Celestia paused near the doorway of Luna’s chambers, glancing in.
Luna had been more secretive than usual of late, and Celestia herself had been frightfully busy with, well… everything.
Really, it didn’t seem fair that she would have to handle the ever-growing bureaucracy by herself, while Luna spent her nights flitting about in ponies’ dreams. Sometimes, she considered speaking to her sister about this. But Luna was so tired in the mornings; she, exhausted by nightfall.
But this morning, for all that Luna still seemed fatigued, she also seemed contented in a way Celestia hadn’t seen before. Quite pleased with herself, in fact.
“Luna?” Celestia asked. “I never knew thou dist sew…”
Luna smiled a secret smile, glancing down at the bright orange cloth in her lap, the black stripes pinned along one side.
“It took some practice,” she said. “But I think I have the knack.”
Intrigued, Celestia stepped to the room’s threshold. “May I enter?”
Luna brightened still further. “Of course!”
Stepping into Luna’s bed chamber, Celestia looked around. While the room itself hadn’t changed much, there had been a few additions since she’d last seen it. There was a mobile of mystical shapes hanging from the ceiling, and a variety of hoof-drawn patterns here and there on the delicate parchment that seamstresses seemed to prefer. A small stack of books from the Royal Library rested near Luna canopied bed, along with close to a dozen scrolls filled with notes.
But most of all, next to the bed proper…
Celestia blinked. “Wait, is that…?”
Luna nodded happily.
With a delighted gasp, Celestia hopped over to the small cradle, giving it an experimental nudge. Then, she whirled to her sister, beaming.
“When? Are they here now? Or are arrangements yet to be made? Thou spake before of adoption, but I always thought…”
Shaking her head, Luna went back to her sewing.
“And thou wert correct,” she said, biting off a thread. “In sooth, by the time Equestria was secure and we two had time for aught but breathing, how could any foal or weanling be unwanted?”
Taking up a small needle in her aura, she continued, “Abiogenesis is almost a thing of the past now, those rare weanlings being found only after the most violent of storms. And herds are now so extended and ponies’ lives so long that even after the toll of the Crystal War, any foal is easily taken in by their kin…”
Celestia nodded. “Yea, though methinks ‘herding’ is a word that is changing its meaning of late.”
Luna shrugged. “It matters little. Language hath changed before, and it shall change again. The point remains: across the ages, we have wrought our nation well. There are no parentless foals, therefore. Or, at least none without others nearby who can take them in.”
Celestia’s smile was filled with speculation. “Well, then?”
Luna continued to sew, more contented by the moment.
Finally, Celestia rolled her eyes.
Luna laughed merrily, holding up the cloth for inspection.
“Here,” she said. “Behold.”
Frowning, Celestia examined the multi-limbed shape her sister held. “What is it? Pajamas? It has zebra stripes…”
“It’s a tiger,” Luna pronounced with great dignity. “Tigers are a noble race, powerful warriors and feared hunters. Slow to anger, yet they are terrible when defending those they love—”
Celestia made a frustrated noise.
“Ugh! Luna, thou tease!”
Luna laughed again, a joyous, silver sound.
“Oh, very well. It’s a toy, my fay. A companion, to guard my child when he sleeps. At least, until he is old enough to come with me at night.”
She paused, looking at her sister fondly. “And yes, I shall birth my son soon enough. I shall be a mother within a fortnight. And thou, an aunt at last.”
Celestia made a circular gesture with her hoof. “And whence shall come this tiny miracle…?”
Almost absently, Luna gestured to the pile of scrolls atop the borrowed books.
Intrigued, Celestia went over and began to examine the scrolls. Then, frowning, to read them more thoroughly.
Finally, she dropped the last scroll and stared at her sister.
With a contented smile, Luna bit off another thread. “I am.”
“But… but surely, the risks in such a rite...?”
“Creation is never without risk,” Luna shrugged. “I shall be in my shadow-form, when I am most spirit. Then, within circle and spell, I shall pinch off a tiny bit of my own essence and set it free.”
Celestia’s eyes bugged. “Pinch off?!?”
“Spirit regrows well enough when the soul is healthy. And I have researched the matter thoroughly, as thou hast seen.”
Celestia stared. “But… Luna… to sever thyself thus…”
Luna gave another shrug, burying herself in her sewing.
“’Twill hurt some, of course,” she said. “But birth is rarely painless.”
For a few moments, the room was silent. Then, hesitantly, Celestia took a step forward. When she spoke again, her voice was quiet.
“Luna, such a dangerous undertaking… surely, thou wouldst not attempt it alone?”
The needle stopped.
“I had hoped thou wouldst be there when I did this,” Luna admitted, staring into the black and orange cloth in her lap. “But thou hast been so busy, for so long…”
Her voice trailed off.
Gently, Celestia cupped Luna’s chin, guiding her to look at her.
“Affairs of state are affairs of state,” the elder sister said with a loving smile. “And of course they will keep me occupied. But to midwife for thee, my fay? Yea. I can make the time.”
Luna stepped out from her bath, surrounding herself with a soothing aura of warmth. On her bed, no longer than her foreleg, her son rolled fiercely with his tiger. One cloth ear held tightly in his fangs, he happily raked the toy’s exposed underbelly with his tiny rear claws.
For a few minutes, the Night Princess simply stood, smiling as she watched her kitten-like offspring play. It had only been a year, but he had been growing so fast. His claws had become more bladelike, the fires behind his eyes and fangs starting to slowly shift from a bluish colour to a more yellowish-orange.
“Jack?” Luna called gently.
From every shadow of the room, his voice seemed to echo in a juvenile version of her own mindspeech, snarling happily as he tore ineffectually at his prey.
Smiling, she tried again. “Ja-ack?”
This time, he heard her. Releasing his cloth companion, his misty form crouched on the mussed covers, forked tail lashing, butt wiggling, tiny flames flaring from within the orange rind of his pumpkin-like face.
Then, he pounced.
Laughing, she caught him in mid-air, spinning and falling to the floor. In an instant, she was on her back, her offspring tugging at her mane with his tiny fangs in victory.
“Faith, my son,” she laughed. “Lo, I am defeated! The day is thine.”
In an instant, his mistlike feline form fully dissolved into shadow, eagerly swirling around her. She took on her own shadowform, and the two of them joined into a swirling embrace, which quickly dissolved into a chase game throughout her chambers. Shadows sought and pounced shadows within the half-lit royal chambers, laughing all the while.
Eventually, she took on her alicorn form again.
“Jack, wouldst care to join me in my work tonight?” She asked. “Thy flying skills are good enough, I think, and I know thou wouldst enjoy the hunt.”
Jack took a solid form as well. His grooved face tilted as he considered this.
**Mama?** he asked.
**Can tigers hunt?**
She smiled. “Oh, yes. Tigers are storny good hunters, my son. And fearsome fighters, as well.”
**Then, can my tiger come, too?**
Luna paused momentarily.
“Hm. Well, I suppose he should,” she decided at last. “Wouldst want him to be able to hunt on his own someday, would thee not?”
Jack perked up immediately. **Of course I do!**
“Well, then,” she smiled as she trotted towards the great balcony. “Shall we?”
Jack picked up the stuffed toy in his flaming jaws, padding happily after his mother. Moments later, the two of them soared gently through the endless night. Seeking out whatever night terrors might be hunting ponies while they slumbered. Preying upon the night’s predators.
“Yes, my son?”
**I think one day my tiger and I shall hunt by ourselves. Then thee can devote all thy time to helping ponies while they dream.**
“If thou likes,” Luna smiled. “Though I hope it would still be alright if I joined thee, from time to time?”
Years had passed. Jack had, indeed, become quite a hunter despite his youth. If he were a pony, he would still have been in school. But he was not a pony. He was Jack. And while he respected books and the lore they contained, it was the hunt that ever called to his soul.
Yet now, he paused, considering the filly carefully from her room’s shadows.
There were no night terrors tormenting her, of that he was certain. Such vermin were easily detected, their spoor unmistakable. Indeed, he could detect no kind of prey around her. Yet, she curled tightly into herself in the night, miserable, unable to sleep. Until recently, he could have just told Mother about her. There were many dreamers, and more with every passing year. He would have watched over her as she slept, then told her name to Mother come the dawn. Then, Mother would handle the rest.
Only, Mother was gone, now. Reduced to an image in the moon she’d cherished, regularly set in the nighttime sky to remind him of his loss.
So. Apparently, this was a problem he would have to solve by himself.
Frowning slightly, Jack steeled himself for whatever response she might have to him. He did not reveal himself to ponies often. In his experience, there was no way to know how they would react until it was too late.
**I come to thee as a friend.**
The foal sniffled.
**I know thou knowest me not, but I would help thee if I can. Please, what ails thee?**
Still, the filly said nothing.
Jack coalesced himself, the fires of his inner light partially illuminating the room, casting their dancing shadows along the walls.
Her eyes were still closed.
**My name is Jack,** he said.
“’Kay,” she said miserably.
After a while longer, she added, “I’m Lily.”
Jack considered her carefully for several minutes. The subtleties of ponies had never been his strong suit. He was a hunter of monsters, a destroyer of evil, not a giver of solace. Racking his brain, he tried to think of what his mother might have done.
Then, he thought back to his own youth, not so long ago, for what he might have wanted if he had been scared.
Which, when he thought about it, hadn’t happened very often. If at all.
Jack frowned, being careful not to give voice to his frustration. There was no sense in frightening the foal with a snarl from the dark. Still, the problem remained: he wanted to help… but he didn’t know how.
Then, the filly gave a sigh of pure loneliness.
That, at least, Jack understood. After a moment’s hesitation, he spoke again.
**What… if I just… stayed with thee?** he asked uncertainly.
Gently, carefully, Jack crawled into bed with the little pony, curling his mistlike form around her.
Slowly, she stirred. The room seemed a little warmer to her, somehow, the darkness less scary. Relaxing slightly, she reached out and hugged the warm feline body around her. He was impossibly soft, like solidified smoke that breathed, and smelled pleasantly of campfires.
Then, she opened her eyes.
Jack waited, the tip of his tail twitching slightly.
The little filly smiled.
His tail stilled.
A little later, she was asleep.
Jack stayed with her until dawn.
The following night, he returned to Lily’s room. There she was, curled into herself again.
As he took on his more solid form, Lily smiled again, opening her eyes.
“Hi, Jack,” she said.
Again, he curled around her. And, again, she snuggled him, sighing a little as she did.
**Are you alright?** he asked.
“Uh-huh,” She nodded. “I am now.”
He stayed curled around her in silence for a little while. Finally, he spoke again.
**Lily, something plainly troubles thee. Wilt thou confide in me?**
She sighed again.
**Have you tormentors? Do those who are near thee give thee pain?**
It was almost unheard of, but he had learned over the years that some rare ponies would turn on their own children. Of course, one of the first lessons that his mother had ever taught him was to never prey upon ponies, no matter the cause they offered him. That was bad, she’d said. And she’d been right.
Still. Jack had also discovered during his hunts that, under the right circumstances, he was willing to be a little bad.
But the filly shook her head.
“No, it’s nothing like that. It’s just…” She sighed. “I don’t know. It’s always so sad at night. An’ I’m lonesome. An’ it’s scary.”
Jack considered this.
**I can’t promise to come here every night,** he said. **Nor even most nights.**
She squeezed harder.
**But I know someone else who can,** he went on. **Though I should warn thee, he can be a little scary himself.**
“Oh, I don’t mind scary when it’s friends,” she said into his smoky fur. “Scary friends keep the monsters away. But…” She looked down, and said softly, “Will you still come sometimes?”
**Yes,** Jack nodded, smiling. **But for now, wilt thou pardon me but briefly? I can introduce the two of you tonight, if you like.**
Reluctantly, she let him go.
Jack vanished in a swirl of shadow. He reappeared a few minutes later, something black and orange straddling his back.
For the first time, Lily sat up. “What’s that?”
**This,** he said, **is a tiger.**
She studied the stuffed toy carefully.
“What’s a tiger?”
**The tigers are a proud and powerful people,** Jack explained. **They are mighty of fang and claw, and skilled hunters, and enjoy being cuddled at night.**
Then, eyes narrowed, he added, **And… they are terrible in their defence of their friends.**
Lily nodded very seriously. “How do I get to be his friend?”
**I shall teach thee his name,** Jack answered. **Each tiger has many names, and most of them are secrets we shall never know. But I can tell thee the special name by which he is called by his friends, and thou can tell him thine.**
“And then we’ll be friends?”
**For as long as thou dost love him.**
Lily took the toy from his back and hugged it close.
“I’ll be a good friend,” she said into the tiger’s orange and black cloth. “I’ll keep thee safe. I promise.”
Jack smiled at her, his soulfire crackling warmly. Then, he leaned forward in the secret dark, and whispered into his friend’s ear their tiger’s special name.
Ages passed. Generations were born and died. Its origin long forgotten, the little cloth tiger continued to be passed down.
Sometimes it was a birthday present. Sometimes, it was given for Hearth’s Warming Eve. Sometimes, it was given just because.
But always, always, with the passing of the little tiger came the explanation that tigers are a special people. That they are proud, and powerful warriors. That they are mighty hunters. That they are protective of their friends.
And above all: that to befriend a tiger, one must learn their special name, and love them.
Twilight Velvet frowned at the white and violet filly in the mirror, turning her head this way, then that. Finally, with a great sigh, she slumped onto the floor.
“I’m doomed,” she muttered.
After three weeks of being the new foal in Ponyville’s school, Mae Mare and Spoiled Milk had invited her to a tea party that afternoon. They were both a little older than her – they had their cutie marks and everything – and she really wanted to make a good impression. But she’d never been to a tea party with other fillies before.
Should she wear a dress, or was that too much? Should she style her mane? Would there be real tea, or just pretend? She didn’t know, and having to ask now would just make her look stupid.
“Ohhhhhhhhhh,” she moaned in sheer frustration, “what should I do?”
Out of habit, she glanced over where her tiger sat on top of her toy chest, always ready to offer his silent advice. He’d been a gift from her Uncle Earthworks when she’d been just a little filly. Five, or maybe six. Of course, Uncle Earthworks hadn’t been her real uncle, exactly. But he’d been an old friend of her dad and drove the train and was always nice, and she’d liked him a lot.
Uncle Earthworks had been way older than her parents, though. She didn’t know how old. But one time when he was over visiting and she was in bed because it was bedtime, she’d been crying because she’d been lonesome, and he’d come in and talked to her and told her stories until she’d fallen asleep. And the next day, he’d come over and given her his tiger to keep her company. She’d never had trouble sleeping again.
Uncle Earthworks had died a little while later. He hadn’t had any family besides them, so her mom and dad had arranged everything for him. And even though she’d been just five (or maybe six?), Twilight’s parents had let her come to the funeral to say good-bye to him. She’d brought their tiger along (now just hers, she’d realized sadly) because it only made sense that if ponies could get sad, then so could tigers.
Since then, the tiger had been her favorite toy. There was no way of counting how often they’d saved each other from pirates, battled back-to-back against Equestria’s foes, avenged the fallen and unjustly slain. Not to mention the schools they’d built and run together, with her other stuffed toys in attendance as teachers and students; how many wild safaris they’d been on to explore uncharted wilderness; how many hide-and seek-games they’d played in the kitchen and living room whenever it was too rainy to play outside.
Still: for all that he was a tiger, he couldn’t hunt very well (though Twilight would never be the one to tell him so). He always forgot to keep his tail down for one thing, so there was always this orange-and-black signpost bobbing along wherever he was in the tall grass. Also, he chuckled to himself when he got close to his prey. So, though the wildebeests usually let him get at least a little close before running away, to keep from hurting his feelings, an apex predator he was not.
Twilight Velvet smiled at the memories, then shook herself free of them. She was eight, almost nine. Getting invited to tea parties by the big girls was a sign that she was maturing, becoming a young mare. She understood that. Just as she understood that she was also, therefore, too old for playing with toys anymore.
All of which brought her back to the mirror.
She’d style her mane, she decided, but just a little. Even if the older fillies hadn’t, that shouldn’t be too much. As for the dress, well, Mae Mare was hosting it in her back yard, and her yard had a big white fence. Twilight could peek in before she entered. If nopony else was wearing dresses, she’d leave it by the gate where they wouldn’t see.
Breathing a sigh of relief, Twilight went to gather her dress. She knew just the one, too.
Digging it out of her bottom drawer, she put it on quickly, spinning happily in front of the mirror. Her mom had said it brought out her eyes nicely, and now Twilight Velvet had to agree. Plus, she still had plenty of time to eat something (in case all the tea and snacks were just pretend) and head over to the party.
After the party, the three of them would be the best of friends, she decided as she modeled. Even if her dad’s job moved them all back to Canterlot next year – which he’d warned her and Mom that it might – that was no reason not to make friends. If she moved again they could be pen pals, filling page after page with their adventures. Details of what it was like to live where they lived, sharing tales of their school days, and later even their first dates…
And then, out of the corner of her eye, she saw her tiger, sitting alone on the toy chest. She knew that the sideways tilt in his neck was because some of his stuffing had gotten smooshed over the years…
But, well, he still looked sad.
“I’m just going to Mae Mare’s house,” she said out loud. “They won’t have toys there, it’s a big girl party. But it won’t take long, I promise. I have to be home before dark anyway.”
The tiger just sat there, head cocked to one side. Looking down a little, maybe.
Twilight Velvet sighed again.
“We’ll play when I get back,” she heard herself saying. She blinked, a little surprised at herself, then shrugged. If playing toys wasn’t fun anymore – which she was sure it wasn’t, her being a young mare now – she could always stop.
Then again, what if it was a tea party with toys? Twilight frowned again. Mae Mare and Spoiled Milk weren’t that much older. Maybe tea parties were the exception.
Ultimately, she made a frustrated noise, though she was smiling as she did.
“Urgh! Okay, you win, you can come. But,” and she looked into his scuffed black eyes sternly, “if it turns out to be a pony-only party, I have to leave you to guard the gate. Like a soldier. Okay?”
She waited a moment, then nodded, and carried him downstairs to get snacks before they headed out.
Twilight Velvet peered in through the white picket gate with the stealth of a master hunter who always remembered to keep her tail down. There were Spoiled and May, sitting at a small table with a child’s tea set and plates of cookies.
“They have real snacks,” she confided to the tiger happily, “and tea… and they’re wearing dresses! Yes!” She almost jumped for joy, but then she realized.
“Oh,” she said softly, her tail drooping a little. “There aren’t any toys.”
She was more disappointed than she’d expected to be. She glanced at a place by the gate, a small depression in a corner with tall grass. Even if he forgot to keep his tail down again, it was a fine place for a tiger on guard duty.
She looked over her shoulder at the stuffed tiger on her back, then back at the older fillies. She couldn’t walk into their tea party with a stuffed toy. She couldn’t. What would Mae Mare and Spoiled Milk think?
But then, Twilight thought about the time she’d been imprisoned in Tartarus by the evil knight Sir Vile and his terrible master the archmage Fatcat, and how only her tiger had been able to free her, braving Tartarus and all its demons at every turn…
It was just pretend, of course. But still, she’d always imagined that if the tables had turned she would do the same for him.
With determined eyes, Twilight Velvet opened the gate wide, and strode into Mae Mare’s back yard. She made sure the gate didn’t slam, and she made sure to take her time. But just the same, she entered with her head and tail held high, her tiger riding proudly on her back.
At first, everything went well. Mae had kept her purple mane in a simple cascade down her neck, while Spoiled had opted for an elaborate beehive-like affair. So, Twilight’s simple do fit in perfectly as a middle ground between the two.
Plus, there were a few extra places set at the table. Mae explained as she greeted Twilight that her family always set the table with unexpected guests in mind, just in case. So, Twilight happily set her tiger at one of them and poured him tea. The three of them talked about nothing in particular for a while, calling one another “Miss Mae” and “Miss Spoiled,” until Mae finally asked…
“So, Miss Twilight, if I’m not prying, what is your guest’s name?”
Twilight Velvet stopped chewing for a moment. Uncle Earthworks had told her their tiger’s special name, of course. But she knew enough about tigers to understand that such a name was not to be shared lightly. Taking another sip of tea, she swallowed her bite of cookie.
“Um, well,” she began, “tigers have a lot of names. Most of them we’ll never know. And he has a special name, one that’s really old and kind of a secret. But it means ‘Bright Fame’ in modern Ponish, kind of, so I guess we can call him that.”
Mae nodded. “I see. So, with a name like that, is he a soldier?”
Twilight let out the breath she hadn’t realized she’d been holding.
“Not exactly,” she said. “But tigers are great warriors and hunters.”
“Mmm,” Mae nodded again as she took a sip. “He has a killer’s eye, too. One can tell.”
“He does,” Twilight agreed, wondering which eye was the killer one. “He hunts down evil monsters and stuff.”
“Well, then,” Mae smiled. “Mister Bright, you’re very welcome here. Would you care for a cookie?”
“Oh, honestly, Miss Mae,” Spoiled said, rolling her eyes, “You don’t have to humor her like that. I mean, don’t you think it’s a little weird, carrying some old stuffed toy around?”
Twilight started, taken aback by the sudden shift. “Um…”
"Honestly, if she keeps carrying that old tiger around all the time, ponies will think she’s a weanling. In fact, you know as well as I do that lots of ponies do already."
“Please don’t be upset, Miss Twilight,” Mae said smoothly, pouring Twilight some more tea. “She’s just teasing you.”
“Sure,” Spoiled added with a cruel smile. “Don’t cry about it. That’s what weanlings do.”
“I—” Twilight blinked back tears, her throat starting to tighten.
“Now, ladies, let’s don’t quarrel,” Mae said quickly. “Perhaps we should change the subject. Miss Spoiled, would you care for another cookie?”
“Oh, yes please,” Spoiled rejoined happily. “But can we please keep from giving our snacks to that smelly old tiger of hers? It’s obviously just a ploy for her to get more than us.”
Twilight was standing now, though she hadn’t meant to move. The other fillies were still talking, she could just hear them over the roaring sound in her ears. She could feel the wet on her cheeks, but she didn’t want to call attention to her tears by wiping them away.
Mae was staring at Twilight with wide eyes. “Um… Spoiled…?”
But Spoiled just waved the matter away. “Oh, please, Twilight, I’m just teasing you, like Mae said. Besides, you have to admit you’d have more friends if you weren’t so weird all the time.”
Then, turning to Mae Mare, she added, “You should see the stuff she draws in art class, sometime. Nothing but that stupid toy cat of hers.”
“Spoiled,” Mae managed weakly, “Stop it.”
“What? I’m just trying to be nice to her by telling her the truth,” Spoiled replied. “That’s what friends do. And you know as well as I do that everypony thinks her thing with tigers is strange, and that’s why nopony likes her. Even you only invited her because you felt sorry for her—”
Mae whipped her head to look at Twilight’s stricken face. “That’s not true!”
“I’m just trying to help,” Spoiled said. She was still speaking to Mae Mare, but now she was looking right at Twilight. “Celestia knows she needs it. I mean, look at that stupid thing. She probably found it in a trash can somewhere, and now she can’t let go of it.”
Something cold flowed through Twilight’s body then, cooling the fires that had been building within her.
Reaching down, she picked up a napkin in her perfectly steady hoof. With great dignity, she wiped her face dry. Then, she picked up her tiger, put him on her back, and trotted back to the gate, head and tail held high.
“Um, Twilight…?” Mae managed.
Twilight Velvet paused at the gate and turned to Mae Mare, addressing her and her alone with a voice that was both calm and gracious.
“I’m sorry Miss Mae, but I’m afraid you’ll have to continue without us. We don’t have tea with ponies who aren’t nice to tigers.”
And then she was gone, allowing the gate to gently slam behind her.
The terrible Fatcat had somehow returned, placing all of Equestria in his diabolical thrall, freezing them in magical ice.
But that hadn’t been enough. The dreadful archmage hadn’t just wanted power, he’d wanted revenge!
So it was that Bright Fame, feared defender of ponies everywhere, had been overwhelmed by the thousands of wendigo at his enemy’s disposal, and ultimately imprisoned within the deepest pits of Tartarus.
Twilight Velvet was afraid, of course. Any pony would be.
But Bright Fame was her friend. And he had saved her from Tartarus before.
It was only fair that she returned the favor.
The journey was longer than she’d remembered it being before, the perils in greater numbers. But Twilight persevered, through untold dangers and impossible odds. Against the wendigo, against the strange denizens of Tartarus… and even against Sir Vile himself: once slain by Bright Fame, now re-created by Fatcat’s evil magic into a monstrous knight of darkness and fire.
Finally, it came down to Twilight Velvet’s mastery of magic against the evil wizardry of Fatcat, Lord of Tartarus. He fought savagely, using every dirty trick and deadly spell that had ever been known.
But ultimately, the outcome was never really in doubt. Fatcat was defeated by the mighty sorceress, cast down into the flaming pits he had plundered for their forbidden knowledge, there to die forever. The world was saved, and Bright Fame was freed.
And so, friendship triumphed in the end, as it always must.
“…and so, that’s why, through his dedication to the ideals of scholarship, loyalty, and service, the pony who inspires me most is the Princess’ biggest helper and probably best friend, her major domo Abacus Plinth.”
The classroom filled with polite applause as the ten-year-old mare took a small bow and returned to her seat.
Shining Armor joined in with the rest of the students, glancing occasionally at the notes he’d made for his own presentation. Well, okay, the notes that Twily had helped him make. By which he really meant the notes she’d made, while he’d talked about the assignment the night before it was due.
Twilight had been reading, of course. She was half his age, and every librarian at the local library already knew her by name. But at some point, she must have looked up and seen the trouble he was having. Or maybe he’d groaned louder than he’d realized.
But in any case, around the third time he’d muttered how completely hopeless everything was and how stupid he’d been for putting this off the whole week, she’d pulled herself out of her books long enough to roll her eyes and trot over to where he was struggling. She’d picked up a pen she shouldn’t rightly have been able to hold properly yet, grabbed the blank piece of paper he’d been staring at forever, sat down in front of him and said, “Okay, so why?”
He’d blinked. “Why what?”
Rolling her eyes again, she’d replied, “Duh! Why Flash Magnus?”
And so, Shining had rambled about Flash Magnus for about twenty minutes, while she occasionally scribbled something down. After he was done, little Twilight had made some last marks on the scrap paper she’d been writing on and handed it back to him.
“Here,” she’d smiled.
There, in her childish hoofwriting (but with fewer spelling errors than he would have made, he admitted to himself), had been the notes for his presentation. Organized with numbers and arrows showing exactly what order he should actually cover his points, as opposed to the order he’d said them in.
He’d started to thank her, but by the time he’d looked up again the little filly had happily trotted back to her corner and dived back into her history book. He’d grinned and shaken his head, and left her a thank-you note instead. She’d like that better anyway.
Now, he sat at his desk, staring at the folded paper covered with his sister’s notes. He could have recopied it, of course. But he’d gotten distracted, and then it had been time for bed.
Meanwhile, Miss Brightheart was still marking down notes of her own about Cherry Parfait’s presentation, giving Shining a little more time to think.
Each foal was supposed to give a presentation on the pony who inspired them the most. Miss Brightheart had forbidden her students to use Princess Celestia, to avoid having half her pupils give presentations on the fine qualities of their Alicorn ruler. She’d also asked them to please find someone besides their parents if they could. Again, to create some variety in their responses.
Shining had decided upon Flash Magnus immediately. He was brave, noble, and a hero to all of Equestria. He was the obvious, perfect choice. It hadn’t been until last night that Shining had had second thoughts about using the Pillar of Bravery.
As the teacher opened her mouth to ask for the next volunteer, the bell rang. Miss Brightheart’s “Fifteen minutes for recess” was almost completely drowned out as the foals poured out of the classroom towards the playground.
River Stone sat at the edge of the playground, digging into the ground with a stick. She’d been there since recess had started.
Shining Armor had been about to ask her if she’d wanted to play, but something was plainly bothering her. Of course, when Shining had asked her what was wrong, she’d said “nothing,” and kept on digging.
So, he’d said, “Okay,” and lay down in the nearby grass, and waited.
Eventually, after the divot she’d made had become a small hole, she’d sighed.
“I want to do mine on Miss Brightheart,” River Stone said. “I even wrote out a bunch of notes on why.”
One of Shining Armor’s ears went flat, and he gestured vaguely with one hoof. “Okay, so?”
Digging her stick into the dirt a little faster, River went on, “So, I don’t want to get laughed at! Ponies already call me a teacher’s pet. And anyway, what would she think? I don’t want her to think I’m just kissing her flank.”
Shining frowned. “I don’t think she would.”
But River Stone just sighed. “I dunno. I do want to be a teacher when I grow up. And I do want to be like her when I do. But…”
She stopped digging, leaning on her stick like an old mare with a staff. “I wrote some notes on Mistmane, too. I guess I’ll do that one.”
She sighed again, looking down. “At least I’ll get a good grade. I guess.”
As the bell rang to return to class, Shining Armor looked at his friend. She seemed very small just then. Afraid. And very, very sad.
Something within Shining Armor’s mind shifted then. It didn’t change so much as solidify, the idea he had been worrying over since the previous night coming into sharp and unrelenting focus.
“Do yours on Miss Brightheart,” he said.
She shook her head. “I can’t! Everypony’ll just laugh!”
“No, they won’t,” he said firmly. “I’ll go first.”
Not wanting to risk somepony else going before him, Shining had asked Miss Brightheart as soon as he got back in if he could go next. She’d seemed a little surprised, as Shining had always hated oral reports. But she’d said it should be alright.
Now, he was in front of the class. Chalk board behind him, almost every friend he’d ever had in front of him, along with a few foals who were distinctly not his friends. But somehow, he didn’t care. It was as if the rest of the world had fallen away, and all that had been left was what he was there to say, and why. Nothing else mattered anymore.
“My report is gonna be in two parts,” he said. “’Cuz we’re supposed to talk about the pony who inspires us the most. And one of mine isn’t a pony.”
The room was uncomfortably silent. Nervously, Shining glanced over to Miss Brightheart, who seemed genuinely curious. She gave the barest of nods, encouraging him to continue.
“So, um… the first one that inspires me is… my little sister, Twilight.”
It seemed like the entire class dissolved into laughter, until Miss Brightheart stood. Then, order restored, she sat back down and turned to Shining Armor.
“Go on, Shining,” she said.
The young colt took a deep breath, then said, “None of you have met her, even if you’ve been over, ‘cuz she’s always reading. But my little sister is smart. I mean, really smart. She knows algebra and… trig-non-mity…?”
“I think you mean trigonometry, dear,” Miss Brightheart smiled.
There were a few giggles, and Shining Armor nodded, saying, “Right, that. I mean, I can’t even say it. Most ponies don’t even start learning that stuff until college. But, Twilight knows it. Not ‘cuz she was taught it in a class or anything, ‘cuz she wasn’t.
“She’s too little to go to school. She’s five.”
Now, the class was silent.
“And magic?” He shook his head. “She’s already read everything that Canterus Agrippa ever wrote. She’s read the entire Golden Bough series, which is a lot of books by itself. And she keeps pushing herself, keeps studying…”
Shining sighed, bringing out the crumpled paper he had. “At first, I was gonna do my report on Flash Magnus. Miss Brightheart, would you say these are good notes?”
Lowering her spectacles, she looked them over, nodding slightly. “Well, these are fine, if lacking in penponyship…”
“That’s hers. She did that for me last night.”
Turning back to the class, he went on, “Twilight has plenty of reason to be full of herself, to have a big head. To look down on other ponies. And you know what? She doesn’t. With all her brains, she’s still cool.
“I mean, sure, she still gets into stuff a lot, and she can be a pain sometimes – you should hear her go off about whatever she’s just finished reading, geez, it’s like watching a train run by at full speed – but she’s a great sister.
“More than that, she’s my best friend.”
Shining sighed. “I’ll probably never be as good at anything as she is at almost everything. But if I ever am, at anything, well, I just want to be as good a pony as she is. ‘Cuz my little sister… is awesome.”
He glanced to Miss Brightheart, who nodded to him again, and then back to the class.
“The second one that inspires me is… my toy tiger.”
Somepony laughed again, but it was only one. Shining Armor didn’t see who, though. He could feel the blood rushing to his face as he talked to the floor.
“You probably remember my tiger. I used to bring him for recess a lot, when we first started school. He was always my favorite toy. But, he’s also more than that.
“I got him from my mom. He doesn’t look it, but he’s an old toy. Like, really old. And when I was little, he kept the nightmares away.”
He rolled his eyes, adding, “I mean, okay, maybe not really. He is a toy. But, it seemed like he did, and if any of you ever had bad dreams when you were little, that really helped.”
Despite themselves, several of the other students were nodding.
“But more than that… well, Miss Brightheart said that something to look for in a pony we admire is an ideal. And, um, there’s an ideal that goes with him. ‘Cuz I remember when my mom was talking about him, when she first gave him to me.”
He grinned a little ruefully. “Weird, huh? I was really little then. Twilight wasn’t even born yet. But somehow, I still remember it. And when she gave me him, she told me all about how tigers are great fighters, and, um, some other stuff.”
Shining shook his head. “But the thing is, lots of ponies can fight. Almost anypony can fight, really. That’s not an ideal. It’s just, a thing creatures do. And sometimes, ponies get hurt that way. Lots of speaking folk do.
“So, that’s not why.”
He scratched the back of his mane. “’Cuz then, she also said how a tiger stands by their friends no matter what. How they treasure love and kindness, how they help and protect ponies who need it, especially foals. How my tiger had been doing that for longer than anypony can remember.”
Shining Armor looked up at his classmates with an intensity they hadn’t seen before.
“And that’s what I want to be like, more than anything else,” he said. “I want to be not just a good friend, but also help ponies who need help, and protect anypony who needs protection. More than anything, I want to be there for ponies. For all ponies.”
He swallowed, adding, “I want to be there for all of you. I want to protect you from whatever tries to hurt you.
“And if you let me, I always will.”
There was a second of silence, then all the students gasped.
Shining Armor opened his mouth to ask what was wrong, when he felt it. The light surrounded him, flowing out from him and flowing through him, lifting him up as it enfolded him. Burning with a heatless flame, blazing with a brightness that didn’t hurt.
And then, as suddenly as it had begun, it was over. Shining Armor landed unceremoniously on his rear, rubbing the back of his head.
Everyone in the class, even Miss Brightheart, was staring.
“What?” he asked. “What happened?”
Miss Brightheart raised an eyebrow. “Shining, dear, you might want to look behind you.”
Shining glanced back, then gave a double-take, gasping with joy. For there on his flank, for all to see, there was now a shield of black. Emblazoned upon it was a mystic star of violet, with three more azure ones above.
He leaped into the air, whinnying. Even as he landed, he galloped around the front of the classroom, leaping and kicking excitedly, still whinnying all the while.
Then, he stopped. He was still in class!
Oh, geez, he was still giving his report!
Still at her desk, Miss Brightheart was jotting something into her grade book. Then, she looked up with a knowing smile.
“I think that’s an A,” she said.
There was some more laughter then, but it was the good kind. Meanwhile, feeling better than he had in maybe ever, Shining Armor trotted beck to his seat.
He was a protector of ponies.
He really, really was.
Nothing would ever be greater than that joy.
He barely heard when Miss Brightheart asked who would like to go next. But he saw when River Stone hesitantly raised her hoof, and gave her an encouraging smile.
A moment later, River was standing alone in front of the rest of the class. She swallowed, then looked up from her notes. She spoke with a voice that was almost steady.
“My report is on Miss Brightheart.”
There were a few nods and a few eyerolls, but no laughter. Nervously, she glanced over at the teacher.
Miss Brightheart, for the first time, seemed genuinely speechless. But, she didn’t seem upset. Instead, as River refocused on the class and gave her presentation, she wore a strange smile, blinking back tears as a slight blush tinged her cheeks.
It was late, and his parents probably thought he was asleep. They’d all gone out to dinner, to celebrate his getting his cutie mark. Then Dad had announced that since there was no school tomorrow and this was such a big occasion, both foals could stay up as late as they wanted. Mom had suggested they play a board game, and Twilight had suggested Trivial Chase.
But when they’d all gotten home, Shining had excused himself and gone to his room, closing the door. He’d been there for a while. He could hear Twily and his folks playing, and it would’ve been nice to have been playing with them.
But this was important. It couldn’t wait.
Shining Armor continued his examinations of his cabinet’s bottom drawer with a critical eye again and again as he filled it, speaking quietly as he did. Lavender blooms, his old baby blanket, some tiny cushions. Making small adjustments as needed.
“You should’ve seen her, though,” he concluded as he straightened the drawer’s padding again, testing it for comfort. “Once she got up there, she was great. And I think she felt better for giving the report that was more true. I know I did.”
He glanced over to the toy tiger sitting on his bed.
“But, in a weird way, that’s kind of why. I don’t know how else to explain it. But… when I was little, you were all that stood between me and my nightmares. Then, later, you faced them with me. Or I did with you. Or, I dunno, something.
“But today, I realized something when I was up there, waiting to be laughed at, even being laughed at.
“I can stand on my own.”
He busied his hooves adding more lavender, then sat on the floor where he was, still facing the drawer. Then, grimacing, he turned to face the bed.
“I don’t know what else to say. When was the last time I played with you? Months, I think? A year? I mean, you were my mom’s toy first, you must have known that someday…”
His voice trailed off, and he chuckled a little.
“What the heck, I’m explaining to my toy why I’ve outgrown him.” He shook his head. “Real mature, Shining.”
Then, shrugging, he went on, “Maybe this is helping me deal with stuff. I dunno. I know I loved you growing up, and I’m glad mom gave you to me. I had a lot of fun playing with you, and just having you nearby always made me feel safe.
“But I’m older now. I’m not a grownup, exactly, but… I don’t need you anymore.”
He looked at the stuffed tiger on his bed, soft and worn.
“You know, it’s funny. Mom and Dad both checked for magic on you, and couldn’t find any. But you’ve never needed repairs, and you’ve always washed out fine. So I think you were made by somepony who really wanted you to last. Somepony skilled enough to hide their magic. And if that’s true, then there’s no telling how old you are.”
He contemplated his old toy for a moment, then added, “So, I guess that means you’ve heard all this before, huh?”
Slowly, guided by the uneven wrinkles on the bedsheets, the tiger fell over onto one side.
Shining Armor sighed.
“It feels weird saying this to a stuffed toy, but I am sorry,” he said. “Any toy can seem alive, but you were always, I dunno, more than that.
“I’d thought for a while I’d end up giving you to Twilight,” he went on with a rueful smile. “But I mean, come on. Even when she was a toddler, you know what she cuddled in her sleep? Books.”
Shining Armor walked over to the toy and gently picked it up in his teeth. A moment later, he was tenderly stowing the tiger in the drawer among the small blankets and sweet-smelling flowers.
“Dad always said that lavender was great for storing important things, so they’d be safe from bugs and stuff,” he said softly. “Plus, it smells nice.”
As he finished tucking the baby blanket around his old toy, he thought of the times he’d tucked his sister in, when she’d fallen asleep and had to be carried to bed. That was what the stuffed tiger looked like now, somehow. Not like an outgrown toy in storage, but a tiny creature that was sleeping.
“Mom said one time that her uncle gave you to her ‘cuz he didn’t have foals of his own,” he whispered. “Maybe someday Twilight’ll have foals, and I’ll give you to one of them. But I’ll find somepony you can play with again someday. I promise.”
Stepping back, the colt considered that he really should have been feeling foolish then, talking to a plaything of cloth and stuffing, seeing to its comfort. But instead, it just felt... right.
He reached in, scritched the tiger one last time behind the ears.
Then Shining Armor gently closed the drawer, and went out to play games with his family.
Though the sun was yet unseen, Prince Shining Armor was already awake. He tended meticulously to the early morning affairs of state, guarding his beloved’s rest from bureaucracy’s perils. Their newly-born daughter he had gently moved from their bed, allowing his wife a deeper sleep. At least, for a little while. And he had given strict orders that his lady was not to be disturbed, no matter the cause or time of day.
Meanwhile, in the darkness of the royal nursery, unseen by mortal eyes, something stirred. Something that was dream, yet more than dream.
For a moment, the light from the setting moon wavered as the darkness gathered herself together. Then, she stood by the cradle in physical form, peering into it with an expression born of pure love.
“Hello, little one,” Luna whispered.
In the Night Queen’s shadow, the as-yet nameless weanling yawned, then made a contented noise and snuggled deeper into her covers.
Luna contemplated the youngest alicorn, smiling through slow, gentle tears. Her mind told her firmly that it had been a thousand years since her fall, the Crystal Empire’s banishment through time having been only a few months before. And shortly before that, young Princess Cadence’s own disappearance.
But Luna’s heart insisted that while it had been several years since she had burst forth from her nightmarish prison of armor and rage, it had only been a day before that when she had risen against her sister. Even with Celestia’s songs to comfort her as she’d slept, Luna’s slumber within Nightmare Moon – and Nightmare Moon’s slumber, in turn, within the moon’s essence – had made a mockery of time.
What a short while it had been, her heart therefore whispered, since little Cadence had gotten her cutie mark and been sent hurtling forward through time. What a short time it had been since the Crystal War.
And so it was that Princess Luna stood in the nursery’s silence, looking down over the daughter of her now-grown crystalfoal in a state of joyful wonder.
The weanling burbled and rolled over, clutching something previously concealed by her covers.
For a moment, Luna stared in astonishment. Then, gingerly, she reached down and moved the child’s blanket just enough to confirm the identity of the weanling’s snuggle toy.
“Well, hello, little warrior,” Luna whispered. “Fancy meeting you here.”
She took a moment to consider the stuffed tiger before continuing, “It has been a long time, has it not? I can only imagine how you came to be here, what adventures you must have had along the way.
“I wonder what games you must have played with the foals who friended you. What brave battles you must have fought, your young companions ever by your side.”
For a time, she simply smiled at the two tiny figures in the cradle before her.
“You know, I would never have expected to find you in a pony’s arms, not in a thousand times a thousand years,” she said at last. “But now, I can’t think of any place I would rather find you than precisely where you are.”
Cuddling her toy, the weanling began suckling in her sleep.
With the greatest care, Luna tucked her in a little more snugly, daring to briefly caress her tiny mane lightly as she slept.
“Good night, then,” she said tenderly. “Both of you.”
With a silence that even the shadows would envy, Princess Luna stepped back and dissolved again into a darkling mist. The moonlight wavered once more and then she was gone, her moon sinking slowly below the horizon.
The changelings buzzed around one another, cold professional concern quickly giving way to panic. How? How had they been detected so quickly?
Their mission had been simple. Imitating inanimate objects and ornaments, they were to wait for their chance to assume the places of the prince consort and the daughter. Taking the places of the personal guards would probably make imitating the royal family easier. But they were their queen’s elite, her deadliest assassins, trained by the queen herself and armed with anti-magical amulets carved from her very throne. Thus, they’d been given a great deal of latitude on how they were to proceed.
The ultimate goal was for the royal family and their protectors, all save for Cadence herself, to be imprisoned and replaced. The Queen had decreed that this would be more satisfying than killing the princess outright, and nobug disobeyed the Queen.
As for how she would ultimately use the ponies in question… the changelings had shuddered and tried not to guess. There were things far worse than death, after all. But now, instead of capturing their targets, they were fleeing, the alarm sounding throughout the palace halls, every avenue of escape seemingly blocked by ponies or their magic.
Exchanging worried glances, they quickly conferred among themselves in the telepathic rapport of the Hive. If they remained, they would be captured. If they made it out, they might reach their queen to give a report, or they might not.
But if they returned to the queen without completing any part of their mission, whatever fate she had intended for their targets would be visited upon them instead.
With renewed determination born from sheer terror, the changelings flew as directly as they dared towards their secondary target. After all, Queen Chrysalis did not seek the pony monarch’s death. Not yet. First, she sought her pain. Her heartbreak.
And once a pony has children, they are never truly free again.
The toddler’s emotions were easy to sniff out, even in the crowded palace, even in the chaos and fear that ran rampant throughout its crystal halls. There were only two guards between the seven assassins and the nursery. They fell quickly enough. The changelings smashed the door in as the alicorn foal screamed, swarming murderously into the brightly painted chamber beyond.
Shining Armor had never run so fast in his life.
There had been times before when he had quietly envied the ease with which his younger sister had mastered teleportation. It was something neither he nor his wife had ever learned. But only now did he curse whatever powers there were for keeping such a vital ability from them both.
All around him, everything was happening too fast, too fast. Almost as soon as the alarm had been sounded, the hue and cry of Changelings! had spread throughout the palace. And even as he’d begun running, Cadence had zoomed overhead, vanishing into the halls that curved before him. The oath that Chrysalis had sworn, years ago, echoing in both their terrified minds… even as a terrible roar filled the Royal Wing of the Crystal Palace.
I will destroy everything you hold dear. I will turn everything you love against you. I will take away every heart’s dream you have ever known.
And only then, only when all love is lost and all hope is gone from your soul… I will feel the life drain out of you!
In retrospect, the changeling response to a failed infiltration was all too obvious.
He knew he was too late as soon as he saw the shattered nursery door, the stunned guards staggering desperately to their hooves. He galloped through the portal, fearing the worst…
…and, miraculously, was greeted by the cries of their daughter, held in his wife’s arms.
For an unknowable time, the couple simply held their little girl and each other tightly, oblivious to all else, while the palace guards filed in and stationed themselves on both sides of the ruined door.
Then, slowly, Shining became aware of the guards’ hesitation as they entered, the quiet murmurings as they secured the room and the hall. With effort, he tore his attention away from his daughter and looked around himself.
The nursery had been all but completely destroyed. Only Flurry’s bed was unscathed.
The walls were streaked with the dark ichor that served as changeling blood, and scored deeply in multiple places with the unmistakable parallel furrows of gargantuan claws. Perhaps half a dozen of the buglike creatures lay here and there amid the wreckage of Flurry Heart’s toys and cabinets. It was hard to give an exact count: a few were badly bitten, but most of them had been torn apart.
Flurry began screaming something. With difficulty, Shining Armor tore himself out from his wife’s embrace and gave a quick search near the toddler’s bed.
Ah, there it was. Flurry’s tiger. One arm was hanging by a few orange threads, and there were multiple rips and gouges along the toy’s body. Some stuffing was hanging out where the damaged arm dangled.
One eye was missing as well, and crazily Shining Armor caught himself thinking, Well, it obviously wasn’t the killer’s eye he lost.
Shining returned almost immediately, shoving the stuffing back into place as he went, placing his newfound treasure into Flurry’s outstretched arms. She locked her arms around the toy with a satisfied “Hoff!” and then was quiet, eyes closed, safe with her parents around her and her guardian in her grasp.
Shining Armor wrapped his arms back around his family, holding them as tightly as he could.
The princess rummaged through her old wardrobe, humming to herself contentedly.
The empire had been at peace for many years, and its alliance with Equestria was stronger than ever. Her people were prosperous and happy, and the Crystal Heart grew more powerful with every season.
Intellectually, of course, she knew that the artifact’s magic had become steadily stronger over the years because of the love her ponies poured into it. But in her own heart, it felt more as though her empire’s ancient talisman had gotten stronger as her own life had grown brighter.
Of course, it hadn’t been easy since her mother’s abdication. No matter one’s training, nothing could truly prepare a pony for running a kingdom. But just the same, advised by Sunburst, she and her prince had…
Flurry Heart stopped, her smile irrepressible at the thought.
Yes. Her prince.
Her smile grew as she allowed the memories to flow over her like a warm spring tide, pulling her into their embrace.
One pleasant summer afternoon, around the age of nine, young Flurry had asked her mother why they were so different from her father.
“Is it because he’s from Canterlot?” she’d asked. “Does that mean Aunt Twilight an’ Luna an’ Celestia are from here?”
“No, dear heart. It’s... here,” her mother had said, leading her to an ornate stone bench in the royal gardens.
That day, Cadence had sat her daughter down and explained things to her as gently as she could. What was known of Luna and Celestia’s transformation, Twilight’s, and her own. That Flurry Heart was the only pony known to have been born an alicorn.
And, reluctantly, that while Shining Armor would one day age and die – assuming he didn’t die defending the realm from some future threat first – the two of them never would.
Years later, a fifteen-year-old Flurry had sat across from her mother at dinner. It was just the two of them, Shining Armor being away on a diplomatic mission to Griffonstone. Something had obviously been troubling the young alicorn for weeks. But Cadence had forced herself to be patient, having learned years ago that her daughter would speak when she was ready.
This night, her patience had been rewarded.
“Mom, I have a question.”
Cadence had smiled. “And I have an answer. Shall we see if they match?”
But Flurry Heart had only sighed, staring at her plate.
Cadence had frowned. “Flurry?”
At length, and with obvious difficulty, her daughter spoke again.
“Mom... why did you marry?”
Clearing her throat, Flurry went on, “I mean, why did you marry Dad? Why did you marry anypony when you know they’ll... I mean...”
Her voice trailed off into silence.
For a moment, when her mother had stood, Flurry Heart had been afraid that she’d hurt her. As difficult as it was to ask, she could only imagine how hard it would be to answer such a question.
But Cadence had only crossed to where she’d sat so anxiously and gathered her into her arms, holding her close.
“Oh, sweet heart,” she’d said. “Is this what’s been bothering you?”
Returning the embrace, Flurry had nodded.
“It’s just... he’s always hurting, now,” she’d whispered into her mother’s mane. “Every morning when he wakes up, every day when the weather changes. I know you and Sunburst try to help with potions and stuff, but, I mean, you had to know that someday...”
“Yes. I was young when we married, but I knew.”
They had parted then, Cadence considering her daughter with a sad smile, gently moving her mane away from her eyes.
“I married your father for the only reason to marry anypony, my dear,” the elder immortal had said. “I married him for love.”
At length, Shining Armor had returned, and time had continued to roll past. The prince had only been in his thirties, but his pain continued to be near-constant, a lifetime of fighting and strain having taken its toll on his mortal form. Flurry had watched her mother’s heart break again and again with each new difficulty he’d faced over the next year. And as she had, the young princess had taken a silent vow.
Never. Never would she bind her life to a pony she would outlive.
Then, suddenly, unexpectedly, Shining Armor had died. And even as she’d held her mother through heart-wrenching sobs, even as the snow had begun to fall on her father’s tomb, Flurry had sworn anew. Never would she put herself through such heartbreak.
Princess Cadence had not abdicated immediately. But in retrospect, the funeral had been the beginning of her reign’s end. The transfer of power had been gradual, Cadence’s role moving from monarch to co-regent, and then to advisor over a period of three years. Then, at age eighteen, Flurry had been coroneted as princess of the empire. Her mother had remained at the Crystal Palace for the next six months, and then moved back to Canterlot to stay with Princess Twilight and her family.
It had been scarcely a year into her reign when Flurry had made her first visit to Canterlot as the Crystal Empress. That was when she had met Vorpal Blade.
And that very night, she’d understood.
A visitor to the palace himself, he’d gotten lost in its maze of corridors almost immediately… and then stumbled over a pair of terrified foals who’d also gotten lost, becoming separated from their parents in the process.
So, he’d done the logical thing, at least to him: he’d begun telling them stories to cheer them up. Making up silly poems to help them forget their tears. Singing songs that might help them laugh.
By the time the three of them had found a palace guard and been escorted to the guard office, Vorpal Blade had been improvising so many funny songs about golden scales and battles over rattles that even the foals’ parents had been laughing as they’d joyfully embraced their children.
Shortly thereafter, when the laughter had wound down and the reunited families had departed, Flurry and Vorpal had begun talking. Then, they’d both looked up and realized that several hours had passed.
Somehow, that had led to dinner. And then to a serenade, Vorpal Blade kneeling before her, his baritone voice weaving itself around her heart as they fell into each other’s eyes.
When she’d been a filly, Flurry Heart had always thought she would have a long courtship before marriage, like her parents. Later, at her father’s funeral, she’d resolved that she would never marry at all. Oh, she might take a lover now and then, she’d thought firmly, but nothing with an illusion of permanence.
And yet, in defiance of all her expectations, there she’d been. Exchanging her vows with the pegasus she adored in the summer afternoon, a mere six weeks after their first meeting, scarcely a mare of twenty. More determined than ever to have no regrets as the years flew swiftly into decades, swearing to herself that she would live such that every moment she spent with her husband would be a treasure. A jewel she would keep forever safe within the palace of her mind. Not a single instant or opportunity to be with him wasted.
And when the kiss was over and the crowds were cheering, there had been Cadence, standing alongside Vorpal’s parents. Smiling through her tears, even as she had wept in perfect understanding.
Vorpal had been raised in a large family, and the couple had agreed early on that they should have as many foals as physically possible. Less than a year after their wedding, Flurry had given birth to their first son.
A pegasus, like his father.
Vorpal Blade had been prepared for the look of exhausted love on his wife’s face as she held their weanling to her chest. But as their child had nursed, she’d also seemed sad, sighing as she’d gazed down on him.
Vorpal had frowned. “Honey? Are you okay?”
“I guess being an alicorn doesn’t necessarily breed true,” she’d whispered, caressing her son’s short mane. “Twilight was right. Even tribe is a matter of chance.”
Another stallion might have thought that she’d been disappointed in their son, that she’d been upset that he wasn’t more like her. But Vorpal had just sat down on the bed next to her and kissed her gently on the base of her horn.
“Then he’ll be an only foal,” he’d said softly. “There’s no need to risk having one immortal sibling watch the other die from old age.”
Flurry had nodded silently, and then continued to gently stroke her son’s mane. And as the sunset had slowly painted the room in fiery colors through its ornate crystal panes, Vorpal Blade had held them both, softly singing them to sleep.
Back in the present, the door to the royal bedroom flung open, Flurry Heart prancing in happily.
Vorpal Blade looked up from playing with their infant son and grinned. Other mares would have needed more time to recover after giving birth, but his beloved was back to her usual self after just a good night’s rest.
And food, of course. Sweet Celestia, but a worn-out alicorn could eat.
“Hey, look who’s here,” he said excitedly to the weanling on their bed. “Who’s that? Is that Mommy? Why, yes it is! That’s Mommy! That’s Mommy!”
The weanling burbled happily, laughing and waving his legs.
“And what’s that?” Vorpal went on. “What’s that Mommy’s got?”
Flurry gave a smile and pulled the tiny object off her back with her hoof, showing it to them both.
“This, my love,” she said, “is a tiger.”
The weanling’s eyes grew big and round, and he started kicking excitedly, his blanket quickly sliding off his rear legs.
One of Vorpal’s ears went flat, and he gave a slight confused frown. “I’m sorry, a… what?”
Vorpal gave a helpless gesture. “Which is…?”
“The tigers are a noble people,” Flurry Heart explained, more to her son than her husband. “Fearsome warriors and mighty hunters. They are slow to anger…”
Her eyes narrowed, taking on a strange light as she continued, “…yet they are terrible when defending their friends.”
Vorpal’s frown of puzzlement deepened, but he said nothing. The environment of the room had changed while Flurry had been speaking. He might never have studied magic to the degree that his wife had, but he knew a ritual when he saw one.
Or, more properly, when he felt one. For the atmosphere of the room had distinctly changed, as though somehow the plush toy in his wife’s hoof had become the center of an ancient rite. And while he didn’t feel like an intruder, exactly, he sensed it was something he would never be privy to completely. No matter how forthcoming his wife might want to be, he simply wasn’t part of what was about to happen.
And yet, whatever it was, he was being allowed to witness it. Thus, Vorpal Blade remained silent, determined to respect its sanctity.
“To friend a tiger,” Flurry intoned, now addressing their son exclusively, “is both a simple thing and a great one. For you must learn his special name, that one name among many that is only for his friends to know. And, you must love him. For so long as you hold his name in your mind, he will hold yours in his heart. And so long as you love him, no matter what, he will always love you back.
“So it’s up to you, dear one,” she concluded. “Do you want to be friends with this tiger?”
The weanling squeaked happily, extending all four legs towards her.
Flurry laughed joyfully, the tension in the room immediately dissipating.
“I’d call that a yes,” she said.
Vorpal smiled. From the first moment they’d met, he had treasured his wife’s laughter. It always made him think of silver bells on freshly-fallen snow. Now, their infant laughed as well, a tiny, sweet sound, blending with Flurry Heart’s merriment.
“So, wait a minute,” he asked. “He’s not going to remember any of this, is he?”
But Flurry gave her husband a smile full of secrets, saying, “I always did.”
She put the toy tiger within her son’s reach, and the infant snatched it up with an “Mmm!” hugging it close.
Then, still smiling her secret smile, Flurry Heart leaned over the bed, and whispered into her son’s ear their tiger’s special name.