunset had crossed over they hadn’t even been in circulation, and violence of the kind shown in classic slashers was grotesquely visceral even by human standards.

Equestrians probably would have balked at even the tamer movies, to say nothing of one of the brutal classics like the Shape.

“She tried really hard to act cool, but she was jumping at shadows,” I agreed, laughing a little. “Even I hadn’t gotten that scared by the movie, I mean, it was gory, but it wasn’t that bad.”

“Right? But Sunnybuns was just wired!” Pinkie giggled and leaned back in the booth. “And she was still dating Rainbow at the time, remember? And Rainbow thought it would be funny to-”

“-prank her girlfriend,” I finished, nodding as I recalled the little misadventure that followed. “I’m pretty sure we all remember how that went, I’m still surprised Sunset didn’t break Rainbow’s nose when she popped out of the bush wearing that mask.”

“Mhm,” Pinkie chuckled again, taking another sip. “Yeah… that’s why I never pulled any scary pranks on her, Sunset never did react very well to getting scared.”

“Right? No kidd-,” I stopped, my mind suddenly catching up with the weird side-route that Pinkie had just taken. “Wait, Pinkie, are you saying…”

Pinkie lifted her mug and took another drink, her sharp blue eyes staring at me over the rim.

“You should get that,” Pinkie said, suddenly perking up from her chocolate.

“Get what?”

As if on cue, my phone began ringing.

“That,” Pinkie nodded to my hip pocket where I kept my phone. “You should get it.”

I pulled out my phone at looked at it. The number was local but I didn’t recognise it, and that usually meant it was a scam.

“Pinkie, I don’t like answering calls if I don’t know who’s calling me,” I replied, lowering the phone a little to look at her.

“Don’t let her go to voicemail, Twi’,” Pinkie said in a much quieter voice.

Something in Pinkie’s tone pushed me past my mild neurosis over answering the phone. Moreover, something about the way she said ‘her’ gave me the fleeting premonition of a certain bartender, and I instantly hit the ‘accept call’ button and lifted the phone to my ear.

“H-hello?” I answered shakily, and the voice on the line took a sharp breath.

//Twilight?!// Sonata’s voice was shrill and panicky as it came out. //Twilight are you okay?!//

A stone of guilt settled into my stomach.

I’d told her I would come back to the bar, that I would stay until the end of her shift, but after my encounter with Sunset I hadn’t been able to bear being in the same building and I’d just… left her.

“I… I’m fine, ‘Nata,” I replied quickly, standing up and scooting out from the booth to move to the back of the cafe. “I’m really sorry I left, I…”

//What happened?!//

Sonata sounded terrified, and the pain in my chest redoubled.

“I… kinda ran into Sunset and…” the pain of Sunset’s blow to my jaw came back like a harsh memory and I grimaced, “it didn’t go very well and I kinda lost it and so I… I ran… I’m sorry.”

//I-its okay, Twi’,// Sonata said shakily.// I was just… kind of freaking out when you never came back, and I was asking around, and some people thought they’d seen you running out of the VIP area, and…// her voice cracked badly, and the rest of the words came out wet and shaky, //and I asked B-Backstage, and he said he saw you leave and that you said you weren’t okay and I just… I got really scared, okay?//

I could hear the tears on the other end of the line and the sound made me tear up along with her.

“O-oh, Sonata, please don’t cry!” my voice came out in a slightly cracked sob. “I’ll… I’ll come back right now, okay?! I ran into a friend and we talked and I’m okay, alright? I promise! I’ll be right back, alright?”

Sonata’s voice was a blubbering mess but I got a vague affirmative from her, so I said my goodbyes, which were about as graceful as hers, and came running back out to the main area of the cafe.

Pinkie was gone.

Total panic started to well up in my chest, but before it could build up a real head of steam I heard a shrill honk from outside the cafe. Sitting at the curb right near the entrance to the Corner was Pinkie’s faithful little Bug with Pinkie in the driver's seat gesturing for me to come out.

Letting out a breath of relief, I thanked Missus Cake for the hot chocolate, which Pinkie had already cleaned up I noted, and went running out to get into the passenger seat.

“Thanks, Pinkie,” my voice was a little raw, but Pinkie didn’t comment on it. Instead, she just smiled, nodded, and opened up the throttle.

Or at least, whatever throttle the old vehicle still had.


Pinkie pulled into the parking lot of the Lounge, which was significantly more packed than when we had left. The night was in full swing and, although it was definitely less rowdy than last night, I was starting to suspect that the Last Note didn’t really have slow nights.

“Thanks for the ride, Pinkie,” I said as I leaned over and hugged her, and she gave way better than she got. “And for the chocolate, and the advice.”

“I just left a seat open for ya,” Pinkie said happily as I got out of the car. “Talk to ya later!”

“Drive safe,” I waved as she pulled out of the packed lot with significantly more speed and confidence than I would have dared.

I turned and made my way towards the brightly lit doors of the Lounge, and I barely got within eyeshot of the bouncer before he flagged me down.

“Miss Twilight?” Backstage gestured for me to approach, and he had an odd look on his face. “Miss Dusk is waiting near the bar for ya, she was in a pretty bad state.”

“I know, I’m so sorry,” I said sheepishly. “I ran into… well, I guess it doesn’t matter… is Sonata okay?”

“Better after she called ya,” Backstage confirmed with a nod. “Still pretty rough, though.”

“How did she even get my number?” I asked, furrowing my brow, and Backstage raised an eyebrow.

“Ya didn’t give it to her?”

I shook my head. “We only just met last night, and I hadn’t thought about it until now.”

“Last night?” Backstage looked surprised. “From the way she was acting, I thought you two’d been together for a while.”

“T-TOGETHER?!” I managed to choke the word out before devolving into a coughing fit. “I… we just met! And I… I mean sure she’s really pretty, and she’s kind and sweet, and she’s really nice to kiss, b-but…”

Backstage was giving me a carefully neutral, level look as my babbling tapered off and I fell silent while my face slowly heated to supernova temperatures.

“I’m… I’m just gonna go inside now,” I said after a few moments of silence.

Backstage gave a nod and a smile, then gestured for me to pass him.

I slipped into the Lounge, wincing at the wall of noise that struck me as I opened the double-doors and began moving through the crowds. They were noticeably thinner than last night, but that wasn’t a difficult bar to reach, and all it really meant was that I could move without being stepped on more than three times on my way to the bar.

The two junior bartenders, Mixer and Highball I remembered Sonata calling them, were moving with the practiced professionalism of people who knew their craft, but even I could see the slight strain on them as they tried to keep up with the flow of orders without making any mistakes.

That was odd, the few other times I’d been here they’d been doing fine and, with fewer customers, I would think they’d be doing even better.

Then I realised who was missing.

“Miss Twilight Sparkle,” an imperious voice called my name, and I froze.

I’ve never had the opportunity to have any kind of conversation with the eldest sister of the Siren trio, but Adagio had always scared the hell out of me conceptually. The way Sunset spoke of her before our falling out painted her as some kind of master manipulator, a sort of high femme queen with the mein of an empress.

As I turned around to face her, I had this vain hope that maybe, just maybe, Sunset had been exaggerating.

She hadn’t been.

Adagio stood a full head taller than me with striking eyes the color of garnets backlit by an odd sort of light. She was clad, ankle-to-neck, in a dark, seastorm green dress accented with shades of gold that matched both her hair and complexion, and her hair was a wild, waterfall-tangle of vibrant curls that fell over her surprisingly broad shoulders.

“Y-yes?” I shrank back from her as I answered.

I couldn’t help it, Adagio Dazzle was like the living embodiment of the sun-in-glory. She was so bright and imposing that it was almost painful to be looked at by her, especially since it was clear that I wasn’t her favorite person at the moment.

“We’ve never had the opportunity to be properly introduced,” Adagio said primly, extending a hand as she did. “My name is Adagio, as I’m sure you’re aware, and you have had my baby sister in quite a state these past few hours.”

“Where is she?!” I surged forward with enough speed that even Adagio backed up a step, blinking in surprise. “P-Please, I just-”

She set her hand against my shoulder, stopping my momentum cold. I felt a slight chill as I realized quite suddenly how strong she was, strong enough that I couldn’t even budge against her.

“Before you do anything, I need to know that you’ll be gentle with her,” Adagio said stiffly. “Nodens knows she could use a few more friends, but Sonata is… special, she’s sensitive, she cries easily, and I won’t have someone spending time around her who’s careless with her feelings.”

“I’m really sorry,” I said quietly, “I don’t have an excuse.”

I really didn’t have an excuse.

Seriously, what was I supposed to say?

‘Sorry, I ran out in a panicked depression after my ex-best friend slugged me because I attacked her girlfriend in a fit of rage who, by the way, is also your other sister, SORRY ABOUT THAT.’

I had a strong feeling that wouldn’t fly, and since Adagio hadn’t brought up my little indiscretion against Aria I could only assume neither she nor Sonata had mentioned it.

Well, that was fine by me.

Although that meant I probably owed Aria an apology.

“I’m not asking for an excuse,” Adagio said in a tone of voice that grew grave as she stepped forward to tower over me. “I’m asking for your care with Sonata, because if you harm my baby sister I will not hesitate to break you in half, are we clear?”

I swallowed hard and nodded. For reasons I couldn’t quite place, I felt like I was being talked to by a mob boss or someone else equally terrifying. Maybe I was, actually… the Sirens were millennia old and who knew how many hats they’d worn over the years. I could definitely picture Adagio acting as some cold-as-ice Mafia don.

“W-We’re clear,” I agreed and, like magic, the deathly stillness of her features schooled out to a cordial friendliness.

“Excellent,” Adagio said happily, reaching up with one hand to brush some hair from my face. “As I said, Sonata could use a few more friends… your glasses are cracked, by the way.”

“I… I’m aware,” I replied a little sullenly.

“I see,” Adagio raised an eyebrow but didn’t pursue the topic any further, for which I was grateful. “Well, wait here while I’ll call Sonata over, she was making a bit of a mess of things in her panic so I benched her, which I’ve never had to do before.”

“Y-Yeah, sorry,” I repeated, grimacing.

“Nodens Oath, girl, have a spine,” Adagio’s lips curled into a smirk, “I’m not blaming you, Sonata’s a big girl, she ought to have a little more self-control.”

From a pocket I couldn’t identify the location of on her dress, Adagio drew out a slim device that looked like a small black recorder and spoke quietly into it. After a few moments I saw the crowd shifting and parting a little ways away coming towards us and, a moment later, Sonata Dusk stepped out of the crowds looking around sharply with a worried expression.

The moment her eyes landed on me her face blossomed into the most radiant smile I’d ever seen, and I’d been on the receiving end of Pinkie’s full beam before, and she all but tackled me in a hug. I bit back an oath as she pressed against the nascent bruise on my jaw, choosing to hug her back instead.

“Twi’!” Sonata hugged me tight, burying her face against my shoulder, and I watched Adagio’s eyebrow raise another quarter-inch from over Sonata’s shoulder at the display of affection. “I was so worried! Are you sure you’re okay?”

“I’m sure, ‘Nata,” I said quietly as her hug became a little softer but no less insistent.

When she pulled away, I felt my heart lurch as I realised she had tears in her eyes, and it… it actually hurt. Seeing her hurting over me actually hurt me and completely by reflex I reached out brushed the tears from her eyes.

Sonata sniffled a little, then leaned into my touch, and I stood there for a moment just holding on to her. Her cheek was warm against the palm of my hand, and it was soft like nearly everything else about her.

“Ahem.”

Sonata and I both blushed brilliantly at the noise before to face Adagio who had moved alongside us and was looking between back and forth between us.

“Well, I left Octavia in the back, so I’ll be moving along,” Adagio said, giving both us a pointed glance, but saying nothing about our behaviour. “I trust there won’t be any more mishaps behind the bar?”

“Uhm, nope, I’m fine now,” Sonata answered with a bright smile.

“Good,” then Adagio turned to me, gave me one last hard look, then sashayed away towards the VIP area.

“S-So, you’re sure you’re okay?” Sonata asked again, and I couldn’t help but laugh.

“Yes, ‘Nata, I promise, I’m fine,” I reply, shaking my head a little as we started walking back towards the bar. “You worry too much.”

“I can’t help it!” Sonata whined quietly. “I really like you, okay?!”

“That’s…” I blushed again and tightened my grip, only then noticing that Sonata and I had managed to hold hands all the way back to the bar without either of us realising it. “I mean… I really like you too, ‘Nata.”

She giggled and my heart danced, even knowing Pinkie I’m not sure I’ve ever met someone who was just so unabashedly pure. Maybe I’m just not being objective about it, though. Maybe I just like Sonata Dusk that much.

“So uhm… what nights are you free?” I asked as Sonata into her usual place behind the bar, much to the relief of Mixer and Highball. “Like, what days do you have off?”

“Off?” Sonata asked with a quirked smile. “I have every day off, I only work at night!”

I sighed and chuckled. “N-no I mean-”

“I know what you meant silly,” she waved a hand playfully at me. “I… I don’t really have days or nights off, actually. I don’t really know what I would do with myself if I did, but… I can ask ‘Dagi for a night off some time, why?”

“W-Well, I uh…” the sudden flop sweat and panic response were not helping my anxiety, but I forced myself to remember that Sonata ‘really liked me’. “So… I’ve never done this before, but I was w-wondering if maybe you want to go out on a date sometime?”

Sonata stared for several moments, her eyes widening slowly. I braced myself for a Pinkie-like outburst of glee, but it never came, instead, Sonata’s hands just flew to her mouth and she started giggling and blushing like a schoolgirl.

Oh, my heart.

Apparently unable to speak, Sonata nodded rapidly as she giggled and wiggled in place. She looked like she was about to pop, actually, and on instinct I reached out and took one of her hands, and suddenly Sonata was gripping my hand incredibly tight.

“You okay?” I asked softly, leaning in a little.

She just nodded several times, her mouth seemingly glued shut.

“Still want me to stay?” I continued, sliding onto a barstool.

Sonata nodded vigorously again.

“Okay,” I gave her hand another squeeze, then pulled back. “Are you sure you’re okay?”

Sonata pulled out a piece of paper from behind the bar and scribbled down a note before passing it to me. She still looked like she was fit to vibrate right out of existence, and it made me feel like I’d done something wrong.

I picked up the note and scanned it.

Sorry, I promise I’m fine, I’m just really excited and I can’t ‘words’ right now.’

Adjusting my broken glasses, I nodded and sat the note down. “Alright well… h-how about you make me a drink?”

If anything that made Sonata light up more, but where before it was like she had ten thousand volts of pent up energy and nothing to do with it, now a peculiar focus ignited behind her eyes, and her smile turned practically thermonuclear.

She really just had such a pretty smile. It was the kind of expression where Sonata’s whole face was involved in the production, her cheeks dimpled adorably and her eyes crinkled just a little when they lit up. Every time she smiled strongly she did a little shoulder-wiggle that was just precious, and…

Ooh, wow, I… might have it kinda bad.

Sonata’s hands moved with her usual calm surety, with none of her prior wild energy evident in her actions.

There were three small burners on the back, and Sonata had a pan on one of them, the heat cranked high to get it warmed quickly. She swept her hand back and forth over it as the minutes passed and, once it reached a temperature she was satisfied with, she poured in a few spoonfuls of sugar into it along with what looked like about a cup of water.

With one hand, Sonata stirred the sugar and water mixture as it hissed and bubbled, and with the other, she reached beneath the bar and pulled out a wooden box with a sliding panel on the top. She set the box down, hooked a finger on the depression in the panel, and pulled it free, then snatched out a small bundle of what looked like loose-leaf tea.

From the fragrant aroma, I suspected it was some kind of rose tea.

Still stirring, Sonata scattered the loose tea leaves into the mixture, then turned the heat down significantly to let the tea infuse slowly into the syrup she was making.

Another minute or so passed, and the scent of rosehip tea was filling the bar, and once more a small crowd was gathering around to watch the master at work.

A champagne flute glass pulled out from amongst the dishes as Sonata continued to stir the infusion, and a moment later she pulled it off and held the pan aloft, slowly circling her wrist to keep the mixture moving while letting it cool off naturally. With one hand keeping the pan up, the other set up a jar and pulled out a small metal hoop with a fine wire mesh inside it, and she strained the rosy mixture of the leaves.

Clearing away all the tools and bits she had used during the preparation, Sonata lifted a bottle of champagne that read Dom Perignon across the label. Slowly, she poured a measure of the now cooled syrup into the flute, and followed it quickly with a slow pour of champagne, letting the syrup mix naturally with the bubbly, sparkling wine.

The result was a lovely, wild-rose colored drink that sparkled in the light, and after setting down her tools, Sonata lifted the glass to her lips and gave it a small, warm kiss. Just like before, I saw a faint luminance flow into the drink, then she passed to me with a radiant smile.

“Please drink it,” Sonata said, her voice finally returned, although it was small and hesitant.

“Uhm, well, I did ask for one,” I said with a nervous laugh before raising the glass in a mimic of a toast I’d seen my father do a few times at parties. “Bottoms up!”

Before I even started to drink I could smell it. The cocktail was lovely and smelled like a rose garden as I brought it to my lips. I tipped it back, took a single drink and-

-HEARTS-

-it was the flavor of the first time I blushed, the soft, gentle warmth in my heart that rose up through my throat, tightening it with apprehension and delight only to sink into my cheeks and turn them rosy red. It tasted like meeting eyes with someone you wished you could never stop looking at from the moment you saw them.

I kept drinking, I couldn’t stop, and far too soon the drink was gone and I was still smiling.

“Whatever happens,” Sonata said softly, turning the little jar of syrup around and around in her hands as she spoke, “I’ll only ever make that drink for you, Twi’, I promise.”

“Why?” I asked, my heart was still racing and my cheeks were still warm.

“Because it’s how you make me feel,” Sonata said shyly, wrapping her arms around herself and smiling, her shoulders wiggled a little. “And because of its name.”

Sonata really was impossibly adorable.

I leaned in, reached out, and she took the offering gladly, giving my hand a little squeeze as she did.

“What’s it called?”

Sonata blushed vibrantly, giving a nervous little giggle as she did.

“I don’t… I don’t wanna say,” Sonata said with a laugh. “It’s kind of embarrassing and makes me look sort of… lame.”

I squeezed her hand again. “Okay, now you have to tell me!”

Her blush deepened, but after a moment she nodded.

“O-Okay,” Sonata took a breath. “It’s called: Twilight Rose Romance.”

Oh… oh yeah, I definitely had it bad, but on the upside, apparently so did she, so maybe... maybe for now I'd keep what happened between Sunset and I to myself. The last thing I wanted was to force Sonata to choose between me and her sister... I wasn't worth that.

Yeah. Everything would be fine.