Ponyville was a pretty unremarkable town. Or at least, it had been before Twilight decided to call it home. Still, even with her living there it was still not much. Having the Bearers of the Elements of Harmony living there had oddly enough not made it much of a military target.
Twilight was grateful for that at the moment. Such an out of the way town meant that news of the Changeling Invasion hadn’t reached it yet, meaning they didn’t have to put up with a large crowd of ponies, eager to learn the details.
Still, Big Macintosh was there, ready to help his sister haul home the leftovers from the wedding. Applejack was all too eager to load his cart with uneaten treats and a chest full of bits.
“So, we’ll meet up at the library tomorrow for breakfast?” Twilight asked.
“First thing,” Rarity assured. “I think that lovely little restaurant near the spa would be nice.”
“Oh, bleah,” Rainbow Dash gave a fake vomiting noise. “Can’t we go to something not so...frilly? I’ve had enough of that this weekend.”
“Ah, ah, now, this is an apology meal to Twilight. It needs to be something nicer than sandwiches and hay fries.”
“You really don’t have to...” Twilight began, but Rarity put a hoof over her mouth.
“I know we don’t have to, but we want to. I insist.”
“Apology for what?” Big Macintosh couldn’t help but ask.
“I’ll tell ya when we get home,” Applejack assured, looking slightly embarrassed at the whole thing.
“Well, I guess,” Rainbow Dash grumbled. “But next time we go out to eat, we’re going to the outdoor café.”
“We’ll see,” Rarity said, in a tone that hinted that they wouldn’t see.
“Um, I better get home and make sure Derpy has taken good care of Angel and the others,” Fluttershy said. She had opened the birdcages she had brought, allowing her singing birds to stretch their wings for the first time in hours. “But, I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“Yeah, I better head home to. Mr. and Mrs. Cake will want a break from Pound and Pumpkin,” Pinkie said, bouncing off. “See you guys tomorrow!”
“We’ll meet up in the morning,” Twilight assured. The others muttered their goodbyes as they took off in separate directions.
Or at least, most of them did. Rarity lingered behind a bit. Her younger sister stayed by her side, getting impatient. “Rarity, why are we hanging around here? Shouldn’t we be getting back to your house?”
“Have patience, Sweetie, that’s a quality of a lady,” the elder unicorn lectured. “I still need to attend to something.” After the others had walked far enough that she was sure that they wouldn’t overhear, she trotted over to Applejack, who was just finishing loading Big Macintosh’s cart. “Applejack, might I have a word with you back at the Boutique?”
“Well gee, Rare, can it wait ‘till breakfast tomorrow? I’m awfully tired, see...”
“I’d really prefer we talk before we meet with Twilight tomorrow. And this needs to be between the two of us for now.”
Applejack blinked, but nodded. “Sure, I guess. Big Mac, you gonna be fine taking all this stuff an’ Applebloom home?”
“Eeyup,” the burly stallion nodded, beginning to pull the wagon back to Sweet Apple Acres, his little sister perched on his back.
“So what’s this about?” the cowpony asked.
“Let’s get to the Boutique first.”
Scootaloo walked through Ponyville alone, ruing not having her scooter with her. The lantern streetlights provided the only light outside of Luna’s moon. She made a steady pace for home, not dragging her hooves but not in any particular hurry.
“Hey Scoots,” Rainbow Dash called, causing the filly to halt in her tracks, turning to face her idol. “What are you doing walking all by yourself?”
“Going home?” Scootaloo half asked, half answered.
“I can see that,” Rainbow Dash said flatly. “But why are you walking home alone? Why didn’t your parents come pick you up?”
The younger pegasus shrugged. “They don’t have to. I would be walking home either way, and it’s not like there’s anything dangerous in Ponyville...usually.”
Rainbow Dash couldn’t help but smirk. Ponyville had been known as a quiet town for years before Twilight had moved in. Since then it had experienced visits from Nightmare Moon and Discord, and Spike’s rampage added to the list. Still, it was mostly safe. Dangerous creatures mostly stayed confined in the Everfree Forest, the last creature to leave had been the Ursa Minor that Snips and Snails had agitated. Even diamond dogs didn’t dare attack Ponyville, as to not incur the wrath of the Royal Guard.
“Well, I guess,” the elder mare admitted. “Still, it isn’t fair you have to walk home alone. Want a lift?”
Scootaloo instantly brightened up. “Really? You’re going to take me flying?”
“Only if you hop on,” she smirked, motioning to her back. The filly needed no second bidding. In a flash she was up on her idol’s back with her forelegs around her neck.
“Hold on tight,” Rainbow Dash instructed, though it was largely unnecessary. With a few flaps of her wings the two were in the air, just over the rooftops. “Where do you live?” she asked. Scootaloo pointed in some vague direction, and the elder pegasus followed.
“You enjoy the wedding? Did you like being a flower filly?”
“You bet I did!” the foal said happily. Then she got defensive. “I mean, I didn’t like being frilly or nothing, but it was cool to be able to lead a princess down the aisle. I still hate...”
“Easy there,” Rainbow Dash laughed. “I’m not much for frilly things either, but I liked being a bridesmaid. Doesn’t make me any less tough.”
“Yeah, well...Cadence was nice. The real one I mean, not that big bug. I didn’t like her.”
“Can’t say I blame you, kid. She did kind of rub me the wrong way, even before she revealed herself.”
Scootaloo looked at her idol incredulously. “You told me to just take it because she was under a lot of stress.”
The cyan pony sighed. “Kid, I made a mistake. I forgot there’s a difference between something that’s understandable and something that’s acceptable.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well,” Rainbow Dash began, rubbing her head in thought. “Rarity once had us all help her get ready for a big fashion photographer visiting her. She was being short with all of us, but even while she was doing it, she knew how rude it was and apologized. The fake Cadence acted like she had every right to treat us that way. That’s what made it really wrong. Do you understand?”
Scootaloo nodded. “I think so. It’s okay to make mistakes as long as you admit to them?”
“Kind of,” the elder mare said. “Everypony makes mistakes. You’re only bad if you don’t admit to the mistake. Am I getting closer?”
“Yeah. It’s a little to the left,” the filly answered, allowing her mentor to adjust her flight path. “Well, is Twilight okay? I mean, you seemed worried about it last night?”
“You don’t have to worry, pipsqueak. We’re all friends again, plus Soarin’s going to come into town in a few weeks to take me out on a date.’
“He’s coming here?” she said excitedly, stars in her eyes. “You think I could get an autograph?”
“You could have gotten one last night if you hadn’t run off like that,” Rainbow Dash joked. Instantly she regretted saying this, because the foal perched on her back got quiet.
“I’m sure he’ll still give you one,” she reassured. “Anyway, can you see your house from here?”
Scootaloo silently pointed to a two-story house. Rainbow Dash landed and allowed her number one fan to climb down off her back.
“Look, squirt, I’ve got tomorrow off. How about we hang out a bit? That offer for flying lessons is still on the table.”
The orange filly stiffened. “Um…you don’t have to…”
“I know I don’t. I just want to help a super cool filly get even cooler. Besides, all my friends have to work tomorrow, I’ll have nothing to do.”
Scootaloo kicked the dirt. “Um…”
Rainbow Dash sighed. She knew the younger pegasus was looking for an excuse to say no. “Look, think about it will you?”
“Sure thing, Rainbow Dash,” Scootaloo nodded enthusiastically, glad the questioning was over.
“Well, I’ll be seeing you, pipsqueak,” the older mare said. With that she took off, leaving her number one fan alone.
Spike entered the library first, obediently pulling the wagon of Twilight’s things behind him. Twilight followed, glancing around the room as she entered.
“Well, it looks like Owlowiscious kept this place clean while we were gone,” she noted with approval. At that point, said owl swooped down from upstairs to greet his master. On his back was Pee Wee, who hopped down into Spike’s claws when the older bird flew over him.
“Hey there, kiddo,” the baby dragon nuzzled the phoenix affectionately. “Looks like he fed you alright too.” He got a happy chirp in response.
“So, how about you unpack while I make us some tea?” Twilight suggested.
Spike shifted uncomfortably. “Um, no thanks,” he muttered, placing his charge on his shoulder. “I mean, I’m not thirsty,” he said as he began unloading the wagon.
“Well, are you hungry? Applejack gave us some of the leftovers from the wedding, and I think there are still some of your gemstones in the pantry...”
“I ate on the train,” he said, more curtly than he intended.
Twilight sighed. “Fine,” she said, going into the kitchen to heat up some tea.
Spike quickly unpacked. He placed Twilight’s Best Mare dress in her dresser, and the books she had brought on her nightstand. He brought the leftover food into the kitchen, avoiding looking at Twilight the whole time. The unicorn only watched him with a sigh.
With everything packed away, Spike headed to the bedroom and grabbed Pee Wee’s nest, placing it in his basket. Carefully, making sure Twilight was distracted making herself a meal, he carried his bed into one of the other rooms in the library. After setting it up, he placed the nest on the windowsill. Then he quietly went back into the bedroom.
While only getting books every year had grown a bit stale, Spike had cherished each and every one of Twilight’s birthday gifts. He had read each tome cover to cover more than once, and he still enjoyed thumbing through them occasionally. Opening a chest at the end of Twilight’s bed, he pulled out his favorite in the collection, an anthology of heroic tales from ancient, pre-Celestia times.
Holding the volume under his arm, he began trotting back to the room he had left his basket in. He had almost reached it when Twilight called his name again. “Spike?”
He froze, turning around to greet his caretaker. “Yeah?”
“Spike… is everything alright?”
The baby dragon froze in horror, his eyes widening. “Of course, why wouldn’t they be?” he asked, a little too fast.
Twilight shook her head. “Don’t think I haven’t noticed,” she said. “You’ve been avoiding me since the wedding. Now what’s wrong?”
“It’s… nothing,” he said weakly.
“Spike, remember when Owlowiscious moved in? I told you then, you never have to lie to me. Now what is it?”
The young dragon shifted a bit. “Really, it’s nothing. I just…”
“Is it about not believing me about Cadence?”
Spike’s blood ran cold, or it would have, if he weren’t already cold-blooded. She knew.
Twilight gave a smile. “If that’s all it is, I told the others I could understand why they didn’t believe me. I’m not mad at you, okay?”
Now his eyes were watering. He turned away from her. “I know. I-I’m sorry I didn’t believe you.” He tried to keep his voice steady. He failed.
Twilight began wrapping his forelegs around him, but he quickly stepped away, to her surprise.
“Spike, what’s wrong?” she asked again.
“N-nothing,” he answered.
“Please, what is it?”
“Nothing!” Spike yelled, running into the safety of the room and shutting the door. Before Twilight could reach it, it was locked.
“Spike, please come out and talk to me,” she pleaded. She got no answer.
Mentally, she went through her options. It would be no challenge for her to unlock the door, but would it be wise? Should she continue to try and talk to him through the door? Should she wait for him to calm down?
She gave a resigned sigh. “When you’re ready to talk, I’ll listen.” Then she trotted away, leaving him alone.
She sighed as she reached the kitchen. Despite Spike’s insistence that he wasn’t hungry, she had set out a few gemstones for him to munch on while they talked. Shaking her head at the fact that they would go uneaten, she took her dandelion sandwich and went into the main reading area. She still had a promise to keep to Rainbow Dash.
Pinkie slowly walked through the door to Sugarcube Corner. Since the twins had been born, she had learned to enter quietly at after-hours, lest she stay up all night trying to get them back to sleep.
She carried her bags up the stairs, and saw that the quiet entrance was for nothing. Cup and Carrot Cake were in the nursery, playing with the still very much awake Pound and Pumpkin.
“I’m home!” she said happily, bouncing into the room. Almost immediately the infants gave squeals of delight as they reached over to their surrogate sister.
“Pinkie, you’re back,” Mrs. Cake said delightfully as Pinkie took the twins in her forelegs and began cradling them. “How was Canterlot?”
To their surprise, Pinkie didn’t go bouncing around, talking about how pretty the wedding was, or how exciting the reception was. She just gave a small smile. “It was nice,” she said.
The two bakers gave each other a glance before turning back to their foster daughter. “Pinkie, is everything alright?”
She stopped smiling. Her eyes drifted to the side before looking back at them. “I have something I need to tell you…”
Rarity calmly poured some of her leftover cider into two mugs. She normally served tea to guests, but she knew Applejack wasn’t the tea drinking sort, and she was already inconveniencing her enough asking her to come on such short notice.
“Alright, Rare, what’s this about? You tryin’ ta get me to take some of those lessons in money management again?”
“No, though I really wish you would…never mind, I want to talk to you about Twilight.”
The cowpony tilted her head. “What d’ya mean?”
Sitting at the table at last, she sighed. “It’s her tendency to… ‘flip out’, as it were. I wanted to talk to you about something we can do about it.”
Applejack arched an eyebrow. “Uh, Rare? You’re thinkin’ Twilight needs to stop freakin’ out?”
“Yes, yes, I know,” Rarity huffed. “I’m aware of the hypocrisy. But it’s different for Twilight. She’s the one in charge. We’ve never said it out loud, but you know as well as I do that whenever Princess Celestia sends us to do anything, we follow her. She needs to learn to keep a level head. Besides, you saw Twilight breaking up about it on the train. We cannot just let that go by unacknowledged.”
“I guess you’re right. But why couldn’t this wait ‘till tomorrow at breakfast?”
“Well, first off I wanted to keep this between just us for right now. Rainbow Dash has her hooves full worrying about Scootaloo, and you just know she’s going to ask Fluttershy and Pinkie to help her. Those three would have enough on their plate without this.”
“I guess that makes sense. Still don’t get why you couldn’t have talked to me tomorrow.”
Rarity sighed. “Because we can’t put this off any longer. We’ve known about Twilight’s problem for a while, and we’ve always treated it as a harmless little quirk. We simply cannot do that anymore. It nearly cost us dearly yesterday. I want us to come up with something now, and to begin on it tomorrow if possible.”
Applejack sighed. “I see your point. I guess we have kinda been passin’ that off as harmless. But do we need to do anything special? We could just put our hooves down the next time she starts frettin’ over somethin’.”
“That was our method at the wedding, and look what happened. We need to find some way to help her calm herself down whenever she gets upset.”
“I reckon you’re right. But what can we do about it?”
Rarity shook her head. “I’m not sure. That’s why we’re here. I was hoping you and I could brainstorm something up. Anything we can do to help her stay calm in the future would do wonders.”
Applejack sighed. “I guess that makes sense. I figure talking to Twilight about this tomorrow would be the best thing.”
“I would,” the unicorn agreed. “I would have her here tonight if she didn’t have Spike to worry about. Hopefully by tomorrow that will be cleared up. Until then, I’m simply hoping to find something we can start on.”
”Please, I didn’t do it!” Twilight sobbed as she was led onto the platform.
Celestia stood in front of her, glaring at her former student with a hatred she previously reserved only for Discord. “Twilight Sparkle, you have been found guilty of a most unforgivable crime. Congratulations are in order, I suppose. I never thought I’d be reestablishing this penalty.”
“Your highness, please...” she began, only to be roughly pushed down onto the wooden block.
She looked out into the crowd for support. She found none. Applejack and Rainbow Dash threw apples at her. Rarity glared at her with an intense hatred. Fluttershy and Pinkie Pie just looked away sadly.
She turned back to the Princess to try and plead her case again, only to find her brother standing there.
“I’m ashamed we’re blood,” he said coldly. Then his horn glowed, and a large silver axe raised above him...
Twilight bolted upright with an audible gasp. She took a few deep breaths, sweat running down her face and neck. She looked down at the book of Equestrian law she had been reading when she had dozed off.
She sighed. Of course, the nightmares had started up again. Why wouldn’t they? After Discord’s defeat she had suffered nightmares for weeks afterward, all of her friends turning their backs on her. Now that it had happened again, without the cruel draconequus’ help no less, of course they’d return.
She looked at the clock. Only fifteen minutes had passed since she had begun her research. The weekend’s events must have tired her even more than she thought. She lifted herself up, levitating her tea cup with her. It looked like no sleep for her tonight.
As she reheated her tea, she took another look at the door Spike had barricaded himself behind. Wishing the little dragon would come out, her mind began drifting to the past.
”Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes!”
Celestia could only chuckle at the overexcited little filly jumping around in circles around her. With a light glow of her horn, she stopped the unicorn in her tracks.
“Easy there,” she said gently, setting Twilight on the floor. “I’m glad you’re excited, but don’t get ahead of yourself. I’d like to arrange for you to move into the castle first thing tomorrow morning, after you have the evening to celebrate with your family. I’ll have the servants prepare you a room.”
“I-in the castle?” Twilight asked, her eyes going wide for what felt like the thousandth time that day. “I’m not staying in the dormitory?”
Celestia shook her head. “You’ll be receiving private lessons from me. I want to keep you close so I can monitor your progress more effectively. You will still attend regular classes with the other foals, but...”
She trailed off, tilting her head at an interested angle. Twilight arched her eyebrow, but then gave a yell of surprise.
The dragon had just crawled across the floor to her side and grabbed at her side. Showing great strength for a newborn, he lifted himself onto the startled unicorn’s back. After which he curled himself into a ball and fell asleep.
“Huh, what?” Twilight said, a little alarmed and trying to stay upright. She was more than strong enough to carry the baby, though it was still a noticeable load.
“It seems he’s taken quite a liking to you, Twilight,” Celestia chuckled.
“Indeed,” one of the exam proctors noted, trotting over to them. “This is most fascinating. This might confirm some of our theories about dragons.”
“W-what do you mean?” the nervous filly asked.
“Well, my dear, if what we believe about dragons is true, the newborns often find safety with their mothers. Since your magic hatched his egg, you have imprinted yourself onto him as his mother.”
“And that might be a problem,” another proctor noted. “That dragon’s not going to want to be separated from her.”
“Actually, that would make things simpler,” the Princess noted, turning back to her charge. “Twilight, I’m placing you in charge of this child. It will be your responsibility to take care of him.”
“Wha? But… your highness, I don’t know how to take care of a baby.”
“You needn’t worry, my little pony. You’ll have servants helping you. The purpose of this is to teach you responsibility. A pony with your abilities must learn to use them for others. This will be a good start.”
Twilight was silent. She turned to the creature curled onto her back, and couldn’t help but smile. He looked so peaceful, so innocent.
“I think I’ll call him Spike.”
Twilight couldn’t help but chuckle at that memory as she poured her tea. Indeed, that dragon had hated being separated from her. If he woke up while she was in class, he would deafen at least three servants with his crying before she returned. When he was old enough to reason, he declared himself her assistant to spend time with her. To her relief, by that point he also understood that Twilight had to leave him alone sometimes.
Going back over to her books, she tried to push Spike out of her mind. She couldn’t do anything about him tonight, though she badly wanted to. She had to think logically here. She couldn’t help her dragon, but she could help Rainbow Dash.
“I don’t know ‘bout this, Rare,” Applejack sighed.
“Well, we haven’t come up with anything better. And besides, you love the spa.”
“I love gettin’ my back massaged, really gets the tension out, but I gotta agree with Dash on just ‘bout everythin’ else. Ain’t no point in me gettin’ a hoofacure if I’m just gonna chip it in the fields the next day.”
“I know. That’s why I don’t try to talk you into coming to the spa more often. But I think we can agree that helping a friend is worth a break in routine,” Rarity said, a bit bluntly.
“Yeah, you’re right. Still, you think Aloe and Lotus‘ll have any good ideas?”
“Darling, please, those twins’ special talent is helping ponies relax. We’ve been sitting here for nearly an hour and haven’t come up with anything, I’d say consulting those two is our best bet.”
“So, tomorrow after breakfast we talk to Twilight about all this, right? I don’t wanna be goin’ behind somepony’s back like we did with the Mare Do Well.”
“Relax, we’re going to be very upfront here. For now, you better go back home and get some rest. We have a big day tomorrow.
”And so, with the great evil slain, the brave knight won the heart of the beautiful princess. The two shared a sweet kiss as the sun set on the horizon.”
Spike gave an “Ick,” which the unicorn couldn’t help but laugh at. “Whya gotta keep all the mushy stuff in?”
“Just wait. One day you’ll fall in love, and all you’ll want to do is this ‘mushy stuff’.”
“No way,” the infant dragon shook his head. “But I’mma gonna be a knight!”
“Oh are you now?” Twilight said playfully, rubbing a hoof on his head. “Then who’s going to be my assistant then?”
“I will! I can do both!”
“Oh really? You’re just the greatest dragon ever then, aren’t ya?”
“Yep… I think.”
Twilight blinked. “What do you mean?”
“There’re no other dragons in Canterlot. Why?”
Twilight froze. “Well… dragons are very special creatures. We’re very lucky to have you here, Spike. You’re like a little miracle!”
“Yes, it is,” Twilight said, trying to sound playful. She closed the book. “And now, I think it’s time for the little miracle to get in bed.” She used her magic to pull up his blankets. “Are you comfy?”
“Yes,” Spike said resigned. He had long since given up on contesting his bedtime.
“Good,” she said, leaning down and kissing him on the forehead. “Good night, Spike.”
The unicorn turned and began walking toward the door when Spike spoke up. “Twilight?”
She stopped. “Yes?”
“Why’re there pages torn from the book?”
“...They just got torn out. That happens with books sometimes. You don’t worry about it, okay?”
“Okay. G’night, Twilight.” The dragon murmured, curling up and falling asleep without any further questions.
Spike sighed at the memory. Twilight had read him the very book he now clutched in his claws. He was looking at the remains of what once were pages, little stumps of paper still left.
Of course they had been torn out. He had found another copy of the book and knew why. It had been a tale of a great and mighty knight slaying a horde of evil dragons. It was something Twilight had denied him, to hide how different he was from ponies.
He later realized that had been a day Twilight had been dreading. The day he realized he was a novelty in Canterlot, in all of Equestrian society really. A dragon who acted like a pony? How ridiculous.
His caretaker had, for better or worse, kept the truth from him for as long as she was able. Being raised in the palace by Twilight, Celestia, and servants paid enough to grit their teeth and feign politeness did a lot to help this. Still, inevitably he learned the truth. While life became much more difficult after that, he never once was angry at those that kept the truth for him.
He sighed, closing the book. Time spent with Twilight had felt the same as ever, even after the unpleasant revelation. She was a sanctuary; she was the only pony who was consistently there for him. Celestia had been kind, of course, and Cadence, ever the babysitter, spent some time with him, but they constantly had their duties to see to. Shining Armor was friendly as well, though by the time he was able to reason he was mostly busy with basic training.
No, it had been Twilight there for him every night. Sometimes difficult to get along with, he had to admit, but he loved her dearly.
Then why couldn’t I have been there for her? he asked himself silently.
Pinkie sat between her foster parents with a somber face. Mrs. Cake nuzzled her side. “I understand that was hard to tell us, Pinkie,” she said softly. “I… I always wondered why you never talked about your family.”
“Well… Princess Luna told me I shouldn’t be keeping something like this from you…”
“And you shouldn’t,” Mr. Cake assured. He paused, wondering what to say next. “Are you feeling better?”
“Yeah,” she said simply, looking at the floor. “I still have to tell my friends.”
“If you think that’s for the best,” Mr. Cake agreed.
“Pinkie, if you don’t mind me asking, what brought this up now?” Mrs. Cake asked.
Sighing, she began to tell them what had happened that weekend.
Scootaloo sat at her workbench, tinkering with her scooter. It scarcely needed any work done, but she found fiddling with her tools to be rather relaxing.
As she spun the front wheel, the door to her room opened. “Scoots?”
The tiny filly froze. It was the voice of her father, and he did not sound happy.
Speedy Delivery was a fairly big pegasus, not as bulky as the Big Macintosh, but he did have some noticeable build on him. Looking at him, it was easy to see where Scootaloo had gotten her fur color from, as his coat matched hers, though his mane was jet black. His cutie mark, an envelope with wings, stood prominent on his flank.
“Yes, dad?” she asked, somewhat nervously.
“I heard Rainbow Dash brought you home,” he said, simply and sternly.
Scootaloo thought about lying, but knew better. “Um, yeah, see...”
“I thought I made it clear you weren’t supposed to bring her around here,” he said angrily, but he never raised his voice.
“I-I’m sorry,” she said quickly. “She offered me a ride home. I couldn’t think of any way to say no.”
Hearing this, Speedy Delivery’s expression softened. “I see.” He thought for a moment, then went over and hugged his daughter. “You know I don’t like you hanging around that mare.”
“I know, but she’s so cool! I want to learn to fly like her one day, I know I can do it…”
“Have you been trying to fly again?” he asked in an accusatory tone.
The young filly quickly shook her head. “No, I remember what you said.”
“That’s good. Flying’s dangerous, especially for a clumsy little filly like you,” he said playfully, poking her on the nose. “You’re not ready for it.”
“But most pegasi are flying by my age!” Scootaloo pleaded.
“Well, most pegasi are better at it than you,” Speedy Delivery said in a casual tone. “You’re just going to have to grow up a little. I’ll teach you, I promise.”
“You always say that,” she sighed.
Her father shook his head. “That’s because my project is taking longer than expected. Come on, kiddo, you know how important it is. I just don’t have the time for you right now.”
“I know,” she said sadly. “I understand.”
“You should. You know what it will mean for us if I succeed, right? No more mail deliveries for me, and a new life for us. You know that, right?”
“Yes,” she nodded, almost robotically.
“That’s my girl,” he said, kissing her forehead. “Now, what do you say?”
Scootaloo smiled, nuzzling into her father’s chest. “I love you, daddy.”
“I know you do, kid.”
Applejack and Rarity were the first to the library the next morning. Applejack entered without knocking with a loud, “Mornin’, Twi!”
“Good morning,” Rarity said, a bit more politely.
Twilight pulled herself out of the book she was reading and looked at her two friends. “Morning, girls.”
Both of them stopped dead. Twilight had bags under her eyes, and her mane was wild and unkempt. Her shoulders slumped, giving away her exhaustion.
“Twi… have you been up all night?” Applejack asked, concerned.
“No,” she answered through a yawn. “I just… didn’t sleep well. I only got maybe an hour of it.”
“Oh, you poor dear,” Rarity fretted. She trotted over to her and felt her forehead. “Well, you don’t seem to be ill. Is this about Spike?”
“That’s part of it,” the purple unicorn admitted. “I tried to talk to him last night, but he just locked himself in one of the rooms and wouldn’t come out.”
“Well, I’m sure he’ll come around,” Applejack assured as Rarity excused herself for a moment.
“I hope so,” Twilight sighed. “I’ve never seen him like this before. He just seems so...I don’t know, angry.”
“Angry? At who?”
“Himself,” she sighed. At that point Rarity returned with a manebrush. She wordlessly began using it to undo the knots in Twilight’s mane.
“I suppose we were all feeling that way after we found out you were right,” Rarity sighed. “And I’d imagine Spike is making a greater deal of this than he should. Children have no perspective in matters such as this.”
“Rare’s right. I see Apple Bloom flippin’ out over gettin’ her cutie mark all the time. Spike’s probably just feelin’ like we feel, an’ he’s makin’ too big a deal of it.”
“I figured that was it,” Twilight nodded. “I decided to just give him some space for right now. He’ll talk to me eventually, right?”
“Well, that might work for right now,” Applejack noted slowly, “but I think you better press him more on it soon.”
“I will,” Twilight assured. “So, let’s get that breakfast, then I can get back to work.”
“Actually, dearie, we were hoping you would accompany us to the spa afterward,” Rarity explained, finishing with Twilight’s hair.
That caught Twilight off-guard. “What?” She looked at Applejack incredulously. “You set up a spa date?”
“Ain’t for me, sugar. It’s for you.”
“You were so distressed yesterday, we figured it’s for the best that we find some way to help you control your little… episodes,” Rarity explained.
“So we figured, Aloe and Lotus know how to keep ponies calm. We were figurin’ they’d have some idea as to how you can calm yourself down the next time you get worked up.”
“And at any rate, after the weekend you’ve had, I think a little pampering would be in order,” Rarity noted. “I have more than enough bits for the three of us.”
“Rarity, I told you not to try and make this up to me…” Twilight began to protest, but Rarity put a hoof to her mouth.
“And we’re not. We are helping you with a problem, like any friend would.”
“Yeah. Don’t you fret none, Twi, this is to help you,” Applejack added.
“Well… if you think it’s for the best… are the others coming?” Twilight asked.
“We hadn’t planned on it,” the cowpony explained. “This is to help you. We don’t want to pull Rainbow Dash into another problem while she’s fussin’ over Scootaloo, and we figured she’s pull Pinkie and ‘Shy in with her before too long. We’ll let them worry about that, and we’ll worry about you.”
“That makes sense,“ the lavender unicorn nodded. Appealing to her logical side always worked. “The others should be here soon. I’m going to wake Spike.”
The others nodded as she trotted to the door that her dragon had barricaded himself behind the night before. “Spike,” she called softly as she knocked the door with her hoof. “We’re going to breakfast. You want to come?”
“No, thanks,” his voice said weakly.
Twilight groaned. “Spike, please stop moping like this. I’m not mad at you for anything at the wedding. You don’t have to avoid me.”
When she got no answer, she lowered her head in disappointment. “Fine. I’ll see you when I get back. I want you to think about what I said.”
She turned back to her two friends, who had looks of concern on their faces.
Scootaloo awoke early that morning, eager to start the day. Almost in a flash she collected up her saddlebags and headed for the door.
“Scootiekins,” a cheery voice called.
Scootaloo stopped and sighed. “Yes, Mom?”
“Come here and see your mommy!”
Sighing, the filly pushed herself away from the door and toward her living room, where her mother, Quick Delivery lay sprawled across the couch.
Scootaloo had inherited her mane from her mother, but the elder mare’s coat was pure white, something she griped about often as being a chore to keep clean. Her eyes matched her daughter’s as well, though at the moment they looked a bit hazed over. Her cutie mark, a blue mailbox, was currently out of view due to her lying on her side.
“Scootie! Come give Mommy a hug!” she said, setting down the smoothie she had been drinking and opening up her forelegs. Sighing, the filly walked over and hugged her mother. “Who’s my little foal?”
“I am,” Scootaloo answered, without much enthusiasm.
“Of course, you’re not much of a filly anymore, are ya? You’re growing into a mare!”
“Yes, Mommy,” the younger pegasus answered, almost robotically.
“Of course, you’re still not one yet. Honestly, haven’t you gotten that cutie mark yet?”
Scootaloo flinched. “No. I missed all that time crusading from being a flowerfilly.”
“I suppose that’s true. It was quite an opportunity. And you got me these chocolates all the way from the palace,” she motioned to an empty box on the table. “They were wonderful, darling!”
“I thought you’d like them, Mom.”
“Scoots, you know what you’re supposed to call me,” she said sternly.
She sighed again. “I thought you’d like them, Mommy.”
“Very good,” she praised, taking a sip of her smoothie. “Truth be told, it was a harrowing weekend for me too. With Derpy taking time off to care for those animals, I got to travel out of town as well! It was quite exciting to see the big city, but unlike you I actually had to work. You don’t know what that’s like, do you?”
“Of course, you’re still just a silly filly. Now go out and play! Your father and I have work to do around here, and you’ll get in the way if you’re underfoot.”
As soon as Shining Armor came home from school, He dashed up to his sister’s room. “Twilight? How’d it go?”
“Great!” the little filly ran and hugged her brother. “You won’t believe it! I passed my exam, and Princess Celestia made me her personal student!”
“Really!” Shining’s eyes lit up. “Awesome! See, I told you the Princess would love you!”
“Yeah! And I got my cutie mark!” she said, showing off her newly decorated flank.
“You got your cutie mark!” he repeated happily. “And… and I missed it!” he growled angrily.
“Shiny?” Twilight asked worriedly.
“I’m just… mad at Mom and Dad. Don’t worry, kiddo, I’m not mad at you. But I’m really proud of you. I always knew you were going to make it big.”
At that point, a happy cooing came from the end of Twilight’s bed. Shining Armor’s ears perked up, searching around for the source of the foreign noise.
“Oh, and this is the best part!” she squealed happily, running over to the basket at the foot of her bed. “For my exam, I hatched a dragon egg… and they let me keep it! This is Spike!”
The teenaged colt gaped at the creature looking up at him happily. “Whoa… a live dragon.” He leaned in close, causing the creature to tilt his head in curiosity. “Hey little guy… who’s a wittle cutie!”
“Not the mama!” Spike suddenly said, hitting Shining Armor with a frying pan.
“What?” the earth pony asked innocently.
“Honestly, could you please let Twilight finish her story?” Rarity scolded as she cut another bite of her pancakes.
“Fine,” Pinkie huffed. “But my way was funnier.”
“Shiny, don’t talk baby talk to him,” Twilight huffed.
“Aw, but he’s so cute!” the elder brother crooned, poking the dragon in the stomach, causing him to giggle.
“Yeah, but you’re just talking to him like he’s stupid! I’m going to talk to him using proper Equestrian, so he’ll learn to talk properly!”
“You know, you sound way too eloquent for an eight year old,” the elder sibling noted, leaning down to the dragon. “Doesn’t she?”
“Arrumph,” Spike grunted as he opened his jaw and bit down on the pony’s muzzle.
Shining Armor backed away, not from pain, as Spike had no teeth, but surprise.
Twilight giggled. “Yeah, he likes to put everything in his mouth,” she giggled. As if proving her point, Spike put the tip of his tail in his mouth and began sucking on it.
“Thanks for the warning,” he said flatly. “I’m going to go wipe this off. Then I’ll get some sodas and we can talk.”
“Can you get a bottle of milk for Spike? His bottles are on the counter, heat the milk to…”
“Twilight, I used to prepare your bottles. I know what to do,” he assured, walking out of the room.
He was gone for five minutes. When he came back.
“Who’s a cute dwagon?” Twilight cooed while Spike giggled and clapped his claws. “You’re a cute dwagon! A cutie-wootie! You’re Twiley’s favorite dwagon! Yes you are! Yes you…”
At that point she noticed her brother, wearing the smuggest expression she had ever seen.
“…And that’s how not to talk.” She said quickly, turning back to the infant.
It didn’t work. “Nice try, Twiley,” Shining Armor laughed.
“Don’t call me that,” Twilight muttered, now beat red as she took the bottle and put it in Spike’s mouth.
“Aw, but Twiley is such a cute name. In fact, Twiley is so cute that I could say Twiley all day long! Twiley, Twiley, Twiley...
“That’s how you got the nickname?” Applejack asked, amused.
Twilight blushed a little. “He never let me live that down,” she admitted. “Still, I eventually stopped caring.”
“I guess you did, Twiley,” Rainbow Dash egged on.
“You know, you should really stop and consider all the terrible things my magic can do to you,” she said flatly.
“Aww, we can’t use the nickname?” Pinkie pleaded.
“No,” Twilight answered bluntly, taking a bite of her pancakes.
“Ah, well,” Rainbow Dash shrugged. “So, Spike’s still not saying anything?”
She sighed. “Nothing. At all. I’m wondering if he’s even left that room. He had me worried all night… which means I didn’t get much work done for you. I’m sorry…”
“Hey, relax,” the pegasus assured. “It’s like I said, we don’t even know what Scootaloo’s problem is. Don’t sweat it.”
“Um… Twilight?” Fluttershy asked meekly. “You didn’t… I mean, you weren’t up all night trying to find something to help her, were you?”
Twilight groaned. Of course the others would notice the bags under her eyes. “No. I just didn’t sleep well. I’ve been worried about Spike, that’s all.”
Applejack arched an eyebrow at this, but didn’t press the matter.
“Aww, I’m sure Spike will come around eventually,” Pinkie assured. “Nopony can be that mopey for long.”
“What about Cranky?” Twilight pointed out.
Pinkie seemed to deflate at the point. “Well… Spike’s not one to mope around for long.”
“I hope so. Anyway, let’s talk about something else. Fluttershy, how are your animals doing?”
As it turns out, Spike had left the room he had locked himself in. After feeding Pee Wee, he had returned to his chest of items and pulled out a plain, white box. Carefully, he carried it out of the library and across the town, coming to Sweet Apple Acres. He weaved through the apple orchards until he found the Cutie Mark Crusader Clubhouse.
He entered, and was relieved to find that none of the fillies were there this early. Quickly and silently he set the box on one of the tables before quickly running for the door.
Despite himself, he looked back at the package one last time, wondering if he was making the right decision. In the end he sighed and left, ruing the Mother’s Day present that would never reach its intended receiver.
”Why can’t I go to kindeygarden?” Spike pleaded.
Twilight sighed. “Spike, kindergarten is meant especially for ponies. Magic Kindergarten teaches unicorns like me how to control magic, Flying Kindergarten teaches pegasi a few basic wing movements, and Strength Kindergarten teaches earth ponies the self-control they’ll need to handle themselves once their strength bucks in.”
“But you said I’d grow wings and become really strong!” Spike protested.
“Yes, you will, but you can’t very well learn to fly until you grow wings. And an earth pony’s strength comes from his connection with the earth. It’s different for dragons.”
“Then… how will I learn?”
“I have a few ideas, don’t you worry,” Twilight assured. “Now please, I need to finish this essay. Why don’t you go play?
That had been another lie, he realized. At a certain age he began to pick up on the fact that she never specified on exactly how she would help him. She was just as lost about his development as he was.
He eventually started going to public school. He ended going to public school the same day when, midway through lunch, the collection of ponies assembled began throwing what they weren’t going to eat at him, chanting and calling him a freak. He ran from the cafeteria, then from the school crying, covered in bits of hay fries and dandelions.
He ran to the castle, locked himself in his room, and sobbed. Twilight had been pulled out of her classes to see to him. She held him close for what felt like hours, promising him he didn’t have to go back. Princess Celestia offered to go to the school and lecture the students there, but the experience made him too afraid to ever set foot there again.
”What’s wrong with me?” Spike sobbed, his face in the crook of Twilight’s neck. “Why do they hate me?”
“Oh Spike,” Twilight said sadly. “There’s nothing wrong with you. You’re a sweet, intelligent, wonderful little dragon. You’re just… well…” She struggled to find the right word. “You’re unique. And ponies can be afraid or feel threatened when something is different from them.”
“That’s stupid!” Spike wailed, his sobs coming out anew.
“I agree, it’s ridiculous,” she said sympathetically. “But that’s their problem, not yours.”
“I… I saw a few donkeys and griffins there… they weren’t getting laughed at…”
“You’re even more special than they are,” she explained. “There are plenty of ponies in Equestria, and there are hundreds of donkeys and griffins, but there’s only one of you.”
“I don’t wanna be special!” he cried. “I wanna be a pony like ev’rypony else! Can’t you use your magic to change me?”
“Spike, shapeshifting magic is impossible, at least at the level you're talking about. A skilled unicorn might be able to change an apple to an orange or a rock to a hat, but nopony can permanently transform another living creature. Not even Princess Celestia can change you into a pony for more than an hour. And besides, you shouldn’t be ashamed of being a dragon, that’s who you are.”
“I… I don’t wanna be me,” he muttered weakly. “I don’t wanna be alone.”
“Spike, look at me,” she said gently as she slowly pushed him back. She brought a hoof under his chin and made him look her in the eyes. “You’re not alone. No matter what happens, or how bad things get, I’ll be here for you.”
Twilight grinned warmly. “With Celestia as my witness.”
Spike swept the floor with frustration and anger, nearly breaking the handle of his broom. She had kept that promise, though everything. Dwelling on the fact that he didn’t return her kindness only hurt him more, but he couldn’t help it.
There were times he regretted not facing up to pressure and returning to school, as Celestia suggested. As time went on, he found prejudice against him lessened. Soon, the ponies of Canterlot were used to him, if not friendly then at least civil enough to ignore him. Still, he never truly belonged. He received stares even from ponies who saw him daily. By the time he and Twilight left for Ponyville, he was practically a tourist attraction.
He was quite surprised, then, when the ponies of Ponyville were just the opposite. On his first day, none of them even seemed to acknowledge his species. As he later found out, many assumed that dragons were a common sight in the big city and acted like he was nothing unusual to avoid appearing ignorant. Only Fluttershy, being better versed in the creatures of Equestria, was vocal about his uniqueness, and her warmth and affection made him all too willing to accept it.
Even once the misconception wore off, however, the citizens still treated him with kindness. Mayor Mare was kind and cordial whenever Twilight sent him to her office. The Cakes treated him like any foal, with warm smiles and a free cookie every time he visited. The Cutie Mark Crusaders played with him on the rare occasions when they weren’t crusading and he wasn’t working. Only Diamond Tiara and Silver Spoon ever seemed to treat him cruelly, and even that was a comfort, in a way. Not even they treated him any differently.
For a moment, Spike’s anger was forgotten. For all the bad things that had happened to him over the past two years, his life in Ponyville was much happier than it was in Canterlot. Yes, he missed Moondancer, Donut Joe, and the handful of servants that were genuinely nice to him, but they were worth the trade of a whole town of friendly ponies. He probably could have gone to school here. They didn’t break kindergarten up in small towns, so he might have been better accepted here.
He shook his head. Another could have been. Nothing he should be dwelling on.
”Well, shoot, you just love my pie, don’t’cha?” Applejack said happily as Twilight helped herself to her fourth slice.
“Actually, I had my fill two slices ago,” she admitted, already sounding sounding ready to eject her entire meal out her mouth.
The cowpony cocked her head at a curious angle. “Then why’re you eatin’ yourself sick? You love it over here that much?”
“It’s not that,” she said weakly. She pointed a hoof over to a field where the Apple family foals were playing, with Spike joining them.
“Ah, I see. Your dragon is enjoyin’ himself. I guess you figure he could use a bit of pony company instead of dragons.”
Twilight gave her an odd look. “There are no other civilized dragons in Equestria.”
Applejack blushed. “Oh...’scuze me...I just figured dragons must be a big city thing...”
“Hey, you haven’t treated him like an animal, that puts you ahead of several ponies on my list.”
Applejack blinked. “Th’ city ponies don’t like him?”
“I had to pull him out of public school because of all the bullying,” she sighed. “I think this is the first time he’s been able to play with foals his own age.”
“I’m sorry,” Applejack said awkwardly, not exactly sure what to say. For a few moments, the two mares simply watched Spike playing with the foals, looking happier than he ever was.
“…Maybe I should stay in Ponyville,” Twilight said at last, earning a look from the cowpony. “I’d miss Canterlot, and my family… but Spike’s so happy here. This is what he’s always wanted.”
Applejack couldn’t help but smile. “What are you, his mama?”
The unicorn blushed. “Well… I hatched his egg… and I’ve cared for him since then… I guess I am the closest thing to a mother he has. I just… I want what’s best for him.”
“I understand that feelin’. Me an’ Big Macintosh have been takin’ care of Apple Bloom ever since Ma an’ Pa…” she trailed off a moment. “I want what’s best for her, too. And I’d put that over what I wanted.”
Twilight looked back at her baby dragon. “…I guess I have something to think about.”
“You mean you moved to Ponyville for Spike?” Rarity asked, a little surprised. Breakfast had ended, which left the two unicorns and Applejack to head for the spa.
“He was what got me thinking about it,” Twilight nodded. “Meeting all of you was what really convinced me. Still, even if it wasn’t for that, I was already considering moving here. The entire time I was meeting the rest of you, I was thinking of a whether or not I should do it… really, it should have been no contest.”
“I always wondered why the poor dear never seemed to attend school,” Rarity noted. “Why haven’t you enrolled him here? I’m sure Miss Cheerilee would welcome him.”
“His tutor already taught him everything he could learn here. He always got good grades, I guess… I guess he felt like he wanted to upstage everypony who got to go to ‘real school’.”
Applejack blinked at this revelation. “Really? Spike don’t seem like an egghead to me.”
“Well, he’d have to be to be my assistant. But he never really enjoyed learning any of it,” Twilight looked at the ground. “In fact, I was worried about him sometimes. He seemed like he was doing something he hated that whole time.” She was quiet for a moment. “Do you two think I was right to pull Spike out of school?”
Both of her companions couldn’t help but gape at that. “After the way he came home cryin’? How could you think otherwise?” Applejack demanded.
“I didn’t want to… it would have killed me to send him back there… but I kept wondering if I was doing the right thing. I always wondered if I did the right thing. Maybe I should have told him he needed to stand tall against ponies like that. But… he just looked so heartbroken, I couldn’t bear to…” She was tearing up now as well.
Rarity put a comforting hoof on her shoulder. “Darling, it was a hard decision to make. We can’t tell you made the right choice. But Spike seems remarkably well-adjusted for a dragon that went through what he did. And besides, if you recall, Spike stood up to those three awful dragons to protect that poor phoenix egg.”
“Yeah, I guess you’re right,” Twilight said, perking up a bit. “I was very proud of him then. But… it’s a little more complicated than that.”
”So he absolutely refuses to go back?” Celestia sighed.
“Yes, your Highness,” Twilight said sadly. “I…please don’t make him. I don’t think he’ll survive going back.”
The Princess of the Sun sighed. “A shame…I was hoping Equestria was prepared for Spike. I’m disappointed in my subjects. As for whether or not I’m going to send him back…you are the one I left in charge of him, that decision will be left to you.”
“I understand, your Highness.”
“I want you to consider something, Twilight. Spike is in a unique position. He is the first dragon to be born amongst ponies in recorded history. Do you realize what that could mean?”
Most teenagers wouldn’t, but Twilight did. “Spike could change how ponies see dragons. He could lead to peace with dragons if everything goes right.”
“Indeed. I want what’s best for Spike, make no mistake, but I am keeping Equestria’s interests at heart as well.”
The young unicorn shifted uncomfortably. “I don’t like thinking of Spike that way.”
“Nor do I, my little pony, but you must remember that’s the burden that comes with power. That said, I feel torn on the matter. Should we force Spike to continue attending public school, it could speed up the public’s acceptance of him…or it could result in Spike resenting ponies, and becoming the very thing we are trying to prove he is not.”
Twilight put her hooves over her ears. “Please Princess, I don’t even want to think about that.”
“I am as terrified as you are, Twilight. I am merely telling you of the possible consequences of your actions. This is a situation that must be handled delicately.”
The unicorn kicked the ground in deep thought. “Princess…what exactly do you have in mind for Spike when he grows older? He can’t live in a pony home forever.”
Princess Celestia sighed. “Twilight…do you trust me?”
“Of course, Princess, more than anypony.”
“Then trust me when I say my plans for Spike are similar to my plans for you. The two of you are headed for greatness if I have my way. But I will not deny him a happy childhood to do so. As long as you live, he will be a child.”
“And…once I’m gone?”
Celestia sighed. “He will have it hard. It’s unavoidable, giving his upbringing, but I promise you, he will triumph…if he is raised correctly. What, for certain, will happen, I do not know. It will all depend on how our political and cultural landscape changes in your lifetime.”
Twilight was quite for a moment. “You said I was destined for greatness...that means I could change those things.”
Celestia smiled slyly. “Indeed you could.”
“Then I will. I’ll do everything I can for Spike before I go.”
“I have no doubt you will, Twilight. A unicorn of your raw abilities can do great things. You will leave Spike in good hooves, I’m sure. But don’t get ahead of yourself. The first step is to ensure Spike a proper childhood, and that includes an education.”
“Princess, what do you think is best?”
“That’s not my decision, it’s yours. He’s in your care, Twilight, you know him better than anypony. Have faith in yourself.”
“What do you mean, you’re busy?” Scootaloo demanded.
Apple Bloom paused from pushing a hay bale into the loft. “Sorry, Scoots, but Applejack heaped a buncha’ chores on me the mornin’. Say we got a lot of catchin’ up to do since it’s only been Big Mac on the farm while we was at the weddin’.”
“But...Sweetie says she’s busy today too! And weren’t we supposed to visit Spike today? You know, try and cheer him up?”
“Aw, you don’t have to worry ‘bout that. See, I told Applejack ‘bout it...didn’t tell her what’s goin’ on, just that we thought Spike was depressed and needed cheering up. She said that Twilight could tell somethin’ was botherin’ him, and she talked to him last night. I bet he’s already feelin’ better.”
“Well that’s good,” Scootaloo sighed. “But are you sure you can’t get out of chores today?”
“Positive. Applejack says these need to be done, and she’s gonna be gone all mornin’. Said somethin’ ‘bout helpin’ Twilight.”
The orange pegasus filly sighed. “Fine...I’ll see you tomorrow, I guess.”
“I promise,” Apple Bloom assured as her friend trotted away.
Aloe and Lotus counted Rarity among their most frequent customers, and Twilight came in often enough that her presence wasn’t really noteworthy. Applejack, however, was a special occasion. The farmpony didn’t partake in pampering often, so the first thought the twins had was that it must be a special occasion.
The twins had led them to the hot tub and laid the three of them in it. They then excused themselves to see Lyra and Bon-Bon, the only other ones there.
After they left, Applejack spoke up again. “Twi, I gotta ask...Celestia made such a big deal out of Spike, did she ever tell you where that egg came from?”
Twilight shook her head. “No, never. Every time I asked, she only said that she’d tell me when the time was right. I have no idea why his egg was with ponies.”
“That’s odd,” Rarity mused. “Why would Celestia keep something like that from you? Or from him?”
“Well, she never really kept it from Spike,” she muttered. “He never really asked where he came from before the Migration. He always just kind of accepted that he ended up among ponies. I guess he didn’t really care to be more like a dragon after he found out how most of them acted.”
“Well, speaking of the Migration, how did Celestia feel about him leaving like that?” Rarity asked.
“It’s kind of strange. Celestia actually came down to Ponyville when she heard… she was quiet about it, so nopony else saw her. She was upset with me until I told her we were watching him, but she was more worried. She told Spike that she would answer all his questions when he was ready for them and told him to be patient.”
Both of her friends looked a bit surprised at this. “So… th’ Princess is hidin’ somethin’?”
Twilight shrugged. “I don’t know if hiding is the right word for it. I think wherever Spike came from, it’s a big deal politically.”
“Do you think he was kidnapped?” Rarity asked, sounding a little alarmed at that possibility.
“Rare, don’t be ridiculous, th’ Princess would never even think about doing that?”
“I really don’t think it’s that bad,” Twilight agreed. “Still, it got me worried about what’s going to happen to Spike after I’m gone… you know, even more than I already was.”
Applejack shook her head and gave a sad smile. “You’d be worried even if he was just a pony. Trust me, I worry ‘bout Apple Bloom all the time. Wonderin’ if me an’ Big Macintosh are raising her right. Still, I have ‘ta say, this whole political business is a bit… bigger than anythin’ we have to deal with.”
Twilight gave a weary sigh, leaning up against the tub. “I really don’t like talking about this, and with how little sleep I got last night, it’s wearing me out more than usual.
“Hey, you brought him up, sugarcube.”
“Indeed, you seem to want to talk about Spike.”
The lavender unicorn blushed. “I guess I’m just worried about him. I’m sorry.”
“Not at all. How about you tell us a happy story about him?”
Twilight smiled, leaning back against the tub.
Twilight looked over her books once more, taking in the relevant history. Starswirl’s early theories were a bit sketchy, and some had been disproven, but they made for some fascinating light reading.
She was jerked away from her books when she heard a light scraping sound, as if something with claws was running across the floor. She looked up and glanced across her suite, seeing nothing out of place. The noise had stopped, leaving the room in silence.
Shifting nervously, she returned to her tome. A few moments later, the scratching started up again, only closer. She whipped her head around, trying to find the source.
“Spike?” she called. She looked around again. “Spike, if that’s you, I swear…”
“Ragh!” Spike yelled, leaping onto the bed and tackling Twilight.
“Spike! What are you doing?” she demanded, though amusement was creeping in her voice.
The dragon playfully wrapped his arms around her neck. “Im’ma knight, and I’m’ma gonna take you down, you mean ol’ manticore!”
The purple unicorn gave a faux gasp. “Manticore? I happen to be a lovely young mare, you-ack!”
Spike squeezed his arms together tightly against Twilight’s neck, slightly choking her. “I caught ‘cha! What ya gonna do ‘bout it?”
Twilight answered that question by picking Spike of her back with magic. Gently setting the book aside, she plopped her charge in front of her. “Now the manticore has you. And you know what manticores do to knights they catch?”
Spike’s eyes widened. “What? No, no…”
Giving a devilish grin, the unicorn dug her hooves into the baby dragon’s ribs. Immediately the young reptile burst out laughing, squirming around in an effort to escape his caretaker’s grasp. He experienced no such luck, as Twilight’s magic kept him very much in place.
“I have you now, Sir Spike! Roar!” she said playfully before bringing her head down to blow a raspberry on his stomach.
He squeaked and giggled, trying to form words. “Cut it out! Manticores don’t tickle!”
“They do when the knight attacking them is a cute little fella!” Twilight laughed, placing an extra sloppy kiss on his forehead.
“Ew, gross!” the dragon laughed. Twilight kept assaulting his forehead and cheeks with kisses, ignoring his laughing and protests. Eventually, she let up, and Spike lay next to her, panting and catching his breath. After a few minutes he fell asleep, allowing her to return to her reading, this time with her charge nestled by her side.
Scootaloo entered the Cutie Mark Crusaders’ clubhouse with intent to fetch some oil for her scooter, and was quite surprised to find Spike’s abandoned Mother’s Day gift. Looking at the box, her desire to see what was inside waged war with her feelings that such a thing would be rude. It didn’t take long for her curiosity to win out, and she opened the package.
Inside was a picture frame made of ceramic, looking like it was made by Spike himself in Toola-Roola’s craft shop. It was painted in purple and green, the baby dragon’s colors, also applied by him, the edges were uneven and spilled into each other, but that gave it a charm she knew the grown-ups liked. Inside the frame was a picture of a newborn Spike, his eggshells still around him, with Twilight looking at him.
At that moment, Scootaloo noticed an anomaly on the frame. There was a small painted circle on the bottom portion. The frame itself came up where it was painted, it was almost like a button. On a whim, she ran her hoof across it.
In a flash, the picture changed. Now it was of a kindergarten aged Spike curled up against a teenage Twilight, resting in her purple coat.
It took a minute for the filly to realize what had happened. Magic, it must be. Obviously Twilight didn’t do it, but who? No other unicorn in Ponyville had that level of magic.
She nodded in realization. Twilight went to Canterlot often, and took Spike with her. He must have had it enchanted when he was up on a visit before the wedding.
She ran her hoof over the button again. In a flash, there was Twilight’s graduation, with Spike giving her a hug. Another flash, with a picture of the two of them after Twilight received the Element of Magic. Another flash, and it was the two of them on Nightmare Night. Another flash, and it was them after the Migration, with a newly hatched Pee Wee in his claws.
Scootaloo got something in her eye.
For a moment, the filly wondered what to do from here. It was clear from the gift being here that Twilight hadn’t gotten through to him, and part of her wanted to just take it to the Golden Oaks Library and place it right in Twilight’s hooves. Spike was being an idiot, and the whole thing needed to stop. On the other hoof, her fellow Crusaders were against the idea, at least for right now, and she didn’t feel like upsetting them.
She sighed. Sweetie Belle was at least considering her way. She’d take it to her for safekeeping.
Pinkie took a batch of fresh cupcakes out of the oven, humming a song to herself. It was unusual to see her working this late in the day, as her shift was early morning, but she found baking helped her concentrate.
Mr. Cake came down from helping his wife tuck in the twins and saw his foster daughter baking happily. “Well, you seem to be in a good mood Pinkie. Did you tell your friends?
He immediately regretted asking, as Pinkie got quiet, sagging a little. She set the tray on the counter before speaking. “No. Twilight didn’t get through to Spike last night, I don’t want to tell her as long as she’s all mopey.”
Carrot Cake nodded in understanding. “That makes sense. But are you going to be okay, Pinkie? You said yourself it was something you needed to get off your chest.”
Pinkie giggled a little. “Don’t worry. Just telling you two helped me a bunch. I really feel much better than I did this weekend.”
Mr. Cake was silent for a moment. Then he went over to Pinkie and kissed her forehead. “You let me know if you need anything okay?”
Pinkie smiled, somewhat sadly. “I will.”
“There was one colt who asked me out to our senior dance, but there was a volume on teleportation magic I wanted to finish, and…”
“What!” Rarity exclaimed, her mouth agape. “Your senior prom and you chose to stay inside and read? Honestly, Twilight, I knew you were a shut-in, but really!”
“Aw, lay off her. I really don’t get why some mares go all gaga over that. It’s not like them high school romances last most of the time.”
“Maybe so, but you could have stood to socialize more.”
“That’s why the Princess sent me here in the first place! Besides, making myself as unavailable as possible was a good coping strategy for dealing with Blueblood.”
Rarity cringed. “He flirted with you?”
The purple unicorn just nodded. “I was the Princess Celestia’s personal student, I was kind of high on the popularity charts. And that meant I was worthy of his attention,” she noted with a bit of a sneer.
“Why ever didn’t you warn me about him?” Rarity demanded, sounding a bit irritated.
“Everypony I ever tried to warn accused me of ‘not getting royal love,’ so I eventually stopped trying,” she shrugged. “I guess I still should have tried to tell you though.”
“We all make mistakes,” Rarity shrugged. “Whatever became of this colt?”
“He’s in the Royal Guard now. We actually saw him when we came into Canterlot. I guess I should have said something to him, but with everything going on…”
“Aw, let’s not dig that up again,” Applejack said quickly. “I’m gettin’ tired of everypony mopin’ ‘bout it. I’m perfectly happy to just put it all behind us.”
At that last sentence, Aloe and Lotus entered the room. Following them, much to the trio’s surprise, was the chief of the Ponyville Police.
“Chief Book ‘Em?” Twilight asked, surprised. “What’s going…”
The blue unicorn ignored Twilight and looked at Applejack. “What position did you finish in at the last Running of the Leaves?”
The cowpony was flabbergasted. “What?”
“Answer the question,” Book ‘Em said sternly.
Face scrunched in confusion, she answered. “I tied with Rainbow Dash… for last,” she grumbled, a faint blush on her cheeks.”
Nodding, he turned to Twilight. “What’s your position during the Winter Wrap-Up?”
“Team Organizer,” she answered unhesitatingly. She wanted to figure out what was going on, but figured she’d play along until Rarity was asked her question.
It was Aloe who spoke to Rarity. “Who did you make your last big sale to?”
“Hoity Toity. He ordered a new set for his spring line.”
At this, the three interrogating ponies seemed relieved. Seeing this, Twilight asked again. “Chief, what’s going on?”
“I’m sorry for that, Twilight,” Book ‘Em said, shifting a bit. “It’s just that the Changeling Invasion has us all a little jumpy.” To prove his point, he levitated a newspaper off a nearby table and over to them. Unsurprisingly, the attack on Canterlot was front page news.
“Whenever Rarity comes here, it’s usually with Fluttershy and Twilight,” Aloe explained. “When we saw Applejack instead, we got worried.”
Indeed, the trio could see a warning to keep an eye out for suspicious behavior from known acquaintances. Instructions to summon the police before any questionings were also present.
Twilight sighed. “The Princess knew this would happen. Equestria’s going to turn into a paranoid nuthouse.”
Rarity took the paper and continued scanning it. “‘Canterlot Officials considering tax increase to pay for damages,’ ‘Task force being assembled to hunt down changelings while the army is still scattered.’” Rarity actually was quiet for a moment before reading aloud her next statement with an incredulous tone. “Anti-Celestia groups are up in arms’?”
Applejack slapped her hoof onto her face. “Don’t tell me then idjiots are gettin’ some support for all this?”
Book ‘Em sighed. “Afraid so. Those groups have been shouting that Celestia was incompetent for letting the changelings go right under her nose.”
“Oh, how dare they?” Rarity scoffed, sounding like she herself had been personally offended.
“Don’t get worked up,” Twilight said dryly, easing back into the hot tub.
This caused the others to look at her oddly. “I figured you’d be most upset ‘bout these fellas.”
“I was the first fifty times,” Twilight said, sounding rather bored. “It’s always ‘Celestia is secretly ruining high-class social gatherings for her own amusement,’ ‘Celestia is secretly keeping the non-pony races in Equestria as second class citizens,’ ‘Celestia is training a dragon to be her ultimate warrior’.”
None of the ponies missed the anger that crept into her voice at that last sentence. “I take it you had to put up with that a lot,” Book ‘Em said slowly.
In response to Twilight’s curt nod, Aloe spoke. “Why would anypony see Spike as dangerous? He’s so sweet!”
“The same reason everypony thought Zecora was dangerous, he’s different.”
The statement was so blunt that the others got quiet for a moment. Twilight sighed. “Sorry if I’m being short...Spike’s just been acting strange lately. I’m worried about him.”
“There’s no need to apologize,” Lotus assured. “I suppose that’s why you’re here.”
“Well, I’m sorry for the trouble, Miss Sparkle,” Book ‘Em said again, tipping his hat.
Twilight dismissed him with a wave, as did her compatriots. The burly unicorn took his leave, the twins began better attending to their guests, adding more bath salts to the tub and making conversation.
“We must ask, why is Applejack here with you? It’s so unusual when you’re not all coming as a group. Is there some special occasion?”
“It ain’t nuthin’ special,” the farmpony dismissed. “Not really. We actually came to ask you two somethin’.”
“Well what do you want me to do with it?” Sweetie Belle asked.
“Keep it in your room,” her friend responded, rolling her eyes. “If we leave it in the Clubhouse, something could happen to it. We all know Spike’s being dumb about this, and Apple Bloom still wants to keep it a secret. I still say we should just tell Twilight.”
“Let’s wait and see if Twilight can get him to talk. Until then, I’ll keep it in my room,” Sweetie countered, taking the box.
Scootaloo shook her head in annoyance. “Fine! Have fun with your little dresses, I’m going to go practice my flying,” she huffed. She trotted out of the Boutique and hopped on her scooter. Muttering something about how sewing was for sissies, she scooted off towards a secluded part of Ponyville to try and teach herself what her parents were too busy to.
What she didn’t know was that, sitting on a cloud above, Rainbow Dash was watching the little filly leave. After a moment, she flapped her wings and followed.
By noon Ponyville was usually busy, but there were some areas which remained free of traffic. Scootaloo had chosen one of the areas to practice flying.
While not yet adept at flying, she was an excellent climber, so it wasn’t hard to reach one of the upper branches. She looked to the ground and told herself that the grass was soft enough to provide a decent landing before spreading her wings and leaping off.
She flapped with all her might, but she hardly moved forward at all. She actually fell, quite quickly in fact. She let out a yelp as she realized what was happening, and began to brace herself for impact.
As it turned out, the impact came from a cyan-colored blur that caught her just before she hit the ground.
“Geez, kid, what were you thinking?” Rainbow Dash snapped. She looked angry, though not deeply so.
“I… I was just trying to fly,” the filly answered sadly, looking away from her idol.
“Without an adult around? Without anypony to teach you?”
“I-I’m sorry! It’s just that my parents are so busy, and…”
“And I offered to teach you,” she reminded, putting her back on the branch. “You should have come and gotten me. Now, you’ll never fly like that.”
“But I’m flapping my wings as fast as I can…”
“And that’s the problem, first off,” Rainbow Dash said sternly. “Now spread your wings out.”
Scootaloo obeyed, still looking a little nervous.
“Now, listen to my voice. I want you to move your wings to the rhythm. Up, down, up, down…”
Once again, the instructions were obeyed, and soon Scootaloo was moving her wings at the speed one would have during normal flight.
“Up, down, up, down…”
“How much longer do I have to keep doing this?” she asked. Her voice had some of its usual spunk again, but she was still more timid than usual.
“You have to crawl before you can run, squirt. Getting that rhythm down is part of it. Now listen, in addition to flapping, you also have to remember tilting. You need to tilt your wings in relation to airflow. Too low, there’s not enough lift. Too high, there’s drag.”
“How will I know the airflow?”
“You learn to feel it, and that comes with practice. Okay, I think you’re ready for a quick try.” With that, Rainbow Dash flew about five feet away, and then lowered herself another foot. “Alright, fly to me.”
Scootaloo looked at the ground again, then gulped.
The elder mare gave a sympathetic smile. “I’ll catch you, don’t worry. Come on, it’s even safer than before I got here. You weren’t afraid then.”
Feeling reassured, the filly leapt of the branch. She kept the flaps in a better rhythm, and tried to tilt her wings where she felt air. She moved erratically, but managed to make it to Rainbow Dash.
“That was very good,” she said, giving her student a smile.
“But… I barely stayed up! And I was falling before the end…”
“Scoots, rule number one on anything: you have to be bad before you can be good,” she said gently, setting her back on the ground. “Now, let’s go again. This time, don’t tense up so much. There’s nothing to be afraid of.”
“Well, Twilight, the solution to your problem is simple,” Aloe assured.
By this point the three guests had been lifted out of the tub and onto three massage tables. Lotus had begun kneading Applejack’s back, getting moans of pleasure from the earth pony, while Roxie began working on Twilight.
“What do you have in mind?”
“Well, dearie, you’re a very logical pony, aren’t you? We have a very simple solution to your problem. Tell me, what frightens you the most? What do you worry about most?”
It didn’t take long for her to answer. “Disappointing Princess Celestia, letting my friends down, something happening to Spike…”
“Very good. Now tell me, when was the last time you were worried about upsetting the Princess, what happened?”
Twilight paused. The citizens of Ponyville were very vague on what happened during the Smartypants incident. They only knew of the riot that broke out in the park, and not what caused it.
“Well, I ended up making things worse trying to fix something that the Princess turned out not to really care about in the first place.”
“So, the next time you start worrying about what’s going to happen, try thinking about…”
“I’ve tried that,” Twilight said bluntly.
Aloe blinked. “You what?”
“I already do that. I still end up worrying about it. She’s the ruler of Equestria, after all. I have high standards to work up to.”
“Well, what do you think would happen if you let her down?”
“A lecture at worst,” she admitted. “It’s easy to see that now, but when I’m panicking, I don’t exactly think straight.”
“Well, try taking deep breaths…”
“I took a hundred of them last time.”
“…You’re going to be a tough nut to crack.”
“Alright, that’s enough,” Rainbow Dash said. She carried the now visibly tired Scootaloo up to a cloud to rest. “We can take a break now.”
“Finally!” the filly panted. “We must have done that a hundred times.”
“Repetition is the mother of learning, kid,” the elder mare explained. “I do all my flight tricks a million times, Twilight reads all her books a million times, Rarity studies every sewing technique a million times, it’s why we’re the best at what we do.”
“I guess,” she said, rubbing her wings.
“Scoots, I’ve got to ask, why didn’t you take me up on my offer for lessons back at the wedding?”
Scootaloo blushed, rubbing the back of her head. “I… I was embarrassed. I mean, I’m so clumsy...”
“Clumsy?” Rainbow Dash asked incredulously. “Kid, I’ve seen you do tricks on that scooter of yours that would make some ponies jealous. Where’d you get the idea you were clumsy?”
The filly blushed, suddenly finding the cloud they were resting on interesting. “…Silver Spoon and Diamond Tiara,” she said at last, looking up at her teacher. Her face was scrunched in confusion. “Two fillies in my class,” Scootaloo clarified.
Rainbow Dash nodded in understanding. “Don’t let ponies like that get you down. There were these three idiots in my school who used to call me ‘Rainbow Crash’. Look at me now.”
Scootaloo gave a weak smile. “Thanks, I feel better,” she said.
There was silence for a moment as the two pegasi enjoyed the view. Finally, the younger one spoke. “Why did they call you ‘Rainbow Crash’ anyway? You’re the greatest flyer I’ve ever seen!”
The cyan pegasus’s expression was half smile at the compliment, half scowl at the question. “In one of the obstacle course runs, I choked and made a crash landing. They never let me forget it.”
“Did you ever fight back? I always want to give Diamond Tiara a good smack, but Miss Cheerilee says that’s wrong.”
“I did, but only once.”
”Nice landing, Rainbow Crash,” Hoops laughed at the young filly on the cafeteria floor.
Rainbow Dash stood up, hay fries and cupcake frosting in her mane, and glared at the colt that had caused her to trip. “Hey, that’s no fair!”
“Life’s not fair when you’re a loser, Crash!” he laughed again before trotting off. Grumbling, Rainbow Dash stood, trying to block out the snickers coming from around the room. Grudgingly, she sat at the end of a table, looking at her tray of now ruined food.
“Um, excuse me,” a quiet voice said. The filly looked up and saw a butter-yellow pegasus sitting down next to her.
“What do you want?” she snapped.
“Um, I saw you don’t have anything to eat now,” she said slowly. “You can have mine, if you like.”
Rainbow Dash blinked, caught off guard that a pony was actually treating her kindly. “Kid, that’s your food. I couldn’t take it…”
“Oh, I’m not really hungry anyway. You can have as much as you want.”
The cyan filly thought for a moment, then smiled. “Why don’t we share it?” She picked up the fork on her tray and used it to get a few hay fries from her new friend’s meal. For a few minutes the pair ate, introduced herself, and made small conversation. This however, promptly ended when Hoops came up to them again.
“Well, lookie here. Rainbow Crash and Klutzershy. It’s a match made in Celestia's Paradise!”
“Get lost, Hoops!”
“Um, please go away…”
“Oh yeah? Who’s going to make me!” he sneered, pushing Fluttershy off her seat. She landed with a pained squeak, then began whimpering.
“Hey, leave her alone!” Rainbow Dash demanded, hopping out of her seat. “Don’t pick on her like that!”
“Oh, and what are you going to do about it, Rainbow Crash?”
At that point, Rainbow Dash showed Hoops exactly what she was going to do about it. Namely, putting a hoof to his face. The colt staggered back, and just as he was registering his bloody nose, she leapt onto him, punching every part of him.
“It took three teachers to pull me off of him. I got detention for a month,” she finished, a smile of fond remembrance on her face.
“What? But Hoops was picking on Fluttershy! Shouldn’t he have got in trouble?”
“He did, but it was only a week’s detention. Besides, I don’t regret that day one bit. That’s when I met Fluttershy, and the next time she was picked on, I couldn’t fight, so I raced. I discovered my cutie mark, and I knew a good way to keep Hoops quiet. Now look, I’m a contender for the Wonderbolts, and he’s still working an entry-level position at the weather factory.”
“I let my actions speak for themselves. Every time that blowhard made fun of me, I did the flying drills better than him, I did the obstacle course better than him, I did everything better than him. He could call me names all he wanted, but I still knew I was better than him.”
Scootaloo was confused. “But… I see you threatening to beat up anyone that makes you mad!”
Rainbow Dash shook her head. “No, I threaten to beat up anypony that’s putting Equestria in danger. That’s something else entirely. School bullies? Not worth the effort. They never are.”
Scootaloo nodded. She looked away a bit before speaking again. “How long did it take you to fly?”
“Only a few days, I was a natural,” the elder mare bragged. She immediately regretted it when she was Scootaloo’s head drop a bit. “But don’t think that means there’s anything wrong with being a late bloomer. You know Spitfire was about your age before she got off the ground.”
“Really?” the filly asked, tilting her head.
“Yeah, she had a slow start. Now she’s the best of the best. Don’t let setbacks discourage you, kid. They’re temporary.”
“Did you have any setbacks?”
“I had to drop out of Flight School with only six months left to go. My…” she paused for a minute. “My mother died that year. I had to quit and get a job to support myself. I’d probably be in the Wonderbolts now if that hadn’t happened.”
Now Scootaloo felt uncomfortable. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to make you bring that up…”
Rainbow Dash ruffled her mane affectionately. “Don’t worry about it, kid,” she assured. “The point is, I’m still getting in the Wonderbolts because I didn’t let something like that get me down.”
The filly nodded, now smiling once again. She was forgetting her nervousness that Rainbow Dash would think less of her for bad flying. She was forgetting her parents being too busy to spend time with her. For a while, everything seemed peaceful.
“Hey, kid, have you ever read Daring Do?”
“Take several deep breaths…”
“Count backwards from ten…”
“Breath into a paper bag…”
“Tried it three times.”
The Spa Ponies had a rare look of exasperation on their faces. Twilight had tried nearly every technique they could suggest already, and it was beginning to seem that the trip was a waste of time.
“Look, I appreciate you trying,” Twilight assured. “I was really hoping you would have something that I haven’t tried. But ever since… ever since a certain incident, I’ve been trying them all. Don’t feel bad.”
By now, Twilight, Rarity, and Applejack were ready to leave. Rarity left the bits on the counter as her friends tried to assure them.
Aloe shook her head. “I’m still sorry we couldn’t help you, Twilight. If I come up with anything else, I’ll let you know.”
The lavender unicorn nodded. “I’ll keep that in mind. Thanks anyway.”
With that, the three friends walked out, feeling slightly dejected.
“Sorry, Twi,” Applejack sighed. “I guess we just wasted your time.”
Twilight shook her head. “Believe me, you didn’t. I actually feel better than I have in days. Ever since I found out my brother was getting married, I’ve been kind of tense, and with everything that happened afterward… well, I just feel better.”
“But you’re still worried about Spike, I take it?” Rarity asked.
“Yeah… I’m sorry, but I think I better head home and try to talk to him again.”
“Yes, I need to get started on that order for Fancypants anyway,” Rarity said dismissively. “We can try again some other time. Good-bye, darlings!”
The remaining two waved her goodbye as she trotted off.
“Hey, Twi? You remember that apple pie Spike liked so much? Maybe a few slices of that will get him talking.”
“That’s a great idea!” Twilight said. “Do you have any made?”
“Granny should be pullin’ some out’a the oven right now. Why don’t ‘cha pop on by and get one?”
Picking up her pith helmet, Daring Do dusted it off and placed it on her head before giving the cliff one final look. Grinning that a good deal of Ahuizotl’s cats had just tumbled over it, she couldn’t help but mutter one final line.
“Next time, try taking the stairs.”
“This is so cool!” Scootaloo squealed, squirming with excitement. Something told Rainbow Dash it was only the fact that the filly was in her embrace that she didn’t start jumping around in excitement.
“I know, isn’t it? Twilight got me hooked on those books while I was in the hospital. I can’t get enough of them.”
“Are these all in Twilight’s library? Do you think she’d let me borrow them?”
“That’s what libraries are for, squirt!” Rainbow Dash answered, sitting up. The day had worn on into afternoon, and the heat was beginning to cool a little. “Why don’t we get back to flying? Your wings should be rested enough to get back to work.”
“Can we just read one more chapter?” Scootaloo begged.
“I’ve already read you six chapters, kid. You can read anytime, but learning to fly is something special. We need to get back to it. You were doing great, don’t stop now.”
“I guess you’re right…”
Applejack and Twilight walked up the dirt path towards the Apple Family home. The lavender mare stifled another yawn, earning a look from her companion.
“Uh, Twi… are you sure you’re okay?”
“Of course. Why wouldn’t I be?”
“Twi… is there anythin’ you’re not tellin’ us? About why you didn’t sleep last night?”
“There isn’t,” Twilight answered, a little too quickly.
“I’m not buyin’ that,” she answered flatly. “I think your keepin’ somethin’ from us. You never told us you’ve been tryin’ all them remedies.”
“I didn’t want you to worry,” Twilight snapped. She immediately regretted it and sighed. “Look, this whole thing with Spike is stressing me out. Let’s handle one crisis at a time, okay?”
By this point, they were nearly at the front door, so the cowpony merely nodded. “Just… just don’t be afraid to let me know if somethin’s botherin’ you, alright?”
“Don’t worry, I won’t,” she assured, though to Applejack it sounded hollow.
Before the earth pony could dwell on it anymore, a large explosion caused both of them to jump three feet in the air. They managed to land on their hooves, but were so stunned they couldn’t react for a few seconds.
“What in tarnation?” Applejack uttered. In a flash, she opened the farmhouse door and charged inside, Twilight close behind her.
They both ran to the kitchen. They immediately stopped dead, their eyes widening and irises shrinking.
The entire kitchen was covered with apple and baker’s dough. And in the center were two ponies covered in the same: Granny Smith, who looked like she was having a heart attack, and Apple Bloom, giving a sheepish smile.
“Uh… hey sis…”
“Apple Bloom, what happened?”
“I… we were just makin’ some pie… Granny said I could help. I’m sorry.”
“You kiddin’?” Granny Smith lit up. “My ticker hasn’t beat so fast since the cider makin’ competition! I feel great!”
Every other mare present breathed a sigh of relief. “Well, I’ll get a mop and we can start cleaning up,” Twilight offered.
“No, Twi,” Applejack interrupted. “You’ve got Spike to worry about. You go on home, we can handle it.”
“Well, if you’re sure…”
“Positive. I’m sure between us and Big Mac we can handle this.”
“He was out workin’ the fields,” Granny Smith explained. “He should be in soon.”
“Heck, he probably heard the explosion from way out there,” Applejack laughed.
“Um, do you mind if I used your bathroom before I left?” Twilight asked.
“Sure Twi, it’s right upstairs.”
“Thanks,” the unicorn answered, hurrying to the stairs at a noticeably quick pace.
Applejack turned back to her family, who were scraping the dough off of themselves, making at least some progress at getting themselves clean. “You two go on out the back and we’ll hose you off. Then we’ll start worryin’ ‘bout the kitchen.”
At that point, Big Macintosh burst into the house, making it to the kitchen in record time. “What the hay happened?”
“Just a little mess. Go get the mop and stuff while I hose these two off.”
As the eldest child obeyed, the youngest fumed. “Can’t we get Twilight to use her magic to clean us off?”
“Now Apple Bloom, Twi’s got things to do…”
“Twilight’s here?” Big Macintosh yelled, stopping in place and widening his eyes.
Applejack arched an eyebrow. “Uh, yeah… she’s upstairs, usin’ the…”
“You let her upstairs?” he cried in alarm.
His sister’s eyes widened in realization. “Oh my… sorry, I forgot.”
“No!” he cried, barreling out of the kitchen and to the stairs. In a flash he had climbed the entire flight, and in another he was in front of his bedroom door. With great strength he knocked it in. He was just quick enough to see a purple tail with a pink stripe exit through the window.
“No!” he cried again, running to the window. Looking out, he saw Twilight recover from the fall and race out of Sweet Apple Acres, clutching a familiar prize in her teeth.
“You’re such a good study buddy,” Twilight cooed to Miss Smartypants, nuzzling her foalhood friend. “I’m never going to let you go again.”
Outside, Big Macintosh was pounding on the shield she had summoned around the library. “No! Give her back!”
“Forget it!” she called to the outside. “There’s no getting in…”
At that point, the wall to the library was burst open. Big Macintosh stood in the opening, having somehow gotten past her shield.
“What? How did you…”
“BIG MAC WANT!” the earth pony yelled. Suddenly his coat turned green, his mane turned a darker green, and he grew to twice his old size, the purple pants he was suddenly wearing tearing. “GIVE BIG MAC, OR BIG MAC SMASH!”
“What?” the pink earth pony asked, giving a hurt look.
“That didn’t even make any sense!” Twilight gave an exasperated sigh. “Big Mac can’t just turn into a monster! Who would believe that?”
“Well still, how can you be sure he won’t chase after you?”
“I don’t know, which is why I’m in a hurry. Can you just give me my cupcakes?”
“Fine,” the earth pony answered with a pout, placing Twilight’s order on the counter. She levitated it up, giving her a small thank you.
“Well, it’s not as good as pie, but maybe these will get Spike to loosen his lips.”
“I said no. You shouldn’t have taken that doll anyhow. It ain’t yours.”
The eldest child pouted. “But it’s adorable!”
Applejack growled angrily. “Don’t matter. When you told me you wanted the upstairs to be family only, I thought ya wanted it as a matter of privacy, not cause you were holdin’ that thing hostage. I ain’t stealin’ it back for ya!”
“No buts! Now get ta moppin’! And don’t try makin’ Apple Bloom help ya, this is your punishment.”
Sighing, the stallion took the mop and began cleaning up the mess his little sister had made. He was interrupted by his sister’s voice. “And what did you threaten Twi with?”
Big Macintosh turned suddenly, his eyes wide at the accusation. “What are you talking about?”
“Twilight didn’t speak to me a lick about that doll. What’d you say to her to keep her from tellin’ me?”
“Nothing! I didn’t even know she knew until today!”
“Don’t ‘cha lie to me!”
“I’m not lying, really!”
Applejack’s expression softened as she looked at her brother’s face. He looked shocked, and even a little hurt at his sister’s accusation. She could tell he wasn’t lying.
“Then…why didn’t Twi tell me about it?”
”Hey, Twilight!” Moondancer called, running up to her classmate. Twilight muttered a brief “Hello,” but kept trotting forward. “Me and some of the girls are getting together tonight and head to the Stable. You want to come?”
“I can’t. I have Spike back at the castle, remember?”
The other unicorn groaned. “Using him again, huh? You know, there are other foalsitters besides me in Canterlot.”
“Not ones that would be willing to sit for a dragon,” Twilight noted a bit bitterly.
“You live in a castle. Filled with ponies who are loyal to the Princess. Can’t you get any of them to watch him for the night?”
“They don’t care about Spike,” Twilight answered bitterly. “I’m not leaving him alone with them.”
“So? He’s what, eleven now? Isn’t it about time you let him stay home alone?”
“That’s still a baby by dragon standards. Besides, he’s still at that age where he can’t stand not being around me. You should see him when I walk in the door from school.” By this point, Twilight’s voice had lost some of its edge. In fact, she seemed to be rather fond of what she was discussing.
“I know, remember?” Moondancer reminded, grinning now as well. “I can get any foal asleep, but that dragon won’t go to bed until you’re home. And he always runs right up to you and gives you a hug.”
“He’d use to yell ‘Twilight’s back! Twilight’s back!’ when he was younger.” Twilight noted with nostalgia.
“But I think it’s time he grew past that. He’s getting to an age where he can be alone.”
“Well, I appreciate your input,” the lavender unicorn sneered, “but I’m in charge of Spike, not you.”
“Well you need to think of something,” Moondancer pressed, ignoring her classmate’s eye roll. “All you ever do is study. You need to get out more.”
“I don’t have the time for friends,” she muttered. “I’ve got studies to do and a dragon to raise. I don’t get to be a teenager like everypony else”
“My parents had three foals and full time jobs, and they got out more than you. That’s really no excuse.”
“Were any of you the lynchpin in a major political change?” Twilight asked.
Moondancer sighed. She had been expecting that answer. It was a bit like going through the motions at this point. “I still think you need to get out more.”
“We’ve been over this. Besides, you know the moment I stick my head out Blueblood or some other social climber will be all over me.”
“And you need to learn to deal with that,” Moondancer said, exasperated. She placed her hoof on her face. She was silent for a moment, wondering if she should say something she had thought of saying for a long time. “You do care about Spike, right?”
Twilight stopped dead, turning and glaring at her acquaintance. “What kind of question is that? Of course I do.”
“And… you want him to change everypony’s view on dragons, right?”
“Yes. What’s your point?”
“Well… he’s going to need to get out and socialize for that to happen, isn’t he?”
“Yes… ” the lavender unicorn answered, not liking where this was going.
“Well… isn’t he learning how to act from you? I mean, shouldn’t you be setting a better example in that department?”
Twilight’s face contorted in anger, but she knew she was right.
“Just… think about it, okay?” she said defensively. Giving a sigh, she walked off, leaving Twilight alone. Angrily, she stomped off, thinking about what Moondancer said.
Unbeknownst to them, from behind a corner to another hallway, a small baby dragon who was there for a checkup by one of the university doctors poked his head out from around the corner. He was crying, because he had heard every word.
That night, when Twilight got back to her dorm, she had found everything cleaned, all her usual chores done. Spike had done them all, saying he had wanted help her with anything she needed. He also said he felt like he didn’t need a foalsitter anymore.
Twilight immediately sensed something was wrong. He refused to leave her alone for another three months. Finally, she relented and allowed him to stay by himself. After she came home and found he hadn’t burnt down the castle, she agreed to make him staying by himself the norm.
Spike sighed as he finished the last of the dusting. The library shined from top to bottom. As good of a secondary assistant as Owlowiscious was, he often missed the fine points of cleaning. After a full week of only him in charge, the library needed a quick clean.
Satisfied with his work, he prepared to sulk back to his room before Twilight returned home, hoping to avoid her. This thought was interrupted by said unicorn bursting through the door.
“Spike!” she cried.
“Huh, what?” the baby dragon said worriedly.
“Spike, quick, close and lock every window shutter!”
“…Is that Miss Smarty Pants?”
“Yes, and Big Mac could be right behind me, so come on, windows, close, now!”
Spike obliged, glad that the focus was off him. For the next three minutes he ran throughout the library, shutting and bolting all the window shutters around the home. Once the last one was secure, he sought out Twilight again, and found her in the kitchen, brewing up some tea.
“I’m finished, now what?”
Spike suddenly felt Smarty Pants being pushed into his claws. “Put her away in my keepsake trunk. No need to make it easier for him. Then come back here.”
The dragon nodded and obey. A minute later he returned to the kitchen and saw the table now had two seats ready at the table. At each seat was a cupcake on a small plate and a cup of tea.
“I figured I’d get us a treat. The tea is cinnamon, your favorite!”
Spike perked up. He licked his lips, his desire for the treats overriding anything else. Happily, he took his seat and snatched up the cupcake. He ate it with marginal neatness, enough not to cause a mess but not exactly the full extent of his etiquette training.
Twilight giggled, levitating a handkerchief towards her. “You’ve got frosting on your cheek,” she noted, licking the cloth and using it to rub his face.
“Ew, gross,” he groaned, trying to swat the offending item away, but Twilight managed to keep it in place until its job was done.
“Aw, you didn’t always think it was gross.”
“I was five and stupid,” Spike mumbled, taking a sip of his tea.
“No, you were just my special little guy back then,” Twilight cooed, causing Spike to fake gag. “And you’re still my little dragon now,” she continued, suddenly serious. “That’s why I want to know what’s wrong.”
Spike froze. “N-nothing. I told you, I’m fine.” He attempted to get up, only for Twilight’s magic to force him back into his seat.
“Spike, you can’t lie to save your life,” she said sternly. “You’re not leaving this table until you tell me what’s wrong.”
Spike looked at the wooden surface, knowing he was trapped. “I… I…”
Twilight sighed. “Spike, I know this is about the wedding. I told everypony else that I understand why you didn’t believe me at the rehearsal. Me not being believed was as much my fault as it was everypony else’s, maybe even more so.”
“But I abandoned you and…” He caught himself. He was so close to spilling.
“Spike… I’m not going to lie. It hurt to have you walk out on me. But like I said, that’s my fault, not yours. I love you just as much as ever. You understand that, right?”
Spike looked at her in silence. He wanted to tell her how he felt so badly. “…Yes,” he said at last.
“So do you feel better? Are you going to stop moping?”
“Yes,” he nodded, smiling an empty smile.
Twilight was silent for a moment. Then she rose to her hooves, walked over to Spike and hugged him tightly. “I love you, Spike.”
“I love you too, Twilight,” he said weakly, trying to keep himself from crying.
“Then tell me what’s wrong.”
His eyes widened. “Wh-what? I told you…”
“And you lied to me. There’s something more, isn’t there?”
Spike held back the tears. He couldn’t tell her. Not after how badly he had let her down. He tried to push away, but the unicorn tightened her grip.
“I’m not letting go until you tell me.”
“I’m stronger than you,” he tried to sound intimidating, but failed.
“Not by enough. You’d have to hurt me, and you’d never do that.”
“…Please let go.”
“Tell me what’s wrong fir-ack!” she squealed.
As it turns out, Spike had a way of getting out of Twilight’s grip without hurting her. He simply brushed her side with the tips of his fingers. Caught off guard, she laughed and loosened her grip, allowing him to escape. He managed to get three feet away before she fully recovered.
“Oh no you don’t!” she said, lighting up her horn. In a flash, Spike was back in front of her.
But he just kept running, too quickly to get a hold onto him with her magic. She tried again.
Flash! “Spike please listen.”
Flash! “Seriously, we need to talk.”
Flash! “Spike, as your caretaker, I’m telling you to…”
Spike suddenly turned to Twilight and flicked her horn.
Touching a unicorn’s horn when they’re casting magic caused disorientation. For something simple like levitation, it was only for a split second. Something as major as teleportation, however, left them dizzy much longer. Part of Twilight’s extensive training was how to minimize this period, and as a result she was recovered five seconds later.
By that time, Spike was out of sight.
“Spike!” Twilight called, chasing her charge in the direction she had seen him run towards. She was in the next room before she heard a door shut and lock. She sighed, but didn’t slow her pace until she got to the door.
She knocked her hoof on it. “Spike. Come out here, now,” she demanded.
She received no answer.
“Spike, if you don’t come out, you’re ground…” she trailed off. Spike was moping around the house anyway, not doing much of anything. Grounding him wouldn’t do much good.
“Well, I’ll give you a whip…” Again she trailed off. She had threatened to spank Spike once, but when the time came to act on the threat she couldn’t bring herself to do so.
“Spike, listen…” she said slowly. “This is ridiculous. You can’t just avoid me forever.”
She tried to remain firm and commanding, but a lump formed in her throat. Her voice wavered. “I don’t like seeing you like this. Please come out.”
There was no answer.
Twilight didn’t continue. She turned and walked a brisk pace away from the door. If Spike heard her cry, it could make things worse.
After she was back in the kitchen, she let her tears go. It was painful to see Spike like this. Her thought drifted back to his most inconsolable time.
Twilight walked into her dorm room to a most unusual sound, that of crying. Confused and a bit frightened, she called out “Spike?”
No answer, the crying continued. Using caution, she moved around her bed, looking around to the side away from the door. She found Spike sitting in his basket, curled into a ball, head buried in his knees, sobbing. Next to him sat a book, though Twilight didn’t care to see which one.
“Ponies… ponies only live about seventy years, right?”
That caught Twilight off guard. It seemed so random. “Yes… one hundred if we take good care of ourselves, why…”
She trailed off. She looked at the book. Dragons: Everything Known About the World’s Most Mysterious Creature.
He looked up, tears still falling. “You’re… you’re going to…”
No… No, it was too soon. She wasn’t supposed to have to give him this talk for another decade. This was ruining the timetable. “No, no…”
“I’m gonna… gonna…”
Twilight gulped, then nodded slowly. “I’m afraid so, Spike… dragons live to about a thousand years old. I’m only going to be around for…”
“No!” he wailed leaping up. In a blur he tackled Twilight, wrapping his arms around her neck. “Please don’t go!”
“Spike,” she said sadly, returning the hug. “Please…”
“Don’t leave me, Twilight! Please! I don’t want to be alone!”
“Spike, I can’t do anything…”
“But you promised!” He wailed heartbreakingly. “You said you’d always be there, ‘with Celestia as your witness’! You lied!! You…” he dissolved into a purple bundle of misery.
Twilight just held him close, stroking his scales in an attempt to soothe him. For the next several moments, Spike gave his heartbroken wails, holding his caretaker so close that she began to suspect he was trying to permanently merge with her.
“Spike… Spike, look at me,” she commanded. She pulled away slowly, then placed a hoof under his chin and made him look up in her eyes. “One day, I’m going to leave the world and enter Celestia’s Paradise. Nopony, not even Celestia herself, can prevent that. But even though my body might be gone, my spirit will still watch over you.”
Spike was silent. She continued.
“I’ll be looking down on you from there, watching you. And when your time comes, you’ll join me there.”
“But… I don’t know what I’m going to do when you’re gone! Who’s going to take care of me and read me bedtime stories and fix my gemstone soup or…”
“Spike, listen to me. My life is shorter than yours, but it’s not ending for a long time. And I know you’re going to grow up to be a smart, sweet dragon. You’re not going to need me anymore…”
“Yes I will!” he cried. “I… I don’t wanna be… alone.”
There was a silence as Twilight tried to think of what to say. Finally an idea came to her. Lighting up her horn, she gently grabbed hold of one of his claws and brought it down onto his chest. “Do you feel that?” she asked softly.
Spike’s face contorted with confusion. “Yeah. That’s my heart.”
“That’s where every living thing stores the love they have for everypony. That’s where your love for me lives. I want you to know that as long as you keep that, I’ll never really die. I’ll live on in your heart. So will my mom and dad, and Shining Armor, and Princess Celestia, and Cadance, and Moondancer, and everypony else you love. We’ll be here long after our great-grandchildren die, as long as you keep us here.”
“It… it won’t be the same, will it?”
Twilight sighed. “It won’t be easy. But you’ll make it. I know you will. You’re going to change everything. Equestria will be a better place because of you. There will be a time when little dragons and little ponies will be attending the same schools, all thanks to you.”
For the first time since Twilight saw him, Spike smiled. “Y… you really think so?”
“Think? I know so!” she replied, giving a cocky grin and a poke to the nose. Spike giggled a little bit. “Why don’t you eat something? It will make you feel better.”
“…Can I have some gemstone soup?”
“My own special recipe.”
After that, Spike became a full-time assistant. He never said it, but she knew it was because he wanted as much time as possible with her before the inevitable. She was torn on how to handle it. She loved that Spike was being so diligent, it was preparing him for the long, hard life he had ahead of him. But it pained him that he ignored opportunities to play in favor of work… not that she was one to talk in that regard, she supposed. But she legitimately enjoyed her studies, while Spike seemed to work with a feeling of obligation.
She soon realized that Spike had overheard the conversation with Moondancer. When she realized that, it dawned on her that the only time he spent around her was to work. All other times, he would insist, subtly, he thought, that Twilight should go out. She had to explain that she considered time spent with him a joy, and that she sincerely had no desire to socialize beyond chatting with a few of her classmates between studying.
She gave a pained groan. Even in that state, all she had to do was present the facts and Spike would begin the recovery. She wouldn’t lie to him in situations like that. After the school incident, she promised no more hiding the truth, despite how painful it was. She only ever regretted that promise once, during a very uncomfortable discussion in which Spike asked where foals came from.
But here, it wasn’t working. The problem seemed to be that Spike was feeling guilty that he didn’t believe her, yet when presented with the facts he rejected them. There had to be a part of the equation she was missing. But what?
She sighed. Maybe tomorrow.
“Well that was a waste of time,” Garble groaned, watching a traveling pony run away screaming in fear.
“This whole thing’s a waste of time,” Mumble whined, even as he was tossing their latest victim’s bits up and down in one of his purple claws. “I say we forget this and get out of here.”
Garble responded by whipping around and grabbing him by the throat, choking him and causing him to drop his precious gold.
“We. Are. Not. Leaving! Not until we find that shrimp and grind him into dragon meat!”
“Aw, come on, we’ve been at this for a month!” Thrash objected. “I say we get out of here before we attract attention.”
“From what, a namby-pamby pony princess?” Garble laughed, tossing Mumble to the ground. “Bring her on! I can beat any pony into the ground!”
“Oh bravo,” a new voice interjected. Surprised, the three dragons glanced behind them. They were surprised to see ponies approaching them, unafraid.
“I guess popular perception of all dragons being savages isn’t too far off after all.” Their leader chuckled. He was a unicorn, with a coat as red as Garble's scales, and a mane that seemed greyed and aged. His look gave a sense of importance, like everything around him was beneath his notice. His cutie mark was, of all things, an olive branch, and the three dragons were somewhat nonplussed at this, given how out of place it looked on him.
The two ponies flanking him were a pegasus and an earth pony, with coats of white and grey respectively. Both of their cutie marks were hidden due to them wearing armor that seemed stolen right from the royal guards, though they were painted sinister shades of black and grey. The both carried saddle bags, presumably filled with supplies.
“Who the heck are you?” Garble demanded.
“The pony who is going to lead you right to the dragon you are seeking.”
All three of them were caught off guard by this blunt answer. Not waiting for a reply, the unicorn continued, using his magic to open the earth pony’s bag. He withdrew a scrap of paper, floating it to Garble. “This map marks Ponyville, where the dragon you speak of lives. The trek will take about two days. I trust you know how to use it?”
Garble looked at the map, then back at the mysterious benefactor. “Why are you helping us?”
“Do you care?”
“…No, I guess I don’t,” Garble laughed. “Congratulations, you’re the first pony I actually like.”
The unicorn didn’t respond to the compliment. “If possible, try and take out the purple unicorn with him.” With that, his horn glowed. There was a flash of light, and he and his cohorts were gone.
The three dragons stood in silence over what happened. It had been so abrupt that it left them more confused than anything.
Finally, Thrash spoke. “I don’t think we should do this. That pony could be trying to trick us.”
“Well it’s a good thing you’re not the brains around here,” Garble snapped, clutching the map like it was a winning lottery ticket. “I’ve got Spike’s location, and when I find him I’m going to run that twerp into the ground.”
“Come on, Scootaloo,” Rainbow Dash encouraged.
The young filly grunted as she lifted her wings again, which now had three pound weights on each of them. “I’ve already done a hundred of these.”
“So, you can do a hundred and one. Come on, just one more.”
“No,” Scootaloo cried. “I can’t!”
Suddenly Rainbow’s expression turned icy cold. “Get in push-up position.”
Scootaloo blinked. “What?”
“Push-up position. Now.”
Scared, Scootaloo did as she was told, straightening out her back legs and supporting all her weight on her front.
“Ten push-ups. Come on, go! Go! Go!”
Confused and a little scared, Scootaloo obeyed. By the time she finished, her forelegs were feeling heavy, though it was nothing too bad. Rainbow Dash got down to her level and looked her in the eye. “Every time I hear the word ‘can’t’ out of you, it’s ten push-ups. Period. That is the dirtiest word in the Equestrian language, squirt.”
Scootaloo was stunned. She opened her mouth to speak, but wasn’t sure what to say.
The elder mare continued. “It wasn’t that you couldn’t lift your wings again, all that happened was that you hit a limit. Limits only exist to be surpassed. When you hit one, you need to keep going. That’s what separates the champs from the chumps.”
“But… my wings felt like they were going to fall off!”
“So you just do one more. I’ll admit, pushing yourself too far can be just as bad as not pushing yourself enough. Go at it, just don’t kill yourself doing it.”
“How will I know when too far is?”
“You’ll grow to learn it. Until then, promise you won’t do any serious exercise without me or another adult around, okay?”
“I promise,” she mumbled obediently.
“Good. Now, since you had a chance to rest your wings, I think you can do five more now. Come on, let’s see it.”
“But,” the filly started to protest, but her mentor gave her a powerful stare. “Yes, ma’am.”
Luna marched firmly down the halls of Canterlot Castle, not stopping until she came to her sister’s chambers. As she approached the door, however, the two pegasus guards blocked her path.
“Let me through, I must see my sister,” she demanded.
“I’m sorry, Your Highness, but Princess Celestia requested not to be disturbed, even by you.”
Luna’s horn glowed, and she waited expectantly.
“I’m sorry, Your Highness, but your sister has made us resistant to that trick.”
“I see,” Luna said plainly.
A few seconds later the doors opened, and Luna trotted in. The door closed after her, and a few seconds later the guards dropped from the ceiling where the Princess of the Night had levitated them to.
“That’s it, I’m putting in that transfer to Manehattan.”
Inside the chambers Celestia looked up from her novel to see her sister marching in angrily. “Luna? How…”
The younger sister just arched an eyebrow, causing Celestia to shake her head in realization. “Honestly, Luna, can’t you respect my alone time? It’s just like when we were fillies…”
“Sister, how can you be reading with what the papers are saying about you?” the purple princess gritted, bring the newspaper she was carrying to attention.
CHANGELING QUEEN STILL AT LARGE. CELESTIA’S LEADERSHIP TO BLAME?
“Honestly, Luna, you pulled me away from Daring Do for this? I've told you, those tabloids aren't real news. You shouldn't worry...”
“Sister, please be serious!” Luna demanded. “Honestly, ponies are trying to stir up trouble, calling for your removal! They are suggesting that ponies should leave the country if you’re still on the throne by the end of the year.”
Celestia scoffed. “Those threats come up every time a noble gets appointed. You always have a dozen or so ponies thinking they know how politics works…”
“Yes, but do you hear what they’re saying about Twilight Sparkle?”
That got Celestia’s attention. “What…”
The Princess of the Sun took the paper and skimmed it over. It wasn’t long until she found the article her sister was referring to.
Eyewitness reports confirm that, indeed, the Changeling Queen was exposed by Twilight Sparkle, personal protégé to Princess Celestia and sister of Captain Shining Armor. This, of course, raises questions as to why she was not attending her own brother’s wedding during the first ceremony, considering her prominent position as Best Mare in the second.
Now, we have discussed the foalish action of continuing with a high-budget ceremony when there was destruction in the streets, especially when the nobles are proposing a tax increase to cover the damage, but one must wonder the circumstances behind Sparkle’s disappearance, as well as her continued support of Celestia.
It is this reporter’s opinion that Sparkle has undergone a sort of conditioning to make her loyal to…
The paper burst into flames as Celestia’s magic flared up. “What?”
“As I told you sister, ponies have noticed Twilight Sparkle’s absence from the first ceremony. They’ve concluded you forced her to miss it, or didn’t care enough about her absence to postpone the wedding. And her continued loyalty despite this leads the foalish to assume you must have some control over her, or that she is simply a naïve soul you are manipulating.”
Celestia rarely got angry, but these claims were enough to put her in a rage. “How… could they…”
“Twilight Sparkle is being portrayed as your loyal little attack dog. I believe that’s how you put it that night.”
Tears were in Celestia’s eyes. Attacks against herself she could bear. Attacks against her sister she had prepared for… she was a politician, after all. But when her beloved student was dragged into the limelight like this… “And if we tell them the truth… that will make things worse.”
Luna nodded. As bad as things were politically thanks to the changeling invasion, they would undoubtedly get worse if it was discovered that Celestia was warned of it beforehand and ignored it, regardless of how justified the disbelief was.
“It would do little to curb these allegations anyway,” Luna admitted. She shook her head. “Are you sure authorizing the second ceremony was the right thing to do?”
“Positive. By letting things go on as planned, I sent a message that things were back to normal in Canterlot. To cancel it would be acknowledging that the changelings were a true threat. There will be much paranoia spread about the changelings either way; by this method we may curtail a bit of it.”
Luna nodded, sitting in front of her sister. "That still didn't stop these frivolous accusations."
"I've told you before, Luna, those tabloids are nothing but ridiculous claims. They just like to stir up trouble. Yes, there have been ponies calling for me to step down and labeling me a tyrant, but they are always in the minority. The vast majority of my subjects still support me, though they will be antsy for me to do something."
“Still, we best make some progress on finding the Changeling Queen soon. I know you’d be reluctant, but perhaps we should call Captain Armor back in…”
“No,” Celestia said bluntly. “Cadence deserves a honeymoon. That time in those caves is bound to have damaged her, and she cannot return to work like that. Some time away will heal her a bit, then once she’s back some care will be easier.”
Luna huffed. “Well, perhaps we should call in the Bearers…”
“No!” this one was nearly a yell. “I’ve already made Twilight clean up after too many of my mistakes. I will not force this on her beyond a last resort.”
Luna shook her head. “Dear sister, I hope you are not allowing your emotions to judge. This is a delicate situation. Especially considering where the changelings came from.”
Celestia actually groaned at that, massaging her temple with her hoof. “I thought for sure…” she began, the sighed. “I told Twilight that Discord’s not as clever as he likes to think he is, but apparently I’m not so clever either. I thought for sure if he was going to revive them, he would have had them around already. I should have expected he have a plan ready in case he didn’t succeed in breaking the Bearers.”
“Did you tell Twilight Sparkle the truth about them?”
“I did not. I saw no need to make her worry.”
The younger sister gaped. “Surely you jest. The changelings could very well be trying to free their creator.”
“I doubt it,” the elder sister noted. “We had the statue sitting right out in the gardens and it was never touched. No, I believe the Queen acted in her own self-interests, something I’m sure Discord will not appreciate if he is ever freed again.”
“It will not,” Luna said firmly. “We now know how the seal weakens, and can take steps to prevent it.”
Celestia couldn’t help but grin. “There’s that, I suppose. And perhaps the donations to the cleanup effort will help a deal.”
“Contributions?” the dark mare arched an eyebrow.
“Fancypants agreed to cover about a third of the damages, and Jet Set is setting up another charity auction of his own. Hoity Toity pledged ten percent of his commissions for the next month as well. The tax increase may be unnecessary.”
“I suppose that will be progress,” Luna nodded. “Still, is there anything we can do to stop these articles? Such disrespect undermines our crown.”
“I told you before, times have changed. At any rate, blocking such stories will only give them credibility. Now, is there anything else you came in here for?”
Luna kicked a hoof, looking somewhat embarrassed. “I suppose I simply wanted to talk out my frustrations. The things they say about you, about Twilight Sparkle…”
“Best get used to it,” Celestia sighed. “And don’t worry. There’s always some stories in the paper, and they inevitably fade away. We simply most continue on, and hopefully without any further hiccups.”
Scootaloo gulped down her milkshake, eager to cool off after a hard day of training. Unfortunately, she ended up trading heat for brain freeze, and had to rub her forehead a bit.
Rainbow Dash just grinned. “Drink up, squirt, you earned it.”
She grinned as her headache subsided and took another sip. “Can we train again tomorrow?” she asked eagerly.
Rainbow Dash leaned back a bit, looking out at Celestia’s sun setting on the horizon. The outdoor café looked good at dusk. “No can do, squirt. I’ve got to get back to work. We have a big storm we need to set up, and I’m going to be busy all day.”
“Oh,” Scootaloo said sadly.
“Besides, you should probably rest a day anyway. It was your first real workout, I wouldn’t want you straining anything.”
“Yeah, I guess,” the filly grumbled.
Rainbow Dash took a sip of her own milkshake before speaking. “Hey, kid? Listen, is… everything okay with you?”
Scootaloo used all her willpower to keep from tensing up. “What do you mean?”
“I mean, is there anything else bothering you? Anything at all?”
“No, nothing. I’m fine, really.” Scootaloo smiled. It looked a little forced.
“Alright,” Rainbow Dash answered, though she didn’t sound entirely convinced. “But if something does happen, you’d tell me, right?”
“Of course!” Scootaloo nodded.
Rainbow Dash gave a smile, then looked away from her. She stared into the distance for a few moments. “How did you get so good on that scooter anyway?” she asked, making conversation.
Scootaloo gave a shrug. “I figured if I couldn’t go fast in the air, going fast on the ground was the next best thing.”
“What about all those tricks?” the elder mare asked.
“I just started wondering if I could do certain things, and I kept trying them until I did it.”
“Good answer,” Rainbow Dash said, and she meant it. “You need to have that attitude. It’ll get you places.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean that you keep going until you get it. As long as you’re not hurting anypony, you can do anything.”
“…That sounds so corny,” Scootaloo giggled.
Rainbow Dash shook her head sadly. “I know, and it’s a shame, because it’s true. The only difference between a loser and a champion is that the loser quits.”
“Does everything you say sound so cliché?”
Rainbow Dash shot her student a glare, but it quickly turned to a playful grin. She wrapped a foreleg around her neck and gave her a playful noogie. “You’re already getting sarcastic, kid. I’m rubbing off on ya.”
Scootaloo giggled at her idol’s playfulness and tried to push her off. No such luck. “Aw, come on…”
“To answer your question, yeah, a lot of what I’m going to teach you sounds cliché,” she released her hold. “But they got cliché because they’re true. Come on, kid, you should know better than to doubt me.”
“Alright,” Scootaloo grinned.
Rainbow Dash gulped down the last of her shake. “Well, kiddo, it’s getting late. Hate to leave ya like this, but I’ve got to get home. You want me to give you a lift?”
“No, thanks,” the filly answered, a little too quickly. “I have my scooter, remember?”
“Well, alright. I’ll see you around, pipsqueak.” Rainbow Dash took one last look at her student, and then took off to the sky, leaving her alone at the table.
Scootaloo took her last gulp. “Anything, huh?”
After thinking for a moment, she rose from the table, It would be night soon, and she still had one final stop to make that night.
Twilight’s quill scribbled furiously to jot down the information she had found. She had finally managed to find the procedures she needed, and could actually have something to show Rainbow Dash tomorrow. She considered going over to her home and hoof delivering it to her that very night, but decided against it. There was still no way of knowing if this was a legitimate emergency or a false alarm, and if the cyan mare had discovered something urgent she would have already dropped by.
She gave a small and tired smile at her find, patting Smartypants on the head. Even with Spike in his current state and potential problems with Scootaloo, this day at least had a silver lining. Her study buddy was back, and as juvenile as it was to think so, she couldn’t help but feel her research skills had improved by it sitting on the desk.
Dipping the quill back into ink, she continued writing. Constantly. The words kept coming. She focused on them. Anything to stop her from thinking of…
She sighed. Spike entered her mind again, much to her sadness and frustration. She tried to think logically. There was nothing she could do about that now, she had to push that out of her mind, had to focus on the matter in front of her, had to…
The purple unicorn jumped in surprise. She turned quickly, lighting up her horn in panic, only to stop when she saw who it was. “Scootaloo?”
The orange filly winced. “Sorry, Twilight. I didn’t mean to scare you.”
“That’s alright,” the older mare grinned sheepishly, “I’ve just… been on edge since the wedding.”
Scootaloo bit her lip as if she had something she wanted to say, but was hesitant to do so. Twilight decided she was moving into uncomfortable areas and tried changing the subject. “So, what brings you to the library this late at night?”
“Well, I know it’s closing time and everything, but I was wondering… do you have a copy of the first Daring Do book?
A half an hour later Scootaloo was laying on her bed with the library’s copy of Daring Do and the Quest for the Sapphire Stone. Not Twilight’s personal copy, which she was reluctant to lend to a filly, but the copy belonging to the city.
As she turned the page, she heard movement outside her bedroom door. Frightened, she hid the book under her pillow just as Speedy Delivery came through the door.
He looked at her daughter sternly for a moment before speaking. “What did you do today?”
The same question every night. She had a prepared answer. “I mostly just rode my scooter around. Apple Bloom and Sweetie were busy today, so…”
He nodded. “And you still didn’t come back home. Good girl, glad to see you can follow instructions.”
“Yes Daddy,” Scootaloo answered routinely.
“I know it’s hard,” he said in a reassuring manner, walking over to his daughter and placing a hoof on her shoulder. “But our work is important, and we can’t have you goofing around here while we do our special work.”
“I know you do. Don’t worry, soon it’ll be all over, and things are going to get good for us. I’m going to succeed where so many ponies have failed. You want me to succeed, don’t you?”
“Good. Now, what do you say?”
“I love you, Daddy.”
Speedy Delivery grinned. “I know you do.”
The six ponies laughed and giggled at the latest attempt at Twenty Questions, which had ended with Rainbow Dash and Applejack somehow guessing that Twilight was thinking of hoofball when the answer had been Starswirl the Bearded.
“Okay,” Rainbow Dash said. “I’m thinking of a pony…”
“Spitfire?” Rarity deadpanned.
“How - er, no,” the cyan mare stuttered, causing the group to laugh.
“Hey, Twilight, I’m starving, you got any more s’mores?” Pinkie asked.
“No problem,” she assured, rising to her hooves. She trotted over to her refrigerator and opened it.
Inside she found Gummy.
In a flash Gummy’s jaws opened wide, about three times wider than it should have, revealing a set of razor sharp teeth. He jumped up and bit at Twilight. Thankfully, she managed to back away in time, slamming the door shut.
“Twilight?” Applejack called. “Is everythin’ alright?”
“I think Gummy just ate all my food.”
“Well that’s alright, you’ll do.”
Before Twilight could be asked what that meant, she was tackled to the ground. She looked up to see Applejack and her friends standing over her with hungry looks on their faces. “What are you?”
At that instant the forms of her friends twisted and contorted, turning into the forms of Changelings, all of whom looked ready to devour her.
Letting out a yell, she summoned her magic and swatted the offending creatures away. They were stunned for only a moment, then continued coming after her. In terror she leapt up and raced out of her front door, and into the darkened streets of Ponyville. She called for help, but received no answer.
She ran, ran, ran, not even looking back to see if they were still following her. Finally, she came to her friends… her real ones, hopefully.
“Oh, I’m so glad to see you guys. There are Changelings after me!”
“Uh huh, sure,” Rainbow Dash snorted as she returned to the Daring Do book she was reading in mid-flight.
”Darling, really,” Rarity sneered, smoothing out a wrinkle in her Gala dress. “We haven’t the time for your delusions.”
Twilight was baffled. “Wh-what?”
Pinkie hopped up and down, babbling frantically. “Ooh, ooh, is this a pretend game? Let me get Rocky and we can…”
“Don’t waste yer time, Pinkie,” Applejack groaned. “We ain’t got time for your shenanigans. I got applebuckin’ ta do.”
“But…” Twilight began, only to find herself receiving a hard buck from the cowpony’s hind legs. She shook her head, trying to ease the pain, and was shocked to see that her friends had walked into the distance after such a short time.
“Wait!” she cried, only to find herself being pulled down by the five Changelings. Had she not been scared for her life, she would have found the sight of them suddenly wearing dinner napkins and carrying silverware almost comical.
Suddenly, Twilight was on a giant dinner plate, hogtied. One Changeling stuffed an apple in her mouth. Struggling against her bonds, she let out a muffled scream as one of the Changelings brought down its knife.
Twilight let out a piercing scream, bolting upright. She took several deep breaths, trying to get air back into their lungs. She was in her bed, completely safe. At least, she hoped that was the case.
She glanced to the side to see if she had woken Spike, only to remember that Spike wasn’t sleeping in the same room anymore.
She sighed, flopping back down on her pillow. Using her magic, she levitated Smartypants off her bedside table and into her waiting forearms. When she was a foal, it helped soothe her after such dreams. Here, however, it was not having the same effect.
She knew the reason. This wasn’t a dream about the Headless Horse chasing her or Slender Mane hiding in her closet. These threats were very real, not stories started by unqualified parents to get their foals to behave. It was never something she could truly wake up from.
And, of course, it was because Smartypants was a poor substitute for Spike. The doll had found itself being used less and less once the baby dragon came into her life. Even as an infant, he seemed to instinctively know when his caretaker was upset and would crawl up next to her in an attempt to comfort her. Now her foalhood comfort seemed a bit… weaker in comparison.
She closed her eyes again, letting out a low moan. There was so much on her mind sleep seemed like an impossibility. Still, she had already lost one night to bad dreams, she was determined not to lose another.
Celestia’s Sun shone into the library as a weary Twilight poured herself a glass of orange juice. Spike was in trouble, Scootaloo might be in trouble, the political situation was getting worse. She didn’t think she could handle any more surprises.
At that moment, the door to the library burst open, and Big Macintosh stormed in. “I want that doll back!”
“You can’t have it!” Twilight said defensively. “She’s my study buddy!”
“You threw her out!” he exclaimed.
“I… used her for an experiment,” she defended, glaring at him.
“Same thing,” he said, his face getting closer to hers.
“Is not!” she shot back, leaning in.
“Give her back!”
The two stared at each other intently for a few seconds.
Then, suddenly, their forelegs were around each other as their lips touched, doing a dance…
“Why doesn’t anypony let me finish a story?”
“’Cause they’re ridiculous!” Applejack snapped with a blush. “I really don’t wanna hear about Twilight makin’ out with my brother!”
“Oh, I see! I know what I did wrong.”
”I-I’m sorry I got a little crazy taking my doll back,” Twilight sulked. “I’ve just been so stressed out lately…”
Applejack put a hoof under her chin and forced her to look into her eyes. “I know just the kind of relief you need, sugarcube.” Slowly, she brought them together, until their lips…
“What? I fixed the story! See, now you could be with Twilight…”
“I don’t like Twilight that way,” the cowpony said through gritted teeth, her face now bright red.
“Oh, Applejack, denial isn’t healthy. I mean, you got so upset when Twilight was with somepony else, and you came over here to talk about Twilight…”
“I came here to buy some more supplies,” she groaned, gesturing at the cart filled with flour and other supplies. “I told you, Apple Bloom’s cooking didn’t go so well. I was just worried, is all. Twi looked a mess yesterday, and she’s been wantin’ her doll back but didn’t tell me ‘bout it. Why not?”
“Maybe she’s embarrassed about still wanting her doll?” Pinkie suggested.
“I don’t think so. If she was embarrassed ‘bout wantin’ it back, I don’t think she’d ‘a made quite a scene when she left yesterday.”
“Well, maybe you should talk to her. You’ve got to look out for your mare…”
“Pink… you…” Applejack sighed. “Ya know what? I really wish I could live in your world for a day. I really do.”
“I get that a lot,” the pink pony said obliviously.
The orange pony sighed, lifting up the cart. “I’m going ta go see Twi tonight. I’m way behind on the applebuckin’, so it can’t be put off anymore, and Apple Bloom’s not workin’ today, since I kept her busy yesterday.”
“So it’s one of those nose to the grindstone days, huh?”
“’xactly,” Applejack muttered, without her usual enthusiasm. Normally she loved the long days, but not while things to worry about lingered in the back of her mind. “Just keep out of trouble, okay?”
“Yes sir, ma’am sir!” Pinkie saluted.
Applejack rolled her eyes, then pulled the cart away from Sugarcube Corner. As Pinkie waved her friend goodbye, Mrs. Cake walked up to her.
“Applejack seems down. Do you know what’s wrong?”
Pinkie gave a sad sigh. “Unrequited love.”
Several feet away, Applejack had the sudden urge to run back and buck Pinkie, but fought it.
Mrs. Cake opened her mouth, but decided it was better if she didn’t ask. “Derpy just got here with the mail. There’s a letter for you.”
Pinkie perked up, but her foster mother put a hoof up. “I don’t care how little mail you get, we’re not throwing an ‘I Got a Letter’ party.”
Pinkie drooped. “Can I at least have a special cupcake?”
Mrs. Cake ruffled her hair affectionately. “Always.”
Back at the Golden Oaks Library, the real Twilight was at her bathroom sink, splashing water in her face. It had been a second restless night, and she was almost glad all her friends would be busy today. She didn’t have the energy to deal with Rarity’s dramatics, or Rainbow Dash’s theatrics, or Pinkie Pie’s enthusiasm.
She brushed her mane into form. At least, a form that she considered good enough for staying inside all day. She then mentally made a checklist on what she had to research today. Look through some old court cases of foal abuse and intervention for Rainbow Dash, research on offensive spells for whatever next encounter the Bearers had to face. Maybe now she could convince the others to practice combat a little more often.
She was stirred out of her thoughts by her front door opening, its bell reaching her even upstairs. She quickly composed herself and broke into a half-run, getting to the library’s foyer in time to see the Cutie Mark Crusaders enter.
“Oh, girls, what brings you here? Want to look up something for your latest endeavor?”
Scootaloo looked enthusiastic at the suggestion, but Sweetie Belle spoke first. “Actually, we’re here to see Spike.”
Twilight was silent for a moment. She tilted her head in curiosity. “What brought this on?”
“We figured, since we hadn’t seen him in awhile, we could just hang out,” Apple Bloom answered immediately. It sounded rehearsed, or at least planned.
The lavender unicorn was silent for a moment as the three foals squirmed, seeming uncomfortable by her scrutiny. “He’s upstairs,” she said at last.
“Thanks, Twilight,” they said quickly. Before the older mare could process this, the three were already halfway up the stairs, anxious to get away from her curiosity.
Twilight thought about following them up to see if she could overhear anything that could help her. But she decided against it. She had raised Spike to be attentive and alert, and he would undoubtedly have his defenses up. She would leave them alone, let them talk, and hopefully something would come of it.
Upstairs, the three foals stopped running, catching their breaths.
“Man, I thought for sure Twilight was going to figure us out,” Sweetie said with relief.
“She has,” Scootaloo said bluntly. “Your sisters told you she figured out something. I still say we should…”
She was cut off by Apple Bloom’s hoof in her mouth. “Don’t say it, especially where Spike can hear you,” she scolded.
Sweetie ignored her friend’s antics. She walked to the door Spike was hiding behind and gave it a knock.
“Spike, it’s us,” she pleaded.
“…Sweetie?” Spike’s voice said hoarsely.
“Yeah, it’s us, Spike. Let us in.”
“Is Twilight there with you?” he asked cautiously.
The three fillies all gave annoyed looks, but hid it well. “No.”
After a pause, the door unlocked and opened, with Spike motioning them to come in.
Pinkie had bounded up to Sugarcube Corner’s main counter where Mr. Cake had laid the mail, as he did every morning before the shop opened. Then again, she bounded just about everywhere, except on certain occasions. She picked up the letter and examined it.
At that point, something that only happened once in a blue moon occurred. Pinkie Pie froze. She recognized the return address.
Carefully, and very reluctantly, she opened the letter with her teeth, allowing the simple parchment to fall on the counter. She moved it into place, and scanned it quickly.
Her stomach lurched.
“Pinkie?” Mrs. Cake called cheerfully, oblivious to her child’s uneasiness. “Who’s it from?”
In a very quiet, very un-Pinkie whisper, she answered. “My parents.”
Spike looked at the three fillies as if they were up to something, which wasn’t an unfair assumption where the three were concerned. “I guess you’re over here to tell me to talk to Twilight, to quit moping, blah, blah.”
“Well duh,” Scootaloo answered, only to get an annoyed nudge from Apple Bloom.
Sweetie placed a hoof on his shoulder. “Spike, it’s like we told you, this whole thing is ridiculous. You should just…”
“Look, if you just came by to tell me what you told me at the wedding, then just leave. I’m not in the mood.”
The three gave another disappointed look. “Well,” Sweetie said at last, “we wanted to hang out with you today. We figured it would help you feel better.”
Spike kept his arms folded, drumming his fingers on his upper arm. Finally, he sighed. “I guess it’s better than reading up on obscure unicorn history all day.”
His three guests raised eyebrows in fascination. “Why would you even be reading…”
“A gift from Twilight,” Spike said suddenly. “Not that I was grateful for it until now.” He added the last sentence with a bitterness that he made sure the Crusaders heard.
“Yeah, we get it, you’re sad,” Scootaloo rolled her eyes. She had the breath knocked out of her by Apple Bloom with another nudge.
“Come on, let’s play a game. Twilight keeps board games around, doesn’t she? She has to have something good.”
“They’re in the next room. One of you can go and get them.”
There was silence. “Why don’t you go get them?” Apple Bloom asked at last.
“Because that would require leaving this room, and Twilight might corner me.”
Scootaloo’s hoof hit her face. Her fellow Crusaders were more restrained, but they still looked visibly annoyed. “Oh, this is so… fine,” Scootaloo rolled her eyes, marching out of the room. “But we’re playing what I want.”
Pinkie quickly and nervously munched her cupcake. An extra special one, the Cakes had assured. After all, this was no little thing. Her foster parents waited patiently for her to finish her meal, occasionally glancing back at the letter.
“Well,” Mr. Cake said at last. “What are you going to do, Pinkie?”
“I… I don’t know,” Pinkie stammered, sounding like a child begging her mother to make it all better. “What do you guys think?”
They both looked at each other solemnly. They had been expecting this. “Pinkie, this is your decision to make, not ours,” Mrs. Cake began. “But if you must know, they’re just asking for a talk. I think you can manage that.”
“After…” Pinkie began, but the words died in her throat. She placed a hoof on her stomach. “My tummy hurts.”
Mrs. Cake rubbed her back. “Do you need the day off?”
“No, no,” Pinkie said quickly. “I always think best when I’m baking. And I have a doozy to think about.”
They nodded. Seeing Pinkie baking was almost surreal. Pinkie went about her actions with pep and vigor, though she could almost pass for normal.
“If you’re sure…”
She nodded. “I’m sure. I need to think about this.” She ate the last bite of her cupcake, throwing the wrapper in a small garbage pail.
Time passed in the library with silence. Spike and the Crusaders played their games, starting with Battlecloud, which Scootaloo picked from the logic that it was Rainbow Dash’s favorite, to checkers, to a game of Twenty Questions. Spike even talked them into a round of chess, which he showed surprising skill at.
Twilight kept herself busy, first with her studies, then on looking up more information for Rainbow Dash, and all throughout she had to fight the urge to go upstairs and eavesdrop on Spike. At lunchtime she brought them up some hay sandwiches and gemstones, as well as four mugs of apple juice. When Spike refused to open the door she simply left the tray on the floor and left. She came back an hour later to see it empty, so at least they had eaten.
Noon wore into afternoon, then early evening. Looking at the clock on the wall, Apple Bloom sighed. “We better git goin’ Spike, it’s getting’ late.”
“Alright then. Just make sure Twilight doesn’t…”
“Spike, this whole thing is stupid!” Scootaloo finally snapped, stomping a hoof on the floor.
“Scootaloo,” Sweetie tried to chastise, but it came out halfhearted, if even that. She was thinking the same thing, and was grateful her more aggressive friend was speaking.
“Look, I told you, I can’t tell Twilight…”
“You don’t have to tell Twilight, she already knows something is wrong,” the pegasus pointed out. “She’s not going to just forget that something’s bothering you.”
“So, I can just avoid her…”
“No you can’t!” she growled in frustration. “Spike, you both live in the same house, you can’t just keep avoiding her forever!”
“Scoots…” Apple Bloom began, but her friend cut her off.
“No, I’m sick of this! Spike, Twilight can teleport, can’t she? She could get in here at any time! You can’t just hide in here forever!”
Spike’s eyes widened as he realized her point. “I… I…”
“And even if she couldn’t, she’d find some way of talking to you. She’s a genius, remember? You’re an idiot if you think you can just run from her.” With that, she turned around and walked out of the room in a huff.
Spike was visibly shaking.
Sweetie sighed. “Spike… Scootaloo’s right. You can’t hide in here forever. I think you should go talk to Twilight about how you feel. Your gift is at Carousel Boutique when you want it back.” She followed her friend out, casting a last worried look at Spike.
Apple Bloom shuffled awkwardly. “Just… think about it, okay?” she said at last, leaving the room in a fast walk to avoid any more awkwardness.
With her shift over, Pinkie trotted out of Sugarcube Corner. She had thought over her decision and decided to tell at least one of her friends, it was only a question of who.
Twilight and Rainbow Dash were worried about Spike and Scootaloo, respectively. Rarity was busy catching up on her order from Fancypants, and Applejack was grappling with her unrequited love for Twilight.
That left Fluttershy.
Unlike her friends, Fluttershy had enjoyed the last two days with in relative peace. After breakfast the previous day she had stayed around her cottage, feeding her animal friends and catching up on her light reading. Her mind constantly drifted back to the others, wondering if they were alright with their various troubles.
Her silent questions were soon answered by Pinkie walking up to her cottage. Seeing her, the pegasus was about to greet her friend, but paused.
Pinkie was walking, not bouncing, or skipping, or whatever cheerful word for walking you could use. She actually looked worried.
“Um, Pinkie, hello,” she said on instinct. “What can I do for you today?”
“Hey Fluttershy. Can I talk to you about something? It’s really, really important, and you’re the only one who isn’t too busy with something else.”
“Of course. Come inside. Would you like some tea?”
“No thanks, I’m not really thirsty,” the earth pony explained as her friend led her to an outside table. Fluttershy hadn’t let her into her cottage for months, knowing how she would rile up her animals.
“What’s wrong, Pinkie?”
The pink pony shifted the grass underneath her with a hoof. “Fluttershy... you remember that time we told the fillies how we all got out cutie marks?”
“Um, yeah. Why?”
She looked down, as if she were being scolded. “I... I wasn’t telling them everything,” she confessed, as if she had just committed a major breach of her friend’s trust.
Fluttershy tilted her head in curiosity. “Why was that?”
“Well... I didn’t want to talk about it... it wasn’t important to how I got my cutie mark anyway... I hadn’t even told the Cakes about it until the night we got back from the wedding.”
Fluttershy could sense this was important. “Um, what happened? Um, if you don’t mind me asking.”
Pinkie took a deep breath. “Well...”
”Surprise! You like it? It’s called a party!”
Clyde and Sue Pie just gaped at the spectacle, while their two elder daughters shifted nervously, their eyes darting back and forth between the spectacle Pinkie had laid out. For a few, long moments, none of them moved.
Then, there was finally a reaction. Clyde grimaced. He marched over to the table where his youngest had placed a cake. With a quick flick of his nose, he overturned the spread, sending cake and punch crashing to the floor.
“Wh-what?” Pinkie said, hurt. Anything further was interrupted by a yell of pain as Sue clamped her teeth down on her ear. With great force she dragged her daughter out of the silo as her husband continued to destroy the set-up, while Inkie and Blinkie looked on with fear at their younger sister’s fate.
Twilight knocked on the door Spike had barricaded himself behind. “Spike... Come, I have ice cream.”
“I’ll sprinkle some sapphires over it,” she offered.
Still no answer.
She sighed. She pressed against the door. “Spike, I know you can hear me... listen, remember when Owlowiscious moved in? You got all jealous and mopey, and it turned out the reason you were so upset was a misunderstanding? That’s what’s going on now. You haven’t done anything that could make me stop loving you. I doubt anything could.
“Even since the day I hatched you, and you crawled up onto my back, I’ve taken care of you, and I haven’t regretted it once. I love you, and I hate seeing you unhappy. Please... for me, come out and talk.”
No answer yet again.
“Spike!” Twilight croaked. It was somewhere between a sobbing plea and a forceful command. “Please, just...please...”
She gritted her teeth as she held back tears. She took a deep breath, trying to get some composure in her voice. "Do you really want to keep hiding in that room?" she asked.
She didn't get an answer.
She held back an angry grunt. She wanted, so bad, to just teleport inside and confront him. She knew the time for giving him a chance to talk was passing. This needed to end.
One more chance. That's all he would get. Tomorrow morning, she would get the story out of him, whether he was willing or not.
Trotting away from the door, she sighed and walked downstairs, ready to continue her work. She was surprised, then, to see Applejack sitting in her living room, glancing over a book she had left open.
"Oh, I didn't hear you come in," Twilight said, a bit alarmed. "Did Big Mac send you?"
"No he didn't. Mah brother's getting his dues for stealing that doll from yah, don't worry. But I still wanted to talk to you about it."
The unicorn shifted uncomfortably. "What's there to talk about? Your brother took my doll, and I took it back."
"Did you ever just ask him for it back?"
"Yeah, after the Crusaders published that article about him, I found out he had it. I asked him for it back, but he just told me that I threw it out, and it was his now. I've been waiting for a chance to steal it back ever since."
"Uh-huh. And why did you never just ask me to get it back for ya?"
Twilight suddenly looked ashamed of herself. She kicked at the floor like a child being interrogated by her teacher. "Well... I mean, he is your brother. I... I guess I thought you'd take his side on the whole thing."
"What?" Applejack asked incredulously. "How... you know I don't let bein' part of mah family stop me from doin' the right thing. Twi, how could you think that?"
"I'm sorry, I just... I wanted to be careful about getting her back."
Applejack looked at her friend a moment, then she sighed. "I know what the problem is."
Twilight blinked. "What?"
"Why yer so wound up all the time. It took me awhile, but thinkin' 'bout it ever since you ran off with that doll made everythin' come together."
"...Well, what is it?"
"Twi, yer always tryin' to be a good friend. Now that's a good thing, and it's one of the things I like about you. But you do it by tryin' to solve everypony's problems all at once, and by yerself."
"Well, yeah. Isn't that was a good friend does?"
"Not the way you do it. You seem to think you need to be able to do everythin', and act a certain way, or we're not going to like you anymore."
"That's not true!" Twilight snapped.
"Oh really?" Applejack arched an eyebrow. "What about that incident with the tickets? You were all so worried we wouldn't like you if we didn't get to go."
"That was barely a week after we met! I hadn't exactly made a lot of friends by then, how was I supposed to know?"
"Well, what about when Trixie rolled into town? You thought just casting a few spells would get us to hate you. That's one of the most absurd things I ever heard. After we fought and beat NightMare Moon together, how could you think that?"
"It wasn't my proudest moment, alright?" Twilight snapped.
“And whenever th’ Princess comes to visit, you drive everypony crazy because you micromanage ‘em on getting everything ready. She’s not gonna...”
“Please,” Twilight said a bit forcefully, but there was just enough of a pleading tone to get the earth pony to stop. “The Princess and I... we talked the morning after the wedding. I... I told her I forgave her, and... I apologized to her too. I’m the only pony she has, and it hurt her every time I thought she was going to hurt me.”
Applejack smiled, putting a comforting hoof around her shoulder. “It’s the same with us. You always worry about not bein’ a good friend, but ya already are. Listen, your real problem is you’re so obsessed with helpin’ us that you end up hurtin’ yourself.”
“What do you mean?”
The cowpony pointed to the open book lying on the table. “You got a lot a’ books out for Rainbow Dash. Nearly everythin’ on the table is about them fancy laws she asked ya to look up.”
“Well, yeah. I’m doing what a friend asked me to do.”
“Somethin’ she told ya you could take your time on,” Applejack reminded sternly. “And I’m not seein’ any books out here on how young’uns think. Shouldn’t you be lookin’ up a way to deal with Spike?”
Twilight paused for a moment, looking at her friend. Then she sighed. “Look... I know Spike better than a book could ever hope to. When I first got him, I tried reading every child psychology book I could get my hooves on, but Princess Celestia advised against it. She told me that books could give an overall impression, but I should be raising Spike out of love. That’s what I do.”
“Well, can’t argue with ya there. I never look into them fancy things when raisin’ Apple Bloom. But still, what have you done about Spike?”
“I’ve been trying to get through to him,” the unicorn protested. She immediately quieted herself, glancing back to the stairs. Seeing her charge wasn’t listening, she leaned in and whispered, “Tomorrow morning is going to be the last straw. Either he tells me willingly, or I’m going to sit him down and make him tell me.”
“Good answer,” Applejack approved with a nod. “Well, I gotta admit, I was wrong on my first point, but there’s somethin’ else.”
“Oh? And what’s that?”
“You’re not sleepin’ at night. Don’t think I don’t notice. You looked a mess last mornin’, and you look even worse now. How much shut-eye have you gotten since we got back?”
“...Two, maybe three hours,” Twilight admitted with a nod. “But I’m just so worried about Spike...”
“Twi, don’t give me those horseapples. Yeah, yer worried about Spike, but that shouldn’t mean yer losin’ so much sleep.” The earth pony took a deep breath. “Twi... are you havin’ nightmares?”
There was a silence. Then Twilight put on a smile that actually impressed Applejack with how incredibly unconvincing it was. “What makes you say that?”
Applejack just arched an eyebrow. “Well, we all had nightmares after Discord, and when we walked out on you we were pretty much doin’ the same thing to ya again.”
“...No, I forgave you all, remember? It’s not still bothering me.”
“Twi.” It wasn’t shouted, but there was still force in it.
“...Please don’t be mad, Applejack. You were all so upset after the wedding, I didn’t want to make you all upset again.”
“And that’s your problem,” Applejack said finally, hanging her head solemnly. “Look, I ain’t gonna lie. Yes, I hate that you’re still in pain ‘cause I messed up, but I wanna know ‘bout it so I can fix it. You’re so worried about us you’re lettin’ yourself get hurt. You’ve always been a great friend, but you’ve never given’ us much of a chance to return the favor.”
“Sure I have...”
“Twi, please listen. You’re gettin’ more an’ more open, I see it ev’ry day. But you still don’t open up enough. Trixie, Fluttershy bein’ a model, a lot a’ things could have been avoided if you had just been more open with us. We didn’t even know you had a brother until about half a month ago. You’re tryin’ to be perfect for us ‘cause you think that’s how ta be a good friend, but you’re wrong. Part of it is lettin’ us see the real you, so we can help ya get better.”
Twilight kicked at the floor as if she were a filly again, being lightly scolded by her parents. Applejack put a foreleg around her shoulders. “You can be open with us... but I guess we didn’t help our case much when you had that breakdown... or at the weddin’. But I want to make it right. Come on, Twi, you’re always there for us... let me be there for you.”
Twilight broke down, crying. Almost immediately she flung herself at Applejack, her forelegs locking around the cowpony’s neck. Having expected this, the blonde held her back, allowing her friend to weep into her mane.
“There, there... just let it out,” she soothed, patting her head.
“I... I don’t think I’d be having them,” Twilight choked out. “But... the wedding just... it... made me think of... of Discord. I’m not mad at any of you, I swear, I just...”
Applejack squeezed her harder. “I know, sugarcube. It’s just somethin’ ya need to work through. That’s what I’m here for.”
“In... in all of them, I’m in trouble. And you all ignore me. You’re even cheering on for my death in one. I...”
She sobbed again. Applejack nuzzled her. “I’d never hate you, Twi... none of us would.”
“I know...it’s stupid to worry about...”
“No, it’s somethin’ natural to worry about after everythin’ you’ve been through. Needin’ to lean on us is nothin’ to be ashamed of. I’m just... I’m sorry we haven’t always been there...”
“Don’t start that again,” Twilight said, a little strength returning to her voice. “There’s enough drama around here lately.”
Applejack smiled. “Come on, keep talkin’. And when you’re done, let’s set you down, you need to get some rest.”
Pinkie lay on her bed, crying harder than she had ever remembered doing. Her flanks felt like they were on fire, a testament to her mother’s strength with a paddle. But the constant stinging was nothing compared to her father’s cruel words.
“This is what you get a cutie mark for? Dancing around and pursuing frivolous celebrations? I did not raise you to be so petty.”
“I... I was only trying to make you smile...” Pinkie blubbered.
“By wasting time? Bah, you’re a disgrace! No daughter of mine is going to throw her life away! Tomorrow, you’re doing double your chores! I’ll work this nonsense out of you!”
Fluttershy cupped her mouth with her hooves. “Pinkie...” she said slowly.
The earth pony was crying a bit. “I... I know. I didn’t tell the fillies because it wasn’t really important to what they wanted to know.”
Fluttershy was tearing up. “Pinkie... when I was ‘New Fluttershy’... the things I said...”
Pinkie felt a lump in her throat. “Y... yeah. It felt like he was...”
“I’msorryI’msorryI’msorry,” the pegasus wept.
“No, no, please don’t cry, Fluttershy, please. I forgave you for that.”
The yellow pony wiped her eyes. “I...I..."
"Fluttershy, I need you now. Please don't get sad."
"I...okay, Pinkie. Please, what else happened?”
Pinkie walked out of Fluttershy's front door, her head hanging down somewhat. "Thanks for listening," she said again.
"It was no problem," Fluttershy assured. "If you can't tell the others in time, I'll go with you to see your parents."
For once, Pinkie wasn't jumping for joy at the good news. "You think I should tell them anyway? You know, even if everything with Spike and Scootaloo doesn't get better?"
"Well, um, I wouldn't want to trouble them. But, you can tell them, if you think you should..."
In a rare occurrence, Pinkie actually looked annoyed at the non-answer. "Well, maybe everything will be okay by then. Who knows, Twilight's probably gotten through to Spike already.
Twilight looked around. No matter where she looked, there was nothingness. Just a white abyss as far as the eye could see. It was rather disorienting. Fearing for her mental stability, she turned quickly, hoping to see something.
She did, though she did not realize it immediately. It was a door, and it was as white a the abyss, so much so that even looking right at it, Twilight wasn’t completely sure it was there. Carefully, as if something was going to jump out at her, she moved a hoof forward. It hit the door, confirming its solidity. She then moved her hoof to the side and pressed forward. It passed through nothingness.
Carefully, she moved forward, making a circle around the doorframe. She saw the same door on the backside. Completing the three hundred and sixty degree trek, she paused for a moment of contemplating.
Finally, carefully, she used her magic to turn the doorknob and open it.
To her surprise, there was a room inside. Her mind nearly broke trying to process this. She circled the door again and found the other side open to what appeared to be the same room.
Completing another circle, she peeked through the door. It seemed to be a library of some kind. All she could see was two rows of shelves filled from top to bottom with big thick books, going so tall she could hardly see the top.
Tentatively, she stepped inside, and found almost immediately that there were more shelves. Rows and rows of them fanned out to either side of her, going on farther than she could see.
“I’m in Paradise,” Twilight thought. “...I think.”
Carefully, she levitated a book off the shelf and brought it to her face. It displayed a headshot of a pony, a brown stallion, who was smiling at nothing in particular. She cracked open the book to a random page.
”He bit into the toast and chewed, then he went back to reading his newspaper. Then he bit into his toast again...”
Twilight skimmed down and found it all a detailed description of him eating breakfast. She flipped through a few more pages, only seeing small, idle chit chat with friends, long days working on the field, and some rather embarrassing parts of what he and his wife had done. She finally hit the last page, where he died peacefully in his sleep at the age of 74.
She put the book up and pulled out another one. It, too, had a picture of a pony on the cover, a blue pegasus mare. She flipped through the book and found it equally dull, as if the writer had deemed this ordinary pony worthy of documenting everything about her.
She put the book up and looked at the shelves again. What was this place?
She trotted to the end of the aisle. At first, she could hardly see it. But as she got closer, she saw something. At the end of the aisle was a room that appeared round, and she could scarcely make out a figure there.
She moved closer, seeing it was a white pony, barely standing out against the white wall. What did stand out, however, was the movement above her. Several objects circled the air, creating a funnel around the stationary figure. As she moved closer, she saw it had a horn. A unicorn, then. With a red mane, messy and tied in a ponytail.
Then she saw movement at her sides, and froze. Wings... an alicorn.
“You might as well show yourself,” the pony said. “I know you’re there.”
Twilight tensed up, every muscle locking in place. Her eyes darted around. What to do, what to do...
“If I was going to hurt you, I would have done it already.”
Twilight loosened a little. She stepped forward, never taking her eyes off the mare. She was big, as big as Celestia and Luna, though she held none of their royal grace. Quite the reverse, this alicorn looked overworked. Her fur had no sheen, her mane was a tangled mess, and her blue eyes had bags under them, as if she had never slept. Her cutie mark was a simple quill in an ink well. It took her a moment to realize why she would be marked so. The funnel above her was composed entirely of books, each with a different pony’s face on it. At each tome was a quill, writing furiously.
“Who are you?”
“I was hoping you could tell me,” the alicorn said with a yawn. “My name seems to have slipped my mind some few thousand years ago.”
“That’s not what I meant,” Twilight said, slightly annoyed. “What are you?”
“Just call me ‘The Keeper’. I keep stories.”
“I’ve read your stories. No offense, they were boring.”
“They can be,” Keeper sighed, bringing a book to her. Twilight gaped. It was her picture on the cover. “Not everypony has a story as exciting as yours.”
Twilight stuttered to speak. “You’ve recorded... everything about me?”
“Yes I have. Your birth, hatching Spike, NightMare Moon, Discord, the Changeling Queen, the time you wet your bed and hid the sheets because you were embarrassed...”
“I... I did not!” Twilight shrieked, her face reddening.
The Keeper only smirked. "If you say so."
Still reeling from embarrassment, she looked up into the funnel of books. Seeing this, the Keeper pulled six more from their paths and brought them to Twilight’s attention. Applejack, Pinkie Pie, Rarity, Fluttershy, Rainbow Dash, and Spike all decorated their covers.
Twilight looked at them for a moment, then gazed back into the funnel. She saw, in the middle, were three incredibly thick books, displaying Celestia, Luna, and Discord.
“Wait... why are you writing for Discord? He’s trapped in stone!”
“He still thinks, schemes, fantasizes. If I told you half the things he wants to do to you once he’s free, you’d have nightmares. I mean, even worse than you’ve been having.”
Twilight felt a chill go down her back. She looked up at the funnel again and saw another book, this one thick as well. Unlike the others, there were several pictures on this one, and one of them she recognized.
“Yeah...now that story's interesting,” the Keeper chuckled. “Hard to keep track of, too.”
Twilight shook her head. "So... how did I get here? The last I remember, I was in my house with Applejack."
"You still are," the alicorn informed, lighting up her horn. A screen appeared in front of Twilight, showing what appeared to be her in her bed. Her earth pony friend was laying there with her, still holding her in a comforting hug. She was asleep as well.
"So... I'm dreaming?"
"In a way," the Keeper said.
"I'm really just in my bed with Applejack?"
"Your body is."
"So, if I'm dreaming, this isn't real, right?" Twilight said confidently.
"Oh, it's real, I assure you," the Keeper noted, closing the window. "Your body is in the library, but your consciousness is here with me."
"So... it's not a dream?"
"No, it's a dream."
"But you said it was real!"
"Look, is this a dream, or is it real?"
"...Is there some sort of rule that says nothing in my life can be straightforward?"
"All I have to do is sit here and write about ponies doing things. I have to get my fun somewhere," the alicorn winked.
Twilight groaned, rubbing her temple. "Okay, I'll play along for now and assume this is real. Why did you bring me here?"
"I didn't. You came of your own will."
Twilight's head felt like it was going to split in two. "Okaaaay... I have no clue how I got here. Could you please explain?"
"A pony with a destiny such as yours should be able to travel here at any point, but you had certain... roadblocks preventing you from getting here. Your inability to accept anything that isn't backed by magical theory, your unwillingness to let others in, all prevented you from traveling here before now. That changed last night when you let Applejack talk to you. You still have a way to go in conquering your own problems, but it's a start. Of course, that is only half of what it takes. There has to be something you want badly enough to come here and get it."
"Something I want?"
"Indeed. You want something so badly you brought yourself here.”
“And where, exactly, is here?”
“That’s a complicated question,” the alicorn mused.
“Of course it is,” Twilight sighed. She thought for a moment. Her eyes widened slightly. “Am I... in the Source?”
“A good guess,” the Keeper commended. “You might hate me for this, but the answer is both yes and no. The Source is what gives me my power, and what gave me my job. However, you are not in the Source proper. The only way a pony can enter that place is to take the Trials.”
“So, was that it? You were an ordinary pony once who took the Trials?”
“I don’t remember, honestly,” the alicorn sighed. “I’ve been recording the lives of every creature since time began, but I can't remember anything about my own story. For all I know, I’m being punished with this duty.”
“I can imagine,” the unicorn said sympathetically. She kicked the white tile with her hoof, unsure of what to say.
“Don’t cry for me, I don't mind it. Now, you came here because you want something badly. Tell me, what is it?"
Twilight racked her brain. "...I'm not sure. I guess I want ponies to accept Spike, I want my friends to be happy, I want to make Celestia proud of me..."
"Living for others, how noble," the Keeper nodded sagely, though there was a hint of sarcasm in her voice that made the unicorn scowl.
"Yeah, well, unless you can magically change the political climate of Equestria, I don't see how this can help me."
"I cannot. It's forbidden of me to directly interfere with the lives of mortals. I'm a mere record keeper. But you can."
“So, how can I do that?”
“Oh, I think you know,” the Keeper replied cryptically.
Twilight’s hoof hit her forehead. “Of course, I don’t get a straight answer.”
“You have one, it’s been staring you in the face since you were a filly.”
“And what is it?”
“Something very close to you.”
“What is it?”
“An answer in plain sight.”
“What. Is. It.”
“What you’ve been seeking.”
“...You just like annoying ponies, don’t you?”
“Well, yes,” the Keeper noted smugly. “But like I said, I can't directly interfere with the lives of mortals. I can only point you in the right direction.”
Twilight moaned. “And I’m guessing even if I knew the answer, it would still be a long road.”
“That’s right. You still have a lot of growing to do before you’re ready. You’re powerful, but not quite powerful enough. You’re wise for your years, but not as wise as you need to be.”
“So... I came here to find out I need to keep doing what I’ve been doing?”
“For right now, it seems so. You are not yet ready to utilize me.”
“What does that mean?”
“It means the ultimate purpose of this meeting is not yet clear, to either of us. I cannot tell you just how far you will accomplish your goals."
Twilight sighed. "Can you tell me anything at all that can help me right now? Like why Spike keeps avoiding me? Or if anything is wrong with Scootaloo?"
"For Scootaloo, I can only say that Rainbow Dash is on the right track. As for Spike, before you sleep tomorrow night, you will know the answer, and it will be another step toward becoming who you were meant to be."
"Who I was meant to be? What does that..."
"Twilight, I'm going to tell you now, were I to explain what I meant, you would refuse to believe me. At any rate, I am forbidden to. Telling you the full truth would be too great an interference to allow."
Another shiver ran down her spine. She gulped. "You know...back when I was a filly, I would have jumped for joy to hear I was so important...actually, not would have, did... Celestia told me I would do so many great things, and I was so excited. Then we fought NightMare Moon, where I could have been killed. That was an eye opener. Then Discord, where everything didn't go back to normal once the bad guy was defeated. And then, with the Changeling Queen, I learned that not even my friendship with the others was completely safe...or is it? I want to think something like this won't happen again, but...."
"That is the nature of life," the Keeper nodded. "Just like a diamond is made from pressure, great ones are made through trials."
"Great. I enter an unknown realm to get fortune cookie logic," Twilight couldn't help but mutter.
"Well, I'm afraid to tell you this, but there are more problems brewing. You know already the Changeling Queen is still out there, and already the wheels are turning for another crisis."
Twilight's blood ran cold. "Worse than Discord?"
"...No. I assure you, he is the foulest creature out of any I can predict. But there are still problems coming."
"How can I stop them?"
"You can't. It's no fault of yours. Great creatures are no more to blame for the actions of fools than fools are to blame for the actions of great creatures. It's coming either way, Twilight Sparkle, you must be ready to deal with it."
Twilight rubbed her forehead, which was aching. "I miss the days when this was all fun and games."
"A common complaint of adulthood. At any rate, this is not the last time we'll meet, I think. You have a lot to accomplish in the next few years."
Twilight finished rubbing her head, then looked down at her hoof. "Is there anything else you can tell me?"
The Keeper nodded. "Wake up."
Twilight bolted upright in her bed, breathing heavily. She looked around. She was back in her library. What had happened?
"Twi?" Applejack asked, sleepily but concerned. "What's wrong? Didja have another nightmare?"
"No. Well...maybe. It was so real...I'm confused."
The cowpony brought herself upright and put a hoof on her friend's shoulder. "Tell me about it, Twi...I'm..."
She was cut off by a loud banging sound downstairs. The two mares jump, and the sound banged up the stairs until it burst into the bedroom.
"Twilight!" Pinkie exclaimed "I need to know, have you figured out what's wrong with Spike? 'Cause if you have, I..."
She trailed off. Twilight took no notice.. "Pinkie! Oh man, I just had the weirdest dream about..." And then she noticed her friend's stunned expression.
Applejack looked at Twilight, then quickly back to Pinkie, horrified realization crossing her features. "Pinkie, this is not what it looks..."
"I knew it!" Pinkie exclaimed cheerfully. "You two are such a cute couple!"
Both mares blushed furiously.
"Oh, I've gotta go tell the others!" the earth pony squealed, darting back down the stairs.
"No! Applejack cried, leaping out of bed and falling on her face. She was back up in moments, undeterred, as she chased the baker down the stairs, while Twilight buried her head in her hooves.
Twilight was used to such strange things happening to her, but she still preferred them not happening quite this early in the morning. First a dream where some omnipotent being spent more time messing with her head than telling her anything, and now one of her best friends was apparently about to tell the town she was dating another one of her best friends.
She realized the problems that would cause. She quickly leaped out of bed, levitating a mane brush and working the knots out of her hair. She tossed it aside to race to her bedroom door, using her magic to open it.
She nearly tripped over Spike as she raced out.
Catching herself, she stared at her charge, who was wringing his tail. He looked at the floor before looking up at her nervously.
“Spike? What are...”
Then the baby dragon came forward and wrapped his arms around her barrel, hugging her tightly.
Twilight froze solid at the act of affection. Slowly, she put a foreleg around him. She smiled. Tears escaped her eyes.
Finally, he let go and backed up, looking at her like he was expecting punishment.
“Spike...are you ready to tell me what’s been troubling you?”
“...Yes,” he said weakly. “But I heard Pinkie barging through here. I think you should go stop her first.”
“Oh no, I’ve waited days to get this out of you, I’m not waiting any mo...”
“I want to,” he said quickly, before trailing off a bit. “...to, to make us a special meal. Something for lunch that we can talk about this over.”
“Spike, you don’t have to...”
“I want to,” he said quickly. “I...I’m sorry I put you through all this these last few days. I want to make it up to you.”
Twilight was silent for a moment. Then, she came forward and kissed him on the forehead. “Apology accepted,” she said sweetly. Spike smiled a sad smile, wringing his tail again. “...And you’ll tell me everything then?” she asked hesitantly.
“I will tell you everything at lunch.”
Twilight was silent for a moment. On one hoof, she wanted to beg Spike to tell her now, to just finally put an end to all this worry. On the other, this was the first time in days Spike had been acting cooperative, and she didn't want to jeopardize it.
"...Okay," she said at last. "I'm going to go make sure Pinkie doesn't end up gossiping around that me and Applejack are a thing, and I'll come back here. Then we'll talk, okay?"
"Okay," Spike nodded in agreement.
Twilight kissed his forehead again. "I'm glad you decided to come clean. I love you."
Spike smiled sadly again. "I love you too."
"Repeat after me: Applejack don't have no crush on Twilight."
"Applejack don't have no crush on Twilight," Pinkie repeated, perfectly imitating her friend's accent.
The cowpony rolled her eyes, but kept Pinkie pinned to the ground behind Carousel Boutique. "There is nothin' romantic goin' on between Applejack and Twilight."
"There is nothin' romantic goin' on between Applejack and Twilight."
"Pinkie is seein' things that aren't there."
"Pinkie is seein' things that aren't there."
Nodding, Applejack finally got off of her. "Good, glad that's settled."
"Good, glad that's..."
Applejack pinned Pinkie again. "If you repeat me one more time, I'm gonna buck you."
"Sorry," Pinkie meaped.
Twilight arrived on the scene just in time to see her earth pony friend get off of her other earth pony friend. "Applejack! Good, Pinkie didn't..."
"Relax, Twi, Pinkie here understands everythin’ now. Right, Pinkie?"
"Yes," the pink pony sighed.
"That's good," Twilight nodded. She turned to Pinkie. "And you should really knock before you come into my house. I mean, really, it's that kind of attitude that got you in trouble with Cranky and..."
Pinkie was spared the lecture by Carousel Boutique's back door swinging open to reveal its proprietor standing there, looking at them quizzically.
"Well, I thought I heard something out here. Is something wrong?"
"Not anymore, Rare," Applejack explained. "Pinkie was just givin' us a bit of a headache."
"I see. Well, Fluttershy, Rainbow Dash, and I are having some mid-morning tea. Why don't you join us?"
"Ooh! That sounds great!" Pinkie said.
"Thank you, that sounds nice," Twilight agreed.
"Sure, why not?" Applejack sighed.
Twilight had been surprised when she had first learned that Rainbow Dash had been friends with Fluttershy and Rarity even before the incident with NightMare Moon. The cyan mare had known her fellow pegasus since flight school, and once the yellow pegasus had made friends with Rarity it meant that Rainbow Dash spent time with her for the sake of their mutual friend.
Part of that was a weekly tea party of sorts for the three to talk. They still carried it out, despite the fact that the three of them were spending more time with the rest of their group. It seemed the rest ended up interrupting this meeting in their efforts to keep Pinkie quiet, and as such ended up getting invitations.
"By the way, I think I'll pass on that Daring Do fanzine from now on," Rainbow Dash commented.
"You didn't like it?"
"Well, those fanstories were lame. I mean, one of them is just every character whining that they didn't believe Daring that Derring's boyfriend was Ahuizotl in disguise. I mean, seriously, who would think that was entertaining?"
"To each her own, I guess," Twilight muttered, taking a sip of tea. As she did, the bell at Carousel Boutique's front door sounded, signaling another customer.
Rarity uncharacteristically rolled her eyes. "They never pay attention to the 'Closed' sign. Excuse me a mom..."
At that point Scootaloo and Apple Bloom entered the kitchen. "Hey, Rarity. Is Sweetie up yet?"
"Oh, it's you two. Yes, Sweetie is in her room. You know where it is. Would you like some tea or toast?"
"No, thank you," the two fillies declined politely.
"Applejack?" Apple Bloom asked when she saw her big sister. "Where were you last night? You didn't come home."
"Oh. Uh... I was helpin' Twi with somethin', and she let me stay at her place," the farmer answered, hoping Pinkie wouldn't speak up with anything that could renew the previous problem.
"Oh, okay. Big Mac says nothin' needs ta be done today," the youngest Apple explained as she and Scootaloo began heading toward the upstairs.
"Well, onto more important things," Rarity said, turning back to her friends. "Twilight, have you gotten Spike to come out of his shell, so to speak?"
Hearing this, the lavender pony smiled. "Actually, yes. Spike told me this morning that he he was willing to tell me."
All of the ponies gaped at this. Pinkie spat out her tea, much to Rarity's displeasure. What the adults didn't notice was that Scootaloo and Apple Bloom had stopped on the stairs as well, their ears perking up.
"What? Then what are you doing here?" Rainbow Dash demanded.
Applejack turned to Pinkie angrily. "It's because we had 'ta chase this one down 'fore she went an' told the town... somethin' that wasn't true."
"Will you all relax?" Twilight assured. "Spike was making a big deal about making us a special meal to talk about it over. I guess he feels he needs to make it up to me. So I let him wait a little longer."
"He's finally telling you?"
The adults stopped. They turned to the two fillies at the staircase, for it had been Scootaloo that had spoken.
"Squirt," Rainbow Dash said through her surprise. "Do you know something about this?"
Twilight stood up. "You three came by the library yesterday to talk to him... did he tell you anything?"
"No," Apple Bloom said quickly.
"Yes," Said Scootaloo, just as quickly.
"Apple Bloom? Scootaloo?" Sweetie called from upstairs..
"Sweetie, bring down Spike's gift," Scootaloo shouted.
"Just do it, trust me."
There was a pregnant silence for a few seconds, then movement from upstair, obviously the unicorn filly obeying.
"You three have known something about this!" Twilight said angrily. "Why didn't you say anything to me before?"
"We promised not to!" Apple Bloom protested. “And an Apple always keeps her promise! You told me so yerself, AJ!”
Applejack sighed, rubbing her forehead with her hoof. She rose up, walking over to her youngest sibling. “Apple Bloom, listen to me. There’s a big difference between keepin’ a promise when it’s between you and yer friend, and keepin’ a promise when it hurts somepony. Now I know you meant well, but Twilight and Spike have been hurtin’ bad because of all this. Did you know that?”
“...Yeah,” Apple Bloom admitted silently. “But...”
Whatever the red-maned pony was going to say, it was interrupted by Sweetie coming back down the stairs, carrying a box in her teeth. The unicorn filly sat the gift down on the floor and looked at Twilight nervously. “This is from Spike... he wanted to give it to you... until the wedding.”
Twilight took the box with her magic.Slowly, almost as if she was expecting something to jump out at her, she opened the package. She lifted the frame out and examined it. She recognized the picture, that of a newly hatched Spike and a filly Twilight. She had it on her bedside table, she had seen it a million times.
“If you touch the circle on the bottom, it’ll change the picture,” Sweetie Belle explained nervously.
Twilight looked up at the young unicorn for a moment before following the instruction. She gave a small gasp. She looked at it for a moment before looking back at the Cutie Mark Crusaders. “What is this?”
Apple Bloom and Sweetie Belle looked to each other for help, but Scootaloo stepped forward immediately. “It’s supposed to be a Mother’s Day present. Spike wants you to be his mother.”
Twilight’s breath inhaled sharply. Her eyes widened. The other ponies mirrored her expression.
“...That’s it?” Rainbow Dash asked, sounding annoyed. “That’s why Spike’s been acting all mopey? He wants Twilight to be what she’s already been?”
“That’s pretty much what I said,” Scootaloo chimed in.
The cyan pony grinned, flying over to her number one fan. “Heh heh, I knew you had the most brains out of your friends. After all, you picked me as a role model,” she chuckled, rubbing her mane.
“Hey! Don’t laugh at Apple family tradition!” Apple Bloom yelled.
“She ain’t,” Applejack said bluntly, looking at her sister. “We don’t keep promises when they hurt somepony.”
“I’m afraid Rainbow Dash is right,” Rarity said to her sister. “You three could have prevented a lot of trouble if you had told us about this.”
“We were going to,” Sweetie protested. “We just wanted to give Spike a chance to do it himself.”
“That was... noble of you, Sweetie,” Rarity said, picking her words carefully. “But Spike wasn’t thinking clearly. You really should have come to us and...”
“Is that what this is all about?”
The words were barely above a whisper, but they caught the attention of every pony in the room. They turned to Twilight. Her expression hadn’t changed. She hadn’t taken her eyes off the picture.
“That’s what’s been bothering him?”
“...Yeah,” Sweetie said sadly. “He thinks... he thinks you wouldn’t love him as a son anymore.”
A short, breathless laugh.
“...I have to go.”
Before her friends could say anything, she was out the door, the frame floating behind her.
There was a silence for a few moments.
“Well, I hope the three of ya learned something from all this,” Applejack scolded.
“Yeah,” Apple Bloom said sadly.
“Yes,” Sweetie Belle agreed.
“Nope! I was right all along!” Scootaloo cheered.
Laughing, Rainbow Dash put a foreleg around her number one fan, pulling her close. “You’re one awesome filly, you know that, squirt?”
Scootaloo threw her forelegs around her and buried her head into her. She didn’t want her hero to see her happy tears.
Twilight ran home. Well, ran wouldn’t quite be the word. She went fast, faster than she ever remembered herself going, but it was like a skip. She was happy, excited. Her heart tightened at the mere thought.
Mother... he wants me to be a mother... no, he wants me to acknowledge that I already am a mother.
Memories flooded her. Those of an infant Spike crying and thrashing until he broke out of his crib and crawled into Twilight’s bed, nestling into her. He followed dragon instinct and refused to be apart from his mother, no matter how much she tried to convince him otherwise. At age three, he finally agreed to sleep alone like a big boy, but never in a different room than her.
She remembered the pride she felt when she saw him leave for his first day of school, so happy and excited, but scared at how the others were going to treat him. She remember the heartbreak as she let him cry in her forelegs from being bullied out of what he had been looking forward to. The heartbreak resurfaced every time she saw him studying late hours to do better than those that had shunned him, and pride whenever he brought home a perfect score.
She remembered feeling helpless at seeing him transform after his birthday and not knowing what to do. She remembered cold reality crashing in when she realized a pony doctor couldn’t help him. It was a reminder that Spike was different from her, a fact she often forgot.
She remembered feeling for him when he begged to know about who he was and wishing she could help him. She remembered how terrified she had been when he wanted to go on the Migration, of the worries of what could happen to him. She remembered the feeling of rejection when he announced he was staying among dragons forever. She remembered how pride surged through her when he refused to smash Peewee’s egg, standing up to three very big dragons for the sake of an innocent.
She remembered reading him bedtime stories, and challenging him to tickle fights, and fighting with him, then kissing his forehead and assuring him he was a good boy.
She remembered being a mother for years and never even realizing it.
Her heart beat with joy as she neared the library. She could hardly contain her glee. Spike was in there. Her son was in there!
She opened the door, running in. “Spike? Spike?”
She ran into the kitchen. There was nothing cooking.
Calm down, Twilight. He just realized he didn’t have an ingredient he needed and went to the market.
She dashed over to the mantle where all her pictures were kept. She placed the frame right in the center, positioning it carefully. She giggled with excitement. When Spike got back, she’d lead him into the room. He’d see the picture, then while he was surprised she’d tell him how much she loved him. It was going to be so perfect!
She giggled, clapping her hooves with excitement...and then she thought back.
"I'll tell you everything at breakfast."
She smiled at the promise...
Wait...he said lunch...where did breakfast come from?
Then she thought even farther back.
"I said I'd tell you everythin' at breakfast!”
She froze. No, no...he didn't...He wouldn't...
She ran up the stairs and into the room Spike had been sleeping in. She pushed the door open. There was Spike’s basket.
She stopped dead. The blanket and pillow were gone, and there was only a scroll in their place.
No...Spike, please tell me you didn't...
She looked up on the windowsill were Peewee’s nest should be. It was gone too.
Terror gripped her. She walked up to the bed. She unrolled the scroll and read... and her blood ran cold. Her fears were realized.
I told you I’d tell you everything at lunch. But I’m not coming to lunch. I can’t tell you why I’m upset, but you won’t let up. So I have to leave.
I’m sorry I put you through all this. You’re mad at me now, but it’ll be better this way.
Thanks for everything, Spike.
Pinkie nervously tapped her hoof against the tablecloth as she watched her friends discuss what Twilight had ran off about. Rainbow Dash was gagging about the overt sappiness of it, though it was clear that she had thought it was sweet, Rarity was giggling excitedly to Fluttershy about how they could be aunts now, while Applejack seemed congratulatory in a general sense.
They didn’t notice Pinkie’s uncharacteristic silence. Now was the time. Twilight’s problems with Spike were done. She could talk to them about it now, and fill in Twilight later.
The others quieted and looked at her, a bit off guard by the fact that Pinkie was showing a subtle emotion.
“Pinkie... is something wrong?”
The pink earth pony pawed the tablecloth with her hoof. “Well...”
A loud bang cut her off. Seconds later, a hysterical Twilight Sparkle burst into the room.
“You have to help me find Spike!”
Tears were in her eyes. She was breathing heavily.
“Twi...” Applejack said, stunned. “I thought you said he was going to tell you everything...”
“Remember when you promised to tell us everything ‘at breakfast’?”
Confusion. Then, realization crossed all their features.
“Oh... that idiot,” Rainbow Dash muttered, burying her face in her hooves.
Twilight was all business almost immediately. “Fluttershy, get all your animal friends together, see if they saw anything. Rainbow Dash, I need you to fly up and survey the area. Everypony else, split up and check the roads leading out of Ponyville. See if anypony saw him leaving. I’ll signal you if I see anything.”
Fluttershy only nodded, flying out at an extreme speed.
“On it,” the cyan mare saluted, flying out of the room.
Rarity, Applejack, and Pinkie nodded, jumping into action with surprising precision. Twilight led them out of Carousel Boutique, telling them what specific routes each of them should take. She did it on autopilot, her mind was elsewhere.
Spike’s crying and thrashing filled the room as Twilight pulled her pillow over her head. “Spike, please, be a big boy and go to sleep. You need to learn to sleep...”
The cracking of wood was heard. Twilight’s eyes widened, then she sighed.
“5, 4, 3, 2, 1...”
She felt her bed jostle and move. Moments later, something warm and scaley curled up next to her.
“...Still can’t sleep apart from me, huh?” the filly said.
“Mah,” Spike cooed in reply, nuzzling into her.
“Okay, but this is the last night, okay? Tomorrow you sleep in a crib.”
“Mah,” which Twilight understood to mean, “No.”
Sighing, the purple unicorn draped a foreleg around him. Spike let out a small yawn, finally ready to sleep.
Smiling, Twilight couldn’t help but nuzzle back.
Spike sighed, walking along the train tracks leading out of Ponyville. His blanket was currently acting as a bindle, carrying a pillow, some food, and a book on wilderness survival that Twilight wouldn’t be getting back. Peewee sat on his shoulder, chirping happily.
“It’s just going to be you and me for awhile, kiddo,” he said to the phoenix, who nibbled his ear affectionately.
It made him smile, but only for a second. He’d never see Twilight again. She’d be sad at first, but she’d be happier without him. She wouldn’t have to worry about taking care of him. She’d place a request for a better assistant, one she’d only have to pay a salary for out of her stipend, and not room and board, and toys and books and whatever else. She’d have the free time back he had been robbing from her. He wouldn’t be around to let her down.
He sighed, kicking a stone.
”And with that, Scorpan suddenly transformed back into the rightful king of Dream Valley. Peace was restored, and everypony lived happily ever after.”
“Wow,” Spike said in awe, laying in the lavender pony’s forelegs. “Is that story true?”
“Of course not, Spike,” Twilight said dismissively, floating the book over to the nightstand. “All this talk of humans is pure fantasy. But I told you this story for a very specific reason.”
Twilight held the little dragon closer. “Well, when you hatched, I named you Spike because I loved this fairy tale. Celestia didn’t object, and I know why. The Spike in this story was a dragon, but he was still a kind, sweet dragon who stood by his king and helped defeat Tirac. Everypony was telling him to be bad, but he was a good soul, just like you.
“I’ve been keeping the truth a secret from you before today. If I made a mistake, I’m sorry. I promise I’ll never lie to you again. But now that you know the truth, I read you this to let you know, that no matter what anypony tells you, you’re not a monster. You’re a sweet little boy who’s going to grow up to do great things just like the first Spike.”
“You think so?”
“I know so.”
Spike was silent for a moment. “Do you think I could still be a knight?”
“Yes,” she said unhesitantly. “It’ll be hard, but I know you can do it. Never let anypony tell you you can’t do something... not even me. Promise?”
“Okay, good. Now, you’ve been mopey all day,” she grinned. “You know what happens to mopey dragons?”
Spike’s eyes widened. “No, no...”
He couldn’t escape. Twilight pushed him on the bed and dug her hooves into his side. “Tickle manticore! Roar!”
Spike laughed and squirmed.
Twilight had sprinted across town, asking nearly every pony she saw if they had seen Spike. Unfortunately, Spike had left before many ponies were out of their houses, and couldn’t help her.
”Of course he’d be smart enough to leave at that time... I just had to raise him to be smart, didn’t I?”
“Twilight!” Rarity called, running over to her, for once not caring about looking dignified.
“Do you have a lead?” she asked desperately.
“Yes! Doctor Whooves says he saw Spike walking down the train tracks holding a bindle stick. He was heading toward Ghastly Gorge!”
The lavender unicorn nearly exploded with joy. “Good!” She lit up her horn. Seconds later, fireworks decorated the sky above her. “That will signal Rainbow Dash and the others. Let’s hurry!”
”Spike, pick up your junk!” Twilight said, exasperated.
“It’s not junk!” the dragon said in protest.
“Please, these comic books are so lowbrow. I really wish you’d read more sophisticated stuff.”
“It’s not lowbrow! How would you even know? You’ve never read one.”
“I don’t need to read one. I know they’re all juvenile.”
Spike opened his mouth to protest, but a thought entered his head. He grinned evilly. “Hold on, didn’t you tell me once I wouldn’t know I liked anything until I tried it.”
Twilight froze. “Um... yes.”
“Does... this mean you were wrong?” Spike asked with fake surprise. “Maybe I don’t have to try anything I don’t want to do...”
The purple unicorn was silent for a moment. “Well, I’m torn. I’m both mad at you and strangely proud of how cunning you are, all at the same time.” She sighed. “Okay, look, I’ll try one comic, and that’ll prove I don’t like it.”
Spike grinned. “Fine by me.”
Several hours later, Spike spoke to her again. “Uh... Twilight? Have you been up all night?”
“Not now, Spike! Bat-Mare just escaped from The Kidder’s latest deathtrap.”
Spike lay in his basket, feeling like he was going to melt. He was so hot. Yet he was shivering too. His head hurt, he felt dizzy.
Twilight set a washcloth on his forehead. “This will help cool you off,” she whispered gently.
“I wanna die,” he moaned.
“Don’t say that,” she scolded, levitating a glass of orange juice up to his lips. “Here, drink up.”
Spike drank without complaint. When he was finished, he moaned weakly. “Was that medicine?”
“No, Spike. I’m sorry, but there’s no medicine for dragons. They’re so... special that ponies don’t know how it will affect them.”
“But... does that mean... I’m going to...”
“No, no,” Twilight assured. “You’ll be fine.”
“But... I feel so bad!”
“Shhh,” Twilight soothed, kissing his forehead. “You’ll get better. You’re strong, I know you.” She wrapped the covers around him. “You are my sunshine, my only sunshine...”
Spike was crying at this point. Peewee nipped his master’s ear, trying to cheer him up. But to no avail. He had lost the one pony who had always been there for him.
He looked around. He was near Ghastly Gorge, he saw the small forest that surrounded it. From there he could turn off, maybe head for the Badlands...
Three loud thumps interrupted his thought, and a shadow loomed over him. He looked up... and his heart stopped.
“Well, well, well...” Garble mocked. “What have we here?”
Spike’s irises shrunk to the size of pencil points. He turned to run, but Garble was too fast, grabbing him by the tail. In one motion he picked him up and slammed him against the ground. Mumble and Thrash laughed like he had just done something incredible. Peewee gave a frightened squawk, landing at Spike’s side.
“Aw, the egg hatched... but we can still smash it,” the crimson dragon laughed, reaching for the chick.
In a flash Spike grabbed his charge and pulled him into his arms, using his body to shield him. “Leave him alone,” he said, trying to sound intimidating, but as sore as he was it wasn’t impressive.
Indeed, he wasn’t. Garble slammed down a foot on his head. “Alright, see, you didn’t get it the first time. I always get what I want, and I want that bird. And I’m going to get it if I have to break every bone in your body.”
”I don’t think they’re coming back,” Rainbow Dash said.
“And we simply can’t stay here,” Rarity added. “Those awful dragons are still running around.”
“But...” Spike said sadly, looking at the egg. “He’ll be...”
Twilight sighed, draping a foreleg around him. “Spike... it’s not your fault. They would have come to this nest either way. If anything, you saved it.”
The baby dragon rubbed the egg a bit. “Do you think it will hatch without its mother?”
“It should,” Twilight said. “We can give it to Princess Celestia. She knows how...”
“No,” Spike said simply. “...I want to take care of it.”
There was silence for a moment. “Spike,” Rarity said at last. “Taking care of a pet, much less a phoenix, is a big responsibility...”
“I know,” Spike said simply. “But Twilight told me I needed to take responsibility... and I was in this situation once. I can’t just let it be raised by anyone.”
Twilight felt a tightness in her chest. Pride...
“That’s very good of you, Spike,” the lavender unicorn praised, levitating him on his back. “I’ll write to Princess Celestia and get you some advice...”
The sextet of ponies traveled down the tracks, moving at top speeds. Fluttershy and Rainbow Dash traveled just above, keeping an eye out. Every hoofstep made Twilight look harder, hoping to see Spike on the horizon.
She smiled. “I think I see something!” There were figures moving. Was Spike with them...?
“Yeah, I...” Rainbow Dash started, but she stopped dead. She screeched to a halt, gasping. Fluttershy wasn’t too far behind, looking absolutely terrified.
The grounded ponies skid to a halt, noticing the stop. “What is it? Do you see Spike?” Twilight said hopefully.
“Uh-huh,” Rainbow Dash confirmed grimly, “...but that’s not all!”
Now scared, Twilight charged forward again, but stopped when she saw what had made her friends so frightened.
Mumble gave Spike a kick to his front, sending him tumbling like a ball over to Thrash, who kicked him back. When he rolled to a stop Spike tried to run, only for Garble to bring his foot down on him. All the while, Spike remained curled, shielding a panicking Peewee the best he could.
“It’s those three brutes!” Rarity cried.
“Y’all know them?” Applejack asked, incredulous.
“Spike met them on the Dragon Migration,” Rainbow Dash explained.
Pinkie gasped. “What’ll we...”
“Fluttershy,” Twilight said coldly, getting all of their attentions. “As soon as you have an opening, grab Spike and fly back to Ponyville. If you’re followed, lose them first.”
That was her only instruction. She began walking toward them. As she did, she looked toward the forest lining the Gorge, lighting up her horn.
Garble lifted up his victim, now covered in bruises and cuts. “Well? You ready to give me the bird?”
Spike responded by lashing out and scratching the older dragon on the nose. He snarled and flinched, more out of surprise than pain. Then he glared and pulled back a fist.
It collided with Spike’s head, sending him to the ground. He rolled along before coming to a stop.
As soon as he had his bearing, he pulled Peewee back into him, just as Garble reached him.
“I have to admit, you are one tough little dragon. But you’re still just a pony punk, and I’m going to break you.” He reached for him...
Every dragon’s ears perked up. The three teenagers looked up. In an instant their eyes went wide.
By the time Garble came to that conclusion, it had hit him. His inability to respond had been understandable, as anybody would have at least been a bit confused at seeing an uprooted tree flying sideways at them.
The trunk struck Garble and kept going, hitting Mumble and Thrash as well. The three went flying back, landing on their rumps ten feet away. They recovered from being struck, but not from the sight before them.
There were ponies before them, but most were equally stunned at what their friend had just done.
Twilight stood there with an icy glare. Her horn was lit up, levitating the tree she had uprooted above herself. She spoke five words.
“Get. Away. From. My. Son!”
Garble, Mumble, and Thrash had never seen a pony looking quite so angry. Ponies ran from them, they didn't stand their ground and fight, so it was a bit disorienting.
Spike, still sore and weak, looked at the unicorn slowly, trying to see her through his blurred vision. "...Twilight?"
Garble, regaining his bravado, stood back up. "Aww, how cute. What are you, his mommy?" he mocked.
"You better believe I'm his mother," she said bluntly. Spike's eyes went wide, his heart tightened. Was he just delirious? Was she really saying...
"And if you take one more step toward him, I'm going to..."
“What?" Garble said mockingly. He took a step forward, extra mockingly stomping it down. "There, I took a step. What are you going to do about it?"
"...What are you waiting for? Grab him!"
Suddenly remembering her job, Fluttershy made a dive for Spike. Seeing this, Garble lunged forward. This was exactly what Twilight was counting on, it left him wide open for another strike from the tree, sending him back. His friends, caught him keeping him upright.
Fluttershy reached the injured child, collecting him up gently in her forelegs. The dragon moaned, keeping Peewee in a protective hug. The bird was visibly shaking, nuzzling into his master. "It's going to be okay," Fluttershy soothed, lifting Spike up. With great speed, she started back to Ponyville.
"Get her!" Garble yelled, starting forward again. Twilight swung the tree again, but the crimson dragon let loose a blast of fire that lit the tree ablaze. Then, with one swipe of his claws, he split the tree apart, turning it into several burning splinters.
Now free of their obstacle, Mumble and Thrash flew up and after Fluttershy. Twilight tried to block them, but was interrupted by Garble flying forward and swinging his fist down on her. She put up a shield quickly, causing his punch to bounce off. He continued his barrage, banging on her shield relentlessly. Under other circumstances she might have flinched, but now she was a mother protecting her child.
Mumble and Thrash flew over the ponies, chasing after the pegasus that had taken their target. Seeing this, Applejack, Pinkie, and Rainbow Dash chased after them, shouting protests.
Garble kept pounding away, but was stopped by Rarity, who leapt over Twilight's shield and bucked him in the face. The crimson dragon was caught off guard, both by the attack itself and just how painful it was. Rarity was much tougher than she looked. He staggered back, allowing Twilight to strike him in the ribs with a full blast of her magic.
It would have killed a pony, or at least broken its bones. It knocked Garble back, not doing any noticeable damage but clearly hurting him.
"If you know what's good for you, you'll stay down," Twilight said coldly.
The threat didn't take. Garble rolled to the side and stood up, having just enough time to fly away from the following blast. Twilight kept firing, every blast dodged, while Rarity stood at her side, wishing she knew more combat magic.
Fluttershy could be quite fast when she needed to, even fast enough to keep up with Rainbow Dash. But this depended on it being in certain situations: her friends being in trouble, an animal being in trouble, or her being in trouble. Right now, all three were happening. She doubled her speed when she realized she was being followed, much to the amusement of the two dragons.
"Aw, come on, we just want to play!" Mumble jeered, speeding up as well.
"Heh, heh, yeah," Thrash needlessly added. "Just slow down and..."
At that point, Rainbow Dash rammed into his side. Thrash let out a yell, more surprised than hurt. He turned and swung at her, but like a particularly bothersome fly she flew around him. Thrash turned his head, trying to follow her, and was rewarded by a mocking bop on the nose. Enraged, he swung again, only for the cyan mare to fly around him, wrapping her hind legs around his head and rapping his head with her forehooves as if she was playing a set of drums.
Enraged, Thrash began living up to his name, which Rainbow Dash took as a sign to get off of him. As he turned to face her, she blew a raspberry, then turned and darted off. In a rage, the brown dragon forgot his original target and chased after her.
Applejack and Pinkie, who were right behind them, saw the scene. Applejack began to change directions, but the cyan pegasus motioned for her not to. Thrash, being too focused on catching her, didn't notice.
The cowpony quickly understood why. Rainbow Dash and the dragon were both flying so fast that neither earth pony would be able to keep up. Hopefully the brash pegasus had some plan of action other than a direct conflict.
Instead, Applejack turned back to Mumble and redoubled her speed. She found herself gaining slowly, but surely on the dragon. Finally, when he was close enough, she gave a mighty leap and landed straight on the dragon's back.
This sent him crashing to the ground. Unfortunately, by this time Mumble had reached Fluttershy and had managed to get a grip on one of her hind legs, sending her to the ground as well. She gave off a whimper as she landed, and Spike left her arms, rolling along the ground a bit before stopping.
As Mumble tried to buck Applejack off, Fluttershy called "Spike! Run!"
Spike didn't listen, at least not immediately. He checked on Peewee first, who was still shaking but otherwise seemed uninjured. Spike turned and began running.
Mumble rolled over, causing Applejack to fall off. He rolled back on his stomach and turned to his side, striking the cowpony with a mighty blow, sending her to the ground. With a satisfied smile, he began rising...
"Hey, Mr. Meanie Pants!"
...and found himself looking down the barrel of a cannon.
"It's party time!" Pinkie fired.
Mumble was hit with a fifteen pound ball of confetti and glitter. He was on his back moaning in pain, looking more like an overdone craft project than an injured dragon.
"Ooh... where did you get that from?" he demanded.
"I made it myself! I took several months of fine tuning, and building, and the Cakes saying 'Pinkie, stop that racket, it's two in the morning!', but all my hard work paid off! I used it at Twilight's birthday, and it decorated the whole ballroom in seconds, and they were all impressed, and we had cake, and..."
As it turned out, dragons had a quick recovery time. Mumble was back on his feet in moments. He grabbed Pinkie by the tail and swung her around like he was competing in a hammer throw. After a few rotations he let go, sending the pink earth pony flying.
For a moment, Mumble looked at the horizon, smiling at his accomplishment. He turned around.
"That wasn't very nice. I mean, that could have really hurt! Not as much as it did for Mrs. Cake when the twins were born! I mean, ouch, seven hours in labor was hard, and she kept saying these funny words to Mr. Cake that I'm not allowed to repeat, and when she somehow got a hold of that scalpel... fortunately, Mr. Cake's scars have healed, and Nurse Redheart sees almost perfectly out of that eye now..."
Throughout the entire tirade, Mumble had been looking from Pinkie to where he had thrown her seconds earlier, complete disbelief on his features. "Wha... how... look, how'd you do that anyway?"
"...Now let's not get nosy," the earth pony scolded.
Mumble was bucked by Applejack seconds later. It was preferable to the headache he was currently getting.
Rainbow Dash blew out her cheeks and stuck out her tongue, agitating Thrash. Even flying backwards, she was more than fast enough to outfly the dragon.
By now the two had flown over Ghastly Gorge, and the cyan mare led her opponent into the canyon, continuing the merry chase.
Thrash flew forward at full speeds, only to get a nasty surprise when Rainbow Dash did a full ninety-degree turn upward, causing him to go flying forward after nothing. After managing to stop, he turned and saw her lowering back to his level. She wiggled her rump in his directions, slapping her flanks in a mocking manner.
Thrash roared in frustration, lunging after her. She flew up again, once again causing him to chase after nothing.
"Too slow!" she laughed.
This time, the brown dragon flew after her at top speed. It didn't matter, Rainbow Dash flew faster. She led him on a merry chase, hundreds of feet, before Rainbow Dash suddenly made another ninety-degree turn.
Once again, Thrash kept going, right into the side of the Gorge.
Rainbow Dash put her forelegs over her stomach and laughed uproariously, but she was cut off by a boulder falling, just barely missing her. She looked up to the rim of the Gorge, and immediately became terrified. She flew out of the way just in time to avoid the avalanche of rocks.
Thrash, however, wasn't as lucky. The boulders struck him, sending the already dazed dragon falling to the ground, pinned underneath a mountain of debris.
For a moment, the cyan mare held her breath, torn with how to feel. Half of her hoped the avalanche had done the dragon in, half hoped he would be okay.
When the dust cleared, Thrash was among the rocks, pinned underneath the stone. Carefully, Rainbow Dash moved in. He was still breathing, she could tell. She saw his chest move up and down.
She briefly pondered helping him, but decided against it. Spike was more worthy of her time, and if Thrash died as a result of his injuries, it was on him. Without another thought, she turned a flew back to her friends.
Applejack moved in to try and stomp down on Mumble, and immediately regretted it when his tail whipped out and hit her. The purple dragon rose to his feet in time to be greeted with a view of the party cannon. This time, however, he was quick enough to dodge, and the projectile flew off until it decorated a tree for its five hundredth birthday. He quickly moved past the cannon and to Pinkie, giving her a swipe with his claws.
Forgotten in all the chaos was Fluttershy, who silently crept to the bushes that Spike had run to and began rifling through them, hoping to find the child in her care.
After a few minutes of combing the foliage, she found him, gently stroking Peewee in an effort to calm him down. He looked up and saw her.
"Flutter-" he began, but the pegasus shushed him so Mumble wouldn't overhear. She picked him up gently and gave him a reassuring nuzzle. She turned to continue flying to Ponyville.
She found Mumble blocking her path, grinning.
"Well, well," he laughed. And then he punched Fluttershy.
She fell to the ground with a painful cry, tears in her eyes. Spike tried to scramble out of reach, but the older dragon grabbed him by the back of the neck. Raising him up, he slammed him roughly into the ground.
Spike's body went limp. Peewee warbled in panic.
"Aww, you broke too easy," Mumble whined. "That's no..."
"How dare you!"
Mumble jumped at the sudden forceful words. Fluttershy had gotten up, apparently not in pain anymore, and was staring at the purple dragon with a look that sucked all the bravado.
"Just who do you think you are? You think just because you're big and strong, that gives you the right to hurt innocent ponies and dragons?"
Fluttershy grabbed his ear in her teeth and pulled him along, the teenage dragon moaning from the pain the whole way. They came to a large rock, and the pegasus let go.
"Now sit on this rock! You're in a time-out!"
"But..." he began, but a reaffirmed stare got him to obey.
"Now you sit here until the sun goes down, young drake, and think about what you did! Then fly home and don't harass Spike or Twilight again! You hear me?"
"Y-yes, ma'am!" Mumble said in tears, looking very much like a scolded filly.
Fluttershy nodded curtly, then flew back to Spike. He was awake, it turned out, and crying heavily, the days events finally gotten to him. A recovered Pinkie and Applejack were heading to him, but the yellow pegasus reached him first.
“Shh, it’s okay,” she soothed, gathering up the dragon in her forelegs. “It’s okay, it’s all over now.”
The dragon just wept. He was awfully mature for his age, yes, but underneath it all he was still a kid, and the pain, shame, and distress of the last few days was finally getting to him. Even as Fluttershy nuzzled him and Peewee nibbled his ear, he couldn’t calm down.
Garble dodged blast after blast of Twilight’s magic, blowing raspberries at the enraged unicorn. “Aw, what’s wrong? Is the prissy pony getting tired?”
That question was answered when an aura of lavender magic encased him, stopping him. The crimson dragon struggled, but he was pulled down to the ground, his feet actually sinking into the soil a bit.
"I can lift an Ursa Minor," Twilight noted with strained words. "I can hold you."
Unimpressed, Garble kept thrashing, but he was still helpless when Rarity charged him and bucked him in the stomach as hard as she could. The wind knocked out of him, he stopped moving, and Twilight took advantage of this by releasing him and shooting him with a well-aimed blast of magic. It struck him in the chest, sending him tumbling on his back.
Rarity confidently strode up to the fallen dragon, though she was sure to keep enough distance away to remain out of his reach. "Now then, are you going to leave Spikey alone?"
As it turned out, Rarity hadn't been as careful as she had thought. Garble's tail lashed out, wrapping itself around Rarity's neck. Twilight readied a blast, but the dragon's words stopped her. "Shoot me and I'll snap her neck."
The threat worked, but only for a moment. The aura circled his tail, prying it open and allowing the white unicorn to fall to the ground.
As it turns out, Garble was smarter than either unicorn gave him credit for, as that was exactly what he was counting on. Distracted by freeing her friend, Twilight didn't react fast enough when he darted forward. She began to summon a shield, but his strike caught her on the side of the head. Thankfully, he went so quick he didn't uncurl his hand, so she wasn't cut to ribbons, but simply knocked back. She skidded along the grass, coming to a stop just short of the still burning tree splinters.
"How dare you!" Rarity shrieked, attempting to buck him, but her kick was caught, and she was lifted up in a most undignified manner.
"Put me down right now, you hoodlum! I might be a lady, but for everything you've done to Spikey-Wikey, I'm going to..."
Garble turned and swung Rarity in an arc, slamming her into the ground, effectively ending her demands. He lifted her up again by her hind leg as she moaned in pain. She was now looking in his eyes, weakly.
"You know what I'm going to do to Spikey-Wikey? I'm going to kill him. But first, I'm going to skin you all alive and make him see. And I'm going to keep stomping that bird until it runs out of lives. Then, I'm going to break both of his arms, and his legs. Then, I'm going to kick him around a bit. Then...”
Garble was more intelligent than the ponies gave him credit for... but he was still pretty stupid. He went on a long tirade about what he was going to do to Spike while his mother was in earshot. She didn't take it well.
In pure rage, she rose to her hooves and levitated one of the burning splinters into the air. Charging forward, she leapt onto the dragon's back.
And then the red hot stick came down.
The Keeper flinched, inhaling sharply. "Ooooh," she moaned as she read the dragon's book. "Well, look on the bright side, Garble, girl dragons think eyepatches are cool."
Garble's pained, primal howl filed the ears of the two unicorns. Rarity flinched in horror, even feeling some pity as he dropped her, clutching his face in agony. Twilight, however, gave no quarter. As he stumbled blindly, turning around, Twilight struck him in the chest, sending him to the ground.
Before he could sit up, Garble felt something jump onto him, pinning him to the ground. Slowly, nervously, he moved one of his hands, allowing his right eye... his only eye, now... to see.
Twilight had turned white, her eyes red, her mane and tail now flames so intense that even Garble felt them.
"Listen to me," she said through gritted teeth, "I love Spike. He is my son. And I will do anything... anything... to protect him. I've defeated NightMare Moon and Discord, I've fought armies of changelings, I've been taught by Princess Celestia herself. You, you're nothing. You're a pathetic punk who traveled a continent because some baby dragon stood up to you. How petty. You have no chance against me.
"So leave. Go home. Don't come back. Because if you do, I'll take more than an eye. Do you understand?"
Garble was silent, shaking in sheer terror.
"Do you understand?"
"Y-yes," the dragon whimpered.
"Good," she spat. She turned around, whipping him in the face with her tail. She jumped off of him, planting her feet back on the grass. She lit her horn and doused the burning tree remains, no need for them to spread.
"Come on, Rarity, we better see if Spike is okay." Twilight reverted back to her true form. She was calmer now, a bit more neutral.
Rarity stood in silence, a bit afraid. She looked and saw Garble's form, still shaken and disturbed. She turned to Twilight, still walking off, heedless of the fact that her fellow unicorn hadn't followed her.
Finally, she sighed and followed, stopping only to pick up the bindle Spike dropped. She would talk with her friend about it later.
"Are you okay, Twilight?"
It had been the first time Rarity had dared to speak since the fight ended. The two had run in silence until they came across Pinkie sitting next to a sobbing Mumble. The earth pony had explained what had happened. Fluttershy had taken Spike home to treat him, while Applejack and Rainbow Dash had gone back to Ghastly Gorge to dig Thrash out.
Since then, the trio had walked in silence back to the library. The storm that Rainbow Dash had set up several days ago was scheduled for that evening, so grey clouds were overcast, adding gloom. Once they had gotten into town, a few ponies tried to pry them on what had happened to Spike. Twilight hadn't answered, leaving her friends to make apologies for her.
The lavender unicorn sighed. "I... I didn't mean to hurt him that bad. I'm not sorry I did it, but... I feel like I should be."
"Twilight, getting that violent is a traumatic experience, regardless of the reason," Rarity assured. "And you had no choice. That brute would have kept coming after Spike unless he was scared off or... we dealt with him. You were just protecting your child."
By now they were at the library door. "I guess you're right... I should be worrying more about Spike, anyway."
"Ooh! Now we can do something fun! Maybe we can throw a party and..."
"Tomorrow, Pinkie," Twilight answered, a bit more bluntly than intended. "Tonight, it has to be just me and Spike."
The lavender unicorn opened her front door and walked inside. Moments later, Fluttershy flew out from Twilight's bedroom, alerted by the noise.
"Oh good, you're back. I checked Spike over. He's a bit bruised up and he has some cuts, but nothing's broken."
Twilight let loose a breath she hadn't even realized she had been holding. "That's a relief. Has he said anything?"
Fluttershy just lowered her head and shook it sadly. "The poor thing just won't stop crying. I calmed him down a little, but he's so upset.”
A lump formed in Twilight's throat. She swallowed. "Right. You all better get home."
"But don't you want us to..." Pinkie began.
"No. This needs to be between me and Spike."
"I agree, darling," Rarity said. "We'll come by tomorrow and check on you."
"Okie Dokie," Pinkie agreed. "I'll go make sure Applejack and Rainbow Dash are okay first. See ya tomorrow!"
"Just so you know, Owlowiscious is looking after Peewee. And, um..." Fluttershy noted. She flew over to Twilight's mantle and picked up Spike's gift. "I think you might need this."
Smiling sadly, Twilight took it with her magic. Her three friends excused themselves and went out the door.
Sighing, Twilight began her trek upstairs, every step seemingly taking forever. She finally reached the top, where she heard the faint sobs of her baby dragon.
Taking one last deep breath, she opened the door. Sitting on her bed was Spike, a bit bandaged by Fluttershy's tender care, but still looking absolutely miserable. His head was cupped in his claws at first, but hearing Twilight come in made him look up. His eyes were red and bloodshot, and misty with tears.
"Hey Spike," she said gently. He didn't move. He looked at her, scared as to what would come next.
Twilight approached him cautiously. When she was close enough, she pulled him into a hug. He neither resisted nor accepted this. He was just neutral.
She released him and looked into his eyes. Tears were forming in her eyes as well. "Don't... don't go running off like that," she said, trying to sound stern, but failing miserably.
Spike still didn't respond, just looking at her as if he was about to be punished.
Twilight levitated the picture frame from behind her back and sent it to her bedside table. When Spike saw he froze, his eyes giving an expression like he had just seen Garble fly back into the bedroom.
"I really like the frame," Twilight said, as if it were an ordinary conversation. "You picked some good pictures for it. It's cute."
Spike just looked at her in sheer terror.
"Spike... is that what this is all about? You want me to be your mother?"
He was silent. Gently, she brought a hoof to his shoulder. "Spike... you can tell me."
After a moment, he nodded, ever so slightly.
"And why did you think I wouldn't want to be your mother?"
Now Spike looked less horrified and more nonplussed, as if the unicorn had just asked him what ice was made of.
"Come on, I want you to say what's bothering you out loud. It will help you feel better."
"...I let you down," he said quietly. "You needed me, and I... I..."
Twilight patted his head gently, encouraging him to finish.
"...I abandoned you. You stood by me after everything, but... I couldn't..."
He broke down, his sobs coming out anew. Twilight held him close, letting him use his tears. They stayed together for a long time before the dragon calmed down. Twilight let go and backed up a bit, levitating a handkerchief up to his eyes and drying them.
"Spike... when you thought I was wrong, how did you feel?"
He blinked. He hadn't expected that question. "I... I guess I felt... confused. Like... I was wondering why you would do something so unlike you." Then, suddenly, anger flowed into him. "I should have known something was up then! I shouldn't have doubted you! I shouldn't have just walked out on you! And even if I didn't believe you, I should have stayed with you, or tried to talk the others into forgiving you, or..."
Twilight gently put a hoof on his mouth. "Easy there. We can talk about that in a moment. Now, what were you going to do about it?"
"I was... going to go talk to you afterward about it."
"...And... did you still love me? Did you want me to be your mother?"
"Of course!" he said quickly. "I mean... I just... didn't know what to do."
She nodded understandingly. "Alright. So when it looked like I had made a big mistake, you were disappointed in me, but you still loved me the same?"
Spike fidgeted a bit. "I guess that's a good way of putting it."
"Alright. Now tell me: now that we know it's you who made the mistake, why wouldn't I feel the same way?"
Spike looked at her, a bit surprised.
"Spike... I promised you I'd never lie after your first day of school, so I'm not going to sugarcoat this. Yes, you could have handled things differently even if you didn't believe me. And I must say, I'm more disappointed that you tried to run from your problems rather than face them. You made mistakes, but that's what I'm here for. You're just a baby dragon. You're very wise for your age, but you still have a lot to learn. I'm supposed to make sure you learn from your mistakes, and it sounds like you have.
"And did you really think I would stop loving you over this, after all we've been through together? All those years I spent teaching you, reading you bedtime stories, working to get you accepted? Or all the good you've done for me, all the times we played together..." A mischievous grin crossed her features. "All the visits from the tickle manticore?" She wiggled her hooves toward him. Spike, in spite of himself, giggled at this.
"Did you really think I wasn't going to love you just because you did something wrong?"
Spike was silent for a moment.
Then, in a flash, he felt very, very stupid.
He cried again.
"I'm sorry! I'm sorry for making you worry! I'm sorry for running away! I'm sorry you and the others got hurt fighting those dragons! I'm sorry! I'm such an idiot!"
Twilight wrapped her forelegs around him, pulling him into a tight hug. This time, he hugged back, letting loose days worth of pent-up emotion. She rubbed his back with her hoof.
"Shh, sh, sh, no more of that. I don't want you dumping on yourself ever again."
"You're not an idiot, Spike. You were just scared and confused, that's all. Whenever you think about yourself, I want you to remember a few things."
"How you always got perfect grades when you were tutored. Or how you wanted to be my assistant just to be around me. How you wanted to be a knight when you were little just to help ponies and dragons," she giggled, causing him to blush.
"Or how about when you took my fears seriously and wrote to Princess Celestia, even when the others blew me off? Or when you gave your fire ruby to Rarity just to see her happy? Or when you stood up to three dragons who could really hurt you to protect an innocent egg you didn't even know. And even today, you still put Peewee's safety above your own.
"You're brave, Spike. And kind, and smart." She was crying now too, but still smiling. "And... and you know what?"
Spike looked up at her as she smiled.
"I would be proud to call you my son."
Spike's eyes widened.
And then he threw himself back into Twilight, his cries coming out anew. Twilight just held him for a moment. She adjusted herself, sliding onto the bed and lying on her back, allowing her child to rest on top of her. Music seemed to drift through the air as she opened her mouth and began singing.
“I'll be your candle on the water,
My love for you will always burn,
I know you're lost, and drifting,
But the clouds are lifting,
Don't give up, you have somewhere to turn...”
Spike’s cries seemed to increase at his mother’s lullaby. Twilight softly stroked him. Outside, the storm let loose, and rain poured down, but the two paid it no mind.
“I'll be your candle on the water,
Till every wave is warm and bright,
My soul is there beside you,
Let this candle guide you,
Soon you'll see a golden stream of light.”
Twilight levitated the covers over them as Spike nuzzled into the crook of her neck even farther.
“A cold and friendless tide has found you,
Don't let the stormy darkness pull you down.
I'll paint a ray of hope around you,
Circling in the air, lighted by a prayer.”
Spike’s sobs were quieting. He was smiling now, for the first time in days.
“I'll be your candle on the water,
This flame inside of me will grow
Keep holding on, you'll make it,
Here's my hoof, so take it,
Look for me, reaching out to show,
As sure as rivers flow...”
Twilight kissed her son on the forehead.
“...I'll never let you go.
I'll never let you go.
I'll never let you go.”
And so, they stayed that way for awhile, simply enjoying each other’s company. Before long Spike, exhausted from the days events, fell asleep. Twilight allowed him to rest. It reminded her of when he was an infant, always wanting to be by her side.
For right now, everything was at peace.
In an unknown location, sitting behind a desk, was the very same stallion Garble had spoken to days ago. He was dismissively tapping his hoof against the oak furniture while listening to another unicorn read notes off his clipboard.
“One of our field agents just reported in,” the navy blue unicorn stated. “I’m afraid the dragons never made it to Ponyville. Twilight Sparkle engaged them well outside the town.”
“Disappointing,” he said, sounding mildly annoyed.
“Indeed, sir. We’re halting production on the headline...”
“You’ll do no such thing,” his boss said, earning a surprised look.
“But... the dragons did no damage to the town. The other ponies won’t even...”
“You forget, we’ve kept tabs on the Bearers. The fashion designer, the baker, and the weather pony, they aren’t known for their still tongues. In all likelihood, the fact that those three went looking for Celestia’s little pet is going to be common knowledge within a day or two.”
“Would it be as effective as our original plan?”
“It might not be,” the crimson stallion nodded, “but ponies can be paranoid creatures, especially with the fears of the changelings about. Even the idea of a dragon attack can be enough to stir them up.”
Nonchalantly, he lifted something off his desk, levitating it in front of his face. “This will need some rewriting, and the ponies will require a bit more kindling... but our plans are hardly derailed.”
He tossed the paper back onto the desk. It was a newspaper, dated for the next day, with no story text, but a single ominous headline.
CELESTIA’S PET DRAGON CAUSES DESTRUCTION TO INNOCENT RURAL TOWN
The rest of the days passed without much incident, as most rainy days in Equestria did. Many bosses gave their employees off time for a storm so big, so not much else happened.
The next morning, Pinkie was up at the crack of dawn to begin her shift at the bakery, making donuts for the early morning rush. She was giving her employers a chance to sleep in, something they hadn't gotten much of a chance to do since the twins’ birth.
She was surprised when, thirty minutes before opening, Rarity came in, using her spare key. Shaking the grass from her designer boots, she trotted up to the counter.
"Rarity? What are you doing here so early? Usually you're all about beauty sleep! Ooh! Maybe you're not really Rarity! Are you a changeling? Can you do..."
"Pinkie," the unicorn said tensely. "Really, it's too early in the morning for those antics."
"Only you talk that much like Rarity. So what do you need?"
"It's not about what I need, Pinkie, it's what you need," she sighed. "Yesterday, before Twilight came back in, you were starting to tell us something. Is everything alright?"
At that point, Pinkie lost her smile. It was surreal to Rarity to see her friend this way. The earth pony was a pony of extremes; she giggled heavily, cried loudly, and sulked somberly. Seeing an intermediate response actually worried her far more.
"...No," Pinkie said quietly. "I've been wanting to tell you all something. I was waiting for everything with Spike to be over...”
Rarity shook her head. “Pinkie, it’s unhealthy to keep those kind of emotions bottled up...”
“I wasn’t doing it on purpose! Honest! I just didn't think it would take this long..."
Rarity shook her head sadly. "Well, I'm here now, and Spike's okay. Would you like to talk about it?"
Pinkie was silent again. "We're all getting together tonight, aren't we? I was going to tell you all then."
The unicorn arched an eyebrow. “Pinkie...”
“I’m not putting it off, honest. But... I just don’t want to have to tell the story twice.”
There was silence. “Pinkie... have you told the Cakes?”
“The day we got back from Canterlot. I... I never even told them about it before now. Please, please Rarity, wait until tonight.”
Rarity gaped at her friend’s reaction. Swallowing a lump in her throat, she nodded. "Very well. Until then, if there's anything I can do for you, don't hesitate to ask."
Pinkie shifted a bit. "Well, there is something..."
Rainbow Dash was rarely up before noon on days when she didn't have to work, but today was an exception. After the storm it was sunny skies for the next two days, meaning the pegasus had time to give her number one fan another training session.
Meeting in front of the Cutie Mark Crusader treehouse seemed to be a strange choice on the filly's part, but the elder mare nonetheless agreed to it. She arrived to see Scootaloo doing her wing strokes, clearly excited to start the days activities.
"Hey there, squirt, ready to get started?"
The filly jumped a foot in the air in sheer excitement. "You bet! I did all the exercises you told me everyday!"
"And did you always do more than you did before!"
"Uh-huh! I pushed myself, just like you said!"
Smiling, Rainbow pulled the filly into a one legged hug, gently trussing her mane with her other hoof. "Knew you had it in you," she smiled warmly.
"So, did that dragon die?" Scootaloo asked.
Rainbow Dash was confused for a moment, then remembrance came back. "Oh, no he didn't. He won't be flying straight anytime soon, but he'll live. I don't think those three will bother us again, though, not after what Twilight did to that red one. Spike's going to be okay too, Fluttershy told me so when she stopped by last night."
At that, Scootaloo looked apathetic. "That's... great," she muttered.
Rainbow arched an eyebrow. "Are you mad at Spike? Rarity told me that when she explained what had happened to you three, you seemed mad."
"Spike's an idiot!" she yelled, catching her mentor off guard. "Twilight was practically his mom already, and he wanted to throw everything away! That's stupid! Why would he do that!"
Rainbow placed a stern hoof on her shoulder. "Kid... yeah, Spike was acting stupid. But after the wedding... well, I wasn't really myself either. Ponies... and dragons, apparently... can do stupid things when they're like that."
"...I guess," the filly grunted.
"Well, we better get started. Let's do a warm-up. Some push-ups would be a good place to start..."
Twilight awoke to the warm sensation of her child resting on her. Her sleep for the first time since the wedding had been completely peaceful, no nightmares of changelings or vague cryptic visions from mischievous spirits. And Spike was still smiling even in his sleep, finally at peaceafter days of self inflicted torment.
Carefully she maneuvered her way out of her son's grip. Once on her hooves, she gently tucked the covers around him as if he was something incredibly fragile. Giving him one last kiss on the forehead, she trotted downstairs. Her stomach growling reminded her she had barely eaten the day before.
After Spike had fallen asleep the previous day, she had excused herself to do several things, including writing a report to the Princess about what she had learned, finding out how to apply for adoption papers, finding out if she even could legally adopt Spike given that many members of the Canterlot elite absolutely hated the idea of a dragon getting any rights like a pony, seeing if the Princess would be willing to give her an extension on her work so she could spend time with her child, reporting that the three teenage dragons were in Equestria, and other things.
Her mind was still a tangled mess of things she wanted to do, but she was excited to do them all. She had tried making checklist after checklist of what to do next, though whenever she had thought she had a plan, a new complication occurred to her.
At some point she returned to bed, allowing Spike to sleep with her. He hadn't woken once during the night, clearly he hadn't slept well the last few days either.
She was heading for the kitchen when a glimpse at the front door stopped her. There were letters dropped through the mail slot, unusually neglected in all the chaos of the previous day. She also noticed a package sitting among them, one with the Royal Seal on it. Her stipend, she guessed, must have been brought in by Derpy, whom she had given permission to do so when it came to packages.
She levitated her package up, noting it seemed heavier than usual. Tearing off the wrappings, she saw the usual wooden box, which she was required to mail back, that contained her bits. Unusually, however, there was a letter attached to it.
Dear Twilight Sparkle,
Due to your recent contributions to the Kingdom of Equestria, we have seen fit to increase your weekly stipend by a full thousand bits..."
Twilight gaped. Opening her box, she was frozen still by the several bits that practically overflowed from the container, including several fifty pieces where there had once been ten pieces. She had been expecting a raise in the wake of the Changeling Invasion, but not to this degree. Defeating NightMare Moon and Discord had netted her only half of that pay increase.
She sighed. Celestia was still feeling guilt, it seemed. Another problem in the wake of the wedding, it seemed, though the Princess of the Sun was more than capable of handling herself. Still, with the extra money, her research could be improved considerably. And with the Princess more compliant, perhaps she'd be more willing to deal with any complications with Spike's adoption... or was that a reason to hold off on anything right now? With the extra pressure being put on Celestia at the moment, getting caught bending more rules for her could be a disaster...
Her stomach growling reminded her of a more immediate concern. Setting the box on a table, she trotted to the kitchen to cook up a meal. An extra big one, she remembered. After all, Spike hadn't eaten much the last few days either.
"Alright kid, you've done good. Now we're going to try something a bit more intense."
Scootaloo beamed. "Alright! What is it?"
"We're going to try flying for distance," Rainbow Dash explained. She scooped the filly up in her forelegs and flew up into the sky. There was a cloud, a single cloud she had borrowed from work, still drifting just above Sweet Apple Acres. She deposited the filly on her cloud.
"This is going to really work you. Now, how far do you think you can make it on your wings?" Scootaloo looked around. They were still near the Cutie Mark Crusader clubhouse, she noted. It seemed a good distance away...
"Probably to the clubhouse..."
"Probably? There's no probability. That's a mindset I want you out of. You will make it to the clubhouse. I know you will."
"...You really think I can make it?"
"No, I know you can make it. You need to have that attitude. The only difference between a champ and a chump is the mindset. Are you a champ?"
"Then stretch your wings. Come on..." She instructed. Scootaloo obeyed, getting ready to fly.
"I'll be right below you to catch you. You'll keep going until you land on the clubhouse, land on the grass, or until your wings give out and I have to catch you. Now, don't look down at all. You hear me? You look down once, and that's it for training today."
"What? How am I supposed to see when I've made it?"
"I'll tell you. Now come on, go! Go! Go!"
Jumping a bit at her mentor's sudden yelling, the filly nonetheless obeyed, leaping off her cloud. Her wings moved in rhythm, occasionally flapping too fast, causing her to descend. After a bit, the flaps started putting a strain on her muscles, but she kept going at Rainbow's insistence.
"Come on, come on! Go! Go! You're doing great, go! Go!"
Scootaloo was sweating. She was feeling the burn. She had to be at least halfway there by now...
"Go! Go! Come on, no pain, no gain!"
The encouragements continued as she kept herself going forward. Every second it was becoming more difficult, but she persisted. Another flap, then another, then another.
She wished she could see her progress. The treehouse below her would give a good indication of how far she had gotten. Still, she had to be almost there by now...
"Come on, come on, halfway point! You're doing great... don't stop! Don't stop! Go! Go!"
Scootaloo's near halt was brought on by a revelation. Only halfway? She thought for sure she'd be there by now. She was so tired, but she had to keep going. She couldn't let Rainbow Dash down. She pushed through her aches.
"Go! Go! Go!"
She continued obeying, flapping, pushing. She felt like crying. She couldn't even make it five feet without getting this tired. But she hid it. She couldn't let Rainbow Dash think she was a wimp. She had to keep it up...
"Go! Go! Come on, almost there! Almost there!"
Her wings were beginning to buckle. Crying in desperation, she kept forward.
"You're almost there! Go, come on! Just flap your wings five more times! Five... four... three... two... one! You made it! Good job!"
Scootaloo fell on the grass, and almost immediately started crying.
"Hey squirt, what's wrong? Did you bump something?"
"I... I couldn't even make it five feet! I..."
She trailed off when she noticed something. She was looking straight ahead... but she still couldn't see the clubhouse.
"...What?" she turned around. There, a good ten feet away, sat the Cutie Mark Crusaders Clubhouse.
"You were losing a lot more altitude near the end, we need to work on that. But that was good."
"H... how did I make it that far?"
"Because you couldn't see your limit," Rainbow Dash explained. "The point of this was to teach you that limits exist in your head. They're when your brain is telling you to stop. You need to learn to ignore that. See, because you made it farther than your brain told you you could."
Scootaloo looked in awe. He mentor's forelegs wrapped around her, pulling her into a hug.
"Come on, I think it's time for something else," she said, lifting the happy filly up. She carried her charge up to the same cloud she had launched herself off of earlier.
"So what are we doing now?" Scootaloo asked as her hooves touched cloud.
The younger filly was surprised when her idol flopped down on her back. "Now, we nap."
Scootaloo blinked. "Nap?"
Rainbow Dash responded by draping a foreleg around the filly and pulling her close. "Even a champion needs her shut-eye."
Spike awoke to the smell of breakfast, an unusual wake up call, seeing as how cooking was one of his tasks. His eyes shot open. The aroma of pancakes with syrup and fresh squeezed orange juice filled his nose. Excitedly he rose up, only to be rudely reminded of the beating he had taken the day before. Groaning, he sat on the bed, trying to work his way through the pain.
It was a few seconds later when he remembered. Twilight was his mother now. She didn't hate him. All his worries about her not loving him the way she wanted him to were childish overreactions. He was overjoyed. Suddenly, the pain meant nothing. He had to get downstairs.
He rose again, wincing at the pain but mostly trying to ignore it. He set his feet on the floor as he stood, his body feeling twice as heavy as it usually should. Slowly he began making his way downstairs. His heart beat faster with each step, both with excitement as to who he was going to see and in response to the effort his body was putting up.
Owlowiscious, watching from a perch, stayed silent, torn between two conflicting desires. One was to obey his mistress and alert her if Spike tried to walk on his own, the other was a belief that Spike needed to do this. He sighed. He could always tell her he had fallen asleep a little too early.
Twilight had just finished setting out breakfast, and upon hearing the dragon's footsteps, she turned to meet her son's gaze. She smiled warmly, and he smiled back, his heart beating faster... then her eyes bulged out. "Spike!"
Spike jumped. "What? What's wrong?"
Instantly Twilight's magic surrounded him, lifting him into the air. "You shouldn't be walking around just yet! You're still sore from yesterday!" She placed Spike in a chair, as carefully as she could.
"Aw, Twilight, I feel fine," he moaned.
The unicorn stopped, lifting an eyebrow. "Twilight? You're not going to call me Mom?"
Spike scratched the back of his head awkwardly. “I... I don't know. I really wanted you to be my mom, but... actually calling you Mom just sounds weird. You’ve taken care of me all this time, but I’ve always called you Twilight, so..."
Twilight silenced him by kissing his forehead. "That's okay, I understand. You don’t have to call me anything new now. I'm still your mother... which means you listen when I tell you to take it easy, okay?"
He blushed. "Okay."
"Good. Now come on, after yesterday I think we both deserve a big breakfast," she said soothingly, tucking a napkin into his lap.
Spike licked his lips as he looked at the pallet laid out for him. Pancakes and orange juice, wheat toast with butter, slices of grapefruit, and some tea for Twilight. “You made all this? What’s the occasion?”
“I just wanted to take a day to spend with you. With what’s been going on we both deserve some time off,” she answered as she sat in her own chair, levitating her knife and fork to cut her first.
“Are we going anywhere?” he asked excitedly.
“Oh no,” she scolded, looking right at him. “I don’t want you moving around much today. We’re going to stay home and rest. We’ll think of something fun to do. Maybe I can read to you like I used to...”
Spike drooped a little, though he had to admit, even going back to his early days sounded appealing. “...Can we read some of the Daring Do books?”
She smiled. “Of course. And before that, are you up for sending a few letters to the Princess?” Spike swallowed his mouthful.
“Why? I thought you wanted me to take it easy.”
“I do... but I need to tell Celestia that those three dragons were here. Even if they’re leaving for good, it wouldn’t be right of me not to alert the authorities. I wouldn’t ask it of you if it weren’t important.”
Spike nodded. “I’m sure I’ll be able to do it.” He was silent for a moment. “Are you sure they’re gone?”
Twilight smiled. “Relax, I scared them good. They’re gone, and after you're healed we’ll probably barely talk about it again.”
Applejack wiped the sweat off her forehead as she looked over her work. It would be harvest time soon, and the trees were needing constant tending. Saplings replacing the trees Flim and Flam had dug up needed special attention in the first few years.
Smiling at a job well done, she pushed the baskets of weeds she had pulled up towards the barn, glad to be done with her work for the day. As she was imagining what to do next, Carrot Top trotted up to her looking quite frazzled.
"Applejack! Applejack! Is it true?"
The cowpony blinked. "Is what true?"
"It's been spreading all over town. You and the other Bearers fought off three dragons that were on their way here!"
"Yeah... they were comin' here because they had a run-in with Spike a few months back. Where'd you hear that from?"
"Pinkie and Rarity have been telling everypony who'll listen," her fellow farmpony revealed. "Is it true Twilight killed one of them?"
That got Applejack's eyes to pop out of her head. "What? Nah... she roughed up one of 'em real bad, weren't happy he was tryin' to hurt Spike, but last I checked all three of 'em were still up and about."
Carrot Top gulped. "Could... could they come back here?"
"Doubt it. Twi really shook 'em up. Doubt they'll think beatin' on Spike is worth the effort of havin' to mess with her again."
At this, Carrot Top breathed a sigh of relief. "I guess you’re right... hearing about those dragons just made me a bit hysterical."
"You afraid of them?"
"Are you kidding? We've had a dragon rampage through town before, and we should be thanking Celestia nopony got hurt. And the year before that, a dragon nearly suffocated us all, and he wasn't even trying."
Applejack rubbed the back of her head. "Yeah, I guess life's been kinda hectic ever since we got the Elements."
"You mean, ever since Twilight moved into town?"
Despite herself, Applejack felt her eyes narrow. "Just what'd you mean by that?"
Carrot Top flinched, realizing her misstep. Still, she decided to be honest with her friend. "Well...ever since Twilight moved into town, weird things have been happening. I mean, do you really think Discord would have come here if Twilight wasn't..."
"I think he would have come here anyway before too long," Applejack said through gritted teeth, "'sides, to all of you it was like wakin' up from a bad dream. You ain't got nothin' to complain about."
The orange haired pony nodded. “I know... I know. I wasn’t saying anything was her fault, really. I guess a lot of it would have come with or without Twilight. It’s just... honestly, there are times she just seems like a disaster magnet.”
Applejack fumed a bit, but her anger melted. “I’d be lyin’ if I didn’t say I got that impression sometimes. Still,Twi’s helped this town more than she’s hurt it.”
Carrot Top shook her head. "I know, believe me, I like Twilight,” she shifted uncomfortably. “Are you coming to market today?"
"Granny Smith's runnin' the stands with Apple Bloom," the cowpony said, relieved to be changing the subject. "We're lookin' to..."
As Applejack kept rambling, she failed to notice another pony, a unicorn stallion, standing behind one of her trees. Smiling, he levitated his pencil to write. It was just like his boss said, the story was already spreading.
Rainbow Dash had spent hours with Scootaloo, training the little filly and teaching her everything she knew. It was nearing sunset and, once again, the orange pegasus was exhausted.
"You did very good today, squirt," the elder mare congratulated, wiping her brow, "but we're going to have to call it quits now. We're having dinner to celebrate what happened yesterday."
"Alright," Scootaloo answered. "I'm about ready for a rest anyway."
Rainbow Dash ruffled her hair affectionately. They were back to resting on the cloud she had borrowed, enjoying a final piece of quality relaxation time. "You earned it, kiddo."
For a few minutes, the pair just quietly sat, watching the world turn. It was a peaceful, if not slightly wet, summer day.
"Did you really mean it when you said I could do anything?"
Grinning, the rainbow maned pegasus poked her student in the ribs, tickling her. "You calling me a liar, squirt?"
Scootaloo giggled, wiggling out of her grasp, for a few moments at least. Rainbow Dash tackled her, digging her hooves into her sides and tickling her for all she was worth. "I don't lie, squirt, you should know better!"
The young filly shrieked and squirmed, but that brought no relief from her mentor's assault. After a few moments she relented, collecting Scootaloo in her forelegs and pulling her close. A wing draped itself over her, keeping her close. A wing wrapped around her.
"You can do anything at all, squirt, as long as it doesn't hurt anypony."
"...What if somepony tells you you can't?"
"Are you talking about that Diamond Tiara again? I told you, don't..."
"No, no... I mean, what if a big pony tells me I can't?"
Rainbow looked at her student for half a minute. Scootaloo gulped, feeling she had said too much.
"Well, big or small, I told you not to let anypony tell you you can't do something," Rainbow Dash said simply. "Don't let them get to you."
Scootaloo nodded enthusiastically, believing the suspicion was off of her. "You got it. I'll tell any big pony just that."
“...Like who, exactly?”
Inwardly, the younger pegasus kicked herself. “Oh, just... somepony.” It was a lame response, and the filly knew it even before the response left her mouth. “You know what, Rainbow Dash? Nevermind. It’s really nothing...”
“Kid...” Rainbow Dash said softly, though the single syllable carried a force that rendered Scootaloo speechless, “is everything alright for you at home?”
Scootaloo froze, chills running down her spine. “Of course, everything’s great. You know, I think I’ve had enough training for today. I think I’ll just scoot on...”
She trailed off. She was on a cloud, several feet above the air. There was no place to run.
“You ran from me at the wedding when I started questioning you about your dad. I’m not letting you this time. What’s wrong?”
“Scoots, you’re a worse liar than Applejack.”
“Scootaloo,” Rainbow Dash said slowly, placing her hooves on the small filly’s shoulders, “I’m trying to help you. I can sense something’s wrong. Soarin’ could too. Please tell me...”
“It’s none of your business!” the filly snapped angrily.
Rainbow Dash widened her eyes at her number one fan’s unexpected aggressiveness. A slight tinge of hurt entered her features.
Seeing this, Scootaloo moped. “I’m sorry, Rainbow Dash. I... I didn’t mean...”
The elder mare scooped her up in a hug. “It’s okay, squirt. I didn’t mean to pry,” she said soothingly. Scootaloo gave no verbal response. She simply nuzzled her face into the crook of her mentor's neck.
"...Kid... you know I care about you, right?" "Mm-hmm," the filly mumbled.
"And you know you can tell me anything, right?"
"...Yeah," Scootaloo said quietly.
The older pegasus pulled them apart. She looked into her eyes with a look that she hoped was firm, but loving. "Then I want you to promise me something."
Rainbow Dash took a deep breath. "If something ever is wrong... you'll tell me. I don't want you keeping anything from me that would hurt you."
Scootaloo went through the motion, although without the usual enthusiasm. "Pinkie promise."
Rainbow Dash scooped her up in another hug, which was returned almost instantly. The two stayed that way for a long while. The older mare could have sworn she felt her coat getting slightly moist. Tears? She didn't know. She felt like she was holding the most precious thing in the world, and to her, she might as well have been. She wanted to help this filly, wanted to be let in.
She was beginning to understand Twilight's pain. Should she press harder? Ease up and let her open up naturally? Go confront her parents? Would Scootaloo try to run as Spike had? She felt helpless.
Rainbow Dash took a deep breath. She would go consult the others on this tonight. Right now, it was the best she could do.
"Alright kid, it's getting late. I have plans, and you better get home. You going to be okay?"
"Yeah... don't worry, Rainbow Dash. I'll be just fine."
Finally, after a particularly long and uneventful day, night fell. Twilight put away her law reference books, it was time for dinner. She had laid out a buffet of daisy sandwiches, salads, hay fries, a few gemstones for Spike, tea and water, and various other things.
Smiling to herself, she walked up her stairs to the bedroom and poked her head in. "Spike? Come on, it's time for dinner."
Spike responded by continuing to lie on his back, right on Twilight's bed. His eyes were closed, and they didn't look like they would be opening anytime soon.
Not that this little detail stopped Twilight. She walked up and prodded the baby dragon. "Come on, wake up. You're the guest of honor."
"Hughn," Spike grumbled, turning a bit but not waking up.
Twilight sighed, using her magic to levitate him up. Gently she placed him in his basket, tucking him in. With a final kiss on the cheek she walked out. Spike had been tired all day, the ordeals of the previous day having taken the strength out of him. He had drifted in and out of sleep while Twilight had read to him that day, and ended up asleep for a good while as Twilight had returned to her studies. She had hoped that he would wake to attend dinner, but it didn't look like that was going to happen.
She was just putting away the gemstones when Rainbow Dash, the first to arrive, tumbled in through a window and landed on the floor. Dusting herself off, she turned to her friend. "Am I late?"
"Nope, you're actually early," Twilight noted, her face looking curious. "Rainbow, did you just fly a marathon?"
It was a fair question, it looked like exercise had been all her friend had done that day. "I've been training Scoots all day," the pegasus noted. "I finally just asked her about her family."
"You did?" the unicorn asked, breath hitched. "Did she say anything?"
Rainbow Dash rubbed the back of her head awkwardly. "She tried to run again, but we were up on a cloud and she couldn't. Then she got real defensive, said it was none of my business. Then, she kind of broke down."
Twilight winced. "What did you say after that?"
The pegasus shyed away. "I let her cry for awhile, then made her promise she'd tell me if something was wrong."
Her friend sighed, shaking her head. "So the problem's still up in the air, huh?"
Rainbow Dash was spared from answering by the door opening and Fluttershy coming in, with Applejack close behind. "Twi, are Pinkie and Rarity here yet?"
Twilight was a bit stunned at the intensity of her friend's words. "I haven't seen them yet. What's wrong?"
"What's wrong is that those two have been going around town tellin' everypony that you skinned them dragons alive. You'd think you were some kinda crazy person."
The unicorn gaped. "Come again?"
"I had twenty different ponies ask me to clarify if you killed them dragons, and every one of them heard it from one of those two yahoos."
Twilight shook her head. "So the whole thing is going to be all over town soon... really, I'm surprised Rarity wants it getting out. I figured that was something she would think was improper.”
“Maybe,” Rarity said, walking into her friend’s house after hearing the tail end of the conversation, “but not telling everypony about those awful brutes would simply be irresponsible. Why...”
She was cut off by Applejack jamming a hoof into her chest. “Well why th’ hay have you been tellin’ ponies that Twi killed those dragons?”
“I have not,” Rarity said, sounding a bit offended. “The rumors can get out of hoof sometimes. You know how it is.”
"I oughta," Applejack groaned, "I've been puttin' up with 'it' all day."
"Well, I apologize, but I most certainly haven't been adding any embellishments."
“Yeah, I haven’t been telling anypony anything that didn’t happen,” Pinkie said.
“Oh, hello Pinkie,” Twilight greeted. “I didn’t hear you come in.”
Silence washed over the room as the five not pink ponies processed the previous sentence.
Twilight placed a hoof on Pinkie’s forehead. “Wow, Pinkie, are you alright?”
The earth pony shifted a bit. “Well... I have something I need to tell all of you.”
Rarity and Fluttershy had been expecting this. The other's however, had worried looks on them. Rainbow Dash’s hoof hit her forehead. “Oh for... when did we get all this drama in our lives?”
“Rainbow,” Rarity scolded.
Applejack placed a hoof on her fellow earth pony’s shoulder. “Whatever ya need to say, tell us.”
“Let’s eat first,” Pinkie said quickly. “It’s a long story... and where’s Spike? This dinner is for him.”
Twilight kicked the floor. “He’s asleep. He’s out of energy from yesterday. I tried to wake him, but...”
The other ponies groaned. “But... this was to celebrate him recovering!” Pinkie pouted.
“Well, let’s not let all this food go to waste,” Twilight said. “We’ll do something with Spike later. Pinkie, why don’t you tell us what’s wrong?”
Daring Do and the Griffin’s Goblet was looking to be even better than the last book, Scootaloo decided. She lost herself whenever she was home, which was fine with her father, who always liked when she wasn’t getting in the way.
A knock sounded on the door. In a flash the filly slid the book under her pillow and smiled. A moment later, Speedy Delivery came in. “Hey there, kiddo. What have you been up to?”
“Oh, today I just... I just hung out at the clubhouse,” she said weakly. “Apple Bloom and Sweetie Bell were busy today.”
He nodded, but looked at her daughter carefully. “You look a little worn out to have just been sitting in that clubhouse all day...”
Scootaloo shifted around uneasily. “Oh. Well... I did ride around on my scooter a bit... I guess it was hotter than I thought out today.”
She laughed. Her father leaned in. He was still smiling, but there was something sinister in it. “Kiddio...you know I don’t like it when I’m lied to, don’t you?”
“I really hope you’re not lying to me. Don’t tell me that I raised a bad kid,” he leaned in closer.
“You didn’t,” she assured, squirming.
“Good. I mean, it’s bad enough that you’re too clumsy to fly, I’d hate for you be a liar.”
Scootaloo opened her mouth to say “Yes, daddy”, but something stopped her.
Don’t let anypony tell you you can’t do anything... not even me.
The words of Rainbow Dash.
“I’m not clumsy.”
Speedy Delivery stopped cold. He looked at his daughter, his eyes wide. His body began to shake. At that moment, one could hear a pin drop.
“...What did you say?”
“...I said...” Scootaloo took a deep breath, “that I don’t think I’m clumsy.”
Pinkie looked at the table, then at the five friends who were gaping at her.
“You mean... they actually...” Twilight said slowly.
A few tears forming in her eyes, Pinkie nodded. “They... they weren’t happy...”
Fluttershy patted her back gently. Pinkie looked at her for a moment, and the yellow pegasus nodded a supporting nod.
“So... what happened next?”
Pinkie's forelegs ached as the pick dug left splinters in her hooves. She wanted so bad to rest, but her father's cold gaze on her moving on.
"I... I don't understand," the pink earth pony sobbed. "I just put together a party.."
"You know what you didn’t do?" Clyde asked coldly. "Your chores. The work we need to survive on. A cutie mark in such a frivolous pursuit? Bah!"
“No buts. You can dress it up all you want, devoting your life to parties is laziness.”
“But we had a get-together last week..."
"Don't compare the two," the rock farmer snapped. "Enjoying oneself after a day of work is fine, but all you want to do is laugh and play!"
"I... I want to make ponies happy..."
"If that were true," he answered sternly, "you'd be working to be a doctor, or a philanthropist, something that would do real good, not just being a distraction to ponies."
"Enough. You still have a lot of work to do! I'll make you into a respectable pony!"
"...Granny Pie would have listened to me..."
Clyde stiffened. It was like Pinkie had punctured him with a knife. Tears began spilling from his eyes. "You..."
"She would have loved..."
"Don't you dare lecture me about her!" Clyde said angrily. "I knew my own mother, a lot better than you do. Don't think I don't!"
"I know you did," Pinkie said, crying. "You were so sad when she..."
"Don't. You. Dare," Clyde said angrily. "Just get back to work." With that, the head of the farm stomped off angrily, leaving the filly alone with her work.
The ponies looked on sympathetically as their normally cheerful friend cried at the painful memories. Pinkie had fallen into Fluttershy's forelegs, and the yellow pegasus nuzzled her friend comfortingly.
"I don't believe it!" Rainbow Dash yelled, banging the table with one of her hooves. "How could they do that to you?"
"They just didn't understand," Pinkie wept. "I... I just wanted to make them happy... I was still going to work..."
Twilight sighed, a hoof on her forehead. "It sounds like... it sounds like your father had an ego on him," she concluded.
Pinkie actually looked up at the unicorn. "But... he always said humility was a virtue."
"Ironic, isn't it?" the unicorn answered dryly. "There's been a lot of ponies who have believed they were in the right, even while they were doing the wrong thing. Tartarus overflows with them."
Pinkie hiccuped and nodded. "That makes sense."
"Pinkie..." Applejack asked carefully. "About your granny...your pa loved her?"
The pink mare nodded. "She was so wonderful. We had parties all the time when she was alive...not really colorful ones, like mine, but still really fun. She'd sing songs, tell us stories, everything!" For a moment, Pinkie sounded like her normal self.
"When she died...Dad changed. He seemed like he was always smiling, laughing. After...he was just so sad. He almost never smiled. He had never been mean to me or my sister's before I got my cutie mark, but he seemed...different."
Applejack sighed. "I remember how I was when Ma and Pa passed on," she muttered, taking off her hat somberly. "I guess yours was just as sad.
"But that always confused me. He never cried, even once. I think...he was trying to be strong."
There was an awkward silence for a moment. It was Rainbow Dash who broke it.
"Well, what happened next?"
Three days of constant plowing, rock breaking, and house cleaning later and Pinkie decided she had had enough. She remembered her dear Granny Pie's words, telling her to keep laughing in the face of adversity, and to always do what she felt needed to be done.
She knew what she needed. She needed to leave.
In the dark of the night, she packed up her things. Her saddlebags filled with blankets, a pillow, a few slices of bread she had nicked from the kitchen, and a photograph. It was something she had mentally debated with herself on, deciding whether or not to take it. Through it all, she still loved her father and mother, and even though they were being cold now, she knew they still loved her.
Inkie and Blinkie were sympathetic, she could tell, but they feared similar punishments. They couldn't help her, but she still loved them. She wanted to remember him. Finally deciding she could fix this if she regretted it, she stuck the photo in the bags as well.
She slowly stepped down the steps, taking note to step over the ones that creaked. She managed to reach the bottom with no incident. Carefully, she made her way across the room, inching closer to the door. She cringed at every noise, the house settling becoming her greatest fear.
She reached the screen door of their farmhouse, and slowly brought her mouth around the knob. It opened, creaking a bit. Deciding it was best now to go for broke, she opened the door in a flash and bolted out.
She stopped at the bottom of the porch steps, catching her breath. The hard part was over, she was in the clear. She began trotting away.
"Hold it," a voice said coldly.
Pinkie's mane stood on end. She looked behind her. There was nopony there. She swung her head curiously until it finally traveled up.
Her father's head was sticking out of the bedroom window, and he did not look happy.
"Where. Are. You. Going?"
Pinkie trembled... but remembering Granny Pie's words, she spoke. "...I can't stay here."
"You are going to stay here," he demanded.
"Come back inside, now!"
Pinkie did the exact opposite of what she was told. She turned around and began running, ready to outrace or hide from her father. His next words, however, stopped her cold.
"If you walk out, don't bother ever coming back!"
She froze in place. For several seconds, or perhaps even minutes, Pinkie couldn't quite remember now, there was a stalemate.
A hoofstep, then another, and Pinkie's legs carried her away from her childhood home. The sound of a window slamming down filled her ears for a moment, but it seemed to echo forever.
Halfway down the road, a new sound filled her ears. "Pinkie!"
She froze and turned. Her mother was chasing down the road after her. She began to pick up speed.
"Pinkie, wait! Please, stop!"
To her own surprise, the filly actually stopped. She turned to face her mother, and was surprised to see that her eyes were moist.
"Pinkie, please... don't leave."
"I have to," Pinkie said sadly. "You're not letting me have fun..."
"Pinkie, we're only trying to do what's best. Please..."
There was a silence. The runaway looked down the road, then back at her mother. "You spanked me..."
"...We... we might not have done it the best way. We were only doing what we thought was for the best. Please..."
"You hurt me," she said. There was no anger, only sadness.
"Pinkie, please... come back to the house and we'll talk. I'll calm your father down, I promise...you can go back to your normal chores...please..."
The cries had genuine sadness and fear in them. They tugged at the filly's heartstrings. She wanted so badly to obey, but she wanted to leave too. Maybe she could work things out...
"You didn't talk to me before."
It wasn't said in anger, or even sadness. It was a mere statement of fact.
She turned. She walked.
"Pinkie! Pinkie, please!"
She kept walking.
She didn't look back.
"...Fine! Walk away! But don't come back! See what's it's like out there! I hope I never see you again!"
She kept walking. She didn't look back. She never looked back. She walked, and walked, until the sun rose on the horizon. By then, she had entered the area of crop farms. She found a bale of hay, crawled into it, burying herself in the straw, so deep she could pretend the rest of the world didn't exist.
And then she cried.
Speedy Delivery was not happy. And that usually meant trouble for Scootaloo. But Scootaloo wasn't happy either, and she was determined to make it mean trouble for Speedy Delivery.
"You don't think you're clumsy, huh?" the older pegasus said slowly. Then, like flipping a switch, his demeanor suddenly changed. "Well fine, I mean, how am I to know? I only raised you and gave you everything you've ever had."
"Including my scooter," the younger pegasus challenged. "I've done things on that you wouldn't believe."
"Of course you have," he said sweetly. "Since you can't fly, you have to settle for a poor substitute. It's nothing to be ashamed of, sweetie, you're just not good enough..."
"I am good enough."
"Of course you think that, because you’re spending far too much time playing instead of learning. You're just a..."
"I'm not stupid!" Scootaloo screeched, causing Speedy Delivery to hold his ears at the sudden increase in noise. He glared at his offspring.
"I think you're forgetting I'm your father, I know best. You listen to me..."
"I don't care!" she challenged. "You're wrong!"
"You can't fly!"
"I did today!"
Scootaloo's hooves clamped over her mouth in horrific realization at what she had just admitted. Her father was no longer trying to hide his rage, though he was keeping it pent up. "What?"
At this point, Scootaloo decided to just go for broke. Determination seeped back in her voice, rage she hadn't even been aware she had kept pent up came to the surface. "That's right! I flew! Rainbow Dash offered me lessons and I took them! She helped me fly! I flew farther than I ever thought possible today! I could do it! You just couldn't see it! You were wrong!"
It was like a weight off her chest. She stood proudly, firmly... for a moment. Her father's gaze which seemed to bore right through her, got her to shrink down.
Then, Speedy Delivery took a breath.
Pinkie took a deep breath. It was easier now, making it through her story without losing it. Fluttershy acted as an emotional brace, having heard the story before. Her friends had varying reactions.
"I don't believe it!" Rainbow Dash said angrily. "How could they... how could she ask you to stay after all that? How could you even think of staying?"
"I don't know," Pinkie said sadly. "Maybe I should have stayed if they were willing to talk things out..."
"No way," Rainbow Dash said bluntly. "They were being jerks. Just drop them!"
"...Isn't that what we did to Twilight?"
The cyan pegasus looked like she had been stabbed in the gut. Twilight flinched as well, the memory still painful for her.
"Well... that's different, this seems pretty black and white..."
"We thought that at the wedding too," Fluttershy pointed out gently.
"Pinkie..." Rarity said slowly, "I cannot say whether or not you made the right choice in deciding to walk away, but I must ask: did you ever consider going back to try and patch things up?"
After a pause, Pinkie nodded. "I thought about it, but I... I could never work up the courage. My dad and mom were so mean... I don't think..."
They were quiet while they let Pinkie regain herself. She continued. "I don't think I can face them."
"Why the hay are you bringing this up to us now?" Applejack asked. "It seems... a bit out of the blue."
Pinkie was quiet again. "Princess Luna told me I needed to talk about this. I... I guess it's been messing me up for awhile..."
"...Like at your birthday?" Twilight asked quietly.
The earth pony nodded. "And... and my parents are coming here, to Ponyville."
Five sets of eyes popped out of their heads. "What?"
"I got a letter from them a few days ago. They say that they want to come and... and try to make things right."
There was silence.
"Are... are you going?" Rainbow Dash asked.
"...Yes," Pinkie said. "I need to."
There was another silence. This time, it was Twilight who broke it. "When are they going to be here?"
"In about ten days."
"Do you want us to be there?" Twilight asked gently, already knowing the answer.
"Could you please? I'm so scared..."
"You really have to ask?" Rainbow Dash said, as if she had just asked if ice was made of water. "Of course we will."
Pinkie knew in the back of her mind that all her friends would say yes, but actually hearing it happen made her cry. For the next several minutes, she just let her friends comfort her. Everything was going to turn out just fine.
However, the moment, was interrupted by a knock at the front door. Excusing herself, Twilight walked to answer it.
She was quite surprised to see two members of the Royal Guard standing before her.
"Lady Sparkle," one greeted.
"Oh, um, hello," she said, stunned. "Can I help you?"
"We were sent from Canterlot to search out the three dragons you reported earlier today. We haven't found anything in a three hundred mile radius, so we're about to give an all clear, we just need to ask you a few questions."
As Twilight handled the guards, Rarity excused herself. Covertly, she signaled for Applejack to follow. The two went into another room.
"Okay, Rare, what's up?"
"Applejack... Pinkie talked to me earlier today."
"She told you all this?"
"...No. She told me something else."
"Oh, I think you know."
"...No, I really don't."
"Oh Applejack, you don't have to hide your feelings from me. It might be difficult, but I think you could make it work."
"You really must be open to this. If you go tell Twilight how you feel, I'm sure you two can..."
"Finally, this is the last one," Vinyl noted, levitating the last two boxes into the living area. "I don't see why we couldn't hire some movers for this?"
Octavia rolled her eyes. "Really, this apartment costs five hundred bits a month. We need to cut corners until we get savings."
"Cruddy Canterlot... I don't see why I had to move here instead of you moving to Ponyville."
"Because there's not much demand for a fancy cellist in a small hick town."
"Oh, here we go, do you always have to insult my town?"
"I did no such thing!" Octavia said, insulted.
"Yesh, news flash, prim and proper, hick generally has negative conotations..."
"Oh, wow, you now know a four syllable word, how wonderful," the grey mare answered with a roll of her eyes.
"And that's another thing, do you always have to..."
The two mares threw themselves at each other, locked in a fearful embrace. "What was that?" the earth pony said fearfully.
"It must be the end times," Vinyl said quickly. "Quick, let's make out while we still can!"
The fancy mare rolled her eyes. "You are just a simple minded creature."
"...Sorry," the unicorn muttered as she began to pull away, but her partner tightened her grip.
"I didn't say no."
Applejack wobbled out of the farmhouse and into town, her body still sore from the night before. She was sincerely hoping to not run into anypony she knew that morning.
"Hey AJ," a voice called out from above. Knowing who it was, she tried to ignore it. Unfortunately, Rainbow Dash was not one to be ignored.
"You look tired. Did you have a long night with..."
"Don't. You. Dare."
"Aw, come on..."
"It ain't funny," the cowpony growled. "You know why I'm so sore..."
"Yeah, apparently Royal Guards aren't too keen on you jumping at another pony yelling angrily. Who'd have thought."
"...It weren't that bad..."
"AJ, you knocked one of the guards out."
"It was an accident!"
"It took me, Twilight, and the other guard to hold you down. You're lucky you're not in jail right now."
The cowpony grumbled angrily.
"So, when's your first date?"
Applejack swung at her friend, but Rainbow Dash was already in the air, so the attack didn’t amount to much.
“Aw, don’t be like that,” the pegasus chuckled, clearly only encouraged. “I think the two of you just need a good night of cider drinking and your feelings will come out. Who knows? Maybe we'll fly the two of you to Las Pegasus and get you...”
The glare her friend shot her got Rainbow Dash to stop talking, but only because she was too busy laughing. Grumbling, the cowpony continued on, with her friend right behind her.
“Don’t ‘cha got somethin’ better to do than harass me?” Applejack shot.
“Not really,” she shrugged. “That’s the thing after a big storm, weather tends to be sunny for a while. We just needed to set out a few clouds, and I’m not needed for that. Which means I can rib you about this all day.”
“No you can’t. I’ve got farmwork to do today. I can’t have ya floatin’ behind me all the dang time.”
Rainbow Dash shrugged. “Fair enough. Looks like my fun is down for the day. I wonder if Scootaloo is up for another lesson?”
“Scootaloo?” Applejack smirked. “Not prankin’ with Pinkie, or hangin’ out with Fluttershy?”
The cyan mare blushed. “Well... I’m still worried about the kid. See, yesterday...”
“Uh, Dash?” the cowpony muttered in shock.
The reason for the surprise was that there seemed to be a gathering just ahead of them. There was a makeshift stage made out of milk cartons. There was a backdrop composed of a wooden frame covered with a canvas. Drawn on was an olive branch with the words “Seek the Peace” written in big, black letters.
A white unicorn with a megaphone for a cutie mark stood on the stage. Levitating a bullhorn up to his lips, he began speaking. “Citizens of Ponyville, hear me! You are in great danger! Certainly you have noticed just how close to death you have all come to. No, I am not talking about the changeling invasion, though that little mess had many of the same root problems. I’m talking about the attack just two days ago that could have gotten you all killed had things happened just a little differently.”
Coming up to the crowd, Rainbow Dash and Applejack gave each other curious glances. The cowpony tapped the shoulder of the first pony she came to, which happened to be Lyra.
“Hey, do you know what the hay this guy’s talkin’ ‘bout?”
“He’s talking about the dragons you and the other fought a few days ago,” the unicorn noted, levitating a newspaper up to her friend. “It’s made the papers.”
Applejack looked on and realized that this wasn’t any local paper. It carried the title of The Truth, and it bore an ominous front headline.
CELESTIA’S PET DRAGON LURES HIS KIND TO THE OUTSKIRTS OF A PEACEFUL RURAL TOWN. DESTRUCTION BARELY AVERTED
“What the ponyfeathers is this?” Rainbow Dash said angrily.
“Can you all imagine what would have happened had that dragon not been at the town’s edge? You would all be out of your homes and likely your employment, and many might have died.”
There was some murmurs to that. Rainbow Dash and Applejack looked at each other, not liking where this was going.
“And do you know why this happened? It happened because you’re housing a dragon, one that has been forced on you by our so-called beloved princess. Celestia sent him to live here, and now he has put you in danger!”
That got murmurs, both at the insulting of Spike and the criticism of the princess. Rainbow Dash snorted angrily while Applejack dug her hooves into the ground.
“Celestia insisted on keeping a beast among civilization, and look what it nearly cost all of you. Sure, you might have been spared this time, but what happens next time? Are you really willing to put your lives in danger over some monster.”
“That’s it!” Rainbow Dash said, flying up. Applejack tried to restrain her friend, but missed her by a longshot as the pegasus flew forward and landed on stage. “Listen here, I’m already sick of you!”
“And what do we have here?”
“Look you, I’ve been listening to you for a minute, and I’m already sick of you badmouthing my friends. You better stop, or else!"
Applejack hit her forehead with her hoof. She knew what happened next.
"Behold, one of Celestia's attack dogs, baring her teeth at the slightest resistance," the speaker said, playing the crowd once again.
"Slightest? Your badmouthing the princess and my friends!"
"That incompetent tyrant sitting on the throne in Canterlot? The one who allowed the Changeling Queen to set up an invasion right under her nose? Why not?"
"Look you, I'm going to..."
"And behold! The true colors of the monarchy," the pony jeered, "threatening with physical..."
"Oh shut up," Bon Bon jeered from the back. "I'm getting pretty sick of you myself."
"Oh, you poor soul, so lost from the monarch's..."
"Actually," Doctor Whooves countered, "I'm growing quite tired of you myself."
"Oh, and I suppose you think you're better versed in the ways of the world than I am?"
"You have no idea..."
“You’ve all been cheated and lied to! The Princess...”
“Oh, put a sock in it,” another pony yelled. Much to the speaker’s surprise and horror, that cry received a chorus of agreements to it.
Suddenly, the speaker who had been filled with vim and vigor mere moments ago was beginning to falter. "Friends, I speak nothing but the truth. The dragon..."
"Is a respected member of our community," Mayor Mare interrupted, coming up to the front. On either side, she was flanked by Chief Book ‘Em and one of her aides. "One I do not like you badmouthing. And I don't recall you getting a permit to speak here." After a pause, she leaned down to her aide and whispered "They didn't get a permit, did they?"
"No, ma'am," the aide assured.
“Well then,” the old mare continued, “you must pack up and head out.”
“You can’t silence the truth!”
“You’re right,” Book ‘Em said coolly, “but I can silence the idiot yelling stupid things at the ponies in my town. So I suggest you pack up and leave, immediately.” This received a chorus of agreements from the crowd.
The pony backed up a bit, his eyes shifting nervously, clearly unsure whether to stay or leave. In the end, he knew he was beaten, the crowd wasn’t on his side. He jumped off his stage. With a glow of his horn, the setup folded itself into a cube, rather impressive magic, all things considered. “You’ll see the truth eventually,” the unicorn proclaimed, then walked off, ignoring the jeers he was getting.
The Keeper smiled. “Well done, Ponyville,” she noted, looking at Applejack’s tome. Sighing, she turned her gaze to the one belonging to another pony. “I just wish Canterlot was as intelligent...”
“Ask yourself, how many of you were horrified at the thought of a dangerous creature attending the same school you did?” This got a number of agreements. “But because even at a young age you took a stand, you were spared any danger! You chased that beast off, though Celestia has ignored your feelings!
“And I ask of you: can you sleep at night knowing how poor Canterlot’s defenses are? The Royal Guard was on high alert, and yet the Changeling Queen was able to waltz right in and kidnap a member of the Royal Family and impersonate her for months! Those expertly trained guards expecting an attack lost the capital in ten minutes! All the warning in the world couldn’t have helped them!”
That got agreement out of everypony.
“And where is Shining Armor now, when the Changeling Queen needs to be found? On vacation! Fraternizing with his consort and deciding that that’s more important than your lives! He knew the kingdom was in trouble, yet he insisted on holding the ceremony right then and there!”
Another chorus of agreements, even as two Royal Guards pushed their way through the crowd. The unicorn speaker noticed them.
“And what have we here?” the speaker sneered. “Come to try and shut me down!”
“That all depends,” one guard said, trying to keep his tone neutral, though a tone of disapproval was heard. “Let’s see your permit.”
Unlike his Ponyville counterpart, this one was better prepared. He produced a parchment decorated with the Royal Seal. It was a permit, authorizing speaking on a political matter, and authorized for this specific area of the city.
“...It’s legit,” the first guard muttered, unable to keep the disappointment out of his voice.
“Very well,” the second guard mumbled, “carry on, as long as this doesn’t get violent, we don’t care.”
It was half-truth, half-lie. The speaker noticed as they walked away, and continued making comments about them.
“Behold, how they flee from the truth...”
It took all of the guards’ discipline not to just turn around and silence the speaking pony, but that was exactly was he was counting on, and they knew it. They simply walked off, ignoring the shouting crowd.
Spike awoke feeling much better than the previous day. The pain that had coursed through his body was disappearing. He had been brought gently to the breakfast table by his mother, who fed him generously as the day before.
“I’m sorry you fell asleep last night, that dinner was for you,” Twilight sighed. “Do you want to do something special next month?”
Spike perked at this. “Why next month?”
“...Pinkie... I have a lot to tell you. See...”
She was interrupted by her front door opening. Applejack and Rainbow Dash rushed in, looking disheveled. “Twi, good, you’re here... so is Spike, that’s good.”
“What’s going on?” the unicorn demanded.
“You’re not going to like this,” the pegasus said nervously, producing the newspaper the speaker had been passing out.
Rainbow Dash was correct. One look at the paper and Twilight looked nearly as mad as she had when facing down Garble. “What. Is. This?”
As Spike took the paper, Applejack spoke. “There was some fella speakin’ in th’ town, bangin’ on about how Spike was a menace and th’ Princess isn’t runnin’ things right,” she practically spat.
“Oh, those...” Twilight growled.
Then she glanced over at her son. His expression stopped her.
He wasn’t crying, but he looked like he wanted to... or at least, would have if he were younger. He just looked at the headline, not bothering to read the rest, he knew it was the same comments he had heard for years.
“Spike...” Twilight said slowly, “it’ll be okay...”
“I know,” Spike said, his voice wavering a little. “I just thought... I just thought it was over... that I didn’t have to put up with this anymore...”
“Oh, you won’t,” Rainbow Dash assured, “nopony listened to him. He’s been chased off.”
Spike breathed a sigh of relief, but Twilight had to shatter that perception. “I’m sorry, Spike, but this doesn’t look like it’s limited to Ponyville... this might be a problem.”
Spike drooped again, but this had no effect on Rainbow Dash. “I don’t think so. Can’t the Princess handle this?”
“How? It’s not illegal to print political opinions in Equestria.”
“Well, yeah,” Rainbow stuttered. “But...”
“How big can this thing spread?” Applejack asked. “I don’t want these fellas gettin’ the upper hoof...”
“I doubt it will come to anything,” Twilight said, “but it never hurts to be careful. Spike, are you up for sending another notice to the Princess?”
Before Spike could answer, Scootaloo came into the library, clutching the second Daring Do book between her teeth. She was initially bounding in, but upon seeing her idol she stopped in surprise.
“Squirt?” Rainbow Dash asked.
“Huh, Runbuw Dush,” she muttered before spitting the book out. “Hi, Rainbow Dash!”
“Hey kiddo,” she smiled, wrapping a wing around her student and pulling her in close.
Twilight levitated the book up. “Did you finish this already? You just checked it out two days ago!”
“Well, no...” she admitted, “but I don’t need it anymore! My dad said he was going to buy me the whole set tonight!”
The three adult ponies looked a bit surprised. “That’s nearly a two hundred bit set,” Twilight said in a bit of disbelief. “He’s buying them for you just like that?”
The filly nodded. “He’s buying them for me as an apology present.”
That got the their attention. “What do you mean...” Spike began, but he was interrupted by Rainbow Dash scooting down to her level.
“Kid... was something going on?”
Scootaloo kicked the ground a bit. “Well... please don’t get mad, Rainbow Dash, everything’s better now...”
“Kid, I won’t make a big deal out of things if they’re really better.”
“...Well... my dad... he was just putting me down. He didn’t mean to,” she added quickly, “he was just looking out for me. But... he was doing things that made me feel bad.”
“...And what did you do?”
“I... I just... got mad and told him he was wrong. I told him everything... about our flying lessons...”
“Wait,” the older pegasus was looking upset, “they didn’t know about the lessons? Were you keeping this from him?”
“...Yes. He... he kept telling me that I was too clumsy to learn how to fly... he was just being overprotective.”
“Oh really?” the older pegasus said, crossing her forelegs, “and did he say this himself?”
Scootaloo smiled and nodded. “He said that he was sorry... and that he would teach me flying.”
“...Really?” Rainbow Dash asked slowly.
“Yeah! Thanks for teaching me, but you don’t have to anymore. My dad is going to start tomorrow... not that I don't like learning from you, but..."
"I understand," Rainbow Dash answered. "He's your dad. I'm happy for you."
Twilight, Applejack, and Spike exchanged a look. They weren't sure if even Rainbow Dash herself believed it.
Scootaloo hugged her idol’s leg. "Thank you so much for teaching me. And... I wanted to invite you to have dinner with my family."
That caught Rainbow Dash off guard. "Really?"
Scootaloo nodded happily. "I told my dad that Soarin' was coming into town to meet you, and he decided he wanted to thank you for teaching me by having you over for a meal one night. Will you do it? Please?"
Rainbow Dash was silent for a moment. "I need to talk to Soarin' about it, but I'm sure he'd say yes. Sure!"
"Great!" the filly exclaimed, looking giddy. "I got to get back home, but I'll tell my dad what you said! Thanks for everything, Dash!"
With that, the filly skipped out, looking happy and content.
There was a silence that hung over the library. "Well," Applejack said at last, "that solves that."
"Yeah," Rainbow Dash noted, rubbing her chin. "A little too well."
"Now Dash," the cowpony started, smiling smugly, "you sure you're not just... jealous?"
Twilight opened her mouth to comply, but memories of the wedding came flooding in. "...Maybe we should keep a few eyes out..."
Applejack looked at her friend incredulously. "Twi, you really think that filly's bein' abused? From the look of things..."
"We all went by 'the look of things' at the wedding, and look what happened," the pegasus retorted. "I'm not taking any chances..."
"I agree," Twilight noted. "Just don't do anything reckless, Rainbow Dash," Twilight noted. "The last thing we need is to make ourselves look bad... especially with these ponies around," she added, holding up the newspaper.
Pausing, she glanced at the paper, bothering for the first time to look at the author of the piece. "I wonder who this Olive Branch pony is...”
Olive Branch, meanwhile, was rubbing his head with a hoof. "So... the ponies of Ponyville didn't take to our message," the said wryly.
"That's right," the speaker pony said. "Even if we could get permits, I doubt anypony would listen to us..."
The leader brushed his subordinate away. "We always knew that town would be a particullarly hard nut to crack... they are tight knit, after all. I knew trying to apply for a permit wouldn't have changed much."
"So... where do we go from here?"
"We'll have to wait," Olive Branch said simply, "for our speakers in Canterlot to report back. In the meantime, I have another little surprise cooking up..."
Rarity was currently entertaining a rare guest. While Zecora wasn't an unusual sight around Ponyville anymore, seeing her among frivolities such as dresses was something unusual. Still, this particular dress was to help her home country, so she was willing to take the time to help her friend.
"Though to get used to it might take awhile, vibrant colors are a zebra's style..."
"I see," Rarity said politely, sewing the patches of cloth together. "I must say, this is a far cry from pony fashion... but anything endorsed by Fancypants will sell."
"Um..." Fluttershy said nervously as Rarity wrapped the fabric around her body, "am I going to have to wear these at the auction?"
"Oh, no darling, I couldn't possibly ask you to after..." Rarity trailed off. Zecora lifted an eyebrow but thought it best not to comment. "Believe me, I wouldn't even ask you to if I thought any of the others would do it. I dare say, I don't think Pinkie or Rainbow Dash would be able to sit still for more than five minutes. This simply has to be done now, I've delayed far too long already, especially for a client who pays as well as Fancypants."
"This rich young pony I wish to meet, his generosity is quite a treat."
"You'll get a chance to meet him in about a week," the unicorn assured. "He'll be coming by to pick up my dresses for his auction..." Rarity trailed off. "Have you heard what went on in town?"
"That wicked speaker? I did indeed. For such hurtful things there is no need."
"Oh my, yes," the pegasus said timidly. "I saw everypony talking about it after he was chased off. Rainbow Dash broke it up, thank goodness..."
"Yes, well, that pony seemed a bit... xenophobic, I was wondering, did they say anything to you?" Rarity asked, turning toward the zebra.
"They have not spoken to I, when they see me they just pass by."
Rarity shook her head. "I was appalled to hear it. Derpy told me when she delivered my mail this morning. That pony's lucky too. What I wouldnt give to march up to him and give him a piece of my mind."
"Reacting in anger leads only to dread, stay calm and peaceful, you should instead."
Rarity sighed. "I suppose you're right... rather unladylike, I know, but after all Spike's suffered through the last few days..." she shook her head. "There's simply been so much going on, darling... and I must say, this wouldn't have happened if I'd have had the mind to keep quiet..."
"I believe they say the loosest of lips, can sink even the mightiest of ships."
Rarity sighed. "I believed I was doing the right thing, warning everypony of the threat. But..."
"Oh Rarity, don't feel bad..." Fluttershy said weakly.
"When horrible equines want to have their say, they'll twist the truth in whichever way," Zecora noted sagely. "For now, there little you can do to atone, so why not concentrate on the work in your home?"
Clyde reached the end of his slow, melancholy song. Pinkie, Inkie, and Blinkie clapped, half out of obligation, and half because they truly did appreciate it.
"Okay, enough of that," Granny Pie laughed. "Let's pick up the pace! Come on, sonny, sing something upbeat!"
"Mother," Clyde winced, rubbing his head with a hoof, "it's important for them to learn some slow, respectable songs..."
"Oh of course it is," the elder mare waved a hoof, "but they've had their fill for tonight. Come on."
"...I still say they should keep learning," Clyde said, though he was clearly resigned to losing the argument.
"Oh, pish-posh. You're such a fuddy-duddy. Why, even as a kid you hardly let loose if I wasn't tickling you."
At that, Clyde blushed. His kids perked up. His wife, busy knitting in her chair, stopped and looked amused, in spite of herself.
Granny Pie just smiled. "All I had to do was poke you right..." she jabbed the tip of her hoof into his ribs. Instantly Clyde, of whom his kids suspected would have his face enchanted to stay in the same expression if he thought he could get away with it, cracked a smile and a snicker. He immediately put himself back to normal, or tried to anyway. The nervous sweat from what he expected was coming next kind of made that hard. His children tittered, also sensing what was coming.
"Mother..." Clyde tried to sound firm, and his level of failure in that regard was nothing short of impressive. "Don't..."
"Go on, kids, try it!"
Clyde nearly screamed in terror. Rightly so. His foals, who had developed a sixth sense to know when an adult gave them permission to be rambunctious, leapt straight at their father. The farmpony hit the ground as his kids climbed over him.
"You kids stop or I'll..."
Any threats were lost in his laughter as six tiny hooves assaulted him. Granny Pie laughed too, not lifting a hoof to help her son.
"S-stop!" he giggled. "A-alright, that's i-it!"
He managed to get Pinkie and Inkie pinned. Blinkie still sat on his back, tugging at his ears, but he paid her no mind for now. He instead pressed a hoof into each of his daughter's stomachs, causing them to giggle.
Pinkie Pie came back to reality, noticing that the cookie she had been decorating now had more icing than cookie.
"Sorry, Mr. Cake," Pinkie said sheepishly.
"Try dabbing the excess on the other cookies," her employer instructed. As she got about her task, he spoke again. "Thinking about your parents?"
"...Yes," she said, not slowing her work. "...Dad was just... he wasn't really different before Granny Pie passed on, but..."
"Grief does weird things to ponies," Mr. Cake said simply.
"But... it didn't seem to do anything at all..." Pinkie sighed. "He cried a lot for a few weeks... we all did. Then he went back to being him. I thought..."
Mr. Cake looked at his employee awkwardly. "I think the only way to straighten all this out to talk to him."
Pinkie felt her stomach lurch. She would have never thought it was possible to wish an event would both come and never happen, but here they were.
"Why don't you go relieve Cup of the twins," he suggested. Pinkie could be distracted from a lot of things, but her surrogate siblings were not one of them, and he knew it.
"Oh! That could be fun!" she said. She knew it was a distraction, but she jumped on it. It was what she needed at the moment.
Scootaloo skipped home. A weight had been lifted off her shoulders. Her dad and her had cleared the air, and she was going to get lessons directly from him. No more getting talked down to, everything was going to be perfect.
She opened her front door, and was almost immediately greeted to her father calling calmly from the other room. “Scootaloo, is that you?”
“Then come in here,” he said. The instruction was unnecessary, Scootaloo was already heading toward the living room.
Speedy Delivery sat on his couch, watching his daughter come in. He opened his mouth to speak, but she spoke first.
“Rainbow Dash said she’d love to come for dinner!”
“Oh, did she now?” he answered pleasantly.
“Yeah! She going to talk to Soarin’ about coming! She should know sometime soon and...
Speedy Delivery stood. Scootaloo stopped as her father walked over to her. There was a tense moment.
“Well, let’s see those wings.”
Smiling, the young filly extended them proudly.
And then, a large hoof came down on top of the left one, sending it to the floor. Scootaloo yelped in surprise and pain as she was pulled to the floor.
“Ow,” the filly whined in pain. Her father’s hoof pressed down on it, not as hard as he could, but enough to cause some discomfort. He grinded his hoof, causing additional pain. “Wh-what are you doing?”
“You disobeyed me,” he said coldly.
“But...” she had tears in her eyes. “But you said...”
“Well, I had to take advantage of an opportunity. You were simply stupid enough to fall for it.”
“I’m not stupid!” she shrieked.
Speedy Delivery responded by grinding harder, causing her to yelp in pain. “You just cut yourself off from something you loved. Do you feel smart?”
Scootaloo let out another sob. “Why are you doing this?”
At this, he leaned in close to his daughter’s face. “Because, I’m your father. You’re my daughter, my little pony. I decide what’s best for you. Not Rainbow Dash, not anypony else, me. I’m truly disturbed that you don’t get that. But you understand now, don’t you?”
A hiccup. “Y-yes.”
The hoof grinded harder. “Yes, what?”
“...Y... Yes, Daddy.”
At this, he finally released his daughter. Scootaloo fell back, sobbing on the ground.
“Now, why did you make me hurt you?” he sighed. “This wouldn’t have happened if you weren’t such a bad kid.”
Scootaloo just sobbed.
“Now...say you’re sorry.
“...I... I... I’m sorry, Daddy.”
“Yes, you are,” Speedy Delivery answered neutrally. “You will not be leaving this house until the dinner with Rainbow Dash, so I suggest you get comfortable.”
Scootaloo looked at her father, confusion showing through the tears. The dinner was real. “But... why?”
“You shouldn't question him, little one,” a new voice said.
Scootaloo stopped. It wasn't her mother. She turned her head towards where she had come in.
“After all,” Olive Branch noted, “Father knows best.”
The next few days, all things considered, were surprisingly peaceful, at least in Ponyville. The speaker didn’t dare return, it was clear he’d get no support. Rarity spent most of that time indoors, finally getting her order for Fancypants done. Applejack’s farm work caught up for her, keeping her home. Twilight, meanwhile, was having troubles of her own.
“My dearest Twilight,” she read Celestia’s letter out loud, “I have heard of these troublemakers. They are on the streets of Canterlot as we speak, trying to stir up trouble. Under other circumstances, I would simply ignore them long enough for the controversy to die down. Fear and paranoia tend to burn out quickly, especially when confronted with logic. However, under the circumstances, I fear more proactive measurements must be taken.
“I wouldn’t worry for Spike’s safety, at least not yet. These ponies need public approval, and in order to get to Spike they would have to harm ponies, which would be bad for their image. I would still recommend you keep him indoors for a while. Also, due to the protests I must currently deny your application for adoption papers. I’m sorry, Twilight, but given the circumstances it might be best for all of us to wait until this dies down. I promise to send you the necessary paperwork as soon as I can. I will send further information as it becomes available.
“Sincerely, Princess Celestia.”
Twilight shook with rage. Not at the Princess, but at the conditions. After everything, Spike still wasn’t getting his happy ending...
She shook the thought off. Spike was her son, no matter if she had some piece of paper designating it so. She had more immediate concerns to worry about.
She picked up a copy of Warning Signs of Abuse and sat it on her favorite reading table. Rainbow Dash was still counting on her.
CELESTIA THROWS GOOD BUDGET TO ATTACK DOG IN LEAN TIMES
Celestia scowled at the headline. Perhaps waiting a bit before giving Twilight her raise would have been smarter, but she still couldn’t stand it. She knew most of the ponies complaining about the proposed tax increase would be taking milk baths throughout the whole ordeal. Not that such a thing was likely to happen now. Fancypants had successfully contributed about half the needed funds, with Jet Set raising another fourth through his various auctions, the damage wasn’t going to be as long lasting as first thought.
CHANGELINGS: HOW’D THEY SLIP UNDER CELESTIA’S RADAR?
She sighed at that one too. Cadance, alone, in those caves for weeks, could have been avoided if only for some attentiveness on her part.
The next article caused her to gape.
TWILIGHT SPARKLE: ATTACK DOG TO THE END
Twilight Sparkle has continued a position of support to Celestia despite rumors of some less than savory dealings behind the scene. We have previously noted the dramatic pay raise that she has received in her service of our dear tyrant. Perhaps this is less a case of brainwashing, and more a case of her being paid generously enough to work for such a cruel...
The paper burned to ash before Celestia’s anger. She fumed. Such an accusation... it...
“Sister?” Luna called, entering the room. the Princess of the Night entered with a few papers levitating behind her. She curiously glanced the floor where the ashes of the former tabloid had been before looking up. “Is everything...”
“Yes,” Celestia said, “I just... there are some arrows even I have trouble bearing. What have you brought me?”
“More bad news, I’m afraid,” the younger alicorn muttered, levitating the papers to her sister. “There’s a petition going around Canterlot to evict Shining Armor as Captain of the Guard, another to have Master Spike deported to dragon territory, and demands there be a cut in Twilight Sparkle’s funding.”
She sighed as she looked over the demands. “Any news on the changelings?”
“We have confirmed they were in the desert territories,” Luna informed. “There were more than enough sightings, and we found a mountain that was clearly used for a temporary base. We have searched for a trail, with the Appleloosian militia and the buffalo tribes assisting. The bison in particular have expert hunters, and they seemed all too willing to help.”
Celestia nodded. “They do love Equestrian cuisine,” she smiled. “I remember visiting. Chief Thunderhooves developed quite a sweet tooth for pie.”
“Still,” Luna said, “perhaps it’s time we called in Shining Armor from his honeymoon. Things are looking bad politically, he needs to be here.”
The Princess of the Sun was quiet for a moment. “After the wedding, they deserve some quiet...”
“Do not let your compassion get the better of you, sister. Remember how you excluded Cadance from suspicion during the wedding?”
Celestia looked like she had been stabbed. Luna went on. “You cannot put your loved ones’ comfort over running our kingdom. You know what I’m saying is right.”
“...I know,” Celestia sighed. “That doesn’t mean I have to like it. Very well, I’ll have word sent to bring Captain Armor home. In the meantime, we’ll leak that he took his honeymoon at my insistence. Given that these ponies seem eager to target me in particular, that should take some of this off him.”
“Are you sure that’s wise?” Luna asked skeptically. “Your own name is being tarnished...”
“My rule has been long enough that I can absorb it,” she said sternly. “For all the bravado this group shows, such a major change seems unlikely.”
“Are you still suggesting that we simply wait for this to die out?”
“...No. A few days ago I would have recommended it, but things are beginning to get out of control. I think we need some proactive steps.”
“What do you suggest?”
“I will agree to meet with a representative and let him plead his case. It doesn’t matter how much he kindles this fire, fear and paranoia tend to fall under reason and logic.”
“I suppose...” Luna nodded, “though they do not seem like rational ponies...”
“Perhaps not, but they will still not last long. Things will calm down, hopefully once we find the Changeling Queen.”
“Very well... any word on how Twilight Sparkle is handling this?”
“The group is not as popular in Ponyville as in Canterlot... thank goodness... so she and Spike are relatively safe. From what I hear, that group has bigger problems.”
Rainbow Dash knocked impatiently on Scootaloo’s front door. After about half a minute, the front door opened, and Quick Delivery greeted her. “Hey... what can I do for you?”
“Uh, yes...” Rainbow began, a little off guard. The mare seemed a bit dazed, her eyes seemed to be looking past the cyan mare and at something in the distance. “You’re Scootaloo’s mother, right?”
“Oh yeah... you must be Rainbow... Dash,” she said, as if she was having trouble forming her words.
“Yeah... I’m here because of Scootaloo inviting me and Soarin’ to have dinner with the family.”
Quick looked confused for a moment, then brightened up. “Oh yes, we wanted to thank you for the flying lessons... and of course, we’d love the opportunity to meet a Wonderbolt.”
“Yeah. Well, I sent a letter to Soarin’, and he got back to me with a response. We can have the dinner Saturday night.”
“Oh that’s good, that’s just what Speedy was planning... so you’ll both be by tomorrow?”
Rainbow Dash blinked in confusion. “Um...”
“Oh! I mean Satur-next Saturday! Oh, sorry. I’ve just been working so hard lately I can’t think straight. Anyway, I’ll pass the message along to Speedy.”
“That’s great. Can I talk to Scootaloo real quick?”
“Oh, no, no... poor filly fell asleep after the last training exercise.”
“...I see. Well... alright, I’ll see you in about a week.”
“We sure will. Good night!”
Rainbow Dash lifted an eyebrow before glancing up at the midday sun. “Right... see ya.”
With that, Quick Delivery closed the door. Rainbow Dash stared at the wooden barrier for a moment before turning around. This whole thing was suspicious. Quick Delivery seemed off somehow, but there was little to be done about it now.
She wanted to barge in and see her number one fan, to see what was going on... but then what? Even if she did find anything, it would be their word against hers, and being arrested for breaking and entering wouldn’t help the case.
Sighing, she took to the air and flew off. Maybe Twilight had found something.
Scootaloo pressed her hooves against the glass as she watched Rainbow Dash fly off. She pulled up every inch of her willpower to stop from rapping the glass to get her attention.
How can she help me anyway?
Before Rainbow Dash came along, she was a good little girl. She might have been clumsy, but she obeyed her father. Then she met Rainbow Dash and became so confused. It was doing what she said that made her dad angry.
She couldn’t remember being this scared. Throughout her whole life, through everything, her father had never physically hurt her. It was so jarring, like she had been wearing blinders her whole life that had been just knocked off.
Had her father always been like this? A bit condescending, certainly, but was it all intentional? This whole time...
Or... was he? She had tried doing it Rainbow Dash’s way, and look what it had gotten her. She had been fooled, so easily. How? Rainbow Dash had told her she needed to stand up for herself. Maybe her dad was right...
But... good parents didn’t hit their kids...A good parent wouldn’t have done what her father did.
Apple Bloom’s sister spanked her the last time she misbehaved, she remembered. This was no different, wasn’t it?
But Rainbow Dash said...
But her father said...
She flopped onto the bed. She pressed her front hooves against her head. She was so confused, if felt like her brain was going to split in two. She wished she could just go to sleep and escape the confusion. She wished she could go back in time and undo what had happened. She wished Rainbow Dash would fly in and whisk her away. She wished her father would come in and tell her she was forgiven.
She wished a lot of things. She wished she knew what she wanted.
“Alright, alright, settle down there,” Mrs. Cake cooed to the foals surrounding her. “There’s plenty for each of you.”
The foals all jumped as the baker passed out sugar cookies to them. She smiled at each smiling, happy face, but stopped on one.
This filly looked dirty. Not raggedly so, more like after a hard day of play. But she seemed thin, as if she wasn’t eating, and her expression was more of relief than excitement.
“Here you are, dear,” she said, trying to keep a straight face. The pink filly snatched the cookie. “Thank you,” she said, sounding more genuine than it should have, before turning. Even with her back to her, Mrs. Cake could tell she was devouring the treat like it was her first meal in days.
Quickly, Mrs. Cake made her way over to her husband and whispered in her ear. “You see that filly over there?”
Looking to where her wife was pointing, he nodded. “She seems a bit raggedy. Why?”
“...I don’t think she has a home.”
Mr. Cake blinked. “An orphan? Are you sure?”
“Not entirely. But I’m going to find out.”
“Cup, what are you...”
Carrot never got to finish that sentence, because at that point his wife saw the filly heading towards the exit. Thinking quickly, the mare moved to intercept her.
“Excuse me, sweetie?”
Pinkie stopped and looked at the baker. “Um, yes?”
“You seem like a nice young mare. What’s your name?”
“...Pinkie,” she said, as if unsure.
“Well, Pinkie, would you like a cupcake to go with your cookie?”
“Yes,” she answered immediately.
She smiled, leading the young one into the back. “I’m about to put a new batch into the oven. Why don’t you help me? I can teach you how to make them.”
“That’s neat! My parents only ever taught me how to make bread.”
Mrs Cake lifted an eyebrow. “Oh? Your parents are bakers?”
“Oh no,” she said, stumbling over her words. “They just liked to cook. They taught me how to do a little...”
“Well then, let’s see if we can’t help you improve your skills a little more...”
Day had turned into night, and yet the filly showed no interest in going home. In the past few hours, she had made cupcakes, muffins, cookies, and cakes. True to her word, she had some knowledge in baking, and took to the new recipes quickly.
Celestia had lowered the sun, and Mrs. Cake sent her to their restroom to bathe. While she was doing this, she quietly got the guest room ready, making sure to lock the window.
When Pinkie came out clean, the Cakes served her dinner. She ate hungrily, despite all the sweets she had eaten that day. After dinner, Mrs. Cake tucked her into the guest bed, where she instantly made herself comfortable.
Mrs. Cake gently patted Pinkie on the head before speaking. “Pinkie... do you have anypony else taking care of you?”
Immediately Pinkie turned white. Her mane seemed to deflate. Even without answering, Mrs. Cake knew the truth.
“Oh, I... um... what makes you think that?”
“Well, you made yourself awfully comfortable here for somepony who would have somewhere else to go.”
Pinkie shifted, trying to think up an excuse. But Mrs. Cake’s eyes bore right through her, and she sighed. “No... I’ve been on my own.”
“What happened to your parents?”
“...They...” the filly was silent for a good long while. Mrs. Cake just sat silently, waiting. “...died.”
The older pony gently rubbed her mane. “Why have you been living alone?”
“I... I don’t want to go to an orphanage.” Suddenly she leaned forward, wrapping her forelegs around the baker. “please don’t tell anypony! Please, please, please!”
Mrs. Cake hugged her back, and gave her a few minutes to calm down. Finally they parted.
“Why don’t you get some sleep tonight? I’ll talk with my husband about this tomorrow.”
“Okay,” Pinkie dropped. Mrs. Cake hesitated for a moment, then kissed her forehead. This seemed to ease her, she let her head hit the pillow.
“Good night, Pinkie,” she cooed, reaching the bedroom door and flicking out the light. She closed the door behind her, then, slowly so Pinkie wouldn’t hear, she locked the door. No need to risk her running away.
Mrs. Cake watched as the filly she had raised played on the floor with the twins. The day she had come into the bakery, they were unsure what to do with her.
They had vowed to report her to the authorities, but they never did, both because she was a joy to have around, and because she proved invaluable help around the bakery.
Before long, they were calling the guest room “Pinkie’s room”. Before long, they were sending her to school, attending Parent-Teacher conferences, and watching her perform in her school play, taking several pictures and showing them off to their friends and customers.
Eventually, Pinkie was noticed by the Mayor. She sent word around the orphanages, but nopony had reported her missing. There was little point in taking her back anyway, if she actually was happy. No point in adding one more foal to the already overwhelmed system.
There was never an official adoption. Pinkie never started calling them “Mom” and “Dad”, they never referred to her as their daughter. But everypony saw it that way anyway. There was no need to have it spoken.
And now... learning that they weren’t truly the only family she had left... it was a bit jarring.
She trotted over to Pinkie and nuzzled her gently. Pinkie paused, then returned the gesture.
“Are you feeling better?”
“...Not really,” Pinkie moaned as Pound and Pumpkin cooed, latching onto Pinkie. “My stomach’s still churning.”
“It’s only another week,” she tried to reassure. After a few moments, she spoke again. “You know... we never regretted taking you in. Ever.”
“I know,” Pinkie actually laughed. “I never regretted coming here.”
“You know regardless of what happens, you’ll have a home here.”
Pinkie nuzzled her foster mother again. “I know... and thank you.”
The longer the days went on, the more agonizing they got, for all involved. All the drama of the last few days gave way to routine without relief. There was tension coming, and none of them liked it.
Rainbow Dash's worry was likely only surpassed by Pinkie's. Every morning, and every evening, she had dropped by the library and asked Twilight what she had found, though neither of them were sure exactly what she was looking for anymore.
Indeed, each day the news seemed to get worse. Child abuse, especially when it was done non-violently, was notoriously hard to prove. Each case Twilight read made her stomach tie into knots. Celestia had tried for years to get better laws on the books, but the case by case nature of it made the task nearly impossible.
More than once, Rainbow Dash considered trying to visit Scootaloo again, though she quickly dropped that idea. If there was something going on, trying to visit might only make things worse.
"I should have stopped her," she had said one day while visiting, earning a look from Twilight.
"What do you mean?"
"Scoots. When she came by and told me everything was okay, I shouldn't have just let her go. Everything was telling me something was wrong."
"Dash... that wouldn't have sat well with the police, going off an instinct..."
"I know," she snapped. "But... I..." she placed her hooves on her stomach. "I can't stand this. It's driving me crazy!"
"It's only another two days," Twilight assured.
“Don’t tell me...” she began angrily, but she sighed. “I know, but...”
“Maybe you should read something to take your mind off things.”
“I’m all finished with Daring Do,” the rainbow maned pony brushed her off.
“There are other series besides that,” she noted, pulling a book off the shelf. “Here, this one is good. High fantasy, you’ll love it.”
The rainbow maned pony took it and leafed through the pages. “This one will take weeks...” she noted.
“It’ll get your mind off things.”
Celestia looked over the reply her messenger had brought her. She nodded, telekinetically floating over a ten bit tip to her servant and waving for him to wait. She turned back to Luna, who was sipping her own tea.
“It seems Olive Branch has agreed to an audience,” the Princess of the Sun noted, “but he wants it in two days.”
Luna tilted her head. “Whatever for?”
“Time to prepare,” she noted. “To gather the list of grievances they want to present and convince me to change.” She took a parchment and quill and began scratching out her reply.
“You’re allowing this?”
“If I do not, they will twist it to suit their agenda.”
“Yes, but... two whole days? It seems a bit of a stretch. Suppose they’re planning something?”
“It has occurred to me,” she admitted, finishing up her letter. She duplicated her letter with a simple spell, then handed the original copy to the messenger. “Stamp it with the Royal Seal and deliver it.”
The messenger took it and saluted, running off. Celestia turned back to her sister. “I seriously doubt anything will come of it... still, perhaps it wouldn’t be a bad idea to increase security.”
Spike ate the last bite of his gem cake. Twilight had to giggle at her boy’s appetite, he was finally eating normally after all those days of sorrow. This picnic had been a great idea, it seemed.
“Well, well, hello, Miss Sparkle.”
Twilight’s fur stood on end. She sprang to her hooves, looking around in worry. There, in front of their picnic, was a pony with an olive branch for a cutie mark, being flanked on either side by six large, muscular guards. Her eyes widened. An olive branch...
She grabbed Spike with her magic and placed him behind her. Olive Branch...
“Oh how cute,” the newspaper editor sneered.
“Don’t come any closer,” Twilight warned, her eyes glowing along with her horn. “There’s not a pony alive that can match me!”
Olive Branch just smiled. “Well, then... I guess it’s a good thing that we aren’t ponies.”
Suddenly the seven ponies’ eyes turned green, and a flash of flame revealed seven changeling soldiers.
In a flash, Twilight had summoned a shield around her and her son, keeping them safe. “I should have known. Don’t worry, Spike, they can’t get in here.”
“Oh, they don’t have to...”
Tensing up, Twilight turned to her boy, only to find him on top of her, his small arms wrapped around her neck. His eyes glowed the changelings’ sickly green and his fangs grew to monstrous proportions before they sunk into her neck.
Twilight awoke with a shriek, her heart racing. She took a few deep breaths to calm herself. She looked around. She was home.
She calmed herself. Of course, the nightmares were back. They wouldn’t just go away thanks to a talk with Applejack. The anti-Celestia group was not a group of changelings in disguise, Celestia had given each solid background checks and required each speaker to be tested. The excess magic shedded during the invasion meant that a changelings magic could be identified, and it was a simple matter for the Royal Guards to test any pony’s magic. The group had been cooperative in that regard at least. Her home was warded against the changelings as well, and she had not allowed to let Spike leave the house unaccompanied since the group had surfaced.
Twilight blinked, looking over at Spike’s basket. The dragon had lifted his head from his pillow, and was looking straight at her through the glaze of sleep. “What’s wrong?” he slurred.
“Nothing, Spike... I just had a nightmare. Go back to sleep.”
She laid her head back on her pillow and tried to think of a few comforting thoughts. Her head lifted at the sound of sheets rustling and tiny claws on the wooden floor.
Spike climbed into her bed, wrapping his arms around her neck and nuzzling close. Caught off guard, Twilight still instinctively wrapped her forelegs around him. “Spike... Wha...”
“You always let me sleep with you when I had nightmares. I think it’s only fair,” he mumbled. It was clear his exhaustion was fighting his compassion.
Twilight smiled, lifting the covers so Spike could slip under them. He was asleep before she had finished straightening them, and Twilight followed soon afterward.
”Pinkie...” Mr. Cake said slowly, “what is that?”
“An alligator,” Pinkie chirped.
“...Why are you feeding it a bottle of water?”
“Silly! Because reptiles don’t drink milk. Only mammals do that.”
“...I mean, why are you taking care of a baby crocodile?”
“...Why are you taking care of a baby alligator?”
“Fluttershy got it at her cottage yesterday, she said it was orphaned because of a few poachers.”
“...Pinkie, when we said you could get a pet... well, we didn’t mean something that could grow up so big... or that could bite!”
“Silly, he has no teeth! See?”
She pushed the reptile uncomfortable close to Mr. Cake’s muzzle. The gator opened his mouth wide, showing that it only possessed a set of gums. It helped confirm this statement by biting down on the baker’s nose.
“Aww, he’s hungry!” the mare cooed. “Isn’t that cute!”
“Uh, Pinkie?” Mr. Cake slurred.
She gently pulled her gator away. Placing him on the counter, Pinkie pulled a bottle of protein pills, pulling one out and popping it in her pet’s mouth.
“Oh, it’s already civilized?” Mr. Cake noticed.
Pinkie nodded. “He’s been eating pills since he was a hatchling!”
Mr. Cake breathed a sigh of relief. If his foster daughter really was going to keep this thing, at least it wouldn’t bite him in the flank as it grew old.
Pinkie giggled as the gator bit her front hoof. “Aww... I think I’ll call him Gummy...”
Gummy hadn’t grown much in three years, which was just fine for both of Pinkie’s employers. It proved a surprisingly good playmate for the twins... at least, he didn’t make too much of a fuss if they wanted to hug onto him tightly.
Pinkie was nearly as unresponsive as her pet today. Even watching the twins, she seemed to be on autopilot, and had to throw herself into playtime to distract herself.
Pound and Pumpkin sensed the change, nuzzling up to their foster sister. Gummy cocked his head at his master, wishing he knew what to do. She was taking deep breaths, and tears were appearing in her eyes.
Mr. Cake sighed as he saw this from the doorway. Trotting in carefully, he placed a hoof on her shoulder. Pinkie jumped initially, but relaxed when she saw who it was.
“Are you alright?” the baker asked, then added a hasty, “I mean, besides the obvious.”
“...No,” she admitted, sounding bitter. “My tummy hurts.”
“It’s only one more day,” he soothed. “After tomorrow, you’ll feel better, even if...”
He didn’t finish. He couldn’t. “Things will be alright. They want to come see you, remember? They wouldn’t be doing that if they weren’t going to make amends with you.”
Pinkie wiped her eyes. “I keep telling myself that.”
“...Maybe you should go for a walk, clear your head.”
“But... the twins...”
“Today’s a slow day,” he assured, “we can handle everything just today. You go out and try to clear your head. You’ve hardly left the bakery all week.”
Pinkie blinked, realizing her foster father spoke the truth. She had been so mopey the past week she hadn’t done much of anything...not since she had told the others the truth about her parents.
“...You’re right,” she said at last, standing up. “I want to talk to Twilight about something anyway.”
“Seriously, where does she get her gender politics?”
“You noticed, huh?”
“Twilight, you don’t need a degree in writing to see that. I mean, really, it’s like mares and stallions are two different species. And what’s up with the length? I’m starting to think she got paid by the word. And there are how many books?”
Twilight and Rainbow Dash’s discussion on literature came to an end as the front door opened and Pinkie walked into the library, smiling a small smile.
“Hey Twilight... Rainbow Dash.”
Both mares just stared at her, causing her to flinch. “What?”
“Pinkie...” Rainbow Dash said slowly...”are you nervous about your parents?”
Pinkie was about to answer, but Twilight cut her off. “Of course she is, they’re coming tomorrow,” she snapped a bit. She turned to Pinkie to talk, but she was cut off.
“Tomorrow?” the cyan pegasus shouted. “I thought it was the day after... the dinner with Scootaloo’s family is then...”
“What?” Pinkie said nervously.
“I... I’m sorry Pinkie,” Rainbow Dash said. “I... I messed up, I...”
Pinkie put a hoof up to her friend’s mouth, silencing her. She smiled in support. “Dashie, you don’t have to worry. My family’s coming in the morning, and your dinner’s at night.”
Rainbow Dash blushed. “Oh...” She rubbed the back of her head with her hoof. “I guess I did kind of overreact...”
Twilight rolled her eyes a bit, but concern crossed her features as well. She slowly took her gaze off Rainbow Dash and turned to her earth pony friend. “When are your parents going to be here?”
“Just after breakfast,” Pinkie answered. “That’s why I’m here, actually. Do you think... can I stay here tonight? Pretty please? I... I don’t feel comfortable sleeping at home tonight.”
Twilight and Rainbow Dash exchanged glances. “Pinkie,” the pegasus began slowly, “you’re not trying to run from this, are you?”
Pinkie shook her head vigorously. “No, no, no, no, no. I just...” Her eyes got wet. “I’m... scared. Please? I don’t want them in the house when I’m not awake...”
Rainbow Dash barely suppressed her groan. “Pinkie...” she began, but she was cut off.
“You can,” Twilight nodded, giving a reassuring smile. “I’ll tell Spike to set up the guest bed...”
“Ooh! I can go tell him! Where is he?”
“In the historical section, sweeping. Tell him if he just gets it out, I’ll set it up.”
“Okie dokie,” Pinkie chirped as she bounced upstairs.
After a moment of silence, Rainbow Dash spoke up. “Are you sure this is a good idea? Maybe we should make her face it.”
“I understand the logic,” Twilight answered, “but this is already nerve wracking enough for Pinkie. Plus...” she trailed off, then sighed. “This might be just paranoia, but... I kind of want to check Pinkie’s parents in case they’re... changelings.”
She blushed a bit, expecting Rainbow Dash to laugh. The pegasus just arched an eyebrow. “What makes you think they are?”
The unicorn shook her head. “I guess I’ve just been... edgy since the wedding. I think I’m starting to see changelings everywhere I go...”
“Please don’t go crazy on us. We need you to do the real work.” It was meant as a joke, and it was taken as such.
“...Are you still feeling bad about what happened?”
Rainbow Dash had not been expecting that question. “What made you think that?”
Twilight shot her companion a look that spoke volumes. “...Helping Scootaloo and Pinkie won’t make what happened just go away.”
Rainbow felt her stomach drop. She should have known she couldn’t keep things a secret from Twilight’s observations. “I know... but... it would make me feel better...”
“Rainbow, you really care about Scootaloo, don’t you? If you’re just treating her like a chance to be redeemed, you’re not being very fair to her.”
“Of course I care about her!”
There was a brief silence.
“...Sorry. I didn’t mean to snap.”
“And I didn’t mean to insult you. Just... be careful, okay?”
Rainbow Dash put on a proud smile. “When am I not?”
Twilight shot her that look again.
Celestia looked over the latest letter from Olive Branch, confirming that he could make the meeting time, and agreeing to the conditions. They would bring only three ponies, no weapons, and would behave civilly during the negotiations. She sat the letter on the table as her sister poured herself a cup of tea.
“Well, here’s hoping that all goes well,” the Princess of the Sun said, filling her own teacup.
“Indeed. Perhaps if things go well, we can commemorate the event with some champagne and...”
She trailed off at her sister’s glare.
“It was over a millennium ago!”
“I had to ban alcohol for a half a millennium because of it.”
“It wasn’t that bad...”
“The economic crisis lasted a decade.”
“Sister, I am not a foal any longer! I should be able to partake in this activity! I...”
“No. And that’s final, little sister. Do you understand?”
Luna glared at her sister for a moment... then lowered her head and sighed in defeat. “Yes, Celly.”
Scootaloo had done nothing but sit in her room for a week, but she had never been bored that whole time. When trying to figure things out, that had left little time to truly have nothing to do.
The door opened, and Scootaloo flinched. Speedy Delivery walked in, giving her the same cold glare he had been giving her the last few days.
“The dinner is tomorrow. You remember how to behave?”
“I mean it,” he said harshly. “You better not say anything until it’s time. Do you understand, or have you learned nothing?”
Scootaloo felt like crying. “Yes, I do.”
There was silence. Speedy reached toward her. She flinched, but was surprised to find his touch soft and gentle.
“There, there. It’s not entirely your fault. Rainbow Dash is manipulating you, I understand that.”
Scootaloo looked at her father with confused eyes. “Then... why did you hurt me?”
“Sometimes a parent has to hurt their little foal,” he whispered. He probably meant it soothingly, but it made her shiver in terror. “It’s what’s best for them.”
He leaned down until he was eye level with her daughter. “You have a lot to learn, little one. Maybe it was a mistake letting you have so much freedom, but I thought it would be better than risking you blabbing about what me and your uncle Olive Branch have been up to. I suppose it’s my fault, I shouldn’t have overestimated you.”
Scootaloo winced. Her father either didn’t notice or didn’t care. He went on.
“I’m going to give you another chance. If you can just get through dinner without saying anything, then I’ll forgive you. That’s what you want, isn’t it?”
She was silent. Her father pressed her hoof down on the back of her head. “Isn’t it?”
She gave a whimper. “Y-yes, daddy.”
He smiled. She didn’t feel any warmth from it. “Good.”
Then, he hugged her.
She froze. When he pulled apart, he looked into her eyes. He seemed warm, gentle.
“I’m sorry,” he said. He sounded genuine. “I’m doing this because it’s best for you. What I’m planning means great things for you, and me, and your mother. Once you see what comes of it, you’ll see why I had to do all this.”
Scootaloo cried. Her father hugged her once more.
“Shh, it’s okay, everything going to be okay, sweetie. Daddy’s here.”
He let Scootaloo cry for a good ten minutes. When they finally pulled apart, he smiled at her.
“Now, what do you say?”
“I love you, Daddy.”
To her immense surprise, Speedy kissed his daughter on the forehead.
“I love you too.”
The Cakes were usually up early in order to begin baking the goods for the day, but today their early rise had nothing to do with their business. A sign hung on their front door saying “Shop closed for personal business, will reopen tomorrow.”
Mr. Cake sat at the table, tapping his hoof against the wooden surface, while his wife paced the floor in front of them. There was a tense silence that had been building since the night before. They’d be here any second, and they prayed to the Royal Sisters it would be before Pinkie.
The knock finally came, hitting the front door with a few raps. Both just stared for a few moments before the matriarch of the family walked over. With a final deep breath to steady herself, she gripped the handle and opened the door.
She had spent the better part of the last two weeks trying to convince herself that they’d look like ordinary ponies when she saw them and not terrible monsters, and to her surprise, they did. They were all dull colors, with expressions of unease on their faces, but nothing about them would have made them stand out among a crowd.
Still, looking at them, there were a number of peculiarities about them. Clyde... an unusual name, for a pony... had a face that looked worn. Pinkie had described him as stone faced, though it seemed that stone had softened and eroded. The lines on his face could have made him pass as Pinkie’s grandfather. He was well built, a certain mark of his profession, though at the same time he seemed exhausted.
Sue Pie was at her husband’s side. She might have been considered attractive, had it not been for her style of mane and glasses being the opposite of what even common sense said to use as fashion. Rarity would probably have a heart attack on seeing her. Still, she had a strong, lean figure, making Mrs. Cake a little self conscious about her own weight.
Behind them were Pinkie’s two sisters, though at the moment, she couldn’t see them well.
“Is this the Cake residence?” Clyde asked, in a voice that, appropriately enough, sounded like gravel.
“It is,” Mrs. Cake answered, trying to sound emotionless. She stood to one side and allowed the the family to come in.
As they stepped through, she got her first good look at Inkie and Blinkie. She knew Pinkie was the oldest of the three sisters, but to her these two seemed her senior. Inkie’s boulder cutie mark barely stood out among her grey fur, while Blinkie’s pickaxe mark was more visible. It was clear Pinkie alone had left the family business.
After a moment, it clicked with Mrs. Cake. Pinkie was a grown mare, but she still often acted half her age. Whatever ponies thought of that, it did make it hard to picture her as an adult. Inkie and Blinkie, by contrast, were calmer and more stoic, and their frames were closer to Applejack’s that their sister’s.
“Where’s Pinkie?” Sue asked suddenly.
“She stayed the night with a friend and will be along shortly,” Mrs Cake said evenly. “Sit down.” The missing “make yourself at home” was obvious, but not commented on.
Inkie and Blinkie had noticed Pound and Pumpkin and were cooing at them. The infants giggled and laughed happily, sensing nothing wrong with the two. Mr. Cake steeled himself for the inevitable question on their parentage, but it never came. If they did suspect what most strangers did, he guessed they kept silent out of the knowledge they were far from morally superior.
There was a long, pregnant pause.
“Well...” Mr. Cake said at last, attempting anything to break the ice, “can I get you anything to drink? Perhaps a treat?”
“No... thank you,” Clyde said. “We agreed not to take anything until we talked to Pinkie.”
“Well, she’ll be along shortly... I hope.”
The rock farmer nodded. “Inkie, Blinkie, maybe it’s best if you waited in another room,” Clyde instructed.
They both looked up from the twins, who they had engaged in a game of peek-a-boo. “But, Pa...” Inkie started.
“No buts,” Clyde said sternly. “This... this is going to be a hard conversation to have.” He softened at the last sentence. “Please...”
The protest was cut off by the Cakes, who gently began pushing the girls out of the room.
“You can wait in our kitchen,” Mrs. Cake instructed. “Just don’t mess around the stove.”
The two were pushed through the swinging doors that led to the kitchen. Nodding in satisfaction, the bakers turned back around.
“But we want to see our sister again!” Blinkie whined.
The Cakes gaped, looking back at the doors, then at the magically appearing mares. Mrs. Cake put a hoof to her face. “Great... it’s a family thing.”
Pinkie had rolled out of Twilight’s guest bed with her stomach doing flip flops. She had wobbled into the bathroom and held her head over the toilet, waiting for the expulsion she thought was coming, but it never did. She wished it would, at least there would be some relief after.
She had cringed at Twilight’s offer for breakfast. She’d have had no appetite even if she hadn’t eaten in a week. She felt herself being torn apart. The librarian finally managed to force a glass of water on her, at least.
Then it was out the door and on the road. Every step was a battle with her nerves as the bakery inched closer and closer. By the time it was in sight, every breath was as if she had run a mile. She hardly noticed the rest of her friends already in front of the building.
“Are you ready for this?” Rarity asked gently. Pinkie didn’t answer. She hardly heard. She was taking a step at a time now, her body sweating hard. She felt dizzy, her vision was getting fuzzy. She felt like every bit of her form was distorting. She wanted, more than anything, to run... but she didn’t.
She was on the porch now, and the tears were starting to leak. She had never been this scared. He knees were shaking. She felt her knees give out, but she was caught, Applejack to one side, Rainbow Dash to the other.
“Easy there, sugar, we got you.”
She gulped, nodding. Standing back up, she took a deep breath. Before she could reconsider, she pushed forward and flung the door open.
Four faces looked at her. Both sets of parents, sitting to either side of one of the tables. Mr. and Mrs. Cakes looked at her with worry. The other faces...
Time stood still. For a long moment, nothing existed except Pinkie and her parents.
“...Pinkie,” her father spoke at last. She felt dizzy again. “Please sit down.”
With great difficulty, Pinkie found her balance. She slowly made her way to the only available chair at the table. The Cakes sat to either side of her, the Pies across from her.
The remaining five ponies stood awkwardly to one side. Mrs. Cake motioned them to the kitchen. Understandingly, Twilight led the others out of the room. Halfway there, however, she stopped.
"Hold it," she said, turning and walking towards the table. No pony spoke as she lit up her horn. For a few seconds, Clyde and Sue were bathed in a beam of light from the unicorn's horn. After a few seconds, the purple light turned red, and the spell stopped.
"Changeling check," Twilight explained, noting the confused faces. The Pies nodded in a way that told Twilight it had not been the first they had been subjected to on the way here. Clearly Celestia had tightened security on travelers.
Her duty completed, Twilight turned and led the others to the kitchen, leaving the five earth ponies to their discussion.
“Pinkie,” Clyde began, in a tone that sounded too controlled. “You know me. I’ve never been one to dance around an issue." He took a deep breath. "So I'm going to dive right into it. You need to know... what happened after you left."
Sue returned to the farmhouse, her hooves deliberately stomping the hardwood floor harder than they needed to. Inkie and Blinkie stood at the front door, waiting for her.
"Well?" Inkie asked. "Did you get her to come back?"
Sue glared at them through her glasses. "Your sister decided that her parties were more important to her than we were. So I let her run. Let her find out what it's like out there."
Both of the remaining Pie children looked alarmed at the prospect. In a flash Inkie was at the door. "Maybe we can still catch her, and..."
"Get away from that door!" her voice nearly boomed. In an instant her command was obeyed. "Your sister... Pinkie made her decision. She can either live with it, or come crawling back on her knees. But I won't let you chase after her."
"But nothing! Now get back into bed before I take a paddle to both of you!"
Jumping, the two obeyed, running up the stairs to the room they shared. Sighing, Sue marched up the stairs herself, entering her bedroom to meet the gaze of her husband, who had not risen from the double bed.
"I told you it would be a waste of time," he grumbled.
"Not now," Sue spat, laying on her side. "I can't believe Pinkie would have up and left."
"That girl..." he growled, putting his head back on the pillow. "A cutie mark dedicated to wasting time. Bah."
No other word was spoken between the two. The sounds of the night, the occasional raven cawing, leaves rustling, were the only thing that filled the dark bedroom.
Clyde didn't sleep. Neither did Sue, though he didn't know it at the time. He thought back, to the day Pinkie had been born. Such a bright coat color was a bit of an omen, though they didn't account for that. The Source had gifted ponies with a variety of colors, and birth parents rarely had anything to do with it. She had giggled and cooed in his forelegs and his mother had been overjoyed, tying a balloon reading "Happy Birthday" to her crib and celebrating by telling every one of his friends and families tales from when he had been a newborn. At this time, he had been mortified, embarrassed, yet he constantly looked back on it with fondness.
He looked at the side table. A picture of the family, Pinkie included, looked back at him, their happy eyes and ear-to-ear smiles mocking his current mood. He flipped the picture over so it was facing the table top. He then turned, looking at the ceiling. He tried to entertain himself by counting the boards in it, but his mind drifted back to Pinkie.
At only two, she had danced with Granny Pie when Inkie had come into the world, and eleven months later Blinkie had joined. In just four years his quiet farmhouse turned into a noisy funhouse. Granny Pie was always entertaining the kids. Story nights, happening more frequently, always ended with the family on the ground, laughing. Inkie and Blinkie had enjoyed this, of course, but Pinkie had taken to her much more intensely.
That should have been his second omen. His mother was always something of an odd one out in the family. It amazed his grandfather when his father had brought her home. Yet she was still family, her infectious nature easily worming past the family's stoney dispositions. She had embraced the simple life they chose to live, and she more than pulled her weight in chores and work, never needing much to find happiness, so any who found her out of place didn't think it was too bad.
Pinkie, however, started growing into a worry. She had embraced her granny's philosophy and demeanor, but the work ethic came slowly. She could recite tales and stories she had been told, of the legendary Midnight Castle, the Mirror Pool, and several other oddities, but could not remember the basics of rock farming. She had to sit through three lectures on the importance of rotating crops before she remembered.
Still, he had shrugged it off. Sloth was a common sin of the young, he himself had grumbled at chores as a colt, and though he remembered less than half of what he learned in school, he remembered his mother's stories as clearly as if he had heard them yesterday. He was sure the phase would pass. He was not worried about her leaving the family business. That would be her choice, but he'd see to it that she would make a responsible one.
Granny got sick on Pinkie's seventh birthday. The doctor's said she could be treated, but the procedure would require several operations, medicine, and other complications to her life. She declined. She'd lived a full life, seen her grandchildren be born, and made them smile. She was ready.
So, three months later, she told her family she loved them, and passed on into Paradise with a large smile on her face.
The family had cried. They buried her under her favorite tree. For three days, they mourned.
Pimkie was back on her hooves first. She was smiling and laughing, reminding them that Granny had died happy and content.
The attitude burned Clyde, but he knew it was true. He put on a brave face and life went on. But it became more subdued. Work became more frequent. With Granny gone the housework now had to be split up between them, usually by one of the children. Things were hard, but most of them took it in silence. Most of them.
Pinkie had been the most vocal at hating the extra workload. She did her chores, and did them well, but with great reluctance, and always dashing back to the farmhouse as soon as they were over. In her room she would dance and sing, off key at first, though it impressed him how quickly she improved. These noises lasted well past bedtime, and she had to be repeatedly told she needed to go to sleep. She was constantly caught trying to make cakes and pies, despite repeated warnings that money was tighter now, and they needed the supplies.
Clyde had realized what was happening. Pinkie, well intentionally, was trying to fill Granny Pie's void. She was reciting her stories and songs at every available opportunity. She wanted to learn to learn to bake, so Sue taught her to make bread, promising she could help with the sweets when it was time to bake them again.
It hurt, seeing her leap about. She was a cheap imitation as far as he was concerned. She could never calm down and be serious. She neglected her work more and more, he had needed to yell to get any reaction out of her. And then, now, a cutie mark in that kind of irresponsible behavior?
"Where did I go wrong?" he wondered out loud.
"Some foals just turn out bad," Sue muttered. Clyde jumped. He had nearly forgotten his wife was there in his thoughts. "Just try and get some sleep."
Sleep didn't come that night.
The next morning it became clear that no pony had slept. Yet there were still chores to do. Fashion designers would be coming from Manehattan and Canterlot soon for the gems and geodes, artisans for the malachite, and scientists for the minerals they could cultivate.
The work got done, but even he had to force himself through it.
That night he broke the usual rule and they simply got take-out. Sue was too tired to cook.
Sleep came that night out of exhaustion. The next day work happened as usual. There was story and song time that evening. It failed miserably.
Over the next few days, Clyde noticed a change in his children. Inkie and Blinkie looked upon their father with respect, as they always had. But there was no love backing it anymore, at least none he could see. Fear replaced it. A fear of not living up to his standards.
"I'm not going to hurt you," he assured them. "If your cutie marks take you away from rock farming, I'll understand. Whatever makes you happy."
"She didn't know the meaning of hard work," he clarified. "Pinkie wanted to goof off all day. A cutie mark in that? Disgraceful. Whatever you two do, I know it will be something you put effort into."
The discussion calmed them somewhat. But only somewhat.
It had been a week since Pinkie had left before it happened. Clyde had been standing in Pinkie's old room. He was convinced by now that his eldest daughter was not coming back. It had been painful realizing she wasn't going to come crawling back on her knees once she saw what the world was like.
Sighing, he began to pack everything away. Crayons, coloring books, and other things his two remaining children could use would be given to them. Balloons, streamers, and confetti (where had she even gotten them?) would be thrown away.
He opened her bedside table. Inside were drawings. The first was a sketch of a pedal powered flying machine. "Bah," he muttered. Then he took a closer look. There were some calculations, a few close up of parts, and the like, and notes on things to figure out later. It was crude, but it looked as if it could conceivably fly with some work.
He placed it on the bedside. The next sketch was of a cannon. One that she was hoping would shoot confetti and streamers. This one was thrown away.
The next was a crayon drawing. Of his mother. There were dried tear marks on it. He couldn't bring himself to throw it away.
Another drawing of Granny Pie. And another, and another. Then a picture of the whole family, her included, standing and smiling.
He tossed it back onto the "don't throw away" pile.
The next sheet wasn't a drawing, but a long, written story, lasting several sheets and stapled at the top right. The Tale of the Royal Pony Sisters, he realized. He moved to the next. The Mirror Pool. The next. Escape From Catrina. He rolled his eyes a bit. If ponies had been in danger as often as the old tales suggested, he failed to see how they could have survived so long.
The final sheet wasn't a story. It was a list of "Granny Pie's Super Awesome Sayings". Clyde went down it.
"Lies fly, then fall. The truth hops but keeps going."
"Laugh when you are scared."
"Remember, laughter is one of the strongest forces in Equestria. It can pick a pony up in the darkest of times."
His ears twitched. He remembered.
Even in your darkest time, in your darkest place, you'll always have somepony to look out for you. Keep a song in your heart and a spring in your trot, and everything will turn out okay.
He dropped the papers. He was stunned silent.
In a flash he was downstairs, running toward the front door.
"Dear?" Sue spoke up. "Where are you going?"
He stopped and looked at his wife. "...We've made a mistake. Which way did you find Pinkie going?"
"Clyde, that was a week ago..."
"She couldn't have gotten far in that time," he said, sounding like he was trying to convince himself more than his wife. "She's too young to have traveled too far. We have to find her!"
"She went north..."
"I'll ask the neighbors if they're going that way soon, ask them to look. Gather all our extra money, we'll see if we can charter a pegasus chariot."
"Our neighbors owe us a few favors. They can reign it in while we look..."
"Wait," Pinkie interrupted. She had listened to her father, too scared to speak up. But on this revelation, she simply had to inquire.
"I did," Clyde said simply. "We searched for days in the direction we saw you leave. We even hired a chariot and drove out as far as we could afford, but nopony had seen you." He was silent for a moment. "You doubled back, didn't you?"
She swallowed, then nodded. "I was... I was afraid of you finding me. When I thought I got far enough I tried circling around..."
Clyde nodded. "I figured. We searched everywhere until we couldn't afford it any longer. We gave up. For years, we thought we had lost you. Then, two years ago, we picked up the paper and saw you on the cover."
Neither Pinkie or the Cakes had to ask. NightMare Moon, Pinkie's ascension to an Element of Harmony. That had been how Clyde and Sue had found her at last.
There was an unspoken question that Mrs. Cake badly wanted answered, but she waited until her foster daughter had a chance to ask it for herself.
"Why did it take you two years to come and see me?"
For the first time since he sat down, Clyde looked uncomfortable. He shifted a bit. "Pinkie... I believe your granny said something about that. 'The hardest thing anypony can do is admit when they've been foalish.'"
Pinkie's eyes widened as she realized something. Tears were spilling out of her parent's eyes.
"I would take back everything if I could. I thought that cutie mark was a sign that you had no ambition, and now look. You've accomplished things most ponies could only dream of. Please, Pinkie... I'm sorry." He spoke the words like they were the hardest things he had to say. The weight of the last several years were on them. "I've wronged you. Please..."
Pinkie sat at the other end of the table, wide eyed and slack jawed at the confession. Then, in a flash, she was at the other end of the table, in her father's forelegs, crying her eyes out.
The initial meeting between Pinkie's friends and her sisters was awkward, not helped by Twilight's insistence that they be scanned. Finding them clean, they began talking awkwardly, trying not to listen in to what was supposed to be a private conversation between Pinkie and her parents. At the sound of crying, Rainbow Dash had to be held back from storming in and demanding to know what was going on.
"Settle down, y'all," Applejack said sternly. "We'll go in when Ma an' Pa Pie are good and ready."
"Oh my, I hope everything is alright out there," Fluttershy noted.
Twilight, moving a piece on the chessboard in front of her, briefly considered using a scrying spell to check, but decided against it. Blinkie, her opponent, countered and took her knight. "Check," the earth pony said.
Twilight moved her prince in a position where it could take her opponent's princess. "Checkmate."
Blinkie fumed. "You're good."
"So are you. It's not often I have somepony that good to play with," Twilight reassured.
"Thanks," Blinkie said, setting up the pieces again. "I'd probably be better if Inkie would play me more often."
The remaining Pie sibling stopped her frantic pacing and looked at her younger sister. "How can you play games at a time like this? Our sister is in there!"
Blinkie shrugged. "There's nothing I can do until Mom and Dad are done."
"I'm ready to move in if Pinkie so much as says my name," Twilight assured her, moving her first pawn. "Anyway, I'm sure everything's going fine."
At that point, Mr. Cake stuck his head in the door. "Um... Inkie, Blinkie? Pinkie's ready to see you."
The younger Pie sisters were out the door in a flash. The sound of them saying their oldest sisters name joyously filled the other ponies ears. A lot of excited talking followed. Rainbow Dash moved to follow, but was stopped by Rarity. "Honestly, let Pinkie have a few minutes with her sisters."
The cyan pegasus fumed, folding her forelegs in a huff. "I can't stand sitting here."
"Well, you're gunna," Applejack said sternly. "'Sides, I think it's pretty clear things are gonna be alright. Sounds like they're havin' quite a reunion."
It was another few minutes before Pinkie's voice called to them. "What are you all doing in there? Come on, the party's out here!"
At Pinkie's statement, the others exited the kitchen half expecting to find the main dining room decorated by Pinkie, ready for a traditional party, but they found things undecorated. Just the family, with their tears drying, ready to celebrate.
"So, everythin' okay in here?"
"No," Twilight said suddenly. "I'm not alright. I haven't been alright in a while. I've been burying my feelings for far too long. I can't stand it anymore!" She got on her knees in front of a certain earth pony. "I love you Applejack!"
Suddenly she grew pegasus wings and magically levitated Applejack onto her back. She took off, leaving a rainbow trail behind her. "Let's be together forever and ever...
"You spaced out there for a second," Rainbow Dash said.
"Sorry," she smiled. "I was just thinking..."
"I don't blame you," Clyde said warmly. "It's been a hard day."
Mr. and Mrs. Cake, with some help from Sue and Applejack, were passing out sweets to everypony, and a feeling of festivity was beginning to fill the air. Twilight was the next one to approach the patriarch of the Pie family.
"Sorry about the scan," she said. "I've been a little on edge since the invasion."
The rock farmer waved her off. “I'm fine. We went through about three checkpoints on the way here. I'm amazed the Princesses had them set up that fast. Though, from what I hear, the breach in security was a big one."
"You don't need to tell me," Twilight said a bit sourly.
"And they were nothing compared to that group outside the city."
At that, both Pinkie and Twilight looked at him with alarm. "What was that?"
Clyde blinked. "There was a group about a mile outside of town. They followed us for a bit, asking us if we were aware of what a tyrant the Princess was. They kept shoving pamphlets in our faces."
He paused as he took in the two mares' shocked faces. "Is that something we should be worried about?"