Notes: This is a sequel to my fic Forever. This won't make sense unless you read that first. Why not just make this another chapter of Forever? Because Forever was conceived as a complete story. This is Beyond Forever, which is like Beyond Thunderdome, only with ponies. And no dome of thunder.
Forever can be found on my author page. I'd post a link, but FFNET deleted the one I tried to put in here.
Also, a certain bit of fanon I use here was someone else's doing. You'll know it when you see it. I don't take credit for it; in fact, I didn't even have the original idea that Pinkie Pie was Photo Finish's sister.
One last note, this fic is dedicated to Phoekun. She's one of the single nicest people I've ever met online, and she's always patient and supportive. Her encouragement is what made this fic get written as fast as it did.
Also, I want to give a larger blanket thanks for everyone who helped me by prereading this story and listening to my initial proposal.
As she took a sip of mineral water, Photo Finish allowed herself a rare smile. She knew that for so many ponies, the Grand Galloping Gala was a time of stress and work. She saw the debutants strutting their stuff, trying to stand out from the crowd, the servants bustling about with carefully balanced trays of the finest foods and the nobles doing fine diplomatic dances that would reverberate down the centuries in the fates of their houses. She felt sorry for them, because when she thought about it, the Grand Galloping Gala was the best place for her. She spent all year shaping the fashions of Equestria, weeding out poor taste in an effort to beautify the world, and this was where she got to enjoy the fruits of her labors. And if a few ponies resisted her beautification program, snarking behind their backs was fine sport.
"What about the Baroness de Breton? I think the violet sets off her coat nicely." Her "date," Hoity Toity, was leaning against the railing next to her. They had chosen the spot carefully. They stood near a large window, which gave them a clear overhead view of the newly arrived guests as they walked past Princess Celestia.
Photo Finish shook her head dismissively. "Nein, it isn't about ze color. Ze shape is all out of sorts with her oversized thighs. It makes her look like a parade float."
As if she had overheard them, the Baroness happened to glance up at them. Hoity Toity gave a polite laugh. It was a fine art to laugh at somepony without being obvious about it, and Hoity was a master. Photo Finish envied him; she had to keep up a poker face to avoid a faux pas, which really ruined her fun. The grey colt lowered his now empty cup of something pink (Photo hadn't asked) onto the tray of a passing servant. "I don't see where you have room to complain," he said playfully. "She's not the one who wears that same pink and black number everywhere she goes."
Photo Finish sniffed haughtily, partly for effect and partly to overcome the perfume of a nearby radio star. "It is part of mein image, darling. Zat is all we have in our line of work, und when ponies think of Photo Finish, they think of this color scheme. Und I'll have you know ze dresses are all subtly different." She subtly motioned with her head, drawing Hoity's attention to the Countess of Fillydelphia. "Speakink of color schemes, orange und green? With her colors? She must be blind."
Hoity Toity shook his head wistfully. He straightened up and stretched his forelegs before frowning slightly. He motioned towards a table further into the dining room and set out. Photo Finish followed him, careful to keep her distance. She wasn't sure why the older colt had brought her to the gala with him. As high as her opinion of herself was, she hadn't warranted an invite, so she was here as his "plus one." Considering the two were frenemies (what a delightful word that was), she had to be on the lookout for tricks. Then again, for the rock farmer turned fashionista, everything was a potential trick or trap, so this was nothing new.
Hoity pulled back a chair for her with a smile that almost looked real. "Vat a gentecolt," she said as she sat down.
He took his own seat and, breaking with the decorum of such an event in a way that shocked Photo, rested his rear legs on another chair. "Sorry to cut our fun short, but my hooves are simply killing me. Besides, now you can unleash that wit of yours on some new targets."
Photo nodded. "Kein problem." She loved occasionally sprinkling the odd bit of Ponyconian into her speech. It helped the illusion. Plus, it reminded her of her parents at the rock farm; Papa mostly used Ponyconian to curse, but Mama had tried to teach them the language. The results had been mixed, but it was nice that even as she kept up the mask of Photo Finish, she could let some of Purple Pie through.
She was interrupted from her reverie as Hoity Toity looked over her shoulder. He said, "Oh my. I've been waiting to see these dresses in 'action' for some time. I met the dress maker in Ponyville. They were simply fabulous! The copies I bought from her sold out almost immediately."
Photo Finish sighed as she turned around. "You mean zat Rarity pony? I suppose her designs are technically proficient, but she didn't have ze... magic..." She trailed off as she spotted the last pony she expected to see at the Gala.
Pinkie Pie, dressed in a candy themed gown, was hopping happily through the crowd. Pinkie immediately came to a halt as she locked eyes with Photo Finish. How her sister could lock eyes through Photo's thick sunglasses was a mystery; Photo had always thought there was something unnatural about Pinkie. There was a pregnant silence as Photo worried that her sister was about to come over. It was obvious she wanted to... but she stopped herself and mouthed a single word. "Forever." Photo wasn't sure if Pinkie was talking to her or to herself. A much more morose Pinky slowly walked away. Photo wasn't sure where she was going.
"And that blue Pegasus' ensemble is simply fetching, like something out of an old Greek... Photo, are you listening to me?" Hoity Toity gave her a hurt look.
Photo said, "Ja ja. Listen, I need some air. Zat odor somepony calls perfume has given me ein headache."
If Photo didn't know better, she'd think he was really disappointed. "Very well. I'll find you later. Remember, you promised me a dance."
She pasted on a wan grin. "Ach, you is incorrigible, Mr. Toity. Don't worry, you'll have your dance."
With that, she walked away. Despite the hasty excuse she'd given Hoity, Photo didn't go outside at all. Instead, she just wandered. She got a sort of satisfaction as she saw her impact on the gala's fashion choices. She spotted many dresses she'd endorsed and several she'd designed. Most satisfying was how she'd managed to make pink "so last season." It meant that she could put Pinkie out of her mind. Most times, at least.
Not now. A scene kept replaying in her mind as she slowly made her way through the crowds.
Tears welled up in Pinkie's eyes. Her hair went flat and her colors faded; the poor thing probably didn't notice. "But I love you, Purple Pie."
Photo Finish squelched the feeling of guilt that tried to overcome her. "I have no use for love right now. I need a good reputation, und my reputation is as a taskmaster und a serious fashionista. Nopony who is anypony wants to buy a dress from a hick who grew up on a rock farm."
Photo had broken her sister's heart that day. "Ze magic requires sacrifice. Ze magic requires sacrifice." Her hardnosed mantra did nothing to dispel the memory, so she tried a different tactic: anger. "Vat is zis nonsense? I spend five years burying myself und I only come here as somepony's date, but she's bouncing und being her goofy self und she gets in all on her own? Where is the justice?" Nope. It didn't work. The hints of jealousy she tried to inculcate in her heart were snuffed out by a guilt that was only strengthened by the effort to shift blame to Pinkie.
"I need to stop staring at mein navel and find something else to think of." As if in answer to a prayer, she immediately heard the strains of some classical piece or another coming from a nearby ballroom. She didn't listen to music very often. Scratch that. Music was always something in the background of a fashion show, or playing on the radio while she worked late into the night. She didn't focus on music very often, so she didn't recognize the song. It was one of those classical pieces where the composer, his head full of symmetry and order, allowed for nothing atonal or extraneous. It was to music what the right dress or the right model was to her line of work: ze magic. She needed some of that.
She maneuvered through the sea of chit chatting high society ponies to get closer to the stage. She wanted to hear the music, not somepony talking about penny stocks or their trip to Hippo. And then she noticed who was playing the double bass. "No. Both of them? This is..." Photo trailed off. There was no denying it. Up there on the stage was her other little sister, Achromatic Pie. This was bad comedy.
Achromatic Pie noticed Photo Finish almost immediately. Her body language made it painfully obvious. The fact that she did so despite Photo's dyed fur and sunglasses annoyed her to no end. What good was a disguise if everypony could see through it instantly?
The grey pony missed a note as her eyes widened. However, being a consummate musician, she immediately regained her poise. Maybe Photo could slip out? After all, she hadn't seen Achromatic Pie in five years. What would one more night do?
And then Achromatic Pie did something that nopony else in the ballroom noticed. Her right ear went flat, then the left, then the right again. Her tail flicked to the left, then she tapped her left hoof five times.
Photo Finish had never expected to see their private sister sign language ever again. They'd developed it while working in the rock fields. It had been a necessity before Poppa and Momma had lightened up and let them talk while they worked. Achromatic Pie wanted to meet with her in five minutes. Or else the turnip shed was on fire. Photo assumed the first. She was trapped.
It was a very long five minutes. What do you say to somepony who you shut out of your life for five years without a real explanation? Pinkie was too goofy to hold a serious grudge, but Achromatic Pie had always had an angry streak.
Finally, the musicians ended their set. With the sort of poise Photo looked for in a runway model, Achromatic Pie trotted over to her. And then the grey mare abandoned all pretense of dignity and gave Photo a big hug. "Purple Pie! If you aren't a sight for sore eyes! What's with the blue fur?"
Behind her goggles, Photo's eyes bulged as large as they would go. She was pretty sure nopony was paying them any attention, but she needed to nip this in the bud and fast. "Actually, I go by ze name Photo Finish. I vould prefer zat, if you don't mind."
Achromatic Pie gave a knowing nod. "I understand the need for a good stage name. I go by Octavia these days. Everypony kept spelling Achromatic wrong, so I figured it would be easier on the printers."
Photo said, "I am sure you are surprised that your sister went on to become the famous Photo Finish." She let some well earned pride fill her voice.
Octavia blinked. "You're famous? That's wonderful! The closest I got to being famous was that stint with the Canterlot Fillyharmonic Orchestra, but I like it better here. It gives me more time for family."
Photo was very glad for her thick sunglasses because she was sure the raw anger of her glare would have burned Octavia to a crisp. "I... you haven't heard of me?"
Octavia shrugged. "Well, I don't pay much attention to fashion, truth be told. I own about two dresses. But hey, it's great that you're getting up there."
"G-getting up there." Photo had to work very, very hard not to let the rage and disappointment show on her face. Wait, Octavia was supposed to be mad at her, not the other way around! "I... I am sorry I have not kept in touch..." There. That would remind Octavia she was supposed to be enraged, and then she could yell at Photo and then she'd feel better, since it would make her the victim.
Octavia clearly hadn't read the script. She motioned for Photo to follow her over to her bass' large case. The grey pony got out a water bottle and took a swig. "Oh my goodness, it has been too long, hasn't it? I know I've been busy getting my performance degree and meeting Hans." And then she stopped. Her eyes lit up with pure excitement. "Wow, it really has been a long time! You've never even met my little Flügel before, have you?"
"Ah, no, I haff not. Is that your son? Pinkie told me about..."
Before Photo could say another word, Octavia practically dove into her case. After a moment of rummaging around, she produced a wallet full of pictures. Apparently the reason Octavia had thought to name the little brown colt Flügel (Ponyconian for "wing") was because he was a pegasus, even though it was obvious from the photos that Hans was one hundred percent Earth Pony. Octavia made a preemptive comment about how, "Everypony always makes the same stupid jokes me about cheating with the stork. These things just happen! Genes are funny!"
Photo nodded. "He has his father's eyes." This led to another ten minutes of stories with photos. Somehow, Photo Finish had managed to learn every minute detail of Flügel's short life in under fifteen minutes. It seemed like a good life.
The torrent of photos of happy mother, father and colt finally came to a halt when another member of the band, a blue filly wearing a sousaphone, came over to say, "Our break's just about over, Ock."
Octavia nodded. "I'll be just a minute, Brass." Octavia stashed away the wallet and gave Photo another big hug. "It was so good to see you! You need to come over and meet your nephew, though."
"W-well, I," Photo Finish stammered.
"Promise! Pinkie swear!"
Photo wilted under the intensity of the emphatic smile that lit up Octavia's whole face. "F-fine. Cross mein heart and hope to fly, stick a cupcake in my eye, I'll visit you soon."
Octavia nodded happily. "Great! Little Flügel will be so excited." Octavia turned to leave, but stopped. "Oh, and don't let Momma catch you doing that bad Ponyconian accent." Before Photo Finish could respond, Octavia had already gone back into performance mode, her face an unreadable, dignified mask.
Photo blinked. "Vat just happened?" Her mind raced trying to make sense of it. She'd... had she just agreed to visit Achromatic Pie? But she... with Pinkie... her secret... She'd made Pinkie keep her secret. How could Photo betray her like that?
No. It was necessary.
"But I love you, Purple Pie."
"Ze magic requires sacrifice. That was a slip."
"But I love you, Purple Pie."
"Shut up. You aren't real. You're a memory."
"But I love you, Purple Pie."
And then she ran. She galloped as fast as she could because the mask was cracking and everypony was there. They were silently judging her as always, looking for weakness, the chance to slip under her armor and destroy her. She wouldn't give them the chance.
Photo couldn't remember the last time she'd let herself really cry. She'd almost forgotten she could. What had happened? She'd built her career on pure, emotionless rationality. It had gone so well. She'd shot down hundreds of models without a second thought. She'd destroyed competitors with a single leak to the tabloids without any pang of guilt. What had changed?
Achromatic Pie. That's what changed. Achromatic was three years younger than her! How was it fair that she had a husband and a colt, but still got to be successful? Her face was not the face of somepony who did back room deals and jockeyed for position. She'd just coasted in on charm and talent.
What was Photo doing with her life?
"Ze magic requires sacrifice." She steeled herself. So what if she was alone? She was the great Photo Finish! Purple Pie had a family, but did she have prestige and respect? Did she have ze magic? No! She'd promised Pinkie Pie that someday Purple Pie would come back, but that wasn't today! She had shows to plan and talent to find, and woe be to whoever got in her way.
She composed herself and started walking back towards the castle. She didn't think anypony had seen her breakdown, thank Celestia. She was fine.
And then, from a nearby apple cart (who sets up an apple cart at a royal gala?), a scent wafted over. Apple pie. It smelled just like Momma's recipe. She went over to investigate.
The blonde pony running the cart noticed Photo's interest and flashed a winning smile. "Howdy! Ah can't help but notice you eyein' mah pie. Can ah interest you in a..."
Photo was undone. She ran off, sobbing openly.
Applejack gave a frustrated grunt. "Horsefeathers! What's wrong with all these snooty ponies?"
Photo Finish didn't know how long she'd sat on the stone bench further into the garden. She did know she'd finally stopped crying. How convenient, seeing who was coming up the way. She'd made a fool of herself, but hopefully Hoity hadn't heard.
"Photo Finish, I've been looking all over for you. Somepony said you just ran out of the chamber like a manticore was chasing you. Is everything alright?"
Of course he had. "No. Nothing is alright." She shifted on the bench, hugging her legs to her chest. "I feel like everything is falling apart. I've seen some things tonight that have made my life seem very small und petty."
There was a long pause as he stood, waiting for her to continue. When she didn't, he sat down next to her unbidden. "Do you want to tell me about it?"
"Oh ja, you'd love zat. Ze Ice Queen of Canterlot's down, und now you want the information to finish me off. I've destroyed myself enough tonight, thank you."
Hoity looked legitimately confused. He was such a good actor. "I... what?"
Photo was in his face in an instant. In fact, she banged her nose against his, knocking their respective sunglasses off. Fine. All pretenses were gone, so she might as well look him in the eye. "You und I both know why you brought me here, Hoity. You run the number one fashion boutique in this city, I run the number two. It's been cold war for years and you wanted reconnaissance on me."
Hoity expression hardened. "My dear, I believe you have completely misunderstood my intentions."
"Stop calling me 'my dear.' Ve is frenemies at best."
Hoity's face scrunched up like he'd eaten something sour. "Frenemy. What a ghastly word. Photo, I don't believe that you've misunderstood me anymore. I know that you have."
His eyes told no lies. Either he was a better liar than she'd thought, or... She retrieved his glasses from the ground sheepishly. He accepted them graciously, but put them into his breast pocket. She was unused to the eye contact, but so be it. "I... I think I have misunderstood many things."
"I should say so." He leaned back into the bench. "Perhaps I can be of assistance?" How he managed to sound imperious and gentle at the same time was a mystery to Photo, but he did. "It's obvious something is the matter, and apparently bottling it up the way you always do seems to be backfiring."
"Like I always do," Photo asked.
"Photo, I've known you for four years. In fashion, that's almost a lifetime." That earned a chuckle from Photo, which in turn earned a smile from him. "You never speak your mind unless we're talking shop, but that hasn't stopped me from thinking of you as my friend. You certainly liven up these boring events. You can tell me anything."
Photo paused. Every instinct told her this was a trap. He'd been playing a long game, pretending to be a true friend even as he maneuvered her just the way he wanted. This was the coup de grace.
Photo told her instincts to go take a hike. Photo Finish was under new management, and the manager's name was Purple Pie. She dropped the accent and told him about everything; the rock farm, the secret identity, her sisters, her parents, her nephew, Pinkie's promise and what felt like a thousand irrelevant details. He listened to it all.
Hoity was quiet for a long moment. Purple thought it wasn't going to end. Finally, he said, "Well, that explains the bad accent."
"My accent is not bad!"
Hoity rolled his eyes. "Oh please. Are you French or Ponyconian? Pick one, because it can't be both."
Purple Pie crossed her forelegs petulantly. "I bare my soul to you and that's all you have to say?"
He shook his head. "No, it's just the safest thing to say while I gather my thoughts."
"Then what do you really think? I hadn't realized just how strange it all sounded until I said it aloud."
Hoity gently put a hoof on her shoulder. She stiffened at his touch, but didn't protest. "I think you have the best eye for detail and the highest standards of any pony I've met in our line of work."
"You knew that already."
He raised one hoof in a gesture of chastisement. "Let me finish. Those are great skills. They got you where you are today. The problem is, you turned them on yourself. I know how hard it is when I spend hours making and remaking a suit. I can't imagine how the suit feels afterwards."
She considered what he said for a long time. She finally met his gaze. "Hoity... if Purple Pie had come into your shop years ago to show off new designs, would you have bought them?"
Hoity shrugged. "I can't rightly say. I've never met Purple Pie or seen her work."
Purple sighed. "I deserve that. I've messed everything up."
"Dare I ask why you decided to be Photo Finish? I heard a lot of hows and whens, but nary a hint of a why."
It was Purple Pie's turn to shrug. "Five years ago, I went to Canterlot in pursuit of z... the magic. I saw a lot of ponies there making dresses and running shops, but I didn't see anypony who looked or talked like a rock farmer. I didn't want to be rejected, so I made myself somepony who'd fit in."
Hoity nodded. "I can understand that. Starting off isn't easy."
There was a another lapse in the conversation. In that silence, Purple thought she heard a few notes of... the Pony Pokey?
Hoity's ears pricked at the noise. He got up and brushed himself off. "Well, I seem to be in a bit of a pickle. My date ran off. Just as well; between you and me, Photo Finish was a bit paranoid. Why, she seemed to think I was plotting against her. But you seem to be more reasonable and at least as lovely, Ms. Pie. May I have this dance?" He bowed in an exaggerated manner and offered her his hoof.
She accepted it with a wide grin. "I would be honored." He wrapped one leg around her waist and took the lead. "I haven't done this in a while, but I don't recall the Pony Pokey being a slow dance."
"Do you really care?"
She met his gaze. Since she usually saw him through two layers of sunglasses, she'd never noticed just how striking those eyes of his were. "... no. This is nice." For somepony as generally non-athletic as Hoity, he was really good at dancing. Somehow, he managed to make sense of the Pony Pokey as a slow dance. Purple just played along. After so many years of insisting on being in charge, it was oddly freeing to follow somepony else's lead. For the first time in five years, Purple Pie felt truly relaxed. She leaned in to put her head on his shoulder when the music stopped abruptly. "Story of my life."
Hoity was about to reply when an inexplicable series of noises started to reach their ears. The music was shortly replaced by the sounds of a techno beat, then screams and deafening crashes. "It sounds like the whole building is collapsing!"
Purple pricked her ears and said, "More like a zoo is collapsing. What's going on in th-" She was interrupted as six ponies in tattered dresses zipped by. Purple recognized a very familiar pink blur among them.
"But I love you Purple Pie!"
Purple Pie brushed herself off as her face was set by a look of determination. Sisters kept secrets forever, but it was time to let Pinkie know that eternity had just expired. "Hoity, I hope you're ready for a gallop."
"So then I said, 'but I thought you wanted whining!'" The seven ponies and one dragon at the donut shop erupted into laughter. Pinkie Pie had heard the story like a million times (it was Rarity's favorite), but she didn't care. Good friends and good food made Pinkie overlook a little monotony. For a night with so many disappointments, it really was shaping to be the best night ever.
Princess Celestia checked a clock on the wall. "Well girls, this has been delightful, but I should really get back to the gala. Somepony needs to run some damage control."
Twilight's face fell. "Sigh. I suppose we should be getting back soon anyway. I think Caramel and Clover are starting to get a bit antsy." The two male ponies were looking in the window of the shop. Clover was indicating his wristwatch insistently. "I'm so sorry about spoiling tonight."
Celestia gave a serene smile. "I just know I'm going to get angry letters from everypony, but it's worth it. I know I had a great time. Besides, a little chaos is good for those bluebloods." Celestia frowned slightly. "Sorry, Rarity. You know what I mean."
Rarity, her eye twitching, waved her off. "I-it's alright, your majesty."
Everypony said their goodbyes to the princess and with that, she was gone. Applejack stood up and stretched. "Wooee, this is gonna be a night to keep secret from Apple Bloom 'til she's a little older."
Rainbow Dash was already heading out the door. "Let's get home before the carriage turns back into an apple."
Twilight said, "Well actually, that was just the spell on the mice. The apple spell lasts until 5 AM."
Rainbow Dash blinked. "What's so special about 5 AM?"
Twilight replied, "Well, if you're going to be like that, what's so special about midnight?"
Dash paused. "Touché, Twilight. Touché."
Pinkie hopped over to the counter. "Two dozen donuts for the road, please!"
"Which flavor," asked the bartender.
Pinkie bounced in place. "Surprise me! Surprises are the bestest!"
"Then you'll love this."
Pinkie spun around as a mix of fear and excitement gripped her heart. She expected to see a blue pony in thick sunglasses. Instead, there in the doorway, blocking Rainbow Dash's progress, was a purple pony flanked by a panting, sweaty and disheveled Hoity Toity. Rarity and Fluttershy were whispering excitedly to each other... well, Rarity was whispering excitedly. Fluttershy just sounded nervous. Spike's eyes lit up with recognition when he saw Hoity Toity. Rainbow Dash was tapping her hoof impatiently as she waited for them to clear the door.
And in the midst of all of this activity, Pinkie froze up. She had no idea what to do. Pur... Photo Finish had sworn her to secrecy, but here she was Purple Pie without the accent, but she was in front of her fashion buddy, so that meant the secret was still on, but she was purple, but she was wearing that Photo Finish dress... but... but...
Purple trotted over. "Aren't you going to introduce me to your friends, sis?"
Pinkie smiled so hard she pulled something. She didn't care.
"And so then I said, 'But I thought you wanted whining!'" Hoity Toity and Purple Pie laughed much harder than anypony else present. Well, except the dragon; he was laughing way too hard. Purple Pie guessed he was trying to butter up Rarity.
Purple Pie's mouth hurt. She hadn't laughed or smiled this much in ages.
Pinkie Pie asked, "So, how are the donuts, big sis?"
Purple Pie inspected the donut on the plate in front of her. They were slightly stale, the sprinkles clashed with the frosting and she was pretty sure they'd been overcooked. Photo Finish would hate them.
Purple Pie took a big bite and matched Pinkie's goofy grin. "They're the best I've ever had."