Chapter Thirty Seven - Outside Opinions - Part One


I could cut the tension with a knife as Trixie and I silently stared at each other. Lyra seemed oblivious to the tense atmosphere, but Twinkleshine was none-too-subtly trying to herd her from the room.

Outside I could sense Shining storming in our direction as spell after spell enveloped him. No small number of them were wards and miscellaneous protections, unsurprisingly. I didn’t know whether to smile that he’d actually listened to me all those years ago or to cry that he felt them necessary.

Not that they would do him any good if I tried anything…

I must have blinked at the thought or broken eye contact, because Trixie seemed to collect her wits. Her eyes narrowed, and her blunt, deadpan words set a slightly better tone than I’d expected from her.

“Which princess are you?”

“Princess?” Lyra echoed, but Twinkleshine continued to shove her out of the way down a hallway.

I could hear the latter’s voice as she disappeared around a corner.

“Come on, Lyra. Let’s not make things worse, okay?”

With those two out of the way and nopony else around, I decided to start this conversation my way. There was something I needed to say to Trixie, and it would mean infinitely more if it came without prompting.

I gulped, hoping I would get this right. I hadn’t exactly practiced, given that I’d thought this conversation wouldn’t happen for a while still. I was also betting that Trixie had actually been informed of what was going on, but…well, giving how Shining was acting at the moment, it was probably a safe bet.

I only hoped Trixie didn’t hate me so much right now that she wouldn’t remember this decades later when she…could maybe tolerate me. Friendship would be asking for far too much.

“Trixie, before either of us say anything else, I…I know what it’s like to have your dreams and purpose ripped out from under you. I’m…not apologizing, exactly; I would do what I did again without hesitation. But I will try to make it up to you somehow.”

There were a few seconds of silence as Trixie’s face warped through various phases of disgust and anger. Her magic was rolling around inside her, barely kept in check instead of lashing out. Trixie wasn’t stupid; she knew nothing good could come of attacking me.

“Princess Twilight, then,” Trixie eventually spat. “Trixie does not want your platitudes, nor does she want you in her presence.”

Well…that went about as well as I could’ve possibly hoped. I guessed. Pupa would probably know approximately how many years it was going to take Trixie to cool off. Or centuries. Speaking of whom…

No, I should wait. After all, any moment now–

The doors to dormitory exploded inward. The glass panes shattered. Shining stood amongst the carnage, exuding an aura of pure anger. His eyes scanned the room and settled on Trixie.

“Where’s Twilight and her accomplice?”

Trixie pointed to me, and I in turn tried my best to smile and wave. It…didn’t exactly go over well.

Shining’s magic reached out. Unlike with Trixie before, I checked myself before nullifying it. It was just a little telekinesis. Shining wasn’t going to do anyth–

“Ow, ow, ow, ow, ow!” I screamed as Shining pulled my ear, forcing me to trot toward him.

Shining stopped pulling when I was just a hoof or two away from him, but he didn’t let go. He glared down at me, and I shrunk under the intensity of his gaze. My head tilted awkwardly to keep my ear from being twisted or pulled.

You are up to your neck in trouble.”

I gulped before I could help it. Shining was a lot more intimidating than I remembered, especially in full armor.

“You and her.”

Twinkleshine squeaked from somewhere behind me. Her hooves thundered as she no doubt tried to run, but Shining teleported her right next to me. Twinkleshine tripped over herself and fell onto the ground. It would’ve been cute in any other situation.

“Shining, please let go.” The words came out as a whine, as much as I tried otherwise. “I know you’re upset, but–”

“Upset?” Shining interrupted frigidly. His face came within a centimeter of mine and followed me as I stumbled backward. “No, Twilight. I have three sisters and a nephew, and only recently, I found out that I don’t know any of them. I am beyond merely upset. I don’t know if there’s even a word to express how furious I am.”

My ear that wasn’t held up fell to my forehead. I couldn’t think of anything to say to that.

“And while we’re on the subject, I want to know for sure which sister I’m talking to.”

Shining’s horn didn’t glow; he’d cast a simple spell over it to hide his spellcasting from the casual observer. But I could sense the lines and pools of magic forming to disrupt a changeling polymorph.

In a moment of indecision, I let Shining’s spell wash over me. It tore apart my disguise to reveal the alicorn beneath.

Shining looked me over for several seconds, his gaze lingering on my wings as they ruffled and stretched. His eyes narrowed when he looked at my mane, particularly the new colors of my stripes.

But in the end, Shining moved on without a word and turned to Twinkleshine.

“She’s clean,” Trixie commented, to which Shining just nodded.

“So,” said Shining, turning back to me, “what do you have to say for yourself?”

I was about to reflexively blurt out, “I’m sorry,” but I wasn’t. I’d told Trixie as much mere minutes ago. Maybe that was what Shining wanted to hear, but it wouldn’t be honest. We couldn’t fix our relationship like that.

Really, what even was I supposed to say here? I’d never read a book that told me what to do in situations like this. I had no experience with this, aside from Cadance, kind of, I supposed. I hadn’t even taken the time to think about what I would say.

“Well?” Shining asked, obviously impatient.

I cringed under the accusatory tone and just started talking.

“I… Um… H-hello, I’m Twilight Sparkle. I-I’m your adoptive sister, and – and I’d like to get to know each other better. I…like books and magic. Princess Luna was my mentor as a filly, and we’re really good friends. I used to be a Flare, but I’m the Alicorn of Magic now. I’m magically bonded to the Element of Friendship.”

Shining raised an eyebrow at that one.

“I’ve been away for a little while, but I’m home now. And I’d” – I gulped – “I’d like to be your LSBFF again.” My right forehoof extended in the vain hope of at least getting a hoof bump.

Some part of me was worried that Shining was trying to set my hoof on fire with his mere gaze, which at this point, I feared might be possible. I hadn’t cataloged all the spells he’d cast on himself.

Fortunately, that didn’t happen. Shining just muttered, “I’ll think about it.”

I let my hoof slowly fall back down to the floor. Twinkleshine tried to make up for the lack of brotherly affection by holding my other hoof in hers, but it wasn’t the same.

“Ow!” Twinkleshine and I both complained as the pull on our ears abruptly increased.

“Come with me,” Shining demanded.


Shining led us out of Celestia’s School and into Canterlot proper without a word, barely grunting in acknowledgment when I asked him to wait while I disguised myself again. I wasn’t about to let all of Canterlot swarm us as word of a new alicorn spread.

So it was that Twinkleshine and I were dragged across town practically by leash and collar. I quietly mentioned that I wasn’t willing to go into Canterlot Castle as we turned in that direction, but Shining didn’t deviate from his course. Or even respond to me at all…

Twinkleshine walked close enough to me that I could lean on her for support. I suspected she was offering a wither to cry privately into, but I couldn’t do that to Shining. Crying was…unfair. He had plenty of reasons to be mad at me; I wasn’t going to try to throw that back in his face.

It might even just make him more mad if I did anyway.

Trixie had abandoned us at some point before I could say anything, although as…distracted…as I was, I didn’t recall exactly when. There was just a point when I realized that the angry, roiling ball of magic inside Trixie was no longer present.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t late enough in the day for our march to go unnoticed, even with Trixie’s absence. Most ponies just looked confused to see the guard captain leading two random unicorns around, but occasionally somepony would look at us like we were arrested criminals being hauled off to jail, despite the utter lack of restraints. Those were the worst.

Shining flagged down a guard as she was passing by. He cast a spell to prevent me from listening in as they conversed for a minute or so, making me wish I could read lips. When they were done, the mare galloped off toward the castle. Shining gestured to follow him again, and we turned aside from the main street.

Several blocks went by before I finally recognized one of the back roads we’d been traversing. We were on one of the streets from home to the castle that I used to take.

I looked off in the direction of our old home. There were too many buildings in the way to see them, but I could sense ponies where there couldn’t have been any years ago. That meant that Canterlot was being repaired. I’d already known, but it was something else entirely to witness it firsthoof, to see my mistake slowly erode into forgotten history.

“Shining,” I began hesitantly. There was a question that I needed to ask, one that I’d never had the courage to ask of somepony who wouldn’t lie to me about it. And…Shining would have no reason to lie right now.

I got a questioning grunt in response, which was better than him outright ignoring me.

“Did anypony die when…” I trailed off into silence, looking toward where home should have been.

“Ack!” I bumped into Shining, who had stopped and turned around. Looking up, I squeaked under his glare.

He asked, “Would it make any difference to you?”

“Of course!”

Shining’s eyebrows rose, as if to ask, “Oh? How so?” Or maybe it meant, “What would you do?”

And really, what could I do? I couldn’t bring dead ponies back to life. That escaped even my powers.

I was sure Luna had used some of her funds to help Canterlot already – there was no way she’d miss that opportunity – and I didn’t have any money of my own.

My magic now could probably have put Canterlot back to right in weeks, but it wasn’t like I could retroactively do so.

And above all, I’d already learned an important lesson about planning ahead and collateral damage.

Was there anything left to be gained from the knowledge, besides more guilt? It wasn’t like I’d act any differently.

“I guess not,” I finally admitted, bracing myself for…whatever: a slap, a punch, a sword through the barrel.

But the only thing that came was another yank on my ear, drawing me forward again. It seemed I wasn’t getting an answer.

My ears fell as I realized that I didn’t know Shining well enough anymore to know why he didn’t reply. Did he not want to lie to me? Did he want to keep me guessing? Did he want to make me worry myself to death?

Or worst of all, did he want me to realize I didn’t know him as well as I used to? Old Shining wouldn’t do something like that, but I’d been gone so long.

I didn’t know Shining anymore… This must have been how Luna felt some thousand years ago. At least with Cadance, I still knew her like sisters should.

I was terrible.

Sigh… Twinkleshine and I followed Shining through familiar back roads. We were getting rather close to the castle. I was about to say something when Shining turned down a wide street perpendicular to the castle.

It wasn’t long after that before we found ourselves in something like a field. While not the rolling lands surrounding Ponyville or the expansive, flat San Palomino Desert, there was a fair bit of open, grassy space reserved for, apparently, members of the Day Guard. A ways away from us, there were an awfully large number of ponies in full armor swinging around spears.

But it was not to them that we were headed. Instead, Shining led us to what I could only assume were the exhibition grounds, given how many ponies were idling around watching others spar. He held up a hoof, halting just long enough for us to understand he was asking us to wait where we were.

Glancing around, I noticed that an awful lot of ponies were taking interest in me and Twinkleshine. She sidled up to my side under the attention, mumbling something about ‘bad idea’. I gave her a pat on the withers and whispered a few comforting words; we were safe as long as Celestia wasn’t here. None of the attention felt hostile either, just curious.

Ignoring the crowd, I watched Shining retrieve a wooden box from the mare he’d spoken with earlier. There was something familiar inside the box, but I couldn’t put my hoof on what exactly. I recognized the magic, but I couldn’t put a name to what it was exactly. Maybe once the box was open and I actually saw what was inside, everything would become clear.

Coming to a stop mere hooves in front of me, Shining held the box out. “Take it,” he said.

My curiosity compelled me to comply without even thinking about it. I grabbed the box in my own magic, forgetting to ask if I could open it or even if it was safe to do so.

And inside was rusty piece of metal. Granted the silver and gold trimming was in good condition, but the base – bronze, I thought it was – had rusted everywhere. It looked about ready to fall apart.

I removed the metal from the box, which I discarded. Turning it about, I raised an eyebrow. “Can I fix this?” I asked, still not recognizing…whatever this was supposed to be.

Shining nodded, and I went about reversing the oxidation reaction. The green patina hissed slightly as the oxygen was released back to the air, and some of the bronze crumbled away. Realizing my mistake, I slowed my spell down and added another to melt the freed metal back into the rest of it.

When my spells finished, I looked over the repaired…thing. Turning it about in my magic, being careful not to trigger any of the spells inside it, I found myself only more confused.

“It’s…a fancy rod?”

My ears protested at the crack that came from Shining kicking the box closed with a hoof. He tapped that same hoof against the top.

“I have no idea if I’m pronouncing this right, but that’s Se Be-a-dul-e-oma.”

“Sé Beaduléoma,” I corrected. My brows furrowed as I looked over the metal lump again. “The sword?”

“No way!”

I turned my head to Twinkleshine, knowing my lack of cultural slash social knowledge was about to bite me in the tail again. Even so, I asked, “What is it?”

“I-it’s a mythological weapon, like Caliburn, or the hammer Mjölnir, or the spears Gungnir or Gáe Bulg. It’s supposed to be strong enough to defeat an entire army. Cherry Berry would go nuts for this!”

A legendary sword, eh? I looked at what was supposed to be Sé Beaduléoma again, this time investigating its magic more closely. Every little connection, I could see. Every frayed spell line, I patched up. But I had no idea what it did, like staring at a page-long mathematical equation.

It was certainly old, though. Unless it was a pre-Discordian artifact, it probably didn’t do anything interesting. Maybe it was a sufficiently advanced spell for its time that nopony would have been able to deal with it, but I rather doubted it.

“Huh,” I finally said. “So this is the real thing?”

“Yes.”

And Shining stopped there. His mouth moved on occasion, so I waited for him to continue with whatever he wanted to say.

“Do you know the old Hearth’s Warming tale about the pony tribes?”

What? That question had come completely out of left field. “Of course I do. I forced you to read it to me a million times.”

Shining pulled out another metal rod – or hilt, I supposed – from somewhere on his armor. His magic trickled into it, extending out into a weak field from the hilt to make a purely magical blade. To anypony but me and the most sensitive mages, it might as well have been invisible.

The air shrieked in the wake of Shining’s sword. He’d swung it entirely too fast, slicing no more than a hair’s breadth away from my muzzle. I didn’t even have time to react until after it’d gone past.

Over my protests, Shining continued, “The spell’s official modern name is the ‘phantasmal sword’. It was rediscovered a few centuries ago and repurposed into the gentlecolt’s dueling weapon of choice. In Sé Beaduléoma’s–”

“Sé Beaduléoman,” I corrected Shining again, this time for the genitive form of the noun.

For just a moment, I saw Shining sigh and roll his eyes at me like he used to.

“When that sword was made, most people called it the butcher’s blade. If the pony tribes had possessed it, there would be no earth ponies or pegasi.”

Again, I gazed upon Sé Beaduléoman skeptically. It really wasn’t that impressive of a weapon. There were more efficient ways to kill somepony with plain old magic.

Shining continued, “It probably has more blood on it than every other weapon in Equestrian history combined.”

And then it clicked. I knew why the magic placed on this sword was familiar.

“That is the original weapon of Princess Luna,” Shining said.

At the same time, I said, “It’s Luna’s!”

Shining blinked. It then occurred to me that he might have wanted to shock me into thinking Luna was evil or something. But even if that was what he was after, he was doing it all wrong. A million was a statistic, after all.

Either way, Shining moved the topic along.

“You’re not my cute little sister who needs protecting, are you?”

W-what? No. No, you shouldn’t take that the wrong way, Twilight. You knew what he meant. You weren’t Aurora, nor were you the little filly who cried during a thunderstorm and ran to her big brother anymore. That was surely all he meant.

“Defend yourself!”

That was all the warning I had before Shining’s sword shot straight toward my face. I reacted reflexively, triggering Luna’s now repaired sword and scrambling to move it into place to block.

Squeaking only after the event, I hopped backward straight into Twinkleshine. We took a tumble and ended up in a mess of hooves.

Shining was still nice enough to grant us a moment to separate. I took advantage of it to say, “Shining, I don’t know how to sword fight!”

Apparently done with waiting, Shining teleported Twinkleshine out of the way. “And I don’t have the magic to win a contest of strength. Get over it.”

Oh shoot. Was Shining upset about Hearth’s–

“Eek!” I scrambled again to move my own sword between Shining’s and mine. But being held in his telekinesis, it easily sidestepped my clumsy swipe.

Shining’s sword sunk into my side. My body flailed about out of control. The magical shock roiled around inside me until Shining removed his sword.

“Ugh…” I groaned. When I could move again, I glanced up to find Shining frowning down at me on the ground.

“Get up.”

“Shining, I–”

Get. Up.”

As much as I’d love to remanifest, we were in public. Instead, I teleported to my hooves, staggering slightly when they protested at supporting my weight again.

And Shining came at me again as soon as I was stable. This time I moved my own sword as if I were moving magic about so that it would intersect his. That was more like something I’d been trained to do.

It worked at first. I parried one blow and then another, but he somehow slipped by me again on the third.

I fell to the ground in a twitching mess, gasping for breath.

This time, as soon as Shining pulled his sword out, I jumped into action. I teleported to my hooves again far away. I landed behind Shining and to his left, which should be where his vision was weakest.

My own sword I left behind, right next to Shining. Growling, I shot it forward toward him at supersonic speeds.

In the split second before it pierced him, my eyes widened. This was a huge mistake.

I froze the magic powering my sword. The blade disappeared in an instant, and it stopped accelerating.

But it was still a fast-moving chunk of metal.

Shining swatted my sword aside, my sword that had the original enchantment, my deadly sword. He took advantage of my daze and swung at me again.

I just felt the tip slice into me. I could feel a spasm coming again.

Shocked into action, I shouted, “Enough!” All of the magic within a meter of me was ripped to shreds.

A half-second later, I felt a teleport next to me. A sickening crunch met my ears as I flew sideways. My eyes caught Shining with his hind hooves falling back to the ground after kicking me in the side.

“You can do better than that, Princess,” Shining said mockingly. He picked up his sword and replaced the enchantment.

I grit my teeth and waited for my body to finish repairing the minor damage it’d taken.

While I lay in the dirt, Shining’s hooves came to a rest beside me, just inside my field of vision. This time he didn’t even wait for me to get up. His sword came down for the coup de grâce.

Gritting my teeth ever harder, I rolled out of the way. My own sword came down to block a follow up attack, but Shining didn’t seem interested in pressing his advantage.

I tried to sweep Shining’s legs out from under him as I spun. They met with air where I’d expected pony. An instant later, one of Shining’s hooves stomped down on them, prompting me to shriek.

“Shining! What the buck!”

Shining pressed down harder on my leg. “Language.”

Screw that. I let my inner Sunset flow. “Buck you! Do you want me to rip out your spine and feed it to you?”

“You could. What’s stopping you?”

Wha… What kind of question was that? “You’re my brother.”

“Is that it? We’re not even related. Now what?”

I lay speechless at Shining’s words. My heart felt like it would burst.

I – was I – had he disowned me?

“That feeling,” Shining said, twisting his hoof harder into my leg. “All of this. You’re going to remember all of it. Every time you look in the eyes of somepony you hurt, of somepony you betray, you’re going to remember this. The anger, the pain, the intent to kill, the sense of betrayal, the restraint.”

Shining used the hilt of his sword to turn my face toward his.

“I know you were the talented filly in the family, although I wonder how much of that was being fifty something years old. But I’m smart, too, and I remember a lot of things you’ve said to me. The ‘annoyances’ that you casually sweep out of your path, they’re just like you.”

“Damn it, Shining, I don’t need an empathy lesson!”

Shining continued on as if I hadn’t said anything. The only indication that he’d even heard me was his hoof pressing down harder still.

“Angry. Hurt. Vengeful. Betrayed by somepony who should be leading and guiding them.”

None too gently, Shining rolled me over and away from him.

“Now get. Up. You have a lesson to relearn. I know Princess Celestia taught you this decades ago.”

A relevant memory did come to mind, but it was a thousand times more gentle. It wasn’t…this. It wasn’t a physical demonstration.

“Stupid meathead,” I growled, wobbling to my hooves.

I was going to beat Shining into the ground.


“Hah… Hah…” I panted, one hoof pinning Shining’s center of mass to the ground. My sword had his pinned down as well.

Shining tried to teleport, but I reacted quicker. I dispelled his teleport before it was even halfway constructed, let alone powered.

He squirmed again, and I just laughed weakly at the attempt, pressing down slightly harder.

“Earth pony – strength,” I managed between breaths. “Surrender.”

Shining stared me down. I stared back, unblinking. I’d won. He wasn’t going to cheat me out of this, not after giving me a sword I couldn’t even hit him with.

“Fine,” Shining finally grunted out. “You win, Oh Goddess of Cheating.”

“Ha!” I pulled my hoof off of Shining and collapsed onto my haunches, reveling in my victory. “Says the pony who challenged a novice swordsmare to a duel. How did that work out for you?”

The latter half of my taunt was drowned out by hoofstomps and cheers. I looked around at the sizable crowd we’d attracted as our match became progressively more flashy.

We were soon swarmed by ponies saying things to the effect of, “Good match,” or, “I’ve never seen the captain get his flank hoofed to him like that,” or even the odd request for a date.

It took some time, but eventually we managed to separate ourselves from the crowd, rejoining with Twinkleshine off to the side. She immediately set about fussing over me. As much as I liked the attention, I hurt in far too many places for it to continue. Public or no, it couldn’t continue.

I threw up an illusion, quickly remanifested, reapplied my disguise, and tore the illusion down in less than a second, muttering a curse that muscle pain and fatigue weren’t considered worthy of automatically regenerating. There was no excuse.

But anyway, I turned to Shining. “I won.”

Shining, rather obviously envious of alicorns at the moment, wiped back his sweaty mane. “Whatever.”

“I won, so I claim you by right of conquest. And I demand the customary tribute.”

We both heard Twinkleshine’s stomach growl. We were running pretty late for dinner by now.

I added, “Oh, and something for my concubine.”

“Twilight,” Twinkleshine protested.

But now that I actually thought about it… “You know, I think that’s technically what you are, like Shining is Cadance’s concubine.”

In almost the same indignant tone as Twinkleshine, Shining said, “Hey!”

“No complaints, Mortal. Now bring unto us vittles and libations so that we might partake of them.”

Shining rolled his eyes. There was a wonderful moment where all of us were smiling at least a little bit.

But it passed, and I was forced to remember that I wasn’t a filly playing pretend with her big brother anymore.

“Do you actually like donuts?” Shining asked. The barbs sticking out of the question were only twisted deeper as he added, “I forget.”

“I haven’t had a deep fried donut in years,” I countered, “but if they’re still as sweet as I remember, I’m sure I’ll love them.” I turned to Twinkleshine, silently asking if donuts was fine for, if not supper, than a snack to hold her over.

“Pinkie’s donuts are nice, but I could go for something different. We can sit down and eat them, right?”

Shining and I nodded, and with that, we headed for Pony Joe’s. While there was still an invisible wall between Shining and me, he and Twinkleshine at least talked to each other while I listened in. They mostly talked about old myths and epics, which was one of the few things they had in common, particularly the most obvious subject, Sé Beaduléoman.

“As I see it,” Shining said, “the phantasmal sword was innovative solely for being a weapon that unicorns wouldn’t break while swinging it around.”

I glanced over at the box for Sé Beaduléoman that I’d been ‘allowed’ to keep. It belonged with me more than Celestia, after all.

At any rate, what Shining said made a lot of sense. Most of the unicorns anypony would actually want to send into battle could probably snap a sword in half if they tried hard enough.

“Until we switched over to bows, spells, and projectiles exclusively, the stronger unicorns would break their swords as easily as they’d rend armor.”

“Wouldn’t that get really expensive?” Twinkleshine asked.

Shining chuckled for a moment before answering. “Oh yes, very much so. I think Princess Celestia tried to hide it, but there’s an embarrassingly large amount of money spent hiring blacksmiths in Equestrian history.”

I silently mumbled, “It wouldn’t be the first thing she hid,” to myself.

At any rate, we arrived at our destination soon enough. It was only a few minutes’ walk from the training grounds.

Pony Joe’s was just as I remembered it. They had donuts, donuts, and more donuts. There were also drinks and a few other things, but nopony came here for them. Behind the counter was Joe himself, looking considerably older than I remembered. It looked like my favorite donut had been taken off the menu, too.

Resisting the urge to sigh, I made my way to the counter and placed an order for a glazed donut, a mocha donut, a raspberry twist, and a mug of hot chocolate. They weren’t my favorites, but they still made my inner filly squee at the thought of having all that for dinner.

That done, I identified and locked onto our usual table. That, at least, was still there. Shining and I used to sit at it when we were younger on my way home from school and later from the Canterlot Archives. As it was unoccupied, I immediately claimed my window seat.

Twinkleshine arrived next, and Shining followed soon after with a hint of a smile. It was only a hint of one, the barest upturning of the lip amid a perpetual scowl, but it was something. He sat down across from me with Twinkleshine awkwardly stuck in-between us.

“I’ve spent the last week trying to think of exactly the right thing to say to you, and I don’t even know where to begin.” Shining paused and held himself as if he were about to say something else, but then he seemed to decide better of it and took a sip of his own hot chocolate.

The two of us fell into a strained silence. He’d certainly said a lot already with his sword, but I knew what he meant.

“Hopefully you got all the anger out?” I tried, mumbling a bit and hiding my muzzle behind my hot chocolate.

Shining glared at me like I was the biggest idiot in the world. I sank further into my seat.

The three of us poked at our meals for awhile. I tried hard to pretend the various other conversations in the store weren’t suddenly infinitely more interesting.

“Er…”

Shining and I perked up to look at Twinkleshine.

“I’m not under arrest, am I?”

She’d better not be. Not that it would really matter.

Shining let out a strained sigh. “As much as I would like to say otherwise, no. Why?”

“I just wanted to go get something is all.”

Eyebrows were raised questioningly, but Shining let Twinkleshine go on parole. I made my own promise to keep an eye on her magic in case anything went wrong.

Distracted as I was, I barely noticed when Shining cast a few basic privacy spells and said something.

“Twilight!” Shining shouted, banging the table with a hoof.

I jumped at the shout and focused less intensely on watching Twinkleshine. She should be okay, in theory.

“Sorry, what did you say?”

“I asked if I really do have a third sister. Princess Cadenza and Princess Celestia said they were guessing.”

My ears fell to my head at how Shining addressed his fiancée, let alone his tone. “Please don’t be mad at Cadance. I’m sure whatever is wrong, it’s my fau–”

“Twilight Sparkle!” Shining shouted, banging the table again. “Answer the question!”

“Ah…” After maybe a second’s hesitation, I nodded. “She’s doing well. You might have met her, actually. I mean, obviously you’ve met her before, but you might have met her since…after me. She has a job in the castle waiting for her, so she might have done an internship or interview there or something.”

Shining’s scowl only deepened. “What’s her name?”

“That’s confidential,” I whispered.

“Twilight…” Shining growled threateningly.

I…supposed I’d given Shining enough information to finish an investigation on his own. “Just don’t do anything rash, okay, Shining? I have checked in the past couple weeks, and she does have a really happy family life. I don’t want us to ruin that. Please?”

“I’ll decide that for myself once I’ve seen her. Now what is her name?” Shining punctuated his words with either frustration or anger, maybe both. It was hard to tell.

I checked my own temper in response to Shining’s ever-growing one. I could completely sympathize with not having answers and how awful that could be. Not that he couldn’t ask a little more nicely; it’d be more likely to get information out of me, if nothing else, even if he didn’t want to really talk to me ever again.

“Aurora,” I finally replied.

Shining’s face scrunched up in thought, but eventually he shook his head.

“She has a really distinctive mane,” I added. It wasn’t quite as eye-catching as Dash’s, but, “It’s green and blue and purple, and it looks just like an aurora in the wind.” It was actually rather fetching; Luna had obviously put some work into building a new identity for her.

“Oh, buck.” Shining’s pupil’s shrunk to pinpricks, and his head fell into his hooves.

A few giggles escaped me. “What? Did you have a stallions’ night out and discuss what a hot piece of flank she was?”

“No.”

Hmm, I was pretty sure Shining had put a little too much force into that denial, but oh well. I certainly wouldn’t be doing myself any favors right now by grilling him on it.

Still, I could have a little fun.

“You know, you didn’t grow up with her, and outside of her brain, her DNA is mostly distinct from yours. It would perfectly acceptable to ogle her, if you were in the mood to. I won’t judge.”

“I said that wasn’t it!” Shining shouted.

I just giggled. And really, if I couldn’t at least laugh at the funny parts of this mess, how could we ever get past it?

Shining’s expression hardened, and his eyes looked terribly serious, robbing me of my grin.

“You do realize that what was done to our family is evil, right?”

Frowning, I asked, “You’re not going to try to convince me Luna is some fictional Nightmare Moon, are you?”

“Whoever your…mentor” – Shining said the word like it was covered in poison – “really is is irrelevant. I’m just finding out about this whole thing – when I should have been briefed on it the very moment I became captain or years sooner – so maybe that’s only obvious to me.”

“Shining, please try not to take this the wrong way, but we all had good reasons not to tell you anything. I’m sorry you feel left out, but–”

“Left out?” Shining interrupted. “Left out is when you have friends over and tell your annoying little sister to stay away. This is…”

Words failed Shining, and as much as I knew I’d regret it, I suggested, “Shut out?”

Yes.” For a moment, Shining just stared at me, as if he could set me on fire with his mere gaze.

“I’m sorry,” I whispered. “It wasn’t that I didn’t–”

“No,” Shining interrupted again. “No excuses.” His horn lit up, and he cast an illusion in the center of our table. “You know what this is?”

I knew this was a trick question, but for the life of me I couldn’t think of what the real answer might be. “Your cutie mark?”

And?”

“I… An expression of your magic–”

No! Dammit, Twilight! I might as well have ‘I love you, Little Sis’ tattooed on my flank!”

Oh…

“If you’d just asked, I probably would’ve dropped everything to help you. But no, not you. You listened to the scary-looking goddess and kept secrets from me. From Cadance. She adored you. She would’ve dropped everything, too. How is it not obvious that your evil goddess separated you from everypony who cared for you?”

“Shining, that’s not fair–”

“Don’t you dare tell me what’s not fair! What’s not fair is that I’ve spent the last who knows how many years completely out of the loop. My sister was abducted. My other sister left. My third sister tricked me into thinking she was my second. My fiancée lied to my face constantly. All because you wouldn’t trust us, not even me.”

“I… Sorry.”

What else was there to say? I could call him a liar, but his complaints were fair. He really might have simply quit the guard if I’d asked him when I’d first met Luna. It would’ve been such a risk, though, a high-risk, low-reward gamble – mathematically unjustifiable.

Shining uttered a terse, “So I’ve been told. Everypony is sorry.”

“I really am,” I insisted, for what little it was worth. “I never thought – it’s not that I didn’t want you around. It’s just…” There was no nice way to say this, but I tried. “Your skills were redundant with mine.”

“Nice lie. Not that it even addresses why you didn’t say anything.” Shining let out a long, loud snort. “At any rate, I don’t know or care who your mentor is, just that she’s evil.”

I let out an exhausted sigh. It always came back to that. There would be no forgiveness while I supported Luna, no matter how sorry I was or what I did to apologize. It wasn’t that I hadn’t trusted him, just that I hadn’t statistically trusted him.

Munching on my mocha donut – for no other reason than because it was terribly awkward in this atmosphere, and Shining wouldn’t feel comfortable talking while I did – I considered how to proceed. What exactly was the best argument to get through to Shining? He was not a mathy person. Numbers didn’t have the kind of sway with him that they did with me.

Well…as a guard, Shining should have undergone at least some training on psychological profiling, especially so as he was the captain now and an officer for a long time before. That was probably hurting Luna’s case right now, since Shining would be modeling her in criminal terms, but maybe I could use that to my advantage.

“Shining,” I began, hoping this wouldn’t blow up in my face, “I’d imagine the cognitive sciences are more your field of expertise than mine, but I do know how to abuse the mistakes people commonly make.”

“Don’t change the topic,” Shining interrupted.

“I’m not. Just listen, all right?”

Not being interrupted again quite yet, I continued, “So if I know how to take advantage of mistakes, it follows that I have a fairly intuitive, if not formal, understanding of what those mistakes are.”

“And your point is?”

“Well…part of how I recruited some of my crew members – ah, actually, you know I’ve been in space, right?”

Shining nodded, and his frown doubled. Still, he let the remark pass without objection.

“So part of how I recruited them was shock and awe. I…um…sort of first internalized this lesson when I was convincing Twinkleshine to leave with me, but I don’t think I explicitly realized what I was doing then.”

An eyebrow raised – Shining was apparently almost as good at that as me now – he asked, “Something you want to say about that?”

That I abused memory spells to get Twinkleshine to join the Nebulous? No, I was going to take that secret to the grave if I could. It was rather unlikely I would ever do that again, or at least not with any frequency that had any impact on my moral character, and I didn’t see what point it would serve to mention it.

“It’s not relevant,” I replied with a wave of my hoof. “The point is, I made a big display of showing off and wowing my potential crew members with my power and self-assurance, like going to space was just another day at work for me.

“I mean, it was, in some sense, but flaring was a constant worry at the time, and it was always frustrating when somepony rejected my offer, and I would get a little nervous that I was going to mess up my pitch. But I put all that aside and presented myself as some kind of perfect pony, at least until we’d already left and started…socializing.” To whatever extent that we actually socialized.

As I’d awkwardly stopped talking for just a little too long, Shining finished for me, “So you tricked them into thinking you were more competent than you actually were by making them think ‘perfection’ was a core feature of your personality, rather than something you’d constructed for the situation.”

To Shining’s disapproving look, I said, “I’d prefer to say I tricked them into thinking I was exactly as competent as I was, but yes. Being half the size of everypony else made things hard sometimes.”

I took a rather long drink of my cooling hot chocolate. After having to ration chocolate for so many years, I might very well cry if I let the drink go to waste.

“But that’s the same mistake that you’re making,” I said, playing with my cup in my hooves. “‘Luna did this horrible thing, so she must be a horrible pony, too.’ But that’s not true. It’s not like Luna goes around randomly killing ponies and disrupting families for fun. Yes, Luna asked me not to tell you about her, but what reason did she have to trust you, a guard, with her life? By the time I was old enough and educated enough that she could trust the ponies I trusted, the opportunity to talk to you or Cadance was long gone.”

All throughout my little speech, Shining leveled a withering gaze at me. Finished, I just sat up a little straighter and stared back.

“That’s not how justice works, Twilight. You don’t just let a murder go free because they don’t plan on committing another murder.”

I purposefully tilted my head to the side and made myself look confused. “What are you talking about? We do that all the time even in the modern world. One second…”

Law was not my specialty, but it shouldn’t be too hard to find the precedent I was looking for. My horn lit up as I scryed the Canterlot Public Library a few blocks away and went through their legal section. There should be public records of court cases somewhere in the non-fiction section. Canterlot was the capital of Equestria, after all; if any public library kept such things, it would be this one.

Halfway through another donut, I exclaimed something to the effect of, “Fnd tem!” while spewing crumbs all over Shining. I swallowed, then uttered a sheepish, “Sorry.”

A ‘small’ stack of books found their way to our table via a short-term teleportation loan. I had no idea where my library card was, and I wasn’t going to bother getting a new one or going through the motions. I mentioned as much to Shining as I started digging through the cases.

The entire process went rather faster than I’d expected. At least in the past fifty years or so, the documentation was clean and well-structured. All I had to do was glance at the charge and the verdict of each until I stumbled upon one I wanted.

“Ah. Here we are. One” – I scanned the paper for the defendant’s name – “Petal was acquitted of first-degree murder.”

Shining’s magic seized the book from my own and pulled it over to him. He read through it frighteningly quickly, at least until I remembered that he’d certainly read a lot of these in his job. He was probably just skimming it.

“This is a self-defense case, Twilight. Are you seriously trying to argue…Luna, I suppose, did all…this” – Shining waved a hoof vaguely in my direction – “in self-defense?”

Knowing exactly the kind of reaction I’d get if I just said yes, I shook my head. But knowing how easily Celestia had beaten me weeks ago only proved the point I was trying to make.

“Not in the normal sense, but I could certainly make the case.”

“Twilight!” Shining began, dramatically rising to his hooves, but I cut him off.

“Just listen first. We can hardly have a debate if we don’t at least pretend to hear each other out.”

With a pronounced snort, Shining slumped back onto his seat.

“How do I explain this…” I idly ruffled my mane with a hoof in thought. “It’s… So I once told you to learn a whole lot of defensive spells, and I see that you’ve taken the lesson to heart.”

Eyes narrowed, Shining opened his mouth but paused. Then in a much more controlled tone that I’d expected, even if it sounded kind of nervous, he asked, “Are you expecting to attack me or something that you’ve been probing them without me even noticing?”

“Alicorn of Magic,” was all I said to that.

Shining raised an eyebrow, beyond obviously unsatisfied with that answer.

I fiddled with my now empty glass. If Cadance hadn’t told Shining anything about how…different alicorns were to regular ponies, I didn’t exactly want to step on her hooves there.

But then I supposed I could just say that, actually. Except Cadance’s domain was actually kind of scary. If I said anything at all, even to go talk to her, Shining would eventually realize something was up.

Sighing, I said, “I’m going to go get some more hot chocolate.”

I got up from the table and made my way toward the counter, letting my mouth run on automatic.

So what did I want to do about this? Did I risk getting Cadance even more upset with me, or did I let Shining worry?

As I sat back down, another sigh escaped me. I sipped at my new drink and gazed into its swirly, viscous goodness.

“Let’s just say I’m very good at magic, okay? I’m not going to do anything to you.”

Hesitantly, Shining agreed. But he did sit up straighter on the edge of his chair, far more alert than before.

“All I was trying to say by it is you at least understand how many avenues of attack there are with magic now, right? The number of ways you can kill, or maim, or just in general defeat somepony scales exponentially with how much magic you know.”

“And your point is?”

The point,” I began, kind of annoyed that Shining didn’t understand just from having his attention drawn to it, “is that at a certain point, you win just by showing up to the fight first. I… For example, after returning from banishment – or ascension – an alicorn is extremely vulnerable. Like, lose in an instant without having a chance to fight back vulnerable.”

I supposed I wasn’t being very subtle, but my tone of voice must have tipped Shining off.

“Speaking from experience?”

Yes.” Then much more calmly, or at least with a more even voice, I continued, “The only defense against that is to win before the fight begins.”

“Or send a minion in to delay the fight,” Shining retorted, sending not-so-subtle gestures my way.

As much as I hated to admit this, I said, “My record survival time sparing against Luna seriously is ten seconds. My average is more like three, and that’s without her having an ambush ready.”

“Okay, sure.” Shining finally returned the book he’d taken back to the pile. He leaned forward and stared directly into my eyes. “But do you honestly believe what happened was necessary?”

After a fatal hesitation, I said, “There’s always a way for a plan to succeed with non-zero probability without element X by increasing complexity, but that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea.”

Shining leaned back somewhat. The smug look on his face told me he knew he’d just pounced on an important issue.

“That’s a no if I’ve ever heard one.”

“Fine,” I admitted. “I’ve said something somewhat similar to Luna myself. But I wouldn’t be defending her if I didn’t understand what was going through her head at the time. Surely you know what ponies are capable of when they’re afraid for their life.”

“Sure, but–”

“Double that a million times for alicorns,” I interrupted. “Death isn’t just terrifying for us. It’s something that must be avoided at all costs. Any probability greater than zero will happen eventually if we keep tempting fate.”

“That still doesn’t justify anything!” Shining said, more than a little heated for some reason.

My ears fell to my head. “No,” I whispered. It didn’t. “But it’s understandable, especially for somepony who stared her impending death in the face for a whole millennium. I can’t even imagine what I’d be like after that.”

“A frightened, crazy monster,” Shining said rather bluntly, “but still a monster, and still crazy.”

“Luna is not a monster!” I resisted the urge to slam the table, but only barely. Breathing deeply first, I continued, “She has some problems, but we’re working on them.”

“Are you?”

“Yes.”

Really?”

Yes,” I insisted. “I mean, not too much right now. I’m studying up on the subjects, and we’re letting our emotions cool off” – in more than one way – “but we definitely have been and will be.”

“Twilight, how on Equus can you be fooled by a simple pretended show of remorse? You’re supposed to be the smart one. For crying out loud, you’re not even planning to see a professional!”

I bit down my annoyance with how stubborn Shining was being. “Shining, there are zero alicorn therapists. Er, that is, therapists who are alicorns. No confidentiality clause is enough for some of the information being discussed.”

Shining opened his mouth, but I interrupted, “Has Celestia ever been to a therapist? After at least banishing her only sister. There’s no shame in it.” There weren’t therapists a thousand years ago, but there were still plenty of ponies who would listen and offer advice.

“Well, no, not that I know of, but that’s hardly any of my business.”

“It’s not not your business, either. You’re family, if only a soon-to-be in-law by adoption. You’re complaining I didn’t trust you or talk to you. What about her? If her position really is that she had to send her beloved sister to the moon, how has she been coping? Does she care anymore? Is Luna just another potential threat to her rule to squash?”

Shining didn’t answer right away. In fact, it became increasingly clear that he wasn’t going to answer at all. It seemed he’d never bothered to even ask those kinds of questions. Even if, by some grand cosmic joke, Celestia was a loving – however poorly – sister, Luna’s banishment could hardly have changed her for the better.

Still, happy to have the reprieve, I said nothing either and just let the time pass us by for the moment. Shining munched on an inferior raisin cookie as he thought.

And I, well, for the first time in years, I took a proper look at my brother. He was a lot…squishier than the last time I’d seen him. Certainly he had more magic, but there was less muscle to him. Upon closer inspection, there were a few places on his face where his fur didn’t line up just right, which probably meant small scars he didn’t want to go to a doctor for.

I tucked that thought away to ask about later. Surely Shining would love to regale me with stories of his great battles and daring dos when we were on better terms. Even if they probably wouldn’t be as good as Luna’s, I’d still like to hear about them at some point.

He really should go to a doctor, though. Magic could make such superficial damage go away. And if he was ignoring them, what else might he be ignoring?

But then maybe he just hadn’t noticed? No, Cadance would have said something. Well, she would have harped on him to go to a doctor, rather. Hmm…

Eh, oh well. Another time. Twinkleshine was about five seconds away. I turned toward the door to greet her even as I teleported the books I’d borrowed back to the library.

“I’m back!” Twinkleshine called out to us. She retook her seat and proudly displayed a few packs of unopened playing cards.

I raised an eyebrow in her general direction, and she said, “You two used to play cards together often, right?”

Ah. “We did,” I said, not wanting to look at how Shining reacted. He’d probably been wondering if it’d always been Pupa that destroyed him in games. “I’m undefeated at poker. At least against Shining. Luna usually mops the floor with me.”

My magic grabbed one of the boxes and opened it up. The cards flew out in a needlessly dramatic fashion. Rather displeased by the boring images of the face cards, I cast a little spell to repaint them.

The jokers I turned into Dash, although I was sorely tempted to put Pinkie Pie there instead. But then Discord would work, too.

Eh, whatever. The aces I replaced with myself. Then I placed Luna on the kings, Cadance on the queens, and Celestia on the knaves.

I nodded to myself, my work done. Or at least my artistic work. There was something about shuffling cards dramatically that really got the blood flowing. It was mesmerizing in a way to watch them fly back and forth in simple – but to an outside observer, seemingly complex – patterns. It was much like a grand dance in a ballroom, in a way.

Alright, that was entirely enough whimsy. I set the well-shuffled deck down in the center of our table.

“Hmm… You remember how to play Spades, right?” I asked Shining.

After a half-second’s hesitation, he asked, “The usual stakes?”

I turned to Twinkleshine. “By which he means one low-cost favor, like paying for snacks.”

“Oh. Oh, okay! Sounds great.”

With Twinkleshine’s agreement, I split the deck into three piles of thirteen and passed one to each of us.

“Whoever has the two of clubs, swap it with the last card and lead the first round.”

I fanned open my hand and quickly found it rather wanting. I didn’t have too many or too few of any one suit, and my trump cards were pretty low. The only thing that it really had going for it was that I had three of the four aces.

In a few moments, Twinkleshine threw the two of clubs down on the table and picked up the fifty-fourth card. She bid seven – curse her luck – while I bid four and Shining bid three. Somepony had overbid by at least one. I was certainly not looking at Twinkleshine when I thought that.

We’d gotten through only three tricks before Shining picked up an old thread of conversation again.

“So if you agree with me – and it sounds like you do – why are you still on her side?”

I threw down a wasted king of diamonds and sighed.

“I don’t agree with you, Shining. Sunset Shimmer’s death wasn’t a good thing, exactly. And while I really appreciate having you, and Mom, and Dad, there wasn’t much of a reason to swap Aurora out for me.” I bit my lip and glanced at Twinkleshine, who was fortunately not reacting with any surprise. “But that doesn’t make Luna evil.”

I realized it at the exact moment Shining spoke.

“You’re just going in circles now. Now I say, ‘You can’t let ponies get away with that kind of stuff.’”

“Well she hasn’t!” I shouted over Shining. “Celestia ruined her life, locked her away, and for the past thousand years, Luna’s been stuck banished to the moon! She’s served, like, twenty-five life imprisonments for no reason. Equestria owes her a few mortal murders! And besides, the diarchs are the law!”

I glanced over at whatever was on my shoulder, which turned out to be Twinkleshine’s hoof. Then it hit me that I’d completely lost my temper like a foal.

To the tune of a muttered, “Apologies,” I flumped back down onto my seat and breathed deeply to cool off.

While I did that, Twinkleshine said, “Um, Shining Armor, I don’t know Princess Luna nearly as well as Twilight, but she has been pretty nice as long as I’ve known her. Maybe a bit condescending, I guess, but she hasn’t struck me as particularly bad.”

Shining’s glare let up as he looked away from me to address Twinkleshine.

“Most criminals that… In laymare's terms, I suppose, most criminals of Luna’s ‘caliber’ tend to come off as charming and likable. Since she has a known criminal record, I’d bet on it being an affectation rather than her normal behavior.”

I found myself unconsciously gritting my teeth when I recalled Chamomile’s words, that Luna had to remind herself she cares about her subjects. And then there was my own admission that Luna had serious problems.

But that I could deal with. Rather, Shining was insinuating that Luna didn’t care about me even as he argued that Luna was evil. I wouldn’t have thought him capable of such subtle subtext if he hadn’t glanced at me while he said it.

“Maybe?” Twinkleshine said. “I mean, I don’t really get that impression myself, but I wouldn’t know what to look for. But, um, what exactly would you want to have happen to Princess Luna?”

Shining let out a long sigh. “That’s a good question. I highly doubt she’d cooperate with any legal sentence, which drastically limits our options. Presumably we’d have to resort to banishment again or something similar.”

“Not going to happen,” I grumbled.

Before Shining could respond to that, Twinkleshine said, “Suppose she would, though. Then what would you do?”

“Well…” Shining stopped to think for a few seconds. “I’d probably want to send her through the courts and let them decide. Life sentences for an alicorn mean eternity, so imprisonment until rehabilitation would be my suggestion, I suppose.”

“What counts as rehabilitation?” Twinkleshine asked. I thought I saw where she was going with this, and it was fairly clever.

This time Shining’s brow scrunched up in thought. It felt like at least a minute before he spoke again.

“The usual standard of judgment is good behavior in prison and a genuine feeling of regret for the action in and of itself, not regret for being caught, captured, et cetera. Usually the subject has to understand why they committed their crime and has to be able to explain why they won’t do it again. But if this Luna were a psychopath, however, that could prove difficult. It’d be hard to judge if she had actually adopted a reasonable moral code–”

“Shining,” I interrupted as calmly as I could. “I’ve talked at length with Luna about Sunset Shimmer, and Aurora, and…other things. She’d do all that again if she had to, and I wouldn’t blame her. At least not much. She may be hardened to it, but she still feels. She tries to minimize damage.”

“That’s not the same thing as regret, Twilight,” Shining said.

If nothing else good had or would come from this little side conversation, it at least left Shining calmer and more comfortable with the more familiar subject matter. It was a refreshing change from being yelled at every other sentence.

“By the way, I’ve got this last trick.”

Shining placed down his last card of the round. I’d barely been paying attention, throwing out cards practically on automatic. I had three tricks from my three aces, but I’d let everything else go by.

Only slightly more annoyed than I’d already been, I brought a napkin over to us. With a simple spell, I wrote our scores onto it. My minus forty was particularly…rough in appearance.

Taking all the cards except the two of clubs, Shining shuffled them with less flair than I’d displayed.

“Has this Luna of yours ever once expressed to you regret over something? Not regret that ‘she had to do something’, but regret that it happened at all to begin with?”

“Yes,” I answered immediately.

Shining raised an eyebrow as he dealt. “On what issue?”

“Um…” I put up a hoof to forestall Shining saying anything. I didn’t want to unintentionally lie in the details, so I thought back to when I’d talked with Luna right after my ascension. That night was a little…hazy, given the emotions and the rather emotionally charged sex that had followed, but I was sure I could remember what I needed well enough.

Sunset Shimmer… I remembered Luna saying she sympathized with her, but that wasn’t quite what Shining was asking for.

I had a vague impression that Luna had felt bad about putting me in Aurora’s place, but I suspected that feeling was more directed inward than toward the act itself. There were certainly some feelings there that I needed to help her work out, but that wasn’t what Shining wanted either.

Oh. “She cried when she… Actually, that’s kind of…personal.”

I’d seen Luna cry twice. Once over the ‘mare in the moon’ thing, which probably came right after she’d decided to give up on her sister, now that I thought about it. The other time was when she confessed what she’d almost done to me after I told her about Celestia’s plans.

But there was a…slightly less personal thing I felt comfortable sharing.

“Luna apologized to me for not telling me about Sunset Shimmer sooner and for being cowardly about the whole issue. She… I experienced unicorn bane for the first time and…dying, sort of, during one of Sunset’s memories. Luna sincerely apologized for letting me go through that.”

Preempting any objection Shining could make, I added, “She did that independent of my finding out about my relation to Sunset on my own. As I said, she also apologized for not telling me about that herself, but not exactly in the way you wanted to hear about.”

“Hmph.” Shining dealt the last of the deck out to us and quietly said, “I guess you’re not completely brainwashed.”

It was hard to tell if he intended for me to hear that or not, given how much time he spent with Cadance and her own excellent hearing. Not that I really wanted to dignify it with a response anyway. ‘Not completely brainwashed’ still meant ‘brainwashed’.

I picked up my new hand and fanned it open. It was rather mediocre again, so I just bid three, expecting to be as distracted as the last round. That was probably how Twinkleshine actually took so many tricks, come to think of it. She’d said less than Shining and me, and she also had less personal investment in the conversation.

After we’d started the round proper, Twinkleshine said, “So getting back to what I was saying. If you want to reform Princess Luna, and you’re not happy with where she’s at right now, then what’s the point of locking her up?”

Shining stole one of the tricks I’d been counting on with a random trump card, then turned to Twinkleshine. “What do you mean?”

“Well, Princess Celestia already put her in jail for–”

I interrupted, “That’s not what she intended to–”

“Shh.”

Did – did Twinkleshine just shush me? That was new.

“Anyway, Princess Luna has been in jail for a thousand years already. What use would there be in putting her back in when it clearly didn’t do for her what you wanted?”

There was an entire two tricks of silence as Shining contemplated that.

“Fair enough,” he finally admitted. “But it’s not like we have any other real options.”

“You could just let her go,” Twinkleshine suggested.

Her words were met with an immediate, “Absolutely not.”

“Why? If Princess Luna were welcomed with open hooves, that is if everything went back to normal for her, wouldn’t she go back to normal, too? Twilight knows more history than me, but wasn’t Princess Luna a great princess, a patron of the arts, and a war hero?”

I nodded in confirmation, after which Twinkleshine continued, “And also wouldn’t she be more open to being reformed, or reeducated, or rehabilitated, or whatever, if she were in a comfortable environment?”

“I suppose so,” Shining agreed, “but that’s not an option. She’s murdered, abducted, and who knows what else. If she’s done all that, then what else will she do before she calms down?”

“Nothing,” I said, claiming an unexpected trick. “Luna’s grudge is only with Celestia. Anypony else she could’ve possibly taken issue with is centuries dead and buried.”

“And who’s to say she won’t find some new grudge once the old one is gone? Or perhaps she’ll strike at Trixie again for some petty revenge.”

I paused a second to let my growing irritation with the constant accusations settle. “For the record, Luna isn’t going to kill Celestia. She never planned to even before she made me.”

Shining raised a skeptical eyebrow, but I ignored it.

“And she only abducted Trixie as a precaution until after I bonded with the Element of Friendship.”

Shining’s eyebrow only rose higher at that, which admittedly got a blush out of me. He also glanced at Luna’s sword on the table, which I promptly moved out of sight. I did not need him to get the bright idea to abduct me for a couple hours…anymore than he already had, that was.

“A-anyway, it’s not like Luna is that quick to anger. Her conflict with Celestia took decades to develop and spin out of control, and she didn’t even notice Celestia starting it until years later.”

“That’s not the way I heard it.”

Obviously, Shining had heard the story about a sudden personality change. To that, I said, “Luna is not possessed by any kind of spirit, magical intelligence, demon, et cetera, et cetera.”

Practically ignoring me, Shining said, “From what I heard, Luna went insane with paranoia with or without the help of some artifact, tried to depose Princess Celestia, and got banished.”

“No, technically, and yes, respectively,” I retorted.

Twinkleshine, who had been quiet since she’d last spoken, asked, “How do you technically try to depose somepony?”

“Ah… Well, Luna probably would’ve tucked Celestia away somewhere for a while, but Celestia would’ve still been a diarch. She wasn’t going to ruin Celestia or kill her.”

“I’m very skeptical of that,” Shining said, “but she was hardly innocent during that time.”

I bit back a sigh. “Luna admits that the time right before and especially right after her banishment that she wasn’t a very good pony – mostly after – but can you really fault her for that? She was in an incredibly hostile environment with a sister that was out to get her; it would take…”

I tried to come up with the exact right word to describe just how absurdly nice somepony would have to be to suffer all that with a smile. And I did find one, but it wasn’t exactly a word, per se.

“You’d have to be Cadance to put up with all that.”

In a quiet voice that had a certain sense of…doom, I supposed, about it, Twinkleshine asked, “Could I make a suggestion?”

Our game ground to a halt, and Shining and I fixed our attention upon Twinkleshine.

“Well, I think either Princess Celestia is lying, or Princess Luna really misunderstood her in the past.”

Shining and I nodded almost in unison. The issue might not be quite a dichotomy, but the fiddly extraneous explanations weren’t much worth considering.

“If the former is the case, then Princess Celestia is…well, pretty horrible. But certainly Princess Luna is still at fault for her own actions, even if they may have been somewhat justified.”

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Shining hesitantly nod in agreement.

“But if it’s the latter, Princess Luna really did overreact. It doesn’t really change how moral her actions were, given she really felt she was in danger, but she’d also be at fault for not saying anything.”

Twinkleshine paused for effect, then looked at Shining in particular.

“But Princess Celestia would be responsible, too. If you went years…decades?”

I nodded.

“Decades,” Twinkleshine continued, “without noticing your sister and coruler was afraid of you and Equestria wasn’t treating her well despite her good service, all while she slowly went mad, that’s… I don’t even know what the term would be. Grand criminal negligence?”

“That seems unfair…” Though he said that, Shining sounded a bit unsure.

I was more than a bit unhappy with where Twinkleshine was going with this, too.

“What I’m trying to say, I guess, is that neither side is really good or evil no matter who’s right. I don’t think either side really wants to compromise, but…maybe…”

Twinkleshine gave me a particularly significant look of worry and nervously bit her lip. I tried not to frown in return. So long as she wasn’t proposing a compromise – which would never work – it might be possible to work with whatever she had in mind.

Still obviously not confident in her proposal, Twinkleshine continued, “Maybe we could stop trying to argue about who’s at fault and who’s in the wrong. At least to start with. It’s not… I don’t know exactly how to put it.”

“Twinkleshine, even if we did that, we’d just argue about who deserves to win instead. Same debate, different terms.”

Shining nodded. That, at least, we were in agreement on.

“I suppose so…” Twinkleshine said, looking rather dejected that her idea was shot down so quickly.

I understood where Twinkleshine was coming from, though. During my ascension when I was with Cadance, she and I had expressed a similar desire to not let Luna’s and Celestia’s fight come between us, at least not permanently.

“When I last saw Cadance…” I began. My remaining cards floated up to somewhat hide my face, or rather to keep Shining out of view. Cadance had been a sure thing for this, but Shining… Well, he wasn’t exactly in a good mood. “She and I promised to always be sisters. I – well…even if you don’t want me, I’ll always consider myself your little sister, Shining.”

Seconds passed. Out of the corner of my eye – which was focused on my hand, and not Shining – I could see Twinkleshine grow increasingly worried. That…was not a good sign. I felt myself sinking lower in my seat in response.

I dared to peek out over the top of my cards and found Shining frowning and staring me down. Or…maybe just not knowing how to look at me, as a more charitable interpretation of his scrunched up and randomly shifting brow.

“That,” Shining began, apparently choosing his next words very carefully, “is the worst kind of emotional blackmail.”

That hurt. I tried not to let it show, but my voice still hitched a bit. “It wasn’t supposed to be. I really would miss my BBBFF if this tore us apart.”

“Just like you ‘missed’ me these past several years, no doubt.”

“I visited!” I repeated myself at Shining’s skeptical, glowering look. “Not as often as I should have. But I did! Pupa and Chrysalis, her mother, would patch me into their hive mind, and I’d visit you, and Mom, and Dad, and Cadance through them.”

Shining’s brows furrowed deep. Somewhere between grumbling and talking to himself, he said, “Cadance didn’t mention that to me.”

“Really? Didn’t she tell you she knew I’d left home?”

“Yes, but–” Shining’s eyes widened for a moment, then narrowed on me. “Wait. Was I the only one who you didn’t tell? The only one you didn’t talk to directly while you were gone?”

I let out a weak whine as I withered under Shining’s glare. “Kind of… I – I didn’t mean for Cadance to find out. Celestia revealed Pupa in front of her. Mom and Dad knew, though. I mean, they’re Mom and Dad. I had their permission to leave.”

And that was true, even if I’d had to argue with and persuade them and…wordlessly insist I was going to go with or without their approval. But still, I had convinced them it was important and worth the danger.

“Mom and Dad agreed to this madness?” Shining shouted, slamming the table. I nearly jumped out of my seat. He knocked over his own cup with the force, but Twinkleshine manged to grab both hers and mine in time.

Why on Equus would he be this upset with… Oh.

Rather weakly, I said, “They didn’t know about Aurora and me, if that’s what you’re thinking.”

Shining blinked. “Ah. Of course. Sorry. For overreacting there, that is.” He went about cleaning up his spilled drink, and as he did so, he spoke, descending into mumbles. “Still pissed about this. Need to have words with Mom and Dad. Of all the stupid…”

I quietly sighed to myself. This wasn’t getting us anywhere. I really needed Luna to be back and to have been in charge of Equestria for, like, a decade before I’d be able to actually convince Shining that she was on the up and up. He needed to personally see that she wasn’t the monster he imagined her to be. Celestia’s influence was too deeply ingrained in him otherwise, and Luna had done him deep, personal harm. Seeing past both of those would take a lot of work.

And then there were his issues with me personally. I had no idea what I was going to do about that. Apologizing wasn’t exactly my forte, as unpracticed as I was.

I’d promise to be more inclusive of him, but what would that even mean, really? I wasn’t going to be on Equus for any significant length of time for a while yet, and coming over to play…probably wouldn’t solve anything.

Sigh. What was a mare to do?

Well, here went nothing.

“Shining, without it meaning anything else, I really do still consider myself your LSBFF. Even if you won’t be my BBBFF, that won’t change. That’s what the ‘forever’ is there for, after all.”

I overheard Twinkleshine giggling to herself, and Shining just rolled his eyes.

“Look…Twily…”

My heart soared at Shining’s usage of his nickname for me, even despite the somewhat strangled tone he’d said it with. A huge smile grew on my face. It was dreadfully premature, but at least he hadn’t disowned me. Maybe today wouldn’t turn into a disaster after all.

“I appreciate what you’re trying to do, but it’s not enough to just say it. You have to… Don’t give me that look. You’re too old for it to work.”

My puppy dog eyes turned into a frown. But there was an obvious solution. I cast a little spell to keep ponies from seeing us if they looked our way, then set off a changeling polymorph to my filly form.

Without a highchair, I had to balance on my hindhooves to get my head fully above the tabletop. Once I was steady, I reengaged my ultimate attack.

“Twily, that’s not… Stop. I–”

Shining pinned a napkin to my face. Over my muffled protests, I could hear him sigh.

“No wonder Mom and Dad went along with you. I forgot how adorable you were.”

“I know, right?” Twinkleshine said. “Growing up with her was one thing, but seeing her from this perspective, it’s a wonder fillies don’t rule the world.”

“Ugh!” With the napkin finally removed from my face, I said, “The known extant alicorns practically do, and they’re fillies as immortals measure age.”

Shining replied, “I certainly believe that you never grew up.”

Rolling my eyes, I returned to my previous disguise. “There. Happy?”

“Better. But take your turn already.”

Oh, shoot. I played my last card of the round, securing another negative thirty points for myself. I gave my measly two tricks to Twinkleshine and dismissed the game from my mind for the moment.

Shining was in…a neutral mood, at least. His voice wasn’t exactly brimming with joy in my presence, but this was a vast improvement over the constant bile and sharp words.

“Seriously, Shining. However this works out, I’ll always be your little sister.”

“Then act like it.”

I frowned. “Well besides backstabbing Luna, what do you want me to do? ‘Cause I’m pretty sure I’m doing the sisterly thing right now. I love you, we’re playing games together, and we’re talking about each other’s lives and feelings.”

“That’s…”

“She’s right, you know,” Twinkleshine quietly interjected.

“Look, Shining, I’m sorry. I really am. We can argue at each other about what I should have done all day until our voices are hoarse, but it’s not going to matter. I’m prioritizing Luna’s life, and I hurt you. Neither of those things will change. I can talk to you more. I can lend a friendly ear for you to vent to. I can do whatever sisterly thing you want me to. But I can’t magically make your hurt feelings better, however much I’d like to.”

Shining only looked more and more upset as I’d spoken, but at least he didn’t lash out in response. It’d all needed to be said, and I suspected he understood that, too.

“Fine,” Shining growled in defeat. “Let’s talk about your love life.”

I let out an exasperated sigh.

“Her I approve of,” Shining said, point a hoof at Twinkleshine.

Twinkleshine responded with a blush, hiding her face behind the new hand she’d quietly dealt. “T-thank you.”

“Now tell me all about her flaws.”

Wha… I glanced toward Twinkleshine, who predictably looked absolutely mortified.

Hesitantly, I asked, “In front of her?”

“Twilight!” protested Twinkleshine, turning her dismayed expression my way.

Shining cast a quick silencing spell over Twinkleshine’s head, much to her further indignation. “Well?”

For a moment, I glanced Twinkleshine’s way. Unable to bear it I looked away and spoke quickly.

“Low – but improving – self-confidence; somewhat dependent on me, which is entirely my fault; generally doesn’t think too far ahead; and shy, to name the important ones.” Dismissing the silencing spell on Twinkleshine, I asked, “Happy?”

“Very. But Princess Cadenza has deigned to tell me that you love Luna as well, romantically and every other way.”

“And?”

“What are her flaws?”

I was tempted to just say Luna was perfect just to annoy Shining, but that’d hardly get me anywhere with him.

“She bottles up her emotions, she obviously can take things too far, she has a hard time connecting with ponies – even more so than me – and she’s an addict.”

Shining said nothing.

I rolled my eyes. “Look, if you want me to say she’s perfect, I can come back as starry-eyed eight-year-old me and yell at you for even suggesting that she’s not.”

Twinkleshine faked a cough, drawing my attention to her. “Princess Luna is an addict?” she asked.

“Yeah…” I rubbed my mane with a hoof awkwardly. “I mean, it’s not really a problem for alicorns, but still. Her teeth are for chewing gems.”

“Oooooh,” Twinkleshine said. “I’d always wondered about that.”

Anyway, I finally got around to picking up my new hand. It was far better than my previous two, and I bid five on it.

I picked up Shining’s hand for him – without looking at it of course – and waved it around in front of his eyes. Eventually he got the message and took hold of it himself.

“Really, Shining, is it too much to believe I’m not blindly following Luna?”

“No,” Shining mumbled, “but I’d hoped.”

Well, that wasn’t the worst reaction he could have had.

“Just don’t turn in your commission,” I said, “and you can see with your own eyes that Luna will be great.”

Recovering properly from his daze, Shining asked, “Better than Princess Celestia?” No doubt he was baiting me into saying things that I wouldn’t be able to back up.

I shook my head. “Probably not. Celestia is the law and order sister. Luna is more arts and sciences, and she knows she’s not quite as good at day-to-day ruling.”

Shining stole one of the tricks I thought I’d had, then asked, “And why would anypony want to downgrade rulers? We live in a golden age, Twilight. What does Equestria get out of your mentor’s coup, besides a selfish, unstable princess?”

“A renaissance, I’d expect. Luna can only do so much from banishment with her own funds. Besides, if my talks with Cadance are anything to go by, Celestia has most of the daily grind down to a routine for ponies at this point, so it’s not like we really need her anymore. I don’t think we could run Equestria into the ground if we tried.”

“Besides destroying it fighting for the crown.”

“Oh, please,” I said, rolling my eyes.

Twinkleshine chose to speak up at that. “It is a serious concern,” she said. “You did mention something about getting them to fight off planet.”

“Mhm. I’m pretty sure I can talk Cadance into forming a…younger generation alliance, I guess, with me and Dash. The point would be for us to do nothing and force Luna’s and Celestia’s fight off planet this time. I don’t want another Everfree Forest on my lawn, so to speak.”

We played through a few tricks while Shining thought about what I’d said. He didn’t have an instant retort this time, which I took as a good sign.

Eventually, though, Shining said, “That is perhaps the sanest thing you’ve said all night. Was that a subtle hint that I should tell the princess?”

Oh, I actually hadn’t thought about that, but that worked out well enough.

“I suppose so.”

But if Shining was taking messages, he might as well be a delivery boy, too. I didn’t want to open a dragonfire channel to Celestia, even if it should be perfectly safe to. It’d make negotiations for Pupa’s performance easier, too, with Shining acting as the middlemare.

“Actually,” I added, “I have a few things I’d like to relay to her through you, but that can wait until later.”

Shining mumbled something about cadets and coffee, but I didn’t quite catch it all. At any rate, he had another question for me.

“So what happens if your mentor wins and turns out to be a monster?”

“Luna’s not–”

“Suppose she were,” Shining interrupted, echoing Twinkleshine’s earlier words. It was practically forcing me to indulge his scenario.

“Fine,” I said. “Luna’s a monster and rules with an iron hoof. She… I’ll be honest, I don’t even know what an evil Luna would do. Eternal night is stupid, so don’t let that nonsense infect this conversation. It’s not like Luna actually wants anything from Equestria. It’s the other way around, really. And when you’re a goddess and the head of the government, there’s not much point in embezzling or other petty crimes. The worst she could do is shut down all attempts at government, but that’s–”

“Twilight, I can’t hear you.”

Oh shoot. I’d started mumbling halfway through that, hadn’t I?

“Sorry, but it occurs to me that I honestly don’t know what an evil Luna acts like. I mean, I guess she’d have a shorter temper and…issue corporal punishment?” I shrugged, passing the burden of conversation back to Shining.

It took a moment and some rather funny thoughtful faces, but Shining eventually said, “Let’s just suppose she’s generically evil and needs to be stopped. What are you going to do about it?”

“Well, I mean, if she needs to be stopped, I’d stop her.” It was barely better than a tautology, but it was the truth.

How?” Shining pressed. “Force? Words? Political subversion?”

“No!” Realizing only after the fact that I’d shouted, I said, “I mean, no. Not that last one. Luna… I think she would understand if I tried to defeat her in combat, and she’ll always listen to me, but…”

I breathed deep, then downed the rest of my hot chocolate to keep the shivers at bay.

“Just imagining what she’d look like if I betrayed her like that…” I’d be just another Celestia in her eyes at that point. “I couldn’t do it. I’d never make her go through that again.”

Shining nodded slightly, whatever that meant. It didn’t quite feel like sympathy.

But whatever it was, Shining asked, “So how long would it take words to fail before you opened fire?”

That was an easy question. “When I felt like she was a lost cause.”

“A lost cause?” Shining asked. “You mean when she’s so far gone you have no hope of getting her back? At the point where you might as well kill her, since she’s not coming back?”

Well…probably before then. I wouldn’t kill her. Alicorn murders were near the top of my list of no-nos.

Shining put his cards down. His gaze held my own. “Do you honestly think you’d ever think she was a lost cause? You’re madly in love with her.”

As much as I hated to admit it… “Love fades,” I whispered. “I’m sure Cadance knows that better than anypony. I don’t know if I’d be able to love her if she were beyond hope.” Sighing, I forced my frown back into a small smile. “But it’d take a long time.”

“I see.” Shining relaxed a bit and sat back, picking his cards up once more. “At least I don’t have to worry about my great-great-great-great-great-great–”

“I get your point,” I said. I could hear the irritation in my voice just as easily as Shining no doubt could. “It’s not like I wouldn’t try to get her to stop being ‘generically evil’ before then. Besides, it’s not going to happen. What would even be her motivation for being evil on a large scale?”

“And what do you think is going to happen?” Shining asked.

A moment later, Twinkleshine shared similar sentiments. “I’m actually curious, too. I mean, after taking a trip through space and staying at Luminance” – I kicked Twinkleshine under the table – “for Hearth’s Warming, what’s the plan now?”

“Um…”

“You can’t tell me she hasn’t said anything to you,” Shining protested. “That’s a big ‘I’m going to betray you’ red flag if she won’t talk about after the victory. How can you be so–”

“It’s not that,” I interrupted, biting down a more yelling-inclined response. “It’s…kind of embarrassing. Luna’s immediate plans are basically movie nights.”

Shining stared at me with his jaw dropped and his eyebrows furrowed like I’d gone crazy.

“She’s been out of the loop for a thousand years!”

I looked to Twinkleshine for support, but she looked just as surprised, if perhaps a bit more polite about it.

“Okay, look.” I took a deep breath. “Basically, the next few years Luna just wants to get caught up with modern and historical culture and take a look at new things in the real world. I expect she’ll want to read and paint, too, since she has a castle that’s a thousand years behind in its historical record-mural. After that, her plans are basically ‘be a princess’, but I’ve had my own ideas I suggested that she’s fine with. I want to get space exploration and colonization going. Celestia has been dragging her hooves on that for centuries, probably because she didn’t want anypony to be able to access the moon. And I have a little side project to study alicorns and immortality, because I’m the Goddess of Magic and have a comparative advantage at the task. Hopefully I can make everypony immortal. Eventually.”

I practically gasped after getting that all out, refilling my lugs as fast as possible.

“There,” I said. “Twilight Sparkle’s current centurial plans.”

There was a rather extended silence until Twinkleshine said, “Er…could you say that again? But slower?”

“Fine,” I sighed. It took forever, but I repeated myself and added a bit more detail.

When I was done, Shining was still in a bit of shock. “I’ll give you that Princess Celestia probably has kept ponies from going off planet,” he admitted. “I’ve heard a bit about how you did it, and it’s remarkably easy. But you want to make everypony immortal? Don’t you think you’re reaching a bit high?”

I shrugged. “Dream big or don’t dream at all. I don’t know if it’s possible with our current reproduction rates and magical capacities, but I’ll never know if I don’t try.”

“And…Luna is okay with this?” Shining asked, clearly skeptical.

“More than okay,” I replied, recalling the rather enthusiastic endorsement she’d given to the project. “The goal wouldn’t be to create a billion gods. More like demigods. Disregarding the almost assuredly absurd power requirements, having that many true alicorns flying around would end in disaster.”

“Two did quite a lot of damage on their own,” Twinkleshine commented.

“No, that’s not the problem,” Shining said, rubbing his forehead with a hoof. “I cannot even imagine Luna going along with this.”

That brought a smile to my face. “Well,” I said, “maybe it’s time you rethink what you think you know about her.”

Shining shook his head. “The far simpler explanation is that she saw what it meant to you and thought, ‘Why not say yes? She won’t be around long enough to do it.’”

I hummed happily at where our conversation had led. This time I would get to say the words, and rather cheerfully so.

“And now we’re arguing in circles again. Since you won’t take my word for it, all I can tell you is to wait and see with your own eyes what kind of pony Luna is.”

Shining’s only response to that was a growl of acknowledgment, and then a frustrated groan as I stole a trick from him.

Humming again, I ran through the remains of my hand to pick a card to lead in the next trick. Eventually, I threw out a trump card for no other reason than I had a lot of them.

Eventually, Shining said, “You hardly have an unbiased, objective opinion of Luna. I’d think of all ponies, you would appreciate that.”

I snorted at the absurdity of that. “Oh please. There’s probably only three or four extant ponies who know Luna and what she’s done well enough to judge her.”

Shining opened his mouth, but I interrupted, “And Celestia is not one of them.” Although admittedly she’d be closer after I gave her that novel of a letter she’d demanded.

Supporting my point, Twinkleshine said, “A thousand years is a long time to not talk to somepony.”

Shining stopped to actually think about that as we played through several tricks. I managed to steal two that Shining should have had – if I was counting cards correctly – with him so distracted.

“Ponies don’t change that easily,” Shining finally said, “but I suppose a thousand years is a long time. Not that it changes what she’s done. It’s also a very long time to hold a grudge.”

“Not when you’re reminded of it every moment of every day.” We played a trick in silence. “A thousand years is a long time to love an absent sister, too.”

“Not when you have to raise her moon every night.”

Personally, I’d almost think that more of a chore…after the first couple thousand times, but I gave that a pass as an argument.

“I suppose I could tell you about Luna’s nighttime activities, or at least some of them. I don’t really keep up with her princessing as much as I probably should.”

Ever the skeptic, Shining said, “That sounds suspicious. What doesn’t she want you to know about, I wonder.”

I rolled my eyes. “I don’t get more time than anypony else, Shining. I can’t do everything.” Securing another trick first, I continued, “Besides, I’ve only recently gotten into the idea of ruling. I still mostly want to do research, but the idea of being something like ‘Equestria’s Principle Investigator’ is kind of growing on me.”

Almost grumbling, Shining said, “I swear, if you force everypony to call you that…”

I glanced over at Twinkleshine and found her grinning wildly for some reason.

“It’d be okay, Shining Armor. There were a few weeks where Twilight got really into mystery novels–”

Oh no…

“–and had Berry Punch make her a detective hat.”

Shining grinned. “I see. So we could call her ‘Twilight Sparkle, PI’ for short.”

Twinkleshine nodded, humming in agreement.

Anyway,” I interrupted, “Luna does move a lot of money around. I know she supports an awful lot of scholarships and grants. She funnels bits into charities, too, and is the head of a number of nonprofit organizations.”

“And where does all that money come from?” Shining asked.

I shrugged. “I don’t have the first clue how banking and investment works. Which now that I think about it is probably really bad. I need to study macroeconomics at least a little bit sometime between now and the solstice.”

Shining raised an eyebrow, no doubt thinking I was being awfully presumptive, but I ignored him.

“It’s certainly not from heists or whatever, though,” I added. “That’s hardly sustainable.”

“Or subtle,” Twinkleshine added.

“Fair enough,” Shining said to Twinkleshine.

Some part of me was outraged that he didn’t prefer the unsustainable argument. Perfect crimes probably happened all the time, hence the perfect in the name. But then I supposed between two perfectly valid arguments, Shining was more likely to not pick mine right now.

“But, um, could you humor me for a moment?” Twinkleshine asked.

Shining shrugged, saying, “I suppose so.”

“Well, I guess it may be my fault, but you didn’t quite answer what I was asking about before. That is, Princess Luna can dreamwalk, but what if she couldn’t? What would you do with criminal alicorns, or even just immortal criminals that won’t submit to conventional justice?”

Twinkleshine, why did you have to make me feel bad for Discord? Not that it wasn’t a good point, though, and one that I’d eventually need to deal with if I wanted to make everypony immortal.

“That” – Shining reached for words that simply weren’t there – “is a very good question. Can others learn to dreamwalk?”

“No,” I replied as the magical expert at the table. “To be more specific, Celestia…might, I…would probably be a stretch, and certain other types of alicorns could in theory, but you can consider it exclusive to Luna.”

“Then maybe some sort of reversible group banishment?” Shining mumbled to himself. “But then even with a counselor among them, it could take forever to rehabilitate them. I suppose we could kick them off planet. Well at that point, it might be more ‘out of the space empire’. But that just displaces the problem.”

Unable to help it, I smiled a little bit. “Could I just point out right now that you implicitly disapprove of Celestia banishing Luna.”

Shining looked about to protest, but judging by how his eyes widened a bit, it must have hit him that Celestia hadn’t expected Luna to be able to dreamwalk after being banished by the elements.

“To be fair,” Shining began, no longer in shock, “she had little choice.”

“I’ll agree with that for the sake of argument. Then shouldn’t she have at least done Luna the favor of unbanishing her and hitting her with a sleep spell? Luna certainly wouldn’t have been able to escape it.”

A frown slowly grew on Shining’s face. “It wouldn’t be safe. Surely Luna had ponies who would work to free her.”

I shrugged. “Store her in the next galaxy over.” It’s what Celestia should have done with the elements. Sure, it’d cost her a huge chunk of time in teleportation costs, but nopony but an alicorn would have been able to get to them.

Shining rolled his eyes, likely not taking me literally.

“It’s a fair critique,” Twinkleshine said.

“But the elements–”

“In a thousand years,” I interrupted, “do you honestly think she couldn’t have figured something out. The elements might not like Celestia anymore, but surely she could’ve at least found somepony to use them earlier to undo Luna’s banishment.”

Wait… No, something about that sounded wrong.

“Then why didn’t she?” Shining asked, echoing my thoughts. His tone grew ever more triumphant as he went on. “Either side of the story suggests Princess Celestia would. Her story says she should’ve either wanted to bring her sister home as soon as possible or to refresh the banishment with plenty of spare time to prepare the bearers. Your side has a similar argument.”

“So it stands to reason that she couldn’t,” I mumbled. Shining was certainly right about that.

But that simply didn’t make any sense. I’d studied the banishment spell, and unless the element’s version was drastically different, it could be undone with enough effort.

“There must be some correlating factor we’re missing,” I concluded. What on Equus could it be?

I shook the thought from my head for now. “Regardless, she didn’t even try. The Elements of Harmony were exactly where she’d put them a thousand years ago. It’s unlikely she would’ve went out of her way to put them back there if she’d retrieved them.”

“But not impossible.”

“Oh, come on!” Surely Shining didn’t really buy that? “That’d be silly. The only reason she could’ve possible had to return them would be to store them with a bunch of old, broken Luna paraphernalia. Yes, not impossible, but unlikely.”

“Sentiment is a powerful force,” Twinkleshine commented. Just whose side was she on anyway?

“I agree,” Shining said.

“Fine. You wanna bet?”

“On what?” Shining asked. “Are you going to try to release Luna early?”

I shook my head. “The elements are out of commission for now; that would hardly be a fair bet. No, I bet I can figure out how to free Discord. The elements were operating at full power on him. Surely his prison must be at least as strong.”

That wasn’t actually necessarily true. And besides that, the main difficulty in removing a petrification or banishment spell was reversing it. I could dispel them easily enough, but there was no telling what would happen to an alicorn victim – a mortal would just no longer exist.

To be fair, though, I’d prodded Luna’s banishment spell, and it was rather stable. It’d probably just reform if I removed it. Besides, we could afford to wait another season. We were in no hurry to justify the risk.

“Twilight, you know how earlier I said, ‘that’s the sanest thing you’ve said all night,’ or something like that?”

I just sighed, already knowing what Shining was about to say.

“This is the opposite of that. It’s the most insane thing you’ve said all night, and you’ve said a lot.”

“I wouldn’t actually let Discord out.” Honestly, what must Shining think of me right now that he’d come to that conclusion? “I’d just come up with the spellwork and explain it to you. Stars! Way to put words in my mouth.”

Twinkleshine injected her own little thoughts again. “It’s true she only said she’d figure out how, not that she’d do it.”

Sighing, Shining rubbed his forehead with his hooves. “Fine. I’ll take that bet. What are the stakes?”

The first thing that came to mind was to make Shining Luna’s knight, but that would be terribly disrespectful to the institution, not to mention Shining likely wouldn’t perform the role very well. No amount of irony was worth that.

Oh, but there was one thing that I definitely wanted from him, come to think of it.

“I want you to help me with one of my research projects. It’ll be a lot of work on your end.” Ascension always was.

“Nothing…harmful, right?”

I rolled my eyes then shook my head.

“Fine, then. If I win, I want you to switch sides.”

“No way. That’s not even close to a fair bet.”

Shining muttered in near-mute protest. “Alright, how about this, then? You cast some spell on yourself to make Luna just another pony to you for a week.”

I flinched away from the idea, knowing what Shining might be able to talk me into when I was like that. But…it wasn’t like I wouldn’t have the memory of the feelings. I wouldn’t do anything silly for no reason.

“Okay,” I finally agreed. “It’s a bet.”

“Really?” Shining looked legitimately surprised that I’d agreed.

And maybe that had been the real trap. If I’d refused, he probably would’ve drilled me on why it would be such a big deal. No doubt he’d claim a ‘non-lovesick Twilight Sparkle’ would want to switch sides.

“Yeah,” I said, far more sure of myself this time. “I won’t intentionally drag my hooves on this, but it’s also not a priority. The bet doesn’t end until I come up with a spell or prove it’s impossible. It might take decades.”

“Whatever,” Shining said with a wave of his hoof. He took the last trick of the round, but it wasn’t enough to get him to his bid.

It was my deal again, so I gathered up all the cards. Our official napkin scores updated, and I began shuffling.


Prereaders – Starlight Nova, Strange Reasoning, The Great Eater

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