As the sun began to rise after the long night, ponies looked to the sky in wonder, not knowing what this could mean. Had Luna attacked and Celestia beaten her back? Had Luna taken over, and now she controlled both celestial bodies? Or had they remained in their stalemate, order maintaining precisely where it was? With so little to go on, it was no wonder so many possible theories circled through the rumor mill.
And soon, the rumors were joined by the truth. Word spread as quickly as the pegasi could fly, and Rainbow Dash was known to fly quite quickly when she wanted to. Peace had been declared. Not just the talks, no promises or tentative bargains, but full on peace between Celestia's Empire and Luna's Republic.
Of course, many ponies wouldn't believe anything as fantastical as that. Even if some pegasus in army colors flew over the town yelling it, there was no way to know they weren't a lone nut, and along the border, neither army stopped being entrenched, sure this was a trick from the other side. And they remained that way until it started to snow.
Snow was fairly common in the winter, but it normally didn't come in little rectangular pieces, nor did it come from a hot air balloon in the form of an invitation to the 'Dual Nation-Wide Equestria Peace Parties!' like this snow did. It had now been hours since most of the initial declarations had happened, and with evidence piling up, it was getting harder and harder to ignore the possibility. Coulda war really end that easily? For most in both countries there had been no huge battle, no satisfying, decisive clash to determine the winner and the loser, just… This.
Rainbow and the Wonderbolts, once opposite sides of the war, did three laps of Equestria before ponies truly believed them, and Pinkie Pie's balloon had thrown out enough fliers to rebuild Canterlot entirely out of paper by the time she got her first RSVP, but by the end of even that first day, peace became entrenched as a true possibility in ponies' minds.
Of course, compared to the dual parties, the 'Cross-Border Partypalooza' didn't get very many guests at all, but the dual parties in the nations capitols both went on long, long into the following night. It was a start. After so long being divided, even cake couldn't be expected to bridge the gap immediately, but Pinkie Pie had time. She had all the time in the world… or at least as long as the Element of Laughter gave her, and she had a feeling that was more than enough.
* * * * *
Ink Well limped into the hospital room, his bad leg bound tightly in bandages and braced to make sure his movements didn't injure it more. His sides were bandaged too, as well as his wings, their spraining and the stitches holding him together needing some care if they were ever going to get better. Overall he was fortunate to be moving at all even a few days after his fall in Canterlot. As he sat down next to the heavily bandaged pony in the bed, he wished Rose had been nearly so lucky.
Multiple stab and puncture wounds, a list of fractures and breaks that covered just about every part of her body, blood seeping into places inside her it never should've been… but she was still breathing, and when she saw him next to her, she smiled before coughing, a little bit of pink coming up with the motion. Ink Well sighed, looking at the tube that dripped liquid from Rose's IV bag. “So this is what it was like all those times I got injured… I must say, I prefer being the one in the bed. It hurts far more to see you like this than to be the one experiencing it.”
Rose chuckled weakly, shaking her head, though she was unable to move her hooves for the slings all four of them were in. “Well, maybe you'll finally stop going off and getting yourself in trouble now. Maybe if I scare you to death, you'll stop doing it to me.” She coughed once more as she turned her head, looking out the window to her right and barely able to see the town hall in the distance. “But at least they let me be moved to Ponyville, even if I can't go out to see you speak today...”
“I'd bring you right back here if I saw you out and about anyway. As much as I'd like you standing beside me as I did it, to know you're well, I'll take the moral support from here.” Ink Well leaned over, nuzzling his wife gently on the cheek. “Though I really don't know what they expect me to do. They've already declared peace days ago, and I was never any negotiator. The talk for what the future held could've gone on just fine without the old stallion limping around and spouting fantasies.”
Rose sighed loudly, turning to face him again with a stern look on her face. “You told me you'd stop doing that! And anyway, you haven't hit fifty yet, unlike a certain immobile mare in this room. You're still the same young, spry idealist I met all those years ago… Just with a few more scars.”
“Won't be the only pony returning home with a few extra scars… I'm just glad to be returning.” Both of them lowered their head, remembering all of those crushed beneath the rubble. All of the brave soldiers that had breathed their last, in Canterlot, in Ponyville, and the countless more before them. There had been so many injured in Canterlot that the hospital there had overflowed, leading to a large transport of injured over to Ponyville hospital, which was dealing with the aftermath of 'The Second Battle of Ponyville,' and only barely managing thanks to the Peace Corps. By now things were settling down to a more manageable pace, but there were many doctors wondering if there had been more they could've done.
One of the worst worriers stood in the doorway, smiling brightly as she saw Ink Well and Rose in the room. “Oh, good to see you up and about, Ink Well, though I do hope you're not going to strain yourself,” said Fluttershy, Angel Bunny riding on her back with a bouquet of flowers. As Fluttershy began to walk into the room, she smiled warmly at Rose as well. “And glad to see you're hanging in there. You really scared us after you fell from the sky. Nopony could believe Viper had even survived the fall, let alone you two… You really should count yourselves lucky.”
Rose smiled back, nodding. “I do… I just wish I were lucky in a way that itched less. There's no way I can reach under these casts.” Hearing his wife's distress, Ink Well began to root around the room for a pencil or something to help with her itchy legs, a feeling he knew all too well.
Fluttershy giggled at that display as she walked over to the other side of the room, checking up on the other occupant. “And how about you, Dented, are you feeling alright?”
Dented Angel smiled as he saw the bouquet being carried for him, nearly matching the other ones he'd been brought by her while he'd been recovering from the gunshot. He waved away her worry, smiling up at her from behind his eye patch. “You don't have to worry about me so much, Fluttershy. I was treated by the best doctor in Equestria within seconds of being shot. If it weren't for the bandage, I'd hardly know I was injured!”
Fluttershy just sighed as she picked up the bouquet in her wings, placing them next to his bed. “I'm just glad to know you're recovering… You scared me even more than they did, and they fell from the sky!”
Dented chuckled. “Well, I did that once too, and you saved me then as well, if I remember correctly. Now that's two lives I owe you.”
She shook her head. “You don't owe me anything except getting better. After everything you helped me do these last few years…”
“Yep. Dragging you from your home nation and putting a crazy little idea in your head that somehow worked… alright, we'll count that as the first life I owe you. But for the second, I think I'll need to be a little closer by.” He reached a hoof behind the flower bundles next to him, a smile slowly growing on his face as a frown grew on Fluttershy's.
“What do you mean by–?” was all she got out before the rest was lost to a gasp at the little box Dented was holding.
He flipped it open, revealing a slender golden ring. But where a jewel would be resting, there was instead a lump of shined lead in the shape of a heart: something a bit more personal to both of them. “You might've pulled the bullet out of me, but you took my heart with it. And after these years together and how often you've been visiting me, I know there's nopony else I'd rather be with for the rest of my life.” He pushed himself up out of bed, struggling down to kneeling next to it as he offered her the ring properly. “Will you marry me, Fluttershy?”
Fluttershy's eyes began to tear up immediately, and behind her was the clatter of a pencil dropping to the floor out of Ink Well's mouth as both he and Rose were left speechless at what they were witnessing. After a moment Fluttershy just nodded, resulting in a hug from Angel Bunny, followed by a bigger hug from Dented as he stood up and grabbed her, nuzzling against her cheek lovingly. Fluttershy just returned it, hugging Dented back and holding him close. “I didn't even realize… but I'd always hoped…” Dented shook his head, kissing her gently on the lips as Angel helped place the ring around one of her hooves.
After a few moments, mostly quiet as both Rose and Ink Well tried to figure out how to applaud with their injuries, Ink Well finally broke down and spoke. “Congratulations you two. I wish you the very best… and have a feeling you're not the only couple that'll be getting married soon.” He chuckled as they both looked at him, blushing, before he turned to leave. “Unfortunately I can't much help you celebrate, as I have some place to be, but I have a feeling I'd only be getting in your way.” He dipped his head, then walked out of the room, making his way to the town hall.
* * * * *
Flora ran her kercheif over her forehead, wiping away the sweat that beaded there as she balanced the last tray of plants on Jazz's back, collecting the little plastic boxes from the shattered remains of her old greenhouse.
Not that she was complaining too much. Where her old sanctuary once stood was marked by the living, breathing embodiment of her cutie mark: the Tree of Hope refracting light in every color of the rainbow as its boughs grew heavy with fruit filled with pure magic. At least, that was what President Luna told her the original had done, and she'd been fairly sure that this was a cutting, or at least a descendant, of that tree. It just made Flora feel a little more special when the first flowers matching her cutie mark blossomed on those crystalline branches.
But feeling special did nothing to save the many horticultural experiments she'd once had in her greenhouse. Almost everything had died between the shock of the tree's growth and the cold of the long last night of the war. The fact that there was even a single tray showing any signs of life this much later was either a testament to the power of hope or proof that Flora was an amazing botanist, and she was willing to accept either.
“Alright Jazz, you take those to your farm while I finish sweeping up the last bits and pieces.”
“Sure thing, Sugar,” Jazz said, giving Flora a peck on the cheek as he started his slow plod to Sweet Apple Acres. He'd been the kindest, most appreciative stallion the last few days… Just like the one she'd known growing up. It was nice to see the old him back. He wasn't even the only good return to the old.
Ponyville had come alive in the last week, between rebuilding the town and planning for the new peace talks, the entire place was bustling with activity. The market had been thriving when she'd gone to visit, and she'd never seen so many smiles on so many ponies' faces. There were still burnt buildings and repairs going on, and there would always be some to mourn, but as it was…
She chuckled, tapping a hoof against the solid base of the Tree of Hope. “I've already grown the best symbol for it. No need to dwell on it.” She hummed a light, lilting tune as she finished cleaning up the last of the remains of her greenhouse, looking on the little pile gleaming in the cool winter sunlight. It'd be a shame to see it go, but at least she wouldn't be without a home for long. With a spring in her step, she started down the road to Sweet Apple Acres as well, soon catching up with her Jazzy.
They moved together side by side, chatting happily about the town and the farm and both of their families, their bodies moving like a weight had been lifted. Both of them noticed a change in the other, but neither said anything, knowing they felt the same way. When they reached the jazz apple greenhouse, Flora opened the door, allowing the burdened stallion an easy way in before joining them to admire their work.
While one side of the building was still dominated by the jazz apple vines, their score glowing brightly as small green apples grew at the head of each note. They were getting closer and closer to ripeness, and now they had company for their performances in the form of a line of small planting pots and bags lining the opposite wall. The trays contained ordinary, mundane seedlings and flowers, but Flora had a small hope some of the apples' magic would rub off on them.
When Jazz finished putting down the last of the refugee plants in his greenhouse, he smiled to Flora, walking over to get his trumpet and sliding out her fiddle case. Without a single word passing between them they nodded, beginning their song and making the magic vines dance for joy at their latest performance. They might have gotten a little into it, too, as by the end of the song they were back to back, panting from their own dancing around the greenhouse, giant smiles on both of their faces.
Jazz held open the door as they made their exit, their smiles feeling permanent fixtures on their faces, but they were soon wiped away by the sounds of yelling, one look over the property fence telling them all they needed to know.
Golden Grape was on his knees, his eyes pleading as he looked up at a very angry Applejack, somehow even more imposing as a wife than she'd ever been as the head of an army. Behind him, Concord and Cassidy both had their heads bowed, knowing they deserved every harsh word.
“– and ya tried ta take Sweet Apple Acres from us in a bank buyout? Did ya think I wouldn't find out if ya didn' tell Jazz? Did the girls tearin' up yer contract really get that many bees in yer bonnet? I still can't believe ya tried ta take it from our son 'legitimately' after all the history on this land before. After everything the Apples have done fer Ponyville! Ya musta thought I was some kinda idiot!”
“Now, Honey Apple, you know that isn't true! You're the smartest mare a stallion could hope for, and I wasn't trying to take the land… I was simply trying to reconstitute what our marriage together entitled me! If you'd– “
Applejack loomed over him as he cowered, glaring a hole straight through his chest. “Smart as a stallion could hope fer, huh? And ya do remember my name, don'cha? Ya didn' even use the right pet name fer me… not that ya'd remember it. I tried ta give ya the benefit a' th' doubt, I really did, but what you did was lower 'n a snake in a wheel rut! An' to yer own family!”
Suddenly Golden seemed to grow a backbone, standing up and glaring right back at Applejack. “Now you listen here, Applejack, I did my best to keep my farm afloat for our little girls even through this entire mess. Even while you were away, doing none of the things a good wife would do, I muddled through, and I thought you would've been happy to combine the farms into one large family, but it was your son standing in the way of it! And now you're shouting at me as though this is all somehow my fault!”
The silence that followed his outburst was deafening, a cool winter wind blowing through the fields, though the cold stares of everypony present, even Cassidy and Concord, dropped the temperature far lower. Golden seemed almost smug at the silence, as though he'd won the argument. Over the fence, Jazz's hoof went out quickly, holding Flora back, while both Cassidy and Concord slowly backed away.
Applejack was solid as an apple tree, her head down as she stared at the ground, her hat covering her eyes. But when she finally did look up, the burning fires within them had Golden trembling on the spot, the full wrath of the Apple Family directed right at him. “So that's what ya think?” AJ said, taking a step forward, keeping her cool as she watched him take a step away. She was silent for a long, long moment, before she flicked her tail forward, grabbing the golden band holding it together and pulling it off with her mouth, tossing it in the air. Golden watched his proposal gift fly up for just a moment before AJ's words brought his attention back to her.
“I went off 'n defended this country, carin' not just fer my farm 'n my kin, but fer my lovin' husband. Fer my little seedlin' an' my two little blossoms, makin' sure they'd grow up safe 'n strong in the love a' their family. I risked life 'n limb every day just ta see their smilin' faces, ta know I'd left 'em a world even better than the one I'd been fightin' fer. So I'm sorry I weren't a good wife...” Applejack spun around like lightning, bucking out her leg just as the little ring of gold fell into range, firing it like a bullet at Golden's chest. It his hard enough to bend the circlet, making him cough and sputter as it knocked the air out of him and sent him sprawling on the ground.
“… but you weren't a good husband neither,” AJ finished as she lowered her hooves, watching her ex flailing around in the snow. “Didn' even kiss me goodbye when I left…” She let out a deep, cleansing breath, then smiled at Cassidy and Concord, who were both looking between her and their father, wondering whether or not they should help him. “Now, you two better show up ta th' Apple Family Reunion come spring time, ya hear? It'll be a real hootenanny after all these years off. An' I expect ya over fer dinner sometime!” She then nodded down at Golden, giving them permission to help him. “He's not invited.” With that Applejack calmly walked over to the fence and hopped over it, heading back to the farmhouse while her daughters helped their pained, speechless father.
After that display, Jazz and Flora followed close behind, a few questions on their minds, though Jazz was the one to voice the first. “So… does that mean you 'n pa–?”
“Yep. Went in 'n did th' paperwork yesterday an' found out he was tryin' ta take the farm again. When I went ta either give it to him an' get an apology, he started whinin' an' sayin' I had no reason ta demand anythin' from him… I think I gave him enough, 'n if he refuses, there're ways around it.”
“And you're not worried about him retaliating… or trying some stupid stunt with the greenhouse again? I'll be using it a lot, even after the winter, though I suppose it could be moved...”
Applejack stopped in her tracks, wrapping a forehoof around Flora and pulling her closer, nuzzling against her cheek. “Don't ya worry none about that, sugar. With all the rebuildin' goin' on, family is what matters most, an' yer definitely a parta ours. An' if Cassidy is really as good a lawyer as she's tryin' ta be, she'll've reminded Golden that th' actual property line's a little over th' fence on his side, well past th' edge 'a th' greenhouse. Even if he tried, he's got nothin'.”
Flora was relieved by that, and her heart was warmed by Applejack's nuzzling and assurance that she was accepted, but when AJ let her go to continue to the farmhouse, something still bugged Flora. “But… I know he wasn't exactly father of the year, but he was at least there for at least your daughters when they needed him. Doesn't that count for something?”
AJ sighed, turning around and looking at the two young lovers. Visibly, she hardly looked older than them, but mentally… “Sugar, I know it's hard ta understand when yer just findin' love an' makin' it work fer ya, but lovin' two fillies that take after yer side 'a th' family ain't th' same as lovin' the family… or th' mare that helped ya start it.” She pulled both of them into a hug, nuzzling them both once more, though she paid more attention to her visibly anxious son. “Especially when things go wrong, family matters more 'n anythin', 'n what Golden was, an' what he was doin'… that weren't family.” She pulled back, smiling at them brightly. “Everything'll be fine, I promise.” She turned away, chuckling to herself. “Even better without that mess clingin' on.”
Before they could get very far at all, Apple Bloom called out to them, running over with Spike at her side, the large dragon wearing nothing out in the cold, his fiery body keeping him warm where hats and scarves adorned the rest. Still, it was Apple Bloom to break the good news. “Hey y'all! Mac's got lunch ready 'n told me ta call ya in.” She then looked at Flora, smiling brightly. “Ya move all yer things alright?” Flora nodded, but any response she had was lost when Applejack started chuckling loudly, apparently to a joke only she'd heard. “What's so funny?” said Apple Bloom, frowning at her older sister.
Applejack's chuckling stopped as she shot her sister a sly smile. “I was just thinkin' Mac's gonna have ta get mighty good at cookin' big meals in a few years once y'all start goin' at it.” Her chuckle turned into a hearty laugh as everyone around her immediately looked sheepish, fighting off the blushes and implications that were brought up. AJ just continued on. “How'd ya manage ta keep Spike 'n you a secret fer so long? I was in th' Castle th' whole time!”
Apple Bloom was a few shades redder as she stammered out her response. “We were busy, alright? There was a war goin' on 'n some of us didn' have time ta visit with th' ponies out in the fields! With him in archiving 'n me in research… 'Sides, took way longer for Caramel ta stop bein' Mac's 'really good friend' even when we all knew!“
Applejack could only laugh harder at Apple Bloom's defensiveness, lightly pushing her sister's shoulder as she caught her breath. “Calm down, Bloom! I was pullin' yer tail!” She looked from the deep red blushing Apple Bloom up to the big dragon beside her, then over at Flora and Jazz, both carefully trying to look like they weren't a part of the conversation. She chuckled once more as the farmhouse came in sight, Big Mac standing on the porch and waving at her. She waved back, letting out a lighthearted sigh. “Ta be honest, I couldn't be happier right now.”
* * * * *
Silver Lining was walking through town, spending some time catching up with her 'sister' and, apparently, soon-to-be 'sister'-in-law Sweetie Belle, both Sweetie and Scootaloo just as confused as Silver on the 'proper' titles. Still, it had been nice getting back in touch with them, even if she'd only known Sweetie from Scootaloo's letters and one or two visits when she was really small.
Silver had been feeling a little left out after the whole thing with the crystal tree, which shined even brighter than the castle outside of town, even in the daylight. Flora and Jazz were cleaning up and planning, ponies were planning for the peace talks, others were busy rebuilding, and there really wasn't too much for a weather pony to do except keep the sky clear. She wasn't even needed for that, as there were some pegasi from the Republic making sure the weather for the talks was perfect, leaving Silver with nothing but free time and nowhere to be.
Well… there was one place she wanted to be, which was part of why she was out with Scootaloo right now. After being saved during the Second Battle of Ponyville, she'd never managed to reconnect with that changeling, and she was hoping to give him her thanks. It was nothing big, just a bit of appreciation for all he did, maybe some moral support for the big meeting coming up, but that was now less than an hour away and she'd still not managed to see hide nor hair of him.
As Sweetie and Scootaloo both laughed at a joke Sweetie had just told, Silver looked around, stopping in her tracks when she saw a dark shape in the golden armor of the Royal Army. Scootaloo stopped as well a few steps later, about to say something when Silver ran off. “Aren't you going to stop her?” Sweetie said, nudging Scootaloo's shoulder and tilting her head at the retreating pegasus.
Scootaloo just shrugged, continuing to walk towards the town hall. “No… It's far to late to be 'mom' now, and she's a big mare now. If she wants my help, she'll ask. Otherwise, I'm just going to stay out of her way.” She smirked. “After all, look how she turned out! The method obviously works.” The flightless pegasus suddenly held her head up tall and proud, strutting down the street, while Sweetie just rolled her eyes, following in her love's hoofsteps.
Silver zipped through the air at the armored form, her mouth going before she was even there. “Hey, Sandstorm, right? Look, I just wanted to tell you that I'm super happy you saved me and maybe if you weren't busy we could both go over to the–” her words cut off as the dark blue mare wearing the armor turned around, looking quite confused at the blabbering pegasus flying at her. Silver just kept flying by as nonchalantly as she could, though inside she was kicking herself for being so stupid.
That was the fourth time she'd done that this week, but this one was the worst. At least the other three had been stallions. And as she looked around, there was no way she would find one armored changeling among all of this… assuming he even was still armored. Or still a changeling. She knew he'd been introduced to all the crowd as a pony, but she couldn't remember his looks for the life of her. But… and it was entirely her grasping at straws, and she knew it, but when theirs eyes locked after he saved her…
She stopped moving, even stopped flapping, her mouth hanging open as she couldn't believe what she saw. There he was, changeling, missing ear, dressed quite nicely… and standing next to Princess Twilight. Not only that, but they were talking to Steam Cloud and Wind Key, the unicorn and the pegasus looking rather engrossed in their conversation with the alicorn. Silver crept closer, doing her best not to be noticed as she started to listen in.
Twilight nodded eagerly, happy to have actually found the two mares she was looking for after all of the time she'd been planning for these talks. “Oh, good! It was you two that made that mechanical marvel! Could you tell me how you did it? Their performance in the air was incredible, and the fact that they were able to cushion Ink Well and Rose's fall like that… I really need to know more.”
Steam had been taking a backseat to the conversation, letting Wind do all of the introductions and niceties while Steam tried to keep her amazement down to a minimum. Not only was she in – what were they calling it now? The Solar Monarchy? – able to walk around without hiding the fact that she was a unicorn, with her love at her side, but now she was being talked to by Princess Twilight Sparkle! The Princess of Magic Princess Twilight Sparkle, who she not only had toys of before all of this madness, but was one of her idols growing up. Every unicorn filly dreamed of a success story like Twilight's, and now she was being asked questions about their invention by her! … They should have sent a poet.
However, while Wind could talk about the wing structure and the running design all day, Steam could see her faltering when it came to some of the new mechanics. She shoved aside her inner fangirl, summoning all of her courage to hopefully impress Twilight with her knowledge. “While Wind is right about the interface and most of the mechanics were of her design, at the heart of the Ready Wings is a kinetic generator. It was designed to absorb energy from both the motions of the wings themselves and the motions of the pony wearing them. If I had to guess – which, with how broken the wings were after the fall, guessing is all we can do – between how the wings snapped and broke during the impact and the magical nature of the engine, I believe it absorbed just enough of the energy to allow Rose and Ink Well to survive the impact.”
Wind actually put up her hoof to interject at that point. “I hadn't told anypony, but after all of my failed attempts and all the times I had crashed with previous versions of those wings, I had designed them so that if you wrapped yourself in them much like they did, it would cushion the fall… a bit like that experiment you did in school where you had to drop the egg of a building and not break it. Though with how damaged they were before they landed, I think it was a combination of the engine, the safety measures, and complete dumb luck.” She looked at Steam, who seemed perplexed by the egg idea. “Did you not do that in school?” She then looked up at the sky. “Or did I do that at home?… I sometimes forget what I did as a filly.”
Steam shook her head while Twilight giggled, clearly still fascinated by everything. “Well, whatever it was, it should be applauded, though that wasn't what I was intending to ask you about. Over the years I was helping the changelings hidden within the Solar Monarchy, I read up on some interesting uses of magic. One set of very experimental spells had artificial replacements to damaged limbs. It was, basically, one step up from a peg leg, using magic and rocks or whatever was available. I was curious, looking back over it, if perhaps you could create something a bit more usable for the injured ponies of the war.”
Steam looked perplexed. “You mean… like mechanical hooves and wings and things?”
Twilight nodded, then frowned. “Well, not just those. With the right applications I believe it could help even replace eyes or ears, like Sandstorm's.” She looked over to the changeling at her side, who had been interested in the conversation, even if he'd been silent. “No matter what we try to do, medical magic just hasn't advanced far enough to grow something back. But if we had the right conduit acting as a replacement and put the right spells in order, or even some wild magic and a bit of luck, we could conceivably give full, or at least partial, mobility to the injured of this war. It could take years, but…”
“I'll do my very best. I may not know the magic, but even if I have to build the parts from scratch, I'll see what I can do to give you everything you need.” Wind looked completely determined as she spoke.
Sandstorm just smiled brightly, looking at her warmly with his big blue bug eyes. “I should've known… Only Newsprint's sister could be so clever and kind all in one.” He was about to say more when he looked to the side, noticing the silver pegasus still trying to creep closer.
Silver, seeing she was spotted, dropped the pretense, walking over and bowing her head quickly to Twilight. “I'm sorry to bother you and I'll make this quick, but I just wanted to thank Sandstorm very much for saving my life a few days ago, and I was wondering if he might be willing to let me accompany him to the meeting at the town hall?”
Sandstorm looked utterly surprised by the stream of words, but as he unraveled them, he slowly gained a fanged smile, only spurred on by the feelings he could sense coming off of her. “Oh… Uh… It was nothing. And I would be more than glad to go with you, so long as you're alright with being seen with a changeling.”
Silver jumped up happily, offering him a hoof to go with her. “Oh, I'd be glad to. Even if somepony glares or something, it's not like I'm not used to it. I lived here the entire war.”
Sandstorm laughed knowingly at that, giving Twilight a questioning glance to make sure it was alright for him to leave. She nodded, and he quickly took her hoof, walking down the street and chatting lightly about whatever came to mind.
Wind watched them go, a little confused as she tried to disentangle some things. “Okay… whatever that all was, did he just say he knew my brother?”
Twilight nodded. “Your brother saved his life. Without Newsprint, I don't think the changelings would be willing to show themselves at all, let alone be negotiating for things at these talks. Even if they're asking me to speak for them.”
“He'd've been so happy to hear that…” Wind just smiled warmly, glad something good could come of that needless waste of life. However, that wasn't the matter at hoof, and quickly she was back on topic. “Anyway, as I was saying, I would love to help out… though most of my things were still in Timbucktu when I left. And between the fire and how angry Clockwork was, I really don't think any of my original schematics survived anywhere where we could find them.”
Twilight gave a puzzled frown at that, a thought coming to her. “Actually… Yesterday there was a series of boxes of all shapes and sizes delivered to the Crystal Palace from Timbucktu, all sent by staff of President Luna, but with no recipient listed. I will admit, I opened up one of them, and there seemed to be this big brass pegasus looking robot standing in it. It had me a bit spooked, and without time to examine it further I nailed the box back up. You wouldn't happen to recognize something like that, would you?”
Both Wind and Steam were looking at each other with jaws dropped at Twilight's tale, unable to believe that any of it were true. But if it was… and the princess had no reason to lie to them… Wind hopped up and down in place, squealing happily. “Oh, dad, you're amazing! I don't know how you do it, but you're the definition of awesome!” Twilight watched her jump with a questioning raised eyebrow, but Wind stopped the display as suddenly as she started it, speaking quickly and happily. “If that delivery was what I think it was, then I am not nearly so far behind and will gladly to everything in my power to help out the injured ponies.” Wind then looked over at Steam, smiling softly. “So long as I have help, of course.”
Steam smiled back, stepping over as Wind flicked a wing over her back. “Of course. I, too, will gladly do my best to help.” She was about to nuzzle Wind when she felt herself get wrapped in the tingling of a familiar magic, her face turning to a frown as she was picked up slightly, then whisked away, flying out from under Wind's wing and straight into the embrace of a crying pony she thought she'd never see again. “M-mom?”
“It is you!” Shoeshine cried as she squeezed her missing daughter tight, nearly crushing her body in a loving bear hug as tears flowed down into Steam's fluffy mane. “I never thought I'd see you again… I always hoped you'd be alive, but when Rose's letter came, I couldn't hardly have dreamed…” Shoeshine started to sniffle and snort as she nuzzled her daughter, while another set of hooves wrapped around Steam, the magic cutting out as the source of it hugged her close.
“I can't believe you survived that fall! I always hoped… Always dreamed you'd someday find us, but we just couldn't go back or even get a letter to you.” Flam hugged his daughter tight, tears trailing off of his moustache. “I never thought this moment would actually come! How did you survive?”
Steam could hardly see those familiar faces through the cloud of tears, but she did her best, feeling the love, the warmth from her parents that she had missed for all of those years. When she heard them talking, and finally heard the question, she lifted up one of her hooves, still wearing the cloud walking slippers, as she always did. “I was caught by these after mom gave them back to me. I haven't hardly taken them off since.”
Shoeshine kissed the offered slipper, thankful to anything that gave her her daughter back, before she suddenly looked at Steam, a fear deep in her eyes. “We… we couldn't do anything to go back. We tried, we asked anypony who came through, but it was like you vanished! Eventually, we had to assume the worst, and we… stopped…” Shoeshine was quiet, looking down at the ground, unwilling to meet Steam's eyes. “You don't… hate us, do you?”
If it had been a few weeks ago, back in Timbucktu before all of this had happened, that might have been a very difficult question. As it was, Steam just shook her head. “I thought you'd come back to me for a long time. And when I realized you wouldn't, I will admit that I was mad, especially with all of the things I had to go through alone…” She sighed, then hugged her parents close. “But now? No. Deep down, I always knew it wasn't your fault, and I could never hate you.”
Flam's eyes were shining as he hugged her close before stepping away, his salespony voice coming out in full force. “You know, I'm actually making a good business in Whinneanapolis. Lots of use for a tech savvy pony out there, and there's plenty of room in the house. You should move back in with us! Let us make up for all that lost time.”
Shoeshine nodded brightly. “Oh, please do! It'd mean the world to us. We might not be able to give you back those years, but we could do our best now. And I could even introduce you to your new baby brother!” She laughed. “I can't wait to see his face when he finds out he's not an only child!”
Flam began to laugh as well, coming over to her side and kissing her on the cheek. “I can't either, Shiny! So, Steam, what'd'ya say?”
Steam looked at the two of them, so warm, so loving, so happy to see her, exactly as she'd pictured a million times in her dreams when she'd been alone. It was tempting, going back to her green room, her toys, her life, finding a place with her father in his shop… And yet, as she pictured it in her head, she couldn't see herself there anymore. “I'm sorry, but I can't.”
“What?!” her parents asked in unison, shocked that their offer had been turned down.
It was then that Wind finally made her way over, having worked out what she could with Princess Twilight and apologized for the rude departure of Steam and herself. “Hey there… What's going on?”
Steam smiled warmly, pulling Wind a little closer. “Mom, dad… While I was in Timbucktu, life was frightening. It was hard to believe I was in Equestria with the madness all around, and I lived in constant worry that I'd be discovered, that I'd be the next pony swinging from a light post or disappearing mysteriously. In fact, it was so horrible that there are large swathes of the city that I don't think I can ever feel safe walking in, no matter how well these peace talks go.” She shuddered a little, leaning against Wind for comfort. “But while I was there, I found the most amazing things, grew happier than I think I'd ever been… And it's my home. When everything settles down, the only place I'd like to be is home.”
She then leaned over, kissing Wind softly, but lovingly, immediately showing her parents why she wasn't going with them, before she pulled away, seeing them both looking a little more understanding. “So, Wind Key… Would you like to come home with me?”
Wind instantly nodded eagerly, her wing going over Steam once more as she hugged the mare close with as many appendages as she could while still standing. “Gladly! I'd actually been thinking right along the same thoughts. Once all of this is over: the talks, the clean up, the path to peace…” Wind looked Steam in the eyes, showing the kind of deep affection and caring only a true love could give. “… there's only one place I'd like to be.” With that she leaned forward, kissing Steam once more, letting her love feel the words she didn't say.
* * * * *
Ponies were still chattering in hushed but excited tones, the entirety of the Town Hall packed to the brim with bodies, standing and hovering everywhere they could find as they all wished to witness this historic occasion. Gathered on the stage were the leaders of more than just nations. Yes, Luna and Celestia were there, as were Cadance and Grandis, but so too were Twilight, with a small but powerfully determined changeling, and Rarity, sitting next to a large and dangerously intelligent looking diamond dog. Each of them sat quietly, waiting patiently as the Mayor made her opening speech, still just as wordy as ever even after all these years.
Up above the stands, in a high balcony restricted from the public, a wheelchair rolled in, an IV drip connected to it, though how it got up here undetected only the dog pushing it could tell. The mare in the chair, however, couldn't even begin to express her gratitude for being brought here. Literally, her body wouldn't respond to her motions, wrapped in casts as it was. “I don't know what I would've done if I'd missed this… Thank you so much,” said Rose, trying and failing to look up at the dog behind her.
Cooper just shook her head, smiling warmly. “The Lady simply would not have you miss out on your husband speaking, and she knew I was the best one to get you up here. And I must say… I wouldn't want to miss this day either. I would have snuck up here myself if I hadn't been given an assignment.” Cooper's smile grew wider. “Ponyville is precisely as beautiful as I thought it would be, and Canterlot… I can see why Rex wishes to join you ponies. I think I'd like to be one of the first to live up here with you, if it would be allowed.”
Rose was about to respond when she was drowned out by the stomping of many, many hooves on the wooden floor, signaling the end of the Mayor's talk. It was followed by the slow, steady, limping entrance of the heavily bandaged Ink Well as he made his way center stage. Rose shifted, barely able to look over the railing at this, while Cooper whispered that she would be back at the end and left the way they had came. It was a little difficult to see through the cloud of flapping wings, both pegasus and gryphon, and the buzz of the friendly changelings interspersed among the crowd, but she was able to see enough, and could clearly hear Ink Well as he started to speak.
“To all of my friends, from all of your home lands, thank you for being here. For giving peace a chance, and being willing to talk even after all of the ugliness we have experienced. We have suffered long and come quite far, so I will try not to drag things out.” He slowly scanned the rest of the stage before he looked back at the crowd, continuing his speech. “Everyone is at fault for what happened. Not a pretty or inspiring start, it's true, but one we need to accept. We spent all of our time trying to exploit each other, whether it was the atrocities of the Weather Factory, the condemnation of the pegasi following its fall, the water shortage and the riots following, or the retaliation against the unicorns following everything else… This cycle of vengeance and pain has to end. And while I could sit here and continue to list our previous failings, I am sure the history books will do that quite well enough. Instead, it is time to learn the one true success we've taken from this.”
“Strength through diversity. Without the variation of our people, be they the tech savvy pegasi under Luna's rule, the magic focused unicorns Celestia came to represent, the proud and fierce gryphon fighters, or the endless networks of the diamond dogs, that final stand at Canterlot could never have happened. We advanced incredibly during this war, in ways we never could have imagined without it, and while the price will always have been too great, perhaps we can at least make good on the biggest lesson.”
He turned around at the podium, speaking directly to those on stage. “I propose we understand our differences, our strengths and weaknesses, and realize them to their fullest potential. Everyone thinks they want a unified land, under one flag, under one rule, but that kind of power only will lead, eventually, back to the exploitation we were experiencing before. That is not strength: cooperation is. Friendship, the second strongest force on this planet, drives us harder than anything else, and we must learn to use that drive and friendly competition for the good of everyone. For it is our differences that make us even stronger than our similarities.” He could see the surprise on Celestia and Luna's faces, but the others seemed a little more ready for this line of thought as he turned back to the main hall. “So instead of a unified nation of Equestria, I think we should try something a little more daring: a Grand Equestrian Alliance.”
He could hear mutterings in the crowd, murmurs of possible war or strife already brewing. Ponies liked to be led, they liked to have everything told to them, to have it all put forth… it was a fact of nature, unfortunately, and baser instinct. But that was not living to their full potential, and he had to get them thinking past fear and pain and towards what could be. “The world, as we have seen through these years of way, is not a simple place. What works for some does not work for others, and loyalties run deep on both sides of the dividing lines. If we return to the Equestria of old, we lose the cultures that have grown, and risk destroying beautiful heritages of these new peoples if we absorb them into our own. If we wish not to dwell in the past, but to grow into the future, just as that tree that blossomed amid the deepest, darkest night, there is really only one option.”
He could see he had their interest, even if they weren't applauding, and he had to hope that was enough to bring them to his vision. “It won't be tensions and blood again deciding our fate. I propose a governing body here, in Ponyville, as near the central point as we can get in this great land of ours. From here, the actions between nations shall be watched, with common, basic rules, past which the nations themselves can decide what they can and can't restrict. It will be governed by an Arbiter, one whose job is not to make rules or enforce laws, but to see fair, even trade and deals and put an end to conflict before it can grow out of control. They will be an elected official, with a board drawn equally from all partners in the alliance, who shall make sure all sides are heard, all are doing their part, and that no conflict like this one will ever arise again.”
Ink Well sighed, looking out over the audience, which was still silent, but there was a change. Now they had a picture, a vague concept… they weren't against it, but they would need proof. He didn't blame them. He did too.
He glanced up at the balcony, barely seeing Rose sitting up there, and for a moment Rose wondered if he'd storm up there and ask her to leave. Instead, she could see the smile as he relaxed, continuing his speech. “The transition won't be easy, mistakes will be made, and until it begins to form, there's no telling how anything will go. But, with the leaders here, if I have your support, I would like to begin planning.” He laughed lightly to himself. “I'm afraid the rest of this meeting might not be very flashy; deliberation in its honest form never should be; and I am sorry if you were expecting a bright, uplifting speech about our future, but the path before us is not guaranteed. Three times in my lifetime I have seen the sun missing, or otherwise stalled in the sky. That dawn we take for granted each day is not guaranteed, and all of us have to work and hope and do our best to see the sun and moon go along their merry ways. But by the end of this meeting, hopefully we can find the common ground we need to make that path a little easier. Though this may be boring for you in the audience not actually interested in politics, I do encourage you to stay. This proposal isn't just for the leaders of these countries, it is for every single being that inhabits them, and I would very much like every voice to be heard.”
And just like that Ink Well walked away from the podium, limping to the center of the gathered leaders and beginning to talk to them, laying out his vision for the future. Many of the members of the crowd looked around, confused as to what they were witnessing and whether or not they should stay or leave. Even the Mayor seemed confused, quietly yelling in the shadows of the stage for more microphones and a chair for the injured stallion.
Rose watched this all with a smile, shaking her head at how easily one injured stallion had thrown everything into utter confusion. Everyone here had expected pontificating, poetry, artistry to make this new world they were coming into seem beautiful and inspiring for the slog ahead. And, in a way, they'd gotten it. They just had to get down to brass tacks first.
As Rose sat there, looking over the stage, a calm voice spoke to her. “What are you doing hiding all the way up here? One would expect somepony as important as you down on the stage.”
Rose tried to look behind her, but the wheelchair and her injuries didn't agree with her intentions, only succeeding in making her cough up a little more pink, proving she shouldn't be here at all. Her gaze returned to the stage below. “If anypony asks, I'm not here. But I honestly couldn't have stayed in the hospital not supporting my own husband.”
There were hoofsteps closer, but still staying behind Rose, the mare's voice behind her continuing. She could hear the smile in it. “With your injuries, it's amazing you are here. But I suppose you'll continue to support him, even as he tries this mad little scheme? I'm not entirely sure all of the ponies will like it, you know. Though I suppose it will mean he'll be crucified before he does it to himself.”
Rose shook her head as best she could, not sure if she should be offended or not, but in the end she had to laugh about how true it all was. “He likes to run around carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders, but I'll do my best to keep him reined in. Whether that means I'm reminding him he's not alone, reminding him it's not his problem, or simply shouldering the burden with him. But I really don't know what everypony expected. He's always had a tendency to find just the right way to do the right thing and annoy everypony involved all at once.”
The voice walked over to her side, and there Rose saw a tall, slender rose-red unicorn with a flowing dusty-orange mane. She looked down at the crowd with emerald eyes, smiling as she did. “You know… he's going to need a lot of help. What he's proposing has never been done before, and though he hates to admit it, he knows exactly the outcome of today. He's going to end up the Arbiter he claims they need, completely without wanting to be. The fact he has them all talking now means they'll vote for him.”
Rose was a little confused by how well this mystery mare knew Ink Well, but considering how long he'd been gone and him being… well, him, when she thought about it, it didn't actually surprise her in the least. She smiled as well, watching the talks as the microphones kicked in, the discussion from all the voices sounding throughout the building. “And if that is the case, I can't think of anypony more worthy to see that dream come alive. But I think I finally taught him what it means to remain rooted, so hopefully he won't run away from his responsibilities this time.”
The mystery mare's smile just widened, getting warm as those friendly emerald eyes turned on Rose. “He'll need reminders on the road ahead. It won't be easy, and he'll doubt himself every step of the way, but if there is one thing that can keep him going in his darkest times, it will be the mare at his side. Even when you were separated, he never stopped thinking about you and singing you praises. How warm and faithful you were, how kind, how you smacked him around right when he needed it… It's never the fame with him, or the glory, and he never once cared if he'd be liked when it was all over. He dreams of the best because he truly wants to help those around him, and he'll only succeed because of you.”
Rose's confusion grew as she heard the mare's words, hearing of Ink Well on his trip, but… it sounded more like Ink Well's future than his past. And she was talking like she knew Rose quite well too, but Rose didn't recognize her at all. She was about to say something when somepony called, perking up the unicorn's ears. “Nebby! You have to stop wandering off! We must be off before we are noticed, and there are so many more places for us all to see!”
“Coming Dinky!” the unicorn called, then looked at Rose once more before quickly leaning over and kissing her on the cheek. She then turned and ran off, but for a split second, Rose was sure she saw a pair of wings on the mare that left. A few moments later, as she was still trying to comprehend everything that happened, she heard a throbbing, horrible, wonderful, indescribable noise that rocked through her body, feeling like the entire universe was shifting around it… and then, with a whine, it was gone.
At the sound of the noise, Rose smiled, not sure what had just happened, but sure it was a once in a lifetime experience… one she knew she'd always remember as she looked down at the stage again. Down below, talks were really taking off, the world was changing right before her eyes, but through the noise, she picked up on one voice, the one whose dream this was. The one who never could've known this would be the outcome as he flew to Ponyville all those years ago. The one she would make sure would never have to run in fear again.
“This is more than just the dawn of a new era,” he said calmly, looking at the two sisters that had once, and would again, rule the land together. Just, in a different way this time. “When all is said and done, this will truly be a place where night meets day.”