"Hey Twilight, wha-?"
It's understandable that Spike was unable to finish his sentence, due to being booked under. (Like being snowed under, but with books.) He made a mental note to be more careful next time he opened a door anywhere in the library.
"Twilight!" he called out, once he'd extricated himself from the bookslide. "What's going on?"
"Oh, hello Spike," said Twilight's voice, emanating from behind a tottering mountain of momentarily discarded books. For one who spent so much time with her head buried in them, Twilight seemed to have scant regard for the wellbeing of her books – a deficiency of which Spike was all too horribly aware. It seemed from the tone of her voice that she was distracted by something (which was only natural, given her current power-study state), so it was up to Spike to traverse the papery topography under his own power.
"Just what," he demanded, having reached Twilight's alcove in the midst of the librarian's nightmare, "have you been up to?"
"Hm? Oh, just looking up transformative magic," said Twilight, not removing her eyes from the substantial tome propped up in front of her.
"What? Then why did you have to go through so many volumes?" asked Spike, with slightly more than a despairing edge to his voice. "Surely something like that should be easy to find?"
"Not what I'm looking for..." Twilight dismissed this newest book as well and, since she'd run out of reading material in her immediate area, transferred her attention to Spike. "You see, I'm not looking for anything as fleeting as the wings I gave Rarity; I want to see if there's any way of granting a pony abilities that will stay with them forever."
"Huh? Why would you want to do that?"
"Well..." Twilight knitted her brow, trying to shape her raw enthusiasm for groundbreaking magic into something that Spike could appreciate. "Imagine if Rainbow Dash had been born without wings – or if I didn't have my horn! Can you imagine how sad we'd be?"
"So? If it ain't broke, don't fix it."
Twilight let out a cry of frustration. Spike was a valuable and reliable helper, but he, like so many others, lacked the vision that Celestia had recognised in Twilight and helped foster.
"Don't you understand? There may be ponies out there right now who are lacking the wings or the horn that they need to make their life complete! By finally being able to turn an earth pony into a pegasus or a unicorn, or indeed any one of the three into any other, we could bring happiness to untold numbers of ponies who have had to suffer unnecessarily!"
"Wow, okay, there's no need to get so riled up about it," said Spike, raising his hands in a placatory gesture. "But no matter how enthusiastic you get, that doesn't change the fact that you're not having much success with the books we have here."
Twilight let out a sigh that made her look like a balloon deflating. No matter the brilliance or possible benefit of her dreams, reality insisted on enforcing itself.
"I suppose you're right," said Twilight, resigned to her fate for now. "Help me clean them up, would you, Spike?"
Spike's eyes sparkled. "You mean... you're actually going to help with the cleaning for once?"
"Why not? It's not as if I have anything else to-"
Much to Spike's chagrin, today was a day for interruptions.
"Twilight! You've got to-!"
Both Spike and Twilight winced as Applejack was felled by another bookalanche. Such a stalwart pony couldn't be kept down so easily: her ten gallon hat popped up through the crust just as they came to her aid.
"What's the matter, Applejack?" asked Twilight, using her magic to clear away the rest of the books.
"We've got a problem in the square, Twilight," said Applejack, as ever earnest and direct in a time of danger. "Rainbow's got herself into a situation that I think only you can talk her down from – I tried it myself, but she just won't listen! She's as stubborn as-"
"You?" Spike chipped in cheekily. He then feigned innocence while Applejack glared at him.
"Sounds urgent. Spike, stay here and clean up." With a brief pounding of hooves, they were gone.
Any concern Spike may have had for Rainbow Dash's predicament quickly evaporated when he realised that he'd been left in the lurch in the library. He glared at a nearby stack of books, which loomed back at him ferociously. It was going to be a long day.
"Rarity was there too, so I got her to hold Rainbow back while I went to fetch you," Applejack explained as they galloped. "I only hope she was assertive enough..."
Applejack and Twilight arrived at Ponyville's town square to find that a veritable crowd of ponies were there gathered, and it was easy to hear why, less so to see over their heads: the sound of Rainbow Dash in full rant mode could not be mistaken.
"For the millionth, bazillionth time, you are wrong! In fact, you're not just wrong, you're so far away from being right that you've flown around the world and hit it from the other side... which is something that I could probably do, now I think about it."
Applejack shouldered her way through the crowd towards the argument a little more roughly than was absolutely polite, with Twilight following in her wake scattering apologies like birdseed.
"Yes, well: your aerial prowess notwithstanding, you cannot deny that our current system of government is fundamentally and irredeemably unjust." Twilight's ears pricked up: this was a voice unfamiliar to her, especially considering that any mare so well-spoken would have registered very clearly in her memory.
"Huh?" Twilight couldn't see Rainbow's face yet, but she could guess the expression on it from her voice: thick enough to scale an adult dragon.
"It's unfair," said Rainbow's opponent, her tone dripping deprecation and scorn.
"Hey! I may not know a lot of long words, but I know enough to tell when somepony's making fun of me." The Applejack train was nearing the confrontation and from this distance it was all too easy to hear Rainbow's hoof aggressively scraping the ground.
"Now, now, Rainbow Dash: I'm sure this isn't necessary," Rarity chirped up – but without much confidence.
"Oh, it's very necessary," said Rainbow, almost growling. "It seems some ponies just can't argue without making things personal."
"You know, this is one of those rare occasions on which listening to a unicorn might actually be of benefit," said the stranger, the smirk evident in her voice.
Rainbow Dash braced and sprang off her back hooves, straight towards the newcomer – and then thudded heavily onto the cobblestones. There was a ripple of laughter from the crowd, despite the tense nature of the scene.
"I gotta tell ya, repeat trials do not make your tail taste any better," said Applejack reprovingly to Rainbow, spitting it out. "Now, I've brought Twilight here to talk some-"
"Finally – somepony who'll see sense!" cried Rainbow gleefully, bouncing onto her hooves and turning to face Twilight with such speed that their eyeballs were nearly touching. The abrupt nature of her recovery from disgrace was alarming, to say the least.
"Um... hi?" said Twilight tentatively, unsure of just what the hay was going on (and made even more uncomfortable by Rainbow's annexation of her personal space).
"That evil pony over there has been talking nothing but garbage," said Rainbow Dash.
"Excuse me: I believe I am more than capable of introducing myself," said the mystery mare from across the little clearing in the middle of the crowd, made all the more mysterious for that she wore a hooded cloak: she wore the hood down, revealing a strong, almost brash countenance, coated in a lustrous golden yellow and topped by a wildly tousled, fire-red mane.
"Whatever problem you have with her, I'm sure we can resolve it without resorting to violence," said Twilight as soothingly as possible, gently yet firmly scooting Rainbow Dash aside to join Applejack and Rarity. (The monotonally challenged pegasus grumbled ill-naturedly until Applejack nudged her.)
Twilight trotted up to the new pony, assuming her usual air of quietly confident professionalism. "I'm sorry that things have got off to such a disagreeable start for you in Ponyville, but hopefully we can put that all behind us. Pleased to make your acquaintance: I'm Twilight Sparkle."
The new pony failed to react to this greeting with the immediate warmth that Twilight had hoped for. Instead, she eyed Twilight up and down and then glanced between her and her friends close by.
"I see. So they defer to you?" The mystery mare's eyes bounced from Twilight's friends on the 'they' to Twilight on the 'you': it was almost like a form of punctuation in itself.
"Defer?" asked Twilight, nonplussed. "I don't know if I'd put it like that," she replied, smiling nervously: she was never quite sure of what to do when ponies didn't respond well to her.
The new pony sighed in a manner that radiated both disgust and annoyance. "I knew to expect as much," she said in a grim undertone, before raising her voice again. "Tell me, fellow earth pony," said the stranger, approaching Applejack, "what is your profession?"
"Me?" asked Applejack, briefly taken aback. "I work on the apple orchard just outside town."
"Ah – Sweet Apple Acres, is it? I believe I saw the sign as I came in."
"That's the one," said Applejack, with more than a mite of pride in her voice.
"And who is this unicorn you've brought before us?" Twilight had never heard the words 'this unicorn' uttered with such dismissal.
"Um... she already said she's Twilight Sparkle," said Applejack, feeling offended on Twilight's behalf.
"And what is her profession?"
"I wouldn't say I have a profession, as such," saidTwilight, taking the opportunity to speak for herself – but also to maintain a calm and amenable tone of conversation, to show no hard feelings. "I guess you could say I'm a researcher: I study various things, usually magic."
"I see." Again, the new pony went oddly quiet before speaking out loud. "How is this right, my fellow earth ponies," she said, turning to speak to the crowd at large, "that an honest and hard-working earth pony, who works the land to produce the apples that you no doubt eat every day, should kowtow to a unicorn who spends her days idly researching matters of no practical importance to anypony?" The crowd, which was indeed mostly composed of earth ponies, murmured to itself. Twilight noted with a mounting sense of horror that not all of the murmurs were entirely disagreeable.
"Now wait just a minute," said Rarity hotly, stepping forward to confront this irrational upstart, "are you seriously implying that anypony here is above or below anypony else? I don't know how things are where you come from, but here in Ponyville-"
"Before your own words paint you as a hypocrite," the argumentative mare interrupted, "may I ask what it is it that you do for a living?"
"Why, I design and make dresses," said Rarity, taking her turn to be proud and only thinly disguising it. "You can see my boutique just over there."
The new pony looked over at the finely decorated façade of the Carousel Boutique with an expression that suggested something less than absolute appreciation. To put not too fine a point on it, more excited expressions had been worn by little ponies who had just fallen asleep in class.
"I see." Twilight cringed internally: somehow, those two words in this pony's mouth sounded like the hoof-falls of doom. "Another case in point, my earth pony friends," said the new pony, announcing her words in an impressively booming voice, "here we have a unicorn who, by dint of nothing more than the random hoof of fate, was born to possess magical powers which could have benefited ponies who were born without them – and yet, instead of, say, aiding Applejack here on her orchard by using those magical powers to do in seconds those tasks that might take an earth pony many hours of backbreaking labour, what does she do? She fritters away her gift by making dresses."
The murmuring of the crowd was definitely getting louder. Rarity's face was the exact shade of American Rose, though whether because she was too mortified to speak or speechless with rage, Twilight couldn't tell. There were several catcalls from among the crowd, but the new pony ploughed on regardless, if anything only spurred on by their reaction:
"Dresses! I ask you, what occupation could possibly be more vainglorious, more lacking in awareness of the real needs of the average pony? What stops this unicorn from turning her hoof to more practical, necessary tasks, like harvesting or manufacture? I'll tell you what: the natural arrogance and superiority complex of the unicorn." (The crowd almost roared at this.) "No? You don't agree with me? Then explain to me why it is that we are ruled by a pony who not only has a horn, but also wings! Explain to me how it has come to be that the seat of power on which this egomaniacal unicorn pegasus sits happens to be based in Canterlot, a settlement populated almost entirely by unicorns! And let us not forget Celestia's unforgivable conduct in sentencing her sister to an entire millennium of-!"
Twilight shied away from the animated pony at the centre of this growing circle of attention, coming to a standstill with her front right hoof slightly raised and lightly scraping the ground in anxiety. Backing away did hardly any good: it seemed to her as though the crowd was a solid wall of ponies pushing in all around, creating a distinctly claustrophobic atmosphere, and they were only getting noisier and more agitated all the time. Rarity, Applejack and Rainbow Dash were apparently dumbfounded by the sheer outlandishness of these goings-on, for which Twilight could not blame them – but when this upstart pony started impugning the Princess's honour, she knew this had gone too far.
Twilight glanced around in amazement at the sudden silence (not to mention all those eyes suddenly trained on her). Had she really shouted that loudly? Quickly regaining her composure, Twilight rounded on the pony who had set all this in motion.
"I've tried my best to be nice to you, as I'm sure has everypony else here, but you continue to make this unpleasant for all of us – and, just completely by the way, you may or may not have noticed that I introduced myself to you not so long ago and have yet to receive a reciprocation. Just who do you think you are?"
The new pony smiled, very slowly, turning her gaze on Twilight in a manner oddly reminiscent of Rarity in her haughtier moods.
"Who am I, you ask. Well, since you pointed out that you introduced yourself to me, yes, I think I can dimly remember that. Although my name is only for those few privileged enough to know it, I will let you know exactly who I am."
The pony drew herself up to full height. "I am the voice of all ponies who are not allowed to speak for themselves. I am the shield of all ponies who must fight unarmed against a sea of troubles. I am, as it were, the metaphorical hard-hat that comes between the downtrodden earth ponies and the horseshoe of the unicorns who would crush them beneath their hooves.
"I am the only unblinkered pony, but soon I shall be one of many. I am the beginning, the focal point; the driving force of change that shall sweep away the dusty cobwebs and oppressive gloom of traditional monarchy. I am the first and best proponent of freedom; the hoof that evens the scales. I am equality; I am justice; I am Firebrand!"
To a chorus of gasps the newly-declared Firebrand swept off her cloak in one graceful pull to reveal her cutie mark: an incandescent flame, dazzling in its brightness.
"Yeah, yeah, very impressive," said Rainbow Dash, lathering on the sarcasm as she approached Firebrand. "I'm sorry to burst your bubble, but you're a bit new in town to start throwing your weight around like that. Whatever you say, Rarity runs that boutique all by herself and sells dresses to the richest ponies in Equestria; Applejack doesn't just work on Sweet Apple Acres, she pretty much owns it; Twilight is the Princess's best student sent here from Canterlot specifically on her orders, and I-" Firebrand walked straight past Rainbow Dash in mid-rant. "Hey! You can't just ignore me!"
Firebrand's attention was elsewhere. She had a strange, intense look on her face, and it was aimed directly at Twilight. "You... you're from Canterlot?"
Twilight had her guard up. "Yes, I am, as a matter of fact. What, are you going to say that Princess Celestia has me here controlling the earth ponies of Ponyville on her behalf?"
Whatever Firebrand's intent, she didn't seem to be aggressive; instead, the look on her face was curious, as though Twilight were some piece of a puzzle that she couldn't quite solve. "You can't be," said Firebrand, very quietly; so quietly in fact that Twilight was sure she was the only pony who could hear. "I don't remember you."
Twilight blinked in perplexion. What kind of pony was this, turning up out of the blue with these odd assertions? And what was that about not being able to reveal her name? Was Firebrand a criminal with an assumed alias, on the run from some misdeed in Canterlot? If she'd acted there as she had here, Twilight wouldn't have been surprised to find out that that was indeed the case. She had to find out more about this mystery mare.
"What do you mean by that?" Twilight asked, trying to draw her out.
"And what was that the pegasus said about you being Celestia's best student?" Firebrand pushed further, the same strangely intense look in her eyes.
"Um... well, we write to each other pretty often," said Twilight, her discomfort at Firebrand's sudden change of tack obvious in her voice and manner. "She's been my mentor – of sorts – for as long as I can remember."
"I see." Firebrand looked thoughtful for a moment, and Twilight wondered if perhaps she'd been too quick to judge this newcomer. This feeling was only heightened when Firebrand asked "Do you... think it might be possible for us to talk privately? I feel that there is much we must discuss."
"I... suppose that would be all right," said Twilight uncertainly.
Firebrand nodded decisively and turned to the crowd. "Show's over, everypony," she called out to them. "I thank you for listening and hope that you join the cause, but I must ask that you leave now."
The crowd grumbled discontentedly, but not too much; it just wasn't as fun when Firebrand wasn't yelling her head off. It didn't take long for them to disperse.
"Now what the hay is going on here?" Applejack demanded suspiciously of Firebrand, not having heard all that had passed between her and Twilight.
"Yeah, just what is going on?" Rainbow Dash chimed in.
"It's nothing to worry about, my friends; Firebrand just wants to have a chat with me about something." The rabblerouser had already trotted over to a nearby alley and was waiting beside the entrance for Twilight to join her. Twilight lowered her voice to speak to her friends: "I'm hoping to find out what Firebrand's secret is. It seems to me as though she's putting on a big front: maybe if I can find out why we can help her resolve whatever's troubling her. I'm sure that it would make her friendlier – or, at least, less ranty."
"I dunno, Twilight," said Applejack dubiously, eyeing the impatient Firebrand. "She seems kinda dangerous to me. I think it would be best not to get involved."
"Or better yet, write to the Princess and have her guards take care of it," Rarity piped up. "Ruffians like this 'Firebrand' should not be allowed amongst the common populace."
"Friends, I thank you for your concern, but don't you see that it's exactly that attitude which could make a pony become like Firebrand?" Twilight glanced over at the would-be rebel. "Perhaps she's so upset exactly because everybody treats her with such suspicion – and then she acts defensive to protect herself, which only leads to more suspicion. The cycle's got to end somewhere, and... well, even if it goes against all common sense, I just have this feeling that we can help Firebrand."
With that, Twilight went to join Firebrand. They entered the alley together, away from prying eyes.
"I still don't like this," said Rainbow Dash, agitatedly taking wing. "What would Firebrand have to say to Twilight that she couldn't say in front of all of us?"
"Right with ya, sugarcube," said Applejack. "We oughta watch for any trouble, but Firebrand would probably see us. Tell you what: Rainbow, go up high and watch from the roof. If Firebrand does anything to hurt Twilight holler for us and then dive in, but until then don't make even a peep of noise, ya hear?"
"Gotcha." Rainbow jetted up to the rooftops above the alley.
"C'mon, Rarity; we've gotta be close at hoof in case anything happens."
"Oh dear, I do hope I was wrong about Firebrand being a ruffian: I've only just had my hooves done and I'd hate to ruin them in a fight."
Applejack rolled her eyes. "Ya don't have to kick 'em; use your horn."
"Haven't you heard of cornicures? It would appear that Firebrand is not the only ruffian in town."
Applejack decided at this juncture that it would be best simply not to reply.
Despite her earlier bravado, Twilight was feeling nervous about this encounter – and it didn't help when she walked right into Firebrand's stare. It was a powerful stare to walk into, to be sure, but not (Twilight noted gratefully) angry. Again there was that speculative, slightly mystified look in her eye.
"You've definitely got the right manner for a Canterlot pony," said Firebrand, again in that undertone which suggested she was taking mental notes rather than communicating. "And of course the fact that you're a unicorn adds to the argument... so why have I never seen you before?"
"You speak as though you've lived in Canterlot yourself," said Twilight.
Firebrand gave Twilight a look that rated just under two degrees of a glare on the lookometer. Twilight got the fleeting feeling that Firebrand was going to jump her right there and then and wondered, in quick succession, whether she should apologise, what it was she'd said to cause such offence and how long she'd last if Firebrand really did decide to get rough. In a strangely detached manner, her hindbrain wondered why Firebrand was wearing shoes.
"Yes, as it happens; I have spent some time there," said Firebrand, abruptly turning down the almost-glare to something more nonchalant. "Long enough to have acquired a fair knowledge of the folk thereabouts in any case, and I can categorically state that I have never seen you before."
"Well, I guess it isn't too surprising that you've never seen me, considering that I never spent much time outside or going to parties or... making friends," said Twilight, lightly skipping over that last point. "I spent pretty much all my time in Canterlot studying and practicing magic. Celestia gave me my own library."
"I see," said Firebrand ruminatively. "I think I do remember you – or mention of you, at any rate. If memory serves, you were the best and brightest at Celestia's magic academy."
"I'm not one to brag..." Twilight blushed demurely.
"I remember one particular unicorn going on at length about you at a party, saying that the only reason you got anywhere was because of blatant favoritism on the part of the Princess." Firebrand grinned fondly. "She was completely salted. That was a good night."
"Well I assure you, Princess Celestia has never intervened on my behalf," said Twilight staunchly. "Not once. I graduated from that academy-!"
"Oh, I really couldn't care less," said Firebrand offhandedly, deflating Twilight somewhat. "The thing that interests me is her interest in you. What's so special about you that she handpicked you out of goodness knows how many others? And exactly how far would she be willing to go for you?"
Twilight blinked at this last question. "What has that got to do with anything?"
"Would she give up her throne for you?"
"Of course, although I'd never ask her... to..."
Firebrand was advancing on Twilight with a grin that she'd borrowed from a shark. Twilight had a sudden and very pressing urge to turn tail and run like the wind on a very windy day – but some part of her whispered that it was going to be okay.
"You know, I was just starting to like you... it's almost a shame I'm going to have to do this."
"APPLEJACK! NOW!" Both Twilight and Firebrand snapped their eyes straight up and saw Rainbow Dash jumping off the roof above, her wings tucked in and ready to dive. At that same instant, Applejack burst into the alley, Rarity in her wake.
Before Twilight knew what was happening she was spun around with a foreleg around her neck and an unpleasantly metallic sound rang throughout the alley. Twilight's curiosity as to what had caused that sound evaporated when she felt a needle-sharp point press against the skin of her throat.
Applejack's eyes shot open in alarm – she skidded to a halt and Rarity ploughed into her from behind, the both of them collapsing in an ungainly heap on the ground. Rainbow Dash ended up joining them, not having been able to stop in time and only just diverting the path of her fall.
"I think it's obvious what my intent is," said Firebrand, calling out in a clear, business-like voice to the would-be rescuers as they picked themselves up. She had to bend in an awkward manner sideways over Twilight's back to hold her – but the dagger that poked from the heel of her shoe more than made up for any loss of grace. "At least I can assure you that I really, really would regret having to harm this unicorn – not something I could say for you," she added, shooting Rarity a look so dirty that it made her feel the sudden need to take a shower. "My brethren! To me!"
At this command, two earth pony colts strode in from the other end of the alley: they wore hooded cloaks similar to the one Firebrand had been wearing earlier, only theirs had to be much larger to accommodate their impressive musculature.
Twilight's friends looked to her despairingly, but strangely enough Twilight didn't return their fear. She felt oddly clear-headed. That same detached part of her brain from earlier seemed to have seized control of the whole; she knew quite suddenly what it was that she had to do. For now it consisted of staying very, very still, but it became more interesting later. She merely smiled at her friends, attempting to reassure them as much as possible.
"We have a hostage," said Firebrand to her minions. "I cannot stress enough the importance of keeping this one alive and safe: she could be our key to overthrowing the tyrant once and for all. Take her off my hooves."
One of Firebrand's cohorts moved forward and drew a shortsword from a leg-holster concealed under his cloak. Only when he was holding it alongside Firebrand's own blade did she retract hers, a simple flick of her hoof causing it to shoot back into hiding in her shoe.
"How could you do this?" asked Applejack, her and Rarity aghast at the scene.
"I'm surprised at you, fellow earth pony," said Firebrand imperiously. "Not to mention disappointed. I would have thought you'd understand the necessity of my doing this."
"Understand? How is Applejack supposed to understand you threatening our friend?" Rainbow Dash demanded – unlike her friends she was raring in barely-suppressed fury, only the threat of danger to Twilight holding her back.
Firebrand shot Dash a contemptuous look, as though even acknowledging the pegasus's presence was beneath her. She returned her attention to Applejack and spoke in a clipped, curt fashion. "I hope I needn't remind you not to follow us if you value your friend's wellbeing. Neither will you inform the despot Celestia or indeed any other authorities. If you think I'm bluffing, let me remind you that ending your friend's life doesn't have to be my first and last resort; there is, as they say, more than one way of skinning a pony. Sorry – I meant cat," Firebrand corrected herself, grinning in a manner that hinted very heavily that her 'mistake' had been anything but. "Now, if you will excuse us..."
"Twilight!" Rarity called out desperately as they started to back away down the alley, the tension becoming too much to keep her silent.
"It's going to be all right," said Twilight softly; you'd never have guessed from just her voice that she was the one in danger. "We'll be back together soon."
"If all goes to plan, you will be," said Firebrand, her voice disconcertingly empty of any warmth or compassion despite her words – as was her entire demeanour. She stared down Twilight's friends in case they tried anything at the last second, her minions equally forbidding.
Twilight gave her friends one last, fleeting smile before she was escorted out of the alley – and then she was gone.
The nervous energy that had sustained Rainbow Dash through the encounter fled her frame as swiftly as it had flooded her: she slumped to the ground, her face a study in shock. Rarity, similarly, had yet to comprehend the full magnitude of what had happened; she stared at the patch of air where she'd last seen Twilight, her eyes partly glazed over as if willing this to be a nightmare and expecting Twilight to pop back around the corner at any moment. Applejack, however...
"We've got to get her back."
It was later. Firebrand eyed Twilight warily across the small and dilapidated wooden room that was serving as her holding cell. The unicorn had an air of easygoing compliance. Such an attitude in a supposedly unwilling prisoner was unsettling.
"You're planning something," said Firebrand bluntly.
Twilight merely blinked. "What makes you say that?"
"You're too calm. You should be panicked out of your little unicorn head."
"I could pretend to be scared, if that would make you feel better."
Twilight smiled at Firebrand in a manner that made her want to indulge in some of the more... strenuous interrogation methods. However, there was nothing to be gained by it, and on top of that Firebrand felt that Twilight was only having innocent fun rather than being intentionally snide.
"Why are you being so reasonable?" Firebrand demanded of Twilight.
Twilight appeared to consider this question quite earnestly before replying. She examined a patch on the wall for a moment before returning her attention to Firebrand.
"I don't know exactly," she answered. "I guess I just don't feel as though you'll really hurt me."
"What? You think me incapable?" Firebrand loomed over Twilight, making her back up against the wall behind herself – but the threat had surprisingly little effect.
"Oh, I've no doubt that you could hurt me if you tried," said Twilight amiably, meeting Firebrand's glare. "I just don't believe that you would. You're too good of a pony to do something like that."
Firebrand blinked, several times. She was completely flummoxed. She'd never taken a hostage before, but intuition told her that she shouldn't be receiving moral support from one.
"You speak as though I haven't held a blade against your throat."
Twilight shrugged. "You're just in a bad place at the moment. I want to help you."
Firebrand laughed derisively. "You? Help me?"
"My magic allows me to teleport. I've had several chances to escape since we returned, but I decided not to, as a gesture of good faith. You didn't think I was going to let you go that easily, did you?"
The expression of furious bewilderment on Firebrand's face was priceless. Twilight couldn't help but smile again in that inimitably pleasant way of hers and amble up to Firebrand – this time it was the rebel's turn to back away.
"It's easy to understand why you're so angry: you just need a friend; someone to believe in you. I can be that pony for you, if you'll let me."
"Oh? And what would you know about friends, Little Miss Recluse?"
The insult pinged off Twilight's mental armour like a blowdart off a tank. "Granted, I didn't know much to begin with, but since coming to Ponyville I've learned so much. That's why Celestia sent me here, you know; to learn about the magic of friendship."
Firebrand snorted. "'Magic of friendship'. Do you listen to yourself? You might as well be vomiting rainbows and sunshine."
"What happened to you, Firebrand?"
Twilight could almost feel the wall shoot up into place between them. "Nothing 'happens' to me. I am the mistress of my own destiny – and so will be every earth pony once the tyrant gives up her throne for your safe return. This talk is over. Guard! Get in here and make sure the unicorn doesn't try anything." Twilight sighed as Firebrand swept out of the room and away down the corridor, stomping her hooves in her bad temper: Twilight got the feeling that this one would be a tough nut to crack.
The black-hooded guard entered the room. No face was visible beneath the hood, save for the gleam of the eyes; the pony's entire body was covered. The guard casually kicked the door closed and advanced on Twilight.
Twilight shied away at the guard's approach. Something didn't seem right, but she couldn't quite put her hoof on it.
"Uh... can I help you with anything?" she asked nervously – while she'd been quite sure that Firebrand wouldn't do her any harm, it was a lot more difficult to be certain of that when faced by an unfamiliar pony whose face was shrouded in shadows.
Twilight felt herself bump up against a corner and wondered frantically whether Firebrand was still close enough to hear. She opened her mouth to shout – and had a hoof roughly jammed into it.
A wooden hoof. In a shoe. Attached to a pink leg.
The guard pony at the front entrance looked on incredulously as a pink filly hopped towards him as though her legs were pogo sticks. This was unexpected, to say the least. Bewildered by this development, the guard fell back on a stock catchphrase of guards everywhere.
"Halt! Who goes there?"
"Pinkie Pie, of course!" she chirped happily, very blatantly failing to halt until she stood right in front of the guard.
"Well, Pinkie Pie, if you know what's best for you you'll get out of here while you still can," said the guard as menacingly as he was able.
"My, who's a grouchy old meaniepants?" Pinkie jibed. "You know what you need? A bit of fun to loosen you up."
"If you follow me around the corner, I'd be more than happy to show you a good time." Pinkie Pie smiled at the guard meaningfully. "If ya know what I mean."
Pinkie made her way over to the said corner, flicking her tail as she did so – the colt at the door was suddenly very aware of the sway of the filly's hindquarters.
"Well... I guess a quick break couldn't hurt."
He followed her around a corner and behind a convenient wooden box.
"So... now what?" asked the guard, eyeing Pinkie appreciatively.
The box behind the guard erupted an Applejack which tore off the guard's cloak. A moment later the guard was forced onto the ground by a weighted net dropped from above.
"Yeah!" Rainbow Dash exulted. "That was sweet."
"Oh, oh dear, I'm so sorry," said Fluttershy, coming to land beside the recently netted pony. "I do hope that didn't hurt too much."
The guard pony made some choice remarks about Fluttershy that her delicate ears had definitely never heard before, thereby incurring Applejack's wrath by way of a swift kick to the back of the head.
"Don't stress yourself; he'll wake up with a headache. And Pinkie Pie..."
"I heard what you said to him. What did you mean by 'a good time'...?" The tone of Applejack's voice suggested that she wasn't entirely sure that she wanted to know the answer.
"Why, a party, of course," said Pinkie, entirely innocently. "You know me. Why, what did you think I meant?" She cocked her head on one side in a gesture of naïve enquiry.
Applejack stared at her for a long while.
"...Never mind. Anyways, we better get back to Rarity before Winona jumps up and licks her; I get the feeling I'll never hear the end of it if she does that. How's the cloak, Pinkie Pie?"
"It's a bit big." Her voice was muffled by the hood, which had fallen down over her face. "Not to worry, though – I'm sure I can find something in my saddlebags to help me look like a big scary colt."
"Good; get on it. You two think you can hide this one somewhere?" she asked of the pegasi, gesturing to the unconscious guard with a hoof. "Last thing we need is him waking up and hollering for help."
"Yeah, it'll be a cinch," said Rainbow Dash, waving a hoof dismissively.
"Um. He looks a little. Heavy," said Fluttershy haltingly.
Rainbow Dash rolled her eyes. "I thought we made it clear that you might have to do more than carry a few bunnies."
"But everypony loves bunnies..."
"No, silly – it's me, Pinkie Pie!" Pinkie chuckled, unplugging Twilight's mouth and pulling back her hood. "Sorry about the hoof in the mouth: Applejack said it was important not to make any loud noises."
"You... You fooled them into thinking you're a guard?" asked Twilight, absolutely flummoxed by this turn of events.
"Oh, sure; I've always had a talent for acting," said Pinkie lightly. "We borrowed this from the other guard and I had to put on these clogs and pad my back a bit to look the part, but apart from that it was all in the voice." Pinkie assumed a low, gruff voice; startlingly similar to how Twilight expected a big colt would sound, complete with the moronic expression of hired muscle. "'Hey, switch with me; I'm getting tired of standing outside.' After that, all I had to do was wait."
"Wow, that's... impressive." It seemed to Twilight as though every time she thought she had Pinkie figured out she'd exhibit some new bizzare trait to turn everything on its ear.
"Come on; let's get out of here while Firebrand's still away." Pinkie replaced her hood, nosed open the door and looked both ways down the corridor before coming out. "Okay, hurry!"
The two ponies hurried along the narrow corridor toward the exit, their hoof-falls sounding ridiculously loud in their ears. Twilight looked anxiously back over her shoulder: could they really have fooled Firebrand that easily?
They'd reached the front door. Twilight went to open it, but Pinkie stayed her.
"Twilight! The other guard's still out there, remember?"
Twilight nodded. "It's okay; I know just what to do." She opened the door just wide enough to look through and, sure enough, there was the other half of Firebrand's revolutionary cadre.
Concentrating briefly, Twilight gathered her magic and used it to whip the guard's cloak off his back. Before he even had time to react, the magical cloak had snaked down to his legs and looped itself around them, tipping him over and binding his legs together.
"Nice work!" Pinkie congratulated Twilight as they made their way outside.
"Never mind that – let's get out of here as quick as-"
"FIREBRAND!" the guard-pony yelled. "THE UNICORN'S-!" For the second time that day, Pinkie's wooden hoof had found a temporary home in another pony's mouth.
There was a tense silence during which neither mare moved.
"Do you think she heard?" Pinkie whispered urgently.
There was a sound of pounding hooves from inside the building.
"She heard," Twilight confirmed. "Run!"
At that exact moment a shadow was cast over them as a pony leapt clear over their heads from the open door. She spun around and stood foursquare in the path of their escape.
"You will go nowhere," Firebrand hissed acidly, unsheathing her blade.
"All right, Firebrand; that's enough!" Rainbow Dash called out.
The rest of Twilight's friends (including Winona) ran to surround Firebrand on all sides. Rainbow Dash and Applejack were predictably more enthusiastic about the confrontation, their stances suggesting that Firebrand was just one wrong move away from getting pounced, blade or no, but every last one of them helped to make it absolutely clear to Firebrand that she was not getting Twilight back – nor would she ever. The besieged mare spun around the circle, her blade weaving uncertainly from target to target.
"I'd put that away if I were you," said Applejack sternly. "You really think you can take us all?" Winona barked in agreement with her mistress, teeth bared.
"Maybe not, but I'm sure I can take at least one of you with me," Firebrand growled ferociously.
"Firebrand... please..." Twilight broke from the circle and approached Firebrand.
"Twilight!" Pinkie Pie cried in alarm.
"It's all right, Pinkie."
"Well now, isn't this an ironic turn of events?" said Firebrand bitterly, turning to address Twilight, blade still unsheathed. "It would seem that I am now the one at your mercy."
"You still don't understand, do you?" Twilight asked, both her voice and face full of pity.
"No! It's YOU who doesn't understand, foalish unicorn! You can't rely on other ponies to back you up, especially ones who are different! I applaud you on doing such a good job of securing their devotion, but I promise you with all my heart that one day, some day soon, they will turn their backs on you and they will crush your spirit so completely that you will. Never. Recover."
"It's you who's the foal!" Rainbow retorted hotly. "Twilight's a good friend to every last one of us here! We'd never abandon her!"
"Oh, aren't you an obedient little pegasus? Perhaps your unicorn mistress will give you a reward later for helping her."
Twilight sighed, despairing at the situation – she was just about to speak when another went first.
Perhaps it was the sheer unexpectedness of her quiet, calming voice in the midst of all the vicious shouting, but for whatever reason all eyes turned to Fluttershy as she approached Firebrand, stepping daintily forward into the circle.
"Please, stop this," she pleaded, quietly yet passionately: there was such sadness in her voice that Firebrand was momentarily dumbstruck. "It doesn't have to end here. It doesn't have to be this way."
Quite before anypony was able to stop it, Fluttershy was so close to Firebrand that she could touch her forehead to hers – and did so, eyes closed.
The air itself held its breath.
"What – What are you-?" Firebrand began, faltering – she backed away from Fluttershy with something akin to horror on her face, her blade entirely forgotten.
Fluttershy opened her eyes again and gazed softly in Firebrand's. "I know you're afraid. I know you feel alone. I've been there myself, more times than I can count, and I can see it in you. You've been hurt, so it's only natural that you should keep ponies at a leg's length – but if there's anything I've learned from having friends, it's that they can help you to be strong in ways you've never imagined."
Fluttershy stepped forward again, easily within range of Firebrand's weapon, and gently laid a hoof on hers. Her eyes wide and frightened – but mostly just confused – Firebrand allowed the blade to slide back.
Everypony else (even Winona) was absolutely silent, watching this scene play out. There was a general disbelief hanging in the air – there was no way this could possibly be happening, yet through some kind of magic beyond that wielded by any single unicorn, it happened.
Twilight was the first to snap out of the trance and join Fluttershy. Quite without words, Twilight laid her neck alongside Firebrand's, embracing her. Fluttershy smiled delicately and followed suit.
Rarity looked around at her friends and was amused to see both Applejack and Rainbow Dash gawping at the spectacle, their jaws hanging so low that they could have each been fed a ruler edgeways-on.
"Come on, you two. I, for one, am not going to miss out." Rarity trotted primly up to the expanding hub of hugs and latched onto Firebrand too.
"Yeah; come on, you silly fillies," said Pinkie jocularly, giggling as she cast off her disguise and gleefully joined the ponypile.
Rainbow stared blankly at Applejack, who returned the look. However, their confusion soon turned to smiles at the earnest emotion of the scene; they joined the others, forming a complete circle of hugs around Firebrand.
It soon became apparent to everypony in the hug-huddle that Firebrand was crying. Not just crying – sobbing openly, her shoulders shaking with the effort of drawing in huge chest-wracking breaths, her streams of tears saturating the coats of her new friends.
"That – That isn't fair!" Firebrand struggled to say through her sobs. "You cheated!"
Twilight merely smiled, snuggling her neck into Firebrand's.
Winona barked happily, sitting next to the guard-pony who was watching the group-hug with a faintly bemused expression.
"Fillies," he muttered despairingly, shaking his head.
"I was born in Canterlot," said Firebrand, staring reflectively into a cup of tea. Her new pony friends listened from various positions around the main room of Twilight's library. "I was to be the heiress of the great and noble Brighthorn family-"
"The Brighthorns? I've heard about them!" Rarity gushed. "They're one of the oldest noble families in all Equestria; from what I've heard, they've lived in Canterlot ever since its founding!"
Firebrand stared at Rarity.
"Oh. Sorry. Please, go on."
"So, yes. I was to be the next head of the family, except for one unfortunate mishap. I'm sure you can guess," Firebrand sighed.
"...You haven't got a horn," said Twilight, starting to grasp the reason behind Firebrand's rants.
"Exactly. For whatever reason, I, the heiress to the most prestigious unicorn family in all of Equestria, was born without a horn. Take a moment to savour the irony." Firebrand paused to take a draught of her tea instead.
"That must have made you really sad," said Pinkie. Firebrand eyed her dubiously, unused to such genuine empathy, but could see no falsehood in Pinkie's eyes.
"I won't lie; I've been through some hard times," replied Firebrand soberly, "especially considering that, as the latest in a long line of powerfully magical unicorns, everypony in Canterlot was expecting me to be a prodigy of Twilight's calibre or more. Imagine their reaction when everypony hears that the new Brighthorn doesn't even have a horn."
"But what about your family?" asked Rainbow Dash, all enmity quite forgotten in the light of this tragic tale. "Surely they didn't care about that."
Firebrand looked away, sadness tinging her gaze. "They... that is to say, my parents... they said that they didn't care what I was; that they'd love me anyway... but then my sister was born..." Firebrand glowered briefly, her attention ensnared by past memories – unpleasant ones, if her expression was anything to go by.
"I'm guessing you had a rivalry going with her," said Applejack.
Firebrand snorted. "To be a rival, I'd've had to be able to compete. No, she clearly had the upper hoof: she was the child prodigy that everypony had expected; the one to uphold the Brighthorns' name. Before she came along, I was just a bit of a joke to all the other high-society unicorns in Canterlot, or an object of pity to the kinder-hearted – after my sister began to show her power, their mockery turned to true disappointment and sometimes even scorn. My parents..." Firebrand closed her eyes tightly. Her hooves shook so badly that her tea almost spilled.
"Please, don't go on if it's too hard," said Fluttershy, starting from her seat.
"No, no... I'll be okay." Firebrand took a deep breath to steady her nerves. "My parents tried to be sympathetic to me, but it became obvious in time that they cared far more about the attention that my sister was getting. Everypony lauded her to the skies, and that prestige got us invited to all sorts of social occasions. They even let me come, sometimes," Firebrand added bitterly.
"How did you stand that for so long?" Twilight asked solicitously.
"I didn't," replied Firebrand simply. "You're not the only one who knows what it's like to be alone, Twilight. Very often I'd avoid their attention and just stay at home, but that would soon drive me crazy: despite my dislike of interaction with the outside world, I just couldn't help but be drawn to other ponies, so I started going on day trips outside Canterlot to escape. In fact, that's how I became so enamoured of earth ponies: they'd sometimes let me join them working on their farms and whatnot, and there was never a hint that they thought of me as anything greater or lesser than their own selves. There was never any of the discrimination between ranks of society that is a fact of life in Canterlot; to them, I was just another earth pony – which was true, I guess. So, eventually, I just... left."
"You ran away?" asked Rainbow Dash.
"You could call it that, although there was nothing that dramatic about it. With the parents always fussing over my sister I was left pretty much to my own devices, so one day I just packed up my things and walked off. I don't think anypony even noticed." Firebrand sighed deeply. She suddenly looked very tired. "I tried to stay incognito, working my way further away from home, but something in me just wouldn't let things be. I felt so... angry, and I had to do something about it. So I started talking to other ponies, trying to gain their support against the ruling unicorns. I just can't resist playing to a crowd, I guess." Firebrand smiled wanly and took another sip of her tea.
"And that led you here," Applejack concluded for her.
"Pretty much." Firebrand nodded. "I've been away for so long... feels almost like a year, now. I hope they're happy without me."
"Don't say that!" said Twilight, abruptly and with feeling. "Have you even seen them since you left?"
"Not once," replied Firebrand.
"Then you don't know how they feel, do you? They could be worried to death about you and you wouldn't even know!" Twilight stood and went over to her writing desk.
"What are you doing?" asked Firebrand in alarm.
"Writing to Princess Celestia. If your parents are really so eminent in Canterlot, she must know how to contact them."
"You can't do that!" said Firebrand, setting down her tea and striding across to confront Twilight.
"I can do it very easily; it's you who doesn't want me to," said Twilight, facing Firebrand but trying to keep her tone measured. "What are you so afraid of? Do you think they're going to come here and force you to go back with them?"
Firebrand opened her mouth to speak, but no sound came out. She let her gaze fall and her face along with it.
"I... I do want to go back, I just... I can't do it alone," said Firebrand, so quietly she was almost whispering; the other ponies were craning to hear her. "There's nopony there who understands... not like you," she said, looking back up at Twilight.
Twilight smiled warmly. "Don't worry, Firebrand. I'll come with you."
Firebrand looked Twilight square in the eye. "Please, don't call me that anymore. My name is Ember Kindle."
"All right then, Ember."
"Thank you... Twilight."
"I'm beginning to regret this idea already," said Ember Kindle, pacing around the antechamber to the throne room. "We should call it off – or just run, while we still can. Hopefully they won't even turn up, if they really do hate me – and even if they do show, there's no way they'd forgive me after-!"
"Ember, please calm down," said Twilight, rising from her seat and going to face Ember. "Everything will be all right."
"You can't know that," Ember protested frantically. "You have absolutely no proof!"
"How about this?" Twilight laid her neck alongside Ember's and rested her head on her shoulder. Ember reciprocated, her breath steadily stilling as she and Twilight embraced.
"Thanks, Twilight," said Ember as they pulled apart, rather less fraught now. "I... I'm really grateful that you came with me. If it weren't for you I'd have lost it by now."
"Seven times over, by my count," said Twilight, grinning. "Just try not to worry about it. You've made it this far and you'll see it through to the end. We're almost there now."
Ember breathed out slowly and smiled back at Twilight, albeit a tad shakily.
"You're right. I've got to believe that this is worth it, especially after all that's happened."
The two ponies turned at the sound of the big golden double-doors to the throne room slowly swinging open. Princess Celestia, majestic and resplendent as ever in her golden finery, stepped across the threshold, her eyes alighting on Twilight with obvious delight.
"My most faithful student," Celestia greeted her as Twilight near galloped over to hug her mentor. "You have no idea how glad I am to see you again; it seems as though you've been gone forever."
"I've missed you too, Princess," said Twilight, relishing the familiar sensation of Celestia's neck against her own, her flowing pastel-rainbow mane nigh engulfing Twilight in its soft warmth. She could have remained like that forever, but duty called – not to mention ettiquette. "And this," Twilight added, standing aside and presenting her newest friend, "is Ember Kindle."
The pony that Twilight had once seen fiercely denouncing the Princess in Ponyville's town square was obviously daunted by being in her presence: Celestia spoke first, taking the opportunity to clear the air.
"I've heard all about you from your family, Ember," said Celestia softly. "I only wish that I had heard of your predicament sooner. I am afraid that, for now, all I can do is offer you my sincere apologies for the way everypony here at the royal court has treated you. From now on, I shall make it absolutely clear to all the heads of the noble families that such behaviour cannot be allowed to go ignored."
Ember bowed her head, her eyes flickering between Celestia's and the floor. "Thank you, Princess... and I have to apologise to you too."
"I said some things about you while I was away that I probably shouldn't have," said Ember meekly. "Although, I still think there's something wrong with the way you rule," she added, adopting a defiant stance – Twilight's face became a mask of horror. "What about that business with Princess Luna? You can't tell me that locking your sister inside the moon for a thousand years is fair!"
Twilight stopped the sawing motions she was making with her hoof across her throat when she realised that the remark had hit home. There was no visible change, but the quality of the air was suddenly different, charged with emotion – not with anger, as the two smaller ponies had anticipated, but with deep sadness.
"...You're right," said Celestia, a sorrow older than centuries shining in her eyes. "It wasn't fair. It was the biggest mistake that I ever made and I carry the weight of that decision to this day. I told myself that I did what had to be done, that I was merely protecting my subjects, but the truth is that I was weak: I acted out of fear, forgetting my love for my sister. Thanks to Twilight, I now have her back, but I can never have back all the time that I threw away; all those memories that I should have had of time spent with my sister."
Celestia turned and went to stand beside the double doors.
"We all make mistakes, Ember," said Celestia soberly, gazing into the younger pony's eyes sympathetically. "We can only hope that those we hurt still love us enough to forgive us."
"Is that... my family?" asked Ember tentatively, looking past Celestia into the throne room. Twilight looked too: sure enough, there stood Ember's parents and sister.
Celestia nodded, smiling delicately. "They have always loved you, even if they didn't always show it. They're angry, hurt and sorry... but mostly, they just want you back."
Ember stood wordless. Her family had noticed her and were turning to face Ember. Their faces were just as full of longing and regret as hers.
"Go on," said Twilight, playfully nudging Ember. "You've got a lot of lost time to make up."
Ember looked at Twilight, tears forming in her eyes, and nodded. She walked past the Princess and into the throne room. Celestia gestured to her guards to vacate the room; they discreetly did so, closing the great doors behind themselves.
When Celestia and Twilight were alone in the ante-chamber the Princess turned to her student, reassuming her usual air of dignified cheer. Twilight was thankful for the return to form: Celestia rarely, if ever, showed a darker side to her temperament, as befitting the embodiment of the sun (although, like everypony in Equestria, Twilight had heard the old stories of what Celestia had been like for the first few centuries after Luna's banishment).
"Well then, Twilight Sparkle: after making a new friend of Ember Kindle I'm sure that you must have learned something new about friendship," said Celestia briskly. "Since you are here, perhaps you would care to divulge in pony?"
"I'd be glad to," said Twilight, radiating pride. "If there's anything I've learned from befriending Ember, it's that the world can be a terribly lonely place for a pony – especially for one who doesn't fit in. That loneliness can drive a pony to do regretful things, but it's good to know that even a single friend can make a world of difference. I think, in the end, all anypony really wants is acceptance – and a little bit of love can't hurt."
Celestia nodded, something more than simple approval behind her placidly regal expression (and Twilight wondered, not for the first time, how much her mentor hid from her). "Excellent work, my faithful student. Rest assured, it is a great comfort to me having you as my friend. Come; we can wait in your old library while Ember sorts things out with her family. We might even meet Princess Luna there." She strode off, her student cantering slightly to keep up.
"Really?" asked Twilight eagerly: despite her occasional visits to the palace, she didn't often see the famous moon-mare; the younger Princess seemed to be something of a recluse – something to which Twilight could relate. As if reading her mind, Celestia continued:
"Oh yes; she spends a lot of time reading, you know. Now that I think about it, I'm sure that you and Luna would hit it off quite nicely. If you befriend her too, you might even be able to give me two friendship reports in one day!"
The night was perfect. The pegasi had been standing by to dispel any bad weather, but the only clouds were far-off and fluffy, drifting dreamily by in a cool breeze. The moon hung in the sky like a silver coin on black satin, surrounded by a sea of glittering stars. However, even the wonders of the heavens were to be put to shame by the spectacle laid on for Canterlot's residents that night.
"Fireworks are the best!" Rainbow Dash enthused, galloping around her friends over the turf. "I'm so glad I have you as a friend, Twilight – you always hook us up with the best stuff."
"What Rainbow Dash meant to say, I am sure, is that she is grateful to you for her invitation to the display," said Rarity, casting a reproving glance in Rainbow's direction (it was lost on the jubilant pegasus; she was too busy imagining the show in her head, making the appropriate sound effects to accompany it).
"That's quite all right, Rarity," said Twilight, smiling happily. "The only reason I even knew this was happening was because of another friend of mine: hopefully I'll be seeing her later tonight."
"Is that her?" asked Pinkie, lifting her hoof towards a unicorn who was making a beeline for them between the groups of spectators. Twilight looked at the pony Pinkie indicated and politely excused herself from her friends, promising to meet them back there as soon as possible.
"Are you Twilight Sparkle?" the unicorn asked.
"Yes, I am," said Twilight. "I'm guessing you're Aurora."
"Correctly, as it happens," said Aurora, smiling pleasantly. "Ember asked me to keep an eye out for you tonight; you said you were coming and she wanted to talk to you."
"Then she's nearby?"
"Right this way." As Twilight fell in step with Aurora, walking away from the crowd, the unicorn spoke to her in a rather more serious tone of voice. "I just wanted to take this opportunity to make sure that there are no hard feelings between us."
Twilight blinked. "Hard feelings? Why should there be?"
"Well, we haven't met before, and if Ember told you all about me and the way I acted before she ran away then I'm sure you must think I'm the worst pony in Equestria," said Aurora, looking shamefaced.
Twilight shook her head. "I've learned before that hiding your natural talent just to spare somepony's feelings never works out for the best. It isn't your fault that Ember went away."
"That's what she tells me too... but I feel so responsible."
"I have a talent for magic, the same as you, and if you're anything like me then working magic is what makes you happy. You can't be blamed for being who you are – and neither are you to blame for Ember being who she is."
"Wow. Ember told me how good you were at making ponies feel better; I didn't realise you were this good," said Aurora, only half-jokingly. "So... no hard feelings?"
"Definitely. What's done is done; laying blame now can only bring up old wounds. What matters is that everything's back the way it should be, and that everypony's happy that way."
Aurora nodded and smiled. She brought the two of them to a halt in front of a shed.
"Ember! You in there? Twilight's here to see you!"
"Oh – I'll be out in a second!" There was a second or two of frantic activity from within the shed, during which Aurora bowed her head to Twilight in a graceful gesture of thanks and took her leave.
"Sorry, yes, here we go," said Ember, opening the shed door.
Twilight couldn't help but grin: Ember's mane was just as unkempt as ever, only this time it made her look like some kind of mad inventor.
Her face also split into a massive grin as she saw Twilight. "Twilight Sparkle! It's so good to see you again!"
"Hello, Ember," said Twilight warmly, going to embrace her friend. "I hope everything's going well for you."
"Well enough, I suppose – better than before, definitely, thanks in large part to you," said Ember, enthusiastically returning the hug. "Well – and your friends, of course."
"From what I hear, we have you to thank for the display tonight. Is it possible you've found your true talent?" asked Twilight, only a tad jocularly.
"Very possibly, although I think it remains the same: I've always known that I love playing to a crowd in one way or another, but since stirring them up with revolutionary speeches isn't an option anymore I could do worse than excite them with fireworks," said Ember, her pride in her work showing through. "I've made a very special one tonight to which I was just putting the finishing touches – you'll know which one it is when you see it, I've no doubt."
"I'm sure I will, although..." Twilight shifted her stance uneasily. "I hope this isn't going too far, but there's something in particular that I wanted to talk to you about tonight..."
"Whatever it is, I'm sure I'll be able to hear it from a good friend," said Ember earnestly.
Twilight smiled delicately at Ember's openness. "Well, in that case... I've been doing a lot of research into transformative magic recently – since before I met you, in fact – and I've made some remarkable breakthroughs. The upshot of it is... well..." Twilight took a deep breath. "If you want to be a unicorn... I think I could make that possible."
Ember didn't react. Her face was a perfectly blank canvas for some seconds on end. Twilight worried for a moment that she really had gone too far, opening up a can of worms that was best left long forgotten.
"...I have to say, the offer is tempting," said Ember slowly, staring at a patch of air diagonally three inches above Twilight's left ear. "To be able to finally practice magic, like my family has always expected of me... to redeem myself in the eyes of the noble ponies of Canterlot..."
"I should tell you before this goes any further that the procedure is not without risk," Twilight added hurriedly. "Any spell with such large amounts of magic involved is inherently dangerous, but... if you really want it – if you really, really want it – then I think we can do it. Together."
Ember continued to stare into nothing for a while. Twilight wondered what could be running through her head – perhaps she was imagining a future where all her past wounds could be magically healed.
"I... I thank you for the offer, but I feel that I must decline," said Ember. Twilight let out a sigh of relief, in spite of herself, causing Ember to smile at her. "Although the prospect is indeed tempting, I'm afraid that it would be rather missing the point."
"What do you mean?"
"Well... I could become a unicorn, but would that really fix my problems? Would that undo all the suffering that I've been through as a result of my birth? I'm back home now, and, although it has been difficult, I think I've finally patched things up with my family. Not having a horn is a problem I used to have – and, although the whispers still get to me sometimes, I'm learning that not everypony is worth listening to; not like my friends," she said, smiling warmly at Twilight. "As saccharine as this might sound, unicorn magic can't fix my problems: the magic of friendship is more than enough."
Twilight smiled back. The two ponies basked in a shared and glorious feeling. Even on that cool, silvery night, it felt to each pony that their heart was a miniature sun, radiating warmth and light throughout their whole being. This sensation was only made better by the knowledge that the other felt exactly the same way.
"As beautiful as that was, sister, I think we should be going," said Aurora, grinning widely.
"Aurora? What – You weren't meant to hear that!" said Ember heatedly.
Twilight couldn't help but giggle. "It's all right, Ember. I'm sure she means no harm."
"The crowd is starting to get a little restless. We should start the display soon."
"Oh, all right," said Ember grumpily. "Tell them it'll be starting shortly; I'll be there in a flash."
Ember watched her sister go. Once she was sure that Aurora was firmly out of earshot, she turned back to Twilight.
"Aurora and her eavesdropping – I know I'll never live this down," grumbled Ember.
"Don't worry about it so much," said Twilight, still grinning at Ember. "You can hardly have friends if you're ashamed of everypony knowing."
"Yes, you're right," said Ember briskly, pulling herself up. "And while we're on the subject, I'm thinking of going into Ponyville next week. Is your engagements diary open?"
"For you? Of course. Write me tomorrow."
They smiled at each other again.
"Goodbye for now, Twilight. I hope you enjoy the show."
"I'm sure I will. Bye, Ember Kindle."
They parted without further words, Twilight going back to join her friends in the field.
"What took ya so long?" Applejack asked Twilight upon her return. "The show's about to start!"
"You needn't worry; I'd never risk missing out on making memories with my friends," Twilight replied cheerily.
The sentimentality of Twilight's reply appeared to go straight over Applejack's head, but it hadn't gone entirely unnoticed. As she sat down, Fluttershy caught Twilight's eye. They shared a secret smile together.
And then the first firework went off, causing the gentle pegasus to nearly jump out of her soft yellow skin. The accompanying shriek caused her companions and several nearby ponies to laugh.
"But they're so loud..." Fluttershy complained half-heartedly.
However loud they were, she didn't have much trouble sitting through the rest of the fireworks: the entire field of ponies there gathered looked on spellbound as Ember's creations painted the night sky with dazzling colours. It seemed to Twilight as though these fireworks were Ember's way of celebrating: if their beauty had been in sound rather than light, the fireworks would have sang the happiest song in the world. The display that night was one of pure jubilation at having family, friends – at all the best of life in general.
And it was also a show of gratitude to one particular friend. As Twilight curled up in bed later that night, she knew that she would never forget the last firework of the display: a bright purple six-pointed star, bursting ecstatically into being across an entire quarter of the sky.