Chapter Eighteen - Picking Up the Pieces

If she could, she would have facehoofed. Had she really made the magically equivalent mistake of not washing her hooves and instruments before surgery? Probably.

Trixie started awake when someone knocked on her wagon door. Beside her, Niian rested undisturbed on its wall mount, and a quick check of her wards told her she didn’t need to worry about an assassination attempt nor being dragged back to Twilight Sparkle’s doomed from the outset friendship retreat. She’d honestly expected somepony to come for her days ago, but if the powers that be wished to waste their time, it was no skin off her back.

Then again, what if they already had another bearer for her Element and were just waiting to lull Trixie into a false sense of security? Hadn’t the pink one said she could wield Laughter? She could try to run, but Trixie doubted she could get away. A competent team was watching her. She knew so because she’d not been able to even identify the spies. The moment she tried to leave, she’d have Twilight–

A click came from the door, the sound of a lock shifting. Trixie shot up in bed abruptly alert and grasped Niian with her magic. It shouldn’t be possible for somepony to break into her wagon without demolishing it outright. Nonetheless, an impatient unicorn kicked the door open still very much on its hinges. She was polymorphed, so Trixie paid no attention to her appearance and frowned when she didn’t recognize the feel of the mare’s magic.

“Who in Tartarus are you?”

“I’m the other side of the coin,” the unknown mare replied. “Now get your plot out of bed and make yourself presentable. We need to talk.”

Before Trixie could protest, the mare left and slammed the door behind her.

“Well,” Trixie said in a huff. She rolled back into a cocoon of blankets with every intent to slip off back to the only refuge left to her in the world.

“Fatal Error: increased mane tangles. Restart ablutions.”

As it so justly deserved, Trixie tossed Niian out of her bed onto the floor. Why did she put up with that menace?

Still slightly damp from her shower, in which Lyra had somewhat understandably declined to join her, Sweetie Drops made her way back into the bedroom she shared with her marefriend. Through the corridors came the soft sound of Lyra’s voice raised in a ballad of loss and loneliness with only the slow, solitary notes of her lyre to accompany it. Intertwined were haunting silences where another’s song should fill the void.

Sweetie Drops followed the music, letting it draw her closer as magic pulled at her to join in but not yet. She wished she could, but not yet. She wanted to hold Lyra and assure her she was not alone, but not yet.

At last, the opportunity arose. In a silence, Sweetie Drops moved into their bedroom to join the duet. Her lyrics were those of comfort and hope, and Lyra brightened immediately. The song swelled. Lyra rose from their bed. They circled one another in a dance as old as it felt new. Then came the climax, and the last note hung in the air.

Lyra snaked an arm around Sweetie Drops’s neck. With a light pull and some remarkable flexibility, she pulled them back onto their bed with Sweetie Drops atop her.

An eternity passed in an instant.

“I just showered,” Sweetie Drops protested teasingly.

“Magic solves all problems,” Lyra retorted.

Sweetie Drops rolled her eyes. She was living with far too many sorceresses. “I didn’t know you could sing heartsongs.”

“Ah…” That killed the mood faster and more thoroughly than Sweetie Drops had intended. Lyra offered her a wan smile. “The entire pony taxonomy, not just the three Equestrian tribes, is the most…affected.”

Eyebrows raised, Sweetie Drops said, “Not the word you were going to use.” No matter how musically inclined one was, most sorceresses tended to dislike getting caught up in heartsongs because it meant giving up control, which, as she understood it, was a major requirement of casting spells safely.

“Shush. Of course it was.” Lyra swatted Honesty about her neck, which only proved it wasn’t. “Most sapient species can join heartsongs. I even once saw a griffon get pulled into one with a sphinx.”

“What? How did that happen?”

Lyra shrugged. “They wouldn’t tell me the story afterward, which is a real shame. Those are two of the least susceptible species, and they rarely interact. I’m sure there had to be lots of wacky hijinks involved.”

That sounded like it would make a good premise for a movie. “Where did this happen?”

“The middle of the desert at the heart of the dragon lands, if you can believe it.”

The story only grew more curious. Never mind the sphinx and the griffon’s presence there, Sweetie Drops asked, “What on Equus were you doing there?” Beyond the dragons’ isolationism, the hottest, driest, most brutal desert in the world was no place for an amphibious being.

“Ah, well, I’d just left home, and I figured it’d be the ideal place to hide for a while. Would not recommend.”

Sweetie Drops snorted. Anypony with legs would have known that. She rolled off of Lyra but snuggled into her side. “How many places did you go to before Canterlot?”

Whatever reluctance Lyra had to answer faded quickly. “I wandered up the eastern continents. I, uh, well, fled the dragon lands in the wrong direction into Zebrica and managed to make my way up into Saddle Arabia. I caught the train across the Grover Strait into the Griffon Kingdom and hightailed it to Prance. Then I took the Northern Pass into Equestria. At that point, I hopped onto the train in Rainbow Falls and headed for the most inland city I could find.”

“Did you at least enjoy the sights along the way?”

Lyra stopped to consider that for a short while, idly listing the things she’d either seen or should have had she known of them. Most of the places she’d passed through hadn’t merited more than a glance or an interested stare from afar at the time, it seemed, but a few she eventually elaborated upon in not inconsiderable detail. From the sound of it, she’d spent most of her down time in Prance and had developed a thing for art galleries while there.

Sweetie Drops tucked that bit of new information away for later in case she ever needed to butter Lyra up for something.

“Where did you learn to play the lyre?” Lyra had mentioned it before, but the timing didn’t add up, and Sweetie Drops doubted stringed instruments worked well underwater.

“Ah, that’s kind of a long story. Promise not to make fun of me?”

Grinning, knowing Honesty would catch any other answer, Sweetie Drops said, “Absolutely not.”

Lyra turned her head toward Sweetie Drops and pouted.

“Nope. Not working. Tell me.”

Although she sighed, Lyra relented. “Fine. After the first time I went up on dry land, I started…collecting things.”

“Oh Celestia, you’re the little seapony!” She tried. She really did. But Sweetie Drops laughed.

“Yes, yes. Very amusing,” Lyra said dryly. “I found an enchanted lyre – my lyre – about…uh… We don’t have seasons, so we measure time differently.” She performed some quick mental math. “Roughly three seasons later, give or take a few weeks, I found my lyre.”

Sweetie Drops just had to know. “Where?”

“I’d never seen–”

“It was in a sunken ship, wasn’t it?”

Lyra, to her credit, said, “No,” with an almost believable face, but the subsequent glare at Honesty exposed her.

Laughing, between attempts to catch a breath, Sweetie Drops asked, “Did they base that movie off of you?”

“Unless you’ve been hiding something from me between your legs, definitely not.”

“Well, your spell wore off last ni – eek!”

Lyra pounced, relentless in her assault, with expert hooves that sought out those places she usually avoided. Sweetie Drops squirmed in a giggle fit, barely given enough reprieve to breathe between bouts of tickling. “I give, I give, I give!”

Victorious, and very smug in her triumph, Lyra smirked down from above and claimed a kiss as a prize. “Do you want to hear the rest of the story?”

Sweetie Drops nodded. She’d had her fun, and it was good for Lyra to have something to laugh about in her past. Every day she spent laughing, venting, crying, or just talking, Sweetie Drops could see her heal just a bit more. It might not have come about in the best way, but she’d desperately needed somepony who would just listen without dismissing her problems. The next time she went in for a psych evaluation, Sweetie Drops promised herself to bring Lyra with her.

Once more side by side, although now snuggled in each other’s legs, Lyra continued on with her story. “For the longest time, Aquestria had to import most instruments you’re familiar with. Being underwater doesn’t exactly do you any favors for manufacturing.”

“I’d imagine. What changed?”

Lyra smirked. “Magic.”

Of course. Sweetie Drops didn’t know what she should have expected.

“Seaponies all have horns, every last one of us. When you lot started digging up this weird, flimsy material that falls apart in water and learning stuff from before Discord, the knowledge eventually filtered its way down below. Aquestria really boomed when we got the water repelling enchantment. Before then–”

Sweetie Drops kissed Lyra to interrupt her. As interesting as the development of a submerged society was to contemplate, they were getting off topic. “Your lyre?”

“Ah. Right. Yes. So by the time it became practical to use instruments like yours, we’d already developed our own musical traditions. Shoo-bee-doo, and all that. I’d never seen a lyre before, and it got my attention. It didn’t take too long to figure out the basics, and I ended up using it to relax after fighting whichever abyssal horror of the day decided to try to claw its way out of the deepest, darkest trench in the Sparkling Sea.”

Going down that route wouldn’t do much good right now, so Sweetie Drops quickly moved them along. “You taught yourself?”

Lyra started out of wherever her thoughts had been taking her. “Huh? Oh. Yeah, for a while. I was the master of waters. Plucking some strings in rhythm isn’t hard when I’m not trying to use my hooves. Composition, though? That’s another story entirely. I didn’t learn much music theory until I made it to Prance and bought a few books on the subject.”

“Hmm…” Propping herself up a bit to better see, Sweetie Drops’s gaze swept past far more tempting parts of Lyra to land on something she’d been wondering about. “Do seaponies get cutie marks?” She probably should have looked that up at some point, but one simply didn’t ask a pony if their cutie mark was fake. That was about as rude and tactless as one could get. In this instance, however, she smirked and asked, “If so, how long were you a blank flank?”

Lyra laughed and took it in the good humor with which it’d been meant. “No, that’s exclusively an Equestrian pony thing as far as I know. Seaponies split from our common ancestor before your magic developed that odd quirk.” More seriously, she added, “Mine likely isn’t what I would have gotten naturally, but it’s what I chose for myself. I left my old life behind and set out on a new one. With you.”

“Oh, you.” Sweetie Drops shifted closer until their noses bumped together. “You say the sweetest things sometimes.”

That put a wide grin on Lyra’s face. “I try,” she said before moving in for a quick peck. “What about you? How did you get into monster hunting? Nothing tragic, I hope.”

“No, no. Actually, there are regulations about those sorts of hires now.” Sweetie Drops lowered her voice to a whisper. “You know who is making me actually read the entire book as punishment for how I dealt with you.”

For the first time since the big fight, Lyra didn’t flinch when somepony mentioned Twilight. “Serves you right,” she said. “Do I look like a vicious, savage monster to you?”

“Well…” Sweetie Drops began with a considering air. “You did hold me down and have your way with me last night. I’m quite sure you bit me several times as well.”

“Yes, and you spent years training me to do so.”

Sweetie Drops flushed first and admitted defeat. “Yeah, I did. But I was serious, you know. Twilight added all sorts of ridiculous rules and regulations. There’s a section on encountering somepony claiming to be you. One on how to establish relations with a new sapient species discovered living amongst us. Another on – well, hmm… That last one actually happened.”

Lyra made no attempt to hide her obvious amusement. “Changelings, right? And then there’s the Pinkie Sense, so time travel must be a thing somehow.” Now smirking, she added a hint of singsong to her voice. “Maybe sorceresses know what they’re on about?”

“Yeah, maybe,” Sweetie Drops admitted despite knowing more or less what would come next.

“In fact,” Lyra said, “did you know that no harm can come to me from eating nothing but your delicious confectioneries every day? Why, technically, I don’t even need to eat!”

Sweetie Drops offered up a saccharine smile filled with awe and reverence. “Amazing,” she breathed. “We’ll save so much on our food budget.”

Eyes wide, Lyra realized her mistake and immediately backpedaled. “But I suppose I should set a good example for those around me who aren’t so lucky as to have magically shaped forms. Now if I remember correctly, you were telling me your story?”

Sweetie Drops let her love off light with just a giggle. “So I was. Honestly, my missions make for more interesting stories, but as you wish. I’ve always had a bit of a lust for adventure. While I love my work as a confectioner, I never could scratch that itch. So one day I decided to just go for it on impulse. I caught the next train out of town and went to explore some old Pre-Discordian ruins. I didn’t expect to find anything as they’d already been picked clean, but that didn’t matter. I ended up running into a hydra.”

“That’s the thing that grows two new heads when you lop one off, right?”

“Yeah.” The next part of the story would be a little embarrassing to admit to, but Sweetie Drops didn’t intend to omit the details. “It chased me around for a while. I was in good shape and kept my wits about me, so I stayed safely ahead of it for the most part using the dense environment. It got me a few times with a swipe of its tail, but no big deal. One time, I managed to climb up it onto the hydra’s back. I mean, I’d be completely safe there, right?”

Lyra snorted. “Not your best plan.”

“Quite. Anyway, as it turned out, I only ended up in that situation due to a bit of unfortunate timing. The Anti-Monster Division is quick to respond to these sorts of things, but it operates in secret, so it doesn’t often get to cordon off areas. I showed up between the first sighting and their arrival. Then they showed up and dealt with the hydra. My old boss was impressed with my performance, untrained as I’d been, and offered me a position with them. He promised my cover story wherever they posted me would allow me to continue my work as a confectioner, so I took it.”

“Huh. That’s it?”

Sweetie Drops nodded. “That’s it.”

“That was…very tame. The surface is so peaceful.”

It was, something for which Sweetie Drops was forever grateful. She knew that hadn’t always been the case. Not many believed the old stories anymore, but far worse than mere hydras used to walk Equus unchallenged after Discord’s fall. Princess Celestia, however, had brought them to heel under her rule.

“Hey, Bon Bon.” There was a nervous edge about Lyra, yet she pressed on nonetheless. “I, uh… If – that is – no. You see, I’m good at killing monsters. When you go on your missions, well, I could maybe tag along to keep you safe?”

Sweetie Drops pulled Lyra close. “I would never ask that of you.”

“I’m offering,” Lyra protested somewhat weakly. “It wouldn’t even be hard.”

“And I appreciate that, but it doesn’t matter.” The last thing Lyra needed was to go back out into the field. Maybe someday they could go on adventures together, but that wouldn’t be for a very long time. “We’re good at killing monsters too. So good, in fact, that we generally first attempt to subdue and relocate them.”

“I…” Sweetie Drops felt Lyra swallow as she held her love against her. “If you’re sure.”

“I am. There’s no shame in you wanting to stay at home.” And if Lyra didn’t believe those words, she would have to believe Honesty. “You’ve done your part for the world, Lyra.”

A suspicious wetness forced its way into Lyra’s voice as she said, “I love you.”

“I love you too.”

Sweetie Belle peeked around the corner of the hall. There’d not been a sound since the conclusion of that magnificent heartsong, and as far as she could tell, Lyra and Bon Bon wouldn’t be coming out of their bedroom anytime soon. She certainly wasn’t about to be the one to disturb them, either.

“Uh, so, should we…”

“No!” Sweetie Belle pulled Spike back behind the corner. “After that? They’re probably…you know.” She couldn’t tell for sure, but their thoughts were certainly fragmented enough that she felt wrong for eavesdropping.

“Yeah, good point.” With neither of them really sure what to do now, Spike scratched his cheek. “I guess we should tell Mom they’re occupied?”

It was as good a plan as any Sweetie Belle could come up with, so they set out.

As they walked, Sweetie Belle played back the duet she’d just heard in her head. It had to be wonderful to have a special somepony to sing with like that. Did Archmage Twilight ever regret not finding love? She didn’t seem to, but without being able to properly read her mind, who would know? Sweetie Belle wondered if she should ask. She was following in Archmage Twilight’s hoofsteps, so she should gather information and prepare herself to make an informed decision beforehoof.

Then again, Sweetie Belle knew Archmage Twilight and her sister got along surprisingly well. Maybe she should see what happened if she gave them a little push. Perhaps Spike would help as well.

On another note, it occurred to Sweetie Belle that she’d been neglecting something. “Hey, I don’t suppose there’s a piano here, is there?” She’d explored most of the lab already, but it was hard to say if she’d seen the entirety of the labyrinth.

“No, not unless Mom brought the one from our tower when she came back yesterday for whatever reason. I mean, I’ve seen her do stranger things…”

Somewhat surprised, Sweetie Belle asked, “You have a piano in your tower?”

“Yeah. Mom insisted I learn to play an instrument years ago. Something about developing my coordination.” A claw came up to scratch at Spike’s cheek with a bit more vigor than seemed normal for a casual gesture. “Personally, I think she read too many parenting books, but that’s Mom for you.”

“You play?” Getting a nod, Sweetie Belle gleefully cried, “Me too! Are you good?”

With a shrug, Spike said, “Better than most.”

Spike’s thoughts then drifted toward his claws, resulting in Sweetie Belle glancing down at her hooves. She managed just fine with some magical assistance, and she knew earth ponies who could play just as well, but having a bunch of dexterous, noodly appendages would make things easier. Probably. She wasn’t sure how he controlled them all when four hooves was quite enough for her, but he did it nonetheless.

“You could ask Mom to make one if you want. She’d probably turn it into a full afternoon lesson with you.”

However faint, Sweetie Belle didn’t miss the slight edge to Spike’s words. It’d become enough of a pattern, one he probably hadn’t even noticed himself, that she’d grown fairly certain he felt threatened by her presence in Archmage Twilight’s life. She understood somewhat. Being an only child, he couldn’t be used to sharing attention. But it was so silly! It wasn’t like she was being adopted or something. Her first instinct was to hash it out early, but after what happened with Trixie…

“I don’t think we have time for that right now,” Sweetie Belle prevaricated. “But I’d love to play with you sometime! I can sing, too. Without heartsong magic, that is. I’m getting a bit behind on my lessons, but I think Rarity will forgive me, all things considered.”

Spike snorted. “Yeah, I’d think” – he scratched his cheek again with rather more force than before – “Nightmare Moon showing up would be a pretty good excuse.”

With a worried frown, Sweetie Belle trotted in front of Spike. She stepped forward to get a better look at the spot he kept scratching and asked, “Are you okay?”

“What? Yeah, I’m fine.”

Sweetie Belle made a suspicious hum. In her experience, colts tended to stubbornly resist admitting to this sort of thing or visiting doctors. Spike protested her continued inspection of his seemingly unblemished scales, mostly in his thoughts, but didn’t move to stop her.

“Well, if you’re sure you’re fine–”

“I am!”

“–then I’ll let it be, but you should tell Archmage Twilight if this itchiness persists.”

After eliciting a half-hearted promise to do so, the pair continued on through the labyrinth. They only got lost once for a few moments before they found their way back to the entrance hall. There they found a very visibly reluctant Archmage Twilight engaged in conversation with Flash about what he did in the Royal Guard. It didn’t bode well for their friendship quest when she privately thanked Sweetie Belle for the rescue in her thoughts, but neither was it exactly unexpected.

Regardless, Archmage Twilight glanced down the hall Sweetie Belle and Spike had come from and, seeing nopony following, asked, “Lyra and Bon Bon?”

“They’re occupied with each other right now,” Spike said plainly.

Archmage Twilight let out a resigned sigh. “Fair enough. I guess I can go pick up Trixie myself, then.”

“I could come with,” Sweetie Belle volunteered. “She might listen to me.” Unless she’d done more damage than she thought, Trixie should still kind of like her.

“Thank you for offering, but I won’t feel comfortable leaving you alone with her to talk until I know a bit more about her current mental state.” Archmage Twilight fell silent as her thoughts raced at their usual speed. Even if she’d been using Modern Ponish, Sweetie Belle wasn’t sure if it were even possible to catch them all. Then after a few moments, she started slightly and added, “Ah. Just in case you’re worried or wondering, I would otherwise trust you to have more social grace about this than me. This really is just a matter of safety.”

Sweetie Belle offered a small smile and her thanks for the clarification. She’d assumed that was the case after having Rarity set her straight, but she appreciated the thought nonetheless.

The mare was back again. She’d waltzed right through the door, picked Trixie up like a foal, and threatened to drag her out if she wouldn’t walk. Niian, the traitor, hadn’t bothered to intervene at any point in the process. When she’d tried to retake control of the encounter, the mare had proven herself perfectly adept at countering lazy morning spellwork.

Thus Trixie trailed along, grumpy but awake, just a little behind the mare with the worst case of bedhead of her life. Detangling the mess without a brush occupied most of her attention, and the rest went to her sullen grumbling. She barely noticed when the mare dispelled her polymorph, and she only bothered to look when she heard, “This should be private enough.”

“For wha–” The last pony Trixie had expected stood before her. “You!” Age hadn’t dulled her nor had time touched her. Trixie took a step back and readied herself for a fight. How she wished she’d brought Niian, but it just hadn’t seemed important at the time.

Sunset Shimmer arched an eyebrow.

“What are you – why – I don’t understand. What are you doing here?” By all accounts, it couldn’t be on Princess Celestia’s orders. The two had split decades ago, and Sunset Shimmer was still one of Equestria’s most wanted mares. But what other reason could she have? Was it all a ruse? Did she do the princess’s dirty work while Twilight Sparkle maintained a sparkling clean image?

“I came to chat with my erstwhile pupil. Swap some stories. But then I heard about your sorry flank kicking around town. I doubt Sparkles tried to kill you, so what happened?”

On instinct, Trixie replied, “Nothing,” before even beginning to connect the rest of what Sunset Shimmer had said. “Wait. You and she…”

“Yeah,” Sunset Shimmer said, shrugging and bitter. “Cute foal. Got everything I ever wanted and more, and I have nopony to blame but myself. Well, Sunbutt, too, but that’s between me and her.”

As if Twilight Sparkle’s life hadn’t been blessed enough, she’d had Sunset Shimmer, the most infamously talented spellcaster of the previous generation, for a tutor before her entrance exams. How had that even worked? The timing was all wrong. Sunset Shimmer had already vanished by then. Or had Princess Celestia just picked her from birth to train up into the archmage or something with some inscrutable grand master plan?

Trixie stopped to ponder that for a moment. It would actually explain a lot. Not that it really mattered one way or another.

“Anyway,” Sunset Shimmer said, “I know you’re not supposed to be here. What are you doing moping around town?”

“Trixie is not moping!”

Sunset Shimmer didn’t even deign to respond and merely stared Trixie down.

“It’s none of your business.”

“Considering Sparkles comes to me for advice about you,” Sunset Shimmer began as if that were obvious, “I can either get the story from her or I can get it from you. Which is it going to be?”

Trixie ground her teeth. If that was how it was going to be, she might as well at least have the first word. “We got into a fight. I lost.”

“Losing is never fun. Get over it. Get better. Try again.” Perplexingly, Sunset Shimmer managed to deliver that in a matter of fact tone. “And besides,” she continued as plainly as before, “it’s Sparkles. Even I wouldn’t presume myself able to beat her every time.”

Trixie had no idea how to respond to any of that.

“So what’s up?” Sunset Shimmer conjured a seat for herself with casual ease and took full advantage of it. “You don’t throw a week long pity party for yourself for putting in a good showing against an archmage. I assume Luna wouldn’t gamble a high-value asset with years of emotional investment on assassinating her.”

Eyes wide, Trixie hastily stammered out, “I – what – no, that’s not – I’d never.”

“Yeah, I figured. Frankly–” Sunset Shimmer looked Trixie up and down with a piercing eye. “–you’re not the type.”

Trixie opened her mouth, oddly offended, but then thought better of it and kept quiet.

“The point is you’re not disappointed in yourself for failing her. You didn’t split with your princess over some moral quibble. It must be personal. You managed to at least tolerate Sparkles for a time, so whatever issues you have with her must be separate. You showed no surprise that I know of your association with Luna, so you must know she knows.” Something in Sunset Shimmer’s scrutinizing look shifted. “Ah, I understand now. That reveal triggered this whole series of events.”

A chill ran up Trixie’s spine at the accuracy and certainty in those words.

Sunset Shimmer vanished from her chair, which disintegrated back into nothing, and reappeared beside Trixie with an arm around her neck. “Oh, Trixie, whatever shall we do with you? Did you think your princess would cast aside her plans, throw herself to her knees, and beg for your forgiveness?”

Trixie shoved Sunset Shimmer away only for her to vanish again. “You don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“But I do, don’t I?” Sunset Shimmer said now from the other side. “Poor little Trixie, all on her own. Abandoned.”

Trixie fired a formless concussive blast at Sunset Shimmer, but it went right through her as she faded into nothing. “The Great and Powerful Trixie left on her own terms!”

“Oh, but that makes it worse, doesn’t it?” The voice came before its source came back into view in front of Trixie without any forewarning.

Frustrated, Trixie demanded, “How are you doing that?”

Sunset Shimmer declined to answer. “You should know your princess tricked Sparkles into promising not to hurt you. You abandoned her – betrayed her – and yet she still cares enough to damage the friendship she’s building with Equestria’s princessmaker.”

She betrayed me!”

“Oh, I’m sure.” Sunset Shimmer took a step closer, and Trixie took a step back only to bump into an apple tree. The next, and she’d covered more ground than should be possible to stand right in Trixie’s face. “Sparkles looks up to me in her own weird way, but she isn’t blind. More…willfully ignorant.”

Uneasy, Trixie leaned away as far as she could. “What does that have–”

“If you’re not going to cooperate,” Sunset Shimmer began, her voice both ice and fire at once, “tell me now. If you lie to me, I’ll save us all the trouble of sorting out whatever disaster your self-esteem issues will brew in a few years.”

Trixie didn’t relish her odds of getting the first spell off this close without Niian, and maybe not even then. “A-and if Trixie says no?”

“Then Sparkles knows not to waste her time with you.”

“What? But–”

Sunset Shimmer didn’t need or bother to hear any more. “I can’t threaten you to play nice and expect the Elements to work, but I certainly can for jerking us around. So which is it going to be?”

“I – I don’t know.” Trixie truly didn’t have any better answer to give.

A snort nonetheless met the response. “Sparkles isn’t going to sit back and just let Luna take Sunbutt from her forever. If the Elements don’t work, she’s going to reach for a more extreme solution.”

“That…” Trixie couldn’t deny it, nor could she pretend Twilight Sparkle wouldn’t be able to come up with one, but she didn’t want to think about what that meant she would need to do. She didn’t even want to put it into words. It would drop her right back where she’d been all those years ago when she’d turned away from Luna. “Fine. The Great and Powerful Trixie makes no promise of success, but she will cooperate.” And if Luna won, well, she would cross that bridge only once she absolutely must.

“Oh, Index!” Amethyst Star caught the mare in question just as she’d been about to walk out of Ponyville Town Hall’s door. “Before you leave for the day, Rarity asked me to let you know she needs to speak with you when you’re available.”

Twilight nodded. While the solstice drew nearer every day, she had no immediately pressing schedule. The bearers were accounted for and occupied with their own things. Trixie didn’t appear to be going anywhere anytime soon. The preparations for the Summer Sun Celebration were on schedule. Yes, she could make time for a friend.

A warm feeling spread through Twilight as that thought lingered in her mind. She would make time for a friend – a friend, not family. She’d made a friend. Unreservedly, wholeheartedly, and without qualification. She’d not truly stopped to think about it before now, but the words rang with truth. It was such a strange feeling in need of further analysis. Even if the Elements turned out to be nothing more than a waste of time, at least she could say she’d met Rarity and Sweetie Belle.


“Ah, sorry. Got lost in thought.” After thanking Amethyst Star for passing along the message, Twilight headed outside and left for the Carousel Boutique. She wasn’t usually one for procrastination, but exceptions proved the rule. Besides, Rarity would make for far better company than Trixie. She wasn’t really in the mood for another fight after Luna had kicked her flank over and over again across her entire dreamscape, and she gave even odds on their less than joyous reunion coming down to that when she inevitably failed to resolve whatever Trixie’s problem was.

In a moment of déjà vu, a mare wearing Twilight’s own form – frustratingly still far better than she did; she’d need to ask for advice – teleported into view only a few steps away.

“Hey, Sparkles.”

Twilight lips curled into a warm smile at the arrival of another welcome distraction. “Eventide, I presume.” This was a strange tradition they were developing, but she wasn’t about to complain.

“Yeah. If you’re looking for Trixie, you just missed her. I sorted her out and sent her back your way just a bit ago.”

Twilight, stunned, merely blinked. Since when had fortune decided to smile upon this miserable mission? “Thank you.” No more appropriate words sprang to mind.

“No problem. In hindsight, I doubt there was much you could have done anyway.”

Now that caught Twilight’s attention. “Is there something about her I should know?”

Sunset waved off the question. “Eh, not really. Just be patient, show respect, and acknowledge her expertise in what she’s good at when it comes up without fawning. I’ll spare her the details, but her issues are centered around her self-esteem. Try not to pop her bubble. If you do, she’ll slip deep into depression.”

That sounded reasonable enough. She might need to have a chat with the foals about giving Trixie some leeway when it came to unflattering remarks about her, but Twilight could easily take care of that as she put them to bed for the night.

“Anyway,” Sunset continued, “brunch?”

After Sunset’s timely intervention, Twilight felt comfortable leaving the foals safe in Lyra’s capable hooves. Pinkie Pie, now that she thought of it, would likely know well in advance if Trixie tried anything untoward as well. Other than that, she did need to speak with Rarity, but that could wait a little longer.

“Oh yes, Mother, I was surprised as well when they told me. Unless an unlikely better candidate comes along, Fluttershy will apprentice under the royal menagerie’s caretaker to one day take his place. Rainbow Dash, of course, will be going with. Those two are inseparable, you know.”

Cookie Crumbles nodded mournfully from the kitchen table. “It’s always a sad day when friends move away, don’t cha know.”

A nervous chuckle escaped Rarity, one she hoped had come too softly to be heard over the racket she made preparing lunch. “Yes. You’re absolutely right. Scootaloo, Sweetie Belle’s friend, accepted a position at a school for gifted pegasi in Canterlot as well.”

“Aw, now that’s a shame,” Hondo Flanks said, similarly seated beside his wife. “But you’ve got me curious. Are those three headed out as a family?”

That would make for one heartwarming Hearth’s Warming card, but Rarity shook her head. “No, no. Princess Cadance scouted Rainbow Dash to teach at Scootaloo’s new school, and Fluttershy was just a coincidence of timing that made them amenable to the move.” She still needed to get the whole story from Rainbow Dash. The scent of intrigue lingered about that mare like a fine perfume. “Isn’t it wonderful when friends can stick together?”

Rarity cursed herself. The sharp remark had slipped out without intent.

At the table, both of Rarity’s parents sighed. Hondo Flanks spoke first. “Rarity, we’ve had this discussion a hundred times. We’re not sending Sweetie Belle off to some fancy boarding school in Canterlot.”

“Yes, yes,” Rarity replied dismissively. “We’ve all made our positions perfectly clear.” She’d not escalate the debate – not yet, at least.

With perfect timing, a familiar voice called out from the stairs leading up from her boutique’s main floor. “Rarity? Are you home?”

“One moment, please!” Rarity called back. “But do come up, darling!”

Curious, the previous topic forgotten for the moment, Cookie Crumbles asked, “Who was that?”

“A new friend of mine.” Rarity carefully set down her kitchenware and arranged for her pots and pans to boil and simmer away without supervision. She also politely turned down her mother’s offer to tend to lunch in her absence. The mare was the second worst cook she’d ever known with only Sweetie Belle surpassing their mother. It shouldn’t be possible to burn juice, but that filly had found a way.

Meanwhile the sound of hoofsteps approached. “Good morning, Rarity. Amethyst Star said you needed to – oh, hello.”

When Rarity finally turned away from her stove, she found Twilight disguised as Index standing in the doorway. As she’d expected, the two fashion disasters returning the greeting from the table dreadfully confused the poor dear.

As Rarity quickly made her way over to Twilight, she said, “Mother, Father, this is Index Code, the festival overseer. She’s in and out of town on business and stopped by for a brief chat.” Now guiding Twilight out the door with an insistent hoof, she added, “Please excuse us. I’ll be right back.”

Before anypony could get a word in edgewise, Rarity had Twilight out the door and whisked her off to the privacy of the master bedroom. Rarity closed and locked the door behind them, and they were safe. Thus she let out a relieved sigh.

“Wait.” It seemed events had finally caught up with Twilight. “Those were your parents? They’re not exactly…”

Rarity managed a strained smile. “Yes, I know, darling. They’re crimes against fashion. Our relationship may be strained, but I love them nonetheless.”

“Sounds familiar.” The pair traded sympathetic looks. “Their accent. Whinneappolis?”

Nodding, Rarity said, “They moved here before I was born, thankfully. Could you imagine?”

Twilight, from the vacant look on her face, clearly tried her best. When she broke from that horrid image, she shook it from her head. “Right. Anyway, I assume you asked to speak with me because of them.”

“If you could spare the time. I’m already beginning to get…eh, snippy.”

Twilight’s brow lifted in interest while the corners of her lips curled, but she politely didn’t press. “How much have you already told them?”

“I’ve laid the groundwork, but I’ve said nothing of you, the Elements, or Princess Luna. I did say Sweetie Belle was on a camping trip with a friend.”

“All right, I can work with that.” Twilight’s expression turned hesitant. “Are you sure you want to involve me in this directly right away?”

“Why ever would I not?”

“Well, I’m not exactly…” Twilight cast her mind out for an appropriate word and came back with, “–delicate when it comes to this sort of thing.”

Rarity laughed. “Darling, you are an absolute delight when you let your walls down.”

Twilight didn’t look like she believed a word of that, but it didn’t much matter at the moment.

“Besides, if this were a matter where charm and wit could prevail, I assure you Sweetie Belle would have been enrolled in Princess Celestia’s school from the very moment she turned eight.”

“If you say so,” Twilight relented. She glanced down at her hooves. “That won’t do,” she mumbled before reverting to her regular appearance. “So Twilight Sparkle, Archmage Twilight, or the not actually an alicorn Goddess of Magic?”

As amusing a scene as Rarity was sure the latter would be, she resisted the temptation. “Best to stay semiprofessional for the moment.” Her tone turned teasing. “We wouldn’t want my parents to think you had other reasons to take Sweetie Belle as a student.”

The color of Twilight’s coat couldn’t hide her abashed blush. She mumbled another apology for her behavior the day before yesterday as she pulled her regalia from nowhere and donned it. If the poor dear weren’t so adorably awkward, Rarity might have felt bad about it.

Twilight faked a cough. “So, uh, how do you want to do this?”

“Why don’t you just head out for a few minutes and then pop into my kitchen to let me know how Sweetie Belle is doing over lunch. Nothing to stand on ceremony over. Just our usual. But then, oh surprise of surprises, you notice my parents!”

Twilight rolled her eyes. “You were in theater as a filly, weren’t you?”

“Oh, darling, I got my cutie mark making the costumes for my foalhood troupe. Remind me to tell you the story sometime.”

Despite having directions, Trixie doubted she could have found her way back to Twilight Sparkle’s hidden lab on her own. The Frozen North was an endless white void in every direction, which didn’t lend itself well to navigation. Fortunately, if one wished to call it that, the site of her final battle with the mare still had an obvious gaping hole in the snow cover she could spot from the sky as she teleported. It was a fair ways off, but she was practiced with scrying spells and knew the general direction she needed to search.

Soon after, Trixie teleported into the entrance hall of the lab. She’d already known to expect it – and indeed had contemplated bypassing the entire affair by popping directly into her room – but the pink one had a welcome back surprise party ready and waiting for her. It wasn’t the worst, the most awkward, or even the most humiliating moment of her life, but it certainly ranked highly. At least she’d been spared an actual pity party.

Trixie reluctantly allowed Pinkie Pie to pull her into the celebration without any of her usual bravado. She just didn’t have the energy for it.

The lab’s other residents slowly joined the party, no doubt attracted by the initial cry of, “Surprise!” from Pinkie Pie. It came as a mild relief when she heard that Twilight Sparkle had stepped out. She wouldn’t have to deal with that mess for a while yet and certainly not until after she’d had her reunion with the other bearers.

Flash appeared first. They exchanged few words, which came as no surprise. They barely knew each other, he was one of those boring silent guard types that loitered around the castle doing whatever it was guards did, and the idiot was in love with a mare who would never love him back. If there was one thing she could agree wholeheartedly with Twilight Sparkle on, even if neither of them had ever said it aloud, it was how much of a waste of space he was.

Not a bad card player, though, from what Trixie had heard.

Lyra and Bon Bon showed up next. The former seemed oddly skittish on their approach, but perhaps that was just what happened when somepony bore witness to the true splendor and awe of the Great and Powerful Trixie.

Nonetheless, when Lyra drew near, she said, “Where I’m from, that last spell you cast would have killed everypony far beyond the blast radius.”

Trixie arched an eyebrow. She’d not yet determined exactly who and, more importantly, what Lyra was, but that sounded like a major clue if she could figure out its meaning.

“I don’t know where you found it,” Lyra continued, “but I hope you understand how dangerous it is.”

“Of course. Trixie recreated it herself from the tattered spellbook she found during one of her early feats of heroism.” Even if she’d almost died as a foal because of it, the experience had only fed her thirst for adventure. Someday she’d need to return to the ruins she’d stumbled upon now that she could properly defend herself from the monsters that lurked in the forest surrounding it.

A rather drawn out and skeptical, “Right,” came from Bon Bon. “Your parents let you play with magic capable of leveling cities?”

Trixie scoffed. Her mother couldn’t tell a healing spell from an evocation. Not that it mattered. “Recall the state the Young and Potentious Trixie found the spell in.”

After a moment to consider that, Bon Bon shrugged. “Fair enough.” Then her stance shifted ever so slightly. Her weight moved lower and her muscles tensed as if to spring forward and bring a hoof up against horn. The change came from habit rather than at any conscious direction, Trixie was sure, but something so small nonetheless gave away that the mare, for whatever reason, had extensive training in the martial arts. “So,” she began with a nonchalance Trixie doubted she actually felt. “You’re Princess Luna’s apprentice?”

Well, this one doesn’t beat around the bush. “Something like that,” Trixie muttered. “I’m surprised somepony told you.”

“It was only yesterday,” Lyra admitted with a hint of annoyance likely directed at a certain archmage. “But you’re here to help anyway?”

Trixie’s gaze flicked down to glimpse the Element of Honesty hanging about Lyra’s neck. What an annoying trinket it was. With a little huff, she replied, “I’m here to waste both my and Twilight Sparkle’s time with a plan that probably won’t work. If it fails, fine. If not, so be it. Better this than whatever else she might try instead. Besides, I wasn’t planning to involve myself at all before she sprung Laughter on me.”

None of that set off the necklace, it seemed, and Lyra nodded. “That’s fair. What brought you to Ponyville, then?”

“Where else would the Great and Powerful Trixie be when the wheel of history turns?” Of all the questions! Lyra regarded her with an odd expression Trixie couldn’t quite place, but she pushed the conversation along before that could go anywhere. “And what are you doing in Ponyville?”

A sappy, lovestruck expression replaced Lyra’s previous look as she nuzzled against her lover. “Bon Bon found me and gave me a home there.”

Bon Bon rolled her eyes. “What are you, a stray dog?” Not that the question stopped her from drinking in the affection. Those two really were the worst. “Lyra wandered around the world until she settled down with me. I’ve lived in Ponyville for years, so Ponyville is where we stayed.”

There was a lot they weren’t telling her about both their backgrounds, Trixie knew, but she let them slide. If they didn’t pry, she wouldn’t either. That worked just fine for her.

Not long later, the foals made their entrance. Sweetie Belle wore a warm and welcoming smile as she drew near while the dragon trailed half a step behind with a light glare. He raised a hand up to point two claws at his eyes and then turned them onto Trixie. This apparently did not go unnoticed, his thoughts likely betraying him, as Sweetie Belle nudged him with an elbow and said, “Be nice!”

Spike huffed and folded his arms together, no less suspicious now than before, but made no response. The effect was somewhat ruined when he failed to resist scratching an itch. Trixie ignored him.

“Welcome back, Trixie,” Sweetie Belle said. “I’m sorry if I offended you or unearthed unpleasant memories.”

“It’s fine. No hard feelings.” However she felt about Sweetie Belle’s mentor, Trixie had a soft spot for ponies who genuinely liked her stories and tricks, and the filly certainly made for a good audience when she wasn’t sticking her nose in where it didn’t belong.

Sweetie Belle tilted her head down and twisted a hoof into the floor as her eyes looked pleadingly up. “Will you tell me more stories sometime?”

Such was a mental assault against which Niian could provide Trixie with zero protection. “Of course,” she replied. If she’d stopped to think about it, she would have agreed anyway, but the filly was absolutely adorable and apparently knew how to use it to full effect. Perhaps this was how she’d managed to become Twilight Sparkle’s protégé.

In a blink, Sweetie Belle shed every pretense of shyness and beamed. She gave her gratitude and said she was looking forward to it before happily prancing off to join Pinkie Pie in some ridiculous party game. Spike pointed between his eyes and Trixie again before following after her.

Trixie watched the two for a few moments and then shook her head at the entire situation. Foals.

Completely without ceremony or warning, Twilight popped into Rarity’s kitchen just as she’d asked. She made a note to be slightly more literal with Twilight in the future. Some expressions, she realized, might be lost on somepony who could teleport and only Celestia knew what else as casually as breathe. And that particular phrasing might also require some adjustment, now that she thought of it.

Regardless, Rarity kept her wits about her and reacted not with surprise but with a calm and welcoming disposition. “Twilight, darling, good morning. You’re just in time for lunch. I hope you don’t mind, but my parents returned home since you last stopped by.”

Twilight turned to look at the pair seated at the kitchen table as though for the first time. Without Rarity rushing her back out the door, she took the opportunity to drink in the incongruous sight before saying, “No, that’s fine.”

“Fantastic!” Rarity ushered Twilight toward an empty seat at the table as her magic pulled an additional setting from her cabinets. “Twilight, these are my parents, Hondo Flanks and Cookie Crumbles. Mother, Father, this is Archmage Twilight Sparkle.”

The only way Rarity could have flustered her parents more, judging by the spirited but awkward greetings they gave, would require her to have asked Twilight to bring Princess Celestia with her. On the other hoof, Twilight offered a more terse and guarded salutation. It probably didn’t help that Rarity had painted her a picture of parents denying their daughter a proper education. It was true, of course, but she did hope they could get along for Sweetie Belle’s sake if nopony else’s.

Then Cookie Crumbles asked the obvious question. “So how did you two meet? Rarity, you’re not caught up in anything dangerous, are you?”

Rarity leapt to answer that before Celestia knew what Twilight might say could cause problems. “No, no, Mother. Sweetie Belle got into a little trouble. You know how she is. Twilight here helped her out of it, and the three of us have become fast friends ever since.” That was close enough to the truth without springing any nasty surprises on her parents.

“Yes…” Twilight leveled a lingering look at Rarity as she brought their meal to the table. It didn’t quite rise to disapproval for how oversimplified her explanation had been, but it certainly expressed skepticism. “I was surprised to discover a budding sorceress here alone and unguided. To be frank, when we first parted ways, I intended to put her on a watch list.”

Well that came as new information. As aghast in tone as Rarity felt, Hondo Flanks asked, “What? Why?”

Cookie Crumbles added, “We know Sweetie Belle can get into some mischief from time to time with her friends, but she’s a good filly.”

“It had nothing to do with her Crusader activities,” Twilight assured them. “Magic is power. The magically gifted are…larger, in a sense, than other ponies. Their actions tend to have magnified consequences in the world. A single sorceress, properly wielded, can perform great feats alone that hundreds of ponies would struggle to accomplish together. Thus they’re sought out. However well intended, your daughter has been in a very vulnerable position. I spent perhaps half an hour with her – not as myself, mind – and she latched onto me as a mentor figure almost immediately. Had I the inclination, leading her down a dark path would have taken little effort.”

Over the parental protestations that Sweetie Belle would never do such a thing, Twilight heaved a heavy sigh. “I’ve arrested many ponies who, at her age, nopony would have thought capable of harming a fly until some silver-tongued megalomaniac came calling. A few manage to turn their life around under my supervision. Most don’t. It’s an unpleasant pattern. The EIS tries to monitor potential victims, but we don’t always find them before they become problems.”

As that information set in, Twilight mused, “Tempest would likely be willing to share her story with you.”

“Of the Evening Guard?” Rarity asked somewhat weakly.

Twilight snorted in disapproval. “There is no Evening Guard.” Yet a moment later, she added, “But yes. Her circumstances are somewhat different, but it suffices to say I helped her out of a bad situation largely not of her own making.”

“I think we would all benefit from hearing it,” Rarity said diplomatically. Through the dark mood, she distributed lunch to everypony and implicitly put an end to that particular line of conversation. She’d known, of course, that Twilight regularly saved Equestria from all sorts of dastardly plans and captured the villains behind such schemes, but she’d never given much thought to where those ponies came from. The thought of her dear Sweetie Belle being so misled tore at her heart.

Worse yet, Rarity doubted she would have even thought to stand in the way! Had Twilight approached her merely as Index and offered to take Sweetie Belle as an apprentice, it would have been too good an opportunity to turn away. Sure, Index had the unimpeachable recommendation that came from working directly under the archmage and the princess, but would she have even bothered to investigate the mare had that not been the case? Not likely, she suspected, or at least not well enough to spot trouble.

The Neighpon pan noodles Rarity had made turned out splendidly, and she received appreciative – if somewhat subdued – hums all around. Coming from Twilight, who regularly dined on the best food Equestria had to offer, she took it as a very great compliment.

“At any rate,” Twilight said between bites, “Sweetie Belle has been doing very well with her studies despite…distractions.”

Both of Rarity’s parents sat up straighter and turned a glare onto her. She returned the look tenfold with the silent promise that if they denied Sweetie Belle this, especially after what they’d just heard, she would ensure the blame fell where it rightfully belonged. Sweetie Belle would despise them for the rest of her life. Twilight, invested in her lunch, remained oblivious to the exchange as she ate.

“That’s wonderful to hear,” Rarity said. She then decided to cast subtlety aside entirely. “But what distractions, darling? Are her friends from Canterlot taking up too much of her time? Or is Scootaloo’s move to the capital too exciting? Or is it her and my planned relocation? Or maybe it’s learning directly from her idol?”

“Now hold on a second, Rarity,” Hondo Flanks said. “You told us Sweetie Belle was camping with her friends.”

“She is!” Rarity protested. When that got the response she expected rather than wanted, she continued, “Okay, so maybe I was a bit generous with ‘camping’, but she and Twilight here are roughing it in the north with a few others.”

When Rarity turned to Twilight for support, she said, “Well, my lab wasn’t really designed for residence, so I suppose that’s not an inaccurate description.”

Rarity smiled triumphantly.

Both Hondo Flanks and Cookie Crumbles frowned disapprovingly in return.

“Maybe we should just cut to the chase?” Twilight asked.

It did seem a bit uncouth to keep dancing around it and sniping at each other, so Rarity gave Twilight the nod to go ahead.

“It’s my intention to provide Sweetie Belle with as comprehensive of an education as she’s interested in pursuing. For now, she would be best served living in Canterlot Castle with easy access to me, our archives, and, if I’m not around, Princess Celestia. Rarity has already agreed to move in with her. In a few years, she should have the ability to move about Equestria as she wishes, and we could reassess her living arrangements as it’s my understanding they’re your primary concern. I personally elected to stay in the castle throughout my tutelage, but to each their own.” Twilight shrugged and scooped up a large helping of noodles with her chopsticks.

While neither of her parents appeared pleased to have this sprung on them, Rarity, on the other hoof, was pleased to see they’d not tossed the offer aside out of hoof. That was likely because it was Archmage Twilight Sparkle on the other side of the table, rather than the result of any sudden epiphany on their end, but foal steps.

Hondo Flanks said, “That’s a very generous offer, ma’am, but why our Sweetie Belle?”

“Ah, well, she impressed me when we first met. Then the more time I spent with her, the more obvious it became she had a bright mind in need of guidance and access to resources. Teaching has never been my thing, but she’s grown on me, and I kind of get why Princess Celestia enjoys it now.”

Hondo Flanks and Cookie Crumbles glanced at each other with an expression Rarity couldn’t read.

“What were you expecting in return?”

It was a fair question, all things considered, but one which clearly caught Twilight off guard. “What am I…” She stared at Hondo Flanks with a blank expression. “Nothing?” She cocked her head ever so slightly to the side. “I mean, Sweetie Belle will probably end up working with me or assisting with my personal projects from time to time, but that would be of her own initiative.”

Rarity stepped in to clear up this cultural misunderstanding before it could potentially broaden. “Darling, the storybook mentor-protégé relationship you shared with Princess Celestia is very, shall we say, atypical.” It certainly didn’t help that they all had that awful warning about Sweetie Belle being led astray on their minds, and everypony knew the archmage regularly threw herself into terrible danger for Equestria. Indeed, dear Sweetie Belle had already gotten caught up in such dangers, not that anypony who didn’t already know needed to. “Perhaps a little context is in order.”

“Oh. Sure.” Twilight gave it a few moments of consideration before deciding on extreme bluntness. “I have an arbitrarily deep purse, and much of Equestria’s government is at my beck and call. I’ve turned down bribes to teach some noble’s brat larger than the sum total of wealth likely to ever pass through your hooves. The only thing I want but don’t yet have I will acquire on my own.”

The curious eyebrow Rarity raised at that went unacknowledged.

“I really have no reason to teach Sweetie Belle other than because I like her and I think she’ll not waste the opportunity. Moreover, if you know anything about me, you probably know I’ve spent my entire adult life working a job I hate just to help my own beloved mentor. It’s thus very unlikely I’ll get bored and decide to drop your daughter someday.”

Rarity cleared her throat. “Twilight, perhaps you’ve made your case?”

After a moment, Twilight shrugged and then indulged in more noodles.

“Yes, anyway,” Rarity began, “I returned from the castle only yesterday. The apartments Princess Celestia arranged for Sweetie Belle are really quite lovely.”

Twilight, noodles hanging from her mouth, hummed in feigned surprise. She quickly slurped the remainder into her mouth and swallowed. “She took care of that already?”

“Oh yes, dear.” This was just the opening Rarity had been hoping for. Denying the archmage was one thing, but the princess herself? Perish the thought! “She seemed truly delighted with the whole affair. I’m afraid we indulged in a bit of gossip about our mutual charges over dinner.”

The mortified groan Twilight made earned a smirk from Rarity and even managed to get a smile from Cookie Crumbles.

“Princess Celestia told me about a certain incident with a…Smarty Pants, I think it was. Did you truly–”

Twilight, eyes wide, hastily cast a spell and silenced Rarity. She breathed a sigh of relief as Rarity pouted, although the reaction was entirely worth the cost. “I can’t believe she told you that story. Would you like to hear about the Hoarded Lore of Celestia Herself™?”

“What on Equus was that?” Rarity only realized after she’d said it that Twilight had returned her voice, although she stood by her incredulity.

“That, dear Rarity, is but the tip of the iceberg. The next time you see her, you should ask for Celestia’s opinion on jasmine tea.”

Rarity arched her eyebrows. There must be a story behind that, but she had a hard time imagining what it could be. It was then, with a glance aside, that she realized they’d gotten lost in their own conversation and completely ignored both her parents and why they were all here.

“I’ll be sure to do so,” Rarity said, “but we should return to the matter at hoof. We wouldn’t want to keep you from your work too long.”

Twilight now, too, recalled that they had company and composed herself into the consummate professional she was. “Yes, you’re right.” Turning to Rarity’s parents, she said, “I should mention that, through a bit of negligence on my part, Sweetie Belle managed to nose her way into a classified project. It’s obligatory – something I could draft her for if necessary despite her age – but the relative danger of her participation is minimal. It shouldn’t last past the solstice, although she’ll be on call if it ever comes up again. Otherwise, the decision on her education is, of course, yours.”

Hondo Flanks and Cookie Crumbles looked to each other and carried on some silent conversation between themselves. It was a far better reaction than usual whenever Rarity brought this up, so she took heart and held her breath.

“I think we need some time to discuss this as a family,” Cookie Crumbles eventually said. “Would you mind waiting to hear our decision until after Sweetie Belle is done with that project of yours?”

It wasn’t what Rarity had hoped to hear, but she breathed a silent sigh of relief nonetheless. She could work with that, hopefully without having to escalate matters.

Twilight, naturally, replied, “Of course.”

Twilight wondered if she should just skip the party and teleport straight to her room to work on something in private. Everypony, even Trixie, looked happy as they played some strange war game with fruit and made a complete mess of her lab. Hundreds of tomatoes alone pasted the walls and floors. Missed shots, she assumed. She didn’t want to spoil the fun by intruding.

That said, both Lyra and Trixie had clearly noticed her scrying ahead to ensure her destination was clear. If she didn’t at least show herself, one or both of them might take it as a slight. Why was friendship so hard?

With a sigh, knowing what to expect, Twilight teleported into the entrance hall. Almost immediately, Trixie flung a tomato at her face. She’d held no illusion of any other greeting and just let it hit her. It did no harm, and it took less than a second to clean herself up. In all honesty, she’d expected Lyra to send one her way as well out of revenge for the snowball fight she’d technically not started.

Sweetie Belle took a more creative approach. Rather than throwing a soft fruit – and had they really needed to raid the pantry for this? – she galloped toward Twilight with clear and obvious intent to use herself as a hug-based projectile. She lost her nerve before arrival, however, and slowed to a stop just a step or two away. She then explained what they were doing and what they’d been doing before that at high-speed. Twilight nodded along at the appropriate moments as she led them toward Spike.

When he was within arm’s reach, Twilight pulled Spike close into what technically qualified as a hug and whispered, “I never thought I’d have to tell you this, but no wild parties when you’re house-sitting for me in the future.”

Spike blushed just enough for it to appear through his scales and nodded his understanding.

With that out of the way, Twilight turned her attention to the elephant in the room. “Hello, Trixie.”

Trixie’s lips pressed into a thin line as she pulled in and then pushed out a heavy breath through her nose. It sounded like resignation. “Twilight Sparkle.”

“A friend told me she talked to you?” It wasn’t really a question as Twilight saw no reason for Sunset to lie about that, but it was an invitation to air any complaints. Twilight knew she could have gone about it with sensitivity and kindness as easily as she might have leapt to threats and mind games. The determining factor would have come down to what she thought Trixie would best respond to in the eleven days left before the solstice.

Trixie snorted in wry amusement. “She did. I understand now how you turned out so…” She waved a hoof in an unnecessarily large circle through the air. “–you.”

“Uh-huh,” Twilight deadpanned. She should be offended on her own behalf and Sunset’s, but she had to admit Trixie kind of had a point. “Well, I’m glad she proved so illuminating.”

For what it was worth, Trixie wore a smirk rather than a scowl. That was a marked improvement over her departure a week ago, even if her ego and flair for drama seemed to be back in full force. “Undoubtedly so.” She flared her cape with a bit of magic, adjusted her hat with a jerk of her head, and proclaimed, “The Great and Powerful Trixie will want a rematch sometime. She merely got carried away and made a mistake at the end of our last battle.”

Twilight flinched before she could stop herself as soon as she heard the request beginning. After that frustrating ordeal and then Luna, she really didn’t want to. So she took a gamble. “Okay. But I have safety and environmental concerns. If we fight all out again, I will assume it’s for real unless we’re in a dreamscape.”

For a second, Trixie’s bravado faltered. It was a low blow but effective nonetheless. She recovered quickly, however, frustratingly enough. “Oh yes. I heard Luna tricked you into guaranteeing my safety in perpetuity. Nice.”

Twilight silently cursed Sunset. Oh, Twilight had no doubt she’d used that little nugget of information to great effect, but she didn’t have to live with the consequences. “It was a mutual pact to protect all the Element bearers,” Twilight retorted with only a tiny, itty-bitty bit of grumbling. “Luna and I are concerned the Elements are damaged. The last thing anyone wants is a shock to them setting Discord free.”

“Discord?” Sweetie Belle asked at the same time Spike said, “Oh, not good.”

With a sigh, Twilight made a note to give Sweetie Belle a lecture on the Discordian Era at some point. She actually likely needed to come up with an entire series of lectures on history since she’d pulled the filly out of the public school system so young, but she could start with Discord. By the whispers, however, Spike had taken it upon himself to offer her a crash course for now.

“Well… Hmm… Okay. Trixie admits that would be bad.”

Twilight breathed a silent sigh of relief. She held up a hoof. “Peace, then?”

After a moment’s delay, Trixie tapped her hoof against Twilight’s. “Peace. But anything more is a separate matter.”

“Understood.” With that done, Twilight surveyed her ruined lab space and dreaded to think how far the mess extended into the corridors and other labs. She looked down at Sweetie Belle. “You know, according to your sister, we’re supposed to be on a camping trip. Not…” Failing to find the right word, she swept an arm out in a wide arc toward the fruity mess plastered everywhere.

“Rarity said that?” Sweetie Belle asked with an innocence Twilight believed. It must not have been her who’d started this. Perhaps Spike, then, or far more likely, Pinkie Pie. The other four were unlikely suspects.

“Yeah. Your parents came home recently.”

A rather mixed, “Oh,” came from Sweetie Belle. There was excitement to see them, certainly, but also early-onset reluctance. She was roughly a decade too young for that to set in without cause.

“If you want to take a trip to Ponyville for a few hours at some point, just let me know.”

Sweetie Belle shook her head. “This is more important.”

Not wanting to push considering her own troubled relationship with her parents, Twilight dropped the matter.

Into the somewhat heavy silence, Spike asked, “If we’re supposed to be camping, can we make s’mores?”

That was an immediately popular idea with both Sweetie Belle and, somewhat surprisingly, Trixie. Twilight did suppose she was a traveling showpony, though, and was thus probably used to camping, campfires, and all other related activities. Maybe less so now after studying under Luna for so long than when she’d first hit the road, but that seemed like a lifestyle one didn’t forget.

Then Pinkie Pie popped up from nowhere to add her two bits. “We can use the Bunsen burners as our campfire! I’ve got so many good campfire stories to share! We’ll have to start with the science themed ones.”

As Pinkie Pie led the other three off to see to the arrangements, Twilight lingered in place and wondered at how quickly Pinkie Pie had derailed and hijacked both that conversation and her plans for the night. She’d wanted – well, it really didn’t matter what she’d wanted anymore, did it? She’d completely lost any semblance of control with one idle tangent.

Eventually, Twilight shrugged. To nopony, she said, “Sure. Why not?”