Chapter Six
Huerta Memorial Hospital, Citadel

The door to the hospital room slid open with depressing finality, and Octavia stepped inside. Hesitant, she winced at the beeping of the heart monitor and the sound of the other medical equipment working tirelessly. The harsh smell of antiseptics made her crinkle her nose. The room was bathed in the impersonal light from the fluorescent bulbs in the ceiling, and it almost hurt Octavia's eyes to look inside.

She stared at the hospital bed that seemed to dominate the room. Taking a deep, shuddering breath, she looked over its tiny occupant, fragile amongst the vast amounts of tubes and wire and bandages. This wasn't the way that things were supposed to be. This was wrong. The universe was wrong for letting this happen. Vinyl Scratch could never look weak. The very thought of it was wrong in Octavia's mind.

Her once brilliant blue mane sheared short, it served as a blue highlight running down her head against her stained white fur. Her horn was completely gone, just a bandaged stump, the bandages pushing her still ears up against her skull unnaturally.

Octavia crumbled, her knees turning weak as she laid eyes on her wife for the first time in eight years. "Oh, Vinyl..." she whispered, her voice cracking.

She took an unsteady step forward, grabbing a chair from one of the walls. She dragged it up to the side of the bed, taking a moment to climb up onto the chair. Setting her forehooves onto the bed, she just stared at Vinyl for several long moments. Looking down at the smaller mare, she could feel tears welling in her eyes.

"I'm sorry, Vinyl," she managed to choke out. "I let you go. I let you go..." She sobbed, dropping her head onto her hooves, her mane spilling over her face. "I mourned for you. I cried for years. I tried to move on... but I couldn't!"

Octavia took a deep, shuddering breath, looking up at the white mare that she loved more than life itself. "Please, we will get through this together. Just come back to me."

Lifting a shaky hoof, she gently placed it on Vinyl's cheek. She couldn't stop the tears, her vision blurring as she rubbed Vinyl's cheek. She ran her neatly trimmed hoof down Vinyl's body. Passing over the mare's barrel, Octavia gasped in surprise. She could feel every rib in the mare's body. "Oh Celestia, what happened to you Vinyl?"

She kept running her hoof down, only drawing it away before reached the bandaged remains of Vinyl's left hind leg. "I don't know if you can hear me Vinyl, but I need to tell you anyway." She took a deep breath, steadying herself. "You are safe now, and I will do everything I can to help you get better. Just don't give up. We can get through this, I promise. I don't care if you play dubstep all day long, just as long as you come back to me."

Octavia just stayed sitting there, rubbing a hoof up and down Vinyl's front leg, smoothing the fur over. She would stay there until Vinyl woke, and then she would stay there even longer.

###

Apollo's Cafe, Presidium, Citadel

The Citadel was simply one of the most inspiring things that Twilight had ever seen (outside of Princess Celestia, but that went without saying). The Presidium stretched out before her, a ring that spread up and out of her line of sight. Built by the Protheans before their mysterious disappearance, the Presidium (and the rest of the Citadel) was a marvel of engineering and aesthetics finding a happy middle ground. Every line was pleasing to the eye. The embassies that lined the Presidium fit perfectly into the the sloped walls that slid above, with an artificial sky hanging high overhead.

The Presidium lake was a peaceful sight, and a subtle sign of power, though Twilight didn't note that. She was far too impressed with how it actually flowed up, at least subjectively. She knew that it was just the effects of gravity and the centrifugal force of the Citadel, but she found it impressive anyway.

As one of the smaller species in the Citadel races, the sight was even more grand, larger than life.

The cafe that Celestia had recommended had turned out to sit over the lake. Open air, the view was complimented perfectly by the enticing smells from the kitchen. It wasn't crowded, but several diners were scattered around the restaurants, mostly Humans, Turians, and Asari.

Walking up to the counter, Twilight looked up at the menu, quickly scanning every item before making her choice happily and confidently. "I'll have the cranberry spinach salad, please."

As the waited nodded, Twilight hoofed over the correct amount of credits with her omni-tool.

"Twilight Sparkle?"

Turning, surprised to hear her name, Twilight found Donnell Udina standing behind her, the Ambassador for Humanity. He had a friendly, if surprised look on his face, holding a take-out bag loosely in one hand. A fit man, he was balding with ease, dressed comfortably in his expensive suit.

"Mr. Udina!" Twilight exclaimed, smiling at her. "It's good to see you again."

"It's good to see you as well, if a bit surprising." Udina smiled at the mare's friendliness. "It's not often that I have seen you outside of a library, much less Equestria. What brings you to the Citadel?"

"Princess Celestia thought it would be good for me to tag along with her and see the Citadel." Twilight bounced lightly on her hooves, not noticing Udina's surprise.

"The Princess is here?" He asked.

"Yes." Twilight gave a firm nod. "She wanted to deal with a matter personally in front of the Council."

Udina scowled, annoyed that he wasn't informed. "I see. It would have been nice to have known beforehand. I quite enjoy talking with Princess Celestia."

"It looks like you'll get your chance," Twilight beamed, waving at her mentor as she walked up behind them.

"Donnel." Celestia greeted, her voice smooth and friendly.

Udina spun around, a smile on her face. "Princess Celestia, it is surprising to see you here!"

"I had an urgent meeting with the Council." Celestia said. "It was extremely last minute. My own ambassador learned of my arrival only hours before. The moment that I heard Equestrians were rescued from the blackmarket by Citadel Security, there was no other choice but for me to take care of it personally."

"Your student was just informing me," Udina said.

"The smuggling ship," Udina nodded, understanding. "Equestrians were rescued?"

"Indeed," Celestia said gravely.

"That is both wonderful," Udina gave a thankful smile. "And terrible news. I pray for their best."

"Thank you, Donnell. You are a good friend." Celestia gave a bow of her head to the human ambassador.

A cough behind her alerted Twilight to the waiter trying to get her attention, holding a tray in his hand. Twilight quickly gestured at a table, moving to sit as the waiter set the tray down, letting Celestia and Udina speak.

"I certainly won't hold you any longer, Donnell. I am sure that you are very busy." Celestia politely bowed out of the conversation.

Udnia nodded, looking down at his take-out bag. "Yes, I have to get back to a meeting with Admiral Hackett."

Celestia smiled, recognizing the name. "Please, give him my greetings."

"I will," Udnia bowed his head. "Good day, Princess. Twilight!" He waved goodbye at the purple mare who was happily chewing her salad, making him laugh at the sight.

"Good day, Donnell." Celestia said.

As Udina walked away, Celestia stepped up to the counter to order for herself. Finishing, she returned and sat at the table next to Twilight, not bothering with a chair. She plopped to the ground with a tired sigh, Twilight looking at her with concern.

"Princess?" Twilight asked.

"This has been nothing but a mess, Twilight," Celestia said. She cracked her neck, shutting her eyes. "I fear that we will not be able to continue on the path we have strived so hard to maintain."

Twilight ignored her salad, waiting patiently for Celestia to continue. The Princess stared into the Presidium lake for a long moment before snapping back to reality.

"We are at our cores, herd animals, Twilight. All of the others, even humans, are individualistic. They evolved on their worlds to be the top predators, and that is reflected in everything that they do." Celestia spoke carefully, and Twilight soaked it all in. Another lesson, and an important one from the tone of the Princesses voice. "They are content in watching others suffer, as long as they themselves are unharmed..."

She opened her eyes, meeting Twilight's own gaze with her own. "It is difficult, even for me, to understand them sometimes."

"What do you mean, Princess?" Twilight asked, cocking her head inquisitively to the side.

"We have never need to be true warriors, Twilight." Celestia watched a pair of Turians as they left the cafe. Her voice was sad, burdened. "We have fought battles, and even wars, but never on scales even approaching the smallest battles that the others waged. That is going to have to change if we want to keep our position in the galaxy. Without our magic, I am afraid that Equestria would look incredibly different. Griffins, perhaps, would be the dominant species. Ponies might well have gone extinct."

Twilight shifted uncomfortably, frowning at the idea. Magic did grant an unnatural advantage over nearly every challenge that one could face in life. To be confronted with the idea that it was the only reason that ponies had not been driven to extinction... it was certainly sobering.

"I hate myself for it, but I informed the Council that Equestria would be forming a military to protect our interests across the galaxy." Celestia hung her head at this, ashamed. "I have made a deal with the Council. We are granted the same rights under the Treaty of Firaxen as the Asari and the Salarians."

"Treaty of Firaxen?" Twilight asked inquisitively?

"Dreadnoughts, Twilight. We have been granted a privilege that no other race that is a non-Council member has been afforded. We have been granted the construction rights to build three dreadnoughts for every five of the Turians. I intend to do so, and I intend to use them." Celestia sighed. "I wonder how different things might have been if we had never learned that we lived in a gilded cage."

Both Twilight and Celestia fell silent. Coming to the Citadel, Twilight never imagined that she would be witness to the biggest change in Equestrian history since First Contact with humanity. For Princess Celestia to announce to the Council that Equestria would fight against any and all who seek to subdue her, with military might if need be... it was almost unthinkable. Lives would be lost in the future for sure, and Twilight was sure that it would be needed.

"I want to visit the survivors," Celestia finally said.

"I'll join you, Princess," Twilight was quick to offer.