Chapter Three - Reunions


Changeling Kingdom

Yucatán Ponynsula, Amarezonia

Second Summer Moon 4, 1 LE


The place Chrysalis had chosen to make her hive’s home had a certain thematic charm, Cadance supposed. Made of living stone, the city changed and reconfigured itself as its residents did. Passages vanished and reappeared without rhyme or reason. Stairs could retract into a wall without warning. Navigation proved, in a word, impossible without either intimate knowledge of the general layout of the structure and its patterns or an entire network of subjects interconnected mentally to produce a constantly updated map.

Needless to say, Chrysalis had both.

The pair traveled in silence, flanked by guards, through the veritable fortress city. Whenever Cadance tried to start up a conversation, Chrysalis merely ignored her. She eventually sighed, gave up, and turned her attention to idly observing the shifting stone around her and politely ignoring the hungry changelings they passed looking at her like a walking feast. She hadn’t expected a warm welcome, but she’d still hoped for more. At least Chrysalis hadn’t tried to throw her into a pod to forget about. She would, however disappointedly, take that as a minor victory.

After a long walk and several unprovoked attempts by the floor to murder her, the party arrived at a large open hall. The main entrance had a series of pillars to denote it as such, which served as perhaps one of the few permanent features of the city. At the hall’s center rose a massive throne of rock. Like the surrounding stone, it shifted form, new holes in its back opening as others closed, but all the while, its basic shape remained constant.

Chrysalis flew up to her throne with a swaggering buzz to her wings. “Guards, leave us!” she commanded. Once they were gone, she made a show of draping herself across her seat of power. “This is a nice change of pace, isn’t it? So much different than it used to be.”

“Urgh.”

“Now then. Whatever reason you’ve come here for can wait. I have waited centuries to hear you say it.”

Bemused, Cadance asked, “Say what?”

“Three words.”

“Oh.” When a pony said that, they usually meant precisely one thing. Cadance didn’t really know where she and Chrysalis stood with each other after her extended absence and everything leading up to it, but perhaps they could bury the hatchet, pretend nothing had ever happened, and rebuild their friendship. If she’d known that were possible, she would have come here years ago. “I love you.”

The changeling language had at least thirty different words for love, each expressing a different facet of the emotion. For them, love was no mystery but a concrete reality to transform into sustenance. Their tastes varied. Some preferred self-love. Others, the love of a nation. Lust was perhaps the most common preference. A few savored the bond between host and guest. Queens typically craved familial love.

Chrysalis, however, had always been a particularly picky eater with little interest in any of the above. “Almost as sweet as I remember–” She licked her lips. “–but hardly what I meant. Do recall the last words we spoke to each other.”

Oh. Of course. Cadance heaved an exasperated sigh. Best get this over with if I want to get anywhere. Flatly, she bit out, “You were right.”

A curious hum prompted Cadance to, begrudgingly, continue.

“About Sombra. I was wrong to trust him. You were right.”

“Mmm…” They both knew Chrysalis couldn’t actually feed off of humiliation, but that didn’t stop her from purring, “Delicious.”

“You haven’t changed a bit,” Cadance muttered.

Chrysalis flew down from her throne. Landing just in front of Cadance, she extended a hoof with an expectant and so very familiar expression. With a sigh, Cadance took some of her own affections for her old friend, mixed them into her magic, and finally solidified the concoction into a pink cookie in the shape of a heart the size of her head. Surprisingly, it worked. Chrysalis eagerly snatched it away from her and took a bite while she pondered why that magic hadn’t fizzled like all the other external magic she’d tried. And come to think of it, Chrysalis had managed to create a portal to teleport to her earlier.

“Hmm, this doesn’t taste like an apology.”

Another sigh escaped Cadance as her train of thought derailed. Chrysalis really intended to drag this out, didn’t she? Cadance set aside her regalia, her every move deliberate, and spoke not as a sovereign but as an old friend who’d wronged another. “I’m sorry. It was wrong of me to dismiss everything you said as mere jealousy. But even then, I shouldn’t have kicked you out of the palace. I know it doesn’t mean much after everything went wrong, but I honestly didn’t intend to shut you out forever. Forgive me, Lovebug?”

Chrysalis took another contemplative bite of her love cookie. “I know you didn’t come here to apologize.”

“No, I didn’t.” There was no point in denying that. “You hurt me, too, you know.”

After a few more bites to mull everything over, Chrysalis said, “I suppose I have missed eating real food. You won’t contest my hive moving back into the Crystal Empire?”

“Of course not.” Not as a pony or a princess. The empire could use the population increase and the skills that came naturally to changelings. If nothing else, they could corner the market in the burgeoning film industry for the empire. Its economy would really need the boost when it finally returned.

Besides, Cadance could hardly turn them away. There was no better place in the world for changelings to live. The Crystal Heart, which primarily protected the empire from the endless winter of the Frozen North, used the light and love within the empire’s residents as fuel. That power then radiated outward, something the enterprising changeling could feed off of when lacking a more dedicated supply of love.

“Very well then,” Chrysalis began. “I forgive you, Meal Ticket.”

Cadance extended a hoof at a low angle. It hadn’t been so very long for her, but she wondered if Chrysalis remembered. Judging by the roll of her eyes, she did.

“Really? I’m not a nymph anymore.”

In answer, Cadance merely pulled her hoof back a bit and put it out once more.

“Fine.” It was a grudging agreement but an agreement nonetheless.

The pair tapped hooves from top to bottom, their arms extending upward in sync. Both leapt into the air with the intent of flying into a backflip, but Cadance forgot to compensate for being in a magical dead zone. As such, she ended up falling gracelessly onto her back with a heavy thud and a painful crack.

As might be expected, rather than help, Chrysalis laughed her head off. “Alright, that was worth it.”

Cadance groaned as her body fixed itself. Increased density was one of the downsides of being an alicorn. A little fall like that wouldn’t have hurt in the slightest when she’d been a pegasus. As she got back to her hooves, she gathered her regalia and said, “I wasn’t going to mention it, but for the record, you were totally jealous of Sombra.”

“Hmph.” No one could fool the Alicorn of Love on such matters, and Chrysalis knew that. Instead, she turned away and, with a wave of her hoof, gestured for Cadance to follow. They left through one of the side entrances to the throne room and soon came upon her private chambers. Once they were comfortable inside, she said, “I assume you’re here about your little family drama.”

“If that’s what you want to call it.” But that brought up something Cadance had forgotten to inquire after. “Do you mind if I ask what’s become of your mother?”

Chrysalis very plainly stated, “Sombra.”

An acute sense of guilt settled in Cadance’s chest. None of what he’d done had been her fault, but she certainly hadn’t helped matters. “I’m sorry for your loss.” She didn’t know what else to say.

“It’s of no concern,” Chrysalis said with a wave of a hoof. “It was ages ago, and she never much approved of my taking of a pet.”

It took Cadance a few seconds to puzzle out Chrysalis’s exact meaning. Once she had, she retorted, “Remind me again who fed whom?”

Chrysalis, with the innocence of a nymph, replied, “Is that not the purpose of a pet?”

“You know it’s not.”

“No?” A smirk emerged on Chrysalis’s face. “Do ponies not take pets for love and companionship?” To emphasize the point, she opened her mouth wide for an extra large bite of her love cookie.

Cadance rolled her eyes. “You are as impossible as ever.”

“A good thing, too.” Setting aside the levity, Chrysalis turned serious. “What impossible favor is it that you’ve come here to ask of me?”

Well, if they were to be so frank, Cadance decided she might as well be blunt. “I need your help with Nightmare Moon. She’s a danger to everyone around her and cannot be allowed to carry on unchecked. To say nothing of what must have happened to those living in colder climes, her eternal night alone hurt thousands in Equestria.”

“It was a little chilly in the jungle at the end,” Chrysalis allowed. “But what would you have me do? From what I’ve heard, Equestria is a diarchy again. The young mare you doted on as a filly sits as the Solar Regent. Do you not trust her?”

“Of course I do. Twilight is a little young” – although not as young as Cadance had been upon her own coronation – “but she has all the right skills if permitted to act independently. What do you think is happening behind closed doors?” While Cadance tentatively believed Twilight when she said that Nightmare Moon wasn’t hurting her physically, there were far worse ways to coerce her cooperation.

Rather flippantly, Chrysalis replied, “What always happens behind closed doors.” It wasn’t hard to understand her meaning.

“No. No way.”

“You may be the Alicorn of Love, but Nightmare Moon is the Goddess of the Night. And unless my memory fails me, your Twilight Sparkle lies well within her strike zone.”

“It’s not going to happen.” Luna was one thing, but Nightmare Moon? Nonsense. And Twilight? She’d never once expressed an interest in romance despite Cadance’s best efforts.

Chrysalis looked on knowingly with a hint of pity. “She’ll never stand a chance.”

“You don’t know her. Twilight would never willingly sleep with somepony holding Aunt Celestia captive.”

“Yes,” Chrysalis purred. “The ultimate challenge. That’s what will make it so much sweeter when it happens.”

As she was about to fire back, Cadance paused and picked up on one little keyword Chrysalis rarely used except in relation to her. “Sweeter?” The wheels turned in her head. Chrysalis seemed to have an awfully good understanding of this hypothetical state of Nightmare Moon’s mind. “Hey! You were planning to do that to me, weren’t you?”

Chrysalis, unexpectedly caught out, froze with eyes wide. Then she turned away and mumbled, “Was thinking about it.”

Cadance flung a throw pillow at Chrysalis’s face. It hit dead on with a solid pomf. “Don’t you dare try to shove me into one of your pods.”

“Hmph.”

“Why would you even do that?”

Rather than answer, Chrysalis rose from her seat and walked over to her desk. There, she plucked a calendar from it by hoof. Upon her return, she shoved it in Cadance’s face. “Do you see the date?”

Confused, Cadance said, “Yes, but–”

“You’ve been back for over a decade. You moved on with your life, and I didn’t merit so much as a letter. I was angry. I still am.”

Cadance wilted at the implied accusation. She had moved on. But it took two to tango! “Did you send me one?”

“Why should I have?” Chrysalis replied. The calendar went back to its place in the green glow of her magic. “You made it very clear you didn’t want to talk to me when we last spoke.”

“Right…” Although they’d both exchanged their fair share of heated words back then, with the benefit of hindsight and a lot of distance from the events, Cadance recognized that she’d been the one to take things a step too far. “Again, I’m sorry. At least neither of us turned evil before I got banished?”

Chrysalis fell back into her seat laughing.

“But then perhaps Sombra counts.”

This time Chrysalis gasped and shot fully upright. “It’s true! He’s going to banish you when he comes back. Then it’ll be me being seduced.” She placed a hoof to her head and feigned a swoon, draping herself over the edge of her chair so that her head hung low. “Whatever will I do?”

Cadance rolled her eyes but couldn’t resist a smile. “Knowing you, bed him and then stab him in the back.”

“Heh. Too true.” After a few moments spent just enjoying the mood, Chrysalis rose back upright. “So? You never answered my question. What exactly do you want me to do about Nightmare Moon?”

“That depends entirely on you,” Cadance said. She had her own preferences, but every course of action came with significant risk. Their friendship only got her hoof in the door. Chrysalis did, after all, have her own kingdom now whose needs would come first. “How much are you willing to help with an unbounded amount of love at your disposal?”

Like flipping a switch, Chrysalis’s eyes took on a vacant, glassy appearance at the offer. A bit of drool escaped, and she unconsciously wet her lips in anticipation of the feast. Then she shook herself of her daze. “How fast can you generate love?”

“I have no idea. Very? I’ve never had a need to test my limits.” After a moment to consider the matter, Cadance shrugged. “How fast can you consume love?”

“It depends on how it’s given to me. More concerning is how much I can hold before I burst. You alicorns are built to channel ever greater amounts of power as you age, but I’m not. I might be able to go horn to horn with Twilight Sparkle, but I doubt I could last against either of the sisters on even ground for long. If I were to fight Nightmare Moon, I would have to put her down quickly. And, I assume, you would want it done quietly.”

Cadance nodded. In an ideal world, they would preserve the good reputation Nightmare Moon had built with Equestria for Luna’s benefit. She asked, “Are you willing?”

Although she sank into thought, contemplating the request, it wasn’t long before Chrysalis said, “If it were Celestia, perhaps.”

Cadance’s heart sank.

“She’s grown soft while you were gone, content to build her little pony utopia while the world around her burns.”

That was, however distastefully put, not untrue. Equestria had largely isolated itself over the past millennium and prospered even as its neighbors collapsed. It’d been a massive culture shock when Cadance had needed to explain what a zebra was in conversation.

“But Nightmare Moon?” Chrysalis continued. “If she’s even half as skilled as Luna was, she’ll tear right through me the moment my power begins to flag. You’d have better luck getting Twilight Sparkle to seduce and betray her.”

Cadance facehoofed. “Will you drop that already?”

“Fine. But only because I absolutely love hearing you say ‘you were right’.”

For good measure, Cadance brought a second hoof up so she could massage both sides of her head. “Would you be willing to help me free Aunt Celestia from banishment? I don’t have the prerequisite magical training to do so myself.” Spellcasting had never been her passion despite having learned to enjoy it while foalsitting. “Then maybe the three of us and Twilight could confront Nightmare Moon? Equestria would be grateful.” Needless to say, there was no nation better to have in one’s debt.

“Hmm… Perhaps. Do you know how to break a banishment spell?”

Cadance shook her head. “But I could ask Shining to pull some books from the Canterlot Archives’ Restricted Section and pass the knowledge on to us. Aunt Celestia specifically told me the relevant tomes were hidden in there.”

After mumbling something too quiet to hear, Chrysalis sank deep into thought. When she finished contemplating the pros and cons of Cadance’s proposition, she gave a shallow nod. “On one condition.”

“Name it.”

“Luna’s wrath was legendary long before Nightmare Moon. If I’m going to draw it upon myself, if I’m going to hazard it falling upon my hive, I’ll need something in return commensurate with the danger.”

Cadance hadn’t expected any less and nodded her understanding.

“Make the Crystal Empire into a diarchy and name me your co-ruler.”

Cadance’s breath caught. “That’s…a lot to ask.”

“I could say the same of you. You’re asking me to stand against a legend. In the age of gods and monsters, she and her sister carved out a vast swath of territory for their subjects to live in with relative safety and security. When we study the art of war, we turn to the surviving records of the royal sisters’ campaigns. That is Nightmare Moon. It seems only fair to me. Are you really so attached to a crown you weren’t born to, didn’t expect, and wore for barely a moon?”

“No,” Cadance answered honestly. “But I take the responsibility seriously. Why do you want another crown?”

“I don’t. I want a replacement. If I’m to move my changelings back into the Crystal Empire, I want someone in power acting in their interest. Someone who can’t be thrown out on a whim.”

“Oh. That’s…fair.” The accusation behind the justification, that was, not the deal itself. Cadance needed to think on that.

Full integration would certainly be much less complicated than the alternatives. And despite the whole Nightmare Moon debacle, the diarchy had worked exceedingly well in Equestria for centuries. It only needed the right combination of rulers. Cadance could see herself working with Chrysalis indefinitely even if they got on each other’s nerves at times.

Of course, there would be the eventual matter of succession. Like dragons, Chrysalis was ageless, not unkillable. They could kick that can down the road, but it would need to be addressed someday.

Beyond that, restructuring the Crystal Empire’s government would be a backbreaking labor. In addition to rewriting a large fraction of its legal system, there would be opposition. Who was she, a princess the empire barely knew, to come in and change everything? That could leave a permanent stain on Cadance’s throne, maybe even lead to something much worse than a little unrest.

I wish Aunt Celestia were here to give me advice. Unfortunately, her absence was the entire problem. Cadance could only go with her own thoughts on the matter. In the long run, she liked the idea. It meant less work for her, a stronger empire, and a much reduced chance of another Sombra arising. In the short run, however…

“I’m not opposed to the idea,” Cadance began carefully, “but there are some complicating factors.”

“Yes, yes.” Chrysalis dismissed the concerns with a wave of her hoof. “I’m willing to wait and play politics to ease the transition. We can discuss the details another time. But the core proposal?”

After a few moments to give the matter some final thoughts, Cadance acceded to the deal with a nod. “The Crystal Empire will be a diarchy.”

“Excellent!” Chrysalis hopped out of her seat. Her wings buzzed in excitement and lent a lightness to her step. She gestured for Cadance to follow. “I’ve already issued the command to collect the necessary materials from the Canterlot Archives.” That she did so mentally over her hive’s hivemind went unsaid. Cadance knew how changelings worked.

But sometimes the hivemind worked too quickly. “Actually,” Cadance interrupted, “I can just send a letter and have it arrive in Canterlot within a few minutes. An hour if my delivery dragon has to track down Shining.”

Chrysalis paused momentarily in her stride to ruffle Cadance’s mane with a hoof and an indulgent smile, leaving the latter blinking owlishly after her as she continued on. This had to be revenge for all the times Cadance had done that when she’d been the taller and older one. “Let’s not involve your beau who reports directly to Nightmare Moon, hmm?”

“I…suppose you have a point.” Cadance hurried to catch up.

“Just leave this to the professionals, Meal Ticket. My changelings are unrivaled when it comes to infiltration. They’ll find the information we need. In the meantime, we’ll begin supercharging me. Be warned. Even for you, this will likely be exhausting. And I’ll no doubt end up sick from overeating a few times before I determine my limits.”

Cadance had expected all that. “Do what you must, as will I.”

“I’m glad you said that.”

A new hole in the city’s living rock opened up before the pair to reveal a chamber. Inside, a team of changelings were preparing a green pod. Cadance’s reaction to the sight was immediate.

“No. No way. Not happening. Those things are so gross.”

“And efficient,” Chrysalis added. She grasped Cadance’s wing with her magic and tugged the mare forward. “Come. It’ll be faster and less tiring for both of us this way.”

Cadance, meanwhile, continued her protestations with increasing fervor the closer to the pod Chrysalis pulled her. Sure, it would probably be for the best, but would it really be so bad to just leave Nightmare Moon alone for an extra few days, weeks, or even moons? Surely the world wouldn’t fault her for the perfectly reasonable delay.


Canterlot Castle

Canterlot, Equestria

Second Summer Moon 6, 1 LE


How this had slipped her mind, she had no idea. It should have been obvious. Considering everything she planned to do with all the weight and power that came with the regency, it really should have been at the top of her list of priorities. Well, perhaps a few other things were less important but possessed more urgency. Finding ways to ease the overcrowding in hospitals due to Luna’s theatrics, for example, wasn’t something that could wait. But the principle remained! Somehow this had managed to elude the list entirely.

From her seat in her office – and it felt so weird to have one – Twilight called for her next and last appointment for the day to enter. She did her best to compose herself and pretend that this meeting hadn’t completely blindsided her. She really missed Spike at times like these. No better assistant could be found in Equestria, and managing her own schedule was…not going particularly well. She just had too much to do to keep up with her usual habits. Even when she kept to the bare essentials, she was starting to drop the ball on some things.

The door opened, and the guards admitted an ancient unicorn mare Twilight knew well. With a bit of magic, she nudged out a chair and invited her guest to take it. “Tea?” she offered. It was something Princess Celestia had often done, and she’d picked up the habit over the past few weeks.

“That would be wonderful. Thank you.”

Thus Twilight set about pouring a cup and refilling her own. She mixed in some milk and sugar upon request and passed it off from her magic to her guest’s. They both took their first sip, and Twilight idly made a note to adjust the spell keeping the water hot later. It was off a few degrees from the ideal temperature.

“Isn’t this a stark difference from last time?” Professor Inkwell remarked with a bit of rueful humor. As a senior lecturer at Princess Celestia’s School for Gifted Unicorns – and perhaps the most illustrious of them all – every single class she offered, Twilight had taken. Most considered them old-fashioned these days and the mare herself terribly quirky, but those ponies knew nothing.

“Not as much as you might think,” Twilight replied. “I haven’t had time to study for my job, I have no idea what I’m doing, and I’m convinced I’m one bad decision away from the end of the world.” She imitated one of the fake smiles Princess Celestia put on when she couldn’t manage a real one with enough success for Professor Inkwell to laugh and take everything she’d said as a joke instead of the horrible, horrible truth. “Things have been a bit crazy here. I know you’re here on behalf of the school, but what in particular did you want to speak about with me?”

“The school is in something of a situation. It’s owned and operated by the crown–” Professor Inkwell paused to think and then reworded that. “Crowns, I think. Don’t know how the politics shake out. Regardless, we’ve been getting by, but our headmare is absent and doesn’t look to be returning anytime soon. We decided it would be best for the Solar Regent to weigh in on the matter.”

Twilight heaved a sigh. How do I resolve this? I can’t very well tell them Princess Celestia might return soon…ish lest it get back to Luna. And I can’t tell them to run the school without oversight. An idea occurred. This could be an opportunity. The chance to push for reform and hold the school up as a model of what educational standards in Equestria should be.

Even so, the thought of experimenting on her alma mater left Twilight with a strange feeling of…irreverence? She didn’t know precisely what word to put to it. Not to mention she’d have to absorb yet another one of Princess Celestia’s positions to do so, further diminishing her ever shrinking presence in Equestria. Maybe that was the wrong way to think about it. The school did need a steward, after all. But that didn’t make it any less true.

Tentatively, Twilight asked, “What was the faculty hoping I would do?”

Professor Inkwell shrugged. “We’re divided. Some want to fill the position with somepony of our own choosing. Some think you should pick. Some think you, as the princess’s student, should be her replacement.”

“Define ‘some’.”

“An unspecified amount or number of.” Professor Inkwell, of course, stated that useless definition with a grin.

Twilight changed tactics. “What do you want me to do?”

“I personally think Princess Celestia had no business splitting her attention between you, the school, and the state. Somehow she managed it, but I can’t imagine she had much of a life outside of it.”

It was true that, as far as Twilight knew, Princess Celestia had never really done anything just for the fun of it.

Before Twilight could form a proper answer, the door slammed open. Luna stormed in while the two guards posted at the doors, ponies Twilight had known since foalhood, peeked in after her and offered a pair of apologetic expressions. The door slammed practically in their faces, and Luna immediately set into a rant in Old Ponish, pacing and gesticulating wildly. It was to Twilight’s great misfortune that she understood the language well enough to follow along with the tirade.

Twilight loudly cleared her throat. That managed to get Luna’s attention. Once she had it, she sharply nodded at her guest who really didn’t need a behind the scenes look at the current state of the government.

For what it was worth, Luna had the decency to appear embarrassed. “My apologies for interrupting your audience with Princess Twilight. My day has been…trying.”

“It’s fine, Your Highness,” Professor Inkwell said. “I’ve already accomplished what I need to.” She turned to Twilight and added, “Take some time to think about it. Let us know what you decide once you have.”

“I will, thank you.” After Professor Inkwell had vacated the room, Twilight’s smile fell into a frown. “Couldn’t this have waited until later tonight?”

“Do the tides wait?”

Twilight rolled her eyes. “Then don’t you have anypony else to complain to?”

“Of course I don’t.” The bitter words were worse for Luna’s present mood. “Our positions are not conducive to making friends. The few I clung to in the end all eventually fell to the ravages of time. There’s only you.”

Hypocritical though it might be for a mare who’d knowingly rejected her destiny as the Princess of Friendship, Twilight found those words immeasurably sad. She at least had her family. Princess Celestia didn’t count, but one possibility came to mind. “What about Cadance?” She was contemporary to Luna.

Luna snorted. “Do you see her here?” The chair across from Twilight lit up with Luna’s magic, grew a little in size, and finally moved for her to better fall onto it. Her mood finally broke once she had. “So did you puzzle out the truth or did she tell you?”

“About Cadance? I figured it out.” The mare herself had only confirmed it and provided a little context, something Luna certainly didn’t need to know.

“Good. That ability to synthesize disparate facts will serve you well.” After a few moments of silence, Luna returned to the subject proper. “Cadance and I didn’t know each other long before Sister’s butterhooves sent her away, but I suppose we were friends after a fashion. Family now, I hear.” Her gaze slowly drifted toward the door. “I’m curious. That mare had what looked like a battle scar over her eye.”

As Professor Inkwell’s story was common knowledge, Twilight felt no qualms in providing it. “Sixty-three years ago, some strange shadow creatures laid siege to Canterlot.”

Luna nodded and confirmed that she was aware of the only Equestrian war of sorts in living memory. It consisted of but a single battle: the Siege of Canterlot. Nopony knew exactly where the shadows had come from, what their goals were, or where the survivors went. Although given that she already knew of that relative footnote in history, perhaps Luna had learned something important from Princess Celestia. Twilight placed that thought aside for later analysis.

“Professor Inkwell fought on the front lines with Princess Celestia despite being a civilian. She’s a national hero with medals and everything. There’s a statue not far from here in Clover Park.”

Luna hummed in interest. “I’ll have to take some time to meet her once things settle down here.”

“She’s a lecturer at my alma mater. You can usually find her there.” Before Luna could question what business Professor Inkwell had with her, Twilight changed the subject. “Anyway, I wasn’t really paying attention earlier. What were you on about?”

“Fie! I met with Ambassador Talon earlier this evening.”

It took Twilight a few moments to recognize the name. “The Griffonstone ambassador, right?”

“Indeed. He had the audacity to demand – not ask for, but demand – compensation for not cycling night and day properly.”

Twilight’s eye widened. “He doesn’t know…” This office was private but not secure. “–about Nightmare Moon, does he?”

“Nay. He was merely under the mistaken impression that I owe the world something. I tend to the moon and sun as a public service, not as a slave. It’s not as though such magics are my exclusive domain. They are no more than magic itself is yours. Somepony else could have at least attempted to fill the role. Sometimes I swear alicorns are the only sentient creatures on this world with even a hint of agency.”

Twilight politely ignored Luna’s slip back into Old Ponish. It seemed to be becoming a trend. Whenever somepony tried her patience too far, Luna would vent at the end of the day in the language more familiar to her.

“So what did you do with him?” Twilight asked.

An amused snort came first in answer. “I offered to release Nightmare Moon and let him have a go of things.”

“Not a taker, I imagine?”

“Remarkably, his old war injuries acted up with such poor timing.”

“He has old war injuries?” Seeing Luna roll her eyes without bothering to reply, Twilight assumed otherwise. “Well, at any rate, I’m done here for tonight. I have a few documents and a book I need to read, but I can do that anywhere.”

“I must begin cleaning the Dream Realm.” Luna looked like she wanted to do anything but. “It’s going to take moons to finish. Still, I should be done with today’s work before dinner.”

“Breakfast,” Twilight corrected.

Having had this pointless yet essential argument before, they both let it go with the knowledge that the other was wrong.

“Same time, same place?”

Twilight nodded. “I’ll make the arrangements.”


A Stray Cloud in the Sky

Canterlot, Equestria

Second Summer Moon 7, 1 LE


Luna was late. Not that it really mattered, Twilight supposed. She had plenty of things that needed doing and could stand to wait a little longer before giving up and eating breakfast alone. But how hard was it to at least send a note? Being tardy was no excuse for being impolite.

Maybe punctuality should have been one of the Elements of Harmony after all. A little chuckle escaped Twilight at the silly thought.

She really could use a break, though. Even for her, Twilight had to admit that Equestria’s tax code made for dull, dense reading. She needed to understand it to do her job – her temporary job, she reminded herself – but it did so little to inspire. More and more often, she found her book discarded in favor of staring up at the stars. The night sky had been so much more alive since Luna reclaimed its care – vibrant, even. The night was a canvas, and its master painter had returned.

And speaking of said master painter, the flapping of wings broke the quiet of the very early morning. As Luna touched down on the cloud, Twilight continued to pick out constellations but asked, “What kept you?”

“Work. The Dream Realm looks as though Discord made it his personal playground in my absence. I’ve created some constructs to help me restore order, but they can only do basic tasks. I’ve already discovered three brilyr that I needed to close myself.”

“Brilyr?” Twilight broke the word into its Old Ponish roots and guessed, “A…reality bridge? World bridge? No…otherworld bridge?”

Luna lay down beside Twilight and said, “As good a translation as any. I haven’t felt the need to update my terminology yet.”

Considering that nopony else ever used the words, Twilight could understand the low priority on that task. It was a shame, really. Dream magic always sounded like a fascinating field of study whenever Luna brought it up. “What exactly is a brilyr?”

Luna didn’t answer the question. Or at least not right away. When Twilight started debating the merits of the laborious task of rolling over to check if she’d fallen asleep, she finally spoke.

“When we were young, my sister and I liked to travel. She preferred to hop dimensions while I enjoyed exploring this endless world we live in. I’ve flown far beyond Equestria’s borders. I’ve named more oceans than most will ever see. I’ve met creatures you’ve likely never even imagined. Yet ponies are the most intrinsically magical species I’ve ever come across. Our very existence is tied into the weave of destiny. It makes us…larger in a sense. Everything we do is magnified.

“Our dreams are no exception. Many monsters are born within our nightmares. Most naturally die off when the dream ends, but not all. Some gain the ability to cross between dreams and grow in strength. When they become too powerful, they can create a brilyr. A bridge of sorts, as you said, between dreams and reality. They tend not to fully collapse when used, which can make it easier for the next monster to escape.”

Luna stopped, and Twilight turned away from her note taking to glance at the mare. That seemed to be her full explanation, but it left her open to questions. “Are there any dream monsters I would recognize?”

“Many. Some from before my time. Others…” Luna’s gaze turned south. Leaning up a little bit, Twilight followed it toward the Everfree Forest. “Hydras. Manticores. Ursa majors. Timberwolves.” She snorted. “According to my sister’s journal, me.”

Ignoring how rude it was to read somepony else’s diary without permission, Twilight asked, “As in a possession or a complete replacement?”

“More…a merger? It’s unclear. It’s also nonsense, of course. Personally, I think she was just inventing excuses for my pain rather than professing any true belief.” At a mutter, Luna added, “Brushed off again.” Then at her normal volume, she asked, “What did you get for dinner today?”

Twilight sat up and unpacked her breakfast basket. She briefly thought of canceling the stasis spell keeping their food warm but thought better of it. This high up, the temperatures were freezing. She might not notice thanks to having her pegasus magic unlocked, but her tongue would. Maybe next time she would bring food meant to be eaten chilled.

“What are these horseshoe shaped creations?”

“Fries,” Twilight replied. “They’re potatoes dipped in hot oil. There’s a dozen other variations on the same basic concept. Tastes vary.”

Luna experimentally popped one into her mouth. “Hmm, I feel this would be better crispy.”

“Then you want either a batter-dipped version or chips. I also picked up hayburgers and soda. None of this is in any way healthy, but after how many whole cakes I’ve witnessed Princess Celestia devour, I’m assuming alicorns don’t have to watch their figures.”

“Sister, you glutton,” Luna mumbled incredulously.

The meal passed peacefully in idle chatter. They spoke of business for a time to keep each other fully informed before drifting to more personal interests. Their discussion eventually wandered onto the stars and then to the constellations. Twilight found herself surprised at how much the stories and myths behind them had changed over a thousand years. Those had always felt like a cultural constant faithfully transcribed from generation to generation down to her.

It was strange how easily this new routine had fallen into place. Twilight found, much to her own surprise, that she actually kind of liked Luna. Maybe because she’d given Cadance her unofficial blessing to dethrone the mare, the guilt of turning away from everything Princess Celestia had wanted for her gnawed at her just a little bit less. Maybe that made it easier for her to think of the Lunar Throne as a gilded cage where Luna waited for judgment while performing community service. Being the Solar Regent, at least, certainly wasn’t fun. Or perhaps it was just the Princess of Friendship in her screaming to get out and trying to see the best in even the worst ponies.

Either way, Twilight had just finished reciting the story of Draco when Luna decided to kill the mood entirely. “Speaking of dragons, you should retrieve yours before I have to charge you with negligence.”

Twilight froze.

“This is actually a good moment to speak to you on the subject of delegation. You are going to wear yourself down if you continue trying to do everything unaided. Take tomorrow off to go recover your assistant. It’s the least you can do for yourself. I’ll cover for you.”

“I…will then.”

Could she even say no? Despite everything, she probably could. Twilight had been working virtually without oversight. Luna, for whatever reason, seemed genuine in letting her act as she saw fit. But then did it even matter? Shining served as Captain of the Royal Guard, and her parents lived a short walk away. There were perfectly good hostages already at hoof.

Perhaps Luna needed Twilight out of the way for something. She didn’t really see why. It wasn’t like she had the time to spy on anypony. Being a princess was a full-time job.

“Don’t overthink things,” Luna said. Twilight’s eyes shot to hers, unable to hide the surprise in them, but she said nothing more on the subject. “I’m curious. I’m aware you hatched Spike, but how did he come to be under your care?”

The explanation started stiffly, but Twilight slowly relaxed as she gave it. “Well, you know I attended Princess Celestia’s school. She put him under my care while I was there but kept official guardianship for herself. At first, I thought it was a huge responsibility she’d given me as part of my studies. It was…hard. Frustrating. I barely slept at times. But I eventually learned that she hadn’t given me a burden. Instead, she gave me a friend. My first friend. I named him Spike when I accepted that. I’d just been calling him ‘the dragon’ up until then. Not really my finest moment, I admit. I’m glad he was too young to remember that.”

“I…see…” Luna nibbled at a fry with furrowed brows. “When did this happen?”

“The summer of nine ninety. Not long after I took my entrance exams. When I graduated from the school, Princess Celestia signed over full custody to me.”

None of that alleviated the strangely disapproving expression developing on Luna’s face. “It’s my understanding you hatched him during your practical exam.”

Twilight nodded. “The test was to hatch his egg. I later learned it was supposed to be impossible, but I had a bit of an…” She faked a cough. “–incident. There was a magical explosion of some sort originating from Cloudsdale. When it passed over me, my magic went berserk.”

“Berserk?” Luna asked. “Glowing eyes? Roiling nexus of raw power?”

“Yes? Why?”

Rather than answering the question, Luna shook her head and gave a little snort of disbelief. “Nevermind, you precocious little late bloomer. So in summary, you hatched him, you named him, and you raised him?”

Twilight nodded.

“And he is your…”

“My number one assistant!”

Luna stared as if she couldn’t believe a word that had just come out of Twilight’s mouth. It came with a hint of anger and the strangest sense of understanding vying for dominance.

“What?”

Horn alight, a teleportation spell building, Luna said, “Go retrieve your son, Twilight Sparkle.”

In a blink, Twilight found herself in the middle of Ponyville. Nopony was out this early in the day, so her arrival went without notice or fanfare. When she recovered from the suddenness of the transition, Twilight blinked. “Son?” How ridiculous. She was way too young to have a foal…right?

Right?

Twilight rose to her hooves and said to nopony, “I’ll, uh, do that? And…fly back to Canterlot?”

No response came.

“Right. Flying back it is, then.”

After a few moments standing in the silence, Twilight realized she had a problem.

“What am I supposed to do until everypony wakes up?”

Another teleport spell built up. Twilight sensed it the instant before it completed and closed her eyes to avoid the flash of light blinding her in the night. Two royal guards, both pegasi, fell to the ground in a loud clatter of armor with the typical lack of grace of inexperienced teleporters. They’d had today’s night shift for watching over her. Twilight gave them a helping hoof back up and floated their weapons back to them.

After a few moments awkwardly shifting in place with nothing to do, Twilight conjured a deck of cards and made a show of shuffling it with needless flair that took up most of her concentration. “Wanna play a game to pass the time until morning?”

The guards exchanged a look and shrugged before agreeing. The three then left to find a public table to commandeer for their use.


Ponyville, Equestria

Second Summer Moon 7, 1 LE


“Your Highness, Princess Luna has a point. Bolt and I don’t know the details of your family dynamic, but I don’t know what other label you could put on it.” Striker played a knave and skipped Twilight’s turn. “We’ve both seen you feed him and change his diapers. Comfort him as he cried.”

Bolt played a six, hardly remarkable. “Were you there for his first steps? His first words?”

Of course she had been! She wouldn’t have missed that for the world. Twilight didn’t reply aloud, but she did nod her head.

“It seems kind of obvious, really,” Striker added as he tossed out a seven. The turn order reversed and thus skipped over Twilight again. “I mean, I get the whole different species thing. Celestia knows I have enough trouble with just a unicorn daughter myself. And there’s your ages. I don’t know what Princess Celestia was thinking with that one. I couldn’t imagine having that kind of responsibility myself as a colt. But you raised him nonetheless.”

Play proceeded in the background with Bolt chiming back in. “How would you feel if his real parents showed up?”

“Biological parents,” Twilight immediately corrected.

Both guards looked up from their cards with raised eyebrows.

“Okay, okay. I get it.” The thought alone made her feel guarded and somewhat territorial. Twilight didn’t want to go down that rabbit hole any further. “Maybe I have some distinctly maternal feelings regarding Spike, but…well, it’s complicated.” She threw her remaining cards into the discard pile when Bolt played his last and won the round. Once Striker’s joined them, she picked up the deck and began shuffling. “I have no idea how to have that conversation with him.”

Rather unhelpfully, Bolt said, “You could just sit down together and have a mature, respectful talk about your feelings.”

Twilight let her head fall onto the table face first and dealt the cards. As if it would be that easy. From the corner of an eye, she watched the sun slowly rise into the sky and wondered what advice Princess Celestia would give her. Probably something maddeningly simple as if explicitly claiming Spike as her foal didn’t terrify her half to death. That wasn’t the kind of thing to just drop on a pony – or dragon – out of nowhere. Maybe she could hint at it for a while and see how he responded to the idea.

The distinctive rhythm of a rapid two-legged gait drawing nearer met Twilight’s ears. As far as she knew, Ponyville only housed a single biped. She safely bottled up all of her weird, conflicted feelings and turned in her seat just in time to scoop Spike up in her arms as he ran to her. She showered him with affection as the two reunited after a moon and a half apart. For his part, he lapped it up even in public without a hint of embarrassment.

“Oh, Spike, I’ve been so lost without you!”

As soon as Twilight finished, Spike added his own piece. “I missed you so much. You were gone, and then you were a princess, and where have you been?”

Twilight managed to tighten her hug and pulled Spike closer. “I’m so sorry. This has all been a disaster, and I’ve been trying to keep you safe, and I’m stupid, and it didn’t even matter in the end, and I’m so, so sorry. Please forgive me.”

“Don’t leave me behind again.”

“Never.”

It took a while before their reunion died down. Twilight conjured a tissue to dry her eyes and clean up her face before ultimately using it to blow her nose. Spike rubbed his own tears away onto her coat before she could see them. Although a futile effort, he tried to pretend that he hadn’t been crying too. She politely chose not to comment.

“Ehem.”

Twilight glanced up and searched for the source of the sound. But a few respectful steps away stood a white coated unicorn mare with an expertly curled violet mane paired with an unusually short tail. “Ah, good morning–” A bit out of sorts from the high emotions, she required a moment to search her memory for a name. “–Rarity.” She reluctantly released Spike from her arms and looked between them. “I take it I have you to thank for looking after Spike for me.”

“It was no trouble at all, darling. He’s been ever so helpful around the boutique. We were just running a few errands this morning, in fact. I’ll be sad to see him go.”

The hint of a question hung in those last words alongside some mild accusation. Despite the extenuating circumstances, Twilight couldn’t fault Rarity for the tone and merely nodded back in answer and acknowledgment of fault where Spike couldn’t see. She should have arranged for somepony to look after him herself despite the risk instead of hoping he would get by on his own.

Rarity accepted the response for what it was and pursued another line of inquiry. “I would have brought him to Canterlot myself, but we weren’t entirely sure what the situation was or if we even had the right Twilight Sparkle. The wings are marvelous, by the way. Are they new, or have you always had them? They are real, aren’t they?”

Once brought up, Spike reach out a hand to touch one. “They feel real.”

Twilight placed a hoof on Spike’s arm and gently but insistently pushed it away. “They’re also very sensitive, and I need a little more time to accustom myself to them.”

“Oh! Sure, Twilight.”

Happy that Spike understood, Twilight turned her attention back to Rarity. “They’re borrowed, technically speaking. My own won’t grow in for a couple years yet by Luna’s estimation. Apparently, I’m a ‘late bloomer’.”

“So you’re really an alicorn?” Spike asked with some cautious glee.

“Mhm.” Twilight rubbed Spike’s head fins fondly and whispered to him, “You’re stuck with me forever.”

Very succinctly, the ageless dragon said, “Awesome!” and curled himself around Twilight’s leg for another hug. She had a feeling they were both going to be rather clingy with each other for at least a few days.

“Your Highness–” Rarity began only for Twilight to cut her off.

“Oh, please no. I get enough of that already. You ran into the Everfree with me and looked after Spike in my absence. I think we’re long past formalities, Rarity.”

That seemed to have two very distinctly different effects upon the mare. Rarity looked at once both thrilled to be on familiar terms with royalty and relieved to drop the formality. “As you wish, darling,” she said. “But that’s actually what I wanted to ask about. What happened at the castle after we left you to your work? By the time we thought to check up on you, you’d already vanished. We even searched the surrounding forest for you.”

If anypony deserved to know the truth, it was the five mares who’d escorted Twilight to the Old Castle. It only seemed fair. It’d have to be revealed in private, of course, not around a public table in the middle of Ponyville with two guards at her back who’d spread the word like wildfire. It’d be nice to have somepony she could talk to about everything. She’d certainly desperately needed her brief time with Cadance.

But there were reasons she lied to everypony including her own family. Thus Twilight spun the same sanitized story she sold to anypony who knew enough to ask for details. “Nightmare Moon showed up and stole the Elements from me. Luna appeared just after she teleported away. I had a head start on tracking her, and when I explained who I was, Luna took me with her. We were kind of in a hurry to chase after Nightmare Moon. In the rush, I, well, forgot you five were there until the next day. Sorry about that. I’m known to have a bit of a one-track mind at times.”

“It’s true,” Spike unhelpfully added. “There’s this one time when she–”

Twilight cast a silencing spell on Spike and continued on with one less embarrassing story told in her presence. “Anyway, when we went back, you were already gone. You all made it out okay, though, right?”

“In the end,” Rarity said dramatically, “but the journey was simply dreadful. It seems it’s much easier to get to the castle than to leave it. I can’t tell you how many times we got lost or ran into some horrible monster. Ugh, and all that time without the basic necessities! Simply dreadful, darling, as I said. One would be forgiven for thinking we were swamp ponies by the time we escaped.”

Twilight offered up a sympathetic smile. It did sound miserable. How lucky she was that Luna had guided them to the castle and taken her away rather than leaving her to walk back to civilization.

“I know it doesn’t make up for abandoning you all in the Everfree, but when I get back to Canterlot, I’ll nominate you five for the Pink Heart.” It was Equestria’s highest medal of honor and, in hindsight, a well deserved reward for five civilians who’d gotten in way over their heads simply by doing what was right. Rarity certainly looked delighted at the prospect, so the idea would likely go over well with the others. “If there’s anything else I can do, just let me know.”

“Nonsense. We were happy to help.”

“Even so,” Twilight insisted. Fighting back a yawn, she got to her hooves and motioned to her guards that it was time to leave. “Anyway, I need to fly back to Canterlot. If you would spread the word for me?”

“Of course.”

Twilight levitated Spike up onto her back. He settled into place as though they’d never been separated, filling a longing in her she’d not truly noticed until now. She’d missed his familiar weight upon her back more than she’d thought. After warning him to hold on tight, she leapt into the air with a heavy beat of her wings. Her guards followed behind her, watching her back and protecting her flank.

Spike’s cries of delight were a balm to the soul. This would, in all likelihood, become relatively commonplace in the future, so it was good he enjoyed it. On the way out of Ponyville, Twilight noticed a stage being erected in the town square. A little scrying spell for a better look didn’t reveal its purpose, but she did notice a cutie mark on display that she recognized from her schooldays.

I wonder what Trixie is doing here.