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A New Road Begins

by GentlemanJ

Chapter 1

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A New Road Begins

By: GentlemanJ

Chapter 1

Canterlot was all abuzz. Well, it was always abuzz, but today, it was certainly a lot more abuzzy than usual.

Though the pristine streets of Equestria’s capitol always bustled with the coming and goings of citizens from every corner of the nation as they went about business both great and small, there was exceptional diversity in the crowds that on this day filled the city to almost bursting. But it was the good kind of bursting and the good kind of diversity, where instead of feeling jostled and awkward, the cacophonous mix merely added to the already festive air. Crystal Imperials laughed and cheered as Salamander tribesmen sampled their first ever Pony Joe donuts, served piping hot from the innumerable trolleys lining the pennant-strewn avenues. Tower mages danced alongside, and often arm in arm, with the winged Griffonheim in knots of twirling gaiety around the bands occupying what seemed to be every other street corner. And every so often, like verdant bulbs sprouting amidst a sea of rainbow stones, unglamoured Changelings did all that and more even as the Five Nation’s Flag proudly flew from every window, balcony, and palisade of the capitol’s countless buildings and towers in proud celebration.

It was utter chaos, but as one winged figure noted from her patrols high above Canterlot’s glittering spires, at least it was organized chaos. After all, it wasn’t like anyone had much experience organizing these events, this being Equestria’s newest, and possibly grandest celebration to date, yet somehow, someway, it had gotten done. Mostly. There were still half a dozen casks of Sweet Apple Acre’s finest brandy that were yet to be accounted for, but in the grand scheme of things, perhaps it was best not to ask.

So it was with a happy, if weary smile, that lone figure wheeled airily about around one of the palace’s graceful spires and began her slow, circling descent, not to join the festivities that spilled even into the numerous royal courtyards, but towards a covered walkway where a particularly intriguing group awaited.

*****

“Now, are yah sure that this is the right place?”

“What do I look like, a tour guide? Of course I’m not sure!”

“But you were so gung-ho about comin’ down this way…”

“Hey, just because you have no idea what you’re doing doesn’t mean you can’t do it with confidence.”

“… That’s so out of left field, I’mma have to visit the neighbors.”

Fortunately, before the bickering pair could really get into it, a foot softly lighted onto the grass nearby with a wash of amethyst light, light that signaled a singularly familiar and delightfully unified response.

“TWILIGHT!”

“Hey gi-” was all Twilight Sparkle managed to get out before she was physically accosted by four very energetic and enthused friends. Rainbow Dash, despite being the fastest, was still beaten to the punch by Fluttershy and the reality-warping Pinkie Pie, which left Applejack to bring up the rear on their gloriously giggly hugfest. There was laughing, there was squealing, and there was nonsensical babbling of the best sort. Perhaps not entirely necessary considering the circumstances, but hey, when did Ponyville girls ever need a reason for affection?

“Come on, I wasn’t even gone for that long,” Twilight laughed out with what little breath her friends had left her with. “Party planning only took a couple of weeks, you know.”

“Tch, duh we know,” Pinkie Pie beamed, an expression that changed into a frown with quicksilver speed. “But that’s two whole weeks without our bestest bookworm who was planning a party without me. Me! Parties are what I do!”

“Either way, it’s still so good to see you again,” Fluttershy squealed as she hugged her friend with more force than a delicately demure lady like her had a right to hug. “And I just love your wings! Are they new?”

“Definitely!” Twilight answered with chest puffed up proudly. “Princess Celestia finally showed me how to broadcast my aura without a rune frame. See?” And with that, the amethyst-eyed mage backed up and gave them a full display. Seemingly carved of glowing crystal the same shade as her eyes, a great pair of shimmering wings emerged from Twilight’s back where no hex tech machines could be seen. A feat not achievable by even the most talented of aura mages, such wings were the hallmark of royalty and once more, reminder that their bookish poindexter of a friend was now a bookish poindexter of a princess.

Not that it mattered too much of course.

“Yeah yeah, that’s all fancy and stuff,” Rainbow Dash smirked, “but I’ll bet you’re still having trouble on your inverted inclines, am I right?”

“I’m… getting there,” Twilight huffed with mild indignation. “It’s not like I’ve had much time to practice, you know.”

“Whereas I, on the other hand, do nothing but since I’m now–”

“-the newest addition to the official Wonderbolts roster,” the remaining three finished. “We know.”

“And don’t you forget it!”

“Not like you’d ever let us,” Applejack muttered under her breath. Between the constant reminders, anecdotes, and the fact that she was still wearing the trademark blue jumpsuit emblazoned with lightning bolts from her morning's performance, that was probably an understatement. Of course, everyone was thrilled for their friend when she’d gotten the news, but one can only stand so many lectures on the intricacies of an Aileron Alleyoop before patience begins to wear thin.

“So anyway, what are we all standing around for?” Pinkie Pie beamed as she threw arms around her closest friends – by proximity, not preference of course. “If catching up with Twilight was this awesome, just think about how great seeing Rarity will be!”

“Right, where is she anyway?” Twilight asked realization of absence dawned. “I thought she’d be here with you.”

“Had a little snafu with the train this mornin’, so she was late to the party,” Applejack explained. “Said she’d meet us here an’ make sure everything was hunky dory.”

“Wait, so you’re telling me she’s already…”

As her friends gave small nods of affirmation, Twilight’s words trailed off to allow amethyst eyes to widen ever so slightly.

“Well then, I guess we shouldn’t keep her waiting.”

Joining her friends on the covered walkway, the Ponyville troupe followed its marbled path as it wound towards a far corner of the palace’s collection of courtyards. Pausing at the narrow gate for only a moment to steady her nerves as anticipation quickly mounted to a fever pitch, Twilight put her hands to the cool iron handle and turned. There, standing beneath the shade of a single ancient oak…

“RARITY!”

Giggling and hugging again, but only exponentially moreso, if that was at all possible. Not even giving the violet-haired beauty a moment to respond, the five dog-piled Rarity and had her in a squishy embrace that was sure to leave her immaculate dress and hair in a state of disarray.

And for once, it seemed like she didn’t mind.

“Girls! It’s so good to see you!” she squealed in abject delight as she actually began jumping in place from excitement. “You don’t know how simply dreadful it’s been being away for so long!”

“Five whole months!” Pinkie Pie gaped. “Months! I mean, I could bake one thousand, four hundred, and forty batches of cupcakes in just one month, and you were gone for five! That’s five months too many, little missy! Five! Too! Many!”

“Everythin’ went well, I take it?” Applejack beamed as she deftly placed a hand over Pinkie’s still running mouth. “I mean, movin’ up tah Manehattan’s one thing, but doing all that wheelin’ and dealin’ with them hoity toity sorts must be like wranglin’ a herd o’ cats.”

“Ugh, and then some,” Rarity responded with a grandiose roll of the eyes. “Even as productive as lining up those investors has been, not a day goes by where some detail or another doesn’t need another good hashing out. As it stands, if I ever want to see my Canterlot boutique be more than a daydream, I’m afraid I’ll still be making frequent trips back for the foreseeable future.”

“More trips? Seriously?” Rainbow Dash gaped. “Hay, make any more of those, and you’ll be as bad as–”

“Yeah yeah, less worky, more eaty,” Pinkie Pie beamed as she took a turn at interrupting someone else instead. “Now somebody said something about a picnic? I’m starved!”

“Right this way then,” Rarity laughed as she waived them over to a pristine, linen clad table already set up for delightful luncheon for six. After a few scrambling moments – Applejack and Rainbow Dash just had to squabble for the same seat as they always did – the girls were finally settled into place and ready to really dig into both meal and something far more substantial: gossip.

“Now girls, I want to hear everything,” Rarity gushed as she passed around a tray of delightful mini quiches. “I’ve been getting your letters of course, but it’s just not the same as hearing everything straight from the source.”

“Then, maybe Twilight could go first?” Fluttershy softly suggested as she started nibbling on a piping popover. “She’s been in and out quite a bit, so I’m sure we’d all love to hear about it.”

“You have?” Rarity blinked. “But whatever for?”

“So like I told you all,” she smiled, “I’ve been traveling back and forth between Ponyville and the Tower, right? Well, the reason I’ve been doing that is because Abbot Apocrypha himself has been helping me with – and you’re not gonna believe this – an honest to Luna transdimensional hyper-bypass!”

“… Uh… say what now?”

“Applejack!”

Perhaps her anti-egghead senses had warned her of the impending danger. If they had, they had still come a moment too late, because even as Rainbow Dash hissed out her warning, a spark of light ignited in Twilight Sparkles’s amethyst eyes to signal the advent of the one thing that Twilight Sparkles do best: lecture.

“Well, ever since I became Celestia’s protégé, I’ve always been fascinated that while matter transference across the fabric of the space-time could happen on the instantaneous and discreet period, there seemed to be no way for sustained manipulation of said fabric to allow for coordinate connection,” Twilight began, crystal flute of sparkling cider forgotten in hand as her engine quickly started to gather steam. “My initial research ran into a barrier of infinite energy requirements, and for a while, that seemed to an analytical dead end. However, thanks to some recent advances in my understanding of quantum containment fields, I realized that such infinite requirements could theoretically be met with workable amounts if we took advantage of an uncollapsed superposition and oscillated the same energy between two undetermined states. With Apocrypha’s help, we were able to put theory to practice and have actually begun construction of a prototype that will permanently tie two locations together with teleportation magic, thus allowing the instantaneous transmission of matter across defined distances without the need for outside magical energy. If I'm correct, then we may have just learned how to create and stabilize distortions in the space-time continuum as a practical means of transportation!"

Silence.

Stares.

More silence.

More stares.

“Um…" Twilight paused to think. "I created a warp gate?”

“Oooooooooohhhhhhhh!” That was the sound of five lightbulbs clicking on in unison.

“Right,” the princess mage flushed. Once more she'd let her excitement get the best of her. How indecorous of her. “So basically, that’s been my pet project for a while. With any luck, I’ll have it up and running before the Grand Galloping Gala.”

“Good for you!” Fluttershy smiled, if neither particularly loudly or with complete understanding; jargon had a tendency to go right over her head. “So um… what are you going to do with this warp… thingy?”

“Honestly, I’m not sure,” Twilight sighed as she finally took a sip of fizzy drink. “If I could keep one end in Ponyville for maintenance, then I'd prefer to leave the other one in the Crystal Empire. Between the travel and the princess duties and occasional world-saving adventure, I’ve hardly had time to visit my niece and nephew.”

And just like sparks to tinder, eyes lit up at the sound of those two, delightful words.

“And just how are the little darlings?” Rarity gushed as sapphire eyes sparkled like their namesake jewels. “Did baby Prism Lights look good in her new onesies? I mean, of course she would – I designed them after all – but nevertheless, please tell me she looked as adorable as I imagined she would?”

“Well then,” Twilight laughed, “why don’t you see for yourself?”

With a few waves of her fingers, Twilight Sparkle summoned forth a small folio that turned out to be just chock full of baby photos. In wallet sizes and eight by ten glossies, in portraits and family frolicks, the newest member to the Crystal Empire’s royal family cooed and gurgled happily away from beneath a fuzzy mop with all the colors of the borealis.

“Gosh darn it, she’s cuter ‘n a June bug in a cabbage patch,” Applejack grinned as she picked up a particularly adorable shot of the newborn grabbing onto her daddy’s nose. Fluttershy and Pinkie nodded in agreement, not so much because they agreed with the comment – which they honestly didn’t understand at all – but more because they were too busy squealing in delight to get a coherent word in otherwise.

“Simply sublime,” Rarity beamed as she admired one photo after another before a moment’s pause. “I do hope that young Afterburner isn’t too put out by the whole affair?”

“Are you kidding? He’s great!” Twilight beamed as she summoned forth another folio, this one full of a young toddler with short hair the intense light blue of a concentrated flame and a cheeky grin that spoke of energy to match. “Still a little hellion like always, but he’s really taken to being a big brother, which suits Cadance and Shine just fine. To be honest, I think he was getting to be a bit of a handful, even for them.”

“Yeah, I still don’t get that,” Rainbow Dash commented as she stifled more than a few gleeful giggles at the pictures. “Neither of the ‘rents are anything like that, but he’s going off like ten c’s of octane stuffed into a two c turbine. How the hay’s that work?”

“I actually have a theory on that,” Twilight grinned as lecture mode prepared to re-engage. “While it’s said that magical use has at most a negligible effect on pre-natal development, it’s often been theorized that exposure to extreme concentrations of mana can impart certain unexpected characteristics on developing children. Considering that Afterburner was beginning his third trimester when Cadance and Shine–”

“Nooooooo, no more sciency stuff!” Pinkie Pie wailed as she stuck fingers into both her ears. “I wanna start getting to the good stuff!”

“Good stuff?” Rarity blinked.

“What?”

When Applejack had removed the bubbly baker’s hands and repeated the question, Pinkie’s ever-present smile turned truly wicked.

“Oh, you know what I mean,” she answered with a sly wink and a gentle nudge. “I’m talking about the one thing girls like Rarity love more than pretty clothes.”

“And that would be?” Rarity prompted with an amused smiled.

“Dating stories.”

Eyebrows raised as five surprised girls turned to their curly haired friend. That… was actually very, very true.

“That’s right, you haven’t been keeping up with the latest developments, have you?” Twilight gasped as a wicked grin decidedly unbecoming of a princess appeared. “Then I guess that means you haven’t heard.

“Heard? Heard what? What haven’t I heard?”

“Well…” quickly glancing around to make sure that the empty courtyard still remained empty, “you remember how Cadance has been helping Queen Chrysalis find herself a special someone?”

“You mean they found it?!” Rarity gasped.

“Jess’ the opposite,” Applejack chuckled. “I ran into ‘em a couple o’ times makin' deliveris for the big shindig today, an’ far as I can tell, they were so busy chatterin’ away about everythin’ but, that I can’t imagine either one’s tryin’ at all.”

“Fact is, I don’t think they’ve been doing much in that department for a while, not since the Hearth’s Warming Eve concert at least.” Twilight added. “Which is really curious considering Chrysalis’s visits to my dear sister-in-law haven’t slowed down one jot, wouldn’t you think?”

Rarity would think. Had the two had business to conduct, such frequent liaisons would still make some semblance of sense. However if the visits were truly without such purpose, then… It was hard to imagine, but then again, friendships could bloom from just about any soil, however strange they may have been, no?

“Aw, don’t get so down in the dumps,” Rainbow Dash laughed as she clapped Rarity on the back far harder than even she could mistakenly clap. “Just because old green and mean’s not making any headway doesn’t mean some royalty ain’t getting some.

“No! You?!” Rarity gasped as eyes immediately darted to Twilight Sparkle.

“What? Wait, no!” she sputtered. “Flash Sentry’s just a friend, that’s all!”

“An’ yet nobody mentioned his name,” Applejack answered with an oh so smug smile. “Anythin’ the princess wants to mention ‘bout what goes on with all that bodyguardin’ after hours?”

“For your information, Flash Sentry simply happens to be a reliable confidant who makes my official duties all the more bearable,” Twilight sniffed in fair imitation of Canterlot nobility. But when the act did nothing to quell those mortifying stares, cheeks bloomed crimson beneath what few shreds of royal dignity she managed to hold onto. Which was to say, very little indeed.

“Well I’m not sure why everyone’s so interested in me,” Twilight huffed from a slightly lower position in her seat than before. “We all know that the only official change happened to Luna.”

Now it was Rarity’s turn to sputter.

“Wait, you mean Princess Luna?” she gasped. “As in the one who helped start a riot at her first royal appearance, Princess Luna?”

“Yup!” Twilight beamed, part in amusement, part in relief about being out of the spotlight. “Turns out that she’s been majorly pen-palling with someone for like, forever now, and when the two finally got the nerve up to meet, I’ll bet you that she was just as surprised as you are now.”

“Twilight,” Rarity began in level tones fit for a capital sentencing, “if you were ever my friend, you will tell me who it was right this very instant.”

Twilight said nothing, but the way four sets of eyes turned to Applejack, who neither blushed nor beamed, but merely grinned in wry amusement, Rarity had answer enough.

“No…” she breathe. “No! You mean to say that Big Macintosh wooed the princess through words?!”

“Hey, I’m jess as shocked as you,” Applejack shrugged. “But when you invite a princess to a county fair an’ she says yes, well… must be doin’ somethin’ right.”

“… I really must see what was in those letters,” Rarity blinked. Then started as she realized the grossness of her own impropriety. “Oh, I’m sorry Fluttershy, that was terribly insensitive of me!”

“It was?” Fluttershy blinked.

“My stars, of course it was!” Rarity gasped. “It’s incredibly tawdry to bring up a friend’s former companions without invitation, especially in the context of more recent relationships. Can you ever forgive me?”

“Um… if you really want me to,” Fluttershy hesitantly replied. “But I’m really not sure why I would need to.”

“So… you’re not put off by hearing about your ex being with someone else?” Rarity blinked.

“Goodness no! I’m actually very happy for the two of them!” Fluttershy beamed. Then started. “Oh my, I don’t mean that there’s anything wrong with Big Mac…” she said to Applejack. “Or Princess Luna...” she said to Twilight. “It’s just that, I don’t think I quite liked him the way she likes him or he me like he her, or… oh my…”

“Don’t worry sugar cube, I hear yah,” Applejack laughed as she gave her slowly mollifying friend a reassuring squeeze. “Yer jess happy that two folks yah like are gettin’ on fine with one another. Ain’t no shame in that.”

“Yeah, especially not when she’s so busy being Miss Popular, now is it?” Rainbow Dash snickered.

“Huh?” Fluttershy blinked.

“Oh, don’t give me that,” Rainbow Dash smiled, the sort of smile a shark might give when it smells an all-you-can-eat chum buffet. “Next you’ll be telling me you haven’t noticed how many Griffonheim have been visiting Ponyville for ‘cultural exchange’ recently, or that most of them just happen to be dudes.”

“Fluttershy, is this true?” Rarity asked with the most delighted of delighted smiles at hearing such a delicious morsel of news. Fluttershy in reply turned the shade of a well-cultivated beet.

“Um… maybe…?”

“How simply marvelous!” Rarity squealed. “Please tell me that one of your gentleman callers is that nice Avis fellow you’ve mentioned before.”

“More ‘n once, tah be sure,” Applejack grinned, “but the most frequent caller is – an’ yer not gonna believe this – Gilda.”

“Gilda?” Rarity blinked. “But I thought you two–”

“Oh no, she’s actually very nice,” Fluttershy hastily interjected despite her still rosy complexion. “Any time the visitors get, um… ‘too fresh’ as she puts it, she helps me by stepping in and making sure everyone gets along.”

“Is that a fact?” Rarity intoned in open wonder. “And you… enjoy this?”

“Tch, isn’t it obvious?” Rainbow Dash interjected with tones now gone sour like a pickle. “The two of them spend so much time hanging out these days, I’m starting to wonder who Gilda's real best gal pal really is.”

“Oh my, I didn’t mean to exclude!” Fluttershy gasped, her blue eyes all atizzy. “If you want, I can tell you when our next spa appointment is, and you’re more than welcome–”

“Eh, don’t sweat it, Flutters. Or, do. At the spa,” Rainbow Dash chuckled, partly from improved humor and partly from her egregiously terrible pun. “We both know I’m not around Ponyville too much this season, not since I have to be in Canterlot. With the Wonder Bolts. For Training. With Wonder Bolts. Did I mention I’m now with the Wonder Bolts?”

“Yes indeedy!” Pinkie Pie grinned, and from Rainbow Dash’s satisfied smile, it was clear that she was actually rather content with the whole affair. A girl had to live the dream, after all.

“Well I never,” Rarity breathed as she took a dainty sip of mimosa and a moment for composure. “In that case, what about you, Rainbow Dash? Surely, spending so much time with Equestria’s aerial elite would afford itself opportunity for... interesting developments?”

“Nah, not for me,” the colorful flier rejoined as her satisfied expression slowly morphed into smugness. “I’m already a rising star as it is, and since Spitfire might be taking some time off for maternity leave soon, that means I’m getting extra practice to groom me for a starting spot. Life of the best, don’t you know.”

“Not like you’d let us forget,” Twilight retorted with an indulgent smile. “But you don’t want to put it off too long, or some of the younger ones will overtake you soon.”

Now, such a general comment could have meant any number of things, but whether it was due to Rarity’s acute societal training, time spent as Twilight’s friend, or good old fashioned women’s intuition, something about those words piqued her interest.

“Twilight darling, did something of particular interest happen while I was away?” And at those words, the young mage’s face took on the most peculiar expression, one that blended pure happiness and pride before liberally seasoning with unadulterated worry.

“So, it’s only been a couple of weeks,” she… grinned? Grimaced? “But as far as I can tell, our widdle Spikey Wikey maaaaayyyyy not be so widdle anymore.”

A blink.

A pause.

And then.

No!” Rarity gasped. “Already?!”

“Yup.”

“Was it with–”

“Uh huh.”

“How?”

“She asked him.”

“And he said yes?”

“Obviously.”

“And the others?”

“Couldn’t be happier.”

And as the others stifled giggles over Rarity’s most colorful reactions – indeed, the lot of them had been looking forward to the show for quite some time now – Rarity simply slumped back in her seat in dumbfounded wonder. Spike. Adorable little Spike, what with his endearing crush and ever-helpful attitude, was now actually dating. And with one of the Crusaders, no less! Why, it seemed like just yesterday, the only thought on their minds were how to get their cutie marks, and now?

It was a lot to take in, and from the way Twilight sighed, Rarity wasn’t the only one who needed some time to do it.

“I know, I’m probably worrying too much about it,” she began as she poured herself a fresh cup of tea. “But I just can’t help it, you know? Despite the obvious fact that time is progressing, I can’t help but remember him as that little baby I hatched all those years ago. It’s like the second I turn around, he just starts growing up without me.”

“I hear ya, sugar cube,” Applejack nodded.

“Ditto to that,” Rainbow Dash sagely nodded. To this, Twilight smiled. Briefly.

“If only he didn’t give me so much to worry about!” she groaned aloud. “I mean, why does it seem like all boys want to do is get themselves into trouble?”

“Because they’re boys,” Pinkie Pie grinned. “Duh.”

“Then Spike is the worst of the lot,” Twilight harrumphed. “I mean, he’s barely past his first molting, and he’s already been asking Shining Armor – or pestering him, more likely – about the requirements for entering the Academy. Has it in that silly head of his to join–”

“Ah, don’t worry about it none!” Pinkie Pie giggled as she crammed a buttered scone into the poindexter’s mouth. “Only thing worrying does is make you sad, and Ponyville’s got heaps more fun things to think about instead.”

“You would say that, wouldn’t you?” Applejack grinned. Peculiarly.

“Er, pardon me,” Rarity interjected, “but is there some subtext that I’m missing here?”

“Not what,” Rainbow Dash grinned. “Who.”

“Who?”

“Cheese Sandwich.”

Despite Fluttershy’s helpful murmur, Rarity’s face remained unresponsive.

“The nice comedian who came around a while back?” Fluttershy offered.

Nope.

“Pinkie’s party plannin’ partner with the pyrotechnic plans?” Applejack suggested.

Nada.

“Almost help destroy the town with a giant cheese wheel?” Rainbow Dash hinted.

Still nothing.

“Um… earth tone poncho and a Cordoba hat?”

“Oh, him!”

“Yup,” Applejack chuckled as Rainbow Dash high fived Twilight for her epic save. “Turned up a while back with a whole wagon full ‘o knickknacks, clamberin’ for Pinkie here to help him with somethin’ or another. Last I checked, the two of them have been spendin’ an awful lot of time away from pryin’ eyes.”

“Makes you what they’re up to, hm?” Rainbow Dash grinned, to which Pinkie Pie, in most unusual turn of events, did not laugh off.

“I can neither confirm nor deny the nature of any events that may or may not have occurred between us,” she answered, cool as Rarity at a silent auction. Except… was it her imagination, or did Pinkie Pie seem just a touch more pink than usual?

“That’s all she ever says,” Fluttershy explained. “It seems like they’re working on something really big together, but neither of them will tell us what.”

“Because it’s a secret, and sharing a secret means it’s not a secret anymore!” Pinkie Pie giggled once more. “And if we’re gonna spend all this time talking about who’s keeping company with whom, I believe a certain fruit-named friend of ours has got some ‘splainin’ to do!”

Five pairs of eyes once more converged on the freckled farmgirl, just as they had before. Only this time, the response was a little different.

“What? What’re y’all starin’ at me for?” she huffed in far fouler of a temper than she would normally have at, well… anything. “Ain’t it normal tah offer up hospitality when folks come ‘round our parts?”

“Oh, it certainly is,” Fluttershy nodded vigorously, “especially when it’s a man who could be housed with any number of bachelor roommates, yet somehow ended up staying on your farm.”

“How scandalous!” Rarity squealed.

“Fer yer information,” Applejack huffed, “Hemmingmane jess happens tah come from farmin’ stock like us, so he’s more comfortable at the orchard ‘n anywhere else.”

“There to help you…” Rainbow Dash snorted, “till the soil?”

At that, green eyes, which had only then been smoldering, began to flash like summer lighting.

“Hemmingmane is a right gentleman, an’ you know it, Rainbow Dash,” Applejack insisted to a girl who was clearly no longer listening. “He helps out on the farm every chance he can, even though he’s busier ‘n a bumblebee workin’ on that novel of his! I mean, it can’t be easy helpin' rotate seasonal crops when you're intent on writin’ stories based on the… the, ah…”

Eyes flashing with anger quickly changed to something else as they darted to present company for help. However, no help was coming as four other pairs of eyes slowly began to widen in realization of what had just been done.

The sapphire eyes, however, saw this all and smiled.

“Girls, it’s okay” she said, her voice warm with affection, even if somewhat small. “I know that you’re trying to be considerate, what with the, ah… delicate evasions you’ve been providing, but I’m fine. Really. After all, I’ve had all of two years to come to terms, have I not?”

Two years. A whole two years had already passed since the allies gathered today had managed to rally together and seal away Nul and his corrosive darkness. Well, seal away Nul, at least.

Though the date marked the official closure to what was now being called The War of The End, its backlash had extended far beyond the day in question. Between Shining Armor and Princess Cadance’s explosive combination and the valor of Tiamat’s solitary strength, the vast majority of the dark horde that threatened the world had been obliterated. The splinters of that horde, however, still remained, and dealing with them had been far, far more troublesome.

Cut off as they were from the unifying call of their dark father, the shattered remnants of the shadow demon horde had scattered and lodged themselves into the snowy mountain crags, hunting and feeding as they had always intended to do. Wearied as the allies were from a week of unceasing combat, their bedraggled forces had no strength to give chase and were forced to watch helplessly as the surviving abominations made their escape. Embedded as they were in the mountains, ever a threat should they ever wander forth to spread their corrupting miasma, the five nations and their allies had had no choice but go forth and scour the snowy crags and clear them out one by one. Even when the first official anniversary had come around, fire teams were still sweeping the mountains, and it seemed like not a day passed nor would ever pass where more of the demons were not still found.

But they had persevered. The soldiers had hunted, the workers had rebuilt, and the leaders set about to seeing how ties made in the darkest of times might last well into the brightest. The struggle was long, and the effort was enormous, but as friends from far and wide gathered to celebrate on this day, perhaps the first point where the fruits of their labors could really be enjoyed, it seemed that everyone could truly put the past behind them and continue to live out their lives to the fullest.

Everyone, except the missing man of course.

They’d searched for him. Even without Rarity’s near hysterical sobs, they would have searched, and those anguished cries had only strengthened a resolve long since grown adamant. Despite the breach of protocol, not three days had passed from the day of victory before Ironside had personally led an expedition through the Jotun Pass and to the Hel Gate, the only portal left available that might still lead to his prison. Yet when they’d arrived, it was gone. The pit still remained, and the glowing orbs that sealed other monstrosities away still glowed with their pale light, but the entrance to Nul's prison was gone. What should have led to that strange world of red skies and roiling black clouds simply ended with a floor of cold, unyielding earth, one that held no trace of where the place they sought could be.

The man was simply gone, and no one on earth knew where he had gone.

That had been two years ago, and though time dulled all wounds, it was hard to say whether dull meant the same as healed. Unbidden, all eyes turned the same corner of the courtyard to look at the sole reason they chose to gather in this particular place on this particular day.

There was a pedestal, and in the pedestal, was a sword, a simple, sturdy instrument with a chipped, but serviceable blade beneath a solid, curved handguard and use-worn hilt. Commissioned by royalty and wrought entirely of iron, a princess could confirm that the entire piece had been forged from old gun barrels that were used, worn, and rough, but not broken. Not a single broken one in the lot.

A simple monument to honor a missing hero. A simple reminder to keep his memory alive.

All the while, Rarity sat there, beautiful, poised, and completely serene. By all outward appearances, she was the very picture of calm, cool control. Fortunately, that didn't fool Twilight. She may have been a bookworm who had head in the clouds more often than not, missed social cues with embarrassing regularity, and still thought that textbooks on psychology were an infallible source of information on interpersonal interaction. Yet despite all that, Twilight Sparkle was one of the loyalist and truest friends you could ask for, and there was no way that she could miss the look in Rarity’s eyes.

“Hey, you okay?” she asked.

“Me? Why, I’m doing splendidly,” Rarity smiled. “I’ve finally gotten my hands on the permits I needed to begin ground breaking at least. It shouldn’t be long before I finally have the Canterlot boutique that I’ve always–”

“That’s great, Rarity,” Twilight gently smiled, “but we all know that’s not what I was asking about.”

For a moment, Ponyville’s resident seamstress kept that smile on her face, the one that charmed and enthralled and made her the belle of so many balls. But under Twilight’s request and the quiet gazes of her truest friends, that smile faded to reveal her true face.

“It’s today, you know,” she said as her gaze returned, whether to look at her friends or away from the monument, nobody could really say. “Today’s the day that he… he promised he’d come back.”

“It is, isn’t it?” Twilight nodded. For some reason, Rarity found this delightfully amusing and broke out into fresh peals of laughter that trilled like silver wind chimes.

“Do you know what’s really funny?” she began when mirth subsided. “Last year, I came here thinking that that was the day. That would be the day he’d come walking back with that silly hat, that silly, coat, and that silly, silly smile of his. He didn’t of course, and yet I can’t help but feel the exact same way today.”

“Well that’s his loss then,” Rainbow Dash snorted as she pounded the tabled with a tightly clenched fist. “A knucklehead like him has no idea what he’s missing.”

And this was the truth. They’d all changed a lot in his absence. Old relations had faded, new ones had blossomed, and they themselves had grown and matured. Some had been drastic, like Twilight’s sudden and unexpected ascension, but others had been soft and subtle, like Rarity’s. Always a pretty and attractive girl, what once had been a tender bud now had bloomed into full splendor as violet locks fell in cascading waves around the face of an almost achingly beautiful young woman. If people had thought Rarity was lovely before, they would be stunned at what she’d become.

Stunned, yet somewhat saddened as well. Though she was still the same, histrionic drama queen her friends knew and loved, there were moments, when she thought nobody was looking, that her bright smiles faded and happiness dimmed. And now, though her immaculate white suit shined in the spring sunlight along with the sparkle of fine silver jewelry, that faded dimness was displayed once more.

Well that certainly wouldn’t do.

“Oh, that reminds me,” Twilight started. “Fluttershy, don’t you have something you want to give Rarity?”

“I do?” Fluttershy blinked in confusion.

“You do!” Pinkie Pie beamed. “You remember, right? The super secret awesome present you were saving for just such a special occasion? That thing?” And though Fluttershy was well-versed in looking startled, she really made an impressive showing then.

“Oh! That!”

Quickly reaching for a satchel she'd set beside her seat, the shy girl quickly lifted out a folio of her own, only this one was far thicker and full of sheets of carefully protected parchment, parchment that she now handed to a rather confused Rarity.

“Well what on earth could this be?” Rarity intoned with open curiosity.

“I, um… I guess you could call it, an, um… manuscript?” Fluttershy offered softly. An admirable effort, to be sure, but still not quite enough to answer the question at hand.

“A manuscript?” Rarity blinked. “Of what?”

“A children’s picture book,” Twilight explained. “Of course, that’s somewhat redundant since basically all picture books are for children, but I digress. The point is that Fluttershy here has taken to illustrating and recently finished a rough draft and wanted us to see.”

“It’s nothing special,” Fluttershy murmured as crimson quickly blossomed in her cheeks. “I just found that I liked drawing and some of the Ponyville kids seem to like them too–”

“They do at that!” Pinkie Pie crowed.

“So I thought that I might, um… try to get one published. Not because I’m very good or anything,” she hastily added as cheeks flared even brighter, “but just because I thought it’d be fun, so I was going to try, but I definitely wanted to give it to you so you could see it first and tell me if you liked it. That is, if it’s not too much trouble?”

“Well I’m certain that we’ll all absolutely adore it,” Rarity beamed as she looked up from the parchment stack in hand. “But why in Luna’s starry night sky would you need me to give any sort of approval?” To this, Twilight smiled and pulled open the cover.

“Why do you read and see for yourself?”

With sapphire eyes grown wide with intrigue, Rarity glanced down to the pictures adorning the first page. They were water colors, softly painted as if the artist hadn’t wanted to impose on the parchment too much, and drawn in a style that seemed both fantastic and endearing at the same time. It was a captivating image full of imagination and whimsy, but it was the words printed in neat, elegant script underneath that soon drew the young lady’s gaze.

*****

Once upon a time, there lived a brave and powerful warrior known as the Silver Knight. Wearing a glittering suit of armor and wielding a sword made from flashing lightning, the Silver Knight rode across the kingdom, fighting monsters of all sorts so that the people could live in peace. For a long time, he fought, always swinging his sword of flashing lightning. He fought for so long, in fact, that his once glittering armor began to grow dull and rusty. The Silver Knight kept swinging his flashing sword, but even though he fought for good, the people began to fear him because his armor had become almost as ugly as the monsters he fought.

Even so, the now not so Silver Knight still fought the monsters so the people could be safe as they slept through the night.

Then one day, the Silver Knight came to a town where there lived six beautiful princesses, each holding one of the magical elements of harmony: honesty, laughter, kindness, generosity, loyalty, and magic. The princesses were waiting for him to come, but the Silver Knight did not want to see them. Instead, he hid, because he did not want to scare them with his ugly suit of armor.

But when monsters suddenly attacked the town, the Silver Knight came out to fight the monsters and the princesses found him. They were surprised to see him, so they asked him,

“Mister Knight, why did you hide from us?”

“I hid because I was ugly,” the knight said. “I didn’t want to scare you because I know how ugly I am.”

When they heard this, the princesses laughed, for they did not find the Silver Knight ugly at all: though his armor may have been dull and rusty, they saw that his heart still shone as brightly as the day he’d taken up his sword. And that is why the princesses asked the Silver Knight to stay, not only to protect their little town, but to stay and be their friend as well.

And the Silver Knight said yes.

Though he was scared at first, the Silver Knight came to love the little town; he found many good friends among the people and even found a very special someone to call his very own. He continued to fight, riding all across the kingdom to slay monsters with his sword of flashing lightning, but he always returned to that little town. And though his armor did not shine as brightly as it once did, each time he came back, it began to shine just a little bit more.

For a time, the kingdom was at peace and the Silver Knight was happy.

But then, trouble came. The Great Shadow, the king of all monsters, appeared and said he would destroy the world. Only the Elements of Harmony, held by the six princesses, could hope to stop him. But to use their magic, the princesses would have to travel deep into a frightful land of monsters to where the Great Shadow lay.

The princesses did not know what to do. But then the Silver Knight stood up.

“Don’t worry,” he said as he drew his sword of flashing lightning. “I’ll go with you all into the frightful land. My armor will keep me safe and I’ll fight the monsters with my sword of flashing lightning. I’ll protect my friends and my special someone so we can all come back to the town we love.”

And though the princesses were still scared, they knew it would be fine, for their friend the Silver Knight would help them.

After crossing many high mountains and deep rivers, and after fighting of many scary monsters, the seven made their way to the home of the Great Shadow. The six princesses brought out the Elements of Harmony and together, they worked to put the Great Shadow back into his cage.

But the Great Shadow didn’t want to go back, and so he fought, sending many more monsters after the princesses. It seemed like the Great Shadow would win, but then the Silver Knight stood up, clad in his now shining armor and swinging his sword of flashing lightning. The Silver Knight and the Great Shadow fought, bright light against deep dark. The Great Shadow was strong, and soon it seemed like he would win and bury the whole world in darkness. But with one last cry, the Silver Knight swung his sword and stunned the Great Shadow.

And in that pause, the princesses won. The Elements of Harmony came together and in a blinding flash of light, sealed the Great Shadow back into his cage, never to return again. The princesses had done it. The world was saved.

But when the light faded, the Silver Knight was nowhere to be found. He had disappeared, along with his suit of shining armor and his sword of flashing lightning. The princesses looked for him, calling out his name, looking for where he might be. But they could not find him. All they could find was a quiet promise, made by the Silver Knight before he vanished.

“Don’t worry,” he said, “I will come back home soon.”

And so

*****

Rarity didn’t mean to let the droplets strike the page. Luna’s mercy, she was an artist herself and she’d have hated if anyone marred one of her creations like she’d just done. Still, a few more droplets fell before Rarity managed to properly bring handkerchief to bear.

“Well… what happens next?” she asked. Fluttershy looked down.

“I… I don’t know,” she admitted softly. “I know that the story goes like that up to here, but I just don’t know how it’s supposed to end.”

“And that’s the thing, isn’t it?” Rarity sniffed as she carefully handed the pages back to Twilight. “We don’t have an ending to this story because someone was too inconsiderate to give us one.”

“So inconsiderate,” Pinkie Pie nodded.

“I mean, where does he get off, behaving like that?” Rarity continued as heat began to well in her voice. “It’s one thing to say that you’re going to be late to a party, but it’s an entirely other matter when you don’t even properly RSVP. One is rather gauche, but the other? The other is downright rude.”

“And how,” Applejack nodded in firm agreement. Then Rarity did the same.

“Well I for one, have had it,” she declared as she boldly stood up once more. “I am sick and tired of waiting for a man who obviously has forgotten his promise.”

… Okay, that? That was unexpected.

“Wait, what?” Twilight blinked as she too, stood up. “Rarity, are you saying–”

“Was I unclear?” Rarity fumed as she rounded on her friend. “I’m. Through. Waiting. Over. Done. Finito. Fortissima playing Brunnhilda in the Gotterdammerung finished! I have absolutely no intention of waiting even a single moment longer!”

The girls were stunned. Shocked really. They couldn’t count how many nights they’d all stayed up late together with Rarity and endless pints of ice cream as she cried her heart out till there was nothing left but empty space. They couldn’t remember how many times that, despite those tears, Rarity had firmly declared, with words harder than diamond, that she would never, ever give up on him.

But what they could count, or calculate at least, was the time she had waited.

It was marvelous, really. Remarkable, even, that Rarity had lasted as long as she had. Despite the months gone by, despite every daring sortie to find some trace of the missing man and every hopeful lead that proved false, Rarity had continued on, never accepting no for an answer. She had held onto hope in the face of all odds that someday, somehow, her patience would be rewarded. And though some part of them couldn’t help but wish that their friend’s indomitable spirit would remain just that, they also knew that to ask for more would simply make no sense.

“… I’m sorry, Rarity,” Twilight murmured as she took her friend up in a grand hug, one that was quickly multiplied fivefold. “This can’t have been easy.”

“Actually, I’ve been thinking it for some time,” Rarity sniffed as she returned the hugs with equal fervor. “That’s probably why the feeling’s almost one of… relief. Am I making sense?”

“You are,” Twilight admitted, though she really hadn’t wanted to. Rarity deserved to be happy, of course, but still, seeing her walk away from this was just so sad.

“In that case, what will you do now, sugar cube?” Applejack gently inquired once Rarity had made sure her mascara hadn’t run. “Any plans on what’s next?”

“Goodness, more than I can list,” Rarity firmly nodded. “First, I have to visit the ERA office to make sure my passport’s in order.”

Ah, travel. A time honored method of starting anew.

“Of course, I have to figure out my packing too. I want to travel as lightly as possible, but I really don’t know what sort of climates I’ll be facing. And there’s the issue of style as there always is, which makes the whole affair dreadfully limiting.

Um, okay? Lots of traveling, but that was a good thing, right?

“And then there’s the retinue,” Rarity huffed as the list continued to grow. “I want to confirm Daring Do’s involvement in the endeavor, but we really won’t know that until we reach Istampbull, and trying to corral a bunch of marshals together is like trying to give a heard of Opals flea baths. Honestly, why can’t one of them be in contact when they’re the ones volunteering for the job?”

… Aaaaand there. At that moment, the girls were officially lost.

“Um, Rarity?” the new princess hesitantly began. “Exactly what sort of vacation are you planning on going on?”

“Well, I’d hardly call the whole affair a vacation,” Rarity laughed. “After all, manhunts generally do tend to get a bit mucky from what I’ve gathered.”

“Manhunt?” Rainbow Dash blinked. “But… I thought you were done on the whole waiting schtick.”

“And indeed I have,” Rarity nodded. “I realized that if he can’t be bothered to show up on his own volition, then I’ll just have to go and find him myself.”

“You mean you haven’t given up?” Twilight gaped. “Even after all this time?”

“Certainly not!” Rarity answered with scandalized tones she usually reserved for offers of the more unsavory variety. “If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a thousand times that I have invested far too much into that man to ever let him go. He belongs to me, and I intend to keep what is mine.”

The girls just stared at the woman before them, the incensed beauty whose eyes flashed like sapphire lightning. And slowly, their faces broke out into the same, wide, wide grins.

“You never were one to do things halfway, no siree bob,” Applejack laughed as she hugged her friend once more.

“If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing right,” Rarity smiled and hugged in return. “And I certainly can think of nothing more worth doing than this.”

“When do you head out?” Fluttershy murmured, eyes wide with worry.

“Next week.”

“Well that doesn’t give us much time to catch up,” Pinkie Pie frowned. Rarity apologetically smiled back.

“I know, darling. I was so looking forward to having the six of us together again. But the general’s made special arrangements, and with how much time has already passed–”

“Just go,” Rainbow Dash laughed as she gave her friend’s hand a reassuring squeeze. “Don’t worry about us. You just haul his sorry butt back here so we can give it a good beating. Until then, well, we’ll all be right here whenever you come back to visit.”

Now it was Rarity’s turn to initiate the teary hug and her friends’ turns to return it with equal gusto. When Rarity broke it off, however it was now with a faint trace of hesitation marring her usually flawless confidence.

“Do… do you think he’s really still out there?” she asked as she turned once more. “It’s been so long…”

“He is,” Twilight insisted, her words as strong and sturdy as the statue before them. “Knowing him, he’ll be here long after that bit’s rusted away to nothing.”

“… You certainly do speak a lot of sense,” Rarity smiled as her reticence faded away. “And plus, we both know how uncommonly stubborn he can–”

Without warning, tree branches above snapped and cracked as a golden armored sentry crash landed in a storm of leaves and twigs.

“Oh my goodness, are you okay?” Twilight gasped as she rushed over with wand out and already waving in levitating aid.

“B…. beg… beg par…don…” The sentry gasped and attempted to speak despite clearly have no breath with which to do so. Dripping with sweat and wild-eyed, it was clear that whatever directive had driven him here had done so to the point of exhaustion.

“Now just calm down and take deep breaths,” Rarity suggested as she knelt down to help. “Surely, there’s nothing so important that you can’t–”

“No!” the guardsman interrupted. “I… Ironside said…”

“The general?” Twilight started. “What? Is it important?”

“He said… find… her,” the guardsman panted, turning at once to face none other than a very stunned Rarity. “Find her… and say that… he… he… is…”

As he lost breath once more, Rarity froze.

And slowly, very slowly, sapphire eyes grew very wide indeed.

*********

Next Chapter: Chapter 2 Estimated time remaining: 44 Minutes
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