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deviation in storage by EyeofMagnus


The threats were never obvious, but Shoeshine was starting to consider herself a lucky mare any day none of her windows were smashed, and this was on the good side of town. She dreaded to think what would have happened to her husband and her little girl if they'd been in her old apartment in Manehattan, or even on the other side of Timbucktu. There were still talks of outraged riots in the streets after what had happened to Cloudsdale. But that wasn't nearly as frightening as the astounding cases of disappearing unicorns... In response to that, word had come in from President Luna herself. For one week she would give anypony who no longer believed in her cause free passage to the Solar Empire. All they had to do was make it to Manehattan.

That was six days ago. The borders were only open for two nights more, and while Shoeshine and her husband both believed in Luna's vision, they also wanted safety for young Steam Cloud. The writing was on the wall: Shoeshine would get her family to Manehattan, come fire, flood, or Tartarus itself. Or she would if her husband would stop dragging his hooves. “Flam Skam, I don't care what you have to do to make that machine work, you get that thing running and get us out of here now!”

Flam looked at his wife from behind a pair of welding goggles, his red moustache twisting with his frown before he shut off the welding torch and walked over to her. “Now now, Snuggle Shine, you needn't wait any longer.” He moved his goggles, revealing his bright, charming green eyes. He spoke calmly as he pulled his wife into a sidelong hug, motioning to his work. “It might not be roomy or as armored as I'd like it to be, but the interior of my Mobile Family Relocating Relocation Platform is just the ticket to get us and whatever we can fit out of here and on to greener pastures.” He waved his hoof through the air over the brass beast of a machine he'd built before him, as though trying to get her to see his vision.

All she could see was the way his hoof shook and the recent widening of the white stripe in his mane. “Honeycrisp,” she said, using the false name he'd tried to woo her with before she'd connected the dots all those years ago, “you're using your salespony voice again. That doesn't exactly inspire confidence.”

Flam pulled at the neck of his blue striped shirt, beads of sweat appearing against his yellow fur. “Okay, I'll give you the simple version. It's going to be hot and uncomfortable thanks to the boiler needing to be inside with us, should the worst happen, and I really would need a few more days to get together enough materials to shield it from any possible outcome, but it shouldn't tip and it hopefully should survive most things short of a train crash or heavy explosion.” There was a hitch in his voice as he looked towards the heavy metal monster he was soon going to trust the life of his loved ones to. Could a modified SSCS6000 really make the cut?

Shoeshine noticed it too, turning his face to look at her, getting some oil on her sky blue fur in the process. “Buuuuut?”

Flam looked at his welding torch. “But if you give me just a little more time I might be able to actually make this as safe as I just said. Or I could create a secondary cart to attach to the back and bring more with us than the bare essentials. And even if we don't bring anything, we could give the extra space to another family. There aren't many safe ways out of town after those rocks fell on the rail lines, and we can't just leave ponies behind, can we?” His eyes then dropped to the floor.

A rock smashed against the glass in the garage door, sending spider cracks through the reinforced pane. Both ponies looked at it fearfully, hearts dropping at the sight. Shoeshine motioned to the damage worriedly. “We don't have any more time! We have to get to Manehattan by tomorrow night or we're stuck on this side of the border. I hate the thought of being back under Celestia's careless hoof, but better to be safe than sorry...” She saw the defeated look on Flam's face, trying so hard to do good with the past that haunted him, and sighed. She kissed his cheek gently, calming both of them down a little. “You do what you think is right, but remember: you're not alone in this.”

Flam nodded solemnly, returning his welding goggles to his eyes as his wife left the room. His earth pony wife, dragged into this mess purely because she'd married him... He'd see her safe, whatever the cost.

Twilight was just descending on the land when the sounds of broken glass and a crying filly rushed Shoeshine up to her daughter's room, fearing for the worst. She sighed in relief when Steam Cloud, though covered in glittering pieces of glass and having a half piece of brick smashed into one of her favorite toy playhouses, was unharmed. But even with Shoeshine's immediate fears assuaged, her long term ones were confirmed. And, when she went downstairs, carrying her daughter on her back, and told her husband what happened, there was no mistaking the proper course of action. He finished his final weld while she grabbed what mementos they could carry and got ready to make their escape.

As the door of the MFRRP was closed with a final solid thunk, Steam looked sadly out of the porthole at the garage of the house she'd grown up in. “So... we're leaving? Are we coming back?”

Flam sighed as he pulled his sweaty mane beneath a straw boater. “I don't know. I'd like to hope we might, someday.”

Frowning at the answer, Steam couldn't pull herself from the window. “But we're leaving all our stuff behind! I can't leave all of the Elements without saying goodbye! And what about your workshop, dad? And all of the-”

Shoeshine hugged her daughter close, stopping those thoughts in their steps. “Steam, none of us want to leave, but it's something we have to do. And we have to do it light, only what we can fit in here.”

Flam started the vehicle moving, causing Steam to try to look back out the portal. “But-”

“No buts. Everything out there, those are just things. We can get new ones anywhere. But the things that really matter? We will never leave those behind.” It pained Shoeshine to see the hurt confusion on her daughter's face and the fear that was well founded and couldn't be wished away. After thinking on it for a few moments, an idea came that would hopefully ease the pain. She reached into one of the only three containers in the vehicle, only the necessities and the irreplaceable brought along. Pulling out her hoof, she held in her grasp four brass slippers which she held before Steam's face.

“Do you remember what these are?” Shoeshine said.

“They're the sky shoes I made you for your birthday.” She had studied forever to be able to cast that spell even once and worked for days to shape the slippers just right. She'd never forget those shoes, nor the joyful smile her mom came back with after every trip up to the clouds.

Shoeshine smiled warmly at Steam's answer. “Yes, but they're more than that. They are the second most precious gift I have ever received behind you yourself.” She put them on the ground, motioning for Steam to put them on. “Put them on for the trip and never take them off, okay?”

Steam put on the four brass slippers, each just slightly too big for her still-growing hooves. Afterward, still a little confused, she looked to her mom. “Why do I have to keep these on?”

“So you remember the home you're leaving behind fondly, and so you know that I will always find you, no matter what.”

For a moment Steam's worry only grew. “Am I going to be left behind too?”

Shoeshine shook her head, hugging Steam close. “Of course not! I wouldn't dream of it. But if for some reason we get separated, even just a bathroom break at the train station in Manehattan, you can rest assured that I will never leave both my precious treasures behind. I'll find you as quick as can be and we'll live happily ever after.”

Steam's worry melted immediately, her eyes full of hope after the fear she'd been in even at her own home the last few days. “You mean it?”

Shoeshine nodded, nuzzling her little girl. “I do.” Smiling in the warmth of her mother's protection, Steam settled in, watching her father working the controls as the machine made its steady way out of Timbucktu.

Both of them had long settled into an uncomfortable sleep when the vehicle came to a halt, rousing Shoeshine from her slumber, though she kept still so as not to wake Steam. She looked curiously at Flam, who was looking nervously out of the front window. After carefully lowering Steam to rest on the metal floor, Shoeshine walked to the front to see why they'd stopped, her heart dropping when she did.

There was a tree across the road, blocking the entirety of the path between the two steep hills. The dim lights at the front of the vehicle showed the tree, but everything around it was shadow, the silvery moonlight only able to do so much for the mountain path.

Shoeshine looked out of the porthole nervously, dreading what might lurk in the shadows outside. “Can we go around? Maybe find another route?”

Flam shook his head. “I don't know if we have the fuel for a major detour, and if we get stuck, we'll never make it there in time on hoof.” His horn glowed fruitlessly, his bright green magic unable to get past the very plating keeping him safe inside. After a moment, he sighed. “I guess I'll need to get out there and push.”

Shoeshine placed a hoof on his shoulder, sitting him back down at the controls. “I'll go out there and move it. You just be ready to move as soon as you can.”

Flam's sour face told her precisely what he thought about the plan. “Are you sure about that, dear? I'm sure I could lend a helping hoof, and I don't know how I feel about you going out there alone.”

“If I can't move it on my own, then come out, but I don't want to be here a second longer than I have to.” Flam looked into her eyes, the defeat in his showing that he agreed. Nodding to him, she moved towards the hatch. “I won't be long.”

Before she could open it fully, Flam's arms wrapped around her, unwilling to let go. “Be safe. I'll be there in an instant if you need me.” Then, with much reluctance, he returned once more to his controls.

Shoeshine climbed out of the metal craft slowly, its polished surface barely reflecting anything in the dark of the pass. The ride so far had been smooth, making this sudden blockage worrisome. It was a well known fact that the roads to Manehattan were checked daily. Such a major thoroughfare couldn't afford even a few hours of down time, even at night. Maybe they were just unlucky, but, after everything that had happened to them at home, Shoeshine couldn't help but feel on edge. She searched around, eyes straining in the dark to see any movement against the clouds in the sky or the wooded hilltops around her. Nothing caught her eye, but she couldn't shake the dread lingering at the back of her mind.

She moved as rapidly as she could into the light spilling from the front of the vehicle, quickly finding the top of the toppled tree and putting her weight under it. It felt like it was willing to move, and whatever had knocked over the tree it seemed to be a clean enough break not to snag in her few probing test motions. She glanced around once more. The feeling that she was being watched was growing, though she still had no evidence of it. Bracing herself with a deep breath she heaved at the top of the tree to set it moving. It was a struggle, even with all of her earth pony strength, but she did manage to move one end a few steps out of the way. It was still a little narrow but could be opened fully with another effort like her last.

She stepped into the light to signal for Flam to start moving when the hooves closed around her from behind, pulling her off guard and off balance before pinning her to the ground. She struggled against the figure silhouetted in the light, but could make out little more than the wings flared behind their back.

She called for help desperately even though she was sure that Flam had seen her dilemma. A hoof managed its way over her mouth to silence her, but not a second later the whole figure was wrapped in bright green and flung bodily away from her. She got to her hooves just in time to see two more pegasi grappling with her husband, the third recovering from where it had slammed against the brass vehicle so hard it left a dent. With adrenaline pumping through her veins she charged at the three fighting ponies, tackling one of the pegasi to the ground while the other met the full brunt of Flam's magic and fell back.

She smacked the pony she was on top of in the nose before running towards the hatch of their escape craft, hopping in and holding out a hoof for Flam to follow. He wasn't a moment behind her, swinging up with her help and getting behind the controls once more, setting the vehicle rolling at once. It rushed forward, causing the pegasi to dodge out of the way while it bumped shakily over the tree, trying to throw its occupants to the side as they made it across. Flam barely kept a hold on the controls while Shoeshine clung tightly to the seat, her heart still pounding as they started their escape once more.

It was only after the bump nearly sent her flying that she thought to check for her daughter, likely terrified by everything going on. Turning to look in the cab, however, she found it to be empty of anything but her keepsakes. Immediately her heart plummeted into ice. “Where's Steam?!”

The tires skidded on the dirt as Flam brought the MFRRP to a halt, his breath in his throat as his mind tried to comprehend what Shoeshine had said, unwilling to believe it could be true. However, a high pitched scream came through the still open hatch in the side of the vehicle, telling him exactly what the truth was. He ran to the door, barely able to make out the three attackers in the dark path behind them. “DADDY!!!”

His eyes shot up to the source of the sound, the pegasus with his daughter already trying to make a getaway over the mountains. His horn lit up, showing the horrified determination on his face as his magic lashed out at the escaping pegasus. He got a grip on one of the foalnapper's hooves, pulling with all of his might while Steam struggled on her own to get free. Between his efforts and hers it was enough, causing her to slip free.

Free to begin a free fall from hundreds of feet in the air.

Steam screamed out as she plummeted towards the ground, Flam's horn flashing as quickly as he could as he failed over and over to get a firm grasp on the falling filly. It was his worst nightmare made real, forced to watch helplessly as she fell from the sky, her own horn sparking fearfully as she tried something, anything, to save herself.

The tiny form disappeared behind the mountain and, in an instant, the connection was gone. “STEAM!” Shoeshine cried out from his side, no more able to do anything than he had been as she slipped through his magic. He had lost her... lost his only little girl... Shoeshine leaned against him, needing support as much as he did at what they had both seen.

Out of the corner of Flam's tear filled eyes he saw the other pegasi closing in. As much as he wanted to just shut down and give up right now, he had made a promise. The cost was now far too great, but he could still save his wife. He slammed the hatch shut, pulling Shoeshine inside as he moved to the controls, starting the vehicle on its way. His wife protested, screaming at him to go back, to save their girl, to hurt those pegasi that had taken her from them... But even if they held out hope that she had somehow survived, both knew in their heart that there was nothing they could do.

Steam heard Flam's machine driving away from where she hung upside down, tears running down her forehead and falling to the trees below as she struggled to keep quiet. Her hooves were firmly stuck in the cloud above her, the soft puff making her deadly fall have a landing softer than anything she'd ever felt. Her fluffy white mane hung below her, as did her tail, but fear held her paralyzed that she might be found or that her lifeline would disappear from above her. She just had to wait a little longer.

It was torture not to call out as she saw the gleaming vehicle round a bend further on the path, worried at any moment that the pegasus that dropped her would come back, bringing her to a worse fate. Eventually she found the strength to pull herself up onto the cloud, curling up in a ball in her damp hiding spot, shivering from the cold and loneliness as tears froze themselves to her face.

Her dreams were uneasy, watched and chased through the dark forest as she tried to catch her parents, constantly pulling further and further away. When she woke in the morning, deposited in the mountains outside of Timbucktu, she knew she just had to wait. They wouldn't leave her behind. If they ever could, they would come back for her, they'd find her and take her away to live happily ever after...

If only they ever had.

*     *     *     *     *    

Slobber clung to Steam Cloud's face as she pushed herself up off of the couch, glaring at the dog that had so cruelly awoken her. Well, not full awoken, but as soon as she had cracked an eyelid, starting to decide whether or not she wanted to be awake, Dot had made the choice for her. It was particularly jarring after all of that time with the diamond dogs. Not one of them had done something so... doggish, and now that sense of security had evaporated, unlike the gunk stuck to the fur of her face. Still, once she saw Dot's happy grin, she couldn't actually stay mad, reluctantly petting Wind's pet on the head.

The first few rays of sunlight were just daring to peek over the horizon as she got up off of the couch, surprising her immensely. Her sleep schedule for all of that time escaping had been sunrise to sunset... The time underground must have done wonders resetting her internal clock. It hadn't messed up her need for cleanliness, though, so she folded away her sheets, placed the couch cushions back in order, and walked towards the dining room, aiming to wash her face in the kitchen sink.

She didn't even enter the dining room before she stopped, slightly confused by what she saw. Apparently Rose hadn't made it back to her room the night before, as she was sleeping peacefully on the table, her head cradled in her arms. Next to her was a small plate completely covered in melted wax, the candle having long burned out. Steam didn't want to wake the mare and strongly considered trying to get upstairs silently when she was nudged from behind by an impatient and hopeful Dot. It didn't take long for Steam to see the reason, either: an empty dog bowl sitting by the kitchen counter.

Steam gave Dot a look of annoyance, asking if she really was expected to do this so early in the morning. The dog's stubbornly ignorant smile answered her perfectly. Rolling her eyes, Steam crossed the dining room on tiphoof, holding her breath as she passed her friend's slumbering mother and silently entered the kitchen. Once there, a quick search of nearby cupboards let her find the dog food, and a little work to put that silently in the bowl let her have a few moments of peace while Dot crunched happily on her breakfast.

Since she was in the kitchen anyway, Steam figured she might as well do what she had came to, turning on the sink and wiping the slobber off her face. As she did, she also washed the single teacup that was left by the sink, presumably Rose's, if she had to guess. After that she took a quick look around the room, unable to help but smile slightly. It looked a lot like the kitchen she remembered from home as a foal. She wondered if her mom's kitchen looked like this now. It probably did. After all, how many different looks could kitchens really have?

Just then her thoughts were interrupted by a polite cough at the door. She jumped, nodding politely to the pony that had startled her. “Sorry, Mrs. Rose, I didn't mean to wake you up, but your dog was hungry and I guess I was the one she chose to ask.”

Rose smiled warmly. “Not at all, dear. And please, just Rose.” Somehow, despite sleeping where she had, Rose looked happier and more alert than she had even the day before, as though new life had been breathed into her.

Steam just nodded, causing an awkward silence to build, only broken by the crunching of kibbles between Dot's teeth. After a few moments, Rose nodded towards the dog. “Did you have any pets?”

Steam shook her head. “No. The apartment didn't allow for them, and I didn't have the means to take care of one anyway.”

Rose nodded, a thought occurring from Ink Well's letter. “How about with your parents? Did they ever have pets?”

“No...” The awkward silence grew again, and Steam started to tap her hoof nervously on the ground. She really didn't want to be rude to her friend's mother, but she wasn't very good at small talk. It had been her least favorite part of being a waitress. As she thought about it, though, she did remember something. “Mom said she had a cat before I was born, but after it knocked over one too many of dad's inventions, he scared it away with his yelling. She said she still saw it from time to time, and she always left out a bowl of food until...” Steam blushed slightly. “Well, she stopped, anyway.”

After a few moments of silence, Rose looked Steam in the eye, a smirk on her face. “You ate the cat food as a foal, didn't you?” Rose began to laugh at the horrified look on Steam's face. “Oh, don't worry, I think all three of mine did the same with Dot and her mother's food at one time or another. None of them like being reminded of it, either.” Steam chuckled a little, once she knew she wasn't the only one to do something like that, and immediately the awkwardness had lessened. Rose pulled a pan down from where it hung, placing it on the stove before turning to Steam. “Is there anything you'd like for breakfast?”

“This early? I wouldn't want to impose.”

Rose shook her head. “You aren't imposing at all. But, if you don't have a preference, is there anything you don't like? Would an omelette be okay?” Steam nodded, so Rose began to heat up the pan and get it ready. “Do your parents know you're alright? They must be worried sick for you to disappear from a burning apartment.”

Steam had a slightly vacant look on her face, growing quiet as she spoke. “They probably don't even know it happened...”

“Oh? Were they not in the Republic?” Steam stayed silent, causing Rose to fidget a little as she waited for an answer. Once the pan was heated she had a proper distraction, letting breakfast hold her attention once more. “Well, you're welcome to stay here as long as you need, either way.”

“They're on this side...” Steam suddenly said, her voice almost sounding distant.

“You should write them a letter,” Rose said without looking away from the pan. “Every parent wants to know their child is okay.”

“I don't...”

“And if you don't know the address,” Rose continued, not letting up on her not so subtle hint to Steam, “I might be able to find it with a name. Who knows, they might have even bought something from me!” Rose smiled brightly at the young mare, catching her mind someplace else entirely. “So, what're your parents' names?”

“What? Oh, um... do you...” It took Steam a few moments to focus back on the present, and when she did her eyes were innocent and frightful, like she was scared of what she might hear. “Do you know Shoeshine?”

Rose stopped, dropping the egg completely into the frying pan, shell and all. “Wait, you're Shoeshine's girl?!” She trotted quickly over to Steam, looking her over like she'd just found a rare treasure. “I wish I could see their reaction when they find out you're alive!” Steam's eyes glazed over again, her look growing more fearful before it too went dull, like she was occupied elsewhere.

Rose didn't notice, too caught up in her discovery. “They came through here after they escaped, and I was honestly of no help whatsoever then, but I was able to host them until they found a home in Whinneanapolis. If they haven't moved, they must be good and settled in after all that ugliness five years ago. I can send them a letter telling them to come out, and-”

“No!” Steam yelled, immediately trying to calm down her heart pounding in her chest. She would deal with her family, eventually, but it had to be on her own time, and she now had a lot to think about. “Please, don't contact them about me. I want to send the letter myself.”

Rose stopped, not sure what had caused that reaction but knowing well enough not to press on tender subjects. “Of course. I understand. When you get around to it, just ask and I will give you their address.”

“Thank you.”

Steam was wound up tighter than a spring, shaking slightly as she calmed herself, and Rose didn't want to get in the way. Instead, she turned back to her omelette in progress, frowning at the messy sight. With a sigh she slid the whole thing into Dot's bowl. “I suppose I'll just have to start again.” As she started to work on breakfast, round two, she nodded towards the door. “When you're able, could you go check on Wind and Flora, please? You don't have to wake them, but if they're up, let them know breakfast will be ready soon.”

Steam nodded and left the kitchen in a hurry, breathing deeply to get herself under control. She'd known that her parents would be a subject eventually, but she hadn't expected it so soon, nor so bluntly put. If they'd thought she was dead... they might never have forgotten her, but they may have tried to block out that they'd left her behind, and that would be even worse. If they'd known, she could be angry, but this? How could it...

Don't think about it right now. You'll have plenty of time in the days to come. Steam shook her head to clear it and made her way upstairs. She soon spotted the doors of both ponies in question, frowning to herself as she noticed the little cutie mark-shaped nameplates hanging from them. The fact that Wind's nameplate was up meant that she'd never left Rose's heart or mind... If it hadn't sparked a jealous anger, Steam probably would have found it adorable.

She knocked a little harder than she should have just beneath the nameplate matching Wind Key's cutie mark, causing the light metal plate to jitter on its hooks. If her companion from across the border was still sleeping, she didn't want to wake her, no matter how much her brain was telling her otherwise right now. However, she was surprised when Wind responded from the other side with a surprisingly cheery “Come in!” Once given permission, Steam wiped the frown off her face and turned the handle, stepping into the room.

She immediately burst out laughing at the sight she found inside. “Your whole room is pretty princess pink?!” Steam exclaimed between fits of laughter, trying and failing to keep the sound within the room. The curtains, vanity, sheets, and even the bed frame were all shades of bright pink, enough to make even the girliest little filly sick to her stomach. Even the walls had not escaped the brush, though they also boasted little hearts and signed posters of Princess Twilight Sparkle and Laughter Adviser Pinkie Pie on the wall. About the only thing attaching the room to the messy, mechanically minded pegasus inside it were the rolled up blueprints (or, in this case, pinkprints) thrown in the corner with a foal-sized set of tools.

Wind pouted at her friends reaction, unable to hide the blush of embarrassment that came to her cheeks. “What?! I was twelve! I'll bet if we went to your room from five years ago it'd look something like this too!” She scuffed her hoof across the heart-shaped carpet sending a few bolts scattering that had somehow managed to congregate near her bed in the night even without her working on anything.

The defiance of her seemingly magnetic friend only served to fuel Steam's laughter, even when the accusation was thrown back at her. “My room… was green,” she said between laughs. “With a model train running around the wall, a wood vanity and-” Steam froze as she remembered the last important thing in her room, her prized possession that she'd loved and missed more than anything else when she'd left it behind. “... and a Castle of Friendship dollhouse, with all six ponies and even the servant dragon...”

Steam started to go red at the cheeks, embarrassed about her own overreaction to the whole situation, but Wind's wide-eyed response was anything but the snide one she expected. “You had the whole play set?! I lived in the town and I couldn't even get one of those!” She walked over to the window, leaning off at an angle and calling Steam over before pointing at the edge of town. “Look! I can see the castle from my window, right there, and I never even got one of the dolls on my birthday!”

There, with the strengthening morning light gleaming off of the snow gathered on its roof, was the Castle of Friendship, its crystal walls sparkling more beautifully than any gemstone. As the sight of it, in real life and within walking distance hit Steam, fueled by the excitement Wind had shown her, she started to prance on the spot, the smile on her face spreading ear to ear. “Oh gosh, we're so close to it! Do you think it's still open? Does somepony give tours? I've wanted to visit there since I was a little filly!” She suddenly stopped, looking thoughtful. “I wonder what kind of crystal that is? They said it was created with the power of Harmony and The Rainbow That Saved Equestria, but in order for something to grow as suddenly as that, even fueled by magic, it must have some very interesting properties...”

Wind looked over at her friend, her face growing a devious little smirk. “You know, we still haven't tested out that new gem cutter from The Roost...”

Steam gasped, then glared at Wind. “Wind Key! We can't just walk in there with a portable gem cutter and start taking samples!” She looked back at the castle, her expression carefully blank. “We have to make sure it isn't guarded first.”

“Well then, let's get going! Might as well make sure we're doing something fun now that we're here, right?” Wind pulled the window open, then looked confused, seemingly jarred by where it stopped. She poked her head out of the opening, barely managing to get it through. “I could have sworn this was bigger before I left...”

“It's probably for the best that we don't go now anyway. Your mother wanted us downstairs for breakfast.” Wind pulled her head back inside the window, nodding at Steam's good news. Steam, however, didn't look quite as pleased. “I was also supposed to check on your sister, but I don't really...”

Wind smiled and waved a hoof dismissively. “Don't worry about it, she used to always be up super early, to the point where even you'd look like you were sleeping in. She must just be doing stuff in her room. I'll take care of it.” She trotted confidently to Flora's door, knocking quite loudly. “Mom wants us downstairs for breakfast, I'll see ya there!” She then went all the way to the stairs before turning back, seeing Steam still standing in the obnoxiously pink room. “You coming?” she said expectantly before disappearing down the stairs. Steam would have nodded, but with Wind already gone, it was just as easy to make her way down, sparing a passing glance at Flora's closed door as she went.

*     *     *     *     *    

Breakfast was an energetic affair for the small group, with Rose smiling warmly to see the excitement in Steam and Wind's faces as they discussed their plans for the day. There were no words to express the joy she felt at knowing her daughter was safe and home, and seeing this new friend of hers, a pony thought to be lost forever, smiling and laughing after how reserved she was in the kitchen warmed her heart as well. It gave her hope for many ponies out there 'lost' to this insane war and made the world, which had seemed so cold just a few months ago, a much friendlier place. Her one complaint at the moment was that she'd used her last eggs on an omlette for Flora that was slowly growing cold in her elder daughter's absence.

Realizing she'd zoned out of the conversation again while looking to the stairs for Flora, Rose's ears perked up as she saw that she was being asked a question. “What was that, dear?”

“Is the castle still open for tours?” Wind repeated as she placed her fork on her empty plate. “I know they were still doing tours even after Princess Twilight and her friends left. Do they still let ponies in, or is nopony even watching the place anymore?”

“Ah, well... hmm...” Rose hadn't even thought about visiting that big castle on the edge of town for... far too many years now, even if its former residents had visited her more times than she'd liked... “I don't believe anypony's really gone there much since the war started, Windy. But, if there are tours, now would be the time for them with Hearth’s Warming coming up so soon. It probably wouldn't hurt to go and ask, so long as you stick to the ground. The guards've been a little jumpy around even the weather pony lately.”

Wind looked at the calendar, only seeming to realize the date once Rose had put it in perspective. “I guess it is that time of year, isn't it? And me without any presents.”

“Yes it is, though your presence is enough of a gift this year.” Rose chuckled to herself quietly. Even as a foal, Wind had been the only one in town not staying up late and bouncing off the walls on Hearth’s Warming Eve. She'd always been bad with things like holidays, and even her own birthday, but it had made her surprised reactions when she saw her presents that much better.

It brought a slightly different reaction from Wind now. “Shouldn't you be at your shop? There's normally a rush right now, isn't there? I can't believe we've been holding you back from the boilers.”

Steam's ears shot to attention at the final word of that sentence, her eyes suddenly twinkling with curiosity. Rose didn't look nearly as eager. “There hasn't been any sort of rush in years, Wind. Not after your father's actions at the Gala all those years ago, and it has only gotten worse since.” She sighed with resignation, knowing how easily pony opinions could be swayed and fads could fall out of style. As it was, it couldn't be helped. “Still, there were a few orders that came in this year, which is more than I could say the last few. Most of them can be filled from stock, but there are a couple that might take all week to finish with how finicky the distillery has been lately. The machines are getting run down and I haven't had the time or motivation to repair them yet.”

Steam coughed quietly where she sat. “Um, what was this about a distillery?”

Wind's eyes opened wide, lighting up as she turned to Steam. “Oh yeah! I never told you! Mom runs a perfumery in town. The front's all neat and nice, with little glass phials of scents or whatever, but the back... You need to see it to believe it.” She turned back to Rose, her eyes twinkling as much as Steam's were. “Could we come over and look at the back room, mom? I promise we won't get in the way at all.”

With both of the young mares looking at Rose so expectantly, the only way to say no would be to have no heart. Since she still had a pulse, she quickly relented. “Yes, you can come and watch me work. But it's going to take me a little bit of time to open up the shop and get started. In the meantime, I think you should see about getting a tour of the castle. It's something everypony should see at least once, if they'll let you in.”

“That sounds like a great idea! You ready Steam?” At Steam's nod, Wind got up, running upstairs in a flash. Meanwhile, Steam picked up the plates, looking slightly embarrassed at Wind's actions as she took them into the kitchen.

When Rose saw Steam turning on the faucet, she called out. “It's okay. I can wash up, you just go have fun, okay?”

Steam nodded again and smiled, walking back through the dining room. “Thank you very much for breakfast, it was delicious.”

Rose nodded as well. “Glad you liked it. And you can relax around me, dear. I'm not judging you or anything. It really is my pleasure to have you here.”

Despite Rose's assurances, Steam still looked a bit stiff as she walked into the living room. There she was given a slightly small pink scarf by Wind, drawing a smirk from Steam. Seeing that, Wind finished tying her rose red bandanna over her mane like she always wore it, put on her pink ear muffs, and punched Steam lightly on the shoulder. With that settled, the two young mares waved goodbye to Rose and set off into the winter chill, the cold lingering behind them even after the door was closed.

Rose finished her food as she watched them go, picking up her plate and placing it in the sink with the others for later. Normally she would do them now so they didn't pile up, but in the few minutes before she left for her shop she had one very important thing she had to do. Taking hold of Flora's untouched omelette, Rose walked upstairs, knocking lightly on Flora's door. When there was no answer, Rose slowly opened it, a momentary fear jumping to mind on what she'd find beyond.

It was completely unwarranted, much to Rose's relief, although she was downtrodden to see what she did. Flora was still in bed, the covers firmly pulled over her head to block out the sun's rays and her tail sticking out messily from under the comforter. Considering how peppy an early riser Flora always was and how heavily the atmosphere hung in the room, it was immediately clear that something was wrong.

Walking over to the bed, Rose placed the plate on the nightstand and looked sadly down at her elder daughter. “Flora, I brought you your food, since you missed breakfast with the others.” The ball beneath the covers curled up tighter, a sigh coming unbidden to Rose as the sight. She sat down on the floor next to the bed, looking over at her little girl with a heavy heart.

“Dear, I wish I could tell you something that could make you feel better, but I can't. I know exactly what you're going through, or at least have felt something very similar, and... it hurts. I know it does, and you may not want to go on right now. But it's not the end of the world.” She looked out the window at the grey winter sky, remembering all the mornings she'd been in Flora's exact position... and all the mornings she'd only moved thanks to her daughter's bright and caring voice. It was now her turn to return the favor.

“You're going to ache for a long, long time, and you're going to be sad and angry and hurt. You're going to question why it could happen even more than you already have and lash out at ponies you know are only trying to help you. But, as much as it should, the world won't stop for you any more than it did for me. A little snow will fall, the winds will blow, and ponies will be outside tending to their duties.” Rose raised up a hoof, running it comfortingly over Flora's shape in the covers, like she would when Flora felt sick or hurt as a little filly. But this hurt didn't go with a few bandages or mommy kisses. The only healers here were time and support. “Tonight, the moon will come, followed tomorrow by the sun, a repeating process laying there won't do anything to slow. It's amazingly tempting, I will grant you that, sitting in bed and hoping to melt into the mattress like snow on your windowsill, but please take my advice: Go outside. Breathe in the cold air, work in your greenhouse, get your hooves in the dirt and the snow and, if you can, talk to your friends about what's happening. You're not alone, and letting it consume you when you think you are will only make it hurt longer.”

Pulling back the comforter just enough to see Flora's forehead, Rose kissed it gently to try to ease the pain. “I can't promise it'll make you feel any better, but I can hope it does with all of my heart.”

Seeing that Flora didn't react to her words, not that she expected to, Rose internally gave another resigned sigh as she got up and slowly walked to the door. “I'm going to the shop for a little while, but there's food for you here and nopony else in the house. Do what you need to do to feel better without worry that anypony will interrupt, though I will be back later.” She paused there for a moment, wondering if she should say more... and then she remembered the one thing she'd left out. “I love you, dear. I always will. So take as long as you need. I'll still be here, just as you were for me.”

With a heavy heart Rose closed Flora's door, the rest of the day waiting for both of them.
Where Night Meets Day 18: Pink
A little backstory on our favorite tinker unicorn, a little peace amid the strife.

(I have been through... far too much real life drama right now, so I am happy I got this out as early as I did. Happy Thanksgiving to all of those in America reading this on the day it came out, happy Thursday to most of the rest of the world. I hope you enjoy it!)
Apart from thank you for sticking with it for... geez, years now, I was going to ask you all a question. I suppose this is for short time readers too... or really any readers...

You guys are all awesome and it is never said enough.

But that isn't a question. The questions was: do you guys think my writing is better during action scenes or during character scenes? I seem to be a horrible judge of the quality of my own work, and I always thought that my action scenes were better because I could picture the whole thing in my head (The chases, the fights, the war scenes, the rescues, etc) but I have been complemented a lot on the character scenes, which are always hard for me since so many little subtleties go into dialogue that it is extremely hard to convey (the bandaging scene, the proposal, the monologues, the letters, the verbal fights...) since nobody is DOING anything, they're just talking. They always feel flat and it takes me a lot longer to wrap my head around them and get them to a point that I like. 

(And then I went and made my big finale to the Ink Well Saga be hundreds of pages long and primarily character scenes... apparently because I hate myself.)

So I figured I would ask you guys your thoughts. I would make a poll, but I have no membership and don't really care to. Broke as I am, if I was doing this for money, I would have put up a donate button a long time ago (though if I ever write a book, I do expect you guys to buy it...). I just do it for the feedback and to know people like the story... So yeah, let me know what you think!

Your faithful writer,
  • Mood: Optimism
CRACK-BANG! The Equestrian Royal Army jumped to attention as the plains reverberated, a bright flash giving the only direction of the attack. Somepony slumped over, blood flowing freely from the hole in his head. Half of the army rushed the opposing ground force, mostly colliding into the half of the army screaming in terror and running away as months of training went out the window.

Newsprint ran to the side, readying his spear as he narrowly avoided being trampled by his own friends and trying to make sense of the chaos that had descended. The enemy was in just as much disarray, with ground forces falling back while rebel pegasi charged forward, unloading their firearms into the armored sea. Spears and bolts of magic shot back, some missing, a small few managing to clip their target, and one sending a rebel crashing into the ground at Sandstorm's hooves, smoke rising from the fallen soldier's mouth frozen in a horrible scream.

News was there in an instant, gently pushing the only pegasus in his squad to regain his senses and get ready to defend himself. Sandstorm had been a loser during all of the training, it was true, as he was a coward only there due to the draft. From even that first day when all of the ponies stood in boot camp he was shaking in his shoes. News had taken Sand under his wing, making sure nopony picked too hard on the lone pegasus. He'd already seen too much of that back home with his younger sister, and whether or not Sand liked it, he was going to have to fight.

And that was never a truer a thought than it was now, thrust into their first combat mission on what was supposed to be routine patrol. Newsprint aimed his spear skyward, warding off a rebel flying much too close, and there he caught a glimpse of the entire problem. Miles above them, shining in the moonlight, Cloudsdale floated as though nothing was wrong. And yet, even with the pegasi dive bombing him, News was sure there were at least triple that number up above. Doing what, nopony knew, but it little mattered now that projectiles were in the air.

Sandstorm cowered at News' side, his spear discarded on the ground as he tried to make himself a smaller target. However, he was in the middle of a battlefield, and a small target was exactly the thing that fell underhoof without a second thought. He was pulled up by his neck, watching in terror as his spear splintered in two, an ally trampling right through where he'd been. Before he could do more than yelp he was spun around, his grainy yellow eyes being made to look directly into Newsprint's emerald ones as the armored earth pony began to yell.

“Sand, stick with me! You can do this!” The beige pegasus nodded, placed down onto his hooves just in time for News to spin around, nicking the rear leg of one of the flyers. They both looked at the jumbled brawl around them, hardly able to hear anything over the sound of battle. Somewhere in the distance two mares were yelling out orders, but they might as well have been silently mouthing songs for all the good it was doing.

Sand naturally began to back away, curling defensively into a nearby rock to wait out the fight, and for once, News fully agreed. They were both useless in this fight, and while the army pushing forward meant they couldn't push back, if they hid they might survive long enough to do something useful. Pulling Sand around the rock into a small overhang they could both cram into, that's just what they did, waiting for the battle to make some sort of sense.

Minutes passed with nothing but the constant sounds of fighting, only punctuated once when Sandstorm broke down and whimpered, his entire body shaking in the tight space. News was as well, as much from fear as from adrenaline, though he kept his head... at least until one thought entered it. “Sand... Buddy, there's something I need you to do for me.”

Sand's eyes were red as he looked at News, tears streaming down his cheeks. “What?!” he exclaimed, unable to control his voice for the iron grip fear had on his heart.

News let it pass, his own voice wavering as he spoke. “Back at the barracks, in the slats of my bed under the mattress, there's a letter. If I ever don't make it back, I need you to send it for me.”

This time the response was fitting. “What?!”

“In the slats of my bed back at the barracks-”

Sand grabbed his shoulders. “I'm gonna die long before you! I'm not even gonna make it through this!”

News grabbed Sand's shoulders in return, shaking him forcefully. “We're both going to make it out of here, okay? Neither of us are dying out here. But if, someday, I do, I want you to promise me you'll send that letter, got it? As my best friend, promise me!”

Sand's eyes widened and he swallowed hard, his shaking calming to the twitches and jitters of nerves. “Got it! I'll do it.”

News nodded. “Good! Now let's-” The sound of a thousand infernos smashing through stone cut off any thoughts or plans as immediately both hiding ponies looked out of their hole. The darkness was awash in a golden blaze, the sounds of battle replaced purely with the sounds of panic as another hellish noise signaled another unknown impact. Newsprint scrambled from the hole, safety the only concern in his mind.

Both sides were scattering, the army zigzagging across the burning ground while the rebels flew under the guard and guidance of their superiors. Those first two impacts, leaving trails of flame and massive craters, were just the start as one glimpse into the sky showed dozens of orbs of fire raining on the battlefield like meteors. High above, one such orb streaked through the Cloudiseum, turning the ancient monument to mist and pulling it that much closer to the ground.

Just as another fireball impacted the earth, the trumpets sounded, a clear retreat being called for the army. News held out his hoof, pulling Sand free from the outcropping. “Move move move!” was all he yelled, smacking Sand on the flank as both of them followed the trumpet's call. Impacts came faster and faster, the sounds of the injured and the fallen surrounding the pair as they ran alongside their brethren.

Lungs strained as hooves pounded the dirt, bounding this way and that to avoid newly formed craters or the dirt and blood kicked up from unlucky strikes. Far in the distance there was a safe zone forming, the unicorns banding together to create a shield against the burning rain, but every step only seemed to make their goal more impossible to reach.

In the glow of the fires around them and the rushing throng of moving bodies, neither Sand nor News noticed the increased light sailing through the air until it slammed down right in front of them, sending them both sprawling into the dirt as burning grass fluttered down around them. Sand stumbled to his feet, staring at the hole before them. “Torchwood just... she was there and just...”

He didn't notice the growing light around him. He couldn't hear the roaring flames above, nor the hooves pounding behind him. He was shoved forward, spinning off balance before two hooves planted themselves in his chest, denting the armor as he sailed backwards through the air. He saw News' face looking back, happy, but with a deep sadness in his eyes. He saw the blinding reflection off of his squad mate's armor. He held out a hoof, refusing to look up as he finally felt the scorching heat, then the searing pain lancing through his right ear. It seemed like an eternity as he flew through the air, helpless as the deadly meteor neither of them should have escaped dropped a hair's breadth in front of his nose, skirted past his hooves, and swallowed his best friend whole.

He was thrown by the terrible impact and blinded by the flash, but still he could see Newsprint's eyes wishing it could be any other way. He was the last one to see that compassionate face, to feel the love for another pony, even in a field of war...

Sandstorm only just got his vision back as he tumbled to a stop, looking up at the remains of Cloudsdale burning in the sky, the clouds melting away as the buildings rained down, just as deadly as the last remnants of the fire barrage. His ear stung, his chest ached, and his back felt bruised and battered as he was grabbed and dragged beneath the glowing dome of the unicorn's shield, but none of that registered to his shocked mind.

A little innocence had left the world tonight, vanishing in a puff of smoke...

He wished that it was painless.

He wished it had been him.

*     *     *     *     *    

Roseluck gently blew the steam off of the top of her tea, setting her cup down beneath the flickering light of the single candle she had lit in the dining room. She always appreciated the mood a dim lighting could set, but that wasn’t the reason for the saucer quickly being dirtied with melted wax. No, the dim light was purely functional tonight, as a young guest lay sleeping on her couch a room over who she didn't wish to disturb. It wasn't often that she had guests, and even less common that they surprised her so wonderfully. The entire house slept, and yet, it was more alive than it had been in years.

The children were home. Not the same ones, no, but Rose wasn't feeling too picky. Now all they needed was their father...

Rose sipped her tea, her eyes glancing at the other reason for her late night refreshment. Laying on the table, unopened, were two letters. One was old and worn, the dirt on the envelope suggesting it had been traveling for years to reach this point. The other was new and fresh, barely folded and sealed before it had arrived. Both had come in the hooves of the polite young unicorn that currently rested a room away, and both had no address, just instructions that they were to be given to her.

Rose toyed with the idea of leaving them unopened, fearing some sort of bad news that would put a damper on this otherwise joyous occasion. Well, as joyous as you got these days, considering Wind and Steam's tales of betrayal and Flora's ice-stricken heart, but a day to be celebrated nonetheless. Should the letters contain something worrisome, Rose would head to bed on a sour note, and the whole day might seem just that much bleaker.

On the other hoof, curiosity had nagged her from the moment she had received them, and Steam's description of the kind stranger that had helped them through so many dangers caused wild fantasies and wishes to come unbidden to Rose's mind. She had fought herself to leave them until now, the hope of news they might contain filling her near to bursting. If she left them there, did she really think she'd get to sleep at all?

In the end, for the sake of her sleep schedule and to honor the pony who had taken them on that final leg of their journey, Rose decided to open the letters, starting with the newer one. A quick tug released the glue without the need for a letter opener, and moments later, after another mouthful of warm, soothing tea had passed her throat, she unfolded the paper and began to read.

Dearest Rose,

I cannot begin to pen my apologies for all I have put you through, and years of trying will not be nearly enough penance to begin. I know you will have questions, and I know no answer I could give could possibly answer them all. But I promise things will be made clear sooner than you expect, and I will explain everything I can to the best of my abilities and accept whatever outcome this all leads us too.

It doesn't begin to repay the damages I owe you, but I deliver you these gifts. Wind Key, safe, and quite possibly happier than she has ever been, and her good friend Steam Cloud, a pony to be admired for all she has been through. Ask her about her mother, I believe you will be amazed at what you hear. My second gift is the letter accompanying this one. It has traveled further than it should have, and it should have been in your hooves long ago, but its journey is finally at an end.

It pains me to delay, even one more moment, knowing how close we are this very night, but we both must prepare. We do not have much time.

Ink Well

Rose's heart wasn't sure what to do as she read the page. As happy as those words made her, she had always known that they were under the same moon and sun, separated only by whatever machinations he had in his head. She'd had seven years to think about it. Seven long, gnawing, heavy years to truly contemplate the biggest promise he ever broke, and she was still too fragile to think he couldn't break another. Her heart had skipped a beat, and that told her quite a lot, but a few gifts were no replacement for actions left undone. She might have the stallion's word, but until it came from the horse's mouth, it was nothing more than ink and paper.

Putting Ink Well's letter aside, she reached for the other envelope, eyebrow arching as she found the back unsealed. Wondering if it had never been sealed or if somepony else had read it before her, she lifted out the paper within. Her eyes widened the second she saw the words, in a writing she never thought she'd see again.

To my loving mother,

If you are reading this, then the worst has happened and I was, unfortunately, taken in the line of duty. Hopefully this letter never reaches you, but since you're reading this, I guess it's too late for that. Instead, I hope this finds you well and helps you through this trying time.

I've only just finished training at the time of writing this, and already these few months have made me miss you and my sisters so much it hurts. I may not be crying myself to sleep like some of my squad mates, but that doesn't mean I am immune to the sorrow. Just once I wish Dot would curl up next to me on the cot like she always did on my bed at home. Wishful thinking, but it's better than the thoughts that drive me to write this.

Whatever happened to make you get this letter, I don't want you or anypony else to start slinging blame around. It'd be easy to fault the Princess, or the nation, or the draft or the enemy or any of the other possible causes. But I won't die fighting for my Princess or my nation or honor or anything like that. The reason I chose to fight, to come out here and do all of this, was because I loved you.

I know that may not sound comforting, and I don't wish for you to begin blaming yourselves for my passing either, but know that in the end, I fought for you. I wanted to know that you wouldn't be harassed just because of something dad did, but more than that, if anything I did, even dying, ended this war one day sooner, I wanted to know I did everything I could so that my friends and family could be happy. I tried my best with the newspapers in town, but in this case, I fear the sword may actually be mightier than the pen, at least for now.

Tell Flora and Windy that I love them and always will, and that I miss them just as much as they miss me. Tell yourself that, too, every time you are saddened by getting this letter. And even tell dad, if he ever gets back, that I love him. I know I didn't sound like I did when I left, but think I finally understand why he made the choice he did...

Goodbye, mom. May the wind be ever beneath your wings and your spirit soar to paradise. I'll be waiting for you all there.

Your son, now and forever,

Tears dripped down Rose's cheeks, plipping lightly in her tea as she looked at the letter in disbelief. She hadn't gotten a body for the funeral, hadn't gotten ashes... her son had simply vanished after one of his routine letters home. And now, after all these years, to have this...

Rose folded the letter away, got up, slowly walked to the small memorial for him in the corner, and gently leaned the letter against the helmet given to her in his honor. As she returned to her tea, seeing the new memorial in the flickering candlelight, she somehow found a way to smile. Another tear dropped into her tea cup, but she paid it no mind, sipping from the cup anyway. Finally, after all these years, the memorial was complete.

It truly was a day to celebrate.
Where Night Meets Day 17: Closure
Just so you guys know, this is the only chapter I have ever cried while writing...

Then again, I think I may have been in either Rose or News' position in a past life. It seems to be a trigger for me.
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.
Apart from thank you for sticking with it for... geez, years now, I was going to ask you all a question. I suppose this is for short time readers too... or really any readers...

You guys are all awesome and it is never said enough.

But that isn't a question. The questions was: do you guys think my writing is better during action scenes or during character scenes? I seem to be a horrible judge of the quality of my own work, and I always thought that my action scenes were better because I could picture the whole thing in my head (The chases, the fights, the war scenes, the rescues, etc) but I have been complemented a lot on the character scenes, which are always hard for me since so many little subtleties go into dialogue that it is extremely hard to convey (the bandaging scene, the proposal, the monologues, the letters, the verbal fights...) since nobody is DOING anything, they're just talking. They always feel flat and it takes me a lot longer to wrap my head around them and get them to a point that I like. 

(And then I went and made my big finale to the Ink Well Saga be hundreds of pages long and primarily character scenes... apparently because I hate myself.)

So I figured I would ask you guys your thoughts. I would make a poll, but I have no membership and don't really care to. Broke as I am, if I was doing this for money, I would have put up a donate button a long time ago (though if I ever write a book, I do expect you guys to buy it...). I just do it for the feedback and to know people like the story... So yeah, let me know what you think!

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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