A small yellow pony with a long pink mane hunched frightened beside the remains of the post office. She had come to Ponyville in search of safety and civilization, but the once industrious town was now little better off than the rest of the war-torn countryside. As she had crept along the town’s back alleys, she had heard whispers of parasprites, of ponies who had gone missing, and above all of the cruelty of the Solar Kingdom soldiers who had stationed themselves in what had once been the city hall. She understood little of the war or the politics that accompanied it, but sought only food and shelter. Finding either, though, was proving quite difficult in a ravaged town with few enough opportunities even for those refuge ponies who did have somepony to turn to.
An elegant voice startled the yellow pony out of her sad reverie, and she looked up to behold a white unicorn pony with flowing purple tail and mane. On the unicorn’s flank stood three proud diamonds, the cutie mark standing in stark contrast to the destruction all around them. “Oh!” said the yellow pony, “I’m terribly sorry. Did you say something? I’m in your way, aren’t I? I’ll move…”
The white unicorn shook her head. “In my way? What about your way? I’d say entirely too many things have been in your way in the past, my dear, by the look of you. Now then, it’s all right; tell me your name and what I can do to help you.”
“Fluttershy? Why, that sounds like a name for a pegasus pony, not a gentle earth pony like yourself.”
“Oh, well…” Fluttershy looked down at the ground. “I… used to have wings. Before the soldiers came, I mean. They, um, said I was too sweet to kill, but they didn’t want me to, um, fly away and get help. So… they…”
“I understand,” said the white unicorn, and leant down to give Fluttershy a sympathetic nuzzle. “You needn’t go into all the gory details in such polite company. My name, darling, is Rarity, and you look like you could use a friend.”
Fluttershy gulped. “That sounds nice, but, um, I wouldn’t want to impose… I’m sure you have plenty of unicorns to talk to in the army, you needn’t worry yourself with me…”
“The army? Oh, darling, you misunderstand! I am a citizen of this, ahem, quaint village, not a soldier! Their uniforms are just so… unbecoming, don’t you think?”
“I guess so… I never really looked, I mean, they’re kind of terrifying, and…”
“Hush! Not a word more. Come with me, Madame Fluttershy, and I will find you all the friends you could ever need, and teach you that those silly old soldier ponies are not so terrifying at all! Everypony wants something, my dear, and with my help you can become just the pony to give it them!”
Wavering, Fluttershy rose to her hooves, and walked slowly behind Rarity as the white unicorn continued to explain her plan. “I happen to be the proprietor of a most distinguished friendship emporium – and I can tell you, few buildings in Ponyville are better preserved! – and I am always on the lookout for new talent such as yourself. My dear, those unicorns from Canterlot will be practically stampeding across the dance floor for a chance with somepony of such classical, understated beauty as your own! War is a terribly lonely thing, you understand, and your sweet eyes and quiet voice should be just the thing to console them a little through the night.”
“I, um, you said I would be… unicorns? From Canterlot?”
“Why, of course, darling! Don’t you know what a friendship emporium is?”
Fluttershy’s ears flattened sadly against her head. “I… I guess not… I’m sorry, I’m not used to big cities like this one.”
“Ha! Oh, not if you think Ponyville is a big city, no! You see, the unicorns of the Solar army stationed up in our dear former city hall are dreadfully sick of fighting, and each other, and everything around them. They want to go back to Canterlot, poor things, and who could blame them? But every night my sister and I open for business, and the soldiers come inside to meet some kind native girls to show them the magic of friendship. And just think: just charm them enough and they can take you back with them to Canterlot!”
“Is that… good?”
“Good? Why, there is no place in Equestria more glorious than Canterlot! The society, the architecture, the food… but most importantly, the complete lack of war! No, Fluttershy, dearest, you have no idea how lucky you are that I found you. Out of the generosity of my heart, I shall feed and clothe you until some kind soldier takes you away with them, and all you need do each night is dance and open your heart to your newfound friends!”
“But…” Fluttershy’s pace, which had been slowing the more Rarity explained, came to a complete stop and she stared miserably at the ground. “I don’t think I’m very good at, um, making friends. The only one I’ve ever had was Angel, and he, um… well, I didn’t really have much to do with that, and…”
“Now, now,” said Rarity, “keep those butterflies on your cutie mark and out of your stomach, darling! I’ll tell you what: if you’re so very worried, you needn’t perform until you’re ready, just be there on the dance floor in case anypony takes that special interest in you! Now do hurry up, we’re almost there and you simply must meet the other girls!”
The emporium was a tall, blue and pink building with remarkably few holes in its walls, and many of its windowpanes remained unshattered. The original sign for the shop, whatever it had been, had fallen off the front and been replaced with two wooden beams painted inexpertly to read Rarity and DJ Belle’s Friendship Emporium. The revolving door in the entrance no longer worked too well, but after a few seconds of pushing, Rarity was able to set it in motion and usher Fluttershy into what she affectionately dubbed her new home.
The only inhabitant of the main room of the emporium was another white unicorn mare, this one with pink and purple mane and tail and enormous purple sunglasses. She sat behind a pair of worn turntables, spinning them distractedly, and did not seem to notice the two ponies as they entered. Fluttershy cast her eyes around her in astonishment. While it was only the first building in Ponyville that she had been inside of, it was far more elegant and well-kept than the ruins and dilapidated streets outside. The walls were still gaily painted, the bar beside the turntable appeared well stocked, and a series of colorful lights hung above a large wooden stage. Behind the stage lay a pile of the ponequins used to model clothing, the only indication of what might have been the emporium’s original function. Before she could take in any more, Rarity had ushered her across the room and through a door in the back into another, smaller room.
There Fluttershy found herself facing five new mares, all earth ponies. In an instant, the pinkest had leapt forward from the throng and stood immediately before them. Fluttershy shrunk visibly backwards from the pink pony’s boundless excitement and mane poofing out in all directions.
“You’re new!” said the pink pony. “My name’s Pinkie Pie, what’s yours? I really like your hair, or at least the color, I don’t think pink looks good with straight hair but yours is just fine don’t worry about it, aren’t you excited to work here? I guess work here is kind of a strange way of putting it since we don’t get paid, but we do get fed and stuff, and that’s pretty similar to getting paid, don’t you think? I used to work at a sweetshop before the invasion, and I didn’t get paid there, either, so I’m totally used to it but I guess I can see how it might seem strange to somepony else! Ooh, how do you know Rarity? I bet you’re secret fillyhood friends or something and you came to help her out with her business here! Actually, I guess that for everypony who comes to be one of us girls, and I’m never right, but that just means that every time I guess it, it’s even likelier that I’ll be right the next time!”
“Um,” said Fluttershy.
Rarity cleared her throat delicately. “Yes, well, I’m glad to see that you’re already getting along so fabulously. Pinkie, this charming young lady is named Fluttershy; do me a favor and introduce her to the rest of the girls while I find her a good dress, won’t you? I’ve already told her she won’t need to compete until she’s ready.”
Fluttershy stared panicked after Rarity as she left, but Pinkie Pie was back at full speed in a moment, seeming almost to fly about the room while she made introductions. “Okay, everypony, this is Fluttershy! Fluttershy, this is Berry Punch! She’s really pink, like me, but kind of darker, and her hair is shorter! Well, I guess you can tell that part by yourself, unless you’re blind. Oh no, I hope you’re not blind! Anyway, Berry’s really cool and always gets along really well with the soldiers, and sometimes she fills in for Sweetie Belle – oops, sorry, I mean ‘DJ Belle’ – behind the bar when nopony’s looking!
“And this is Bon-Bon! We used to kind of be rivals back in old Ponyville, but now really we’re still technically rivals because we go up for the contest most nights and try to be friends with the same ponies and stuff, but that’s not really important. She’s kind of sad these days and doesn’t talk to me much, but you seem really sweet and so maybe you’ll become totally best buddies forever and ever!
“And then these are Diamond Tiara and Silver Spoon! They’re a little younger than the rest of us, but you know, some soldiers are just looking for a little bit of youthful innocence to cheer them up in these hard times! Between you and me, though, they’re both kind of mean so I wouldn’t go for them if I were a soldier, or even if I weren’t a soldier, actually. Still, they’re both really good at makeup and clothes and stuff so you can go to them if you want any tips there. Me, I told Rarity what I wanted for my dress and she was really unexcited about the whole idea and instead I just perform as nature made me, but these two are super clothes whizzes in addition to being bitchy meaniepants!
“And I’m Pinkie Pie! Did I say that already? You know, sometimes I talk so much that I forget what I’ve already said and what I haven’t said yet, and the only solution is just to keep on talking until I’m sure I’ve said everything that anypony could ever reasonably want to be said ever! Does that ever happen to you?”
“Um,” said Fluttershy again. She was pretty sure the other four ponies had heard every word Pinkie Pie had said, even the less flattering ones, and she hoped that none of them would blame her for them. “It’s… very nice to meet, um, you all?” she managed after several seconds of building up enough courage to speak. “I’m sure you’re all… very good friends? To the soldiers, I mean?”
Diamond Tiara, a third pink pony who unlike Berry Punch or Pinkie Pie had a purple and white mane and tail, laughed harshly. “Most of us are, Miss… Fluttershy, was it? Even Bon-Bon, when she gets over her little broken heart enough to do her job properly, can be an excellent friend.”
Silver Spoon, who was gray with a cutie mark completely predictable from her name, stepped forward in agreement. “Miss Pinkie Pie here, on the other hoof, has never successfully wooed a soldier into treating her with his or her friendship, what with how…” she stopped and looked and at Diamond Tiara for help with her next word. “Disturbing?”
“Repulsive,” said Silver Spoon with a satisfied smirk, “how repulsive they find her off-beat mannerisms. You had better stick with us, darling; we can show you all the ropes.”
“Definitely,” said Diamond Tiara. “Why, you might even win the contest once or twice and get to befriend a higher class of unicorn! With our loving help, of course.”
“Oh, um, thank you,” said Fluttershy. She looked around the room helplessly. Bon-Bon was staring out a window and had not so much as acknowledged any of the conversation since Fluttershy had arrived in the room, Berry Punch was soothingly stroking Bon-Bon’s mane while nursing a bottle of something dark and possibly alcoholic with her other forehoof, and Pinkie Pie was sitting in a corner looking thoroughly miffed. She was evidently on her own. “So, what is this contest that everypony keeps, well, talking about? If you don’t, um, mind telling me.”
“It’s something like a talent show,” said Silver Spoon. “We each get up and do a performance of some sort, and Miss Rarity and DJ Belle pick a winner, and then whichever soldier paid the most for the privilege that evening gets the winner as their friend for the night. It’s very prestigious, and of course the richest soldiers are the most likely to be able to take us back to Canterlot with them when the occupation is over!”
“Miss Pinkie Pie,” said Diamond Tiara, “has never won the contest.”
“Yeah, but I’m going to tonight!” said Pinkie Pie. The pink pony had seemingly teleported across the room to be right next to Fluttershy upon hearing her name, and maintained none of her displeasure from when Diamond Tiara and Silver Spoon had been deriding her earlier. “I’ve got an amazing song picked out, and Sweetie just loves singing! It’ll be great, you’ll see!”
“I’m sure it’ll be lovely?” said Fluttershy, but at that moment Rarity swept back into the room with three or four dresses floating magically in front of her.
“All right, now, darlings!” she said. “Fluttershy, I’ve been through the back closets and I’ve found some outfits I think will look just divine on you, so let’s try them on! See, I was thinking something breezy…”
In the remains of the library of Ponyville that evening sat a purple unicorn in a standard army uniform that almost concealed the four-pointed stars that made up her cutie mark. Sergeant Sparkle, or simply Twilight to her neighbors and family back home in Canterlot, had personally volunteered for the task of sorting through Ponyville’s archives in case there were any valuable or otherwise important books worth rescuing from the town. So far she was having little luck, particularly since the books had fallen down into great unorganized heaps and she was not entirely sure what she was looking for. Many of her fellow soldiers were however total boors, and she had preferred the company of the abandoned library over their own. By her side lay Spike, her rifle, against the eventuality that any of the local terrorist forces might think that a single unicorn on her own would look like easy pickings.
As she flipped dispiritedly through the pages of a slightly singed copy of the Astronomical Astronomer's Almanac to All Things Astronomy, Twilight was interrupted by Corporal Moondancer calling her name. “Sergeant Sparkle, I found another blankflank by the town outskirts!”
Twilight sighed and put the book away. “And you expect me to care… why, exactly?”
Moondancer entered, pulling with her a struggling orange unicorn filly. The filly wore what appeared to be a small tablecloth tied around her waist, making it impossible to see whether she in fact had a cutie mark or not. “Regulations, Sergeant Sparkle. I need to confirm with somepony of a higher rank before taking her away, and you were nearest. Otherwise I wouldn’t bother you.”
“I’m no blankflank!” said the orange filly. “I’ve just got this tablecloth on so you don’t have to see my cutie mark and get jealous because of how great it is!”
Twilight rolled her eyes. Like she’d never heard that one before. She focused her magic for a moment, and the tablecloth untied itself and fell away from the filly’s flank, which was indeed completely bare. “A blankflank indeed, Corporal Moondancer,” she said. “You have my authorization to take her to the camp.”
“Thank you, Sergeant Sparkle,” said Moondancer, and saluted. “Sorry to disturb you.”
“It’s all right, Corporal,” said Twilight. “Dismissed.”
As the two ponies left the library, Twilight felt her thoughts wandering to the little filly’s fate. Most of the ponies living in and around Ponyville posed no great threat to the occupation; a cutie mark for singing, or selling sofas, or telling time was unlikely to be turned to militaristic purposes, although they had initially encountered some trouble with a blue unicorn named Max or Pokey or something. The higher-ups, however, had decided that the biggest dangers were the blankflanks. Their special skills were as of yet undiscovered or undefined, and so, it was reasoned, a young pony growing up in an occupied town might well develop a talent for terrorism. Instead, on discovery they were shipped away to special internment camps set up across the neutral zone of Equestria and kept under heavy guard and surveillance. The nearest was just outside of town, built from the vast forest that had previously stood in its place.
Calling Ponyville and surrounding lands a neutral zone, of course, was ridiculous, but no better term had yet been adopted in the academic or popular journals. The land of Equestria, as every schoolfilly at the School for Gifted Unicorns was taught, was divided into two major countries: the Lunar Republic of the earth ponies in the north, and the Solar Kingdom of the unicorn ponies in the south, including the Solar Kingdom’s capitol city of Canterlot. The third race, the pegasus ponies, lived above Equestria in Cloudsdale and the other sky cities. Millennia earlier, the space between the Lunar Republic and the Solar Kingdom had been designated the “neutral zone,” where all three races of ponies could mingle and live together without fear of consequence.
However, some centuries ago the traitorous earth ponies had grown dissatisfied with their own lands and sought to expand into the neutral zone, claiming land that belonged by right to no single race. The outraged unicorn ponies had marshaled forces of their own and fought back heroically, and the war had raged on intermittently ever since then, the two sides only every now and again initiating a particularly large conflict but never truly at peace. The pegasus ponies had no clearly defined allegiance in the war, but from time to time throughout history as their rulers had changed had lent their support to one side or the other, or else to protecting the citizens and infrastructure of the neutral zone. Under their latest monarch, Queen Rainbow Dash, the pegasus ponies were officially neutral; army intelligence had however suggested that Queen Rainbow Dash had a rivalry with the high-ranking General Applejack of the earth pony forces, which the higher-ups hoped could be used to the Solar Kingdom’s advantage.
Ponyville was near the center of the neutral zone, and had not before seen much of the war, probably in part due to its predominantly earth pony population. This had changed about a year ago when the leaders of the Solar Kingdom, in an effort to demonstrate to the Lunar Republic once and for all the futility of their continued warfare, had chosen Ponyville as the location for the thousandth annual Summer Sun Celebration. This was one of the Solar Kingdom’s most cherished holidays and was therefore, in theory, a great honor to whatever town was chosen each year to host it. The Lunar Republic had resisted strongly, and so had begun the latest major conflict in the long war, beginning with a swarm of defenses-eating parasprites unleashed upon the town.
Soldiers from the Solar Kingdom, including Twilight and the rest of her company as of a few weeks ago, had occupied Ponyville for the many months since then as they struggled to defend it and themselves from the nearby earth pony forces. However, with the date of the Summer Sun Celebration only a few days away, it was becoming clearer than ever that they were losing the battle. The earth ponies knew the land far better than the occupying unicorn ponies, and had many spies within the Ponyville populace no matter how many the soldiers had thus far been able to capture and execute. Through it all, Twilight supposed, probably the greatest victims of the war were the citizens of the neutral zone themselves, but she was a soldier and they were not her concern. What use had she for a bunch of crazy ponies who chose to live with members of other races when there were duties to be performed, enemies to be defeated, and books to be read?
Even as she began once more to flip through the large astronomy book, however, she was again interrupted, this time by the more familiar voice of Colonel Celestia, a tall white unicorn with a luxurious pastel mane and tail. “Twilight Sparkle, my most faithful sergeant!”
Twilight sprung up from her seated position and saluted smartly. “At your service, Colonel Celestia.” She looked at the two ponies standing next to Celestia, and continued, “…Captain Yorsets; Lieutenant Colonel Trixie.”
“At ease, Sergeant Sparkle,” said Celestia with a smile. It was she who had given Twilight permission to search the library in the first place. “Have you found anything of interest yet?”
“Not yet, Colonel,” said Twilight, “but the night is young. I’m sure I’ll find something amazing in a few more hours; Ponyville is supposed to have been a major town within the neutral zone before our occupation, and surely that fact will be reflected in their book collection!”
“Perhaps so,” said Celestia, “but I wish you would leave that off until tomorrow, Sergeant. The three of us are going to a local – how do they put it? – “friendship emporium,” and I should love to have you with us.”
Twilight froze up for a moment. Colonel Celestia was asking her, Sergeant Sparkle, to go someplace with her? Could this show of favor indicate a potential promotion in her future, or perhaps an informal sponsorship? Colonel Celestia had already been stationed in Ponyville when Twilight had been transferred there, and the two had chanced to meet one night at a late night delicatessen whose owner had since moved away. Celestia had there told Twilight her story: she was from noble stock, and though she had risen quickly through the ranks she had found this honor little more exciting than those ascribed her at birth. She craved excitement and amusement, and while the two had not spoken too much since then, Celestia had assured Twilight that she saw great potential in the lavender sergeant.
Before Twlight could agree as enthusiastically as she could manage, however, she looked once more at the other two officers and immediately reconsidered. She did not know Captain Yorsets especially well, having respected him too much since her schoolfilly days to be able to consider him in any sense a peer, and Lieutenant Colonel Trixie, a bright blue unicorn pony with a uniform that Twilight had long suspected was rather too elaborate to be standard army issue… well, she was Lieutenant Colonel Trixie. “I thank you for your kind offer, Colonel,” she said, “but the three of you are my superiors and I’m afraid it would be improper for me to accompany you.”
“Of course it would be!” said Trixie. “No mere sergeant is fit to join Trixie on an outing! …or to join her fellow officers, either. Come, Colonel, let us go before this quant emporium becomes packed with commoners.”
“Nonsense,” said Celestia. “Sergeant, since you feel uncomfortable about accepting my kind invitation, then I shall simply order you to accompany us. I, at least, would enjoy your company, and you may think of yourself as our bodyguard if you feel honor-bound to have some sort of duty.” She glanced around the broken library with a look of great amusement. “So, Sergeant Sparkle, I order you to stop reading these dusty old books for the night, come with us, and make some friends.”
The friendship emporium looked for all the world to Twilight like a seedy bar created by somepony who had never before set hoof in a seedy bar. The bartender was far more engaged in providing the music for the dance floor than in serving drinks, and consequently had to be frequently recalled to the bar in order to perform that latter duty. The stage was lit with an assortment of colorful stage lights, but the effect was greatly diminished by the fact that the entire building was lit on its own, thus failing to provide the dark atmosphere more typically associated with such establishments. A glance at the sides of the room, where lay the remains of what Twilight guessed had been some sort of clothing store, was enough to confirm her suspicions that this building had housed something entirely different prior to the Solar Kingdom’s occupation.
The four of them were greeted at the front of the room by a stately white unicorn pony. Twilight had seen comparatively few unicorns living in Ponyville since she had arrived, largely because many of them, like Private Lyra in her own platoon, had opted to join the Solar Kingdom army. After all, their alternative was to continue trying to eke out a normal life in a devastated town while dealing with suspicions from their neighbors of being an army spy. This unicorn, however, was clearly a trained businessmare, and Twilight moreover got a sense from looking at her immaculately groomed mane and tail that she might not be so interested in army life anyway.
“Welcome!” said the white unicorn. “As I’m sure you already know, I… am Rarity. It is an honor to have such distinguished visitors – especially you, Colonel,” she finished, after casting a quick glance over their various uniforms and insignias. “I hope it will not inconvenience you all too greatly to ask from you each ten bits as the price of admission.”
“Not at all,” said Celestia, and the four army unicorns produced the money and gave it over.
“But have a care, base proprietress,” added Trixie. “Before this night is through, you shall learn that the greatest honor of them all is the patronage of Trixie the Lieutenant Colonel!”
“Is that so?” asked Rarity with a slightly fixed smile. “Well, your patronizing me is an honor, no doubt. Won’t you all make yourselves comfortable?”
Rarity melted away to one side of the room to confer with the bartender/DJ, leaving Twilight and the three officers to look around them further. The night was still young, and there were few soldiers shifting their ways across the large dance floor and none she was personally acquainted with. She could also make out four or five earth ponies, who she supposed must be the friendship workers, dancing about with various levels of enthusiasm and varying numbers of followers. The most energetic of the lot, a bright pink pony with wild mane and tail, was performing a wild dance not remotely synced to the music, and the other ponies there were leaving her a wide berth. Twilight supposed they must be endeavoring not to get kicked by her unpredictably flailing hooves.
“Ah,” said Captain Yorsets, “you shall have to excuse me, ladies. A captain always knows what he likes, and by gosh, I believe I have found it.” He set off across the room towards a somewhat darker pink pony who did not appear entirely steady on her hooves, and the two fell into earnest conversation.
“What do you think, Sergeant?” asked Celestia. “Look at all these lovely girls our gracious host is providing us with. You are sure to make a friend in no time!”
“I don’t know,” said Twilight. She was becoming increasingly uncomfortable, although she could attribute some of that to Trixie’s company. “It’s kind of loud, I mean, and I wouldn’t want to take them away from anypony who’s a little more interested…”
“Stuff!” said Celestia. “If it is loudness you are concerned with, Sergeant, I shall arrange for you to have a private room with whichever of these fine mares strikes your fancy. We are here as a group, and I will not let any of us leave this place unsatisfied. No, Sergeant Sparkle, I shall buy you a girl.”
“You can buy me a sasparilla,” said Twilight, but before they could discuss further, Rarity’s magically amplified voice rang out through the building.
“Fillies and gentlecolts!” she said, “Welcome, once again, to the friendship emporium!” There was an enthusiastic clopping of hooves from the soldiers. “It is time to present our nightly competition, and so I turn you over to my beloved sister, DJ Belle!”
“Awww yeah!” said the bartender/DJ as a hard rock riff played through the emporium. “What up, Ponyville! So here’s how this’s gonna go down: we’ve got four of our talent who are gonna perform their little hearts out up on that stage over there! Rarity an’ I are gonna decide the winner, who all night long – or even longer, if you’re feeling so inclined – will belong completely to whichever of you fine army sorts is feeling most generous tonight. Please give a warm welcome to our contestants this evening: Diamond Tiara, Silver Spoon, Bon-Bon, and Pinkie Pie!”
Once again the audience burst into applause as four of the earth pony dancers ascended to the stage, leaving only Captain Yorsets still with his pick.
“But before they perform,” said DJ Belle, “let’s see who’s prepared to spend the most for this exclusive time with the very best of our best! Do I hear ten bits?”
A yellow unicorn near the stage called out in assent, but before the bidding could continue, Trixie had swept dramatically towards DJ Belle and was making her own announcement. “Twenty bits,” she said. “You other ponies need not bother to continue tonight, for Lieutenant Colonel Trixie is here, and she shall settle for no less than the best. Bid as you will, but be advised that Trixie, in her infinite munificence, is determined to outdo your every bid!”
“Well, how about that?” asked DJ Belle. “A true patron of the arts – I guess there really is one born every minute! Come on, everypony, let’s hear some more bids!”
Twilight made her way towards the bar as the assembled soldiers began to put Trixie’s bravado and purse to the test. The bidding cleared two digits soon enough, but slowed down as ponies became less and less willing to bid larger amounts of money in case they actually might be stuck paying it. A somewhat elderly unicorn paused for several seconds before bidding 750, and Trixie too hesitated before countering with 800.
“One thousand,” said Celestia, her voice bright and clear against the background music, and Twilight saw Trixie flinch as her superior entered the bidding. She looked nervously back and forth between the two officers, but Celestia’s face was unreadable. “Eleven hundred,” said Trixie after DJ Belle coughed expectantly.
“Twelve,” said Celestia, still unflappable, and Trixie, summoning new reserves of composure, countered with thirteen. Celestia offered fifteen, Trixie sixteen, Celestia seventeen, Trixie eighteen, and then Celestia nineteen.
Twilight, along with every other pony in the room, stared expectantly at Trixie as the bright blue unicorn shuffled uneasily in front of their gaze. Certainly these higher officers received higher salaries than Twilight, but even so, Celestia and Trixie had to be gambling with several months’ income at least. Ten seconds went by in silence before DJ Belle spoke once more. “The bid stands at nineteen hundred bits! But didn’t somepony here promise to outdo every bid?”
“She did…” said Trixie. Slowly, disdainfully, she drew herself up to her full height. “She did, and Trixie the Lieutenant Colonel never goes back on her word, nor backs down from any challenger. Two thousand bits, Colonel.”
“Two thousand going once!” said DJ Belle, and out of the corner of her eye, Twilight noticed Rarity looking awed next to the stage. She returned her gaze to Celestia, but the colonel had gone silent, a small smile playing across her previously blank face. “Two thousand going twice!” said DJ Belle, “and… gone! Two thousand bits, from Lieutenant Colonel Trixie!”
Soldiers and friendship workers alike burst into thunderous applause as Trixie, with overwhelming dignity, produced the enormous sum and gave it to Rarity, who had hurried over to receive it. “And now, let’s find out who Lieutenant Colonel Trixie is going to win!” said Rarity once the room quieted down again. “First up, in honor of our many unicorn guests this evening, Diamond Tiara and Silver Spoon shall enchant you all with a joint magic performance!”
The two earth ponies started to describe their upcoming act, which would apparently range from card tricks to making the gray one with glasses and a yellow dress, Silver Spoon, disappear. Twilight took advantage of this time to obtain her sasparilla from DJ Belle, who had at last returned to the bar after the auction was complete. She wondered that Captain Yorsets and Lieutenant Colonel Trixie – and even Colonel Celestia, in her own way – could be so merry at a time like this. They were losing… if not the war, at least this particular battle. Despite the magic and superior technology of the Solar Kingdom, the earth ponies were far more numerous and had mastered a slew of guerilla techniques that Twilight and her fellow soldiers were simply not trained to combat. Corporal Moondancer was one of the few ponies brave or foolhardy enough to patrol the borders of Ponyville; most of the army preferred to remain safely within the town, where enemies would be more visible and the various ruined buildings could be used for cover. And there was a rumor – nopony knew where it had started, or whether it could be trusted – that the great earth pony general, Applejack, would soon be marching on Ponyville. What was there to celebrate?
Twilight had enrolled at the School for Gifted Unicorns in Canterlot at a young age, to the immeasurable pride of her parents. She had been fumbling with the entrance exam, which Captain Yorsets among others had administered, when a loud explosion coupled with an enormous rainbow filling the outside sky had startled her into new depths of magical talent and bequeathed her cutie mark to her besides. Later she would determine that the colorful explosion had been caused by the famous Rainbow Dash ascending to the queenship of the pegasus ponies, but at the time, it had been enough that it was a catalyst for her true magical awakening.
She had learned many things at school, of magic and of other subjects, but most importantly, she had learned of the glory of the Solar Kingdom and its great accomplishments throughout history. She grew to appreciate the strength and magic of the unicorn ponies, to respect the mysterious pegasus ponies from afar, and to scorn the lowly earth ponies and their warlike natures. When the military had made its latest call for new recruits, she and her schoolmate Colgate and dozens of others had quickly applied with a bright youthful idealism that had died the instant an enemy’s shot found its target and Colgate was splattered across the nearby trees like an oversqueezed tube of toothpaste.
Since then the war had lost much of its glamour, culminating in her transfer to Ponyville, a doomed operation where they had not yet even begun the preparations for the Summer Sun Celebration they were supposedly there to set up. She still respected the honor of the military, and certain of her officers, particularly Colonel Celestia, but above all she just wanted to get out of there. She had long since ceased to see the countless nameless inhabitants as real ponies: they were statistics at best and potential enemies at worst. And yet here she was, in the heart of Ponyville, supposed to be looking for a friend among the natives.
The magic act on stage finished, to polite applause, and the one named Bon-Bon, a white pony with curly hair, got up next. There was a deep sadness in her bright blue eyes, and Twilight began to pay attention despite herself.
“Good evening, everypony,” said Bon-Bon, and a few of the soldiers replied jeeringly. She ignored them. “I am going to dance for you tonight. I apologize that there will be no musical accompaniment, but… well, you will understand why there is none. But if you are so inclined, I ask that you imagine the most beautiful music you have ever heard, played on a lyre that was – that is – neither gaudy nor ordinary, but simply right in every way.”
DJ Belle’s record ended, and Bon-Bon began to move across the stage. It wasn’t quite ballet, but that was the best word for it that Twilight could think of. Even though Bon-Bon was a simple earth pony, with no unicorn magic of her own, Twilight found herself able to follow the story the dance told.
At first the dance was graceful and predictable, following a series of rules internalized perfectly by the dancer. Bon-Bon kept strictly to the center of the stage, gazing straight ahead as her hooves and body twisted about in a long series of beautifully practiced motions. From time to time she would falter, only to return to the series of movements once again, each time stricter and more considered than before.
Then in an instant the entire preceding dance fell away as Bon-Bon rose up on her hind legs, her previous poise gone as she gazed transfixed about the world around her, stumbling back and forth on her hindhooves while she spun slowly around to take it all in. Only once she had made a complete circle did she sink back down to all fours, a sad smile growing on her face. She bounded across the stage, leaving behind the safe circle in the middle that she had stuck to exclusively before. Though there was no music, Twilight could feel the dancer’s inner tempo increasing while she tested each corner of the stage, looking out in each direction, utterly fascinated. A little invisible house began to grow on the stage as Bon-Bon playfully mimed setting up one thing after another, invisible tools and invisible furniture and invisible walls. The house complete, Bon-Bon stood upright once more, stretched her forehooves in front of her, and for one long second mimed the playing of an instrument.
In a moment she fled from the center of the stage, only to reappear seconds later with the full dignity from the first act of the dance. She began to repeat the same graceful movements from before, slowly approaching the center of the stage until she crashed into one of the invisible walls she had set up earlier. The theme of exploration resumed, but this time and graceful and dedicated to exploring the invisible house instead of the edges of the stage. Then, and Twilight was not completely sure how, for there was certainly only the one pony on the stage, Bon-Bon seemed to meet herself, and the two personalities of the dance, the proper and the excited, began to alternate rapidly as Bon-Bon began to explore not the stage, or even its imaginary furnishings, but somehow herself. A hoof was extended and then marveled at – a graceful pirouette was started, only to be halted halfway through and then replicated unsuccessfully but enthusiastically – until slowly, gradually, the two personalities merged into one, averaged out from the two extremes. With a series of quick motions, Bon-Bon sped across the stage, dispelling the intangible artifacts and walls of the house until there was nothing on stage but the pony, dancing, only dancing.
The precise choreography from the beginning of the dance was still there, but less careful and more curious. Sequences of steps fell out of order only to rearrange themselves in strangely pleasant new patterns; rules that had until then constrained her movements unfailingly became noticed, questioned, and in some cases discarded; the edges of the stage became once more a source of fascination, but now that exploration had developed coordination, and the results of each exploration, of each discovery, became incorporated into the dance as she continued to move and move and move.
At last this stage too came to a close as Bon-Bon rose once more to her hindhooves and began slowly to waltz alone, taking a step backwards, a step to the side, forwards, to the side again, and so on, revolving slowly around with forehooves clasped about her unseeable partner. The waltz grew ever slower until at last Bon-Bon froze utterly in place for five long seconds. Then she opened her eyes and smiled, and began to walk, fascinated, towards the audience, a hoof extended in greeting; then her body stiffened and the extended hoof became one not of greeting but of supplication; then at once the dance ended and there was only Bon-Bon, a simple earth pony, lying sobbing on the stage for all to see. The applause, when it came, was long and loud, but it was not for many long moments after the stomping of hooves had died away that Bon-Bon was able to lift herself to her hooves and walk from the stage.
Twilight had not noticed Celestia beside her until the colonel spoke to her. “What do you think, faithful sergeant?” she asked.
Twilight hesitated, bewildered. “I don’t understand,” she said at last. “I feel… loss. Grief, unfairness, but mostly loss. I remember Canterlot, my parents, Colgate and her smile… but it was only a dance, and only an earth pony, and we are at war. Surely I shouldn’t be feeling these things.”
Celestia smiled broadly. “Why, Sergeant! Are you beginning to believe in the magic of friendship?”
“I don’t know… surely a performance like that must have come from more than mere friendship alone?”
“Well, perhaps,” said Celestia. “Isn’t it glorious, Sergeant? Such passion, such devotion among these natives; you will find none of this among our dreary cohorts! I am so glad we came here tonight! But don’t worry, I suspect this next act should cheer you up a little…”
“Our last performance of the evening,” said Rarity, “is Pinkie Pie, who will be singing for us… ah, Pinkie Pie, dear, I can’t read your writing.”
“I can’t either!” said the bright pink pony that Twilight had noticed when she first entered the friendship emporium. “But don’t worry, it’ll be totally great! Just watch! It’s a song all about how taking a little leap of faith sometimes can get you where you want to go in life! Oh, it’s not very far; just move your little rump!”
Fluttershy watched Pinkie Pie’s performance silently from the doorway into the back room. She had been too frightened to join the other five earth ponies when Rarity had called for them at the start of the evening. Her dress was long and green, with flowers strewn along the hemline and throughout her mane, and Rarity had even been able to find some blue butterfly earrings to complement her cutie mark. Diamond Tiara and Silver Spoon had been grudgingly impressed by how well it fit her, and Fluttershy had been very embarrassed and grateful, but Rarity had graciously assured her that it was all part of the “investment.”
She had not dared venture forth from the back room until she heard Bon-Bon speak, at which point curiosity had overcome her and she had peeked out to see what the sad pony would do for the contest. From there she had become enraptured, and crept slowly forward as the dance progressed until she was standing almost fully out of the room by the time Pinkie Pie began. The pink pony was singing an infectiously cheery song about jumping – “a hop, skip, and a jump,” she repeated continuously – and Fluttershy felt her hooves beginning to respond. Rarity had made it clear that part of becoming friends with the frightening soldiers was dancing, after all, and what was dancing but jumping? Certainly Bon-Bon could do better, but for poor Fluttershy, jumping was bound to be enough.
She had just managed all three successfully – a hop, a skip, and a jump – when she realized in a moment of terror that anypony could be watching her. She immediately flattened herself against the back wall and stared frantically about the dance floor. There were a terrifying number of unicorn ponies in the room, but most were either engaged in conversation or staring up at Pinkie Pie, who had now begun to bounce about the stage by way of visual illustration. Only one pony seemed to be looking at her: a purple unicorn mare about her own age with a green rifle strapped to her side, standing at the bar beside a taller white unicorn with an unbelievable mane and tail. As she watched, the taller unicorn gave the purple one a push with one hoof, and the purple one stumbled for a moment before walking slowly straight towards Fluttershy.
Fluttershy, still flat against the wall, reviewed her options in a panic. She could stay there. She could go hide in the back room, but the purple unicorn would notice and then could follow her. She could make a break for it and maybe get out of the building without being apprehended, but she was wearing the dress Rarity had given her, and that would be stealing. Rarity had brought her here and was feeding and housing her so that she could befriend some of the soldiers, and so running away now would be, besides theft, a betrayal. If she wanted to keep living here, somehow she was going to have to be the best friend ever.
“Hello,” said the purple unicorn. “I am Sergeant Twilight Sparkle. Uh, so, what’s your name?”
“Um,” said Fluttershy as her resolve melted away. Somehow she had forgotten that being a soldier’s friend would probably involve talking to them. “I’m Fluttershy,” she managed in little more than a whisper.
The purple unicorn – Sergeant Twilight Sparkle – leant in closer. “I’m sorry, what was that?”
“Uh… my name is, um, Fluttershy?”
“Didn’t quite catch that,” said the sergeant, with a forced grin.
Fluttershy tried desperately to become smaller and even flatter against the wall. After a moment, she realized she had been forgetting to breathe and exclaimed “Fluttershy!” with a frantic gasp of air.
“Ooookay then,” said the sergeant. “It’s quite the pleasure to make your acquaintance, Fluttershy.” She waited, but Fluttershy could not come up with anything to say in response. “So, uh, this is a friendship emporium, and as far as I can tell you are a…n employee here, and my superior officer back there has taken it into her head that I must make a friend tonight before I may leave. Clearly, then, I must ask: would you like to be my friend?”
Oh god this was all going so fast! “…yes?”
“Great!” There was a long silence as they stared at one another. “So,” asked the sergeant at last, “are you… thirsty? Can I get you anything from the bar?”
“Oh just water is fine please thank you!” said Fluttershy all in a rush, and the sergeant walked back towards the bar, perhaps a little too fast.
On the stage Pinkie Pie’s song had ended, and Rarity once more spoke out to the entire room. “And that, my dears, is our show for the evening. I hope you’ll all agree that we’ve seen some very talented ponies tonight, and it has been a tremendously difficult decision for me and my sister. However, we are unanimously committed to ensuring that our valued patron, Lieutenant Colonel Trixie, get precisely what she deserves tonight, and so we proclaim the winner of tonight’s little contest to be… Pinkie Pie, for her stellar comedic performance!”
There was a smattering of applause, and Pinkie Pie looked ecstatic. In an instant a light blue unicorn with an incredibly elaborate uniform, who Fluttershy supposed must be the Lieutenant Colonel, advanced onto the stage and lifted Pinkie Pie into the air. Fluttershy hoped the pink pony would be all right; Trixie, if that was indeed she, did not look like a very nice pony to be around. Trixie bore Pinkie Pie with her through an elegant arched doorway in the back of the building, and the door closed behind them with a flourish and a slam.
Fluttershy looked cautiously around to see what her comrades were up to. Bon-Bon had retreated from the stage and was lying quietly in the side of the room; several unicorns were gazing in her direction but had not yet worked up the courage to approach her. Fluttershy smiled sympathetically at their worry, and then noticed Berry Punch not far away from her, next to a somewhat older unicorn, doing… oh. She blushed scarlet and tried to distract herself by staring at Diamond Tiara as the younger pony railed about her loss to any unicorn who would listen to her. Certainly Berry Punch had been enjoying herself, but still, Fluttershy hoped doing that wasn’t really part of what friendship meant.
The next thing she knew, Rarity was at her side beaming. “Fluttershy, darling!” she said. “I don’t know what you’re doing, but it is working! Such an impact on that lavender unicorn, on your very first night; I am awestruck!”
Fluttershy blinked. “Um, we just… talked?”
“Well, of course you did, darling! But you know, that Colonel she is with just spoke to me after the contest, and she has reserved a private room for the two of you tonight. Here, take this key; just bring your new friend up those stairs there, and it will be the first room on the left.”
“Room…?” Fluttershy thought again of Berry Punch’s antics and squirmed uncomfortably.
“Oh, yes. The two of you will be able to cement your friendship all night long, with nopony else to interrupt you! I am so glad I found you, dearest; I have a feeling you are going to be very big here!”
“…” Desperately, Fluttershy latched on to the most concrete problem she could think of. “Um, how do I, uh, the key…?”
“Oh, just have your new unicorn friend open the door for you,” said Rarity as she turned to leave. “They have magic, you know, and isn’t that what chivalry is all about? Now just call her by her name, be warm and open, and you’ll do fabulously. Remember, we’re all rooting for you! Ta ta!”
Rarity was gone in a flash of purple mane, and soon Sergeant Twilight Sparkle had returned, levitating a small glass of water in front of her. Fluttershy accepted the glass and pressed it clumsily to her mouth. “Thank you, Twi – Serg—Twilight,” she managed.
“No problem, Miss Fluttershy,” said Twilight.
“Oh, um, if you please, just Fluttershy is fine. After all,” she tried for a moment to channel Rarity’s supreme confidence, “friends are warm and open with one another and just use each other’s names!”
Twilight looked at her funny. “Well, okay then. So! I… like your dress.”
“Oh, thank you,” said Fluttershy. “Your army uniform is very… frightening.” She blushed, and the two stood in awkward silence for another while.
“So, uhh… what’s that thing on the ground?” asked Twilight eventually, pointing at the key Rarity had left.
“Oh yes! Um, it’s a key, to a room? Upstairs? Um, it’s very loud down here with the music, and Rarity said we could talk better in private.”
“Well… all right, then,” said Twilight, “lead the way.” They ascended the stairs, Twilight muttering something about busybody commanding officers. The unicorn’s magic was able to fit the key into the lock and open the first door on the left in no time, and the two ponies stepped nervously into their private room.
The room was much less sterile than Fluttershy had expected. The bedcovers were piled haphazardly on one corner of the bed, suggesting that whoever had last slept there had thrown them hastily to the side, and they bore an intricate music note pattern. The desks and shelves in the room were similarly untidy, littered with records and sheet music, and the screen on the window was broken in several places. Fluttershy’s attention was caught by two photographs on the wall: the first showed an orange pegasus pony with a short purple mane, grinning rakishly at the camera; the other was of an off-white unicorn, somewhat older than Rarity, with a bright blue mane and wearing the same big sunglasses that DJ Belle had been wearing downstairs. Across the bottom of the photograph was scrawled “Keep the beat alive, kiddo – V.S.”
“I guess this is Sweetie Belle’s room,” said Fluttershy half to herself.
“Oh! Sorry, I mean DJ Belle, I guess. Pinkie Pie – the pony who won the contest – I think she said that was DJ Belle’s real name.”
“That’s weird,” said Twilight. “Wonder why Rarity would give us her sister’s bedroom.”
“Maybe, um, they don’t have that many rooms?” said Fluttershy. “Um, I think this building used to be for something else.”
“Yeah, probably a clothing store. I guess our proprietress down there didn’t always spend her time who—sorry, spend her time promoting friendship between natives and soldiers.”
Fluttershy nodded. Talking about other ponies was something she could do. “No, I guess not.”
“So… how about you, then?”
“Meep?” Fluttershy blushed again and cleared her throat. “Uh, I mean… me?”
“Well, Rarity probably used to work selling or designing clothes or something. Before I joined the Solar Kingdom army, I was a part-time librarian. War changes ponies. How about you? Were you always, well, a friendship worker?”
“Oh, no,” said Fluttershy, not familiar enough with the term to have a sense of why Twilight had hesitated to say it. “This is my first day. Um, I’m very sorry if I’m not very good yet.”
“No, no, you had me totally fooled.”
Fluttershy perked up. “Really?”
“…well, okay, not really,” said Twilight, and looked away. “Still, I don’t get it. Why would you become a friendship worker if you’re so scared of army uniforms?”
“I didn’t really have anywhere else to go,” said Fluttershy, shrugging. The number of questions that Twilight was asking her was getting scary, but there was something strangely kind about the purple unicorn that helped her get over her fear enough to answer them. If nothing else, there was no hint of her having to imitate what Berry Punch had been doing. “This, um, is only my first day in Ponyville too, you see, and I don’t know anypony here.”
Twilight furrowed her brow. “Sounds like a pretty raw deal to me. Why would you come to a town where you don’t know a single soul?”
“Oh, no, you don’t want to hear my story,” said Fluttershy, trying to retreat behind her hair. “I mean, um, you’re a soldier, and I’m sure you’ve had plenty of miserable ponies crying at your hooves, you don’t need one more tale…”
“Actually, they don’t tend to talk to me very much,” said Twilight. “I think the threatening rifle probably has something to do with it! It’s pretty great.” She stopped as Fluttershy stared in terror at the firearm still strapped to her side, and her expression softened. “What I mean to say, though, is that we’re supposed to be friends now, right? And I think friends tell each other about their lives. It said so in a book that I read once.”
“Well… all right,” said Fluttershy, and began her story. It was hard at first, but as she went on, the feeling of being able to tell somepony else about the events that had burdened her all the way to Ponyville actually made her feel a little better. “I’m from some miles east of here, um, just above a mountain. You see… I used to be a pegasus pony.
“My parents were dew farmers on the top of the mountain, and every morning we would all three fly down from our home in Skyros. They would make sure the dew production was running smoothly, and I would take care of all the local birds and other animals. That’s how I got my butterfly cutie mark, taking care of the animals.
“One day I was just a little ways down the mountain, patching up a deer with a broken leg, and I heard shouting. A bunch of soldiers from the Solar Kingdom had found my parents harvesting the dew, and because they were on the ground, they… they must have thought my parents lived in the neutral zone, not in Skyros. And my parents…” she stopped for a moment while the painful images washed through her, not yet daring to look up at Twilight. “I could recognize my parents as ponies. But… that was it. They were unrecognizable. Their faces, their cutie marks, all gone. They were just bodies abandoned by soldiers who didn’t care.
“Before I could escape, the soldiers had noticed me. They said they were on a secret mission, and if they let me go, I might fly away and warn whomever they were attacking. They would have killed me too, but their leader felt sorry for me, so instead… they tore off my wings and left me to fend for myself.
“After they went away, my animals found me and took care of me instead of me taking care of them. Somehow they were able to fix my sides so I wouldn’t bleed to death, but I couldn’t stay there forever. It was the top of a mountain and there wasn’t food like there was in Skyros. So… I walked to Ponyville, because it was the closest town I could see, but it was just as bad here as everywhere else, with all the soldiers everywhere. And then Rarity found me and let me work here. And, um, that’s my story, I guess.”
She looked at Twilight, who stared back at her, confused. “I don’t understand,” said the purple unicorn. “Why would they do such a thing…?”
Fluttershy looked sadly back at the floor. “They’re soldiers,” she said. “It’s what they do. Um, no offense.”
“But, but… no, you’re right,” said Twilight after a moment. “That is what we do. We have a camp for foals whose crime is being blank, and I sent one there just earlier today. But… I’ve never felt bad about that before. Fluttershy, we’re the heroes, don’t you understand? We’re trying to protect you – well, protect the ponies of the neutral zone – from the Lunar Republic. If a few ponies here or there die in the process, that’s unavoidable!”
Fluttershy felt emotion brimming within her. She raised her eyes from the floor and stared angrily at the pony wearing the uniform of the soldiers who had killed her parents and ripped off her wings. “You,” she said, “are the heroes?”
Fluttershy walked over to Twilight and stared her right in the face. The purple unicorn cowered. “I’ve heard the history!” she said, enraged. “The neutral zone was peaceful once. Anypony could live with anypony else, like me and… like me and my animals! But the unicorns from the Solar Kingdom weren’t happy with that, and tried to take the land from the neutral zone for themselves, and the Lunar Republic came to the defense, and there’s been war ever since! How does starting this awful war make you the heroes?”
Twilight fell backwards to the floor from the intensity of Fluttershy’s anger, landing hard on the rifle still strapped to her flank. In an instant Fluttershy had calmed down and was apologizing for causing her to fall, but Twilight ignored her, the yellow pony’s previous words still ringing in her ears. The Solar Kingdom… responsible for the long war? The Lunar Republic… came to the defense of the neutral zone?
Ever since she’d been a little schoolfilly, she’d learned that the Solar Kingdom was the only thing standing in the way of the neutral zone’s being overrun by cruel Lunar forces. Heroic paintings, grand essays, and inspiring teachers had all reminded her of this basic fact… although, a part of her insisted, those very painters, writers, and teachers had all been unicorns themselves, with every interest in maintaining the honor of their nation and subspecies. She had no way of refuting the idea that these constant reminders – in retrospect, perhaps a little too constant? – had been made by ponies just as fooled as she had been, or worse, who had deliberately manufactured the story as a useful fiction.
And having heard Fluttershy’s story of the wrongs inflicted on ponies who hadn’t actually even been natives of the neutral zone, Twilight was no longer sure what precisely she was supposed to have been fighting for in the first place. Ponyville and the land surrounding it were, put politely, a warzone, the ponies living there far worse off than they had been before the occupation. Her eye wandered to the photos on the wall that had earlier captured Fluttershy’s attention. Where was that overconfident orange pegasus now? Still in Ponyville, where she would have no future? Fled, leaving DJ Belle behind her? Or had she suffered another fate? Whom had that one pony from the contest lost, that provoked such a heartfelt dance? And all this in a town they had occupied and unleashed parasprites upon only so that they could stage a holiday celebration in order to anger the Lunar Republic.
She rose unsteadily to her hooves and looked at Fluttershy. Perhaps there was at least one thing in this crazy war that she could fix. She concentrated, feeling her unicorn magics collecting in her horn, and noticed Fluttershy stepping back in alarm as her forehead began to glow. Slowly, Twilight worked her way through the steps of the complicated spell, feeling untested reserves of her power rising up to meet her call. She gathered it all together, shaped it, and let it forth… and nothing happened. The glow faded softly away as Twilight stood there defeated.
“Um,” said Fluttershy, “what was that?”
“Nothing,” said Twilight, pawing bitterly at the floor. “I tried to cast a spell to give you back your wings, but it didn’t work. I found it in a book once, but it’s very complicated, and I might have known I didn’t have the special training to pull it off… it’s meant to be used on earth ponies and unicorns, and I thought that your already having had wings before would make it easier or more effective or something, but I guess that wasn’t enough.”
“Oh,” said Fluttershy, and went quiet.
“Some big magician soldier I am, huh?” asked Twilight. “We kill your parents, destroy your countryside, and I don’t even have the skill to put your wings back. I can’t blame you for not being impressed.”
“Wait, no, I didn’t mean it that way!” said Fluttershy. “It’s just… that’s the nicest thing anypony’s ever done for me. Well, tried to do anyway, but, um, I think it’s about the same thing.”
“Oh,” repeated Twilight, and they were silent again. “Uh, have you never... had a friend before?”
“Only Angel, and… I’d rather not talk about him, actually, if that’s okay.”
“Um, how about you?”
Fluttershy, understandably, looked confused. “What’s that?”
“Who,” said Twilight, and sat back down on the floor. “She and I went to school together, and enlisted at the same time. We weren’t exactly what you'd call friends, I guess – I was always too busy with my books for that – but she tried to include me in everything anyway.
“One day we were stationed for the night just outside someplace called Appleloosa, and there was this big apple orchard. Our commanding officer told us not to touch anything, but Colgate was still hungry, and she wanted to go eat some fresh apples. I was worried that the Appleloosans might not like that, but she said that we were soldiers of the Solar Kingdom, the heroes of Equestria, and they’d be honored to have us eating some of their produce. And nopony could ever resist her smile, so I went along.
“Anyway, it turned out she was wrong, and they weren’t honored at all. There were a bunch of them waiting just in case any of us tried to take their apples, and when they saw the two of us, they opened fire. I made it back to the camp, and, well, Colgate didn’t. That’s all. Ever since then I guess I’ve been a bit… insensitive to the affairs of the neutral zone natives.”
Fluttershy sat down beside Twilight and gently nuzzled her flank. “I’m sorry about your, um…”
“Whatever she was, yes,” said Twilight. “Thank you for your sympathy. I suppose I’m not exactly the best qualified pony to walk into a friendship emporium.”
“Well, you made a friend, at least,” said Fluttershy.
“Really? Even though I’m… a soldier?”
“Really.” Fluttershy smiled shyly from behind her long pink hair. “I don’t know if you think so, but, um, you’re nice, really. You’re kind of like a porcupine; you have all these sharp points, but lots of them are just for defense. And on the inside, you’re like anypony else… somepony just needs to care about you.”
Twilight felt herself sliding back into her habitual skepticism. “And, so, what, is that somepony you?”
“If you’ll let me,” said Fluttershy, before yawning widely. “But, um, if it’s all right, I’d like to sleep first. I’ve had a really long day.”
“That’s fine,” said Twilight, and eyed DJ Belle’s untidy bed. “I think we can both fit, if you don’t mind?”
“Not at all,” said Fluttershy, with another shy smile. She climbed heavily onto the bed and began rearranging the discarded covers. “Goodnight, Twilight.”
Twilight focused a small portion of her magic on the light hung from the ceiling, and it went out. “Goodnight, Fluttershy,” she said, and eased herself onto the other side of the bed after removing her rifle to lean it against the wall.
Sleep, however, did not come easily to the baffled sergeant. A few short hours ago, she’d nearly had life figured out. The occupation of Ponyville had been unsuccessful, and soon, likely in a week or two, they would be withdrawn. Her term of deployment would be over, and if she chose, she could return to the safe life of part-time librarian in Canterlot. She had not yet decided whether she would choose to do so; on the one hoof, the war held no further appeal to her, but on the other, she had read too many accounts of ponies who had returned from the war only to find their old lives no longer fit them. Such veterans lived in constant paranoia, mistaking each cracked leaf beneath their hooves for a sudden attack and unable to relate to their former friends and lovers who had not shared their experiences. Twilight prided herself as being made of sterner stuff than that, but it was nevertheless a fear she had never been able to banish completely.
Now everything was turned around. Her one constant reassurance – that she was fighting on the side of justice – had been dispelled. She had begun to feel remorse for the atrocities committed by her fellow soldiers upon the residents of the neutral zone. In the library, she had hoped that Colonel Celestia’s favor might be an indication of a promotion on the way, but she was no longer sure that was even something she wanted. All she really wanted was to spend more time with the only pony whom she could truly count as a friend. She’d heard such feelings described mockingly as “going native,” but she knew that if she left now – snuck away in the dead of night, retreated into their base in city hall, and not met with anypony else until she had returned to Canterlot – there would come a time that Fluttershy would be the only thing she would remember of the war.
Remember, though, was too weak a word. She thought back to Bon-Bon’s long dance and the emotions it had awoken in her. It was that feeling of loss she would have, only firsthoof. If – when – she left, the earth pony forces would doubtless accept the wingless Fluttershy as one of their own, and Twilight would never see her again. If that was how it had to be, then at least she could spend some time exploring this new concept of friendship. Still not satisfied, but at least with a plan for the morning, Twilight drifted off to sleep.
Fluttershy stared blearily at her excited companion. “You’re going to write to whom now?”
“Colonel Celestia,” said Twilight, “one of the officers I came in with last night. I’ll explain that I want to spend some more time with you before going back to my post.”
“What about my job?” asked Fluttershy. “I mean, um, Rarity is a very kind employer, but she can’t just feed me for nothing. I have to go out tonight and make more friends, or…”
Twilight grinned. “Don’t worry about that! I don’t have thousands of bits to throw around like the Lieutenant Colonel” – Fluttershy tilted her head, confused – “but surely I can afford to pay Rarity whatever it takes to secure your company a little longer. This is important! I can’t just leave right away, I need to talk to you more!”
“If you say so,” said Fluttershy, still suspecting she had missed something somewhere. “So, um, how are you going to write to her…?”
Twilight pulled some paper, a small feather pen, and a thin vial of something green out of the satchel that was slung around her rifle. “This is how we communicate in the army,” she said, “we write letters and expose them to little bursts of dragon fire, and the letters get sent to anypony we please. I only have enough fire for two messages, but that should be more than enough.”
Fluttershy watched hesitantly as Twilight composed her letter. Colonel Celestia, it read,
I have stored up a significant number of days of leave since beginning service, and I intend to start using them indefinitely in this place while I study the magic of friendship. I shall find a way to remain updated so that I will know when we begin withdrawal from Ponyville in the event that our plans for the Summer Sun Celebration fall through. Thank you for insisting that I accompany the three of you last night,
- Sergeant Twilight Sparkle
Her letter complete, Twilight exposed the paper to about half of the green fire from within the vial, and Fluttershy watched in amazement as it vanished away. “That’s amazing!” she said. “Did you say that was, um, dragon fire?”
“Yes! We in the army actually keep a number of medium-sized dragons around as transport when we need ponies taken to or from a location quickly. They’re old enough that they can fly and support our weights, but young enough that we can control them. Why?”
“Oh… nothing, really. I’m just afraid of dragons.”
“There’s really nothing to be afraid of,” said Twilight, and then frowned. “Well, actually I guess there’s quite a bit to be afraid of, but the ones we have are perfectly safe. I mean, if there was any risk, do you think we’d be able to harvest their magic fire like that?”
“I guess not,” said Fluttershy, but before she could say more there was a pop in the air in front of them and another letter fell to the ground, this one longer than the first. Twilight picked it up and read it aloud.
“Sergeant Sparkle: I am delighted to learn of your success in finding a friend and staving off the drudgery of army routine, but I am afraid there is no longer any time for such pursuits. Here, since you evidently have not yet found some other means of ‘remaining updated,’ is the news since you have been on the moon.
“Ponyville is no longer a secure location. We have received word from army intelligence that General Applejack is marching on us in force and shall likely arrive within twenty-four hours. Moreover, it seems that the question of her rivalry with the queen of the pegasus ponies has been resolved, and Queen Rainbow Dash has decided where her true loyalties lie. Her pledges of neutrality have been annulled, and she will be sending an elite squad of Wonderbolt troops to aid in General Applejack’s takeover if need be.
“We do not have the forces to stage a defense here in Ponyville, and so shall begin evacuation as soon as possible. Understandably, all leave must be canceled unless anypony seriously wishes to remain here and test the mercy of the earth ponies. Dragons will begin arriving in roughly two hours time to collect us, at which point all ponies must be assembled and all belongings collected. It’s really too bad that this was not the proper time for you to discover friendship, but if everything works out, at least you shall be back in Canterlot in time for the true Summer Sun Celebration. I expect to see you here at city hall shortly. Yours, Colonel Celestia.”
Fluttershy looked at Twilight and saw only devastation in the purple unicorn’s face. “You have to go, you know,” she said.
Twilight looked back at her, obviously panicked. “No,” she said, “I can stay here! I’m sick of the army!”
“You’re a unicorn pony from the Solar Kingdom. They’d never believe you were here in peace.”
Twilight slumped down to the floor. “You’re right, of course. But what do I do? I can’t just… leave you here.”
“Why not?” asked Fluttershy, sitting down to join her once again. “Without my wings to show I’m a pegasus, I’ll probably be, um, fine. Why am I so important to you?”
“Because you’re my friend!”
Fluttershy smiled despite herself. Still, that wasn’t going to get the unicorn out of Ponyville alive. “But, um, Twilight, how can you be sure? You said yourself that you’d never really had a friend before…”
Twilight turned to her in excitement, her eyes big. “No, Fluttershy, I can prove this! Listen! Do you know why I always did so much reading in school, instead of spending all my time with Colgate and everypony else? Why I bury myself in libraries every chance I get?” Fluttershy shook her head. “Because they’re authorities! It’s the same reason I respect Colonel Celestia so much – you can trust what they say, what she says. They’re a real source of knowledge.
“But here’s the thing: I never felt that away about other ponies my own age. What could another pony as old as me, or even younger, possibly have to teach me about the world? Or even if they did know something, what were the odds I couldn’t just find that same thing in a book, but better written? Reading is – was – just a more efficient use of my time than talking to other ponies about their hobbies or what they had for lunch that day or all that other nonsense.
“You’re different than that, Fluttershy! You told me about the real history of this war; you’ve given me emotions I’ve never felt before; you even told me I was nice, like a porcupine! No book in the world would have given me any of that, and I can’t wait to find out what else you have in store.”
Fluttershy hesitated. “You want to be my friend… so you can study me?”
“No! Okay, yeah, I guess that’s pretty much what all that stuff I just said sounded like. But it’s not just facts and figures! Captain Yorsets could have told me about how the earth ponies are just trying to save the neutral zone from us; that Bon-Bon girl with her dance made me feel emotions too; hay, Trixie could tell me I was like a porcupine if she wanted to! But that’s all for a different reason. They’d tell me things because I asked about them, or they had some selfish use for my knowing them, or whatever. But you tell me things – even when you’re angry at me! – because you just think that I, as a pony, for myself, should know them. Just to be nice.
“That’s how you’re different, Fluttershy. That’s the missing element that makes you, and not all those other ponies, my friend. The element of kindness.”
“Oh,” said Fluttershy simply. She was still worried that Twilight was going very fast, but she had to admit that neither of them had very much time left to figure out what they were going to do. “I… you’re nice, too,” she said. “You, um, you ask me questions, and that scares me, but I know you do it because you really do want to know about me. And… maybe that’s not quite the same thing as what you said, but maybe it’s a kind of friendship too? Um, I think maybe you need to get all these facts inside you, get them all organized, so you can… can make something more from the parts?” She reached slowly for words, trying to figure out her friend and describe her findings simultaneously.
Twilight beamed. “See, Fluttershy, I don’t even understand everything you just said and I know I want you to say more of it! Come on, I’ve got another idea!”
“What is it?”
“You can come with me! Don’t just waste your life as a friendship worker, making nice to any old pony who walks through this place; come live with me, in Canterlot! What do you say?”
“I…” Fluttershy stared at Twilight in hopes of finding an answer in the unicorn’s face. There was that frightening enthusiasm, those high expectations, but behind it all was something she had seen before in the faces of her parents: a look of complete faith in her. She thought back to the day before, and how Rarity had insisted that being taken to Canterlot was the very reason to work for her. Rarity, she knew, would jump at a chance to go to Canterlot regardless of the conditions, and while she knew nothing about the place herself, here was a pony – a friend – who wanted her there beside her. “What… would I do there?” she asked.
Twilight shrugged happily. “Anything! You could probably become a gardener, that’s kind of like taking care of animals… or I know this one photographer who I bet would love to make you a fashion model… the point is, Canterlot isn’t a war-torn ruin like this place, it’s a land of opportunity! And I’ll be right there beside you to help if you need it.”
Fluttershy finally allowed the unicorn’s excitement to infect her as well. She smiled. “All right,” she said, “I’ll come with you. But, um… how?”
Twilight was back up on her hooves and composing a new letter in a trice. “We’ll just get you a ticket! That’s how ponies who aren’t born in the Solar Kingdom are allowed to enter it: a unicorn sponsor acquires a ticket for them. I’ll write to Colonel Celestia and ask her to pull a few strings and get you one; meeting you was all her idea, after all, so she owes me that much.”
The time after Twilight’s second letter was sent, using the last of her dragon fire, was spent in silent trepidation, the two ponies not daring to look at each other while they waited. After an eternity another letter appeared in the air in front of them, and Twilight rushed forward to read it.
“Sergeant Sparkle,” she read, “I knew there was a reason you appealed to me that night in the deli. Such passion and high adventure almost makes this whole occupation worthwhile, don’t you think? I have certain connections with our resident ticket master, and I should able to procure you a ticket from him, though only one. Be inside city hall, where I will give the ticket to you, near the end of the evacuation. If, when all soldiers are accounted for, we have enough dragons to transport all of them and some civilians in addition, we will be able to open the doors to those civilians whom ticket-bearing soldiers can vouch for. While I do not know how many dragons will be sent, and can therefore make no promises, I know you join me in faith that your friendship shall persevere against all odds. See you soon. Yours in excitement, Colonel Celestia.”
Twilight looked up from the letter triumphantly. “This’ll work, I just know it!” she said. “I have to go rejoin the troops now, but you just be at city hall in an hour and a half and I’ll be able to get you out of here!”
“All right,” said Fluttershy, dazed. “Um, we should go downstairs and explain everything to Rarity, um, if she’s here right now.”
Twilight agreed, and the two ponies made up the bed so that it looked much neater than it had when they had arrived. The unicorn gathered up her belongings from beside the bed, and they made their way downstairs, leaving the key behind them. The main room looked just like it had the day before when Fluttershy had first arrived; the floor was swept clean, the bar was stocked but empty of life, and there was generally no sign of the soldiers or dancers the night before. “Rarity?” asked Fluttershy.
“She’s gone out looking for more girls,” said a sullen voice that she almost recognized, and Fluttershy turned. At first the pony sitting on the floor did not appear familiar, but then she looked at the cutie mark on the pony’s flank and gasped. “Pinkie Pie?” she asked, and noticed Twilight also gasp beside her as she drew the same connection.
The pony nodded. Her formerly massive mane and tail had gone completely straight and hung lifeless from her body, which was a darker shade of pink than it had been before, and the spark in her eyes had all but gone out. “That’s me,” she said.
Fluttershy thought panicked of the pony who had greeted her so warmly and enthusiastically the day before when she had first arrived. “What happened to you?” she asked.
Pinkie Pie smiled grimly. “Trixie and I… do not agree on how friends treat one another. She was not very nice at all. But you have a visitor, by the way.”
A large, all-white male earth pony with a cutie mark of two long ears stepped from the back room. “Fluttershy!” he said. “It’s been a long time… but your wings! What’s happened to you?”
Fluttershy found herself cowering. “Angel?”
“That’s me,” said the white earth pony. Behind him Rarity’s other girls were curiously watching the scene unfold, or at least Berry Punch and Diamond Tiara. “What about your wings? Who did this to you?”
“The…” Fluttershy glanced at Twilight and saw that she was still wearing her Solar Kingdom uniform. Telling the truth could only lead to trouble, if there was any possibility it wouldn’t come whatever she said. “Um, it’s… not important,” she said instead.
Twilight looked at Fluttershy blankly. “What’s going on here? Angel… isn’t this the guy you didn’t want to tell me about?”
“Yes,” said Fluttershy in little more than a squeak. “Angel lived by the mountain. We, um, grew up together. My parents thought I should have a friend, and he was, um, nearby. Until he left four years ago.”
“I left home to join the Lunar Republic army,” said Angel. “I promised you I would return for you, Fluttershy, and I have! I knew I needed power to protect you, so I made the right friends, overheard the right conversations” – he pointed towards his cutie mark with one rear hoof – “and rose swiftly through the ranks. I’m among General Applejack’s seconds-in-command! It’s time, Fluttershy! Come with me!”
“Come… with you?”
“I’ve got it all figured out. We’ll go back to the army so you won’t be here when we attack, and when the fighting’s over, I can request to be sent home. I’ve got a villa in Moonhattan now, and there I’ll be able to take care of you and make sure nobody ever hurts you again.”
Fluttershy did her best to hide behind Twilight, who assumed a defensive posture. “That’s, um, very nice of you, Angel,” she said at last, “but I’m actually going to Canterlot with my new friend. Um, this is Sergeant Twilight Sparkle.”
Angel looked back and forth between the two of them in disbelief. “A sergeant? Seriously? You’d abandon me for a mere sergeant and some nonsense about Canterlot?”
Twilight bristled. “It’s not nonsense!” she said. “And she isn’t abandoning you for a sergeant, she’s abandoning you for a friend. Besides, Fluttershy’s made up her mind to go with me – if you’re such great friends, why don’t you try actually listening to what she has to say?”
“Fluttershy is an innocent!” said Angel. “From the moment her parents first asked me to take care of her, I treated her with every kindness a pony could ask for. I know what she wants better than she knows it herself. It seems now you have corrupted her, but she will go with me again and I will find a way to win back her trust and hurt whoever it was that tore her wings from her!”
“I didn’t corrupt anypony!” said Twilight. “You’re the one who’s talking about telling other ponies what to do.”
Angel shrugged. “Fluttershy is too sweet and kind to face this world alone. She needs somepony with her to show her the path when life becomes difficult and tell her what she is doing wrong. I have done that for her all my life. What is your friendship with her based on?”
Twilight glanced backwards at Fluttershy, but the yellow pony was lying terrified, flat to the ground. “Fluttershy’s really nice!” said Twilight in defiance. “She’s the kindest pony I’ve ever met! And I think, even when I don’t have anything to believe in… she can help me believe in myself.”
“I know what wonders Fluttershy can perform, Sergeant! Our friendship and time together dwarf yours! What do you have to offer her?”
“I can take her to Canterlot! I know an officer who’s going to get her a ticket, and then she’ll be able to live in the Solar Kingdom!” Twilight faltered for a moment. “I mean, if there are enough dragons for her to get on one in the first place, but I’m sure that won’t be a problem.”
“Just like a unicorn,” said Angel. “All flash and promise, and no follow-through. Give this up, Fluttershy. This unicorn has no way of guaranteeing you a dragon, but I am a well-paid officer. I can give you everything your parents ever wanted you to have, and anything you yourself might ever wish for too! You know I’m right, Fluttershy… I’m the only one who truly cares about you. Sergeant Sparkle here has nothing but empty words for the ponies she chooses to entertain her.”
In response, Twilight lowered her head. For a moment Fluttershy worried the purple unicorn was giving up, but then her horn began to glow again, even more powerfully than the night before. Angel, obviously unnerved, began to back away. Then there was an enormous flash of light, and Fluttershy saw Angel staring at her in alarm, even though the male pony appeared to have been unharmed by whatever Twilight had just done.
“I have magic,” said Twilight. “I don’t have much to give… but for my friend, I would do anything.”
Fluttershy suddenly realized why Angel was staring at her, and looked down in shock that quickly transformed into awe. Her wings were back. They felt weak, as if they had been unused for a long time, but she had wings again. And with her wings came, rushing into her like a flood, confidence.
“Angel,” she said, crawling out from behind the visibly weakened Twilight. She faced the white earth pony and spread out her regrown wings aggressively. “Angel, you are being a very naughty pony.
“Twilight didn’t tell me I was going to Canterlot with her, or order me around, or anything. She asked me. It took her a lot of asking, but I even said yes.
“But you don’t ask me anything. You never have. When we were young, you were always trying to protect me, telling me you knew what was best for me… but you never asked if that any of that was what I wanted to do. And Angel, that’s just not how friends treat each other.
“You keep saying that we’ve always been best friends. But Angel, you left me alone for four years. I thought you were dead! Maybe you think you did that for my own good, but would it have hurt you so much to ask me if I wanted you to go? My parents are… gone now, Angel. I’m sure they’d be very grateful to you for all your hard work, but you don’t have any obligation towards me now.
“So, I am very happy for you for getting such a good job. I hope General Applejack really enjoys your work and your company, and you’ll always mean something to me for what we had together. But if this is how you’ve turned out… I don’t think we should be friends anymore. I’m sorry.”
Angel was speechless for several seconds, but when he recovered, he was thoroughly furious. “Well, all right!” he said. “I should have known you were just like everypony else! I will let my troops know that if they see either of you, you are to be shot on sight.” He turned and galloped from the building, and Diamond Tiara rushed after him a moment later, calling his name seductively.
“Fluttershy…” said Twilight, “that was amazing.”
“Oh!” said Fluttershy. Her wings had fallen back to her sides and she was already amazed at the thought of what she had just done. She and Angel had truly been good friends once, but he was always too critical and commanding and it was obvious he had only gotten worse. If nothing else, she knew Angel would never have said that anything she had done was amazing. “You, um, you really think so?”
“Absolutely,” said Twilight, “but now I really have to get going. Here; you should take this, just in case he comes back or anything.” She unfastened her rifle and presented it to Fluttershy. The pegasus pony gulped.
“Are you sure?” she asked. “I mean, you could get in trouble too…”
“Don’t worry; I’ve still got some magic left. I’ll see you soon. I just really need to hurry.”
As it turned out, of course, she didn’t need to hurry at all. The operations in city hall were in full swing when Twilight got there, but with the dragons not scheduled to arrive for over an hour, the only ponies needed or useful there were the ones actively involved in the evacuation procedure. Twilight was able to collect Fluttershy’s ticket from Celestia, but otherwise could only get in the way by staying inside. Instead, she returned again to the remains of the library to look one last time for books that would be important to save.
Unfortunately the library had not become miraculously organized overnight, and Twilight found herself distractedly wandering between disorderly stacks of books, scarcely even glancing at the covers. She simply could not bring herself to concentrate on books in a time of such confusion. An inexpertly printed pamphlet transcribing Trickster’s “Silent Majority” speech to the unicorns of the Solar Kingdom, concerning the origins and state of the war in the neutral zone, was briefly considered but ultimately discarded with the rest of the library materials. Like any other work about the war published by unicorns, it was now suspect in Twilight’s eyes. A part of her, however small, even wondered if she was really doing the right thing by taking Fluttershy with her to Canterlot. Yes, Angel had threatened to have her killed, but she had wings now; surely the pegasus could escape back to her hometown, or even to the Lunar Republic. Was she just being selfish?
No, Twilight reprimanded herself, that was all wrong. She had asked Fluttershy if the gentle yellow pony wanted to come to Canterlot with her, and she had chosen yes. There was nothing selfish about offering somepony else a real choice. What would be selfish would be to make the decision for Fluttershy, and to send her off to Skyros or Moonhattan or anywhere else without her consent. If she did that, she would be no better than Angel. Fluttershy had made her decision, and it was up to Twilight first to make it happen, and only afterwards to wonder whether it had been a good idea.
Regardless of how convinced she could persuade herself she was, Twilight still found it almost a relief when she turned around and saw Rarity standing in the doorway to the ruined library.
“Sergeant Sparkle!” said Rarity with a sweet smile and low curtsy. “I passed Diamond Tiara in the streets looking quite excited, and she told me all about your wonderful arrangement with dear little Fluttershy! Understand I am most ecstatic for you both, especially in light of your imminent departure.”
Twilight nodded in acknowledgement. “How did you know I was here?”
“I simply asked some of your fellow soldiers where you might be found. A lady, after all, has her wiles.”
“Well, that’s just great,” said Twilight, “but I’m afraid this isn’t really the best time for pleasant chit-chat. I need to make sure I’m at city hall in time to get out of here.”
“Of course, darling, of course! I wouldn’t dream of detaining you for an instant. Except there is the little matter of payment.”
“Payment? I’m pretty sure that Colonel Celestia already paid you for the room, so…”
“Oh, no, not for the room! Think, Sergeant; you are taking one of my girls away from me. Surely I deserve a little compensation, don’t you think?”
“But Fluttershy chose to stop working for you. Why would you get paid for an employee leaving?”
Rarity closed her eyes as if pained by Twilight’s words. “Look at it from my perspective, darling! I am a unicorn – surely you must understand what that is like. From what Diamond Tiara tells me, there will be hundreds of earth ponies showing up here within the day. Do you believe they will take kindly to a unicorn storekeeper – one who has made her very living from dealing with their enemies? My sister and I shall have to flee this dumpy little town, and I know I cannot count on all my dear girls to accompany us when we do.
“Picture our hardship, arriving in a new town with no more than we could gather together and carry with us in a few short hours! You may not know this, but before your occupation, I was a great designer. It is that life I should like to return to, and yet fabrics, and tools, and working space – these things take capital, dear! Have I not been more than generous with my girls? Is it not my employing Fluttershy, when nopony else even knew her name, that allowed you two to meet at all? Surely I deserve a little something.”
Twilight hesitated. There was something in the shopkeeper’s words, but she could not deny she felt a deep distaste for them as well. “How much?” she asked.
Rarity smiled winningly. “Since she is so new, I think a reduced price of four hundred bits should be enough, don’t you, Sergeant? But if that’s still too high, I would be happy to reach an alternative arrangement with you. Shall we say… a ticket into Canterlot?”
Twilight stamped at the floor impatiently. “Even if I could, I wouldn’t just give tickets out to anypony who asked me for them. That’s not how the system works!”
“Why, of course not! But hear me out. Can you truly believe that I, Rarity, am destined for a place like this? Where the ponies are as likely to pay for my work in apples or clocks as in real bits? Ever since I was but a filly I have dreamed of the glamour and sophistication of the capital of the Solar Kingdom. It is there I truly belong, where nobility and rich businessponies alike will stop what they are doing to gaze on my splendor, knowing nothing of my common origins!
“Allow me to share with you a secret of my past. When I was young, the magic in my horn took hold of me and pulled me to the edge of a tall cliff, where sat an immense geodic menhir. There was a flash of light! A crack of sound! The rock split open! And there in the distance, between its parted, gem-filled halves, I saw Canterlot. And my dear, next to all the gems in that rock, even next to the three that appeared that day as my cutie mark, Canterlot shone more brilliantly than them all!
“Please, Sergeant Sparkle, do not force me to humiliate myself in supplication for this base favor. I am meant for bigger things than this! We share, if nothing else, our race; will you not entertain my unicorn dream?”
There was something oddly familiar about Rarity’s cutie mark story, but Twilight chose not to dwell on it. She understood the feeling of not belonging and of aspiring towards higher things; was it not her parents’ aspirations that had landed her in the School for Gifted Unicorns in the first place? It was, after all, only chance that she and not Rarity had been born in the Solar Kingdom and not here in Ponyville, and the white unicorn’s worship of Canterlot was not so very different from the idealism that Twilight herself had felt only yesterday before Fluttershy’s revelation. Rarity’s words had produced more sympathy than Twilight had expected they would, and yet…
“Tell me,” she asked, “why did you and your sister choose Pinkie Pie to give to the Lieutenant Colonel last night?”
Rarity looked down nervously. “Why, it was the perfect solution, my dear! That Trixie was such an awful boor, and I could tell just looking at her that no matter which pony we gave to her, she would be dissatisfied. And poor Pinkie Pie, much as I love her, has always been a liability to the emporium, making me very few bits at all. Add to that the anger her personality would inevitably bring to Trixie, and we simply couldn’t not do it!”
“But Fluttershy and I saw Pinkie Pie today,” said Twilight. “She did not enjoy the experience either.”
“Yes, well, that is unfortunate, I’m sure…”
“But you saw how cruel Trixie was! You could have not taken her money, and that way nopony would have been forced to spend all that time with her, couldn’t you?”
“Not taken her money? My dear! You must understand, running a business – any business – is like making a dress. You must look at what the customer wants, and what you have to give, and find the best possible compromise. None of your materials can be off limits; that is what generosity is all about! Your fabrics, your tools, your dummies and so forth, you keep them all to create, not so that you can keep them high on a shelf and refuse to sell them to anypony! Anything can be turned to your advantage if you just look at it in the right way.”
Twilight groaned. “Rarity, there’s a difference between making dresses and running a friendship emporium. Your scissors and irons and things are all objects, but ponies are ponies, just like us. They have feelings and dreams and aspirations, and you can’t just hold yourself above them and count them as no more than statistics. Trust me… I’ve tried to do it for long enough.
“I’ll give you the four hundred bits, Rarity. I believe you have earned that much. But I don’t think you understand what generosity really means at all.”
Rarity took the money from Twilight with a haughty sniff. “Well, thank you, Sergeant Sparkle,” she said, and turned to leave. “Perhaps we shall still meet again someday.”
“I hope so,” said Twilight, almost to herself. She watched sadly as the white unicorn made her way from the library. She suspected Rarity was not truly wicked at heart. The long war had taken all too many ordinary ponies and put them in unfair situations, and some of them had made better decisions than others. That, at least, was something she didn’t need anything more than books to know about.
“She’s not really that bad,” said a voice from behind her, and Twilight jumped. Pinkie Pie, her hair still hanging lifelessly, was leaning against one of the empty bookcases.
“Pinkie Pie?” asked Twilight, incredulous. “How did you get in here?”
“The window, silly,” said the earth pony. “This whole place is ruined, remember?”
“Oh…” said Twilight, “right.” She was reassured to see the pink pony still had a sense of humor after her encounter with Trixie. “I guess you’re here to ask me for a ticket too?”
“Nah,” said Pinkie Pie, and stretched. “I bet there are all sorts of great parties in Canterlot, and it would be really exciting, but I think I’m needed here.”
Twilight raised her eyebrows incredulously. “Here? You’re not going with Rarity, then?”
“I dunno yet. We go back a really long way, you know, but Ponyville’s going through some tough times too. I’ll be feeling better again soon” – she poked at her mane, which poofed up slightly on contact – “and I know ponies here will need something to laugh at. And that’s what I do. Sure, the earth pony soldiers will probably be cruel too, but I bet I can make my way here anyway if I try. So yeah, I’ll decide where I’m going when the time comes.”
“They’ll be cruel? I’ve always heard that General Applejack is a very upright, honest pony. And besides, the Lunar Republic is just fighting to protect the neutral zone after we unicorns first invaded it; why would they hurt you?”
“Oh, is that what Fluttershy told you?” asked Pinkie Pie. She rooted through the masses of books on the library floor for a little while and produced a large volume, which she in turn gave to Twilight. “You should probably read this.”
“War: A History,” read Twilight, looking at the cover. She flipped through the pages until she found the section she was looking for. “For centuries, the Lunar Republic of earth ponies and the Solar Kingdom of unicorn ponies have been at war with one another over the neutral zone situated in-between them. Both sides are utterly convinced that they are fighting a heroic battle to protect the neutral zone’s natives from the evils of the ponies on the other side. Nonpartisan historians have however studied the conflict for decades, and have yet to uncover any hard evidence for either side being originally responsible for the war. Who the true instigators were, and what they did in the first place, seems to have been lost entirely to the centuries. All that can be said for certain is that every day the war continues, the citizens of the neutral zone, whom each party claims to be saving from the other, suffer more and more.” She looked up at the pink pony, who been watching silently her as she read. “Pinkie Pie… this library is a mess! How did you even find this book?”
Pinkie Pie smiled a little. “It was under W.”
Twilight stared at her for several seconds before giving up. Books and professors and commanding officers were great sources of authority, and friends could teach you a lot as well, but maybe there were just some things that would never make sense. Like, apparently, war. She looked back to the book. “So… neither side are really the heroes, then?”
“Guess not,” said Pinkie Pie. “But, you know, some stupid old history isn’t any reason that some of us little ponies can’t be heroes anyway, all on our own!” She took the book from Twilight and threw it back into the pile of other discarded volumes. “I gotta go, Sergeant. I just wanted to tell you to make sure to take good care of Fluttershy, and I guess now I’ve done that.”
“Yeah,” said Twilight, and thought for a moment. There was still one question she had remaining. “Pinkie Pie?”
“That dancing pony, Bon-Bon… do you know what happened to her, to make her so sad?”
Pinkie Pie looked sad. “Before all you soldiers showed up, Bon-Bon and a nifty unicorn pony named Lyra were really in love with each other. But then Lyra joined up with your army, and Bon-Bon’s been like that… pretty much ever since, actually.”
Private Lyra, thought Twilight. She had run into the mint-colored new recruit a few times, but never spoken with her, and she had never guessed that Lyra had left anypony behind her when she joined up. The number of ways that war affected the lives of ordinary ponies in and around it, she suspected, was too great ever to be counted.
“Thank you, Pinkie Pie,” she said. “I should go to city hall now, but I’m glad you came by. Do whatever you think you have to, if it means making some ponies laugh again.”
“Okie-dokie-lokie!” said the pink pony, and exited back through the window she had used to get in.
City hall was chaotic when Twilight got there. The dragons were almost due to arrive, and a number of civilians, many of them unicorns, were packed in front of the doors trying to get in. Twilight did not see Fluttershy among them. After she had managed to force her way inside, she got the distinct impression that everypony in the army was already packed inside the building waiting.
Corporal Moondancer chanced to stop beside Twilight for a moment, and Twilight asked her what she thought would become of the blankflank internment camps now that the Solar Kingdom was retreating. Moondancer shrugged. She had heard that the foals held there would be left alive, if for no other reason than saving time, but she had no idea what the earth ponies would do with them. If they had the food to feed them all until their families, if any, could be identified, they would probably let them out, but if not… Moondancer left her last words hanging, and Twilight thanked her politely for her opinion.
“Not at all, Sergeant,” answered Corporal Moondancer. “You are my superior, after all; I am only following orders.”
She spent the next several minutes wandering slowly through the crowds of ponies, trying to get a look at the others she recognized. Captain Yorsets was sitting in a corner, his head clutched between his hooves as he stared at the ground. Colonel Celestia was standing regally in another corner, deep in conversation with several higher officers that Twilight was not acquainted with. Twilight frowned. It was Celestia’s doing that she had met Fluttershy in the first place, and her doing again that she had a ticket to rescue the gentle pegasus pony with, but what had truly been her motivations? She remembered the Colonel’s talk of excruciating boredom that one night at the delicatessen, and her insistence on the adventure and passion of friendship. When she had bid Lieutenant Colonel Trixie up so high in the emporium, had that been done in order to benefit Rarity’s business, or merely to have some fun at Trixie’s literal expense? Twilight thought back to the reprimands she had given Rarity just minutes earlier. Was Colonel Celestia, who played with the ponies around her for her own amusement, really that much better? For a moment she longed for the day before, when everything had been simple and everypony had been either heroic or evil.
It was in this state of confusion that she ran into a familiar-looking mint-colored pony. She had not planned for this conversation, but she was not going to turn it down when the opportunity presented itself so readily. “Private Lyra?” she asked, and the unicorn saluted. “Could I speak to you for a moment?”
“Sure thing,” said Lyra. “What’s on your mind, Sergeant?” She sounded flippant, but Twilight could see anxiety written across her features.
“You joined the service here in Ponyville, didn’t you?”
“Yeah, it sounded more exciting than home life. Why, am I not allowed to come along with you because I was born here or something?”
“I’m not forbidding you from doing anything,” said Twlight quickly. “I just wanted to ask you some questions. About an earth pony named Bon-Bon.”
Lyra stiffened. “I don’t want to talk about her,” she said at once. “I’m part of something bigger now.”
“What, the army?” Lyra made some small sound of agreement, and Twilight plowed ahead. “Lyra, I’ve been in the army a lot longer than you. What you and Bon-Bon had, from everything I can tell… that’s a lot bigger than this army will ever be.”
“That’s not true!” said Lyra. “Being a soldier here means travel! Adventure! Discovery! Bon-Bon was just holding me back.”
“It means nondescript camps, illusory ideals, death, and more death,” said Twilight. “And one day when you’re behind enemy lines, stealing from an orchard to have enough food to survive, and a bullet finds you? Bon-Bon’s going to be the last thing you remember… and regret. Forever.”
“It’s too late,” said Lyra. She stood up on her hindhooves in excitement in a gesture that Twilight recognized all too well. “The earthies are coming, Sergeant! Look at those unicorns out at the doors; it’s just too dangerous to stay here! I don’t know what kind of crazy ideas have gotten into your head, but there’s no time left for daring heroes, okay? Not anymore!”
The mint pony turned and fled into the crowd, leaving many surprised and agitated unicorns in her wake, and Twilight sat down sadly. At least she had tried. She could pursue the private, but she was not sure what else she could say that might change her mind. Maybe Lyra even thought she was doing the right thing. In the meantime, she needed to conserve her strength in case she would be called on for any last-minute feats of heroism of her own.
At last a thumping sound from the roof indicated that the dragons had begun to arrive, and a major that Twilight did not know got up on a bench and amplified his voice for all to hear. “Attention, everypony,” he said, “please form an orderly line to the roof stairs so that evacuation can begin. If you have a ticket for a civilian, please remain downstairs for the time being; I will announce when I have more information on whether it will be possible to transport any of them with us.”
Twilight slipped away to a side of the room and watched as her many fellow unicorns began slowly to make the ascent to the roof, to Canterlot, and to safety. She saw Captain Yorsets finally raise himself from the ground and try to put on a brave face as he departed; Corporal Moondancer obviously glad to be gone from Ponyville at last; Colonel Celestia looking hopeful as she left for her next exciting adventure; and many other unicorns filing out of the room with many other expressions. A dozen or so other ponies were, like herself, keeping by the edges of the room, some with tickets already levitating in front of them, although she noticed that the number of waiting ticket-bearers was far less than the number of civilian ponies that were collected outside the front doors and by now banging on them to be let inside. Much to Twilight’s surprise, Private Lyra was among the ponies waiting to the sides, looking very nervous and conflicted.
Before she could catch Lyra’s eye or even try going over to talk to her again, the major had begun the announcement she had been dreading. “Attention, everypony,” he repeated. “I am in communication with the ponies on the roof assigning riders to dragons, and we do not have room to transport civilians. I repeat: we do not have room to transport civilians, even if you have a ticket for them. All unicorns are asked to head to the roof immediately, where you can do your best to fit onto the remaining dragons.”
“No!” shouted Twilight. She ran wildly towards the large doors and tried to force them open with her hooves. “No, we can’t! My friend is out there! She has to come with us!”
Around her other unicorns were racing to detain her, shouting out to “stop her,” “control her,” “bring her upstairs!” Twilight ignored them and began to focus the magic in her horn on getting those doors open so that Fluttershy could get inside. “She’s using magic!” shouted somepony, and the next thing Twilight knew, a large weight had crashed onto her head. She slumped to the ground, and a large red unicorn put down the bust he had levitated to hit her with.
“I’m sorry, Fluttershy,” she said, and unicorns began to levitate her into the air. One of them called out to Private Lyra to give them a hoof, and Twilight could feel herself slipping into unconsciousness as she saw Lyra anxiously approach her. “I guess there isn’t any room for heroes in this war at all…”
Fluttershy stood nervously at the back of the crowd of ponies trying to get into the city hall, Twilight’s rifle slung loosely around her neck. She had gotten a late start, having waited till the last minute for Rarity to return so that she could thank her. Rarity had not appeared, but Fluttershy had left the dress behind with a lengthy thank-you note. Now dragons were flying down towards the roof of city hall and flying back up again in a steady stream, going more slowly on the way out on account of the additional weight of the unicorns riding on their backs. Fluttershy stared up at the great winged beasts and desperately tried to choke back her fear. The unicorns could control these dragons somehow, and soon one of them would carry her away from here. If everything went according to plan, at least, and Twilight had been positive that it would.
She forced herself to look away from the dragons and gazed at the crowd instead. She did not recognize any of the ponies struggling to get inside, though admittedly that only meant that nopony from the friendship emporium was there. She was grateful that Angel had not extended his threat to include anypony more than herself and Twilight. Whatever the earth ponies were like, she hoped that Rarity and Sweetie Belle and the rest would be all right.
The noise from the crowd suddenly died down, and Fluttershy could faintly hear a voice, probably magically amplified, emanating from within the city hall. “…I repeat,” it said, “we do not have room to transport civilians, even if you have a ticket for them. All unicorns are asked to head to the roof immediately, where you can do your best to fit onto the remaining dragons.”
The crowd burst into a frenzy twice as loud as before and pounded desperately at the front doors of the building. Fluttershy could see the unicorns among them trying to cast spells, seemingly without any effect. For a moment she stood there in abject panic, all hope seeming lost, until she looked down and noticed the wings Twilight had regrown for her. They were still weak, and certainly she could never make the flight to Canterlot, but maybe she could reach the roof…?
Frantically, she leapt into the air and beat her wings as hard as she could. After a flailing start, she was able to get a hang of the movements and rose slowly upwards. She pushed herself forwards and landed uncertainly, already wearied, on the corner of the roof.
Fluttershy looked up to see the bright blue unicorn that had somehow won Pinkie Pie the night before. “They told Trixie that nopony would think to fly to the roof in their panicked state, but Trixie the Lieutenant Colonel disagreed, and she is never wrong!” said the unicorn. She was unarmed, but her horn was already glittering dangerously.
“Um,” said Fluttershy, “hello?”
“Hello indeed,” said Lieutenant Colonel Trixie. “Out with it! What business do you think you have up here, insignificant pegasus pony?”
“I wanted to go to Canterlot with my friend,” said Fluttershy. “Um, her name is Sergeant Twilight Sparkle?”
“Sergeant Sparkle?” asked Trixie, and looked curiously at Fluttershy. “Celestia’s idiot favorite? Wait… Trixie recognizes you, little pegasus! She saw you at that disgusting friendship emporium last night, didn’t she?”
Fluttershy could feel a slow anger beginning to bubble inside of her as Trixie insulted both Twilight and Rarity’s emporium. “I, um, saw you there too,” she said. “What’s wrong with Twilight?”
“With Twilight?” Trixie tossed her mane disdainfully. “So be it; Lieutenant Colonel Trixie shall deign to explain to you her destiny. She entered the army of the Solar Kingdom as a mere private, the lowest of the low, but the stars shone brightly upon her and her greatness was swiftly recognized. Time and time again, Trixie has beaten other, less deserving ponies to the promotions she so humbly accepts, and yet for too long she has now been stuck as Lieutenant Colonel.
“In Colonel Celestia, Trixie thought she had found the key to her next success. The colonel seemed to enjoy Trixie’s company, and Trixie could tell that here was a pony who recognized her as fated for great things! But then Sergeant Sparkle appeared, and somehow became Celestia’s new favorite, and Trixie’s great ambitions were dashed to pieces. Yet Trixie is not defeated; she shall yet find a way to destroy Sergeant Sparkle, and any else who stand in her way, until she becomes general of the entire Solar Kingdom. Picture it, little one – Trixie, the greatest and most powerful unicorn in all Equestria!
“But first she must escape this pit they call Ponyville, and you are in her way. Be honored, pegasus, that you are to die at the hooves of so great a unicorn.”
“I…” Fluttershy was full of anger at Trixie’s words, but strove nonetheless to find something to say that might calm the situation. She remembered Twilight’s excited insistence on her great kindness, and tried to be kind in speaking to the lieutenant colonel. “Don’t you think you’d get better results from just, um, trying to be the best soldier you could possibly be?” she asked. “What you’re doing sounds kind of, well, mean, and I’m not sure if that’s really what you should be getting promoted for. What if you were just a nice soldier and, um, were really nice to everypony around you? Including the natives?”
“Mean? Oh, Trixie the Lieutenant Colonel has no qualms about being mean, if it serves her ends. Enchanting as this conversation has been, however, the dragons must be almost gone by now. Say goodbye, pegasus.”
Well, she had tried. “No.”
“No? Did Trixie hear you correctly?”
“She did,” said Fluttershy, and aimed Twilight’s rifle at the bright blue unicorn. “After all,” she added as an afterthought, “I’ve heard she’s never wrong.” She was still sure that Angel was good at heart, even if he didn’t really understand how to relate to other ponies. Even Diamond Tiara and Silver Spoon, in their own way, had been trying to be nice to her, but she could see no such qualities in Trixie. The same anger that had enabled her to confront Angel was back, but even stronger, and there were some problems in the world that simply could not be solved by kindness alone.
The glitter around Trixie’s horn disappeared instantly and the unicorn looked panicked. “You’re bluffing,” she said.
“Oh, dear, yes,” said Fluttershy calmly. “I’m probably bluffing, just like the unicorns who murdered my parents were bluffing. That would be the sensible thing to do, wouldn’t it?”
Trixie’s eyes went wide. She looked back and forth several times, spat at Fluttershy, and leapt from the roof into the branches of a tree growing nearby. Fluttershy did not wait to listen to her exclamations of pain but instead raced forward to the center of the roof. She had no idea if the rifle was even loaded, let alone how to fire it, but none of that was important. She had to find a dragon.
She was too late. The roof was empty of ponies, and the very last dragon was taking off as she approached. Had it been anypony else in the tree behind her, she would have worried for Trixie’s fate, but – and she was sure she would be ashamed of herself later for even thinking such a thing – she could think of nopony she would rather see left behind in Ponyville for the earth ponies to deal with. The final dragon was laden with seven unicorns and flying slowly, but it was gradually gaining altitude nonetheless. As she stared helplessly, Fluttershy recognized one of the unicorns on top of the dragon, a purple one lying motionless next to its left wing. “Twilight!” she cried from below, but her friend did not stir.
Fluttershy stood still. The last dragon was flying away with her friend – her only friend, since she had spoken so harshly to Angel. And if she stayed here, the earth pony soldiers would have orders to kill her on sight. Somehow she had to get onto that dragon.
But it was a dragon! Much as she loved other creatures, she had been terrified of dragons since meeting that huge red one in a cave when she was young. After it had threatened Angel, she had been angry enough that she had been able to frighten that one away, but that had not undone her basic fear of the flying fire-breathing monsters.
And yet, just because Twilight’s life wasn’t on the line didn’t mean the unicorn didn’t still need her help in life. They were friends now, and what kind of friend would she be if she abandoned Twilight now? Twilight had appreciated her as nopony but her parents ever had, and had been willing to give up everything for her. She overthought things, but that was endearing in its own way, and Fluttershy enjoyed her company. And… Fluttershy had never actually thanked Twilight for giving her wings back to her.
In an instant, the words of Pinkie Pie’s cheerful song rang in her head, and Fluttershy knew what she had to do. She unslung the rifle from around her neck, since it would only weigh her down, and readied her tired wings. After all, the dragon was flying so slowly with all those ponies on it that it wasn’t very far. Just a hop,
and a skip,
and a jump…!
She was on top of the dragon practically before she even realized she was in the air, and the unicorns were staring at her in alarm. “What are you doing here?” one of them asked.
“Please,” said Fluttershy, pointing towards Twilight, “that’s my friend. She wanted me to come to Canterlot with her…”
“There’s no room!” said another. “This dragon is packed full enough as it is.”
“We’re already losing altitude,” said the first. “You need to get off right now or we won’t be able to keep flying!”
Their horns were beginning to glow, but before Fluttershy could think of anything else to do or say, a third unicorn had spoken up. She was a light, minty green with a somewhat darker mane and tail, and if Fluttershy hadn’t known better, she would have said that the look in the unicorn’s yellow eyes was one of amazement. “You flew all the way up here… faced down Trixie, and got on this dragon… not to escape? Just so that you could be with your friend?”
“Of course,” said Fluttershy. “I need her, but also… she needs me.”
The green unicorn turned towards the first two unicorns that had spoken. “You say we need to have one pony fewer for this dragon to fly?”
“Well, yeah!” said one of them. “That’s why this flighty pegasus needs to go right back where she came from.”
“No need,” said the green unicorn. “I’ll go instead.”
Fluttershy stared in awe at her apparent savior. “But you’re a unicorn!” she said. “What will General Applejack and the rest do to you?”
The green unicorn grinned an immense, ever so slightly mad grin at her. “I’ll figure something out,” she said. “Bye, chaps! It’s been really fun!”
“Private Lyra!” said the second unicorn. “Nopony will come back for you if you renounce your loyalties like this!”
The green unicorn, still grinning, leapt from the back of the dragon, and Fluttershy stared breathlessly after her as her magic worked to slow her fall. “That’s okay!” she heard the green unicorn call out while the dragon began to regain its lost altitude; “There’s a much more important loyalty I’ve been neglecting for too long!”
The unicorns still atop the dragon argued back and forth for some minutes afterwards, but the green one had clearly made her decision, and with the dragon once again able to support their weight, they had no real reason to get rid of Fluttershy. Eventually the discussion quieted down and Fluttershy settled down beside Twilight, whom she could hear breathing regularly. She wondered what her friend would say when she woke up and found Fluttershy there, but in the meantime, she was happy just to rest. Beneath them, the dragon regularly beat its wide wings and bore them ever closer to Canterlot.