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Ink Well stood on the balcony of the capitol building, looking grimly at the chaos below. There was a crowd of ponies from the door filling three blocks of Mane Street, all of them unicorns and their families clambering to get out of the cities and across the borders to the Solar Empire. And that was just in that direction. Coming in the east side of the building the line of pegasi and their families needing homes after fleeing the empire was astonishing, at least rivaling if not surpassing the unicorn line. It was all a mess.

Even worse, a keen eye could see members of the 'wrong' race in both lines, keeping their heads low and sticking close to their partners as they fretted for what would become of them in their new nations. Ink Well had witnessed the Battle Beneath Cloudsdale, he'd heard with his own ears the threats Princess Celestia had laid out after the pegasi's 'counter attack,' and he, of course, felt an innate fear for his feathered kin willing to brave it, but he'd also seen what had been done in retaliation an entire nation away. The pegasi, he felt, would at least survive. He wasn't so sure about the unicorns.

He, more than most, understood the riotous rage ruffling the pegasi's feathers. Cloudsdale was his home for so many years, and even when it wasn't, he was loyal to the floating city and its ancient cultural heritage. Even when he'd witnessed and stopped the atrocity going on within its city limits, he never tarred the pristine clouds with that brush of shame. And, unlike most of the rioters below, he had watched it burn, turn to mist, and break apart as it tumbled from the sky. He had witnessed the injured ponies plummeting to the hard ground, watched the wounded valiantly fight to save what buildings they could, and he felt the hole deep in his heart where his son had once stood. He understood why the pegasi raged, but even through his tears and keening grief, he didn't see how he could ever join them.

“We fear the numbers will never end,” said President Luna, alerting Ink Well that she had joined him to oversee it all. There was worry in her voice that carried to her cyan eyes as she scanned the scene before her. “Our nation would empty out its borders before the week's end were it not for those we are struggling to find room for. At least the homes won't remain empty for long...”

She placed a booted hoof on the banister, the cobalt metal clinking lightly as she put it down. She looked at Ink Well, clearly hoping for some conversation in her brief free time away from the throngs below. But just because the time was free did not mean she was relaxed. She was always dressed in armor now, believing that if she would ask her ponies to go to war, she should be prepared to join the fight, and despite her advising against it, the decorative design of her armor, matching both the color and the shapes of her flag, truly showed her as a champion of her nation. Even her mane was ready for war, no longer long and flowing, but bobbed as short as her tail was, the ethereal stars still shimmering with her every movement and gleaming off of the small armored circlet she wore on her crest.

Her worry broke as she looked at Ink Well, a little life being breathed into her movements as her demeanor eased outside the presence of the masses. “How are you holding up, friend? These days have been hard on us, but could only have been more so on you.”

Ink Well shook his head sadly, his age showing in the crows feet at the edges of his eyes. “This is all... madness. From the bottom to the top, none of this makes any sense. But... I believe you are doing the right thing. Better to let them leave now in peace then end up like that community outside of Trottingham...” He sighed, looking out into the city, where even now guards held back the protesters just waiting to turn violent. “You'd think we'd all have seen enough destruction.”

Luna walked over to his side, placing an armored hoof on his shoulder. “We have. All of us. But despite the best efforts of the ages, when hurt and frightened, ponies still run for safety and fight any who may threaten it.” The gesture was comforting, but the effect was cold and heavy, leaving him chilled as she removed her hoof and continued to speak. “Unfortunately, it has revitalized the war effort. Ponies are signing up in droves to retaliate, and we cannot afford to turn them down.” It was her turn to sigh. “We shall have to remind them their enemy is not the ponies themselves, but the tyranny the enemy represents, else we fear very little shall stop the cycle from continuing. And even that will do little to help those still within our cities.”

“Your propaganda machine had better be well oiled, or it will only print in blood. These ponies you are saving won't dampen the fire the loss of those choosing to stay could ignite.” Ink Well looked over at Luna, once more seeing the worry on her face. It was well founded. “But you know all too well what could happen if an uncaring regent is careless with her iron hoof.”

“And this is why our every step is chosen carefully.” She lifted her booted hoof so she could look at the intricate design on the front of the armor plating. “If we wear our burdens every day, they cannot be ignored or forgotten. They shall weigh upon our mind until the day we are free of them.”

Ink Well looked at Luna, his face determined, though the sorrow in his eyes could not be denied. “One day they will be gone, Selene. The days will come when peace will reign once more and the weight of thousands will be lifted from your shoulders.”

Luna nodded sadly, turning reluctantly to the door to take her place inside once again. “That day will be the first to see us smile again, Ink Well, and we await it eagerly. But in the light of the moon and the sun both, the end is impossible to see. Those days have been delayed so long, even the optimistic fear they never will return, or will be replaced by sorrows we have not yet imagined. We cannot afford wait for them idly, and so, we must return to the work at hoof. Fare thee well, Ink Well. We hope for more wisdom as the days go by.”

Ink Well watched her leave, a fire growing in his chest as he did so. “I'm afraid you hope in vain, Selene. Since you cannot afford to wait for peace,” he said to himself, wings twitching in agitation, “somepony will just have to find it.” He trotted quickly through the capitol building, heading directly for the room he'd been so generously given. There was much preparation to be done, but by that night, there'd be one more room free for an incoming refugee.

*     *     *     *     *    

Steam Cloud peeked her eyes open and stretched out luxuriously on her slightly musty but oh-so-comfortable bed before snuggling the warm downy quilt tightly in her arms. Judging by how little light was coming through the window, she had woken up bright and early, as she had the day before, but this time it was her choice to do so, and she relished it. No freezing dog nose, nopony forcing her to get moving, no tiresome dead-end job to be getting ready for... She practically purred as she sunk back into her sheets, knowing that this was the life she'd been meant to live for the past five years. Isn't it amazing what happens when you finally do get across that border?

She could see the old clock on the wall ticking away the minutes until dawn truly broke, each sound accusing her of laziness and trying to pull her out of bed. She defiantly stuck her tongue out at it, turning over to look at the sandy beige wall and curl up even cozier beneath the covers. She watched the light from the window appear high on the wall, tracking it as it slowly descended towards her. Once it was there she'd have to start moving. Make the bed, clean up anything she and Rose had missed the day before, do a quick tune up on the Ready Wings...

She scratched that one from her mental checklist, remembering that she'd left the wings back at Rose's house... and had forgotten to check them the day before. They should be alright, she thought to herself. It's not like they were delicately built.

But what if somepony finds the letter?
Steam's cheeks blushed at the thought and she pulled the covers over her head. If anypony else reads that... She shook her head, feeling her slightly messy mane rub against the covers and frizz even more than it normally did in the morning. Nopony will. Nopony is using them. Just take a trip over there later and it'll be fine... maybe sooner. You could get breakfast in the process! Assuming Rose is awake. She frowned, moving the cover away to see the sunlight's progress down the wall.

It was much slower than she'd been expecting. Still, when it reached her, she was going to make the bed, clean the room, take a quick morning shower, run to the other house, hope somepony was awake and the door was open so that she wouldn't be bothering anypony, check the Ready Wings, eat breakfast, come back here, check on the work from the night before, plan out the rest of the repairs the place would need, and then do them.

And get Wind's help, that needed to be inserted into the plan somewhere. Though... why did it? It had been so very long since she'd had her own room, she should be enjoying the time to think like she used to. So why was she feeling so...

She shook her head. No, she wouldn't accept that she was feeling lonely. She'd been on her own for years, and she'd never been lonely then. There'd be no reason to be feeling it now! Except that then she'd always been paranoid and miserable and worried about dying, while now she was warm and safe and happy. It was so quiet without somepony else breathing in the room, and the covers were no substitute for a soft wing draped ever so-

Nope. I'm not lonely, I'm not thinking like that, and even if I am, I just... got used to company. Yeah. And there's no reason to bug her anyway! Let the mare be with her mother, for Luna's sake, it's been years! She looked at the light's progress on the wall, positive it hadn't moved since she'd last checked it. She stared at it, daring the sun to continue its game, before, frustrated, she kicked off the comforter, got off of the bed, and decided to meet the dawn head on. With the golden glow of her horn she made the bed immaculate, then spun around to see what needed sprucing up in the room.

Nothing, it turned out. She and Rose had been very thorough, even getting rid of the dust and making sure the water was running before calling it a night. It meant that things were going quite smoothly this morning, as it had been intended. Sooooooo smoothly, thought Steam as she looked at the sun barely peeking over the horizon. Even if she took a slow morning shower, there was no way that she wouldn't—

A knock came from the front door, catching Steam off guard and derailing her train of thought with amazement at how audible it was considering the soundproof room below. Switching from the knock to whoever was behind it, the only pony she could think would be awake this early would have been Silver, who she'd only met the night before and would be hard at work on today's weather. Still, when the knock sounded again, Steam knew it wasn't a fluke and made her way down stairs, through the dormant, shining work of the night before and out into the shop.

There was a moment of hesitation at the shop door, an image of the wanted poster coming to mind, but that was all in the past. She was on the other side of that border, where... well, where Wind might have a matching poster soon, if she wasn't careful, but nopony would go searching for them here, right? No, it was probably just... the mailpony. Or Rose remembering something she forgot the night before. Perhaps she didn't have an extra key, so she had to knock? Reassured, Steam opened the door, ready to deal with whatever was behind it.

But she hadn't once expected Wind. “Good morning, Steam! I hope I'm not too early, but mom was up super early and I convinced her to make her cinnamon apple muffins for breakfast, and they're much too good warm to eat cold, especially on a cold winter day like today is planned to be, so here I am!” She walked inside quickly, shaking her shoulders to knock off some of the snow that had accumulated on her back while she was outside, revealing what was hidden between her wings. It was a large brass harness, with folded bits that seemed a lot like...

“Did you bring over the Ready Wings?” Steam asked, staring at the strap where even now she could barely see the paper poking out, her heart pounding in her throat.

Wind nodded brightly. “Yup! I figured we could get started right away on the rest of the repairs and stuff here, and then, to celebrate, we could both take a quick flight around the town. I could show you some of the sights, give you an aerial tour, it'd be great!”

While Wind was distracted taking off the pack, Steam slid the letter out of it with her magic, folding it tightly and placing it in her own mane for later. It was then that a few inconsistencies from Wind's story hit her, along with the tantalizing aroma of her breakfast held in Wind's wing. “That sounds great, but won't ponies be suspicious of ponies flying around over town? And how early were you up to get your mom to make these muffins?”

Wind shrugged at the questions. “I was hoping they'd let it slide if they saw you were a unicorn, and I'm willing to get yelled at if I'm wrong. And... well, I guess I asked mom to make them last night when she got home, and I remember Flora saying something about mom sometimes waking up super early, so when I got up these were already almost done. But I didn't even eat one, just grabbed a few and came straight over here.” She opened up the bag in her wing, filling the perfume store with the scent of perfectly baked pastries.

Steam pulled one of the muffins out of the bag with her magic, floating it over to her hoof, where it sat warmly and smelled divine. Unable to hold herself back, she bit into it, her tongue delighted by the moist muffin's delicate balance of apple and cinnamon dancing across her taste buds. Her eyes shot open wide as she swallowed her bite and looked at Wind. “These are amazing! I wish I could cook this well.”

Wind smirked, taking a bite of her muffin before answering. “Well... mom might have gotten some pointers from Applejack, so technically these are Apple family muffins, but that doesn't really matter when they taste this good.”

“Agreed!” The two mares finished their muffins, then Steam reached into the bag for seconds, only to empty it as she pulled out one final muffin. She offered it to Wind. “You can have it, you've already done more than I have lugging the wings over and delivering these.”

Wind shook her head, pushing the pastry back. “It's all yours. You've got the harder task ahead of us when we get to the repairs, and you've never had them before.”

Steam smirked, then pulled apart the muffin, splitting it roughly in half and tossing one half to Wind. “Fine, be difficult about it. But we're going to have to work fast if you want that aerial tour to happen in the light.” She ate the rest of breakfast as she walked into the back room smiling brightly, soon joined by Wind doing much the same. In moments they were both fueled up and hard at work, ready to get on with the day and get to the plans they'd made for later.

*     *     *     *     *    

Rose and Flora walked side by side through town, enjoying a brief moment of togetherness before they went their separate ways for the day. The greenhouse was on the way to the marketplace, where Rose was hoping to find a few ingredients she would need to fulfill one specialized order, and since they were both heading the same direction it seemed silly not to go together. Some mares might have complained about being under their mother's watch, but after how well her advice had gone to Flora, she was thankful to have a mom so wise to walk with.

At the small path to the building they parted ways with a warm hug and promises to be safe before Flora made her way into the greenhouse, wondering what she would find inside. Holding the key in her snow chilled hoof, she unlocked the building, holding her breath as she slowly opened the door.

And letting it out in a slightly disappointed sigh. There had been no huge jump like the day before, though the fact that the crystal bush hadn't shrunk at least let Flora know she wasn't going mad. She watered the plants in the building, then began to compare measurements against those from the day before. Everything was exactly the same apart from one key difference: of the two flower buds that had formed, one was much larger than the other. She had no idea what it meant, but it was something, and every little change brought with it a sense of purpose. Something big was coming, and now she just had to remain patient to see what it was.

A flurry of knocks at the greenhouse door meant she didn't wait very long. It was rare for somepony to disturb her, so it had to be important, though she made sure a set of pruning shears was within reach just in case. She carefully swung open the door, only to nearly be nailed by the hoof preparing to pound again. Luckily, it stopped, the pegasus it was attached to able to contain her nervous energy.

“Flora!” Silver yelled, running into the greenhouse and shoving at Flora's rump. “You need to get to Town Hall! I've never seen anything like this!”

A second shove had Flora outside, looking rather frustrated at Silver's antics. “What? What is it? I was in the middle of something!”

“Flora, your flowers can wait. Get your sister and get to Town Hall, now. Your mom was already on her way.” Silver shut the greenhouse door, then started to shepherd her friend around to the road.

Flora huffed in annoyance. “What is so important for all of this?”

Silver gave her a dead serious look, standing stock still apart from her nervously twitching wings. “Flora, just trust me on this one. Whatever's going on, it's big, and you won't believe me if I tell you so just go. I'll see you there.” Before Flora could question any further, Silver was off, flying in the direction of Sweet Apple Acres.

It was rare that Silver showed nerves like that, and she was never as serious as that last message had been. Taking those into account, Flora decided she'd trust her best friend on this one. Breaking into a quick gallop she made it to Rosewater in no time, sprinting through the shop and slamming open the door to the distillery. This startled the ponies inside, causing a metal pipe to lose the magical aura around it and crash loudly against the floor. “Flora, what's up?” asked Wind, looking worried after Flora's rushed entrance caused her to spill polish all over her wings.

“I... don't know,” said Flora, suddenly feeling completely foolish for her actions. She really wished she'd asked for more details. “But Silver said there's something huge going down at Town Hall, and we should all be there to see it.”

Steam looked at Wind, raising a concerned eyebrow, which Wind met with a small confused shrug. Wind was tempted to tell Flora to head off on her own, but even if it was just some overreaction, like many that flooded Ponyville's streets when she was much younger, it would still be interesting and only cost a little time. “Alright,” said Wind, wiping off some of the oil that clung to her fur and scraping her wings as best as she could on the polish container. “Let's go see what all the fuss is about.”

With Wind agreeing to go, Steam decided her work could wait, bringing up the rear as all three of them went to find out what was going on.

*     *     *     *     *    

The square in front of Town Hall was filled with enough murmuring ponies to actually create a significant block between Rose and the square itself. It was as if every pony in Ponyville had come out of their homes to see what was going on, and that was no wonder. It wasn't every day that Princess Celestia herself showed up in your town surrounded by a retinue of the highest officials in the Royal Army. Captain Applejack, Princess and Arch Magus Twilight Sparkle, and General Ironsides all stood proudly before a full platoon of knights in shining armor, all surrounding Princess Celestia's Royal Carriage, where the leader of Equestria could sit in unseen safety and watch over whatever was happening.

But nopony seemed to know what was happening, as apart from showing up in town unannounced, the army seemed to be simply standing at the ready, some more patiently than others. The knights closest to the carriage nervously eyed the ponies around them, horns and spears at the ready should the crowd suddenly prove traitorous, a seemingly likely thought in the mind of General Ironsides. He was an old grey unicorn with a strong jaw line and years of tactical training even before the war had begun. Some might have seen him as a relic of a past age in times of peace, but he seemed to be holding his own and truly proving his use these last twelve years.

It was clear that he was more used to the safety of the castle, however, as his gleaming, mostly decorative armor and almost jumpy paranoia showed. Applejack's dinged, heavy plate had been proven in countless battles, with no frills that might stop her from leading the charge in the field, and it sat calmly on her form as she looked almost relaxed to be back home. Even Twilight, in her light armor for those few instances where she was on the front line, seemed at ease, scanning the skies with purpose. Her armor hadn't seen use since that fateful night beneath Cloudsdale, a choice she had willingly made and willingly broken today.

Rose looked on the visiting army with more than a hint of distrust. She still hadn't replaced everything broken by the last time Twilight had shown up in town with armored ponies in tow, and the youthful faces of both Twilight and Applejack just reminded her of her own age. At least Princess Celestia had the decency to look a more proper age for a wise and timeless ruler. Though the fact that she remained in her veiled carriage was unsettling. If she was going to leave the castle for the first time in years, even under heavy guard, why wouldn't she show herself? This mystery was what had most of the citizens of Ponyville chattering in hushed tones.

Nopony in Ponyville could resist some good gossip, and the constant chatter continued until one of the guards broke the silence held by the army. “Incoming forces, four o'clock and approaching fast!” Twilight had seen them long ago and remained calm, but all other heads turned to look where the knight had pointed, jumping at the announcement.

Swooping low and skimming over the trees of the Everfree was a great dark blob moving across the bright sky. It grew larger, then, as it entered the clearing between the forest and the town, it ducked low, disappearing behind the buildings. The General was the first to move, taking a step away from the incoming form and barking out an order. “Knights! Defensive positions! Be ready to attack on my command!” The armored forces got on guard, ready for whatever they were about to face, while he quickly made his way closer to the safety of the carriage.

The dark mass was upon the army in seconds, a hundred pegasi strong as it swarmed over the town. Ponies screamed, citizens panicked, and every knight held up his spear or set her horn glowing in readiness. However, as jumpy as they were, they waited patiently, seemingly driven so by Twilight and Applejack's complete calm as they watched the display with careful eyes. Rose watched on as well, joined by her daughters and Steam, all of whom were held rapt by what was going on before them.

The swirling forces, for all of their apparent randomness, were well organized, forming into a sphere above the Town Hall before shooting down, landing swiftly across the square from the members of the Royal Army. They landed in unison, hitting the snowy earth heavily and standing, despite their tension, at ease, not one of them ready to attack. At their head, closest to the opposing army, was President Luna herself, flanked by Rainbow Dash and Scootaloo. Luna wore her armor, commanding a regal presence, but the only other armored pony was Scootaloo in a set quite similar to Applejack's, the rest of the unit in a deep blue cloth uniform matching Rainbow's. That is, apart from one bouncing sprig of pink moving between the disciplined troops. Nopony seemed to be paying too much attention to Pinkie Pie, and none on the ground had any idea how she had gotten there, but in her wake even the grimmest NLR soldiers couldn't help but smile.

“Knights! Take aim!” Ironsides bellowed, causing the armored members of his army to ready their weapons at the stationary members of the Republic. There were two Royal Army members for every member of their foe, and yet, the Lunar Republic forces didn't shake, didn't balk, didn't even give an inch, standing proudly behind their leader. The aging general turned red at this, anger seeping into his eyes, and he took in a large breath of air before he was frozen in Twilight's magic field.

“Hold, Ironsides. They aren't here to fight, we should at least hear them out.” Despite Ironsides' outraged expression, Twilight took a few steps closer to her enemies, looking directly into Luna's eyes. “President Luna, what is it that brings you unheralded into these lands?”

“We have come to talk to you, Princess Sparkle, as well as our sister, on a matter of utmost importance. We come to talk of peace.” This brought a whole new murmur through the crowd, as well as through the Royal Army, many of whom seemed disbelieving that this could happen. Behind Luna, Scootaloo scowled at her former companions, having known that this would be their reaction.

However, before anything more could be done, the screech of a train whistle wrenched away everypony's attention. A large train of pure crystal was rumbling into Ponyville station, its entrance nearly unnoticed thanks to the display that the New Lunar Republic's soldiers had made. However, even if it had been surreptitious in its arrival, the following moments were nothing similar. The second the vehicle came to a stop the doors shot open, pouring out not just a wave of sparkling ponies in crystal armor, but an equal number of gryphons, who rushed the town square in their own formation, taking up a position on the edge between the two other forces. They were lead by Princess Cadance and, at her side, a large gryphon with a colorful feathered crown perched atop his head, King Grandis.

The arrival of both of these forces together brought confusion to both Twilight and Luna's faces. Together, the gryphons and the crystal ponies had an army that matched the Royal Army, but Cadance was allied with Twilight, while Grandis was allied with Luna. Conveniently, Cadance was more than willing to address their confusion. “Leaders of the Empire and the Republic, we request a council.”

At her side, Grandis stepped forward, proclaiming over the entire square. “For too long we have been seen as pawns in this great war you two wage. For too long we have been made to send aid while receiving nothing in return. While you allow us in your lands, you treat us like toys or leeches, and we will stand for it no more. You will hear our demands or you will fall here before—”

“I did not summon you here to threaten, Grandis. I asked you, all of you, here to do one thing...” The voice carried over the citizens of Ponyville, with no apparent source, and yet many of them should have known it. Rose's eyes went wide at the first words, scarcely able to believe her own ears. She was the first to spot the cloaked figure standing on the steps of Town Hall, his voice carrying past its own ability. “I wanted you to sit down and talk.”

Ironsides looked up at the mystery stallion, his eyes wide with barely contained fury. “And who do you think you are, citizen, to claim to have orchestrated this madness? I will see you suffer for this!”

The cloaked figure paused for a moment, chuckling to himself before he continued. “General, you do not know the meaning of suffering. The ponies around you have watched too many of their friends die for something they didn't believe in. Some of those you call enemy were once your friends, forced from their homes by a cruel and careless decree, while many you call friends only stand by your side for fear of the danger they faced otherwise. And, while it is true that I asked them all to come, I am not the one who actually brought them here. They did that all on their own.”

As the cloaked figure gestured to his right, another group of ponies could be seen waiting in the shadow of the Town Hall. They bore a marking all in the army knew by now: The Peace Corps, headed by their 'fearless' leader Fluttershy. Or, more accurately, she stood in the center of the crowd, edged onward on either side by her personal Angels, her rabbit and Dented. They were surrounded by nearly every doctor in the corps, as well as many a wounded warrior in both side's armor. Yet the wounded did not join their kin, instead waiting to see what developed.

“You may want me to suffer, Ironsides, but I can assure you I have had plenty of time for that.” All eyes arrived on the cloaked figure once again, only to see yet another familiar face having arrived. Rarity stood in the shadows behind him, calmly surveying all the ponies present as the stallion continued his speech. “But pain is not just a destructive force. It has driven me onward and taught me harsh lessons, as it has all of the ponies you see around you. I offered them little, merely a chance at conversation, a glimmer of hope that they may resolve this all in one fell swoop. Peacefully. And every one of them took it. They've learned, some over months, some over a decade, and some over centuries, that we are not so different that we cannot talk. Violence is a solution for the weak and the fearful: it is the brave who step forward with empty hoof and offer peace.”

“Wait a second...” said Wind, brow furrowing as she tried to get a better look at the shrouded figure. “Is that Homeward?”

“No,” both Steam and Rose said in unison, one remembering her discovery, the other knowing the truth no matter how hard it tried to hide. They gave each other a look, asking silently who would be the one to explain, but their attention was soon drawn back to the square.

The General laughed smugly at the cloaked figure. “The weak and the fearful? Do you know who you are talking to? I—”

“I don't think you really belong here, do you General? I'm certain you demanded to come along when you heard of the others moving out, refusing to leave your Princess 'unprotected.' You didn't think two Elements of Harmony were enough, right?” The figure in the black cloak stepped down to street level, walking directly between the two armies, his hood giving the  and giving the impression of a stern glare at the General standing on the carriage. “Well, people thinking like you aren't allowed at these talks.” The stallion moved towards Ironsides, looking him in the eyes, before the head tilted, a smirk barely visible from the shadow.

“Do you understand the foe you fight? They rose up, not because they wanted to, not for any petty reason or to rip the nation apart, but because your leader refused to send them the aid they requested. When they needed water, it was being used for you precious unicorns in Canterlot to keep the gardens nice and green, and, after years of neglect and willful ignorance, that was a straw too far. They rallied behind their leader looking for freedom from oppression. Looking to matter again. While Equestria tried to hide its past and pretend everything was fine, pretend it could reign in the will of a people as though they were just an unruly teen, it destroyed the very city that could have saved it and drove all those attached to that city's mistake from the country.”

The stallion stood in front of all of the knights, seeming to dare the spears to fall on him as he spoke. “The Solar Empire is weak, not in numbers, but because it refuses to stop clinging to memories of better times. It ignores its mistakes, and that's why it loses its fight to a smaller nation only fighting for its own freedom.”

The cloaked figure then whirled around, glaring up at President Luna and making his way towards her. “Which is not to say your nation is without fault. You fight for your right to exist, for freedoms and a fear that tomorrow will be taken from you, but your fear has taken over the people. The Republic embraces the new with an almost fervent desire to get rid of the old, and when you are given a black eye, you try to retaliate to show you aren't to be pushed around. You, rightfully, fear that you will be crushed by numbers or torn apart by magic, and so you commit atrocities as bad as those you ran from to escape magic's grip, with plans for weapons that should make you ashamed to call yourself civilized ponies! The other side fights to keep its nation together from these rowdy rebels, and with the way you act, ignoring even the ponies who led you to your freedom, I'm not surprised they fight as hard as they do!”

“And who are you? If you are so brave to point out the nation's flaws, why do you keep yourself hidden away?” Ironsides ran from the carriage to the empty space between armies, only to stall when he felt the weight of hundreds of eyes watching his every movement. He was outnumbered here, and there were far too many armed ponies for that to end well.

But the cloaked stallion did not turn or show a hint of worry. He merely moved a hoof up to his hood, shaking his head sadly. “I am no brave pony. I am the largest coward and greatest fool to traverse these lands. I am, according to some, the Harbinger of War, but to many more I am nothing but a wanderer and a storyteller, always running in search of a way to see others see the truth.” The hood of the cloak fell, revealing the aged stallion with fur the color of parchment, his inky blue black mane kept neatly beneath the tattered and torn hat he wore. “I am Ink Well, Public Enemy Number One, and I am here to end this war.”

A gasp could be heard throughout the crowd, though none made as much noise as Wind and Flora, both stunned that they had not recognized their own father. The moment was short lived, cut shorter still by the barking from the enraged general. “Knights! Arrest that pony in the name of the Princess!”

“You have no authority over me, General.” Ink Well flung back his heavy cloak, spreading his wings wide and showing his off the woven vest he wore beneath, pinned on either side with symbols unmistakable to the important ponies around him. A golden ruby-studded sun, a silver star and cobalt crescent moon, a single feather tipped with gold, and a small heart-shaped phial filled with a glowing green liquid. “I am blessed by both the Sun and Moon, I am the Gryphon's Wings, and as I stand, I represent far more than myself. I am the will of all the people here, the only arbiter in this senseless destruction, the only voice for those who cannot speak for themselves. Our land is being torn apart by war, and, with the help of everyone present, I hope to see it safe and sound by Hearth’s Warming Day.”

The General stalled, instantly recognizing the golden broach Ink Well wore. It was the highest honor a pony could receive in the Solar Empire. Nopony had been given it since before the Elements of Harmony had been found... What was it doing on his chest?

Ink Well lowered his wings to his side, his left resting comfortably on his tattered and heavily patched messenger bag. “I didn't want your brand of help, General, but since you are present, I suppose I will accept it as well. In return, there's something you'll have to accept.” He gestured with a hoof, calling forward a sandy colored pegasus with a partially missing ear: the only pegasus to still be wearing the Royal Army's armor. As the knight made his way to the clearing, Ink Well continued speaking. “Whether one nation or many, it is my belief Equestria belongs to all of its inhabitants, be they pony or gryphon,” he gestured to the armies around him, then to the pegasus in the armor. “...or even changeling.”

A flash of green fire engulfed the armored pegasus, replacing his sandy fur and soft feathers with black chitin and a hard clear membrane used to fly. He removed his helmet, revealing his solid blue eyes, as well as the frills that replaced his mane, tail, and ears. The frill on the right side of his head was almost completely gone, matching the ear he'd lost in his other form.

Immediately, weapons were drawn on all sides, none willing to forget the threat those creatures had been so long ago. Even most of the Elements of Harmony took a worried or aggressive stance, only Twilight seeming unfazed by the appearance of a former enemy before her. Ink Well shook his head at the display, a frown weighing heavy on his features. “See? Even torn apart, all of you remember your history lessons and jump at your 'enemies.' It's almost as if you'd still be on the same side if changelings had remained a threat.” He looked around him, his eyes scanning to meet every eye in the crowd, only lingering when they passed over his family. Unfazed, he continued speaking. “It is time for a new chapter to be written in their story. Sandstorm was just the first, but friends, please... It is time to stop hiding.”

There was a long pause, and Sandstorm himself had to give a pleading look into the crowd, but eventually there was another flash of green flame, replacing another knight in Celestia's army. As weapons turned on her, another flash joined, then another, then a half dozen more, each appearance sending the ponies around them scurrying away from former allies. But it didn't stop with the Royal Army. Three ponies in Luna's army changed in unison, standing proudly among their friends even when said friends looked flabbergasted. Even two of Grandis' gryphons changed, one of whom was his personal bodyguard. Then it spread past the armies. Bystanders in Ponyville burst into flames, only to be replaced with changelings as well. Some were proud, some were ashamed of their true form, but in the end, another eight had been under everypony's nose the whole time.

Ink Well motioned to the changelings, as well as the startled ponies near them who couldn't believe their friendships had all been lies. He knew that look, and it had to stop. “I know many of you are scared right now, and I am sure there is a lot of explaining that these brave changelings will have to do to their dearest friends, but this is not a bad thing. As much as you may think the worst, the changelings you now cower from are the same friends you have always known and have been since the day that bond was formed between you. They, like yourselves, are nothing more than citizens of this country, and, like all of us, they want to see a nation returned to peace.”

Ink Well walked back up to the balcony of Town Hall, turning so that he could see everyone in front of him so they knew he was speaking to them all. “Peace seems like an impossible task. Think of how strong Equestria used to be, all of the principles it used to stand for, then remember that it was ripped apart so violently even the Elements of Harmony were unable to come together, creating a rift that set the sun and moon fighting for dominance in the sky they were supposed to share. Fixing it will be nigh on impossible, and it will involve a lot of compromise. A lot of ponies aren't going to walk away from this happy, and a lot of you will probably want to walk away long before any kind of agreement can be met. This will be difficult, you may even think it unsatisfying, but think of the alternative.”

Ink Well watched all of them closely, seeing who was disheartened and who looked uneasy with the whole prospect. It was they he spoke to next. “Right now, you may walk away. You may decide that you 'can't reason with those maniacs' and run for safety, or think that now would be the perfect time to wipe your enemies out. I can't promise you those won't be very appealing. All I can promise is this: if we can't work this out here in the next few days there will be fighting once more. Even as we talk, ponies far away are patrolling like they have been ordered. What if they meet? Imagine the chaos, the confusion, the damage... Now imagine if the talks break down here: take that fight and multiply it a hundredfold. There will be blood, there will be destruction and death, and by the end, many of those you stand beside right now won't be standing when all is said and done. But maybe, right now, in the spirit of the warring tribes that came together at Hearths Warming or just to avoid that image in your minds, all of us can sit down, talk, and maybe, just maybe, find that common ground where something truly great could grow.”

The silence that followed was contemplative and heavy, everypony considering all that had come before. Would they be able to put their fights aside and talk? Could peace really be brokered with the side opposite them? Could they forgive the enemy for all of the ponies they had lost? In the cold winter air ponies pondered the questions, and one saw the time to make his move.

Their army was right there! If he could just take out the leaders... One shot from the alchemical contraption hidden in the Princess's carriage and this war would be over immediately! Ironsides slipped through the crowd quickly, glad that they were so preoccupied by that pandering fool in the center of the square and thanking him for delivering such a perfect target.

Ironsides ran to the side of the coach and was reaching for the secret panel behind the door when a gold adorned hoof lightly touched onto his. He looked up, straight into the ancient magenta eyes of his ruler. “That's enough, General,” she said calmly as she stepped out of the carriage, a hoof lightly touching down in the Ponyville snow.

It was Princess Celestia's first public appearance since the Grand Galloping Gala that year, and the first outside her castle in many more. This alone was enough to draw the attention of everyone there, causing those still loyal to her to supplicate themselves as they always did. She looked over them, and yet, her eyes were tired, the soft regal smile she'd once been known for completely gone. Still, when she spoke, it was with the same dulcet authority she had always held. “This is a golden opportunity we hold in our hooves now and, come what may, it must be seen through. Ink Well has spoken very clearly and truthfully, and I believe many of us have to think long and hard on his words. Tomorrow, once our hearts and minds are clear and set, we shall begin the talks. Until then, we should make camps and celebrate this time we share once more.”

President Luna nodded, watching her sister's flowing mane behind the golden tiara Tia had worn for centuries. Celestia might look the same as she had when Luna had left, but maybe this time things could be different. “We shall be ready to talk in the morning. There is much we all must consider before then.”

Grandius huffed, but was stopped by Cadance's hoof. This was something he was going to have to accept, and reluctantly the king did. “I see no reason for the delay, but if it must be done... We will wait. Tomorrow, though, this is settled.”

Grandius and his forces walked away at that, but there was a brief hesitation between the other two armies, both forces seeming to be daring the others to make a move. Fluttershy's doctors readied themselves for the fallout, but none came. The process was slow, but the Royal and Republic Armies both backed away from town square peacefully, each heading for a different outskirt of town. The last ponies to leave were the Elements of Harmony, all looking as though they wanted to say something, but none making the first move. Eventually, in pairs, they all went their separate ways, Rarity joining Fluttershy's doctors and offering them rooming around the Carousel Boutique.

As the armies dispersed, so did the crowd, the townsponies all going on with their day as though the strangeness had been nothing, though some life had been breathed into the previously dead town. Tomorrow would prove to be something amazing, whatever happened, but the only thing created today were whispers about the changelings nopony had known was among them. It wasn't enough to change the world, but it could at least pass the time before they waited for the morning.

Five ponies remained in the square when it was emptied, though, all waiting for the horseshoe to drop. Ink Well, wrapped in his cloak and bearing the marks of nations and the wear of years of travel, stood silently, watching his wife and daughters to see what they would do. But they didn't even know, none of them actually expecting this moment to ever come. Only the chilling winter breeze let them know it wasn't a dream.

The first to move was Wind Key, recovering from her shock and doing the one thing she'd wanted to for over five years. “Daddy!” she yelled as she leaped into the air, charging him and tackling him into the thin snow with a crushing hug. “I missed you so much... Why didn't you tell me you were Homeward?! Why could I never find you?”

Ink Well opened his mouth, about to attempt an explanation, when it was snapped shut at the sight of Flora, a furious glare sitting firmly on her features. “You've got some nerve coming back like this! Do you have any idea what mom's been through? Not a package, not a letter... you might as well have died for all we knew, while leaving us with the guards! If I didn't—”

“Flora... that's enough.” Rose put a gentle hoof on Flora's shoulder, moving her aside before gently doing the same to untangle Wind from Ink Well. When that was done, she offered the hoof to her husband to help him up, which he solemnly accepted. When finally they were standing there, face to face, they both seemed emotionless, just looking into each other's eyes and reading all that had happened in them.

After a long moment in silence, Rose lifted a hoof to Ink Well's cheek, caressing it once gently before she suddenly pulled back, smacking him hard across the jaw. In that moment he still looked solemn, as though both expecting and accepting that this would be the outcome, which is why his expression turned to surprise when Rose stepped forward and hugged him tightly, love pouring from the gesture. After just a moment of hesitation he hugged her back, tears rolling down his cheeks as he nuzzled against her neck.

She did the same to him, tears she didn't know she had left to cry spilling from the side of her eyes. “Don't you dare leave me like that again,” she said quietly. “We go together or not at all.” Despite her tears, she was smiling slightly, a warmth she hadn't felt in ages coming back to her heart.

Ink Well's hug grew tighter, joined in by his wings wrapping around her entire form. “Never again.” It pained him to do so, but eventually he had to pull away from his hug, looking into Rose's eyes sadly. “I had to go alone, but I will explain everything I can. You deserve that much at least.”

The reunited couple walked towards home, side by side as though the other would disappear if they moved even a step away. Wind started to follow, but stopped, instead going over to Steam and nodding in the direction of the shop. They had spent weeks traveling with him, Rose deserved her time undisturbed. Flora, however, was long gone, unwilling to watch her parent's happy reunion.

It all hurt just a little too much right now.
Here I sit, in one of the last places to enter the new year, smiling through the haze of firework smoke as I look forward to what is ahead.

May your next year be greater than the last, and happiness nip constantly at your heels.

  • Mood: Optimism
Hello friends!

How is life? I hope you all are having a happy Hearth's Warming this year.

I just put up chapter 19 of Where Night Meets Day. I knew going in that this was going to be an epic story, but...

19 chapters, 329 pages, 170,486 words (according to fimfic's counter), and over a year in writing... and it just keeps growing.

To those who have joined me recently, thank you so much for coming along for the ride so late along.

For those of you who have been here from the beginning, it means more to me than you will ever know that you like my work this much. I mean... I never thought I'd get even 10 readers. The fact that I have something like 400 who have stuck with me through all of this craziness truly warms my heart. Life has had so many strange ups and downs, even since I started this story, but knowing you guys are here, waiting for the next chapter... It keeps me going, even when things get dark.

So, from the bottom of my heart, thank you for everything. Thank you for taking up your time to read my silly story, thank you for sticking with it, thank you for every comment, every favorite... everything. Even tonight, as most would be awaiting Santa or some other such thing, I am hard at work on the next chapter, not because I'm forced to, but because it brings me joy, and I'm so glad I get to share it with all of you.

So, to all my friends, all of you, even those unable to reply, even those who will never read this... Mele Kalikimaka, merry Christmas, happy (now passed) Hanukkah, happy Kwanzaa, or Festivus or Saturnalia or Solstice or what have you, and may you have a prosperous, fruitful, and above all happy new year!

I promise it won't take me another one to finish the story. Though who knows what might be being worked on then?

With much love, your faithful, joyous, thankful writer,
  • Mood: Optimism
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“I don't know why you're so mad, Wind. We sort of expected this,” Steam said as she trotted lightly on the snow beside her pouting pegasus friend. “I mean, really, with all of the Ministers of Friendship gone and the nation in the middle of a war, why would they still be doing tours of the castle?”

Wind's scuffed her hoof on the ground, kicking up a small flurry of annoyance as she went. “Because it's a national landmark! It's not like they closed the Timbucktu Museum of Modern Machinery down for the war!”

Steam took a step sideways, looking at Wind strangely. “Yeah they did. It shut down a couple years ago because it wasn't getting enough business and the town didn't have funding.”

Wind stopped, looking at Steam incredulously. “Really?”


The pegasus visibly slumped, her hooves sinking deeper into the snow as though a weight had been added to them. “Great! It's not like that place was super awesome and making me feel there was more to the world than the front lines...” Her hooves dragged as they walked past the fountain in the center of town and entered the market district, but as soon as they crossed some invisible line she was back to her happy walk, the weight gone. “Oh well, not our problem anymore. We have a gem grinder to test and you have a shop to be amazed by.”

“Don't worry about the gem grinder. I didn't think they'd let us cut up the castle anyway, but I'm sure it'll work just fine when we do find something to use it on. If only we'd thought to test it in the caves...” Quiet descended like snowflakes, gently coating the pair as the walked through the serene silence of town. In the city, no matter the weather or situation, there were ponies everywhere, and even nature had its own rustlings and noises to fill in the space, but none of that could be found in Ponyville, sleeping under its blanket of snow.

Steam shivered as her hooves crunched along, making her try to hold her ears against her head to keep them warm in her puffy mane. Now that it wasn't being dedicated to hide her horn, her mane lay lower on her head, a bit more like a cloud and less like cotton fluff piled in the center. Despite its body, it didn't do much to stop the winter chill. “How far are we from your mother's shop?”

“Just a couple of blocks,” Wind said as they neared a corner. Rounding it, Steam found Wind's wing being held in front of her face, the pink ear muffs hanging from the tip. “Here, I don't really need them right now.”

Smiling, Steam picked up the accessory in her magic, sliding it comfortably on her head with one smooth motion. If it had been another blizzard like they'd run into out in the wild, she wouldn't have dared do anything to make her friend collapse again, but since Wind didn't seem too bothered, Steam wasn't too worried. She was ready to transfer her scarf at the first sign of shivers, though.

Steam's preparations were unnecessary as, a few minutes later, Wind came to a stop, turning to the building next to them and motioning to it. There was a sign above the door, worn a little by the years, but still brightly proclaiming in delicate script that the building was 'Rosewater.' Wind motioned for Steam to open the door, speaking as she did. “Here it is! Rosewater! The best perfumery outside of any city, and probably better than a good few in them.”

“I see why there weren't any display windows,” Steam said as she looked inside at the bare bones store. The sign on the door had read open, but with the rows upon rows of nearly empty shelving it was hard to believe. The air even had a musty smell to it. Not the array of beautiful, sometimes overpowering smells one would expect from a perfume shop, but the smell of a place once loved that had fallen into disuse. Still, if the delicate crystal phials on the shelves were anything to go by, the place must have been amazing in its heyday.

Wind filed in behind her friend, looking around with a slight frown on her face. “Mom always used to be worried that the madness around Ponyville would break large windows too often to have them installed. I can see your point too, though.” She walked over to the counter, hopping over it with a flutter of her wings before turning the knob and revealing the back room. “Mom! We're here!”

“Wonderful! Come on in, I was just lining up the supplies.” The voice was barely a whisper by the time it reached Steam heading towards the counter. The voice must have been buried somewhere deep in the back room, for it filtered out in a metallic sound that immediately got Steam curious. Wind had already entered the room by the time Steam reached the door, but the sight beyond it stunned the unprepared unicorn in her tracks.

Brass pipes spanned the ceiling and much of the floor, creating a complicated network as intricate as a spider's web. These ran between large brass vats, mostly boilers attached to and powering machines Steam couldn't recognize at a glance. Unlike the last room, this one smelled of woods and fruit and flowers, the smells of ages seeping from the very floor. It was powerful, even when a glance to the side of the room showed materials were low.

Even though they showed no real decoration, the machines themselves were made with tender love and care. That much was obvious. They were all custom, hoof built from scratch, with each rivet carefully placed and each weld thoroughly considered. From the delicate fixtures and faucets to the gleaming edges of the valves and gauges they all bore the mark of true dedication. A dedication that had faded only recently, where pipes had rusted or busted and the slightest patina of neglect removed the sheen from the machines. There were patches of new metal on some of the machines, but all of them showed much wear and tear.

Steam's attention was brought back when she was bumped to the side, almost falling over from just the simple tap. She looked over to see Wind smiling impishly. “I hoped your reaction would be something like this.”

Steam walked around the nearest boiler slowly, running her hoof over the smooth metal, the brass from her own shoe causing it to ring. “Who built these?”

“That would be me,” came Rose's voice from behind Steam, causing her to spin around. In the center of the room, with the piping overhead like a weaved metal ceiling and the machines all evenly spaced around, there was a work table, at which sat the older earth pony looking at a large sheet of brass, a few more at her side.

Steam looked impressed, wondering after the delicious cooking of the morning and the night before how many skills Rose actually had. “The craftsmareship on these things is amazing, if a tad dated by today's standards. The dedication you show in these is remarkable, and that they have kept through so many repairs just shows that it's been being done by a master.”

Rose waved the compliments away with a hoof, a blush spreading on her cheeks. “Oh, no, no, it was simply necessary to do what my cutie mark was telling me to do, and I followed it as best as I could. The designs I took from the Royal Perfumery in Canterlot, scaled down, and I only added a few machines as technology tried to advance past me. I'm really not very good with metal, just dedicated to the scents these things can create.”

Steam smiled, inwardly glad to have finally made Rose the one feeling slightly uneasy even as she looked at the mare in awe. “Well the dedication certainly shows.” Taking a quick scan of the damages and the tools Rose had set out, Steam's wide eyed gaze narrowed a little, her face becoming more serious. “This damage could be fixed in a few hour's work, but I'm afraid you don't have everything you need. Where is your welding torch and how are you cutting the brass?”

Rose sighed at the question. “I was just asking myself that second question. I ran out of fuel for both the welder and the cutter some time ago, I guess, and I must have been operating on luck since then. But that has run out, it seems, and it'll take forever to get a refill on the gas canisters.”

“You know, Steam's crazy good at welding and shaping things with her magic. She made a surprising amount of pieces for the Ready Wings right on the spot.” As soon as the words left her mouth, Wind went quiet, almost looking angry with herself.

Rose didn't notice Wind's turmoil, instead looking impressed by Wind's comment. “Really?” Rose asked as she looked at Steam. “You did all that? Those wings look truly marvelous, particularly if they fly like you and Wind said. Though I'm surprised you were able to do all of that with brass, considering its anti-magic properties.”

Steam seemed much more surprised than anything else as she shook her head, a blush now appearing on her cheeks. “Oh, well, I don't know about all of that, but I did have to do quite a few of the last welds and cuts with my magic once Wind couldn't use all of her tools. But my special talent is as much in enchanting brass objects as it is in building them.” She tapped the tip of her hoof nervously on the floor, making her brass slipper clink off of it. Rose seemed curious, but didn't press any further. However, after a few moments in silence, Steam continued of her own accord. “If you'd like, I could try to do the fixes for you. It might take a day or two running solely on magic, but I would be more than happy to help.”

“If you would be willing to help an old mare out, you could take all the time in the world...” Rose smiled warmly, though it faded into a smirk rather quickly. “Well, not all the time, since I should really be sending out the orders by the end of the week, but at least a few days.” She placed down the brass sheet she'd been holding, looking more than a little relieved that the work wasn't going to be in her hooves. “Would you require any help? It is my shop, after all, I should probably at least lend a hoof.”

“It's fine, uh, Rose,” Steam looked a bit awkward using the name, but managed to recover well. “I'm not sure how much of your time wouldn't just be spent sitting around waiting, and I'm sure you've got more important things to do.”

A bemused smile made its way onto Rose's face. “I'm sure, too...” She walked over to the door to the shop, turning around to see Steam already focusing on one of the broken pipes, the unicorn's magic wrapping around the space and lighting it with the golden glow. Rose then turned to Wind. “Is there anything you'd like to do, dear, since your friend is preoccupied?”

Wind hesitated, looking at Rose, then at Steam, who looked back, wondering why there was worry on the pegasus' face. “I think I'll stay here for a little bit, if that's alright?” She seemed to be asking that question to Steam as much as Rose, and Steam nodded, still confused by her friend's behavior. “I promise I won't get in her way,” Wind finished, looking solely towards Rose.

The older mare's faint smile faded slightly. “Alright, then. See that you don't. Lock up if you leave, I left the key on the workbench. I'll be at home if you need me.” Rose closed the door behind her slowly, leaving the two refugees alone in her shop.

As soon as the door was closed, Steam spoke, though she continued to focus on the metal she was shaping. “You know, I don't have anything for you to do, either. It'll mostly just be you watching me shape and weld things.”

Wind sat down next to the workbench, smiling as she did so. “That's fine. I've always enjoyed watching you work. I just hope you don't mind the company.”

The brass sheet fell to the ground as Steam turned to Wind, analyzing her friend. “Okay, this is weird, what is wrong with you today?” Wind started to respond with an 'I don't know.' but Steam cut her off. “I mean, you've been acting weird ever since we got into town! You've been all smiles, but it's more than that. You're... guarded and edgy behind that grin. So what's up?”

“There's nothing wrong, really.” Wind looked Steam in the eyes and it was immediately apparent that she was lying.

“You can't just—!” Steam started, but she stopped, remembering all of the times she'd done the exact same thing to Wind. Wind had never pushed her into answering, it really wouldn't be fair for her to do the same. “Never mind...” She picked up the sheet of metal in her magic, working out the dents before suddenly giving it over to Wind. “Could you finish curling that into a pipe? I know you can't cut or weld it, but if you could get the shape and curl the rest of it into three more that'd speed up the process.”

Wind looked a little surprised by the task, but as soon as she was given it she went to work, using the tools Rose had left behind and her own knowledge to the best of her abilities. Meanwhile, Steam focused her attention on the more minor patches, starting by removing a nearby valve and sizing up some metal to replace the fixture.

A few silent minutes later, as Steam was welding the piece in place, she started talking again. “It must be nice to be home after so long away. And your mother was so thrilled to see you last night.”

Wind snorted as she continued shaping pipework. “Yeah, the parts of town that are still open are lovely.”

Sparks flew from the heated metal beneath Steam's horn, but she wasn't paying it more attention than it needed. “The war hasn't been kind anywhere, it seems. But at least the ponies here aren't trying to kill us.”

Another snort, followed by a hammer striking the brass sheet a little too forcefully. “Not openly, and so long as we stick to the ground and keep our heads down, we'll be perfectly safe.”

Steam blew on the newly attached fixture, futilely helping it to cool before she moved to another small weak spot on a different machine. “Well, I spent five years keeping my head down, I'd say I've gotten pretty used to it by now. Though I suppose I will miss walking through my own apartment with my head held high after a job well completed. Though that was only really a feature of my last few months there.” Her horn lit up again, starting the slow process of cutting out a patch from the sheet of brass. She'd gotten a lot of practice with this over the last few months thanks to Wind, but it was so very different now that she wasn't also maintaining the silence spell or fighting with her own mane. Just these few minutes of work felt surprisingly liberating.

Unfortunately, Wind wasn't feeling the same way as she flew up to the broken pipe, trying to eyeball the angle she'd need to turn her work. “Maybe you can give me some pointers. I never was very good at keeping my head out of the clouds.” Wind's voice lowered to a mutter, but it bounced off of the metal in the room, still managing to reach Steam clearly. “It's the reason I left this place to begin with...”

The magical aura slicing through the metal stopped as Steam popped her head out from behind the boiler she was working on. “So, I don't think I ever asked. What brought you to Timbucktu? Was it just looking for your father?”

Wind sighed loudly, letting out some of the frustration of her work. She'd always had issues with machinery larger than her hoof. “Do you really want to know? Because my search for dad was the main reason, and I never even found him.”

Steam ducked behind the boiler again, continuing work on her cut. “I am curious. I'm sure part of it was because they were driving the pegasi out of the empire like they were driving unicorns out of the Republic, too. But your mom seems like she'd have gone with you if not for your sister.”

“It's not Flora's fault mom didn't go. It's my brother's.” The hammer came down sharply, pinging the pipe directly into shape, but the noise echoed through the room.

“I didn't know you have a brother.”

“Had.” The hammer fell again, piercing the silence that immediately fell around that little three letter word. “You saw that helmet in the corner of the dining room, right? The Battle Beneath Cloudsdale, Division 17, less than a week out of training.” Again the hammer fell, its impact resounding and furious. “Newsprint had no reason to be there. He'd been drafted, and though he had multiple reasons not to go, my father's 'betrayal' included, he went anyway so the Guard would get off of mom's back.” Clang! cried the hammer, forced through the motions whether it liked them or not. “And it wasn't even an enemy that killed him. It was his own side, raining fire on the battlefield, on a city under their control! Just to wipe out a force less than a quarter the size it had sent!” CLANG! the hammer raged, not caring if it created or destroyed with its strike. “He was my best friend! The kindest stallion anyone would know! And in an instant he was gone, not even a puff of smoke to remember him by!”

CLANG! CLANG! Cla-clunk. the hammer stopped, the fuel behind it gone as the young mare holding it breathed heavily on the brass plate. “What kind of nation would do that to its own?” Clang. “What kind of leader would ignore the warnings of their friend? Would call him a traitor even as they went to war with their own kin?” CLANG. “What kind of Princess would hunt down and prosecute any pegasus that didn't leave her lands after they sought retribution for the destruction of their oldest city?!” CLANG!! “NOT THE KIND THAT I WOULD EVER WANT TO BE UNDER!”

The hammer swung again, bending the brass it had been shaping and sending the whole sheet crashing to the ground. It was soon joined by the tool, slipping from Wind's hoof as she sat tiredly at the workbench. “I pleaded with my mother and my sister, I tried to convince them to come with me, to find dad and help set this whole thing straight, because there had to be a mistake. There just had to. But mom wouldn't leave after Newsprint's ‘noble sacrifice,’ and Flora couldn't bring herself to leave mom all alone. So I went without them, galloping over the border and never looking back. And I searched, through Manehattan, through Trottingham, all up and down the coast...” She sighed. “I don't even know what rumor brought me to Timbucktu, tired and hungry... I have no clue how my luck brought me to Clockwork, and I really don't know what made me stay in the city, but... I was happy, for a while. I had found a new dream and even found a place to work on it. Since chasing my father had done nothing, maybe, if I stayed in one place, he'd come find me...”

She sighed. “But he didn't, and now I'm here, under Celestia's hoof once more, with nothing to show for it but the friend I dragged out of her home and the perfect apology to my mother... What should have been a triumph of engineering turned into a pitiful whimper for forgiveness. Maybe it would have been better for me to fall that day...”

“Don't you dare even think that.” Steam came out from behind the boiler, her eyes tearing up from her friend's story, but her face fully focused after what she'd just heard. “I already apologized for my stupid words in the mountains and I'm still sorry they ever made it out of my mouth, but don't you even think for a moment that you'd be better off dead. I have never once truly regretted catching you and I never ever will.”

“Why did you catch me?” Wind asked, her curiosity fighting against the defeat on her face. When Steam looked blindsided by the question, Wind made it clearer. “You had just spent five years hiding your magic and yourself away from anypony, especially one of the crazy pegasi that would have killed you... and yet you caught me, a pegasus you didn't know and had never spoken to. Why?”

It took Steam a long time to answer, and not because she didn't know the answer, but because she didn't think Wind would like to hear all of it. However, after everything she'd just been told, there had to be a give and take... She had a lot of giving still to do, no matter how much it would hurt. “Honestly, if I had known you were a pegasus, I might not have. After everything I'd been through, after all of the torment, the hiding, being driven from my home, only to be forced to hide in it once more... I would have let a pegasus fall, like they had done to me.” Her eyes were hard at the memory, replayed in her head so often it could no longer bring her fear.

It could only remind her of the wonder she had discovered the next morning, watching the sun rise over the glittering city, and with that she shook her head, the hardness of her expression gone. “But at that time you weren't a pegasus. You were a pony, one who had just soared over the tree tops in the most fantastic invention I had ever seen, like a lighthouse shining in the darkest storm. I was captivated by those metal wings, and when they broke... I couldn't let the creator of such beauty die, no matter what happened to me as a result.” She looked sheepishly at the ground. “I thought I'd put you down and get away to hide from the renewed hunt for a unicorn. I never thought you'd fly after me, and in my wildest dreams I never would have thought you'd be so kind, especially now that I heard about your brother. I would have thought you would have hated unicorns!”

Wind had been about to hug her friend, but at that last sentence, she stopped in her tracks, backing up slightly. “I can't hate unicorns. Unicorns didn't start this war or kill my brother, even if they sent the killing blow his way. The nation, the system itself, is corrupt... not like in the NLR. They might not look much better, and some of the things they do are downright horrible, but... the system is fine, it's the ponies that are the problem there. But ponies can be fixed, or taught, or simply worked around. You can't work around the government when it falls apart. No matter how many patches you place on it or fixes you try to splice in, if the underlying system is corrupted through, it can only be fixed when it is torn to the ground and built anew.”

Silence reigned over the two, holding the possibility of any manner of things. Each of the young mares looked at the other, reading the way they held themselves, their every movement, just waiting for something to slip and more to fall into light. However, after heavy seconds of the standoff, it ended simply with Wind reaching for her dropped work and beginning to bang out the dents the floor had made. “Luckily, we don't need to do a full repair on mom's shop. Just a patch job.” She smiled as she lifted the work to examine it, catching Steam's reflection still staring at her. “With work like this, you'd think mom's cutie mark was for engineering machines, not scents.”

Steam continued to look at Wind's face in the reflection. She saw the too-wide smile, the projected confidence, the way Wind's eyes would waver with worry, all so subtle many ponies would have missed it. Even Rose, after those years of separation, might not have caught the signs, but Steam could read them loud and clear. Slowly she walked up to Wind and, looking at the slightly startled face in the reflection, wrapped her arms around Wind from behind, pulling her into a warm hug. “You don't need to pretend for me, Wind. I don't blame you for what happened.”

The metal hit the table with another clatter as Wind tried to spin around and do anything in reaction to the affection behind her. “I didn't—”

“No. You didn't know what Clockwork would do. You didn't even know what I would do when you came looking for me, but that time in Timbucktu, cramped with you in that little apartment, those were the happiest days of my life.”


Steam only squeezed Wind tighter, nuzzling against her cheek lightly in appreciation. “But they do not compare to the time that has come since. Even through the hardships, through the stress and the fear, you were there with me, supporting me as I saw and experienced things other ponies could only dream of. There are no words to express how much that time meant to me except for these...” She gently spun Wind around to face her, keeping her hooves on Wind's shoulders and smiling warmly as she looked the conflicted pegasus in the face. “The journey is over. You don't need to keep hiding behind a fake smile. I only want to see a real one.”

A brief impulse hit Steam then, causing her to pause and blush, but mentally she pushed it aside. This moment was too important for awkwardness. “So let it out. I am here for you, just as you've always been for me. Even if we’re chased all the way to the zebra lands, that isn't going to change.”

It seemed to take a moment for the words to actually reach Wind, but when they did the effect was immediate. Tears appeared at the edges of her eyes, and though she didn't say anything, she did lunge into a hug with Steam. There were no words, there were no sobs, just a constant gentle squeeze of gratitude that carried on and on, which Steam was glad to return for as long as it was needed.

Eventually, though, the moment and the silence grew awkward, causing Wind to pull away, though she still smiled at Steam. “Thank you” was all she said, and all she needed to say, before she picked up the piece she'd been working on once more, being much more careful with the hammer than she had been previously.

Before Wind could get too carried away, however, Steam spoke once more. “You know, I was serious when I said I could do the work on my own. You could still go and catch up with your mother, if you'd prefer.”

Wind thought about it for a moment, placing the completed piping on the worktable and looking around the room. Apart from a little dust and a few patches, it hadn't changed since she'd left. She really wouldn't gain anything from staying here. And yet, when her eyes fell on Steam, she could only shake her head. “No, I think I'd rather stay here. Mom and I will have plenty of time to catch up, and any project done alone isn't nearly as much fun.” She then stood up, saluting Steam playfully. “So what's the task, boss?”

Steam smiled, thinking of the list of damages she'd have to fix, then comparing it to what Wind could do without tools. With a slight pout, she shrugged. “I dunno, I'll think of something.” She had no clue what could be done by the pegasus, but it really didn't matter. Who said she had to do anything but sit there and smile?

As long as Wind kept smiling, Steam was sure the time would just fly by.

*     *     *     *     *    

Rose fussed about the kitchen as the sun began to set, moving between the various parts of the dish she was preparing and frowning slightly as she did. Cooking wasn't the issue, and neither was that she was doing so solo, as she often did. It was more that she wished she could have come home and done... anything at all.

She was feeling unnecessary again, a bad sign this early in the winter season. Already her garden was sleeping, nestled beneath its blanket of snow, and when she'd come home, ready to offer support to her down daughter laying in bed, she was almost a little disappointed to learn her earlier speech had taken. Of course, knowing Flora was recovering and out and about was wonderful, but it had left her feeling like a carriage with a missing wheel, wandering in circles and waiting for somepony to set her right. Finally she'd taken to reading to distract herself. Unfortunately, after a couple dozen pages, she realized she had not only read the book before, but that the book had been one written by her husband, and that brought up a completely different set of feelings she didn't want to think about right now.

It had taken her a long soak in a therapeutic bubble bath to let herself relax, and with the approach of dinner time, at least she could still be a good mother and round the day off well. She was just putting the finishing touches on it when she heard the front door open, bringing with it a stiff breeze and two sets of hooves. Knowing the food would have to cool, she walked out into the living room, talking as she went. “Dinner is cooling down, and I went for something a little weird, but I was feeling fancy and there were some...” Her thought trailed off as she saw Flora next to a pegasus, but not the one she had been expecting. “Silver! Long time no see! How are you this evening?”

Silver Lining smiled warmly, tapping the snow off of her hooves before shutting the door. “I'm doing great, Mrs. Rose. How are you?”

“Just fine, thank you.” Rose never had been able to get Silver to break that naming habit, but she wasn't going to start complaining about it now when she saw Flora's tired eyes looking surprisingly excited. “I'm glad to see you took my advice, Flora. It seems to have already done you wonders.”

Flora nodded. “The crystal bush is getting ready to bloom! I have no clue what caused it, but when I went in today, it was budding!”

Silver rolled her eyes, but smiled anyway. “She wouldn't stop going on and on about the thing and refused to leave the place until she'd measured everything about it and was sure it wouldn't grow in front of her. Eventually I went and got a deck of cards and made some popcorn while I was waiting.”

Silver's commentary did little to stop Rose's excitement for her daughter. “That's great! I knew that you would eventually get it to grow again.” She gave Flora a hug, then motioned to the dining room. “Well, now the stuffed mushrooms feel more like a fancy celebration. Did you see your sister anywhere?”

Both of the younger mares shook their head, with Silver being the one to actually speak. “I was coming over to say 'hi' to the filly and ask her a few questions. You mean she isn't here?”

Rose frowned. “She must still be working with her friend in the perfumery...” She considered the options quickly, then went over to the closet, getting an ivy green scarf and a matching set of snow shoes. “Since you two just spent all day out there, I'll go and get them while you set the table, okay? I'll be back soon.”

“Are you sure you don't want me to fly over?” Silver offered as she backed away from the door, unfurling her wings for emphasis. “I could get there and back faster'n you can say—”

“No, it's quite alright. I could use the walk anyway,” Rose said, pulling open the door and bringing the night air into the house. “It won't be very long at all. And I'll let Cheerilee know you're staying over for dinner on the way back.” With a smile that nopony could argue with Rose closed the door behind her, stepping out into the crisp winter's night.

Walking into her shop a few minutes later, she was disappointed to find it dark and cold. She wasn't sure what she expected, but if they were hard at work, surely the heat of it would have carried over one room. As she rounded the counter to the back room, it was one of a very small number of times she wished the soundproofing wasn't so good. It kept the sounds of the machinery away from the customers, but it also meant she couldn't hear something crashing down until the last second. That had been a real issue when Wind had gotten to flying age... Hopefully her little filly hadn't done nearly as much damage while unsupervised this time.

Rose had to squint as she pushed the door open, the light beyond seeming dazzling compared to the darkness in the shop. She soon found out, however, that it would have been dazzling even on a bright sunny morning as all of the boilers and machines on this side of the room were polished to a mirror shine. The first mare she saw inside was her own bewildered self, but after walking around the boiler, she was able to see the two she had come to collect hard at work. Steam's face was skewed in concentration as she tried to fit a pipe she had crafted into the place a damaged one used to reside. Meanwhile, Wind had managed to get her hooves covered in oil and her wings covered in wax as she performed maintenance on the few moving parts of the older machines and shined their exteriors to show their quality. Even as Rose watched, Wind was testing a previously squeaky valve, her wings gliding over the machine behind her and slowly bringing it to the same shining level as all of the others.

The first to notice the older mare was Steam as she walked towards the workbench in the center of the room, preparing to begin the next repair. She smiled and waved Rose over as she started to talk. “Welcome back! I hope you don't mind, but I saw a few more issues than just the repair jobs you were setting up for, so I thought I'd work them out while I was here. I did my best not to alter anything, but there were two pipes that had pretty much dented together and could have caused a problem, so I ran them around each other.” She pointed into a corner of the room that six different brass tubes all knotted around each other. It was quite easy to see the two new ones wrapping delicately around the others. “I should hopefully be done by the end of tomorrow, though I could possibly finish it all tonight if I really worked at it.”

Rose's eyes widened as she shook her head lightly. “There's no need for working too late, dear, you've already gone above and beyond. And it seems Wind had quite a lot more to do than you thought.”

Steam looked over at Wind, who nodded back, a large smile on her face as she tried to wipe off the oil on her hooves with an equally oily rag. Letting Wind clean herself up, Steam talked for her. “Yeah. Originally she was helping me shape things, but when it came down to the actual repairs, there wasn't too much she could do. It was her idea to start polishing and doing more common maintenance, though, since everything was being worked on anyway. A cake of wax and a bottle of oil later and it all should be running like it did the day you made it.”

Rose looked around the room once more in disbelief. “Even in all its glory it never looked this good. Thank you so much, Windy.”

Wind blushed slightly and rubbed an oily hoof on the bandanna covering the back of her mane, leaving a smudge. “Oh, it was nothing, mom! Had to do something to make up for suddenly appearing on you. Though I might send Steam out the next time I need to go to the market for more grease...” She was starting to look slightly dour when her stomach rumbled, announcing to everypony in the room that it must be time to eat. At that, she suddenly realized the purpose of her mother's visit. “So, how late have we been working? I completely lost track of time.”

“The sun's already set. Don't tell me you haven't eaten since breakfast...” Wind didn't have to tell Rose for her to know. She sighed theatrically. “Oh well, I guess it's a good thing dinner is waiting at the house. Both of you go there and wash up. I'll lock up and be right behind you.”

“Okay, we won't get started without you.” Wind said as moved carefully across the room, trying hard not to touch anything and transfer her mess anywhere else. Steam giggled softly at this, putting on her ear muffs and scarf before opening the door Wind was desperately trying to will open with her mind. With a quick wave to Rose, both mares left the back room, and the soft tinkling of a bell outside told her they left the shop soon after.

Rose wandered between the machines, taking in their shine with a sense of awe and pride. How had she forgotten how nice these were in all these years? How had those two done so much in so little time? If it looked this good down here, how nice could a little help make storage?

That thought stuck with her, though it soon turned into another one, one she'd save until after dinner. Right now she was holding things up, and there was no excuse for that. Grabbing her shop key from the workbench, she turned off the lights and left Rosewater, locking the store behind her. After a quick trot to Cheerilee's to tell her the evening's plan, she made her way home, ready to get dinner started for real.

*     *     *     *     *    

Even with the delay the group dinner went quite well, made all the more lively for the extra pony at the table. The work of the day was lively on all ends, though the winning conversation topic was definitely Flora's budding flowers. She discussed her theories at length with Rose and Steam, both of whom were quite interested, though for different reasons. Steam couldn't help but wonder if a crystal topiary would need their gem grinder or just normal shears, while Rose had visions of a new line of luxury perfumes dancing in her head. Flora's head was still largely full of fuzz at this point, but she pressed on, glad to have an eager audience to bounce her theories off of.

Meanwhile, Silver was doing much the same with Wind, talking about upcoming weather plans that would go much smoother with four extra hooves. Wind wasn't the best weathermare, but she was more than willing to help. With that out of the way, Silver had another point of curiosity only her fellow pegasus could answer, asking about life on the other side of the border. Silver didn't regret her decision, but that didn't mean she couldn't be curious about the freedom the other side offered. And, from Wind's accounts, it did sound wonderful, at least until the incident with Clockwork came into play. It just went to show, even the most beautiful roses had thorns.

A long and definitive yawn brought the conversations to a halt, with Flora needing to go to bed, far too tired from her lousy sleep the night before to stay awake. With her exit she took Silver, who needed to get home before Cheerilee got too worried that something had happened on the way back. Wind and Steam were feeling tired as well, so they were both contemplating their own beds when Rose's thought from before returned, prompting a question from her. “Steam, would you like a better bed than the couch?”

Steam shook her head, though she did give a sidelong glance at Dot sitting innocently near the table. “No, the couch is fine, and I don't want to impose, I told you.”

Rose waved the idea away. “It's not imposing at all. You see, before I lived here, I had an apartment over the Rosewater distillery, and I believe I still have everything needed to make that a proper guest room, if you'd like. It would put you closer to your work tomorrow and let you sleep without distractions, if nothing else.”

Steam looked surprised by the offer, not having even thought of going upstairs while she was working at the other building. A whole apartment would be an upgrade from a couch, particularly with her complaints about losing her own. “Oh, well, if you have the space I suppose it'd be foalish not to accept. Though the morning trip for breakfast could be a killer...”

Rose smiled. “I'm sure something could be figured out. I'll get the shop key and we can go set it up.” Rose did as she said, getting her cold weather clothes and the shop key and meeting Steam at the door. She also met Wind, who seemed to be slightly hurt by what Steam was telling her.

“Wind, you did enough earlier. You don't need to come along. Just go to bed, your mom and I can handle this.”

Wind's ears drooped a little, but she nodded. “Oh, alright... I'll see you tomorrow?”

Steam nodded, smiling warmly. “Yup! We've got a few things to finish up, and then we'll just have to figure out something else to do.”

Rose opened the door to the outside, watching the snow flurry through the air. “I'm sure you'll think of something. Let's go.”

The trip was cold, silent, and uneventful, with the most interesting thing being the snowflakes on their backs melting as they walked through the polished distillery. Upon reaching the stairs, Rose started talking. “Now, the upper floor has been mostly used for storage for years now, but with the low stock I doubt there will be much left up there. I know I left a bed and a few books and magazines, and I know that the lights still work.” Reaching the top of the stairs, she motioned to the door next to her hoof, flicking on the switch as she did. “The bathroom is in here, there's a small kitchen there, if you feel you want to cook your own meals at some point, and as far as I'm concerned, you can use this space for as long as you like. Or, if it's too much, you can go back to the couch with nothing held against you.”

Steam reached the top of the stairs and looked around, the old paint still keeping its sandy color even though the walls were otherwise bare. There was a small table, the makings of a kitchen, and a little bookshelf next to a bed on the far side of the room behind a small dividing wall. She let out a little laugh when she finished looking it over. “This place is bigger than my Timbucktu apartment, and that wasn't free and didn't come with its own bathroom... or rooms.”

Rose chuckled as well as she walked over to the bed. “Yes, well, city living may be more frantic, but more rural areas definitely have their perks. For all your help and all you've done for my daughter, feel free to think of this as your home away from home.” As she got near the sheets, she noticed a few things felt... off. The rug was slightly askew, and there was a book left out on top of the bookshelf, something Rose tried very hard not to do if she wasn't reading it, and she hadn't been in here reading in quite a long while. On top of those, the bed seemed... used. It was all made quite well, but there was something about it that felt off. Rose noticed it, but didn't say anything, fixing the sheets with a small motion before testing out the mattress. It still held its shape. “This should do the trick, I hope it's good enough.”

While Rose was working on the bed, Steam had picked up on the oddities as well, though it was much harder since she didn't know what 'normal' would be in the apartment. Still, with the thought that somepony might have been staying there recently, Steam found herself wondering what had become of 'Homeward Bound' since they'd arrived in town. She hadn't caught a single sight of him... If he wanted to finish this as quickly as he'd promised Lady Rarity, he was going to have to step up his game.

Steam sat on the bed, immediately sighing with relief at how much softer it was than the couch. “This will be wonderful, Rose. Thank you so much for all of this.”

“It's my pleasure, Steam. Do have a good night.” Unbeknownst to either of them, they both had imagined the same pony in the room, messing with the sheets and managing to leave without a trace. As Rose descended the stairs, she remembered the pony she'd spent so much time in that building with. Ink Well had said he was close. Just how close was he? What was it he had planned?

Only time would tell.
Cheerilee sat alone in the dark kitchen, staring at the headline from that morning's paper. She hadn't had any time to react before school, but now that class was finally done for the day she'd been able to give the lead story her full attention. 'Equestria in Ruins! Lunar Secession is Realized!' the title declared, with a picture of Scootaloo leading a retinue of ponies as they escaped the Royal Guard.

It was madness. Her little Scootaloo, that scared little filly she'd taken home and kept safe... It hadn't been that long, had it? She couldn't be so big. This couldn't be real. And yet, the photo stared at her, accompanied by rumors of guard movements and ponies gossiping fearfully in the streets. It had followed her everywhere, but it didn't strike home until she saw it for herself.

Tears ran down the aging teacher's face, counting all of the times she'd fallen short as a mother. When Scootaloo had been lost and hurt with all that talk of monsters, when her little filly had a foal much too soon, all of the times where her work had gotten in the way, where she had questioned her ability to raise a filly as a single young mare... This was proof that they were all founded. The mare she had raised, who she had been so proud of when she'd been made Captain of the Guard, had just betrayed Princess and country and started a rebellion...

What mother had ever done so poor a job?

From the doorway a soft sound was heard, a little voice, timid and sad. “Mom, are you alright?” The tiny silver pegasus had been watching for a while now, not sure what to do with her mother so down. She'd never seen Cheerilee cry in sadness once, the earth pony very careful about where she'd shown her weakness. To the little pegasus with no cutie mark, witnessing this was a sign that something was wrong in the world.

If only she had any idea how right she was. “N-no, sweetie. Mom isn't alright. Mom's... I'm worried about your m-... sister...” Seeing the confusion on Silver's face, Cheerilee motioned for her to come over, showing her the newspaper.

Silver looked at the paper for a little while, frowning as she tried to figure out how it had hurt mom. It had her big sister on the front! That was good all the other times it had happened. But even if she didn't know the words, the headline didn't sound good. “Did big sis do something wrong?”

“Scootaloo... She's...” Cheerilee froze at the innocent eyes of the filly before her, wondering if there was a good way to explain. How do you tell somepony that young that their world was about to be turned on its ear? “She helped a lot of ponies do something just... horrible.”

Silver held onto the paper, looking at the picture again closely. “They don't look like bad ponies. And big sis is awesome! If she wanted to do something, it can't be
too bad. We can ask her when she comes to visit at Hearth's Warming!”

Cheerilee sniffed, the tears flowing as she tried to figure out how to keep the real news from her 'daughter'. “She won't be coming on Hearth's Warming, Silver. I don't think she'll be able to come visit again for a very, very long time.”

“Oh...” Silver's excited smile from her previous thought faded quickly, her mouth going into another pout as she thought about it. It didn't take long. “So you're crying because you miss her?”

“I already missed her... I'm crying because I've...” She sighed, feeling something fall out from the bottom of her heart. There was no hiding it. “I've failed her. I've failed both of you.” Something had broken inside Cheerilee at Silver's question, like a little dam in her heart had sprung open, and she sank to the floor to be closer to Silver and hug the little filly while she spoke. “I am so sorry for everything I've done wrong, all of the attention you've been denied... I'm sorry for every morning when I look into your eyes and see her and the biggest thing I failed to save her from. I wasn't good enough to be her mom... I'm not good enough to be anypony's. I'm so sorry...”

Cheerilee hugged Silver close to her chest, running a hoof lovingly through the little filly's mane while tears rolled from her cheeks, landing in that soft purple hair. However, as those small hooves squeezed into her side, returning the gesture, Cheerilee realized she wasn't the only one crying. She looked down only to see Silver's eyes looking back, her mother visible in every inch of them. “Don't cry, mom! You're the best mom in the world, better than any other mom I've seen! I know I'm too shy and sometimes I don't do good in my classes, but I'll try harder, momma! I will! Just... please don't send me away.”

Cheerilee's eyes went wide with shock. “Why would I send you away?”

Silver's tears kept coming, but her eyes continued to shine with worried hope as her words came spilling out. “I know I'm not the filly you want me to be. I know I wasn't even wanted. I was a mistake. And that's why big sis doesn't talk to me and doesn't write... She ran away because of me. Same as dad did, leaving you all alone and sad and Ididn'tmeantomakethathappenI'msorry!” Silver pulled her face into Cheerilee's chest, a wet spot forming almost immediately on the fur there.

Cheerilee shook her head in horror, appalled by the things Silver thought about herself. “Nonononononono... That's not it at all!” No wonder the little filly was so shy if she thought just existing had caused all of this. Her hoof returned to gently stroking Silver's mane, now trying to soothe the crying girl. “Silver Lining, you've got it all wrong. You are the most precious little filly any mother could hope to have. And even if you weren’t planned for, you were by no means a mistake. You were a choice, a gift! And on top of that, you let Scootaloo see what she really wanted to do with her life.”

She softly lifted Silver's chin so that they were looking at each other, trying to dry both her tears and her 'daughter's'. “When Scootaloo looked into those eyes, she saw herself and the things she had lost sight of. She left, not because she hates you, but because she loves you, and if she stayed, if she even talked to you too much, she might have never left. She loves you more than you will ever know, and she misses you every day, even if you don't see it and she's too busy to make it clear.

“As for your dad... I can't say much about him except that I'm glad you didn't meet him. After what he did to Scootaloo, I can only say he was a horrible stallion, and you're much better off for not knowing him.” Cheerilee let go of Silver's chin and looked to the kitchen floor, closing her eyes. “And as for why I'm sad... It's like I said, I thought I'd failed you both. I don't see what Scootaloo has planned, or what drove her to do it, and that frightens me to no end. And you... I somehow let you think even for an instant that you weren't wanted, and for that, I did fail you. But I promise with all my heart that I will never fail you again.”

Again Cheerilee felt the squeeze of small hooves as Silver hugged herself against her mom. “You didn't fail me, mom. You really are the best, kindest, most wonderfullest mom in all of Equestria, and I'm gonna be the best daughter you could ever hope for!” Cheerilee opened her eyes, now seeing the tearless determination glued to Silver's face as she looked up at her mother. Cheerilee matched it instantly, returning the hug her daughter was giving her.

“You already are.”

*     *     *     *     *    

The bright morning sun swept its way over Equestria, bounding off of the fluffy snow and bringing just a little warmth to all of the sleeping wintery land. And, as it had for years, it launched through Flora's window, aiming directly for her eyes, only to be foiled by a heavy comforter drawn over her entire body. It had been trying to get her moving for nearly an hour now, but to no avail. For the first time in its long history, it had failed to rouse the industrious mare. She had finally defeated the sun.

On some other day, Flora might have celebrated or even noticed her victory. Under any normal circumstances she might even have cared about the heat building up in the direct light or the smell of the omlette congealing on her nightstand. But today, with her eyes redder than her mane and a wet spot under her right cheek, she remained firmly curled in a ball on her bed, wishing the day would just disappear.

She'd been having a similar wish for most of the night, and for much of the evening before it, borne straight from the icy chasm that had formed in her heart. She had been sad before, even felt crushed by the world when she heard about Newsprint's death, but it seemed a dull ache compared to this. Of course, it was how she expected to feel after the effects of the wintry dagger Jazz had shoved in her back and twisted, and yet it was so much worse than she could have imagined. Maybe, if she was lucky, somepony else would come along and finish the job.

But nopony did. For a moment she'd thought one such assassin had arrived, but it had turned out to be her mother, trying to fix a missing limb with a bandage and some kind words. When Rose had come in, Flora had been furious for the mare for even thinking she knew what she was going through. How could she? Her love hadn't betrayed her! Hadn't looked her in the eyes and spoken to her like she was worse than scum!

But now, with twenty minutes of silence and quite a few more tears soaked into her sheets, she knew how wrong her thoughts had been. No, Rose hadn't experienced the same, but her love had disappeared without a trace, leaving three young ponies and all the consequences of his actions to fall on her shoulders. It was a completely different kind of betrayal, far less upfront and much more lasting. Flora no longer blamed Rose for any of her actions those first few years... She didn't even blame her for the sulking she'd been doing a few months ago. If Rose had felt anything like Flora did now, she had just gained the full admiration of her aching daughter.

And, due to this realization, Rose had accomplished something that Lord Tirek, at the moment of his near triumph, couldn't have done with all the power under his command: she convinced Flora to get up and face the day. So, even though her hooves felt like iron and her throbbing head was filled with haze and berating thoughts, Flora managed to shove the covers off of her body and slump onto all four hooves on the floor. With a tired glare at the window and the happy light streaming in from it, Flora pulled herself up, standing in a slouch and ready to see what tortures the world held in store.

The first was the dish next to her bed. While it might have been somewhat appetizing when it was prepared so long ago, now it was cold and thick, looking more like something she'd spew from her mouth than something she'd put in it. Knowing her thoughts were harsh but not caring enough to get past the initial berating, Flora picked up the plate and opened the door to her room, feeling the cool air of an empty house sweep out the warm heaviness she'd been stewing in.

Her hooves dragged on each step as she made her way to the kitchen, feeling the happiness in the house from the night before. Where was the stale, depressing gloom her mother had built up for so many years? The one time she would have enjoyed it and instead she was assaulted by the aura of joy...

Standing at the kitchen sink, she had to stop and think about her next action. She wanted to just leave the plate there, but that was just a little too rude for her taste, no matter how tempting it was. With all of the unwashed dishes, she could properly compost the meal and clean things up, but that required a level of effort her leaden hooves refused to allow today. Torn between the two decisions, she was saved by the feel of a freezing wet nose bumping into her left flank.

Moments later the begging had ceased, Dot was happily chewing away at the bonus meal, and the dirty plate was tossed onto the others while Flora considered a more appropriate snack at the pantry. The first thing her eyes landed on were a pile of apples, still fresh and juicy, from Sweet Apple–

With the offending fruit sliding down the opposite wall in a pulpy mess, Flora grabbed a pear from the stock and walked from the kitchen, grumbling loudly. If any of her plants had been fruiting in the greenhouse she might have left without any sort of snack, but after her accident with the rapid growth of the zap apple tree seed, she'd been lucky to only lose her produce section and not any of her long term projects. If one of his trees had damaged my crystal bush... she started to growl in her head as she made her way back upstairs.

Once in her room again, the same room with the same posters she'd wanted to get rid of for years, she scowled at the snowy windowsill outside, knowing it would be cold out there. She found the small watering pail and took care of the plants in her room, then reached for the desk, only to find her hoof tapping down on empty wood. She was about to start looking around when she remembered where that long-held accessory was now. “He can keep his bucking kerchief,” she apparently said to the closet as she dug through it. “I don't want to see the thing anyway.”

She dug through the closet for a little while longer, then growled in frustration, slamming the door shut, unable to find the ear muffs or scarf she'd tossed in there years ago and forgotten about since. As she turned to look for her hat, her bed called to her from the corner of her eye, its draw magnetic for her poor leaden hooves. But as much as her messy cover called for her to crawl beneath it again, promising the world would stop this time, she fought it, jamming her hat on her head, jamming the pear she wasn't really hungry for into her mouth, and walking down to the front door. Swallowing the slightly bland pear that might as well have been chalk for how much she cared about its taste, she grabbed her keys from the door, feeling them hanging loose on their string around her neck as she stepped out into the world.

Flora wasn't four steps from the door when she was already regretting her decision, the snow around her ankles chilling her heavy hooves. And just as she reached the next street corner, a cool draft pulled against her fur, particularly the exposed area around her neck. The keys immediately became bitingly cold, chilling her with every step as they jingled lightly against her chest, the only sound in the air besides the snow crunching underhoof. Despite her mother's promise that ponies would be going about their lives, the streets were completely clear, even the market seemingly shut down due to weather.

She turned at another street, gazing down the long, empty road to her greenhouse. It was so far away, and the plants could survive a day without water... They'd probably be good for a week, really, maybe more since she'd treated them so kindly previously. With the chill in her hooves working its way up to her knees, Flora turned on the spot, allowing her cold hooves to drive her decision making as well. Before she could actually move, however, a flurry of snow flew up into her face as Silver landed quickly in front of her, her excitement spilling over into her quick motions.

“Flora! Glad I caught you on your way home. Did you know there's another pegasus in town?” Flora opened her mouth to say something, feeling the energy sapping out of her as she watched Silver bounce in place, but any response she had was trampled by Silver's enthusiasm. “It's true! I saw her while I was getting rid of a few unruly clouds from the morning snowfall. She was walking towards the castle with a unicorn, chatting away about... something. I dunno, I couldn't hear, but still! A pegasus in Ponyville! Where do you think she's visiting from? Where do you think she's staying? I wonder if she'd help out with the weather next week. I'm supposed to put together a blizzard and I just don't know if I'm going to be able to without pulling a few all-nighters...”

“That was my sister, Silver, so you could just come over and ask.”

Silver's jaw dropped. “That was Wind Key? The little twerp we had that epic paint war with at the clubhouse?” Flora gave a tired nod. “Wow... You know, I thought I almost recognized her. Must have been the bandana and the ear muffs. Almost made her look like she had your mom's mane on as a wig.” Silver chuckled a little at that, but it died off with Flora's apathy toward joining in. In the silence that followed, Silver suddenly got a very puzzled look on her face. “Wait, didn't she go over to the other side after Cloudsdale fell? What's she doing back now? And who's the unicorn she's with?”

Flora was starting to shiver from the cold, her head low to the ground as, more and more, her thoughts were returning to her sad, lonely, but impressively warm bed. “I don't know, she'd managed to show up before I got home last night. Her friend had some sort of trouble on the other side and they both came over... I didn't catch much after I finished welcoming her back. I was... out of it.”

Silver nodded. “I can see why. You look terrible, Flora. Did you get any sleep at all last night? Or did your duet get a little out of hoof?”

Another icicle lodged itself in Flora's heart and she glared at the friend that had reminded her. “That's definitely one way of putting it...”

Silver took a step back from the thick barbs in Flora's voice, realizing she was missing something big. Only a brief moment of looking Flora over let her pin the problem. “Wait a second... You're normally headed to the farm right now. Where's your violin? For that matter, where's your kerchief?” Silver's eyes met Flora's for the briefest of moments before Flora looked away. Immediately the tone of Silver's voice went from inquisitive to caring. “What happened? What's wrong?”

Flora was very tempted to stomp off home and forget this whole thing had happened, but she remembered her mother's advice. There was no friend closer to her than Silver, especially right now. Silver deserved to know. The question was, would Silver side with Jazz or her? “We had an argument yesterday afternoon. He said he was going to give me his orchard and go join the war, I said he was crazy. We yelled at each other for a while... He started saying all sorts of stupid things about the war, and when I told him the war was stupid he called me a traitor and 'some fool coward pegasus'... I didn't stick around after that.”

“No...” Silver sounded heartbroken, or she would have if Flora wasn't the one giving the perfect example of what that voice actually sounded like. “You two were adorable together! But if he's talking about traitors and cowardly pegasi, I really hope you didn't just walk out in a huff.”

Flora shook her head, smiling a little grimly despite herself. “I may have bucked him across the greenhouse...”

Silver smiled back, throwing a hoof around Flora's neck and pulling her into a sidelong hug. “Thatta girl! Knock some sense into the guy. That must've set him straight.”

“Maybe, but...” Flora sighed again, remembering the trial getting home was the night before. “I left the violin and his kerchief behind and told him he was the one canceling our duet. Since he didn't stop me or come after me... I'm pretty sure we're broken up.”

Silver shook her head, giving Flora an encouraging hug. “If he's gonna act like that, it's probably for the best. Maybe when all this is over he'll see what he gave up and come crawling back.” The words brought Flora a little bit of hope, but they couldn't budge the sadness that had a hold on her face. Seeing that, Silver just smiled, shaking her friend gently to get her out of her stupor. “Hey, you want me to walk you home? I know this awesome recipe for kettle corn that'd go great with a board game. It'd go good with a movie too, but we'd have to head to my house for that, and I'd have to convince mom to set up the projector...”

Flora shook her head, looking down the street at her original destination. Her hooves weren't feeling nearly so cold anymore, but she knew a good place to warm them up. “Actually, I was going to my greenhouse. I'm running a little behind on my day.”

Silver nodded, taking the hint. “Ah, well, I'll just leave you to it. But I can come back in a few hours, or meet you at your house and find something to do. We should have a girl's night, just you and me, if you're up for it.”

“Maybe we can plan it out once we get in the greenhouse.” Flora started down the street, unsurprised when Silver started to take off behind her. She also wasn't surprised when Silver reappeared in her vision, hovering just above the snow and looking completely perplexed.

“Wait, did you just say what I think you said?”

Flora gave Silver a warm smile from the bottom of her heart, a piece only warm thanks to Silver's efforts so far. “I said we could talk about our plans in the greenhouse.”

Silver gasped silently, her forehooves covering her mouth as she held her breath, certain her ears were playing tricks on her. She'd thought she'd taken the hint, but maybe she'd just been inventing it this time.

Flora laughed at Silver's antics, the simple act feeling so good after her night and morning without it. “Yes, that means you're invited in. Just don't repeat the cactus incident and this might not be the last time.” Silver soared into the air in a giant loop before doing a long corkscrew turn to meet Flora at the greenhouse door. Flora shook her head at the display, but inside she couldn't even pretend to regret it. Even if there was a cactus incident repeat, it was worth it for her best friend.

She unlocked the door, pushing it open wide and stepping into her secondary home, the familiar feeling immediately comforting, lifting her spirits and energizing her with the sight of all of the life around her. Silver came in right behind, entering it as though it were some sort of ancient sacred grotto, not a small plastic building outside the back of a florist's place. Silver even made it a point to hold her wings close to her side after she almost knocked over a tray of freshly planted seeds, only barely keeping the pots from smashing on the dirt floor.

This was entirely missed by Flora, though, who was staring at the crystal bush in the center of the room in wonder. It might have been her tiredness or the cold having some adverse effect on her addled mind, but it seemed like the long stagnant plant was taller and fuller than it had been the day before. As she got a closer look at it, she heard a whistle come from behind her.

“Woah... You'd never guess it was winter with all the flowers in here. And it's so warm!” Silver walked around the room, looking at all of the plants lined up on every surface and near every wall. Only once she completed that and looked towards Flora did she notice the centerpiece of the room, letting out another impressed whistle. “Is that your secret project? The one you got your cutie mark from?” She walked closer, examining one of the perfectly square, green-tinted transparent leaves before looking curiously at something. “Hey, what are these little bulby things?”

Flora ran around the crystal rose bush, delicately lifting up the leaves to get a better look. As soon as she did, she held her breath in wonder, sure she had to be dreaming this. “It's a flower bud. It's finally going to bloom!”

Silver was impressed and lost all at the same time. “You mean it hasn't bloomed before? You've been growing it for years, and all the other plants look amazing.”

Flora shook her head. “It hasn't had a single blossom since the day I grew it and got my cutie mark. In fact, it's barely grown at all in almost eight years...” She had no clue what had stopped the plant's growth, but it had halted without dying, still taking in water and sunshine but never getting any larger. It had gotten to the point where she had stopped taking measurements of its height after two months without any growth. But she knew the plant was magical, and magic did as it would, with or without her input. For it to be flowering, something must have changed.

“So why's it growing now?” Silver asked, her own curiosity overlapping with Flora's

That is a very good question.”

*     *     *     *     *    
Hello friends!

How is life? I hope you all are having a happy Hearth's Warming this year.

I just put up chapter 19 of Where Night Meets Day. I knew going in that this was going to be an epic story, but...

19 chapters, 329 pages, 170,486 words (according to fimfic's counter), and over a year in writing... and it just keeps growing.

To those who have joined me recently, thank you so much for coming along for the ride so late along.

For those of you who have been here from the beginning, it means more to me than you will ever know that you like my work this much. I mean... I never thought I'd get even 10 readers. The fact that I have something like 400 who have stuck with me through all of this craziness truly warms my heart. Life has had so many strange ups and downs, even since I started this story, but knowing you guys are here, waiting for the next chapter... It keeps me going, even when things get dark.

So, from the bottom of my heart, thank you for everything. Thank you for taking up your time to read my silly story, thank you for sticking with it, thank you for every comment, every favorite... everything. Even tonight, as most would be awaiting Santa or some other such thing, I am hard at work on the next chapter, not because I'm forced to, but because it brings me joy, and I'm so glad I get to share it with all of you.

So, to all my friends, all of you, even those unable to reply, even those who will never read this... Mele Kalikimaka, merry Christmas, happy (now passed) Hanukkah, happy Kwanzaa, or Festivus or Saturnalia or Solstice or what have you, and may you have a prosperous, fruitful, and above all happy new year!

I promise it won't take me another one to finish the story. Though who knows what might be being worked on then?

With much love, your faithful, joyous, thankful 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!
InksNote 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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