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To say Apple Bloom had been one for all that fancy book learnin' back in Ponyville would've been the biggest lie a pony could tell, but you wouldn't have guessed it from her work in her first years in Canterlot. Although earth ponies were exceedingly rare additions to the Canterlot School of Magic and Technology's magic division, a skilled alchemist could not be denied her place among her peers.

A place that, expectedly, came with all of the jeers, snide remarks, and mischievous pranks any young filly must go through with a group they don't fit in with. Hardly a day went by without her mane magically turning a different color or half her chemicals spilling on the floor as she was tripped walking across the class. Stemming from that, hardly a day went by where she didn't miss her friends and family back in Ponyville. But she was an Apple, and no Apple ran away from a good thing just because a little hardship got in their way.

Although she largely ended up working alone, grumbling to herself as her unicorn classmates created their cliques, Apple Bloom stubbornly kept at her work, making her few school friends in the more technical branch of the school. She picked up a surprising amount from her friends there, astounding them in turn with her own know-how and intuition from back on the farm. Among the ponies in her own branch she wasn't always the top of the class, particularly not when a potion needed a pinch of unicorn magic that she couldn't fake or borrow, but she put in triple the effort that the others did and that kind of determination doesn't go unnoticed.

Upon graduating she was offered a job, as nearly all graduates of such a prestigious school were. However, she was one of a very select few to earn a letter with a golden border, the royal seal showing its origin proudly. She had been selected, above all of the other alchemists in her class, or indeed in quite a few classes before it, to join the Equestria Magical Research Division, working out of the castle like so few ponies could. After rubbing it in a few choice faces, she eagerly accepted, arriving for work on her first day ready for and expecting anything.

And that was what they threw at her. On everything from quick cures for ailments to growth serums for plants she worked her magic, even without a horn to trivialize the process. Her dedication and creative problem solving got her promoted quickly, and, oddly, with more responsibility came more free time to roam around the castle where she worked.

There she made perhaps her favorite discovery of those early years: that Scootaloo was a Royal Guard. It happened completely by accident, walking through the gardens while lost in thought, passing by armored pony after armored pony without even a second glance. She probably wouldn't have even noticed if she hadn't been watching a bird as it flew in front of her friend's face.

The two of them stared at each other for a second, the connection of familiar face to the friend it belonged to taking longer than it should have due to their long separation, but once it was made the reaction was immediate. “Scootaloo?”

“Apple Bloom?!” The two Crusaders looked at each other in surprise, then laughed and ran together, meeting in a tearful hug. Apple Bloom didn't have long for her break, but she spent the entire time catching up with her friend and making sure they would meet again. After that day, the two were inseparable.

There was hardly an evening where Scootaloo didn't come over to Apple Bloom's small apartment near the castle, often in her armor and immediately after her shift. They'd laugh, they'd talk, play games, reminisce... No adventures, which was a little disheartening to them both when they realized it, but then they weren't looking for cutie marks anymore, just finding meaning in their talents.

However, just that little reconnection sparked a fire in both of the Ponyvillians, boosting them in both of their chosen professions. Scootaloo's natural talent shone in her training, and her bravery in the line of duty got her swiftly promoted to Captain of the Guard. Meanwhile, Apple Bloom was suddenly tackling tasks that had stumped even the greatest minds for ages, like how to turn some of the nation's surplus gold into much more useful lead and iron. When she, with a single serum, managed to safely and instantly triple the output of the farms supplying Canterlot, her position as head of the Alchemical Department was guaranteed.

But even over the years as their duties multiplied, Scootaloo and Apple Bloom made sure to spend time together whenever they could. And then, on the day Sweetie Belle released her first album, her two closest friends listened to the copy she sent them, finally feeling like the old group was back together again. Life had gone amazingly for the Cutie Mark Crusaders, and it was only looking brighter.

Even the brightest candles eventually burn out, and such was the case as weather became the focus of everypony's attention. The drought that swept through Equestria was devastating, and neither friend was able to spend much time together. Scootaloo was called off to defend the peace while Apple Bloom tried the impossible task of creating large amounts of water from nothing at all. She even got close, developing the balloon cactus, which very slowly filled with drinking water, assuming it could be grown in the right conditions. Unfortunately, she had no hope of finishing in time as Manehattan exploded, the Weather Riots officially kicking off.

As a Royal Alchemist, Apple Bloom fully devoted herself to her research, spending long nights locked in the castle tower pouring over equations and looking for that silver bullet, but there was no solution to be found. Still, nothing would stop her from trying. Neither a Crusader nor an Apple gave up that easy!

It was this devotion that caused her to start awake in her tower, listening to the alarm being spread throughout Canterlot Castle one bright, sunny morning. Her mane was a mess, her bow barely keeping its shape and failing to keep her mane out of her face. There was a small puddle of drool on the papers on her desk and the soreness of her back did little to help. Groggily she walked to the window where she saw a group flying from the castle, apparently with Princess Luna at its head. Moments later the sky was abuzz with ponies in armor chasing after them. Highly confused, Apple Bloom left the tower, making her way through the chaos of the halls.

Ponies in armor ran every which way, all shouting orders or coming back with reports that didn't seem to make much sense to her tired mind. Why were they keeping so much track on Princess Luna? She seemed guarded enough. Heck, they were even saying she had a personal detail with her. Eventually, with her curiosity piqued, Apple Bloom stopped one of the soldiers, asking him where Scootaloo was for her to talk to.

The silence that immediately befell the hall was deafening after the clattering of hundreds of armored hooves. But even the heavy silence was a feather compared to the answer to her question. Her face scrunched up in confusion. “Ex-Cap'n Scootaloo? Traitor? Secession? What're y'all talkin' crazy for?” Immediately the tired mare was led away from the general bustle, practically tossed into the library to be dealt with later.

Apple Bloom didn't have any idea what all of this nonsense was, but she did have something she'd been meaning to look through the royal library for anyway, so she managed to find the book in question, yawning as she searched through it for what she needed. As she was looking, a pony sat down across from her, getting a quick glance from the alchemist. “Oh, howdy Twilight. How're ya doin'?”

The purple alicorn looked frazzled, as though she'd been hit by a hammer earlier and it was still registering, and Apple Bloom's greeting didn't help matters in the slightest. “I should be asking you that. Haven't you heard the news?”

Apple Bloom flipped through a couple pages. “What, did the riots stop when I wasn't lookin'?”

“No, in fact...” Twilight choked up, the very thought in her head making her unable to speak. “Apple Bloom... Princess Luna just created her own nation, with Rainbow Dash, Pinkie Pie, and Scootaloo backing her up, as well as a surprising amount of other ponies once they left the castle walls...”

“Nah.” Apple Bloom flipped another page. “That can't be right. Scootaloo'd never do somethin' like that. Somepony's messin' with ya.”

Twilight looked her in the eyes. “I was in the room when it happened. Celestia has given the order... they are all to be taken in, dead or alive.”

Apple Bloom stopped, putting a hoof to her forehead. “Alright, the joke weren't funny the first time, Princess. Y'all can stop tryin' now.” She looked up then, seeing the dead serious look on Twilight's face, and immediately her attitude dropped, the weight of the moment hitting her. “No...”

“It happened, Apple Bloom. Right in front of me. I even talked to them all... Equestria is no longer unified.”

Apple Bloom shook her head. “No, it can't be. Scootaloo... She'd never...” The sad look in Twilight's eyes said it all. Slowly Apple Bloom closed the book, shaking her head. “No... no, yer lyin', or there's a mistake, o-or–“ Twilight was about to say something, but Apple Bloom got up, knocking over her chair in the process. “I ain't listenin'! It ain't true!” She ran from the library, through the constant stream of guards. The constant stream of ponies searching for one of her oldest friends... She went home and shut the door, locking out the rest of the world, sure that in the morning it'd all be some sort of nightmare.

Morning brought no fix, no solution or magical remedy, it only cemented what she'd already feared was true. Princess Luna
had left the castle, with Scootaloo as the honor guard on her exit. That wasn't even the kicker, though. Over a quarter of the Royal Guard had disappeared, as had nearly a third of the ponies Apple Bloom had worked with every single day. Notes were missing, whole projects were in shambles, and trying to pull that together alone would have taken months. But that was only the beginning.

Within a day of Princess Luna's secession, demands came into the Magical Research Division from Princess Celestia for all manner of new things. Weapons, aggressive spells, enchantments for the soldiers... All other projects were to be put on hold “to deal with this new threat consuming our nation”. On seeing the specs of these new research plans, almost half of the remaining ponies in Magical Research quit, including all of those above Apple Bloom. In the wake of that news, she was informed that she was going to be taking over as the head and be given a week to get the place running again.

Facing the mountain of paperwork, setbacks, and sudden responsibility, Apple Bloom froze, a dangerous thing to do with so many ponies looking to her for guidance. Eventually she managed to babble something about getting things organized before slipping from the tower, walking into the garden to try to clear her head.

Even the feel of nature around her did nothing to settle Apple Bloom's mind. How was she supposed to run the Magical Research Division? She was nothing more than a farm mare from Ponyville at heart. And even putting that aside, she was being asked to make weapons... weapons that would be used against ponies... against Scootaloo. She would, singlehoofedly, be responsible for the death of so many just by continuing her job. How could she possibly be expected to do this? Her head swirled as the plant life surrounding her seemed to crowd in. She was supposed to be solving the weather issue, not killing the rioters! And without all of her friends and colleagues, she'd never–

She bumped directly into the solid form before her, not even moving it as her nose pressed against something warm and tough. At first she thought she'd hit a guard who'd been standing in the sun, an apology leaving her mouth automatically, but once her vision came into focus, she realized the purple before her wasn't a bunch of orchids, but a single dragon, and a familiar one at that. “Spike?”

The dragon turned around, standing a little taller than Apple Bloom after all these years, his scales like armor as his body began to show the strength of his race. “Apple Bloom? Fancy meeting you here!” Immediately his eyes shone with concern. “Are you alright? You look horrible.”

Apple Bloom shook her head. “No, I'm not alright. I just got promoted ta head of the Magical Research Division.”

Spike smiled at the news. “Congratulations! I'm sure you'll be amazing at it.”

Apple Bloom stomped at him. “No, I won't be! I ain't ready for anythin' like this! An' even if I was, I don't wanna be if'n it means makin' weapons ta hurt my friends...”

Spike paused for a moment, a claw going up to tap at his chin while his tail wrapped around his feet, its spines looking a lot more streamlined than they had when he was younger. After a few moments, he looked her in the eyes, seeing the conflict in her distraught face. “You know, Twilight always freaked out before tests too. She always said she wasn't prepared, that she'd do something wrong... it even continued after she became a princess. She even blew the whole library into the air once. But no matter how she raged, she knew she had the strength to do it. I think you might be in the same boat there. From what I've heard of you since you left Ponyville, you're more than qualified for the job.”

Apple Bloom sat down, shaking her head. “I was never meant ta hurt ponies... I didn't sign up for this...”

Spike sighed. “And Twilight was never meant to lead, and yet she became the Princess of Friendship. She's fought monsters, she's saved nations... She went head to head with Tirek and won. She never wanted to hurt anything either. She didn't even want to make friends, initially... But sometimes you do that you have to, for your country. For your family, your friends, and those close to you.”

“But Scootaloo is all of those things, an' she's on the other side...”

“And Applejack is all of those things too, and she's still here.” Apple Bloom went pale at the thought of Scootaloo hurting Sweet Apple Acres, but Spike managed to catch her before her mind ran wild. “I'm not saying that they will attack or something crazy like that, but if they did, wouldn't you rather have some sort of defense?” She nodded. “And wouldn't you rather you knew what that defense was? That it would only knock a pony out, not turn them into a meaty goo?” She nodded again, her eyes wide in horror at the image of the meaty goo. “Then I think you're exactly where you need to be.”

Apple Bloom thought for a few moments, considering everything Spike had said, before nodding, a slight smile showing on her face. “Ya know, yer right... I think I know just what to do. Thanks, Spike! When did ya get so good at motivational speeches?”

Spike smirked. “I live with a neurotic bookworm princess. You learn a lot of useful skills while being the royal vent.”

“You gonna be around for a while? I could use a familiar face, an' y'all got the perfect skills ta help me keep from goin' crazy.” She rolled her hoof near the side of her head, joking about the situation already. Just that one thing he said had illuminated so much, and knowing she controlled the weaponry, well... that put her at ease once more.

Spike chuckled warmly. “Yeah, I'll be around. I'm at the castle as long as Twilight is, and I don't think we'll be leaving any time soon.”

“Good. We need ta catch up sometime anyway. I'll see ya around!” She gave the dragon a quick hug, then went back to her tower, ready to face the ponies and the trials within.

After that Apple Bloom and Spike started to meet on a fairly regular basis, growing closer as the crisis evolved, with both able to vent their frustrations and worries out on the other. It was comforting for Apple Bloom to have somebody there to listen when things got heated, and she was always glad to be able to return the favor for him whenever the politics on his end got overwhelming. Knowing he was there to bounce ideas off of, her confidence in her decisions grew and the Magical Research Division thrived under her leadership.

As months went by with no sign of the conflict stopping, their visits grew more frequent as they became fast friends, always there for each other no matter what else the world threw at them. And as the conflict grew into a war between nations, they grew even closer, each becoming an anchor for the other in a sea of turmoil and emotions stretched to the snapping point. They never would have guessed, meeting by chance in the royal gardens, that they'd be the only things keeping each other sane, but they were glad of it all the same.

*     *     *     *     *    

Flora sighed, her chin leaning on the dining room table as she looked longingly out of the frosty window. Wracking her brain, she went over every note of the song, everything that had happened recently, everything she'd said, and still she was no closer to pinpointing the cause of her heartache. Or, rather, Jazz's heartache, but they might as well be the same thing the way she felt.

Her head rolled onto her cheek as her eyes roamed the room, eventually coming to rest on the small memorial set up in the corner. A helmet of the Royal Guard with Equestria's flag folded neatly beneath it. That just brought to mind a smiling face that somehow made her sadder as Newsprint's laughter floated through her memory, the only place where she'd ever hear it again. Maybe she could just go back to bed, curl up, and lose herself in dreams of a better time... With the morning light only now seeming to gain strength, it wasn't too late for that, right?

A cough sounded from the door frame, causing her to perk up and turn to see her mother leaning in it, a slight smile on her face. “How are you this morning, dear?” she asked, a warmth in her voice despite the cold weather outside.

“I'm fine, mom,” Flora sighed, feeling herself sinking back into the chair as thoughts crowded on her once more. She stayed there as Rose walked to her side, sitting down next to her.

“Really? Well it's just that, if that clock is right, it's a little after eight and you are normally right to work making sure your plants are watered first thing in the morning. Don't you still care about the little darlings?” Rose's voice was soft and sweet, with a caring smile waiting when Flora turned to look at her.

But her daughter had no smile to give, just a little frown of annoyance. “I know what you're doing. It's not like that, mom.”

Rose smirked. “Isn't it? I might have believed you if I hadn't picked that same chair for the view it provided. Perfect for quiet, brooding contemplation.” She walked around the table, closing the curtains on the wintry world outside before sitting down and taking her daughter's hoof in hers. “You've been out of sorts for days, but this is the worst I've seen it yet. What's wrong?”

Flora rolled her eyes, looking towards the ground as she started to walk away, but her mother's grip was unrelenting. The few tugs Flora gave did nothing to free her, and she quickly realized 'no' wasn't an acceptable answer. Sitting back down, Flora huffed, collecting her thoughts in line. “I want to tell you what's wrong, but that would mean I'd know and could fix it. But it's been days and I'm still no closer to cheering Jazz up than I was at the start.”

Rose sat up a little straighter, her interest piqued at that statement. “Oh? Did he do something bad to you?”

Flora shook her head. “No, nothing like that. He's just been... off. He had a family issue with his father, which resolved itself, but ever since then he hasn't been himself. Silver hasn't seen him, he hasn't been to the market, and when I go over to help him he barely talks to me! If it weren't for the music ringing in my ears I'd hardly be able to tell another pony had been in the room. And I know something is bugging him, but I just can't get it out of him.”

Rose leaned in a little bit, just a hint of worry edging her features. “And while this is upsetting, you're sure nothing's wrong with you? He hasn't offended you in any way, right? You're feeling okay? Nopony's been harassing you?”

Flora shook her head, only holding back a glare with the knowledge that Rose was only trying to help. “No, mom, I'm fine. Just sad.”

Rose raised a hoof, leaning back out. “Just making sure.” Slowly her face melted into a warm smile, which moved to her eyes as she spoke. “You really do care for him, don't you dear?” Flora moved to answer, but Rose went on, having already known it. “But if you're going to prove you care about him, you're going to have to stop being so kind.”

Flora raised an eyebrow at her mother. “What, start yelling at him? If he's got an actual problem, that's the last thing that's going to help.”

Rose's smile deepened. “No, not yelling, just use a little more force.” As she looked at the disbelieving look on Flora's face she just shook her head, knowing why the idea was so hard for the young mare. “You know, when your father and I first met, long before I would have ever dreamed that he would be the stallion I would marry, he tried something like this. He had gotten himself into some very deep trouble and was gravely injured, and he had come to me for help.”

Rose got up, walking over to the door and looking out the window in the living room. It was hard to tell among the other roofs of Ponyville, but she could just barely see the top of her shop from here. “When he finally woke up, the first thing he asked me to do was warn a friend that they might be in danger. I had no idea what was happening, but seeing his state, I was willing to believe he was right. But one thing led to another, and soon the whole issue had only gotten worse from his intervention.” She shook her head. “He was beating himself up, hurt and raging on the inside, and no matter how I tried to comfort him, it had no effect. And then, beaten and bloody as he was, he tried to run off so he wouldn't be an issue to anypony anymore.”

Rose turned around, seeing the disbelieving look on Flora's face. All three of Rose's children had looked up to their father, with his great stories and how brave and strong and determined he always was for them. If they had known the details of any of his adventures before them... Well, they probably wouldn't have been so shocked when he disappeared like he did. With her smile fading at her own thought, she continued. “I managed to find him, but that was the last straw. I had been much too kind, letting him do his own thing and push himself to the edge of sanity. I marched him back to the house, bandaged him up tight, and kept him under my constant watch until he healed and knew for a fact that he was actually wanted.”

Rose took a few slow steps towards Flora, remembering those same eyes looking back to her in a bandaged face all those years ago. “If I had been a little slower, or his leg brace a little quieter, he might have slipped away. He might have hurt himself or worse, and my whole life would have never been the same. When I look back at everything that happened and how easily it could have changed... Well, I am glad I was too nice, but I'm also glad I knew when to put my hoof down and be mean once more.”

She sat down across from Flora again, looking her daughter in the eyes. “Now, your stallion is collapsing in on himself, and you might think it best to let him do so, to try to dance around him and help him without. But I have a feeling whatever is bugging him is coming from within, and, while neither of you may like it and it might not be pretty... You're going to have to get a little mean and make him see it. Do you understand?”

Flora nodded, the sadness from before gone from her movements, replaced with a touch of determination. “I think I do.” She got up, walking upstairs and getting her things. A few minutes later she came back down, bandanna around her neck, winter hat on her head, and a plan of action in her mind. However, as she opened the door, she heard her mother call her name. Turning around, she barely reacted in time to catch the apple sailing through the air at her.

Rose was leaning in the door frame once more, watching her daughter get ready to go. “Don't forget that apples bruise easily, dear. Be mean, not cruel. I don't want to see you moping again.” Flora smiled warmly, nodding as she made her exit. Watching the door, Rose sighed happily. “They grow up so fast...”

*     *     *     *     *    

Flora hurried through her routine at her own greenhouse, nearly forgetting to water a whole wall of plants as she tried to plan what she was going to do beforehoof. Grabbing her violin on the way out the door, she rushed to the jazz apple greenhouse, arriving a little early and pacing nervously as she waited. Would confronting him really be the best idea? True, she couldn't help him if she didn't know what help he needed, but was it really right for her to badger him until he asked for it? He was the brightest light in her life right now, even if his light was a little dimmer... Did she really want to risk it being taken away?

Her questions were answered when Jazz arrived ten minutes late, a brooding scowl plastered on his face as he brusquely dismissed her greeting wave. He only paused to unlock the door, and hardly reacted to the kiss she planted on his cheek when he did. Inside he wasted no time to tune up the instruments, skipping smalltalk until he snappily asked her if she was ready to play. With Flora's mood souring by the minute, the last straw was the performance itself: rushed and angry, the usual beautiful tones of his trumpet pained as they were forced out, and her violin crying as it tried to keep in time. The flowers on the vines barely glowed, drooping slightly compared to their beautiful state a few days prior...

At the end of the song, Jazz packed up his trumpet without saying a word, ready to rush right back out into the snow when he was stopped by Flora, carefully replacing her violin in its case and blocking the door with her body. He stood there, visibly tense and hoof tapping, for a few moments before he gave an annoyed cough. Flora shot him an irritated look in response. “There's no use looking so antsy, you aren't going anywhere until you talk to me.”

Jazz snorted. “I got chores I hafta tend ta, Flora, so-”

Flora snapped her case shut, standing up and glaring at him. “Chores can wait, Jazzy. I don't like this attitude you're putting on and neither I nor your plants deserve to be treated like this. If I did something wrong, tell me.”

Jazz took a step back, brow furrowing. “Ya ain't done nothin' wrong, Flora, so if ya'd just-”

Flora shifted in front of him as he tried to sidestep her. “Then tell me what is wrong. You've barely talked to me for days, and that smiling face I knew so well has completely disappeared. I want that back. Tell me how to help you.”

“I don't need help. I need ya ta get outta my way, I'll be fine, Flora.” Jazz took a step forward, nearly reaching the door, when Flora grabbed him by the tail and swung him to the side, looking him in the eye.

“No you don't! You aren't leaving until you tell me what has you so worked up! Is it the thing with your father? Did your mom send you back some bad news?”

Jazz looked away, reaching for the door once more. “I don't wanna talk about it, alright?”

He pulled it open slightly, but it was immediately slammed shut by Flora's hoof, holding it firmly in place. “No, that's not alright. It's been days and I just want to see you smile again, Jazzy. I want to feel the music flowing through me as I spend time with my special somepony, and he's being too mule headed to let me in!”

Jazz glared at Flora. “I ain't havin' an argument with ya in here. It ain't the place for it an it'll upset the vines.”

Flora matched his glare, her emerald eyes locked onto his hazel ones. “Then where do you want one? Outside where ponies can hear? In the farmhouse with Big Mac mediating? Or maybe you'd like to taint the memories of the barn with a shouting match. We could even go to a bar, get everypony in town right in on our social life, if that'll make you call me 'Sugar' again.”

Jazz looked at Flora flatly. “Sugar, open the door.” He tried to handle again, only for Flora to hold it tight once more, and this time he growled, stomping on the ground. “Why're ya makin' this so difficult, huh? All this woulda been so much simpler if'n ya didn't care!”

“Of course I care, Jazz! You're my special somepony! When you're unhappy, I'm unhappy, when you're nothing but smiles, my heart soars.”

Jazz shook his head, moving back into the room and away from the door. “If'n it was just family they'd understand! Pa wouldn't, but the rest of 'em would be right behind me!”

Flora followed him into the room, her eyes pleading as she moved. “You said we were like family, Jazz, back in the clubhouse. Since then, I've supported you through everything, by your side when I could and behind you when I couldn't. Tell me what's on your mind.”

Jazz spun around, continuing his rant. “An' then ya dragged Silver inta this, an' got me all worked up an' all this talk ain't makin' it any easier! It was all easy when I wasn't wanted.”

Flora looked confused. “I know your father tried to do something really cruel to you, but that doesn't mean you aren't wanted.”

Jazz laughed once, a short, mirthless sound. “Yer jokin', right? You saw the looks I was getting' around town, the watchin' eyes in Jennydale... I ain't wanted here. All their kin are out on the front line, fightin' and workin' ta defend this country, an' here I am sellin' apples like I ain't got a care in the world.” He stalked forward a few steps, blazing anger in his eyes. “Every time I went ta the market, I got nothin' but scowls, all accusin' me a bein' a traitor, with more hatred in 'em than even Pa was givin' me. They're wonderin' why I ain't doin' my part, an' ya know what? I'm wonderin' too. I got my Ma 'n my aunt out there workin' for the cause, doin' all my fightin' for me, an' all I can do is sit around with my injured uncle watchin' my old farm be run ten times better by you than I ever could on my own. If only ya didn't care, I coulda disappeared tomorrow 'n nopony woulda cared.”

Flora's confusion only deepened, wondering how long these thoughts had been eating away at him. “Disappeared where? Your place is here, making sure that those ponies out on the front have a home to come back to, and you do a fine job of it. I might kick a few trees and help build up the greenhouse each year, but without you this place would fall apart.”

“Oh yeah?” Jazz said as he walked over to his trumpet case, opening it up and pulling out a small notebook. “When I was thinkin' 'bout all this, I started keepin' notes, tryin' ta figure out what it is I do around here every year.” He tossed the book in front of Flora, where it fluttered open, landing only a few pages in. And yet, it was blank. “Ever since the night Pa tried ta take the place I started writin' things down. Stuff I'd know that you wouldn't. I ain't more'n a half dozen pages in an' I'm already stumped. If I gave ya that book an' told ya where ta find the ledger, you could run the whole of Sweet Apple Acres tomorrow. An' lemme tell ya, Sugar, it's temptin'.”

Flora kicked the book closed, shaking her head. “I'm not going to take your farm from you, Jazz.”

Jazz smirked coldly. “Oh, ya wouldn't be takin' it, Flora. Yer actin' like I'd run off an stop carin' about ya, an that just ain't true. Carin' about ya just makes what I'm about ta say a lot harder.” He walked over to the book, picking it up while he grabbed one of her forehooves in his, placing the book into it carefully and holding it in her hoof. “I'm gonna go join the army, Flora, an' I want ya ta keep the Acres safe until the war's done.”

Flora's jaw dropped as she looked at his serious expression, then at the book he was holding in her hoof. She pulled away, shaking her head violently as she saw all those happy memories of him consumed inside her mind. “No! You're not giving me the orchard and you're not going off to war. It's suicide to march off to fight in the dead of winter, and I am not going to stand for it!”

Jazz shook his head as well, picking up the book and walking towards her again. “It ain't up for debate. I shoulda done this years ago.” He put a hoof to his heart. “It's my duty, both as an Equestrian an' as an Apple.”

Flora backed away from him, heart suddenly pounding in her chest. “But what about Big Mac? Or what if your dad tries to take the place over again?”

“Mac's behind me all the way, an' I already made sure Concord an' Cassidy would do everythin' in their power ta keep Pa off'n this place.”

His calm tones did nothing to soothe Flora as she looked around the room, mind racing for something, anything, to stop this madness. Her eyes landed on the beautiful glowing apple blossoms. “What about our duet, huh? You promised me that much, and an Apple never goes back on his word.”

Jazz sighed. “Well, ya got me there, but the duet will be a lot sweeter when I get back, right? Might lose a coupla jazz apples before winter's out, but it ain't like we were sellin' 'em anyway. It's nothin' ta worry about.”

That was where Flora stopped backing up, though her shoulders shook visibly. “Nothing to worry about? Nothing to worry about? I don't care about losing a few jazz apples because all of the notes aren't being played. I'm afraid of losing my Jazz Apple to a war that's already ripped my family apart! It has taken my father, my brother, my sister, and for years I was left with nothing but the shadow of a mother, all for some stupid war nopony wanted in the first place! You want me not to worry when you're galloping into that fiery blaze ponies keep mistaking for a sunset? You're asking me to do the impossible.” She walked forward, throwing her arms around Jazz's neck and hugging him close. “You're the one light in my life... Don't take that away from me.”

Jazz hugged Flora back, kissing her lightly on the cheek before he pulled away. “Flora, yer actin' like I want ta go. I ain't doin' this because it'll be fun, I'm doin' it because I haveta.”

“No you don't! Your family is giving enough, you don't-”

“My family gave far too much already. Equestria lost its greatest treasure ta this war, an' it don't even know!” He looked her in the eyes this time, the sadness within showing through. “Granny Smith loved this country more'n anything. She'd watched it for years, been there for the foundin' of Ponyville, an' she always believed in the value of a hard day a' work, family, 'n good friends. She'd lived for over three hundred years, a bafflin' miracle, every day praisin' Celestia an' this great nation she lived in. An' then the whole thing ripped apart, an' she watched her family get dragged off ta fight ponies they'd known all their life... An' that was that.” He shook his head, eyes shut and tears forming at the edges of his eyes. “She faded away the second it all started, an' I weren't even a year later that she was gone. She lived her whole life with Equestria whole... It's only fair we put it back in her honor.”

Jazz sat silently, his teary eyes looking to Flora's for comfort, but that was not what he found. Whether it was from before or something new, she showed only angered horror. “And, what, you think winning this fight is going to bring Granny back? Do you think that's what she wants? To see her own family go off and forget the farm she worked so hard for as they kill and fight and die, just so that some border line can be erased? Because it won't. Your death won't bring back Granny, or Newsprint. It won't clear my father's name or stop a nation's rebellion. It'll just add another name to the list.”

Any touching moment Jazz thought he had created was lost when he heard her rant, the insulted look on his face betraying him as his eyes turned harsh. “So what? Ya think my family's just a bunch of fools runnin' in an' killin' themselves? Ya don't think Equestria's worth fightin' for?”

Rose squared her shoulders as she matched his gaze. “I don't give two licks if Equestria fell to the Lunar Republic or dissolved entirely. Nothing is worth tearing apart and tossing aside lives like this.”

Jazz stalked forward, glaring at Flora. “I dunno if'n I can stay with a traitor.”

Flora's jaw clenched. “What?”

“A traitor.” He spat the words with venom. “Yer brother fought for the nation, an' I miss that colt somethin' fierce, but he's the only one a y'all who ain't gone all cowardly and featherbrained.” Flora stood there, silent, though her cool exterior belied the seething inferno growing within. Taking her silence as proof and with his own blood boiling, Jazz kept talking. “When yer father ran off, it was his cowerin' that got Newsprint goin' in the first place. An' then you lose one pony ta the cause and suddenly yer mom freezes up, yer sister runs off, an' the only one still workin' an' seein' the light was you. But I guess that was just an act, huh? Well, act or not, this is a war, which means ya gotta fight for what ya believe in, an if yer just gonna hide like some fool coward pegasus, then I-”

Flora wasn't even the least bit curious what he was gonna do as her forehoof smashed across Jazz's cheek, stunning the stallion mid speech. She spun around after that, rearing into a devastating buck that flung him across the greenhouse into the dirt at the far end. He rolled when he landed, coughing in the dust kicked up and with the taste of metal in his mouth. “Ow!” he said, spitting blood droplets as he pushed himself up. “What th' hay was that for?”

Before he could finish getting up he was grabbed by the fur of his chest and pulled up so he looked Flora in her fiery eyes. “'What was that for?' Is that what you're going to be asking those 'cowardly pegasi' trying to kill you on the front line?” She picked his front up bodily, not caring that he was scrambling to get his back legs up under him properly. “Or maybe those 'traitors' will see that you're fighting for your poor lost Granny and let you go. They obviously don't have ponies they're fighting for either.” Just as he almost had himself steady she pushed him back, making him lose his balance and fall against the greenhouse wall. “I don't care if you think I'm a traitor. I don't care what you or anypony else might think of my family. But I won't stand by and let you spout ignorant ideals at me when you won't even take your own fight seriously.”

Flora stalked towards Jazz, his truly frightful eyes telling her she had his full attention. “Did you forget that your own best friend is a pegasus loyal to the nation when so many others were chased off? Or maybe you've forgotten all of the normal lives uprooted and families torn apart by some stupid border we keep fighting over. I don't know why my father ran off, and by Tartarus I don't forgive him for it, but if I had to guess, I would assume it was to try to stop ponies thinking like you from running our nation off a cliff!”

She stopped, sighing heavily as she turned around, walking towards the door. “You said it yourself, Jazz. This is war, and you have to fight for what you believe in. And if you believe all that garbage in your head... Remember that it was you who decided we couldn't play a duet.” Opening the door and letting the chill winter air in, she looked back at Jazz, his face injured in more ways than one. As much as that sight pained her, she still stepped outside, shutting the door firmly behind her.

Inside, her green bandanna fluttered in the air from the closing door, finally coming to a rest on the violin she'd left behind.

*     *     *     *     *    

Flora shivered the entire walk home, feeling the chill blasts on parts of her neck that hadn't felt the air in years. And yet, even then, one look at her red eyes, at the tears frosting to her cheeks, would tell you that the cold wasn't responsible for her shaking. She was glad that nopony walked the long, empty path from the farm to town, her short sobs able to be let out freely as she forced herself to keep putting one hoof in front of the others.

Her hoof stung from where she had hit Jazz, as did her lungs from the freezing air they swallowed in gulps, but they weren't of any comparison to the aching she held in her chest or the guilt rising up from the bottom of her soul. She knew, she knew that she had handled that about as poorly as it could have gone. Every step made her want to turn around and apologize, with regret upon regret for her actions and lines racing through her mind to validate the hurtful things he had said.

But Flora never stopped moving, and not once did a regret rear its head over the words that had left her lips. Their order was appalling, their effect was abysmal, and the choice could have been arranged into a beautiful bouquet, not the heap of waste and pain she'd created. But their content, spiteful as it had been, was all filled with the truth she felt. No, she did not regret the words, just that she would ever have actually had to say them to the pony she loved.

Of course, that was something she didn't regret either. She knew Jazz, the real Jazz, when he wasn't blinded by whatever delusions were running through his head right now, and she loved that pony with all of her heart. Just a few months ago that idea would have been laughable, that her closest friend could have gotten any closer, and yet, as she felt him slipping away with each step, she nearly missed those naïve days. Perhaps she should have just given him to Silver... then she wouldn't be trudging home with this weight upon her chest.

It was cruel beyond words, but the irony was that she had asked for it. She had badgered him, been just as mean as she'd thought necessary, and then life played another one of its horrible tricks and she just couldn't take it anymore, getting cruel right back. But after everything this war had done, after spending nearly half her life watching her home town dwindle and her family collapse, she hadn't been prepared for anything to get worse. It had had no worse to get, and had only just started getting better...

Gathering storm clouds built overhead, darkening the land and bringing with them slow falling snowflakes. As much as she had always liked the snow and the calm it brought to her life, right now she wished it would leave, or else bury her beneath it. Perhaps, come spring, this would all be over, with budding blossoms helping repair the damage done. But the snow kept itself reserved, only slowing her walk and leaving her more time with her thoughts.

What would she tell her mother? What would she tell Silver? Would she even be able to say anything once she got home? Rose's advice had been sound, and yet look at where it had gotten her. And Silver... if she'd heard anything Flora had said... if she knew how close Flora had been to spilling her secret crush and dragging her into this whole mess...

A mess she hoped, deep down, would have cleared up like a romance novel, where Jazz realizes the error of his ways and rushes out to stop her, holding her close and telling her everything would be alright. With each step and every sob she strained her ears, hoping to hear the crunch of hooves on snow bringing him closer to her even as she walked further and further from him. But he was no closer than all of the ponies she'd brought up, all of the ponies that had left her behind...

After an eternity Flora saw her house, the warm light from the windows promising everything she wanted right now. She would exit the ice and snow, walk into that heat, and melt into a little sobbing puddle to be mopped up by her mother's comforting hooves until she formed into a pony once more. As sad as that sounded, as she placed her hoof on the doorknob, she wanted nothing more.

Or so she thought as she entered the house and was nearly tackled by a more lively and excited Dot than she'd seen in years. There was no question as to why, though, as Flora looked into the dining room and saw the mares sitting there. Rose was carrying on a pleasant conversation, her face lit up like a beacon with the joy radiating from it. She only stopped when Flora reached the door frame, prompting her two guests to turn and look.

Flora ran towards the one she knew, sweeping the young pegasus into her arms and crushing her in a hug that would wind an elephant, and the pegasus matched it, the mirthful laughter removing almost all of weight from Flora's heart. When finally the hug was over, emerald eyes looked into ivy ones, while words Flora wondered if she'd ever say passed through her lips. “Welcome back, Windy!” Flora pulled herself back into the hug, resting her chin in the crook of her sister's neck. “I missed you so much.”

“I missed you too.... It's so good to be home.” Hearing those words, Flora released her sister, wiping the newly formed tears of happiness from her eyes and joining the others in their conversation. For once, life had given something back. For once, it had proven it wasn't cruel. Just incredibly, insufferably, unforgivably mean.
The life of a superstar is not an easy one, Sweetie Belle mused as she waited backstage for the start of her next show. Oh, being pampered by everypony and making far too much money for the kinds of things she did was nice, of course, as were traveling Equestria and her penthouse in Manehattan, and all of the ponies cheering her name and wearing her merchandise just made her heart fill up with glee. Okay, really, most of the life wasn't that hard, but it still had its ups and downs. Many more downs, lately...

After she had left Ponyville, she'd been whisked straight to Manehattan under Sapphire Shores' tutelage. The Pony of Pop had taught her everything, from flare in her movements to how to refine her voice, but she had started small. At first she got her lessons as a backup dancer and vocalist for the aging star (though if somepony said Sapphire Shores was getting old they got a swift kick from the mare or a glare from one of her bodyguards), but soon came the big break, where Sapphire decided Sweetie earned a stage all her own. As an opening act for the fabulous pony, of course, but it was amazing the fire that little chance sparked.

Sweetie Belle had everything needed to be a superstar, and it had been instantly recognized. The pipes, the charisma, the innocence, the pizzazz: all of them came naturally. But the one thing she'd really needed, the one thing that Sapphire Shores had given her, was confidence. Not just in her abilities, which she had been denouncing since long before her big break in Ponyville, but in herself.

“Little Miss Sweetie Belle,” Sapphire had said to her as she panicked in the dressing room, her first solo act just minutes away,“I am jealous of you.” Sweetie could hardly bring herself to look confused for her heart pounding in her chest, but that wasn't going to stop the sassy earth pony from speaking. “You have everything needed to be the biggest shot in town and you can't even see it. Why, if I'd been as modest as you starting out, maybe there wouldn't've been all those scandals, or all those back alley bar shows.”

Sweetie looked at her mentor and friend with distrust. Surely Sapphire Shores had been discovered immediately and exploded onto the stage. “If I had been like you and accepted some help instead of running off on my own, maybe I could've started on stage instead of struggling in obscurity, but that's not here or there now. Now you are gonna go out there and sing for a packed house using them amazing pipes of yours. No matter what happens, even if every last one of them's blind and deaf and doesn't like you, you need to remember one thing.”

Sapphire leaned in close, grabbing Sweetie's cheeks and making sure they looked eye to eye. “You. Are. Sensational.” The fact that the word came without her normal singing somehow made it all the more meaningful. “You are the most talented young mare I've ever set my eyes on, and you need to stop holding yourself back. You are gonna go far, so long as you remember to follow your heart, do what you know is right, and give it all you've got.” Sapphire let go of Sweetie's head, hopping back and striking a dramatic pose as she pointed to the door. “Now get out there and strut your stuff, girl! That stage is calling for you, and you're gonna blow it away.”

And Sweetie had. Empowered by Sapphire's words, Sweetie let her own restrictions drop away, baring her heart and soul for the ponies watching, and they'd loved it. Once the word spread, she was the next big thing in no time flat. Record deals, tours, magazine articles: the works! The world was her oyster, and it had given her the most beautiful pearl she'd ever seen.

And all pearls lose their sheen, she sighed to herself at intermission, frowning into the mirror as she fiddled with a dull pearl on the sleeve of her costume. She lived in Manehattan, with the city running through her veins more than Ponyville ever had. She had even been on the front lines of the weather riots, down on the street with everypony else as a rallying point as strong as a princess for her adoring fans. She was even fully behind it when the New Lunar Republic pulled away, doing what she could to help rally support behind their Princess turned President of the Night.

Honestly, she couldn't have been happier, reunited with Scootaloo and working on the home front while her best friend defended it from those trying to take their freedom away. The only thing her fame had been taken from her was her friends, so being with her best one... It was like a dream. She might not have had the Equestria-wide scope she had before, but as she performed for the injured soldiers and civilians alike, raising spirits and making the New Lunar Republic a nation its residents could be proud to be in, she felt amazing. What could possibly go wrong?

Apparently a lot. Some nights she told herself everything would have just been fine if the Battle Beneath Cloudsdale had never happened... some nights she wondered if her fans had ever actually loved her, considering how quickly they'd turned... And some nights she could hardly sleep for the heckling outside her apartment. A little status painted a target on a unicorn over here, and hers was the biggest in the rebel nation.

Soon after Cloudsdale fell, the pegasi of the NLR, spurred on by the refugees from the Empire's persecution, turned on every unicorn they could find, giving them, in many ways, a worse treatment than most pegasi had received across the border. Rich and poor, loyal or fickle, unicorns were driven from their homes, some beaten or worse in the process, and no magic user was safe. Even Sweetie Belle, their beloved pop idol and loudest supporter of everything the country did, was heckled off the stage of her first show after the incident, dodging bottles and rotten fruit as she left with tears streaming behind her. As she left the theater, her carriage was stopped, nearly tipped and burned by the mob outside, until she was saved by her own knight in shining armor.

Scootaloo had heard of everything going on with the unicorns and, when she'd heard about Sweetie's show, she'd put two and two together and made her own way over. Her amazing show of strength and display of official NLR armor was more than enough to dissuade the mob and get Sweetie Belle safely to the Capitol Building in Manehattan.

Even there, defended by the top guard the NLR could muster, there was hardly a unicorn in sight. Most had been harassed into leaving, something even Luna did not blame of her citizens. Scootaloo didn't blame them either, asking flatly that Sweetie Belle join them in the Solar Empire for her own safety. Sweetie could see the fear in Scootaloo's eyes, the worry and the care for a friend she'd barely talked to in years... there was really only one answer.

Sweetie smiled as she looked herself in the mirror, removing the last bit of makeup before turning off the vanity lights and walking to backstage exit. Sapphire Shores' words had never left her mind, and as she recalled the show she'd just performed, giving everything she had for the ponies of her city, she knew she had chosen right. Sure, she was heckled and hassled outside, and sure, she would have been much safer on the other side of the border, but when the lights had come on and she started to sing, bringing nothing but cheer to the lives of the soldiers and civilians she performed for as they screamed her name in appreciation once more...

That appreciation meant the world to her, but even it was dwarfed as she walked tiredly into her penthouse, tripping at the door of her room and falling into the loving arms of her stalwart defender. Wrapped in the caring embrace of her knight in orange down, the one who had been there for her even as a little filly, she smiled. The life of a superstar wasn't an easy one, it was true, but it had led her here, and there was nowhere else she'd rather be.

*     *     *     *     *    

The dark of night brought with it a new challenge for the trio escaping the New Lunar Republic, namely how to remain unseen as they moved. This near to the border, attempting to fly in contested airspace would be suicide, and moving along the ground held innumerable perils that wouldn't be visible until too late. Considered side by side, Homeward, Steam, and Wind all chose to go by ground, stowing away the Ready Wings for favor of their trusty hooves and keen danger senses.

Even this had additional problems. While Homeward's bag seemed a bottomless pit of useful items, in actuality it only contained one spare cloak, meaning that the third party member would have to improvise. On top of that, while none of them were particularly used to traveling on hoof after all their time in the air, Steam's legs were still used in the sky, so on the ground her muscles begged for any relief they could get. The solution to both issues, however, could be found in the same mare.

In order to hide her recognizable fluffy white mane, Steam Cloud's form was draped in the spare cloak, giving her the shape of any other pony from far away without the distinct point of a unicorn any other disguise would have given her. Meanwhile, Wind Key returned to her impression of her older sister, tying the bandanna around her neck and messing with her mane until it lay as neatly as the plant obsessed pony kept it, which, really, wasn't too much neater than her own way of wearing it, but was still a stretch. She also took on the burden of the Ready Wings, which, when folded up, did not catch nearly as much moonlight as when they were spread, and had the added benefit of hiding her wings fairly efficiently beneath the large backpack. Should they be spotted from afar, they would be three earth pony travelers crossing the border, nothing more.

Of course it would be far better than any disguise to remain unseen, and for that Homeward Bound led his two wards past The Roost, over a nearby hill, and when the path veered north, he continued to the northwest, entering into a rocky wasteland within minutes. Here the cool winter air whipped between the stones, chilling Steam's hooves in her horseshoes, though the cloak meant it did little else to her.

While she stumbled along on cold, tired legs, Wind had a different problem. As resilient to cold as pegasi were, frost was trying to accumulate on her fur and wings, and due to the nature of the load she carried, she couldn't do much to shake it off. Every minute in the elements brought with it more weight and pressing cold so that by the time midnight rolled around she was shivering far worse than Steam.

This grew into an even more pressing issue as the clouds began to thicken, rapidly blocking out the moon and stars and throwing all three ponies into the center of a blizzard. Snow and ice lashed at the traveler's faces, while wind seeped through every nick in their clothing and ran them straight through. Within moments it was no mere storm, as gusts of wind threatened to knock the young mares off their feet and stones began to fly past them into snowdrifts.

Fearing for their safety, Steam sidled up to Homeward, both ponies stomping through the suddenly thick snow. “Where did this storm come from?!” she yelled at the top of her lungs, her voice barely being heard in the cold, dry, raging air. Just opening her mouth stung her throat, but she continued for fear of worse consequences to the rest of her. “Is there someplace where we can wait it out?!”

Homeward's reaction was impossible to see through the dark and the snow, but his voice was just able to be heard. “The storm is wild! This land isn't monitored by weather ponies; it's of no value to either nation! We just need to press on a little further!”

Homeward continued trudging through the snow, but Steam stopped, looking around to find her other companion. It took a long while, but eventually Wind stumbled stiffly over a drift, snow clinging to every part of her body. As soon as Steam saw this, she rushed over, fighting the driving winds to be by her friend's side.

Wind had the bandanna over her mouth, steam rising with every breath she took, but with the way it was pressed to her face, she was able to get across the idea of a smile. Steam shook her head, lighting up her horn and letting the golden glow wash over Wind's face. Immediately the snow began to melt, color returning to the already pale pegasus's face as her parchment colored fur was revealed once more. However, as much as she appreciated it, her eyes shone with worry. “You need to stop the magic! What if somepony sees?!”

Steam shook her head again, keeping herself within touching distance of Wind. “Your warmth is more important! We need to go a little further, Homeward has a shelter in mind!” Wind just nodded, smiling once more at the kindness of her friend before they continued through the snow, following the barely visible tail of their guide.

Homeward had not been lying when he said they only needed to press on a little further, as less than fifteen minutes later he was waving them down, showing them a small cave hidden within some fallen rocks. On the outside it didn't seem like much, but upon reaching the entrance, Steam's magical light fell into a deep hole below, safe from the storm outside. All three ponies piled in quickly, and the sudden silence after the awesome noise of the blizzard left their ears ringing to adjust.

In such a well insulated confined space Steam's spell was much more effective, quickly getting the snow off of both cloaks and Wind's entire form, though the pegasus continued to shiver from the chill. Steam unhooked the clasp of her cloak at her neck, wrapping half of it around her friend as they both shared the heat of the spell and the fabric. Wind even leaned against her, whispering 'Thank you' in a voice far weaker than Steam ever would have wanted to hear it.

While it warmed Steam's heart to feel the cold fur at her side slowly be replaced with its warm counterpart, the glare she could feel coming from under Homeward's hood was chilling all on its own. “Do you realize how dangerous it was to light up your horn out there? You don't have any idea who could have been looking!”

Steam glared right back, offended that he'd take that tone with her. “Did you see how Wind was doing? She wasn't going to make it all the way here! She was hardly walking!”

Homeward huffed, angered that he was being challenged, though it was half hearted. “I believe she could have done it... Though I will admit the storm wasn't expected. There is often wild weather running off from the Everfree Forest, though something like this would suggest that they have started winter in the Solar Empire and the magic needed to shift the weather was built and amplified from the Forest's own magic...” He coughed. “In the end, you were right to do what you did due to the emergency, but if we hadn't had the cover of the very storm you were warding off, I would be worried that the entire last leg of our journey would be in jeopardy.”

Wind stopped leaning against Steam then, sitting up and looking at Homeward tiredly. “And what is the last leg of the journey?” Her voice was still weak from her ordeal outside, but already its strength was returning. “Because if we're going through, over, or anywhere near the Everfree in winter you are crazy. I wouldn't take my chances there on a bright, sunny spring morning, let alone a nighttime snowstorm.”

The smile that crept over Homeward's face only served to worry both young mares. “I am glad you asked. You see, I was remaining rather vague about how we'd get over the border because... well, you'll see for yourself.” He turned around after that, walking a little deeper into their hiding place until he reached the back wall. Once there, he tapped on it twice with his hoof, as though knocking on the front door of a house, before saying, calmly, “The Lady requests our presence at her soiree. We have no ties, we hope it's not a problem.”

Nothing seemed to change for a few moments, and Steam began to question the sanity of the pony that had gotten her this far, but just as she was contemplating braving the storm, a slat slid aside in the rough stone, a high pitched gravely voice coming from beyond it. “The masquerade does not require ties, though she hopes you do remember the theme.”

“'Diamonds are the ties that bind,' a classic, and yet so hip.” responded Homeward, looking into the slat at whoever was beyond it. “We hope the kettle is on, two sugars in our tea, if you please.”

“One moment while The Lady is summoned.”

The slat slid closed and, after Homeward counted something in his head, he waved an arm to the wall and bowed, offering Wind and Steam first entrance into the door created as the rock wall hinged back. “After you, ladies. And remember: proper courtesy is essential in The Lady's halls.”

Beyond the portal was torchlight, though its source was coming from behind the door. As Steam and Wind stepped through, still keeping the cloak over both of them for a hint of security in whatever was going on, they were greeted by the sight of a smooth, well kept tunnel. The whole thing was hewn from the very stone they were surrounded by, and yet it had been polished down until there was only a gently rolling texture to it instead of the jagged stone one would expect. When Homeward stepped in behind them, the door swung shut on well oiled hinges, all sound of the storm outside immediately blocked by its silent movement.

It was this absence of sound that caused Steam to turn around, though it was the beast following her that made her leap and shriek in fright. She was being followed by a massive hound walking on its hind legs, with arms made to tear through rock and teeth that could shatter iron. Its fur was jet black, making it sink into the shadows cast by the torch it held, but it had brown undertones running up from its stomach and down to its crotch. Around its neck was a small black collar, with emeralds embedded in it and a large diamond hanging off of the front. It also had on a vest, stylishly made of good material, in a deep forest green that complemented the beast's eyes, which looked intelligent and dangerous, as though appraising the frightened pony as friend or food.

Evidently it chose friend, as when it opened its mouth, it did so calmly, with the same high pitched gravelly voice from before. “I mean you no harm, little pony. I merely am here to show you the way.” With that it extended one of its... her, if the voice and form were any indication... arms and offered that they walk down the tunnel with Steam and Wind in the lead. At the sound of the voice, Wind looked to see what had made Steam worry and, wrapped together in the cloak, Steam could feel her jolt, but she managed to keep herself from jumping or looking scared. Instead they walked together, both of them ignoring the monster they had following them.

The tunnel was long, with offshoots and intersections all suggesting a great underground system, which, after the first few minutes of walking, was largely lit by sconces set into the walls. Once in the light, the beastly torchbearer took the lead, placing the open flame in a waiting socket on the wall and being a most courteous guide. In the better light, Steam could see the long black ears, listening alertly, but looking like a dog's the more she thought about it. In fact, in a way, the whole beast looked like a dog, even down to the stubby, knobbly tail curling up behind her as she led them through the necessary twists and turns in the narrow tunnels.

The walk continued on in silent for quite some time: more than long enough for the combined heat of Steam and Wind to be far too much for one cloak, causing them to separate again. It also continued long enough for Homeward to begin a conversation with their guard, though it was fairly one sided. “Ah, Cooper, right?” A nod. “I trust things have been going well in the tunnels?” Another nod. “Good! And you are keeping The Lady treated well, as she is to you?” Another nod, this time accompanied by a wagging tail. “Wonderful! Are you getting enough volunteers down here?” Cooper shook her head. “Not enough ponies coming through?” A small nod. “Yes, well, this war is truly wearing on ponies... They are starting to see it as the norm. I am hoping someday soon this problem will resolve itself.”

The group walked in silence for a few steps, and then Cooper sighed. “It'd be nice. Maybe then I could see this 'Ponyville' The Lady keeps mentioning. I wonder what it looks like.”

Homeward smiled. “It's the most beautiful town in all of Equestria, but a description won't do it justice. At least not with me being the speaker.” The familiarity of Homeward with his surroundings caused both Wind and Steam to feel rather out of place, like they were missing one big, long joke, and so they stayed silent for the trip, following patiently until they reached what looked to be a grand entrance hall, much like one would expect from a castle.

It was in stark contrast to the smooth tunnel they were just in, all made from carefully carved marble, tiled along the floor and creating ornate pillars that stretched from the ground all the way to a vaulted ceiling high above. On either side were what, at first glance, appeared to be stained glass windows, but a closer look revealed them to be murals created entirely of gemstones, depicting more of these beasts dressed in formal attire and looking quite dapper. Imbedded into the ground were three of the largest diamonds ever to be seen by pony eyes, glistening in the light from high above where the crystal chandeliers glowed spectacularly. The entire room spoke of power, regency, elegance, class, and, above all, welcome. Somehow, even in this cavern deep underground, there was the unmistakable feeling of welcome that made even the worried mares calm.

At the far end of the hall was a great door, and here Cooper stopped, turning to all three of the ponies. “Beyond is The Lady. Be respectful, be polite, and do not worry. You are all safe here.” The beast smiled, then opened the door, revealing the room beyond.

Instead of the throne room or the massive ballroom one might have expected, what was here was, quite simply, an office. It still had all of the qualities of the rooms they had just left, from the exquisite marble desk to the cool tile floors, but it was cozy, a place one could come into whenever help was needed and not feel turned away. Of course, the impressive map of Equestria drawn delicately in chalk on the far wall would probably cause a moment of awe, even when it was erased and modified, as it was being right now. An eraser hung in a deep blue glow, wiping away a line before a perfect piece of white chalk redrew it, showing the newest border between the Solar Empire and the New Lunar Republic.

With that done, both objects were put down, a smooth, singsong voice calling from behind the large chair behind the desk. “Sorry to keep you waiting! I was simply 'in the zone' and had to get that done.” The chair itself swung around smoothly, revealing a pure white unicorn with a deep purple mane and sapphire blue eyes. She had the air of perfect authority: grace under pressure and the readiness to take action. She also looked far, far more beautiful than the moonstone and garnet mural of her set into the wall to her right. As she looked upon the three ponies in the room, her eyes half lidded, revealing the blue eyeshadow, but also hiding the analytical intelligence behind them, she smiled warmly. “Ah! Yes, wonderful to see you! You certainly have grown up beautifully, Wind Key.”

Wind's jaw dropped, her mind unable to fully comprehend what was going on. “Rarity?!”

“Please, my dear. I must ask you to refer to me as The Lady while I am in my office.” Rarity then leaned forwards onto the desk, her confidence broadcasting out to the entire world. “Now, how may I help you?”

*     *     *     *     *    

Sparks flew as metal and rock collided, gleaming off of both the raw emerald embedded within the earth and the steel pickaxe trying to free it. The pickaxe rose once more, its handle enveloped in a golden glow as it stopped, then rushed forward, smashing away more of the stone beneath it.

Steam wiped her brow with her hoof, her horn glowing brightly in the dim quarry, as it had been for hours now, and she still felt like she wasn't any closer to her goal. “You know, I appreciate everything The Lady's been doing for us, but I can't help but feel like we've been tricked.”

Wind's head poked out from behind the outcropping they were working at, her bandanna soaked through with sweat, though none of it was dripping off her face. “What? Like this is all some complex system to turn random ponies into mining slaves?” She looked around, her gaze going over to the other miners, all diamond dogs going at it with their claws, with nary a guard or overseer in sight.

Steam levitated the heavy pickaxe to beneath her arm so she could lean on it, the brief break letting her catch her breath from the magical exertion. “Well, let's look at the facts. We were accosted by a random pony who lead us on a wild goose chase through the New Lunar Republic only to take us into a dark cavern where nopony would ever find us and make us work for the creatures down there... Sounds pretty sketchy to me.”

Wind swung her pick one more time, embedding it in the rock and popping out a small sapphire, which she threw into the provided minecart nearby. After that was done, she turned to Steam, shaking her head. “That's crazy talk. For one, Homeward has done nothing but save our lives and protect us since we were chased out by the angry mob, and for two, it just wouldn't be a good idea. If they wanted to increase mining speed by a significant amount, the fastest way would be to either raid and enslave an entire isolated village or have more foals... pups... whatever they have, because they work significantly faster with no tools than we do with them.” Looking over at one of the minecarts near a diamond dog dig site, the fact that it was brimming with gems while theirs was hardly jingling with them only confirmed her case. Shaking her head, she picked up the pickaxe once more. “Pony slave labor is much too inefficient by comparison.”

Steam frowned for a moment, tilting her head as her mind processed the Wind that had just shown herself. She knew her friend was an avid tinkerer and engineer, and she had done amazing things with the battery and power conversions on the Ready Wings, as well as the base design and, honestly, most of the work aside from the engine itself, but it was still rare to see that intellect actually surface in such a blunt manner. Honestly, it was a little frightening. “Remind me never to get on your bad side... at least not from a business standpoint.”

Wind giggled as she swung the pick, the force behind it leaving a crack in the stone. “You don't have to worry about that. I've never been much of a business mare. I just know how to keep a machine running smoothly.” She swung once more, then froze as another thought occurred to her. “Also, if this were a slavery deal, we'd probably have chains and minimal comforts, not the luxury suite we were in last night.”

Steam nodded, though she looked a little skeptical. “I suppose that's true, but assuming it isn't a bait and switch, this far underground and considering we have no idea how to get out, chains and brutality would just be more work. It'd probably ruin productivity. You can only work a pony so hard before they break.” Realistically she knew that there wasn't a single thing happening down here that signaled that they were in any danger. However, realistically, she also knew that everything about this scenario was all wrong, and it didn't take being wanted by a whole nation just for existing to make her paranoid about it. And, unfortunately for her, that paranoia manifested itself in one rather annoying way. “Speaking of breaks, I need to go find the filly's room. Be right back.”

Wind pulled her pick from the rock, smiling at her friend. “I'll be sure to leave something to dig up when you get back.”

Steam rolled her eyes. “Gee, thanks.” After that, she made her way through the quarry zone and back into the pristine halls of The Lady's Realm.

Coming from the cramped, rough stone of the work area into the polished, well kept halls of the rest of the place made it all seem even more unreal. Steam already had a hard enough time believing a pony could actually be as kind as Wind or as selfless as Homeward, but the generosity shown by The Lady was just ridiculous. The question had seemed simple enough: how could she help them? And yet, as Homeward detailed everything that was happening, what she was willing to do for them was just absurd.

Though they were wanted by the New Lunar Republic for the many, many crimes on the posters, a fact The Lady had already known, she wasn't going to turn them in. She had them in her power, at her mercy, and she was showing she had more than enough of that to go around. In fact, not only was she not going to turn them in, she had already promised them safe passage into the Solar Empire just outside of Ponyville, a well furnished room, running water, free meals, and the protection of her diamond dogs (as she referred to the intimidating but overall friendly beasts) for as long as they stayed within her halls.

There was just one catch. In return, they would have to work in the mines, finding gems and digging them out, until they had covered “a few minor costs of service,” as she had said with a friendly smile. At the time it seemed like nothing, but after a good night's sleep in a soft, warm bed and a hot shower that could have loosened up a statue, that deal seemed more and more suspect. How much were “a few minor costs of service?” Was this all a scam where the cost of luxury always exceeded the amount they could make? Why wasn't Homeward doing his fair share in the mines? Were they the first ponies lured into a trap, or just the most recent? And, most pressing of all, where the hay was that darn bathroom?

Steam trotted quickly through the halls, sure she had made a wrong turn at this point since neither the bathrooms nor their room were very far from the mines. But there was only one real option, and she would just have to keep moving until she found something familiar. She'd probably come across it quickly enough, right?

Of course, probably doesn't account for certain things. As Steam moved from hall to hall, disappointed that she couldn't find somepony, err, somebody to help her with directions, she picked up the sound of a voice. Getting slightly desperate for relief, the young unicorn picked up the pace, only to slow back down as she recognized not only the voice, but the one talking to it. “...nk you again for all that you are doing for us.”

The voice of Homeward Bound grew louder as it came closer, though it stopped around the next corner. Moments later, The Lady's voice chimed in. “Not at all, darling! What kind of a pony would I be if I were to leave my friend out there in the elements?” Every word from her mouth was sickly sweet, the kind that was welcoming at first, but only seemed to want something now.

“Average.” Homeward sighed at his own joke before continuing on. “Anyway, Rarity, I hope those two aren't doing too badly. They've been walking constantly for a few days, so I wouldn't be too hopeful for what they can manage in the mines.”

Steam froze, ears straining to listen for anything as she pressed herself up against the wall. As much as she wanted to see the scene and make sure she wasn't dreaming, she was much too worried what would happen if she was caught snooping. But this was exactly the kind of thing that would finally put her mind at ease... or make her start thinking they planned this all out to put her at ease... Maybe Wind was right. Maybe she was crazy.

Crazy or no, Rarity gave her her answer. “Oh, don't worry about them. Anything the dears can manage before they leave will be infinitely better than the last few ponies that came through.” She sighed. “I know I don't require anything, but a teeny tiny bit of work isn't too much to ask, is it? Though I am curious as to why you asked me to make it mandatory for your companions.”

Homeward put her up to this? Steam thought as she pressed even more tightly against the wall. She could hear hoofsteps coming closer, though they quickly stopped. What didn't stop was the pressure the wall applied against her... things would not be pretty very soon.

The smile could be heard in Homeward's voice. “Because they've been through enough hardship that they needed a reason to start helping. If you had just requested it as charity, they'd have never left the showers. Since it's mandatory to start with, they may grumble, but at least you'll get your help. It can't be easy doing what you do.”

Is that what he thinks of us? Steam frowned to herself. What? Did she not come across as a nice pony? She'd taken in her friend off the street, for Luna's sake! Though... come to think of it, she probably wouldn't have agreed to the whole mining thing without coercion... But Wind would have... She sighed internally. Just one more reason Wind was a truly amazing pony.

Rarity's response was expressive, nearly showing the hair flip and head roll just through its lilting tone. “Oh, there are challenges running the single largest underground information and refugee network in Equestria, true, but they don't even begin to compare with maintaining my place as the top shadow fashion designer for the last five years on both sides of the border.”

Homeward chuckled. “Humble as always.”

“Just because a Lady is humble doesn't mean she can't take some pride in what she does. All things in moderation, including moderation.”

“Right... well, it's a boon for both of us. You get a few extra gems found for free and I get the help of the best mare in the business.”

“Flattery will get you everywhere, Homeward. Though that new moniker won't. I'm surprised nopony has caught you yet.”

“It doesn't need to last long. Just a week more, though that is where you come in.” There was the shuffling of papers and fabric which echoed faintly through the stone halls. “I need these letters sent to the addressees quickly, discreetly, and simultaneously. I don't know anypony who could manage it other than you.”

“Let me see them... Oh dear. Both Princess Celestia and President Luna? The heads of both their armies, key intelligence officials, a few important civilians... Roseluck? Do you think that's wise after all this time?... My, my, what are you planning?”

“That is what your letter is for, though I'm sure you could guess my plan by now. I hope to have it all done by Hearth’s Warming Eve.”

“That's only two weeks away!” hooves paced on the stone floor, and just the thought of movement brought Steam's mind to her own body. There had to be a restroom near, and she really shouldn't keep listening in, but there was something about what she was hearing. Secrets and clues that tugged at her brain until she was almost sure that, for once, she knew the hidden stallion she traveled with. She couldn't leave now, she just couldn't.

The pacing stopped, followed by a singsong voice. “Ideeeeaaaaa~! I do believe I can meet your request in one week's time, though it is going to be tricky...”

“I will gladly pay whatever is needed or help in any way.”

“No no no! Do not fret, darling, consider it taken care of. You just enjoy what little free time you have left with your companions.” There was a brief pause that seemed to stretch on forever for the desperate unicorn listening in. “You should be proud.”

“Why? I can't take credit for how amazing she is. I can only hope to keep her and her friend safe long enough to ask for forgiveness.”

At this point Steam's body was tired of being pressed up against a wall, and with her mind whirring as it tried to process all it had heard, it was too distracted to stop a soft whine of need from escaping her lips. Immediately after it happened she jolted herself quiet, but the damage had already be done. “Did you hear that?” said Homeward, his voice drifting around the corner.

“I believe I did... Perhaps we should investigate, hmm? It wouldn't do to have been overheard.” The sound of hooves on stone brought Steam's heart pounding, her eyes wide as she wondered what would happen if she were caught. It couldn't possibly be too bad, could it? She was only dealing with a master spy and a pony apparently high ranking enough to want to contact every princess at once... there couldn't possibly be consequences for listening in on them!

Steam's mind screamed in horror at each step, clenching her eyes shut as she expected at any moment to be discovered and pointed out. She didn't think her bladder would be able to take it... The steps went on forever, drawing out the inevitable until, finally, they stopped, The Lady's voice coming into clear resolution. “Aha! Just as I suspected!”

Steam's eyes shot open, ready with an apology on her lips, but nopony was there to apologize to. Curious, she took her chance, peeking around the corner. At the far end of the hall both Homeward and Rarity were standing next to an open door, what appeared to be a closet, within which there was a very embarrassed pegasus with thick black glasses and an equally embarrassed diamond dog, his tail tucked between his legs. Both of them still had limbs wrapped around each other, though they shot apart a moment later.

Rarity shook her head. “Zipporwhill, this is the third time this has happened. Remember, I entrusted you with the entertainment and supervision of the ponies here, not their guard. Please at least try to be professional and let Hercules get back to work.”

The pegasus shot up from where she sat, hovering just off the ground with wings that hummed and blurred with their speed. “Yes madam! Sorry, Lady Rarity, it won't happen again!”

“That's what you said last time dear, and I'll say the same this time as well. I have nothing against whatever choices you make in your free time, but on the clock, you work and organize for me, just as you claimed you wished to when you first came down here. A Lady never lies. Remember that.”

Zipporwhill nodded. “Of course, madam!” Immediately the pegasus was gone, zipping up the hallway and shooting past Steam without even noticing the young unicorn, though the unicorn definitely noticed the pegasus's blushing cheeks.

Meanwhile, Hercules, a platinum blonde shepherd looking dog, sat in the closet still, bewildered by everything going on. Rarity sighed, wondering why he hadn't taken the hint yet. “You get back to work too, Hercules.”

The big dog stood up straight, nearly smacking his head on the door frame in the process, though he managed to miss it by taking a step into the hall and saluting with a massive digging paw. “Yes, madam!” he said before quickly following Zipporwhill, a blush beneath his fur identical to hers.

Rarity watched him go, then shook her head, sighing happily. “The joys of youth... Though, at her age, you'd think she'd have grown out of it by now.”

Homeward chuckled. “At ours, you'd think you would have too.”

Rarity let out a horrified shriek, covering his mouth immediately with a patch of magic. “Don't you DARE even think about letting anypony hear you say things like that! Obviously I am still twenty two and not a day over.” She took a step back, flipping her mane so that it hung perfectly. “Don't I look it?”

Homeward sighed, mouth still covered, and then walked off, causing Rarity to follow him quickly, waiting for a real answer. As amusing, confusing, and enlightening as all of this was to Steam, her body reminded her one last time of why she was out here, and she quickly took her chance to move, soon finding the relief she so desperately needed. Now all she had to do was find a way back...

*     *     *     *     *    

Steam Cloud had been silent about her encounter when she'd gotten back to the mine. She remained silent when the work was over and both she and Wind Key joined Homeward Bound and none other than The Lady herself for dinner in a diner that looked like nothing less than the classiest of restaurants. Both ponies and diamond dogs moved between the tables, taking orders and refilling glasses of water, while the low drone of pleasant conversation highlighted the refined music played by the string quartet in the corner.

Steam had simply picked at her meal, delicious beyond compare, and listened to the friendly banter between Homeward and Rarity. Who were these ponies whose lives she had stumbled into? Why would they take such an interest in her and Wind, who sat at the table silently as well, though she was too busy staring in wonder at the world around her... a slightly confusing state to be in, considering this was the second night in a row this had happened. After the conversation earlier, all possibilities of some sort of slavery ring had left Steam's mind, but that didn't make this any less mind boggling. What kind of mare could afford to keep an operation like this running? How did she know Wind? Or Homeward? And what was that quip about age?

Those questions bothered her all the way back to the apartment they had been given, with two plush queen sized beds, room service, and the single most impressive bathtub she had ever seen. The night before a shower had been enough to get the grime of days off of her fur, but tonight, with her mind and body twisted in as many knots as they were, Steam had herself submersed in a bath, the soothing scent of herbs in the bubbles melting all tension from her as she sank in to her nose. She was so lost in thought that she hardly noticed the hooves outside had come inside until the water next to her shifted.

Steam startled and climbed partially out of the tub, getting a strange look from Wind as she did so. Steam matched it. “What do you think you're doing?”

Wind frowned. “Climbing in the tub. This was a cool idea and I thought I'd join you.”

Steam took a step out. “Without asking?! Maybe I didn't want you to be in here while I cleaned myself!”

Wind's frown deepened, looking out of place on her face. “You're joking, right? You gave yourself a sponge bath when I was crashed in your apartment and you didn't seem too bugged about it then.”

Steam looked away, cheeks red, before stepping completely out of the tub. “That was different...” She didn't make it two steps before she felt a tug on her tail, stopping her in place. “Please let go.”

Wind shook her head, shaking the fluffy white tail in her teeth in the process. “Nu-uh! Ew et ack in vif tuv right now an tewl me wafs wong!” Considering Wind wouldn't give up her hold on Steam's tail, she relented, climbing back into the tub and drawing a happy smile from the pegasus beside her. Sinking into the bubbles, she remained silent, which only brought out another frown from Wind. “Oh come on, I just want to know what's bugging you! Is it really so bad?”

Steam snorted, making a hole in the bubbles and causing some to flutter into the air. They swirled for a moment before landing on Wind's nose, her face too adorable for words as she tried to focus on the bubbles for a moment before they popped. With the smile that brought to her face, she felt more compelled to speak. “I was just thinking about The Lady... How does she manage something like this? This place is amazing!”

Wind looked slightly puzzled. “You don't know about Rarity?” Steam shook her head, not comfortable with apparently being so far out of the loop as she watched Wind duck under the water, coming back up a moment later with a new crown of bubbles. “Rarity was one of the ponies on the Council of Friendship. She was the Minister of Generosity or something like that. Apparently she and her friends helped Princess Twilight become a princess through... a bunch of stuff dad used to talk about. I don't know why she still looks like she did when I was a filly, but she was always really nice. This is just that on a big scale.”

It was then that everything clicked. “Wait, she's the Rarity? As in the Element of Generosity Rarity?” Wind nodded. “And your dad knew her... and Princess Luna, and Princess Celestia... Is there anypony your dad didn't know?”

Wind laughed at that. “Pretty much no, and I got introduced to all sorts of ponies and even some gryphons when I was really young. Which was weird, because nopony came over and he didn't throw parties or anything, he just sorta knew all kinds of ponies.” Wind shrugged. “But then, mom was in Ponyville even before everypony got all famous with Elements of Harmony and saving the world and stuff, so she knew them all too. I'm almost positive everypony knew them to some degree.”

Steam thought for a moment, letting the soothing warmth relax her muscles as her mind wandered with this new information. “You know, I think my dad said something about running into them before, though he never liked to talk about it...” After another few moments, another couple thoughts connected themselves in her head. “I think my mom might have known your dad, because she was worried about him when the news story hit of him becoming wanted in Equestria, though she talked about him like he was an old friend.”

Wind tilted her head. “Huh... Then we might have met a long time ago and not even known. What's your mom's name?”

“Shoeshine.” The name came out before Steam could even think to censor it, and as soon as it did she blushed, realizing she'd just actually told somepony her mother's name. However, when she looked over to Wind, she wasn't looking triumphant or running off to use the information, she just sat there looking puzzled as water dripped from her mane.

After a while, Wind shook her head. “I don't think I ever met a Shoeshine... Though my mom might have gone off to see you. Every so often she took business trips to big cities. Did you ever meet Rose? Or she might have been going by Roseluck?”

Steam froze at the name, remembering the conversation she'd overheard before... So many connections simply clicked into place in her mind, bringing her to a revelation that just screamed to be made, and she almost did, but as she looked at Wind's inquisitive face, she knew she had to be sure. Disappointing her would be like snatching candy from a foal... The guilt would never fade. Slowly Steam shook her head. “No, I don't think I did...” She then sank into the tub, returning to silence as her mind raced along.

Wind slumped a little, sinking into the tub as well. “That's a shame... but you'll get to meet her soon, and I'm sure she'll like you! She'll probably even return the favor of you taking me in until we're able to contact your family.” Steam just nodded, hardly listening to the pegasus' words. To be honest, her mind was far away...

*     *     *     *     *    

Trying to confirm her suspicions about Homeward was very difficult for Steam, particularly since she could never seem to corner the pegasus alone. Either he was nowhere to be seen, as was often the case in the mine, or he was seemingly ever present, but always with Wind or Rarity nearby. Now, perhaps there was a chance of confronting him with Rarity around, though The Lady had a way of changing subjects to suit her needs, but trying to confront him near Wind was just too dangerous. If she was right, Wind would be ecstatic, shooting straight from deep underground to over the moon, but if she was wrong... Steam didn't want to risk raising Wind's hopes just to dash them again.

Though dashed hopes were the least of Steam's worries as she ducked, barely missing a rock that went flying past her head in the mine. For the most part the work was safe, but every so often a rock would chip in just such a way that it could get dangerous. Following the rock's path back, however, she found a sight that made her frown. Wind was kneeling on the ground, panting heavily, her pick firmly stuck in the stone next to her. Both of them could see the gem she was so close to digging out, but she just didn't have it in her, and that was worrisome for the ever ready pegasus. “Wind, are you okay?”

Wind nodded quickly, still panting for breath and sweating profusely. “Yeah, I'm fine. Just overheated.”

Steam looked around the area, seeing that they hadn't drawn too much attention. It was probably better to go solve the problem now than let it get big enough to create a scene. “Let's call it an early one today, go back to the room, and figure out a good way to cool off from there.” She helped the appreciative pegasus up, letting Wind lean on her as they made their way from the area.

Before they'd gone more than a few steps, a rare sight appeared before them in the shape of Homeward digging out a small ruby from the wall. As they approached, he managed to pry it free, dropping it in a bucket behind him before turning to look at them. His voice was curious, but there was a note of worry carried with it too. “Tired already?”

Both mares shook their head, though Steam was the one to respond. “Wind got overheated, so I was going to help her find a good way to cool off.”

Homeward smiled, raising a hoof in an excited declaration. “I know just the place! Though it is a bit of a walk. Do you think you can handle that?” Wind nodded, causing the cloaked pegasus to smile even wider. “Wonderful! Follow me.”

Homeward led the two mares from the mining area, though he went down a side path before the tunnels went from rough to smooth. This was the edge of The Lady's area where there had obviously been expeditions for routes and other mining areas, causing a winding network of rough tunnels that now were very dimly lit. How Homeward could tell one from another was beyond Steam's imagination, but she continued to follow, even after Wind regained her strength and her breath.

Eventually they reached one very long path that snaked and twisted, only the flickering light of very sparse torches breaking the heavy darkness around the three travelers. However, as the path sank lower and lower, Steam began to wonder if they would all be swallowed by the earth. Finally, after much too long in the deepest darkness, the ground leveled out, the corridor turning one final corner before they reached their destination.

Wind and Steam both stood stock still, struck in awe at the sight laid out before them. After what felt like miles of rough, rocky tunnel, they were standing in an enormous chamber, their hooves sunken slightly in the cool sand as the sound of waves washed nearby and a small waterfall crashing in the distance. It wasn't the sand that held their attention, but instead the sky, or rather, the swirling patterns of the gentle blue glow that suffused the entire room. All around them, along the walls and as high into the ceiling as they could see, mushrooms grew, from tiny to truly massive, and all glowing a dark sky blue. Speckled between them were yellow bulbs and patches of green and grey lichen, each glowing their own intensity and, together, creating the illusion that the night sky had followed the ponies underground.

A drop of water fell from high above, splashing ice cold on Wind's nose and bringing her out of her stupor. She ran across the sand, dipping her forehooves in the water and smiling at what she found. The water was cool like a mountain stream, and without a moment's hesitation she leaped from the beach, her wings propelling her high and far until she dropped into the water bodily, sending a splash high into the air.

Steam was slightly more hesitant, looking over at Homeward. “What is this place, and is it okay that we're out here?”

Homeward smiled, nodding. “Of course. It was discovered recently, untouched until the diamond dog finished the tunnel system, and even she didn't know what drove her so far this way. Just yesterday I happened to be in Rarity's office when she got the news that the mushrooms were safe to be around. Once I knew about it, I had been wondering how I could show it to you two before we left... I suppose things just work out.”

Wind splashed and laughed in the water, and it was very tempting Steam to go join her, but it only took her a moment to realize that this was the opportunity she'd been waiting for. She turned to Homeward, her face determined to get her answers now, only to find him looking at her, a hoof already stopping her words. She pressed on anyway. “Homeward, I was wondering...”

“Don't. I know what you are thinking, and it doesn't matter.”

Steam felt like she'd been slapped in the face. “What do you mean it doesn't matter?”

Homeward sighed. “I promise to you that everything will be revealed at journey's end. We leave tomorrow, we'll be in Ponyville very soon after. We can all be a little more patient.”

Steam stomped her hoof, which was muffled in the sand and completely lost to Wind's laughter. “But don't you think she has a right to know? After all of this... after all the years she searched...”

“You're assuming that I am he.” Homeward was stoic, as always, a cloaked figure, even here in this hidden beach. Steam backed down, and with that Homeward softened. “Believe me, everything will make sense when the time is right. But, until then, even the smallest, most innocent actions could have unknown consequences, and I have been working on this far too long to see it fall apart this close to the end...” For the first time, Steam heard how tired Homeward was. He had been keeping up an act since long before they had met... this was nearly breaking him. “Please... enjoy this time. You will be glad you did.”

Slowly Steam nodded, backing away from Homeward and giving him a little space. He nodded back, smiling beneath his hood. As Steam walked back, her hoof touched the water, and the refreshing coolness immediately swept up her spine. Hearing Wind continuing to play on her own in the water, Steam's will broke and she turned around, taking a running leap to splash into the water. She surfaced quickly, only to be hit by a wall of water sent her way by Wind's wing. She countered with her hooves, doing her best to win the splash fight against a better armed opponent. When it was done and both of them were soaked, laughing together, Steam felt like there really wasn't any place else she'd rather be.

As she looked towards the beach, seeing Homeward staring almost wistfully at the pair in the water, her heart sank, knowing she wasn't the only one.
Where Night Meets Day 15: Almost Home
After all of this time and all of this struggle, the two mares fleeing their country discover how close to home they truly are.
It took a scant two years for the nation of the New Lunar Republic to not only form, banded together from like minded ponies in cities across eastern Equestria, but to create an unresolvable border dispute. While the line between the two nations had been foggy at best at the Republic's inception, resolved as the point where the guard was no longer shouted at by the rioting ponies, it became immediately clear that those boundaries weren't exactly tenable. Cities needed land for food production and natural resources, villages against the takeover were mounting offensives against rebels coming too close to their lands, and, realistically, the argument of clearly defined natural borders wasn't all that bad. It just had one flaw: Celestia's Equestria wouldn't have any of it.

Barring loyalists fleeing the cities and lands taken over by Luna's rebels, Equestria (being called the Solar Empire by said rebels) refused to communicate with, trade with, or do much more than tolerate the presence of the New Lunar Republic, so giving up even an inch of their borders was right out of the question. When this response was met with refugees from the loyal villages and armed rebels claiming the land all on their own... well, there was really only one possible solution. After all, a pony had to keep their own safe and sound.

And nopony understood that better than Applejack. From the moment she saw that rainboom and ran all the way home, she knew, deep in her heart, that she was an Apple to the core, and an Apple knew three things. First: that family was more important than anything. Second: that apples weren't just a crop, they were a way of life. And third: an Apple never gave up, especially where points one and two were concerned. Sure, right now, most of where the rebels were was past the Everfree Forest, but what if they kept moving? What if they went all the way to Ponyville, or all the way to Appleloosa? Who would stop them from taking over Sweet Apple Acres or hurting her kin?

The answer was obvious. Her. She might have been out of the loop for a little while, what with having three healthy foals and running a farm on her mind, but she knew that her country needed her and her friends, and she was ready and willing to help before they even asked. And, as Apples themselves, her kin were ready to back her up fully.

“Now you be careful out there, little missy! You might be the Element a' Honesty, but that don't mean you're invincible! Nopony defends a fence like you, but these pests are a might bigger 'n rabbits.” Granny Smith pointed a wrinkly hoof at Applejack, shaking it threateningly as she warned the ever-young mare. The drooping skin over her face rearranged itself into a smile quickly enough, though. “But with you 'n Applebloom on the job, those bad apples 'll be back to normal in no time.”

Applejack blushed slightly over the finished meal, her last with her family before she headed to Canterlot to train. “Aw, shucks Granny. We'll do our best. Though I'm just wonderin' how it coulda got this bad ta start with.” The room was full of the family at home, which was a small group at the moment: only four counting her. She'd invited her husband over from his farm, hoping he would bring their daughters but she knew better than anypony how difficult a farmer's life was. Still, it would have been nice to see Cassidy and Concord before she left...

Shaking her head, she looked over at Big Mac, smiling brightly at her brother. “I just wish you were comin' with us, Mac. You'd be all the muscle we'd need.”

Big Mac shook his head, and for the first time Applejack could see the hints of coming wrinkles on his tired face. “Can't. Ain't built for trainin'.” He rubbed his back brace idly, the leg he chose wrapped with its own brace at the knee, but he smiled nonetheless. Still, there was a sadness behind his eyes, and in the light of the dining room he just seemed so... frail.

“Ah, well, somepony's gotta keep Granny in line, right?” Applejack chuckled at the scowl that got from both Big Mac and Granny Smith and shook her head, looking at the pony sitting across from Big Mac. Little Jazz was only eleven, all bright eyes and high energy normally, but right now he was sitting quietly, looking like he'd never smile again. Applejack reached over, putting a hoof on her son's shoulder. “You doin' alright there, Jazz?” He stayed quiet, focused fiercely on the food before him, barely touched at all. “I know it's gonna be hard for a bit, but-”

“But why do
you have to go?” Jazz's eyes looked up into Applejack's, those big hazel orbs looking so innocent and questioning, and growing up so fast... how big would they be when she got back?

She had to fight not to just melt down and give in to them. “Jazz, ya gotta understand. It ain't that I want ta go, it's that I need ta. As much as I love the farm an' wanna stay here more 'n anything, I can't sit idly by and wait for somethin' bad ta happen ta my family! I'm an Apple, Jazz, just like you, and-”

“-family is more important than anythin'.” Jazz recited with her, frowning as he did. “Yeah, I know, but... We're yer family, ma! Yer
real family, an' we need you here! This whole place'd fall apart without ya!”

Applejack sighed, looking to her elders at the table, only to see them both waiting for her answer to her son. Sometimes she wondered if they liked to see her squirm, or if it was just payback for something she did when she was a filly. Still, she stood up, walking around the table and kneeling down before Jazz, which almost put her too low to look in his eyes anymore. When had he gotten so tall? “Jazz, I know this is gonna be hard, but you 'n Mac 'n Granny Smith are just gonna have ta be strong while I'm gone. Sweet Apple Acres is home, it runs through your veins... Ya'll know what to do.”

Jazz shook his head and crossed his arms, pouting with tears welling at the edges of his eyes, though she could tell by the strain on his freckled cheeks that he was trying to hide them. “How can you just go away an' abandon yer family!”

Applejack wanted to cry as well, but that was doused by a flare of Apple pride. “I ain't 'abandonin'' no family, Jazz! Family is more'n just the ponies yer related ta. It's yer friends 'n neighbors too. Princess Twilight is countin' on me, the whole of Equestria is countin' on me, an' I'm not gonna let 'em down!” She pulled him close, nuzzling into his green mane. “Yer my little seedling an' I love ya more 'n anythin', but I can't just leave everypony else worryin' just 'cus I couldn't leave ya when you could take it.” She pulled back, smiling brightly. “Yer strong, Jazz. I trust ya ta make it through just fine. You just make sure ta keep the Acres safe, an' I'll be back before ya know it, ya hear me?”

Jazz nodded, tears rolling down his face, though he tried desperately to hide his sobs. That was too much for Applejack, and a few of the tears she'd been holding onto fell as well. “I promise, when this is over, ya ain't gonna even know I was gone.”

Jazz shook his head., clinging tightly to his mother's arm. “I'll know...”

It took a long time for the two to separate, but eventually Applejack had to leave or she would miss her train, and so she gently pulled away from her son and grabbed her things, slinging her saddlebags over her back before she put on her hat and headed out. Looking back on her home to see Big Mac and Granny Smith hugging each other and fighting off tears was just as touching as when she'd left as a filly with nothing but a sling over her shoulder, though the sight of Jazz added in stabbed at her heart. Still, it was for them that she had to be strong, so she took a deep breath, turned towards town, and started on the long path from home.

Just before she reached the gate of Sweet Apple Acres, her path was blocked by two little fillies waiting for her at the edge of the road. One was purple, with fiery golden eyes drowning in tears, while the smaller one was yellow with a shocking red mane, barely able to stand for her shaking sobs. As soon as they saw her, Concord and Cassidy ran down the path, both of their little bodies thumping against her chest as all three of them joined in a hug. She held them close for one last time, wondering if her little girls would grow up as fast as Jazz had. She already knew the answer.

It took her just as long to pry herself from her daughters as it had her son, but their intervention did nothing to lessen the importance of her mission, it only made it that much harder to turn and leave the sobbing fillies behind her.

She hoped all the way to the train station that their father would say goodbye as well, but when the time came, she boarded the train alone, her last kiss unspent upon her lips, joining at least a month's worth before it...

*     *     *     *     *    

Flora tilted the last of the water from her watering can, finishing her daily checkup of her plants with a spring in her step. Every day since she'd first played for the jazz apples just seemed to be getting better, both musically, as she grew more accustomed to the violin, and due to a string of good omens. Silver Lining had managed a successful snowstorm, dusting the town lightly in the white fluff, and with the first snow of winter came the news that Equestria's forces were making headway into the New Lunar Republic's territory, putting them, if the papers were to be believed, one step closer to a nation at peace. On a more personal level, Rose was running her perfumery again, and, on the one day that Flora had walked into the shop, the smile she saw on her mother's face wasn't a forced rictus of despair. Even old Dot's tail seemed to be wagging more often, making the whole season feel perfectly in tune.

And what a glorious tune it is! thought Flora as she grabbed the violin case, went outside, and locked the door of her greenhouse behind her. She had decided to keep the violin there, as it was free from prying eyes or ears and far enough from her mother to neither disturb her nor get her asking questions. If Rose hadn't figured out that Flora and Jazz were a couple by now, really, Flora would have to be disappointed in the obliviousness of her mother, but that didn't mean Flora wanted her mother prying, something the increasingly melodic tones of the violin would cause without fail. And, though she knew it was fear speaking and nothing else, Flora was not ready for a repeat of Ms. Heartstrings' recital.

Flora barely noticed the lengthy walk to Sweet Apple Acres, her mind wandering as she hummed the tune she was beginning to know by heart. Coming here each day to play for the glowing blossoms was a joy, made that much better when she saw Jazz's smiling face, his eyes practically gleaming in the warm room. The music had been set, and now it was just a matter of ensuring the flowers enjoyed the show, but even if they were playing the same song over and over, that simple act the two of them did together made the chilly walk from Ponyville worth it.

She met him at the door, watching the snow piled just outside of it quickly melt as he swung it open, the blast of warm air from within rolling over her face and immediately making her wooly hat feel far too warm. Once inside, she tossed the hat aside, smiling as it landed on the pile of his scarf before both she and Jazz got their instruments out in unison. Tuning took the longest, since she didn't have the ear to tell if she was sharp or flat and the temperature change wrecked havoc on both her violin and his trumpet, but Jazz took the whole process in stride as he tuned them both, and, even with the delays it caused to the performance, the heat was a source of pride for Flora. The building had no heater, no conditioning, no furnace, and yet it still felt like a sauna when the two of them got too worked up. When she'd repaired it last she'd done a wonderful job on the insulation, and the smile that fact brought to her face always puzzled Jazz when he gave her her fiddle and readied to play.

Flora took her stance, Jazz readied his horn, and, with little more than a nod between them, they both began to play. Most days Flora kept her eyes closed, but today wasn't one of them, watching as the blossoms on their living sheet music glowed and swayed to the melody, reveling as it washed over them like gentle waves lapping at the shore. The shimmering lights always threatened to dazzle her, to take her from her music and into the magic she was witnessing before her, but she always fought back, looking over at her partner and seeing the product of their duet reflecting in the sheen of his fur.

Much too soon the song ended, the instruments coming to a rest and both ponies smiling at each other as they awaited the results. The flowers' glow grew to a pitch, then suddenly cut out, the petals just a little bigger, their scent a little sweeter, their fruit one day closer to perfection. It'd be a month before they began to develop, and even longer until they were ripe for the picking, but Flora was more than happy to wait. As Jazz walked over and nuzzled her cheek in appreciation, she smirked to herself, wrapping her hooves around him in a hug. She wasn't really here for the apples anyway.

*     *     *     *     *    

Flora looked up at the peak of the greenhouse roof, laying on her back as she watched a small chunk of snow begin to slide off, creating a noise she could follow all the way to the edge where it plopped on the ground. Inside it was still warm, the air electric with the after results of their performance today, and she was making the most of the time as she rested with her head against Jazz's side. She looked over at him, watching his warm smile bud on his face as he looked at the flowers. However, that tiny bud didn't truly blossom until he saw he had her attention, leaning over and rubbing his nose cutely against hers. “Ya did amazin' as always, Sugar.”

Flora's cheeks warmed as she looked into his eyes. “Well, I have a great partner to play off of, Jazzy. And I learned from an amazing teacher.” They both giggled at each other, a lazy flick of Flora's tail brushing lightly against the instrument cases, full and abandoned in the middle of the room. Both ponies probably had places to be or things to be doing, but the cool glow of winter's twilight had yet to grace the opaque white walls, so, really, where was the rush?

Flora wiggled deeper into her spot on Jazz's side, grinning warmly at him, which he matched, tousling her mane gently with his hoof. “An' ta think, a few months ago you were scared ta play!”

She shook the hair out of her eyes, rolling onto her side so she could look him in the face the whole time. “Yeah, well, a lot can change in a few months. Though I still won't be playing for anyone but you.” Jazz smirked, glancing over towards the flowers, and Flora rolled her eyes. “Yeah, alright. I guess they can hear it too.” They both laughed at that, but as it died down, an idea popped into Flora's head, causing her to push herself up to be level with Jazz's face. “Actually, scratch that, Silver totally needs to hear one of these performances.”

Jazz raised an eyebrow at her, already feeling the warm air wrap around the spot her head had vacated. “Ya want an audience? Ya sure about that? I thought ya said ya froze up the last time ya had one.”

Flora waved a hoof at the thought. “That was years ago when I was just a filly, and besides, it'd be Silver! She's our best friend! The flowers would be a pickier bunch.”

Jazz tapped a hoof on the ground, digging a little hole in the dirt. “I dunno... I ain't shown this ta anypony that ain't family. I mean... I guess it's not so much my show as ours, anymore, but it might be weird ta have her watchin'.”

“Jazz, c'mon! She's a Crusader, she's a friend, she's been helping us both out since we were foals... Heck, she's the only other pony who works as hard as we do on your farm, even if it's all done in the sky above it. While the weather she makes might not help these particular apples, this whole show would be the perfect way to pay her back. She'd love it.” Flora didn't need to make a puppy face or beg, but, though her words didn't say it, she was asking permission. She still had a greenhouse she didn't let her friends into, and if he wanted to keep their show a secret, she'd completely understand. But this was a year of change, and this was something Silver deserved to see.

Though it took him a few moments and a very unsure look at Flora, Jazz agreed, nodding his head. “Alright, she can watch, but just the once. When I'm in here, I ain't puttin' on a show fer ponies. Just plants.” Flora smiled and pumped a hoof in the air, bringing a smaller smile to Jazz's face with her antics. She leaned forward, ready to make those smiles meet, but was startled when her face only met air, a knock on the greenhouse wall pulling Jazz's attention, and muzzle, away from her. Behind the jazz apple vines there were a few shadows outside, and curiosity got the better of both of them, leading Jazz to put on his scarf and go outside while Flora slowly stood up and got her hat, waiting to see if the situation needed her.

As soon as Jazz poked his head out the door, he heard a familiar voice. “Jazz, what the hay do ya think yer doin' with this eyesore?” Looking over the fence where it disappeared into the greenhouse he saw a purple mare tapping her hoof against the corner, a bitter look on her face.

With a little confusion, Jazz answered. “It's jazz apple season, Concord. I do this every year.” He then looked at the greenhouse, glad to see it blending in slightly better with the snow all around it. “Could be worse. Could be doin' it in the summer. I'd stick out like a carrot in a cabbage patch.”

Concord tsked in annoyance, leaning against the fence. “Yeah, but Jazz... I get that ya do this every year, but do ya have to do it on our property?”

Jazz walked up to the fence, noting that the greenhouse did, indeed, pass it to enclose the vines within. “But that's where the buildin' always goes. Been like that since I started takin' care of the things. An' it's only a hoofful a' land that ain't anywhere near the vin'yards.” He could see the sticks the grape vines grew on behind concord, a good hundred yards from the edge of the fence.

Concord leaned over the fence, tapping Jazz on the head. “But ya see, big bro, this is Grape Family Vineyards' land, not Sweet Apple Acres’s land. Daddy's not too pleased ya've been spillin' over, but he's willin' to settle... for a fee.” As she spoke, Golden Grape walked from around the fence, a scowl on his face, only made more stern by the beginnings of wrinkles and greying light blue mane.

Jazz looked from his father to Concord, feeling the situation going south quickly. “What's all this about? If'n the vines didn't grow right on the fence, I wouldn't have ta go over, but since they do, it weren't never an issue that the buildin' went over.”

“Actually, Jazz, it was.” Cassidy, who had managed to hide behind the slender form of her father, walked over to the fence, leaning over to top to offer a folder across it. As Jazz took the important looking document, his youngest sister continued to explain. “You see, according to the official records, there was never a binding agreement made on the land by the fence by either the Apple or the Grape family. Officially, this means that in order to build your greenhouse here, you will have to either obtain the permission from the head of the Grape family and/or pay rent upon the space, including back rent on all of the years prior, to a sum which you will find in that folder I have provided.”

Jazz flipped open the folder, sifting through the paperwork inside until he came across the bill. He immediately dropped the whole thing in disgust. “Twenty thousand bits?! What kinda fool do ya take me for? That kinda money for this is just disgustin'.”

Cassidy frowned when the folder hit the snow, but otherwise remained calm. “Strictly speaking, most of that money would not be for the land. The bulk of it would be payment for the profits gained by the selling of our product as your own.”


Cassidy tapped the fence in annoyance. “Those 'jazz apples.'”

“What about 'em?”

“They aren't apples. They're grapes.”

Jazz glared at his sister before looking towards his father, the aging stallion continuing to stand silently in the back. “Pa, she's jokin', right? Yer all just messin' with me.”

Cassidy sighed. “I can assure you I'm not. According to the legal records, an agreement was struck at the time of the Grape family gaining the land so near the Apple family from Princess Celestia and setting down their vineyard. They were to grow and sell grapes and grape based products such as juice and wine, while the Apples would grow and sell apples for similar purposes, with no violation of this unless agreed upon by both sides. And, by law, an apple is a large arboreal fruit, while a grape is grown and cultivated off of a vine.” She pointed to the paper that supported her arguments, half covered in snow as it was. “Despite the look, taste, and shape of your 'jazz apples,' the size and the way they are grown suggest that they are, in fact, jazz grapes and, as such, all profits from them must be paid back before a new deal can be struck in the splitting of any income.”

Flora tried to stay silent from this strange family argument, but at that last statement she couldn't hold back, storming out of the greenhouse, much to the surprise of the Grape family ponies. “What?!” she yelled as she approached the fence. “You can't be serious! If you had ever once tried to cultivate the jazz apples-”

“Jazz grapes,” Cassidy supplied.

Flora gave her a flat look. “To cultivate the jazz apples, then maybe you would have a leg to stand on, but you didn't even know what the vines were, let alone how they grew, until Jazz figured it out. It's why the plants are named after him, and why he's the one to take care of them! And he doesn't even make money off of them! He-”

Jazz ran over to the fence, pushing Flora gently back and separating her from his sister. “Flora, I 'preciate the help, but you ain't th' one in charge a' the farm. Let me take care a' this.” When she was back on the ground, her hackles still raised, he turned on his sister. “An' I know there ain't some fancy words on paper sayin' as much, but Ma and Pa both agreed the day I figured them apples out that they were under my care, whatever I decided to do with 'em. In fact, I remember some talk about tearin' down the fence around the vines 'n makin' the two farms one. Now since yer here messin' with me, that last bit ain't never happened, but it don't change that the jazz apples are mine. Isn't that right?” He directed that last question towards his father, who continued to stand in the back, watching the entire scene quietly.

Golden's stern face barely registered that the question was put to him, but when he looked at his son, the coldness never left his eyes. “I don't remember anything like that.”

Jazz looked like he'd been punched in the face. “What?!”

Concord smirked haughtily, feeling the full sense of achievement. “He said it never happened Jazz.”

Flora took a step towards the fence, steam shooting from her nose with each angered breath. “Why you little-”

Jazz shot out a hoof to stop her, though the anger in his eyes only seemed to suggest he'd be the one to leap at her. “You just ask Ma about it! She can tell ya the date, the time, even probably what we had for dinner that night when you both were celebratin' about it!” He looked between his sisters, feeling what little bond held his family together weakening by the second. He could just barely see it, but he remembered the wonder on Concord's face... and the jam splattered all over Cassidy's. “Until ya get both sides a' th' story, I ain't gonna pay a single bit fer rent.” He started to walk inside, but stopped at the door. “An' it's like Flora said, I ain't sold anythin' off of 'em, so ya got nothin' ta collect.”

Cassidy looked surprisingly calm at the outbursts, but it was clear she wasn't done yet. “This still doesn't cover the damages caused by farming the jazz grapes, Sweet Apple Acres property or no.”

Jazz froze, every muscle waiting in anticipation of something horrible. “What damages?”

“Sound pollution, disturbing the peace, and any damage caused to the vineyards by the din created by your trumpet.”

Jazz snorted and spun around, glaring at Cassidy. “My trumpet ain't caused no din, an' it ain't hurt any a' yer vines. I might be willin' ta grant ya some 'sound pollution,' but I ain't payin' for that either, considerin' ya enjoyed it so much at the last family reunion. If'n yer lucky, I might be willin' ta quiet it down fer yer precious Grape ears.”

Cassidy glared back, the first time her demeanor broke. “Our ears aren't the issue, Jazz. The problem is the land, the sound, and the lack of a legal contract.”

Jazz looked at his other sister, seeing the matching glare from her, then looked to his father, who stayed quiet in the back. They were really trying to pull this on him... The anger built, boiling in his blood, but just as he was about to release it... it all evaporated, sapping his energy and leaving behind a deep rooted sadness. “Why're ya doin' this ta me? I get that it might be payback fer some prank when we were little, but... C'mon, girls! We're kin.”

Golden looked between his three children and shrugged, frowning at the fence they all were leaning on. “Times are hard on all of us, son, and the war hasn't helped that in the least. A few years ago, a little bit of land on the edge of the vineyard didn't mean anything, but now...” He looked past Jazz, into the orchard with all of its leaves bare, then at Flora, the only pony standing on Jazz's side. It didn't soften his gaze in the least. “Family or not, this is a matter of business.”

Jazz shook his head. “But it ain't. Look, I've been askin' fer help, an' I understand ya being busy, but if it's that bad, ya coulda asked me. I ain't a pony ta leave his family in need.” He looked at his sisters, both lacking some of their smugness, their smiles faded at the sight of him. “What would Ma think about all this, huh Cassidy? All these numbers 'n rates tryin' ta milk yer brother for what few bits he has? Or, Concord, how ya had ta bully the farm ya grew up on for a few bits in a pinch?” He slumped into the snow. “I know we ain't raised a barn or even worked a field together in years, but that don't mean I don't love ya. Yer the ones that cut ties with me, an' now...” He sighed. “Now it's like ya ain't even Apples anymore.”

Golden huffed in the cold, the steam swirling away instantly. “If being an Apple is so hard, son, you could always be a Grape. I'm sure that crippled uncle of yours could run the farm just fine on his own.”

The anger that had left came back in full force, pulling Jazz up to the fence and looming over it as best as he could, daggers in his eyes as he glared at his father. “Pa, if ya really loved Ma, ya'd know an Apple never abandons their own. You might try ta ruin Sweet Apple Acres, but yer gonna have ta do so through me 'n all the Apple kin.” Just behind him Flora took a fighting stance as well, ready to throw down hooves if it would keep the farm she knew so well safe for another year.

Golden shrugged, shaking off Jazz's anger like so much bravado. “Well, I'm sorry you see it that way, son, but I really have no choice. Cassidy, could you take that bill and go to the mayor with it? I'm sure she'd be willing to help us on this matter.” Cassidy took a step towards the fence, seeing the folder sitting in the snow just on the other side, but hesitated at the intensity of the anger behind it. She was met by a glare not just from Jazz, but from Flora, a pony not even related to the farm... As she looked between them, she could almost see her mother standing between them, that same determined look on her face. A determination all Apple's shared, one that - “What's the matter Cassidy? I said get that bill to Town Hall!”

Cassidy shook her head, backing away from the fence. “I'm sorry dad, I can't do this anymore. It's not right.”

Golden lost his aloof attitude, glaring at his little girl. “What?”

Cassidy turned around, facing her dad with a look extremely similar to Jazz's. “Jazz has done nothing wrong. If anything, the sound from the greenhouse could be linked to the increased production in this area. I'm not going to lie just to give the vineyards a little more comfort when sales are down, particularly not if it hurts my brother.”

Golden snorted again, gritting his teeth as he held back what he wanted to say. “Very well... Concord! Grab that folder for me. I'll take it to the mayor personally.”

Concord didn't hesitate for a moment, throwing a smile at Jazz as she darted her hoof past the fence, pulling up the folder and narrowly avoiding his hoof trying to stomp on hers. “Oh, ya mean this folder?” she said, spinning around and holding it up triumphantly.

Golden smiled. “Ah, good. I wouldn't even begin to know how long it would take to compile those numbers again without Cassidy. Come, let's go to the-” The sound of tearing papers cut through the crisp, cool air like a sword, bringing all eyes to Golden's horrified face as he watched his older daughter's hooves.

The paperwork, folder and all, was slowly ripped in half, then halved again, and again, before it was simply dropped from her hoof, the little pieces fluttering away like artificial snowflakes on the breeze. “I'm sorry, did you need that? Because I think ya misheard Cassidy. We might be Grapes by name, but that don't mean we're not Apples to the core. There are plenty of other farms ya can beat up on around here. Leave mom's out of it.”

Golden's flustered stammering was nearly enough to break everyone's concentration, the determined glares turning into smiles of victory while he tried to find the right words to denounce his sudden betrayal. After far too long muttering he pointed a hoof at Concord and Cassidy. “You are going to get a serious talking to when we get back to the house. And you!” he said as his hoof barely moved move, pointing at Jazz, situated between his sisters. “You can't hide behind your mother forever. If she were here instead of off fighting some rebels, we wouldn't even be in this mess. She was the one to abandon all of us to this mess, and look what it has wrought. The fact that you still call yourself an Apple... I would be ashamed if it wasn't so predictable.” He turned and stormed off, kicking up a flurry of snow in his wake, while the two sisters watched him go. Eventually, though, they grew tired of waiting in the cold, turning back to Jazz with apologetic smiles.

“I assure you, I will do my best to make sure he doesn't attempt something like this again. I would strike a deal with you here and now, but I'm afraid I'm not high enough up the chain of command yet,” Cassidy said quickly, leaving Jazz in the verbal dust for a moment as he processed it.

Concord was a lot easier to understand. “Cassidy has been studying law in her free time, but she doesn't get out enough to remember how ta speak normally. She's been looking at a school in Canterlot, though, since the ones in Manehattan aren't really an option at the moment...” She saw that, while that had eased Jazz's confusion, it hadn't really put him at ease, so Concord sighed, leaning on the fence again. “I don't know why he's messing with ya, but... well, he had it so ingrained that I was starting ta forget my own roots. Ever since he pulled us both to live in his orchard, it's just never been the same, ya know? And after ten years without a reunion... It almost makes ya forget yer own family.”

Jazz shook his head, smiling, though it was strained. “Don't mention it. Just make sure ta come 'n visit one a' these nights. There's always room fer family at the table.”

Concord leaned fully over the fence, one forehoof wrapping around her brother's neck in a quick hug. “We will. I'll talk to ya soon. On better terms, I promise.” She leaned back over the fence, trotting through the snow behind her sister as they went back to the house and whatever punishment would be awaiting them.

The moment they left, Jazz's jaw clenched visibly, with tension being held all throughout his body. Flora, who'd been warmed by the good end to this whole mess, walked up to his side, a look of concern on her face. “Are you alright, Jazzy?”

“My Pa just tried ta ruin Sweet Apple Acres fer a few quick bits, an' he blamed this whole mess on Ma while turnin' my sisters 'gainst me 'n their own just ta take my Jazz apples 'n make 'em his.” He looked at her, steam rising from his cheeks, even his freckles seeming to melt into the rest of his red fur due to the flushed anger beneath. “No, I ain't alright!”

Flora took a step closer, moving to hug him as she spoke. “It's okay. So the Grapes are a bad bunch! Your sisters snapped out of it, and really, I don't think you've got anything to worry about. anymore”

Jazz took a step back, avoiding the hug completely. “Not now! I just...” He huffed, turning towards the farmhouse. “Ma's gettin' a letter 'bout this one. Who does he think he is tryin' ta pull somethin' like that 'gainst family?” He took off at a gallop, snow launching up behind him in flurries with every step.

As much as Flora wanted to follow him, she wasn't sure she wouldn't do more harm than good. Reluctantly, she went into the heat of the greenhouse, saying goodbye to the jazz apple blossoms as she grabbed her violin and left, locking the building behind her. As she walked back to town, her nice day sullied, she hoped it'd all blow over by morning.

*     *     *     *     *    

Flora made sure to finish her plants' checkup early the next day, the violin case sitting carefully on her back and slowly collecting snowflakes as she walked through the town. Normally she would make a bee line for Sweet Apple Acres and get ready for the day's performance, but, especially after the whole family matter Jazz had dealt with the day before, she figured she needed a backup plan, in the form of a certain silver pegasus.

Flora found Silver Lining lounging outside the school yard of all places, idly kicking a low hanging cloud to provide extra snow for the fillies and colts playing there. Flora was loathe to admit she barely knew what few foals were still around town, but she did recognize Bittersweet with her Crusader friends, trying to make some kind of grand igloo, though it looked more like a misshapen snowdrift. Still, snow building cutie marks would be neat to have, so Flora wasn't about to put a damper on their fun. She was, however, going to borrow the source of it for a while. “Silver! Have you got a minute?”

Silver's ears perked up at her friend's voice, causing her to roll over on the cloud she was on, putting another quick flurry of white in the air. “Oh, hey, Flora! What's up?”

“I was wondering... Wait, get down here so I don't have to shout it over the little ponies.” None of them were paying her any attention, but she didn't want to give one the wrong idea and end up with crowd. When Silver landed, she started again. “If you've got a moment, there's something I'd like you to see at Sweet Apple Acres, though I'll understand if you're busy.”

Silver looked almost offended at Flora's words. “Me? Too busy for you? Flora, c'mon!” She hovered into the air, kicking the cloud one last time and causing the entire thing to puff into snow, which gently floated down on the fillies and colts playing in the schoolyard. With a satisfied smile, she landed a little ways away, signaling for Flora to catch up.

Flora smiled warmly, running over to her friend's side and adjusting her hat. It always amazed her that Silver could be out in the snow without even a hint of being cold, or stand in the summer sun and seem cool as a cucumber, but it had to be a pegasus thing. That or she was just ridiculously tolerable of weather. Really, with how hard it was to grow a cucumber out of season, the vegetable could probably learn a thing or two from her. “It shouldn't take too long, but I think it could help cheer up Jazz.”

Silver nodded. “However I can help! How is the guy? Handsome as always? And what do you mean by 'cheering up'?” She nudged Flora's side as she asked that last question, waggling an exaggerated eyebrow suggestively.

Flora smirked and shook her head. “Nothing like that. I'm not sharing. There were some surprise family issues yesterday that I had the misfortune to be around for, and I thought having his best friend come over and watch him perform for the jazz apples would put him in a better mood.”

Silver ran ahead of Flora, walking backwards through the snowy streets with a look of disbelief on her face. “Wait, you mean to tell me he let you in his greenhouse? How did you do it? What favors do you owe him?” She lunged forward, stopping in the street and examining Flora's face for every minute detail. “How do I get into yours?”

Flora rolled her eyes, walking around the frozen pegasus. “By invitation, like I got into his. And it took a little convincing, but since you do so much work for the weather on the farm, I managed to convince him to let you see the fruits of your labor. And I don't owe him any favors, either.”

Silver danced across the snow, leaping over Flora to land in front of her, except when she was over the violin case on her back, she braked, hovering in mid air at the same pace Flora was walking. “Is that Jazz's fiddle? When did you start playing that? How much did I miss after the tornado incident?”

Flora sped up a little, though it did nothing to throw the curious pegasus off her pace. “I've been playing for a few months now. Jazz taught me how.”

“Even after the disaster at Ms. Heartstrings'?”

Flora blushed, only now remembering that Silver had been there that day. She'd played the flute beautifully, too... Was there anything this mare wasn't good at? “Yes... even after that. I'm... well...” She lowered her head almost to the snow, muttering the next words softly into the fluffy banks beneath her. “I'm also going to be performing for you...”

Silver gasped, falling out of the air to land on Flora's back, her light frame not even slowing her sturdy friend down. “You're doing a duet?!” Silver's head popped in from the top of Flora's vision, hers upside-down and looking in wonder at Flora's. After a few moments, she whispered menacingly, a command of utmost urgency. “Tell me your secrets!”

Flora shook her back, completely failing to dislodge the pegasus that was crushing her hat. “I don't have any secrets! It's really... it's not...” She wanted to brush it off like it was something trivial, but it wasn't. The song she played at Jazz's side was the highlight of her day, an act that made her feel closer to him than any other pony in existence. They meant the world to her, and so she lapsed into silence. Had her time with Jazz really been that cloistered? Come to think of it, she didn't hang out with Silver all that often anymore...

Silver spun around, grabbing the violin case and holding it to her chest before laying on Flora's black, much the same way she'd been lounging on the cloud. “Alright! You've got the trip to the Acres to tell me everything I've been missing. And I mean everything, especially the juicy details.” She grinned mischievously at the sky. “All of them. I'll be taking mental notes. And I'll know if you're holding out. For starters: how good of a kisser is he?”

Flora sighed, shaking her head to herself. It was going to be a long, embarrassing walk to the farm, but hopefully it would be worth it.

*     *     *     *     *    

Silver was stunned, her mind trying to process everything she'd just heard. “... Okay, now I'm officially jealous. Tell me again about his-”

“We're here!” Flora's face was as red as her mane, completely mortified by the dirt Silver now had on her. “And not a word of any of that to my mother. She'd probably kill me.”

Again, Silver looked offended as she hopped off her friend's back. “Flora! Of course not! Crusaders to the core! Though I don't think she'd be all that surprised. My mom always tells me about the mistakes she was making when she was my age, and how glad she is that I'm not making 'em myself. Since I never told you about any of those, even though some of them are very funny, how well do you think I can keep a secret?”

Flora looked at her flatly. “Just like when we were eight and-”

Silver rolled her eyes dramatically. “You're never going to let me live that down, are you? What did you want from me?! Jazz had been turned to stone, and you had the thing tied up in a bag in the thinking corner while you interrogated it. If I hadn't gone to find Fluttershy-”

“I still say I had it perfectly under control! I was grounded for a whole month because of that...” Flora walked quickly to the greenhouse door, finding it unlocked and quite happy that the change in topic had arrived when it had. She cracked it open, peeking inside to see Jazz already warming up his trumpet, a very businesslike look on his face. “Jazzy, sorry it took me so long to get here, but... well, remember how we were talking about Silver maybe seeing the performance?” Before she could finish or wait for a reaction, Silver pushed her way past, looking around the greenhouse like the interior would disappear if she didn't take the chance.

“Woah... It's a lot more cramped than I thought it would be.”

Flora expected Jazz to be a little annoyed that she had gone around him on this one, but she wasn't at all ready for the glare she received. It was only lightened when she offered him the violin case, mouthing a silent apology while he set to tuning the instrument. Flora barely had time to make sure Silver was sitting and ready for the show when the violin was placed back in her hooves, Jazz quickly taking back up his position.

Silver watched in fascination, having heard Flora's account of that moment where everything had clicked. She hadn't explained the jazz apples or what they would do, but Silver hardly cared about those glowy fruits. She was here to cheer up her friends, and if she happened to get a show out of it, then all the better.

Flora got up on her hind legs, preparing the violin for the first notes of the piece. With that, she looked over, ready for the signal from Jazz. Normally there was a nod, but she must have blinked, because he had already started playing, leaving her a few notes behind. Unfortunately, as much as she thought she knew the piece by heart, she didn't know how to jump in, causing her to need to rush the first few notes to catch up and making the misplay quite obvious to their audience of one. Slightly on tilt, particularly with the mare watching her intently, Flora closed her eyes, trying to listen out the music like she normally did.

But something was... off. Jazz was playing a little more aggressively than normal, bringing his tempo a little fast, a little jilted, and causing the whole song to never really pop. When they hit the last note, Flora held it out, only to hear Jazz drop his horn early, leaving her all alone. She opened her eyes to see the result, seeing the flowers glowing dimly, and caught out of the corner of her eyes that Jazz was already putting his trumpet away.

Once the spectacle with the flowers was over, Silver began to applaud, the clopping of her hooves the only sound in the stuffy room. “Well done! I never knew that was what you did in here. How come I never saw this thing before? It's really awesome.”

Jazz responded quickly, his voice almost flat. “Yeah, glad ya liked it.”

Flora stood there nervously, messing with the strings on her instrument and feeling like she wanted a redo on this whole thing. “Look, Jazz, I'm sorry I fell behind, I just-”

“Don't mention it.” He snapped his trumpet case closed, walking immediately to the door. “I'll see ya tomorrow, Flora.” Before she could even respond he was outside, his hooves crunching away in the snow.

Flora was stunned in place, wondering what the hay had just happened. Had Silver coming really been that bad an idea? How much had the thing the day before affected him? Where was that friendly smile of his that told her everything would be alright? It had only been gone a day and she already missed it and the pony it brought along.

Silver was equally confused, still laying on the floor and looking quite confused by the hurried exit. “Did he just walk out on us?” Flora nodded slowly. “Geez, that ain't right. Jazz never looks that serious. Ever. Is something wrong? Did you have some sort of issue you didn't tell me about? Should I go talk some sense back into him?”

Flora shook her head, even though she agreed with Silver's assessment and wondered herself if any of those questions applied. “No. I mean, maybe you should come hang out with him a bit during the morning when I'm at my greenhouse, but... I guess he's still bugged by the argument with his sisters yesterday. He's not normally like this.”

“No. He's not.” Silver walked over to Flora, who still stood ready to play the song again. “You sure you don't want my help?”

Flora shook her head again. “If this is a relationship thing, we'll figure this out. If it's not, I'm sure you'll know as soon as I do.” She finally put down her instrument, feeling like it was Ms. Heartstrings' class all over again. “Thanks for coming... sorry the show wasn't up to snuff.”

Silver shrugged. “You played very well. Just thought you should know. And if you need my help, just ask. I'll always have your back.”

Flora put up her hoof, which was immediately met with a bump from Silver's, causing them both to smile in appreciation. “Crusaders to the core!” they said in unison, then Silver made her exit, making sure everything was alright before closing the greenhouse door behind her.

Flora didn't leave, though. She sat in the room, the violin sitting in its open case, looking at the jazz apple blossoms. After a while, she picked up the violin, playing her part of the duet perfectly, though the lone strings sounded dull compared to that beautiful cascade created when they played together... Sighing, she put the instrument away, picking it up as she made her exit. There was something bothering her special somepony, something deeper than just an argument with his sisters... And it was up to her to make it right... all she had to do was figure out what it was.
Or, more precisely, power has finally been restored! After 4 days of no electricity following the hurricane, power has been restored, and I have never been so thankful to faff about on the internet.

Of course, my heart goes out to those still dealing with power issues, but for tonight, I am going to bask in the glow of my monitors, edit the chapter and a third I have written by candlelight, and enjoy modern living.

Your faithful writer,
  • Mood: Optimism
Hi all! This one only currently applies to any fellow friends in Hawaii getting ready for impending Iselle, but generally this also goes for everyone: Don't die in hurricanes! Be safe, be secure, and be prepared. Now, I'm not actually worried that the thing that'll hit in 20 hours is going to do much damage (the last big hurricane to do anything was in 1871) and I live in a house DESIGNED to not die in hurricanes, but still, better to wish everyone luck than let them go luckless.

That said, it might impact my writing by killing my computer/internet for potentially, if all goes horribly wrong, a few weeks, but I will do my best to come out of the other end, whether it's a few days, a few weeks, or a few hours, with as much story as could reasonably be expected in that time frame!

As a side note: don't die in general. It's a real downer on your day.

Your faithful future survivor,
  • Mood: Optimism
Or, more precisely, power has finally been restored! After 4 days of no electricity following the hurricane, power has been restored, and I have never been so thankful to faff about on the internet.

Of course, my heart goes out to those still dealing with power issues, but for tonight, I am going to bask in the glow of my monitors, edit the chapter and a third I have written by candlelight, and enjoy modern living.

Your faithful writer,
  • Mood: Optimism


To heal with love!
United States
I'm just here to help everypony, and solve what I can with as little violence as possible. And when that isn't possible, I am here to make sure my team lives.

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godzillabadger Featured By Owner Jul 3, 2014  Hobbyist General Artist
Thanx for the fave! :)
useraccount Featured By Owner Apr 21, 2014

Haha, yeah, I saw my post from [I]last[/I] year, and I decided to change it up a bit.
Medicshy Featured By Owner Apr 22, 2014
lol, thanks dude!
aNIGHTLYpony Featured By Owner Mar 2, 2014  Student General Artist
useraccount Featured By Owner Apr 21, 2013
Medicshy Featured By Owner Apr 22, 2013
thank you very much!
GreatLeonopteryx Featured By Owner Apr 12, 2013  Student General Artist
[link] finished ur commission. I wasn't sure exactly what you wanted, but i hope u like it!
useraccount Featured By Owner Feb 19, 2013
Well, my mind was just blown. Why? Watch this video (it's on Youtube. It's Fluttershy speaking German) -->[link]
Rex42 Featured By Owner Nov 28, 2012  Hobbyist Digital Artist
thx for the fave(s) :D
fearingFun Featured By Owner Oct 16, 2012  Student Digital Artist
Welcome old friend! Welcome!
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