Chapter Twenty Three - Guilt

The sky had become a study in chaos. The parasprites swarmed with an insatiable appetite for feathers. The original population multiplied exponentially beyond control. The invading army hadn’t yet routed only because escape and survival meant forward onto dry land. Retreat would doubtlessly lead to a miserable death at sea with clipped wings. Even those that managed to crash with some grace were out of the fight.

Then she personally entered the fray to put an end to this nonsense. She had research to do, and she couldn’t get back to it until these idiots understood that war wasn’t a game.

Twilight exited town hall at hurried clip just shy of a trot into the busy Ponyville streets. She hadn’t expected to get tied up as Index for so long, but with the solstice fast approaching, she probably should have anticipated issues to start cropping up with the Summer Sun Celebration. Regardless, she hoped she wasn’t too late for a second lunch with Sunset. They really needed to talk. And it would be over lunch, not afternoon tea. No, she hadn’t forgotten after getting caught up with Celestia. That was her story, and she was sticking to it.

Rather than scouring the village for Sunset, Twilight found a quiet place away from the crowd. There she built up a bit of magic in her horn, directed it, and then released it as a crude ping in the magical field. Most unicorns in town would notice. The nearer ones briefly glanced in the general direction of its source, but without an explanation, they quickly dismissed it as an innocent mistake and carried on with their day.

Sunset wasn’t most unicorns. It didn’t take long for her to show up disguised, once again, as Twilight. For Ponyville, it’d become an ordinary event. It was just the festival overseer taking tea with the archmage, after all. She’d pop in and then pop out with her minion too quickly to pester. And really, what did it matter when neither of them planned to destroy the village? Maybe they’d get some attention if one of them transformed into a giant monster.

There was something wrong with this town.

At any rate, Twilight had more important matters to see to now. “Biggest Sister,” she said in greeting.

“Littlest Sister,” Sunset offered in return. It seemed she wasn’t mad about Twilight’s tardiness, or at least not enough so to show it in public. They hadn’t set a specific time, of course, but lunch generally didn’t translate to mid-afternoon. “Late night?”

Not seeing any point in denying it – and Twilight did wonder how Sunset knew – she confessed, “Yeah.” By normal pony standards, they’d all had a late night, but that was mere semantics. When she observed Sunset more closely, however, something seemed off. She couldn’t put her hoof on what at first until she realized that she didn’t feel the usual prickle of envy over how much better Sunset looked as her. “You too?”

“Yeah. Last night was a lot to process.”

Twilight certainly understood that. “Agreed. We should head somewhere private.”

“I’ll take you back to my place,” Sunset suggested. “It’s warded.”

Giving the nod, Twilight prepared herself mentally. She fought off the instinctive urge to push away Sunset’s not yet familiar magic when it fell on her and let the teleportation spell complete without resistance. Without a sound nor a hint of a teleport signature – of course Sunset had the skill not to generate one – they vanished.

The pair reappeared an instant later upon the front step of a small cottage on the edge of Ponyville. From a casual inspection, security was low in a general sense, but as Sunset had claimed, nopony could spy on them whilst inside. While the building was a far cry from what Twilight expected of Sunset’s preferred lifestyle, she supposed subtlety was the name of the game when living in Ponyville so close to all the action.

Once inside, they shed their disguises. The house wasn’t barren, but even at a glance, anypony could tell Sunset had either just moved or didn’t often reside here. To Twilight’s mild surprise, the kitchen and dining room, as a single conjoined entity, boasted the most complete furnishings by far and actually looked lived in.

“You still want lunch, right?”

“Hmm?” Twilight turned away from a bookshelf she’d been inspecting. “Oh, yes. Something light, please.”

Given how well stocked and used the kitchen appeared despite how shortly Sunset had owned it, Twilight only raised a single eyebrow when she set into her task with unexpected skill. She quickly threw together a half-dozen ingredients in parallel – or at least so it appeared to Twilight’s untrained eye – to make noodles from scratch. She tossed them into a magically boiled pot of water and then set to making a tomato sauce for spaghetti. As she did that, she set the table with plates and utensils that hardly matched the cottage’s otherwise rustic aesthetic. The fine silver and china, Twilight assumed, meant Chrysalis had been here. She doubted Sunset would go to the trouble for her or for personal use at a temporary residence like this.

Twilight took a seat upon invitation but continued to watch Sunset move about the kitchen with an efficiency she wouldn’t have believed without witnessing it. When the mysterious dance reached a lull, Sunset threw a knowing look at Twilight over her withers. “Just say it.”

Not needing any more prompting, Twilight said, “You’re a lot better at this than I would have thought.”

“I’m sure you know I grew up in an orphanage. I picked up a lot of mundane skills living there. Do all the chores with a wave of your horn, and ponies tend to cut you a lot of slack.”

Twilight supposed that made sense even if she couldn’t really relate. Living in an orphanage was about as foreign to her as anything. She’d done chores up until she’d moved into the castle, of course, but that had been more of a token thing to teach her responsibility.

“So what’s up with you?” Sunset asked. “You look like you’ve done something horrible.”

Twilight’s ears pressed against her head. Sunset’s words were harsh but undeniably accurate. “Why did you steal Luna’s crown?”

An eyebrow slowly rose on Sunset’s face.

Twilight couldn’t help but sink into herself and stare down at the kitchen table.

“You didn’t.”

Why did Sunset have to sound so… Was that pride in her voice? Twilight couldn’t tell. She just knew it was entirely inappropriate.

“You did. Well, look at you, flying above Sunbutt’s back.” Sunset sounded particularly amused while Twilight only felt even worse about herself. “Must be a family tradition.”

Considering that Cadance had adopted Sunset without so much as a by your leave and that Luna had spent the last millennium dreamwalking in secret, it looked that way. What was next? Was Shining going to turn out to have been a moon cultist all along?

“So you’re keeping it for yourself, then?”

“I wasn’t going to. I just…” Everything that came to mind to say just sounded like an excuse. “I couldn’t explain how I got it without betraying your trust. Then last night she told me why their crowns are so important, and I just–”

Sunset, only a step away, spun the chair beneath Twilight and forced her head up to lock eyes. “She told you?” The words were challenging, almost angry. Sunset didn’t need to wait for an answer to have it. Under her breath, she muttered, “Unbelievable,” and backed off.

To be perfectly fair, Twilight felt a bit like that as well. Celestia might not have told her much, but compared to complete silence, it might as well have been a novel.

“So what are you going to do with your newfound enlightenment?”

The only honest answer Twilight could give was, “Study it.”

Sunset didn’t say anything as she finished preparing lunch in silence. The noodles finished boiling, and at that point, it became a simple matter of pulling them from the water and combining them with the sauce. Or apparently not, as she mixed some of the pasta water into the tomato sauce. Twilight wanted to ask why because watering it down intuitively sounded like a bad idea but kept quiet and let her work in peace.

When everything was done, Sunset set a plate in front of Twilight that looked like it’d come straight out of the castle kitchens. It certainly smelled like it. It probably tasted like it, too. In another life, perhaps Sunset could have been a world-class chef instead of one of the most powerful sorceresses.

As Twilight grasped her fork with her magic, Sunset did the same. With their contesting wills, it didn’t move. Twilight, bemused, looked up from her lunch with a silent question in her eyes.

“Give me the crown.”

Twilight felt her heart skip a beat. Then she gnawed on her lip. Sunset had too relaxed a look about her to be about to attack if she didn’t get her way. Why would she even want it? She’d voluntarily given it up before, after all.

Unless she just wanted it out of Twilight’s hooves. Unless she’d stumbled onto the path to ascension as well. Unless she wanted no rivals vying to become Equus’s next alicorn.

“Just do it, Sparkles.” There was exasperation in that voice more than anything else, if with a dash of understanding underlying it.

Hesitantly, Twilight reached into her bag of holding and withdrew the little piece of Luna in her possession. Worst-case scenario, she’d have no end of ponies willing to help her hunt Sunset down. She passed it off from her magic to Sunset’s.

A familiar spell sprung forth from Sunset’s horn, weaving itself about Luna’s crown. It was, unless Twilight was mistaken, the same one she’d cast upon Celestia’s to keep it hidden. As she worked, she said, “Alicorns do not easily reveal their secrets. They are ponies no different than you or me.” She finished shaping her magic and cast the spell. “Or so they seem.” Now done, she tossed Luna’s crown back. “If she asks, just tell her Sunbutt smashed it into moondust.”

Twilight stared down at the crown, now hidden from its owner, hovering in her magic just above her lunch. She felt like a heel. “I’m sorry.”

“I know you are, Sparkles. I get it. Wings. Power. Immortality. It’s a lot.”

It really was. And now it’d become a race. The only good news was Sunset didn’t seem to realize this was a competition, and Twilight felt even worse for finding relief in that.

“Do your own research,” Sunset continued. “We can swap notes in a few years. Compare our independent results.”

With a heavy sigh, Twilight returned Luna’s crown to her bag of holding. She could do that much. “I think we’re both going to be busy in the coming years, but I’ll let you know when I have something to share.”

As Sunset finally took her seat and they took their first bites of lunch, Twilight didn’t bother to swallow her delighted, “Mmm…” Sunset really knew what she was doing in the kitchen. It even had that cozy touch that only came from home cooking.

For a few brief moments, Twilight allowed her thoughts to wander to what ifs. If Sunset hadn’t fallen out with Celestia, would this have been normal for her? Would Sunset have foalsat with Cadance? Or perhaps substituted for Cadance to free up some time a few extra dates with Shining? Either would have been amazing.

But such sweet dreams were far removed from reality. Yet it was never too late to reach for them, it seemed. “So,” Twilight began. “You’re my sister now. How did that happen?”

“It wasn’t my idea,” Sunset put forth right away. “Cadey made it a condition of not contesting my ascension to the Crystal Throne. You’d have to ask her for her reasons.”

While that would certainly happen sooner or later, Twilight wasn’t about to drop the subject so easily. “I will, but it’s not like you needed her approval. Her parents are going to contest your claim anyway. So why did you accept?”

“Royal adoptions are a common legitimizing practice. It’s not really an Equestrian thing for obvious reasons, but it happens elsewhere. Removing me from power will be virtually impossible as the empire’s liberator and as a member of the imperial family. Why would I not have accepted?”

“Because I know you ‘turned down’ dozens of ponies who wanted to adopt you as a filly.” Most of those rejections, Twilight suspected, had involved some leg-twisting behind closed doors. Adoption technically required Sunset’s consent, but some regulations had a mysterious tendency to be forgotten when wealth and power got involved, and the prodigious scholarship student at Celestia’s school with no guardianship claims had naturally attracted attention. Despite that, Twilight added, “Some of them were legitimate offers.”

Sunset dismissed the words with a wave of her hoof. “None of them would have gotten me anything. It’s not like I was living alone in a crate in some alley. Why would I waste my time playing pretend when there was more magic to learn?”

Twilight, to mixed feelings, admitted, “I guess I can understand that.” While she held her family close, magic did tend to take a central role in her life. That didn’t mean she wouldn’t defend them to the best of her ability, however. “Cadance is going to expect this to be more than signatures on paper.”

“Yeah, I know,” Sunset replied. “It will be. I’m here helping you with your treachery, aren’t I?”

“That’s…” – an entirely accurate statement – “how I would have put it.” But speaking of, Twilight finally processed what Sunset had said earlier and found the suggestion wanting. “Celestia knows you had it. Luna’s crown. She still thinks you do. If I tell Luna she smashed it, she’ll go yell at Celestia and find out I lied.”

“And between the two of you, who is she going to believe?”

Sunset had a point, but Twilight couldn’t do that. It was a step too far. Even if she had the talent required to maintain such a complex web of lies in her personal life, she wouldn’t do it. “If you don’t mind, I think I’ll just ask Celestia on behalf of the future Crystal Empress to say she never found it in the first place. I don’t think she’d begrudge you or the empire that.” It was so much easier to simply deny knowing anything.

“I guess that works,” Sunset allowed with some reluctance.

The doctors made their rounds throughout the night. The great hall, once overcrowded with injured ponies hidden within little cubicles made of sheets, slowly cleared as the doctors discharged the wounded one by one. Most went free without a scratch after treatment. Some limped away with a cast or covered in bandages. Eclipse, true to her reputation, hadn’t critically injured anypony during her flight from the castle, but there were a lot of casualties thanks to the Royal Guard’s staunch resistance. So many, in fact, that the healers had to conserve their magic to get as many ponies back on their hooves as quickly as possible.

Unfortunately, that left those like Flash in the lurch. As one of the more heavily injured, the nurses had provided first aid and then left him to languish in bed until a full medical team could come by to do more. It probably hadn’t been a good idea for him in particular to get so deeply involved, but what had he been supposed to do? He couldn’t have just abandoned his friends or let Eclipse waltz out uncontested!

At any rate, with the dwindling number of patients, the nurses decided to move the remaining ones to proper rooms with better beds and some peace and quiet. Flash’s rest through the night until then had been fitful at best between the pain and the noise. It was nice to finally get some uninterrupted sleep.

When he woke after a nap, Flash discovered that he had a roommate. “Hey, you’re Starlight Glimmer, right?”

The mare in question glanced up from her book. “Yeah. And you’re…”

“Flash Sentry,” he offered. Most ponies in the castle knew who he was by reputation, but not everypony recognized him by appearance. “I heard you fought Eclipse with an injured horn.”

“Eh, well, not fought so much as got my tail handed to me like everypony else.”

Yeah, that sounded about right. Last night had been an exercise in humiliation. If he didn’t know better, Flash would have assumed it was a drill the captain had organized with his sister to launch a new training regime. Honestly, he wouldn’t put it past Captain Armor to use the theft as an excuse to put one together anyway. But that wasn’t what he wanted to say.

“Even so,” Flash began, “if nopony else has said it yet, you’ve got my respect.” With how poorly interactions between the Evening Guard and Royal Guard usually went, he felt that needed saying.

“Thanks. I’m not thrilled to have thaumic burns again, but if it gets Twilight’s brother to ease up…” Starlight trailed off into an exhausted and uncertain smile. “Anyway, what happened to you?”

“Ah. Bad landing.” Flash shifted in his bed to show off the brace holding his wing in place. “Broke a bunch of the important bones and singed most of my primaries before that.”

Starlight cringed in empathy. Despite their differing species, they had fairly corresponding injuries. If thaumic burns of the horn felt anything like a crushed wing, she had Flash’s condolences.

For a while, they idly chatted with one another to pass the time. They’d ended up settling into a discussion of the early Daring Do books for a couple hours when the door to their ward burst open. Their visitor really shouldn’t have surprised him, but he hadn’t actually expected her to show up. The pull from Loyalty went straight toward the mare walking toward him, though, so it had to be the real one.

“So I hear you kicked your own flank.” Yeah, that had to be Twilight.

Flash, in turn, asked, “Am I at least cool for rushing off to protect my friends?”

“You’re an idiot,” Twilight bluntly stated. Her tone carried the same level of engagement as if somepony had told her it was cold in the Frozen North today.

But with that, Twilight’s horn lit with the raspberry glow of her magic, and a few moments later, Flash felt well and whole. He tested his wing, and it didn’t so much as twitch. In fact, he felt a little better than usual. His wing had a slightly wider range of motion, and the flight muscles had a bit more mass to them. Was that a perk of the healing magic or did Twilight have a more fit mental image of him than reality?

Flash offered Twilight a grin and, opting not to correct her error, said, “Thanks for healing me.”

“I didn’t. Wing repair is a delicate business I’ve not practiced. This is only a temporary measure. You’ll need to ask me, Lyra, or Trixie to refresh your polymorph around this time everyday until the solstice.”

Well, that’s disappointing. “Can’t you just make this permanent?”

From the opposite side of the room, Starlight commented, “Only if you want to die.”

“What?” Flash tried to keep the creeping sense of panic out of his voice.

At the same time, Twilight, startled, only now truly noticed the other mare in the room. “Starlight? What happened?”

“Oh, I got back with thaumic burns, and I was still in recovery when Eclipse showed up.”

As close as she was, Flash noticed Twilight grit her teeth. “I’m sorry,” she said.

Starlight paused a moment, apparently unsure what to do with the apology, and then waved it off. “It’s not your fault.”

A moment passed where Twilight looked about to say something more on the subject before she shook her head and dismissed it. “Right, well, get well soon.”

Starlight nodded and then turned her attention back to Flash. “Anyway, polymorphs aren’t perfect. If you don’t include the magic to reverse the changes, you’ll eventually get very, very sick and die.”

“Or be dependent on them to survive,” Twilight added.

“Or that,” Starlight agreed in the same academic tone as though these side effects were ordinary, everyday things.

With nothing smart to contribute and left with a general uneasiness with the magic he was under, Flash said nothing.

“Which is why we always make them temporary,” Twilight concluded. “Regardless, our holiday is over. I need to go pick up the foals. When you’re ready to leave, we’ll all be back at the lab.” And with that, she teleported away.

All things considered, Flash thought this went much better than he’d been expecting.

High up in the archmage’s tower, the sound of music spilled forth. It was a duel as much as a duet. Sweetie Belle took the high keys and the melody while Spike sat to her left and laid down a swinging rhythm that made her want to dance. She fought to keep to the fast pace he set and clumsily stitched together familiar tunes into an improvised, coherent whole. She’d forgotten how much she missed this. Lessons were boring, but just playing? And with a friend for once?

Sweetie Belle felt something stirring within her. Something swelled in the charged air. She felt the rhythm flowing through her and the beat of her heart syncing with the tempo. A grin split her face. She sat on the cusp of discovering something new and magnificent, she knew. If felt almost like a heartsong with her at the helm charting the course it took instead of it guiding her actions.

At once, however, Sweetie Belle recognized that something was missing, and everything fell apart. The feeling faded. The moment passed. The boiling of her blood abated. As the strangeness settled, she slowed to a stop.

Spike noticed at once and set his claws lightly on the next keys he’d been about to hit. The tips fit snugly into little grooves he’d worn into the piano. It posed an idle interest to guess which musical keys he played most by how deep the claw marks went and, from that, what types of music he preferred. She suspected ragtime, jazz, and really just anything upbeat.

“Something wrong?”

That question had no easy answer. Something was wrong, but it wasn’t wrong wrong, only its absence keenly felt while everything else was perfect. Or it had been, at any rate. Everything had since settled down, normalized, returned to the status quo, whatever one wanted to call the blandness that was reality.

“Sweetie Belle?”

“Ah. No. No, I’m fine.” Sweetie Belle returned her hooves to the keys and lit her horn. She wanted to find her way back to that strange, blissful state, but it felt like one of those things that wouldn’t happen if she paid any attention to it. “Maybe something slower?”

Sweetie Belle led into the first couple bars of a saloon song she’d picked up for one of her crusades, a notoriously tricky piece for one but relatively easy for two. With a glance at Spike, she let her magic playing the bass keys fade, and he leapt into her place without missing a beat. A grin lit her face as they hit their stride almost at once. She’d suspected he would know this song, and he hadn’t disappointed.

Then with the reduced focus required to play with a partner, Sweetie Belle opted to engage in conversation. “You’re really good.” Spike had carelessly claimed he was better than most, but she felt he’d undersold himself.

“Everyone needs a hobby. There are only so many comics to read, and I have a lot of free time on my hands when Flurry is off at school.”

That made sense, Sweetie Belle supposed, except for one thing. “You don’t go to school with her?” She would have thought those two attended together given how close they were. But then he was the son of perhaps the greatest scholar in history. If it weren’t for how busy Archmage Twilight could get, she would have assumed he underwent homeschooling in the first place.

“Nah. I finished years ago.”

“Oh.” A moment passed while Sweetie Belle processed the explanation. “Wait, what?”

Spike chuckled and nudged Sweetie Belle with an elbow to resume her half of the song. “You do know Mom is only eight years older than me, right?”

Now that Spike pointed it out, Sweetie Belle realized that she’d completely forgotten his age. He made it so easy, really. They were roughly the same height, after all, and he didn’t act all that differently from colts her age.

“I’m young for a dragon,” Spike continued, “but do you really think Mom of all ponies would let me use that as an excuse to play truant?”

Sweetie Belle shook her head. “Were you homeschooled, then?”

“Not when day care was an opt–” Spike abruptly stopped playing, and Sweetie Belle trailed off a few notes later. “Oh, horseapples. You heard that, didn’t you?”

“Yeah…” There wasn’t much point in lying. Generosity was hard to miss around her neck.

Spike’s wings shifted strangely, a sign of how new they were, when he brought his arm up to scratch the back of his head just behind one of his spines. Fragments of thoughts flew by in his head as he tried to find the right words.

“Look, don’t make a big deal about it, but Mom didn’t really think about the consequences when she hatched me. Or, well, she did, sort of, but she felt entirely too clever not to go ahead and show that she could anyway. I’ve had this conversation with her, and we’re past it.”

To Sweetie Belle’s ear, that sounded like the truth, and Generosity didn’t pick up any sign to the contrary.

“The point is when I got old enough for school, she was still trying to figure out how to be a responsible adult. She would have homeschooled me, but sending me away each school day just freed up too much time she needed for herself to dismiss.”

As somepony who would receive that kind of dedicated attention from Archmage Twilight soon enough, Sweetie Belle felt it wasn’t her place to express sympathy or otherwise comment. It was bad enough she’d sparked the fight with Trixie. She didn’t need to reopen old wounds between mother and son as well.

“Anyway,” Spike began. He placed his claws back on the piano keys and picked up from where they’d left off, leaving Sweetie Belle to scramble to join him. “Most of my foalhood friends are adults now. A bunch of them are employed in the castle.”

“Flash?” Sweetie Belle asked. Those two did seem to get on fairly well, all things considered.

However, Spike said, “Nah. He’s Mom’s age. But he is friends with one of my friends who went into the guard, so you know.”

“Huh.” Spike’s life was a lot more complicated than Sweetie Belle had thought. “Is it difficult to stay friends with them?”

A rueful chuckle escaped Spike. “You have no idea. All they talk about is money, and work, and dating, and other adult stuff while I just want to play O&O and discuss the latest Power Ponies issue.” He heaved a sigh.

After a moment’s hesitation, Sweetie Belle decided that she couldn’t make anything worse and said, “For what it’s worth, I’ll always be your friend.”

Spike’s smile was somewhat strained, and his thoughts let slip that he’d had that promised made and broken to him before. He did, however, opt to consider it in more depth. Sweetie Belle had been about to make a Pinkie promise to reassure him but backed off and left him to his own contemplations. Eventually, her patience was rewarded when he concluded that she, Flurry, and Ocellus were about the right age at the right time to have a lasting, fully functional friendship.

“Scootaloo and Apple Bloom as well,” Sweetie Belle added. The latter, being the only one of them not moving to Canterlot, was particularly important. She wouldn’t leave Apple Bloom to feel alone or abandoned if she could help it. If letters and visits wouldn’t be enough, they would find a way.

Time passed, and before too long, they finished their song. Since Sweetie Belle had picked the last one, she left it to Spike to pick their next. He glanced at the clock with a thoughtful hum.

“Hey, you said you can sing, right?”

Sweetie Belle cocked her head to the side. “I can.” Personally, she considered herself quite good.

Those were the magic words. Spike leapt to his feet and made his way over to a filing cabinet. He grabbed a step ladder and placed it adjacent. He made it only one step up before remembering that he had wings now, whereupon he kicked the ladder to the side, laughed at gravity, and hovered in place at the topmost drawer. What was the point of having wings if they went unused, after all. He then flipped through the drawer’s contents before withdrawing a couple pieces of sheet music. With his prize obtained, he returned to the piano and slammed the cabinet shut behind him with his tail.

“Budge over,” Spike said, landing on the bench’s center. He handed over the score with a smile and added, “I think you’ll like this song.”

Sweetie Belle, curious, read through it. The piano work was…simple. The vocals didn’t require any difficult techniques. She could certainly sing it, but it wasn’t really her thing. She doubted it was Spike’s, either. It surprised her he even had a copy.

“Shall we?” Spike asked.

With a shrug, Sweetie Belle gave the go ahead to start.

Twilight appeared in the vestibule of her tower. She was late, she knew. She’d sent a message to Spike telling him she’d pick him and Sweetie Belle up well over an hour ago, but Sunset had kept her longer than she’d expected. As such, it wasn’t a surprise when she didn’t find the foals ready and waiting for her. Their location was no mystery, however. The sound of the piano emanated from upstairs, as did Sweetie Belle’s beautiful singing voice.

“Love is in bloom~”

A wail of horror escaped Twilight.

The timing might as well have been perfect. Sweetie Belle eeped when the score held in her magic spontaneously burst into flames just as she hit the chorus. Spike kept playing and glanced behind him. As expected, Twilight stood across the room looking like she’d destroyed some heretical text that claimed magic was nothing but a myth and all observed effects were merely the result of mass hallucinations.

Grinning, Spike sang, “A beautiful bride~”

Twilight immediately threw a silencing spell at him.

Hey, I’m not that bad.

A very confused Sweetie Belle – who had a hauntingly beautiful voice, as it turned out – sent a skeptical look Spike’s way. He suspected it had more to do with asking what he’d gotten her into than any comment on his singing ability.

With reluctance, Spike removed his claws from the piano and spun in place atop the bench. Twilight, with this sign of a truce declared, removed the spell keeping him quiet.

Meanwhile, Twilight approached Sweetie Belle. She lowered herself to her barrel to be at eye level and then, with all the solemnity she could muster, proclaimed, “That song does not exist.”

Spike snorted in dry amusement. “You think that was the only copy I made?”

Naturally, Twilight sent a glare Spike’s way.

“Um…” Both parties turned to Sweetie Belle. “Can I get an explanation? Please?”

Twilight’s reluctance to say anything gave Spike all the opportunity he needed to prevent her from burying the story. “Love is in Bloom is the one and only heartsong Mom has ever led.” With a grin, he sang, “And the magic only worked once.”

A few muttered words came from Twilight.

“You’ll never see her sing or, worse, dance in public. Not after–”

“Enough,” Twilight sighed. “I’m sorry I’m so late, Spike. I should have sent a heads-up.” She then turned to Sweetie Belle. “You have a very lovely voice. I do not.”

Sweetie Belle offered a bashful, “Thank you,” at the praise.

“Now are we ready to go?”

Spike supposed that was apology enough. They vanished moments later, back off to the Frozen North. As the traveled, he idly wondered how everypony else’s holiday had gone.

It was interesting what bits of research Twilight Sparkle had left behind for anypony to browse through. Trixie knew without a doubt that she’d spirited all the good stuff away before inviting company over, but the scraps she’d left behind were nothing to sneeze at. Despite the occasional chunk of pyrite mixed into the gold – seriously, who cared about the optimal way to butter bread? – for anypony with a halfway decent magical education, the lab was a treasure trove.

If anypony asked, Trixie would deny it, but she’d already learned a fair bit just from browsing through the notes about dense magic. The subject matter didn’t have much combat application for her inevitable rematch with Twilight Sparkle, unfortunately, where speed mattered infinitely more than space, but she had a few ideas on how she could upgrade her wagon. If she tidied up the space expansion spells, she could slot in a few more luxuries she’d passed over without compromising the integrity of the design. It’d be a long project but one well worth the effort.

A surge of magic caught Trixie’s attention – Lyra’s, if she wasn’t mistaken. She glanced up from the notes hovering before her. Sure enough, the mare herself teleported in with her lover in tow. Bon Bon nonchalantly scanned the room for threats, nodding hello to Trixie when their eyes met.

Really, those two oozed secrets to anypony who knew what signs to look for. At some point Trixie needed to ask them who exactly they were. Her curiosity was slowly overwhelming her courtesy.

But that matter would keep. For now, Trixie asked, “How was your holiday?”

“It was amazing! We went to Canterlot to process a few immigration documents. Waiting in lines. Signing documents. You know, boring stuff. Then while we were there, we met–”

A stomp of one hoof on another promptly shut Lyra up.

Trixie raised a skeptical eyebrow at Bon Bon.

Bon Bon, in turn, smiled innocently. “We ran into an old friend of mine. She’s an archaeologist, and she needed a unicorn to help with one of her digs. There were a few ancient magical protections that needed clearing, you see. Lyra was happy to help.”

“We went on an adventure!” Lyra summarized with an energy that belied the supposed boring academic work. “There were ruins, and artifacts, and interesting magics. We didn’t even have to fight anything!”

Well, that hardly qualified. What sort of adventure didn’t involve at least one fight or brush with death?

Lyra turned to address Bon Bon. “How long has Rainbow Dash known–”

“A few years now, I think,” Bon Bon quickly answered. “I was surprised as well. You can ask her for details when we get back to Ponyville.” She turned back to Trixie, then, and asked, “How was your performance?”

Trixie quirked an eyebrow.

The couple waited in patient silence.

Trixie let out a quiet snort. She wanted to ask, but she doubted they would give her a proper answer. Setting their secrets aside, she said, “It went well.” Really, was there ever any doubt? Even when Twilight Sparkle had crashed the last one, she’d still gotten a standing ovation. “Word will spread. When the celebration finally begins, everypony will want to see the Great and Powerful Trixie.”

“Well, duh.”

Trixie’s head snapped toward the voice.

“You’re, like, the most amazingest at stage performances ever!”

Resisting the urge to order Niian into staff mode, Trixie narrowed her eyes at the pink one. She hadn’t noticed Twilight Sparkle’s return nor had Flash popped back. Actually, she didn’t know if Loyalty could haul around luggage. It probably could, but she’d have to ask later what the limitations were. Regardless, that wasn’t the point. “How did you get back here?” she asked.

“I walked, silly.”

“That’s absurd. We’re underground with no way out in the middle of the Frozen North.” Trixie looked to Lyra and Bon Bon, but they only shrugged without concern. When she turned back, finding no help there, Pinkie Pie had already lost interest and pronked off to see to something deeper within the lab. “Whatever,” she grumbled. It wasn’t her problem, and she wasn’t an academic.

With greetings out of the way, Trixie returned to her reading. The lovers wandered off to do their own thing – probably each other – and she once again had the peace and quiet she required to parse Twilight Sparkle’s absurdly dense writing. They were personal notes, which made that somewhat expected on some level, of course, but that mare could give Luna a run for her bits in disgustingly compact text.

It was no wonder those two got along despite Princess Celestia dividing them. When Luna got back, they’d probably show each other their labs and geek out or something. Perhaps they already had. Maybe they spent all their time debating esoteric nonsense nopony cared about. Or did they discuss more practical matters of policy? Actually, she’d probably recruited Twilight Sparkle into that ridiculous O&O group she ran. It seemed like the sort of thing that mare would enjoy. Trixie vaguely recalled that Twilight Sparkle was a naturally inclined stargazer as well.

Realizing that she’d read the same line of text five times now, Trixie mumbled, “Stupid nerds,” and tossed the document aside. She knew herself well enough to know she wouldn’t be able to focus properly anytime soon. She’d just continue her work on making more perfect illusions to pass the time to distract herself.

It wasn’t too long later when Twilight Sparkle and the foals returned to the lab. The latter offered a brief hello before running off with each other to go do whatever children without problems did.

The former stayed. Trixie couldn’t put her hoof on exactly what caused it, but a strained air hung about Twilight Sparkle. She’d arrived with it, in hindsight, but it worsened as she moved to engage in conversation without shouting across the room. “Your performance went well, I assume.”

Trixie slowly nodded. She didn’t know what had Twilight Sparkle on edge, but so long as their truce held, she would return the civility. “Movie night?”

“Ah… There were…complications.”

‘Complications’, eh? The foals hadn’t looked any worse for wear, not that Trixie had paid them much attention on their way by. “What, did somepony spill your popcorn or something?”

“No, nothing so petty.” Twilight Sparkle’s eyes, already avoiding Trixie’s own, found a fascinating section of sterile white wall tiles to stare at. She shifted in place. “Could I ask–” Her lips pursed. “No, our circumstances aren’t comparable. Never mind.” With that cryptic nonsense, she turned to leave.

Curiosity demanded that Trixie ask, “What happened?” The ‘circumstances’ Twilight Sparkle spoke of, considering whose company she’d just been in, likely involved one or both of the alicorns. Trixie’s bits were on Princess Celestia.

Twilight Sparkle stopped but didn’t yet turn back to Trixie. As she vacillated, she gnawed at her lip.

It was time to play the trump card. “Isn’t sharing your burdens what friends are supposed to do?” That came off a bit more sarcastic than Trixie had meant it to, but it worked.

Twilight Sparkle snorted and sent a light glare Trixie’s way. “Fine. I let Eclipse into the castle and allowed her to steal Celestia’s crown.”

As far as surprises went, Trixie thought this one deserved the gape she gave it. “On purpose?”

“Yeah.” It was an easy confession rather than the ashamed one Trixie had expected. “Honestly, I wasn’t sure if she could pull it off. She did, but that’s not really the point.”

Bemused, Trixie uttered a long, skeptical, “Okaaaay.” Where was this going?

“I used the disturbance to advance a few plans already in motion. Celestia isn’t really feeling up for her usual long-term scheming, so I’m trying my hoof at it, I guess.” Twilight Sparkle’s gaze fell to her hooves, one of which scraped against the floor. “I don’t know if she would approve. I mean, I do things she doesn’t officially approve of all the time, but this is different.” She turned and set to pacing. “And I’m too much of a coward to ask. And I lied to her. And I covered my lies with things I would have lied about if she hadn’t figured them out on her own. I’ve never – she and I, we don’t do that to each other. We have secrets, sure, but we’ve never – I’ve broken a sacrosanct trust. This will forever stain our relationship when she finds out.” She stopped pacing and stamped a hoof as she softly cried, “I’ve ruined everything!”

This was too weird and too much to unpack at once. Trixie withdrew a tissue from her subspace storage and offered it to Twilight Sparkle. It successfully silenced her as she blew her nose and wiped away the budding tears in her eyes, so Trixie privately celebrated dodging that spell. The last thing she wanted was Twilight Sparkle breaking down on her. If that happened, she’d just summon the pink one and tag out.

“Thanks,” Twilight Sparkle finally said. “I guess I feel a little better.” She made one last dab with the tissue before removing it from existence. “So like I said, not really comparable to your situation with Luna.”

“Obviously. How much has she told you?”

“Basically nothing. I had the EIS conduct a background check on you, but I didn’t get much from it. Sunset declined to share as well.” With a shrug, Twilight Sparkle added, “All I really know for sure is Luna did something to upset you.”

That was a severe understatement, to put it succinctly, but in her magnanimity, Trixie forgave Twilight Sparkle for her ignorance.

“But unless you want to talk, I don’t particularly need to hear what happened. I’m fine with where we’re at right now.”

Trixie flatly said, “Yeah, no.” She’d already pushed her limits on touchy-feely time with Twilight Sparkle.

“I figured, but the offer is there.” Twilight Sparkle shrugged. “Anyway, I need to have a chat with Lyra and Bon Bon about keeping a low profile. Are they back yet?”

“Yeah. They’re probably in their room.” And then because this was entirely too good of an opportunity to miss, Trixie asked, “What did they do?”

Unfortunately, Twilight Sparkle merely replied, “They met up with a famous adventure archaeologist,” before departing to go find the pair. Clearly, there was an official story being passed around. Whatever supposed adventure they’d gone on, even adjusting for their blatant secretiveness, must have been more important than they’d let on.

At any rate, it wasn’t any of Trixie’s business. She pushed the matter from her mind and locked away the memory of Twilight Sparkle becoming emotional in front of her. The fabric of reality didn’t seem to be tearing itself apart, so better to forget than to dwell on such madness.

For now, Trixie would content herself with returning to her work on illusion magic. This was, after all, likely the end of her uninterrupted personal time until the solstice. Whenever Flash returned from wherever he’d gone, it’d be right back to mandatory group bonding. She gagged at the thought.

Rainbow Dash flipped through a dusty, old, but remarkably well preserved book as she idly drifted upside down through the air. She couldn’t read a word of it, or at least that’s what she would say if anypony, with one exception, ever asked. From what she could understand, it was a spellbook, and a hornwritten one at that. Strange ramblings about crystal mirrors and other worlds filled its pages, fitting for a research lab discovered below the old Canterlot Crystal Mine. A peculiar entry near the end caught her attention.


From across the room, Daring Do – real name, A.K. Yearling, but that was so much less awesome – glanced up from another ancient tome she was restoring. Seeing nothing wrong, she went back to work but asked, “Find something interesting?”

“According to this, coffee isn’t native to our…world? Planet? Dimension?”

“What’s the word?” After Rainbow Dash made her best attempt at pronouncing it, Daring Do said, “Universe,” with a distracted air. She ruminated over the discovery for a few moments before shrugging. “Weird, but Star Swirl is generally a trustworthy historical source. Especially when it comes to advanced magics.”

Well, it sounded like a load of nonsense, but of the two of them, Rainbow Dash was more inclined to trust the professional’s opinion on the matter. She flew over to the mounds of books she’d already skimmed through and set the one in her hooves atop the ‘probably bunk but potentially incredibly dangerous’ pile. She’d read enough fiction to know one didn’t carelessly mess with the multiverse.

While Rainbow Dash waited for the next book to scan, she watched Daring Do on the job. It was long, careful, tedious work to disenchant it, take the thing apart, prepare the pages, replace the binding, and put the whole thing back together. Daring Do, lacking a horn, couldn’t restore the protective spellwork herself, but with the book in good condition for transport, that could wait until it found its way into the Canterlot Archives or wherever it ended up.

Daring Do held up her finished work and exchanged it for an untreated one Rainbow Dash passed off to her. It’d become a familiar cycle, and a familiar question demanded yet again to be asked. This time, Rainbow Dash gave in to it.

“That has to be so boring. Why did you agree to do this?”

“Life isn’t all danger and mystery.” Rainbow Dash largely ignored the chiding tone, especially when Daring Do admitted, “Though to be fair, I usually have assistants to do this sort of thing.”

Rainbow Dash let out a bark of laughter. That sounded more like it. “So why not hire some? The crown is paying, isn’t it?”

“It also doesn’t want anypony it doesn’t trust getting their hooves anywhere near any of this. Star Swirl’s work isn’t always safe to release to the public.”

That was fair enough, Rainbow Dash supposed. “Guess we know the princess is a fan of your books, then.”

“Well, I have signed her copy of the series,” Daring Do allowed. “Several others’ in the family, too.” She briefly fell silent as she carefully removed the pages from the book she was working on. “Not the point, though. I’ve worked with the archmage a few times in the past.”

“Really?” That little, totally insignificant cameo wasn’t in any of the books. “That’s cool. How’d that happen?”

Daring Do paused a moment in her work, clearly considering if she should – or rather could – answer. Ultimately, she shrugged and then went back to treating the pages she’d removed from their binding. “I guess the NDA you signed covers this. I ran into her on my hunt for the Sapphire Stone. I was young. She was younger. I prefer to adventure alone–” She directed an askance glance Rainbow Dash’s way.

Rainbow Dash, in turn, whistled innocently. Yeah, she’d totally gotten in the way that first time for a while, but she’d gotten into the swing of things before the end.

“–but I wasn’t going to turn away Princess Celestia’s personal sorceress. As it turned out, she was evaluating me. When all was done and settled, she asked if I’d be willing to be on call for specialist work and consultation. A genius Her Excellency might be, but an archaeologist she is not. I agreed, so I got called in for this.”

“Huh. Cool. I mean, this is kind of boring, but you know what I mean.”

Daring Do rolled her eyes but didn’t interrupt her work. “If you’re bored, you can leave.”

“Nah, I’m fine.” If she left, all Rainbow Dash would have to look forward to was another meeting about school administration and curricula, maybe some weather management later on that she could finish in her sleep. This was her out. For now, at least. “Thanks for vouching for me.”

Princess Cadance vouched for you. I said you’d be unskilled manual labor.”

“Ouch.” With two hooves to her heart, Rainbow Dash feigned distress. “Harsh. But fair.”

As Daring Do set the new binding for the book in her hooves, she said, “Not as fair as I thought.” The glue set, and she released it. “When did you learn to read Ancient Ponish?”

Rainbow Dash rubbed the back of her mane. This conversation never went well. The few ponies she’d told who weren’t Fluttershy or her parents invariably thought she was weird. The only believable lie she could think of, though, was to say she’d studied entirely on her own, and she was already enough of an egghead without adding that to her reputation. Not that she thought Daring Do of all ponies would think less of her for that, but still, she had an image to maintain.

With a little reluctant sigh, Rainbow Dash decided on the truth. “I picked up a bunch of the vocab adventuring with you. I had to look up how to pronounce stuff, but I could match nouns on signs to what they led to.”

“Pull the other one.”

Rainbow Dash spun upright, carefully cradling the refurbished book she’d not yet sorted in her arms. “Hey, I’m not lying! Nopony is better than me at making mental maps. That’s the difference between escaping from Ahuizotl into a stairwell and getting cornered in a bathroom.”

“A useful skill to have,” Daring Do allowed, “but hardly an explanatory one.”

“Yeah, well, when I’m flying, I remember everything. Like, everything everything.”

That got Daring Do to stop her work to look up at Rainbow Dash. She arched her eyebrows and asked, “You have a photographic memory when flying? Only when flying?”

“I guess you could call it that?”

Daring Do gave Rainbow Dash an odd look. It wasn’t anything new, but she’d hoped for a better reaction. Now Daring Do thought she was weird too. Great.

Just to drive the point home, Daring Do said, “Strange,” to herself. She gave it a few more moments of thought before returning to her work. Then, to Rainbow Dash’s surprise, she said, “I’ll ask the archmage to take a look at you when I next see her. That sounds like a magical effect. It’s probably harmless, but better to know for sure.”

Well that was certainly a different reaction from usual. “I…” In all honesty, Rainbow Dash hadn’t planned how to respond to that. She went with, “Thanks.”

“No problem. So you just pattern matched a bunch of nouns?”

That about summed it up. Rainbow Dash might have also looked up the language’s grammatical structure one day when she’d gotten bored out of her mind in Ponyville and picked up some more vocab along the way, but nopony needed to know that.

Daring Do clicked her tongue. “I wish I had your memory.”

A grin split Rainbow Dash’s face. “Yeah, it is pretty awesome.”

“Have you ever considered pursuing a career in archeology?”

The question caught Rainbow Dash off guard. “Uh, no. Not really my speed.”

“You have a considerable head start,” Daring Do insisted. “Learning the language of the ancient world is the major hurdle to clear for the best jobs. The kind Princess Celestia can’t fact check. They’re far better paying and much more engaging than weather work. In all honesty, I’d be willing to take you as a grad student when the time came. I technically have a faculty position at Manehattan University that I could leverage.”

Despite how flattered Rainbow Dash felt, she turned the offer down. That kind of academic work really didn’t suit her. Besides, she had a more persistent complication. “Princess Cadance roped me into her new school for gifted pegasi. She’s not going to let me go anytime soon.

“Huh. Haven’t heard about that yet. As a teacher, right?”

Rainbow Dash snorted. “Obviously.”

“For flight or weather work?”

“Magic, actually.” As the princess had never told her not to talk nor made her sign anything to that effect, Rainbow Dash went ahead and explained the idea behind the school and its goals. She answered a few questions along the way as best as she could. Then when she finished, Daring Do made a few suggestions about what to teach and how but otherwise expressed her support for the changes.

With that, they went back to their own work. Daring Do finished another book, leaving Rainbow Dash with a backlog to work through for the first time since they’d started what one might generously call excavation. The ancient lab was in remarkably good condition despite being abandoned since the start of the Discordian Era. Lyra – and wasn’t that a surprise – had cleared out all of the dangerous magic and left behind a detailed list of what she hadn’t touched. Rainbow Dash didn’t know much about unicorn magic, but from a brief glance at the protections, she’d guess that this place could still survive the Canterhorn collapsing on top of it.

At any rate, Rainbow Dash cracked open an unsorted book. It was, unsurprisingly, another spellbook. This Star Swirl had practically nothing else, it seemed. This one had time as a keyword littered throughout it, so she tossed it into the ‘almost certainly crazy dangerous’ pile without giving it too much of her attention. The last thing anypony needed was some idiot becoming their own grandmother or something.

Without warning, a heavy wad of cloth fell onto Rainbow Dash’s face. She swatted it off of her with far less care than she probably should have shown to a priceless relic. It went flying across the room to smack against a wall, thankfully not knocking over anything potentially breakable. Then once it fell onto the ground in a sad flop to the sound of bells, Rainbow Dash recognized it for what it was.

“Hey, isn’t that Star Swirl’s stupid hat?”

Daring Do’s head snapped away from her work to the hat in question. Eyes locked onto it, she approached with a wary hoof. “Where did this come from? It wasn’t in the room when we got here.”

“No idea. It just fell onto my face.”

As she traced a semicircle around the hat, Daring Do asked, “Did you do anything that might have triggered something?”

“What, like a hat dispenser?”

Daring Do faked a cough. “Star Swirl the Bearded was a brilliant sorcerer as well as a stallion of…many eccentricities.”

“Right…” Perhaps it was best not to ask. “I don’t think so? I didn’t touch anything or do anything different.”

“In that case,” Daring Do began, “we should head back to the surface and ask the archmage regent to make a second sweep of this place. If I’m going to die in some deathtrap or fall under the sway of a cursed artifact, it’s not going to be when I have a support team a short cave flight away.”