~ Act I ~ 04 ~ The Ladybugs Awake ~Monochromatic
It was the first time North Ridge had seen him. He’d returned to the inn, intending on retiring for the night, and as he stepped into the hallway to find his room, he saw an older stallion exiting hers. The stallion noticed him as well, turning his yellow eyes towards North.
The words tumbled out of his mouth, and the foreign stallion smiled in delight. He did not speak, and instead, North watched with surprise as he vanished into thin air. Once the shock wore off, he rushed forwards, opening the door and entering the dimly lit room.
He found her by the window, as always, but when she turned to him, her eyes were filled with tears. He felt compelled to console her, and yet he knew he could not.
“He asked me if I’d changed my mind,” she whispered.
“I don’t know. That’s what frightens me the most.”
“Are you scared?”
Twilight did not immediately reply. Though she knew the answer to be a very definite yes, knowing it and admitting to it were two very different matters altogether.
Sitting atop the head of a resting Spike, she kept her focus on the golden gates about forty yards away. The sun dawned over the kingdom, painting the city and its castle in hues of golden orange similar to the gates themselves. It was just like she remembered, and yet it wasn’t.
That was what scared her the most.
To have known something inside and out, and to no longer know it at all. She thought of Rarity briefly. She did that a lot.
“Yes,” she finally replied, and though she knew the answer already, she still asked him the same. “Are you scared?”
His laughter echoed through the air. “You have no idea.” Though his words were no doubt true, the way he said it made her laugh. Carefree and relaxed, two emotions that clashed with his statement. Though she usually didn’t like it when things didn’t match, this one was a pleasant exception.
Neither said anything for what seemed several moments, and Twilight had gotten comfortably lost in her thoughts until Spike brought her back.
“Do you remember the day we left?”
His cheerful tone was gone, interchanged with a more subdued one; more akin to the reminiscing of two friends, when all was well; the calm before the storm.
“Yes,” she whispered. As if it were yesterday.
She remembered leaving the castle with the Apple family. She remembered saying goodbye to Princess Celestia and Princess Luna. She remembered Princess Luna trying to stop her. She remembered saying goodbye to Cadance, and then to her parents and Shining Armor.
Her parents and Shining Armor.
They were dead. This was a fact she’d known already and thought she had come to terms with, having mourned them a long time ago, when she’d first learned of their passing. She had assumed that the pain would go away eventually.
She assumed many things in life. Most of them were incorrect.
The pain had not left, much like they would never be back.
The quiet of dawn spoke in their stead. Spike was without doubt as lost in his memories as she was. Her gaze drifted upwards, toward the castle of white and gold, and then lingered on the balcony from which Princess Celestia and Princess Luna used to address the kingdom.
If she had to be honest…
If she had to be honest with no one but herself, she knew the fear of everything having changed wasn’t the only thing consuming her. It was the fear of facing Cadance. The fear of facing the first in a long line of dominoes she’d tipped over with a single decision.
The fear of not being forgiven.
As soon as tears wet her eyes, she forced herself to look away from the tower, directing her gaze towards Applejack and Fluttershy. They were both engaged in conversation with the gate’s guards, having allowed the Princess and Spike a moment of privacy. Only they had stayed behind, Rarity and Rainbow Dash having gone to alert the castle guards of their arrival.
As if she’d felt Twilight’s gaze, Fluttershy looked towards her and offered a small friendly wave.
“Are things better with Rarity?”
“Why would things need to be better?” she blurted out, belatedly realizing her hasty remark might have betrayed her attempt at portraying sincere curiosity. She ransacked her brain, trying to figure out what she’d said to hint something was even wrong. After all, she’d made a constant effort to keep her setbacks with the unicorn away from others. “Everything’s fine.”
“Twilight…” Spike said, and Twilight felt her ears flatten against her head.
It was fascinating how, even still, the dragon had a way of drawing the truth out of her with just a skeptical utterance of her name. Some things truly never changed.
“She’s not here,” he continued. “You can tell me.”
“Why do you think something’s wrong?” she asked, trying to sound only mildly curious.
His sweeping snort caught the attention of their friends in the distance. Twilight waved awkwardly when they looked their way.
“Well,” Spike began, “not counting her freakout back in Ponyville, I’d honestly be really worried if everything was great between you two.” At the sound of her distressed whine, he laughed. “It’s not a bad thing, Twi. It’s only a bad thing if you’re not trying to work it out.”
Twilight arched an eyebrow, skeptical. “You’re one to talk, Mister Leave-The-Castle-And-Never-Come-Back!”
“Okay, okay, I get it.” He shook his head, nearly tumbling Twilight off. “But I’m being serious here.”
“I know,” Twilight said once she’d settled down again. In truth, she didn’t want to talk about it. Talking about it meant making it real. “I think we’re working on it. I don’t know.” She looked down, ears flattening against her head, her hoof tracing circles on Spike’s head. “She won’t really tell me what’s wrong? She just said she needed time.”
“Did she say how much?”
“No. Yes. She said ‘a little more time’? I don’t know how long that is! I wish she’d been precise. What if her perception of time is different than mine? I gave her Starswirl’s Complete Collection for a little light reading, and she told me that wasn’t little at all.”
“Twilight, only you would call fifteen books ‘a little light reading’,” he pointed out. Her good influence on him had clearly faded with the passing of the centuries. “Besides, if she’s saying that’s long and you think that’s little, then maybe she won’t need as much time as you’re afraid of.”
She sighed wearily. “I hope so. I think she was doing better yesterday.” A small blush crept up her cheeks at her memories of the previous night. Even a smile managed to valiantly fight its way onto her lips. Last night was the first time since she’d been freed that she and Rarity felt completely synchronous with their feelings. “Yesterday was really nice.”
“Yeah? Well, considering how cuddly you two were this morning, you must’ve had a lot of fun.”
“Spike!” she gasped, stamping her hoof against the top of his head. She was extraordinarily grateful he could not see her completely flushed and scandalized expression, which was not helped by his delighted laughter.
“Whaaaaat! You got to have a sleepover, and those are super fun! It’s not my fault you thought I meant something else,” he plaintively defended, instilling in Twilight the need to roll her eyes as far back as they could go.
“For Celestia’s sake… “ she murmured, pointedly ignoring his gleeful snickering.
Snickering which came to a sudden stop, interrupted by Applejack’s distant call.
“Here they come, y’all!” the mare hollered, waving towards them. “Get off your tushies!”
“Great,” Spike said, standing up and sighing. “He brought a whole bunch of ‘em.”
Twilight followed his gaze and saw two dozen soldiers marching their way down the castle’s main path. There had been very few times she’d seen such a large crowd of soldiers marching towards her, and the last time had been associated with a memory that still made her feel ill.
“Just like your coronation,” Spike said, voicing her unsaid thoughts.
Just like my coronation.
An event meant to guide her all the way to the castle, to present her as the grand savior of Equestria: she who defeated the Spirit of Chaos and acquired his willing surrender; she who then allowed the changeling armies to be defeated; she who allowed the Kingdom to enter a new age of peace and prosperity.
She who won through trickery and was rewarded for it.
She held her breath and let it out slowly. She adjusted her wings under her cloak and swallowed down whatever trepidations she had left.
This procession was her choice.
This procession was one she would walk with her head held high.
She jumped off Spike, landing on the ground just as the gates opened. The soldiers poured out from the city, led by Rarity, Rainbow Dash, and a certain guard Twilight recognized. Not because she’d ever met him before, but because she’d seen him through Rarity’s eyes and memories.
As soon as they caught Twilight in their sights, the guard signaled the others to stand down while Rarity doubled her pace and trotted straight towards the alicorn.
“I’m baaaack!” she sang in greeting, offering Twilight and Spike a brilliant smile. “Weep no more, my dears, for all in this cruel world is well once again now that you have been reunited with me.”
“Pfffft, I don’t see anypony weeping, Rares,” Rainbow exclaimed, flying past them and settling herself atop Spike’s head.
“Hey, I cried for her on the inside,” Spike rebutted.
“See! And Twilight here has simply exhausted all her tears already,” Rarity continued, tasking herself with readjusting Twilight’s cloak. She looked at the alicorn and fluttered her lashes. “Haven’t you, darling?”
Twilight playfully rolled her eyes. “All of them.”
It seemed for a moment as though Rarity was about to reply, but when Twilight noticed the earlier guard approaching, Rarity did as well. She quickly cleared her throat and moved aside, placing her hoof on Twilight’s chest when he arrived.
“Twilight, darling, this is Rift Shield. The one I’ve been telling you about. And Rift…” Her lips curved with surprising insolence and her eyes twinkled with uncharacteristic mischief. “This is Princess Twilight Sparkle.”
Rift Shield gaped at her, mouth opening and closing several times. In truth, it was more than a bit awkward for the Princess, more so because he was only one of many more gawkers to come.
“Sweet Princess Cadance,” he whispered when words finally decided to come out his mouth. He took his helmet off and blinked at her. “You really are the spitting image of the statue.”
His eyes lowered towards her cape, and she could feel her wings rustling uncomfortably beneath it. To say she felt like she was on display would be an accurate assessment, which bothered her considering she hadn’t felt nearly this self-conscious when meeting her friends. Was it because he was a changeling? They had once been her enemies after all, and even if she knew they’d reformed under Cadance, it was hard to completely see them as non-threatening—especially when she remembered the pain they’d caused ponies.
…And maybe it was also because she was very well aware of his previous feelings for Rarity. Was it silly to say she felt she was being judged by the competition?
“Frankly,” Rarity said, “that sorry statue hardly does justice to the charm and allure of the real thing.”
Rift laughed. “Geez, don’t rub it in, Rares,” he complained, which drew several questions into Twilight’s mind, including but not limited to rub what where exactly.
However, before she could ask any of the questions she had, he stepped back and bowed reverentially.
“Princess Twilight, it’s an honor to meet you at last,” he said.
She heard Rainbow Dash gag behind her.
He straightened himself up and offered a grin. “I’m glad to see you’re with us once again.” His eyes darted towards Rarity for a split-second. “Your presence was sorely missed, I’ve heard.”
He knew about Twilight’s absence?
That was something she hadn’t anticipated, and she wasn’t altogether sure she liked the fact that he knew anything about the matter. It bothered her to think someone was privy to what she had done and said. What did he think of her? How much did he even know? Did he think ill of her?
Her eyes met Rarity’s briefly, and her anguish must have been visible judging by the flash of concern that marred the unicorn’s face.
Twilight forced a smile. “Hello,” she said, trying to focus on other matters. “I’ve heard a lot about you too. You’re a changeling, aren’t you?”
Rift Shield didn’t react initially. It seemed he had been prepared for her to know the fact, and as such kept a smile on his face.
“I am, Princess,” he replied delicately. He caught her glancing at the rows of guards in the distance, and he continued, “They are ponies. Only a dozen or so of us actually work in the castle, Princess.” He met her gaze. “I hope that isn’t a problem.”
A thousand years ago, perhaps. Now…
“Not at all.” Injecting as much sincerity in her statement as she could, she said, “Thank you for helping Princess Cadance while I couldn’t.”
Rift nodded, standing up straight and banging a hoof against his chest plate. “Of course!” he exclaimed. “It is my honor and pride to serve Princess Cadance and the Equestrian Kingdom, as has it been for every Equestrian changeling before me.”
Twilight’s attention was immediately caught by the loud snort from behind her. She turned around and saw Rainbow staring them down, a mocking grin plastered on her face.
“Ah, Master Spike,” Rift greeted with a smile. “We knew you’d come back one day.”
Spike snorted. “Sure you did.”
“We did!” he protested.
“Pffft, stop tryin’ to butter him up,” Rainbow said, rather rudely waving him off. “Get on with it.”
If Rift was bothered by it, he did not show any signs of it. He put his helmet back on and signaled for his guards to approach. A terrible weight intruded on Twilight’s heart at the sight. The time had come, whether she was ready or not.
Two dozen ceremonial guards marched towards them, circling the dragon in a square formation. Though Twilight knew their presence was necessary considering a large, unknown dragon was about to enter the city, it still made her uneasy. It brought much more attention to them than she wanted.
And, more to the point…
“How is he going to get to the castle?” she asked. Granted, she didn’t accurately remember the city’s layout, but she remembered enough to know Spike couldn’t possibly fit through the streets. “I don’t remember the streets being the proper width for a dragon to walk through.”
“I was thinking the same thing,” Spike added, raising an eyebrow. “I may have left a long time ago, but I remember the last time dragons came to the city, and none of them walked in.”
Twilight remembered that too. The fifth peace meeting. Races of all kinds crossing into the city, and the proud dragon tribe flying down into the main courtyard.
Rift was unconcerned. “That’s accounted for. The city’s layout was modified centuries ago. A dragon can easily fit through the main boulevard, so long as it’s clear of anypony.”
As soon as Rift moved away to order the gates to be opened, Spike hung his head, muttering under his breath. “Damn it.”
“Spike! Language!” Rarity scolded, earning a sneer from him. “Just because you don’t want to go through with this doesn’t mean you stop being a gentledragon!”
“Rarity, I’m a thousand years older than you,” he pointed out. “Besides, that’s not the worst swear word I could say.”
Twilight spoke up. “Just because you’re a thousand years old doesn’t mean you should swear, Spike,” she advised, smiling when he blinked and hung his head.
“Sorry, Twilight,” the ancient dragon mumbled much like a chastised foal would.
“What?! Sorry?!” Rainbow exclaimed, smacking a nearby scale on his head. “Swearing is what cool dragons do!”
“That’s not true,” Fluttershy rebutted. “Swearing is very ‘not cool’.”
Rainbow rolled her eyes, dismissing the pegasus with a hoof. “Come on, Shy! Bet you would be cooler if you swore too.”
An argument ensued, the majority of which Twilight thought was both ridiculous and pointless. It did, however, serve as a good distraction from her apprehension, up until she felt a gentle tap on her shoulder. She looked around and found Rarity nodding towards a solitary spot in the distance.
Leaving behind the riveting argument over whether swearing was cool or not, Twilight followed her belle, and once they were alone, Rarity smiled warmly at her, brushing a hoof against her cheek.
“How are you feeling?” she asked delicately. “A little scared?”
Twilight wanted to lie. She wanted to smile and say she felt fine, maybe just a little anxious, but in truth, she knew exactly how she felt. She knew it now better than ever if only because of who stood before her.
“I feel just like I did when we met in the library again after I… you know…” she confessed, ears lowering and tail swishing behind her.
However, rather than offer sympathy and comfort as she’d expected, Rarity grinned broadly.
“You feel just like that?” she asked. “You mean speechless and lovesick for the stunning mare before you?”
Twilight raised an eyebrow. “More like terrified and remorseful,” she corrected.
Rarity didn’t bat an eyelid.
“If that’s the case, darling, then you will be delighted to know that your reunion with Princess Cadance will likely go exactly as ours did!” She paused. “Well, no, not quite as exactly as ours did. That would include a kiss, and I must admit if that happens, I’ll need a sofa on which to be comfortably desolate.”
“Rarity!” Twilight gasped. “She’s my sister-in-law!”
“True enough! And it’s not as though you could even kiss her.” She tapped a hoof against her chin, regarding Twilight curiously. “Goodness, can you imagine what it would feel like to try and kiss somepony who’s ethereal? I find myself regretting I never tried it with you! Maybe dear Cadance will allow me to satisfy my curiosi—mmph!”
Muzzling Rarity with her magic and hoping she didn’t look quite as hot as she felt, she fixed Rarity a pointed stare.
“Are you done?” she asked, receiving a quick nod from her significant other.
“Well!” Rarity said, harrumphing once she’d been released. “I hope you realize there are much more romantic ways of attaining my silence, Twilight.”
“No, there are not because then I’d be rewarding bad behaviors.”
“Oh? How strange of you to say that! I clearly remember how yesterday you—“
“Come on, y’all!” Applejack called. “We’re just waiting on you two!”
“Give us another minute!” Rarity called back, and when she turned to Twilight, all playfulness had vanished from her face. She pressed a hoof on Twilight’s chest. “Twilight, it’s completely natural to be scared, but you have my word everything will turn out perfectly. Though…” She trailed off, biting her lip.
“Though…?” Twilight pressed.
“Though you don’t have to go through with all of—“ She gestured to the guards. “—That if you really don’t want to. I talked Rift down to keeping it to as few guards as necessary, but if you feel uncertain, you and I can always wait until they’ve all gone before going ourselves.”
Twilight shook her head. “No, it’s all right. I can do it.”
Rarity made a moue of concern.
“Really,” Twilight insisted.
For a moment, Rarity’s frown subsided, giving the illusion of believing Twilight’s affirmation. And then, she pressed her lips together and stared the alicorn down.
“Are you certain?”
“Yes, Rarity, I’m certain, positive, sure, and I’m even convinced,” she said, laughing when Rarity scowled at her. “It’s almost like you’re more afraid than I am!”
Rarity scoffed, putting her forehoof back on the ground. “Don’t be absurd! I am not! I am merely… concerned, if anything!”
“Then, what’s wrong?” Twilight asked, and finally, Rarity caved in, letting out a piteous whine as the bridge of her nose turned a ladylike pink hue.
“I…” The unicorn lifted her hoof once more and idly refastened Twilight’s cloak, her eyes pointedly set on her ministration. “I don’t know. I just want everything to go perfectly,” she finished, her eyes betraying genuine distress when she finally lifted her gaze and met Twilight’s.
Like with many other things that scared her, Twilight found herself a little less afraid if it meant giving Rarity peace of mind. How the tables had turned.
“It will be. This isn’t anything to worry about. They’re just escorting Spike and us to the castle and that’s it. Nothing more,” she said firmly, hoping to convince both herself and Rarity. She leaned in, planting a kiss on the unicorn’s forehead. “I promise I’ll be fine.”
To prove it, she trotted back towards the others, head held high.
Applejack extended a hoof when she arrived, patting her on the shoulder. “Don’t be nervous now, Princess.”
Fluttershy frowned. “It’s all right to be a little nervous,” she chided.
Applejack smiled, lifting her hat. “All right, you can be a lil’ bit nervous, but not too much ‘cause we’re all here with you to help, you hear?”
“It’s okay, Twilight,” Spike added, standing up straight and puffing out his chest. “Everypony’s going to be too busy looking at me to look at you.”
“Hah!” Rainbow guffawed. “They’re going to be looking at me, buster!”
“Okay, okay! You can argue about this while we’re on the way,” Rift interrupted. He indicated towards the gate, where already a rapidly growing crowd of excited onlookers tried to get the best view of them. “That’s going to get worse the longer we take.”
“Twilight,” Spike said, glancing down at her. “Whenever you’re ready, okay?”
With one final breath of air, Twilight’s nod became the signal for them to advance. Rift Shield motioned for gates to open and, with thunderous steps, Spike advanced into the city’s walls, leading the way for the Princess and her friends.
Rainbow Dash rode atop the dragon’s head, waving at the cheering crowd. Fluttershy walked next to Applejack, whatever nervousness she had distracted by Applejack’s constant conversation. And Twilight? Twilight froze at the gates until a worried look from Rarity willed her forwards.
She wanted to look around, to properly examine the city she’d once known, but it was hard to do so when everywhere she looked, ponies looked back. They were all around her, peering from the balconies of buildings, in the air, from behind the rope lines; from wherever they could see, the ponies of Canterlot gathered to witness the spectacle.
“Don’t look at them, Twilight,” Rarity whispered, walking close to the alicorn. “There is nopony here but you and I.”
But the reassuring whisper was lost amidst the sound of the city. Oh’s and Ah’s from the crowd bombarded her, screams for Spike to breathe fire, for Rainbow to fly into the air, for them to entertain. Her breathing became heavy, more labored the more steps they took forward. It was just like the coronation.
She forced her sight away from the crowd and kept it on the path, until she noticed Applejack and Fluttershy looking back at her, faces awash with concern. She imposed a smile on her face, but yet again images of her coronation flashed through her mind, of Canterlot calling her name in cheer at her ‘great deed’ while those who knew the truth glanced at her with worry.
She felt faint under her sweltering cloak, as though her body weakened with every step, making it harder and harder to breathe.
She felt attacked, by ponies and by her own mind alike. Her steps slowed, and it was clear from Applejack and Fluttershy’s alarmed looks that she did not look serene. She struggled to keep her wings tucked under the cape, both appendages clearly wanting to follow her desire to fly away at once.
Twilight looked to Rarity, and only until she saw a tendril of her own magic wrapped around Rarity’s leg did she realize she’d been literally grabbing onto Rarity for support. She immediately let go, but her hasty apology was interrupted by the unicorn herself.
“Right. I knew this would be a bad idea, and it has gone quite far enough already.”
Rarity’s sharp, aggravated voice cut through the cacophony of sounds, and fear gripped Twilight’s heart when Rarity moved further ahead with intent.
“Wa-Wait!” she blurted out in a panicked voice, rushing forward to stop Rarity. “Where are you going?”
Though Rarity’s irritation lessened at the sight of an anxious Twilight, it was clear she was not content. “I’m going to tell Rift Shield to have the guards escort us out of here. I won’t allow you to con—”
“No,” Twilight cut-off, almost desperately so. She started walking, gesturing for Rarity to do so as well. “Please, I—I’m fine, L-let’s just go.”
“Darling, your entire coat is ashen! I thought you were going to have an anxiety attack! Twilight, please,” Rarity implored, anguish marring her face. “Is it because of the guards? Do you not want to make a fuss? We can teleport if you’d prefer. We’ll be out of here before they can ask what happened.”
A delighted voice broke out from the crowd, interrupting their discussion.
“Look!” a mare exclaimed. “It’s Princess Denza!”
Twilight’s head snapped up, and now she willingly grabbed onto Rarity. There, high above the castle’s gates in the distance, she saw a lone alicorn standing behind one of the castle’s larger windows, a guard standing at either side of her.
She was watching now.
Waiting, and it wouldn’t be right for Twilight to run away now, even if she wanted to. So she steeled herself, reigned in her anxieties, and stood as tall and strong as a Princess should.
“Twilight?” Rarity prompted cautiously.
Even if her every instinct rushed with fear, Twilight held strong. “Please,” she said in a trembling voice, not daring to look at Rarity for fear she might cave. She swallowed hard and steadied her voice as best she could. “I need to do it. For me.”
And she kept walking, the tension in her body ebbing when Rarity silently joined her—no more protests, no more questions asked, just a soft tendril of her magic wrapped around Twilight’s hoof. A gentle show of support.
They walked and walked, and she kept her eyes on the road, too afraid to look up and see if Cadance was still watching. What would she say? What could she even say? The words ‘I’m sorry’ felt hollow and small compared to all that had transpired, to all they encompassed.
But she did, eventually, reach the silver gates of Canterlot Castle, because as she’d been taught over and over again, time did not care for the fears of a regretful princess, and it did not delay atonement when it was long overdue.
The gates swung open, their creaking sending shivers down the alicorn’s back, and one by one, everypony crossed the threshold separating Equestria from a thousand-year-old deception. Rift and the guards went through, then Spike and Rainbow, followed finally by Applejack and Fluttershy.
She stared at the mark on the floor, the worn-down groove on cement marking the gates’ path, and it reminded her of the barrier from her own library. The very same library she’d neglected to visit again for fear of…
A soft nuzzle distracted her, a gentle wordless push, and she stepped forward, over the line that bordered her past and her present. There was no turning back, she knew. No succumbing to demons for fear of dealing with them. No more running away, literally and metaphorically: the castle gate shut behind her as soon as she and Rarity were inside.
It was a stark contrast. The streets had been full of chatter and chaos, but the castle? The castle and its ground were empty and silent. No ponies walking in and out the castle, no merchants trying to sell their wares, nothing. Just two guards posted at every locked gate.
She wasn’t a prisoner, but she felt like one, like she were back in her library, and it made sense.
Canterlot Castle was indeed a prison, just not for her.
She finally looked up, towards the window, and found that Cadance was gone. She was gone, and as Twilight allowed her gaze to lower, a pained nostalgia soaked her gaze. The tower where she’d once lived, the windows she would look out from, even the cracked wall never repaired of the magic blast gone wrong.
Her eyes then found the armory’s tower, where the Captain of the Guard would spend most of his days. She remembered her brother. She remembered him, even as she’d tried for so long to forget him. She remembered his constant talk of a desire for a family.
She looked away, tears shrouding her eyes until again a soft nuzzle interrupted.
Twilight finally looked up, realizing all had quietly stopped to wait for her. Their eyes windowed different emotions, from compassion to support to everything in between. And yet, it was only Spike’s eyes that she sought out, for only he understood.
Only he empathized, rather than sympathized.
He shook his head, nudging Rainbow off it, and when she obeyed and flew down to the ground, he turned to Twilight and offered her a seat.
“Your throne awaits, Princess.”
She hesitated, but once again, Rarity nuzzled her.
“Come now,” she said, and with a gentle tug, Twilight’s cloak came undone and levitated away. No more need to hide. “He needs you.”
Her wings spread out, impressing the guards nearby. If they hadn’t thought she was real, they certainly did now, and even more so when she flew into the air and landed atop Spike’s head—the only throne she’d ever accept.
She sat down and lifted her hoof, firmly resting it on the spine on his head—not really out of need for support, but to show support. They continued their journey, all the way up to the immense castle doors, and a genuine smile bloomed on her lips at the sight of a small black owl perched on the sill of one of the lower windows. The rest of his family, she assumed, was nestled away somewhere close, waiting for night to arrive.
Themis took off into the air, landing on Twilight’s head and practically mimicking his master by holding onto her horn with a wing.
“Here we are,” she said, low enough that only Spike could hear.
“Twilight,” Spike said, his voice grave, “Would you mind if it’s just us?”
Twilight blinked. “Just us? What do you mean?”
“He means he would like for you and him to meet Princess Cadance alone,” Fluttershy said, having flown up to meet Twilight’s gaze.
“But—But why?” Twilight asked. This had not been in the plan at all, and she didn’t think it very intelligent of them to change it at the last minute. Her gaze switched between Rarity and Fluttershy nearly as quickly as her heart was beating. Fluttershy smiled, and it was the kind of smile she’d given back at Granite’s Rest. The smile that tried to ease Twilight out of her own mind.
“Princess Cadance asked for it. She wants to meet you alone,” she said delicately, and then quickly added, “not because she’s upset.”
The panic tripled, darting across her body. Upset? Why would Cadance be upset? Is she upset?
A guard trotted towards them, his eyes lingering on Twilight for a moment before he saluted the changeling.
“Her Highness is ready, sir,” he announced, eyes again darting towards Twilight. “I suggest we proceed. Lady Rarity and the others are being insistently requested by the staff.”
Wait, Twilight wanted to say. Wait, no, I’m not ready, wait.
“Very well. Tell Captain Breeze that the changeling guards are all in position.” Finally, he turned to the door and knocked three times. “Open the doors!”
An unlocking sound emerged from beyond the doors, and Spike stepped back as the two large doors slowly opened outwards. Twilight backed up on Spike’s head, suddenly and viciously aware of what exactly was about to happen.
And, on second thought, she didn’t really have to see Cadance now, did she?
No, she didn’t! She could see Luna first. Or go to Ponyville, and then see Princess Luna. In fact, she needed to go back to the library! She hadn’t gone back yet, and there were probably books she needed to read, and maybe clean the entire place up, and then maybe she could meet with Cadance because right now…
She was not ready.
And yet Themis flew off and Spike moved forward, taking the choice away from her.
Twilight looked back, her desperate eyes fixing on Rarity, hoping beyond hope she would once again offer Twilight the option to teleport away, but she didn’t. She didn’t, and instead, her horn illuminated and her saddlebags appeared next to Twilight. Twilight shot her a pleading look, but yet Rarity said nothing., She simply lifted her hoof, pressing it against the glowing crystal hanging from her neck.
And Twilight could do nothing but reciprocate the gesture, her own hoof clutching her necklace even as Spike continued to advance and the doors closed behind them.
She stared at the main doors. She analyzed them, examined their designs, thinking to herself they had been changed in the thousand years she’d been gone. They had changed, and she was afraid to look back and see what else had changed.
“The Princess will be down shortly.”
Rift’s voice echoed throughout the hall, the only statement he could have said that willed Twilight into turning around. It was just as he’d affirmed, and she saw Cadance was nowhere to be seen. In fact, there was nopony to be seen. The immense entrance hall was devoid of anything and anypony save for the three of them.
But she didn’t care.
She was too busy fighting the pressure in her chest as her eyes roamed her old home. The grand staircases leading towards the upper levels, the ones she’d gone up and down countless times; the side doors leading to the kitchens, to the dining rooms, to the libraries, to…
Everything was the same.
And yet, if she went to the observatory, Princess Luna would not be there, arranging the stars or sleeping the day away.
If she went to the throne room, Princess Celestia would not be there to hold court or discuss policies and treaties.
If she went to the armory, Shining Armor would not be there, polishing his shield or devising new military tactics.
Her parents would not be in their house. Feather Scroll would not be dusting off books in the library. Bristle Loaf would not be in the kitchens, ready to scold her for sneaking pastries into her room. Spotless Heart would not be there in the mornings, knocking on her door to wake her up. Iron Cobbler would not be there, ready to follow her at a moment’s notice.
Everypony she loved was gone.
Name after name shot into her head, from cooks to maids, from librarians to scholars, even the nobles she’d debated with—they were all gone.
They were dead.
Dead, and the only one left alive in the castle had seen them all go.
The only one left alive, and Twilight didn’t know if Cadance would forgive her or not.
Forgive her for her role in a future that had been taken away from her and them and…
Tears bordered her eyes, trickling down her cheeks and onto the hoof pressed against her mouth. She missed home. She missed home, and even if everything around her was familiar, home was gone.
Spike’s voice, gentle and caring, the only home she still knew she had left, beckoned her, and she found she could not clearly speak.
“Sp-Spike…” Her words came out in a ragged breath, distorted and damaged, cracked to the point she wasn’t sure it was her own voice. “They’re gone.”
“I know,” he said.
“They’re gone,” she repeated, as it might change the fact, because she wanted it to be changed, she wanted it to be different, she didn’t want this pain, she wanted solace.
Her breath caught in her throat when a familiar blue magic enveloped the doorknobs of the doors above the staircase. It lingered there, the door fixed in place, and Twilight wondered if she was afraid, too.
Willing herself forward, she flew down and landed in front of Spike, turning her head to catch his eyes sparkling with tears. He looked at her, silently, the dragon who’d waited a thousand years to find her and bring her back.
The doors opened.
She turned around, watching as they moved and the Princess of Canterlot stepped inside, nothing and no one besides her save for what seemed to be an object floating behind her. There she stood, the Princess of Canterlot, her true name lost amidst the centuries, from Princess Rhythm, to Princess Melody, to more and more until Princess Denza took the mantle.
Both Princesses stared at each other across the harrowing gap of a thousand years, their emotions as veiled as the reality hidden from Equestria.
Twilight didn’t know what to say.
She didn’t know what to say even as the Princess moved forward, even as she walked down the steps, even as she reached the final one and took her place across the room.
It was her. It was her, from the cerise of her coat, to her mane in shades of purple and gold, to her crown, to her eyes. It was her, and yet it wasn’t, for in her eyes Twilight couldn’t see Cadance. She couldn’t see warmth, she couldn’t see a smile on her lips, she couldn’t see the love Cadance was known for.
The Princess looked down, the object behind her floating to the forefront and revealing itself to be a shield. A shield that, upon levitating towards Twilight, revealed a familiar, faded cutie mark that caused her hind legs to give way.
Finally, the Princess spoke.
“He would have wanted you to have it,” she said quietly.
Twilight took the shield in her trembling hooves, her tears dripping down her cheeks and onto her brother’s shield. She remembered her brother spending hours and hours polishing it, she remembered seeing him spar and defend himself with it, seeing it take beating after beating, the shield she thought was as invincible and immortal as Shining Armor himself.
And there it was, a ghost of its former self without its master to use it.
I will find you again, in this life or the next.
She was never going to see Shining Armor again.
When she could bear to look at it no longer, she directed her grieving gaze towards the Princess herself, she who had also lost what was precious to them both. And the Princess continued to watch, and the more she watched, the more Twilight hurt because she missed Cadance, she missed her Cadance, she missed her family, and to lose Shining Armor was devastating but to lose them both…
To know that Cadance might have faded away as the cutie mark on the shield had.
“Ca-Cadance?” she called in tears, much like she did once upon a time when a little filly sought the comfort of her governess.
The Princess said nothing at first.
Nothing until she tilted her head, her eyes sparkling with tears and her lips graced with a warm smile as she began to softly sing.
A lullaby, a greeting, a comfort Twilight had long ago lost and could now barely continue.
“L-Ladybugs awake,” she finally whispered, her voice cracking, barely restraining the choked sobs in her soul. “C-Clap your hooves and—” A sob cut her off, and she hid her face against the shield, her brother protecting her one last time from the world that hurt her. “Ca…Cadance… Shining A-Armor… He’s… I’m…”
Twilight looked up, eyes blurred by tears, and she saw Cadance kneeling down before her.
“Cadance,” Twilight said in choked sobs, clutching the shield to her chest. It was hard to talk, it was so, so hard. “I… I’m sorry. I’m sorry, please, I’m sorry, p-please forgive me, I—”
She drifted off, because this wasn’t something she could fix.
Cadance’s horn glowed and magic brushed Twilight’s cheeks, as warm as the home she’d once had.
“Twilight, there is nothing to forgive.”
And when the shield dropped to the floor, when Twilight reached forwards to hug her, when she went through Cadance, she began to weep. She began to cry, and cry, and cry, for those she’d lost, for those she’d never see again, for her home that was gone. She cried, even as warm blue magic cradled her and told her again and again that there was nothing at all to forgive.
Behind her, a sob alarmed her, and Twilight looked up to see Spike, tears trickling down his cheeks, biting down on his lips much like a baby dragon once used to do when proving to Twilight he was brave.
“Hello, Spike,” Cadance said, her voice as warm as the magic comforting Twilight. “Welcome home. Will you be staying for dinner?”
“Yeah,” he said, voice cracking. “I think I will.”
you finally did it you got me to cry i am sitting here in bed crying. absolutely bawling over cadance and shining armor and twilight and spike and the tragedy of immortality in a temporary world. literally cannot even formulate thoughts i am just so devastated. tears. real tears. the lullaby got me like it hit ladybugs awake and i started sniffling.
“will you be staying for dinner?” “yeah, I think i will” DO YOU WANT ME DEAD. this entire chapter was already like a shovel to the knees and then you come in and go haHA have some MORE pain like oh god. i’m so sad. i’m so inconsolably sad they’re all gone and they have new people they care about and they’re rebuilding their lives and they aren’t alone but that doesn’t erase who they lost. ugh. UGH. i’m upset. in many ways TEK so far has felt like a story about grief and i am. perhaps deeply touched and upset about it. it just resonates, it really does.