Timeline Note: This takes place two days before Thanksgiving, 2038.
Spoiler Note: This story contains spoilers for the entirety of Project: Sunflower
A light brown pony reclined on a cushy red sofa across from Susan Chang, internationally famous morning talk show host and self-made multimillionaire, and who was seated in a similarly plush red armchair. Against all normal expectations, the pony's auburn mane was delicately styled in ringlets that cascaded down the back of her neck. She was also wearing an emerald green dress, which seemed to be causing her some discomfort. Or, perhaps it was just the typical nervousness that most people feel when being interviewed by someone famous.
Susan spoke comfortingly to the pony, relayed a few last-minute bits of advice, and then faced a camera and began talking.
"Ladies and gentlemen, we have a very special show and a very special guest for you this morning. This is the one and only time I'm going to do a pre-recorded show, rather than a live one, but I think you'll agree that my guest today is worth it.
"You may know her as Sunflower, the pony who crossed the world, or you may know her as Erin Olsen, the brave young woman who explored a new world, and ended up finding the allies we needed to save our own. She's here today, and she's willing to tell us a little bit about what happened. Erin? Why don't you start?"
"Where would you like me to start?"
"Why not at the beginning, right before you became a pony?" Susan suggested.
"All right," Erin said. She thought for a moment, then turned to a camera as well and said, "Hi. My name is Erin Olsen, also known as Sunflower. And the first thing you need to know is, before I became a pony, my job was incredibly boring."
Susan laughed, and the pony smiled slightly.
"Boring? How could it be boring? You were part of a project to find other habitable worlds. That sounds pretty exciting to me!"
"Well, what you have to understand is that I was just an intern. My day was spent squinting at a screen and adjusting sensors, looking for the 'sweet spot' where an alternate world might be. We automated as much of that as we could, but the fine-tuning still had to be done by human hands. So, that's what I did. I looked at numbers and wavelengths for up to twelve hours a day, six days a week, and I never, ever got to see if any of the potential worlds I found even existed, or if they were just noise."
"Oh, I see. That does sound pretty dull."
"Honestly, you have no idea," Erin said with a nervous laugh. "That's why, when they asked for volunteers, I jumped at the chance."
"You'd rather be a pony than be bored?"
"Well, I didn't know what I was volunteering for, at first," Erin admitted. "They didn't tell us until they got me and the other volunteers into a separate room."
Susan seemed surprised by that statement. "Other volunteers? I thought you were the only one who 'went pony', for lack of a better term."
Erin nodded. "That's right. But they were being deliberately vague when asking for volunteers, so a few of us showed up. I'm the only one who agreed to go through with it, once they actually explained everything."
"I can't say I blame them," Susan said honestly. "To do what you did... Erin, that takes serious guts."
"I don't know about that," Erin replied, blushing. "It needed to be done. At the time, we knew we were going over, one way or another. We didn't have a choice, unless we found some other world at the last minute by some completely unexpected miracle. The ponies, they seemed a lot like us from the surveillance we'd seen. I had to make sure they were treated fairly by us, not just as animals."
"Do you think we really would have acted that way?"
Erin thought about that for a few seconds.
"I don't know," she said finally. "I'd like to think that we'd be careful. But there were also billions of us, not to mention pets and livestock. No matter what we'd done, or how careful we were, it would have been extremely disruptive to the ponies when we came over. It was obvious to me that diplomacy was the only way we could go that had any chance of a good outcome for all of us."
"Were you aware of the Earth-First protests going on at that time?"
"I knew about them from before I went through the gate," Erin replied. "They were targeting the Arks, then. They didn't even know about Harmonics. Which is good, because they might have tried to stop us. In the end, we got them exactly what they wanted."
"The Earth saved, and the Tide gone," Susan said, nodding. "So, now I have to ask: what's it like, being a pony?"
Erin laughed and waggled a hoof at her interviewer.
"It's actually not as different as you might think. I mean, I'm still 'me'. It was a pretty big adjustment when I first changed, though."
"Yeah, it took a few days before I really felt confident walking and running around, and I was still pretty clumsy for a few weeks. And, getting used to doing things without hands was very hard. Though I should point out that I'm not really a 'proper' pony, not yet."
"What do you mean? And, 'not yet'?"
"Well, we didn't have any idea of what an actual, Equestrian pony was like. We could only make guesses based on what we saw in the videos. Hermann and his team at Ascent did the best they could, but I only look like an Equestrian pony. As for the 'not yet' comment, I'm planning on going back to Equestria and studying magic. And, for that, I may need to be made into an Equestrian pony."
"May need to be?" Susan repeated.
"Well, they're working on a way to use the anatomical data we have now to change humans just enough to be able to sense and manipulate a magical field," Erin explained. "So far, they're not sure if what they have will work. It may end up taking a lot of trial and error before they get it right, and since each trial would take a week or two and we only have one facility at the moment... Well, you can kind of see where this is going."
"I thought they were building other Ascent facilities around the world?" Susan asked.
"Oh, yes," Erin said. "A few of them are owned by the Committee, built using the leftover emergency funds. The rest are supposedly going to be built by private businesses licensing the tech. The Committee ones will be used on a 'greatest need first' model, like Mr. Thomson said in his speech. You know, little kids with terminal illnesses, and stuff like that."
"But you get to use one just to go back and forth between being a human and a pony?" Susan asked. Erin shifted uncomfortably on her sofa.
"It bothers me a little. But, yes. But the truth is, the one at the Harmonics lab is already outdated, even after the recent repairs. The new facilities are supposed to be much faster. Also, the Ascent lab at Harmonics is intended for 'official use only'. It really does bother me, because we could have already started using it to help people."
"What's the kind of official use would an Ascent lab would have?"
"Well, things like studying magic, first of all. That's why I'm allowed to use it to change into different types of ponies. Otherwise, it just sits there, unused."
"I see," Susan said. "Do you think you'll ever change back to human?"
"Yeah, I plan to. Just after Thanksgiving, actually."
"Oh, you're not staying a pony?"
"Not forever. I mean, I don't mind being a pony. It's actually kind of fun! But I've been wanting to reconnect with my humanity for a while, now. I've been a pony for a few months, and I want to turn back just so I can remember what it's like to have fingers and thumbs again."
The two of them both laughed at that. Susan brushed her hair out of her eyes. "Well, let's change the subject. Tell me about these friends of yours?"
"You mean my pony friends?" Erin asked.
"If you don't mind! We don't know a lot about them. They're hard to track down for interviews."
"Yeah, and they probably like it that way," Erin said sourly. She sighed. "Sorry. It's just... since it came out who I am, I can't go out in public without being mobbed by reporters. The trip out here from Colorado was a nightmare. That's probably why they're all staying in Equestria right now, even though they're all dying to come and see the Earth."
"That's too bad," Susan sympathized. "They are kind of famous, though. After saving the Earth, you know."
"They didn't do it alone," Erin pointed out. "They had the Princesses. And... Well, they had Malachite."
"He's the one who died?"
"Yes." Erin said quietly.
"I'm sorry. This is painful for you?"
"Yes. But not for the reasons you might think. Never mind. It's personal." There was an awkward pause. "I'm sorry. Could we cut that part out?"
"If you like," Susan said. "Let's talk about something else, then. What can you tell us about the others? Those friends of yours... what do the Equestrians call them? The Bearers?"
"Of the Elements of Harmony, yes," Erin said with a smile. "That's what really took the fight out of the Tide. Celestia going all 'power of the sun' on the little bit remaining was more or less just overkill."
"There is no such thing as 'overkill' on something like the Tide," Susan joked.
"Well, yeah. And, I'm definitely glad it's gone. As for my friends... well, I don't want to go into too many details, without their permission. But they're the greatest group of friends anyone could ever ask for, human or pony. When they talk about 'the Elements of Harmony', what they're really talking about are the virtues of friendship: Honesty, Laughter, Loyalty, Generosity, and Kindness. And, because this is Equestria we're talking about, Magic. Those six ponies represent those six virtues. And, according to what they've told me, the Elements are actually powered by the strength of their friendship."
"That sounds almost religious. I thought the Equestrians weren't religious?"
"Well, I don't know about that. Some seem to almost worship the Princesses. And I don't know what the griffons or the other sapient species there believe in. But I'm sure you've seen the footage. You've seen it in action. You know that something is real, there."
"That's true. That may explain why we've had some early reports of cults popping up around the Earth, centered around those six, or the Princesses."
"What?" Erin asked, looking alarmed. "Seriously?"
"Oh. Wow. They're not going to like that," Erin said worriedly. She turned and spoke directly to a camera. "Look... I'm sure it's flattering to them that you like them that much, but believe me, my friends would be mortified to find out they were receiving that kind of attention. And the Princesses... Okay, I'll grant you that they're amazing, but I don't think they'd like to be worshiped, either."
Susan laughed lightly. "Don't be too concerned. After all, there's still a Church of Elvis out there, and no one takes that too seriously. I'm sure this will run its course soon."
"I hope so," Erin said somberly. "Fluttershy would never come here, if she knew about that."
"Fluttershy, she's the pegasus?" Susan asked. "I mean, the yellow one, with the pink mane? We don't have many pictures of her."
"I'm surprised you have any," Erin said with a chuckle. "Her name is pretty descriptive. She's painfully shy, most of the time. But I have to say, don't mistake shyness for cowardice. Fluttershy is one of the bravest ponies I know, when it comes right down to it."
Susan nodded. "Anything else you can tell us about them?"
Erin considered that briefly. "No... No, not really. It's not fair for me to talk about them on national television, without their approval."
"Well, let them know that I, or anyone else, really, would be thrilled to interview any of them, any time they liked, would you?"
"Sure thing," Erin said with a grin.
"So, instead, how about we talk about Project Harmonics? There's a lot of mystery there, as well. The director is Maggie Hanson?"
"Henson," Erin corrected. "Yeah, she took over after Paul Velchiek was relieved."
"Wait, 'relieved'?" Susan asked, surprised. "I thought he stepped down."
"Who told you that?" Erin asked, her eyes narrowing.
"Well... it's what he's been saying the last couple of weeks on the talk show circuit. He's been going around, saying how he stepped down in order to talk to the press about Project Harmonics, and how 'his project' led to the Earth being saved."
Erin was obviously upset, now. "That... Oh, I don't believe that man!"
"That's... Not accurate, then?"
Erin hesitated, considering. When she spoke again, there was an edge to her voice. "You know, shortly after I woke up this morning, I was visited in my hotel room by a man in a very sharp suit, who showed me a badge indicating he was a Special Agent for the Committee. He 'suggested' to me that I avoid this topic, and I told him that I'd think about it. Well, I have thought about it, and I'd like to say, on the record: Agent Harris, I'll say whatever I like, and you can go get stuffed."
Susan laughed, though a little nervously. "So, Doctor Velchiek hasn't been entirely honest?"
"He didn't step down, if that's what you mean," Erin said with a hint of anger. "He was relieved of his position due to ethics violations. As far as it being 'his' project, well... he may have come up with the basic idea, but it was Maggie Henson and her team that made it work. They're the heroes, if you want someone to thank."
"Wait, wait. Ethics violations? Really? That's news to me! Can you tell us what happened?"
Erin frowned and looked away. She looked back a moment later, anger clear in her eyes.
"The first thing you need to understand was that being... well, a spy, basically, it didn't come easy to me. I made a mistake, a big one."
"What was that?"
"I started making friends."
"That was a mistake?"
"According to Paul Velchiek, yes. Or, rather, that I was getting attached to them. He didn't mind me using them as sources of information, though."
"What did he do, Erin?" Susan prompted, leaning forward. The pony sighed.
"You know about my implants? My cybernetics?"
"Yes, they were mentioned. Super senses and chemical analyzers, right?"
"Yes. But, in addition, there was a medical implant that dispensed various drugs to help me. Antibiotics, pain killers, things like that, for emergencies. Paul Velchiek changed the contents of that implant."
"Wow. Why would he do that?"
"The longer I stayed, the more I wanted to tell my friends what I was. It really bothered me, lying to them constantly."
"I can understand that."
"So, every time I started pushing to tell my friends, Paul would inject these drugs into my system to make me more compliant, to more easily convince me to keep my mouth shut."
Susan sat there in stunned silence.
"Oh, that bastard," she said eventually.
"Yeah," Erin said morosely. "Look, you need to understand something. While I was in Equestria, I was on my own. Cut off from humanity. There were times where I felt lonely, or outright scared, plenty of them. Paul Velchiek was my connection back to my world, to the rest of humanity. To have him do what he did..."
Erin trailed off.
"It felt like a major betrayal?" Susan suggested.
The pony nodded. "Yes. When Maggie told me what happened, I felt like I was going to throw up. Heck, I still do, when I think about it. That's not all, though."
"Yeah. My body has, or rather had, something called the Override. That was originally designed to allow the scientists to recover me, in case of incapacitation or serious injury. Basically, they could use the Override to take control of me remotely, to get me to a gateway and home. Paul changed the programming on it, or had someone do it for him."
"Well, in the original specifications, I could ignore the Override, if I wanted to. He changed it so that I couldn't. He also changed it so that it would do specific things at certain times. Like, if I tried to tell my pony friends that I wasn't from their world, it would put me in a coma. Which is what actually ended up happening.
"Wow. So you tried to actually tell them?"
"Yes. After my cover was completely blown, I tried to come clean. Princess Celestia took one look at me and knew I wasn't one of her 'little ponies'. What was I supposed to do? I had to tell her!"
"And you fell into a coma?"
"Instantly, yes. The Princesses ended up having to do surgery to pull that implant out of me for me to wake up. They knew that I could be controlled with it, and they were worried that whoever was controlling me might decide to use me as a weapon, or just kill me outright."
"They actually thought we would do that?" Susan's surprise was obvious.
"Not so much that we would, but that we could, and they didn't want to take chances."
"Yeah. I woke up in severe pain, after that. The main implant was in my head, but it was connected throughout my whole body. I was covered in bandages after that."
"And then you were free to talk to everyone, right?"
"Yes. And, I did. I got a lot of grief from the diplomatic staff for that, but I thought it was for the best. I think how things turned out shows that I was right."
Erin leaned back a little on the sofa, a satisfied grin on her face.
"But it was a risk to talk to them, right?" Susan asked. Erin frowned.
"Yes, I suppose it was," she said. "I could have really screwed things up. But I knew the ponies. They really aren't that much different than us, as people. And the Princesses were aware that something was coming into their world. They didn't know what it was, but they were worried. And they were getting ready to take action."
Susan leaned forward, eyes sparkling. None of this had been in the news, yet. "What action were the Princesses going to take?"
"They were working on a way to strengthen what they call the 'Veil', the border of their dimension. That would have stopped us from going over there at all. They were very close to implementing that before they found me."
Susan flopped back in her chair, her breath whooshing out.
"We could have all died from the Tide, if that had happened," she said. Erin nodded.
"Yeah. I mean, I didn't know what they were planning that until way after I was found out, but I did know that we had them worried. They were actively looking for anything that might have come through from other worlds. That's how I got found out, by Twilight Sparkle. She figured out I wasn't an Equestrian pony."
"Wow. So, it's really a good thing that you opened up when you did."
"Yeah. It's just too bad that I came clean far too late to save a good friendship with one of the mares I knew in town."
"Oh? Not one of the Bearers, then?"
"No. A nice mare named Meadowlark. She was one of the first ponies I'd met. She has the cutest little filly, Marigold. I told her what I was, and she hasn't wanted to talk to me since."
"That's too bad," Susan said, reaching over to lay a hand on Erin's shoulder. The pony smiled back at her.
"I can only hope she forgives me one day," Erin said. "Especially since I plan on moving to Ponyville."
"You do? Oh, for your studies in magic, right?"
"Yeah," Erin nodded. "I could, technically, live anywhere. But all my friends are there, so... yeah, Ponyville."
"What can you tell us about Ponyville?"
"It's... well, it's lovely. It really is. The houses look really old-fashioned, with thatched roofs and the like. There are bright colors everywhere and really friendly people wherever you go. Their technology is pretty far behind ours, though. Very little electricity, no internet at all... They just got a railway a year or so ago, I hear."
"Sounds picturesque," Susan said with a smile. "Hard to imagine 'no internet', though."
"The only place with internet is Canterlot Castle, right now," Erin said with a laugh. "And only then when the gate is open."
"Hmm. That must be hard to handle. I think I'd go crazy without being able to check in on my sites and statuses!"
"Yeah, it would have been hard for me, too. But all of that was pretty restricted as soon as I started working for Harmonics, so I got used to it before I went to Equestria."
"What about Zanibra? I hear that they've just started construction on the first city, there. What's that like?"
"I don't know," Erin admitted. "I've never been there. It's supposed to be a pretty desolate place right now, though."
"Really? That's where humanity was going to live, though."
"Oh, yes. And, Equestria is planning on helping us turn it into a nice place. Earth ponies to help grow the land, pegasi to help manage the weather and bring in more rains. It could be a paradise in ten years. But the reason the zebras are willing to sell it to us is because it's a desert, and almost nobody lives there now."
"Oh, wow. All the promotional materials seemed really nice. The documentaries."
"They were probably showing you Equestria, itself. Where ponies have lived for centuries. With how easily they can manipulate the weather and land, of course it was beautiful there!"
"So, the ponies were going to stick us out on a desert island somewhere?"
Erin blinked, frowning.
"No, they were going to put humanity somewhere we could be together and call our own, without disrupting any ponies or other creatures already established, make sure we had enough food and clean water, and send over work crews to help our own farmers get the land there capable of sustaining us all. Then they were going to keep going until Zanibra was as nice as Equestria. All of that out of the kindness of their hearts."
"Okay, okay," Susan said, holding her hands up. "I spoke rashly, sorry. I was just surprised. The promotional materials told us one thing, and you just told me another. It wasn't what I was expecting, and I meant no offense to the ponies."
"I understand. And I probably overreacted, too, sorry," Erin said. "But the promotional materials and documentaries didn't come from the ponies. I think... Well, it would have been about two years before anyone had to migrate from the Earth, if our estimates on the Tide's expansion were correct. That would have been plenty of time to get some basic infrastructure up, and get the land producing some vegetation. The pegasi could have upped the rainfall by more than enough in that time."
"Pegasus ponies can really control the weather?"
"Yup!" Erin said. "To an extent, at least. They can create winds or calm them, bring in clouds, make or stop the rain... It's incredible. When I first saw a pegasus manipulating a cloud with her bare hooves, it was amazing, it really was."
"It's so hard to believe." Susan said with a laugh. "Oh, I didn't mean I don't believe you..."
Erin chuckled at that. "Trust me, it was hard for me to believe, and I saw it."
"Do you think that would work over here? We have plenty of droughts of our own."
"You know, I don't know that any pony has ever tried. I know we don't have our own magical field on Earth, though."
"Yeah. The ponies get weak, here, unless they wear these special magic-storing torcs.... um, a kind of necklace, basically. They can draw on that for their magic. But I can't help thinking that it would be dangerous for a pegasus to try that here. If she ran out of juice while pushing clouds around... that's a long way to fall without magic."
Susan shuddered. "I didn't think of that." She cleared her throat, and continued. "You mentioned the zebras earlier. We also know about griffons and I've heard there are minotaurs. Are they just like the myths and legends?"
"Well, I haven't met any zebras or minotaurs, but I have met a few griffons. Yeah, they do look like you'd expect them to look. And talking cows. They have talking cows, there."
"Wait, seriously? Cows?"
"Yeah. It's really not all that weirder than griffons and talking ponies, when you get down to it. Oh, and then there's Spike, who's a baby dragon. He's adorable, and a smart little guy. He's Twilight's assistant."
"A dragon. Really?"
"Yeah. And I... I guess you could say that I encountered a chimera, as well. It tried to eat me."
"Okay. Really? You're not making this up?"
"Not a word," Erin said, shuddering. "If Rainbow Dash hadn't shown up when she did, we wouldn't be having this interview."
"She saved you?"
"All of them did, working together. That's the thing about the ponies. There's really nothing they can't manage, working together."
"Maybe it's some kind of herd instinct."
"Maybe," Erin said with a laugh. "Or, maybe it's just that cooperation provides a greater survival strategy than selfishness. No, they took that chimera down, and made it look almost easy."
"That could be. It sure worked out for us!" Susan laughed, and then continued. "So, what's next for Erin Olsen? What are your big plans?"
"Well, for now I'm going to turn back to a human, like I said. I'm going to visit my family and my human friends. And then, like I said, I'm going back to Equestria to study magic. I'll get myself a cozy little place in Ponyville, and then I'll probably just settle down for a while."
"What about marriage? Kids? Or are you planning on going 'fully native' and having yourself a pony family?"
"What? No!" Erin blurted, blushing furiously. "No, sorry, no. I mean, the ponies are cute and all, but I'm not attracted to them. Still a regular human girl that way. As for marriage, sure. Maybe one day, when I've gotten this out of my system and they figure out how to make humans capable of using magic."
"You're how old, now? Twenty six? And you're planning on staying in Equestria for the foreseeable future, right?" Erin nodded. "You're not worried that you'll get too old to have kids, if you put it off too long?"
"Um, well. Not really. Why would I? I could study magic until I'm ninety, and still decide to have kids. After all, it's not like I'd ask them to turn me back into an old lady."
"Oh, wow. That's right!” Susan’s eyes widened. “I forgot about Ascent, didn't I?"
"Yeah. I can be any age, physically, that I want to be. And when enough offices open to meet the needs of all seven billion of us, then so can everyone else. I can decide to have kids whenever I want."
"That’s a pretty big change for the world,” Susan said, nodding. “I keep forgetting about how much can change, now, with Ascent. But what about overpopulation?"
"What about it?" Erin smiled in reply. "It's not going to happen. Harmonics is still running, and they're still looking for new worlds. There are bound to be other ones out there besides Equestria that can sustain human life. We just have to find them. And we have all the time we need, now."
"That's true, isn't it? Plus, I imagine some of us can settle in Equestria, still."
"Yeah. That's what Zanibra is for. Or, whatever we end up calling it, once we finish buying it from the Zebra nations."
"So," Susan said. "I suppose we should start wrapping up this interview soon. But I do have one last question."
"Okay, go ahead." Erin said, shifting slightly on her sofa.
"We're getting talk of inter-dimensional tourism starting up. Some folks from Equestria want to see the Earth. And, naturally, tons of humans want to see Equestria. Any advice for folks who encounter a pony?"
Erin considered the question for a few seconds.
"Yes," she said. "First of all, remember that they may look different than you, but they're still people. They're a lot like us, actually. If you see a pony on Earth, don't crowd them, don't harass them with questions. Just use your common sense. Think about what it would be like for you in that situation. Would you want a bunch of alien creatures to surround you, start shouting questions at you, maybe trying to touch you without your permission? Of course not."
"That all makes very good sense," Susan said, and Erin continued.
"For those going to Equestria, just be polite. You'll get a lot of attention, because you'll be unusual. Also, don't forget when you're there that you're representing the whole of the human race to a group of creatures that aren't very familiar with us at all. If you're rude, then the ponies you’re rude to may think all humans are rude as well. They don't have any other examples to go by, yet.
“Also, don't forget that ponies aren't the only intelligent creatures in Equestria. There are cows that can talk. I've met a few of them. There are also talking donkeys, zebras, griffons and the like. If you happen to see something, don't assume that it's not intelligent just because it doesn't look like you."
Erin laughed, then, and said, "One last thing? Make sure you find out what's in the food you're eating. Ponies actually make a lot of things with plants that humans might have a hard time eating. Like hay."
"Very good advice," Susan said, nodding. "Well, that's all the questions we have time for now. I want to thank you for time, Erin, and I'm sure we all look forward to hearing more about your adventures later on!"
"Thanks," Erin said with a smile. "It was great to be here."
The lights dimmed slightly, and the red light on the camera went out.
"Is that it?" Erin asked.
Susan smiled and stood up, stretching a little. "That's it," she confirmed.
Erin got up, did a little stretching of her own.
"Erin, I have one question I didn't want to ask with the cameras on. Can I ask it now?"
"Uh. Sure, okay."
"Would it be okay if I... if I got your autograph? For my daughter?"
"Wow," Erin said, eyes wide. Then she laughed. "Yeah. Sure thing! How does she want me to sign it, Erin or Sunflower?"
"Could it be both?"
Erin smiled. "Sure, I don't see why not."
Timeline note: This story takes place during Project: Sunflower, starting with chapter 6
Macintosh yawned hugely as he levered himself out of his bed, the old springs squeaking a symphony as he got up in order to move to the window. Like every other morning, the first thing he did was to check on the weather, and today was no different. He moved, a little stiffly, to the window and drew open the shades to look outside, taking a moment to drink in the sight of his farm, his home. His Sweet Apple Acres.
The sun wasn't even up yet, he noted. There was just a rosy hint of dawn on the eastern hills, glowing softly through the trees of the orchard. A few early birds sang and twittered into the crisp morning air, and the clear sky promised good weather later on in the day.
The rooster in the yard was just wasting his breath. The farm was already up and about well before he crowed. If the Apples weren't exactly bustling this early, then they were at least busy. Everypony on Sweet Apple Acres was up well before the sun rose each day, and today was no exception.
He sniffed, and the smell of eggs frying downstairs got Macintosh's stomach rumbling as he finished up his morning routine. A quick brush of his ragged mane, a brief scrub of his teeth, and a face wash to get the morning grit out of his eyes, and he was ready to go.
His stomach rumbled again. Almost ready to go. Breakfast, first. He made his way to his door, nodding briefly at Smarty Pants, who was propped up on top of his dresser, then went downstairs to see what was cooking in the kitchen.
"Mornin', big brother!" Apple Bloom said cheerily, a tiny little apron tied around her as she ran to and fro, helping with the cooking. Granny Smith, facing away from him, simply waved a spatula in his general direction in greeting. Bloom stopped long enough to look him over with a critical eye. "You wash your hooves afore comin' down?"
"Eeyup. And it's 'before', Bloom. Not 'afore'."
"Right. That's what I said, 'before'." Apple Bloom trotted over with some plates balanced on her head, deftly shuffling them onto place on the old wooden table. Four plates, four places. Only three ponies downstairs so far, though.
Mac judged by the noise upstairs that AJ was still in the bathroom, though why that mare insisted on taking a shower in the morning before work was a mystery to the big red stallion. It wasn't like she'd be able to stay clean after a hard day of work on the farm. It was smarter to just shower in the evening. Applejack, though, insisted on taking two showers a day, a quick one when waking up, and a longer one after the day's work was done.
"What's for breakfast?" Mac asked as his littlest sister got the orange juice out of the fridge.
"Hold yer horseshoes," Granny replied tersely. "It's a' comin'."
"It's scrambled eggs, with cheese and hash-browns," Apple Bloom replied. "And here's some fruit!"
The filly placed the traditional bowl of apples on the center of the table, along with some grapes, a couple of oranges and, surprisingly, a single bruised banana. Mac crunched into an apple while staring hungrily at the skillet in Granny's hooves. His stomach rumbled again, loud enough to set little Bloom off into a fit of giggles.
"Tell yer stomach to shut up, too," Granny said amicably. She nabbed the handle of the skillet in her false teeth, turned and scooped a portion of fried deliciousness out onto each plate, a larger one for Mac and a smaller one for Apple Bloom.
"Thanks, Gran," Mac said, eying the heap of hash appreciatively. A little salt and pepper made it a meal fit for a king, or at least for a stallion facing a long day of hard work. He nabbed a fork and dug in.
He was already done by the time Applejack finally came down, mane still slightly damp from the shower. "Mornin', sis," he said from the sink, where he was washing his plate, as well as the pans that Granny had used to cook with.
"Mornin', Big Mac," AJ replied, sitting down. "Now, this here looks like a proper breakfast. Thanks, Granny, Apple Bloom."
The elderly green mare nodded, nibbling at her own food. She'd taken the smallest portion of all four of the Apple family, insisting that she wasn't as hungry as the 'young 'uns'.
"I'm headin' to the east field today," Mac said. "Gonna check on the apples over there, an' try an' get that stump up."
"Sounds good. Where's Apple Bloom?"
"Chores," Mac replied. The filly had eaten almost as fast as Mac had, after which she'd immediately run out the door in order to take care of her early-morning chore list. The little filly must have plans that afternoon, if she was in such a hurry to get her work done.
"Right. Figure I'll finish up my own work 'round the farm, then head to the south field for an inventory. That sound about right to you?"
"Sounds good, AJ," Mac said, backing away from the sink and the now-clean dishes. AJ could take care of Granny's and her own plates. Time for him to get started. He walked to the door, grabbed his collar off of the wall hook where it usually hung when not worn, and slipped it on. The familiar weight settled over his withers, and as he walked out the door, he said, "Take care. See y'all for lunch."
Applejack merely waved, her mouth full of breakfast. Mac headed out into the morning air, giving a quick nod to his youngest sister, who was busily feeding the chickens. After a quick stop in the tool shed to grab a shovel, axe and a length of rope, the red stallion left the farm behind, heading to the east field at a quick trot.
"Come on, you blasted... stubborn..!" Mac grunted, pulling for all he was worth. His massive hooves dug furrows in the earth as he strained, the rope doubled up and tied to his collar, the far end tied round the stump of a tree that had been blasted by lightning the week before.
It had been an older tree, thick and tough, having seen many a year at the farm. It had been an old tree before Mac had even been born. And there was no way that stump was giving up its space without one heck of a fight.
He'd spent most of the morning at this task, digging around the stump and using the axe to cut the thick roots. The stump had to come up, so a new tree could be planted. Still, he must have missed a root or two. The stump stayed stubbornly in the ground, only leaning slightly as the stallion pulled against it.
Mac took a brief break, sweat pouring down his face and flanks as he caught his breath. He closed his eyes, breathing in the sweet smell of apples, and just stood there for a few minutes, letting the sounds of Sweet Apple Acres pass over him like a song. The gentle sigh of the wind as it moved the branches of the trees and rustled the leaves, the calling of critters in the bushes and branches, the gentle hum of insects.
His hooves in the dirt, he could feel the entirety of the orchard under him and around him. Through him, too, as he was as much a part of it as it was a part of him. This was his land, his home. And there was no way he'd let a stump push him around.
Break over, Mac opened his eyes, grabbed the shovel and started digging again. Some quick work with the axe, and several more thick roots parted. Once again, he tied himself up to the stump and heaved. It still resisted, stubbornly holding onto its home soil, but with a loud 'snap!' it finally came free. He stumbled forward at the unexpected cessation of resistance, then pulled himself upright to glance back at the stump that had caused him so much trouble.
It seemed bigger when it was in the ground, he mused.
Just then, he heard the jangle of the lunch bell echoing between the trees. Surprised, he glanced up at the sun. He'd been at this a lot longer than he'd realized. Stomach rumbling again, he gathered up his tools and trotted back to the farmhouse.
It didn't take long for him to get there. The lightning-blasted stump had only been a short way away from the house, which was good, because his stomach was now definitely shouting for his attention. He walked past the last few trees and whistled appreciatively at the spread on the picnic table before him. Granny and Bloom had outdone themselves, that was for sure.
"Nice work," he told Apple Bloom as he trotted past the table to the tool shed, placing the axe, shovel and rope carefully inside.
Next stop was the tan canvas garden hose coiled up against the side of the house. A quick turn of the handle had bracingly cold water spilling out of the hose, which Mac used to wash the mud from his hooves, and to clear the dust and sweat from his face before returning to the table.
"You seen AJ, yet?" Apple Bloom asked after setting down a sweating pitcher of lemonade, the ice inside clanking and swirling.
"Nope," Mac replied as he sat himself down on the haypile in front of the table, right across from Granny Smith. His ear twitched, and he smiled. "But I reckon' I hear her runnin' up now." He frowned, turning towards the sound of hoofbeats running through the orchard. "And it sounds like she ain't alone."
"Probably racing with Rainbow Dash again," Bloom replied with an eye-roll.
He was about to reply when he was startled by a wild and enthusiastic whoop coming from behind. He turned, seeing the instantly-recognizable orange of his sister's coat, and also Rainbow Dash's prismatic mane, but he didn't have a chance to place the third mare with them before the three of them thundered past the table, eliciting a protest from Apple Bloom and a startled shriek from Granny Smith, who'd been dozing in the noontime sun.
A second later, the dust rolled over them, and the three mares slowed to a stop a good thirty feet away from the table. They'd obviously run themselves pretty ragged, as all three of them just stood there, panting for breath. Big Macintosh was impressed by the unidentified mare; it wasn't just any mare that could keep up with those two.
He squinted, trying to make out who it was through the rapidly-settling dust cloud, but the mare didn't seem familiar. Then she turned around, and Big Macintosh's entire world ground to a sudden halt.
The stranger's face looked small beneath the auburn curls of her mane, which was wild and windswept from her run. Her eyes sparkled in her face, and her coat was a light brown, like coffee with plenty of cream. She smiled and said something to Dash, who shrugged in reply and looked unsatisfied.
A stranger. A strange mare. He didn't have any idea who she was.
Macintosh Apple was suddenly very aware of every bit of dirt and streak of mud still adorning his flanks. He was also aware of his coat, stiffened with dried sweat, and his mane, sticking up awkwardly after washing his face a few minutes ago. He resisted the urge to try and smooth it out with a hoof. He'd probably just make it look even more stupid.
His sister was one thing. Rainbow Dash, too, barely counted, as far as appearances went. She was over often enough, and Mac knew her well enough that she was almost a sister, too. He didn't mind looking a little rough around those two. But this strange mare... this was the first time he'd met her, and he was fresh off the field, streaked with mud and sweat. Oh, and he probably smelled bad, too.
The tan hose on the side of the house tempted him, and he eyed it anxiously. He wondered briefly how weird it would seem if he just got up from the table and hosed himself down, washing off the rest of the mud and sweat. He imagined the look on the strange mare's face as he came back to the table sopping wet.
Nope. It was too late, now, anyway. The mare was too close. In fact, she almost bumped into the table, a preoccupied frown displayed rather fetchingly on her face indicating that her attention was miles away while she was walking.
Almost immediately, Granny Smith started in on a tirade against the three mares, all of whom looked a little startled. Mac quailed slightly as his granny turned to the newcomer, poked her in the chest with a hoof and said, "And you Ah don't know at all, but Ah'd guess yer just as big a block-headed lump as these two idjits here!"
"Yeah! Granny an' I worked real hard making this food!" little Bloom piped up.
Macintosh sat there on his hay pile, silently asking the earth if it would be kind enough to open up and swallow him whole.
Applejack apologized for the three of them, and the new mare blushed, looking ashamed. He returned to studying the wood grain on the table. It was applewood, and he remembered how his pa had carved it out of an old, dead tree. Mac himself had helped sand it when he was just a little colt. The buzz of conversation faded as he studied the woodwork, until he heard his name.
Glancing up, he saw the new mare looking straight at him, and his heart froze. She was pretty, too, he noticed. Her cheeks were flushed, though if that was due to her earlier running or if she was blushing, he couldn't tell. She had a small smile on her delicate muzzle as she looked at him with deep green eyes that he could just fall into and suddenly Macintosh became aware of the fact that they had asked him something, and this whole time he'd been sitting there like a lump, staring at the new mare.
"Eeyup," he said. The old standby seemed to work, he noted with relief.
His relief was short-lived, though, as Rainbow Dash leaned over and whispered very loudly into the new mare's ear. "He's also single, you know."
The mare's eyes widened and her face reddened. Mac felt his face heat up and quickly returned to stare at the table as the new mare spluttered back a reply. That Rainbow Dash... he could have kicked her. Or kissed her. He wasn't sure which, right now. He wanted to hide, but the table wasn't high enough for him to get under.
Rainbow teased the other mare a little more while Mac fiddled with his hooves under the table. This lunch was going to be torture.
Then the mare sat down next to him, and it took all of Mac's willpower not to jump like a filly startled by a snake. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw her glance at him, and then study the table as well.
Please don't let me smell bad, Mac prayed, please, please, please don't let me stink none!
Lunch started, and Macintosh found himself torn. A large part of him simply wanted to get this lunch over with, get back out into the fields, get away from the discomfort. Another part of him really, really wanted to drag this out, to have an excuse to sit next to the pretty mare with the sunflower cutie mark.
He'd been right, the meal was torture. Exquisite, horrific torture. He tried wracking his brain to come up with something clever or cool to say, and ended up falling short. Nothing seemed able to come out. He focused on his lunch, stealing glances at the mare next to him from time to time.
Her face wore an expression of intense concentration as she ate. Macintosh blinked, noticing that the mare was a little clumsy with her food, occasionally dropping something on the table and having to pick it back up again. But she seemed really appreciative of the meal itself, telling his family how good it was every time she tried something new.
Apple Bloom was peppering the poor girl with questions. It was then that Mac picked up her name, which had probably been said while he was studying the grain of the table. Sunflower. Her name was Sunflower. Made sense, with her cutie mark, but it was a pretty name. A pretty name for a pretty mare.
He reached for a slice of bread and snatched his hoof back as he accidentally bumped Sunflower's hoof. She smiled apologetically at him and took the slice, and then he grabbed a different one of his own. He was buttering it up when he heard Bloom ask a question that stopped him dead.
"Do ya have a special somepony?" she asked, eyes gleaming.
Sunflower seemed taken aback by that. "Uh. Um. No. Sorry, I don't," she said hesitantly. She glanced over at Big Mac, blushed a deep red, and stared at the table.
Mac felt his heart thrill in his chest. What had that glance meant, so soon after she'd said she didn't have a special somepony? Could she possibly be interested?
She couldn't actually be... could she?
The meal started winding down, and the chatter increased around the table. Mac heard Sunflower ask about work, and his heart leapt just in time to get shot down by his own sister.
"Ah, shoot, hon," AJ said. "If'n you'd got here a few weeks from now, we coulda used an extra hoof or two for applebuckin'. But right now is the slow time fer the farm, and we ain't lookin' to hire any extra help."
We can find somethin', AJ! he thought furiously, but his sister didn't pick up on his thoughts, and they just kept on talking. He listened as Sunflower assured his sister that she hadn't expected the Apple family to just give her a job. Rainbow Dash then mentioned the help wanted ads around Ponyville, and Mac nodded to himself. He sometimes would look at the postings, himself, to earn a few extra spending bits when it was slow around the farm.
Granny Smith stood up unexpectedly and announced her intentions to take a nap, then walked back to the farmhouse. Apple Bloom, in turn, announced that she was going to go off and so some cutie mark crusading with her friends before racing off.
Big Mac stood up. Think of somethin' smart to say! he thought furiously. Think of somethin' cool, so she'll know you ain't just some dumb hick! He cleared his throat...
Embarrassed to his hooves, he turned and walked away from the table. Just before he hit the trees, he heard Sunflower say, "He doesn't talk much, does he?"
"Nah," Applejack replied. "He's just shy. Once he relaxes 'round ya, ya can't get him ta shut up less'n ya stick a caramel apple in his mouth."
He had just entered the trees when he heard Rainbow Dash say in a sing-song voice, "I think he likes youuu!"
Simultaneously blessing and cursing the colorful pegasus, Mac broke into a run.
The sun was setting when Big Macintosh finally made his way back to the farm. The breeze had picked up, cooling him off as he walked through the orchards, and finally up to the farmhouse. The old wooden door creaked as he pushed it open with a hoof, and the smell from the kitchen indicated that Granny was cooking something tasty. Mac struggled out of his collar and hung it back up, eager to get himself washed up.
"Well, hey there, lover boy," AJ drawled from the drawing room as Mac made his way to the stairs. Apple Bloom, sitting across from her big sister, giggled. Macintosh stopped at the foot of the stairs and sighed, knowing what was coming. "I ain't never seen you quite so flustered as you were today."
"Yeah! You're sweet on Sunflower!" Apple Bloom cheered.
From past experience, Macintosh knew that there was only one way to head off the relentless teasing that was sure to follow. "Eeyup, she's an awful pretty mare," he said. "But I don't reckon a mare like that would have much to do with the likes of me."
Applejack was frowning at him now, and Bloom just looked confused.
"What do you mean?" AJ shot back, eyes narrowing. Mac had to hide his grin. "You think you ain't good enough for her?"
"Welp, I was fresh back from pullin' a stump when she met me," Mac admitted. "I don't reckon I looked all that nice, or smelled that nice. I can't imagine she would be too interested."
His self-depreciation had robbed his sisters of an easy target. He allowed himself a brief smile, then continued.
"Besides, I already got a mare I got my eye on," he continued, and AJ blinked in surprise. "If y'all will excuse me, I'd greatly appreciate bein' able to take a shower before dinner."
"Who is it?" Apple Bloom's eyes were wide and bright as she bounced up and ran over to him. "Who've you got your eye on?"
"It's a secret," Mac replied with a smile.
"Oh, come on!"
"Nnope. Sorry, kiddo."
Apple Bloom scowled with bad grace and stomped back to sit with her sister where, if he was any judge, the next topic of conversation would be 'Who is Big Mac sweet on?'
He continued clomping his way up the stairs, making his way to the Apple's shared bathroom. He was long overdue for a shower, and he hummed happily as the hot water soothed his tired muscles while also rinsing the dirt and sweat off of him. He eventually returned to his room, mane sticking up crazily and a damp towel around his shoulders. As he walked into his room, he looked up and saw Smarty Pants, sitting up on the dresser, one eye dangling by a thread.
Frowning, he contemplated the doll, then sighed. He'd always known it would never work out with Twilight. She was too smart, too cultured. Too clean, though he knew she wasn't afraid of getting her hooves dirty when it was needed. Not used to farm work at all, though she did help out from time to time. And, though she would smile at him, it wasn't the smile of someone looking for a special somepony, but the smile of someone looking at a friend.
He shook his head. Maybe it was time he changed his sights. Twilight, with her Canterlot education and her powerful magic, was strange and exotic to him, which was part of why he was so fascinated by her. Maybe he should look towards a more normal mare, an earth pony mare.
Unbidden, the memory of Sunflower's blush came back into his mind's eye, triggering a blush of his own. Shaking his head again, he sternly reminded himself not to get his hopes up.
There was a knock at the door, and Twilight Sparkle put aside her book to go and open it. Framed in the doorway was a grey mare with a bright blond mane and a big smile.
"Oh, hi Ditzy," she said, smiling in return at the delivery mare. "Package for me?"
"Yup!" the pegasus reached into a saddlebag and pulled out a box carefully wrapped in plain brown paper and tied off with twine. "Not sure who sent it, though. No return address!"
"Huh, I wonder what it is?" Twilight quickly signed for the package, thanked the mailmare and wished her a good day, then brought the package back to her table.
Frowning, she shook it with her magic, but nothing rattled or shifted at all inside the box. She tugged at the twine, wondering what could possibly be inside. Soon enough, the box opened, revealing something wholly surprising.
"Smarty Pants!" Twilight cried, overjoyed, removing the doll from its box and hugging it. "Where have you been?"
"I could do it for ya, if you want," Mac said, trying to sound casual. And, he knew, probably failing. AJ looked at him, slightly confused.
"Well, I don't figure it matters who delivers these apples to Sugarcube Corner," she said. "I was just gonna do it so that I could see Pinkie Pie."
"Well, I was figurin' on maybe doin' a little shoppin' in town," he replied, trying to keep his face still. Applejack just shrugged.
"Sure, I guess. Have fun."
Mac harnessed himself up to the cart laden with apples. Sugarcube Corner had a standing order of three barrels of baking apples to be delivered three times a week, for all the apple pies, muffins and so on that they would make there.
It didn't take him long to bring the wagon into town. Mac brought the apples around the to the back of the bakery, receiving direction and encouragement from a happily bouncing Pinkie Pie. When the last barrel was set down, he retrieved the empties from last week's deliveries and put them on the cart.
"Pinkie, d'ya mind if I leave the cart here for a while?" Macintosh asked as he dropped the last empty barrel into place on the wagon.
"No problemo, Big Macaroonie!" Pinkie said with a grin. "If you're looking for Sunflower, I think she's having lunch at the cafe right now."
"Er... Wh... I'm not..." Macintosh spluttered, but Pinkie had already given him a wink and hopped back inside the shop before he was able to form so much as a coherent sentence. "Drat."
Still, he knew where she was. It had been three days since the ill-fated lunch, and he was hoping to make a better impression on the mare now. Even though he'd pulled the wagon into town, it had been an easy job, and his coat was clean, well brushed, and relatively sweat and dirt free. He'd even suffered through a shower that morning.
"Hi, Sunflower," he thought, walking along. Nah, too boring. How about, "How are you doing, Miss Sunflower?" Hmm. Too formal. "It sure is mighty fine weather, don't you think, Miss Sunflower?" Hmm... Too boring.
He was still practicing opening lines in his head as he neared the cafe. In fact, he almost bumped into a table on the patio before he realized he was there.
"Pardon," he told the startled couple at the table, taking a few steps back. He looked around, and his heart sank. Sunflower was nowhere to be seen. Either Pinkie had been wrong, or Sunflower had already left. He heaved a sigh and turned to leave, almost tripping over the mare he'd been looking for.
"Oh, hi Macintosh," Sunflower said brightly as she stepped out of his path, the hint of a rosy blush on her cheeks.
"Er..." Mac tried frantically to remember the lines he'd practiced, but his brain came up blank. "Hi."
"Were you about to eat lunch?" the mare asked him, tilting her head slightly to the side and smiling prettily. Mac blinked slowly. Maybe she hadn't actually eaten yet! Maybe... they could have lunch together!
"Eeyup," he said, nodding.
"It's a really good place," Sunflower said. "Applejack suggested it to me. I love their sandwiches!"
"Eeyup. They're... tasty," he managed to say. An awkward silence unfolded for a few seconds, and Mac shuffled a hoof on the ground.
"Well, I have to get back to work," she said, and Macintosh's hopes crashed down. "Enjoy your lunch, and I'll see you later, okay?"
"Um. Okay," he said, offering a ghost of a smile. Sunflower flashed another pretty smile at him and Mac watched her go. Then, though he wasn't hungry at all, he turned and went inside the cafe and ordered himself a sandwich.
Sunflower was right. They were really good.
"Hey, are you going to take my bits, or what?"
Mac blinked in surprise and looked back at the frowning face of the mare in front of him.
"Oh, uh... Sorry," he mumbled, fumbling for the money. He ended up dropping one of the bits in the mud at his feet and bent down to pick it up with his mouth, banging his head sharply on the underside of the sale stall. "Ouch."
"You all right?" Berry Punch asked him, voice tinged with concern.
"Eeyup, just a bump on the head," Macintosh flashed a false grin in reply. The mare stared at him for a moment longer, then shrugged and took her bag of apples. Now that his customer was out of the way, he returned his gaze to the sight that had unsettled him so just a moment ago.
Sunflower, smiling and looking happily up at the stallion next to her, was walking down the street. The stallion in question was one of the ponies that Mac recalled seeing around, but he couldn't place the name. He was a handsome enough fella, Macintosh grudgingly admitted, groomed grey coat, a green four-leafed clover mark on his hip, and a black mane styled in that spiky buzzsaw that seemed so popular these days. Mac was larger than him by a fair shot, but the strange stallion still stood quite a bit taller than Sunflower, who was looking up at him and laughing at something he'd said.
Mac felt a little cold, oddly enough. And maybe a little sick, as he watched the couple walk towards him, apparently not seeing him until Sunflower stopped suddenly and gasped in surprise.
"Oh... " Her voice was hesitant and unsure, and Macintosh felt his heart twist a little. "Hi Macintosh. I was expecting to see Applejack, I thought she usually sold the apples in town?"
"Eeyup," was all he managed for a few seconds, then he shook himself slightly. "AJ asked if I could take over for today."
He said it simply, keeping his face calm. He had no claim over the mare, he knew. Once again, he'd moved too slowly. The story of his life, really.
"Oh, I see," Sunflower said, blushing slightly and looking down at her hooves for a moment. Then her head popped back up, and Macintosh was lost for a moment in the merry green twinkle of her eyes.
"I should introduce you!" She was smiling now, and introduced her companion. "Lucky, this is Macintosh Apple, the big brother of my friend Applejack. Macintosh, this is Lucky. He's my co-worker at Fet-Ex."
He blinked in surprise, then warily looked at the other stallion. Co-worker? That was a fair bit different than what he'd been thinking a moment before. He was mildly surprised to see the other stallion, Lucky, looking back at him just as warily.
"I think we may have already met," Lucky said carefully. "But, just in case we didn't, it's nice to meet you, Macintosh."
The sick, twisted feeling in his guts and the coldness went away at the same time, replaced by a feeling of urgency, tenseness.
It's a race, now, Mac realized to his surprise. And, even more surprising, he found himself determined to win.
"Likewise," he replied to the other stallion, nodding his head.
Smiling happily, and oblivious to the unspoken conversation between the two males, Sunflower bought a small bag of apples, immediately passing one over to Lucky to try out. The stallion looked startled, but took it, biting into it and chewing slowly, obviously savoring the taste.
"See? See?" Sunflower said, bouncing slightly on her hooves. "They're the best, aren't they?"
"Yeah, it's really good," Lucky said with a smile.
Macintosh smiled as well, knowing full well that there wasn't a pony in Ponyville who wasn't already familiar with Sweet Apple Acres produce, even if they couldn't pick the family members out by sight. Lucky was trying to impress her by feigning ignorance and letting her 'show' him something he already knew about.
"None finer in all of Equestria," he proudly proclaimed. Lucky looked at him with uncertainty in his eye, and Mac knew then that the other stallion didn't have much of a hold on Sunflower, if any at all. If the smile on Mac's face were any more alive, it would jump off his face and strut around the market all on its own.
"Well, we'd better get to the cafe," Lucky said, a little on the loud and tinny side.
"Oh, yeah." Sunflower looked up at the clock on town hall. "We don't have a lot of time left. 'Bye, Macintosh!"
She'd said that with as sweet and genuine a smile as any mare had ever given him.
"So long, Miss Sunflower," Mac replied in a somber voice that belied the soaring of his heart.
"Are you serious?" Applejack dropped the basket she'd been carrying and looked at her brother, annoyed. "Again?"
His sister stared at him, exasperated, then finally snorted and stamped a hoof. "Fine, then. Grab the shoppin' list off the fridge before ya head in, then, and I'll see ya later today."
"Eeyup," Mac replied, trying to act casual as he went back to the farmhouse for the list.
It was definitely getting harder to come up with believable excuses to head into Ponyville, rather than staying and working on the farm. Still, he was able to make it down every other day or so, if only for an hour or two at a time. He'd see Sunflower from afar occasionally, usually in her unflattering but still adorably-oversized purple Fet-Ex coat, her saddlebags stuffed full as she made her deliveries.
The times he was able to talk with her were both wonderful and, in a way, terrifying. Sometimes, she'd be walking around with Lucky, though it wasn't very often. Mac made himself scarce during those times. Usually, though, she'd be on her own, and she'd often take a minute or two to stop and talk to him, smiling sweetly while telling him about her day, or asking him about his.
And, surprising even himself, Macintosh would tell her. Though he often felt embarrassed to talk about himself, Sunflower always seemed so overjoyed by each individual morsel of information she was able to extract from him, and her enthusiasm only made him want to talk even more.
He trotted into town with a song in his heart, enjoying the smell of the autumn air and the cool breeze that came with it. Ponyville itself was pretty busy at the moment, the market full to bursting with ponies hawking their wares, something that the Apple family usually partook in when it wasn't this close to the end of the apple season. For now, the family was concentrating on ramping up for cider season before storing their produce for the winter months, to make sure they'd have plenty of apples to sell until the first harvest in the spring.
Slowing to a walk, Macintosh looked eagerly around the market plaza, feeling slightly let down when he didn't spot the light brown mare right away. Still, he wasn't too upset. Sunflower was a moving target, after all, working busily all day to deliver packages. Odds were good he'd at least see her sometime today.
Deciding that it made sense to get the shopping out of the way as fast as possible, he took the list out of his saddlebag to give it the once-over. Written in Applejack's careful scrawl, with the occasional addition from Apple Bloom or Mac himself, were listed various toiletries and sundries, things that they needed on the farm but weren't able to grow or make themselves.
Applejack had listed things like cleaning supplies, needles and thread for clothing repairs, nails and screws, as well as a few skeins of yarn for Granny's knitting over the winter, and various other small items. Apple Bloom had listed various sweets, more often then not to have it crossed off by Applejack. The supplies were important, with winter coming on soon. With the snows came time for the Apple family to catch up on all the maintenance and repair that had piled up over the busy summer and fall months.
With luck, he'd be able to get most of these things in one stop, at the general store. It was with that thought in mind that he turned and started forward, almost tripping over Sunflower as she was stalking up behind him. He barely managed to strangle a startled yelp at the sight of her, and instead stared in confusion at the disappointed expression on her face.
"Aww, I was going to surprise you," she said, pouting slightly.
"Y-you were?" he asked, heart hammering.
"Yeah, I was going to sneak up and go 'boo!' in your ear," she said with a giggle.
"Well, I s'pose I can turn around an' pretend I don't see you," he said, and she laughed again. She started walking and Mac started walking alongside her. It would have felt almost like a natural thing to do, if it weren't for the sudden weakness in his legs.
"What are you in town for? Shopping?" she asked, looking up at him.
"Eeyup. Gotta pick up some supplies before winter comes in."
"Um. That's still a ways away, isn't it?" she asked.
"Eeyup. But it's better to stock up sooner rather'n later," he said.
"Oh. That makes sense."
They walked together for a little while, with Mac wracking his brain, trying to think of anything to say that would keep her with him for as long as possible. When she took in a deep breath and opened her mouth to say something, possibly to say she had to get back to her deliveries, he blurted out the first thing he could think of in a near-panic.
"So, what's it like, bein' a delivery pony?"
"It's actually pretty fun!" she replied with her infectious grin. "I get to meet lots of ponies. And, thanks to my job, I know the town really well, now. It's so amazing here!"
Macintosh blinked and looked around. It was the same old Ponyville, nothing too amazing that he could see. Then he remembered something AJ had told him.
"Oh, that's right. AJ mentioned your village is kinda different from ours."
The smile fell from the mare's face instantly, replaced with a guarded and wary look. Mac felt his chest tighten. Idiot! he scolded himself. AJ also said she ain't happy talking about it!
"Um..." he began, but Sunflower put a slightly less genuine smile on her face and said, "You could say that."
"You don't want to talk about it?" He cursed himself for not being able to stop himself from asking. Why couldn't he shut up?
"Not really," Sunflower said, and they walked in silence together for a while. Mac glanced at her out of the corner of his eye. She was frowning and looking at the ground, and in his heart, he knew he'd blown his chance.
As if life itself wanted to prove him wrong, Sunflower suddenly broke once again into a very genuine smile and ran ahead, bursting with excitement.
"See this?" she said, pointing at a statue, and Macintosh suddenly realized that they had actually wandered into the park, side by side.
Just like a date... his traitor brain observed, and he blushed deeply.
"This statue is of one of the founders of Ponyville, way back in the day. She's credited with the discovery of zap apples, which really put Ponyville on the map."
"Eeyup," Mac said, nodding. "That's Granny Smith. They called her Green Apple back in the day, before she married Grandpa."
Sunflower stopped mid-lecture, her outstretched hoof dropping slowly as she stared wide-eyed back at him. "Seriously?" she squeaked.
"Eeyup." Macintosh smiled at her. "You ever had a zap apple?"
Sunflower shook her head 'no'.
"I'll make sure you get one, next time we harvest 'em." Mac promised. "They're somethin' else."
"Thanks," she said, sounding distracted. She tilted her head slightly as she regarded the statue, a mannerism Mac had noticed and been smitten with days ago. She often did that little head-tilt when she was trying to figure things out, or when she saw something that took her fancy.
"I should stop by the farm and say hi to your Granny," she said after a minute. "I'm sure she's got some great stories."
Mac's grin could be seen a mile away at the thought of Sunflower visiting the farm again. "I'm sure she'd like that," he said. And it was true that she would, but nowhere near as much as he would.
Just then, the town's clock rang out, striking one in the afternoon, causing Sunflower to gasp with dismay. "Oh, no! I lost track of time! Sorry, Macintosh, I've got to get back on my route, I'm behind schedule!"
"Thanks for walking with me, Sunflower," he replied, feeling mildly guilty about taking up her time during a workday.
"I'll see you later, Macintosh! It was fun!"
She ran off with an impressive burst of speed, and Mac grinned goofily after her. She always called him 'Macintosh', he'd noticed. Not 'Mac' or 'Big Mac', just his full name. He loved the sound of his name when she said it.
"Hi!" a voice exploded in his ear.
"Bahhaaah!" Macintosh replied, jumping two feet in the air. An impressive feat, considering he had nearly half his own body weight in apples loaded in baskets on his back. Even more impressive was that none of the apples spilled.
"Wow," Pinkie said, her eyes wide as she emerged fully from the bush she'd been hiding in. "I actually got you? I never get you!"
"What is it, Pinkie?" he said with a sigh. The pink mare blinked in confusion, then shook herself.
"Oh, yeah! Party! At Sugarcube Corner!"
"I got a lot of work-"
"It's the 'Chase the scary monster away/Save the Cutie Mark Crusaders' party!" Pinkie started bouncing in a circle around him, forcing Mac to turn slowly to keep her in front of him.
"Your sister is a hero!"
"And Dashie, too! And Rarity, and Twilight, and ooh! Fluttershy! Especially Fluttershy!"
"Sunflower, too! She was there!"
"Sunflower? What hap-"
"They stopped a chimera from eating Apple Bloom and her friends! It was-"
"Pinkie!" Macintosh barked, alarmed. The mare stopped and blinked at him. "What happened to Apple Bloom?"
"Oh, she's fine! Everypony is fine." Pinkie started bouncing in place as she talked, words spilling out of her muzzle almost too rapidly for him to catch. "The Crusaders were out exploring and then a chimera stumbled across them and was going to eat them, but everypony showed up in time to save them and then the monster got chased off, and both Apple Bloom and Applejack are just fine, though the chimera was kind of scary, but that's okay because we stopped it before it hurt anypony. Well, everypony else stopped it, I pretty much just ate some popcorn. But it was really cool, and now we're having a party!"
"Pinkie, you need to explain-"
"No time!" Pinkie said, finally stopping her bouncing. "I got lots and lots of invitations to give out, and then I have to get the party ready! See you there!"
Pinkie dived into a nearby shrub. Still a bit stunned by recent events, Mac hesitantly parted the branches and saw no sign of the pony. Shaking his head at the randomness of it all, he began his walk back to the apple cellar. Then he went into the house and showered up. Normally, he wouldn't take the time for a party, but this sounded like a pretty big deal. He had to find out what happened, and see for himself if his sisters were all right. And, after all, the apples would still be there the next day.
Sunflower couldn't dance, he was surprised to see. Not even a little bit. That confused Mac somewhat, as he was under the impression that most mares were at least a little good at dancing. Sunflower, though, seemed to have no idea where to put her hooves.
She blushed prettily as she stumbled around the makeshift dance floor just outside of Sugarcube Corner, but she was also laughing at her own awkwardness. It was almost enough to encourage Mac to start dancing as well, even though he was pretty sure he'd just embarrass himself.
Rainbow Dash trotted up next to Sunflower, making a snide comment about her friend's clumsiness, and Mac felt a surge of protectiveness start to grow before Sunflower laughed back. The pegasus then began showcasing her 'moves', and Sunflower started copying them, picking them up surprisingly quickly.
He'd finally gotten the full story, once he'd cornered Apple Bloom and made sure she wasn't hurt in any way. The filly had been more excited than anything, telling the tale of her exciting rescue. Twilight Sparkle had been the one to actually save his sister and her friends, but the others all had their part in taking down the chimera and driving it away.
Sunflower, he'd heard, had led the monster away from the fillies, buying the time needed for the others to arrive and subdue the beast. Mac was amazed and touched that a mare who barely knew his family would risk so much to save something so precious to him.
"So!" a voice by his ear chirped, making him jump slightly. He turned and frowned at the pink earth pony next to him. "Didn't I tell you that this would be a great party?" Pinkie asked with a grin.
"Eeyup. And it's for a good reason, too." Macintosh replied, smiling.
"I have to wonder, though... " Pinkie trailed off, looking at him.
Mac stared back at her for a few seconds, waiting for her to continue. "What about?" he said finally.
"Oh. I have to wonder why you're not out there dancing with her."
Mac's heart skipped a beat, and he blinked at Pinkie in surprise. "Her? Who?" he asked warily.
"Sunflower, silly. You've been making googly-eyes at her all night!"
"Have not!" he blurted, remembering too late that Apples make horrible liars.
"Yuh-huh." Pinkie rolled her eyes, then smiled kindly at him. "You'd better get out there before some other stallion goes out and claims her."
"Huh," he replied, shuffling his hooves while his face burned even redder than usual. "When did you become a matchmaker, Miss Pie?"
"Hmm." she replied with an odd smile. "I wonder?"
She regarded him for a long moment, still smiling in that strange, slightly melancholy way that looked so out of place on her pink face. Then she grinned.
"Well, gotta bounce!" she said. "Enjoy the party. And for goodness sake, cut loose! Go talk to her, ya big goof!"
There was some wisdom in that, Mac reflected, as Pinkie bounced away to talk to a small cluster of ponies by the punch bowl. He looked back out on the dance floor and saw Sunflower, her mane tussled and her eyes sparkling as she moved, and he screwed up his courage and stepped out on the floor just in time for the song to end.
"Whew, that was fun!" he heard Sunflower say as she trotted by. "I'm going to go get some punch. Want any, Dash?"
"Yeah, please," the pegasus said, after which she flapped on over to where Applejack and Twilight were talking quietly.
Macintosh stopped cold as she walked away, both slightly disappointed and incredibly relieved he wouldn't have to actually dance. He noticed with mild frustration that Sunflower chose to forsake the dance floor and almost immediately surrounded herself with an intimidating wall of mare friends, which proved to be too large of an obstacle for the bashful stallion to overcome.
There'll be another chance, he assured himself.
"We need another barrel!" Apple Bloom called back from the stand, and Mac grunted in acknowledgement. The sweat stung his eyes as he went back to the stack, and he took a moment to wipe his face with a kerchief, which he stuck back into his collar once done.
He was about to kick another barrel up on his back when a familiar set of voices froze him in his tracks. Throwing a panicked look over his shoulder, he saw Applejack talking to a newly-arrived Rainbow Dash, Twilight Sparkle and Sunflower, all lined up and waiting for their cider.
One quick and frantic self-assessment later, he realized that he was covered in sweat, his mane and tail were a mess, and a smear of mud coated his left hind leg from where he'd slipped earlier that morning.
Muttering to himself, he took out the kerchief once again and managed to wipe off the worst of the sweat. He was wondering what to do with his mane when AJ's voice rang out impatiently from the stand.
"We're needin' that barrel sooner rather than later, Big Mac!"
Grumbling with frustration, Mac manuevered a barrel onto his back. With any luck, she'd see his state as evidence of a rugged, hard-working stallion, instead of some kind of slob. The only thing he could do, he realized, was to act casual, as if being sweaty and dirty weren't anything to be embarrassed about. Mares liked confidence, after all. According to some of Applejack's magazines he'd "accidentally" read, at least.
With that in mind, Mac walked with a firm stride and a pleasant smile on his face towards the stand. Feigning surprise at seeing AJ's friends, he grinned and said, "Well, howdy, y'all. Here for some Apple Family cid-eerraaaaoh!"
His attempt at a cool and collected stride came to a humiliating end as his left front hoof caught in a small divot in the ground, causing him to stumble. His desperate attempt to avoid dumping the now-wobbling cider barrel off of his back had him flailing maniacally towards the cider stand and the wide-eyed ponies gathered around it. His efforts only delayed the inevitable, however, and he finally crashed down onto his chest with a loud "oof!", the cider barrel rolling across his shoulders, over his head and pushing his muzzle into the dirt, before slowing to a halt by Applejack's right front leg.
His sister, trying her best to suppress her grin of amusement and failing miserably, said, "Well, now, that's one way to deliver a cider barrel."
He raised his muzzle off of the ground to see that Rainbow Dash, less considerate than his sister, was braying with laughter, lying on her back with all four legs kicking into the air. Apple Bloom was snickering behind her hoof, and Twilight Sparkle was simply gaping at him, dumbfounded.
"Oh, wow, that was one heck of a fall," Sunflower said. "Are you all right, Macintosh?"
Forcing a chuckle as he stood, Mac shook his head wryly. "Ain't nothin' wounded but my pride, Miss Sunflower. Well, I better get back to work."
Mustering up as much dignity as he could, he beat a hasty retreat.
The day of the Ironpony competition dawned clear and slightly chilly, with not a cloud in the sky thanks to Ponyville's weather team. The Apple Family had spent the last few days baking, cooking and preparing for the competition, as well as setting up the stands and the courses for each individual event.
Apple Bloom worked on ticket sales, while Macintosh helped move the different equipment around. He was just setting up the last of the hay bales for the obstacle course when several familiar voices hit his ears, bringing his head up as he looked around.
There was Sunflower, along with his sister and Rainbow Dash, chatting and joking around about the competition. Mac allowed himself a smile as the three walked past him.
"Good luck," he said to the three of them, who grinned and waved at him.
"I don't need luck," Rainbow Dash boasted. "So, I'll just give my share of that to these two. They'll need it."
Sunflower laughed while Applejack rolled her eyes.
"Now, come on, Rainbow," his sister said, "You're talkin' like it's gonna be easy, when you can't even say for sure you'll win."
"Hmm, well, I remember who won last year," the pegasus replied smugly. The two friends started bickering, and Sunflower sighed and stepped back.
"They sure like to argue," she noted to a suddenly thrilled Macintosh, who nodded.
"Eeyup," he replied. "Always been that way, with those two."
"Well, this all looks great," she said, looking around the field at all the different courses. "Did you do all this yourself?"
"Nnope," Macintosh replied. "Applejack and Apple Bloom helped the last couple of days. But I'll be doin' all the set up for when we switch out the events today."
"You're not competing?" Sunflower asked, with that head-tilt that so melted his heart.
"Nah, seems like it's mostly mares that signed up, which kept the stallions away."
"I wonder why that is."
"Well, if'n I had to guess, I'd say there ain't no stallion in Ponyville that can beat those two, an' they know it. Better to keep your pride intact, I reckon."
"Stallions around here don't like losing to mares?" Sunflower asked. Mac hesitated in his response. She sounded disapproving, but that twinkle in her eye suggested that she was just kidding around. He wasn't sure which it was, but he decided to go for the latter.
"Male pride's a delicate thing," he said with a chuckle.
"Almost as delicate as female pride," Sunflower said, grinning at her two friends, who were still arguing. Macintosh laughed as well, feeling a warm glow in his chest as he stood next to the mare.
She's so... tiny, he thought, as he looked down at her. Smaller than AJ, though still slightly bigger than Rainbow Dash. But she could keep up with Applejack and Dash, which meant that she was tougher than she looked. And, according to what he'd heard around town, she was a hard worker. Fet-Ex was glad to have her, and those who'd recently started receiving their orders in a timely manner were just as glad.
"Gooooood morning, ladies and gentlecolts!" Pinkie's voice came over the P.A. "We'll be starting in ten minutes! If everypony could find their seats, I'd be super appreciative!"
"Well, I suppose I'd better get going," Sunflower said. She flashed another warm smile his way, and said, "Keep up the good work, Macintosh. We're all counting on you."
"You bet," he replied, feeling almost giddy. "And, good luck. Again."
"Thanks. Again." She waved, then trotted off to meet her friends.
The competition was nothing if not surprising. He'd known that Sunflower could run fast, but he wasn't expecting her to stay nearly neck-and-neck with Rainbow Dash and Applejack the whole time. While family pride kept him rooting for his sister, he still managed to sneak in the occasional cheer for the auburn-maned Sunflower as she competed.
He'd just cleared away the last of the barrels from the Barrel Weave and was about to start setting up the hurdles for the next event when the current event underway grabbed his attention. His sister and Sunflower were about to go head to head in the hoof-wrestling competition. Deciding that he had to see this, Mac took a quick break and trotted over, watching from the sideline.
Like most of the ponies in the audience, he could only watch in stunned amazement as the hoof-wrestle between Sunflower and Applejack went on for what seemed to be forever. It all seemed to be going AJ's way when Sunflower broke his sister's concentration by making a goofy face and sticking her tongue out. Mac exploded with laughter along with half the stands, as a chuckling Applejack congratulated the victor.
It was then that Pinkie called the intermission, and Macintosh glanced up at the sun in surprise. It was already meal time, a fact that had slipped his notice in all the excitement. Stomach rumbling, he dropped the last hurdle in place and walked over to the lunch table.
He saw Sunflower out of the corner of his eye, talking to an exhausted-looking Twilight Sparkle. Concern was on the earth pony's face as Twilight said something to her, and then the two of them walked off to find some place to talk privately. Macintosh stared after them, wondering if he should offer to help.
Ain't none of my business, Mac reminded himself with a shrug, then left to find some food.
If Sunflower's mood seemed to take a dive after she'd talked to Twilight, her performance was still far above what he'd originally expected. In the end, Applejack led by a mere point over both Rainbow Dash and Sunflower, who'd tied for second. The last part of the competition, and the winner, would be decided the next day during the Running of the Leaves.
"So long, y'all," Mac said to several ponies as they left the stands. He was harnessed up to one of the farm's carts and was walking around the bales of hay, taking them in his teeth and flipping them deftly one on top of another in the bed of the cart.
The trip to the barn didn't take long, and Macintosh stacked the rectangular bales one on top of the other inside. On his return, his wandering thoughts were interrupted by the odd sight of one of the Royal Carriages, pulled by a couple of Royal Guards, zipping off into the sky, with the familiar prismatic streak of Rainbow Dash keeping pace with it.
"What the hay?" he muttered, picking up his pace.
On his return to the Ironpony competition grounds, the attitude had completely changed. Before he'd left, ponies were talking and laughing, enjoying the waning sunlight and chattering about the competition. Now the few ponies remaining were clumped together in groups, whispering and muttering to each other. He felt a chill as he realized that something had gone horribly wrong, somewhere. Detaching himself from the cart, Mac trotted forward, looking for his sister..
"Macintosh!" a familiar voice rang out, and he turned to see Nurse Redheart running up to him. "Oh, thank goodness! It's terrible!"
"What happened?" Mac asked, the chill from before spreading through his body.
"Something unbelievable. One of the competitors was possessed somehow by some... I don't know. Evil smoke monster, or something. Applejack tried to stop her running off and some thing flew out of the sky and knocked her down."
The fear must have been plain on his face, because Redheart hurried to reassure him.
"Applejack will be fine. She's just got a bump. Twilight Sparkle showed up in a Royal Carriage just a few minutes ago, and she and your sister went off to find the poor mare."
He breathed a heavy sigh of relief to hear that, though frustration was also bubbling up. Trust Applejack to go put herself in danger just after being clobbered. Granted, she and her friends were going up against horrific monsters all the time and he knew she could handle it, but that didn't make him any happier when she put herself at risk like that.
"D'ya know who the mare was who was taken?" he asked.
"I don't know her, sorry. But I've seen her around. She's the new delivery mare at Fet-Ex, I think."
Macintosh's blood turned to ice water as she said that.
"Earth pony? Brown, with a sunflower cutie mark?" he asked, and Redheart flinched away from the expression on the face of the stallion who was suddenly standing directly in front of her.
"Y-yes," she replied, eying him warily. "Do you know her?"
She indicated with a nod of her head. "That way, towards the Everfree Forest. Macintosh, are you all right?"
He was moving before he realized it, walking steadily but with increasing speed towards the forest, until a small and unsteady voice brought him up short.
He stopped and looked down. Apple Bloom's eyes were wide and scared, and she looked like she was set to cry any minute now.
"Is Applejack going to be okay?"
He hesitated, looking away from his sister and towards the forest. If he was going to be honest with himself, he knew that there was nothing he could do to help. He didn't even know where in the Everfree to look. He had to trust AJ.
"Eeyup," he said, forcing a smile and patting his sister on the head. "Ain't nothing your big sister can't handle, 'specially if she's with her friends."
Apple Bloom smiled faintly up at him, and he knew he couldn't leave. He'd have to leave it to Applejack and her friends.
Come home safe, sis, he thought, returning his eye to the forest. And bring her back safe, too.
The bits from the competition were locked into a safe, a huge iron monster of a box that would take a team of ponies to even move. It was enough money to see them through the winter, especially with the profits from this year's cider season. The Ironpony competition would obviously be a great event for the Apple family's fortune in the future, seeing them safely through the sparse winter months. Provided, of course, that the three top contenders ever came back.
Mac's nerves had been eating at him all night. It hadn't helped any that Celestia herself had appeared in a flash of magic with another carriage shortly after he'd returned to the grounds. The Princess had scooped up Pinkie Pie from the announcer's booth and flashed away again. The only thing he could do was to continue cleaning up the Ironpony grounds while trying to keep Apple Bloom's spirits up.
Cleaning the grounds had at least kept him busy, making it easier to keep his mind off of things. When they'd finished, the two siblings went home together, and he'd gotten a jump on the next day's chores. When he had finished all of his that he could do, he went and did some of Applejack's, because the thought of just sitting still right now seemed ridiculous.
After the sun had set, the three of them sat down for a dinner of leftovers from the competition. Even though he'd had no appetite, he still sat down with Apple Bloom and Granny, the three of them eating quietly around the ancient, battered table in the kitchen. Afterwards, they washed up the dishes, and Bloom had helped Granny up to her room while Mac tidied up the kitchen and the table.
He was very careful to avoid talking about Applejack, and whether she might be coming home soon. Such talk could lead to too many what-if's and what-about's, something that he wanted Apple Bloom to avoid thinking about. Instead, he concentrated on keeping his youngest sister occupied and distracted.
It hadn't worked all that well, but Apple Bloom pretended that she wasn't worried for her brother's sake. The two of them eventually settled into a routine, of sorts. Mac paced, slow but steady, while Bloom leafed through book after book, barely noting the pictures and definitely not bothering to read the stories. They were just keeping busy, waiting on any news.
It was hours after the competition when a gentle knock came at the front door, and Macintosh nearly bowled over Apple Bloom in his eagerness to answer it. He yanked the door open, startling the unfamiliar, bone-white mare standing in the doorway.
"Oh!" the middle-aged mare exclaimed, blinking her bright pink eyes in surprise. "Um. Hello, I'm Professor Moonlight Glimmer. You would be, at a guess, Macintosh Apple?"
"Eeyup," Mac replied, trying to hide his confusion and regain his composure.
"May I come in?"
"Eeyup," he said again, standing aside, noting as he did so the Royal Carriage and two large pegasi in the yard. The guards remained outside, though one of them nodded to him. He nodded back and shut the door behind the professor.
The mare came in, smiled at the wide-eyed Apple Bloom, and said simply, "Your sister Applejack asked me to stop by once I got to Ponyville and let you know that she's okay, and that she'll be staying in Canterlot for the time being."
"And Sunflower?" he asked urgently.
The pale mare seemed uncomfortable, for some reason, but answered soon enough. "She's... Well, we're sure she'll be fine. Celestia has brought her back to the palace to keep an eye on her. She's sleeping now."
The tension drained out of Macintosh so quickly that he felt a little woozy. "What happened to her? I only heard somethin' about a monster made of smoke takin' her away?"
"It was... Wow, this is hard to explain. I'll try to keep it simple. Centuries ago, Equestria was invaded by something called fae sprites. They used to be able to take over creatures and control them like puppets."
She looked down at Apple Bloom's sharp intake of breath, smiling comfortingly at the little filly.
"There aren't any more left, sweetheart," she said. "Celestia ordered the Royal Guard to wipe them out. It seems, though, that there was one swarm left under the control of something or someone called Malachite. That's what took over Sunflower. It was trying to use her to free itself from its prison."
Mac's heart felt like it was seizing up, but he managed to blurt out, "But she's okay, ain't she?"
"The Elements of Harmony were used, and the Princess is taking good care of her, so I'm sure she'll be fine..." Professor Glimmer trailed off, looking at him oddly. "Do you know her very well?"
"Oh, I... I talked to her a few times, is all. She seems to be a nice mare."
"Real pretty, too," Apple Bloom said, grinning. "Ain't that right, big brother?"
And here he'd thought she'd forgotten about that. "Ain't it your bed time yet?"
"Ah, I see," Professor Glimmer said, as Mac blushed. "There's... no, I'm sorry. Never mind."
"What? Is somethin' wrong?"
"Ah, well... I couldn't say, but I'm certain she'll be fine. Canterlot has the best medical staff in Equestria. Look, don't worry, okay? Everypony is safe. Your sister, her friends, all of them. They're just going to stay at Canterlot for a while, that's all."
"When're they comin' home?" Apple Bloom asked.
"I really can't say, dear," the mare replied. "That's up to them. And the Princesses, of course."
They chatted for a while longer, Mac replying with automatic pleasantries as the professor talked about her need to return to town to write up a report. Meanwhile, his mind worked over what it could be that the professor wasn't telling them. Eventually, the albino pony took her leave, and Mac watched as the carriage shot off into the sky, heading back to town.
For the most part, the tension from earlier was gone, leaving him feeling tired and worn down. But in its place was a small, relentless thread of disquiet and apprehension.
If there was one thing that he was sure of, it was that whatever it was that Moonlight Glimmer hadn't told them was very important.
"I can only stay a couple of hours," Applejack said from her bedroom, packing a bag while her brother and sister stood out in the hallway. It had been a week since they’d last seen her. "I gotta catch the train back to Canterlot. Princess wants us all back there tonight, ‘cuz somethin' mighty big is happenin'."
"What's goin' on, sis?" Apple Bloom asked.
"Sorry, can't say. Princess wants us to keep it mum 'til she can make an announcement. Nothin' dangerous, though, I promise y'all that."
Once she had her bag packed, the Apple family retired downstairs to have one last family meal before AJ had to leave to catch her train. Mac desperately wanted to ask after Sunflower but was forced to wait while Apple Bloom filled her sister in on the Crusader's latest hijinks.
AJ responded to the tales of her sister's exploits with a fond but somewhat strained smile. Finally, the filly took a breath, and Macintosh took the opportunity to break in.
"I heard that Sunflower fell unconscious after y'all caught up with her. Is she okay?"
Applejack looked away. “She’s… fine, Mac. She’s awake, and talkin’, and walkin' around. Shouldn’t be any long-term problems from what happened to her, is what the docs say.”
Mac frowned. He knew AJ wasn’t lying, but it was also pretty obvious that she was holding something back. But before he could pursue the matter further, Apple Bloom cut in once again, asking question after question about what had happened in the forest, and what it was like staying in Canterlot. He listened with both concern and pride as AJ related the story of chasing down the possessed mare and freeing her from danger with the Elements of Harmony.
Granny Smith surprised them all by relating some old stories about the fae sprites, though they’d last been seen in Equestria long before even her grandparents had been born. Still, she was able to fill in some of the gaps from Moonlight Glimmer’s explanation, including the loss of the village of Heartstone Ridge.
“Ain’t nopony ever built nothin’ there ever again,” Granny said. “Both outta respect for those lost, an’ because… well, a whole village disappears an' everypony dies off. Gotta be bad luck, there. Prob'ly haunted.”
AJ snorted while Apple Bloom shivered in delighted horror.
“I gotta tell Scootaloo and Sweetie Belle about this!” the younger sister said. “It’s the best ghost story, ever!”
“Better’n the Headless Horse?” Applejack asked, ruffling her sister’s mane with a hoof.
The Apple family sat around their old, scuffed family table for another hour, just talking and catching up. Finally, it was time for Applejack to go. Granny gave her granddaughter a hug goodbye, and Apple Bloom bounced excitedly out the door with her sister. Mac considered for a moment, then got up and followed her out.
“I’ll walk with ya, sis,” he said.
“Glad for the company,” AJ said, smiling.
"Apple Bloom, you stay here with Granny, in case she needs anything."
"What?!" the filly shrieked, indignant. "I wanna go with Applejack!"
"An' I want you to stay here," Mac said firmly. "You got it?"
Bloom just stared at him, her jaw working noiselessly for a while. It wasn't that often that the soft-spoken stallion put his hoof down, but the filly could see that arguing wasn't going to get her anywhere.
"Fine," she said with poor grace, stomping back inside and slumping down with a pout next to where Granny sat in her rocker. The elderly mare ruffled her granddaughter's mane.
"Let's go," Mac said to Applejack, shutting the door behind him as Apple Bloom listened with a scowl as her granny started rattling off some story about long-dead relatives. AJ adjusted her hat and stared at him curiously. She opened her mouth as if to ask him a question, then shook her head and moved on down the road. Mac walked along with her, and after a few minutes he looked out of the corner of his eye at his sister. She was chewing on her bottom lip, obviously lost in thought.
“AJ,” he said quietly, and she looked up at him in surprise, broken out of her reverie. “How about tellin’ me what’s really goin’ on?”
“’Bout what, big brother?” she asked, looking a little shifty. “Ain’t nothin’ goin' on, 'least that you need to worry about."
Macintosh sighed. “Ain’t a one of us Apples can lie worth anythin’, AJ. You know that.” His sister had the good grace to at least look embarrassed. “Now, somethin’ big is goin’ on. And, ‘less I miss my guess, it’s got somethin’ to do with Sunflower. How about you just tell me?”
“Can’t do it,” Applejack said, shaking her head. “I reckon’ the Princess don’t want me to tell nopony.”
“She make you promise?”
“Well… no, not exactly.”
Mac nodded. If AJ had promised, then he’d have had to drop it. Practically nothing would get her to give up a secret she’d promised to keep.
“Then, tell me,” he said.
“Mac, I can’t.”
“Listen, AJ…” he trailed off, then sighed. “Look, don’t laugh at me, okay? But I care about her. I… I really like her, alright? A whole lot.”
Applejack looked up at her bother’s redder-than-normal face with wide eyes.
“When did this start?” she asked.
“When I first met her.”
“Thought you had your eye on a different mare?”
“Did. Thought better of it. Sunflower is… well, she’s somethin’ special, AJ.”
“Yeah, she’s different, all right,” AJ muttered. They walked together in silence for a while, then Applejack shook her head. “All right, look. I’ll tell ya, because you're my brother. But you gotta promise you’re gonna keep it close. You can’t tell nopony, all right? At least not until the Princess makes her announcement.”
Wary and concerned, Mac promised. Applejack sighed.
“All right. For this to make sense, I gotta give you the long version, all right?" When Mac nodded, she continued talking. "Professor Glimmer was here for a special reason, which is that the Princesses found out that some other world, an alien world, was bumpin’ up against ours. I don’t rightly know how it all works, but from what Twilight tells me, there are a whole bunch of worlds out there, more’n we can count, side by side. She explained it like, if you think of Equestria like a paintin’, with all of us living on the surface of it, then think of other worlds as other paintin’s, all stacked one on top of each other. That ain’t quite right, she said, but it’s close enough.”
“AJ, what does this have to do with anythin’?”
“Gettin’ there, big brother. All right, so all these other worlds are stacked on top of ours at the same time, and sometimes the… stuff, I forget what Twi called it, but it’s what keeps our worlds apart… well, that stuff thins out. And our world touches another world. Well, the Princesses could feel that another world was touchin’ ours a whole lot, so they sent the Professor out here to check it out. Because, sometimes somethin’ can come through, from one world to another.”
The ponies who knew Mac casually would often assume that, because he talked slow, he also thought slow. That wasn’t the case. His eyes widened in shock before Applejack had even finished talking.
“You’re sayin’ that Sunflower is from some other world. Is that right?”
“I’m sayin’ that, yup."
Mac felt his knees turn a little watery, and he shook his head in an effort to clear out the sudden buzzing sensation in his head. Applejack stayed quiet while they walked, letting her brother absorb what he'd just heard. Finally, he felt able to talk again.
"Did she know?" he asked. "I mean... if her own world is like ours, I reckon maybe she didn't know she was in a different world."
"Oh, she knew, all right. Ain't no nice way to say this, so I'll just say it plain. She came here on purpose, to learn about us all."
To Mac, the feeling that he was experiencing right now was akin to something precious breaking. In a slightly cracked voice, he said, "AJ, you're sayin' Sunflower... nice, friendly Sunflower... she's a spy?"
"That, she is. I'm so sorry, Mac. She had a reason, and it's a good one, but that's what she was here for." Mac was about to ask what that could possibly be, but AJ wasn't done talking yet. "And, I’m sorry about this, I really am, but she ain’t even really a pony.”
Macintosh stopped walking and stared in disbelief at his younger sister. “Ain’t a pony? What is she?”
“Somethin’ called a ‘human’. They used some fancy techno-magical nano-somethin-or-other to make her look like a pony and come over here.”
"That's a lie. That's got to be a lie, AJ."
A look of annoyance flashed across Applejack's face, then softened. "You know it ain't," she said sadly.
The whole situation was starting to feel indistinct and unreal, as if he were dreaming the whole conversation. It was crazy, wasn't it? That a mare he knew wasn't really a mare, but some kind of alien. That kind of stuff only happened in the comics he used to read as a colt. Eventually, he managed to find his voice again.
"Why? Why would she..." He trailed off, unable to think of anything to say.
"All right, this is the big secret, Mac. Okay? This is the real thing you can't talk about, least 'til it's public knowledge."
"All right," he said, feeling numb. What else could there be? What could be more shocking than that? Applejack started walking again, talking low, and Mac moved to get next to her.
"The humans, their home is dyin' out. They got some powerful thing eatin' up their world. They call it the Black Tide, an' it's coverin' everything up, killin' everything it touches. They're looking for a new world to move to, an' it's goin' to be our world. The Princesses already decided."
They walked along in silence for a few minutes while Macintosh mulled that over in his head. He was confused, he was shocked, but more than that, he felt hurt. And betrayed. A spark of anger lit and began to grow.
"So, she came to see what we're like," Macintosh said finally, harshly biting off each word. "To spy on us."
"To get information," Applejack said. Mac snorted in response.
"Gussy it up how you like, sis. She came over to spy on us. We'd have helped them out in any case. Us ponies won't let nobody die off, if'n we can help it. She didn't have to do that."
"You're right. She didn't. But she didn't know that until she came over to see for herself." Applejack sighed and stopped walking, turning to face her scowling older brother. "Look, she knows it's a bad thing she'd done, an' she feels right awful about it, too. She started makin' amends as soon as she could, an' she did that by tellin' us everything about humans we could ever wanna know. The humans... well, I don't like that they spied on us, either, but I reckon' I can understand why they did."
Mac grumbled and looked away, only for AJ to reach out a hoof and turn his face back towards her. "They only get the one chance to get off their world, big brother. They had to make sure nothin' went wrong, and that means that they had to get lots of info on us ponies."
"I reckon so," Mac conceded. It still hadn't really sunk in. It was like AJ had told him some silly story that had no basis in reality. If it had been anyone other than Applejack who'd told him this, he would have rejected it out of hoof.
They started walking again while Mac tried to sort out how he felt about things. He was no closer to an answer twenty minutes later, when a waving Applejack got on the train to Canterlot, and he still had no idea how he felt hours later, when he lay down to try and get some sleep, his thoughts still whirling through his head.
He lay in his bed, staring at the ceiling of his bedroom, completely unable to sleep. The hours ticked away, but one thought kept circling around. Only one thought that started to gain focus, the others still tumbling through his mind. Finally, unable to deny it any longer, he gave voice to the thought.
"It just ain't gonna work, is it?" he whispered into the dark.
"That's enough of that, Apple Bloom," Mac said sternly. The filly stared at him, fork raised but forgotten halfway up to her mouth. "It's all anypony is talkin' about, human this and human that, ever since the announcement. I'm mighty tired of hearin' about it, an' I don't want to start my day with it."
"Okay," Apple Bloom said meekly. "Sorry, big brother."
Granny 'tsk'ed at him, and Macintosh focused on eating his eggs, trying to ignore the guilt welling up in him. It wasn't Apple Bloom's fault, he knew. But he was mighty sick of hearing about it. He took a deep breath and was about to apologize to his littlest sister when he heard the front door open unexpectedly.
"Howdy, Apple family!" the familiar voice shouted throughout the Apple family home. "I'm home!"
"Applejack!" Apple Bloom shouted, jumping away from the breakfast table to tackle her sister in a big hug. Mac got up from the table himself, though at a slower pace, and draped a foreleg around his sister's back in a welcoming hug of his own.
"Welcome back, little sis," he said.
"Thanks, big brother," AJ said. "Whoo, I gotta tell ya, that early-mornin' red eye from Canterlot is somethin' else. And I am famished. Is that breakfast?"
A few minutes later, the entire Apple family was seated around the table, the kitchen full of happy chatter between the three females. Applejack related tale after tale of dealing with life in Canterlot, and how the Princesses and a bunch of unicorns had helped the humans open up a gateway in the Canterlot gardens.
"Tell me about the humans, Applejack! What are they like?" Apple Bloom asked. Before the middle sister could answer, Mac abruptly slid his chair back and took his plate over to the sink.
"Gonna leave this here," he said tersely. "You doin' dishes, AJ?"
"Uh, sure I guess," she replied, giving her brother a wary look. "You headin' out?"
"Not all of us can sit 'round Canterlot for days on end," he said. "Some of us got chores to do."
The door slammed harder than he'd intended it to when he left, and he made his way around the back of the barn where the firewood was stacked. He took the maul out of the shed and tested it on a hoof for sharpness, and then began splitting wood on the big, scarred old stump used for that purpose. He wasn't able to get much of a rhythm going, though, before Applejack stopped by.
"All right," she said evenly, "just what in the hay was all that about?"
"Nothin'," Mac said, matching her tone. "Just need to get some work done."
"Don't you 'nothin'' me, Macintosh Apple," AJ said, trotting around in front of him. "Apple Bloom said you ain't nothin' but surly these days, practically bitin' ponies' heads off every chance you get. That ain't the big brother I know."
"Yeah, well, the big brother you know has been stuck here on the farm doin' two ponies' worth of work for the last couple weeks while you traipse around Canterlot with humans, havin' a grand old time." Another log upright on the stump, and the maul came down, splitting it neatly.
"I had to go, Mac. You know that. And don't you dare try an' make your bad mood my fault!"
He snorted and split another log, leaving the maul in the stump in order to start stacking the split pieces. Applejack stared at him for a while, then sighed.
"This is about Sunflower, ain't it?"
"This ain't got nothin' to do with her," he said flatly, making his way back to the stump. "I'm just sick of hearin' about humans all the time."
"We should talk about it, Macintosh. I got to know her a lot better, and the humans better. They're a lot like us, when you get down to it."
"That's nice, AJ. Don't change that I got work to do."
AJ just watched him while he split more firewood. When he went to start stacking again, she spoke.
"Did she promise you anything?"
"Who?" he said, then grunted as his sister walked over and jabbed a hoof in his ribs.
"Knock it off an' talk to me, all right? Did she promise you anything?"
"No. She didn't."
"She never said she was interested in a special somepony?"
He felt like the answer was being dragged out of him, but he finally admitted, "No, she didn't."
"She was nice to you. Ain't that right? She talked to you and smiled at you, and was just all friendly-like."
"I s'pose. AJ, Look, I need to finish-"
"You need to talk to your sister, you lug," AJ snapped. "What you got here is a case of broken heart over somepony that never led you on, and was never your special somepony to begin with." He snorted and walked back to the stump, with AJ right behind him. "That's fine an' all, an' I can understand you bein' hurt, especially after the way she lied. I was hurt, too! But you ain't got no call takin' out your hurt on other ponies. 'Specially not on your family."
Mac brought the maul down, embedding it deeply into the stump. He stared at the handle, resentful and angry, for nearly a minute while his sister stood next to him, waiting. Finally, he felt something snap and let loose. He let out a pent-up breath in a sigh.
"You're right, AJ. It ain't your fault, and it ain't Apple Bloom's, neither. And, I'm sorry. I'll apologize to Bloom, too, when I see her next."
AJ came around and pressed a shoulder into his side in a sisterly hug. "You feelin' any better?"
"Nnope. Not yet. Thanks, though."
"Of course, big brother. I'll leave you to it." Applejack started walking away, calling back over her shoulder, "If'n you want to talk about it some more, or you need me to knock more sense into that thick skull o' yours, I'll be 'round for a while. Just find me, all right?"
"Reckon so," he said, then AJ was gone.
The stump before him blurred, then doubled. He shook his head and wiped his leg across his eyes, and the stump returned to normal. With a sigh, he picked up another log, then took the maul in his teeth once again, splitting it evenly down the middle.
As the days went by, Macintosh now found that he had plenty of legitimate reasons to head into town, even with Applejack now back at the farm, but he had very little interest in doing so. Still, deliveries had to be made, supplies needed to be bought, and life on the farm had to go on.
Lucky for the Apple family, Sweet Apple Acres post-cider season wasn't nearly as busy as it was the rest of the year, and even though they'd been short-hooved for a while, they'd quickly gotten caught back up on the chores needed to prepare the farm for the winter.
But it didn't help Mac's mood that wherever he went he overheard ponies talking about the announcement from Canterlot. All anypony seemed to want to talk about these days were humans, humans, humans, and what that meant for Equestria. Big Mac tried to block out the gossip from the mares behind him in Holdin's General Goods store while he packed up his purchases into his saddlebags, but it was impossible to do so. The more he tried to tune them out, the more he ended up overhearing.
"I hear they haven't got any fur. None at all," Rose said to her two companions. "They're all smooth, like frogs."
"Eew," Lily said, scrunching up her muzzle.
"Wait, that's not true," Daisy said, snorting. "I heard they have a tuft of fur on their heads, like a mane, but only on the very tops of their heads."
"Well, everypony knows that," Rose said defensively. "And I hear the males can grow beards, too."
"Is it true that they eat meat?" Lily asked with a shudder.
"Yeah! Just like griffons!"
"I didn't like that griffon we had here last year, she was very rude," Daisy said. "Do you think humans are the same way?"
"How should I know?" Rose asked. "I'm only telling you what I've heard, I've never met one!"
"Yes, you have," Mac said, and the three mares stopped their gossip to stare at him in blank bewilderment. He closed the flap to his bag and cinched it tight with his teeth, making his way past the three as he did so. "Excuse me."
He made his way past the mares and out into the street, taking a deep breath of the fresh air. Ponyville was abuzz with gossip like that, and it drove him to distraction thinking that he'd known a human for weeks without realizing it, one who he had developed feelings for and had cared about, and that he couldn't talk to anypony about it except his own sister.
As if thinking about her had somehow summoned her, Macintosh saw a brief flash of light brown coat and auburn mane coming from Sugarcube Corner. Thinking he had to be imagining things, he followed at a distance, slowly becoming aware of a crowd gathering around him as he did so. The crowd was gossiping and chattering to each other as they followed Sunflower through town. For once, Mac strained to hear what the other ponies were saying.
"That's not a human, that's a pony," Raindrops said in a loud whisper.
"Look, I'm only telling you what Speedy Parcel at Fet-Ex said," Carrot Top replied.
"That's obviously a pony. In fact, I know her," Junebug said. "Her name is Sunflower. She used to come into the cafe all the time, though I haven't seen her for a while."
Mac frowned as Sunflower flashed a wary glance at the crowd behind her and then quickened her pace. The crowd of Ponyvillians, never willing to let the source of good gossip get too far ahead of them, hurried up and matched her speed. He hurried as well, a numb sort of curiosity coming over him. In his mind's eye, he was envisioning her as some kind of bipedal frog-like thing with a tuft of hair on her head. It was hard to reconcile the two images.
In the back of his mind, he was playing out scenario after scenario of what might happen if he confronted Sunflower with the truth of what he knew. Would she confess or deny? Or would she just play it off like he was crazy? Would she laugh about it, how she'd pulled the wool over his- everypony's eyes?
Would she cry? Part of him felt a certain grim satisfaction at the thought of the alien pony breaking down in tearful confession and begging his forgiveness. Would he comfort her, or would he turn his back on her? Both were pretty appealing...
What the hay am I thinkin'? he asked himself, shock flooding over him as he realized that he'd been eagerly anticipating the tears of a mare he'd once cared deeply for. And maybe still did.
He watched as she paid for a ticket at the train station and made her way to stand nervously in the boarding area. The crowd, not willing to pay for their own tickets just to satisfy their curiosity, muttered and stared at the mare from beyond the ticket booth. Mac saw Sunflower's eyes sweep over the crowd briefly, though she didn't seem to see him.
Eventually, a mint-green unicorn mare shouldered her way past the crowd, bought her own ticket, and then went to stand by Sunflower, apparently striking up a conversation. Mac stared at the alien mare, who was currently looking hard-pressed and slightly frazzled, for another minute, then turned on his back hoof and headed home.
Gossip about humans had barely had a chance to start dying down in the marketplace before new rumors had spread through Ponyville. Alarming rumors, ones that struck fear into the hearts and minds of everypony who heard them.
Somehow, in some way, Celestia had gone to the human world and been struck down. Initial reports that she'd been killed were quickly refuted by the Mayor's office. But in order to calm those particular fears, the Mayor had to confirm that Celestia had, indeed, been overwhelmed by the entity consuming the human world, this Black Tide. It was all that anypony could talk about, and it shook the small town to its core.
For the most part, sympathies had swung around. Before Celestia had been injured, the prevailing sentiment was that the humans should stay in their own world, and deal with their own problems. But now, after what had happened to Celestia, there was a steadily growing current of determination rising amongst the ponies.
This thing, whatever it was, had hurt their Princess. As far as the Ponyvillians were concerned, humanity was more than welcome here in Equestria. The ponies of Ponyville now felt as if they and the humans had a common enemy in the Black Tide.
As for Mac, he didn't know what to think. As angry and betrayed as he'd felt before, he now had some inkling of what the humans were up against. He knew that ponies, when faced with that kind of a desperate situation, might make decisions that they'd never even consider otherwise. And humans, judging from how Sunflower had acted when she'd lived in town, weren't all that much different than ponies.
He tried to put all of that out of his mind and concentrate on working the farm during the rapidly-fading good weather that remained. He was almost successful.
Winter had come late this year, but it came with something of a vengeance. Last night had been a blizzard that, though Granny assured them that it was plenty fierce, was nothing compared to what they'd see in the old days. Today was much nicer, though. Slightly warmer, with only the occasional snow flurries and gusts of wind to keep things interesting.
Macintosh wound his wide green scarf around his neck several times and stepped out the door. Applejack was already standing in the snow outside, regarding him curiously as she waited. She was also wearing a scarf, and her trademark Stetson was slapped down over a red woolen cap that Granny had knitted for her a couple of years ago. Unlike Mac, though, AJ was also wearing boots and had a light red blanket draped across her back to ward off the chill.
"That all you wearin'? It's pretty cold out."
"Eeyup. I'm ready," he said. She shrugged, and together the Apple siblings headed towards town.
The blanket of new snow muffled the normal sounds of the orchard, the crunch of their hooves being the only thing they heard as they walked, the unblemished white around them making the whole countryside look fresh and clean. They were almost to Ponyville before either of them broke the silence, AJ first clearing her throat before saying, "Y'know, I figured you'd probably rather not come. With how you feel about things, an' all."
He nodded. "I ain't plannin' on going in, AJ. I just... I wanna see what she really looks like, is all."
"You sure you're gonna be okay?"
He winced slightly at the concern in her voice. Even though they'd talked about... well, the situation, from time to time, AJ was still under the impression that he was still heartbroken.
"Time heals all wounds, AJ. I'm fine."
She looked doubtful, but accepted what he said, which he was grateful for. Even though his pulse was ramping up, even though he was more nervous now than he could remember being in a long, long time. He was fine. He was over her. It was only idle curiosity that drove him to take a look at Sunflower, or Erin as she was apparently called. As they approached the cafe, he kept telling himself that. It didn't really help.
"Well, would you look at that," AJ said disapprovingly. Mac looked up and saw a crowd of winter-attired ponies all staring eagerly through the cafe windows, whispering urgently to each other. "That just takes the cake, don't it? Hey, now!" The crowd of ponies all jumped at Applejack's sudden shout as the irritated mare trotted up. "This ain't how we treat guests here in Ponyville, is it? Gawkin' at her like some animal in a zoo? Go on, now! Git!"
Shame-faced ponies slunk away from the window, which, conveniently enough, meant that Mac had plenty of room to do his own gawking. AJ scowled after the fleeing ponies then turned to face her brother.
"Well, I guess I'll leave ya out here, Mac. You sure you don't want to come inside?"
"Eeyup. I'll head home when I've gotten my curiosity satisfied."
AJ shrugged at him with a smile that was probably meant to be comforting but just looked worried, then opened the door to the cafe and went in. A rush of heat and noise escaped from inside, cutting off sharply as the door closed fully. Mac turned his attention to the window, looking in through the frosted glass and seeing her almost instantly. His breath caught as he saw, for the first time in his life, an actual human.
She didn't look at all like a frog, he was oddly relieved to see. Her skin, fur-less like the rumors said, was a pale beige in color, and looked soft and smooth, rather than the slick and shiny of a frog. The mane was pretty much the same, a slightly-curly auburn that cascaded down to her shoulders, and her eyes were the same green as he remembered, as well. Her face, though, was completely different. Flatter than a pony's face, with an odd little bump of a nose. He couldn't spot any ears, at first, until she used a delicate, slim-fingered hand to brush her hair back. Her ears were little round things on the side of her head. They didn't look like they could move at all.
Mac had heard that humans wore clothes everywhere, and Sunflower wasn't any exception. She was wearing a green and white woolen sweater and red pants of some kind, though he had a hard time making out much else, with her sitting down and obscured by the table. The sweater looked a lot like something Granny might knit during the winter months, though obviously shaped for a human instead of a pony.
Sunflower was saying something to Twilight Sparkle, with Rainbow Dash, Fluttershy and Rarity all listening in, when AJ approached the group. A huge smile appeared on the human's face, and she got up and walked over to his sister, throwing her arms around her in a big hug. AJ looped a foreleg across the human's shoulders and hugged her back in return. Then Sunflower went back to sit down, and he realized that her smile was the same, as well. A genuine, warm smile that reached up all the way from her mouth to her eyes, bringing her whole face into one single expression of happiness. He felt his lips quirk slightly in sympathy, turning up into a smile of his own.
"Hiya, Macaroonie." He turned his head, somehow not surprised at all to see Pinkie Pie standing next to him at the window, an absurd blue bobble-topped knit cap on her head, which scrunched her poofy mane down until it all spilled from the bottom of the cap in a typical Pinkie-style mess. "Looking at Sunflower?"
"Eeyup." When that didn't seem to be enough to prompt Pinkie to reply, he added, "Was curious about humans."
"They're pretty interesting, all right. They have the neatest inventions." She looked up at him, her eyes fluttering away the big flakes of snow that were falling. "You going in, or just standing out here like a lump?"
"Like a lump sounds good," he said with a chuckle. "No, I ain't gonna intrude. Was just curious, is all."
"Do you still like her?" Pinkie asked, as blunt as ever. Mac spluttered for a while before sighing.
"She ain't a pony, Pinkie Pie," he said. "I like mares, not humans."
"And she likes men, not stallions. But that's not what I asked, is it?" The unexpectedly serious tone caused him to look down at her, and he blinked in surprise at the grave expression on her face. "She's still the same person on the inside, even though she looks different on the outside. Does it really matter to you what she looks like?"
"Well... Yeah, a little bit," he said, slightly uncomfortable. She frowned at him, then sighed.
"At least you admit that looks play into it, I guess," she said. "So many stallions will say silly things like, 'I like you for who you are, not what you look like,' but they usually only say that to the mares they think are pretty already."
"Well, it ain't so much as looks as species, Pinkie," he said.
"All right, fair enough. I guess what I'm asking is, if it weren't for the species difference, would you still want to have her be your special... someone, I guess?"
"I don't know. It don't seem likely, I guess."
Pinkie sighed and looked back through the window at her friends. "She's not staying a human forever, you know. She's going to turn back into a pony. What then?"
"She's turning back?"
"Yuh-huh," Pinkie said with a small smile. "She wants to study pony magic, and she needs to be a pony to do that. I guess the question is, are you going to try again when she's back in Ponyville to stay?"
He was about to answer when a laugh came from inside the cafe, muffled as it was by the window between them. And there it was, that once-familiar head-tilt coupled with the sparkling curiosity in her green eyes. His heart caught between beats for a moment, and when that moment passed, he was no longer sure he had any answers at all.
"I don't rightly know, Pinkie," he said somberly.
"Well, you'd better figure it out," Pinkie said. "It's really no fun when you wait too long, and the pony you've had your eye on gets their heart set on somepony else." She turned to look at him with an odd half-smile and added, "In fact, it really stinks."
She held his gaze for a moment longer, then turned abruptly and trotted to the door of the cafe. "Pinkie?" he called after her, but she didn't stop, continuing on and shutting the door behind her. Mac turned back to the window in time to see the reaction on the friend's faces when Pinkie joined them, with an accompanying burst of glass-muffled noise in greeting. He watched them all talking for a while, Pinkie smiling like she always did while the others welcomed her, and wondered if he'd imagined things.
More confused than ever, he turned to look up at the sky, and at the first few stars appearing in the clear air overhead. He stared up, letting the chill air clear his mind as the winter air curled eddies of snow around his hooves and the snowfall settled on his back. He was about to leave when a pulse of warm air and noise behind him alerted him to the fact that the cafe door had opened again.
"Macintosh?" It wasn't fair. Her voice stayed the same, too.
He turned to see her standing in the doorway. She stepped forward, and he was surprised to find that she stood as tall as he did, now. Maybe taller, though she was still thin-framed and delicate-looking. "Pinkie said you wanted to talk to me about something?"
He almost panicked, but found refuge in stoicism. "You didn't have to come out. I only wanted to see what you looked like as a human."
"Oh?" she asked, and he couldn't look away from her eyes. "Why stand out here in the cold, then?"
"Didn't want to bother y'all. Just wanted a quick look, then I'll be on my way."
"Oh. Well, ta-daa!" she said, and posed with her arms spread while she grinned at him. Just then a gust of wind ripped down the street, and the human drew her arms back in and hunched over. "Oh, wow, that's cold," she said, rubbing her hands up and down on her arms. Without thinking, Mac took his scarf in his teeth and draped it across her shoulders.
"You're sure?" she asked.
"I ain't all that cold, and you ain't got no fur," he said, nodding.
"Oh. Well, thank you."
The scarf was long enough and wide enough that she was able to wrap it several times across her shoulders, as well as over her head, and still manage to get her hands under it. Mac shuffled his fore-hooves uncomfortably for a few seconds while she arranged it, and then she spoke again.
"Macintosh, I've said this to lots of ponies already, but I haven't said this to you, yet. I'm sorry."
"For lying to you. For pretending to be a pony. I'm really sorry." He looked up and saw that Sunflower was staring away from him, at the side of the cafe. He also noticed, with some alarm, that she seemed about ready to cry. He opened his mouth, but she kept talking. "I didn't want to. Not after I found out how wonderful and friendly you all were. It was wrong, and I have no excuse. I'm luckier than I deserve to be that most ponies I lied to are still willing to be my friends, but if you don't ever want to talk to me again, I'll understand."
Mac thought hard. Was that what he wanted? To never see her again? There was a time, not that long ago, where he was simply angry with her for the lie she'd told, and the hurt that had caused him. Two months ago, he might have told her that, no, he never wanted to see her again. But the anger had faded to almost nothing over the weeks. And now, looking at her, huddled into his scarf and so obviously ashamed of what she'd done, he felt that last little bit of anger let go and drift away.
"No," he said. "I don't want that. We can... We can still be friends, Sunflower."
"Thank you, Macintosh. And, it's Erin."
"I like 'Sunflower' better," he said, and she laughed.
"So does Pinkie Pie. She refuses to call me Erin." She grinned at him, and he smiled back. "You can call me Sunflower, if you like. So, we're still friends?"
"Eeyup. Still friends," he said. And what happened next startled him to his hoof-tips.
"Oh, thank you," she said, stepping forward. Before he knew what was happening, she had her arms wrapped around his neck in a hug. Out of pure reflex, he brought a foreleg up and hugged her around her middle. She smelled... different. Strange, but not unpleasant. And she was wearing some perfume, a scent that reminded him of spring. Feelings he'd hoped were long gone once again moved in him. "Thank you," she said again into his mane.
The unexpected hug lasted for a few seconds until she broke it off and stepped away. They shared a smile and a comfortable silence for a moment, and then Sunflower stretched slightly. "Well, I suppose I'd better-" she began, before Mac interrupted.
"You're comin' back to stay, I hear?" he said. "To study magic?"
"Oh, yes. I'm really looking forward to it. I love it here!"
"And... as a pony? You're changin' back?"
"Yeah, I have to. If I want to study pony magic, I need to be a pony."
He didn't seem to be able to stop himself. The rekindled feelings welled up in his chest and just pushed the words out of his mouth.
"I don't s'pose, when you're back, when you're a pony... I mean, I understand if'n you ain't got the interest, but I don't reckon... I mean, I could... we could... if you wanted? I mean, if you don't want to, I figure, well, better to know, but I... I really like you a lot, and I was thinkin', maybe... I don't know what I was thinkin', I guess. I was hopin'. Hopin' more than thinkin', and it's probably... you think I'm dumb, now, maybe, but I was just hopin', I mean, when you're a pony again that... we could... be more'n just friends?"
Whatever mysterious force that was driving his mouth finally dried up, and he just stood there, snow settling gently on his back and shoulders, staring at the shocked expression on her face. His brain finally caught up with his mouth, did a quick and horrified check over the last few seconds, and he started talking again while backing away.
"Right, I reckon that was... s-sorry, I shouldn't have said-"
"Macintosh." He stopped, looking into her eyes, unsure of what her expression meant. "I didn't know. I... How long?"
He lasted a few seconds before his resistance crumbled. "Since I first saw ya," he said miserably.
"Oh, Macintosh... I'm so sorry."
She didn't say any more, then, but she didn't need to. He knew. "It ain't gonna happen, is it?" he said softly. She sniffled a little in response, and he was amazed to realize that she was crying, looking down towards her feet.
"I should have..." she said before breaking off. "I should have realized. I didn't know. "
"I didn't tell ya," he said softly. He placed a hoof on her shoulder, very gently, and she took looked up at him with tearful eyes. "Look, I reckon' it's my fault that I got my hopes up, more'n anything."
She smiled sadly and looked away, resting a warm hand on his cheek. "I should have been more aware," she said. "I'm sorry."
"It's... it's all right," he said. And, amazingly enough, he found that it was true. He felt good, for the first time in a long time, as if a huge weight had been taken off of him.
Maybe just tellin' her how I feel is enough.
"Why didn't you say anything sooner? We knew each other for weeks..." She took her hand away from his face, but the warmth stayed for a moment before fading.
"Applejack told ya when we first met, remember?" he said, with a slightly pained chuckle. "I'm downright shy."
"Still... You're a good stallion, Macintosh. Kind and generous, a hard worker and a good friend. Any mare in Equestria would be lucky to have you."
"You say that, but it ain't so easy."
"You remind me of my little brother," she said with a sigh. "He would always pine after a girl from a distance. I'm amazed he ever got married."
"But he did get married, right?"
"He met a girl who went after him, instead of the other way around," Sunflower said with a laugh. "Don't make the same mistake he did. If you find a mare you like, just ask her. Don't wait to fall in love, go after it. The worst she could do is say no."
"Seems forward," Mac said, pawing at the snow, distinctly uncomfortable to be receiving dating advice not only from an alien, but from a female alien with whom he'd been infatuated at one time. "What if she don't like me doin' that?"
"You're a nice guy, Macintosh. No female of any species that I know of would be too upset about politely expressed interest, provided he's able to take 'no' for an answer. Well, at least not anyone who's worth your time. If she gets upset that easily, then you're probably better off looking for someone else, trust me."
"I'll keep that in mind," he said, chuckling wryly.
"Just don't be a pest, and respect her boundaries, and you'll be fine," she said, and he nodded his understanding.
They stood in silence amongst the falling snow for another minute, and Sunflower started shivering once again.
"Look, you'd better get back inside," he told her. "My sis and your friends are waitin' for ya, and it's too cold to just stand out here jawin'."
"I... Yeah, I suppose you're right." To his shock, she leaned forward and kissed him on the cheek. "You're a really sweet guy, Macintosh. If you were human, or if I were a pony, I would go out with you in a heartbeat."
"Well, you're gonna be a pony soon," he joked.
"You know what I mean, you goof," she said, punching him lightly on the shoulder. Another silent moment passed, and then she said, "Are you going to be okay?"
He considered it for a moment, then nodded. "Eeyup."
"And... can we still be friends?"
"Eeyup," he said, smiling.
Sunflower smiled back and began unwinding the scarf. She then wrapped it carefully around Mac's neck, making it snug and layered but not restrictive, perfect for a winter night. Those hands of hers were pretty good at this sort of thing, he noted. When she was done, she patted him gently on the shoulder.
"I'm going back in, then. Thank you, Macintosh. I know that... that must have been hard for you."
"Eeyup. Thanks for... well, not laughin', or anythin'."
"Nobody should ever laugh at you for saying what you feel," she said, frowning. "Anyone who does... well, she's not worth those feelings."
"I s'pose you're right."
"Eeyup," she said, and he laughed. After a moment, she joined in as well.
"All right," she said, finally, rubbing at her eyes with the back of her wrist. "I'm cold, so I'm going back inside. You sure you don't want to join us? You're more than welcome."
Briefly, he was tempted. But he shook his head. "Nah. Got plenty to do 'round the farm. You say 'hi' to the other girls for me, all right?"
"I'll do that," she said.
He turned and walked away, only looking back once when the cafe was nearly out of sight. She was still standing outside, looking after him. When she saw him looking, she raised a hand in farewell. He waved a hoof back, then turned his face towards home, covering the rest of the distance at a brisk trot.
The birdsong in the air and the damp, green smell of growing things meant that spring had once again returned to Sweet Apple Acres. Right on schedule, for the third year running. Mac, himself, had participated in Winter Wrap-up less than two weeks ago.
These were his favorite days of the year, the days when things started growing again, and when it was time to start working on the plans that the Apple family had come up with over the long winter months. The first plantings had already been completed, and now was the time to prepare for the first harvests of the year. Otherwise, his time was spent mostly idle, once his chores around the farm were done. It was a time for growth, renewal and discovery.
It was also a time to repair the fence on the road leading to Ponyville, which had experienced some damage when a large creature, probably a deer from Whitetail Woods, had crashed through a section of it. Mac had carried his toolbox and some replacement wood and whitewash out with him, in order to replace the damaged section.
He'd only been working long enough to pull up the damaged section of fence when he heard his sister's voice coming from the direction of Ponyville and getting closer. Looking up, he saw her walking with a strange mare, one both familiar and unfamiliar. He stopped and waited while the two approached.
"...is why we don't usually call it 'magic'," Applejack was telling the mare. "What we do is more like a partnership, workin' hard and helpin' the earth and nature work together. So, in order to teach you how to be an earth pony, I gotta work ya plenty hard."
"That's fine, Applejack," Sunflower said.
"Sure, you say that now, but you ain't gonna feel that way in a while. Trust me, gettin' yourself in sync with the earth an' nature ain't an easy thing, an' it's gonna be even harder for you, since you ain't been born to it. No offense intended."
"None taken," Sunflower replied. Then, smiling at him, she said, "Hi Macintosh."
"Howdy, Miss Sunflower. I see you're back to bein' a pony."
"That, I am," she said with a grin.
"It looks like ya went all out," he said, nodding at the horn on her head. "Wings too, I see."
"Yeah," she said, blushing. "I may have overdone it, there, but I didn't want to keep going back to change into different types of pony. I don't look stupid, do I?"
"It... looks good on ya," he said, and she blushed.
Applejack, noting the hoof-scuffing and blushing cheeks between the two of them, cleared her throat loudly. "Well, I'm gonna head back to the farm real quick an'... an'... get stuff ready, I guess. You come along after the two of you catch up, Erin."
"Uh, sure. Thanks, Applejack."
"Thanks, AJ," Mac echoed. The two of them watched the orange mare trot off into the distance, and then they looked back at each other. It was Sunflower who broke the silence first.
"Do you think... is it going to be weird between us, now?" she asked, a plaintive note in her voice. Mac considered how he'd answer that, then shook his head.
"Nnope," he said, finally. "I ain't ashamed of how I felt about ya, or how I still feel about ya. You're a fine mare, and a good person, Sunflower. I'd be happy to be your special somepony, but if I can't be that, then I'd be glad to be your friend."
She blushed, smiled, and said, "Thank you. I'd like that, too."
A pair of robins flew by, distracting them both with their maneuvers as they twirled around one another in the air, eventually settling on a nearby fruitless apple tree. Mac looked down at Sunflower and caught her watching the two birds, who were happily chirping a duet, with a slightly wistful look on her face. After a moment, she cleared her throat looked back at him. "So, any luck on the dating front? Please tell me my advice helped a little."
"Eeyup, and nope. I must have misread some signals from a certain pink mare only to find out she ain't interested in me like I thought. But at least I asked her instead of worryin' myself sick for weeks, so I'm thinkin' that's an improvement. Ain't nopony else caught my eye quite yet."
"Aww... Wait, a pink mare? Pinkie Pie?"
"Eeyup," Mac said, his face burning with embarrassment. "She turned me down, but she also gave me a free box of cupcakes, so it ain't all bad." The two of them shared a laugh. "How about you? Any human... Not sure what you call male humans, but any on your horizon?"
She grunted irritably and kicked at the dirt with a hoof. "I'd thought so. There was... well, there was one guy who seemed interested in me before I became a pony, but I came back and he's already got a girlfriend. He didn't even seem to wait that long after I came to Equestria."
"Sorry to hear that," he said sincerely.
"Eh, no big deal, I guess. We hadn't known each other very long. Besides, any man I met would have to wait until I turned back to a human before we could have a serious relationship."
"Don't see why," Mac said. "It ain't all about the physical side of things with humans, is it?"
"Well, no, but..." she broke off, looking at him strangely for a minute. "You know, it really isn't." She shook her head. "Well, it depends on the people involved, I guess. It's like that for some more than others."
"How 'bout for you?" he asked.
"Well... the heart wants what it wants, but it's the brain that has to live with the choices," she said, chuckling. "I tend to go for nice guys over pretty guys. It's a moot point, though, until I change back again."
It don't have to be, he wanted to say. He bit his tongue, instead.
"Well, I suppose I should get back. Your sister has promised to teach me earth pony magic, though she's spent the last few minutes telling me that earth ponies don't usually call it magic."
"She's right," Mac said, nodding. "Once you really understand why, you'll understand earth ponies."
"I'm looking forward to it," she said, grinning. "Working with Twilight and Rainbow Dash hasn't been all I hoped for so far, but I'm really optimistic about this!"
They said their goodbyes, and Mac watched her walk away for a few seconds. Then he turned and looked at the tree. The birds were still there, side by side on their branch. Moving carefully so as not to startle them, Mac pushed a forehoof gently into the damp soil by the trunk of the mostly-dormant apple tree. He closed his eyes and, summoning his will, he asked a favor.
When he opened his eyes again, the tree the birds were on had bright green leaves just starting to open on it. Life only sleeps, his pa had told him. Earth ponies tend to it, strengthening it and waking it up again when needed.
He turned back to the damaged fence and resumed working on it. As the sun rose and warmed him, he even began whistling a happy tune.
Somehow, he just knew that this was going to be a wonderful day.
Timeline Note: This story takes place in February of 2039.
The bedroom was dark and peaceful, with a single full-sized bed in the center of the room. The only noises were the rush of warm air from the vents and some very mild snoring coming from under the heap of blankets on the bed. The only hint of the snorer's presence, apart from the noise, was in the form of a single foot jutting out from underneath the blankets.
The owner of both the snore and the foot snorted and jerked slightly, muttering something under her breath. She then rolled over, taking the opportunity to sneak her foot back under the covers where it belonged. Things seemed to be going well from that point onwards. The snore diminished to just the sound of deep breathing, and the sleeper sank deeper and deeper into slumber.
That is, until the phone on the nightstand next to the bed let out a loud shrieking and groaning noise, punctuated by a flailing electric guitar wielded with much more enthusiasm than skill. The result of this was the sleeper uttering vague and incomprehensible threats towards the device as a hand poked out from the pile of blankets on the bed, slapping around randomly until it found the phone, which was then shut off in an as irritated a fashion as a single limb could convey.
Quiet returned, at least for a few minutes. Soon enough, though, the vague shape under the covers rolled, shifted and sat up, pushing the sheets and blankets aside as she rubbed a hand through her bed-crazed hair while yawning hugely. She then stretched, yawning further, before finally getting out of bed. Stumbling, pajama-clad and half-blind with sleep, she made her way towards the bathroom.
"I need to change my alarm," Erin grumbled, knowing that she wouldn't. While it was true that there weren't many noises that were worse to be woken up to than her brother's old college band (which they'd called College Try in an attempt at irony), she’d mainly kept it out of nostalgia. That, and it was really good at getting her out of bed in the morning, especially on those days when she wanted to make sure she got up on time.
Typical early morning things happened in the bathroom, culminating with Erin eventually standing in front of a mirror, towel-wrapped and freshly showered, working a brush through her hair. She smiled a little at the sight of it, once again glad that she'd asked the Ascent team to replace her previous, somewhat mousy brown with Sunflower's lovely auburn. Her eyes had also been changed somewhat, to the deeper green she'd had as a pony, though that wasn't something she'd asked for. Somehow they'd just ended up that way, but she wasn't going to complain.
Her approval over her new appearance caused a small war between her vanity and her self-respect. Her self-respect told her that she should just be happy being herself, and to heck with whatever other people thought of her. Her vanity agreed, but pointed out that it was much easier to be happy with herself with a nicer hair color and prettier eyes. She managed to mollify the resulting outrage from her self-respect, at least somewhat, by reminding herself that she would have been able to achieve the same result with hair dye and tinted contacts.
After all, it wasn't like she had asked them to make her taller, or give her a nicer figure, or anything like that. Although, now that she thought of it...
She shook her head, banishing the thought. She would be going back to being a pony soon enough, so it wasn't like her bust size was all that important. Besides, she liked her figure as is. Usually. Most days, at least. Well, often enough. Besides, she'd have to buy all new clothes if they changed her too radically.
She put the thought out of her mind. Today was an important day, one she had been looking forward to for weeks. She was finally going to see her friends again, which she hadn’t done for far too long. This was her last chance before returning to the Ascent vat in order to become re-ponified, after which she would be moving back to Ponyville for good.
The only reason she used that god-awful alarm this morning was because she wanted to be at the Harmonics gate as soon as they opened up, so that she could make the most of her time in Equestria. Starting at eight in the morning today, the gateway would be open for seventy-two hours before closing again, per the orders of the Princesses Luna and Celestia.
As frustrating as it was being cut off from Equestria for so long, Erin understood the Princesses' caution. If the Veil of Equestria collapsed who knew what kind of horrible things could happen? These breaks helped to keep the Veil stable, allowing it to recover from any damage from the Harmonics gateways. The Earth’s could probably do with the recovery time as well.
There wasn’t any way to know what the current weather was like in Canterlot, of course, but it was winter in Equestria, matching the seasons here in Colorado. Erin decided to dress warm, donning a t-shirt first, in order to protect her skin from the wool of the heavy green and white sweater that was one of her favorite garments. It had been knitted by her grandmother and originally given to her mother, who had passed it on to Erin over Christmas.
Next came a pair of thick socks, followed by a pair of red jeans that she really liked. She noted, perhaps a touch too smugly for her self-respect to be happy with, that the jeans fit somewhat more loosely than she'd remembered from before. The Ascent diet plan had paid off it seemed!
After that came an unflattering but sensible pair of heavy boots, carefully chosen for warmth, durability and comfort, and containing no leather products whatsoever. She wasn't sure how her friends would react to her walking around with bits of animal skin on her, and she wasn't about to find out. Lastly came the red wooly coat that dropped down to her knees. She left it unbuttoned for now, not wanting to get all sweaty during her walk to the lab.
Finally ready, she left her room. Her ancient black luggage trundled along behind her as she pulled the handle, occasionally making unexpected detours to either side of the hallway with Erin having to stop and pull it back into place before she continued on her way. The luggage had also belonged to her mom, borrowed just for this occasion, and had been a wedding present when her parents had been married. After the third time the black case had slammed into a wall, Erin decided that it was probably time to buy her own luggage.
She’d been too tired when she’d arrived the night before to take in much of her surroundings, but as she walked along now she couldn’t help but notice that the Harmonics compound had changed dramatically since she'd left. Erin guessed that it had received a major makeover due to the fact that this was the primary location for two entire worlds to meet.
Gone were the sterile and somewhat grubby white corridors and fluorescent lights, in favor of sandy brown panels covering the walls, easily removable for maintenance purposes. The latest in "natural wavelength" fiber-optic lighting ran along the ceiling, casting a warm natural-looking glow over everything. The previous tile flooring had been replaced with squares of patterned red and brown carpet, which contributed to the contrariness of her luggage’s navigation. Tasteful pictures and paintings of landscapes, city skylines and the like dotted the hallways occasionally, adding welcome color and interest to what had once been a very utilitarian environment.
The gateway lab itself had changed as well. Now, the gateway was cordoned off, and guests were directed to an actual reception and waiting area, with comfortable cloth chairs for the several people already waiting before Erin arrived. The people in the room, all looking very dignified and important, looked up at her curiously, then resumed whatever activities they'd interrupted, be it reading a magazine, checking the internet on their tablets or phones, or talking softly to one another.
Erin parked her temperamental luggage next to an empty chair and wandered over to a nearby table, helping herself to a cup of fresh coffee and a Danish. She was adding sugar to the cup when a familiar voice spoke up behind her.
"Hey, kiddo. Looking good."
"Maggie!" Erin set her coffee down before she turned to hug the older woman, who chuckled and hugged her back. "It's good to see you!"
"Good to see you too, Erin. Sorry I couldn't be there when you got in last night, but we were doing extensive testing on the new equipment."
"No problem. I got in okay, and the room was nice. After the flight and drive in I was more than ready to just crash."
Saying that reminded her of the fact that she hadn't had anything to eat the night before, and she took a big bite out of her Danish. Apple-flavored, nice and flaky, it tasted freshly made rather than defrosted just for the occasion. It seemed that they really had made some big changes since she'd been gone. She chewed and swallowed gratefully while Maggie talked.
"I can understand that,” the older woman said, adjusting her white lab coat. “How was home? Your folks still doing well?"
"They're both doing great!” Erin said, taking up her coffee again and giving it a stir. “Though, my dad is getting annoyed by the number of reporters who keep stopping by the house or calling and pretending to be old college friends of mine to find out where I am. He got a 'No Trespassing' sign, but they just ignore it, and it drives him nuts."
Maggie laughed, and they chatted comfortably for a few more minutes, drawing attention from the crowd waiting for the gateway to open. Erin noticed, with some discomfort, that she was now gaining attention from the others, even to the point of hearing her name whispered back and forth between those in the waiting room.
Maggie eventually had to excuse herself to start the procedures for re-opening the gateway, a process that took some time. Erin, her coffee in hand, took another Danish (raspberry this time), and made her way to her seat, trying to wait patiently. According to the clock on the wall, it was another ten minutes before the gate was scheduled to open, and by this point the reception area was pretty full.
A sudden drop in the background conversation made Erin look up with interest, only to stare in surprise at two ponies, one a light pink unicorn mare with a lavender mane, the other a sandy brown earth pony mare with a light green mane, who had just walked into the room. They were chatting excitedly to each other, and were carrying saddlebags that were simply stuffed full, nearly to bursting. The mares were talking and laughing, completely unaware that they were the center of attention for every human in the room.
A minute or so after the ponies arrived a slim young brunette in a black suit stepped into the room through an adjoining door. The noise of conversation faded as everyone turned to see what she had to say.
"Ladies and gentlemen," the young woman said, then noticed the ponies, "and our friends from Equestria. If I could have your attention?" The noise in the room had dropped immediately, and everyone looked at the woman in the suit. "The Harmonics gateway to Equestria will be opening shortly. I'd like to begin by bringing you back in small groups to check your documentation before sending you through. Ladies?"
That last was directed towards the ponies that had just walked in, who suddenly noticed how much attention was on them. They blushed and walked forward with quick steps. "Yes?" the unicorn asked.
"Guests visiting Earth from Equestria have priority when it comes to checking in for travel through the gateway," she said, ignoring the groans and mutters from a few of the humans in the waiting room. "If you two would like to come with me, we'll get you started."
The two mares eagerly followed the young woman, and Erin couldn't help but wonder what that was all about. Being on this side of the gateway meant that they had spent the last month on Earth. Were they tourists? Diplomats? She regretted not being able to ask them.
Erin spent the next twenty minutes or so revising an email that she was sending to her parents, since this would be the last chance she'd have for internet access until she returned to Colorado. She'd just sent it when the young woman returned and announced that Erin would be the next to be processed.
Erin blinked in surprise at that and stood up uncertainly, wincing slightly at the frustrated muttering now directed at her. Red faced, she grabbed her luggage and yanked it along behind her as she hurried through the side door. The intimidatingly polished young woman fell in beside her.
"Um, hi," Erin said as the pair of them walked down the wood-inlaid corridor.
"Hello, Miss Olsen. It's a pleasure to meet you. My name is Dawn Grady."
"Hi, Dawn. Um. Why was I next? I wasn't there first, or anything..."
"You have to ask?" Dawn said, with a hearty chuckle. "You're a national hero."
Erin, now extremely embarrassed, stammered a protest. Dawn patted her on the shoulder, explaining, "You're on the VIP list. This is one of the perks. I suggest you enjoy it!"
Shortly after that the two of them arrived at a door guarded by a man wearing a rather nice suit and carrying no obvious weapons. The guard opened the door, and Dawn wished her well and walked the other way. Erin walked in and was shocked to find how radically redesigned the Harmonics lab was since her last visit.
It still looked somewhat industrial, with electrical conduits and wiring trays along the ceiling, but some effort had been made to hide the more functional aspects of the room and make it look and feel much more comfortable. After all, it was any visitor's first impression of Earth.
Rather than the previous linoleum-tiled floor, a delicately patterned carpet stretched across the room, low pile as to not trip up anyone's hooves or catch on a claw from one of the representatives of the Griffon Kingdom. The lighting had changed to the same natural light fiber-optics that subtly lit the rest of the compound, and as much of the electronics as possible were hidden behind removable panels or folding walls. The effect made the room a nice combination of efficiency and warmth.
Even the Harmonics gateway itself hadn’t escaped a makeover. It was now bracketed by a thick frame of dark, carved wood. This made the gateway to the Equestrian side seem like it might be an extremely large framed photo rather than a hole into another world.
Another addition was a large wooden desk, with another suited man behind it. The man, middle-aged and with a salt-and-pepper beard, smiled and asked for her documentation. Erin fumbled in her bag for a moment before producing the folder she’d been given and handing it over to him. A quick glance at her paperwork was followed by a brief examination of her luggage for contraband, with Erin wanting to crawl away and hide when her carefully-packed underwear made a brief appearance, only to be discreetly tucked away again.
"Sorry ma'am, just had to make sure," the guard explained with a conciliatory smile. “The ponies have their rules, and so do we.”
Erin mumbled her understanding and gathered her luggage up, pulling it behind her once again as she approached the gateway. A guard in a suit stood on either side, both nodding to her as she walked up. She stepped through into Equestria, where she began whole process again with the Canterlot administration.
As the unicorn at the desk on the Equestrian side took her papers, Erin had a moment to look around. The Equestrian side of the gate had changed as well. If anything, it was much more radical than the differences on the human side of things. After all, there was no equipment on this side that needed to be accessed, though Erin noticed that the gateway was now bracketed by an oddly twisted pair of blue crystal pylons, with unfamiliar symbols carved into them.
The carpet on this side was a lush red, and the room she was in right now was huge, much larger than the entire gateway outpost had been before. Erin guessed that the original quickly built hut had been torn down at some point, and this new building was built in its place.
The effect was a little like walking into a church, or a high-end art gallery. Darkly stained wood trimmed the cream-colored walls, and the ceiling was arched into a conical shape, rather than flat, reaching up a half story in height. Along the ceiling were a series of stained glass windows which Erin realized, much to her shock, depicted the story of humanity and Equestria's first meeting, and the events that took place after.
There, on the first window, was a colored glass version of herself in pony form, stepping through a hole in the world. The next was one of her with her friends, a scene of them all sitting around a food-laden table, eating and talking. Another window depicted Celestia's fall after attacking the Tide. The window after that, she shuddered to notice, depicted Malachite facing off against the Tide by himself. The second to the last panel had her friends, with the Elements of Harmony, blasting the Tide.
The very last panel was a human that seemed vaguely familiar, bearded and dark-haired, bowing to Celestia and Luna, who were bowing in return. Erin didn't recall that actually happening, though, and she assumed it was some artistic license depicting the mutual friendship and respect between the leaders of both worlds.
"Miss?" the unicorn asked, and Erin looked around. He was smiling at her. "Sure is impressive, isn't it?" he said, in regards to the stained-glass windows.
"Yeah," Erin said, feeling numb. "I'm surprised. None of this was here last time I came through."
"Last time?" the unicorn said, looking confused. He turned to his paperwork and rifled through it. "I don't recall seeing an 'Erin Olsen' having come to Equestria before."
"It might be under Sunflower, though I don't think we were tracking visitors that closely when the gate first opened up."
The unicorn gaped at her, and Erin shuffled uncomfortably. The clerk looked at her, then up at the first stained glass window, then back down to her.
"Um. So... Am I good?" she asked, taking back her luggage. The unicorn nodded dumbly, and Erin took her chance to get out of there, feeling the unicorn staring holes in her back as she walked away.
It was terribly cold outside when Erin walked out of the gateway building, and she hurriedly buttoned up her coat. One knit cap and a pair of mittens later, and she was ready to be on her way. Her luggage rambled along behind her like a happy puppy as she walked to the palace along the recently installed broad walkway.
Fresh snow was everywhere, though the new walkway was nicely cleaned off. She made her way through the gardens, hurried past still more Royal Guards, and into the castle itself. From there, she walked through the hallways until she reached the front courtyard, doing her best to ignore the stares of the various ponies along the way. It wasn't that long ago that she wouldn't have gotten a second look walking through the castle, but now it seemed that every pony was fascinated with her.
Once she was back outside of the castle proper, she hurried through to the gradually-filling early morning streets of Canterlot. She hadn't expected to be processed through the gate so quickly, which left her with some time to kill before she had to be at the station. After a moment of consideration, she made her way to a small store nearby, from which eminated a welcoming aroma.
Once inside, Erin made her way up to the counter and smiled at the pegasus behind the counter. The pony, at first startled, smiled at her and welcomed her warmly. "Always nice to see a human in my humble little coffee shop," he said.
"Thanks!" Erin replied. A few minutes later, and she found herself sitting at one of the coffee shop's little tables with a large blueberry muffin and cup of coffee, which she sipped slowly.
She considered the pegasus' calm reaction to her presence. This close to the castle, she imagined it probably wasn't too unusual to see humans running around. She knew that there was a permanent ambassadorial staff, after all. It wouldn't be surprising if a coffee shop so near the castle grounds was occasionally visited by a human or two.
Erin pulled out her phone and glanced at the time. She still had at least another hour before her train boarded, so she set her alarm to go off in half an hour, to make sure she had plenty of time for the walk over. After a moment of consideration, she changed the alarm from her brother's attempt at rock and roll to vibrate, which she decided was much less likely to induce a heart attack in anypony who heard it unexpectedly.
Alarm set and with time to spare, Erin nabbed a newspaper off of an unoccupied table and read through it. Humans were still in the news, of course, but were no longer the lead story. Instead, some disaster in Hoofington was in the top spot, a collapsed bridge. Though there were several minor injuries, Erin was glad to note that at least nopony had died.
She flipped through the rest of the paper as she finished her muffin. There was some reporting on the economical and cultural ramifications of the Human/Equestrian treaty, most of which was wild speculation with various pony experts disagreeing with each other. Where some saw opportunity, others saw a major threat to the pony way of life.
The only thing that everypony seemed to agree on was that Equestria was now living through very interesting times, indeed.
Erin was so caught up in reading the news that she jumped a little when the vibration kicked in on her phone. She turned off the alarm, gathered up her things and buttoned her coat back up. As she left, she waved to the pegasus barista behind the counter, who waved back and wished her a good day.
The streets were filling up, now, and Erin made her way through the light crowds, with the ponies on the street occasionally having to jump or dodge slightly as her luggage made unscheduled lunges towards their legs. Erin apologized profusely almost the whole way to the train station.
When she finally arrived, she gave the surprised mare in the ticketing booth a few bits for a ticket, and boarded the waiting train immediately, glad to finally be out of the cold. The train wasn't leaving for another half hour, and so the Ponyville Express was mostly empty, though there were still a few ponies sharing her car who regarded her with wide and curious eyes.
Erin’s shoulders twitched as she felt the stares of the ponies on her. She reached into her bag, removed a pair of earbud headphones and her phone, plugged one into the other, and listened to music while pretending to be completely engrossed with the screen of her phone. Without an internet connection, though, she could only watch a movie or play the few games she had installed.
What felt like a million Sudoku games later, the train finally jerked and started moving off. Erin glanced up to see that the car she was in was now maybe a third full, with most of the ponies ignoring her for the most part, though she did catch a couple sending glances her way from time to time. Feeling a little more relaxed, she gave up fiddling with her phone, though she kept the music playing through her headphones, and watched out the window as the winter wonderland of Equestria rolled on by.
It looked like a completely different country, covered in snow. What few signs of habitation there were between here and Ponyville were now completely obscured under a glittering white blanket, making the countryside seem lonely and vast.
The distant heap of clouds that Erin now knew was Cloudsdale glinted in the distance, and she renewed her vow to visit that place just as soon as she could convince Rainbow Dash to take her there. Once she'd been re-ponied, of course. There was no doubt in her mind that pegasus was her first choice of pony types to change into. As much as she'd love to study with Twilight and learn unicorn magic, learning to fly was just too great of an opportunity to pass up. And walking on clouds? How could she turn that down?
Erin’s excitement grew as they got closer and closer to Ponyville. She was now able to pick out the occasional landmark in the distance, and she could feel a smile growing steadily on her face as the train got closer and closer to town.
The train pulled into the station at long last. Erin got out, hauling her luggage behind her, relishing seeing the familiar town under a blanket of glittering snow. Apparently, whatever snowstorm had passed through Canterlot had also passed through Ponyville. The occasional flake still fell from the overcast sky, but nothing that would cause her any trouble.
"Uh, do you need any help?" a pony asked her, and Erin looked down to see a familiar face. It was Carrot Top, and she was smiling nervously up at her. It hit Erin how strange it felt, being so much taller than ponies she was familiar with. Carrot Top had actually been a little taller than she had been as Sunflower.
"No, thanks," Erin said with a return smile. "I'm just going to the library, and I know where that is."
"Oh, okay," the pony replied, with an odd mixture of relief and curiosity. "Well, have a good time in Ponyville! You're our first human, I think."
"Thanks, Carrot Top," Erin said, waving as she walked away. "I'll see you later!"
Carrot Top smiled and waved after her, and Erin had silently counted all the way up to ten in her head before she heard the startled pony shout, "Wait, what?!"
Laughing, and feeling a great sense of mischief, Erin made her way quickly to the library, waving happily at the familiar ponies around her, many of whom were too stunned by their first sight of a human to wave back.
Twilight sipped her tea, an interesting blend that Celestia had shipped her for research purposes. Supposedly, it was a Zebrican blend designed to replenish energy and to enhance mental focus. Twilight decided that it was likely also a wonderful diet aid, as it tasted like moldy hay. She scowled and set the cup aside for the moment, and started going over the day's checklist once again.
"Twilight!" Spike called, breaking her concentration. "She's here!"
"She's here?!" Twilight tossed the checklist aside and bolted down the stairs so fast she nearly tumbled and fell. She skidded to a halt on the main floor and stared at her friend, who waved at her.
"Hi, Twilight," Erin said, a smile on her face, her now hairless cheeks red from the cold.
"Erin?" Twilight walked slowly forward, staring in awe. It was so hard to wrap her head around the fact that this was the same Erin she knew as a pony. As the human straightened up from hugging Spike in greeting, Twilight took the opportunity to analyze what her friend now looked like.
Her hair looked almost the same as her mane had, although it was styled differently, as it now came from all over the top of her head rather than a line down her head and neck like a mane. It was hard to tell what she looked like under her bulky red coat, but her hands were much finer and more slender than Spike's clawed ones. Her human face looked nothing like her pony face, lacking a muzzle and pointy ears, but Twilight was sure she saw some similarities in the joyful expression that beamed towards her.
Erin wasn't as tall as many of the humans that Twilight had already seen, though she was still considerably taller than herself. Though, if Twilight were to guess, they'd be about the same height if she was standing on her back hooves.
Twilight decided to test that observation by combining greeting and experimentation together, rearing up on her hind legs in order to hug the human tightly around the shoulders with her forelegs. Erin, laughing, hugged tightly back, her arms going across Twilight's withers.
Just as tall as she is, Twilight noted with satisfaction. Maybe a little taller, with the horn.
"It's so good to see you!" Twilight said as they disengaged. Her hooves clacked on the wooden floor as she fell back on all fours. "I missed you so much!"
"I missed you too, Twilight," Erin said. "Thanks for putting me up overnight."
"Oh, it's not a problem! I was thinking, if any of the girls were interested, we could come back here after dinner and maybe have a party!" Twilight didn't bother to explain her hope that the regular party would eventually metamorphose into a slumber party. She still enjoyed those, and aside from Pinkie Pie, her friends were so rarely interested these days.
"Yes!" Erin seemed enthusiastic about that, hopping a little as she clapped her hands together. "That would be great! I so want to see the others, too."
"Rarity has an order to drop off for delivery, but she'll be here soon," Twilight said. "And Fluttershy has to finish feeding all of her animals. Rainbow is probably dealing with clearing away the remains of the snowstorm, and AJ said she'd be a little late. Not sure where Pinkie is right now, but she said she’d show up later."
"Sounds great!" Erin said, enthusiastic. "When are we all meeting?"
"In about half an hour," Twilight said. "The Cafe Cartie. If you like, we can relax a little before we go?"
"Sure, let me take off my coat," Erin said, and proceeded to do so. Twilight watched with interest as the human shed her outer layer of clothing to reveal yet another layer underneath. And, if she wasn't mistaken, she could see yet another layer underneath the green and white sweater she was wearing over her torso. How many layers of clothes did humans actually wear, anyway?
She shook her head, mildly frustrated. She knew humans had odd hang-ups and taboos about their clothes, but maybe Erin wouldn’t mind her asking about it later tonight. After all, she’d been a pony for a while. Maybe the taboos weren’t quite as strong with her.
She put that out of her mind, for now, and instead concentrated on talking to her friend.
Erin was in the process of demonstrating Sudoku to a fascinated Twilight when they were interrupted by an almost timid-sounding knock from the front door
“That would be Fluttershy,” Twilight said, smiling. “We can get more into that later. But it looks like an interesting puzzle!”
Erin looked around as Twilight trotted off and opened the door to reveal a somewhat flustered looking Fluttershy standing in the snow. She was wearing a light green stocking cap, a pink and white striped scarf, and a pony version of a poncho in a dark pine green color.
“Oh, I’m so sorry, Twilight,” the pegasus said, coming in and wiping her hooves clear of snow on the thick mat by the front door. “This snow slowed me down more than I expected. I really hope you haven’t been waiting for me too—” Fluttershy’s eyes widened when she saw Erin and she trailed off with a squeak.
“Um. Hi, Fluttershy,” Erin said, standing slowly so as to not alarm her friend. “It’s me, Erin.”
Fluttershy stared for a few seconds. “It’s really you?” she asked, coming into the room slowly. “I saw your picture before, but you look so... so different.”
“I suppose I do,” Erin said, smiling. She knelt down and held her arms out. Fluttershy, after only a brief moment of hesitation, walked into her embrace. The two friends hugged for a moment. “It’s good to see you, Fluttershy.”
“You too,” the pegasus said. Erin let her go and straightened up.
“Does anypony want some tea?” Twilight asked. “Or maybe some hot cocoa? Spike is in the kitchen making snacks for later, and I’m pretty sure he put the kettle on.”
“Oooh, hot cocoa, please!” Erin said with a smile.
“Tea would be lovely, thank you,” Fluttershy said. “Do you have chamomile?”
“Sure do! Be right back.”
Twilight trotted off to the kitchen, and Fluttershy began removing her winter clothing.
“I’m not too scary as a human, am I?” Erin asked. Fluttershy blinked at her, then smiled.
“You’re not scary at all, Erin. It’s just that it’s a little hard to believe that you’re the same person that I remember.”
Erin laughed uncomfortably. “Yeah, I guess I can understand. It took me a few days to get used to being human again. I kept startling myself every time I walked past a mirror.”
Fluttershy smiled in reply just as Twilight bustled back out of the kitchen. The unicorn was levitating a silver tray that held a few cups, a steaming teapot, and assorted odds and ends. The tray was set down upon a low table, and Twilight poured steaming water into the cups.
“Here’s the chocolate mix,” Twilight said, holding up a ceramic container with her magic. “Two spoonfuls should do it.”
“Thanks, Twilight,” Erin said. There were cushions surrounding the low table on the floor, and each of the friends picked one to sit on. Erin ended putting in a third spoonful of mix, to which Twilight raised an eyebrow. “I like it extra chocolatey,” Erin said defensively.
“Yes,” Twilight responded, “But now there’s an uneven number of spoonfuls left. That means that one cup is going to be shorted later on.”
“Or I could have a second cup with three spoonfuls, which would even things out again,” Erin pointed out, grinning at Twilight as she stirred the mix into the water.
“Oh, goodness,” Twilight said while rolling her eyes. “It’s all chaos and insanity! Let’s just make up the rules as we go, then.”
The unicorn was smiling while she said it, and Erin laughed in response. “There are no rules when it comes to chocolate, Twilight,” she said, then took a sip of the cocoa. It was delicious, though it could have used a marshmallow or two.
Another knock on the door caught their attention. Twilight excused herself once again, opening the door to reveal Rarity standing patiently in the snow. The fashionista was wearing an odd saddle with a parasol attached, no doubt to keep the snow off of her mane and tail.
“Please, do excuse my lateness,” the unicorn said. “I was unavoidably detained.“ Her horn glowed briefly and the garment lifted itself off of her back, the parasol collapsing and the entire thing moved over to be hung up on the coat rack by the door.
Erin, who’d already started standing as soon as Twilight opened the door, walked over to hug the white unicorn around the neck. “It’s good to see you again, Rarity.”
“And you as well, darling,” Rarity replied, returning the hug with a foreleg around Erin’s shoulders. “I must say, you look quite different as a human. Even though you’d shown us a picture before, I believe this will take some getting used to.”
“Yes,” Fluttershy added, nodding over her cup of tea. “That’s just what I was thinking.”
“Well, it won’t be for long,” Erin replied with a chuckle.
“Would you like some tea, Rarity? Or, perhaps some cocoa?” Twilight asked eagerly. Erin guessed that she was really enjoying her role as a hostess. “We have a special one-time deal, if you go for the hot chocolate: three spoonfuls instead of the regular two!”
Twilight laughed at her own joke, though Rarity just looked confused. “I... see? Thank you, but I believe I’ll just have tea with lemon, if you don’t mind?”
“Not at all,” Twilight said, and soon enough Rarity was settled down on a cushion of her own.
“Ah, nothing like a good cup of tea on a cold day,” Rarity said, sipping demurely. “It makes it almost worth dealing with the cold.”
The others around the table agreed, and there was a moment of appreciative silence. Erin had her hands wrapped around her own cup, enjoying the warmth on her fingers.
“That’s a lovely sweater, dear, if you don’t mind my saying so,” Rarity said, breaking the silence.
“Thank you,” Erin said, glancing down at it. “My grandmother knitted it for my mom, before I was born. My mom gave it to me a while ago. It’s just about my favorite thing to wear.”
“It’s very well-made,” Rarity said, eying it appreciatively. “Would you mind if I took a closer look?”
“Not at all,” Erin said, scooching across the floor until she was next to the unicorn, who peered intently at Erin’s sweater.
“Hmm... I don’t believe I’ve ever seen a pattern like this before,” Rarity said.
“It’s traditional Scandinavian, according to my mom.”
“I don’t suppose you could show me sometime?” Rarity asked. “I would simply love to be able to replicate this design!”
“Oh, um... Well, I never actually learned to knit,” Erin said. “Not very well, at least. My mom probably could, though. If she ever comes to visit I could have her show you.”
“Why, thank you! Though, I wouldn’t want to impose.”
Erin laughed at that. “No worries, she’d love to show off.”
“Well, then. Assuming she ever does visit, I’ll be sure to ask her!”
Another knock at the door halted the conversation once again, and Erin stood up quickly, motioning for Twilight to stay seated.
“It’s probably Rainbow Dash, right?” Erin asked. Twilight nodded. “I’ve got this one, then.”
Erin walked quietly up to the door of the library and yanked it open. “Hiya!” she said loudly, startling the pegasus in the doorway, who fell back on her haunches with a surprised shout.
“What the hay?!” Rainbow yelled, wide-eyed and staring as she sat in the snow.
Erin started giggling. “I finally got you back for that raincloud you dumped on me, Rainbow.”
“Erin?” Dash said, standing up and flicking her tail to clear the snow off of her rump.
“Yeah,” Erin said with a grin.
“You look weird,” Rainbow said, eying her up and down. Then she laughed. “But it’s still good to see you.”
Erin gave her a hug, which the pegasus eagerly returned. “You know, that rain cloud was months ago,” Rainbow said during the hug.
“I know,” Erin replied, standing back up again. “I’m nothing if not patient when it comes to petty vengeance. Do you want to come in? We’re all sitting around drinking tea or hot chocolate.”
“Uh, I would, but aren’t we going to be late for our reservation?”
Twilight must have heard that, because Erin suddenly heard her voice shout “What?!” followed by some quick scrabbling. She turned to see Twilight on her hooves, dancing frantically while staring at the clock on the mantlepiece. “Oh, my goodness! We’re going to be late! Spike!”
“Yeah?” the dragon said, coming out of the kitchen.
“Can you clean all this up?” Twilight asked.
“Sure, I guess.” Spike said with a sigh. “Not a problem.”
Fluttershy and Rarity were also getting up by this time and, urged by an increasingly frantic Twilight, they both hurried to get ready. Erin got her coat back on, but opted to not wear her hat or mittens. It wasn’t that long of a walk to the cafe. The others didn’t seem to be moving fast enough for Twilight’s taste, causing the unicorn to decide to “help”.
“Here!” Twilight said, levitating Fluttershy’s hat onto her head and jamming it down, completely covering her eyes.
Rarity stomped a hoof as Fluttershy squeaked in discomfort. “Twilight! You need to settle down. If we’re a couple of minutes late it won’t be the end of the world!”
“Yeah, but..!” Twilight trailed off at Rarity’s glare. “O-okay. Yes. You’re right. It doesn’t matter. But can we please hurry?”
Rarity rolled her eyes and smiled wearily. “If it makes you happy, dear, of course.”
Erin, already in her coat, stood outside with Rainbow Dash to make more room for the others to finish getting their winter gear on.
“So... What’s up?” Rainbow asked.
“Nothing much,” Erin replied, leaning back against the snow-crusted bark of the library. “What’s up with you?”
“Not much,” Rainbow replied, buffing a hoof with exaggerated casualness on the front of her coat, then looking at the resulting shine critically. “Just got accepted into the Wonderbolts Academy, is all.”
“Whoah!” Erin straightened up. This news was far too big to act casual about. “That’s great news!”
Rainbow’s grin said it all. She held out a hoof and Erin fist-bumped it.
“So, what happens now?” she asked her winged friend.
“Now I go two weekends a month and two weeks every three months to train there. At the end of the year, if I get accepted into the advanced class, which I totally will, then I go every other week until I graduate into the Junior Wonderbolts.”
“Rainbow, that’s fantastic!” Erin said. “I couldn’t be happier for you!”
“Yeah, well...” Rainbow looked away, faking like it was no big deal, but Erin caught the grin on her face.
It was then that the other three ponies exited the library, and the whole group started out towards the cafe a few blocks away. Snow crunched under Erin’s boots and her friend’s hooves as they walked, with the rare pony outside stopping to stare at the procession.
Erin, feeling slightly giddy, waved enthusiastically at all the familiar faces, all of whom stared and occasionally waved back without recognizing her. It was enough to make her laugh with delight.
The cafe was much the same as Erin remembered it, though the outside dining area was closed off for the winter. Twilight, who was several steps in the lead while they walked, opened the door and urged everypony through.
The conversation level inside the cafe dropped to absolute silence a few seconds after Erin made her way in. Erin looked around, feeling both nostalgic to be back in the cafe and a little uncomfortable at being the center of attention. The dining area wasn’t too packed, at the moment. Most ponies were staying home, due to the weather, and there were a lot of empty tables.
Junebug, one of the waitresses that Erin liked the most at this place, came trotting up, eyes wide.
“Hi!” she said happily. “We’ve got your table ready for you in a private area of the dining room. If you could follow me?”
“Thanks,” Twilight said, breathing a sigh of relief. “Sorry if we’re late.”
“It’s no problem,” Junebug said with a slightly nervous laugh. “We’re way too excited about being the first restaurant in Ponyville to host a human to care about something trivial like that!”
Rainbow snickered at Twilight, who flushed with embarrassment. The hostess then led them back to an area that was mostly blocked off with a folding screen, allowing them to relax and shielding them from prying eyes.
There were menus already on the table, and Erin picked hers up as she took a seat near the wall. Rarity sat to her left, Twilight to her right. Fluttershy sat next to Rarity, and Rainbow sat next to Twilight, leaving two empty spaces for the ponies yet to arrive.
"Hmm... A few months ago, I probably would have gone for the daisy sandwich," Erin said, regarding the menu carefully.
"Why not get it now?" Fluttershy asked. She’d barely glanced at the menu before putting it back down again. "It's very good."
"Humans don't usually eat flowers," she replied, frowning at the menu. "I mean, I don’t think daisies would hurt me, but it probably wouldn't taste all that good. And some other flowers might not be edible for me."
"Ask for some meat, I dare you," Rainbow said, snickering and ignoring Rarity's disapproving glare. "I want to see what our waitress says when you do."
"Um, I think I'll pass. The pasta vinaigrette sounds nice."
"It's lovely," Rarity said with a smile. “I’ve had it before.”
They all chatted amiably while deciding what they wanted, with the exception of Twilight, who was focused on her own menu with a laser-like intensity. When Junebug returned with glasses and several pitchers of water, they told her that they were waiting for more friends, and the earth pony waitress agreed to come back in a few minutes.
It was just then that Erin heard a familiar voice shouting outside. She turned and looked out the frosted window just in time to see a bunch of shamefaced ponies getting chased off by an annoyed Applejack.
"AJ's here, in case you didn't notice," Rainbow said dryly.
"Yes, I can hear that," Erin said, blushing. "Looks like I was a little bit popular with the populace."
They shared a laugh. A minute later Applejack came in, stomping the snow off of her hooves and making "brrr! brrr!" noises.
"Whoo-wee! Ain't it cold outside!" AJ said as she came around the screen while shucking her coat and scarf. Erin hurried over and hugged her friend, and AJ slung a slightly chilly foreleg across her shoulders. "Y’all picked a great time for a visit, Erin."
Erin laughed as AJ began divesting herself of the remainder of her winter garments before putting her hat back on. "How've you been, AJ?
"Can't rightly complain, though I'm sure I could if I tried. A little family drama, but nothin' too much to worry 'bout." Applejack said with a laugh. "How 'bout you, Erin?"
"Well, that depends. Can I complain, if I want?" Erin smiled to let her friends know she was kidding. "Things are going well. I've gotten final approval from everyone who matters to come back next month as a pony and start my research."
"Still as a pony, huh?" Applejack asked, sitting down and picking up her own menu. "Still hung up on startin' as a pegasus?"
Erin nodded. "Yeah. I really, really want to fly." She stopped and grinned at Rainbow Dash's whoop of approval. "And I've been kind of obsessed with Cloudsdale since I first saw it. I'd love to visit it!"
"Yeah, you'd love it!" Rainbow Dash said. "I'll show you around the first chance I get, once I manage to get you airborne. It's the greatest city in the sky!"
"I don't doubt it," Erin said with a laugh. "How long do you think it will take me to learn to fly?"
"I don't know," Rainbow Dash said, eying her critically. "How hard are you willing to work?"
"To fly? Pretty darned hard, Rainbow!" Erin laughed, and her friends joined in.
"You know, I quite enjoyed flying during that brief time after Twilight cast that wing spell on me," Rarity said. "Gliding around like that... It was really quite enthralling. And, honestly, I've never felt more graceful."
"Up until you nearly plummeted to your death," Rainbow said with a snicker.
"Yes. Well." Rarity was blushing a bright red against her white coat. "I do believe my near-death experience was punishment enough for my hubris, don't you think?"
"Near-death?!" Erin asked, alarmed.
"Ah, yes." Rarity said with a small frown. "I'd forgotten that I'd never told you that story. Let's just say that my wings evaporated at a most inopportune time. It was only the extraordinary bravery and effort on Rainbow Dash's part that saved my life."
"That, and the second Sonic Rainboom in recorded history," Rainbow Dash said smugly, leaning back in her chair with her forelegs crossed behind her head.
"Yes, that too," Rarity conceded, smiling warmly and patting her friend on the shoulder. "I'll always be in your debt for that, darling."
"Nah, don't worry about it. You can pay me back by letting me make fun of you for it every once in awhile."
Erin couldn't help herself, laughing at the pegasus' smug look and Rarity's sheepish grin. "Okay, now I have to hear this story!"
"Perhaps later," Rarity said, clearing her throat and looking around. "When we're not surrounded by ponies who may overhear?"
"Fine, fine," Erin said, waving a hand. "Still, at least I won't have to worry about vanishing wings. I really can't wait to be a pegasus!"
Twilight folded her menu and placed it aside, apparently having finally made up her mind. "Have you considered using the biological template that Malachite left behind?" An awkward silence descended, and Twilight hurried to add, "Modified, of course! I wasn't suggesting you become a pseudo-alicorn stallion, just that it makes more sense to come back with the abilities of all three ponies. That way you wouldn't have to keep changing."
"Uh... Well, it's a not a bad idea, Twilight, but the thought of having anything to do with Malachite really just gives me the heebie-jeebies." Erin shuddered involuntarily, then glanced down at the table and started playing restlessly with her napkin.
"Sorry," Twilight said quietly. Erin caught a hint of shame in her friend’s voice and looked up, startled. Twilight wouldn’t meet her eyes as she said, "I wasn't thinking."
Erin quickly reached across the table and squeezed her friend's shoulder. "Twilight, it's all right. It really is. I'm... It's not as bad as it was a couple months ago." Erin shot a weak smile at her friend.
"I'm still sorry," Twilight said, managing a smile back. "Look, anyway, regarding your time here, I don't think I mentioned that I found a place for you, did I?"
"Oh, you did?" Erin asked, perking up. "That's wonderful!"
"Yes, it's going to be open at the start of next month, and I put down a deposit for you already. It's three hundred bits a month... um... " Twilight looked nervous for a moment. "That's not too much, is it?"
"No, that's fine," Erin said, laughing. "What's it like?"
"Oh, it's a nice little place," Twilight said, happily. "It's got just what you wanted. Two bedrooms, so you can turn one into a lab or study, a large living area, kitchen, and so on. It's on the southern edge of town, right by some large fields so you can go running, if you like. It even has a large back yard, in case you want to do magical experiments that won't fit in the house!"
"Twilight, that sounds amazing! I can't wait to see it! Did I leave enough bits behind?"
"Oh, yes. There's enough left over from what you gave me that you should be able to pay a month of rent, and still be able to furnish it fairly well."
Erin was about to ask more about her new residence when a flash of pink distracted her. "Pinkie Pie!" she shouted happily, standing up and throwing her arms out towards her friend. Pinkie looked up, smiled, and trotted forward to hug her.
"Hey, Sunflower," Pinkie said with her regular grin. "Looking awfully human-ey!"
"And you're still very, very pink," Erin said, laughing happily as she sat back down. "Twilight was just telling me about the place she found for me in town."
"It's that cottage over by Meadow Park," Twilight said.
"Oooh! That's a nice place!" Pinkie said. Then she frowned while flicking at the menu with a hoof. "Um. Not to change the subject, Sunflower, but Big Macintosh is outside. I think he may want to talk to you."
"Oh?" Erin glanced out the nearby window, and could just barely make out the red stallion in the dark outside. "Why doesn't he just come inside?"
"I dunno," Pinkie said, shifting on her seat. "Maybe it's private?"
"Oh. Um. Okay. I'll go talk to him, I guess." Erin stood and smiled at her friends. "I'll be right back, guys. If they come to take our orders and I'm not back yet, could you ask for the pasta vinaigrette for me?"
Twilight assured her that she would, and Erin made her way to the door.
Twilight watched as Erin made her way out of the private area of the cafe. It was still very strange seeing her friend like this. While, technically, she'd known that Erin was a human this entire time, seeing her walking around on two legs was just bizarre. It was hard to accept that the Sunflower she'd known and the Erin she knew now are the same person.
When the front door jingled, Twilight knew that her friend had gone outside. She glanced at Pinkie, who was frowning solemnly at the table.
"Pinkie?" she said, and her friend jumped a little bit. "What was all that about?" Pinkie just blinked at her, so Twilight tried again. "What did Big Mac want?"
"Oh, um..." For some reason, Pinkie shot a glance at Applejack, and then looked away again. "Not really sure I can say. Maybe you should ask her about it when she comes back."
Twilight looked over at AJ, who was making a big show of reading her menu. The unicorn felt her brow furrow. Something was up, that was for sure. She opened her mouth to start digging for answers, but that was when Junebug showed up again to take their orders.
Pinkie Pie stated that she was ready and ordered a fruit salad, a green salad and a slice of chocolate cake. The others all placed their orders as well, with Twilight ordering Erin's meal for her.
"Are we all still on for heading back to the library after lunch?" Twilight asked her friends. "I was really hoping we could all hang out. Maybe Erin can get that movie thing working again!"
"Yeah, that's cool," Rainbow said. The pegasus looked extremely bored, her chin propped up in one forehoof. "I want to watch something with some action this time, though."
"That dragon one had lots of action," Applejack reminded her.
"Yeah, that's true!" Rainbow seemed to perk up at the memory. "More like that one would be good."
A few minutes passed as they discussed plans for the evening. Eventually, Erin returned from outside, shivering slightly and red-faced, probably from the cold. She sat down quietly in her seat between Rarity and Twilight.
"How'd it go?" Applejack asked, and Erin's eyes flicked up. Twilight frowned at the expression on her friend's face. Erin definitely looked uncomfortable. Embarrassed, maybe? Or possibly guilty? Though, it was hard to think what Erin had to feel guilty about.
"Um. Well, okay, I guess," Erin said, using her slim hands to play with a napkin. "He just wanted to talk. Said he was curious about what I looked like as a human."
"An' it went okay?" There was an oddly stern note in Applejack's voice. A tone that almost seemed challenging.
"I think so," Erin said. She hesitated before adding, "He's a really nice guy. Reminds me a little of my own brothers."
AJ hesitated at that for some reason, then relaxed visibly. "Eyup. He still out there?"
"No. He said he was going home."
There was something in the air between Applejack and Erin, but Twilight wasn't sure what it was. A kind of tension. But what really annoyed her was that Rarity seemed to suddenly realize what was going on, while she remained clueless. Twilight grunted with annoyance. It was definitely something she'd have to look into.
Junebug arrived with their meals balanced on a tray on her back. Erin couldn’t have been more pleased with the distraction. From the way Applejack was acting, and how Pinkie was refusing to meet her eye, she guessed that at least those two knew what Macintosh had talked to her about.
Then there was Twilight, looking intently back and forth at the three of them as if trying to solve a puzzle. Not to mention the sparkle in Rarity's eyes, as if she'd just guessed what was in her Christmas present. The only one who seemed oblivious was Fluttershy.
"Oh, this looks wonderful!" Erin said, trying to focus everypony’s attention on the food instead of her personal life. "Thank you, Junebug!"
The earth pony waitress looked startled that Erin knew her name, but visibly shrugged it off, smiled, and walked away. Rainbow Dash, as was typical, was one of the first off the line, digging into her grilled cheese, pepper and onion panini with gusto. Pinkie was right behind her, gobbling away at her fruit salad. The others ate at more moderate paces.
Erin picked up her fork and started eating her pasta, which looked a little bit like rotini. It was delicately seasoned with various herbs, most of which she couldn’t identify. The pasta dish itself had cheese and chunks of tomato, carrots and cucumber in it. Erin took a bite and leaned back with a contented sigh as she chewed.
"Mmm, I've missed Equestrian food," she said happily. Twilight giggled at her. "What?"
"Well... it's just that this is the first time I can recall you eating without being clumsy at it," the unicorn said. Rainbow snorted through a mouthful of hayfries, getting a dirty look from Rarity for her lack of table manners.
"What can I say?" Erin said, waggling her fingers at her friend. "Hands make everything easier."
"That's gotta be tricky, controllin' all of 'em wriggly things," Applejack said doubtfully. "I don't know how ya manage it."
"Years and years of practice," Erin said, then lifted another forkful to her mouth. She made a happy sound in the back of her throat as she leaned back, relishing every morsel.
"Magic is better," Twilight said with a grin and a glint in her eye, lifting her fork, glass, and napkin all at once.
"Who says I have to settle for one or the other? They're still working on a human form that can use magic."
"How's that going?" Twilight asked, interest sparking in her eyes.
"Fine, except for the lack of test subjects." Erin hesitated, then laughed. "There seems to be a shortage of folks with the right security clearance who want to have their entire body radically changed via experimental reconstructive nanotechnology." She shrugged and toyed with her pasta a little. "Once we've got a working magic-human template, I'm sure the volunteer rate will go up. But right now, nobody else is offering to try it."
"So, is that what you're going to do, if they manage to make this template?" Rarity asked, in between nibbling on the leaves in her salad.
"Probably. Depends on how much I decide I want to fly," Erin said. "I mean, I can't give that up, not when I'm so close!"
"Flying is... nice," Fluttershy said. "As long as you stay near the ground, at least at first."
"Pfft." Rainbow waved away the other pegasus' statement. "What's the point of that? If you're that close to the ground, you may as well be walking."
"I don't want her to get hurt while she's still learning," Fluttershy said with unexpected firmness. "You have to be careful teaching her, Rainbow. She's the first human to learn to fly. She may not have any instincts for it. She could be hurt very badly."
"Yeah, yeah," Dash said dismissively.
"Don't 'yeah, yeah' me, Rainbow Dash," Fluttershy said, frowning. The other pegasus blinked at her in surprise. "You promise me you'll take it easy teaching her, or I won't let you teach her at all."
Everyone around the table simply gaped at the unexpectedly resolute yellow pegasus. Rainbow recovered first, her voice rising in challenge.
"Oh, yeah? Who's gonna teach her, then, huh?"
"Me," Fluttershy said, wings flapping briefly before closing again at her sides. Dash gaped at her incredulously.
"You teach somepony how to fly? Seriously?"
"I know the basics as well as you do, Dash," Fluttershy said, putting her hoof down. "And if I teach her, I know she'll be safe. So, you can promise to take it easy, or I'll forbid you from doing anything with her until I'm sure she can handle it."
Fluttershy stared firmly into Rainbow's flabbergasted face. Finally, the prismatic pegasus snorted out a wry laugh. "You know, I'm not sure if I should be proud of you for standing up to me, or annoyed that you did. I think I'll go with proud."
"So, you'll be careful?" Fluttershy asked, looking doubtful. "You promise?"
"I not only promise, I Pinkie promise," Dash said, making the gestures. Erin glanced over to see Pinkie grinning hugely at her blue friend. "I promise you that I will make one hundred percent sure that Erin will be as safe as she can be while learning to fly, and not to take any risks until I'm certain she can handle it."
Fluttershy broke into a wide, happy smile. "See? That wasn't so hard, was it?"
"Yeah, yeah," Rainbow said. She rolled her eyes, laughing.
"Well, as much as I want to fly, I'm not overly fond of pain," Erin said, chuckling at the exchange. She smiled warmly at the normally timid pegasus and said, "Thank you for keeping an eye out for me, Fluttershy."
"Of course!" Fluttershy said. "Rainbow Dash is the best flyer in Equestria, I truly believe that, but... well, she can be a little reckless. I don't want you getting hurt."
"Hey, I said I'd be careful," Rainbow said.
"That's a first!" Applejack said.
Rainbow seemed to take that as a challenge, after which the two friends started needling each other, to the mildly amused annoyance of the rest of the group around the table. Pinkie Pie especially had a great time, weighing in equally on both sides of the ensuing argument.
"So, what have you been up to since we last talked?" Twilight asked, pointedly ignoring the three bickering mares.
Erin shrugged while chewing another bite of pasta. "This and that. I reconnected with my human friends, at least the ones that I could find. I played dodge ‘em with various news crews..." She gave a short laugh. "You know, I really should have known better than to think one little interview would be enough to make them leave me alone."
"Oh, the press was following you around?" Fluttershy said, a sympathetic expression on her face.
"Just a bit," Erin said wryly. "A reporter even followed me into a public bathroom once, pestering me for an interview. I had to leave and get the store security to stand guard just so I could pee, it was ridiculous."
Rarity and Twilight murmured sympathetically, and Fluttershy actually came around the table and gave her a hug. Erin, surprised at the pegasus' reaction, awkwardly hugged back.
"I'm so, so sorry that happened to you," Fluttershy said. Erin, confused but grateful for the sympathy, patted her vaguely on the back between her wings.
"It's okay, Fluttershy. I'm over it. Thank you, though."
Fluttershy's hug tightened briefly, then she released Erin, smiled warmly at her, and went back to her seat. One side effect of that interaction was that the other three ponies had stopped their bickering and were now staring at Erin.
"Uh, what did we miss?" Rainbow Dash asked. Erin explained once again, and both Rainbow and Pinkie burst into surprised laughter. "Oh, man, she was trying to ask you questions in the bathroom?"
"No, Rainbow Dash," Erin said. "He was trying to ask me questions in the bathroom."
Rainbow looked shocked for a moment, then sputtered with laughter, with both Pinkie and Twilight joining in. Fluttershy was beet red, and Rarity and AJ just looked equally shocked and disgusted. Erin smiled and shook her head. Pony modesty was an odd thing, she reflected. They didn't mind either being naked or wearing clothes in public, but you needed privacy to change into or out of an outfit. And, even though they saw each other naked all the time, mares and stallions still used separate bathrooms.
"Other than that," Erin said, when the laughter had died down, "I just tried to hang out with as many friends and family members as I could. I won't be seeing them as often as I’m used to after I move here next month."
"What are your human friends like?" Pinkie asked, bouncing excitedly. Erin noted that the pink earth pony had already finished her meal, while everypony else was halfway through or less. "Any of them want to move to Ponyville? We could always use more friends here!"
Erin laughed. The thought of any of her human friends moving to somewhere like Ponyville was comical. "That's not too likely, Pinkie, though a couple of them said that they'd like to visit, once the whole tourism angle is sorted out. I think Equestria's general lack of internet, cars, and other modern 'necessities' is more than enough to keep them from moving here full time. Besides, most of them have settled down now." Her smile faded slightly as she added, "You know, husbands and kids. It's hard to think of packing things up and moving to a whole new world."
"Aww..." Pinkie said, frowning.
"What did they think of you being a pony, darling?" Rarity asked.
"Well..." Erin started saying, then laughed. "Honestly, two of them thought it was just some weird publicity stunt and special effects. My friend Carla said, 'They can do incredible things with computer effects these days’ and wouldn't listen to anything I had to say about it. My friend Ellie thought it was really cool, and was slightly jealous."
"Jealous? Of being a pony?" Twilight asked.
"Well, not so much that as being something so completely different. That, and being the first human in Equestria.”
Junebug showed up again to refill glasses and ask if everypony was doing all right. Pinkie took the opportunity to order a slice of chocolate chip pie, a slice of carrot cake, and a hot fudge sundae.
After that, the conversation drifted from topic to topic. Erin got filled in on some of the details of life around town, though nopony really knew much about her friend Meadowlark's current situation. That was one thing Erin really regretted, and hoped that she could make right after moving back to town. Meadowlark had been one of her first pony friends, and Erin missed her greatly.
When she was finally brought more or less up to speed on current events in Ponyville, Erin talked for a while about the family that her parents were sponsoring, the Sharmas.
"Their daughters are just so cute!" Erin said happily. "Divya is eight, and Avani is ten. They're staying in my old bedroom, and their parents are staying in my brothers' old room. The girls are just fascinated by everything! They never stop running around, giggling and laughing at everything they see.” Erin smiled happily at the memory. “Their parents seem extremely grateful, but totally lost. They don't speak much English, and of course my parents have no idea how to speak Hindi. Luckily for everyone there are a few people in the neighborhood who speak both, so they stop around the various homes that are hosting refugees and make sure everything is alright."
"Have many lost their homes?" Rarity asked softly. “That would simply be dreadful.”
"Yeah. My old neighborhood suddenly has a very vibrant Hindi community. It would be pretty neat, if it weren't for such an awful reason.” Erin smiled sadly and added, “For the most part, they’re all just really grateful to have somewhere to live and enough to eat. There have been some culture clashes, but nothing too bad from what I hear.”
"You think many of them will move to Zanibra?" Twilight asked as she wrapped up her own meal, a pasta salad with bread rolls. "Once it's ready for habitation, I mean."
"I can't really say," Erin said, shrugging. "I hope they find a home somewhere that they can be happy."
Junebug once again showed up, smiling cheerfully, to take plates away and ask for additional orders. After a moment of indecision, Erin asked for a slice of chocolate cake to go. They were all planning on getting together at the library after lunch, and having a little cake by the wayside never hurt anyone.
Not long after that came the check, and Twilight insisted on paying Erin's share of the bill.
"You're a guest," she said firmly. "Next time we all eat out together, you'll be a resident, and you can pay for me!"
Erin agreed, laughing, and she and her pony friends then took a few minutes to get their respective outerwear on. For everyone but Pinkie and Dash, that involved several layers and a pair of boots. Pinkie only wore a knit cap, and Dash scoffed at the weather.
"I'm a weather pony," she said. "It takes a lot more than this to make me uncomfortable!"
As they left, a smiling Junebug (who'd just seen the impressive tip she'd been given) waved them off and gave a cheerful, "So long, everypony! It was nice meeting you, miss human!"
Erin smiled and waved back, deciding not to tell the happy pony that they'd already met and, in fact, already knew each other pretty well. The seven friends made their way through the snowy streets of Ponyville, back to the library for some afternoon conversation and movies.
A/N: This part of the story contains spoilers for the movies that the ponies watch: The Avengers, Despicable Me and Up.
"So," Erin said as the ponies all made their way into the library and began removing their winter gear. "We have votes for movies with action, movies that are nice, and movies that are funny."
"That's assuming that you can get the screen to work," Twilight said as she used her magic to remove her scarf and hat. "I could never get it going."
"Wait, the screen is broken?" Erin asked, alarmed. "What happens when you turn it on?"
"Nothing happens. I don't know why! I followed your instructions!" Twilight moved over to a nearby desk and took out what Erin recognized as her written instructions on how to set up the screen and home media box that she'd gifted to the ponies back in Canterlot. "Nothing seems to work!"
"Dang," Erin said, frowning as she read through the instructions. "I was looking forward to watching some movies." The screen was set up on top of a stand that was carved out of a rich, black-stained oak, which Erin guessed Twilight had purchased here in town. When she knelt down and started going over the cords in the back, it didn't take her long to find the problem.
The unicorn trotted over. "Did you find something?"
"The power cable was loose. It wasn't plugged in all the way in the back."
"You're kidding," Twilight said, obviously distressed. "Please, tell me you're kidding. I was sure that I checked that. It was just loose?"
"Yeah, sorry." Erin smiled apologetically and plugged it back in, then pressed the power on the remote. With a click and a hum, the home media center powered up and the screen flashed grey, then black before the manufacturer’s logo appeared on the display.
"Ugh, I don't believe this!" Twilight stamped a hoof angrily. "I swear, I went over everything a dozen times!"
"I believe you, Twilight," Erin said, patting her friend on the shoulder. "This is all very new to you, nothing to be embarrassed or upset about."
Twilight responded by doing something Erin had never seen her friend do before. She inhaled deeply, bringing a hoof up to her chest, then exhaled and moved her hoof away, giving the impression that she just pushed something away from her. When she was done, she smiled at her human friend, saying, "I know. I just felt a bit silly, is all."
"Well, I'll be trying to learn about magic soon.” Erin smiled and said, "We'll see who feels silly then, huh?"
Twilight smiled back. “I’m sure you’ll pick things up quickly once we get started.”
While Erin and Twilight were busy figuring out the screen, the others had been working on arranging a comfortable viewing space on the main floor. With Applejack supervising the ponies, various items of furniture were moved in from side rooms and arranged to make a comfortable viewing area in a semicircle around the screen.
Meanwhile, Spike had been making several trips back and forth from the kitchen, bringing in bowls of popcorn, a large kettle of hot chocolate, a bowl of punch, several glasses, trays of cookies, and various other snack items.
“Okay, I think that’s it,” Erin said as the media center menu came up. “We’re pretty much ready to go.”
This announcement was met with a cheer from the ponies, and everyone began choosing their preferred seats. Rarity claimed the chaise lounge, while Fluttershy simply piled some cushions on the floor next to her friend and lay on top of them. Applejack and Twilight both lay down on the large couch, tucking their legs up underneath themselves in order to be comfortable.
Rainbow Dash perched herself atop one of the bean bags, leaning back and folding her forelegs behind her head. Pinkie claimed the other, laying on her belly on top of the bag with her legs sprawled in four different directions.
Spike came in with an open-backed Spike-sized chair, which he set firmly in front of the screen.
"I get the best seat," he announced resolutely, "because I haven't seen any of these before and it's not fair!"
"That's fine, Spike," Erin said while flipping through menus. "Though, you may want to scootch back a bit. Being that close will be hard on your eyes."
"Oh, sure, thanks," the baby dragon said, getting up and pulling his chair back a little ways.
“Since Spike hasn't seen any of these movies yet,” Rarity said, “I think it should be up to him which movie we start with, don't you think?"
"Sounds good to me," Twilight said, and the others agreed. Fluttershy added, "He's earned it. Especially with all of these wonderful snacks he’s made!”
Spike smiled hugely and basked in the warm glow of approval from all of his friends.
"Alright, Spike," Erin said, "Rarity and Fluttershy want something nice. Pinkie wants something funny, and Applejack and Rainbow Dash want something action-packed. Twilight wanted a documentary, but she was overruled. So, this first movie is up to you."
Spike laughed, and the librarian stuck her tongue out at him before laughing as well.
"I don't personally care, since most of the movies on here I've already seen and are favorites of mine anyway," Erin continued. "So, what do you think?"
“How about that training dragons thing you’ve all been talking about? I want to see it!”
“We’ve already seen it, Spike,” Twilight pointed out. “We’re only together for this one night, now. We should watch something new, don’t you think?”
“You said I could watch what I wanted,” Spike grumbled, arms folded across his chest. Then he perked up. "I could go for action," he said. "Something exciting! Maybe scary?"
"Oh, please not scary," Fluttershy said, from her pile of cushions next to Rarity's couch.
"Baby," Rainbow Dash said with a snort as she reclined on her beanbag. Erin privately decided that the colorful pegasus was due for a private screening of some of the scariest stories she could find.
"Hmm..." Erin flipped through the movies tagged for Action. "Oh, here we go. This series is pretty good. The Avengers. It's superheroes, is that alright?"
"Like Batman?" Applejack asked excitedly at the same time Rainbow asked, "Like Spiderman?" As Rarity and Twilight rolled their eyes, Erin remembered that Dash and AJ had somehow latched onto those two superheroes at one point.
"Like that, sure, but not with either of them," Erin replied, pulling up the first of the movies. "Back before I was born, they started making a bunch of superhero movies all at once, kind of introducing them for this team called The Avengers. I think the first movie does a pretty good job of reintroducing the most important characters, but it's honestly been a while since I've seen it. My favorite of the series is the third one, but that one won't make any sense unless you watch at least the first two."
Erin turned to see that Spike was grinning in wide-eyed anticipation. "What do you think, sport?" she asked the dragon, who nodded eagerly while bouncing in his seat.
With the movie up on the screen and ready to play, Erin sat down on the floor, stretching her legs out in front of her and leaning her back against the front of the couch that Twilight and Applejack were lying on.
"Alright, here we go!" she said and pushed “Play” on the remote.
"Ooh! Who's that?" Pinkie asked.
"Colonel Nick Fury," Erin said.
A few minutes later, a pink hoof pointed at a random soldier. "Who's that?"
"I don't know. Just some random soldier, I think," Erin said.
"Pinkie!" Rainbow interrupted. "Zip it!"
"Oh, cool! He can fly!"
"Yes, Rainbow," Erin said.
"Can humans fly like that in real life?"
"How fast is he—"
"Rainbow Dash!" Pinkie interrupted with a grin. "Zip it!"
Rainbow laughed, then obligingly zipped it.
“Monkeys,” said Thor, “I do not understand—”
“I do!” Captain America said eagerly. “I... I understood that reference.”
“We don’t,” Rainbow groused.
“I’ll explain later,” Erin said, thinking that the Wizard of Oz would be a good movie to show the ponies at some later point.
The ponies watched as Loki, looking smoothly sinister in his suit and coat, descended the stairs. He flipped the old man around on the table and pulled out a strange, spiky, and somewhat horrifying device which was then plunged into the old man’s eye.
"Aaaaaugh!" screamed six ponies and one baby dragon. Spike had one eye wide with horror, and the other covered protectively by a clawed hand.
"Oh, yeah," Erin said sheepishly. "Sorry. I forgot about that part."
"So, it's some form of mood control magic?"
"I think so, Twilight," Erin said with a sigh. She already knew where this was going.
"And it's somehow focused on that scepter of his."
"That's right, Twilight."
"Twilight!" Applejack suddenly shouted, but Twilight beat her to the punch.
"I know, I know," the unicorn said. "Consider it 'zipped'."
"Woah. That's why you don't get him mad, huh?" Rainbow Dash said, visibly impressed.
"He needs to relax," Pinkie piped in. "Maybe go to the spa! Right, Rarity?"
"Ah, perhaps not," the white unicorn said, flinching as the Hulk ripped through equipment as if it were tissue paper. "A hot bath can only do so much to improve one’s mood."
"I'm pretty sure I've seen a spell that does something similar," Twilight said, frowning. "Greatly enhances physical strength, but at the loss of self-control. Doesn't turn anypony green, though."
"I feel bad for him," Fluttershy said.
"Yeah, I reckon' nopony would have a problem with him if'n they just let him alone, like he wanted," Applejack added.
"You know what?" Rainbow started. She didn't get any further than that before an angry dragon turned around and glared at all of them.
"How about all of you zip it?" he suggested.
On the screen, aliens poured through a massive hole in space, which vaguely reminded Erin of a Harmonics gate. The ponies were watching in mostly silent fascination, the only sound escaping them coming in the form of the occasional gasp of surprise or excitement.
The snacks were left abandoned on the tables. Nopony moved. Nopony interrupted. Erin, the only one who had seen this before, smiled and reflected on just how hard Hollywood magic seemed to hit the ponies. They had their own cinemas, she knew, but it seemed to be far more rudimentary than what humanity had. Large-scale effects-driven productions like this, as dated as it looked to her now, were far outside of their experience.
Finally, the movie wrapped up. The ponies and Spike talked excitedly about the action-packed end of the movie as the credits rolled for a while, and then the first of the post-credit bonuses happened.
"Who the heck was that guy?" Rainbow Dash asked.
"And what the heck is a shawarma?" Pinkie Pie added.
"You guys wouldn't like it," Erin replied. "It's got meat in it."
"Oh, okay," Pinkie said. "It's a fun word to say, though! Shawarma! Shawarma! Shawarma! Shawarma!"
The credits rolled on. A couple of the ponies got up and stretched a little. Twilight sat on the couch, staring intently at the credits as if trying to memorize them. Erin had the sinking feeling that she’d end up trying to explain exactly what a “key grip” was.
“I still don’t know who that guy was,” Rainbow complained eventually.
“I don’t want to spoil the surprise,” Erin said. “You get to find out in one of the sequels.”
“Oh, hey,” Twilight said suddenly. “Look at that!”
Erin glanced around and saw a shot of the Avengers all sitting around a table eating shawarma.
“Oh, yeah,” she said with a chuckle. “I forgot about that.”
Finally the movie ended, and the screen went back to the movie selection menu.
"What next?" Spike asked, bouncing in his seat.
"Bathroom break," Applejack said, getting up and stretching. "That movie was long!"
The general consensus was that a bathroom break was, indeed, the correct course of action, and the ponies organized themselves into order by the stated urgency of their respective situations.
"Twilight, can I borrow your bedroom for a bit?" Erin asked as Fluttershy scooted off to use the facilities.
"Sure, not a problem. Why?"
"I wanted to change," Erin replied, pointing to her bag, which was still by the door. “I thought I’d go put on my pajamas.”
“It’s rather early for pajamas, isn’t it?” Rarity asked.
“True,” Erin said, “but it’s warmer than I expected in here, and I’m just baking in this sweater. That, and I only have enough clean clothes to last my stay. I don’t want to have to put on the same outfit twice.”
“Understandable,” Rarity replied. “Though, if I could suggest? It’s often better to overpack than to not pack enough.”
“That’s true, Rarity,” Erin said with a smile. Rarity was the only pony she knew who packed more clothes for a trip than any human Erin had ever traveled with. “I was trying to be efficient, though. Anyway, Twilight, is it alright if I go and change?”
Twilight seemed strangely happy about the suggestion. “Oh! Sure!” she said, beaming. “In fact, if you don’t mind, I’ll change into some pajamas of my own!”
Erin grabbed her luggage and had just started hauling it up to the second level to Twilight’s bedroom when the luggage was unexpectedly wrapped up in a lavender glow.
“I’ll get that!” the unicorn said, smiling. Erin’s luggage zipped ahead of her, moving smoothly for the first time that day.
“Uh, okay. Thanks, Twilight!”
Twilight parked the suitcase on the spare bed that had been set up in the sleeping area, then ran off to her dresser, where she began rummaging through various clothes. Erin went through her bag, pulling out her faded red flannel PJ’s and putting them aside. The clothes she’d worn that day went into a small cloth bag intended for that purpose, and Erin was about to put her pajamas on when she felt eyes on her.
When she looked over her shoulder, she saw Twilight looking at her with a somewhat clinical expression. “Three layers,” the unicorn said, nodding with satisfaction.
“What?” Erin replied, a little uncomfortable at the attention.
“I was just curious how many layers of clothes humans wear. Though, I guess with the coat you had on earlier, that would total four layers. Is that normal?”
“Um...” Erin’s fingers fumbled with the pajamas as she hurried to get dressed. “Depends on the situation and the season, really.”
“Wait, you’re putting on the pajamas now? You’re not taking that last layer off, too?”
Erin glanced down where Twilight was pointing, blushed some more, then hurriedly struggled into her pajama bottoms.
“Nope,” she said.
The unicorn shrugged, then began to put her own pajamas on. Erin, buttoning up her top, noted that the unicorn was putting on a pair of pajamas that was a pale powder-blue, with dark blue stars and crescent moons. “Why are you so interested in pajamas, Twilight?”
“Oh...” And now it was Twilight’s turn to blush. “You’ll think it’s silly.”
“No, I promise I won’t.” Erin sat on the edge of the guest bed, much more comfortable now that she was dressed again. She tucked her bare left foot up underneath her right leg and waited for the unicorn to spill the beans.
“Well, okay...” the unicorn rubbed her forehooves together nervously. “When I was in Canterlot, I was using the tablet you gave me, and I found this thing called Wikipedia. It’s really neat!”
“Yes, it is,” Erin agreed.
“Anyway, I’ve always... okay, don’t laugh, but I like slumber parties, and my friends never want to have them.”
“All right?” Erin said, a little confused as to where this was going.
“Well, I found out that humans have slumber parties, too. And that, sometimes, they call their slumber parties ‘pajama parties’. So, I went out and bought about a dozen pairs of pajamas, just in case I ever get a chance to... Why are you laughing? I asked you not to!”
“I’m sorry! I’m sorry, Twilight, but that’s just too adorable.” Erin wiped a tear away from her eye. “Look, it’s okay, I’m not laughing at you. It’s just, I’ve never known anyone to like slumber parties so much that they’d buy a dozen pairs of pajamas just on the off-chance they’d get to have a party.”
Grumbling a little, the embarrassed unicorn made her way towards the stairs, but she was intercepted by Erin, who knelt down and hugged her around the neck.
“Look, I haven’t had a slumber party in over ten years,” she said, “but maybe that just means I’m due for one. Let’s break out your spare PJs, bring them downstairs, and I’ll tell the other girls that it’s traditional among humans to watch movies with friends while wearing pajamas. Maybe we can get one or two of the others to put on a pair as well?”
Twilight’s sudden happy smile made Erin’s entire day. The unicorn turned and ran back to her dresser, pulling out a plethora of pajamas. The two of them went back downstairs, trailing a purple cloud of neatly folded fabric with them. The ponies looked up at them and the floating clothing with curiosity. From the kitchen came Spike’s voice, humming happily as he prepared more snacks for the next movie.
Erin had barely started to explain the pajama party principle before Pinkie whooped with delight and simply dived through the floating collection, scattering colorful sleepwear all over the floor. The pink pony landed in a forward tumble and popped up wearing a mismatched green pair of bottoms with a yellow top. She was so pleased with herself that she completely ignored Twilight’s protests that those two pieces didn’t go together.
Fluttershy took one look at Twilight’s hopeful, eager face, glanced over at Applejack’s defiant frowning one, then pulled out a pair of delicate pink cotton pajamas with a pattern of jumping sheep to put on. The bottoms went on all right, but she ran into some difficulties with the top.
It was at this point that Rarity sighed, saying, “Well, if we’re going to do this, I suppose we should do it correctly. Twilight, dear, would it be alright with you if I modified this for Fluttershy?”
“Of course!” Twilight said, practically bouncing with enthusiasm. Rarity went over to her small saddlebag by the doorway and pulled a pair of scissors and a threaded needle from inside of it. With a flash of magic, she swiftly modified the top for Fluttershy’s wings.
“You’re not going to let Fluttershy be the only pegasus brave enough to wear pajamas, are you, Rainbow Dash?” the white unicorn asked the scowling pegasus archly. Rainbow, her expression like a thunderstorm, finally relented with bad grace.
“Fine. I’ll wear these,” she said, randomly grabbing the green top that should have gone with Pinkie’s bottoms, and a completely unrelated pair of red bottoms, with a cute little kitten pattern on the fabric. Rarity rolled her eyes but didn’t argue the point, quickly making wing-slits in the green top.
After Rarity picked out her own pair of purple pajamas from Twilight’s dwindling supply, Applejack finally relented.
“Suppose I can’t be the only one not all gussied up,” she muttered. A light brown and red plaid was the farmer’s choice, and she put them on with only slightly bad grace.
“A little tight,” she complained, stretching a back leg.
“Maybe you need to lose weight,” Rainbow snickered from the relative safety of the ceiling.
AJ scowled at her. “It ain’t fat, it’s muscle. These are Twilight’s size, and she’s a librarian. She don’t work on a farm like me.”
“She doesn’t eat like you, either,” Rainbow said, laughing, only to be pelted in the face by a pillow.
Rainbow’s eyes narrowed as a dangerous silence fell over the room. She landed and picked up the pillow, caressing it with her hooves while examining it with apparently idle curiosity. Applejack stood firm and defiant. The rest of the ponies (and the one human) in the room, considerably wiser, or at least more cautious, took a step or two backwards.
Dash’s wings flared out as she launched into the air, bringing the pillow with her. She spun a pirouette and launched the pillow directly into the farmer’s face.
To call what happened next a mere “pillow fight” was to completely ignore the scale of the ensuing conflict. After an initial scrambling for cover, alliances were quickly made, and the conflict rapidly escalated out of any sense of proportion or reason.
Rarity and Applejack quickly went back to back with practiced ease, making for a surprisingly effective combination of muscle power and magical finesse. From there, an epic battle between those two and team Sparkle Dash, as they called themselves, soon erupted.
Fluttershy, taking shelter behind Rarity’s chaise lounge, poked her head up just long enough to pitch a weak overhoof shot at Pinkie, hitting her square in the back of the head with a cushion. As Pinkie turned around, Fluttershy ducked back down with a soft giggle, leaving an amused but oblivious Erin the sole visible person standing near the origin of the cushion’s flight path.
“Oooh, you’re gonna get it now!” Pinkie squealed. She snatched a pillow in her teeth and jumped at Erin, who shrieked and fled, giggling as she tried to cover her face with her arms while scampering away from the laughing pink pony.
The Rarity and Applejack combo, after putting up an extremely inspired defense, eventually began collapsing under the constant onslaught of pillow after pillow, outmatched by Team Rainbow Sparkle (the pegasus had vetoed the earlier name) which contained a potent combination of air and magical superiority.
Erin, laughing uncontrollably, ran away from Pinkie Pie and her Pillow of Fury, dodging the occasional lofted pillow coming from behind Rarity’s couch.
During the grand melee, snack trays were overturned, chairs were upset, popcorn was spilled, and cookies were, sadly, crumbled. No time could be spared mourning the loss of these innocent victims, as Team Rainbow Sparkle were on the offensive, even managing the time to sling a few pillows at the otherwise occupied Pinkie Pie and Erin.
It was during this chaos of flying padded artillery that Spike returned from the kitchen, bearing a fresh tray of snacks, empty glasses and a pitcher of lemonade. A wayward flying pillow knocked the heavily-laden tray from his clawed hands, and only Twilight’s quick magical reaction saved the snacks and kept the plummeting pitcher from shattering all over the floor. Her efforts were rewarded with a well-aimed pillow to the muzzle.
All activity ground to a halt as the dragon stared around at them, wide-eyed and perplexed.
“Sheesh, I leave the room for five minutes and everypony goes crazy,” he said, a statement that was greeted with general laughter.
That signaled the end of general hostilities, and the cleanup commenced. Chairs were returned upright, pillows redistributed, and snack crumbs were swept up. New snacks were procured, and everyone settled in. Erin was once again tasked with finding another movie to watch.
“Make it something funny!” Pinkie said. The rest of the ponies, still bubbling with laughter from the impromptu pillow war, seemed to be fine with that, so Erin switched to Comedies and began browsing. She stopped on one particular series, then snorted with laughter.
“What is it?” Twilight asked, looking at the title.
“Well,” Erin said, clearing her throat. “We just had a superhero movie, so how about we have a movie about a supervillain? This is the first of four, and... Um, I think Rarity and Twilight especially will like this one.”
“Really?” Twilight asked. “‘Despicable Me’, huh? Why would we like it?”
“You’ll see,” Erin said, pushing play.
The little girl on the screen was saying, “And please bless that someone will adopt us soon, and that the mommy and daddy will be nice. And have a pet unicorn.”
Erin joined in the general snickering at that comment, while both of the actual unicorns in the room looked startled. That was nothing compared to the reaction that happened once the little girl started singing, though.
“Unicorns, I love them. Unicorns, I love them. Uni, uni, unicorns, I lo~ove them! Uni, unicorns, I could pet one. If they were really real. And they are!”
Rainbow Dash and Pinkie were collapsed against each other, laughing hysterically. Fluttershy was giggling behind her hoof, and Applejack was chuckling away. Erin noticed that both Rarity and Twilight had nearly identical stiff, somewhat confused expressions on their faces, and both were blushing.
Twilight turned to her, arched an eyebrow, and said, “Erin, you’ve got some explaining to do once this movie is over.”
Erin, who’d spent the entirety of the song grinning in anticipation of her friend’s reaction, exploded with laughter.
“Is it wrong of me that I find those minions to be somewhat revolting?” Rarity asked.
“Aww, they’re adorable!” Pinkie said.
“I think they’re cute,” Fluttershy added.
“I guess it’s just me, then,” Rarity said with a sigh.
“Oh my gosh! Humans have Pinkie Promises, too?!”
“Yup!” Erin said. “Though, in our case, we mean our pinkie fingers.”
Erin stuck up her pinkie and wiggled it, which caused the pink pony to stare in wide-eyed amazement.
“Humans named a whole finger after me?!”
“Pinkie, are you going to be alright?” Twilight asked eventually. The pink pony was laying on the floor, gasping for breath. Erin had paused the movie, since Pinkie’s histrionics would have made further viewing impossible.
“I don’t see why that’s so funny,” Rarity complained. “It was actually rather rude.”
“I thought it was a real hoot,” Applejack said with a grin.
“Well, you’re used to a more earthy form of humor,” Rarity said with a sniff.
“Watch it, gal,” the farmer said. “I got a pillow, and I ain’t afraid to use it.”
By this point, Pinkie had recovered enough breath to blurt out, “Fart gun!” before dissolving back into hopeless giggles.
“He’s so fluffy!” the little girl growled happily, setting off another bout of non-unicorn laughter.
“Okay, seriously,” Twilight said, a look of annoyed amusement on her face. “What is it with humans and unicorns?”
Erin laughed and patted her friend on the leg. “It’s a little girl thing. I’ll explain after the movie.”
“Did you guys really land on the moon?” Rainbow Dash asked.
“Yeah. Decades ago. We’ve only started going back recently,” Erin said, munching on some popcorn.
“Find any lost princesses?” Rainbow asked, to general laughter.
Finally, things were wrapping up. The real villain had been banished, the day had been saved, and Gru was reading a new bedtime story.
“This book,” Gru was saying on the screen, “Is called ‘One Big Unicorn’.”
Erin heard Twilight groan and Rarity sigh at the same time.
“Oh, look! It’s a puppet book!” Gru said, inserting his long and pointy nose through the hole in the book, making a unicorn’s “horn”. General laughter at the expense of the actual unicorns in the room once again erupted, but died down quickly enough. Rarity had facehoofed and Twilight was grumbling, though.
Still, the emotional ending, and the goodnight kisses, seemed to thaw the disapproval of the two unicorns.
“Well, that was pretty good,” Pinkie said as the credits rolled. “I thought it was really sweet!”
“And funny,” Rainbow said. “Totally worth it, just for the unicorn jokes!”
“Which reminds me,” Twilight said, turning to Erin. “Okay, just what the heck?”
Erin, laughing, stood up. “I’ll explain, but first I have to go get something from my bag. I’ll be right back.”
She ran upstairs to Twilight’s room and made her way to the spare bed. She unzipped her luggage, pulled a box from the bag and tucked it under her arm. When she returned, the ponies all stopped talking and focused on her.
She moved a bean bag aside and sat down cross-legged in front of the screen. Carefully, she put the box on the floor next to her, making sure that all of the ponies, as well as Spike, had a clear view.
“Okay, first of all, on Earth, unicorns are a myth,” she started. “Or, at least they were, until we found Equestria. And because of that, we had lots of legends about them that probably don’t have anything to do with your reality.”
“Okay,” Twilight said, a quill and a roll of parchment appearing out of seemingly nowhere as she took notes. “What kind of legends?”
“Well, unicorns were always supposed to be highly magical,” Erin said. “They were shy, too, and would run away from anyone who approached them. In fact...” Erin trailed off, then laughed. “Okay, this is going to seem really silly to you guys, I’m sure, but they were also supposed to be the paragons of purity and innocence. Regular humans were too tainted to approach anything that pure.”
“Paragons of what, now?” Twilight asked with an incredulous snort. “The humans who came up with that never met my brother. Or saw his bedroom when he was a teenager, for that matter.”
Erin laughed, as did a few of the ponies. “Anyway, legend had it that, because they were so pure, the only people that could approach them were... well, virgins.”
“What, now?” Pinkie asked, confused.
“Young women who’d never known the company of a man,” Erin tried explaining.
“That’s silly. A girl who’d never even met a male human?” Pinkie asked, tilting her head in confusion. “What about her daddy?”
“No, no... um...” Erin blushed a little. She looked around to see that, apart from Spike and Pinkie, everypony in the room seemed to know what she was talking about. “You know what? I’ll explain that later.”
“Still seems silly,” Pinkie said.
“Maybe.” Erin shrugged and decided to try and get back on topic. “Anyway, humans and horses go back a long way. They’re in our art and our songs all throughout history. I mean, we had other domesticated animals, but horses were special. They were companions, not just animals. So, people in general like horses, and many little girls absolutely adore them. Not all of us, of course, but it’s a pretty common stereotype. I had my phase where I was completely obsessed with them, too.”
Erin pulled the box into her lap and opened it up. “Here, let me show you something special,” she said, noticing that all of the ponies were craning their necks to see.
“This... is not a toy horse,” she said, pulling out a human doll of a young girl, dressed in a plaid button-up shirt, vest and jeans. “This is the doll I played with the most when I was a little girl. Technically, she’s a Skipper doll... er, that’s her name, which is a stupid name. Anyway, I decided to call her Erin, and I would pretend she was me, going on all sorts of adventures.”
Erin pulled out another doll, this one of an older human. “This one is supposed to be Skipper’s older sister, Barbie, but she was always the evil witch queen that the doll-me would have to beat.”
“Okay, that’s cute and all,” Twilight said with a puzzled frown. “What does this have to do with unicorns?”
“Hold on!” Erin said, holding up a hand. “You still need to meet doll-me’s best friend.”
With great care and feeling a considerable burst of nostalgia, Erin lifted aside a bit of quilted cloth and removed another toy from the box. “Meet Princess. This is doll-Erin’s best friend, guardian, and occasionally her loyal steed.”
The doll in question was a fairly large plastic unicorn doll, snowy-white with a golden blond mane and tail. She was forever frozen in the act of walking, her left front hoof raised as if taking a step. Erin, unsure of how this particular toy was going to be received, breathed a sigh of relief as the ponies in the room all looked with various levels of interest at the doll.
“‘Princess’ what?” Twilight asked.
“Just Princess. That’s her name.” Erin held the unicorn in her lap and smiled down at it. “I had other ones, of course. Unicorns and regular horses, all different sizes and colors. Most of them are long gone, either lost, broken or given away, but I held onto Princess. She was my favorite. Even more so than doll-Erin.”
Erin realized that she’d been stroking Princess’ mane absently while she was talking, blushed, and gently set her down.
“Anyway, I’m not sure why other girls are obsessed with horses, but I always thought they were beautiful animals. And, in a way, they represent freedom and strength.”
“Why is that?” Twilight asked.
“Well... because humans ride horses,” Erin reminded her. “Recreationally, these days, but it used to be one of our primary modes of transportation.”
Erin felt mildly uncomfortable about saying that, even though her friends already knew that humans rode domesticated horses. It was hard being in a room full of equines and pointing out that many humans thought of similar equines as modes of transportation. When none of her friends seemed upset, she continued.
“So, to a child, having a horse meant that you could get away from things if you wanted to. A horse can outrun any human, at least for a while. They’re strong, fast, beautiful... Yeah, I know why I was obsessed with them,” Erin said with a laugh. “We also get a lot of horse toys given to us while we’re growing up, which helps feed the obsession.”
“What about unicorns, though?” Twilight asked.
“Well, unicorns are, like, magical horses, and therefore are even more special. So, lots of girls love unicorns. Seriously, if any of you go to Earth and meet a girl who’s anywhere under the age of ten, she’ll most likely lose her fricken’ mind.”
The ponies all laughed again.
“So, Erin and Princess went on adventures?” Twilight asked, looking at the unicorn doll again.
“Yeah. Usually to beat up the evil Sorceress Queen Barbie and stop whatever diabolical plan she’d set in motion to threaten my other toys,” Erin said. “I liked playing with doll-me. She was okay, but if she broke, I’d just go buy another one. But if anything had happened to Princess, I think it would have crushed me.”
“Can I see her?” Twilight asked. Erin hesitated, then nodded, and tried to look unconcerned as the toy unicorn was wrapped in a lavender glow and lifted from the floor. Twilight looked at her, turning her one way then another, before finally returning her to Erin.
“She’s very pretty,” Twilight said with a smile.
“Yeah, she is. Incredibly magical, too. In my imagination, at least. It was usually her magic that stopped the Evil Queen’s plan. Erin-doll was usually just along for the ride. Sometimes literally.”
Erin smiled fondly at the toy in her hand, then wrapped the cloth back around it and placed it gently in the box. The other toys went in as well, though with slightly less care.
“Anyway, I found those while I was cleaning out my room. Thought you guys would get a kick out of seeing them.”
“They were quite lovely, dear.” Rarity said with a smile.
“I guess that explains why human girls love unicorns so much,” Twilight said. "A little bit, at least."
“Look, don’t take it the wrong way, Erin,” Rainbow said. “The toys were neat and all, though that was one freaky-looking unicorn—”
“Rainbow!” Twilight scolded.
“What? She was!”
“It’s okay, Rainbow,” Erin said, laughing and trying to ignore the sting from the remark. She’d have to apologize to Princess later on, when there were fewer pegasi around.
“Anyway, I just think we should pick the next movie,” the pegasus said defensively.
“Dinner first, I think,” Twilight said.
“Yeah, I could eat,” Applejack said. Rainbow grumbled about that but relented to the majority.
Twilight’s low dining room table had been shoved up against the wall to make room for the movie viewing area. Some space was cleared and the table itself was moved back into place while Spike and Twilight went into the kitchen to bring out the meal that they had prepared earlier that day.
The table itself barely came up past Erin’s knees. She lowered herself onto one of the cushions that had been set on the floor next to the table just as Twilight emerged from the kitchen, several large dishes suspended in the air behind her.
“Dinner is served,” she said, lowering the food onto the table.
It was a pretty simple meal, consisting of a pasta salad loaded with veggies, a bowl of apples, another bowl of assorted fruits, a basket of bread, and a leafy green salad. As they ate, the friends all sat around talking about the movies they’d just watched, reminiscing over their favorite scenes and laughing over some of the jokes.
“You know,” Erin said, when the subjects of the next movie night came up, “the twenty-fifth anniversary re-release of the Lord of the Rings trilogy just came out not too long ago. We could put aside a few nights to watch those, if you want.”
“A few nights?” Rainbow Dash asked. “Why not watch them all at once?”
“They’re very long,” Erin replied. “Especially the new versions..”
“Longer than the Avengers?”
“They’re the longest movies I’ve ever seen. And there’s three of them,” Erin said seriously. “I think they average around four hours, each.”
“Wow. That would be a bit much,” Rainbow said.
“What’re they about, though?” Applejack asked as she took another bread roll from the table.
“Well... It’s hard to explain. They’re complicated. They take place in a whole alternate world of magic.”
“Yeah, that would be weird. I wonder what that would be like?” Twilight said, completely deadpan. Erin mimed throwing a bread roll at her while laughing.
“Okay, okay, I get your point,” Erin said. “But it’s not the same magic. We had to make up our own, remember?”
“Oh!” Twilight said, straightening up in her seat. “Do you mean that these would be a study on what humans considered magic before they came here?”
“Yes... er... Well, not a study.” Erin considered for a moment. “More like... Well, the guy who wrote the books they were based on was trying to forge a new mythology. He did a pretty good job, but he basically invented a whole new world to go with his story. Or maybe it was the other way around.”
“A story to go with his world?” Twilight asked.
“That sounds fascinating!” The unicorn’s eyes were sparkling. Erin guessed that she’d triggered her friend’s desire to learn every- and anything about magic, whether it was real magic or not. “You said those were books first? I’d love to read them!”
“I may be able to manage that,” Erin said, laughing.
“I dunno,” Rainbow said, frowning. “Watching a bunch of really long movies about fake magic sounds boring.”
“Well, it’s not just about fake magic,” Erin said. “Mostly, it’s about war, friendship, and an evil overlord who tries to take over everything.”
“Oh! Yeah, that sounds better,” Dash said. She went back to eating her salad.
Soon enough, dinner was over. Twilight insisted that the dishes could be left for later and urged everyone back into the movie area for the last film of the night.
“This should probably be it,” Twilight said, stifling a yawn. “It’s starting to get kind of late.”
“Sounds good,” Erin said, once again piloting the remote. “What kind of movie next?”
“Action!” Rainbow Dash said.
“No!” Rarity countered. “We’ve had comedy, crude humor and action so far tonight already. I want something nicer. Something... Romantic.”
“Ugh, gag.” Rainbow mimed sticking a hoof down her throat.
“We’ve catered to your whims already, Rainbow Dash,” Rarity said. “I want something with feeling, and not just some slapstick comedy or explosion-laden adrenaline surge.”
“Um...” Erin said, interrupting. “I’m not sure if I’ve got anything along purely romantic lines that would be appropriate for the whole audience.” She cast a significant glance at the baby dragon in the room. Rarity glanced at Spike, who was looking around the room in confusion. She sighed, nodding.
“Well, just do the best you can, I suppose,” the white unicorn said.
“Wait!” Pinkie shouted. “Hold on, can you go back?”
“Um... sure?” Erin flipped back to the animated comedy section that she’d just left. Pinkie gasped, pointing at a particular image.
“Balloons! That one has balloons, guys!”
“Oh, no!” Rarity said. “We’re not watching another silly comedy!”
“I have to agree with Rarity,” Twilight said. “She’s been a good sport so far, but if she wants to watch a particular genre, then we should try to accommodate her.”
“But... balloons, guys!” Pinkie said, looking downcast. She turned the full power of her baby blue puppy dog eyes on Rarity. The fashionista resisted for a few seconds before finally giggling.
“All right, fine,” she said. “But I insist that the next time we get together like this, I get to browse through the Romance section.”
“Fine by me,” Applejack said, cutting off Rainbow Dash. The pegasus, mouth open as if to argue, shrugged and agreed as well, blushing faintly as she did so.
“Actually,” Erin said, “this one actually does have a love story. To start with, at least. You may like it, Rarity.”
“Very well, then,” Rarity said. “Let’s see this love story. Impress me.”
The movie started out in black and white, which caused some confusion amongst the ponies until they realized that they were watching a movie within a movie. Shortly after the start of the movie, a young boy met a young girl and found himself unable to get a word in edgewise. And then the girl took off her hat.
“Ha! Her hair is all poofy!” Pinkie said, giggle-snorting.
It went on from there, showing Carl and Ellie’s life as they got married and lived their lives together.
“This is rather sweet,” Rarity said in approval of the romantic content. “It’s obvious how much they love each other. It will do.”
The lives of the couple were shown in a series of voiceless scenes, each one depicting a joy and loving tenderness that had many eyes tearing up. Erin, seeing how her friends were reacting, smiled sadly, knowing what was coming.
It wasn’t long before the interactions between Carl and Ellie indicated an interest in the possibility of children, only for that hope to be sadly dashed moments later. Erin was surprised to find herself crying slightly, even though she’d seen this movie many times before and hadn’t cried at this scene since the first time. Maybe it was because the ponies in the room were sniffling at the married couple’s loss. Or maybe it was because she’d recently considered having kids of her own, and the thought of not being able to was a lot more personal to her now.
Life for the married couple went on and became routine, but it was obvious that they still were deeply in love. They scrimped and saved, but never got the chance to take their very special trip. Something would always come up, taking their savings and making them wait even more.
Then, just as they were finally going to take their trip, Ellie collapsed. The next scene was in the hospital, where it was obvious that the two still held on to a love that had only deepened over time, into something that shaped their very lives and hearts. And then...
There was no attempt at hiding tears, now. Even Applejack and Rainbow Dash were crying. Spike was sniffling into the blanket he’d wrapped around himself, and Rarity and Fluttershy were completely hopeless, holding onto each other as they both wept openly.
When the scene was finally over, Pinkie Pie summed up how she felt by saying, “I never expected balloons to make me so sad.”
On the screen, the two orderlies from Shady Oaks Retirement Community stared in awe as a swarm of balloons rose above the house, eventually taking the entire home with it. Pinkie gasped, her eyes fixated as the house tore itself out of the ground and then began flying over the city.
Slowly, the pink pony turned to her friends, eyes wide and sparkling with a gleam that set everypony a little on edge.
“You guys,” she said. “I just had the most incredibly super-riffic ide—”
“No!” almost everypony shouted simultaneously.
“You know,” Rainbow Dash said, “You guys wouldn’t have so much trouble with thunderstorms over there if you had a few pegasi to keep the clouds in line for ya.”
“I’ll be sure to let my planet know that, Rainbow,” Erin replied.
“Oh, that’s a hoot!” Applejack said, laughing. “Dogs that talk! Whoever heard of dogs that talk?”
Erin started laughing, much to the pony’s apparent confusion.
“What?” AJ asked defensively, flicking her ears. “Dogs don’t really talk on Earth, do they?”
Erin just laughed harder.
“Oh, no,” Twilight said, eyes wide. “Muntz isn’t just an explorer, he’s a collector!”
“That’s a bad thing?” Rainbow Dash asked, munching on some popcorn as the characters on the screen made their way to the dining room by way of the trophy room.
“Well, yes. Or, at least, it can be. Most scientists try to avoid disrupting the habitats of the creatures we study.” The little purple unicorn frowned at the old man on the screen. “But some ponies, and I guess humans, just want to grab anything that interests them, take it home with them, and put it on display.”
“Oh, dear,” Fluttershy said, sounding anxious. “I hope Kevin will be all right!”
There was a daring escape, during which the ponies cheered. There was the capture of the giant bird and the resultant split between Russell and Carl, where the ponies expressed their disapproval of Carl’s actions.
Then there was the moment, which re-triggered tears in some eyes, where Carl went through Ellie’s Adventure book. As he realized that Ellie had treated her whole life as an adventure, and that she hadn’t died unhappy or unfulfilled, Erin heard Rarity murmur a wistful-sounding, “Oh, my...”
The ponies cheered as Carl made his choice, pushing the furniture and items that he’d held onto so tightly out of his home, finally letting go of the past and moving on in order to focus on what was really important: rescuing Russell and fulfilling his promise to get Kevin home.
There was laughter and shouts of excitement as the two old men fought, and a collective gasp of horror as the demented Muntz fell to his death, and cheers of genuine joy when Kevin was finally returned to “his” nest and babies. The movie wrapped up in the touching, early-Pixar fashion, leaving everypony feeling in a good mood and generally happy with life.
While the credits rolled, Erin and the ponies talked about what they’d just seen. Spike, on the other hand, slowly started nodding off, and was asleep within a few minutes of the credits starting.
“I’d better get him to bed,” Twilight said softly, smiling fondly at the little dragon as his chin rested against his chest. She enveloped him in her magic aura and, moving as quietly as anything with hooves could move across a wooden floor, brought her number one assistant to their bedroom.
“That was simply lovely,” Rarity said, once Spike was out of earshot. “I mean to say, it wasn’t a romance story per se, but the romantic element was quite strong and very touching.”
“Oh, yes,” Fluttershy agreed. “It was very nice.”
“One can only hope to achieve a love so profound that it lasts decades,” Rarity said with a sigh. Then, with a gleam in her eye she added, “Wouldn’t you agree, Rainbow Dash?”
Rainbow, who’d spent the last few minutes staring at nothing in particular, jerked with surprise. “Um, what?” she asked.
“I said that it would be nice to fall in love like Carl and Ellie,” Rarity said. Applejack covered a snicker with a fake cough. Erin, in the meanwhile, looked between the three ponies, completely clueless.
“Uh, yeah,” Rainbow said, her cheeks reddening slightly. “I suppose. I mean, if you’re into that sort of thing.” There was a long pause, after which Rarity opened her mouth to say something else. Rainbow cut her off, bolting up and saying, “Well, it’s been fun and all, but it’s late, and I really need to get to bed.”
Erin watched, dumbfounded, as Rainbow Dash backed towards the door, obviously uncomfortable and talking rapidly the whole way.
“I gotta get going. You know, training and and stuff. Tomorrow, I mean,” Rainbow said with a jittery laugh. “Too late tonight to train. Kind of dangerous, if I can’t see. Not that I’d be scared to train. Maybe I’ll start doing night training. Might need it in the Wonderbolts, you never know. But sleeping tonight. Because I’m tired. And here’s the door,” she said, turning to push on it.
The door didn’t budge. Rainbow began pushing her shoulder into it. “Why isn’t this stupid thing opening? I have to go!”
“Um, it’s pull to open on this side, Rainbow,” Twilight said, having just come back downstairs. “You’re leaving?”
“Yeah!” Rainbow said, having finally opened the door. She started backing through the doorway, still babbling. “So, yeah, gotta go sleep. You know. Bright and early, that’s me! Shut up, Applejack,” she said in response to the earth pony’s derisive snort. “Anyway, I gotta fly. Thanks for the snacks and movies and everything. I’ll see you later!”
Dash turned and flew off, leaving Erin feeling bewildered. Twilight seemed disappointed. “I’d hoped she’d stay longer,” the unicorn said, using her magic to close the door Rainbow had left open. “Hey! She was still wearing my pajamas!”
“I’m sure she’ll bring ‘em back tomorrow, Twi,” Applejack said. “‘Course, they’ve got big holes in them now, for her wings.”
“Oh, right,” Twilight said. “Well, are the rest of you going to stay?”
“I’d love to, Twi, I really would,” AJ said, starting to shuck off her borrowed PJs. “But I got a full day’s worth of chores tomorrow. We’ll be wrappin’ up winter, soon. We gotta get the farm ready.”
“I should get going, too,” Fluttershy said. “My animal friends need their nightly feeding.” She looked down at the pajamas she was wearing. “Um...”
“You can keep them, Fluttershy,” Twilight said with a smile. “The rest of you can, too, if you want.”
“Thank you kindly,” AJ said. “They’re a mite tight on me, though.”
“Thank you, darling,” Rarity said. “These do go nicely with my colors. I’ll make you a new pair as replacements!”
“Well... It was fun, guys,” Twilight said, as the others made their way to the door. Rarity and Fluttershy simply left their pajamas on, putting their winter clothes over the top. “Shame you couldn’t stay longer, but—”
“Hold on,” Erin interrupted. “Just one second.” She made sure everypony in the room had given her their full attention and said, “What the hay just happened with Rainbow Dash?”
“Oh!” Rarity said. “Well, you know, this is just a rumor, but... the word is that Rainbow Dash has her eye on somepony to be her sweetheart!”
“What?” Erin shook her head. She just couldn’t picture Rainbow Dash taking the time away from training to fall for some stallion. “Who?”
“Nopony knows,” Rarity said. “Perhaps somepony she recently met at the Wonderbolts Academy? But she gets this way whenever romance is brought up.” She sighed, smiling faintly. “The poor thing has obviously fallen so badly. It’s rather sweet, in a way.”
“So, you tease her about it?” Twilight said before Erin had the chance to. Her tone indicated that she wasn’t happy about it.
“Well, she is hiding it from her best friends,” Rarity said defensively, though she blushed while saying it.
“That’s kind of mean, though,” Fluttershy whispered. “I mean, if you don’t mind... no, wait, even if you do mind. Please, don’t tease Rainbow about this, Rarity.”
Rarity looked completely abashed. “I know, I know! I shouldn’t. But I simply can’t seem to help myself! I so want this to work out for her! She is one of my dearest friends, after all!”
“Rarity, do you mind if I speak from personal experience?” Erin asked.
“You’ve had a special somep- er, someone, before?” Rarity asked, surprised.
“Well, yes,” Erin said. “A couple, actually, but it never really worked out... anyway! I’ve had some friends who’ve been in relationships, too. I think Rainbow’s best chance for this to work out is if we all give her space and let her deal with it on her own.” Rarity opened her mouth to protest, but Erin kept talking. “We can be there for her in a moral support fashion, but if she has a crush on somepony, it’s up to her to follow through. We can’t push her.”
“No buts,” Erin said, shaking her head. “If we interfere and things go badly, then she might resent us for it. Trust me on this, I learned it the hard way. I used to have a lot more human friends than I do now for that very reason.”
“I agree with Erin,” Applejack said. “It’s Rainbow’s business. She’ll tell us when, not to mention if, she’s ever ready to. Now, sorry to cut this speculation on our friend’s love life short, but I really got to get back to the farm. See y’all later!”
With a wave of her hoof, AJ left as everyone else called their goodbyes. Fluttershy was next, after extracting a pouty but sincere promise from Rarity that she would stop trying to pry into Rainbow’s potential love life.
“I suppose I had that coming,” Rarity said ruefully as Fluttershy walked away. “I let my enthusiasm run past my common sense.”
“We all make mistakes, Rarity,” Twilight said, hugging her friend goodbye. Erin hugged her as well, and then Rarity left, walking quickly to catch up with Fluttershy. The two of them talked quietly as they walked away.
Twilight sighed and closed the door. “Well, so much for a slumber party,” she said wistfully. Erin smiled and patted her on the shoulder.
“We can still have a small one,” Erin said. “We can stay up late, talk about boys, I’ll braid your mane, you can... um... Well, my hair’s a bit too short to make a good braid, I guess.”
“That sounds nice,” Twilight said, as they made their way back into the movie room. She looked around and then sighed again. “Maybe we should clean this place up, first.”
“Sure,” Erin said, and began picking up empty glasses and trays as Twilight magicked a broom around to get all the crumbs and such off of the floor. Erin ran the sink briefly and began washing the dirty dishes by hand. In the other room, she could hear Twilight moving the furniture back where it belonged, though she was obviously taking pains to be as quiet as possible, in order to avoid waking up Spike.
By the time Erin had the dishes on the drying rack, the main room was back to its pristine condition. By then, they were both cracking their jaws with wide yawns.
“Maybe we should skip straight to the slumber part of the slumber party?” Twilight suggested as they walked into her bedroom.
“Sounds good to me!” said Pinkie Pie, who was sitting on the guest bed.
Twilight and Erin just gaped at the pink pony, who grinned back at them.
“Pinkie?!” Twilight said. Spike grumbled in his little basket and rolled over, muttering. Twilight lowered her voice to a loud whisper and said, “I didn’t know you were still here!”
“Well, duh,” Pinkie said, rolling her eyes. “You didn’t see me leave, did you?”
“There you go, then!” Pinkie said, nodding. “You said a pajama party, and I’ve never had a pajama party before. So I decided that I had to stay and experience it for myself!”
“Oh,” Twilight said, sounding surprised. Erin tried to stop herself from laughing, and mostly managed to succeed. “Well... Did you want to do anything?”
“Yeah, sleep!” Spike said, sitting up and glaring all around.
“Oops! Sorry, Spikey,” Pinkie said, looking embarrassed.
“Maybe we should all get some sleep?” Twilight suggested. “I mean, we three can plan on having a real pajama party later, right?”
“Works for me,” Erin said, then smothered another yawn behind her hand.
“Me three,” Spike said sourly, then flopped back down in his bed-basket, his back to the three of them.
“Mind if I stay over?” Pinkie asked Twilight. “I can at least do the slumbering, if I can’t do the partying.”
“Sure,” Twilight said happily.
The guest bed was slightly larger, so Erin and Pinkie doubled up. There was a quick round of “good-nights”, after which Twilight turned the lights out.
Pinkie fell asleep almost immediately, if her change of breathing was any indication. Erin, though, stayed awake, feeling oddly restless. She stared at the ceiling for a while, feeling the warmth of the pony next to her. Pinkie put out a considerable amount of body heat and the bed was soon toasty warm.
Erin, stifling more yawns, tried to figure out what it was she was feeling. Something was keeping her from drifting off, though her exhaustion was making slow progress against the nagging thought. Just before her eyes closed in sleep she realized what it was that she’d been feeling.
She felt like she’d come home.
Spike was snoring. Twilight reflected that this was perfectly normal in every way and certainly nothing to be alarmed about.
In fact, she was so used to her assistant’s snores that she rarely even noticed it unless somepony pointed it out to her. The noise certainly didn’t bother her in the least as she came gently awake, snuggled in her warm bed. Her light blue down comforter was wrapped tightly around her, keeping her nicely warm in spite of the frost caking the bedroom windows.
Spike’s gentle snoring didn’t disturb the peace of the moment, at least not for the unicorn. If anything, it was a welcome familiarity which helped to underscore the tranquility she was feeling as she cocooned herself ever deeper into her warm bed.
She adjusted a back leg slightly to ease the pinch of the unfamiliar pajamas she was wearing, but otherwise didn’t move much at all. She kept her eyes closed, a gentle smile on her face. Her schedule had been left deliberately clear for the day, which meant that she had nothing to do other than relax in bed for as long as she liked.
Unfortunately, Twilight’s body had a schedule of its own, and her bladder began to make its presence known, starting as a small pressure but increasing in urgency as the seconds ticked away. With a regretful sigh, she finally pushed her covers off of her and rolled out of bed, trying to be as silent as possible so as to not wake the other sleepers.
A quick glance out the nearest window told her that the morning was well under way, the sky to the east brightening into a crystal blue that told her that the snow of the previous days was finally over. She nodded, satisfied that Rainbow Dash’s forecast had been spot-on.
As she walked quietly to the bathroom, she just happened to glance over at the guest bed. She stopped walking for a few seconds as her sleepy mind tried to figure out what she was looking at, and then she spent the next few seconds struggling to smother a snort of laughter behind her hoof.
Judging from the state of the blankets on the bed, it was obvious that one or both of her guests had tossed and turned considerably during the night. The blankets were now tightly wound around and between the bed’s two occupants, tying them together like fluffy ropes. But that wasn’t the only reason for her laughter.
Pinkie had somehow managed to reorient herself while sleeping so that she was upside-down in relation to Erin, which left the pony’s pink head in the vicinity of Erin’s knees. Pinkie had one of Erin’s legs gathered up to her chest, both of her pink forelegs cuddling the human’s limb like a stuffed animal. Her chin was resting on the back of Erin’s knee, and she had a look of perfect contentment on her pink features. One of Pinkie’s back legs was draped across Erin’s back, and the other one had found its way under her torso, with only a single pink hoof jutting out from underneath the human’s chest on the opposite side.
Erin herself was laying diagonally across the mattress, lying on her stomach with her free leg sticking out over the edge of the bed, her foot dangling in the air. She was hugging Pinkie’s voluminous tail like a fuzzy pink pillow, snuggling into it with a look of serene bliss on her sleeping face.
“I wish I had a camera,” Twilight murmured softly, chuckling as she resumed her trip to the bathroom.
While she was in there, she also brushed her teeth and washed her face. She was in the process of brushing out her mane when her morning routine was interrupted by a quiet knock on the door. Surprised, she cracked the door open and looked into the hallway. Spike was standing there looking a little sleepy but otherwise in a good mood.
“Spike! You’re awake!” she said. “And so early! Are you feeling alright?”
“Har har, Twilight,” Spike said with a roll of his eyes. “I can get up early if I want to. Anyway, I was thinking of making breakfast for everypony. Anything in particular you want?”
She rubbed her hoof under her chin for a moment while she thought about it. “Hmm. How about omelets, hash browns, toast with jam and some fresh orange juice?”
“Wow, that isn’t demanding or anything.” Spike tried to walk past his mentor only to be grabbed, hugged and kissed on the forehead.
“I was planning on helping you, you goofball,” Twilight said, giving him an affectionate nuzzle on the cheek.
“Aww, c’mon, quit it!” Spike struggled to get out of her grasp, though not with anything approaching his full strength. Twilight let him go and smiled at him, ruffling his spines with a hoof.
“Come along, my number one assistant. We have hungry guests to feed!”
As they made their way down the stairs, Spike said, “By the way, did you see Erin and Pinkie? What’s up with that?”
Twilight’s chuckle followed them down the stairway.
In Erin’s dream, she was flying. Not with any great rushes of speed, and there was no blurring landscape. Instead, she floated almost lazily, drifting along as the green grass of Equestria moved beneath her.
The sky was warmer than she’d expected, and she found herself stretching out her hands and legs, just enjoying the freedom of the open sky.
“Those are some strange looking clouds, don’t you think?” Rainbow Dash asked, pointing with a hoof. Erin glanced over at them.
“Yes. Why are they pink?”
“I don’t know. Go check it out.”
“Okay,” Erin said with a shrug. As long as she was flying, she didn’t care where she went. She floated casually over to them, trying to remember where she’d heard about pink clouds before.
“Oh yeah, Discord,” she said. She looked down and saw the statue of the mad spirit of chaos staring back up at her. He winked. She waved.
“I’m taking your cloud,” she told him.
“That’s fine,” he said. “I can always make more.”
“Not when you’re a statue,” Erin replied smugly. She snagged the cloud and floated away with it, giggling at the outraged shout from the statue she was leaving behind.
The cloud was oddly warm and much dryer than she’d expected. “Of course! It’s made of cotton candy!” She happily considered the bundle of pink that she was holding. “I wonder what it tastes like?”
She sat cross-legged on nothing as she curiously examined the cotton candy cloud in front of her. As she poked at it, the world slowly began to rotate around her, with her still hanging in the air. Pretty soon, the ground was hanging over her head, but she ignored it in favor of the strange cloud in front of her. She was just bringing it up to her face when an odd, familiar odor hit her nose. She tried briefly to figure it out.
“Ah!” she said. “It smells like shampoo!” She grinned happily as she floated upside down in the sky. The grin faded slowly as she continued to revolve in the air with the cloud in her lap. “Wait... why would a cotton candy cloud smell like shampoo?”
“Breakfast!” Twilight shouted as she fluttered past on crystal butterfly wings.
“That doesn’t make any sense,” Erin complained as she woke up.
She blinked and raised her head, still feeling a little disoriented from the spinning around in her dream. She was in an unfamiliar space, a fact that didn’t seem to matter much for some reason. She looked back down, at first unable to understand what it was she was seeing. Then it clicked.
The pink cotton candy cloud was still there on the bed, though it looked a lot more fibrous than before. Her curiosity piqued, Erin grabbed one of the strands and yanked on it.
“Blergh?!” Pinkie said, jerking awake in an instant. Erin felt her friend’s back legs twitch on either side of her ribcage.
“Pinkie?” Erin asked, confused. “What...” She looked around, taking in the upside-down pony and the tangle of sheets binding them together. “Oh.”
“Sunflower?” Pinkie asked, blinking at her with freshly woken confusion. “Did you just try to pull my tail off?”
“What?” Erin looked down at the pink mass of hair before her. “Oh! I’m so sorry! I thought it was a cotton candy cloud!”
“An understandable mistake to make,” Pinkie said with a grin. “Especially since I’m so sweet.”
Erin laughed along with her pony friend. Then she stopped as she felt something in her mouth. Her eyes widened in horror as she fished around in her mouth and started pulling out a long pink hair. It took a considerable length of time for her to get the entire thing out.
“I think that may be one of mine,” Pinkie said.
“You think?!” Erin said, holding the thing out in front of her. It was the length of her arm, at least. She dropped the hair and wiped her hand on the front of her pajamas.
“Um, I think I also drooled on your leg a little,” Pinkie said apologetically.
Erin was about to reply when she heard Twilight shout upstairs once again.
“Breakfast, guys! It’s getting cold!”
“Eh, it’s alright,” Erin told Pinkie. The two began extracting themselves from the tangle of blankets, which was easier said than done. Erin gave a mighty tug and ended up falling backwards out of the bed, landing with a loud thump on her back.
“Ouch,” she commented as she stared at the ceiling
“Ohmygosh! Sunflower, are you okay?” Pinkie said as she hopped out of the bed. Then she immediately toppled over, shrieking “Aaagh, pins and needles! Pins and needles! My legs are sleepy!!”
“Are you okay, Pinkie?”
Pinkie blinked at her from the floor and smiled. “Yup! My left legs are all tingly, that’s all. That’s sure a weird feeling!”
“Do you need any help?” Erin asked, standing up and grimacing slightly at the damp patch on the back of her knee.
“Nah,” the prone pink pony said, waving a hoof. “I’ll be fine in a bit. Go on and get breakfast!”
“Okay,” Erin said with a shrug.
The library was much chillier in the morning than it had been the night before. Erin wondered briefly what heated the giant tree as she stepped lightly down the stairs, following the mouth-watering smell of breakfast down to the main level.
Twilight frowned as she adjusted the plates on the table. Each plate had one omelet, comprised of exactly two eggs, three ounces of cheddar cheese and an evenly-measured portion of vegetables. The hash browns were also meticulously measured out in order to assure that nopony had even slightly more than anypony else.
Well, except for Spike. Twilight glanced over as the little dragon sat down and grinned at his plate before digging in. His plate was slightly less full than the others, though the small bowl of gems on the table more than compensated for the lack.
Her horn glowed as she brought out a ruler and poured just a few drops more of the fresh orange juice into a glass tumbler. She set the pitcher down with a satisfied nod. Everything was perfectly even. Nopony could complain in the slightest, a fact that was especially important with Pinkie Pie around. Twilight wasn’t even sure if the pink pony was aware of how much she could eat.
The unicorn turned around again, prepared to shout up a third time that breakfast was ready. Instead, she jumped in surprise and let out a little squeak of alarm when she saw that Erin was already standing behind her.
“You alright, Twilight?” Erin asked, looking somewhat startled herself.
“Yes, sorry. You startled me!” Twilight replied. She reflected that a pony’s hooves usually made enough noise for her to know when one was walking up behind her, as did Spike’s dragon claws. A human’s fleshy feet, though, made barely any noise at all, even on the hard wooden floor of the library.
Erin smiled at her and came the rest of the way into the dining area. “It smells wonderful!”
“Thank you. Spike and I made it together,” she said, blushing a little as Erin sat down on the floor next to the low table. “Is Pinkie coming down soon?”
“She’ll be down soon. Apparently, her legs are asleep,” Erin said. She took a bite of omelette and her face lit up. “Twilight, Spike, this is amazing!”
“You like it?” Twilight couldn’t stop herself from beaming with joy. “Applejack has been teaching me how to cook. And, of course Spike is already pretty decent with a spatula.”
“Well, you both should be proud,” Erin said, taking another forkful.
“Thanks,” Spike and Twilight said simultaneously, and Twilight giggled at him.
“So, I’ve got some questions about the movies last night,” Twilight said.
“Okay?” Erin said, holding a fork halfway up to her face.
“Well, I was wondering... I know you said it was all special effects, but it looked so real. The Avengers, I mean. The Hulk, and the flying... I don’t understand how all that could be done. I thought special effects were just... just makeup, pyrotechnic charges and things like that!”
Erin nodded. “It’s computer effects. They can do really neat things with that, these days.” She laughed, adding, “And, if you think that the effects in that movie were good, wait until you see what they did for the second, third and fourth ones. They keep getting better with the effects every year.”
“I don’t see how they could be any better,” Twilight said doubtfully.
Erin just shrugged in reply. Whatever response she was going to make was interrupted by a sound that froze Twilight’s blood.
A simple melody was coming from the staircase, being carried by Pinkie’s very recognizable singing voice. It was a song that she’d heard before. Just last night, as a matter of fact. Her eyes widened in horror as she realized what she was in for.
“Unicorns, I love them! Unicorns, I love them! Uni-unicorns, I loo~ove them!” Pinkie sang, her hooves clip-clopping their way down the staircase.
“What have you done?!” Twilight whispered to Erin, who snorted with entirely inappropriate laughter.
“Uni~unicorns,” Pinkie sang as she entered the main floor, “I would hug one. If they were really real. And they are! Because there’s one!”
Pinkie rushed her, and Twilight soon found herself laughing uncomfortably as she was hugged enthusiastically.
“Okay, Pinkie,” she said after a few seconds of cuddling. “That’s enough. Pinkie? Pinkie!”
“Yes, Twilight?” Pinkie said, fluttering her eyelashes at her.
“Go eat your breakfast before it gets cold,” Twilight said, nodding towards the plate. Pinkie looked at it, and then looked back at her. The hug didn’t lessen at all. “Aren’t you hungry?” Twilight asked desperately.
Pinkie grinned. “That’s my secret, Twilight. I’m always hungry!”
Pinkie disengaged the hug and leapt towards her plate with an overly dramatic “Raaaaugh!” noise, where she began eating noisily, much to Spike’s amusement. The little dragon was snickering into his clawed hands as Pinkie made a mess out of her omelette. Twilight rolled her eyes and turned back to Erin, who was watching Pinkie eat with a look of awe mingled with mild horror.
“You guys sure you’re not descended from carnivores?” the human asked.
“Pretty sure,” Twilight said with a chuckle. “So, what are your plans for the day? My schedule is completely cleared for today.”
“Oh, well...” Erin tapped a finger to her chin as she thought. “I was going to see the mayor, for sure. I have some paperwork I have to fill out in order to be a resident. Then I wanted to go say hi to my friends on the FetEx crew. They deserve to meet the ‘real’ me, too. Then I suppose I can look at the cottage that you leased for me.”
“Oh, that reminds me, you need to actually sign the lease,” Twilight said.
She got up and trotted over to a nearby desk, pulling out a scroll and levitating it over to Erin along with a quill and jar of ink. The human quickly signed her name, and Twilight floated the scroll over to her saddlebags and tucked it inside for later.
Breakfast wrapped up some time after that amidst pleasant conversation. Twilight took the orange juice and empty glasses into the kitchen in a cloud of lavender magic, leaving the dishes in the sink for later and putting the leftover juice in the refrigerator. When she returned to the main room Pinkie was in the act of hugging Erin, with the human patting her pink mane.
“I wish I didn’t have to work this morning,” Pinkie said unhappily. “But you’ll definitely come by the store later today, right?”
“Oh, absolutely,” Erin said. “We’re all meeting there for dinner, remember?
“Oh, yeah!” Pinkie said with a happy smile.
“Also, I have a special order for you,” Erin said. “I want to order four dozen cookies, a couple dozen cupcakes and a dozen or so muffins. It’s for the Harmonics team back home. None of them have ever gotten to try anything from Sugarcube Corner!”
“You got it! What kinds?” Pinkie asked as she released Erin.
“A random assortment,” Erin said. “Surprise me! But no hay or flowers, okay? Humans can’t really eat that stuff.”
“No flour?” Pinkie said, looking confused. “What am I supposed to bake with if I can’t use flour?”
“No, I meant—” Erin began, but Pinkie cut her off with a laugh.
“You’re too easy, Sunflower,” the pink pony said with a big grin. Erin laughed and booped her on her pink muzzle.
Pinkie slipped on her blue knit hat and bid everypony a fond farewell. Erin stood in the doorway for a few seconds, watching as her friend walked out into Ponyville's snowy landscape. Twilight and Spike were busily cleaning the table when she turned around.
"Let me help with that," she said, reaching for a plate only to have Twilight grab it with a burst of magic.
"We've got it," Twilight said with a smile. "Why don't you go get ready for the day?"
"No arguing," Twilight said sternly. "Guests don't help clean up. That's the rule. Now, go on!"
For a few seconds, Erin looked like she was going to argue the point. Instead, she shrugged and walked back to the stairs. "Alright, then. I'll go take a shower and get dressed."
Twilight waved her off, and Erin made her way up the stairs. She found herself hoping that Erin's appointment with the mayor would go smoothly. The sooner that was done, the sooner they would be able to enjoy just hanging out in Ponyville together.
Erin’s back was hurting. She tried to keep herself from squirming in the backless pony-designed chair, but it was getting harder and harder to do. She glanced at the clock, surprised that she’d only been in the Town Hall for only slightly over an hour. It felt like much longer.
She’d been passed from one underling to the next in not exactly rapid succession before finally being shown in to see the mayor herself. On the way, she’d filled out a number of forms of various lengths in order to establish herself as “a non-Equestrian resident planning to reside in Equestria.”
And now she was meeting with the mayor herself.
The mare’s hooves were shaking slightly as she took the pack of papers from Erin’s hands. The royal seal was emblazoned across the front of it, the wax sealing the package shut. The mayor licked her lips, sucked in her breath, then quickly broke the seal before exhaling.
Erin waited with as much patience as she could muster as the grey-maned mare read the paperwork, quietly trying to adjust her posture in order to alleviate the strain on her back. She only had a rough idea of what it said, and she knew that Celestia’s own signature was scrawled across the bottom. She felt a momentary flash of sympathy for the mayor. Getting a royal decree dropped in your lap all of a sudden was probably extremely stressful.
“Well,” the mayor said eventually. “It all seems to be in order. And, I certainly don’t have any objections to having a human living in town. We’re a diverse community, after all! We have cattle, mules... all sorts of folks live here these days!”
“I know,” Erin said. “I used to live here too.” The mayor just stared at her blankly. “As a pony. Remember? Sunflower?”
“Oh... Oh, yes, I remember now.” she gave a brittle laugh as she passed the paperwork back to Erin.
“Um, I think you’re supposed to keep that.”
“Oh! Yes, of course!” The mayor took the paperwork back and passed it over to a wide-eyed unicorn stallion who was working as her aide. “Quill, go and file that, would you?”
“Yes, ma’am!” the young stallion said before bolting out of the room.
“I have to say,” the mayor said, “this will certainly be exciting! We’ll be the first town to host a human in permanent residence!”
“Outside of Canterlot,” Erin said, immediately feeling guilty about it when the mayor’s face drooped with disappointment.
“I suppose that’s true,” the mare said with a sigh.
“Although...” Erin said with a mischievous grin starting up. “There is something that Ponyville can be the first in.”
“Oh?” The mayor asked, perking up.
“How would you like to be the first town in Equestria to have town-wide full and free WiFi access?” Erin asked.
“That would be wonderful!” Mayor Mare said, clapping her hooves together. Confusion washed over her features a few seconds later. “What’s a ‘WiFi’?”
The magazines in the waiting room were all at least three months out of date, but Twilight read them anyway. Reading anything was preferable to reading nothing. And, in any case, this article on proper azalea gardening was actually quite fascinating.
The door clicked open and Erin walked out, looking very pleased with herself. Twilight put her magazine down and stood up as her friend approached.
“How did it go?” Twilight asked.
“Pretty good.” Erin saluted and said, “I am now officially ‘Erin Lynne Sunflower Olsen’, resident of Ponyville.”
“Congratulations!” Twilight said. “You’re keeping the ‘Sunflower’, though?”
“I figured it’s a part of me, now,” Erin said with a shrug. “I wouldn’t give up my time here as Sunflower for anything. I already legally changed my name back home.”
“That’s a big step,” Twilight noted.
“Not as big as volunteering to be a pony in the first place,” Erin said with a chuckle.
They walked through the snow for a little while. Twilight noted how her fellow ponies would occasionally stop and stare at Erin, which she could understand but still considered odd. After all, humans weren’t any more unusual than minotaurs or griffons. And Erin, at least, was far less physically intimidating than either of those species.
For the most part, Erin either didn’t notice or pretended that she didn’t. The human walked along, chattering away happily. Erin’s enthusiasm at becoming a “real resident” of Ponyville was starting to rub off on her, and Twilight found herself smiling more or less the whole time.
“Ah,” Erin said, pointing. “That’s the house.”
“Which, the one with the red trim?”
“Yeah. One of the first jobs I tried was as a house painter. It... didn’t go so well,” Erin said with a laugh.
“Oh! I remember that story. You got covered with paint, right?”
Twilight shook her head as Erin began recounting the story once again. She knew her friend had been humiliated by the experience. And yet, here she was recounting the story with every appearance of enjoying herself. It was hard for Twilight to understand. Mistakes were something she was always eager to put behind her. She couldn’t imagine bringing them up herself months later just for a laugh.
Still, it was a funny story, and Erin told it with gusto.
It didn’t take long for the pair of them to reach their destination. Twilight glanced up at her friend’s face, surprised to see what looked like apprehension on her features.
“Everything okay, Erin?”
“Oh. Yeah.” Erin replied with a weak smile. “Not sure how they’ll react, is all. Maybe I shouldn't go in. They’ll probably be busy.”
“But they already know you’re a human,” Twilight pointed out. “You stopped by back when you were still a pony, remember?”
“Yeah. But... Okay, promise not to tell anyone?” When Twilight nodded, Erin sighed and said, “Lucky said he had a crush on me. Back then, I mean.”
Twilight stood dumbfounded for a few seconds. “Oh. I didn’t know that. Um... Why would that stop you from going in?”
“It doesn’t, it’s just...” Erin sighed. “I’m worried it’s going to be awkward, is all. I’ve had enough of that, recently.”
“Well, I’ve never had a stallion look at me twice, so I wouldn’t know what it’s like,” Twilight said chipperly, and not upset at all that someone who had only pretended to be a pony was getting all of this attention from one of the few young and unmarried stallions in Ponyville. She frowned at Erin’s burst of laughter.
“Sure, they haven’t,” Erin said, rolling her eyes. “Well, I suppose I should go in.”
“Wait,” Twilight said as the human opened the door. “Somepony was looking at me? Who?!”
“I don’t know, a couple of stallions I overheard once at the cafe. I never got their names.”
After dropping that bombshell, Erin calmly walked through the door and into the shop. Twilight could only gape after her incredulously.
The jingle as the door opened caused an intense swelling of nostalgia for Erin as she walked into the familiar store. Her eyes were drawn immediately to the grey-maned stallion behind the counter, decked out as always in his traditional hat and coat. Speedy Parcel hadn’t changed at all. He looked up with a friendly smile that immediately changed to slack-jawed surprise at the sight of her.
Erin smiled, raised a hand to wave and, just as she was about to greet her ex-boss, was interrupted by Twilight bursting through the door behind her.
“What do you mean, you never got their names?!” The unicorn blurted out. Erin watched as the anger drained from her face and her ears drooped as her friend realized that she’d just marched into a place of business hollering her lungs out.
Dead silence fell across the shop, which was mercifully empty of customers.
“I’ll, uh, wait outside,” Twilight said before practically running out the door.
Erin stared after Twilight for a second before turning back to Mr. Parcel. The stallion had managed to regain his composure and was flashing a large smile at her.
“Well, well, well!” he said. “I do believe that’s a human! And, as the number of humans I know is relatively small, I’m going to guess that this may just be young Miss Sunflower?”
“Hi, Mr. Parcel,” Erin said sheepishly. “Yeah, it’s me.”
“Is Miss Sparkle going to be alright?” the stallion asked.
“Uh, I think so. Anyway, I just thought I’d stop by and see how you’re doing.”
“Ah, about as well as could be expected, my dear. We’re a little behind, once again. Sadly, we recently lost our number one employee.”
“Oh, no! Something happened to Lucky?” Erin asked, concerned. Mr. Parcel just laughed.
“No, my dear. I was referring to you!”
“Oh...” Erin said with a blush.
“Alright, now I know it’s you,” Mr. Parcel said with a chuckle. “Well, it’s great to see you again! And as a biped, even. That’s unexpected!”
Erin chuckled. “Well, this is more or less what I looked like before I became a pony.”
“‘More or less’?” he repeated, arching an eyebrow.
“Um. I had them change my hair color to something more flattering,” Erin admitted, blushing once again. Mr. Parcel laughed at that.
“Oh! Before I forget, I owe you some back wages,” the stallion said.
Erin tried to protest, but he just held up a hoof as he rummaged under the counter, finally coming up with a familiar lockbox. As far as security went, the highly portable and somewhat flimsy lockbox wouldn’t have stopped a determined toddler from making off with it. But for Ponyville, it was nearly maximum security.
“Thanks,” Erin said, placing the bag of bits into her coat pocket where it joined the rest she already had with her.
“No more than you’re due, Sunflower. So, can we expect you to be staying?”
“Not right now,” Erin said, shaking her head. “I’m going to be moving back to Ponyville in a month, though. Probably as a pony.”
“Really? Well! If you need your old job back, all you have to do is ask!”
Erin smiled at him, feeling a surge of affection for the old stallion. He’d always been very kind to her, in a favorite uncle kind of way. She’d missed him more than she’d realized.
They talked for a few more minutes, with Erin filling him in on some of the things that had happened since they’d last seen each other.
“Oh, and thanks for the chocolates!” she said, remembering that he and Lucky had sent her the present while she’d still been recuperating from Malachite’s assault. “I can’t even tell you how much I appreciated it. It made a really bad day just a bit better.”
“Ah, you’re welcome, my dear.”
The door jingled once again as a customer came in, a stack of packages on her back. The new mare stopped in shock and stared at Erin, who did some staring of her own.
“Hi, Meadowlark,” Erin heard herself saying. The words seemed to echo strangely in her head as she said them.
“How do... Sunflower?” Meadowlark asked, her eyes narrowing.
“It’s Erin, really. But, yeah...” she said, feeling numb. “How’s Marigold?”
“She... She’s doing well. She’s in school, and she loves every minute of it.” Meadowlark gave her a wide berth as she moved to the counter. Mr. Parcel shot Erin a sympathetic look before taking the packages from the mare and beginning to process them.
“I’m moving back to town,” Erin said eventually. Meadowlark flinched at the news.
“I see.” Meadowlark was quiet for a few seconds. “What I said the last time I saw you still goes. I don’t want you around Marigold without my permission.”
“I understand,” Erin said quietly. “Is... Does she know about me?”
“Yes,” Meadowlark said shortly. “I had to tell her something, once your name was in the paper. She knows. She’s very confused, but she knows.”
Silence dragged on for a few more seconds. Mr. Parcel eventually cleared his throat and ventured to speak.
“That will be five bits total for regular delivery, ten if you want express, fifteen if you want next-day.”
Meadowlark silently dug some bits out of her purse and dropped them on the counter. Mr. Parcel had her sign the clipboard, tore out the center copy and passed it over to her as her receipt. The mare thanked him faintly, tucked the paper into her saddlebag and turned to walk out the door. She never looked once at Erin that entire time.
Upon reaching the door, the unicorn paused briefly. Still looking away, she said, “She asks about you, sometimes. She misses you.” With a sigh, she added, “So do I, sometimes.”
“But I can’t forgive you, yet,” Meadowlark said. Her horn glowed, the door opened, and she left without another word.
Erin leaned back against the counter as her strength left her. Mr. Parcel kept himself busy behind the counter until Erin finally wiped the tears away from her eyes and straightened up. She cleared her throat and glanced back at him with a wan smile.
“Will you be alright, Sunflower?” he asked gently.
“Yeah,” Erin said. “I’m not surprised she can’t forgive me. She was really upset when she found out. And she’s worried about her daughter.”
“That filly will be fine,” Mr. Parcel said staunchly. “And that mare should know you well enough to know that you wouldn’t hurt a fly.”
“Not technically true, Mr. Parcel,” Erin said, smiling weakly. “I’ve been known to hurt the occasional fly.”
“Oh, dear,” he said, completely deadpan. “I must revise my entire opinion of you, the merciless fly hurter.”
Erin laughed briefly. Trust the old stallion to be able to cheer her up after that, even if only a little.
“Well...” she said, heaving a sigh. “Twilight’s outside in the cold waiting for me. I suppose I should get going.”
Mr. Parcel came around from behind the counter and put a foreleg around her waist in a hug. “You’re always welcome around here, you know. Always.”
“Thanks,” she said, hugging him back. She pecked him on his fuzzy cheek, offered him another smile, then turned to walk out the door.
Twilight stood outside the Fet-Ex office, waiting for Erin to come back out. At the very least, the cold air cooled down her burning cheeks. She used the time she had to berate herself for acting rashly and embarrassing herself in public.
After a few minutes, a yellow mare with a grey mane went in, spent some time inside and then came back out again. Twilight met her eyes and briefly considered asking if the human inside seemed ready to come out soon, but something in the mare’s expression told her that she wasn’t interested in conversation.
With a sigh, Twilight resumed waiting. It was only a minute or so after the yellow mare had left that Erin finally came out.
“Sorry about making you wait, Twilight,” her friend said, sounding slightly subdued.
“Not a problem. Are you okay?”
“Yeah. Well, sort of. That mare that just left was my friend Meadowlark.”
Twilight jumped slightly at the mention of the pony’s name. “Meadowlark? She’s the one who...”
“Never forgave me for lying to her, yeah,” Erin said dryly. “Anyway, I think I’m done with visiting for a while. What time is it?”
Twilight chuckled and pointed to the clearly-visible town clock, which read slightly after one in the afternoon.
“Oh.” Erin said, blushing a little. Then she put on a slightly strained smile and said, “Well, we still have almost four hours before we’re supposed to meet up at Sugarcube Corner. Want to grab some lunch and then do some shopping? I have bits!”
If Erin wanted to pretend that she wasn’t upset about her encounter with her friend, then Twilight would too. At least until Erin felt ready to talk about it. She put on a matching smile and said, “Okay. But first, you have to tell me about these stallions!”
“Not much to say,” Erin said with a shrug. “I didn’t recognize them, but they were sitting at a table near me when I was eating one day, and they were talking about ‘that cute librarian’. One of them, the pegasus, said he was afraid to ask you out because you were too smart for him.”
Twilight grunted with annoyance. “What about the other one?”
“He was an earth pony. I vaguely remember him being light blue? Not much else, though, sorry. He said that you being smart was a good thing.”
“Hmm. Was he cute?”
Erin burst out laughing. “Twilight, I’m sorry, I have no idea if he was or not. I’m not attracted to ponies, remember?”
“Oh... right. Sorry.”
They walked side by side through the quiet town for a while. Twilight idly kicked a pile of snow, scattering thick clumps of it down the street in front of her. It was flattering to think that there were stallions out there who thought she was cute, but also more than a little frustrating to have no idea who it was.
They turned and walked into the town square, Erin seeming to perk up a little at the thought of shopping. Twilight trotted along beside her friend, determined to try and cheer her up as best she could.
The shopkeeper was a light orange unicorn mare with a red mane. She had introduced herself as Bric-à-brac and had enthusiastically welcomed Erin, lauding her as “my very first human customer!” She’d then encouraged Erin and Twilight to look around, stating that she had the finest selection of goods intended for the “tourist trade” in all of Ponyville.
Erin had stopped at one display, her breath catching as she saw the perfect gift for her parents. It was a perfect model of downtown Ponyville in miniature, encased in glass. Erin gave the globe a shake, smiling as the glittering “snow” swirled around and then began settling on the rooftops and streets of the tiny town.
“It’s beautiful,” she said.
“And only forty bits!” Bric-à-brac said cheerfully from behind the counter.
“It’s a deal!” Erin said. She had the money to spare, after all. In addition to the bits that Mr. Parcel had just given her, she also had quite a lot of money left over from her initial stay in Ponyville. That money, entrusted to Twilight, had been intended to secure a place for her to stay when she moved back into town. The bits that hadn’t been needed had been returned to Erin after breakfast.
She put the snow globe on the counter with some of the other things she’d already selected. It was, by far, the most expensive thing she was buying today, but she couldn’t pass it up. Her parents would love it.
In addition to the snowglobe were about two dozen “Welcome to Ponyville!” postcards featuring various views of the town, two little Equestrian flags on sticks, some commemorative coins depicting Discord’s defeat (which caused Twilight to blush deeply when she saw them), and a floppy hat with “Ponyville - Population: Friendship” stitched on the front of it.
The hat was for Maggie Henson, the flags and coins were for her brothers and their families, and the postcards were for various other friends and family.
Erin made one last circuit of the store with Twilight in tow. Her unicorn friend had also selected a Ponyville snowglobe and, when asked about it, said she was going to ship it to her parents.
Erin also claimed a box of pencils that had “Ponyville” stamped into them. Those she’d be keeping for herself, stashing them away with all the other special pencils she’d collected since she was very young.
“I think that will about do it,” Erin said, placing them with her other intended purchases.
“Wonderful!” Bric-à-brac said, and then began ringing their items up on what appeared to Erin to be an extremely old-fashioned cash register.
“So, how’s business?” Erin asked.
“Oh, I can’t complain,” the shopkeeper said with a grin that seemed to be pretty much permanent. “This is the slow season, of course. Not many coming to Ponyville during the winter months, ha ha!”
Erin blinked in surprise. The mare hadn’t laughed, she’d actually said “ha ha”. That, along with the accompanying eye twitch, told her more than the shopkeeper probably wanted her to know.
“Business isn’t doing so well?” Erin ventured to guess.
The grin slipped away and the mare slumped. “No, I’m afraid not,” she said with a sigh. “I thought, what with the rail coming through, Ponyville was sure to be the next big hot spot for tourism. We’re close to Canterlot and everything!”
“But it’s just not panning out?” Erin asked sympathetically.
“Not so well at the moment, no,” Bric-à-brac said wryly. Then the grin resurfaced and the mare straightened her posture. “Still! Things will turn around soon, I know it!”
“Hmm.” An idea had started forming in the back of Erin’s mind. “Do you make this stuff yourself?”
“Some of it, yes. Not all of it. I do all the design work, though! And, for that snow globe of yours, I carved and painted the downtown myself. I had to commision the glasswork, though.”
“Wow, that’s really impressive!” Erin said, studying the globe closely. “You know, I think humans in general would go nuts over this stuff.”
“Really?” Bric-à-brac had seemingly forgotten about ringing up Erin’s purchases. Eagerness flooded her face. “This stuff would sell well on Earth?”
“Absolutely!” Erin said confidently. “Humans would eat this stuff up.” At the look on the mare’s face, she hastened to add, “Not literally!”
Twilight chuckled at that, then added in her own two bits. “You’d need approval from both the Equestrian and Earth customs to transport the goods, though.”
“I can check with Maggie,” Erin said. “I’d bet she has some contacts.”
“But it won’t really matter unless we start getting human tourists,” Bric-à-brac said, ears drooping.
“Online sales,” Erin said, then grinned at the confused look on the shopkeeper’s face. “Trust me. We’ll take some pictures, advertise... all we’d have to do is work out shipping back to Earth.”
“That’s... Wow.” Bric-à-brac looked between Erin and Twilight with happy tears in her eyes. “You’d do that for me?”
“Sure,” Erin said, smiling. “Though... I have to say, I can’t actually promise anything. That, and I think they’re still working out an exchange rate between the US dollar and the Equestrian bit. There’s almost no actual trade, yet.”
“What about Rarity?” Twilight asked.
“Oh, yeah,” Erin said, considering the point. “But she just sends designs over, she doesn’t actually manufacture anything and ship it through the gate. All business happens Earth-side only. And she never sees the profits.”
“She doesn’t?” Bric-à-brac asked. “What does she do with them?”
“Whatever doesn’t go back into the company goes to charity,” Erin said, feeling proud of her friend. In spite of her occasional faults, Rarity had never failed to impress with her giving nature.
“Wow. That’s nice of her!”
“Well, she is the Element of Generosity,” Twilight said with a perky smile.
“I’ll definitely think about it,” Bric-à-brac said, her smile seeming more genuine now. Then she looked down at the counter. “Oh, pooh. I completely lost track of where I was in ringing this up.”
Five minutes later, Erin and Twilight exited the store with their purchases. Erin, carrying her items in a bag provided by Bric-à-brac, reflected briefly on how much easier saddlebags were. Ordinarily, she would have stuffed her things into a backpack in order to leave her hands free, but she’d neglected to pack one.
“Where to next?” Twilight asked her.
“I suppose we could see that cottage I’ll be staying in? Also, I’d like to meet my landlord, if possible.”
“Alright, sounds good. We should probably head to Sugarcube Corner after that, though.”
“That’s fine,” Erin said.
The two of them walked in companionable silence for a while.
“So, Twilight,” Erin asked eventually. “Have you kept up with your running regimen?”
“Uh...” the unicorn looked away, her face reddening. “Not so much.”
“Oh... Didn’t you like it?”
“Yes!” Twilight said, then immediately added, “Well, no. I mean, I enjoyed it when we ran together, but it’s hard to get motivated to go by myself.”
“Ah, I see.”
“You’re not upset, are you?”
Erin’s eyebrows furrowed as she looked down at her friend. “No, why should I?”
“I thought you’d be disappointed,” Twilight confessed.
“Pff, nah.” Erin waved a hand dismissively. “I completely get it. It’s a hard habit to get into. Did you want to start running with me again when I move back to Ponyville?”
“Sure! Um... But could we take it easy, at first?”
The two of them kept talking until they reached the cottage. As Twilight had said, it was on the outskirts of town. To Erin, it looked perfect, picturesque even. It had a thatched roof like most of the homes in Ponyville, and the exterior walls were a cream color with dark green trim. The windows were large and had fancifully carved shutters, all of which were closed at the moment, probably to help keep the cold out. The second floor was only about half the size of the first, and the one window facing the street was much smaller. The finishing touch was a stone chimney running up the west side of the house and poking up a few feet over the top of the roof.
The front yard was small and enclosed inside of a white picket fence, and Erin could see several shapes lurking under the snow that were presumably bushes of some kind. When they walked around the back, she was pleased to see that the back yard was nicely spacious. It also had a fence around it, though the back fence was much taller than the front, coming up to about Erin’s shoulder.
“Oh, Twilight, this place is perfect!” Erin said, clapping her mittened hands together.
“Really?” Twilight said, and Erin saw some previously unnoticed tension drain from her friend. “I’m so glad you like it!”
“No, I love it. This is amazing!”
“Well, I’m glad. Your landlady lives this way.” Twilight began walking, Erin trailing behind as she looked back over her shoulder at the lovely little cottage. “Her name is Matilda. She’s a really nice donkey.”
“Donkey?” Erin said, her attention snapping forward. “You said she’s a donkey?”
“Yeah,” Twilight said with an odd look. “That’s not a problem, is it?”
Erin laughed. “No, no, of course not. I’ve just never met a donkey before!”
Twilight smiled and kept walking. A short time later they reached Matilda’s house, a two story cottage that was almost identical to Erin’s, but with pink trim instead of green. Erin knocked, feeling unaccountably nervous.
The door opened shortly after she knocked, there stood a donkey, who blinked at Erin in surprise and said, “Oh!”
“What is it?” a rough voice shouted from somewhere behind her.
“Just... one of my tenants, I believe,” Matilda said, eyeing Erin cautiously. Erin nodded, and the donkey smiled, and shouted back over her shoulder, “Just wait a few minutes, Doodle. I’ll be right back.”
She motioned for the two of them to come in, and Erin did so, knocking the snow off of her boots as she did entered.
“You must be the mysterious human who’s moving to Ponyville,” Matilda said.
“Yes, hi. I’m Erin, nice to meet you!”
“Matilda, and nice to meet you too! What can I do for you today?”
“We brought the signed lease,” Twilight said, levitating the scroll out of her saddlebags. “We thought we should bring it over.”
“Also, I’m now an official resident of Ponyville.” Erin felt a swell of pride as she said that.
“Oh, congratulations!” Matilda said, taking the scroll and sticking it carefully in a desk by the front door.
“The cottage is perfect, too. Um, though I just wanted to check, would it be alright if I modified it a little?”
“That depends on what you mean by ‘modified’,” Matilda said, looking a little alarmed.
“Well, I’m going to have a bunch of equipment there, and in order to run it all, I’m going to need more reliable electricity than Ponyville usually offers. I was hoping to install solar tiles, but of course I’d need your permission first.”
“On top of the thatch?” Matilda asked.
“Um, more like in place of the thatch,” Erin said, flashing a hopeful grin.
“Hmm.” Matilda tapped a hoof on her chin. “And, if I said ‘no’?”
“It would be inconvenient, but I’d find a way to manage,” Erin said. “After all, it’s your property, I’m only renting.”
“Ha!” A large grin split the donkey’s face. “I like that answer! What do these panels look like? If they’re not hideously ugly, I can probably allow it. I was planning on replacing the thatch this year, anyway.”
“They can be pretty much any shape, but I was thinking just regular tiles,” Erin said. “They’re rectangular, usually dark blue or black, opaque and kind of glossy. Not very thick, maybe an inch.”
“Hmm. That would definitely make the place stand out a bit.” Matilda said. “You know what? Okay! I’ll take a chance on this. You pay for the installation, and for any damage to the structure that these may cause, and you have a deal!”
They shook on it, Erin’s hand and Matilda’s hoof. Shortly after that, Twilight and Erin were on their way again, apologizing for barging in unexpectedly. Matilda waved their apologies away and wished them well.
“Well, then” Twilight said. “Off to Sugarcube corner for dinner?”
“You bet!” Erin said. And, together, the two of them set out.
At Pinkie’s request, Sugarcube corner had closed early for the day, so that she could send Erin off in style. The Cakes had allowed it, since it gave them the evening off to spend with their children.
Ordinarily, the bakery only served various breads, sweets and pastries, but the kitchen had been co-opted by Pinkie Pie. She had started an hour before anypony else arrived, whipping up a thick veggie stew, a salad, freshly baked bread, sliced fruits and a hot spinach and artichoke dip intended to be eaten with the bread.
As she shredded carrots for the salad, Pinkie sang softly to herself. The music in her head never really stopped, but usually the song just ran through the back of her mind so as not to annoy anypony. Right now, though, there was nopony else around to be annoyed, so Pinkie let the song out.
and I’ll make them something good to eat
I’ll mix up everything so it tastes just right
and follow it up with yummy treats!
I know my friends make me happy
I hope I make them happy, too
I’ll bring the food and make it snappy
I really hope they like the stew!”
Just then, a knock sounded at the back door. Pinkie blinked and shook herself as the music quieted down a little.
“Somepony is early!” she said, bouncing her way over to the door. “I wonder who it is!” The door was flung open, revealing a chilly-looking pair of friends standing in the snow. “It’s Sunflower and Twilight! Two of my very favoritest of favorite ponies!”
“I’m not a pony right now,” Sunflower said with that laugh that Pinkie loved so much. Though, honestly, Pinkie had loved pretty much every laugh she had ever heard. But this particular one of Sunflower’s was one she’d never heard before she’d met the human mare.
“You’ll always be a pony to me, Sunflower!” Pinkie said, happier than she’d been for, oh, at least five minutes. “Come in! You’re the first ones here!”
“Um... Actually, I’ve been here for a while.”
Pinkie spun around at the sound of the soft voice and gaped at the pony in the doorway leading from the kitchen to the front of the store.
“Fluttershy! When did you get here?!” Pinkie exclaimed.
“Um. I was in the dining area when Mister Cake locked the door.” Fluttershy blushed and twirled a hoof against the floor. “I don’t think he saw me.”
Sunflower and Twilight looked at each other, shrugged, and started taking off their winter gear.
“Oh, Fluttershy, I’m sorry,” Pinkie said, momentarily dejected. “I didn’t know you were out there, or I would have kept you company!”
“Oh, no, I don’t want to be a bother,” Fluttershy said. “I would have just been in the way in here. And your stew is boiling.”
“Oh, shoot, my stew!” Pinkie said. “You guys go make yourself comfortable at a table, and I’ll bring the food out when it’s done.”
The three of them walked into the dining area together, talking softly. Pinkie returned to her stew, turned it down and gave it a quick stir. Then she went back to shredding the carrots. The song in her head wanted to come out again, so Pinkie started humming happily to herself. She didn’t bother singing again, knowing that she’d just have to stop when the rest of her friends showed up.
Sure enough, Rarity was next, followed by Rainbow Dash.
“I thought I’d be the first one here,” Dashie said with that cute little frown of hers.
“And I thought I’d be fashionably late,” Rarity said with an impish grin that lit up her face. “Alas, we can’t always have what we want, can we?”
Pinkie directed the two of them into the main room. Her food preparation was done just in time for Applejack to show up and, not unexpectedly, the farm mare insisted on helping her carry out “the vittles”. Pinkie, giggling at the word “vittles”, was more than happy to share the task.
“Soup’s on, y’all!” AJ said as she entered the front of the store. She had a platter on her back, upon which was stacked the bread, the large bowl of sliced fruit, and all the plates, bowls and cutlery that Pinkie thought would be needed.
“Actually, AJ, it’s stew.” Which was balanced on Pinkie’s own back, contained in a large tureen, though she had several potholders between it and her skin in order to avoid being burned.
AJ shot her a look. Pinkie grinned back, earning a chuckle from her friend.
“Fine,” Applejack said. “Stew’s on!”
“Awesome! I’m starving!” Dashie said from the table where the friends all sat.
“Then get yer lazy rainbow butt over here and help bring stuff to the table!” Applejack shot back.
It had taken Pinkie a while before she’d learned the difference between AJ’s real and pretend scoldings, but that was obviously a fake one. The smile on her face was a dead giveaway.
Rainbow got up to help, and Pinkie directed her back towards the kitchen and the waiting salad and dip, which the pegasus promptly brought out, balancing each item on one of her wings.
In no time flat, the table was set up and everypony was gathered around. Pinkie flipped a smile around the table, earning several in return, even though she didn’t really feel all that much like smiling. This was a party, sort of, though it was low-key for Sunflower’s sake (she had asked for a low-key party, to which Pinkie had replied “Okie-Dokie, Low-key”, though nopony else got it).
The reason this wasn’t Pinkie’s favorite type of party was because it was a good-bye party. One of her friends was going away. And, even though she was coming back, it still made her a little sad.
Pinkie tuned back into the conversation going on around her, realizing that she’d missed a few things that had been said.
“Oh, just taking care of some things,” Sunflower was saying to a question that Rarity had asked. “I stopped by to see the gang at Fet-Ex, though Lucky wasn’t in. And I saw the cottage I’d be living in, too.”
“Oh, yeah,” Dashie said, looking up from her salad, a string of shredded carrot hanging from the corner of her mouth. “How’d you like it?”
“Oh, it was nice,” Sunflower said with a smile that Pinkie recognized as a #47: 40% happy, 54% excited, and 6% nervous. “I really think I’m going to like it there. The landlady seemed nice, too.”
Pinkie smiled and nodded, happy to hear that Sunflower liked her new landlady. Matilda was a good friend of hers. Of course, so was pretty much everyone in Ponyville, and Pinkie took great pains to keep it that way.
Which reminded her, the welcome wagon needed a bit of work. And maybe she should add a big sign saying “cake batter goes in here!” and “confetti goes here!” in the appropriate spots.
That thought led to another. She was running low on confetti, only three large bags left. Two of those bags were stashed in strategic places around Ponyville in case of a spontaneous confetti emergency, but it would be a good idea if she placed an order for some more to her bulk confetti supplier.
Once again, she zoned back into the conversation to find out she wasn’t really sure what was going on. This time, it had been Rainbow Dash who had asked Sunflower a question.
“Well...” Sunflower squirmed in her seat like she’d sat on something squishy. “About a week after I got changed back, I did try to eat meat again.”
Somepony gasped in shock. Pinkie realized that it had been her. “You ate meat?!”
“Well, yeah... though, it wasn’t real meat. It was artificial meat.”
“Artificial meat?” Twilie asked, scrunching her face up like she always did when somepony said something that didn’t make sense to her. “How was it artificial?”
“It was cultured meat,” Sunflower said. She sounded a little defensive, but also embarrassed.
“Like, it was well-educated and classy?” Pinkie asked, images of top hats and spats running through her head.
“No,” Sunflower said with a chuckle that seemed to come more from embarrassment than something funny. “It was grown independant of an animal. So, it’s real meat, but nothing had to actually die to make it.”
“I don’t get it,” Twilight said. Pinkie didn’t either, but she was glad Twilie had said so first. If the super-smart unicorn didn’t understand it, then there was no shame in Pinkie not getting it, either.
“Well, what they do is take a sample of muscle,” Sunflower said as she stabbed at her salad with a fork. “Then they drop it into a nutrient solution, where it grows as if it were still attached to whatever animal it came from. Then, when it gets big enough, they hack off a chunk of it...”
Sunflower looked around the table and saw that everypony looked as queasy-weasy as Pinkie herself felt.
“Um, you know what? Nevermind. It’s magic meat that didn’t come directly from any animal, so nothing had to die.”
An uncomfortable silence descended for a few seconds.
“And how was it?” Twilight asked.
“Awful.” Sunflower shook her head. “I mean, it tasted right, as far as I remember. And I always used to love cheeseburgers before I became a pony—”
“A what, now?” Pinkie asked curiously.
“Um... it’s a sandwich with cheese.” Sunflower did that squirmy thing again and added, “And meat.” She cleared her throat and kept on talking. “Anyway, I guess it had been too long, because it just tasted gross. I guess I lost my taste for it.”
“The humans have meat that doesn’t need to come from killing animals?” That was from Fluttershy. Her eyes had gotten really big, and she looked happy. “That’s wonderful!”
“Yeah. It’s not too popular, though,” Sunflower said.
“Whyever not, darling?” Rarity asked. “It sounds rather... icky, I suppose. But it must be a better solution than killing some poor animal!”
“Mainly, it’s really expensive, and people complain about the texture being wrong. It seemed fine to me, though. I just didn’t like the taste, anymore. ”
“So, fake meat? Maybe I should try some of that,” Dashie said, and everypony around the table looked at her in shock or disgust except for Pinkie, who laughed because she recognized that typical Rainbow Dash bravado, and because she knew the pegasus would never actually do it in even a million, billion years.
“Funny, Dash,” Pinkie said, grinning.
“I could totally do it, if I wanted to!” Dash said defensively.
Pinkie giggle-snorted. “Whatever you say, Dashie.”
The conversation wandered some more after that, drifting lazily from topic to topic. For the most part, Pinkie paid attention, and even contributed from time to time. Telling stories was a part of being friends, after all.
Still, one thread of disquiet was nagging at her. It got worse and worse until, finally, Pinkie couldn’t keep it in anymore.
“Sunflower, do you really have to go back so early?”
The conversation stopped and everypony looked at her. Pinkie realized that she’d interrupted a story that Sunflower was telling, something about how her grandfather took her fishing for cats when she was little, and how she really didn’t like it.
“Sorry, Pinkie,” Sunflower said with a sad smile. “I have to turn in some of the paperwork the mayor signed off on back in Canterlot before I head back home.”
Which meant that she had to take a pretty early train in the morning. And then it would be a whole month before she could see her friend again. Pinkie sighed. “I’ll miss you.”
“Oh, Pinkie,” Sunflower said, reaching over and touching her hoof with one of her hands. “I’ll miss you, too! All of you! But I’ve got to leave, so that I can come back to stay.”
“I know,” Pinkie replied unhappily. “Promise you won’t forget us?”
Sunflower stared at her for a few seconds and then started laughing. “Pinkie, I could be gone for a hundred years and still never forget you guys. I promise, everything will be okay!”
She seemed so confident! Pinkie smiled back, feeling slightly relieved. And, because she felt relieved, she could throw herself into the conversation! Which lasted for hours.
There were a lot of stories. There was plenty of laughter. There was cake, which is not necessary for conversations, but was always a nice bonus. And, finally, there were the “good nights” that Pinkie disliked so much.
“I’ll see you at the train station tomorrow,” she promised as she hugged Sunflower goodnight.
“I’ll see you there, Pinkie. Thanks for the wonderful party!”
And then her friends all left her. But not forever.
It was colder the next day, which only made Erin more appreciative when, after a hearty breakfast at the library, her friends all walked with her to the train station. Pinkie was carrying her bakery purchases, which helped, since Erin was having a hard time dragging her luggage through the snowy streets.
“Well, this is it,” Erin said when they arrived. The train was waiting, slowly filling up with ponies heading to Canterlot.
“I reckon so,” Applejack said.
The seven of them stood in awkward silence for a moment, the ponies shuffling their hooves while Erin drew idle circles on the ground with the toe of her boot. Surprisingly enough, it was Fluttershy who broke the silence.
“Oh, I’m going to miss you!” she said, rushing up and hugging Erin around the waist.
Erin smiled at her through the sudden mist of tears in her eyes. She knelt and hugged the pegasus back. “I’ll miss you guys, too.”
“You have to come back safe,” Pinkie said firmly, joining in the hug.
“I will. I’ll be in the best hands on Earth.”
Fluttershy and Pinkie disengaged, and one by one her other friends came up to say their goodbyes as well.
“Remember, you want to be a pegasus,” Dash said during her turn to hug Erin goodbye. “Flying is the best thing ever. It beats boring old unicorn magic any day.”
Erin laughed, even as Twilight snorted derisively. “I’ll do that, Rainbow.”
Rarity took Dash’s place, saying, “I’ll do my best to modify the dresses I made you to accommodate wings, but I’m afraid that the burgundy may not work out.”
Erin embraced the unicorn and said, “Well, I’ll just have to commission a new one, then.”
Rarity stepped back and Applejack came forward, throwing a foreleg around Erin’s shoulder in a firm hug. “It’ll be spring by the time ya get back here. I reckon’ we’ll be planting. That’s the best time to come and see what earth ponies can do, if’n you’re interested.”
“I may take you up on that, Applejack. Thanks.”
AJ stepped back, and Twilight took her place. “When you come back,” she said as she hugged Erin tightly, “make sure you bring plenty of books.”
Erin chuckled. “I will, I promise.”
“All aboard for Canterlot!” the conductor shouted.
Erin stood, wiping a tear from her eyes with a mittened hand. “I suppose this is it.”
“Oh, Sunflower! Here!” Pinkie untied the parcel from her back that contained Erin’s gigantic pastry order.
“Thanks, Pinkie,” Erin said, taking it. As she did, a pair of porters materialized behind her and, with calm efficiency and not even batting an eye at having a human on the platform, took her bags to stow in the luggage compartment.
“All aboard!” the conductor shouted again. Erin looked at him, then back at her gathered friends. She felt oddly helpless and torn.
“Go,” Twilight said gently. “We’ll be here when you get back.”
“I love all of you,” Erin said. Her friends repeated the sentiment.
With a final wave, Erin got on the train. She found her seat quickly and looked out of the window. Her friends were on the platform, all waving enthusiastically at her. A few seconds later, the doors closed and the train moved out.
“Goodbye!” Erin called through the window, not even sure her friends could hear her. She waved, and her friends ran down the platform, keeping pace with her window as long as they could.
The platform stopped, and so did her friends. They waved at her as the train pulled further and further away, and she waved back until finally, the train went around a bend and her friends were lost from sight.
It was going to be a long few weeks before she could see them all again, but at least she’d be able to spend some of it unconscious while she was altered back into a pony.
With a sigh, Erin leaned back into her seat. She took out her phone, which now contained more pictures of Equestrian ponies than any other human-made device, almost all of them of her friends. She found one picture, the six equines all grouped together, forelegs around each other as they posed, smiling, for the camera. She’d taken the picture at dinner the night before.
She sighed and smiled, feeling slightly melancholy. “I’ll see you soon,” she told them quietly. “I’ll be back before you know it.”
Erin leaned back and let the train take her away from her new home.
A/N: This story is horror themed, and gets a little bit darker than most of the Side Projects.
Timeline Note: This story takes place one month after the final chapter of Project: Sunflower
Sunflower was standing on the doorstep, looking up at her with concern etched on her face. “You sure you’ll be alright, Rainbow?"
“Yeah, of course!” Rainbow Dash said with a laugh as she hovered in the air outside of her friend’s cottage. The laugh sounded a little squeaky, so she cleared her throat and slapped on her best cocky grin. “Those movies weren't so bad.”
“Really?” Sunflower tilted her head and gave her a look that, frankly, got on Rainbow’s nerves just a little. “You seemed a little freaked out a couple of times, there.”
“What?” Dash recoiled at the thought, then rolled her eyes and waved a hoof. “Pfft! Nah. Nah! I wasn’t freaked out. Not at all. That was kid’s stuff.”
“Okay, Rainbow. I believe you.” Though her tone said that maybe she didn’t, not really. “I wouldn’t have blamed you if you were, though. Those movies made it nearly impossible for me to fall asleep for almost a month.”
“Ha, you’re a laugh riot, Sunflower.” Rainbow ruffled her friend’s mane, mussing it up right behind the horn. “I wanted you to show me something scary, remember? Besides, it takes a lot more than that to scare me!”
“Alright, I got it,” the sort-of alicorn said, grinning and rolling her eyes. “I’ll try to find something scarier for next time.”
“You do that,” Rainbow said. Then her jaw cracked in a yawn. “Ugh, I gotta get home and go to bed. Early day tomorrow; morning showers scheduled just after sunup.”
“Okay, Dash. Thanks for hanging out with me tonight!”
“You bet! And thanks for the movies!”
Dash waved a hoof at her friend and flew off into the night. She kept her speed down and tried to look casual. There was no need for her to rush, not with Sunflower watching. She didn't want to make her friend feel bad about her lack of flying skill, after all. No need to rub it in.
Once the cottage was out of sight, though, Rainbow picked up the pace. Not because it was pitch dark out, but because there was just no reason to stay outside any longer than needed. After all, she was tired and wanted to get to bed. It had nothing to do with the darkness pressing in all around her.
She beat her wings a little faster. Just because she was in a hurry to get to bed, that’s all.
And the relieved sigh she heaved once she closed the door to her cloud house behind her was just because she was happy to be home so she could finally get some sleep. Not because she was scared, or anything. Definitely not.
What was there to be scared of? Nothing, that’s what! Definitely not some stupid movies!
Oh, and leaving the hall light on when she got into bed was just an accident. Really. She’d just forgotten to turn it off. She was too tired to get up and do it now. It’s not like it was bothering her as she snuggled down into her bed. And if she got up in the middle of the night to pee or something, having the light on would stop her from bumping into stuff.
Yeah, lots of reasons to leave the light on, none of which had anything to do with the stupid movies.
In fact, she was so not scared, that she tossed and turned in bed for almost another hour reminding herself just how not scary it was.
“It’s impossible, for one,” Rainbow said to her pillow. “Stuff like that doesn’t happen. And the special effects were... okay, better than any Equestrian movie, I’ll give ‘em that, but I’ve seen better just in Sunflower’s collection. And what kind of a stupid name is Freddy Krueger, anyway?”
Feeling much better—though honestly, she never actually felt bad in the first place—Rainbow drifted off to sleep.
And to dreams.
“Alright, you squeakers! I want twenty laps out of each of you!”
The assembled pegasus colts and fillies started moaning, prompting Coach Rightwing to bellow, “And no whining about it, or it’s thirty!”
Grumbling, the young pegasi started making their laps around the field, which was a large oval area made entirely of clouds. Rainbow Dash was hit by a wave of nostalgia as she looked around. She hadn’t been back to Sunrise Elementary in Cloudsdale for years. School itself hadn't been fun, but she had loved physical education, and she had loved this cloud field. It was where she got to show what she was made of, after all. Not like the rest of the school, where the teachers had a hard time recognizing her awesomeness.
She wandered around the center of the oval, which was still marked off for a hoofball game. The young pegasi were bobbing uncertainly around the track, with a couple of them having reached their wing's limit and having to walk. There wasn't a cloud in the sky that wasn't supposed to be there, the sun was warm and cheery, and the cool breeze kept it from getting too hot to exercise comfortably.
Now, if only she could remember why she'd come back here. Was it for an award, or something? Some sort of "You're so awesome and we're glad you went to our school" type thing? She couldn't remember, but she had a feeling that it was important.
“Dash!” Coach Rightwing shouted, making her jump. “Get your prismatic behind in gear, or I swear I’ll—”
“But coach,” Rainbow protested, “I graduated years ago!”
“It didn’t count!” the grizzled brown pegasus roared.
Dash was outraged. That wasn’t fair! “Why not?!”
“Because you’re out of uniform! Where’s your jersey, filly?”
“We never had to wear jerseys!” Dash said, stomping a hoof.
“New rule! And you never wore one, so your graduation doesn't count!”
Dash wanted to protest, but a horrid realization started creeping up on her. She really didn’t have her jersey on! Rightwing was... well, right! She looked up into the coach’s eyes and froze at what she saw.
There was a mean glint in his gaze that she had never seen before. Rightwing had been loud, he’d been stern, but he’d never been cruel. Right then, though, he looked like a stallion that wanted to hurt her. She took an involuntary step back from him, and then a second when his muzzle split into a tooth-filled grin that seemed just a little too sharp to belong to a pony.
“You gonna go and get your gear, filly?” he grated. “Or am I gonna have to..?”
He trailed off, and Dash’s imagination began filling in the things he might do to ‘motivate’ her.
“I’m going!” Dash yelped, backing even further away. “Wait, where am I going?”
“You know where,” he said. A wing jutted out and pointed at something behind her. Dash turned just as the sun went behind some clouds, casting the entire field into shadow.
Ahead of her, set into the cloud wall itself, was a dark hallway leading down. For a second, Dash was confused. She was pretty sure that hadn’t been there a minute ago. And she really didn’t like the look of it. It looked a little too much like the throat of a dragon for her tastes.
A group of foals zipped between her and the tunnel, and Dash realized they were all chanting something that she couldn’t quite make out. She shook her head, trying to shake the sense of growing unease that she was feeling.
“Are you sure it’s in there?” Dash asked the coach. He didn’t answer. She turned to look at him just as a stray beam of light broke through the clouds and struck his eyes, turning them into burning red embers for just a second.
“Yes,” he grated. “You don’t want to be a bad filly... do you, Rainbow Dash?”
“N-no,” Dash said, walking backwards away from him. “No, I don’t. I’ll get it.” She no longer remembered what “it” was. She just knew that she had to get away from this pegasus.
She turned and fled towards the tunnel. As she approached, another group of foals passed in front of her. These were moving slowly, almost drifting, and their forms were blurry and indistinct. Dash caught just shreds of what they were chanting.
“One, two... coming for you...”
A horrifyingly familiar laugh sounded from behind her, and Rainbow Dash ran for all she was worth. It wasn’t until she stumbled and slid down at a sharp angle that she realized that she was in that tunnel.
A feeling like ice washed over her as she looked around. Bricks. What were red bricks doing in Sunrise Elementary? Cloudsdale didn’t use bricks to build things!
Her train of thought was interrupted by a loud, deep thrumming coming from down the slope of the tunnel. She swallowed against the sudden lump in her throat and looked back the way she’d come, just in time to see a pair of rusted iron doors slamming shut, blocking out the sunlight.
She yelped and jumped in shock as the loud clang of the doors echoed down the dark tunnel, folding her ears down tightly against her skull. A certainty overcame her at that point: she wasn’t going to get back out that way. The only way was forward.
Forward, and downward.
“Be like Daring Do,” Rainbow whispered to herself as she walked into the gloom. “What would she do?” She considered the question seriously for a few seconds, then snorted. “She’d get stuck in a trap or something.”
Rainbow eyed the brickwork around her, her situation sinking in. “But she’d get out of it again,” she said resolutely. “And I can too.”
Shoring up her courage, Rainbow Dash headed onwards into the uncertain depths below.
There wasn’t much light. What little there was seemed to be coming from the air itself. But as she got lower, the nature of the light changed, becoming tinged with red and shadow, the color of drying blood. The air changed, too. It was getting hotter, more humid. Sweat prickled her coat as she descended further down.
The deep bass thrum she’d heard earlier was getting louder, pulsing like a heartbeat. When she finally reached the bottom of the hallway, it was so loud it was almost hurting her. The hallway opened up into a room, veiled in swirls of darkness and areas of glowing red. She recognized it in a flash of icy terror.
A boiler room. Cloudsdale didn’t have boiler rooms, at least none that looked like this. Not made of metal, fire and darkness. She took a step back, unwilling to step forward into the room below.
The thrumming stopped with a suddenness that stole the breath from her in a loud gasp. A few seconds passed with Rainbow straining her ears, rotating them around and trying to hear something, anything. It was too quiet, it was getting on her nerves.
And then she heard something. The squeal of metal on metal. Her heart jumped into her throat.
The sound had come from behind her. From the hallway.
And it was coming closer.
For the second time, Rainbow Dash ran forward in a panic. The thrumming started again, though not as loudly. It was faster now, too, matching her heartbeat.
And then the laughter started. Laughter with an edge to it. A mean sound, the sound of a creature that enjoyed the fear that it was causing.
Behind her. It was behind her. She ran faster, dodging chains and pipes, her hooves slipping on the damp metal floor. Whatever it was, she was Rainbow Dash, and there was no way it could be faster than her. She could outrun anyone. Or anything, for that matter. It was only a matter of—
Dash ran into something in the semi-darkness, the impact knocking the breath out of her. A figure moved in front of her, a shape made of shadow and fear. She yelped, scrambling backwards as the figure in the shadows moved forward.
“Are you quite well, Rainbow Dash?” the figure asked.
Dash gaped at the familiar voice as the form in front of her resolved into a familiar pony.
“Princess Luna?!” she blurted out, feeling both massive confusion and relief.
“Indeed,” the Princess said. She looked around her with a frown. “‘Tis a most interesting dreamscape that you have woven, Miss Dash. Wherever did you gain the inspiration?”
“It... movies. Sunflower. She... It's from a movie series,” Rainbow said, feeling lame. She got back to her hooves and looked around her frantically. “There’s something else here, Princess. Something dangerous. It came out of that series, somehow. It’s going to kill me!”
“Calm yourself, Rainbow Dash,” Luna said gently. “Nothing shall harm you here, you have our word.”
Rainbow took a deep, shuddering breath, held it, and then blew it out. “If you say so, Princess Luna.”
She already felt better. Luna smiled at her, a serene smile that assured her that nothing bad could ever happen. Rainbow believed it, too. She started to relax. And then a spear of jagged metal burst out of the front of Luna’s chest, just under her breastplate, spattering the front of Rainbow’s face with gore.
A raspy chuckle sounded from behind the stricken Princess, who was looking at the rusted metal jutting from her chest with what looked like mild curiosity. Rainbow’s jaw worked in mute horror, her brain unable to process what it was that had just happened. Her hooves were rooted to the ground, almost as if they were welded to the metal underneath her.
A figure stepped out from behind the Princess, a figure wearing a ragged black and red striped sweater and a battered brown fedora above his horribly scarred face. His mouth was stretched in a sadistic grin, his eyes glittering with malice as he stepped around Luna, his movements graceful and sure, almost as if he were dancing.
“How sad,” Freddy said, affecting a look of sympathy as he moved to stand in front of the impaled Princess. “You thought you were saved.” The false sympathy fell away, replaced by a feral grin as he waggled the knife-tipped fingers of his gloved hand. “Nothing will save you, filly. Your Princess is dead. You’re mine now.”
He moved towards her, raising the leather glove with its cruel knives. Dash couldn’t move, paralyzed by the demonic human’s eyes like a mouse frozen by a snake. Freddy chuckled and moved closer.
“That is not accurate,” a calm voice said from behind him. “In fact, that is quite wrong on both counts.”
Freddy froze, the grin draining from his features like water from a bath. Behind him, Princess Luna stepped forward. She was whole and healthy, no sign of the injury that Dash had been sure had killed her. Freddy spun towards her.
“That’s not possible,” he spat, sounding angry. “If you die in a dream, you die!”
“Another falsehood,” Luna said. Rainbow would have traded a year’s wages to feel half as calm as the Princess sounded right then. “A pony dies when they die. Dreams have nothing to do with it.”
The knife-handed demon roared in outrage, charging the Princess and slashing at her. Red, gaping wounds formed that, though horrific, closed instantly.
“Rainbow Dash, are you going to continue allowing this?” Luna asked her, ignoring the shrieking beast that was attacking her.
“P-princess? I don’t... Allow?”
“This is your dream, Rainbow Dash. Everything that happens here, happens in your mind.” Luna looked down at Freddy, a small frown on her face. The nightmare creature was plunging his knives repeatedly into her neck at that moment. “Stop that.”
“Rrragh!” he screamed, moving to stab at her shoulder.
“But.. this... Isn’t this real?” Rainbow gestured with a hoof, taking in the boiler room, the chains, the ranting maniac with the cutlery attached to his fingers. “I didn’t make this up!”
“No?” Luna asked. “Then, pray tell me, where did you first see it?”
“A movie,” Dash said weakly, confused by the current events. “My friend Sunflower... Erin... she had these movies. I told her I could handle it. I should have listened to her when she said it might be too much! And now it’s all coming true!”
“Yes, that’s right!” Freddy shrieked.
“You are telling me that this is real... because you saw it in one of those moving pictures?” Luna asked, and just like that Rainbow Dash felt a twinge of uncertainty. “Was the moving picture real? Was it based in any way upon real events?”
“No,” Dash whispered, looking around in confusion. She’d already known this place couldn’t exist in Cloudsdale, and now the absurdity of the situation was becoming clear to her.
“Shut up!” Freddy roared, slashing even more furiously at the Princess. “I’ll tear your tongue out and choke you with it!”
Luna knocked him away with a casual clip from her wing and he went sprawling, his knives sparking across the floor.
“This is Rainbow Dash?” Luna asked, arching a delicate eyebrow. “This is the Rainbow Dash who faced countless dangers to save Equestria from the very real threats of Nightmare Moon, Chrysalis and Discord? This same Rainbow Dash who fears a phantom drawn up by her own mind?”
Rainbow’s cheeks burned with shame and embarrassment. “No.” She cleared her throat, then said it more firmly. “No!”
“Does Rainbow Dash run from danger?” Luna asked. “Does she fear creatures that only exist in her own dreams?”
“No!” Rainbow shouted, stomping the ground with a hoof. A groan sounded to her left, and her head snapped around, eyes narrowing as she saw the burned and evil creature that was pulling himself upright.
The scream that exploded from Rainbow Dash at that point came from somewhere so deep inside of her, and it burst out so powerfully and so primally, that she was almost sure that she’d ruptured something. She launched herself at the figure, wings spread wide, hitting him square in the chest with both forehooves just as he staggered to his feet.
Freddy went flying, hitting the side of one of the boilers and denting it inwards before sliding to the ground with a ragged gasp of pain. He started pushing himself upwards once again, but Dash was already there.
Rainbow spun in mid air and kicked, sending the dream monster flying once again. But she could fly, too, and she was after him in a flash, hitting him brutally in a downward motion with her front hooves, smashing him down into the ground.
Her momentum carried her past his prone form and she flipped in midair. Her back hooves hit a wall and she kicked herself away, launching herself back the way she’d come, her scream of anger and defiance hitting him just before she did.
Her tackle sent the two of them tumbling head over tail until they rolled to a stop by Luna’s hooves. Rainbow, who’d come out on top, shrieked in fury and began pummeling the creature, calling him every name she could think of.
“Rainbow Dash,” Luna said calmly. “While all of this is impressive, I believe you are missing the point.”
Rainbow stopped hitting the creature below her and blinked in confusion up at the Princess. “What?”
“What is it you believe that you are striking?” Luna asked her.
“Freddy Krueger!” she shot back. “He’s a murderer! He kills people in their dreams!”
“Once, a very long time ago, there were things that would hunt and kill ponies in their dreams. But no longer, Rainbow Dash. They are gone. The last of them that did so died a long, long time ago.”
“But... he...” Rainbow gestured vaguely at the form on the floor under her.
“He is not real,” Luna pointed out. “You are having a nightmare. You may as well be venting your fury on the air itself.”
“Oh.” Rainbow looked down at the figure underneath her. It was no longer recognizable as the same creature from the movie. In fact, if she didn’t know better, she could have sworn it was crying.
Luna placed a comforting hoof on her shoulder. “Let it go, Rainbow Dash. The sooner you do, the sooner you may return to a peaceful sleep.”
Rainbow stood up, her legs shaking. The creature underneath her was dwindling into darkness. She blinked once, and it was merely a shadow the size of a foal. She blinked again, and it was gone.
Around her, the boiler room began dissolving like a painting in the rain. Rainbow looked around in confusion. Soon enough, all that was left of the bad dream was a featureless grey landscape containing only Luna and herself.
“It’s over?” she asked.
“Indeed, it is.” Luna smiled at her. “You did well, my little pony.”
“Thank you,” Rainbow said, hugging the Princess. “I was so scared... “ She cleared her throat and pushed herself away from Luna, rubbing a fetlock across her eyes to wipe away the tears. “Not that you need to tell Sunflower about that, you know.”
“Of course not,” Luna assured her. “What happens in a pony’s dreams is the concern of no one else.”
“Thanks.” Rainbow said. Then a thought occurred to her. “Um, Princess?”
“Yes, Rainbow Dash?”
“You said that there used to be things that hunted ponies in their dreams. What happened to them?”
“They encountered me,” Luna said simply.
“Oh. Well, that’s pretty cool,” Rainbow said, impressed. “Uh, can ponies actually die in their dreams?”
Luna chuckled. “If you are asking if a pony can dream that they die, the answer is yes. It happens quite often.”
“What happens when they do?” Rainbow asked nervously.
“Typically, they tend to lie there dreaming thoughts such as, ‘Now that I am dead, whatever shall I do?’ Then, eventually, they wake up.”
Rainbow stared at her for a few seconds before snorting with laughter. “That’s it?”
“That is it,” Luna confirmed, nodding. “Ponies are not quite so easily convinced to simply die, dream or no.”
“Well. That’s a relief. I’ll try to remember that, if I ever have this dream again.”
“I do not believe you shall have this particular dream again, Rainbow Dash,” Luna said. “Fare you well for the rest of your slumber.”
“Thanks, Luna. And, hey, you have a good night, too!”
Luna smiled happily. “Why, thank you! I believe I shall.”
Not even the real gardens of Canterlot were as beautiful as they were in this dream, though they came close. The sky was a perfect shade of blue, the grass was as a green deeper than naturally possible, and the refreshing breeze rustled the leaves and branches of the trees and bushes just enough to be peaceful without being disruptive.
Princess Luna sat at a small table in the garden, watching birds flit from tree to tree as she sipped daintily on an excellent tea. She smiled at the birds’ antics, a feeling of pure bliss flowing through her.
Shadows formed behind her as her attention was focused on the birds. Out of the darkness stepped a bipedal creature, radiating hatred and menace. It wore a ragged sweater, a rumpled hat and a glove designed for causing pain and death. The creature stepped forward silently until it was right behind her wings. It raised the glove, preparing to strike at the base of the Princess’ neck.
“Do you believe that to be wise?” Luna asked calmly, setting her teacup down. The figure behind her froze, then slowly lowered the gloved hand to its side. Luna stood and turned to face it. “Take off that silly mask and face me properly.”
The creature shimmered and collapsed in on itself, resolving into a ball of shadow roughly the size of a pony’s head, tentacles formed of darkness winding out of it and undulating in the air. Where the tentacles passed, they left an oily residue on the dreamscape, a smear of filth hanging in midair.
Luna regarded the smudges with distaste.
“It has been quite some time, Morogheth,” she said to the creature.
“It has, Luna,” Morogheth said, its voice bubbling and rippling like a drowned thing.
“May I ask what you were doing in the dream of one of my subjects?” Luna asked in a tone of voice that those unfamiliar with her might have taken for merely conversational, assuming they missed the icy threads of anger that ran through it.
“I believed you were gone,” the dream-eater said.
“For some time, yes. But I have returned.” Luna narrowed her eyes at the creature before her. “And you have trespassed tonight.”
It retreated, flailing its tentacles. “Peace! Peace, Luna! I thought you were gone... and I was hungry. So very hungry.”
“Hungry? Do you expect me to believe that you held to the Treaty all this time? I doubt that you have gone hungry.” Luna didn’t bother hiding the scorn from her voice.
“Your sister has some influence. And Equestria doesn’t know fear like it used to,” Morogheth replied mournfully. “I have had to subsist on anxieties and uncertainties. But then... Such fear! I couldn’t resist it. And such a perfect way in! It was a perfect form for me to take, a monster that hunts in dreams. Who could imagine such a thing?”
“Perhaps only someone who quite enjoys feeling fear,” Luna said dryly. Her features hardened. “And then you attempted to kill me. Multiple times.”
“It... it was the form I took, Princess! It influenced my mind, made me vicious.”
The dream-eater hovered in the air before her, quivering and shuddering like a worm exposed to sunlight. She studied the creature and considered her course of action carefully. Then, her resolve firming, she drew herself up onto her hind legs. Midnight blue wings spread wide as she drew her power into her. Her eyes glowed with it, flooding the dream garden with a bright, silvery light. When she spoke, her voice reverberated through the dreamscape, causing the entire thing to tremble as if in an earthquake.
“You have violated the Treaty, Morogheth. This shall not happen again.”
The dream-eater’s tentacles shrunk in on itself as it quivered in mortal terror.
“No! No, it won’t! I swear it!” Morogheth whimpered. “Stay your anger, Lady of Dreams! The Treaty of the Dreamrealms remains! I swear, I will not violate it again!” The beast shuddered, then. “And I would not face the Rainbow Dash again. That one frightens me!”
The air hummed, and Luna remained poised to strike. Then, with a sigh, she released her power and dropped back to four hooves once again.
“She is a feisty one. She will fear you no longer.” Luna regarded the filthy thing before her with obvious distaste before waving a dismissive hoof at it. “Do not make me regret my mercy, Morogheth. There will be no further warnings. Go.”
It went, dissolving like smoke on a clear day, and yet managing to leave behind a haze of filth hanging in the air itself. Luna sighed and conjured up a cleansing spell, scouring the residue of the dream-eater’s presence away from her dreamscape. Then she turned back to the garden, sat down and went back to enjoying her tea.
Rainbow Dash lay on her back, sprawled across her bed and deeply asleep. Her breathing was steady and her face serene and composed, with just a hint of a self-satisfied smirk. And, whatever it was she was dreaming about, it certainly wasn’t anything bad.