Hearth's Warming Helper - Team Corona

by Talon and Thorn

First published

In order to try and get her court to bond Queen Celestia, also known as Corona, decides to organise a Hearth's Warming Helper. Set in Raindbowdoubledash's Lunaverse.

Queen Celestia has a problem. Although her court consists of many mighty beings willing to aid her in the overthrow of her sister and the retaking of her throne they seem unable to work together. In order to try and get her court to bond she decides to organise a Hearth's Warming Helper so that each member needs to provide another with a gift.

A non canon story set in Rainbowdoubledash's Lunaverse AU where Celestia was banished to the sun for a thousand year by Luna.

Chapters have been written by thatguyvex, Rainbowdoubledash and myself and will be released daily leading up to Christmas.

Hearth's Warming Helper

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“Enough!” bellowed Celestia Invicticus, Alicorn of the Sun and Rightful Queen of Equestria.

She ran her burning gaze over the members of her court. Her ambassador Kindle and his student Smoke immediately flung themselves prostrate before her, their recent argument with Zecora apparently forgotten for the moment. The Zebra followed suit in her own way, lowering her head in a half-bow that held just as much respect from the reserved creature. Behind the three of them, her Herald Terror Wing merely looked bored, kicking a few loose stones aside with his talons and watching as they fell into the lava pit below. Hovering above her the latest member of her court, the Jinn Bogucu Yangin looked somewhat amused at the antics of her fellows. Over them all towered the great red Dragon Solrathichanon, he met her gaze with his blind eyes for several seconds before turning aside almost dismissively. Corona ground her teeth at the disrespect but she needed to deal with the immediate issues first.

“It does no good for my court to be so divided,” she exclaimed.

“But my Queen,” began Kindle, “with all reverence, it is obvious that...”

She silenced him with a glance. “Leave me! All of you!” she exclaimed. “I will consider your arguments before acting.”

“Thank you, Your Excellency!” Kindle continued to mouth platitudes as he slowly backed away from her, but none struck her as worthy of any attention. The other members of the court followed one by one, once they reached the huge doors at the far end of the throne room where they split up, each going their own way through the lair which Celestia now called home. Unlike the peaceful procession of the rest, Solrathichanon merely rolled backward and dove into the lava pool beneath her throne, splashing the area with molten rock. The gesture was annoying, but was also one of the reasons Celestia had spread her magic out across her belongings, so the immense dragon could have his petty gestures. Giving a nod to her salamander guards, they left as well, closing the doors with a resounding crash.

After a moment of silence Celestia let out a frustrated sigh. If she had fully remembered how tedious running a royal court could be, she might have remained in the sun for another millenia! But it was her place to suffer for her ponies after all. In truth the argument had been over a small matter. Kindle had arranged for a large number of her followers to settle in the
nearest pony settlement of Hope’s Hollow where they hid their true nature from their new neighbours. Kindle believed that their numbers were now enough to openly proclaim their allegiance to her, and as always, Smoke supported him. The unicorn was an excellent student, but wasn’t an independent thinker. Meanwhile Zecora and Yangin had advised patience fearing that revealing her supporters too early risked retaliation by the Equestian armed forces and possibly the discovery of their base. Terror Wing only wanted to enforce her will on any of the population who did not follow her, and Solrathichanon would be happy for an excuse to burn the whole settlement, and, its population, to ash if it remained a problem.

The main problem was not what to do in this situation, it was how fragmented her court was. All of them had reasons to follow her, or at least in Solrathichanon’s case they had similar goals, but except for a few they had no real reason to want to work together. Of course she didn’t need them to regain her throne, she was Celestia, she didn’t need anycreature’s help but they had skills that would make her task easier. Solrathichanon was one of the few creatures alive who might be able to physically challenge her sister, if only temporarily. Kindle was a charismatic orator, able to sway the common pony to her rule and his associate had it in her to become quite an impressive mage. Likewise Zecora and Yangin had access to exotic magics which were useful to her cause. Even Terror Wing was a skilled fighter and the magics she had wrought on him meant he was almost unbeatable by conventional means.

Still, all they did was bicker amongst themselves rather than aiding her. Although from what she had heard her sisters court did little better. They managed to govern the country with some efficiency, despite their corruption. Chewing at her tongue, she considered how she could meld her court into a more cohesive group. Her thoughts were interrupted by an internal twinge, it was almost time to lower the sun. She sighed to herself. At this time of year it seemed that no sooner has she raised it then it was time to put it away for the night again. In her youth she and Luna had tried out various other patterns of day and night throughout the year before settling into the current schedule. Maybe once she had returned to her rightful throne she should look over some of her discarded plans?

Although she could control her celestial orb from anywhere, on or off the planet, she preferred to be able to view the sun as it was lowered. For a moment she started to gather the power to teleport to the peak of her lair which was her preferred spot for her duties but then she paused. There were still a few minutes before her sun's proper time, and it would feel so good to stretch her muscles for a change, so she stepped down from her throne and regally trotted towards the door.

“~The Fire of Friendship lives in our hearts~”

Celestia’s ears twitched as she returned to her chambers after completing her duty. Was that singing? The tune seemed familiar.

“~As long as it burns, we cannot drift apart~”

The Queen turned the corner and was surprised to come across the small figure of her student. She had not known that Smoke was such a talented singer. She realized that her journey had taken her past the doors to the chambers where most of her pony followers resided. The unicorn was used her aura to affix some sort of plant material to the ceiling.

“What are you doing?” she asked.

With a shrek, Smoke leapt almost her own height into the air before spinning around. The sprig dropped from her grasp, for a moment both mare’s eyes flickered between each other and the fallen greenery which Celestia recognised as mistletoe before Smoke’s aura grabbed it again and hid it behind her. “Your Majesty!” she gasped before taking a deep breath and giving a near perfect bow. “I’m sorry I didn’t hear you.”

Celestia waved away her protests. “It is of no matter. What are you doing?”

“Oh, um, well Hearth’s Warming is the day after tomorrow and I thought it would be nice to put up a few decorations.” She waved a hoof and Celestia noticed for the first time that the walls around them were covered with greenery and tinsel.

“Ah,” said Celestia, “do ponies still celebrate Hearth’s Warming? Even after all this time?” She supposed she should not have been all that surprised. The festival was much older than even her original reign but so much else seemed to have changed over the years that she had quite forgotten that it happened at this time of year. A smile drifted over her face as she through back to the grand feasts that she and her sister used to host each year and the gifts they used to exchange. She rested a hoof against the golden boots she now wore, recently reclaimed from a museum. Luna had originally given her this quad for the holiday so many years ago now. .

“Oh yes!” exclaimed Smoke, breaking Celestia’s train of thought. “There’s all sorts of traditions, food, presents, songs, other rituals.” Her eyes glanced back at the mistletoe and her cheeks glowed.

Celestia couldn’t help but smile at her student. Although she herself did not partake in carnal activities, her folio as keeper of the sun did include fertility. She understood the significance of the vegetation. Smoke’s infatuation with Kindle was poorly hidden. It was a shame he didn’t seem to feel the same about his assistant, she wanted all of her little ponies to be happy.

“Um, is there anything I can do for you, Your Majesty?” asked Smoke looking awkward. “I did not think I was due a lesson today.”

“You are not.” The mention of Hearth’s Warming had sparked an idea in her divine brain, a way to attempt to bring her court together, in the same way that the various tribes of ponies had been brought together all those millenia ago. “For a change, maybe you can educate me? Tell me more about how Hearth’s Warming is celebrated in this age.”

“You summoned us your highness?” asked Kindle. For the second time in as many hours the whole of Celestia’s court were present in the throne room. Unusually Smoke was the first one present and was standing by the queen’s chair overshadowed by both it and its occupant’s mass.

“Indeed I did, my Voice,” Celestia proclaimed.

“You have reached a decision, mighty one? Shall I order your servants to reveal their true loyalties?”

“No, I am still deliberating on that matter. Instead there is another issue I wish to discuss with you all. It is my understanding that the day after tomorrow is Hearth’s Warming.”

“What?” exclaimed Terror Wing cocking his head in confusion. “What’s that?”

“I believe it is a pony festival, they say they defeated the Windigo, although I am quite sceptical,” said Zecora.

“What’s a pony festival got to do with anything? Will there be a feast?” The griffin licked his beak.

“Hearth’s Warming is about more than just the defeat of the Windigo,” said Kindle, turning to the rest of the court. “It is also about the founding of Equestia, and the power of the Sun to overcome the cold.”

“Yeah, Fire melts Ice,” said Yangin conjuring a ball of flame and tossing it from hand to hand. “I would have through you ponies would have learnt that earlier.”

“Indeed the festival has many meanings,” said Celestia trying to head off a further argument amongst her staff. “I am most interested in it’s role in showing that the disparate tribes of Ponykind could be brought together to defeat a common enemy. For too long you have wasted your energy fighting and bickering amongst yourselves. If we are to defeat my sister I require unity!” She gazed around the small crowd, they all seemed al least slightly cowed. “I have looked into how Hearth’s Warming is currently celebrated and I believe the exchange of presents is still popular.”

“Of course your majesty, I would lay all that I have at your hooves, I would sacrifice my very life as a gift to you,” said Kindle prostrating himself.

Celestia struggled to stop her eyes rolling. Kindle’s loyalty was refreshing compared to most of her allies, but he did tend to overdo things. “That will not be necessary my Voice. I have decided that we will carry out what I believe is called a,” she glanced over to Smoke, “a Hearth’s Warming Helper. My student has placed a token representing each of you in a bag.” Smoke levitated the item forwards and gave it a shake. “You will each take a single token from the bag and you will then provide the individual it represents with a gift. The gifts will be exchanged at a feast held on Hearth’s Warming itself!”

“If you choose your own token, you put it back,” added Smoke, “and, um, you can exchange tokens with somecreature else if they agree.” Her eyes flicked to Kindle.

“What!” exclaimed Solrathicharnon, “You expect me to... give somecreatue a gift!” The words seemed to be physically painful for the great dragon to force from his lips.

“Yes, I do wyrm,” said Celestia calmly staring up at the larger creature. “In fact I command it! I would have my court show common decency to each other, and acknowledge that they will work together. Is that understood?” It was several long moments until the dragon turned away.

“Of course,” he grumbled.


“We will of course also provide you with tribute as well your majesty,” added Kindle. “It would only be fair that you receive the most presents.”

Corona considered for a moment, presents did sound nice, then she shook her head. “No, I am a generous ruler,” she noted, “but I will take part in the ‘Helper’ as well,” she summoned a small representation of her cutie mark and dropped it into the bag. “You may begin!”

Smoke gave a small bob and trotted down the steps with the bag towards the crowd below.

Zecora - The Vizier - by Talon and Thorn

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Plunging a hoof into the bag Zecora tried to feel the threads of fate which flowed from this point in time. Although the pony festival was strange to her she appreciated that pure chance would control how things would turn out. Her hoof seemed drawn to a particular token and she lifted it out. She smiled as she recognized the copy of Corona’s cutie mark. Of course, fate couldn’t have led to anything else!

Now she was stuck with attempting to obtain a present for a mare with almost god like powers. For a moment she almost wished that a prophecy would wash over her to tell her what to do... but the universe rarely revealed itself for such trivial matters. Then again sometimes the greatest changes started from the smallest seeds, her choice of gift might end up altering the fate of the whole world.

She knew that the only thing that Celestia truly desired was Equestria itself, and maybe the praises of ponies that lived there, but that would be rather difficult to achieve on such short notice, and also near impossible to wrap. What else could she provide? Her skills in alchemy gave her some options, although there was little magic she could provide that Celestia could not duplicate herself. The queen had shown some interest in various artefacts from her original reign, she had recently been extremely pleased to obtain a set of shoes although to Zecora they looked rather uncomfortable. However, she didn’t know where she could find any such item in the few days she had available.

Maybe it would be better to try and pass the duty of getting a present for Celestia to another member of the court? She glanced over at Kindle, the red stallion did not look happy with his own destiny at the moment and would no doubt desire to give Celestia a present. She shook her head. Fate had lead her down this path as it had shaped her whole life and as much as she would have loved to abdicate her responsibility to another she was bound to her own destiny.

She would trust herself to fate to find a suitable gift, she could go to the nearby pony settlement, Hope Hollow, she thought it was called and see if anything drew her attention. She would have to be careful, the existence of a Zebra in the small settlement would no doubt draw attention and require an explanation she did not want to have to give. There were ways she could disguise herself, but none were perfect, hopefully a thick cloak alone would suffice and not draw too much attention.

Zecora clutched her cloak tighter and tried to stop shivering, around her a gaggle of similarly dressed ponies passed by without paying the slightest bit of attention. At least the cloak was serving one of its functions, she thought bitterly. She really wasn’t used to this climate, it wasn’t, as some believed, that her home land was totally without snow, many of the most sacred peaks were above the snowline and she’d visited several of them during her apprenticeship. It was that she wasn't used to it being so cold for so long, it seemed that half the year here in Equestria was dominated by great masses of the white crystals covering everything. They were nice to look at for a short time but her poor hooves didn’t enjoy spending all day tramping through them.

If she’d really thought about it there were several potions she knew which would have reduced her discomfort, but they all took time to make. She was just glad that Celestia had set up a teleport gate between her lair and the outskirts of the town so she didn’t have to gallop all the way, she was sure if she’d had to she would have lost a hoof or two to frostbite.

Putting such morbid thoughts aside she tried to pull her mind back to the task at hand, shopping. Despite its comparatively small size Hope Hollow seemed to have a wide range of shops available. There was a bakery, which offered a delicious looking collection of cakes and sweets, a clothing store, a furniture shop, a book shop and many more. It reminded her of some of the great trade cities of Zebrica. Although she had spent most of her time away from civilisation she did enjoy her trips to them, although at home most of the goods were displayed in the street where they could be smelled and investigated easily rather than being locked behind glass. She shook her head, after all that she had done the odds of her ever returning home were slight, she couldn’t afford to get homesick.

Returning her thoughts to the task at hand Zecora once again looked around the street, she was sure that she would be able to find something Celestia would enjoy in one of the shops, she just wasn’t sure which one. After a moments thought she decided to stay with her original plan of letting fate decide on her course and just wandered letting her hooves carry her where they may.

Her first stop was a clothing store, the window displayed a range of dresses and suits. For a moment Zecora considered if an outfit would be suitable for Celestia, the queen rarely wore more than her royal jewellery but she might appreciate something more. Then she shook her head, there would no doubt be some trouble in obtaining clothing for an individual who stood over twice the normal height of a pony, at the very least it would raise some questions she was not willing to answer. Something like a scarf might fit, but the princess of the sun would have no need of something to keep her warm. For a moment Zecora considered procuring one for her own use but instead she shook her head sadly and moved on.

The next stall sold cooked potatoes piled with cheese or beans which looked very attractive to her at the moment, for their heat if not their taste but that was not something she could present to Celestia. It did not seem like the queen would want any furniture either, as shown in the next window. Although the rocky throne Celestia used hardly seemed comfortable the alicorn seemed to possess enough personal padding to survive the experience. Plus it would no doubt be rather hard to bring a new couch back to the lair.

She wasn’t sure if the next building along was even a shop or not. It’s main door was easily large enough to allow a cart to enter and in fact there was such a vehicle standing just inside one of it’s wheels obviously cracked and held up by some sort of jack. However, in addition to the cart there were also various small mechanical contraptions on shelves most of which she did not recognize. Intrigued she cautiously entered the building and was immediately struck by a wave of heat from somewhere near the back which caused her to sigh in pleasure. It appeared that a forge or something similar was present.

Looking around there did not seem to be anypony present, maybe the place wasn’t actually a shop? Or maybe it was closed? “Hello,” she ventured, “is there anyone here? I am visiting your town as a sightseer.”

There was a scuffling sound from the nearby cart and after a few moments a red mane, protected by a spotted scarf emerged from underneath, followed by a grubby, but still mostly yellow coated form of an earth pony mare. “Hello?” the newcomer said once she had scrambled out from under the vehicle. “Can I help you?”

“From afar you door I did spy, and I wondered what was inside. Pray tell, what is it that you sell?” asked Zecora.

The mare cocked her head to one side. “Is it me, or are you talking funny?” she asked bluntly.

With a sigh Zecora pulled back her hood to reveal her striped face, she should probably get this over with now. “You need not fear, it is just that I am not from around here.”

The mare looked her over cautiously. “A Zebra huh, don’t see many of your kind around here.”

Zecora tried not to grimace, at least this pony had actually heard of her species. It seemed like many in Equestria hadn’t even heard of her people, despite their civilisation stretching back far further than Equestria itself. “Not many of my people roam this far from our home,” she admitted.

The mare seemed to consider this, then nodded. “Fair enough, I’m Torque Wrench,” she held out a rather oily looking hoof. Zecora paused for a moment then shook it.

“Zecora is my name,” she announced, “May I ask what is your game?”

“My game? What I do? Fix things mostly, farming equipment, tools, the odd cart,” she gestured to where she had previously been lying. “Keeping busy you know.”

“And the rest of the things in your store? What are they for?” she gestured at the various devices cluttering the shelves.

“Them? Most of them are just knick knacks really,“ Torque looked embarrassed, “a few experiments I’ve tried out over the years, most of them don’t work all that well. This one,” she gestured to a pile of gears with a short metal spike sticking out, “is for toasting bread, and that one,” she picked up a small mechanical pony, “well this is a toy, it can do backflips,” she prodded at it and it made a few clicking sounds but didn’t move, “well when it works.” She put the model back. “I guess you don’t have much like this at home?”

“My people are not entirely without technology to help us work, although I will admit we have no great skill with clockwork.” Ponies tended to think of her own people as little more than barbarians despite their advanced civilisation and magic.

“Sorry,” said Torque blushing a little. “I didn’t mean to insult you. I just, well, sorry. Anyway is there anything you’re looking for?”

“I am looking for a present for a friend, is there anything you would recommend?” asked Zecora, glad to get the conversation back on track.

“I don’t really know, I’ve never really thought of these as gifts, I don’t sell many. How about this?” She pointed to a complex series of pipes with a small fire box attached. “It’s a self warming hoof wash.”

Zecora looked at the device with a little jealousy, that sounded heavenly right now but was less useful in a lair built on a volcano. “Although that sounds quite sweet, I don’t think my friend will need any help with heat.”

“Hum, maybe a quad of roller skates? Or a gramophone?” said Torque going from shelf to shelf and pointing out various potential presents.

Zecora followed her as she went until her gaze fell on a wooden box about the size of a pony’s head from which a loud ticking could be heard. Sticking out from it were two arms one bearing a miniature sun and the other a moon. “And this one? Why does it have images of the sun?” she asked.

“That? That’s my sunless sundial,” she trotted over and ran a hoof over the contraption. “This thing tells you where the sun and moon should be in the sky at any time of year, accurate to the second! At least it should be...” she glanced around as if to check if someone was watching, “the princess doesn’t always hit the published time.”

Zecora couldn’t help but smile at that. “Well although your princess may be worthy of respect, she is far from perfect. Still building this device is quite the feat, there must be few who can your skills beat.”

“Thank you, it took most of a year on and off to build. I like to hear it when I’m working. Tick leads to tock which leads on to tick again, it’s sort of comforting to think that everything's so ordered.” She blushed a little. “Sorry, I’m being silly.”

“No,” said Zecora, “It is nice to think that time has but one furrow, one path through which it can flow. Still I hope that destiny can in fact be bent, so that down another path it can be sent as long as you can influence the right event. So that a future once foreseen does not have to befall my queen.”

“Queen? What do you mean?” she blinked, “You’ve got me rhyming now.”

“I must apologise,” said Zecora quickly, hoping to distract Torque from the slip of her tongue. “I did not mean you such a curse, still there are others that are so much worse. Now this device is pleasing to my eye, how much would it be to buy?” She gestured at the clock it seemed a good present for Celestia, it would help her with her royal duties and represented the inevitability of destiny.

“I don’t know, I’m not sure if I want to sell it really,” Torque bit her lip.

“Please I think it may be the perfect gift, my friends mood I am sure it would uplift.”

“She’d really like this thing?” asked Torque running a hoof over the casing.

“She has great fun with anything relating to the sun,” she explained, “so please how much would I have to pay to be able to take this away?”

“Well I guess the parts did cost quite a bit, but it’s certainly nice to have someone appreciate my work. Sometimes I feel like nopony really notices me, they just expect me to fix their stuff when it breaks but not to actually want to do more,” her tail flicked in frustration. “Tell you what, I’ll let you have it for cost, say two thousand bits!”

Zecora raised an eyebrow, she didn’t entirely understand the Equestrian currency but she knew that was quite a lot. Still she’d spent most of the last year living in a dragon’s lair, money wasn’t exactly an issue “If I did not purchase it at that price I would be a fool, tell me,” she brought out a bag from under her cloak, “do you accept jewels?” She had gotten used to carrying various gems with her in case Spike had wanted a snack. The thought of the small dragon brought on an unexpected wave of nostalgia, she wondered where he was now. Was he warm? Was he celebrating this festival as well?

“Wow, er, yeah sure,” said the earth pony staring at the pouch. “So do you want it wrapped?”

The clock was heavy and Zecora was glad she didn’t have to carry it very far to the teleport to take it back to the lair. For a moment she paused and wondered if it was a good gift for Celestia or not.

She hoped the queen would not consider it an insult, in some way criticizing her timing of raising and lowering the sun. Only a few months ago the alicorn might have blown into a rage at even the suggestion of such an implication but since Tambolin her emotions had stabilized and such tantrums were now almost unknown. She would hopefully accept the present in the spirit it was given, as a tribute to her power and as a representation of the immutability of fate.

That what was going to happen could not be stopped.

That thought did not give Zecora any peace.

After all, it was her blessing, and curse, to alone know what was coming and to not be able to change it one bit.

Queen Corona - by Rainbowdoubledash

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Sending her aura into the bag, Celestia rummaged around and picked out one of the tokens. She closed her eyes and smiled at the unexpected surge of excitement - this modern age certainly did have interesting entertainments - before glancing down at the token. It was a model of a dromedary which represented Bogucu Yangin. Celestia allowed herself a smile as she glanced around her court while they all examined their own tokens. Then she began to wrack her own brain as to what she could get her ally.

“Is that every creature, Smoke?” Celestia asked as she hid her token from view beneath one wing. Her young student nodded, clutching her own token tightly in her hooves to keep it hidden. “Very well. I shall create a teleportation circle to Hope’s Hollow later today for any who wish to use it for their ventures. Until then, my Court.” She waved at them lightly with her wings, dismissing them. They went their own ways at their own paces, Solrathicharnon grumbling to himself as he left quickly, Terror Wing only slightly slower and looking just as displeased, Zecora offering a respectful bow, Kindle doing likewise - bowing much lower and, therefore in his mind, much more respectfully, and spending at least fifteen seconds on platitudes, with Smoke lingering near him and then following in his wake when he finally left.

“So on a scale of one to ten,” a voice said from beside Celestia, “I give this about a...five. That is, the likelihood of this all backfiring horribly.”

Celestia did not allow any surprise to show as she turned to look beside her throne, and saw Yangin had settled down on one of its arms, the jinn looking back at Celestia with one hoof beneath her chin. “That’s only if we’re counting the chances of an open fight breaking out, of course, but you’ll be there and can take every creature in the room at once, so that’s why the likelihood is low,” Yangin said as she hopped from the throne’s arm and onto the ground, bracelet around one fetlock rattling slightly. “If we’re talking the chances of lingering animosity and anger...ten. Ten out of ten. Eleven, even.”

Celestia regarded Yangin, grinding her teeth slightly. But then she noticed the slight glint in the jinn’s eye. “Tell me, if we don’t include Solrath…?” she ventured.

Yangin returned the grin. “Oh, well, in that case, it drops to a two or three. Would have been higher, but…” Yangin shrugged. ”Well, Smoke got who she wanted, so that’s one disaster held off.”

Celestia chuckled as she rose from her throne, stretching her wings and legs before descending down to the floor. “Yes, I noticed the width of her smile as well. Fortune favored her, it seems.”

“Yes. Fortune,” Yangin agreed after some hesitation. She looked Celestia up and down as the two trotted. “She’s the lucky one, of course. Even if Smoke wasn’t head-over-hooves for Kindle, they still know each other. Otherwise you do know that most of this is going to be complete guesswork, don’t you?”

Celestia offered a shrug of her own. “Perhaps, But...it is a start. When I finally move more openly, I will need a Court that knows and understands each other. And quite aside from the practical concerns…” She shrugged again. “It will be...fun.” She closed her eyes, casting her mind back centuries. “I...honestly can’t remember the last time I took time for myself...”

Yangin’s silence was notable, and Celestia looked to her. She found the jinn had one hoof to her mouth, almost like she was trying to hold in her words, fighting back a grin as well. When she noticed Celestia staring at her, she sucked in a breath and cleared it. “I am absolutely not going to say anything to that,” she said in a very even voice, turning and walking purposefully away, head held high.

Celestia squinted after her, before her wings flared wide as she realized what Yangin had been holding back. “My exile in the Sun does not count!” She exclaimed.

“Yousaiditnotme!” Yangin exclaimed as fire and magic enveloped the jinn, and she disappeared in a flash of teleportation magic..

Celestia stared after her - then found herself chuckling, as much at herself in surprise as over Yangin’s antics. Had any other creature broached the subject of Celestia’s wrongful imprisonment in such a way, Celestia would have immolated them on the spot. But even leaving aside the dubious usefulness of flame against a jinn who was made of fire, Celestia realized she felt no real outrage. Shock, yes, but not anger, because she knew Yangin was only teasing, meaning no insult.

Celestia resumed her own trek from her throne room, shaking her head, revising her earlier thoughts. Yangin was not merely an ally...to Celestia, she was a friend, or as much a friend as Celestia could allow herself to have in these trying times. Both knew the sting of betrayal from family, and both knew what it was like to live in imprisonment. They had a connection.

So...what gift could be worthy of Celestia’s friend?

Hours later, teleportation magic took those of Celestia’s minions who wished to make use of it to Hope Hollows, and they scattered into the nearby village. Celestia could only hope that none in town would take particular note of an unusual influx of new visitors so close to Hearth’s Warming, or write it off if they did. It was a minor risk of discovery at best.

Celestia took a moment to fold herself up upon herself, or at least that was the best way to describe what she was doing. Her form shrank and proportions changed to those more typical of the pony race rather than her alicorn stature. Her mane and tail both ceased their burning, becoming natural pink hair, while her cutie mark changed to become a wisp of flame. Her wings disappeared, but she retained her horn, albeit shorter than before. Finally, she wrapped herself up in conjured, warm winter clothing, or she assumed it was warm, anyway. Celestia had never been cold in her life. She conjured up a mirror and looked into it, glancing herself over. “Hmm...Firedancer,” she said, picking a name for herself. She added a bit of red to her mane and tail.

Thus disguised, Celestia made her own way into town. This was not the first time she had masqueraded as a common pony and mingled with the peasantry, not by a longshot. She and her sister had once made a habit out of doing so, though Celestia had to admit that even without a thousand years exiled into her Sun, she was somewhat out of practice. Affairs of state had become too pressing in the years leading up to Luna’s betrayal for such indulgences.

However it was a familiar habit, and one easily slipped into again. She offered a pleasant smile to the ponies she passed by, who returned it. Some of them might have been followers of her in secret, and she wondered idly how they would have reacted to to knowing that their true Queen walked among them. She was tempted to go over to them and try and broach the subject, linger among them and hear their thoughts on the matter as she and Luna would once have done.

But no. She was here burdened with purpose, not merely for a lark. Celestia stepped up her trot, seeking out the market of Hope Hollows. It didn’t take long to find, and though it was small the town did boast a surprisingly eclectic assortment of goods. But what to get for Yangin? This was always the trouble with finding gifts for immortal, magical beings. Strictly speaking there was nothing Yangin needed, her magic would allow her to create just about any mundane item. A more potent magical gift may have been better, some artefact of power, but between the purity of the raw ingredients and the often difficult to meet arcane requirements to ensure potency, there simply wasn’t time to create anything, and Celestia was certainly not going to gift Yangin with an I.O.U..

Then of course there was the trouble of storage. Immortals tended to gather all manner of trinkets and sundries and items of sentimental value, which could make storage difficult. Celestia was certain there remained some lost treasure vaults somewhere in the world that contained gifts that she or Luna, or both of them, had been given over the millennia - well, no doubt the archaeologist who found them would think them treasure vaults, though storage shed was probably a better term. Perishable goods were perhaps a better choice of gift…

Just as Celestia thought this, she found herself trotting on by a bakery, and when the sweet scents within reached her she almost subconsciously found herself veering towards it. The interior didn’t disappoint. The counter’s front was made of glass, allowing Celestia to see scones, muffins, and small pastries within, all of them frosted in the red-and-green colours of the season. Behind the counter were shelves containing various fruit pies and gingerbread houses, while the countertop itself had on display a three-tiered yellow cake covered in white frosting like snow, powdered sugar to add to the effect, and with small gingerbread ponies and houses looking like they were cavorting in the snow…

“Ah, it would be better if you bought it first, ma’am,” a male voice interrupted Celestia. She came to her senses with her hoof already reaching out to grab a slice of cake, the blunt knife to do so already in her aura.

Celestia had a sweet tooth. It was her one true flaw.

She turned to look at the pony who had spoken, and found herself regarding an older blue unicorn with a vibrant yellow mane, moustache, and tail. Despite his admonishment, he was smiling at her. “My apologies,” Celestia said, though she couldn’t keep herself from glancing back to the cake, then to pony behind the counter. “It looks...delectable.”

“I should hope so!” Another voice said, belonging to a green-coated-and-maned unicorn. She came up alongside the stallion, taking his hoof into one of her own. “Took Bakewell here all morning to make.”

“And you were my muse throughout, Deblas,” the stallion said with a loving nuzzle before turning to look at Celestia once more. “Bakewell and Deblas Hoofington. Welcome to our bakery.”

Celestia inclined her head. “Firedancer,” she said, giving her disguise’s name. She looked to the cake, feeling her mouth water. She swallowed “Is this cake already bought?” She couldn’t keep the hunger from her voice.

“No, just something to add to the décor,” Bakewell said, waving around and indicating the Hearth’s Warming decorations throughout the rest of the bakery that Celestia had hardly noticed. “But it is for sale. Do you - “

Celestia had reached into the saddlebags she wore as part of her disguise and withdrawn a money purse, which contained authentic coins that had been summoned from her treasury back in the palace, before any more syllables could be uttered. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d had any cake - what with directing her forces and efforts to liberate Equestria from her sister’s rule, she hadn’t had the time for personal indulgences. She magically floated silver bits from the bag. “How much?” she asked.

The Hoofingtons stared a moment at her desperation, but Deblas chuckled, stepping forward. “For the whole cake? Sixty bits. We had been planning on portioning it out…”

The part of Celestia still trapped a thousand years in the past balked at the thought of paying so much - in her day a cake like this would likely not have cost even two silver coins - but she told that part of her mind to brush up on basic economic concepts and instead divided out the sixty bits for the Hoofingtons. “A bargain at half the price,” she said.

“I’ll get it boxed up, then!” Bakewell said happily.

Celestia was confused for a moment, but supposed that, yes, it would be unseemly to eat the entire thing right now, no matter that she easily could. Still, she did take up the cake-cutting knife once more, slicing out a triangle for herself. “I have to have some now, though…” she said, taking the slice into her aura and biting into it…

The Elysian Fields. That was the name that Celestia believed the next world possessed, the one that ponies’ souls passed to if they led good lives and died full of virtue. And there was no doubt in Celestia’s mind that in the Elysian Fields, the ponies always had cake this good. Maybe it was the centuries without it, but the crumbling sweet bread in her mouth, the delectable, almost gooey frosting, the gingerbread that she bit into, the tiny specks of sugar...Celestia was aware of falling back onto her haunches and letting out a hum of satisfaction, and she didn’t even care.

“That’s my Bakewell,” Deblas Hoofington commented, grinning with her head in her hooves while she regarded Celestia.

When I rule Equestria again, he will be my personal chef, Celestia decided. She finished her slice, and only with a supreme act of immortal will prevented her from having any more cake as Bakewell and Deblas boxed up the remainder. Once it was out of sight, however, the guilt set in. Not guilt over the cake, of course, the slice she’d eaten had been reasonably modest. But it was almost like a spell was broken, and Celestia realized that she had come into this town looking for a present for Yangin, her friend...and had instead bought a cake that she fully intended to eat herself.

But then she recalled her musings about getting gifts for immortals. Perishables did tend to be slightly preferred...at least at the moment, what with Yangin being a new friend whom Celestia didn’t know that well yet. Perhaps…

“Tell me,” Celestia said, “I am...looking for a gift for Hearth’s Warming for a new friend of mine. Do you do commissions? If I made a request, could you fulfil it before Hearth’s Warming?”

The Hoofingtons exchanged glances. “Hmm,” Bakewell said. “Well, in a town this small I don’t exactly have many orders ahead of me,” he remarked. “This would be very last-minute…”

“Money is of no consequence,” Celestia said, opening her saddlebags once more and producing three more money purses to compliment the still more than half-full one that lay on the counter. “If you cannot fulfil the request, I will understand. But this friend of mine, though new, is also very dear.”

Bakewell looked to Deblas. “Well...what did you have in mind?” Deblas asked.

Celestia grinned. “Have you heard of the Kuleler Sehri, the City of Spires? The capital of Naqah?” She conjured up several sheafs of paper, and charcoal to draw with. The two Hoofingtons looked startled at her magical display, but she paid them no mind as she began sketching - while she may have lacked her sister’s full artistic talents, she was not completely inept. “There is a particularly large temple to the Naqahn Prophet there, and as I recall, it looked like so…”

Celestia had produced sketches of the temple from multiple angles, her lack of natural talent made up for with forty thousand years - give or take a few centuries - of practice in doodling. It had been more than enough for the Hoofingtons to work off of, and she had not been lying when she said that money was of no consequence.

The principal building material for this recreation was gingerbread, of course, creating a square base that was two feet on a side, and rising in multiple tiers to nearly eighteen inches in height. Buttresses and arches adorned it, and it was topped with a great dome with lesser domes in lower tiers, while two-foot gingerbread minarets rose at each of its four corners. Details suggesting doors and windows had been added with frosting in various colours, principally red, while white frosting and powdered sugar spread across it gave it the appearance of having been recently snowed upon.

Given the timeframe it probably should have been impossible to make, but unicorn magic had helped to speed things along, allowing the baking and handling of multiple portions at once. Celestia had also enchanted the Hoofingtons without their knowledge to be instilled with vigour and wakefulness, an inability to sleep without the compromising side-effects. It was a dangerous spell if used too often, but a single extra night’s work was harmless enough.

So when Celestia returned on Hearth’s Warming Eve the following day, pulling a cart that strictly wasn’t necessary for her but which she would need to help sell her disguise as a unicorn, she entered the Hoofington’s bakery to find a gingerbread recreation of the Great Temple of the Prophet waiting for her in all its glory.

“What do you think?” Bakewell asked, smiling brightly, a slightly manic look in his eye that was matched by his wife’s. “Not bad for a last-minute commission! And I have to say one of the most unique things I’ve ever created!”

“I almost hate to see it go,” Deblas said, “and no time to advertise it! I’m sure there’s a contest going on somewhere that this could have been entered into. My Bakewell was up all night working on it, and I helped...we were like muses for each other!”

Celestia fought back a wince. Perhaps she’d put a little too much energy into her wakefulness spell. “You have outdone yourselves,” she said, and was quite truthful about that, at least, as she used her magic to lift up the gingerbread temple and set it into a waiting box, folding it up herself while the two unicorns jittered with energy. “I will definitely remember you in the future, but for now…” she subtly reached out with her magic, withdrawing her spell, “you seem tired. Perhaps an early night - “

“Sounds good,” Bakewell mumbled as the spell left him and his eyes fluttered. Both unicorns immediately fell as sleep overtook them. Celestia caught them in her magic before they could hit their heads, laying them down on the floor. Despite being unconscious, however, they husband and wife sought each other out instinctively, snuggling up to one another. Their breathing was steady and strong, and when Celestia poked Deblas she mumbled a little and reacted. Not in a coma, then, merely asleep.

Celestia clucked a little, letting her horn glow brightly, transporting the two upstairs to their bed. They’d earned the rest. She would definitely have to give more of a lead-time to any Hearths’ Warming activities in the future, particularly if Bakewell was going to be her personal pastry chef.

Speaking of, she double-checked the Great Gingerbread Temple of the Prophet in its box. Only the knowledge that she still had some of the cake she’d purchased the previous day waiting for her back in her palace prevented her from grabbing a bite. She closed up the box and brought it outside to her waiting cart, making sure to lock the Hoofington’s door behind her as she went.

Now all that remained was to give Yangin her present...her delicious present...her scrumptious gingerbread present...her positively divine looking Great Gingerbread Temple…

This was going to be a very long wait for Hearths’ Warming day.

Terror Wing - The Herald of the Sun by Talon and Thorn

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Terror Wing sighed in frustration, what was the point of this stupid Pony present giving ritual anyway? At least he was getting a feast from it. He plunged a talon into the bag Smoke held out to him tearing a hole in the side before grabbing a token at random and pulling it out. He turned it around a few times before he realised it was of a pony with its mane done up in a mohawk, it must be the symbol for Zecora. Glancing around he furrowed his brow, what on Equestria could he get that rhyming freak?

It wasn’t that he wasn’t used to giving gifts, back home it was a common way to seal bargains and make alliances, at least that’s what his father said. It was considered an insult to actually pay anygrif in coin, well anygriff who was anyone. Peasants and merchants used money, but if you wanted a noble to do anything for you then you had to give them ‘presents’ like a golden torc, or a silk cloak, or a new sword. It had always seemed stupid to him, if you wanted someone to do something for you you just forced them, and if they were strong enough to stop you then you didn’t deserve to have them work for you. Still his father had told him that was how things were supposed to be, it didn’t stop his brother Gwion giving him a beating anytime he wanted something though. Terror Wing grimaced scraping his newly enhanced talons against the ground, feeling them cut into the rock, once he returned home things were going to be different, he thought.

The feeling of the stone parting beneath his talons brought Terror Wing’s thoughts back to the present. The queen had given him powerful gifts and she could probably take them away again, he wasn’t going back to the weak nobody he used to be! Even if it meant he had to take part in some silly pony ritual. He looked over at Zecora and noted the rings around her neck and in her ears, it looked like jewellery would be a suitable present for her. He had a few pieces in his room that he’d brought with him from home but none of it seemed suitable for her. He’d have to go do some shopping, he grinned, and by shopping he meant go out and take something from some pony. It would be a chance to try out his new form, he stretched his wings wide smiling at their size. Celestia had warned him about getting seen by the local pony population but she’d also told him to get a present. Plus as long as he kept away from a large city no one was going to worry much about a few travellers who got a fright, and maybe a bit of a beating. With the enhancements the queen had made to him he’d be there and back in half a day tops.

Like a red lightning bolt Terror Wing shot through the early morning sky high above the snow covered ground, his keen eyes scanning everywhere for a possible target. He smiled, this was the life! Back home he had loved to hunt, the freedom of the sky, the skill needed to spot a rabbit or a fish from hundreds of feet above, the feasting afterwards! He licked his beak, maybe once he’d found a present he could get himself some breakfast.

When he had been a chick there was nothing he had loved more than to hang around in the kitchens and watch how the various dishes were prepared, he’d found it fascinating how the addition of a few spices or a slightly different way of cooking could totally change the taste of a meal. The head chef Gaston la Grand had taken him under his wing and taught him a few recipes. He smiled at the recollection, then his face turned hard. When his father found out he’d gotten such a beating, hunting was considered a noble pursuit, but the actual preparation of food was considered a low class occupation and well below a princes’ notice. He’d never seen Gaston again and guards had been posted on the kitchen to keep him out. He’d cried in his rooms for weeks.

Terror Wing shook his head trying to clear out the memories, that had been a long time ago he’d been a very different griffin then, weaker, stupider. Now he was older and the queen’s herald, he didn’t have time for such foolishness. Still, he had to look for a present for Zecora, then maybe he could hunt. The lair’s staff included some half decent cooks, although being ponies they didn’t know what to do with good flesh.

It seemed that his hopes of finding a travelling pony carrying jewellery had been rather optimistic. He’d circled the outskirts of the nearest settlement several times without seeing anypony. It looked like they were all well within the town’s boundaries, probably already celebrating the Warming festival, or whatever it was called. Maybe he should head to another settlement, or even try his luck in the heart of the town. He could probably swoop down and steal something before anypony noticed. His eyes suddenly twitched as he noticed movement just outside the town boundaries. Focusing his gaze he recognised a small gaggle of miniature ponies, foals.

He almost disregarded them, they probably didn’t have anything he wanted but he was feeling bored, and there might be something interesting going on. He angled his wings and fell into a steep dive zooming towards the herd below him.

Figgy desperately tried to jink to avoid the incoming projectile but his small wings couldn’t gather enough air to do more than bob and the snowball struck him on the flank sending him spinning in a nearby snowdrift.

“One down!” crowed Barley Corn scraping up another hoof full of snow off the ground, “You’re next Black!” He released his weapon at a solidly built earth pony filly with a dark red coat.

“As if!” She barked hopping aside and hurling her own snow ball back which caught Barley in the ear. “Come on!” she snapped at Figgy as he tried to dig his way out of the snow, “You’re just so useless sometimes!”

“Sorry sis,” said Figgy struggling with the weight of snow that had gathered on the long scarf their mother had made him wear.

“Why’d we have to play with that baby anyway?” asked Quicksilver using his aura to levitate a stream of snow towards his opponents who fled, giggling as they went.

“Dad made me!” protested Black flicking her white mane back from her eyes.

Finally back in the air Figgy scowled. He wasn’t all that much younger than his sister, only two years, well almost three. It didn’t help that he was a little small for his age and she was freakishly big, like taller than some of the teen ponies he knew. He swooped low and began to gather up more snow.

“Hurry up!” cried Quicksilver, their opposition had regrouped and the small herd was closing in on them rushing from drift to drift using whatever cover they could. One of the Barrell twins stuck their head out of cover and she quickly tossed at ball at him or her to get them to keep their heads down.

Figgy quickly tossed a ball towards the nearest target but it fell short by several hooves which caused the attacker much hilarity, before Black caught him on the horn with a much more accurate lump of snow.

Blushing Figgy scrambled around to reload but his ears started to twitch. There was a whistling sound coming from somewhere nearby and it was quickly getting louder. Many of the other foals had also heard it and were glancing around in confusion. Some instinct made him glance up and his eyes widened at what appeared to be a bright red fireball plummeting down towards them. He pointed a hoof and yelled in terror. His warning came too late and the projectile struck the ground in the middle of foals throwing up great gouts of snow which knocked him from the sky and threatened to bury him again.

With a series of cries and squeaks the foals ran in random directions, two of them bouncing off of each other in their panic. Stuck in the snow Figgy could only watch in near terror as what he had previously thought was a fireball unfurled itself into a giant mass of red fur and feathers. It was a griffin, he’d heard about them in school, but nopony had told him they were as big as a bear! The creature turned towards him and licked it’s huge pointed beak in apparent hunger before giving out another roar. He closed his eyes.

“G-g-get away from my b-brother!” came Black’s voice from just in front of him.

Giving a theatrical growl that he couldn’t help turning into a laugh Terror Wing looked around at the miniature ponies as they fled in panic. He had meant to just watch their small war but it had been too tempting to just give them all a fright, he thought he remembered that being part of this pony festival. He was a little surprised to see one of the foals standing her ground, she was quite large compared to her peers but still didn’t come up to his knee.

“K-k-keep away from h-him!” she stuttered.

Terror Wing cocked his head to one side wondering who she was talking about before he noticed parts of a truly tiny pony sticking out from the large pile of snow his landing had thrown up. He took a further step towards it and although the filly turned as pale as her dark coat allowed and looked like she was about to lose control of her bladder she still held her ground. He was rather impressed really, the way she was protecting her brother like his own sister Gabriella used to, at least before she’d gotten hitched to that fop Giorgio. Of course if the brother was a real stallion he wouldn’t need anypony to protect him.

“No need for a duel,” he joked reaching over her and carefully, using two talons, lifted the colt from the snowdrift. He gave the pegasus a gentle shake to remove the worst of the snow before dropping him next to her. Apparently dazed the smaller pony stared up at him mouth open slackly. The filly quickly positioned herself in front of her sibling looking ready to turn to buck at a moments notice.

“Keep away you monster!” she threatened. “I won’t let you eat him!”

“EAT HIM?” he bellowed before noticing he’d almost blown the foals away with his voice. He continued trying to control his volume. “There’s hardly a mouthful on him! Plus, don’t you know ponies taste terrible? I’m just here to,” he paused for a moment, should he tell them anything about his mission, then shrugged, what could these mini ponies do anyway? “Do some shopping,” he concluded.

“Shopping! Monsters don’t go shopping!” exclaimed the filly in surprise, her fear apparently forgotten for the moment.

“He’s not a monster, he’s a griffin,” added the smaller pony.

“Yeah, I’m a griffin, actually I’M A GRIFFIN PRINCE!” The third born son of a king anyway Terror Wing’s mind added.

“What’s a prince?”

“It’s like a Princess, but a boy,” explained the filly rolling her eyes at her brothers stupidity.

“You’re like Princess Luna!” asked Figgy wide eyed.

“Um, yeah!” said Terror striking a pose, “I’M PRINCE TERROR WING!” That sounded right, once Corona dealt with her sister she’d make him King, maybe even High King, he’d have a nation of his own, just like Luna.

“Wow! What’s a prince doing in our town?” asked Black.

“I need to get a present for, well, for a friend,” maybe these little ponies could help him after all. “I’m looking for some jewellery.”

“Jewellery! Rings and necklaces and stuff? Like Mr Gilt sells?”

“Yeah, that sounds right.”

“I think he’s closed for the holiday’s now,” said the filly.

“Pretty sure that won’t be a problem for me,” grinned Terror Wing. He doubted any pony door would stand up to his new body for long, although things might get a bit noisy if he had to break his way in.

“You should talk to Dad!” exclaimed Figgy, “He’ll know what to do!”

“Mr Gilt’s his friend I’m sure he’ll get him to open his shop, especially for a prince!” added Black.

Terror Wing shrugged, that might work, it would be less noticeable than breaking into the place, once he was in he could take what he wanted and nopony would be able to stop him, perfect. He looked down at the foals below him, they’d done a good job, they deserved a reward “Could you find your home from above?” he asked.

“Yeah,” said Figgy looking unsure.

“Wh-aaaaarg!” cried Black as Terror Wing grabbed her and her brother and dropped them on his back before leaping into the air borne by a flap of his mighty wings. Terror grinned as his passengers screams quickly turned from fear to excitement, he remembered his sister taking him on flights as a chick. It had been fun to spend time with her, sometimes even his brother would come as well to show off some new trick he’d learnt. Terror quickly circled the town a few times then did a barrel roll. “So where’s your place?” A pair of hooves pointed towards a large building near the centre of the town. He frowned, “Your Dad’s a big shot?”

“He runs the best restaurant in town!” exclaimed Figgy proudly.

Terror Wing shrugged, maybe he could get a snack as well as a present. He tucked his wings in and dived towards the ground causing a fresh peel of screams from his passengers before landing heavily in the snow outside the rear door to the restaurant. Black hopped off of his back, and after staggering around drunkenly for a few seconds, headed for the door and shoved it open. “Hey Dad! We found a Prince, a Griffin Prince!”

A grey coated muscular earth pony stallion wearing a rather stained apron appeared in the doorway. “What are you talkin’ about Black?” he asked before looking up at Terror Wing. He gawked for a moment before stepping even further back and looking up a bit more. “Um, err, howdy I’m Pease Pudding, how can I, er, help?” he finally managed.

“Your children told me that you...” Terror Wing sniffed the air, there was a very familiar smell coming from inside the restaurant, “Is that Käsespätzle?” he asked. Not waiting for a reply he shoved the smaller pony aside and squeezed through the door into the kitchen beyond. There were several other surprised looking ponies working over various dishes, he ignored them and followed the scent to a particular pan.

“Er, yeah,” said Pease following the giant flanked by his children, “before the kids happened me and the missus used to travel a lot, we spent some time in the Griffin Kingdoms I got to love this stuff.” He struggled to get past Terror Wings bulk and gave the pan a stir. “I can never get it quite right though, it should be so simple just eggs, flour, a sprinkle of salt and some water to make it fluff up. Then cover it in a layer of cheese and eat, but I can never get it quite right, it just doesn’t taste how I remember! I’ve been trying it for years.”

“Water? Who uses water?” complained Terror, did ponies know nothing about cooking?

“The recipe I got says water, well Wasser des Libens, Water of life right? Does it come from a special spring of something?” his brow furrowed.

Terror Wing reared back bumping his head on the ceiling and gave a deep belly laugh. “WASSER DES LIBENS IS ALE!” he cried. “A good beer gives spätzle it’s flavour. I wouldn’t expect you ponies to have a real Griffin brew but you have to have something half decent around the place!” he carefully took up a spoon in his talons and stirred the mixture, it wouldn’t do to let it burn.

“Actually I do have something from the Kingdom’s” said Pease rushing over to a cupboard and bringing out a brown bottle. Terror Wing grabbed it and read the label.

“Not bad, they don’t export the best but it’ll do,” he tossed aside the partially cooked spätzle. “I’ll need to start from scratch, hey you, little guy,” he pointed to Figgy, “get me a new pan, and you,” he pointed to Black, “get me a dozen, no two dozen eggs, small ones if you can they taste better, and you,” he gestured to Pease, “watch and learn!”

Terror Wing chewed happily, maybe the ponies didn’t have much in the way of wurst but they had a surprising selection of other ingredients, on top of the Käsespätzle they had sauerkraut and he’d found what he needed to make a Käsekuchen for desert as well. For the first time in a few months he actually felt at home, there was nothing like food to bring back memories of the feasts he’d had growing up, of the times spent with his friends and family. Glancing around the table it looked like the Pudding family were similarly content after their meal.

“It’s just how I remember it,” said Pease taking a last bite of his meal. “Not that I want to be unwelcoming after that, but, what’s brought you here in the first place? We don’t get many griffins passing through.”

“Oh, right, I was going to get someone a present, I need...” he paused. He’d only been away from home for a few months, but Zecora hadn’t been to her homeland for a year, maybe more. Could she be missing her home as well? He’d never seen her eat anything but regular pony food, but there had to be some sort of recipe that her people alone made. “Actually, you said you used to travel? Did you ever go to Zebrica?”

Pease leaned back, “Sorry, I never made it that far,” Terror Wing clicked his tongue against his beak, it had seemed like a good idea, “but I do have a few books about the food they have down there,” continued the chef. “I serve some of them in the restaurant but mostly just for the family.” He dropped down from his chair and went over to a shelf full of books before selecting a few. “Want to have a look?” He spread them over the table and started to point at various recipes. “The kids love Mabuyu, it’s just baobab seeds coated with sugar but you can add all sorts of flavouring to them.”

“I like the chilli,” said Figgy hovering over the table with some difficulty.

“That’s ‘cause you’re a freak,” exclaimed Black sticking out her tongue, “honey’s the best!”

“Then there’s Samosas, Githeri, Mukimo, maybe even Ugali,” continued Pease ignoring his kids feuding as he pointed out the recipes.

Terror glanced over the ingredients, most of it was common stuff the kitchen’s back at the lair probably had, but some was more unusual. If the restaurant served it then they must have a supply. Normally he’s just take what he wanted, but he’d shared food with the family now and sacred hospitality was one taboo that even he wouldn’t break. He wished he brought some pony money with him, maybe he could fly to the lair and back in time? Or was there something else he could do in exchange?

Pease seemed to read his mind. “You want to try some of these recipes?” he asked, “Tell you what, you show me some more griffin recipes and I’ll help you with these. I can even let you have some ingredients if you want. I figure a good meal makes a good gift, right?” he grinned.

Terror nodded. “That sounds fair,” he stretched his talons, “maybe we can start with Beetenbartsch, you’ve got beetroot right?”

It was well after dark by the time Terror Wing started his journey back. That had been more fun than he’d expected, it had been nice to spend some time with the family and to get a chance to cook something. Maybe it wasn’t princely behaviour but he didn’t care, if anyone challenged him about it he could beat them now. He could beat anyone!

He waved back at the Pudding family as he flew into the sky and set a course for home barely feeling the bags of ingredients and completed recipes on his back. Maybe ponies wern’t all completely useless wimps after all. Sure none of them could fight worth a damn but they had their uses, maybe once Corona took back Equestria he could have Pease in his palace kitchen? He did good work. The kids might even be useful in a few years once they’d grown some. Black was fierce enough that she might even make a good soldier with some training. He was sure he could think of something for Figgy to do despite his size, he might make a good scout maybe?

Putting those thoughts aside for the moment he started to decide on the menu for the meal he would present to Zecora. She better appreciate what he was doing for her.

Kindle - The Voice of the Sun by thatguyvex

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Kindle plunged a hoof into the bag and felt around trying to find the symbol which represented his queen, it was only right that her most loyal subject would be the one honoured to get her a present. He triumphantly pulled out a token and examined it, he heart sunk as he recognised the shape of a dragon. He stared up at the bulk of Solrathicharnon towering over him in horror.

Kindle was not one to balk from difficult tasks, especially in the name of his Queen. There was little the zealous pegasus would not do to please his eternal liege, and Celestia had been quite insistent on the particulars of this holiday tradition. Yet Kindle also inwardly was entering a high-strung panic mode as he went to his chambers to think, because out of all the potential candidates he could’ve ended up with for giving a gift to for Hearth’s Warming, it had to be the worst possibility out of the lot!

Oh, he could try to switch with another of his fellow Celestia’s loyalists and followers, but time was already short enough and for that matter there was a certain level of pride on the line here. If he couldn’t get a suitable gift for the individual he’d ended up with, then it was like admitting that he lacked the proper diligence, intellect, and foresight to accomplish the task his Queen had set before him! No! Kindle would not allow failure to stain him. Well, again, at any rate. Not everything had been going entirely according to plan with every venture taken in Celestia’s name, and it was starting to grate upon his confidence.

That’s why he wouldn’t switch! He needed to prove to himself he could do anything Celestia asked of him! Even getting a proper holiday gift on such short notice for... well, a dragon. Not just any dragon, but Sorathicaron, who was among the oldest the most powerful dragons in the known world, and just happened to be an individual Kindle did not get along with particularly well.

The dragon was just... just rude was what he was! Rude to Kindle, who was the Voice of the Sun, and far worse, rude to Queen Celestia. At least in Kindle’s estimation. Sure, Solrath did give just enough proper deference to Celestia to remain in the Queen’s good graces and otherwise avoid painful destruction at the alicorn’s hooves, but Kindle still didn’t like how subtly smug and generally self important Solrath was around his Queen. He might have been a dragon, but even dragons needed to learn their place in the order of things.

Putting his dislike aside would be difficult, but Kindle would persevere! For his Queen! For the glory of the Sun! For-

“Kindle, do you have a minute?”

“GAH!” Kindle had been so wrapped up in his mental tirade he hadn’t even noticed the door to his chamber opening. He hadn’t even noticed that his hooves had taken him back to this room while he was thinking. He Qquickly he recovered from his fright and turned to find Smoke standing in the doorway. Kindle was often impressed by Smoke’s capacity to blend into any given background, although he was fairly certain the unicorn wasn’t actually trained in stealth. An excellent illusionist, however, and given Celestia’s tutelage Kindle didn’t doubt Smoke would continue to be an asset to the Queen.

Composing himself, he politely cleared his throat and said, “Is there something you need?”

She brushed some of her mane away from her eyes, seeming to grapple with her words.

“I was wondering if you were planning to go to Hope’s Hollow to look for a gift, and maybe we could go, um... together?”

Hope’s Hollow was the nearby settlement. And by ‘nearby’, a full half-day flight from Celestia’s glorious, but secret volcanic fortress. Kindle hadn’t even begun to think of what he could possibly get Solrathichanon, and he somehow sincerely doubted he’d find anything a dragon would consider valuable in such a small and out of the way village.

“While I appreciate the offer, Smoke, I ended up drawing the proverbial short lot this time,” he said, flashing the token that he’d drawn, “I’m presently debating exactly what I can get that rude, arrogant, disrespectful wyrm that he doesn’t already have, or wouldn’t care to own.”

Smoke winced slightly, “Solrath? Um... yikes, I can see how he’d be difficult to shop for.”

“Hmph, impossible would be the word I’d choose, but I am the Voice of the Sun. For the honor of my Queen, I will simply have to find a way to turn the word ‘impossible’ into merely ‘done’. Still, I don’t think there will be anything in a humble settlement like Hope’s Hollow that would impress a dragon.”

“True, but, uh, maybe looking around there will at least spark some ideas?” suggested Smoke, “We do have nearly two days, so it can’t hurt to at least try, and see what happens.”

“Hmm,” Kindle used his right wing to rub his chin in thought, “I suppose I can’t fault your logic, as usual, Smoke. Ah, so be it. We can go to the village together if it suits you, but I’ll go my own way once we’re there. I’ll need the space to think, and I’d hate to distract you from your own gift shopping.”

“Oh, well, that will be fine,” she said, looking oddly disappointed for a moment before brightening back up, “Then let’s go, if you’re ready?”

“Yes, just give me a moment to throw on a scarf. You have one too, don’t you?” he asked, and she blinked. He rolled his eyes, “I’ll let you borrow one of mine. Really, Smoke, just because we have fur doesn’t mean we can’t catch colds during winter. Do try to take care of yourself. You cannot serve our Queen with the sniffles.”

He didn’t even notice her faint blush as he tossed her a simple white scarf that went well with her gray coat, and he threw on his own bright, sun yellow scarf. He also didn’t notice the way she walked rather close to him as they left his chambers and proceeded towards the room where Queen Celestia had set up the teleportation circle that would take them to Hope’s Hollow.

The scarves certainly proved a good idea, as it was quite chilly and the air was still filled with a light dusting of snow, with plenty leftover still on the ground. Hope’s Hollow was a modest village nestled within a valley at the foot of the mountains. Kindle was familiar with the place as he’d scouted it for settling the population of Sun worshippers (he refused to think of them as ‘cultists’ like the unenlightened who still followed “Princess” Luna did) that had slowly been gathering since Celestia’s return. It still galled him that the faithful had to hide themselves at all! They should be able to loudly and proudly declare their loyalty and faith in their Queen, under the undying light of the Sun!

It was maddening to have to hide and pretend all of the time, although he did thrive on situations where duplicity was key. He could readily slip into necessary personas to further the goals of his Queen, as he would need to do today as he wandered the village and pretended to be a good Equestrian citizen. Granted he knew practically every Sun worshiper in town as well, so he’d know who he could relax around, but even then it’d be important to keep one’s guard up, just in case one heathen or another might be listening in.

“Remember,” he told Smoke before they entered the village’s outskirts, “Even if many here are among the faithful, we must still maintain secrecy. Be careful of your words.”

“I know, Kindle,” Smoke replied, “I’ll be careful. You sure you don’t want to shop with me?”

He ignored her hopeful tone and simply said, “I think this will work better if I do this on my own, although if you do happen to stumble across something that seems perfect for a dragon, do let me know?”

“Of course. Good luck,” she said, and once they entered the village she went her way, warmly greeted by ponies who were wandering about outside while going about their business, or were busily setting up decorations of their own. Indeed, Hope’s Hollow was getting dressed up thoroughly for the festivities, with wreaths of greenrgy wrapped with red ribbons adoring roof linings and street lamps, and enchanted lights strung up around fences and doorways.

Kindle returned any greetings he received, but his mind was distracted as he began to once more mull over the distinct issue of trying to figure out what he could possibly get a dragon. And not just any dragon, but an ancient, powerful, and outright violent example of his race that was only “serving” Celestia out of mutual benefit rather than anything resembling true loyalty.

Kindle was inclined, briefly, to find a gift that would prove more insult than anything else, if only to snub Solrath... but he dismissed the notion almost immediately. That was not in the spirit of his Queen’s decree, and to fail at giving Solrath a gift worthy of the dragon would be like directly insulting Celestia herself. He had to find something that the dragon would at least find acceptable! But what!?

He passed by a few shop windows. Hope’s Hollow wasn’t exactly a bastion of commerce, although Kindle suspected his task would be difficult even if he was in the beating heart of Manehattan itself. Toys, clothing, tools, baked goods, none of these were things a dragon would value. Jewelry, gems, something shiny, perhaps? But Hope’s Hollow didn’t exactly have anything in that regard that would be more impressive than the hoard Solrathichanon already possessed. Perhaps if Kindle had time to go on an actual quest for a rare treasure or jewel then something along those lines might be suitable, but he’d never find anything like that here.

To top it off, the egotistical lizard is blind, so it’s not as if I can get him something of artistic value like a book or painting...

He became ever more ingrossed with tangling with his inner thoughts and ceased paying much attention to where he was wandering, save to simply avoid bumping into anypony or anything. Kindle was no closer to a solution to his conundrum when he found his thoughts were interrupted by a rather intense racket stemming from he could only surmise was the village tavern. The quaint building was two stories, with an absurdly sloped roof that overhung the front of the tavern, where several outdoor tables were set up, relatively safe from the snow.

The sign over the open doorway had no name, merely the picture of a drunken elk stumbling about with a foaming mug in one hoof. An elk? Odd. Kindle’s familiarity with the town had not extended to it’s tavern, which he’d never entered or cared about, given he didn’t drink. He’d never noticed the sign. And what was that noise? It sounded like somepony’s attempt at music, only the sound was... well to Kindle’s ears it was all wrong. Intensely loud and almost metallic screeching, only identifiable as music due to it’s hypnotically rhythmic beat.

From the looks a few ponies passing by where giving the tavern most of the shared Kindle’s assessment of the noise, although a few of the younger ponies in the passing crowd seemed interested.

Out of curiosity and frustration at the lack of progress in his task more than anything else, Kindle shifted course to wandering into the tavern. The noise was even louder within, almost like smacking face first into a wall of sound.

The tavern interior was well lit by candles and lanterns, the walls white plaster with dark wooden supports, with several of the same dark wood pillars holding up parts of the roof. The pillars were carved with strange patterns that Kindle recognized as cervid styling, and it didn’t much surprise him that when he looked behind the bar, it was a tall, brown furred male elk tending to his mugs rather than a pony. The rest of the tavern’s clientele were of ponykind, but all of them seemed to know the elk, so Kindle assumed the elk was a local and probably one of the few cervids living in Equestria.

Kindle didn’t spend long looking around the tavern, his attention drawn to the far corner of the tavern, on one side of a smokey brick fireplace that kept the place toasty warm despite the winter chill outside. There, a small wood stage gave just enough room for two individuals, a young unicorn mare, and an only slightly older looking elk buck, who’s similar appearance to the elder tending the bar suggested the familial relation.

The unicorn mare was slate gray in color, somewhat reminiscent of Smoke, but that was where the similarities ended. This mare’s mane was wild and spiky, done up in a two-toned mixe of neon pink and deep forest green, with an equally spiked tail to match that bore a black leather cord. She wore a similarly black leather vest with several metal studs covering the shoulders, on the back of which was a symbol of a hammer smashing an iron chain... which incidentally was mirrored on her flank as her cutie mark.

The young elk buck resembled his father greatly, with the same tall, well muscled build and long, regal antlers, if albeit shorter than his sire’s. He was similarly attired to the unicorn mare, although his was a full leather jacket rather than a vest, and had spikes rather than studs, and painted on the back was some manner of rune that bore a resemblance to an open flame.

Appearances aside, the most interesting aspect of the two were the instruments. The elk was using a drum set which wasn’t entirely out of the norm save for the fact that it was somehow amplifying its sound with what Kindle could only guess was some kind of hidden cervid runecraft. The unicorn mare was floating a guitar in her golden magic aura that didn’t resemble any guitar Kindle was familiar with. It bore no obvious acoustic chamber, but instead some kind of flat, metal square where the acoustic chamber would normally be, the wire strings glinting with magic as she played. The metallic notes were coming from the guitar, supported impressively by the fast, thunderous drums from the elk.

Also the mare was doing what could be generously called “singing”, if one translated singing as “scream like an incomprehensible banshee” into a microphone she was floating by her mouth.

Oddly, most the tavern goers seemed to be enjoying it, especially the younger crowd.

Driven by morbid curiosity, Kindle waited until the pair were done with their set and then slide up towards the bar where the elder elk was still doing what tavern keepers did best; polish every mug in sight to an impossible sheen, whether they needed it or not.

“Good evening,” Kindle said, and the elk glanced at him with cool, blue eyes.

“Aye, evening to you too, traveler. Care for a pint?” asked the elk in quite fluent Equestrian, although there was a bare hint of an Elkheim accent to it.

“I don’t imbibe spirits anymore,” he said, recalling a Hearth’s Warming party a number of years ago where he rather overindulged. Ever since his Queen’s return, he’d refused to touch the stuff, knowing he needed his full faculties at all times to serve Celestia. “If you have orange juice, that would be lovely,” Kindle told the tavernkeep, and the elk nodded, obliging. He did run an Equestrian tavern, after all, and Equestrians loved their juices about as much as some of them liked their alcohol, so his bar was exceedingly well stocked.

Looking on as the young unicorn mare spoke to the elk as the pair took a break, Kindle sipped his orange juice and said, “That was an... interesting form of music those two were playing.”

The older elk chuckled under his breath, “Aye, that. Me son Jodir got taken with the young lass there, Metal Heart. She came here about four months ago, and they’ve been impossible tae separate. Heh, ain’t that I mind him being with a wee pony lass, mind you, but they’ve been putting on their shows every other week and I’m wondering if I’ll be going deaf ‘afore me fiftieth year at this rate.”

“It certainly is a unique music style,” Kindle said as politely as he could, “I’ve never heard anything like it.”

“Doubting many have. Metal Heart said she got the inspiration from somepony in Canterlot, and became a traveling musician herself. Made that guitar on her own, seems like. Then she arrived here, hit it off with Jodir, and then my boy started mixing up her style with some of his own,” the barkeep said, “Elkheim drums aren’t usually played that fast, but the style’s the same. Makes for a lot of noise, but some folks seem to like it, and makes my son and his lass happy to play, so I can’t complain.”

“One must find one’s happiness where they can,” Kindle agreed, “I’m sorry sir, I haven’t introduced myself. Skyfarer.”

It was one of several alias he used when he wanted to avoid his real name, which by this point was starting to get around to various authorities and it was best to be careful, even here in a place with fellow faithful. He even recognized several of the Queen’s own in the tavern, although they were careful not to acknowledge him overly much any more than he was doing to them.

“Astar,” the elk said, introducing himself in turn and shaking Kindle’s hoof, “Pleasure to meet you. What brings you to Hope’s Hollow, if it be polite of me to ask?”

“Traveling with a friend for the holidays, and doing some last minute gift shopping,” Kindle replied, and half jokingly added, “Don’t suppose you have any notion of what would make a good gift for a dragon?”

It was a joke, but he was surprised to see the elk react with a deep frown, although it didn’t last long as Astar said, “I keep forgetting ponyfolk don’t have a history with them wyrms like we do in Elkheim. Our shores have been invaded more times than our history can make count of.”

“My apologies, I was merely jesting,” Kindle said, but Astar waved it off.

“Weren’t that offended, at any rate. Besides, no point in buying a dragon any gift. Wouldn’t be worth it to them. They don’t hoard gold for the buying of things. It’s just to have more than some other wyrm. Only thing a wyrm would ever want as a ‘gift’ would be something no other wyrm would have. Something unique, or at least rare enough that they could show it off.”

“That does stand to reason,” Kindle said morosely, having come to the same conclusion himself. Something rare enough that Solrath could show it off as something no other dragon had? It seemed impossible to find something like that in just under two days.

“Hey da,” said a jovial voice as Jodir came up to the bar, “Me and Metal Heart were going to go for a walk and cool off. Want us to nab you anything from the general store while we’re out?”

“No, we’re well stocked for the rest of the week, son. You n’ your lass go enjoy yourselves,” Astar replied, and Jodir nodded, but glanced Kindle’s way with a youthful and friendly smile.

“New in town?” Jodir asked.

“In a sense,” Kindle replied, extending a hoof, “I’m Skyfarer. Your father was just telling me about you and Miss Metal Heart.”

“Ah, da does like his gossip. Figure it’s part of being a tavernkeep,” Jodir said, “So what’d you think of the music? That song’s one me and Metal have been working on for months now.”

Kindle adopted a polite smile and a tone to match, “It’s certainly a... unique brand of music. I’m afraid I couldn’t quite catch the lyrics of the song, but Miss Metal Heart certainly sung them with... gusto and conviction.”

“Aye, she’s a plumb, and got a soul made of fire and passion,” Jodir said, looking back where the mare in question was packing away her guitar. Kindle could all but see the sappy, floating hearts floating off the smitten elk buck’s head.

“That did seem to come across with the enthusiastic manner of singing she’s chosen,” Kindle said, “What was the song about, exactly?”

“Oh, Metal’s way better at explaining it than I am. Hey! Metal! We got somepony curious about our music!”

Not that curious, Kindle thought to himself morosely, but politeness dictated he maintain a friendly air and he did manage that with great aplomb as Metal Heart finished putting away her guitar and glanced over at Jodir’s holler. She trotted over in a manner that all but burst with challenge and sharp-eyed attitude. If anything her accent was thicker than either elk’s, and caught Kindle a bit off guard.

“Oi then what’s all yer hallerin’ ‘bout fer ya bonny git? I’m right donae room ya don’t need tae shout.”

Despite her rough speech, she slid right up next to Jodir and gave him a very familiar and tender nuzzle on his neck, to which the elk blazed crimson as he said, “Just this fella here was asking about the meaning to our music. You always tell it better than me, luv.”

Metal Heart turned her keen, gold eyes towards Kindle, and he had to admit, she did exude a certain fire that he approved of. Sun colored eyes, plus a fiery soul immediately struck him as qualities that his Queen would approve of.

“Wha, ye weren’t listin’? Meanin’ is clear as the sun n’ ain’t no mistakin’ it. Me songs ‘r ‘bout shreddin’ the chains o’ all o’ them authority talkin’ nonsense shite fer brain’s what’re controllin’ the soul o’ the peoples! From the high n’ mighty blue bloods tha’ treat the small folks looik dirt n’ hoard wealth n’ power that t’wernt theirs! It’s ‘bout the folk takin’ back what be theirs an’ risin’ up, that’s what!”

“I... see,” Kindle said, parcing out her words, “An anti-authoritarian message concerning the disparances of wealth and power between the nobility and the common folk. Tell me, what do you think of the Night Court, then, and Princess Luna’s recent attempts at removing its corruptive elements.”

He had to force himself to keep his voice cool and collected, as he hated referring to the Usurper as a ‘Princess’, and even acknowledging any attempt made by her to purge her worthless Night Court of its inherent corruption seemed laughable in his eyes. After all, how do you remove corruption from a fundamentally broken system following the wrong ruler? Only his Queen’s cleansing presence on the throne would put Equestria to rights.

Metal Heart made a rather disgusted sound in the back of her throat and spat, “Nobles r’ nobles, n’ them Night Courts blighters r’ worse n’ most o’ the lot. Aye I heard somesuch ‘bout them tryin’ tae clean up their act, but I’d soon as believe pigs catapaultin’ themselves tae the moon then that bunch o’ night crawlin’ snakes makin’ a’ change o’ heart. All folk gotta free themselves o’ their chains, that’s the message in me music.”

Hmm... a little focused against authority itself altogether, but this one shows promise, Kindle thought, If her energy could be channeled to recognize that at least one ruler is worthy of loyalty, then her message against other nobility and the Night Court would prove valuable to spread.

“I do agree with that message, by and large,” he said, bowing his head, “I hope to hear more of your music at some point, Miss Metal Heart, along with you continuing to support her, Mister Jodir.”

“Well if you’re in town fer a bit longer, we’re playing tomorrow, too,” said Jodir, and Metal Heart gave a firm nod.

“Aye, iffin’ ya loik what yer hearin’, drop on by. ‘Fore long me n’ Jodir ‘r plannin’ tae go travelin’ ourselves n’ tour the country! I’ll play me music right in the streets o’ Canterlot itself!”

“I look forward to that,” Kindle said with an enigmatic smile.

His smile was long gone by the time he returned with Smoke to Queen Celestia’s fortress. Kindle considered himself to be a pony of dignified graces, but once he was alone in his chambers he felt no particular qualms with throwing himself onto his bed and throwing a small fit into the pillow and covers.

“It’s impossible to get a gift for a dragon on such short notice! Solrath could eat that entire hamlet and not even care! What am I supposed to do!? Buy him a sweater!? Appease him with eggnog!? Arrrrrgggh!”

He almost didn’t hear the soft, subtle knock on his door, but upon noticing it Kindle rolled off his bed and did his best to compose himself before opening the door. “Yes?”

“Oh, um, hi,” Smoke said, standing awkwardly outside his chamber, “I heard, uh, noises, and thought you might want some help? Since you know, you still haven’t found Solrath a gift?”

He stared at her for a moment, then sighed and hung his head, standing aside and gesturing with a wing for her to enter. “I suppose it’d be pointless to pretend like I have matters well in hoof, so if you have ideas, I’m all ears.”

Smoke entered, finding a spot to sit before speaking.

“Not specific ideas, but I’ll help you brainstorm. There has to be something we can come up with if we put our heads together.”

He proceeded to sit at the prodigious writing desk he had tucked against the wall adjacent to his bed and plopped a chin in his hoof with all the frustrated dignity he could muster. “I appreciate the sentiment, Smoke, but I’m not certain any amount of brainstorming will help. I don’t even know if that fire breathing reptile has any particular tastes, outside of plunder and spite.”

“Everybody likes good food,” suggested Smoke, “Maybe you could bake him something?”

Kindle raised an eyebrow, “My cooking skills are not precisely up to par, not to mention dragons have a penchant for consuming gems more than anything we ponies would consider food.”

“Hmm, okay, what about something, er... abstract? I mean, if you can’t get him anything physical that’d impress, maybe something intangible but still value? Like, hmm... a poem? Or maybe a song?”

“I’m no poet, at least not in the traditional sense. Give me time and a crowd to sway and I can craft words to move souls towards the glory of our Queen, but for serenading a dragon’s ego... I doubt I could come up something that Solrath would care for,” Kindle said, then paused as the other thing Smoke mentioned caught in his mind. “But... a song, you said?”

“Well, he is blind,” Smoke pointed out, “Maybe he enjoys music, since he can’t really partake of a lot of normal stuff that requires sight.”

Kindle mulled over that thought, considering what he already knew about dragons, and remembering what Astar had said. Dragons found value in the rare and unique, and it was true that Solrath’s blindness meant that he likely couldn’t garner as much enjoyment from conventional shiny treasures, even rare ones.

He glanced towards a doorway that led into a secondary chamber next to his room, where he kept not only his own modest library, but the equipment for recording records. He used it to create audio sermons he distributed among cells of the faithful. He’d never considered it might come in useful for other situations.

“Smoke,” he said, giving her a thankful smile, and was rather oblivious to her nervous blush, “I think you just gave me an idea. Would you mind helping me move my sound recording gear?”

“Oh, not at all! Um, but are you planning to write a song for Solrath?”

“Not I. There’s no time for that, at any rate, but I think I know of something else that may well work.”

Nearly a day later, Kindle and Smoke were leaving Hope’s Hollow again, trotting out of the village with a small wagon of Kindle’s recording gear in tow. Also nestled carefully in a padded wooden case was a freshly recorded record, courtesy of a certain enthusiastic unicorn mare and her elk buck.

“They were such a nice couple,” Smoke said happily, “They seemed really eager to help.”

Kindle coughed noncommittally, “Well, I did tell them that I would spread copies during our ‘travels’ so that their music would reach more venues. I’m particularly convincing when I need to be.”

“I don’t see why we shouldn’t do that anyway, even if you did just say that to get them to let us record a few of their songs,” Smoke replied, “They’re such a loving pair, I’d hate to not do something for them.”

“I... suppose so,” Kindle said, giving her a sidelong glance at what he detected to be an unusual tone in Smoke’s voice, although he didn’t see anything out of sorts with her. She was walking a bit close to him. “Are you cold, still? I’d hoped the scarf would be enough.”

“O-oh, I’m, uh, fine...” she said, then whispered, “It might be a little chilly. I hope you don’t mind me walking a little closer.”

“It’s fine. Winter is an unfortunate necessity of the seasons, until our Queen’s glorious sun can warm the land once more,” he said, extending a wing over Smoke while blatantly unaware of her gulping as he did so. “At any rate, thank you for helping me find a suitable gift for our group’s most... unreasonable member. Or what I certainly hope will be suitable. No doubt that blasted dragon will find something to complain about.”

“Even if he does, I’ll, um, set him straight,” Smoke said, blinking as she noticed the snow starting up again, falling on Kindle’s wing, “Oh, if you start getting cold too, I can move a bit closer.”

“That’s alright, it’s not that bad. Besides, I have the fire of our Queen within me. I have all the warmth I need.”

“...Oh, okay,” was her quiet reply, the longing and disappointment in it lost on Kindle, whose eyes were as ever, set only on what was in front of him.

Before long they reached the area where the linked teleportation circle was set up, which sat atop a short hill just at the edge of the thickest portion of evergreen forest that spanned the foothills leading into the towering mountains beyond. It was hidden from view of Hope’s Hollow by a curve of the forest and a slightly larger hill, but still provided a nice view of the overall valley. As Smoke prepared the teleportation circle, which didn’t require much on her part other than activating a talisman, she turned a furtive look towards Kindle.

She thought about Metal Heart and Jodir, and how the pair just so naturally and with clear passion expressed themselves. She was jealous of the couple, and the seeming ease of their relationship. Maybe if she was... louder? More up front? If she could just scream out what she was feeling, the way Metal Heart did, then maybe...

“H-hey, Kindle!” she said, and he blinked at her.


“I...um...I...” Smoke opened her mouth and tried to force words out. To just say how she felt, plainly, loudly, and clearly, so that even if he laughed at her or rejected her, at least he’d know.

But the words froze there in her throat, and after a moment or two of silent panicking under Kindles confused, questioning stare, she blurted out, “I got you a record, too! Um, I...er, thought I should tell you, so you didn’t think I was copying you or anything.”

“Huh? Oh, that’s quite alright, Smoke. Hmm, a record. I’ll be curious to see what’s on it, but don’t tell me. Hearth’s Warming should have some surprises to it,” he replied, as polite and obvious as ever, “At any rate, do hurry up with the circle. The sooner we return to the warmth of our Queen’s abode, the better. Perhaps I’ll brew us some cocoa. I’m in a rather good mood. Rather getting into the festive spirit.”

“That... sounds nice,” Smoke said, sighing to herself as she finished activating the talisman and the teleportation circle’s light surrounded them and the wagon. She might not be able to summon up the courage to tell Kindle what she was truly feeling, but perhaps that was well enough for now. Just spending time with him, on this special holiday, was enough. And maybe someday, after they’d won, and Celestia was on the throne, maybe then she’d be able to tell him.

Smoke - The Queen's Student by Talon and Thorn

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Biting her tongue Smoke reached a hoof into the bag and made a good show of feeling around for a token. She hadn’t exactly made the helper fair, afterall there was only one member of the court that she really wanted to get a present for and she’d made sure that no creature else would pick Kindle’s token. Trixie Lunamoon wasn’t the only illusionist who knew a bit of slight of hoof after all. She’d already held a copy of Kindle’s cutie mark in her hoof when she had put it in the bag so it was easy to pull it out again with a flourish hoping that no one noticed the deception. She glanced around but they all seemed to be caught up in their own planning, they didn’t give her a second glance, as usual.

Passing off the bag to the next member of the court she stepped away and patiently waited for the Helper to conclude before heading back to her quarters. She had already planned what gift she would get Kindle but needed to pick it up from Hope’s Hollow. She quickly grabbed her saddlebags and a bit pouch, if nothing else her new job paid well given the lair had once contained a dragon's horde. As she was about to head towards the teleport circle she stopped outside of Kindle’s room. Should she ask him to join her? She was sure she could keep his present secret and It would be nice to spend some time together away from work.

She knocked on the door but there was no answer. She waited for a moment then gently pushed the door open, maybe he had already left? No he was standing by his mirror apparently deep in thought. Maybe he was going to get her a gift? If so she was sure she could drop a few hints as to what she’d like. Maybe a nice warm scarf, perhaps big enough for two to wear at once? It was chilly outside at the moment. “Kindle, do you have a minute?” she asked.

The stallion gave a started cry and almost took off, she tried not to giggle “Is there something you need?” he asked after a moment.

“I was wondering if you were planning to go to Hope’s Hollow to look for a gift, and maybe we could go, um... together?” she asked a little nervously.

“While I appreciate the offer, Smoke, I ended up drawing the proverbial short lot this time,” he said showing her the dragon token she’d produced to represent Solrath, “I’m presently debating exactly what I can get that rude, arrogant, disrespectful wyrm that he doesn’t already have, or wouldn’t care to own.”

“Solrath?” she grimaced, poor Kindle, he’d definitely picked the short straw. “Um... yikes, I can see how he’d be difficult to shop for.”

“Hmph, impossible would be the word I’d choose, but I am the Voice of the Sun. For the honor of my Queen, I will simply have to find a way to turn the word ‘impossible’ into merely ‘done’. Still, I don’t think there will be anything in a humble settlement like Hope’s Hollow that would impress a dragon.”

Smoke grinned, she was glad Kindle was taking his troubles in his stride, she was sure he’d sort something out. “True, but, uh, maybe looking around there will at least spark some ideas? We do have nearly two days, so it can’t hurt to at least try, and see what happens.”

“Hmm,” Kindle rubbed his chin, “I suppose I can’t fault your logic, as usual, Smoke. Ah, so be it. We can go to the village together if it suits you, but I’ll go my own way once we’re there. I’ll need the space to think, and I’d hate to distract you from your own gift shopping.”

“Oh, well, that will be fine,” she said, it was a shame they couldn’t spend the day together but some time was better than none. “Then let’s go, if you’re ready?”

“Yes, just give me a moment to throw on a scarf. You have one too, don’t you?” he asked. It was like he’d read her mind about the present she wanted! “I’ll let you borrow one of mine,” he said generously, “Really, Smoke, just because we have fur doesn’t mean we can’t catch colds during winter. Do try to take care of yourself. You cannot serve our Queen with the sniffles,” he joked giving her a caring smile which made her heart beat faster.

He tossed her a white scarf from his cupboard. She quickly wrapped it around her neck a few times before sniffing it smelling his musk on it. Kindle then threw on his own bright, sun yellow scarf and politely held the door open for her as they headed towards the teleport room.

With a sigh Smoke closed the door to her quarters before trotting over to her bed and allowing herself to collapse onto it. That hadn’t gone quite as well as she’d wanted but at least she’d gotten some time with Kindle. She gently peeled the scarf from her neck and felt the heat starting to work back into her hooves. That was an advantage of living inside a volcano, it was never cold.

Like most of the lair her room was carved out of solid rock by Corona’s magic and despite its relative simplicity compared to some of the more ornate parts of the palace it was by far the largest place she’d ever lived in. Far bigger than the room she’d shared with her twin, Mirrors, as a foal, and dozens of times larger than the cupboard like space that she’d been forced to live in when she’d first moved to Manehatten. Sometimes she missed her old apartment, she’d had to abandon it when she and Kindle left to find the Queen but as Kindle had said, sacrifices had to be made. She’d tried to make it a bit more homely with some personal touches her and there. A shelf for the books the queen had bid her to study, a photograph of her family, herself just about visible amongst the crowd of her siblings and a few other personal effects, but it was still fairly spartan.

She almost couldn’t believe everything that had happened to her in the last year. If somepony had told her the old her that she’d be living in a repurposed dragon lair with a mix of creatures from all over the world and taking lessons from Corona she’d have fled from the obviously crazy pony as fast as her hooves would carry her! It was all like some strange dream and she wasn’t sure if she was ever going to wake up again. If it wasn’t for Kindle she’d never have found herself in this situation, she smiled, without him she’d probably be back on her parents farm right now.

5 years earlier

Smoke galloped into the theatre as quickly as her hooves could carry her. Her coat thick with snow which was now rapidly starting to melt and soak her to the skin. She shivered miserably and tried to hold back a sneeze. She felt terrible, with too little sleep and too much cold she was sure she was coming down with something. If only she’d had time to check the weather schedule she would have at least worn a coat. The only one she owned was patched and not well padded, but it would have helped a little. She sighed and wiped her snout with a hoof as she tried to calm down. She was here now and on time, she glanced up at the clock on the wall, only a little late. Maybe if she made her way backstage now nopony would notice, they normally didn’t, except for...

“Miss Smoke!” came a booming voice seemingly from just next to her ear, “What time do you call this!”

“I’m sorry Mr Stein,” she started, trying to cringe away from the expansive earth pony stallion. “I slept through my alarm,” she explained, “my flat mates were having a party last night, I asked them not to but...”

“I don’t want to hear it girl!” snapped Wine Stein barging his bulk past Smoke’s much smaller form and almost knocking her off her hooves. “I don’t have time for anypony who can’t bring their A game to any production I produce! I knew I shouldn’t have hired a nobody like you for my play but your sister recommended you and I’m something of a sentimentalist at heart...” he began as he marched towards the stage.

Smoke had to trot to keep up and tried to keep her eyes from rolling. She knew just why Wine had hired her, she was as cheap as they came. His last few productions had bombed and he needed this Hearth’s Warming pageant to be a hit to pay off his creditors. Even if it meant cutting as many corners as possible, calling in all his favours to get most of the cast to appear for a fraction of their normal wage and hiring a crew with practically no experience.

“I’ve seen hundreds like you my girl,” he continued, “noponies from some little podunk village in the middle of nowhere who come to Bridleway to make their fortune, most of them leave again on the first train when they find they might actually have to put a little effort into it! In my day we...”

Smokes ears drooped as she noticed almost the entire cast and crew arranged on the stage all staring at her humiliation. Even her sister, Mirrors, was there gossiping to several other actors and shooting her the occasional disapproving glance. She’d left home several years earlier and had managed to build a somewhat successful career before Smoke had finally worked up the courage to follow in her hoofsteps. Wine was right of course, she wasn’t suited for this, maybe she should just go back home a failure, it was what she deserved.

Canter Zoom, the director loudly cleared his throat. “Mr Stein,” he said finally breaking through the producer’s rant, “I think we’re almost ready to start the rehearsal.”

“Well girl!” exclaimed Wine Stein, “get to your place! And for arriving late, don’t expect to get paid today, I don’t reward slackers!”

Grimacing Smoke scampered into the backstage area feeling as if the entire theatre’s eyes were on her. Her dull grey coat normally meant that she blended into the background but right now she felt like she was covered with yellow polka dots. The rest of the crew gave her a wide berth hoping to avoid any of the directors ire spreading to them.

“Right, so,” began Canter in a quiet voice than still managed to fill the entire theatre. He was a thin pegasus in his late middle age with a graying mane, a contrast to the larger and more flamboyant producer, “Act 3, scene 2 the founders are trapped in the cave and their bickering has drawn the attention of the Windigo who have started encasing them in ice.”

Smoke stepped forwards, careful to keep out of sight of the seating while still able to get a good view of the entire stage and took a deep breath. This was another reason why she hadn’t gotten much sleep last night, she’d been practicing for hours, it wasn’t easy to create the illusion of not just ice slowly growing over half a dozen ponies but also several free moving Windigo as well, normally it would require a team of two or three special effect ponies but Wine Stein had only employed her. She carefully manipulated the light produced by the large gas lights dotting the theatre to give the impression of semi translucent shapes moving past just out of sight while at the same time slowly starting to layer slabs of illusionary ice onto the actors paying particular attention to the rather hunky red coated stallion playing Commander Hurricane.

In the stands Canter nodded at the cast and they began to struggle against their illusionary confinement. “This is all the earth ponies fault!” bellowed the actor playing Hurricane with quite impressive projection. “If they hadn’t hoarded the food we would never have come to this princess forsaken place!”

“Our fault!” exclaimed the mare playing Smart Cookie. “What about the unicorns? This seems like freaky magic to me!” She made a play of trying to free her hooves from the encroaching ice. Smoke had to concentrate even harder to make it look like the ice was bulging and cracking at her efforts.

“You Pegasi are supposed to be able to control the weather!” cried the actress playing Princess Platinum. “Help me Clover! Free me!” she begged.

“I’m sorry your majesty, I can’t,” called Mirrors a little flatly, or so Smoke thought.

“To think it all ends like this!” exclaimed Hurricane as the illusionary ice crept up his form. “Oh, I’m dying, Pansy! This cold is overpowering me. I will not live to see the sun rise over Pegalopasis again. Promise me girl, promise that you will rise me over my city one last time, promise me,” he turned dramatically to the audience. Struck by inspiration Smoke made it appear that the tear in his eyes had crystalised. “Oh,” he sighed, “the rest is silence. Oh, oh, oh, oh.”

Carefully Smoke moved the figments making up the Windigo lower keeping them just at the edge of the audiences line of sight and rapidly changing their shape while still keeping a roughly equine outline, it was hard work and her horn began to spark.

“That’s it?” bellowed Wine from the back of the theatre. “I’m paying you to produce Windigo girl! Not flashing lights! Get up here now!”

Distracted Smokes illusions all dissipated like her namesake. Unwillingly her hooves carried her onto the stage, the bright lights almost blinding her. “But, but I thought...” she stuttered.

“That’s your problem girl, I don’t pay you to think! I pay you to do! If you can’t perform I can find a dozen just like you on any corner of Bridleway. In fact I will! You’re fired! Get out!” Wine cried as he stamped down the aisle towards the stage. “You’ll never work in this town again!”

Smoke staggered back as if she’s been struck, tears filling her eyes. This was really happening, this was the end, she never should have thought she could make it in the big city like her sister.

“You can’t even give me a single decent Windigo! Even a foal could manage better than you!”

“Actually,” said the red stallion playing Hurricane striding forwards to the front of the stage, “I happen to be of the opinion that less can be more in this sort of thing. As you say any foal can create an image of a pony made of ice, but to really create something the audience is going to remember for that you need to suggest, and let their imaginations do the rest, that takes real talent.” She glanced down at Smoke and gave her a wide smile making her heart soar.

Wine stopped in his tracks. “This isn’t your business Kindle,” he said rather more quietly.

“I guess it isn’t Mr Producer,” said the stallion with a somewhat ironic bow. “Still I’m not the only one with this opinion. I’m due to have dinner with Harsh Critic tomorrow, he works for the Manehatten Times, you know, and I think he might agree with me.”

“You’re going to do this to me? Now? Over her?” exclaimed Wine pointing towards Smoke who just wanted the ground to open up and swallow her. “She’s a nopony?”

“Weren't we all once?” asked Kindle making an expansive gesture at the cast and crew. “We didn’t all inherit our role Mr Producer. Many of us were attracted here by the bring lights of the city of dreams, by our love of the limelight, the roar of the crowd!” He seemed to swell, his wings spreading as he got into his speech. “We sweat blood for our art, give our all and we have done it as a cast! As a family! United by our beliefs! Just as the three tribes were brought together by the fire of friendship, so we are brought together by our craft! And if one of us is fired,” he leaned forwards, “then we all are!” There was a chorus of cheers of agreement from behind him as others were caught up in the moment.

There was a tense moment as Wine glared up at Kindle’s smiling face. Then he ground his teeth together. “Fine!” he finally spat, “she can stay! But one more mess up...” he left the threat hanging in the air as he turned on his heels and stomped away from the stage.

“Well I’m glad he’s gone,” said Kindle turning to Smoke. She glanced up into his smiling face and felt her legs go weak. “Are you alright Miss...”

Her eyes widened as for a moment she realised she couldn’t remember her own name before her brain rebooted. “Smoke,” she finally managed, “I mean Smoke.”

“Oh, Mirrors is your sister right?” Smoke nodded. “Nice to meet you Smoke. Take no notice of the old wind bag, that was some impressive work there, some of the best I’ve seen and I’ve been in some high quality performances.”

“Thanks,” muttered Smoke looking down shyly as her hoof doodled in the dust.

“Don’t worry,” said Kindle gently lifting her head with a hoof giving her a wink which threatened to make her spontaneously combust. “We bright sparks need to stick together.”

Smiling at the recollection she pulled her thoughts back to the present. There wasn’t any problem getting a present for Kindle, she’d bought it months ago. Getting it here had been a little tricky, it wasn’t like she could put Corona’s lair as her address but she had a post office box in Hope’s Hollow where she had arranged for it to be delivered and then picked it up today. She’d sent presents to her family in much the same way having some of Kindle’s associates send them anonymously from various parts of Equestria as they passed through.

It was surprising how well she was taking to this spy stuff really, she’d never thought of herself as much more than a slightly above average illusionist but all this planning seemed to come easily as well. Celestia’s lessons helped as well, she was a demanding teacher but always full of tales from her long, long life. She’d learnt so much over the last year, not just about magic, but history, organisation, politics, stealth and even some self defence. Early on in their relationship there had been times when she’d feared her teachers mood swings might result in her death but she’d stabilized over the last few months.

She hadn’t received any lessons on present wrapping through, but she’d probably manage to muddle through. She smiled to herself as she trotted over to her bags and carefully removed the black disk in it. She ran an eye over the record to make sure it wasn’t scratched before reading the title, ‘An evening with Kindling Wind, a Collection of his greatest Monologues’. Gently she hugged the record to her chest as she thought back to when it was recorded.

3 years ago

“So I just perform here as normal and this thing will record it?” asked Kindle gesturing to a tangle of mechanical parts covering the table in front of him and the large funnel connected to them.

“Yes, Mr Wind,” said the long legged earth pony mare standing next to the equipment. “It’s my latest invention, no need for expensive recording studios any more, and we get to use the acoustics of places like this.” She gestured around the mostly empty theatre.

“Please call me Kindle,” he said giving a grin. “I’ll take your word for it that everything is working fine then, Miss Hackwrench.”

“Call me Gadget,” replied the mare giving her mane a flip, “Nothing will go wrong, afterall I have the mark for it.” She gave her gramophone symbol covered flanks a rather more vigorous shake than Smoke thought was really necessary.

“So I see,” purred Kindle. “You know it seems to me that this sort of thing might put me out of a job one of these days, why come to the theatre to see a show when you can listen to the same thing in the comfort of your own home?”

“Well I for one see certain benefits to seeing actors in the flesh,” said Gadget running her eyes over Kindle and giving a girlish giggle.

From her vantage point in the rigging above the stage Smoke scowled and tried not to gag at the nag’s flirting. Kindle seemed to have a weakness for her type, he was often surrounded by a gaggle of besotted fan fillies. She knew that none of them actually meant anything to him, they were just one of the ways he worked off the stress of his job but she knew that he could do so much better! Somepony who would really care for him, not just want him for his toned flanks, wide gleaming pinions and eyes like flickering flames that you could lose yourself in...

“You up here sis?” came Mirrors from along the gantry. Smoke turned to her sister and held a hoof to her mouth for silence. Mirrors rolled her eyes and cautiously made her way over to her sister.

“Shouldn’t you be rehearsing over at the Majestic?” Smoke hissed.

“We got a long lunch so I thought I’d catch up with you. How’s things going?” replied her sister in a whisper.

“Good, we’ve got another two weeks of ‘The Hearth’s Warming Tale’ still to go. I just wanted to check up on the safety wires for the flying scenes.” She glanced down at Kindle below, he’d started on his performance as the spirit of Hearth’s Warming future lamenting the poor choices that Snowfall Frost had made which had led to the destruction of all Equestria.

“And after that?” asked Mirrors.

Smoke shrugged noncommittally. “Kindle’s moving on to play the lead in Pegasus on the Roof over at Longacre. I’m sure they’ll need a stagehoof.”

“A stagehoof? Sis, you’re one of the best young special effects ponies in Bridleway, you can do better than that! I’ve heard that the crew boss for Kirin of the Opera might be on the outs, I put in a good word for you and the interviews next week. You’ll be a shoe in!”

Smoke tried to keep in a groan of frustration. “Why are you always trying to run my life for me?” she complained, “There’s no way I’m going to get a crew boss position.”

“Don’t put yourself down so much, I’ve seen you do the work of a whole crew by yourself and you stepped up when Fizz Bang hurt her horn.”

“That was a one off thing, only a few weeks while she recovered.”

“It’ll be enough of a pay rise that you could finally move out of that fire trap you’re living it.”

“It’s not that bad,” said Smoke defensively, “I only moved in last year, and it’s big enough for me.” Actually it was a dump, but it was all she could afford, at least it was quite close to Bridleway. “I can’t leave Kindle, I owe him everything,” she stared down at the stage.

“Hey, I’m the one who got you your first job remember!” exclaimed Mirrors.

“And he’s the one who actually stood up for me when I almost lost it! Where were you?”

Mirrors looked aside obviously embarrassed. “Look the offers still there, for a while at least. Think about it ok. I’m worried about all the time you spend with Kindle anyway, he’s nice I guess, but he always seemed a bit off, a bit intense. I’ve heard a few rumours about him you know, about that club he’s part of.”

“You shouldn’t listen to gossip,” said Smoke icily. “I’m sure Mom and Dad wouldn’t want to know some of the things I’ve heard about you. About how you got that role in Chicagcolt, what happened at the end of run party!”

“Whatever!” growled Mirrors shaking her head and making her way back to the ladder down to the backstage. “I try to do you a favour,” she grumbled.

Smoke’s ears drooped, she hadn’t meant to say that but sometimes Mirrors just got her so angry. She was always trying to run her life for her just because she was older, by all of ten minutes. She turned her attention back to the stage, Kindle had moved on to Rhomeo and Fillyet “But soft! What light through yonder window breaks? It is the East, and Fillyet is the sun!,” he cried his voice seeming to fill the theatre. She was sure he was looking up at her as he performed. “Arise, fair sun,” he continued, “and kill the envious moon, Who is already sick and pale with grief.” She sighed, despite their rather poor taste the bards words had power, particularly when Kindle was saying them, she closed her eyes and let them flow over her.

“You must be working too hard,” came Kindle’s voice from nearby. Her eyes flicked open, she must have fallen asleep! The pegasus was hovering just in front of her amongst the scaffolding.

“Sorry I was just checking the safety equipment.”

“My performance couldn’t have been that great if you could sleep through it all,” he said, his eyes sparkling.

“No it was great, spectacular,” she protested, “I was just tired, it’s been a long week.”

“No problem,” said said waving away her concerns. “Did I see your sister earlier?”

“She was visiting, we talked about a new job, I don’t think it’s suitable.”

“Don’t worry,” said Kindle reaching out to take her hoof in his, “as long as I’ve got a job, you do.”

“Really?” she asked feeling her heart skip a beat.

“Yeah, who else can make me look as good as you do?” he asked with a smile.

“Right,” she gave a rather wan smile, “I better get down from here, the doors will be opening soon.” She turned towards the ladder.

“Let me,” said Kindle wrapping his front legs around her and lifting her into the air. Her heart surged as she felt his body held against hers and his breath on her mane then all to soon the moment was over and he deposited her on the stage with a bump. She was sure if she could see herself she’d have a silly smile on her face. It was probably just as well Kindle had turned away and was walking towards the dressing rooms. “Remind me to pick up some flowers after the show, I’ve got a date with Gadget and we might want a snack first.” Her face fell.

Looking down at the record again she tried to push away the worst part of the memory. She was sure he’d love the gift. Although they hadn’t sold all that well, the sound quality of Gadget’s equipment hadn’t been as good as she’d claimed. Still Kindle hed treasured the free copy he’d gotten and Smoke had bought her own as soon as she could. They’d both been forced to leave them behind when they’d left to seek out Celestia. She knew that Kindle had a gramophone in his room on which to play it as well. He’d gotten a special model which could be used to record as well as playback, he used it to record speeches which could be sent to the ponies he referred to as ‘the faithful’ in other cities. She wasn’t all that technically minded but she had considered the possibility of altering the recordings in some way, slowing them down or playing them backwards to be able to send secret messages, it might be less likely to be noticed than traditional magical encryption.

Carefully unfolding a roll of red wrapping paper she folded it over the record before tying it up with a length of silk made into a bow. She turned the package over a few times to make sure everything was perfect before adding a tag with Kindle’s cutie mark on it. All done and she still had all evening to herself.

She would probably have to dress up for the formal feast tomorrow. It wasn’t like she had a lot of choice, she only had one good dress in her closet along with what she considered her ‘sneaking suit’. It was based on a the outfits used by the puppeteers of Shooma. She liked it, it made her feel nicely anonymous but it wasn’t the sort of thing you wore to a feast. Her more formal attire was yellow and took ages to put on properly, but it was apparently required for her role as Celestia’s student. She thought it made her look like some sort of mutant flower, she’d never been much at dressing up.

Now that Celestia had decided to formally celebrate the holiday she should probably try and decorate the whole of the lair. She was sure some of Celestia’s other Cul..., Followers, would help. Maybe even some of the other courtiers as well, if they weren't busy with they shopping. Yangin certainly would if she could find her but the jinn would probably need to have the celebration explained to her, likewise Zecora was friendly enough if a little, well off, some of the time. Even Terror Wing might help out, he could occasionally be friendly if a bit dramatic, but she’d known many like that in the theatre and knew how to deal with their egos. As for Solrathicharnon, no, she would not ask the dragon with help decorating, she never wanted to have to be in the same room as that creature without Celestia present, he was terrifying!

Trying to put thoughts of the dragon aside she picked up the remaining decorations and carried them out into the corridor beyond. She glanced over at Kindle’s door next to hers and considered asking him to help, but she was sure he was busy. Lifting the lonely sprig of mistletoe in her aura she affixed it to the ceiling and thought once again of earlier times.

2 years ago

“And I would like to thank you all for your help in this sell out run!” exclaimed Kindle raising a goblet of wine to the sky in an unsteady hoof. “Without all of you both on and behind the stage I wouldn’t have looked half as good,” a cheer went up from the ponies that filled the crowded room, “well maybe sixty-seventy percent as good!” He laughed before tossing the drink into his mouth, most of it missed but luckily his red coat didn’t show stains.

Smoke joined in the cheering somewhat half heartedly, and picked at her dress. She’d wanted to look, well pretty tonight. It was a simple black number, the salesmare had said she looked good in it but it felt too tight and the shoes made her feel like she was on stilts. She couldn’t help but think that everypony was laughing at her behind her back. Look at her, trying to be better than she should be! In addition such rawkus celebrations were not exactly her cup of tea, but the rest of the company were certainly enjoying their Hearth’s Warming party. Maybe she wasn’t quite as drunk as most of them, but she’d certainly had a few more than she was used to, Cavallian courage as they called it.

She’d thought about it for a long time, too long really but she knew she had to tell Kindle how she felt about him. Or did she? Whispered another part of her mind, things weren't all that bad now were they? They were friends, quite close friends, they talked during and after work, wasn’t they enough for her?

She shook her head, no she couldn’t keep things the way they were, they might spend time together now and again, but when they talked to was mostly about work and every night she went home to her cold and lonely apartment, she wanted more! She looked up to see Kindle laughing with a few of the other stage ponies and took a step towards him. What was the worst that could happen?

Her hooves felt like they were chained to the ground as her anxieties ran free again. He could tell her that he only wanted to be friends, or that he didn’t feel anything about her at all, or that she disgusted him. That she was nothing but a dull grey blob of a mare in an ill fitting dress that nopony could ever love and who would spend her whole life in the shadow of her prettier, more talented sister. She tried to slow her breathing and grabbed another drink from a nearby table before throwing it down her throat. She didn’t even know what she was drinking.

“Ah Smoke,” came Kindle’s voice. She looked up, eyes wide, when had he moved so close? “I wanted to talk to you,” he said, his voice a little slurred.

“Um, well I wanted to talk to you too,” she squeaked.

“Oh, you first then,” he said in surprise.

“No, no,” Coward! She chastised herself, “you first.”

“Right, ok, yes,” he paused for a moment his eyes unfocusing a little. “Well all that I said back then, about being nothing without the backstage help, well that was mostly about you. Don’t think that I haven't noticed you for all those years. You’re a hugely skilled illusionist but you always work your very best on me don’t you, always going that extra mile.” Smoke’s heart felt like it was beating hard enough to escape from her chest, her vision seemed to focus only on Kindle’s face. “Like when you help me learn my lines, and you always have time for me if I need a hoof.” He looked aside for a moment, it was hard to tell given his coat colour but she thought he was blushing. “I think you’re my best friend. I, well, I’ve told you almost everything about me but there’s something well, something that...” he paused and his eyes seemed to focus on her horn for a moment or maybe something over her head. “Well I guess it’s the season and everything...”

Then suddenly his mouth covered hers. It was such a surprise that it was several seconds before she could react, all she could taste was the alcohol on his breath and his tongue flopping around in her mouth dominating her own. Then she collapsed against him, feeling his flesh against hers. This was what she wanted, this was all that she wanted, ever! All to suddenly it stopped leaving her stunned and panting.

“Are you ok?” he asked. She nodded unable to use her words. “Good I wondered if I took it a bit far, but you know.” He nodded towards the ceiling, “mistletoe and it’s the season and all that.”

She looked up at the greenery with the small white berries on it her brain both running a thousand miles and hour and unable to process a single thought at once.

“Anyway,” he continued seeming not to notice her reaction. “What I mean is that I really appreciate what you do for me and if there is anything I can ever do in return you only need to ask, right?”

“Right, yes, everythings fine,” said a voice coming from her mouth which she was sure she wasn’t controlling, it was lying for a start.

“Good, Good,” he said as he staggered off, “Hey Leading Light, look mistletoe!”

She turned away trying to blink away the tears, all around her everypony else seemed to be having such a great time and nopony even noticed her. She slumped into a nearby seat and once again grabbed another drink to try and make the misery stop.

Smoke tried to blink away the memory and looked at the mistletoe again. Of course it wasn’t a good idea, that year had been a disaster, he’d been drunk, she’d been drunk. Looking back with hindsight she realised he’d intended to tell her that he followed Corona, that was how much he thought of her, that he’d tell her a secret only he and a few others in his group knew. He’d even said that she was his best friend, that was a good thing wasn’t it? It was a place to start. If he didn’t really care he wouldn’t have brought her with him, wouldn’t have introduced her to such a strange and dangerous life.

There would be other times to talk about things, not right now because trying to take over a country took a lot of time. She tried not to giggle at the absurdity of her own thoughts. For the moment she would put up the decorations, prepare for the party and give him his present then they could spend some time together.

Her ears pricked up as she heard some faint noises from the wall that connected her room to Kindle’s. He didn’t sound happy, buying a gift for the dragon couldn’t have gone well. Maybe he needed somepony else to help him, a best friend, at least for now.

Solrathichanon - Evil Team mate by Rainbowdoubledash

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Snorting with frustration, Solrathicharnon reached a talon into a bag that was barely large enough to contain it and jabbed at the first thing he found. He withdraw it and licked at it with his tongue to get a feel of the shape. It took a few seconds to realise it was an irregular shape like a cloud, he assumed it was the cutie mark of the unicorn known as Smoke. Given his blindness he’d never actually seen her but most of her kind ended up named after their marks, or visa versa. He gave a snort, it was as if life was trying to humiliate him as much as possible, not only requiring him to actually give something away - give something of his away - but to give it to the weakest possible creature as well!

The eldest dragon in the world only barely made a show of waiting for Celestia to dismiss her court before tromping off, smoke billowing from his nostrils and mouth as he exited the palace and let himself fall from one of the bridges that suspended it over the burning caldera and down into the magma below. He hit the liquid rock with a solid smack, but he scales were thick and the flesh beneath them tough from over a millennia of life. He was utterly unharmed save for the slightest of stings.

Solrathicharnon, as he swam beneath the magma, gave serious thought to simply blowing off this entire endeavour. Celestia would probably be furious, but he doubted that she could become so furious as to do anything to him. She may have even expected it. However, he swiftly dismissed the idea. All of this, everything he was doing, was part of his plan to take revenge on Luna, to make her pay for what she did to him nearly a thousand years ago. But he was no match for Luna in battle. He needed Celestia, needed the strength of another alicorn to clear the way for him, distract Luna long enough. That would mean remaining, if not necessarily on Celestia’s good side, then at least adjacent to it.

Which meant that he needed to get a present. A real present.

Solrathicharnon followed familiar currents of magma through great tunnels that he had dug himself beneath the volcano, half-swimming, half-climbing his way to a large, empty chamber on the volcano’s side, a cave with no exit to the surface but which was free of magma. There was no air, but dragons didn’t need to breathe so that wasn’t an impediment, and he’d build up a travel horde for himself within the chamber, carefully carrying stolen loot of a thousand and more years here, shielded from the heat of the magma within his mouth or beneath his heart-scale. He had another horde elsewhere, of course, his true horde buried deep where no creature would ever find it, but for the moment this meagre pittance was enough for him to sleep easily.

And he would have to give some of it away. A low rumble escaped Solrathicharnon’s throat, He could account for every single piece of gold, every single gemstone, every piece of art that had once belonged to some other creature but was now his. He instinctively knew where everything was, could reach out with a claw and pick up a single specific coin if he wanted and find it exactly where it was supposed to be. Even blind as he was, nothing was unaccounted for.

Solrathicharnon knew that he was in many ways different from other dragons, but he was still a dragon. He reached out and plucked a small fortune of gold coins from one treasure pile, feeling the metal upon the thinner scales of his hands. He held eighty-seven coins from a collection of over a thousand that had been first minted six hundred eighty-four years ago in the kingdom of Heststed. He’d attacked the convoy carrying the newly minted coins and made off with his prize. These were among the last coins minted on the continent that were pure gold; not long after the various nations had begun to debase their coins with lesser metals in order to allow them to mint more.

No. There was no way he would ruin his collection and give these away. Solrathicharnon set them down, and felt out another treasure. His hand closed on a statue of silver and pewter but laced through with filigree of platinum that his claw traced along. This was a pony, a statue of the Zaldian prince Iheskorra, a unicorn and the second husband of Princess Mi Amore Cadenza of Cavallia. Iheskorra had disowned himself from his family and his nation, an ancient rival of Cavallia, to be with Cadenza. The statue had been intended as a gift to Zaldia from Cadenza, a peace offering to Iheskorra’s sister Queen Bitxikeria. But the statue had never made it to its destination. Solrathicharnon had fallen upon the pegasi transporting it, taken it and fled with it. The Cavallians had pursued him for years before giving up - proof of its value, that it was worth taking.

No. Solrath tapped a claw against the tip of the statue’s horn. There was no way that he could surrender this, either. He considered a mound of gemstones, pushed his maw into it and felt their edges against his muzzle, but banished the thought the moment their scent and taste reached him. No, these were his as well, his to do with has he pleased, and it did not please him to see Smoke get any of them.

Another rumble escaped his maw. Everything here was too much to give away! Too much value, too much effort to have acquired, too much his and his alone. Solrathicharnon would not part with a single sliver of any of his treasure! But what did Celestia expect him to do, fly into a town and just steal something? He had no objections in principle, of course, but he somehow doubted that Celestia would care much for such an action. She styled herself as a protector of ponies and would not look kindly on such actions while he was part of her court.

Solrathcharnon stuffed a small collection of gems into his mouth, chewing on them. He would not give up anything that was his...and he couldn’t exactly go shopping. And wouldn’t even if he could have. But perhaps he could find something else, something he could pass off as a gift to Smoke, close enough to it to placate Celestia but which wouldn't be too much effort to acquire. After all, if he had to work to acquire the thing, then it should be his.

He paused as he chewed on the gems. His tongue glided over the fragments in his mouth. The depths of the Earth were positively lousy with gemstones, and not all of them were actually tasty to eat even if they had a lustre that would please a pony eye. Surely Celestia couldn’t complain if Smoke was given a gift of a gemstone? Ponies wore jewellery all the time.

Solrathicharnon swallowed, then turned and headed back to the magma pool, slipping once more into the liquid walk and swimming/crawling through the tunnel. Once he emerged from the tunnel, however, he went down, not up, deeper into the magma.

There had to be a worthless gemstone somewhere nearby…

There was absolutely no way to articulate the draconic ability to navigate while swimming through magma. Certainly the stunted Draconic language had no real words for something that dragons just did, and few other creatures were capable of exploring the depths of the Earth, the crushing pressure of liquefied rock all around them, and so had no words to express it. It wasn’t sight, since even if Solrathicharnon wasn’t blind there was no way to see through rock, liquid or not. It wasn’t navigation by scent, or hearing, or electric impulses. Dragons simply could navigate, sense their surroundings, know what was near to them when they were surrounded on all sides by magma.

Even calling what dragons did swimming wasn’t quite right, as even the hottest magma was still a thick morass; it was more akin to a mix of shimmying and dragging, wings and claws almost grabbing the magma in front of the dragon and pulling them forward. And even for a dragon as mighty as Solrathciharnon, it was slow going.

Gemstones floated within the morass of magma, often gathering together into what amounted to giant geodes, solid outer shells that resisted the intense heat and which could be cracked open to expose the interiors. The smallest of these were no bigger than a pony’s hoof, while the largest that Solrathicharnon had ever found was a thousand feet across and, when dug through, had revealed an entire cavern comprised of rubies. It had taken him decades to eat the contents.

It took hours of crawl-swimming through the magma before he finally found what he was looking for, a gemstone nearly as large as a pony that was smooth to the touch, but which had no taste whatsoever. Quartz, most likely; edible in the same way that a plain cracker was edible to a pony. Solrathicharnon grabbed it with his mouth, then began the laborious process of navigating back to his lair. Hours more were spent on the effort of getting back to his lair.

Still, at least it was done. He could just hand over the giant quartz to Smoke...and then no doubt have to deal with Celestia complaining, growing angry, calling the gift “lazy”. Kindle probably too, since he would parrot anything that the alicorn said. The jinn Yangin would no doubt join in on the snark. Solrathicharnon couldn’t believe that he was finding himself missing when Zecora was his only company in Celestia’s volcano palace; the zebra was just as deferential and sycophantic as the rest of Celestia’s minions, but at least she didn’t talk as much.

Growling once more, Solrathicharnon considered. He had the giant quartz and wasn’t going to go and get another, or find something else. This would be his gift, or nothing at all. But how to make it seem like a worthwhile gift…

Ah, of course. The same way that ponies added value to lumps of metal and pieces of rock to begin with. The same reason why the statue that he had stolen from Cavallia was worth more than its weight in simple pewter and silver and platinum. He’d carve it into something. It would have to be something simple or something abstract, given that his blind eyes wouldn’t let him see what he was doing, but surely he could produce something worthwhile.

Grunting, Solrathicharnon flexed his claws, then got to work. What would a pony like Smoke care about, while Solrathicharnon would place no value in it whatsoever? Well, of course, any thought about Smoke invariably led to also thinking about her would-be mate Kindle, so by the time his claws started carving off layers of the quartz, he already had an answer.

Not that Solrathicharnon had any idea where Smoke would put what would probably end up being a three-foot tall statue of a heart, but it really didn’t matter to him. He was going to give a gift and get this inanity out of the way, and then get back to doing something useful, like meditating upon his hatred of Luna.

Bogucu Yangin - Corona's Bestie by Talon and Thorn

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Eagerly Yangin reached into the bag and retrieved the last of the tokens. Hearth’s Warming didn’t mean much to her but the idea of having to plan a present for one of her colleagues seemed like an interesting way to pass the time. A model of a griffin now rested in her hoof. She frowned Terror Wing wouldn’t have been her first choice but she was sure she’d come up with something for him.

She racked her brain thinking what, the big lump always seemed rather tense, tending to yell rather than talk and stomping everywhere. Maybe he needed something to help him relax, maybe she could set him up on a date with a mare, or stallion, or whatever his preference was, that might loosen him up a bit. She looked over at the giant griffin, he could probably be considered handsome she supposed, but she certainly wasn’t going to try and proposition him herself. Still if she came across some creature interested, or an appropriate professional in her travels it was an option, although maybe a little difficult to wrap.

What else? She wasn’t exactly close to him, he seemed to like to eat so maybe she could buy a cake or something else edible. There was probably a bakery or something similar in the nearby town. Still as interesting as eating was food didn’t seem that great a gift. Maybe something more martial? Terror Wing seemed to like to fight, she doubted she could improve on the enhancing enchantments Celestia had woven into him but maybe something else, armour, or a weapon? That sparked a memory, she’d spent hundreds of years wandering the surface of the planet and although she generally tried to keep her personal possessions to a minimum they did tend to build up and every century or so she had to hoard them away somewhere. By coincidence, one of her cashes was near her current home, well comparatively so, a few hundred miles, easy enough for her to cover in a few hours if she wanted. If she remembered correctly, there was something there that might make a perfect gift for Terror Wing.

Yangin looked sadly at the pile of rocks that had once been the cave she’d stored her stuff in, the years had not been kind to it. The main entrance had collapsed at some point over the centuries and a small stream now flowed into it, meaning that not only would most of the contents be crushed but also waterlogged. It did not look all that hopeful that the magical sword she’d stashed here had survived. Maybe it would be easier to just go back to her original idea and just hire a ‘companion’ to try and calm down Terror Wing.

She sighed, she should at least search a bit more before she gave it all up as a bad job. It was a bit depressing to see how much things had changed. As an immortal she know how impermanent things could be, but she didn’t like being near such a practical example. She changed her form back into its constituent elemental fire and cautiously started to insinuate herself through the gaps in the rocks carefully avoiding the cold water. It probably wouldn’t be enough to extinguish her, but it would be unpleasant to touch. To her surprise, only the first few meters of the cave appeared to be blocked and behind it the space quickly opened up into the cavern she remembered.

The area was still covered by all her old junk, piles of gold and jewels were stacked haphazardly here and there. Statues and artwork, mostly rotted, were scattered around as was the occasional weapon. It reminded her of the junk store she’d run until the element bearers had decided to seek her out. Maybe the sword she was looking for was still present? The place actually seemed bigger than she remembered, she hoped there wasn’t a dragon squatting in the place, they tended to be rather territorial about this sort of thing, but fair was fair this had all been hers first.

It was going to take a while to sort through all this stuff, she didn’t remember exactly where she’d put the sword, she hadn’t planned to come back really she’d just dumped it all here and left. She returned to a solid form, selecting a unicorn mare at a whim and started to shove the top layer of detritus aside. It took her a while to realise that something was lighting the darkness of the cave. Curious she tilted her head and could just about make out the sound of something else moving nearby. Frowning she carefully tip hooved towards the light source. Sticking her head over a drift of coins she was surprised to find a young grey coated slightly feminine looking earth pony stallion. He was wearing a blue jacket and baggy white trousers neither of which looked to be of the highest quality. He was standing in the guttering light of an almost extinguished torch and scrabbling through the junk. “It has to be here somewhere!” he mumbled to himself.

Yangin had no idea how a pony could have gotten into here or what he was doing searching through her stuff, but he seemed harmless enough. After a moments thought she decided to approach him. “Hey, kid!” she called causing the stallion to jump in surprise. “What are you doing in here?”

“What! Who are you? Did Jaffa send you down here as well? Tell him I’ll find the lamp, I just need more time!” said the pony.

“Jaffa? Lamp? What are you talking about? Who are you anyway?”

“I’m Alley Rat,” he exclaimed. “I was sent down here by Jaffa Orange to recover a magic lamp.”

“Alley Rat?” mumbled Choking Fire, “Why do ponies have the strangest names?” She didn’t recall having a magic lamp down here, but she might have forgotten about it by now. “Look, um, Alley. It’s not really safe down here, this place could get a lad in a lot of trouble.”

“No! I need to stay, I have to find the lamp so that Jaffa will let me court his niece!” he sighed longingly, “She’s so beautiful!” then he shook his head. “Who are you anyway?” he demanded.

Yangin rolled her eyes, of course this hormonal idiot was thinking with his smaller head. Being a creature of magical energy she didn’t have quite the same drives as biological organisms even when she wore their forms, although that didn’t mean it wasn’t enjoyable to try such things out occasionally, but lust didn’t rule her life like it often seemed to in other species. “Just call me, um, Smoke,” her current form did look a bit like Celestia’s student. “I don’t suppose you’d settle for a giant griffin instead?” There might still be a way to salvage this whole present getting expedition.

“A griffin? No Jasmine Tea is the sweetest pegasus I’ve ever seen, her eyes are the blue of the ocean, her coat the silkiest, her flanks,” he held out his hooves demonstrating a rather impressive voluptuousness.

“Yeah, keep it in your sheath Rhomeo. So what’s this magic lamp thing you’re supposed to find?”

“They say that a great jinn once set up a lair in these hills and left many magical treasures behind. Jaffa discovered an ancient magic sword in the stream nearby and traced it back to this cavern,” he gestured towards the roof. “He let down a rope but it was too hard a climb for him so he hired me, he said he’d be back in a few hours, but that felt like it was half a day ago. He might have abandoned me!”

Yangin sighed, it looked like she’d become a bit of a legend around these parts and that her mission was getting more and more complicated. It would be just her luck of the sword that this Jaffa had found was the one she wanted, now she’d have to track down some sort of tomb robbing pony to get it back. “Don’t worry I can probably get you out, but why’s this lamp so special?”

“Why? It’s what binds the jinn, anypony who possesses it can control the creature. They can get anything they want, even the hoof of Jasmine,” he sighed.

Yangin snarled causing Alley to back away in surprise. The temperature of the cavern suddenly rose by several degrees. “Really,” she hissed, “and if you get your hooves on this ‘lamp’ what would you do with your brand new slave?”

“Slave?” asked Alley in surprise.

“Yeah, once you can force another being to do your bidding what you going to do? Make your ‘beloved’ Jasmine do what you want? Anything you want? Is she going to be your slave to?”

A look of absolute horror etched itself onto Alley’s face. “No I don’t, I didn’t,” he stammered. “I didn’t think!”

“No you didn’t,” spat Yangin. “You just saw something you wanted, and to tartarus with anyone else!” Alley turned away and started to scramble in the piles of coins nearby. “What are you doing?” demanded Yangin.

“I’m looking for the lamp!” he gasped.

“Still!” Yangin felt her form growing hotter and hotter as her temper frayed. It was always the same, some creature found out what a jinn could do for them and all they wanted to do was to control it, to control her!

“Yes, I need to free that poor creature!” he said tossing aside a half finished statue.

“Wait! What?” exclaimed Yangin in surprise.

“I didn’t think. Locked away all this time, and being controlled by another, I don’t want that. Jasmine wouldn’t want that. I need to help it.”


“Yes, can you help me?” he turned back to her and gaped in surprise. Yangin guessed she didn’t look much like a pony right now, she was probably burning with a blue flame for a start. She concentrated and tried to contain enough of her power to not harm him. “What you... are you...?”

“You figured it out eventually then?” she grinned. “Thanks for giving me at least a bit of faith in pony nature back.” They weren't all like Cheerilee after all, Carrot Top had seemed quite nice as well, if easily led.

“I’m sorry, I...”

“Yeah, well apology accepted, for the moment. Let's see if we can get you out of here and see about this Jaffa pony. Might even be able to fix you up with your mare. If she agrees.” She pointed a hoof towards the ceiling and a gout of flame burst forth blowing most of the roof off. “Stick with me kid,” she laughed. “‘’Cause you’ve never had a friend like me!”

Alley Rat lived in a surprisingly large town not that far from the cavern. The nearby area was littered with farms and the town itself was apparently a major transport hub with goods being sent down the river which ran through it and then all over Equestria and beyond. Alley’s home was in one of the more run down parts of the city.

“My mother washes clothes for a living,” he explained, “and I do whatever I can to make ends meet.” Yangin raised an eyebrow, she suspected that not all those things had been entirely legal, “Jaffa was going to pay me for getting the lamp, as well as let me see Jasmine.” He pushed open the door to the cramped shack he apparently lived in. “I’m back mum!” he exclaimed.

A somewhat rotund dark green coated earth pony mare was present in a room which otherwise mostly consisted of drying clothes hanging from various lines. “Alley, dear,” she exclaimed in quite a deep voice. “You’re back.”

“Smoke this is my mother, Green Tea!” he explained.

“Wait, you’re Ally Rat,” said Yangin frowning, “ but your mother is called Green Tea, the filly you want is Jasmine Tea, who I’m going to guess is not a relative.”

“Of course not!” exclaimed Alley.

“And her uncle is Jaffa Orange?”

“Yes,” said Alley looking a little confused, “what of it?”

“Pony names,” sighed Yangin, “how do they work?”

“Who's your new friend?” said Green Tea looking a little suspiciously at Yangin.

“This is Smoke! She’s the jinn that used to have a lair out in the woods hundreds of years ago!” Alley exclaimed excitedly.

“Really? Alley dear, you shouldn’t go believing everything some stranger tells you.”

Grinning Yangin raised a hoof and willed it to burst into flame, a great cloud of steam evaporated from the nearby clothing. “All true,” she said.

Green blinked slowly in surprise and sat down heavily. “Well I never,” she exclaimed. “What have you got yourself into son?”

Alley quickly explained to his mother about his agreement with Jaffa, his trip to the cave and his meeting with Smoke.

“You really didn’t need to make a deal with that nasty old unicorn, a handsome lad like you shouldn’t need any help to meet a filly!”

“Mom, I’m just a kid from the bad part of town, her family is high up in the Apple Trust, why would she even give me a second glance?”

“You’re a wonderful colt son, looking after your old mother. Plus you’ve got that whole uptown filly, downtown colt thing going for you, all sorts of fine ladies like a bit of rough,” she waggled her eyebrows. “Besides I’m sure you’ve got a few physical advantages over any other suitors she might have, they didn’t call your dad the pentapod for nothing you know,” she grinned wickedly causing Alley to redden.

“This is all very interesting,” said Yangin trying not to laugh, “but I’m in a hurry here, I’ve got places to be, and things to do. Where can we find this Jaffa person?”

“He’ll be in the Apple Trust compound,” explained Alley, “near the centre of town. It’s guarded to stop ponies stealing the goods.” He thought for a moment. “Maybe you could use your powers to disguise us! I could be a visiting Prince from a far off land! Prince Alley!”

Yangin rolled her eyes. “How about a King? King Rat?”

“Yes!” exclaimed Alley not noticing her sarcasm. “I could have seventy five golden camels as my bodyguard!”

“How about fifty three purple peacocks as well?”

“Yes and ninety five white purr-sian monkeys,” exclaimed Alley spreading his arms wide.

“Don’t forget elephants, at least sixty, oh and bears, lions and a brass band,” said Yangin cocking her head to one side.

“Of course and forty fakirs, cooks, bakers and more!”



“No. You can just stop being silly now, my powers don’t work that way and even if they did I’m not going to help you live out some sort of power fantasy! I’ve had more than enough of that in the past. This Jaffa guy wanted you to get him a lamp, right? So we just bring him one, no fuss, no bother.” There was no way she was going to let this guy anywhere near her own binding anklet but she could put enough of her magic into a random object to make it pass a cursory examination.

“He wouldn’t believe me without evidence, you can pretend to be a jinn.”

“Which I am,” she reminded him.

“Yes, sorry, I forgot. You can pretend to be you and I’ll bring a lamp,” he picked one up from a nearby shelf, “and say I found this and now I control you.”

Yangin scowled, she didn’t like even pretending something like that. Besides, she was fairly sure she could break into a glorified warehouse but Alley’s excitement was contagious. “Fine, but he better have the sword with him once we get to him. I don’t want to have to go on some other quest to get it.” She had an idea. “Look,” she said to Alley’s mother, “how do you feel about dating a giant griffin?”

“Well, it has been a while,” she said thoughtfully. “And a beak has potential.”

“Mum!” exclaimed Alley his face reddening.

“Your father passed a long time ago, I still love him but I’m sure he would want me to be happy.” She turned back to Yangin. “How big a griffin?” she asked.

Stretching up Yangin indicated Terror Wings approximate height. Green whistled sounding impressed. “And is everything, you know, in proportion?” she asked causing Alley to clamp his hooves to his ears.

“Um. I really don’t know,” there were rumours that using too many enhancement spells could have a certain detrimental effect on stallions, but she hadn’t considered any implications of Corona’s sorcery on Terror.

“Well, I’ll try anything once.” said Green with a shrug.

“Can we please go!” exclaimed Alley pulling Yangin towards the door.

“Ok, we’ll call you mother plan B for the moment then, but Jaffa better be home,” she said.

Deciding that she should be as stereotypical as possible for her mission to the Apple Trust building Yangin changed into her usual camel form then increased her size by about fifty percent and shrouded herself in blue fire while she was at it. She briefly toyed with adding a harem filly outfit as well, but decided that enough was enough, she’d probably try to avoid blinking when casting spells as well.

The guards at the Apple Trust building were certainly impressed by her appearance and at least a little terrified. However a bit of quick talking by Alley had them agreeing that the best thing to do was to quickly pass the two of them up the chain of command to Jaffa so that they would be somepony else's problem. So they soon found themselves sent to, and Yangin suspected, locked into Jaffa’s quarters. The room certainly indicated that the owner had an interest in all things Naqahdian, and also that they had no taste. All sorts of tacky junk covered most of the free space, it actually made her sort of homesick for the shop she’d used to run.

“You see that sword you mentioned around here at all?” she asked Alley as she quickly searched through a stack of embroidered carpets. Maybe things would be that simple, she could grab the blade and leave without even having to meet Jaffa. Alley could probably sort something out with this Jasmine filly.

“No,” said Alley. “What do we do now?” He sounded nervous.

“We just stick to the plan, when Jaffa turns up just hand over the lamp. I’ll pretend to be his loyal... servant,” the word gave her a bad taste in her mouth, “until he shows me where the sword is, then we leave.”

“And Jasmine,” he said eagerly, “we’ll see her as well?”

“I guess so, how do you even know this filly? You’re not some sort of creepy stalker are you?”

“No, no!” stammered Alley, “We were friends as foals, she used to love exploring the city but then her parents died and her uncle forbid her from associating with the ‘peasants’. I’ve only caught the odd glance of her for years.”

“This Jaffa certainly sounds charming.”

There was a slight click as the door to the room was unlocked and several ponies entered. The first had to be Jaffa and Yangin couldn’t stop herself rolling her eyes at his appearance. He was a rather unassuming brown coated unicorn, but his clothes! A bright blue turban covered his head with a ruby attached to the front, dark kohl makeup surrounded his eyes, a white robe covered most of his form with runes embroidered around the hem and all four limbs as well as his horn were covered with golden bangles. Most of the individual items were in Naqahdian style, but no native would wear that lot! They covered about a five hundred year period for a start! Following behind him was a veriety of dumb muscle in pony form, it looked like he wasn’t taking any chances. Not that Yangin felt all that threatened.

“You found it boy!” exclaimed Jaffa his eyes locked on Yangin. He slowly circled her taking in her form hungrily making her skin crawl. “You found the lamp?”

“Yes. Why did you leave me?” asked Alley somewhat nervously.

“That was a mistake boy, the rope... the rope broke I came back for another but you got back before me. My old hooves don’t move as quickly as they did. Do you have it with you?” he asked eagerly.

Alley held up the lamp, Jaffa reached for it but the younger stallion held it away. “I get to talk to Jasmine first!” he bargained.

“Wait, how do I know this isn’t some sort of trick?” His horn began to glow, probably studying the magic in the lamp.

“I’ll, I’ll demonstrate her power,” said Alley glancing over at the jinn.

“Mr Alley, sir,” Yangin proclaimed grandly, “What will your pleasure be?” she tried to avoid gagging.

“Um, that carpet!” he pointed at one of the ones rolled up nearby, “make it fly!” he commanded.

At least he’d picked one of the old standards thought Yangin as she used her power to lift the object into the air. Jaffa certainly looked impressed despite most unicorns being able to do the same feet, at least she didn’t need to make a horn glow to do it. Still it would stop as soon as she ceased to maintain the spell.

“Get my niece!” Jaffa quickly ordered one of his flunkies, who hurried off. “Does it have a name?” he asked looking once again at Yangin.

“She is called Smoke,” exclaimed Yangin. Technically she didn’t actually have a biological gender, but she tended to think of herself as female. She’d tried male a few times but it just didn’t seem to fit as well.

“You are the jinn that had the lair near here hundreds of years ago?” He pointed a hoof at an old looking map on the wall which apparently showed this part of Equestria.

“I have been imprisoned here for a long time,” she lied. Really she’d only stayed here for a decade or two a few centuries ago, it had been something of an extended holiday away from the hustle and bustle. She’d apparently made quite an impact on the few woods ponies which made the place home.

“And you can grant wishes, do anything?” he asked eagerly.

“My powers are great, but there are some limits,” she explained. They were all the same these wannabe masters expecting her to be omnipotent.

“Such as?” said Jaffa, his eyes narrowing.

Yangin’s answer was interrupted as the door opened and a chocolate coloured pegasus mare, who she assumed was Jasmine, entered the room. She didn’t seem quite as voluptuous as Alley had described, but beauty was in the eyes of the beholder and all that, at least the kid had some taste.

“You wanted to see me uncle?” she asked before her eyes widened as she took in Yangin’s presence. “What is this?”

“This is the answer to my problems child,” said Jaffa, “a Jinn! A source of near infinite magical power! Bwa ha ha!” he chuckled. Yangin tried not to face hoof, could he try to act just a little less evil?

“Alley?” said Jasmine in surprise as her eyes fell on the young stallion. “Is that you? It’s been years! You’re all grown up...”

“Jasmine,” mumbled Alley apparently lost in the mare’s eyes. Yangin just rolled her own. “It’s, well I... we...”

“Give me the lamp!” insisted Jaffa, “You can have the girl for all I care, just give it to me!”

“He can have me!” exclaimed Jasmine. She looked over Alley and for a moment didn’t seem entirely distraught by the idea. Then she shook her head. “What do you mean by that? What’s going on?”

Jaffa lunged forwards and slapped the lamp from Alley’s hoof while he was distracted before grabbing it in his aura. “This means I don’t need you any more!” he exclaimed. “All these years coddling my idiot brothers little brat! Now finally I have the power to rule the Trust, no more than that, the whole of Equestria! Bwa ha ha ha ha!”

“What are you talking about uncle?” asked Jasmine sounding stunned.

“This,” he held up the lamp. “Makes that creature,” he pointed at Yangin, “my slave! I can use her powers to do anything I want, anything!”

“A slave! That’s horrible! I’ll stop you!” cried Jasmine. It appeared that Alley did indeed have really good taste, thought Yangin.

“You,” said Jaffa rubbing a hoof against the lamp, “kill her!” he pointed at his niece.

“No,” intoned Yangin.

Jaffa’s face fell momentarily. “This is one of the rules is it? You can’t kill ponies? Then I order you to change her into a beetle! Send her to the ends of Equestria! Give me all the powers of a princess!”

“No, no, and are you kidding?” exclaimed Yangin. “It’s not because it’s against the rules, it’s because I don’t want to, and because I am noponies slave! Never again!” He aura grew from blue hot to white hot in her rage and several flammable items around the room started to smoulder. Jaffa backed away his face a mask of terror.

“Attack... Attack them,” he stuttered gesturing wildly at everypony in the room. After a moment's hesitation his guards decided to charge towards Alley and Jasmine who backed away as quickly as they could. Yangin gestured and caused the hovering carpet to drop on top of several of the thugs tangling them up.

“Now, master,” said Yangin through gritted teeth, “what ever shall I do with you?” To her surprise the unicorn's horn flashed and he disappeared. “Where?” she gasped.

“He’s behind you!” called Alley from the other side of the room as he ducked under a swooping pegasus. Next to him Jasmine smacked an attacking unicorn in the horn with her hoof.

Instinctively Yangin ducked forwards just in time for a flaming blade to sweep over her head. She spun round and a blast of magic struck her in the face, to her surprise it actually stung a bit causing her to cry out.

“Fool,” exclaimed Jaffa, “I’ve studied Jinn for years! Do you think I don’t know how to hurt your kind!” He blasted her again, however now she was ready for it and absorbed the beam. It still stung, but she’d felt much worse over the years.

“I don’t think you’ve studied anywhere near enough.” He swung out with his sword again and this time she threw out a bolt of fire at his hoof burning it and making him drop the flaming blade with a cry. “I’ll take that,” she said picking up the weapon and looking it over, it seemed to have aged quite well. Frustrated Jaffa fired off another bolt of energy but this time she deflected the blast, her eyes widened as she saw it flash across the room towards Jasmine who had just laid out another of her attackers. She saw the mare’s eyes widen as the beam shot towards her head. Then suddenly Alley tackled her from the side and the two of them rolled away in a tangle of limbs. Yangin blinked, that could have been bad, she needed to finish this now. Stretching out her power she grabbed all the enemy ponies and threw them into one corner of the room before placing a network of flaming bars around them to hold them in place. To make very sure she cast a dimensional anchor on Jaffa to stop him teleporting again, although she doubted he had enough strength to cast such a complex spell more than once.

“Well that’s that!” she exclaimed wiping her hooves. She turned to see that the two young ponies had ended up with Jasmine lying astride Alley, they were staring into each other's eyes their mouths slowly moving closer. Yangin could practically hear the adrenaline and other hormones sloshing around inside them, she was glad she wasn’t made of meat like most other sentients she knew. Being made of pure elemental material made things so much easier. “Right I think we’re all done now,” she said loudly.

“Yes,” mumbled Alley.

“The local guard can deal with my uncle and his goons,” said Jasmine vaguely. Neither of them had looked aside.

“I guess we should go now,” added Yangin. “Or you know, I could just leave the two of you alone for a while? Alone with all these other ponies watching.” She gestured at the trapped guards hoping this wasn’t going to be some sort of bizarre turn on for the new couple.

Jasmine looked up for a moment, then down again at where her body was touching Alley’s, her eyes widened in surprise for a moment then she quickly rolled aside and back to her hooves. “Right, yes, um, go we should. Um, I mean we should go!”

Likewise Alley quickly stood his face flushed. “Yes, I should take you... um take you home. Home to um, see my mother!” his eyes widened as he processed what he’d just said.

“Right,” said Yangin, glancing over at Jasmine. “Now that I’ve got this sword I guess I don’t need to ask if you would like a date with a giant griffin.” Although maybe Jaffa would be an idea if Terror needed to practice pouncing, she thought with a grin.

Yangin was mildly surprised that she actually followed Alley home, she guessed it would be rude to just leave him but she had what she’d come for and really should be heading back to the lair by now. Still, it was amusing to see Alley falteringly introduced Jasmine to his mother who commented on how much the filly has grown since she’d last seen her and then moved straight on to how much she was looking forward to having lots and lots of grand foals reducing both of the younger ponies to squirming piles of embarrassment. It was enough to make Yangin laugh out loud.

Later once things had calmed down a little the four of them continued to talk over tea.

“If you need any money or anything Alley,” said Yangin, “you can take what you need from my cave, all I wanted was the sword anyway.”

Alley almost choked on his drink. The cave probably contained enough wealth to pay for most of the provence. “That’s very kind but are you sure?”

“Yeah, I only wanted this thing,” she swung around the flaming sword careful to avoid hitting anything or anypony. “It’s a present for, well I guess a co worker would be the best description. I have this, well, friend who’s organised a Hearth Warming Helper and I thought this thing would be a good gift.”

“The Trust is always looking for new investors,” said Jasmine looking across the table at Alley. “It’ll be a whole new world for you. You could go far. Now that Jaffa is disgraced I’ll probably be made area manager.”

“You’re welcome to come to Hearth’s Warming dinner here,” said Green, “another place or two would be no problem, you could even bring your friend if you want.”

Yangin considered for a moment, but turning up with Celestia in tow would probably cause a few issues for all involved. “Thanks for the offer, but I think I’ll have to pass. Maybe another time. I should probably go now.”

“Do you have to?” asked Alley standing from the table.

“Yes, it’s late and I’ve still got a few things to do”. To her surprise the stallion leaned forwards and gave her a hug.

“Thank you for all that you’ve done for me, for all of us. I’m proud to call you my friend.”

Yangin was a little taken aback, she supposed they were friends in a way. How had that happened? First Celestia, now this pony, her social circle was certainly expanding. Maybe Celestia’s plan to knit her court together through the Hearth’s Warming Helper was going to work after all. “Thank you, friend,” she said with a smile.

Presents for everycreature by Rainbowdoubledash, thatguyvex and Talon and Thorn

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Celestia carefully poked a hoof at the small fluffy representation of herself, she couldn’t decide if she liked this part of the modern celebration of Hearth’s Warming or not. Apparently families made woolen representations of themselves and hung them over the fire. She wasn’t sure if the effigy was respectful of herself, or if it could be considered a caricature, certainly the flanks seemed rather volumously padded. Her apprentice had apparently bought the basic models yesterday and then had to rush to finish them overnight. Given the hurry she supposed they had turned out quite well, although Kindle’s doll seemed to have received much more work making it more lifelike than her own. It was larger as well and showed some signs of having undergone significant cuddling in the past.

Turning away from the fireplace she had created next to her throne she looked out over the rest of the room. It was much changed from the previous day in addition to the fireplace a long table had been set at the foot of the steps leading to her throne for her inner circle to sit, well with the exception of Solrathicharnon who was rather too large, he sat in the lava below although his head did reach the edge of the table allowing him to interact with his fellow courtiers. Further away there were several other tables for the various ponies, griffons and salamanders who served her. For a moment she scowled, the whole thing seemed so small compared to the great feasts she remembered during her reign, she was reduced to only a few dozen minions when once a whole nation followed her! She took a deep breath trying to calm her ire, this was only a temporary situation soon enough she would return to her previous glory.

Still it was nice to be holding a feast of any sort, it made her feel rightfully regal. This was the sort of thing that she had been born for, to ensure that her little ponies, no matter how reduced their numbers might be, were happy. Certainly the general staff seemed to be enjoying themselves as they finished off the last of their food and chatted amongst themselves. They were mostly staying in species defined groups, but here and there a pony was talking with a griffin or salamander.

All were dressed up in the finest clothes they processed, which meant they were a rather mixed bunch. Even her closest courtiers were of rather mixed appearance, Solrathicharnon or course wore nothing, clothing largely being an alien concept to dragons. Zecora wore a rather simple robe although it did look good on her, Terror Wing wore armour, a serious social faux pas in her day but she would accept it at this time, he probably didn’t know better. At least Bogucu had put the effort to materialise something with looked like a formal gown over the burning form she was currently maintaining. Only her pony allies had put serious effort into dressing appropriately for the occasion, Kindle wore a smart white suit with her mark embroidered on it showing his allegiance and Smoke wore her official robes, although Celestia had to admit the dress did not compliment her student’s fur colour and body shape.

Despite their formal attire Celestia couldn’t help but think that things were still rather tense amongst her closest allies. The whole aim of the night had been to mold them into a more cohesive group afterall. Still there were some signs of the ice between them melting, if only a little. She was quite pleased with the amount of effort that Bogucu was putting into socializing with the other members of her court. She was currently talking animatedly with her Herald apparently about some sporting event, or maybe a battle, it was sometimes hard to differentiate the two in Griffin culture. Smoke was also chatting pleasantly with Zecora about a Hearth’s Warming related play she and Kindle had once taken part in. Even Solrathicharnon had at least shown the minimum allowable amount of courtesy for his fellow courtiers and seemed to have enjoyed crunching his way through the mound of gems which had made up much of his meal.

Now that they had finished eating it was time for the highlight of the evening, the gifting. Now that the moment was almost upon her she found herself unexpectedly anxious, had she made the right decision? Was the present she had prepared truly suitable? She ran a nervous hoof through her mane and was momentarily surprised to feel the thin paper crown which currently covered it. She had momentarily forgotten about that. Earlier Smoke had produced some devices apparently called ‘Crackers’ which when opened caused a tiny explosion and contained a hat, a small gift and something which was apparently supposed to have been a joke. She had immediately felt a little insulted by the poor quality of the headwear and had considered allowing her mane to consume it, but it was starting to grow on her. Certainly they made her court look rather festive, even Solrathicharnon had one perched on one of his smaller head spikes.

Feeling a little calmer she stood from her throne, drawing glances from the rest of the court. “HARK! MY PEOPLE!” she bellowed. Next to her Kindle toppled from his chair in surprise causing a guffour of laughter from Terror Wing and a snort of smoke from Solrathicharnon. Celestia tried to avoid a blush, maybe the full royal Canterlot voice wasn’t required for a gathering of this size. “Hark!” she tried again with a somewhat reduced volume. “As you are all aware this festival is in celebration of the founding of Equestria and of the unity of ponykind. It recognises that individuals from different backgrounds and tribes can work together to become part of a greater whole.” She looked around the table meeting each of her courtiers gaze for a moment. “Just as the members of my court are varied but are united in our goal of unseating my sister and returning me to my rightful place. I wish to be able to take this time to offer my thanks to my allies.”

“I would first like to thank My Voice, Sir Kindling Wind. His aid in recruiting support from amongst my sisters subjects has been of great use to me. His loyalty to his true monarch even during my sisters reign has been an example for others to follow.” She looked over at the red stallion, his feathers were puffed up so much it looked like he might explode from pride.

“Thank you, your majesty,” he finally managed, “I only wish that all of Equestria were loyal to you, so that you could celebrate the holiday in your true home.” He raised a cup of wine in a hoof. “Next year, Canterlot!” he declared. The rest of the hall took up the toast.

Celestia nodded her approval. “Well said, Sir Kindle. Next I would like to thank my Vizer, Dame Zecora. I owe a great due to the dame, she was the first amongst you to rally to my banner and she aided my escape when my sister hoped to imprison me. Since then she has been a loyal and trusted advisor to the throne.”

“Thank you my queen,” said the Zebra, “but I am unworthy of your praise. Wishing to aid you comes as naturally to me as the sun’s rays.”

Celestia allowed a small smile at her advisors choice of words. “Next I would like to thank the newest of my council, my aid, my advisor,” she lowered his head a little, “my friend, Dame Bogucu Yangin. After the recent events in Naqah she was betrayed by the current element bearers and cruelly imprisoned. I once considered her to be a powerful ally to our cause but have now come to respect her as more than that, as an advisor, as a close confidant and,” she took a deep breath, “as a personal friend.”

It was often hard to tell but Bogucu seemed a little embarrassed at the praise. “Thank you, Celestia,” she said softly.

The queen nodded and turned to the next creature at the table. “Sir Terror Wing, my Herald, has been a powerful ally to my cause. His strength will be most useful in my fight against my sisters forces and once things are set to rights I promise that I will also stop the great injustices that have been done against him and his family. Let our alliance herald a new era of peace and friendship between Equestria and the Griffin Kingdoms!”

The griffin members of her court let out a roar at this and hammered their tankards against the tables. Their leader followed them his beak opened in a wide smile. “TO VICTORY!” he cried sloshing his drink over Yangin who rolled her eyes at the liquid steaming off her burning form.

“I would also like to thank Dame Smoke, my student. This feast is due to her reminding me of the importance of the season. She has worked hard both in the preparation of this event, and also in the day to day organisation of our company. She is a loyal and diligent student who has shown great potential to become our court magician.”

The small grey unicorn looked like she was about to sink beneath the table in embarrassment. “Tha-thank you, your majesty,” she eventually managed. Kindle gave her a friendly smile and rested a wing over her pulling her back into her seat.

“You should be proud of yourself,” he whispered, “I know I am.” Smoke’s face glowed a frearce red at the compliment, and the physical contact. “I’m sure you’re doing all you can to help her majesty’s cause.”

“Finally I would like to thank my ally Solrathicharnon the red. He and his brood have suffered much at the hooves of my sister and his aid in retaking our lands is appreciated.” She looked up at the great wyrm who either growled in appreciation, or yawned, she chose to believe the former. “Now, on to-” she began.

“Excuse me, your excellency,” interrupted Kindle. “But before we go any further I would like to take this opportunity to speak for all of us.” The queen nodded. “I would like to thank you for accepting us all, despite our disparate backgrounds and allowing us the honour of working with you to return you to the proper place. To allow us to make a better Equestria, neigh, a better world.” He raised a goblet of wine. “A toast, to Queen Celestia! To the Unconquered Sun!”

“To the Unconquered Sun!” came a chorus from across the room. Celestia raised her own glass as well taking a mouthful of wine.

“Thank you, my people,” she said. “Now onto the Hearth’s Warming Helper!” She felt a little tremble of trepidation again as she lifted her gift in her aura. “I will go first, my present is for my friend Bogucu Yangin!”

The box was set down before Yangin, who regarded it with interest. “Well, this is…sizable,” the jinn said, holding out a leg to measure the size of the box. She waved a hoof over the box, and it started to unwrap itself. “I know you went into Hope’s Hollow, what could you have found there…that…”

Yangin’s voice trailed off at the sight of the Great Gingerbread Temple of the Prophet, bedecked in frosted and sugary snow, glazed sides shining in the light of the chamber, the box’s opening instantly filling the room with the scent of gingerbread. Celestia was, quite suddenly, aware of every eye in the room either upon her, or upon her present. Judging it. She resisted the urge to shuffle on her hooves, instead standing up straighter.

“Wow,” Yangin said at last, moving around the confection, taking in its details. “This is…how’d you get this made so quickly?”

Celestia allowed herself a small smile, relief finding her at the gratitude in Yangin’s voice. “A pair of truly skilled bakers in Hope’s Hollow,” she said. She left out the energizing spell she’d put on them. “I hope that a reminder of your homeland might make for a suitable gift?”

Yangin reached out a hoof to the Great Gingerbread Temple, retracted it, reached out again, and then snorted. “Mostly I need to figure out if eating it counts as blasphemy or not,” she groused, but finally threw up her hooves. “Oh, whatever, I’m sure the Prophet wouldn’t mind.” She broke off the top of one minaret and put it in her mouth. Her eyes widened at the taste, and she swayed just a little as she savored it. “Oh wow,” Yangin finally said after swallowing.

Celestia’s smile widened knowingly. “I know, right?” she asked, her voice nearly scandalously casual. Yangin nodded, though, and all tension left her. The gift she cared most about had gone over well, and perhaps Yangin might even share.

“My go now?” asked Yangin. Celestia nodded, it made sense for the one who just received a present to give the next one. “Right, so I got Terror Wing. You are not an easy creature to shop for, you know. I originally had a different idea, but well, it didn’t entirely work out. So I ended up getting you this.” She somehow reached into herself and drew out a long sword wreathed in flame. “I did try to wrap it but it kept setting the paper on fire, I’m not sure if it’s got an off switch or not.”

With a little trepidation Terror Wing reached out and took the sword upon finding that it didn’t burn his talons he began to swing it around with more and more enthusiasm. “It’s well balanced!” he commented before slashing the blade down into the table causing Smoke to shy away with a loud ‘eep!’ while Kindle raised a protective wing towards her. Terror Wing examined the deep scorched gouge in the stone of the table. “And sharp!” he exclaimed with a smile.

“So you like it then?” asked Yangin.

“It’s great! It’s even of Griffin make, it has ancient griffin runes on it,” he stared at it for a moment his beak moving as he tried to translate them. “Joyeuse?” he finally managed.

Yangin was a little surprised that Terror Wing could read current Griffin, let alone it’s ancient version. “Yeah, I got it when a griffin tried to kill me with it. Either he didn’t think about the whole using a flaming sword on someone made out of living fire, or over thought it. In either case I grabbed it and ran.”

“Joyeuse?” repeated Celestia thoughtfully. “Was that not the High King’s sword in my day?”

“Don’t know.” said Yangin with a shrug. “The guy who tried to shank me with it certainly looked important, lots of robes and jewelry, I didn’t stop to ask his name.”

“The High Kings sword!” mumbled Terror Wing staring at the blazing blade.

“Oh,” said Yangin whispering in Terrors ear, “there’s also this,” she passed him a small card with an address on it. “There’s somepony there who wouldn’t mind spending some time with you, play your cards right and you never know where things might go! Just treat her right ok, her son’s my friend.”

“Sir Terror Wing,” prompted Celestia, “it is your time to give a gift.”

“Oh right,” said Terror Wing blinking away her surprise and turning away from Yangin. He looked around for something to do with the sword. After a moment Celestia rolled her eyes and lit her horn levitating the sword just off the ground. Terror Wing nodded and reached under his seat to produce, to everyone’s surprise, a large picnic hamper.

“So, um, I GOT ZECORA,” he bellowed, “and well I,” he continued somewhat quieter, “I made her some snacks,” he shoved the hamper towards the Zebra.

“I thank you for this gift of food,” said Zecora bowing formally. Then she sniffed the air. “Wait... is that Mabuyu?” She tore open the container and stared at the contents for a moment before grabbing one of the treats and shoving it into her mouth. She chewed and gave an extremely pleased moan. “Oh, I could kiss you!” she exclaimed shoving another into her mouth.

“It looks like she’s having what I meant to get him,” whispered Yagin to Celestia, before realising that the queen was staring at the goodies and almost drooling.

“They’re pretty easy once you know the recipe,” said Terror Wing, “try the pink ones they’re strawberry flavoured.”

“Oh, I thought that once I left to roam I’d never again know the taste of home.” She shoveled another of the sweets into her mouth and gave another decident groan. Then her stripes reddened as she noticed the rest of the crowd staring at her. “Er... I am sure I will enjoy the rest of the bags content, it really is the best present,” she managed somewhat more gracefully.

“Thanks, there’s a few other things in there as well,” said Terror Wing. “There’s some other recipes I’d like to try when I have time.”

“I certainly would not have guessed that cooking was a skill that you possessed.”

The giant griffin looked a little embarrassed. “Yeah, well I picked up a few things here and there. Not that it makes me soft or anything, I CAN STILL FIGHT!” He reached for his new flaming sword.

“I have no doubt that you are very strong,” said Zecora soothingly, “but we should move on to my gift before this ceremony goes on for too long. Your Highness,” she turned towards the queen, “it was your tag that I drew from the bag.” She carefully nosed a large box out from under the table she had been sitting at. Celestia took the present in her aura.

“It is heavy,” she commented feeling unexpectedly excited, it had been a while since she had received a present. She gave it a quick shake and then stopped once she noticed Zecora wince. It might be breakable. She carefully teleported the paper covering away to reveal a wooden case with several metal legs sticking out with images of her sun and the moon on them. “Is it some sort of orrery?” she asked. Although she was aware of such crude devices before her banishment, this was so small, all clicking and whirring with the sound of concealed gears. To one side, a golden key turned ever so slowly while the metal sun slid along its slot, in such precise, measured motions that she could not see how it was done. A truly miraculous little device that she itched to open up and poke at to see how it worked.

“In a way, although it is hard to explain in rhyme, that device is used to tell the time,” explained the zebra. “It shows when the sun should rise to help you with your enterprise.”

Celestia stared at her Vizer awash with conflicting emotions. She felt slighted at the implication that she needed help knowing when to raise the sun. Still it was nice of somecreature else to think of her duties and she did like that somepony had created a device which measured her sun’s progress. Her hooves pressed hard against her throne for a moment and she noticed the trepidation on her Vizer’s face. After a moment Celestia decided to take the gift in the spirit it was intended and smiled. “I thank you for your kind gift,” she said with practiced sincerity.

“It was just a simple task to provide you with a present as you asked,” said Zecora.

“As I have already given a gift,” exclaimed Celestia, “I proclaim that Sir Kindle have his turn next. I am eager to see what he has procured.”

“Thank you my queen,” he bowed to his monarch and then turned to his present. In his usual, grandiose fashion, he’d wheeled it out into the chamber under a dramatically decorated, festive curtain surrounding a small, concealed platform. This was actually part of a stage podium he’d often used in the past, and occasionally set up for sermons to secluded groups of the faithful, but today it served a different purpose. “I withdrew Solrathicarnon’s token from the bag!” he announced.

The dragon had been wearing a bored expression for most of the proceedings, and upon hearing the wheels of the hidden podium stage being dragged out, he furrowed his spinney brow and turned his snout towards Kindle, sniffing.

“Now I wonder what minor offering you’ve managed to scrounge up, o’ Voice of the Sun? Baubles to toss upon my hoard?”

“No mere baubles, ever potent and valued ally of our noble and radiant Queen!” Kindle declared, with a fair bit more politeness and pomp than he generally showed the dragon, causing Solrath’s head to tilt in minor, quizzical curiosity.

“What I have for you,” continued Kindle, “is something rare, perhaps even unique. I doubt any dragon in all the world will possess this. You, Solrath, will be the first and only to own this particular treasure… Ahem. Smoke, if you please?”

Smoke, who helped wheel out the curtained podium stand, gave a nervous if still happy smile and nod, and with a bit of her own dramatic flourish, pulled the line to the festive holiday curtain. As the stand was revealed, it was clear to see upon it an ornate phonograph, with a record already placed on the turntable. Kindle turned the device on and with a minor dramatic pause, set the needle on the spinning record.

What followed was the beginning of what could only be described as the highly intense and powerful notes of Metal Heart’s and Jodir’s heartfelt performance. The rapid, pulse pounding metallic beats of both magically charged electric guitar combined with Elkheim drums reverberated through the chamber, causing all present a moment of shocked silence.

Terrorwing blinked, then started bobbing his head to the beat, sporting a surprised grin. Yangin scratched her head for a moment before slowly closing her eyes and tapping a limb as Metal Heart’s screaming, yet somehow lyrical voice began to sing of breaking one’s chains and living free. Zecora remained a mysterious as ever, only slightly raising an eyebrow at the music before popping another sweet into her mouth. Celestia herself felt surprised and a little unsure, because she had absolutely no idea of what to think about the... music she was hearing.

Normally Kindle would be desperate for his Queen’s approval, but in this particular case it was Solrath’s reaction he watched for.

The dragon’s expression was difficult to read, his head remaining tilted, and tilting ever so slightly more with one ear craned towards the record player. The dragon remained silent until the song was finished, and Kindle removed the needle, bowing low to the dragon.

“There are several more such songs recorded here, the unique works of a pair of talented musicians named Metal Mare and Jodir. Pioneers of a new music form not yet heard in any realm outside Equestria, and even here, only in a few places.”

“That was pretty hardcore stuff,” Terrorwing said, flourshing his new sword. “Really gets into your blood and makes you want to KICK SOME TEETH IN!”

“I enjoyed it,” said Yangin, “I can get behind the message. Mare could stand to learn some melody, but she’s got passion, I’ll give her that.”

“Music certainly has... changed since I last took the time to listen,” said Celestia, trying her best to determine if that was good or something that needed searched out across the world and destroyed with fire.

Kindle bowed even lower to her, but then raised his head and gave Solrath a questioning look, waiting for the dragon to respond in some way. At long last, Solrathicaron shook, his chest rumbling with a deep noise akin to an earthquake. It took Kindle a moment to realize it was laughter. The ancient red dragon trembled with a fit of powerful laughter that nearly shook the entire chamber. Kindle’s face blazed red with embarrassment, but Solrath, once he had his laughing under control, gave the pegasus a predatory grin of gleaming fangs.

“Oh, I can smell your consternation, pony, and it’s unfounded. I laugh not at you, but at the fine irony of what I’m hearing. Hahahah, this is a better gift than you know, and not for the reason you thought.”

“Ahem, well, do please explain,” said Kindle, a tad pouty, “for those of us who actually put quite a bit of effort into obtaining this musical gift.”

“It’s simple,” said Solrath, “This music, this style, some of it is indeed new as you say, but the elk’s addition, the nature of the beat… it’s draconic in origin.”

“It is?” Kindle gave Smoke a confused glance, and she just shrugged at him. Solrath went on, chuckling like a settling avalanche.

“Quite so. We dragons are not without our appreciation for the arts. We sing, when it pleases us. And it rarely pleases us more than when we are soaring into battle, to take what we will! Elkheim has long been our ancestral foes, their realm a trove of gems and treasures any dragon would salivate to obtain. So generations have been spent in dragonflights pillaging the Elkheim realm, and yes, often facing defeat. Hah, yet for all our long history of failing to make that realm our own, I never imagined they’d absorb something as simple as our music. That, Voice, is the true gift you’ve just given me. Satisfaction. The elk, deer, moose, all their cloven kin, they may have fought us dragons off, but we’ve left our mark on them. Their songs are now dragon song. Hah! This puts me in such a good mood...”

Solrath reached down with a giant talon and picked up the record player with a surprising amount of care, “This is acceptable tribute. I shall enjoy listening to this for some time to come.”

Kindle coughed, “Well, I’m glad you like it...”

As Solrath silently set the record player aside and went back to setting down, Celestia cleared her own throat loudly at the dragon. “Solrath, traditionally at this juncture one thanks the gift giver.”

Solrath made a sour face, but then with a sighing grumble muttered, “...Thank you for your adequacy in recognizing my glorious worth, Voice.”

Celestia rolled her eyes briefly. That was about as close to actual gratitude as Solrath was capable of, after all, so there was little point arguing further. Kindle gave her a grateful smile, bowing to her once more. As long as the dragon was appeased, and his Queen happy, that was all Kindle needed.

“And now, Solrathicharnon-Charir-Uskirlymzolthurkear,” Celestia said, using the dragon’s complete name to hopefully keep his good mood going into what would perhaps be the most trying of all the gifts – she remembered Yangin’s warning keenly. “It is your turn to present your gift.”

Either Kindle’s gift had truly put Solrathicharnon in a good mood, or else the use of his full name had assuaged him well; in either case the dragon wasted little time. His nostrils flared as he breathed in deeply, then turned his blind eyes exactly in the direction of Smoke. “I got you, little pony,” he said. Smoke wilted under the gaze and the dragon’s words.

“Oh, um,” she murmured, “it’s, uh – I’m sure whatever you got is more than adequooooh my Stars!”

Even Celestia’s eyes grew wide as Solrathicharnon drew up a statue from behind his tail, where he had kept it hidden. The statue was a pedestal, into which was carved, of all things, a stylized heart. The whole thing was hewn from a single piece of quartz, and was taller than the diminutive Smoke. Solrathicharnon placed it before the pony with perhaps more roughness than he’d intended, the thud reverberating through the chamber. The surface had been polished to a fine reflective sheen, a multitude of facets across its surface reflecting back the stunned onlookers.

Celestia looked to Solrathicharnon. “Where did you get that?” she asked, keeping her voice neutral as she could. But such a huge piece of crystal, a great treasure…where had it been plundered from?”

The dragon grinned a toothy grin. “Peace, Queen Celestia. This came from no vault or treasure horde. I retrieved the crystal myself perhaps a mile below us in magma, and then carved it.” He reached to his tail again and held forth his hand, letting carvings of quartz fall to the ground before Celestia.

She looked over the shards, then the statue. They were of similar hue, and she could see from some of the larger pieces that indeed a heart had been carved from them. “Very well,” she said. “I apologize for my doubt, Solrathicharnon.”

Solrathicharnon’s rumbling laugh came again. “You think I would give up any of my horde?” He asked, then turned once more to Smoke, leaning down and breathing in. “Still. I hope you are satisfied, small one?”

Smoke nodded, but then remembered the dragon’s blindness. “Y-yes!” She exclaimed, looking to Solrathicharnon. “It’s…it’s beautiful. You’re…you carved this yourself? It’s amazing.”

Solrathicharnon paused. “Amazing?”

“Really!” Smoke said, somehow finding confidence, while also still remembering that the dragon had not actually seen the gift he was giving. “I’ve never seen a quartz that shines so brightly. They’re normally kind of foggy, but the surface almost looks like glass it’s so clear! And it’s catching the light so well…”

There was a rumble from the dragon. “Does it…?” he asked, muzzle scrunching slightly.

Celestia saw where this was going even if Smoke didn’t. “There will be ample time to admire your gift later, my apprentice,” she said.

“Huh?” Smoke asked, finally looking away from the quartz heart – and realizing that Solrathicharnon’s head had slowly drifted closer to her and her new statue, the dragon’s blind eyes seeming to focus on the latter, nostrils flaring. “Oh! Oh, um…right. Thank you, Solrathicharnon-Charir- Uskirlymzolthurkear.”

“Um, I guess it’s me now,” said Smoke breaking her gaze away from the great dragon and her huge present. “It’s obvious that I got Kindle. I guess I’m just lucky that way.” She gave a nervous giggle, turned to the pegasus, and brought out a flat package. “I sort of gave it away when I told you it was a recording.” She passed the present while her ears fell flat.

“I’m sure I’ll love it,” said Kindle carefully peeling the paper off the record. “An evening with Kindling Wind,” he read and smiled, “I remember this, I didn’t think I’d see another copy after I left mine back in Manehatten. Thank you, I appreciate it..” He reached over with a wing and hugged his smaller companion who melted into the embrace. “I remember when I recorded this, you fell asleep in the rigging, didn’t you.” He laughed gently. “What was the name of the mare who did the recording again?”

“I really don’t remember,” mumbled Smoke with her eyes closed.

"Gadget something wasn't it? We dated for a bit, but then she just disappeared, I never did find out what happened to her."

"I wouldn't know anything about that," said Smoke tightening her hug possessively.

“Well, thank you again. I’ll enjoy listening to it--” he glanced over to his record player now position near Solrathicharnon with the dragon’s gift on it “--when I have some time.” He gently pushed the small unicorn away and turned towards the queen. “I thank you for coming up with such an enjoyable way for us to spend the evening, Your Majesty,” he bowed to Celestia. “Your generosity truly knows no end.”

“Thank you, My Voice,” said Celestia imperiously. “I have enjoyed myself tonight, this ‘Hearth’s Warming Helper’ is an interesting tradition. I feel that it has brought you together--” she paused “--has brought all of us together.” She looked over all of the creatures which made up her court, even the lesser members seemed to have become more friendly. “I have one more gift for you all on this special evening.” Her horn burst into light and several large barrels of ale appeared around the hall. “I bid you all enjoy yourselves.”

Celestia looked down from her throne at the banqueting hall with a smile enjoying the sound of her new clock as it counted off the seconds and the small model of her sun slowly circled towards the horizon. With the end of the Hearth’s Warming helper and the introduction of some stronger alcohol the event had become less formal and the usual cliques had broken down a little. Off to one side Zecora was apparently telling a story to the small number of foals which made her lair their home as well as the somewhat larger group of their parents. Judging by how wide the eyes of both the children and adults were it was quite interesting. The Zebra was using some magic to enhance the performance judging by the greenish spirits dancing around her.

Elsewhere Kindle, Smoke and Terror Wing along with a number of other creatures were playing a guessing game. The red pegasus was apparently trying to mime some sort of scene for the audience who appeared to have no idea what he was doing, much to his frustration. After a few moments gave up and slumped back towards the nearby seating where Smoke gave him a conciliatory hug.

Below the throne room, Solrathicharnon was somewhat playfully sparring with a number of Salamanders, swiping at them with his talons as they danced around him. She could tell he was pulling his blows as none of the other creatures had been seriously injured yet.

“You can join in you know,” said Yangin, the fire spirit hovering alongside her.

“Hum?” grunted Celestia, turning her attention to her friend. “Pardon?”

“You could join in with the games if you wanted.”

“No, I am the queen. It would not be seemly to take part in such frivolities.” She pulled herself up to full height. “It is enough for me that my people are happy.”

“You don’t have to be the queen all the time, you can have a good party now and then. Let some steam off, it might do you some good.” The djinn cocked her head towards a sprig of mistletoe hanging from the ceiling and the pony and griffin couple kissing beneigh it.

Celestia’s face glowed brightly as she turned away from the scene. “That would be totally unsuitable!” she exclaimed. She had always kept a very tight reign on the carnal side of her nature. It was her sister who indulged in such things, not her!

“Ok, maybe not quite that extreme, although I know a few stallions and mares who wouldn’t mind spending some time with the queen. You can have some fun if you want. It won’t kill you. You could tell stories, just talk if you want. I believe this holiday is supposed to be about spending time with family and friends.”

“I thank you, but no.” She looked down over the throng below her, just relaxing sounded good. Friends and family sounded even better. She was just so tired sometimes, but no, she had responsibilities. Responsibilities that others wouldn’t understand, although maybe she could bend just a little, on this night at least. Surely there was one other who might understand, somepony she ached to talk to again. She stood and spread her wings “You should enjoy yourself, I have to go.”

“Go?” asked Yangin, looking surprised. “Go where?”

“I have a previous engagement,” said Celestia.

Epilogue - Hearth's Warming with the family

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The tower wasn’t as large as Celestia expected, although some of that was probably from the amount of random detritus which covered much of the space not taken up by the princess sized bed or the desk and chair. Celestia could recognised at least three of Mage Medowbrook's items of power scattered amongst random trinkets from Zebrica and Naquada as well as what appeared to be a model of the palace made from macaroni. The walls had a number of portraits on them, mostly of the room’s inhabitant and a number of other ponies. She scowled as she caught sight of a younger version of the current bearer of the element of magic. Her hooves ached at the effort to stop herself trying to tidy the mess up. It seemed that ruling a country by herself for a millennia hadn't made her sister any tidier.

Turning away from the mess, she paced up and down the little free space there was. Had it been a good idea to come here? Maybe this had been a bad idea. She was so vulnerable. The forces around the castle might be enough to subdue her if it came to a fight. She nervously reached out a hoof and straightened the bed clothes while preparing a spell to escape if needs be.

She froze as the door opened with a creak.

“Good night, gentlestallions,” came Princess Luna’s voice as she nodded to the night guards stationed outside her room. “I hope you have had a pleasant Hearth’s Warming.” They saluted in response and she stepped past them into her chambers. Once the door slid shut behind her she slumped against it with a sigh. Without opening her eyes she removed the crown from her head and rubbed the latter with a hoof. Celestia frowned she hadn’t expected her sister to look so tired.

“Sister,” she said dropping the spell she had used to mask her presence. Instantly, Luna’s eyes snapped open and she sprung to her hooves, horn sparking. “Peace!” Celestia exclaimed holding up a hoof while preparing a shield against any possible attack.

“What are you doing here?” demanded Luna, her eyes flicking around the room. “Do you dare to attack me on this day of all days? How did you get in here? If you have hurt anypony I will... will...” A bemused look came over her face A bemused look came over her face, and she began to snicker. “What... what on Equestria do you have on your head?”

Frowning Celestia ran a hoof through her mane only to find the small paper hat from the cracker she had opened before her meal. She’d never taken it off! “It’s a crown!” she protested, feeling her cheeks heat up.

“A… A crown!” exclaimed Luna sinking to the ground in a paroxysm of laughter, “Ha… Ha… mine’s… bigger!” she finally managed, pointing a hoof at the one she had removed when entering the room, now discarded near the door.

Scowling, Celestia had her flaming mane incinerate the offending paper hat. “I did not come here to be laughed at,” she said houltily, which only caused her sister to giggle even more. Celestia looked aside, but could not stop the smile starting to grow across her face, or the giggle that leaked out around the edges. “Besides,” she managed after a moment, “I thought it made me look rather regal.”

Luna stared at her for a moment and blinked owlishly before collapsing in a further peal of laughter. Celestia could no longer hold back her own humour and started to laugh as well. “Maybe… maybe it will start a… start a… new fashion,” she managed

“I’ll have to… to order… one of my own, before they sell out,” guffawed Luna, causing Celesta to break out into further laughter. It was several minutes before either of the alicorns could bring themselves to talk again.

“Peace,” managed Celestia once her giggles had finally abated. It felt so good to just be able to relax. “I mean you no harm. I did not come here to fight.”

“How did you get in here?” asked Luna becoming somewhat more serious. “Why didn’t I notice you?”

“You have never been the best at wards,” noted Celestia getting to her hooves.

“And the guards?” Luna narrowed her eyes.

“None have been permanently incapacitated. Although they do deserve a commendation, I did not find it easy to deal with them. When I retake my throne I will certainly give them the option to retain their jobs, if they swear loyalty to me, of course.” She rewarded good work when possible.

Luna took a step back cautiously. “Sister, it is my throne now. My people do not want you to return. If you try to force matters, they will fight you! I will fight you!” she said forcefully.

“Only because you have twisted their minds with lies, sister!” Celestia’s horn ignited with a fiery glow. “Once I explain things to them they will...” She shook her head, trying to regain her temper. It was easier than it had been when she had first returned but she still found it harder than she once did. “Neigh, I did not come here to fight. Let us not talk ‘politics.’”

“Why did you come here?” asked Luna, eyeing her cautiously.

“I... It is Hearth’s Warming night, a time for family and reconciliation. I wished to...” She looked aside for a moment. “I wished to talk Lulu,” she said, using her personal name for her sister.

“Tia?” asked Luna quietly, hope seeming to flicker in her eyes.

Celestia sighed. “For the other nights of the year we might be enemies. You did usurp my throne and banish me, but for tonight can we not just be sisters again?”

Luna swayed on her hooves for a moment, almost looking like she was going to move to hug her sister, then she nodded. “Yes, sister. I’d like that.”

Luna sat in the chair by the desk and gestured to the bed which Celestia cautiously sat on. “So, Hearth’s Warming,” said Celestia somewhat awkwardly. “How did your day go?”

“Oh, you know, much shaking of hooves, a big feast where everypony ate too much and some members of court made a fool of themselves.” She smiled. “The usual. I’m sure many enjoy the holiday but it can just seem so much effort sometimes.”

“I recall once feeling much the same. Still it is good to see your ponies enjoying themselves, is it not?”

“True, but sometimes I wish I could have more time to myself. This time of year it seems the night lasts forever. No sooner has the sun risen than it is time to get up again,” she complained. Celestia nodded, she felt the same about the midsummer.

“My day was similar to yours. My court held a celebration, I took part in what I believe is called a ‘Hearth’s Warming Helper’. It was... interesting, I had to get a present for one of my court, I had an intricate cake made for one of my allies."

"You? giving away cake? Now I know you are not truly my sister. You must be some sort of doppelganger!" exclaimed Luna with a smile.

Celestia pouted. "You make me sound like some sort of addict." Luna winced a little, but Celestia continued in a less grouchy tone, "I am fully capable of giving up cake when need be, although—” she licked her lips “—I do have to admit on the rare occasions I indulged myself, it was solely because our cook was so exceptionally skilled. Anyway, getting back to more important matters. In our exchange, I received a rather clever clock, which tells the time by way of gears and a wound spring. Most intriguing. Artificers have advanced their skills considerably in my abeyance.”

“Quite true. They never seem to stop. I’m still surprised by some of the things inventors come up with. The castle hot water system is a wonder! Remember when we needed servants to bring pitchers of hot water when we wanted to bathe?”

“That was less of a problem for me,” noted Celestia, igniting her horn.

“It’s not quite the same when you need to cast the spells yourself,” said Luna. “The castle’s system is much more convenient. As for gifts, well I always end up with far too many. Everypony seems to want to give me something this time of year. I have whole galleries full to bursting with trinkets that I don’t want, and that are too important to get rid of.”

Raising an eyebrow, Celestia gestured at the various objects filling most of the available space in the room.

"Those are different!" exclaimed Luna. "These all have real sentimental value to me."

Celestia had to admit that most of the official gifts she had received meant little to her. “Do you remember, what was his name... King Grover I think,” said Celestia. It was easier to remember his actions than his name, to be honest. He was short for his species, and always felt so dominated by Celestia's presence that he constantly fluffed his feathers until he looked much like a pillow. "The Griffin who gave us that awful tapestry."

Luna grinned. “The one with his face on it? It just clashed with everything. We had it hung behind the guards barracks, and the archers used it for target practice.”

“Then he came for a visit and asked to see it,” said Celestia joining in. “I could have talked him out of it, but you had to go and send somepony to get it.”

“There was no way you were going to get him to shut up. I just didn’t realize how damaged it was.”

“What was it that you ended up telling him?” said Celestia with a laugh.

“Well, everygriff knows it is an Equestria custom to cut small holes in the images of great warriors!”

“For Luck!” cried Celestia copying her sister's voice. “I don’t believe how brazen you were! I was mortified!”

“He fell for it didn’t he?” cried Luna with a laugh. Then she paused. “Those were good times, sister. What ever happened to those?”

Celestia’s face turned hard. “You abdicated your role and turned to dark magic, leaving me to run the country by myself.”

Luna shyed back a little. “Tia, you know it wasn’t like that. You went too far, you...”

Celestia held up a hoof. “I apologize, we agreed no politics. I... I have a present for you, we used to have a tradition did we not. We would share a drink for the holiday. Here.” Her horn glowed and a small bottle appeared in front of her.

Luna took it in her aura and examined it. “Ambrosia?!” she breathed. “How did you?”

“Some among the fey courts remember me, and tried to court my patronage. I assume it is still as potent as I remember, or at least as much as I remembered after the last time we shared a bottle.”

“Yes, I... I remember,” said Luna her eyes locked on the bottle. With some apparent effort she looked away. “I don’t indulge often, but thank you. I... I think I have something for you as well. Where did I put it?” Her horn glowed for a moment and a large box appeared in front of her, caked in dust. “I intended to give these to you for Hearth’s Warming before you went...”

“Before I was banished?” She narrowed her eyes. “I was not very welcoming that year.” Celestia had literally thrown her sister from her quarters that day. She had been so busy at the time, planning for the great relocation. “You have kept it all this time?”

“I didn’t know if you would return, but I... I couldn’t bring myself to throw them away.” Celestia took the box and opened it, revealing a set of boots made out of some sort of soft velvet, with tiny solar symbols picked out around the sides. Despite the boxes apparent age, the shoes themselves were immaculate with the warm sensation of preservation spells imbued in them. Despite her sisters casualness about the gift, the enchantment would have needed some effort every few years to renew. “I know how hard you find it to get the right size, given how big your hooves are,” Luna said with a smile.

“I have told you, proportionally I have very dainty hooves!” exclaimed Celestia. It was an old jest between them. She glanced down at Luna’s legs. “And talking about hooves, have unshorn fetlocks come back into fashion? You never did like the clippers, sister,” she joked.

“You’re just jealous of my primal femanine allure,” said Luna running a hoof sensuously down a leg.

“Alluring or not, these are exquisite.” She carefully put on one of the shoes. It fit perfectly, and was soft as duckling down. “I love them. Thank you, sister!” She quickly slipped on the other three.

“They were nothing. I just wish...” Luna let out a sigh. “I wish we could have done this then. Maybe things would have worked out differently if we had.”

“Maybe,” said Celestia looking down. “I cannot stay much longer. Before I go,can we share a drink? For old times sake?” She nodded towards the bottle of Ambrosia.

“If you wish, I have... I have just the thing.” A moment later, a further bottle popped into existence. “A present from the Apple Trust, fresh apple juice. They’ve worked out a way to grow the fruit even in the middle of winter.” She popped the cork and poured the amber liquid into a goblet.

“But the ambrosia?” asked Celestia. She lifted her gift in her aura before catching the rather longing gaze that her sister gave the Ambrosia. She had heard some worrying rumours about her sister since she had returned. She had discounted them at the time, but now she feared they might be true. It was probably safer to err on the side of caution. “Actually I think I will have the juice as well. It looks appetizing.”

For a moment, Luna's aura gripped the smaller bottle. Then it blinked out and she lifted the juice instead. “It does, doesn’t it,” she said brightly as she poured a second glass.

Celestia took the glass and took a long sip savoring the taste. “Sister,” she said after a moment, “if you ever need to talk to somepony... If the pressures of rulership seem too much...”

Luna scowled. “You’re hoping I will just step down,” she said coldly. “That I am unworthy?”

“No! No, I mean if you need to talk, I am here, I... I understand. Maybe more than anypony else, I understand what it is like to be relied on, the pressure.” She reached out a hoof towards her sister for a moment but couldn’t quite bring herself to make contact.

“I... I...” managed Luna after a moment, “I thank you sister, and if you ever need somepony, I am here as well.”

Celestia sighed. “We may be enemies for most of the year but I am glad that for this one day we can still be family.”

“Does it have to only be one day?” asked Luna pleadingly. “If you would just accept the will of Equestria, stop trying to unthrone me. I’m sure something could be worked out.”

Celestia looked at her and for a moment wished that she could accept the offer, that this night could last forever, but knew in her heart that it could not. Until she retook her throne she would never know true peace, but for the moment at least, she could pretend. “No sister. I cannot. It is my right to rule. But while it is still Hearth’s Warming we can be sisters.” She raised her glass.

Luna sighed and smiled sadly. “Sisters,” she agreed tapping the glasses together.