TWILIGHT SPARKLE: SPELLBOUND

By Saddlesoap Opera

Part Six of the Pony Psychology Series


PART ONE: REBIRTH

Twilight Sparkle floated in a blank white void, unaware even of herself.

A sense of up and down returned to her first, followed by a feeling of weight and, eventually, the sensation of a cold floor underneath her prone body.

She heard a bird trilling in the distance, and closer by she could hear the whisper-faint rustle of feathered wings moving.

She drew breath – a deep, heaving gasp that seemed to take hours to fill her lungs – and smelled old books and hot tea; the smell of home.

"Spike…? Owlowiscious?" Twilight's voice was weak and thin. "I had a terrible dream…"

A soft, matronly voice answered her. "I am sorry, my student…but it was not a dream."

Twilight's eyes snapped open.

She was in Canterlot, in the private tower-top study of Princess Celestia herself. She was lying on her side on the smooth stone floor. The Princess sat nearby, looking down at her.

Twilight lurched to her hooves, and backed away from the spot where she'd lain. A dark red stain marked the ancient white stone. Her gaze darted from the stain, to the Princess, to her own side, where the last hair-thin remnant of a fatal sword-wound was fading into invisibility. Twilight's eyes widened. Her pulse quickened as her most recent memories crashed back into focus. She gasped.

"Y-you...you told them to…!" Twilight looked behind her, but the Pegasus guards were gone. She and the Princess were alone. "Why?" she demanded, her voice cracking. "How could you?"

Princess Celestia still sat on a broad velvet pillow in front of the tower study's window. She regarded her student with an uncharacteristic look of sadness on her regal features.

"I am so sorry to have put you through that, Twilight Sparkle. It pained me more than you can imagine. But some lessons can't be taught from a book; they can only be experienced first-hoof."

Twilight scowled. She fixed her stance, took a deep breath, and:

"WHAT ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT! This is CRAZY! They stabbed me! Was this a punishment? Would you rather I didn't stick up for my friends? What in Pony Hell was killing me and bringing me back supposed to teach me!"

Twilight panted, shaking with fury. As the echoes of her tirade faded, Twilight remembered who she was speaking to; she backed down slightly, blushing. "…Your Majesty," she added sheepishly.

Celestia fought away tears. "Oh, Twilight…my dearest, most faithful student. This was no punishment. I could never raise a hoof against you in anger. It was all I could do to give the order. But try to understand…the lesson was that you brought yourself back."

Twilight stared, and then frowned in frustration. "'I brought myself back?' That's impossible! How could I have used magic while I was dead?"

"You didn't use magic, Twilight Sparkle. You are Magic."

Twilight's tilted her head. An array of outraged, dumbfounded and shocked expressions crossed her face in quick succession. "I…I don't...what do you…" She staggered, her knees suddenly weak.

"Please, Twilight – have a seat. A cup of tea will do you good." Princess Celestia gestured with a wing toward the pillow next to hers. She magicked the teapot resting on the low table between the pillows into the air, and poured a fresh cupful.

Twilight numbly trotted across the room, and flopped down onto the pillow. She shakily magicked up the cup, and took a small sip. It was the Princess' personal blend, imported from Xiao Ma; as upset as she was, Twilight couldn't deny that it was delicious.

The two sat in silence until they had both finished their tea. Twilight spoke up first:

"What is this, Princess? What did you mean?"

The Princess let out a tiny sigh. "Twilight…it's time I told you more about the secrets of the Elements of Harmony – the secrets that no book has ever detailed. The secrets of their power…and of the burdens that they press on their bearers."

A sudden knock at the study's door caught both Ponies' attention. A cultured Canterlotter stallion spoke up from the other side:

"Begging Your Majesty's pardon…the Tsarevna of Stalliongrad and her retinue have arrived."

The Princess sagged, but when she spoke her voice carried the full weight of her nobility: "Very well. Direct them to the Main Hall. I will be there shortly."

"As you wish, Your Majesty."

Princess Celestia turned back to Twilight Sparkle. "I'm sorry, my student. You need to hear these things, but it would be unfair to my subjects to put our private discussion ahead of affairs of state like this. I hope you understand."

Twilight bit back her frustration, and forced a smile. "…Of course, Princess. I understand."

Celestia smiled. "Good. Please…if you head to your old chambers, I will be there as soon as I can. We can continue our talk then."

•·•·•·•·•·•·•·•·•·•

After the Princess departed, Twilight Sparkle slowly trotted down the tower's winding stairs, across several broad hallways lined with tapestries, paintings and ancient suits of barding, and out into the early evening air. She trotted up the exterior steps of her old tower home, and magicked open the blue wooden doors.

The place was almost as Twilight had left it, but the room's tall burgundy curtains were drawn, covering the west wall's picture window and leaving the room somewhat gloomy.

A deep purple Alicorn with a pale blue mane sat at a desk in the middle of the library-like chamber's raised study; open books on history, science, poetry, magical theory and astronomy sat on the wooden table's surface, as did a small clockwork orrery, a pot of ink and several quills, a sheaf of parchment, a half-eaten bowl of dried flowers, and a well-worn abacus.

"Oh…it's you," said the Alicorn, magicking a blue-framed pince-nez off of her face and setting it down on the cluttered table.

"Princess Luna…!" said Twilight. "I didn't expect to find you–"

"–in my own room?" interjected Luna, raising an eyebrow.

Twilight froze, momentarily dumbstruck. "But…this wasn't–"

The Alicorn interrupted again. "–Not my original room, of course. That was in the old Royal Castle. But my sister had this tower built just for me when this palace was constructed. She set it aside from the noisy hustle and bustle of the palace`s main halls so I could sleep through the day in peace, filled it with books on all of my favourite topics, made sure it had a commanding view of the night sky, and put in an hourglass counting down the time until my…release. She kept it pristine and ready to use for more than nine centuries. I suppose she thought it would help to appease me. A welcome-home present for her poor, misguided little sister."

Luna stood, and trotted over to the purple Unicorn. She was taller than Twilight, but thinner. She had a lean – almost gangly – build, her feathered wings almost totally covering the sides of her slender torso. But even so, her presence was only slightly less overwhelming than Celestia's. At a distance, she seemed a bookish recluse; up close, she was a Goddess of the Night.

"Of course, all that changed when you came along. She gave you this place without a second thought. She thinks I don't know, but I was watching from up there – every single night." She loomed over Twilight, casting a darker shadow over her in the already-dark room. "I moved in here yesterday – I haven't gotten around to telling her. I trust she won't mind that I spoiled her surprise." Luna looked down her nose at Twilight. "But where are my manners? Was there something you wanted?"

Twilight shifted from side to side, uncomfortably. "P-Princess Celestia told me to wait for her here. She wanted to tell me more about the…" Twilight lowered her voice. "the Elements of Harmony."

Luna chuckled. "Ah…I see. So she hasn't told you about the curse, yet."

Twilight's jaw dropped. "The curse?"

"Oh my, yes. Magic that powerful doesn't come without a price, you know. The Elements force their bearers to become living embodiments of their virtues – and no mortal Pony can be expected to personify such a perfect state. The ones that try are slowly. Driven. Mad."

Twilight's eyes shone. "That can't be true…" she whispered, but her thoughts darted back to the last she'd seen of her friends: a fierce brawl, punctuated by screams, shouts and tears.

"I'm sorry," said Luna, her tone making it abundantly clear that she wasn't.

Luna's revelation stripped Twilight of what little endurance her resurrection had granted her; she slid down onto her knees, and hot tears slid down her face. "What have I done…?" she whispered.

Behind the two Ponies, the setting sun shone into the room through the thin gap between the curtains. The shaft of light fell on them both.

•·•·•·•·•·•·•·•·•·•

In the palace's opulent Main Hall, Princess Celestia sat at the head of a vastly long wooden table surrounded by visiting dignitaries and local gentry.

At the far end of the table sat the Tsarevna of Stalliongrad. The demure scarlet Unicorn's long golden-yellow mane was restrained by a simple gold wire tiara, and a similarly-designed yoke adorned her long neck.

The two heads of state were discussing trade routes, importation laws, and the synchronization of the lengths of their respective seasons.

Celestia paused in mid-sentence as a warm yellow glow flashed across her eyes, bringing with it a flicker of insight; she stifled a gasp.

The Princess stood, spreading her wings for silence. The room obeyed in a heartbeat.

"Прости, царевна," said Celestia, switching to her visitor's native language as a sign of respect. "но я должна вас покинуть. Тысяча извинений!"

Without waiting for a reply, the Princess gave a slight bow and trotted out of the room.

•·•·•·•·•·•·•·•·•·•

"Shhh…there, there…it's alright. Don't cry…" Luna rested a sapphire-shod front hoof across Twilight's heaving shoulders. Her voice was as soft and gentle as crescent moonlight. "I know…I know what it's like to be swept up in my sister's plans. To be a pawn. You couldn't have known what you were getting yourself – and your friends – into…"

Twilight sobbed in despair, covering her eyes with her hooves; she knew that the Alicorn was being insincere, but the thought that she had condemned the first friends that she had ever made her heart break nonetheless.

Luna grinned a small, vindictive grin. "…And when they're gone, you'll have to live with that you did to them forev–"

A blinding explosion of sunlight erupted in front of the two Ponies. In its wake appeared Princess Celestia, her full resplendent glory unrestrained.

Luna hopped backward and cringed, averting her sensitive eyes from the Princess' searing light. "B-big sister…!" she stammered from behind the shade of one of her wings. "I found the room you made me! It's wonderful–" Celestia cut her off:

"Little sister, you go too far." Celestia stomped a gold-shod front hoof; the curtains jerked open and let in the full light of the sunset. "I know you haven't forgiven me for…what happened…a thousand years ago, but Twilight Sparkle is not to blame!"

Luna gritted her teeth. She leapt to her hooves and faced her sister, her eyes streaming and squinting nearly shut from the glare. "Isn't she? It's right there on her flanks! She's the Sixth! The Spark! She's the one you picked to use the Elements because you were too afraid to do it again!"

"ENOUGH!" Celestia's voice echoed off the vaulted ceiling."Your quarrel is with me, sister. If you are going to let hatred back into your heart, then direct it at me alone!"

Luna's lower lip quivered. "You know I can't…" she whispered. She spread her wings, and took off toward the door. The scattered possessions on the tabletop glowed, hovered, and swarmed after her like so many startled birds.

As the door slammed behind her sister, Celestia let her blazing glow subside. She trotted over to her protégé, who was still sobbing curled up on the floor, her hooves covering her face.

"I am sorry you had to endure that, my student," said Celestia, her voice softening. "My sister has a great depth of feeling, but she has never had much skill at expressing it. It sometimes pushes her to make…unwise…decisions." Celestia looked over to the large, gilt hourglass nearby for a moment.

"Is it true?" asked Twilight, her voice barely above a whisper. "Are the Elements of Harmony what's making them suffer? Are they all going to…to…"

The white Alicorn sat down next to her student. "Yes…and no. What is making them suffer is the lack of an Element, Twilight Sparkle. The five lesser Elements yearn to unite in Harmony – to support and foster the sixth."

"Magic…" whispered Twilight.

"Yes, my student. They need you. Not just your presence, but your wisdom. Your guidance. You give them purpose. Without you, the Elements' urgings stretch them beyond their limits, and they collapse like an arch missing its keystone. Magic is at the heart of friendship, Twilight. It's what turns familiar faces into lifelong companions. Magic is what makes it…complete. As bearers of Elements of Harmony, your friends represent that companionship, and you represent that Magic."

The possibility of hope bolstered the purple Unicorn. "A keystone…. So I can help them, just by being there for them?" She frowned. "But I do that all the time! At least one of us has some crazy crisis once a week – or more! I'm always helping them!"

"You mustn't just wait for trouble to come to you, Twilight. Some problems lurk beneath the surface. I have watched you every day. I have seen how much time you still spend alone in your library. Friendships are like gardens – they can grow wild and messy if they are not tended to."

Twilight looked away in shame. "I know…but sometimes it feels like there's never enough time."

Something in what Twilight said seemed to cut the Princess deeply; she shed a single crystal-clear tear. "Oh, my most faithful student. You have all the time in the world, now."

Twilight's brow furrowed in thought for a moment, and then a look of inspiration dawned on her features. "Princess Luna said 'when they're gone, you'll have to live with that you did to them forever'…did she mean…?"

Celestia took a slow, deep breath. "Yes, Twilight. Just as the Elements have pushed your companions to personify their chosen virtues, you too have become like Magic: versatile, powerful…and eternal."

The confirmation struck Twilight like a physical blow. "I…I'm…immortal?"

"Yes. Like we Alicorns, you are as much Magic as flesh now, and precious little in this world can do you any lasting harm. The Elements will grant your friends health and long life, but you will live as long as you care to, the centuries passing no harder than the minutes. It is a great gift, but also a great burden."

Twilight opened her mouth to speak, but no words came. Her head swayed drunkenly for a moment; her eyes rolled up, and she knew no more.

•·•·•·•·•·•·•·•·•·•

Twilight was sitting in a wheelchair in Ponyville, watching Pinkie Pie from afar, when a clumsy delivery-mare dropped the majority of a moving wagon's contents on top of her. A falling anvil landed squarely on her unprotected skull…but she was only dazed.

She was in her library, focusing on an untested spell to grant Earth Ponies wings. As the spell engulfed her fellow Unicorn an overload of magical feedback exploded, sending Twilight tumbling. She landed poorly, and her neck twisted at an unnatural angle…before it popped back into alignment.

She was in a field of lush purple-red berries, channeling foul Neighcromantic energy in an effort to save one friend's life by stealing the essence of another. In her haste and her concern for the two Pegasi, she hadn't even bothered to worry about the years of life the spell would cost her…or would have cost her, that is.

She was standing on the edge of the Ponyville spa's hot-tub. A riot of frizzy pink mane and blue eyes burst from the bowl of sponges next to her, and shrieked:

"FOREVER!"

•·•·•·•·•·•·•·•·•·•

Twilight awoke with a start, jerking into a sitting position.

She was in a huge, soft bed, covered in luxurious silken sheets and pillows in various shades of pastel pink, blue and green.

The bedroom was enormous; its purple and blue marble walls soared to a vaulted ceiling that was almost out of sight. The windows reached from the floor to that same lofty height, bathing the room in warm morning light. The walls were decorated with antique oil paintings of unfamiliar Alicorns, tapestries depicting the moon and stars or Pony victory over Griffons and Dragons, and the occasional relief carving of a stylized sun.

Celestia's personal bedroom! Twilight hopped out of the bed, and hurriedly magicked its sumptuous sheets back into order.

"Calm down, my student. You could have kept resting, you know."

Twilight pivoted, and saw the Princess sitting on a pillow near a sizeable hearth. She had spread a row of six decorated cards in a semicircle on the floor in front of her. The rest of the deck sat nearby.

"Oh! Um, good morning Princess." Twilight trotted over, a feeling of awkwardness stiffening her gait. The revelations that had driven her to faint still weighed heavily on her mind; she had so many questions. The first one that came to mind, though, was: "What are those?"

As Twilight drew nearer, she could see that the cards were labeled in the festive glyphs of cursive Pony writing: The Foal, The Tradesmare, The Charger, The Jewel, and The High Ritesmare were turned to face her, and The Enchantress faced the Princess.

"This is the Equestrian Tarot. In ancient times, ritesmares would use cards like these to read Ponies' fortunes. These six cards in particular represent the Elements of Harmony…and they will show you how to save your friends."

•·•·•·•·•·•·•·•·•·•

PART TWO: RESTORATION

The golden Pegasus-drawn chariot cut through the clear morning skies over Ponyville, and arced down into the town square for a landing. Its lone dark-maned purple Unicorn occupant hopped down onto the street, and nodded appreciatively to her chauffeurs. They whickered proudly, and then took off once more.

The Unicorn trotted purposefully through the streets of Ponyville – she was a mare on a mission. As she turned a corner, she almost bumped into a frizzy-maned pink Earth Pony carrying a fireplace bellows in her mouth.

Pinkie Pie let the bellows drop and unleashed a tremendous gasp, the force of which propelled her several feet upwards.

"TWILIGHT! You're back!"

Twilight Sparkle smiled, and gave a tiny nod. "Hello, Pinkie."

"Wow! Wowie-wow! You were gone for two days, and now you're back! This is great! Super great! Super-duper great! You know what this calls for…?" The speed with which Pinkie spoke left her nearly breathless.

Twilight held up a front hoof. "Wait, Pinkie. I'm pretty tired. Why don't you and I hold off on the party for now, and just go get a grain smoothie? You know…a nice, quiet, casual chat. You can catch me up on what's happened while I've been gone. My treat?"

Pinkie Pie's enormous smile shrank to a more modest grin. "…Okie dokie."

A few minutes later, Pinkie Pie and Twilight Sparkle sat atop a grassy hill on the outskirts of Ponyville, facing the town. Pinkie Pie noisily sipped her smoothie through a complicated purple curly-straw.

"Everypony was so scared after seeing Celestia get all–" Pinkie Pie looked around cautiously, and lowered her voice. "–grumpy, that we pretty much galloped straight home. Nopony even tried to keep arguing, or fighting, or anything." Pinkie Pie took another loud sip. "We haven't really seen each other much since then…well, at least I haven't seen anypony."

Twilight nodded slowly. "That might be for the best…it seems like things were getting a bit…heated, before. Maybe everypony needed a chance to calm down."

Pinkie Pie frowned. "Yeah…" She perked up suddenly. "Wait…! You have to tell me what happened to you! The way you both poofed away, I thought you were gonna end up banished for sure!"

Twilight looked away. "The Princess…taught me a lesson. One I needed to learn. It was…" She trailed off; words failed her.

Pinkie Pie's brow knitted in worry. "Oh no! So she did punish you! I knew it! Did you get burned? Beaten? Battered? Baked? Sliced? Diced? Sliced twice? Covered in mice? Given lice? Sliced thrice? Over-spiced? Put on ice?" Pinkie's hooves clapped to her cheeks in horror; she gasped for breath.

Twilight Sparkle shook her head vehemently. "No! It was nothing like that! …It was still pretty scary though. Even here in Ponyville, everypony knows me as the Princess' student. When she got that angry, it felt like she might stop being my teacher. I was terrified of that. It felt like – I don't know – like if I wasn't her protégé, Ponies wouldn't even recognize me…like I'd be nopony. I know there's more to me than that, but the image that's built up around me is so strong, it's as if…"

Pinkie's pale blue eyes were wide and watery. "…as if you can't help but try to live up to it?" she whispered, uncharacteristically still and quiet.

Twilight nodded. "But things turned out alright. She was a lot less mad than she seemed, and the more I thought about it, the more I knew that you all would still know me – and care about me – no matter what I was…or wasn't."

Pinkie Pie bit her lower lip, and sniffed back tears. "H-how did you...?"

Twilight smiled. "Like I said...the Princess taught me a lesson. I realized that I've been taking all of your friendships somewhat for granted, and I decided to do something about it. Once I made that decision, it all came down to a mix of observation, deduction, and a little magic. For example: you have dark circles under your eyes, you breathe quickly and shallowly even when you're at rest, and you blink a lot. It's obvious to anypony who actually looks at you that you're exhausted. Clearly, what you need is some leisure time. Maybe a party."

Pinkie's heart sank like a stone. "But..." Tears slid down her cheeks. "N-no...it can't be...I thought...I thought you..." she sobbed.

Twilight put her front hooves firmly on Pinkie's shoulders, and stared deeply into her eyes. "Pinkie...what is a party for?"

Pinkie sniffled. "F-for...fu-un..." she whimpered.

"That's right. So if you haven't been having any fun...you haven't been partying."

Pinkie's eyes nearly crossed in confusion. "I...I haven't?"

"Most certainly not. And as Ponyville's primary Pony party purveyor, it is your precious purpose to party properly. Right?"

Pinkie wiped her eyes with a foreleg. "Y-yeah..."

"Well, then! Clearly you don't have to even try to have another party until you can do it justice. A party's not a party if the party-Pony's heart isn't in it. The only party you need to work on...is one in here." Twilight pressed a hoof to Pinkie's chest. "The rest of them can wait as long as they have to."

"Oh, Twilight...thank you!" she squeaked and pulled Twilight into a hug, giggling through her tears.

The party balloon Cutie Marks on Pinkie Pie's flanks drew into sharp relief, brightening until they almost glowed.

The Foal is unflinchingly merry,
Her world full of laughter and song.
But that life of joy has made her wary
Of
speaking up when things go wrong.

•·•·•·•·•·•·•·•·•·•

Soon after, Twilight Sparkle trotted and Pinkie Pie bounded down the dirt road on the edge of Ponyville; ahead, the vast spread of farm-Pony plots spread out for miles. They turned down the path to the closest farm: Sweet Apple Acres.

The pair skirted the edge of the property, heading for the farmhouse. Farther down the lane, they spotted a Stetson-wearing orange Earth Pony speaking to her fiery-maned neighbor.

"Just give me a second, Pinkie," said Twilight, trotting on ahead.

Pinkie Pie nodded. While she waited, she surreptitiously jabbed a nearby tree with a back leg, and snapped up the resulting fallen apple.

"…I know it musta stung ya somethin' fierce, and I really am sorry, Carrot Top." Applejack turned slightly away, crossing her front hooves anxiously. "Can ya forgive me?"

"You Apples ain't never been anythin' but fine neighbours in the past. Apology accepted." The yellow Earth Pony smiled, and then trotted away.

Applejack let out a sigh of relief, which she sucked right back in with a gasp as her gaze fell on the purple Unicorn approaching her.

"Peel 'n' core me! TWILIGHT!" Applejack surged forward and took up Twilight Sparkle's front hooves in her own. "Shewt, I worried y'all were never comin' back!"

"It's good to see you, Applejack."

"So what happened? I ain't ever seen the Princess so mad before. Shucks, I figured we were all bucked fer sure!" Applejack winced. "Pardon m'language."

"Princess Celestia just reminded me of my duties." Twilight sagged. "It can be …difficult… sometimes, being her pupil."

Applejack released Twilight's hooves. "Yeah…?"

Twilight nodded. "Having powerful magic is something I was born with, but that hasn't made it easy. Even at the School for Gifted Unicorns, everypony knew I was…different. The Princess hadn't taken a personal student in something like a hundred years, and it made me stand out no matter how hard I tried to blend in. Sometimes, I wished I was just...normal."

Applejack projected an air of nonchalance, but her words betrayed her:

"Huh. That sounds familiar–" She stomped the ground. "Rough! That sounds rough."

"It was, but after a time I came to realize that I couldn't change who I was, and that the Ponies who care about me wouldn't want me to lie to myself. Just like how I like you the way you are, Applejack."

The orange Earth Pony froze, and then swallowed hard. "The way…? Wh-what way d'you mean, Twilight?" A sheen of sweat appeared on Applejack's brow.

"You know…" said Twilight coyly. "…Strong. Hard-working. Forthright. Honest. Proud. The very model of a dependable Earth Pony – the backbone of Equestria." She smiled. "I'm honoured to have you as a friend."

Applejack blushed. "Yer too kind! But, what about…" Applejack waited for her free-willed mouth to force her to blurt out the rest of the shame-inducing sentence…but no urge came. She stayed quiet.

"What else matters?" asked Twilight sunnily. "Would anything else change those things I mentioned?"

Applejack slowly smiled. "...No - I s'pose it wouldn't. Would'ja care fer some fritters?"

"Absolutely–"

"YUM!" exclaimed Pinkie, suddenly appearing from behind Twilight.

Applejack and Twilight laughed, and Pinkie soon joined in.

As the three headed for the farm, Applejack leaned in close and whispered to Twilight: "How did ya know?"

"AJ..." Twilight whispered back. "I attended an all-fillies school; Pinkie's not the only one with a sense for some things."

When the trio trotted into the farmhouse, the apple Cutie Marks on Applejack's flanks shone riper and redder than the finest produce from her farm.

The Tradesmare labours without tiring,
Her honest words
a bond of honour.
Not one for plots or conspiring,
Secrets
weigh heavy upon her.

•·•·•·•·•·•·•·•·•·•

Twilight Sparkle hopped out of the pink and purple hot-air balloon's basket onto the pliant white cloudstuff that served as building material for Pegasi. She smiled; the spell that allowed wingless Ponies to walk on clouds was working as well as ever. She turned back to the balloon's other two occupants.

"I won't be long. Will you two be okay waiting here?"

"You bet!" said Applejack and Pinkie Pie in unison.

While Twilight trotted over to the cloud-mansion's front door, Applejack turned to Pinkie.

"Say, while we got a minute…I wanted to tell ya how sorry I am 'bout wreckin' yer room th'other day, sugarcube. …And scarin a yellow stripe up yer back with m'hollerin'.And whuppin' the tar outta Dash while she was tryin' to help you. …And kickin' you." The orange Earth Pony rubbed a front hoof across her other foreleg sheepishly.

"Aww, that's okay," said Pinkie, smiling. "Fixing everything in my room was like solving a great big jigsaw puzzle. I love puzzles!"

"Oh. Uhh…well, great, then," said Applejack, a look of consternation on her face.

Meanwhile, twilight knocked on the door. After a lengthy delay it slowly creaked inward, and a fatigued blue Pegasus with a colourful mane peered out.

"Twilight?" said Rainbow Dash, her voice scratchier than usual. "Awesome! Come on in."

Twilight followed her friend inside, but then stopped in the entryway. Her jaw dropped.

The interior of the house was a disaster. Creased and dog-eared weather planning charts were strewn across the floors and pinned up on the walls. Used dishes were piled up in corners and on what few chart-free surfaces remained. Here and there, hoof-tracks in liquid rainbow stained the floors.

Rainbow Dash was struggling to don a heavy pair of tinted protective goggles attached by an array of straps to a saddle holding a brass tank labeled with a multi-coloured exclamation point. A row of seven metal nozzles jutted from the rear of the tank.

Stiffness, fatigue and the last of a few unhealed bruises had robbed Dash of a fair measure of her range of motion; with nearly every bend and flex, she winced in pain.

"I was just – nng! – getting ready to go out and put up a rainbow, but I can totally make time to hear how things went down – rrg! – with the Princess."

Twilight trotted over to the blue Pegasus, and magicked the rainbow-spraying rig into a better fit. "Have you been taking extra weather shifts, Dash?" Twilight tried to sound casual, but the concern in her voice showed.

"Thanks! Yeah…I've been doing a few odd jobs, covering for sick Pegasi – that kind of thing. The gang hasn't really gotten together since you, y'know, left, and I hate to feel like I'm wasting time."

"What about Fluttershy?"

Rainbow Dash gulped. "I, uh, I haven't seen her either. After that fight outside the library, I figured I'd give her a chance to calm down." She ducked down and picked up the control bit for the rainbow tank with her mouth. She gave it an experimental bite, and a tiny spritz of colour puffed out of the nozzles. "Sho terr ree…wha' hff'ned?" she said, muffled by the bit.

Twilight rubbed the back of her neck with a front hoof. "Well, the whole thing was pretty complicated, right from the start. It felt really awkward to be stuck in the middle between you guys and the Princess. She's been so kind to me – I owe her so much that it felt wrong not to take her side, even though I felt like she was being unreasonable. You know what I mean?"

"Yhh!" Dash spit out the bit, and turned away. "…I mean, sure, yeah – I guess so." She looked up at a complex cirrus pattern diagram pinned on the wall. "So…what did you do?"

"I called her on it. I realized that standing up to somepony and saying how you really feel isn't the same thing as betraying their friendship. Sometimes, the best way you can have somepony's back is to face them down." Twilight paused. "Does that make any sense?"

Dash sighed, and the gesture seemed to release weeks of pent-up tension along with her breath. She turned back to face Twilight; the lenses of her goggles were misty. "…Totally. Thanks, Twilight. …For coming by, I mean!" Dash smiled.

"Any time, Dash. I'd better go, though – I don't want to keep you from your work!"

"Yeah…" Dash shifted side to side. "You know…maybe I should take a break." She tugged at the release strap, and the rainbow rig dropped to the floor.

"Great! AJ and Pinkie are outside - I'm gathering up the whole gang. You can come along!"

"Cool!"

As Twilight Sparkle and Rainbow Dash trotted out into the sunlight, Dash's multi-hued lightning-bolt Cutie Marks shone like polished glass.

The Charger races ever forward,
Full of vim
naught can dispel.
Loyal, stubborn and straightforward,
She'd follow
a friend to Pony Hell.

•·•·•·•·•·•·•·•·•·•

Rainbow Dash led the way back down to Ponyville, while her Unicorn and Earth Pony friends followed in the balloon. As they descended through the sparse cloud cover, the sounds and smells of Ponyville rose up to meet them: Fresh baking. Blossoms. Hoofbeats. Songs.

The balloon's basket touched down outside of Carousel Boutique. Near the ostentatious shop's front entrance, a Unicorn covered in layers of patched but well-sewn rags was magicking a hammer to nail up a wooden sign on the door lintel:

F O R S A L E:
FABULOUS SHOP FULL OF
DRESSES, ACCESSORIES
AND THE LIKE. IF INTERESTED, PLEASE
SEE STORE OWNER AND PROPRIETOR,

RARITY

The three Ponies climbed out of the balloon, while Dash alighted on a nearby fencepost. Twilight Sparkle trotted toward the shop, but then paused and turned to face the others.

"This looks bad…but I think we got here just in time." She pondered for a moment. "You'd better wait here…I don't think she'd want everypony to see her like this."

Twilight's three companions nodded and murmured in agreement.

While Twilight trotted toward the Unicorn in the homeless wretch ensemble, Applejack turned to Rainbow Dash. Dash noticed, and hopped down off of the fence to face her eye to eye.

"Dash, I–" Rainbow Dash cut her off unintentionally with her own start: "AJ, listen–"

"You go," said Dash.

"I just wanted to say that I hope there ain't no bad blood between us. I was in a powerful odd way these past few days, and I weren't thinkin' none too clearly. I can't believe what a foal I was. I know y'all don't...see me...like I see you, but If I lost you as a friend as well, I'd just..." Applejack looked down in shame.

Rainbow Dash shrugged. "Yeah, well I didn't really try too hard to talk you down, either. We're still cool. And plus, Fluttershy kicked your butt – that's punishment enough in my book!" Dash gave a wry smile.

Applejack gawked, her heartache momentarily forgotten. "She sure as sugar did not! She bushwacked me, an' pulled me offa th'ground before I could peep. No way that's fair!"

"Oh? Does your 'no wings' policy go for ambushes, too?"

The two Ponies stared each other down, forehead to forehead. Pinkie Pie was about to intervene, when the two both smirked, snorted, and broke out laughing.

At the same time, Twilight Sparkle trotted over to the rag-swaddled Unicorn. She heaved a deep, theatrical sigh as Twilight approached, and sat down heavily on the path in front of the shop's door.

"You're too late," she muttered. "It's all over…I haven't a bit to my name. All I can do is sell my –" She choked up. "–beautiful shop…"

"Rarity, I tried to tell you earlier," said Twilight, kneeling down next to her dejected friend. "If you need money, why don't you sell some gems?"

Rarity gasped. "Oh, I couldn't! I could never be so greedy as to deprive my customers of the finest in jeweled fabulosity! You might as well ask Applejack to sell her…ropething."

"Lasso."

"Whatever."

Twilight sighed in exasperation. "And I was doing so well…" she said, under her breath.

"Beg pardon?"

"Nothing…" Twilight looked around.

A twinkling from a nearby trash bin caught her eye. She trotted over to it. "Wait…what about these gems? Did you throw these away?" She stirred her hooves through the trash; it was mostly gemstones and fabric remnants.

Rarity wrinkled her nose. "Of course, dah-ling. They're all flawed. Who would want them?"

Twilight magicked up a smooth red sphere. "…What's wrong with this one?"

"It isn't clear – there's an inclusion all through it. I tried to polish it, but the problem was inside it."

Twilight stared. "Rarity…this is a–" Twilight's horn flickered brighter for a moment. "–thirty, maybe thirty-one carat cabochon-cut corundum crystal with a six-point asterism!"

Rarity stared blankly.

Twilight groaned. "It's a STAR RUBY, Rarity!" she shouted. "It's INCREDIBLY valuable!"

"Valuable…?" Rarity's hood-shaded eyes brightened for a moment. "But it isn't perfect!"

Twilight smiled. "It's the imperfection that makes it valuable. Yes, it's not as clear as it could be on the inside, but when you look at it the right way, the worth of what's inside it becomes obvious." She angled the gem in the sunlight; the rutile inclusions in the stone caught the light, releasing a brilliant star-shaped gleam.

The star reflected in Rarity's eyes. "My goodness…! I…I never saw…" She swallowed. "How much...?"

"If you sold it in Canterlot, this stone alone could buy every book in my library." Twilight magicked up a blue diamond and a yellow sapphire from the bin, bringing them over to float with the ruby. "Add these as well, and you could buy every book in Princess Celestia's library!"

Rarity pulled back her hood; underneath, her purple mane was as immaculately-coiffed as ever. "Oh, Twilight…! I'm saved! My Boutique is saved!" She galloped in place, squealing and giggling. Her rags fell away. She magicked the blue diamond out of Twilight's arcane grasp, and slid its sharpest point down the sign she'd nailed up. Half of the sign fell away, leaving it reading:

F O R
FABULOUS

DRESSES

AND THE LIKE

SEE STORE OWNER

RARITY

"Helloooo!" Rarity waved to her other friends, still waiting over by the balloon. "I have the most wonderful news! We simply must celebrate with a makeover – my treat!"

Twilight slapped a front hoof to her forehead. "Rarity…"

"What? Just because I've had some profound moment of realization about my personal value in others' eyes doesn't mean I can't still appreciate the finer things in life. I'm a Pony of means and distinction!" She shook her head, sending her coiled mane bouncing. As she turned to trot over to her friends her jewel Cutie Marks glittered, bright as any star.

The Jewel shines – a thing of beauty;
The finest bounty of the earth
.
Sharing the wealth is her sworn duty,
But she doesn't know her inner worth
.

•·•·•·•·•·•·•·•·•·•

The five Ponies trotted down the lane leading away from downtown Ponyville and toward Fluttershy's home. Twilight took the lead, followed by Pinkie Pie and Rarity, with Applejack and a hovering Rainbow Dash bringing up the rear.

As they neared the hilltop cottage, the group stopped dead in their tracks.

The cottage was dark, its windows boarded up. Every one of the bird and animal houses that normally surrounded Fluttershy's domicile was missing. Even with the leaves and grass lush and green all around, their absence made the area seem barren and desolate.

A stirring from a nearby den caught the Ponies' attention; a small, purple reptilian crawled out into the late afternoon light.

"Twilight…? TWILIGHT! You're back! Thank Celestia!" Spike came bounding over to his caretaker, his wide green eyes shining. As he drew close, a clanking chain unwinding behind him grew taut and he jerked backward, restrained by a small collar latched around his neck. "Urrk!"

The Ponies shared a collective gasp. Twilight approached her dazed assistant, and magicked the collar off his neck. "Spike…what happened here? Where's Fluttershy? Why were you chained up?"

The baby Dragon sat up, rubbing his neck. "She's still inside there! After you disappeared, she came and fetched me and Owlowiscious so we wouldn't be home alone. But something was wrong with her. After she told me what happened with the Princess, I thought she was just upset, but that wasn't it. She was all–" Spike mimed twitching and stress, his shoulders shuddering and his head darting all around "–weird and edgy. Not like herself at all. She started bringing all of her animals inside the cottage, and she kept raving about how the Princess was angry and how she had to keep them safe."

Twilight's brow furrowed in concern. "She was afraid of…Celestia?"

"Terrified! That's why I'm out here! I said if she was so worried, I could send a letter to the Princess so she could apologize. That's when she panicked, called me a spy, and chained me up out here." He reached into the den, and pulled out a water dish and a clay bowl of glittering stones. "I've been living on gems and water!"

Twilight raised an eyebrow. "Spike…you always live on gems and water."

"Yeah, but these are semiprecious! Moss agate, garnet – even quartz!" Spike rattled the bowl of uncut stone for emphasis and stuck out his tongue in disgust.

"You poor thing," said Twilight, her mild amusement at war with her concern for her friend and her assistant. "Dash? I think we'd better both go have a talk with Fluttershy." Rainbow Dash nodded sternly.

As the two Ponies trotted down the path to Fluttershy's door, Applejack turned away in silence while Rarity sat magicking daisies into a chain and Pinkie Pie experimentally swallowed a smooth rose quartz pebble from Spike's bowl.

Twilight knocked on Fluttershy's door with a front hoof; the only answer was a chorus of birdcalls.

When a second knock produced much the same result, Twilight ignited her horn and magicked the lock open. She gently pulled open the door.

The interior of the cottage was packed from floor to ceiling with birdhouses, kennels, cages and boxes, all crowded with Fluttershy's animal friends. Dozens of tiny eyes shone in the shadows.

Rainbow Dash and Twilight Sparkle trotted into the cramped front hall single file, the sunlight from the open door casting one long, blended shadow ahead of them.

As the tall, horned, winged shadow reached the middle of the room, a piercing scream erupted from deeper inside the cottage:

"AAAAAALICOOOORN!!" A streak of pink and yellow slalomed between the columns of caged animals, and shot up the stairs. Despite Fluttershy's frantic speed, Twilight caught a glimpse of the Pegasus' speckled, distorted Cutie Mark.

"Oh no…!" Twilight gasped."Dash...did you see her Cutie Mark?"

"Sort of..." replied Dash. "It looked like she's got some sorta bugs on it. Maybe she got fleas from all these animals?"

Twilight shook her head gravely. "It's not fleas, Dash."

"What do you mean?"

"When Apple Bloom and her little friends kept pestering all of us about getting their Cutie Marks, it inspired me to do some reading on the subject. If I'm right, Fluttershy has a very serious condition: Cutie Mark Decay Disorder."

Rainbow Dash's brow furrowed in worry. "What does that mean?"

"It's an inherited condition where emotional stress starts to unravel a Pony's bond to their Cutie Mark. As the Mark loses its shape, the Pony loses their sense of self. They can become irritable, withdrawn, paranoid - even delusional or violent."

"Stress? Oh my gosh...did I make this happen to her?" Guilt twisted Dash's features.

"No...! No," said Twilight emphatically. "Something else triggered it - something earlier. I'm sure of it." Something like an Element of Harmony, she mentally added.

Twilight headed toward the stairs, weaving around the cages. She magicked up an unoccupied wooden bird perch as she went. "Follow me, Dash! What's important now is that we help her."

The pair followed the sounds of Fluttershy's panicked ranting into her darkened bedroom. From the glow of Twilight's horn, a quivering pale pink tail was visible sticking out from under the bed. As they drew closer the light revealed Fluttershy's hindquarters, and a clear view of the ragged butterflies on her flanks.

Twilight looked away, sadly. "This isn't good. It is CMDD."

"What do we do now?" asked Dash, her voice full of concern.

"She needs magical treatment immediately," said Twilight. Her horn glowed brighter, and the top quarter of the perch broke free; Twilight discarded the rest. "I need you to pull her out of there, and hold her down."

Dash gawked. "Wh-what? Why? What are you gonna do?"

Twilight squinted in concentration; a tiny crackling sphere of purple-white energy formed at the tip of her horn. "I'm going to shock her."

"Storm therapy? No…! NO WAY! That's for madponies! She doesn't need that – she's just a little anxious!" said Dash, waving her front hooves in an outward sweep. "It's too dangerous! Pegasi almost never survive it!"

"That's because you do it with clouds in midflight, and you usually fall. We're on the ground now – it's not the same!"

"I am NOT gonna help you zap her!" Dash interposed herself between Twilight and her fellow Pegasus.

Twilight met her friend's determined maroon stare head-on. "Dash…when you overdosed on that Nightshade, Fluttershy was willing to stomp on your ribs and fill your lungs like party balloons because I told her it would help keep you alive. She trusted me. I know you trust me, too. Please…help me do this."

Rainbow Dash closed her eyes and sighed, hanging her head. When she looked up, she gave a tiny nod.

"NOOOO! Dash, DON'T! It doesn't WORK! They tried it on my mother and she DIED!" Fluttershy screamed and cried in terror as Rainbow Dash dragged her out from under the bed by her tail and leaped on top of her, holding her down. "She's working for HER! She's trying to kill me, too!"

"Your mom...?" Rainbow Dash's grip slackened slightly. "You never told me..."

Fluttershy bucked and thrashed around, nearly escaping Dash's grip. Her distraction broken, Rainbow Dash fought to get her back under control. Fluttershy continued to scream. "I'm scared, Dash! Don't do this! I don't want to die! Let me go! Let m-MMNG!" Twilight magicked the perch's cylindrical wooden top between Fluttershy's jaws like a bit. Unable to speak, she wordlessly sobbed around the wooden gag.

Dash turned to Twilight. "Twilight...are you sure?"

Twilight nodded firmly. "I'm sorry," she whispered. "If I don't, she'll only get worse." She bent her head to touch the tip of her crackling horn to Fluttershy's damaged Cutie Mark.

With a bright flash and an electrical snap Fluttershy violently convulsed, surging to her hooves and nearly bucking Rainbow Dash off of her back. The wooden perch split. As her seizing muscles loosened, Fluttershy collapsed in a dead faint. Rainbow Dash stood up, and backed away.

Before the two other Ponies' eyes, purple-white motes of energy chased the swarming distortions on Fluttershy's flanks, consuming them in tiny flares before winking out themselves. As the last of the gnat-like specks vanished, her original butterfly Cutie Marks drew back into focus.

A few moments later, Fluttershy stirred. She half-opened her eyes, raised her head, and squinted to make out her friends in the dim light. She spat out the broken pieces of the perch. "R-rainbow Dash…? Twilight?" Her voice was even softer than usual. "W-what happened? What are you doing here? I…I don't remember, I…it's so dark!" She struggled to get to her hooves; Rainbow Dash rushed over to support her.

"Twilight's back from Canterlot, and she came to thank you for taking care of Spike and Owlowiscious for her while she was gone. Right, Twilight?" Dash shot Twilight a stern sidelong glance.

"Thanks for your help!" said Twilight, taking the hint. "And thanks for covering your windows and bringing in some friends to help make Owlowiscious feel welcome!"

"Oh…um, you're welcome…?" said Fluttershy tilting her head in confusion.

"I mean it," insisted Twilight. "Nopony asked you to do it, but you did your best in a difficult situation. I know it isn't easy being a caregiver – I have enough trouble keeping Spike, Owlowiscious and my books safe! But you did a wonderful job."

Fluttershy smiled weakly. "Thank you for saying so," she said.

"Twilight..." Dash shifted uncomfortably. "Could you go wait for us outside? I need to talk to Fluttershy. Alone."

Twilight nodded silently, and trotted out of the room.

"Shy, I knw you've been through a lot lately, but...I just wanna say...I mean you deserve to know, I..." Dash paced nervously, at a loss for how to continue.

"...You don't love me," Fluttershy whispered.

"Yes!" Dash caught herself. "No...! I mean, you mean a lot to me, and I owe you everything. But..." she sagged. "But I don't love you. I wanted to, and after those berries and that magic of Twilight's, I thought I did, but..." Dash sank lower, her front hooves splaying. Her nose nearly touched the floor. "I'm sorry..."

Fluttershy trotted over and rested her head against Dash's shoulder. "I know. Maybe part of me knew from the beginning. But it just seemed so real...I couldn't admit it to myself. I wanted you to love me so badly. I'm sorry, too." She quietly wept into Rainbow Dash's multi-coloured mane.

Dash raised up her head and pulled Fluttershy into a hug. "Someday you'll find a filly to love you back," she said, fighting to keep her voice from cracking, "and they're gonna treat you right - or they'll hafta answer to me!"

Fluttershy laughed a small, teary laugh. The two held one another in silence for a long moment, and then went to go join the others.

As Dash led her down the stairs, Fluttershy's restored Cutie Marks were as bright and vivid as the butterflies that had once saved her life.

The High Ritesmare, loved everywhere,
K
indly helps her flock to grow.
But without them
soon sinks to despair;
Alone she withers – a flower in snow
.

•·•·•·•·•·•·•·•·•·•

Twilight turned in a slow circle, surveying the interior of her library.

Inspired by a resurgent desire to party matching her urge to do so, Pinkie Pie had decorated the building in a matter of minutes. She and Applejack had provided food and Rarity had fetched a record player. Fluttershy and Rainbow Dash had gathered a small bucket of raw rainbows, and painted the ceiling in garish colours. All things considered, the Ponies had assembled a party welcoming Twilight home in record time.

In one corner, Rarity and Pinkie Pie were locked in a pitched cake-eating contest; the Unicorn's progress was severely handicapped by her insistence on using silverware and taking small, dainty mouthfuls. Nevertheless, she seemed to have a surprisingly large appetite.

In the middle of the room Spike danced to the music, wearing his customary lampshade hat. Rainbow Dash danced along, turning aerial somersaults over the tiny Dragon.

In another corner, Applejack and Fluttershy stood near the punchbowl. They seemed to be chatting, but Twilight couldn't make out what they were saying over the music.

"She's real...graceful...ain't she?" mused Applejack, her eyes following Dash's musical acrobatics.

Fluttershy nodded. She sighed wistfully.

"...She broke it off, huh?"

Fluttershy's lower lip quivered. She nodded again.

"Shewt, I'm sorry, 'Shy. ...Fer what it's worth, y'all did make a nice lookin' pair."

Fluttershy turned slightly, letting her mane partially hide her face. "Thanks."

Applejack cleared her throat. "Listen...I know we've both done some mighty regrettable things these past couple o' days, and well, fer my part, I wantcha to know I'm sorry. Sometimes bein' in love can make a Pony do some foalish things." Her eyes still followed Dash's dance.

Fluttershy's face emerged from behind her mane. "Applejack...you...?"

Applejack nodded. "Since I first laid eyes on 'er. Though I s'pose you got me beat in that respect, bein' from Cloudsdale an' all."

Realization spread across Fluttershy's face. "She didn't tell me about the fight..."

"Uh-huh. If she'd explained the whole sorry business, she woulda had to tell ya how I felt, and she'd promised not to. Loyal to a fault, that Pony."

Fluttershy and Applejack watched Dash in silence for a time. They both sighed at once.

Inspiration brightened Applejack's features. She turned and rummaged in a nearby saddlebag. She brought out a small metal flask, and poured a tiny splash of amber liquid into two punch glasses. The heady, medicinal scent of thoroughly-distilled apples filled the air around them. "T'ain't right bein' down in the dumps durin' a party. Here...this stuff's worked pretty well fer me so far when thoughts o' that fine blue filly have gotten me down. To Rainbow Dash - Bottoms up!"

"T-to Rainbow Dash!" Fluttershy picked up the glass in her front hooves and slugged back the shot in tandem with Applejack. After a moment of silent consideration, her eyes skewed in opposite directions, her face flushed, and she coughed violently.

"Woops!" Applejack chuckled, patting Fluttershy on the back. "Prolly shoulda warned ya - that stuff packs a mighty big kick! Big Mac says they oughta name it after me!"

"...It's...nice," Fluttershy wheezed.

Meanwhile, Twilight Sparkle magicked up a bottle and a goblet, and began pouring.

"Everypony – I wanted to say something!" Twilight's friends paused in their merrymaking, and turned to face her.

"I would like to propose a toast to all of you: the best friends I've ever had."

"Twilight…" Rarity swallowed a mouthful of cake and raised an importunate hoof.

Twilight set down the bottle. "Please, just let me finish. I know I spend a lot of time with my nose in books, but that doesn't mean I'm not interested in what else is happening – or in you."

"Twilight…" Applejack trotted forward.

Twilight magicked the filled goblet higher. "Just a second. You're all very important to me, and in the future I plan to pay you all a lot more attention. There's only so much time, after all, and I want to spend as much of it as I can with the Ponies who mean the most to me. Cheers!" As Twilight finished her toast, her six-star Cutie Marks, for lack of a better word, sparkled.

"TWILIGHT!" Pinkie Pie popped up next to Twilight like a frosting-daubed colt-in-the-box.

"For Celestia's sake, WHAT?" asked Twilight. She took a large gulp from the goblet.

Pinkie Pie grinned broadly. "That's hot sauce again."

•·•·•·•·•·•·•·•·•·•

Back in Canterlot, Princess Celestia watched her faithful student frantically drinking from the library's kitchen sink in the glowing reflections of a flickering curtain of magical sunlight. She smiled a small, dignified smile, and magicked the last of the tarot cards back into the deck.

The Enchantress, though she'll live forever,
Finds loneliness hard to defeat.
M
agic can hold one's life together…
But
friendship makes it all complete.

THE END