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Innocence beamed brightly as Sleipnir carefully set down a large, tightly-tied bundle, her enormous uncle smiling benevolently down at her before he said cheerfully: “Now, my niece, I have been working hard at the forge and must shortly return to show anxious Spike that I am not slacking, but I desired to deliver this to thee by mine own hoof so that I could see thee put it on. I believe 'twill be most suiting for thee, sweet little filly.”

The young mare bounced excitedly back and forth along the back deck as Scrivener, Celestia, and Twilight all watched with smiles, the violet mare pushing herself away from the table to join anxiously-fidgeting Luna as the sapphire mare encouraged: “Well, open it, open it, daughter!”

Innocence looked up at Sleipnir for a moment, and when the enormous earth pony chuckled and nodded, she brightened and spun towards the package, yanking at the ropes and knots and grimacing as she tried to wrestle it off. Scrivener sighed as Twilight winced and leaned forwards, trying to get her daughter's attention as Luna only growled in frustration, her soulstone horn starting to glow, but Sleipnir quickly leaned in before anyone could do anything further, saying delicately: “Sometimes a gentle touch is required, sweet filly.”

With that, Sleipnir gently grasped the loose end of rope above a knot, and with a single gentle tug the entire system of knots holding the bundle together unraveled and the thick cloth fluttered open. And Innocence's eyes widened, gleaming in delight at the sight of the armor beneath as Twilight winced a little, shifting awkwardly as the young mare whispered: “Oh wow...”

Sleipnir smiled warmly, straightening and saying in a pleased voice: “'Tis some of my best work, and Spike's too, if I may be so bold as to speak for him. The gemstone composite beneath the plates is alive with energy thanks to both Spike's work and some enchantment done by the gifted Architects we share the forge with, and 'twill absorb most magic energies flung at it. Thou should also be able to energize it with thine own magic, Innocence, to better armor thyself.

“'Tis like a sandwich.” Sleipnir continued positively, and Luna grinned as Twilight looked uncertain and Celestia only smiled slightly, tilting her head with interest. “Light plate on the outside, gemstone beneath, and a webbing of leather to insulate and comfort. But that is only over the body: the leggings are but leather, and the bracers alloy inset with magic-conductive crystal. They shall serve to absorb magic energies themselves as well, and I am sure Celestia shall be able to train thee well in the use of such artifact.”

“I think Innocence is smart enough to pick that up on her own, Sleipnir. You really have outdone yourself, though...” Celestia hesitated as Innocence held up a facemask in her claws, staring over it with amazement. “The fierceness...”

“Seems appropriate for my daughter, for she is fierce!” Luna interrupted firmly, and Twilight winced a bit even as Innocence looked up brightly, blushing slightly but seeming delighted by her Móðer's encouragement... in fact, Scrivener noted, he thought that she seemed excited about not just the armor, but how Sleipnir had shaped it, which he hadn't entirely expected. “Now put it on, put it on before I shove it onto thee myself!”

The young unicorn smiled brightly over at her mother, then she nodded before quickly beginning to pick up pieces of the armor, Sleipnir and Luna both stepping forwards to help the young mare into her equipment. Scrivener, meanwhile, picked up his cup of tea and sipped slowly at it as his eyes turned towards the sunset, and Celestia studied him for a few moments before saying softly: “You're worried about this, aren't you?”

Scrivener nodded a little, glancing back towards the group: they were so absorbed in what was going on, that he doubted even Twilight had heard with how anxiously she was flittering around the three ponies. “I am a little, yeah. Innocence is... she's learning fast, but...”

“You're hoping she never has to use those powers... or rather, you know one day she will, but you hope that it won't be soon.” Celestia said softly, and Scrivener smiled a bit over at her with a small nod. The ivory winged unicorn looked back at him thoughtfully, and then she asked curiously: “Have you considered changing your plans and visiting Subterra? I think that I'm going to have to go there with Hecate myself soon, and... I certainly wouldn't mind the company.”

“It always scares both me and Luna when you two work together.” Scrivener said mildly, and then he shook his head a little and asked softly: “What about Valhalla? Have you been in contact with upstairs at all?”

Celestia smiled slightly at this, tilting her head and asking: “I have been, yes, but shouldn't that worry you and Luna more, that I consider whatever's going on so serious a warning that it means I should get in contact with Queen Terra and Heaven itself?”

There was silence for a moment, and then Scrivener shook his head and murmured: “You're still Queen of the Valkyries, Celestia. Maybe in some ways, you belong in Valhalla a little more than a lot of the rest of us. It makes you happy, doesn't it? And besides, Hecate is like your opposite. Much scarier when opposites are working together than anything else.”

“You have a point.” Celestia hesitated, looking down before she nodded slowly. “And I do feel... loyalty to Valhalla still, I suppose is the best way to put it. I feel like it's a part of me, and I'm part of it... and it's not entirely an unpleasant way to feel these days.”

Scrivener smiled over at her, but before he could say anything further, Luna called for their attention as she and Sleipnir stepped away from Innocence and gestured towards her, and Twilight gave a visibly-strained smile as the young mare posed in her new armor.

It was a mix of white and gold, the plates along the shoulders and top side of her body overlapping and twisting upwards at their edges to give the armor more of a regal, if tortoise-like, appearance. A gorgeous ruby gemstone was inset into the center of the heavy breastplate, already gleaming with stored energies, and thick black leather covered her limbs, ornate ivory alloy bracers gilded with golden metal locked around these, the lighter-looking armors that covered her forelegs both inset with enormous, oval-shaped rubies that matched the stone in her breast.

Lastly, a facemask shaped like the snarling skull of a Tyrant Wyrm was locked in place over her features, her curved horn standing tall through a slit in the golden metal and her eyes glowing brightly through the deep sockets. The mask was locked back into a casque that covered the rest of the mare's head, only a bit of her mane poking out beneath the bottom of the unornamented golden metal as she said brightly: “Look at me!”

“Wow. We... we are.” Twilight said after a moment, and then the Lich slowly looked down at the bracers, noting the way they were almost... ridged, like raised scales or fins or... “Why... why is it sharp everywhere, though?”

Luna cleared her throat awkwardly as all eyes turned to her... except for Sleipnir, who only shrugged and said brightly: “'Twas what I was instructed to do, 'tis all. It shall work most fantastically to protect thy daughter, for like the bladeback's shell, it shall be her source of greatest defense and offense all in one.”

Scrivener only shrugged lamely when Twilight turned to glare at him, and then then the Lich's eyes turned on Luna as she leaned forwards, saying flatly: “I thought we agreed that-”

“I really like it, though, Momma!” Innocence said, glancing up with a smile, and Twilight immediately deflated a little, turning surprised eyes on her daughter as Innocence bounced back and forth before she bared her teeth under the cusp of the mask with a playful growl. “I feel fierce in it! I feel strong and scary, but I kinda like it.”

Sleipnir smiled positively down at the young mare, even if there was an odd, appraising look in his eyes now, and Luna turned her own warm eyes on her daughter, studying her. But she thought she saw part of why Innocence would like it: not just because of how rough and tough it made her look and feel, but because it so cleverly hid her features, made her look like a normal pony... even though the fierce, almost-bestial armor actually bore quite a resemblance to her own body in places.

There was silence for a few moments, and then Twilight Sparkle simply sighed and nodded slowly, and all eyes returned to Innocence after a moment as the young mare looked towards Sleipnir and she murmured: “Thank you, Uncle Sleipnir. You did a really, really fantastic job. And Mom, Móðer, Dad... I'm not gonna let any of you down. I promise.”

There was quiet as they looked at their daughter in her fierce shell armor... and then Scrivener sighed before trading glances with Luna and Twilight, able to give them a bit of warning with their link even before he said softly: “Well... Celestia actually has invited us along to Subterra with her. I know you're eager to work through your kind of... prologue to your real Valkyrie training, but we should maybe focus on... some other things right now.”

“Aye, thou knows there is much to be learned in Subterra. I, for one, think 'tis a good idea, and there are better facilities there that will allow Scrivener and thee to practice together.” Luna paused, then looked thoughtfully over at Celestia. “And perhaps we can even harass Hecate into teaching thee some of her wicked, nefarious spellwork. For not even Celestia can channel antimagic like Hecate has demonstrated in the past.”

“I don't know about that... Hecate is... well, I just don't know if that's such a good idea.” Twilight said awkwardly, and Scrivener shifted awkwardly, not entirely sure which side of the conversation he was on. But he was surprised when the mare suggest hesitantly: “Maybe... maybe Kismet, though...”

“Assuming he is not busy... making... daisy-chains or... helping orphans or... doing something else absurd. Despicable death entity. He is not supposed to be so nice.” Luna grumbled, and then she huffed at the amused looks she got before waving a hoof in Sleipnir's face. “And thou can go now as well, great and silly tree-face. But thou does have my thanks for the armor.”

“Nay, thank me not. 'Tis rather a pleasure to have the opportunity to create such a masterwork for my niece, and besides, 'twas thanks in great part to the efforts of both Spike and the Architects we were able to complete this project so quickly.” Sleipnir replied easily, and then he turned a kind look towards Innocence, saying softly: “All I ask is that thou promises to always strive to uphold thy Valkyrie heritage when thou art wearing this. Fair?”

“Fair!' Innocence agreed with a warm look up at her uncle, and then she reached up and carefully tugged the faceplate off before blushing and adding: “But... thank you all the same, Uncle Sleipnir. It means a lot to me that you designed so much of this and got so many people to help and brought it out here to me like this.”

Sleipnir only shrugged with another smile, then he reached up and playfully ruffled Luna's mane, making her huff. She swung at him with her horn, but he slapped it aside almost absently before bouncing over to Twilight and picking her up in a hug, almost cracking her ribs as the Lich's eyes bulged and the breath was forced out of her lungs.

The enormous stallion set her down after a moment with a laugh, then waved cheerfully to Celestia and Scrivener before he trotted for the door. Luna leaned forwards, biting her tongue as her soulstone horn glowed, but thankfully she was interrupted by Innocence asking: “So can we go to Subterra, Móðer?”

Luna opened her mouth as the glow died out around her horn, then she awkwardly cleared her throat and looked at Twilight, who hesitated only a moment before the Lich softened and nodded, glancing down at Innocence and answering: “It would probably be a good idea, yeah. There's a lot of people you can learn from, and better places to train and practice, and more privacy and... well...”

Twilight shifted, not knowing how to approach the subject, in large part because it was something she had experienced herself. The... feeling of safety that had come with Subterra, but not like the safety she felt with Luna and Scrivener. Luna and Scrivener were always there, and she knew they'd always be there, and they pushed her to do things she might not otherwise have ever risked or been comfortable with... they made her stronger.

When she'd first started spending long amounts of time in Subterra, she had eventually gotten so... enthralled with the welcoming atmosphere and fitting in that it had gotten... harder and harder to leave. And it probably hadn't helped that Scrivener and Luna had been gone back then...

The only reason she'd been able to tear herself away from Subterra was because of Antares. Because he needed her, and because she knew he needed to be around other ponies. Yes, Ponyville was another safe place, a miniature utopia, but... as it grew busier, there were more ponies coming in who weren't as tolerant, or who hadn't seen all the things that the citizens of Ponyville had, what they'd grown up with, what to them had become natural.

But Subterra was nothing but demons and monsters, where freaks and supernatural oddities were the norm. And sometimes even these days, Twilight felt it from not just herself, but Scrivy and Luna, too: it would be easy to settle into that city of the night, that little sanctuary, and live there for the rest of their lives. In a way, though, it was the worst thing they could do: they would be running away from the rest of the world, the very same world the wanted to protect. They would be relegating themselves to the darkness beneath Canterlot when they had fought so hard to save the world above. They would be hiding, and eventually it would grow hard to leave Subterra and the safety it provided and face the sunlight, and they might even forget that they had a duty to more than just the night.

Twilight desperately didn't want to forget that she still belonged in the daylight, too, no matter what some ponies might say... and the Lich didn't want her daughter to envelope herself for so long in the night that she forgot she still had good things under the sun, too. Subterra could be so comforting for them it was like an artificial womb; she didn't want that maternal paradise to become a wanted, needed, welcomed prison.

Innocence was still looking at her, and Twilight shook her head quickly before she blushed a bit and said finally, giving a small smile: “Sorry. I got lost in my own thoughts for a minute. Yeah, Subterra will be great for a few days, I think, but then we're going to stay in Canterlot. I want you to do some training at the Magic Academy, too.”

“Momma! But I hate the Magic Academy!” Innocence complained childishly. Twilight gave her daughter a mild look, then turned a flat glare on Luna when she giggled, and the sapphire mare hurriedly cleared her throat and looked awkwardly away as the young unicorn continued crankily: “They all hate me there, and even the advanced classes really aren't that... advanced or hard, with what we've been studying.”

“They emphasize the basic foundations of magic, though, and that's where you need practice. All the best mages practiced the basics.” Twilight said empathetically, and then she looked over at the others for support.

Scrivener shrugged awkwardly, while Luna grumbled but nodded, and Celestia smiled... and was the only pony who didn't look surprised when Discombobulation said mildly from where he was now sitting beside the ivory mare: “I think that someone's been spending too much time hanging out with Hank Hill. He believes firmly in the motto of 'practice the basics' too.”

Twilight only looked blankly at the Draconequus over her shoulder, and Scrivener drank down the last of his tea before he asked dryly: “So does that mean you approve or don't?”

Discombobulation began to open his mouth, but he was cut off when Luna asked quickly: “What news is there regarding Ginnungagap, creature? Has there been any activity above, or any other signs of the storm on the horizon?”

Innocence quieted, and Twilight winced a bit, stepping protectively towards her daughter as Celestia turned silently-questioning eyes to the Draconequus. He was silent as well, licking his lips before he looked down at his metallic hand and murmured: “Nobody gets justice. People only get good luck or bad luck.”

He paused, then glanced up and said softly: “We've created as many technical delays as possible. We've thrown wrenches in the gears and let the Phantom run the opera house, but to no avail: Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson must have caught the case, or perhaps good old TinTin, but either way the ghosts have been exorcised from the machinery and now the curtains... are drawing back.”

The Draconequus looked up, saying finally: “You have to open with a good monologue, though. A summary of events. You need to get the protagonist on the stage and have him bore the audience's ear off with some grand announcement, make him a virtuoso for a few weak minutes... albeit a very bad one. But the very best plays always have the very worst actors, you know.”

“So this is just the... I don't know how plays are set up.” Scrivener said after a moment, and when Luna gave him a dry look, the stallion shrugged. “Hey, I'm a poet and kind of a writer, I guess. I'm not versed in every little thing when it comes to plays and stuff, though.”

“We're in the space between spaces right now: our own little void, before the prologue properly begins, but after the curtains have begun to draw back.” Discombobulation shook his head, looking uncomfortably upwards. “But perhaps we'll be lucky. This might be a musical, and before the narrator or protagonist or whoever is going to ramble away and tell us what's going on appears, there's the flourish of the instruments, the humming of a short tune, maybe a merry melody or a tidbit of song. Everyone knows that a few seconds can give you weeks, months, even years... as long as you make a strong enough wish.”

The Draconequus fell quiet, then he flexed his metallic hand slowly, studying the steel digits before he shook his head and muttered: “Well, fantastic. Now I feel like I've gone and soured the whole mood here, thank you very much for turning me into Mr. Weatheman and making it rain, Scrivener Blooms.”

Luna only smiled wryly at this, then she shrugged and replied pointedly: “Well, thou did not have to predict gloom and doom, Bob. Thou did that all on thy own.”

“And if I lied, then you'd all be mad at me. I don't like it when ponies are mad at me, it makes me feel all squiggly inside, like there's worms crawling around inside my stomach.” Discombobulation paused, then glanced mildly over at Luna. “Although at least you wouldn't be the only one full of parasites, then. I wonder how many have jumped aboard you, hunkered down for decades; growing, spawning, shopping, putting on plays...”

Luna huffed loudly at this before her soulstone horn glowed, and Discombobulation winced and grabbed Celestia's flowing mane, hiding behind it like a blanket and making the ivory mare roll her eyes and smile despite herself even as she asked in a soft but serious voice: “Is the creature you couldn't identify before still there?”

“Could it be like some kind of chaos god?” asked Innocence, and all eyes turned to her for a moment as Scrivener smiled a little despite himself. He'd almost forgotten she was still here, and in full armor and all. She had put down her faceplate though, and the stallion felt oddly glad about that, and felt the same sensation of relief from Twilight and Luna: but perhaps it was because they always managed to worry about Sin hiding herself a little, even if they all recognized things like her pony polymorph were probably a good idea right now.

“Chaos and gods don't really actually go together as often as you think.” Discombobulation said delicately, tenting his fingers as he looked mildly over at the young mare. “I mean, a god has a defined role. That instantly order. God of Chaos? So you're a god, this static thing, that's in charge of creating chaos, and just that? That's nonsense. Sure, maybe Discord fancies himself 'god of chaos' now and then, but really, is he? No, he's not. He's just a big jerk who happened to be in that videogame about a quantum conundrum that had a really lame ending.”

“But Draconequus are chaos entities. How can you be a chaos entity but there can't be chaos gods?” Innocence asked flatly, and Discombobulation huffed and touched his own chest as he sat up straight, letting Celestia's mane flow back away.

“Elementary, my dear Innocence. I am not an apple, I am an orange.” Discombobulation paused, then he wiggled his fingers and said mildly: “Sure, I'm made of chaos. But the fantastic thing about that means that part of chaos is not causing chaos. I'm not causing any mayhem right now am I, am I? See, unpredictability. Gods are predictable, ordered, set into one kind of rhythm. Me? I can get up and play the piano if I want to at five o'clock in the morning, and eat pancakes for dinner.”

Luna looked thoughtful at this, then she glanced over at Innocence and asked curiously: “How would thou like pancakes for dinner tonight? 'Tis the first good idea that Bob has ever had.”

Discombobulation looked at the sapphire mare sourly, and then he said dryly: “Well thank you, Little Miss Lightning Rod. We'll just forget all the times I saved the day for you ponies, often risking life and limb in the process.”

The Draconequus held up his metal arm pointedly, and Luna huffed a little as she retorted: “Well, aren't thou remarkably touchy today, creature. And here I thought that 'twas Celestia who got grumpy when she did not get her bumps in the night from thee.”

Celestia gave her younger sibling a flat look as Innocence made a face and Twilight rolled her eyes, then the violet mare hurriedly rose a hoof and asked before the conversation could twist any further into unwanted territory: “I think what Innocence means is... could this be... well, could it be a god, infected by chaos?”

Innocence frowned at this, and Discombobulation looked thoughtful, rubbing meditatively at his features before he said finally: “That's a strange thought, Twilight Sparkle, and one that's going to require some chewing over. No, it seems like... well, I've been outside of Ginnungagap so long that I forget precisely who the Mad must bow to, apart from the Hatter, of course. But if we ever saw that reference used, there would be troubled times ahead indeed: it would mean we're not going down the rabbit hole, but Wonderland is coming to us... and can you imagine what a terror it would be to unleash all that madcap magic into our world, even if our world is very much through the Looking Glass? It'd be like pouring Narnia into Prydain, or telling King Arthur he has to room with Saladin. It just really isn't going to work out that well.”

“Wonderland... I liked those stories, ever since you gave Luna and me that book.” Scrivener murmured, shaking his head a little before he glanced up and across at Discombobulation meditatively. “But they can be twisted, can't they?”

“Aren't they already, when you stop and think about it, Luna Brynhild?” the Draconequus asked quietly in return, and Scrivener shifted awkwardly before the chimerical creature glanced over at Celestia and reached up to gently comb his fingers through her mane, the ivory mare closing her eyes and bowing her head towards him silently. “I have to go. But we'll always have Paris.”

And with that, the Draconequus slipped backwards and vanished in a puff of green-tinged smoke, and Celestia sighed before glancing over at Innocence as the young unicorn gazed curiously up at her aunt. “Try not to worry yourself too much, Innocence. Until we know what's going on, it's better that you just focus on your training for now and let us try and worry about everything else.”

Innocence shifted a little, nodding even as she made a bit of a face, and Luna was quick to add: “'Tis not that thou art not helpful but rather... thou must be ready for the future. And the only way to ensure that thou truly are ready is if thou puts all thy strength and focus towards training with us. Let thy Aunt Tia and Hecate and all the other brainy-types worry about the puzzles.”

“Okay.” Innocence nodded, regaining some of her former positivity, and Celestia gave an awkward, half-apologetic smile to Twilight Sparkle as the violet mare approached with a softly-entertained look to her former mentor. The Lich gathered up the empty mugs and teacups on the table with telekinesis, and Scrivener slipped out of his own seat as Innocence asked in a more-eager voice: “So when are we gonna leave for Subterra then? If we went right now-”

“We can wait until tomorrow, Innocence, we still have some theory to go over tonight, and you need to learn more about your armor, what every part is called and where it's strongest and weakest.” Twilight replied over her shoulder as she headed to the back door, but she was warmed as always by her daughter's enthusiasm. It always made her happy to see Innocence excited about something, especially learning... even if it was learning dangerous arts like they were teaching her now.

As the violet mare strode into the kitchen, however, her face fell a little as she lowered her head. Was it really a good thing she was almost encouraging her daughter's descent into this? Or was it partly because of Luna and Scrivener and... that little, naggling fear she sometimes had...

She sighed and shook her head slowly, then looked up and blushed a bit as Scrivener said softly: “We probably do influence your thoughts a little, but... you know that you probably influence us, too. And we would never... puppet you.”

“I know. I know that, Scrivy. Well, except for the time Luna did try and make me...” Twilight scowled a little, glowering over at him, but the stallion only grinned slightly. “You know, I understand testing if it actually works or not, I was fine with that, but I did not like... that sort of... dirty dancing.”

“If I have to be entirely honest, I kind of did.” the stallion said mildly as Twilight tossed the dishes in the sink, and the Lich shook her head and stepped aside as Scrivener turned on the taps to run the water. He glanced over at the kettle on the stove, not needing to ask for Twilight to grab it with telekinesis and lift it over to him even as the stallion continued: “Look, I do understand. Don't forget that... Luna and I can exert control over each other, too, and I kind of have some idea of what it's like to be puppeted... although I know your situation means...”

“No, it's okay. You don't have to do that.” Twilight said softly, shaking her head and smiling a little at the stallion as he drew the kettle out from under the stream of water, and she easily carried it free from his claw and set it back on the stove, a dial glowing before the burner clicked on as the Lich continued, her eyes roving to watch the stream of hot water fill the sink inch-by-inch: “You two... understand me. I think that's why I want to talk about it to you, though, not just... go over it in our heads, I want to hear you...”

She blushed a little, and Scrivener glanced over at her with a slight smile even as he poured soap into the sink, before he glanced back at the water and murmured: “Now that I do really understand, Twilight. I'm the guy who needs to actually hear twenty times a day from Luna I'm not going to be a monster to be reassured. Although maybe a few of those times are just because I like the attention and all.”

Twilight sighed and shook her head, smiling despite herself before she slipped up to his side, and the stallion glanced at her, claws buried in the soapy water, gently grasping one of the mugs before the Lich leaned up and met his lips. He kissed her softly back, and Twilight's eyes slid closed before they slipped apart... but only so she could bury her face against the side of his neck, eyes still closed as she murmured quietly: “Say it.”

“I love you. Both Luna and I do. And you're not a monster, or giving into that dark part of you that you claim is somewhere inside there, is as bad as me and Luna...” Scrivener smiled slightly, glancing over at her and adding softly: “Although when you say that stuff sometimes, I wonder if you've really seen... me and Luna.”

Twilight laughed and shook her head a little, and then she glanced up at him with honest adoration. She loved that most about Scrivener: that when you got past all the masks and the anxiety and the nonsense, there was this confident stallion beneath it all who would do anything for his friends... and she'd never believed in her wildest dreams that she'd be so happy to have a partner who saw her as a best friend first, everything else after that.

Of course, she also had never really expected to be in a three-way relationship. Nor in a relationship with another mare. And there was the whole Lich thing, too...

Scrivener was looking at her with entertainment, and she could tell he was picking up her thoughts, so she only dropped her head back against him and mumbled: “Do the dishes and I'll dry them off.”

“No, you'll use your dumb magic to dry them off. It's fine, we'll just let them air dry.” Scrivener replied, and the Lich rolled her eyes but nodded, only looking up long enough to grasp a dish towel with telekinesis and drop it over the countertop. She stayed against him as he calmly washed the dishes, maybe holding onto him a little tightly, enjoying the closeness as much as she first had... all those years ago now...

“When you were angry, and feeling rebellious against Celestia, and visiting me and Luna in the forest where we were hiding in exile.” Scrivener murmured softly, and Twilight looked up at him with a slight smile. He had picked up on her thoughts again... not that she minded at all on this subject. “I remember that. Luna and I were kind of... just... starting to really lock in with each other, everything was newly built, and then you... when you first showed up that day, you were so happy...”

“And then I... was looking at you two, and I remember thinking, studying you, studying Luna... that I've never had this. I could never be a part of this. I made myself so upset, and I thought... well, I was still trying to pretend all those feelings were for you, too, which didn't help much because I'm pretty sure part of me still hated you.” Twilight glanced up at him, and Scrivener laughed as he continued to soak, wash, and rinse their used dishware.

“Don't worry. I'm sure I felt the same about you.” the stallion replied easily, and then he dropped his head lightly against hers as their eyes met, warm, tender emotions twisting between them, but not needing their link to see the emotions, the signs in each other's eyes... they knew every inch of each other, every secret, every tell: they were equals. “But... it hurt to see you so sad, and Luna seemed to know right away what was wrong while I was... well...”

“Clueless.” Twilight smiled despite herself. “Not that I blame you, considering... the kind of hoof we got off on, and even if I'm no big catch myself, the fact that Luna loved you so much... considered you a soulmate...”

She stopped and softened, looking down for a moment and biting her cheek before she glanced up and asked quietly: “Do you think we can still count as being soulmates, even if there's three of us? We're not two halves to a whole.”

“We kind of are.” Scrivener shrugged a bit, and when Twilight frowned at him, the stallion put the final mug aside and flicked water off his claws before he tapped his own chest gently, saying softly: “Me and Luna barely make up one dumb soul between the two of us. You're the half... to both of us. And honestly, Twilight, without you... I don't think Luna and I would be nearly as strong or happy or... even as close... as we are now. You're kind of... everything important that binds us together.”

Twilight Sparkle blushed at this, but smiled radiantly all the same, and Scrivener smiled slightly in return as he drained the sink and added mildly: “But you know, really, you totally owe us your life. Because you pretty much gave in to us without a fight.”

“Maybe I gave in right away because I trusted my instincts. Because... it felt right, horrified as every other part of me was, especially when...” Twilight blushed a bit, then quickly closed her mouth as Luna came inside with a wide grin, Innocence following with a curious look on her face and Celestia calmly striding along last.

“No, no, finish the story! Innocence is old enough to hear, I am sure. And thou wert so cute, so inexperienced, so-” Luna winced when Celestia slapped the back of her head, then the sapphire mare glowered over her shoulder with a huff at the ivory mare. “Thou art an assbutt, Celestia. A great big assbutt.”

Celestia only shook her head slowly as a blushing Twilight turned and hurried away, and Innocence made a bit of a face at her father before her attention was drawn by her aunt saying gently: “Come into the den and we'll take off your armor, then examine it piece-by-piece. I'll tell you what everything's called, and then you can try and put it on by yourself.”

Innocence nodded a few times, then she looked almost suspiciously at Scrivener again before following quickly after Celestia, and the stallion sighed as he looked across the divider at the two before he glowered over at Luna, who was grinning widely at the charcoal earth pony. “Please don't... actually, you just shouldn't talk. Ever. It always leads to trouble.”

“Well, thou art one to... to talk!” Luna retorted lamely, and then she cleared her throat before shaking her head and grumbling: “Furthermore, I was not the pony groping up Twilight Sparkle, that was thou. With thy... soapy claws and foul words.”

“I was washing the dishes. Go blame Twilight, she was trying to seduce me.” Scrivener replied immediately, and Luna grumbled and narrowed her eyes at him moodily, leaning pointedly forwards until the end of her muzzle was pushing into his face. He wrinkled up his features, looking awkwardly sideways at her, and then Luna snorted against his cheek and drew away, trotting off to harass Twilight instead as the stallion sighed tiredly. Well. On the bright side, things are never boring around here.

Celestia stayed the night: it was something they were actually rather used to, and Luna, Scrivener, and Twilight all welcomed her company. After Innocence went to bed, they spent most of the night up, discussing things quietly until Celestia excused herself to rest a little before morning, and the three remaining ponies shifted into more-comfortable, more-affectionate positions in the den. They shared touch, and taste, and action, but without letting themselves slide into anything too passionate, too heavy; sometimes waiting, drawing it out, made it a little better.

Later in the morning, as Scrivener was making breakfast for them, the stallion couldn't help but reflect that it felt like they were going through a kind of second romance together. He had no idea what had really triggered it, but he, Luna, Twilight... they were being more affectionate than was usual even by their standards. It wasn't that he was complaining at all, but... in his dark-romantic's heart, which felt that love flourished most under the most unusual circumstances, the hardest pressures... he wondered if it wasn't an omen that things were about to get bad. Very bad.

Luna and Twilight both glared at him across the divider, and then Luna flung a pillow at the stallion, which bounced off harmlessly but then almost fell on the stove, Scrivener cursing and flailing wildly in all directions to eventually knock the flopping pillow back across the divider, scattering the recipe books and dishes that had been piled up. Luna winced at the sound of several of the plates shattering, and Scrivener glowered at her as Twilight sighed tiredly and shook her head before announcing: “I'll get it. Since you two just ruin everything.”

Innocence giggled tiredly at them, and both ponies were just glad that Celestia hadn't come down yet to give them that look. But after a moment, the back door opened and Celestia herself calmly strode in with an enormous weapon gleaming over her back, focusing that exact look Luna loathed and Scrivener had learned to detest himself on the two of them. “Arguing?”

“Not... wordily!” Luna complained as she hopped up and glared over the counter, and Celestia smiled slightly, which just added insult to injury before the winged unicorn threatened: “Make me not come upside thy head with the egg-spatula, Celestia! Not even thy stupid Tyrfing shall save thee from my wrath!”

Celestia sighed tiredly, and Scrivener gave Luna a flat look before he returned his eyes to the sword resting across Celestia's back as she walked by, secured by several twists of her own rainbow mane. It was an enormous weapon, the blade perhaps six feet long and with large, fang-like barbs spaced evenly down its length. Along the flats of the massive golden blade were engraved crimson symbols depicting the nine worlds that seemed to glow with their own inner magic. It was a truly menacing weapon, one that carried a curse that would kill any man who tried to use it... but Celestia was certainly no man, in any sense of the word.

“Arguable. She is very manly.” Luna grumbled as Twilight finished repairing the broken dishes with magic and Scrivener turned back to poke at the batch of scrambled eggs. “When did thou leave to pick up thy gigantic stabbing tool, anyway? And I do not mean the one thou likely uses on Bob.”

Celestia didn't react to what Luna considered swift-witted banter, the ivory mare instead replying calmly: “I've been working on my summoning magic... Tyrfing and I know each other well enough now that I can call on him when I need him. It's good practice, and I hope that one day...”

The ivory mare hesitated, then she smiled slightly over at Luna as the sapphire mare's eyes gleamed, a slow grin cresting her muzzle as she rose her head. “I had never thought of that. Nay, thy hjorleikr is not summoning, but creates the weapons as thou needs them... 'tis not like thou hast wielded thy true blades since...”

“Since I was Freya. The swords I woke up with on this world... they weren't my real swords, only cheap imitations.” Celestia halted, looking thoughtfully over at Luna. “Perhaps part of the reason I was so angry, for so long, is because I've been incomplete all these years. Our weapons are our souls, are they not?”

“And thou art still without thy soul, but... thou feel they exist still?” Luna asked curiously, and when Celestia only gave her an amused look, the sapphire mare grinned wryly. “Blame me not, Celestia, I could not resist the question! But aye, no forge can burn a Valkyrie's soul, I know this well.”

Luna smiled warmly up at her big sister, and Celestia nodded as she gazed back down at the smaller mare with an expression that was tender, but eyes that were filled with determination and passion as she said: “And right now, those pieces of my soul probably rest somewhere either in some... trophy house of Valthrudnir's, or were snatched up by a greedy demon. But if I can focus on them enough, I should be able to call them to me... assuming they'll still recognize me.”

The starry-maned mare laughed at this, breaking into a full grin now at her sister. “Scared of what thine own self shall think of thy new self, art thou? Great coward! Nay, thou hast nothing to fear, Celestia, my most beloved and worthy sister... for even though thou spent a long time changing, I am glad to say that somehow thou hast gone full circle and become the Freya I once knew.”

“I hope not entirely full circle... there's parts of her I want to remain behind me.” Celestia said softly, and Luna shrugged thoughtfully as the ivory mare looked curiously at her younger sibling.

Luna tilted her head back and forth, and then she said with a wink: “Well, if thou leaves behind thy adventurousness, 'twill be boring. What fun we Valkyries had, gossiping about Freya's latest exploits, and conquests, and how terrified all the warriors were of being her next meal, be it on the battlefield or in the bedroom. I sincerely hope thou continues to be so bold, Celestia, for otherwise I shan't have nearly as much to gossip about.

“And thy anger is not... entirely without its merit. Thou taught me this, Celestia: it can be focused. If thou could but focus thy rage on something...” Luna paused, then shrugged and smiled after a moment at the mare, saying softly: “I simply believe that it can benefit us all as well. Thou must simply... use it in other ways than thou did in the past.”

Celestia nodded thoughtfully, studying her younger sister before she glanced to the side at Innocence, who was gazing up at them both admiringly from where she was sleepily curled up on the futon, and the ivory mare murmured: “You're a very lucky young mare, you know, to have such wise mares to help guide you... and such a strong father, too.”

Scrivener glanced over his shoulder with a smile at Celestia, and she tipped a wink to him before turning around, and Luna glared up at the ivory mare as she snapped: “Oh, do not start thy adventurousness again with my husband! 'Twas bad enough thou regularly plundered the Valkyries of their prizes in the old-days, sometimes in mid-sowing!”

Celestia smiled over her shoulder as she strode down the hall, calling easily back: “The Queen has the right to claim any treasure she desires, Luna Brynhild... but I promise I'll ask permission before I attempt to steal away your husband. I'll meet you in Ponyville.”

“Nay, Twilight can decide for herself: 'tis my wife, Scrivener Blooms, that I am more concerned about.” Luna hurriedly shouted back as the ivory mare left, and Scrivener sighed as he shoveled scrambled eggs out of the pan and resisting the urge to simply fling it all at the soulstone-horned winged unicorn. After all, it would hurt him and Twilight too.

They ate breakfast quickly, and Twilight had already packed up the few things they would need: not a lot, since they would be staying either in the Thorn Palace or at a friend's estate in Subterra, and either way almost everything would be provided for them. Scrivener also had decided to bite the bullet and deal with a business meeting regarding one of his books: the head of the company was an old unicorn named Xeric Underbrush, a nasty-tempered businesspony who owned a surprising amount of Canterlot and was interested only in the bottom line. To be honest, Scrivener was a little scared of him, but he allowed himself to be treated like an employee and signed all the unfair contracts because in return, Underbrush was able to give him something he'd always wanted, whether he wanted to admit it or not: a real chance to share his stories with the world.

The stallion glanced up as he felt Luna touch his shoulder, and he cleared his throat as he realized he'd been zoning out for a few moments. She only looked at him with entertainment, though, and Scrivener smiled a bit before Luna gestured easily at him and said mildly: “Thou art half-dressed. Come now, put on the rest of thy gear.”

Scrivener grunted, reaching down to pick up a bracer as Luna turned her eyes back to the armor rack in their bedroom, and the stallion glanced slowly around this familiar, comfortable sanctuary before he shook himself quickly as he slid the bracer on. At the same time, he glanced up and questioned, despite knowing the answer might just make him cranky: “So why precisely are we taking our full armor?”

“Precaution.” Luna said softly, and the stallion looked at her back with surprise, but the mare only smiled a little as she finished tightening her equipment on and she looked over her shoulder. “I can be perfectly serious now and then, Scrivener Blooms, and I am now because... I am worried. Perhaps 'tis a tickle of instinct, perhaps 'tis something more or less, but... I do not know. Celestia is clearly preparing for the worst, Bob has warned us that something is about to start, and we have already suffered one attack upon ourselves that apparently was not even the beginning of the dangers to come... I am not stupid enough to simply ignore these events.

“Now tell me how I make thee stiffen.” Luna grinned slightly, strutting forwards and posing sharply in her polished armor: she had a breastplate that was made of heavy, dark plates of metal that had been polished to a black sheen, engraved with roses and ivy. It overlayed strong, dragon-scale leather armor that was a rich navy blue and protected the mare's limbs and rear body, giving her the highest possible freedom of mobility. Solid black metal bracers protected her lower limbs, and belts were tightly bound around her upper limbs, etched with prayers written in runes. Her wings flapped once before furling on either side of her as her blue, heavy-duty alloy helm floated silently beside her head, designed specifically with a base that would support her soulstone horn.

Scrivener Blooms smiled despite himself as he drew his eyes slowly along the armored mare, silently studying the way her collar fit so smoothly with the rest of her gear before he said softly: “You look gorgeous.”

Luna huffed at this, but she blushed ever so faintly all the same as she straightened, her helm rising and then firmly locking itself into place over her skull as her starry mane sparked and folded itself smoothly up beneath the casque. “I did not ask thee to compliment on my beauty, Scrivy. I already know that I am very beautiful. I asked for thee to tell me how much I turn thee on. Now pose thyself and I shall demonstrate.”

Scrivener snorted in amusement, and then he smiled despite himself before raising his helmed head high, the solid horns that stood out from it glinting. He pushed his chest out, flexing his body against the heavy obsidian plate mail he wore, and the silver chainmail that formed an insulating layer beneath the solid black plates. Large silver pauldrons protected both his shoulders, each inscribed with the symbol of the crescent moon, with a similar symbol embossed on his breastplate. His platinum collar fit snugly against the top of his armor, giving him protection from hoof to head and leaving only his face exposed.

“Oh, handsome, mighty stallion, how I cannot wait to drag thee into bed and peel thy armor off piece by piece!” Luna exclaimed, striding forwards with a wide grin and licking her lips slowly, and Scrivener grinned despite himself in return before she winked and straightened, shaking herself quickly out as she stepped back. “I am getting far too into character now. Away, away, Scrivy, let us pick up our equipment and prepare ourselves for the journey ahead.”

Scrivener grunted at this, and then the mare snorted and shoved at him lightly with a hoof. “Well, somepony must carry the equipment, and thou does that very well. And I am the one who uses the weapons, therefore it only makes sense that I carry the weapons.”

“Well, watching you attempt to swing away with two spears and shoot angrily at things is pretty entertaining.” Scrivener said wryly, nodding agreeably after a moment. Luna gave him an entertained look, and then she headbutted him lightly and pushed him towards the door.

Scrivener strode out, shaking his head and smiling despite himself as he headed to the den, where Twilight was already waiting. She was only wearing a gemstone vest that had been painted with a gray composite material to enhance its strength, half-hidden beneath a pretty cloak embroidered with a border of lilies and roses that Rarity had stitched for her. There was no point in her loading herself down with heavy armor, after all... especially now that Twilight had learned a few new tricks she could do with her undead shell.

“I wish you wouldn't call it that.” Twilight said softly, but she was smiling all the same, and Scrivener shrugged amiably as he strode towards her. The Lich shifted, and he smiled wider at the brief glimpse of the holster tucked up under one wing, in which rested Andlitstingar. But before he could say anything, she surprised him by holding out an object he hadn't expected in one hoof: a set of glasses.

The stallion sighed, but when Twilight lifted them with telekinesis, he didn't resist as she slipped them onto his features. They gazed at each other softly, and then the violet mare reached up and gently brushed his ivory bangs back, murmuring: “I think I understand more with each passing day why Luna likes those on you so much.”

The charcoal stallion only shrugged, and Twilight mimed him after a moment with an entertained look before Scrivener said softly: “You know, even if you and Luna just magic these glasses up, there's a hundred better things you could do with that kind of power.”

“There's a hundred worse things, too.” The Lich shook her head in amusement, then glanced to where the satchel bags were resting at the side, lifting them easily and carrying them across the room to drop squarely over Scrivener's body, the stallion wincing at their weight as the belts rapidly tightened themselves over his body. “And they add more than aesthetics, Scrivy. They at least protect your eyes a little.”

“I dunno about that. Somehow, stuff always manages to go right past my glasses.” He paused, then informed: “Or you know. The glasses themselves get punched into my eyes. That also hurts like hell, because glass shards are not supposed to go into your eyes. That's bad.”

Twilight looked at him for a few moments, and then she sighed tiredly and said dryly: “This is why Luna hits you so often, you know that, right?”

“Yeah, well. I really wouldn't want our relationship to change any now.” Scrivener paused, then glanced up with a slight smile as Luna emerged from their room, a satchel over one side of her body and Sting Mk. II holstered over her shoulder, Prúðbikkja shrunken down to the size of a fountain pen and carefully tucked beneath her breastplate. “I thought you were carrying all the weapons.”

“Well, Twilight can wield Andlitstingar fine. 'Tis really just thee that I do not trust with any weapons, I only did not want to say anything before and hurt thy sensitive little feelings.” Luna replied with a wink, and Scrivener touched his own chest, mocking a hurt look. “I do not know why though. Thy pain sustains me so nicely.”

Scrivener only shrugged amiably, and Twilight gave the two amused looks before Luna turned and knocked firmly twice on Innocence's door, calling loudly through it: “Hurry up, daughter! Thou had best not be exploring thy nethers in there!”

Now both the stallion and the Lich gave Luna a flat look, and the sapphire mare huffed before complaining: “Well, I do not know what else a mare is to do with the door closed, all by herself!”

“That's because you can't seem to ever think of anything but the most perverted possible situation.” Twilight said mildly, and then she looked dryly over at Scrivener. “And I know that's partly your fault, too, by the way.”

“Shut up, you're getting as bad as we are.” Scrivener argued after a moment, and Twilight blushed slightly even as she shook her head firmly. Luna opened her mouth, but then Innocence's door swung open and the embarrassed-looking young mare stumbled out, a jumbled satchel hanging loosely from her side.

Luna groaned at this, then she grumbled and turned towards her daughter, her horn glowing as she tightened the straps. “Look at thou! Oh come now, daughter, thou cannot simply go and throw things on... well, not these things. Thy equipment must be tight, tight as possible, or thou will end up tripping all over thyself should an attack occur.”

“Sorry, Mutt.” the young mare mumbled apologetically, shifting awkwardly before she looked up and added hurriedly: “I just wanted to get the stuff I could together for the trip since... we're gonna be there for a while, right?”

“Only a little less than a week, Innocence.” Twilight smiled a bit, hearing the unspoken plea in the mare's voice. “And a couple of those days will be in Canterlot, training at the Magic Academy, like we agreed on.”

Innocence groaned, but nodded after a moment, glancing up and pleading: “But not long, right? Only a few classes, and... I'll go alone for it too, right?”

Twilight sighed a little at this, but she nodded and said softly: “Yes, you can go on your own, Innocence. So long as you promise to actually attend the classes and I don't hear any complaints from administration or any of your teachers.”

The young unicorn nodded hurriedly a few times, and then she laughed and shifted quickly away when Luna poked at the teenager with her soulstone horn, before the sapphire mare smiled and said kindly: “There, see how much easier it is to move now? Thou must always remain mobile, does thou understand?”

Innocence smiled and nodded, gazing up at the mare warmly, and Luna paused before reaching up and poking the reptilian end of her daughter's snout as her eyes roved meditatively to the overstuffed bag. “And tell me not thy facemask is in that jumble. Innocence, we must respect our armor!”

“It's... it's on top?” The young unicorn grinned sheepishly, and then she hurriedly turned her attention to the bag when Luna gave her a flat look, yanking the satchel open and wincing as some of the contents spilled out. “Sorry, I'll get it!”

Twilight smiled a little and shook her head slowly, watching the way the two... got along so well. Innocence just listened to Luna in a way that never failed to make her a little envious. She shifted a bit, then turned her eyes towards Scrivener when the stallion reached up and touched her shoulder reassuringly, and the mare nodded hesitantly before she suggested, as Innocence finally wiggled her mask free from its enclosure: “Have you considered... putting runes on your armor?”

Innocence looked up with surprise at this, then she visibly brightened, straightening and asking excitedly: “You... you really think I could do that?”

“Well, you'll need some help, Innocence, last time I checked your knowledge of the futhark wasn't as complete as you claimed it to be.” Twilight said mildly, making her daughter blush a bit before the violet mare smiled a little. “But even if your body armor and bracers would require a lot more time and effort to add an extra layer of enchantment to... I think that we could at least do something about your helm and facemask. Or you and Luna.”

“Nay, Twilight, thou art the better at that sort of thing, even if thy horn-writing is a little messy.” Luna replied easily, and Innocence glanced at Luna, then turned appraising, bright eyes towards Twilight Sparkle, who smiled wider. “But if I may make a suggestion all the same, my family, I would say that a call-and-dismissal charm upon the mask would be perfect to start.”

Innocence gazed warmly over at Twilight, and the Lich nodded firmly with a smile of her own, giving Luna a silent 'thank-you' even as she said softly: “Then why don't we get moving and we can talk about it more on the way?”

“Okay, Momma!” Innocence agreed, and then she laughed when Luna lightly yanked her mask free from her telekinetic grip and locked it into place on her face, holding it down for a moment as the sapphire mare glanced softly over at Twilight before she grinned and shoved away from her daughter when Innocence took a playful swipe at her with her horn.

Scrivener gazed between the mares with warmth in his eyes, and he was gladder than he could say as the tension left the air and they fell into that... natural rhythm with each other he cherished so goddamn much. It made the walk to Ponyville seem shorter than it usually did, and he felt... eager, almost, to be on the way to Subterra. There was a lot they had planned, after all: more than just work with their daughter, but practice for themselves and a few other pleasant diversions.

Innocence held herself proudly in her armor as they walked through the town, drawing looks from other ponies. But when they reached the square in front of the library, where Celestia was waiting for them, the young mare was smart enough to quickly fall back a little and bow her head, grinning embarrassedly up at the ivory mare who looked every inch her title of Queen of the Valkyries.

Massive, golden full plate mail covered her body, gleaming like the sun. Tightly-linked chain mesh was just visible beneath the plates at the joints and around the bases of her wings, and a solid coronet was locked around her head, keeping her flowing, ephemeral mane out of her eyes. Tyrfing glinted from where it was holstered over her back, and she looked more titanic and imposing than Sleipnir as she studied Innocence, then simply nodded once before turning her eyes towards Luna. “Are you ready to go?” A slight smile. “Are you sure you've got all your toys?”

Luna huffed loudly at this, then she rose her head proudly and said pompously: “Thou art nothing but a sore loser, Celestia, jealous of the fact I so easily command any weapon upon which my hooves land. And so elegantly that even thou art no match for me, I might add.”

“Well, Sting does suit you, Luna.” Celestia smiled slightly. “It's small, loud, unorthodox, and the blade portion is... undersized.”

“Under... undersized! I shall show thee undersized!” Luna shouted furiously, shaking a hoof violently before she stormed up to her older sibling and almost shoved her face into Celestia's as the ivory mare continued to smile in amusement, her amethyst eyes twinkling with mischief as Scrivener and Twilight both traded dry looks, and Innocence only giggled. Sometimes, the kinds of downsides that came from Celestia spending so much time with a Draconequus really showed.

But before Luna could start ranting away or challenge Celestia to a duel, the ivory winged unicorn's eyes flicked up and widened slightly in surprise. Luna blinked at this, then glanced over her own shoulder... and immediately she grinned widely at what she saw.

Avalon Apple was slowly dragging the old Apple Family merchant cart into town square beside her mother, looking sour beneath her brush-cut before she landed with a huff. She glanced back and forth at all the staring ponies, then shouted: “I ain't signing a goddamn thing today unless you buy some goddamn apples!”

A lineup immediately formed, and Avalon gaped in surprise as Applejack threw her head back and laughed, reaching up and patting her daughter on the shoulder. She looked good today, especially with her old, well-worn hat on her head and the pretty choker-locket Dash had given her for their thirtieth anniversary around her neck. “You look just like your father used to... and... hey, Twilight and family, it's good to see you all here. Would you look at this?”

“I hate this. I hate everything.” Avalon grumbled crankily, even as she flitted around the cart, setting it up with an ease that showed she'd never forgotten how. Applejack watched her daughter with warmth, and Luna couldn't help but grin at the tiny mare as she continued to mumble grouchily away: “'No, you gotta serve out your contract,' 'no, you gotta buy the farm now,' making me choose... stupid... universe... stupid everything...”

“In the past I would've been tempted to go upside your head listenin' to you like that, Ava. Now it's like music to my years to hear you back here, ready to work but complainin' away.” Applejack smiled at her daughter, and the small Pegasus sighed and gave a bit of an awkward smile as she glanced over at her mother, nodding hesitantly.

“I... I know. And I know I chose this and I am happy to be here, I'm just... pissed off, too. I really got to head back to Canterlot to sort things out tonight.” Avalon paused, then she frowned over at Luna, glancing over the ponies. “Hey, what's up? There trouble?”

“Oh, aye, yes, there is trouble so serious we are able to stop and chat and laugh at thee as thou goes from greatest flier to likely-as-not mediocre farmer.” Luna said wryly, and Avalon glared at her before the sapphire mare grinned challengingly. “What, would thou like a spar?”

Avalon opened her mouth... and then Applejack cleared her throat as an excited Pegasus bounced up in front of the cart, and the tiny mare groaned and mumbled: “I'm really starting to see you in a whole different light these days, Luna. You and your son both.”

Luna only grinned wryly and shrugged easily, and then she added almost teasingly as Avalon turned to start serving pones and signing the autographs many of them wanted much more than the food: “Well, we shall be in Subterra shortly. So when thou comes to settle thy score with the Thunderbolts, we can have a match. Living as I do does have some wonderful advantages: getting to watch fillies grow into strong mares, watching as students become our equals... and then, of course, the delight of mashing thee so badly thou once more feels like a child left in bruised awe of her better.”

There was silence for a few moments, and then Avalon nodded a few times before slamming her front hooves together as she glared over at Luna. “I can't wait to tell Antares that I beat up his Mom.”

“I can't wait to tell Antares I have beaten up one of his friends!” Luna shot back, and the two glared at each other as Twilight and Applejack traded amused looks, before the Lich softened a little when one of the earth pony's hind legs kicked a bit.

“Hey, don't gimme that look. I'm actually real happy, and for the first time in years.” Applejack said softly, glancing up with a small smile at Twilight. “Dashie's takin' me on that trip we've been talking about for the last decade... it's gonna be wonderful. And Ava's back and gonna take over the farm and... I couldn't ask for more than this. I couldn't be happier, Twilight.”

“Okay, but... you know that Zecora or I can mix you up a potion if you need it.” Twilight said softly, and Applejack only smiled at the Lich, who shook her head and gazed tenderly at the earth pony. “I just... Applejack, you're still a good friend. You and Pinkie Pie and Rarity and Rainbow Dash and Fluttershy, and... I wish...”

“Don't wish for nothing, Twilight Sparkle.” Applejack stopped, then softened and glanced to the side, where Scrivener was now slowly dragging Luna away from Avalon, who was shouting her own slurs and insults as Celestia and Innocence simply sat back and watched, the ivory mare stoic and calm as ever and Innocence cheering on her Móðer. “I had a lot of doubts at first. 'Bout you, 'bout me, 'bout life in general. But everything worked out fine... better than fine, all things considered. So I ain't worried about the future anymore, and that makes everything else easier to handle too.”

Applejack turned her eyes forwards, and then she smiled a little and nodded slowly, saying softly: “You just take care of yourself, Twilight. Few ponies else I'd trust to look out for Dashie and my daughter once I'm gone. They may both be adults but... I think all the same they do better when they know there's someone they can turn to if things go south.”

“We'll all always have each other, AJ. Always.” Twilight said softly, studying her old friend's face before she stepped forwards and hugged her gently, and Applejack returned the embrace as tight as she could. And even though she felt so frail, she seemed so bold, so courageous, too... and for the first time in the longest time, Twilight felt that maybe the fragile mortality of this world wasn't something to she had to be afraid for.

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