"This is where we say goodbye."
The warm smile on the face of the gray earth pony mare seemed better suited for a greeting than a farewell. A titanic whirlwind of brilliant blue energy towered behind her, swirling its way up from a black abyss far below to an orb of pale white flame in the night sky. Gale-force wind generated by the maelstrom whipped the mare's long sable mane back and forth, but her deep violet eyes remained calm and centered on her companion. She let out a sigh that was lost to the howling storm.
"Can you at least wish me a safe journey?"
The pegasus filly that stood before her at the cliff's edge simply stared straight down, her posture sunken and forlorn. At her back were the plains of emerald grass that they'd long called home and the imposing form of the White Spire, a monstrous tower that rose so high into the air that its top could not be clearly seen from below. Stacks upon stacks of leather-bound books that stood all about swayed to and fro, but the only part of the gray filly that moved was her tousled blonde mane.
As it became increasingly clear that the younger pony would not respond, the elder mare leaned forward and kissed her on the cheek. "That's all right," she said with her gentle voice. "I suppose it's not a real goodbye. Take care, Little Sister." She turned about in an elegant motion and walked toward the whirlwind just beyond the precipice.
Seconds later, the pegasus filly rushed forward and latched onto the mare's front-left leg. The action had enough force behind it to stop the earth pony dead in her tracks.
"Derpy?" asked the mare.
"Don't go!" Derpy shouted, her frail boyish voice barely rising above the wind. "I don't want you to go!"
"I'm glad to see you've found your words," said the mare, "but we talked about this." She gently removed her foreleg from Derpy's grip and once again stood before the downcast filly. "The way to the Land Past the Sky is open. We may never get another chance to see it."
"I don't care about that," said Derpy, her gaze never leaving the ground. "Why do you care so much?" She shut her eyes in frustration, forcing a pair of tears down her cheeks. "Did I do something bad? Am I boring? Why do you want to leave me behind?"
The mare reached out a hoof and wiped the tear away. "Derpy, look at me." When the filly did not respond, she placed the hoof under her chin. "Look at me."
Derpy did as she was told, though one of her golden irises disobeyed the command and drifted to the right.
"You know better than that," the mare admonished. "I love you, and I'm coming back for you. I'd take you with me right now if I could." The blue light from the whirlwind danced in her eyes. "You believe me, don't you?"
A knowing smile played across the mare's lips. She lowered her hoof and touched the amber jewel of a silver necklace draped around Derpy's neck.
"As long as you have Amber," she said, "our hearts are connected, no matter how far apart we may be."
Derpy Hooves looked to her sister's neck and the necklace that encircled it, identical to her own save for its jewel of white pearl. Her expression calmed and the corners of her mouth turned up just a bit at the reassurance.
The elder mare drew her sister into a soft embrace. "I need you to be brave for me, Derpy. I'll be back before you know it, and all this will become nothing more than a distant memory." She pulled back and looked deep into Derpy's wavering gaze. "Can you be brave for me?"
Derpy gulped and tried to smile, though water welled in her eyes even so. "I'll try, Sis."
The blue light of the whirlwind began to pulse with the same white flame as the orb high above. The mare's black mane floated upward just before the rest of her body followed suit.
"Good girl," said the mare as she ascended toward the cyclone.
Derpy's eyes widened in alarm. "Sis?" She trotted forward to within an inch or two of the edge. "Sis!" Her wings unfolded reflexively, but they were still too tiny to carry her weight.
Despite her words, the mare's eyes began to water as well. "Remember me," she said, her hidden feelings causing her voice to crack. "Remember our promise."
"I will!" Derpy shouted from the precipice, her voice barely audible through the wind. "I love you!"
A single tear made its way past the elder mare's defenses. Her body entered the blue energy of the whirlwind and began to disappear from view.
"Most of all," she said, her voice now echoing in the sound of the storm itself. "Never forget your courageous heart."
With a bright flash and one final blast of wind, the cyclone vanished, leaving only silence and stillness in its wake. Derpy Hooves sat back on her haunches and looked up at the last wisps of blue energy making their way into the orb of white flame. Moments later, the orb itself faded from view, leaving its golden-flamed cousin alone in the sky. Derpy's eyes moved back and forth, watching the stars, auroras, and swirling rainbows that drifted about in the darkness for any sign at all, any trace of her dearest sister. Seconds passed, then minutes. She found none.
Her throat tightened and her eyes watered, but Derpy gave a mighty sniff and blinked back the oncoming tears. "Okay, Sis," she whispered. "I won't cry. I'll be brave, just like you said."
Derpy got up slowly and walked back toward the fields of grass. As she passed by the diminutive towers of stacked books, a faint sound began to permeate the silence. Derpy's eyes widened. She pulled a featureless leather-bound volume from one of the stacks and flipped it open on the ground before her. One eye scanned the pages with intensity as she brought a hoof to the jewel of her necklace, pressing it deep into the gray fur of her chest.
"I'm not afraid," said Derpy. "You're coming back for me, so I'm not afraid."
The sound grew louder and more distinct. It emanated from beyond the cliffside, from the abysmal darkness far below. It was, in fact, not one sound, but many—a choir of voices crying out in pain and anguish. Derpy Hooves began to tremble. She knew that they wouldn't stop. She knew that there was nothing she could do. She simply continued to read, hoping that she could lose herself in the stories all around her. Derpy's heart pounded in her chest and her skin grew hot. Though her teeth began to chatter, she repeated the mantra over and over, hoping that it would become true.
"I'm not afraid . . ."
[Morning of Day 15]
Everything smelled like burnt muffins.
Derpy Hooves's eyes snapped open to stare at the textured patterns on the ceiling of her apartment. A ringing noise filled her ears and hammered on the inside of her skull. Her gray-furred right hoof sought out the source, but Derpy's gaze remained locked upward. The muscles in her face contracted and the cotton-like taste of morning breath bothered her more than it should have. No matter how many times she looked up at that ceiling, it never failed to elicit this particular emotion from her.
Her hoof toppled a nearby stack of books in its ongoing search. Derpy's right eye tore its gaze from the patterns above and found the bouncing alarm clock clattering on top of an unmounted shelf. Her hoof came down like a hammer and the loud crack of broken glass gave way to merciful silence.
Derpy sat up in her futon and immediately wondered why. She swept the long locks of her blonde mane aside to stare at the fractured alarm clock. It had stopped at 7:41 AM. That's why, Derpy thought. I saw it before I saw it again. And I'm late. Upon realizing this, she pulled herself up from bedding that smelled faintly of body odor to meet the sickening "ever-so-slightly warmer than it should be" air that permeated the apartment.
Random dust motes distracted Derpy's eyes as she stumbled toward the corner where she remembered depositing her mailbags. Finding them where they'd been left—a stroke of good luck by Derpy's reckoning—she began to slide the leather saddlebags on before stopping halfway and supposing that she probably looked awful. The gray pegasus settled the bags back on the floor and made her way a bit more carefully to the bathroom, sidestepping piles of books and magazines so that she wouldn't have to stack them again later.
She gave her stiff wings a stretch and immediately regretted that decision when her wing joints bumped against the walls to either side of the bathroom door. She winced, now fully awake, and her face turned hot at the mistake. With the now-smarting appendages folded back where they belonged indoors, Derpy stepped gingerly across the threshold and looked to the cracked mirror above the sink. Seeing nothing, she flipped on the lights.
The first thing Derpy observed was a frazzled blonde mane begging for attention. Knowing that a time-consuming shower was out of the question, she cranked the faucet and splashed ice-cold water all over her head and neck. After absorbing the excess water from her mane with a towel that smelled of dandruff and old shampoo, Derpy stared into the mirror and brushed her hair back to render her appearance at least somewhat professional. One of her golden irises stared back at her from the mirror. The other one seemed to be observing her efforts with the brush.
Derpy Hooves smiled at the mirror to see what it would look like when she smiled today. It was a vain practice born of habit. After all, the cracked glass never smiled back.
Derpy smiled at Twilight Sparkle.
Twilight Sparkle smiled back and floated a stack of letters toward the mailpony with the pink glow of her magic.
Surrounding the two ponies who stood just outside the Ponyville Library was a beautiful spring morning. A few clouds drifted lazily above, birdsong twittered from the living branches of the giant tree that housed the library's interior, and Market Square absolutely bustled with the activities of ponies going about their daily business just out of earshot.
Derpy's ears drooped, but her characteristic smile stayed locked in place. "They're not yours? Are you sure?"
Twilight turned the sealed letters in midair so that Derpy could read them. "Yes, unless my name got changed to 'Hugh Jelly' sometime last night."
Taking the letters back in hoof, Derpy looked over them for a second longer than Twilight thought necessary before her somewhat dopey smile turned down a little. "Gee, I'm sorry, Twilight," she apologized as she tossed the stack back into the saddlebag on her left side and began rummaging through one on her right. "I really worked hard to get everything sorted this morning. I was sure I had it right this time."
Derpy's throat clenched painfully as she nosed through the various parcels. The lettering on the labels became indistinct in her vision, only frustrating her further. One large package with a colorful label began to look promising. Wasn't that the library's logo?
"I wish I could say, 'that's okay,'" Twilight conferred in a gentle tone of voice, "but I really don't appreciate having to come out here every day and double-check your deliveries. Are you—" She paused, her violet eyes glancing left and right. "Are you sure that being a mailpony is a good use of your talents?"
Derpy pulled an encyclopedia-sized box from the saddlebag and turned back to Twilight with a strong and decisive movement. As Derpy allowed the package to leave her grip by way of Twilight's magic, she gave her bold answer in the form of a question. "What does that tell you?"
Twilight inspected the information on the package for a moment before looking up from it with an arched eyebrow. "That Mr. Cake is getting the replacement part for his busted mixer today." She turned the box around as Derpy's mouth dropped open. "It's even got the Sugarcube Corner logo printed right next to the delivery address."
Derpy fumed inwardly at the deceptive artwork and fought to keep her facial expression cordial. She moved to retrieve her second mistake from midair only to find it suddenly appropriated by a bouncing pink pony with a fluffy pink mane.
"Ooh! It's finally here!" Pinkie Pie exclaimed as she twirled the package around like a dance partner. "Now I can start mixing things up again!"
Twilight chuckled at her friend's oddly-timed appearance. "I think you two have that market cornered, with or without the repair kit."
"Derpy's not a baker, Twilight," Pinkie stated matter-of-factly. "Did you go silly in the head from too much bookifying?"
Derpy felt a smile returning to her lips as the lump in her throat subsided. She plunged her muzzle into the depths of the right saddlebag for the third time.
Twilight rolled her eyes. "You're the one who's being silly, Pinkie. Sugarcube Corner has three industrial-grade mixers; all of them would have to break before you stopped mixing."
Pinkie waved a dismissive hoof at her friend and flashed a toothy grin. "Yeah, but Mr. and Mrs. Cake only let me use the one that breaks all the time."
Twilight's brow furrowed. "I'm sure that's a coincidence."
"Speaking of coincidences," Pinkie exclaimed, turning toward Derpy with an even more brilliant smile. "You are—like—the best mailpony ever! How did you know I was gonna walk by just now?"
Derpy nearly lost her grip on a couple of freshly-retrieved letters as she turned to face Pinkie with wide eyes. She'd never been called that before.
Pinkie Pie's gaze narrowed. "Do you have a 'Derpy Sense?'"
Twilight gently pushed Pinkie aside and eyeballed the letters. "Actually, I think she's got my mail."
"Oh well," Pinkie Pie remarked, tossing the repair kit onto her back with a carefree motion. "It's a mystery for another day. Thanks, Derpy!"
Twilight watched her friend bound off in the general direction of Sugarcube Corner before turning back to find a grinning Derpy, each of her two eyes looking at something that wasn't Twilight. She leaned forward and took hold of her correspondence.
"Best mailpony ever . . ." Derpy Hooves repeated in genuine awe.
Twilight bit her lower lip, but her words came out strong in the next moment. "We both know that was luck, Derpy. If you had the kind of talent that Pinkie's talking about, you wouldn't be making mistakes in the first place."
This time Derpy couldn't help but look crestfallen. The mailpony lowered her head in shame only to see a lavender-furred hoof reach over and touch her own.
"Listen," Twilight said, her voice growing softer and venturing down an octave. "If you're in love with the idea of delivering Ponyville's mail, then I've got no right to criticize your choices. I'm just worried that you're sinking all your time and effort into something that you're not suited for."
Derpy didn't raise her head.
"Even if there's some other kind of problem behind this," Twilight continued. "You know that you can ask for help anytime you need it, right?"
Derpy's head snapped back up in an alarming fashion, her left eye fixed directly on Twilight. "Uh-oh."
Twilight Sparkle cocked her head to the side. "What's 'uh-oh?'"
Derpy gulped. "I forgot something."
"Sure! I'll help anytime you need me to, Rainbow Dash," shouted Rainbow Dash from the demolished roof of Town Hall. "I distinctly remember somepony—you know, like the one who busted this roof in the first place—promising me that."
Derpy Hooves dug at the dirt near a pair of massive half-inch sheets of plywood. "Sorry, Rainbow Dash."
The cyan pegasus pony and her multi-hued mane poked out over the ledge above. "I asked you to schedule a day off two weeks ago, Derpy. You said you could handle this."
Derpy felt too embarrassed to meet her accuser's gaze. Try as she might, she couldn't find a single good reason for her lack of responsibility. "I just don't know what went wrong," she recited, immediately wincing as the phrase left her mouth.
Rainbow Dash's eyelids dropped halfway. "Yeah, I've heard that one before too." Her wings flew open, carried her aloft from the building's third story, and brought her to a soft landing within a few feet of the downcast mailmare.
Derpy gulped at her tightening throat muscles, ashamed at the number of mistakes she'd been making lately. However, when she looked into the magenta eyes of her superior she saw acceptance, even if only of the inevitable.
Rainbow Dash sighed and gave a toss of her mane as she walked forward. "Well, you're here now at least. The floor frame's already set thanks to some help I got earlier." She nudged at the top slab of plywood. "Here, help me get this on the deck—you'll have to stand on it so I can make a clean cut."
Grateful for the ease with which she'd been forgiven, Derpy took extra care in helping to lift the plywood and set it down on the porch deck of the building. Once it was flat, Rainbow Dash began lining up the guide marks on the sheet with the edge of the deck to ensure a result that matched the measurements of the third story.
"Rainbow," Derpy began to inquire meekly, the saccharine smile already having returned to her face. "Do you think I should quit being a mailpony?"
Rainbow Dash did not look up from her task. "What do you want to do instead?"
"I dunno. Twilight said I might be wasting my talents."
Rainbow gave a quizzical stare to her assistant before turning about to search through her toolbag. "What are your talents? I mean, besides breaking and forgetting stuff?"
"Okay . . ." Rainbow drawled as she found the hoofsaw and laid it flat on the plywood. "What about your dreams? What do you want to do with your life anyway?"
Derpy's expression remained oddly transfixed. Her right eye drifted high and to the outside. Rainbow Dash was about to say something to break the awkward silence when Derpy's eyebrows drooped. Every movement of the gray pegasus's face made her unwavering smile look more out-of-place.
Rainbow leaned forward over the plywood. "It sounds like you've got a lot to think about before you even consider giving up the one thing you've got going for you." She tapped her right hoof on the sheet. "Hop up on the deck and stand on this side, okay? Time to cut this bad boy down to size."
Derpy was about to comply when she felt a brisk tap on her shoulder. She turned about to stare up at a tall pegasus stallion who wore the saddlebags of the Ponyville Post Office. Her eyes came down to see an envelope in his outstretched hoof. Derpy retrieved it as an automatic response, not even having the chance to inquire as to the letter's contents before the lanky pony had already marched off.
Rainbow Dash twirled the hoofsaw recklessly. "What was that about?"
Derpy tore open the envelope with her teeth and unfolded the message inside. When she looked up at Rainbow Dash again, the corners of her mouth had finally turned down. "Looks like I don't have anything to think about anymore."
[Afternoon of Day 15]
"You never thought that you were in danger of being fired?" asked the Postmaster.
Derpy looked up at him with the wide-eyed innocence of a filly half her age. "No."
The Postmaster groaned and leaned forward on his oaken desk while rubbing at his temples. He was a middle-aged earth pony stallion, no longer in the prime of his life but equally far from prospects of retirement. He scratched at the graying stubble on his chin and briefly looked out the windows of his office to see numerous clerks sorting stacks of outgoing mail for shipment later in the day. The soundproofed windows muted the noise of the busy scene, but the sight itself seemed to lend him additional composure. His withering gaze returned to the gray pegasus before him.
"Derpy," the Postmaster began, "do you remember the stallion who summoned you to my office?"
"Yeah!" Derpy replied with the enthusiasm of a proud student.
"His name is Chuck Parcel," the Postmaster continued. "Do you know what his job is?"
"He's a mailpony," Derpy answered, glad that her boss had decided to give her a quiz instead of letting her go.
The Postmaster frowned. "His job is to follow behind you and correct all the mistakes you make."
"Wow," said Derpy. "I bet if he worked with me then I wouldn't screw up any more deliveries."
"Derpy Hooves," the Postmaster stated formally, pushing a pink Notice of Termination across the desk. "He can do your job by himself." There was a pause as he watched the corners of the Derpy's mouth come down a bit. "Flawlessly."
As Derpy took hold of the notice, there was a tapping at the office door. The Postmaster held up a "one moment" hoof to the pony on the other side of the glass.
"Now I want you to know that this isn't personal," said the grizzled earth pony in a more comforting tone. "I'm not doing this because I'm angry at you. I simply can't justify paying two ponies for a job that one pony can do."
Derpy didn't look up from reading the notice.
"This isn't Canterlot," the Postmaster continued, "so I can't refer you to the Department of Labor. However, if you look at the bottom of the form you'll see the names and addresses of Ponyville's volunteer social workers—"
"My apartment," Derpy blurted out as she brought her gaze up to meet the Postmaster's. "It's low rent, but you have to have proof of employment." The corners of her mouth twitched nervously. The usual cheer had departed from her voice. "They're gonna get a copy of this?"
The Postmaster remained stone-faced. "Official notices are sent out at the start of each business day. You know that, Derpy."
"I'll be evicted the same day!" Derpy yelped before shrinking back from her own outburst in the very next instant.
"If that's the case, then you'd best be going," the Postmaster replied while gesturing toward the door. "Not much time to pack before the sun goes down."
For the first time since the Postmaster had known her, Derpy proved capable of taking a hint. She turned to the exit, casting only a single glance back at her former supervisor before opening the door. Standing before her was a well-dressed earth pony mare whose blue eyes stared down at Derpy through a pair of gold-framed reading glasses. The mare said nothing, but Derpy felt her heart sink and her throat swell. Seeing a mare nearly the same age as herself but visually at the height of personal success caused everything about her present situation to become mercilessly clear. Feeling red-hot with shame, Derpy continued past the mare without a word.
"Come in, please," declared the Postmaster.
The fuchsia-hued mare stepped into his office, her brilliant red hair and its single white streak wound tightly into a bun. Her blouse, tie, business jacket, skirt, and the armband worn on the outside of the jacket told the Postmaster that he was looking at a government agent, but this particular combination of white, dark green, and red colors did not belong to any department that he was aware of. He cleared his throat.
"So, what can I do for you, Miss . . ."
"Three Strike," the earth pony answered, her modest golden necklace and earrings dancing about a bit as she walked. "Although you may call me 'Miss Strike.'"
As Derpy closed the front door of her apartment behind her, she realized that the air inside hadn't changed at all. It was just warm enough to make her skin feel sticky and it smelled even more heavily of burnt muffins, despite the fact that the packaged ones on the counter looked just as they had when she'd bought them.
Derpy allowed the Termination Notice from the Post Office and the Immediate Eviction Notice she'd torn from the nail on her door to fall from her grip as she once again maneuvered between stacks of books and magazines, most of which she'd never actually read. The magazines kept showing up in her mailbox no matter what she did to stop the influx. She hadn't even thought about going through the effort to throw them away before the whole mess became too cumbersome to deal with on her own. The books had been recommendations from Rainbow Dash, and Derpy could even remember having once enjoyed them. However, a feeling of tension in her chest had begun to overtake her every time she dove into the fantasy between the pages. That same feeling now gripped her fiercely, and she had no idea now how to make it go away.
In the emptiness created by her lack of knowledge, a gruff and familiar voice began to speak. Life is a battle that we have no choice but to fight each and every day. It's silly to think that you can win. Surviving is the best that anypony who isn't kidding themselves could hope for.
Derpy's mouth dried up as her father's words began to echo in her troubled mind. She reached over to the linoleum counter that bordered the one-pony kitchen and pulled the muffin box toward her. She opened it to find three of the four lemon poppyseed muffins in tantalizing condition. In spite of the fact that her tightening throat felt as if it couldn't handle a single straw of hay, Derpy took a bite from one of the muffins, desperate for the comforting solace that always accompanied the savory sweetness within.
Derpy spat out the bit of muffin on the floor and gagged. She looked hard at the half-chewed mess, and then at the rest of the muffin. It had tasted like dirt, chalky and full of grit. She dropped the muffin and took a step backwards. The muffins aren't bad, Derpy thought. The one I had yesterday was yummy. She remembered having tasted dirt before, when she forgot to close her mouth before getting her face shoved to the ground by a bully. The muffin didn't go bad, she realized, her eyes widening as she stumbled backward through the piles of literature and unassembled furniture components.
I went bad.
Derpy tripped over a stack of "Daring Do" novels and landed heavily on her flank. She wasn't sure whether the crack she heard came from the floor or from somewhere inside her own head. A rushing river of painful memories and genuine hopelessness broke upon her mind with terrible force, as if it had been straining against a dam of self-delusion for years beforehand. Her eyes darted across the walls, looking desperately for anything that could stem the venomous tide. Half-built bookshelves leaning against peeling wallpaper only reminded her of her tendency to leave things unfinished. Purple medals from any number of Young Flyers camps and competitions only emphasized the consistency of her failures.
Derpy's gaze finally came to rest on a tiny, poorly-taken picture sitting on the counter—her only possession when she'd first moved in. She knew what it was, but got up to have a closer look anyway. It was a photograph of her standing beside her father from the end of a "Bring Your Daughter to Work Day" at a Cloudsdale Weather Manufacturing Plant. The glare from a nearby metal silo obscured the form of her younger self, but her father's perpetually unenthusiastic stare presented itself in the finest detail.
Derpy felt the muscles in her face contract. Tears welled in her eyes, and her skin began to alternate between the tingling feeling that one gets after having let a limb fall asleep and flat-out numbness. Her body felt hotter than every single stove-top she'd burned herself on while trying to learn how to cook. Pain lanced through her brain, stronger than that of any bone she'd broken while learning how to fly. Her teeth ground against each other hard enough that she knew one of them would crack any moment now. She raised her front-right hoof in a way that she had only ever seen others do with the intention of violence.
The room smelled like burnt muffins and the ringing noise was everywhere. Derpy's hoof came down like a hammer.
[Evening of Day 15]
Knock, knock, knock.
The half-circle upper portion of the tripartite wooden door opened to reveal a lavender unicorn, her surprised face bathed in the fading crimson light of sunset.
"Hi, Twilight," replied the smiling gray pegasus with a shuffle of her muffin-clip saddlebags. Derpy hoped that the light was hiding any remaining redness in her eyes.
—nopony wants to see—
A bit of silence followed.
"Did you forget something from earlier?" Twilight asked innocently before giving a sly smile. "Still got some of my mail in those bags?"
The corners of Derpy's mouth ached for some reason. "Can I—" A flood of inexplicable dread washed over her.
You never think about the burden—
Derpy shook it off. "Can I come in for a bit?"
"Sure!" Twilight chirped, pushing open the door's lower halves and extending a hoof into the well-lit library that doubled as her home. "You need to talk about something?"
"Yeah," was all that Derpy could manage as she walked indoors and focused her mind on the movements of her legs to ensure their stability. She lost that focus and nearly tripped when her eyes met with the library's interior. Rows upon rows of massive bookshelves hewn into the fragrant wood of the tree's interior towered in her vision, all of them perfectly organized and dustless. The hardwood floor shone from repeated polishings. Even the lamps looked as if they'd all just had their oil filled.
—their own things to take care of—
"I'd put some tea on," Twilight said as she closed the front door, "but that's one of the things that Spike went to get from the general store before they close." She rolled her eyes and made her way toward the round table at the middle of the room. "It doesn't seem to matter how closely I follow the checklists; we always run out of something at just the wrong time." She stopped just before reaching the table. "Do you want to sit down, or . . ."
—you'll feel better—
Derpy did want to sit on the comfortable-looking wooden stool and have some delicious tea. The moment that she realized this, she viciously squashed both desires and forced her scratchy voice to say what she'd come here to say. "I got fired from the Post Office today."
Twilight lifted a front hoof. "That's awful, Derpy! Why did they—" She stopped the question and bit her lip before quickly changing the subject. "I mean, are you—"
"I got kicked out of my apartment because I don't have a job anymore," Derpy interrupted. "I didn't get the deposit back 'cause the place was a mess. I could only take what would fit into my saddlebags 'cause I didn't have anything else to pack with. I don't have enough bits for a hotel tonight and I—" She paused in apprehension. "Um, I don't have anywhere to go."
Twilight's mouth hung agape. Derpy had expected that. Anypony would be surprised to have somepony who wasn't even their friend lay such a boatload of concerns at their hooves. What Derpy didn't expect was when the librarian's expression began to show indications of what Derpy could only see as frustration. I knew this was stupid, she thought. Ponies offer to help all the time, but it's really just good manners.
"Are you . . . upset?" asked Twilight.
The question snapped Derpy's attention back from her internal feud. "Yeah, why?"
"You just told me about how your life fell apart in a matter of hours like you're reading off of a grocery checklist," Twilight replied, her eyes searching Derpy's features in studious fashion. "And you're grinning like you just won the lottery."
What? Derpy's mind thought even as her mouth listed off the last item on her mental checklist. "You were one of the social workers on the paper that my boss gave me . . ." The sentence trailed off. I'm smiling?
"Oh," Twilight responded, averting her gaze and lifting a hoof to her chin. "So that's what this is."
That's not what this is, Derpy thought, but her mouth did nothing.
Twilight began to move back toward the door, talking over her shoulder as she went. "Well, I'm probably not the best choice to handle your case, Derpy. I've never actually managed one on my own before. Still, I can get you into a shelter for the night and put you in contact with—"
"My dad told me to smile," Derpy blurted out.
Twilight stopped and turned around. Derpy remained at the table, the trembling of her forelegs plainly visible even from behind.
"You never think about the burden you put on others," Derpy continued, speaking for the voice behind her ears in an even tone. "Everypony has their own things to take care of, and you'd best believe that nopony wants to see those crocodile tears. Just keep smiling. Don't bother nopony with that sad-sack of a face you've got on. Either handle your own problem or just shut up about it; most problems go away on their own anyhow."
Derpy Hooves turned about slowly. Her eyes had become so bloodshot that nary a hint of white remained in them. Tears streamed down her cheeks in constant rivulets. Her mouth shook and struggled to keep her words coherent between sobs. "I thought I was being a good pony, Twilight. I was taking care of myself, and nopony needed to worry about me. I did everything Dad taught me, but now I can't even take care of myself anymore. I don't think that I ever really could."
Twilight shifted on her hooves for a moment as a strangled sob cut Derpy's explanation short, but stopped when the distraught pony's voice came back louder than before
"He was a stupid pony, wasn't he?" Derpy nearly shouted, the burning pain in her esophagus choking back half of her intended volume. "And I'm a stupid pony for listening to him. I'm not in love with delivering mail. I've spent all this time trying not to be a bother. I never even thought about trying to be something else! I've been getting out of everypony's way for so long that I . . . I don't even have a way for myself anymore."
Derpy hung her head and allowed her tears to drop onto the perfect floor below. "I just . . . I just don't know what to do. What are you supposed to do when everything you know how to do doesn't work? Whatever it is . . . I don't think I can do it on my own."
It took all of Derpy's remaining strength not to break down and sob her eyes out. There had never been any need for reservation in the lonely places where these feelings usually came to the fore. In front of a pony whom she'd just asked the impossible of, she was certain that the act would only serve as the final nail in her coffin.
Silence hung on the air for what must have been minutes. Derpy didn't dare look up after belting out such a humiliating monologue, but her ears worked just fine.
Knock, knock, knock.
Derpy's heart froze with fear as she listened to the metallic click of Twilight unlatching the front door. She felt totally drained from her outburst and lacked even the wherewithal to hide her shameful state. The door creaked open.
"Hello," a mature and unfamiliar voice sounded from the doorway. "Would you happen to be Miss Twilight Sparkle?"
"I am," Twilight answered curtly, "and I'm also very busy at the moment. If you wouldn't mind coming back tomorrow or—"
"I would mind, actually," the older voice interrupted. "You see, the last train for Canterlot will be departing in 45 minutes, and I don't intend on boarding without completing my allotted task. Is a 'Miss Derpy Hooves' currently visiting?"
Curiosity overcame Derpy. She chanced a look only to have her mouth fall open in the same instant. It was the mare from the Post Office! The last rays of the sun gave her red hair the luminescence of an open flame and cast her face in a hue much darker than Derpy remembered. She looked down at Derpy through her gold-framed reading glasses with an almost tangible air of cool professionalism.
"Yes," Twilight answered in an ascending tonal scale. "And you would know this because?"
"Forgive me," the mare said with with dubious sincerity as she pulled out a badge of office. "My name is Three Strike and I am an agent of the Bureau of Social Corrections. We received notice of Miss Hooves's termination early this morning and, as part of a routine check, found that she not only lacks the resources to further sustain herself but also has little chance of finding new employment due to her limited skill set." She straightened her glasses. "In situations that create an indefensible burden for the local community, the Bureau steps in to relocate the offender to a reeducation facility for the benefit of the hardworking citizens of Equestria."
Twilight seemed to process this for a moment before responding. "I've never heard of that Bureau."
Three Strike's eyes narrowed. "With respect, Miss Sparkle, not even the 'number-one student' of Princess Celestia can be expected to have intimate knowledge of all the workings in Equestria's government structure." She raised her head a bit to look down her nose at Twilight. "Because we have no photograph of Miss Hooves on record, I've been one step behind her for most of the day and I have little patience remaining. I do, however, still carry the full power and authority of the Equestrian Diarchy to relocate the offender within your residence. Please move aside unless you wish to stand in defiance of that which I represent."
Twilight's back hooves shifted. "You'll have to give me just a second, Miss Strike. I promise you won't be late for the train!" She quickly shut the door before the agent had a chance to respond.
"Offender?" Twilight thought aloud as she leaned back against the door. "She's talking like she's got an arrest warrant." Her eyes widened. "And what the hay is a 'reeducation facility'? That sounds like code-speak for a prison . . ." Twilight's voice faded as she looked back toward Derpy.
The gray pegasus sat up straight to meet her gaze. She had wiped the tears from her sore, itching eyes and the sobs were gone from her voice. Derpy did her best to smile and said, "You don't have to worry, Twilight. I'll go with Miz Strike. I think I've already caused enough trouble."
Derpy found Twilight's next expression thoroughly unreadable. The unicorn's eyes opened wider and her pupils dilated as if in surprise, but her brow furrowed and her mouth transitioned into a stolid grimace.
"What do you want to do?" asked Twilight.
"What do you want to do, Derpy?" Twilight repeated with emphasis as Three Strike began to knock at the door. "I can't believe that you'd actually make a decision like this based solely on what's convenient for me. Stop thinking about what's best for other ponies. I need to know what you want to do."
Taken aback at the request, Derpy slowly looked up toward the ceiling. It rose more than twice as high as the ceiling of her old apartment. In place of the sloppy painted textures, a beautiful hoof-carved pattern rose to a shallow point high above her head. It became crystal-clear to her in that moment, looking up at that open space made by skillful craft. The thoughtless array of scattered paint that hung above her futon was the only mirror in her apartment that reflected how she felt about herself. Her mind cast aside the language of that ceiling and sought out the words belonging to the one above her now.
Derpy’s search yielded only vague hopes where her honest desires should have been. The icy chill of panic coursed through her veins. How could she be expected to give voice to something that she’d suppressed for so long? What did Twilight expect her to say? Her throat dried up and her mind froze with fear. However, in the silence punctuated only by the knocking on the library door, a faint voice that was nothing like her father’s echoed from somewhere deep inside Derpy’s consciousness.
Never forget your courageous heart.
The fog cleared, and Derpy knew what to do. She cast aside her jumbled thoughts and brought her gaze back down to meet Twilight’s expectant stare. "I want to stay here in Ponyville," she said in a calm and level voice, "and I want to try again. Even though I don’t know what I’m doing or who I want to be just yet . . ." She blushed. "I want a chance to be the kind of pony I'd be proud of."
Twilight gave a heavy sigh, smiled ruefully, and opened the door, nearly getting clobbered by a hastily-halted knock in the process. "Sorry to keep you waiting, Miss Strike, but you'll be going back to Canterlot empty-hooved. I'm taking responsibility for Derpy as my dependent from this moment forward."
Three Strike recoiled slightly and let out a short, high-pitched whinny. "E-excuse me?"
Twilight smiled. "And don't think for a minute that the police are going to help you force the issue. You're sure to get the same answer from any pony in Ponyville; we're pretty serious about taking care of our own."
"Now, be reasonable, Miss Twilight," the agent chided, evening out her tone and straightening her posture. "You're already caring for a baby dragon and your duties to Princess Celestia must be quite tiring. To take on such a burden is—"
"My choice," Twilight interrupted. "Besides, I'm not taking on a burden." She turned back to Derpy for a moment and flashed a smile in the rose-hued light. "Friends don't weigh anything at all, 'cause they lift you right back."
The statement struck Derpy with both intense relief and a vague sense of deja vu, although she was sure that she'd never heard that particular expression before.
Three Strike's brow furrowed deeply, her blue irises staring at Twilight with unbridled ferocity. "I understand that being so close to the princess has a way of inflating one's ego, but you simply don't have the authority to cancel this relocation." She smiled in the same manner that a timber wolf might snarl. "Now get out of my way before I have to take this to a higher authority."
"That's actually not a bad idea," Twilight shot back. "Ready to take a letter, Spike?" she shouted to someone outside of Derpy's line of sight.
"Yo!" a masculine voice replied from some distance away.
Three Strike looked less sure of herself. "A letter?"
"I have this little direct connection to the princess through my 'baby' dragon's Emerald Flame," Twilight stated in jocular fashion. "We'll just send a quick message to her about this and see what she has to say about this 'relocation' of yours." Now her voice was definitely jeering. "Want to place a bet on who she'll side with?"
"Wouldn't bet on the stuffed suit," Spike remarked as he edged past both the doorway's occupants with a mildly cumbersome load of paper grocery bags in tow. "Oh! Hi, Derpy! What're you doin' here this late?"
Derpy felt too overwhelmed to even consider replying.
Three Strike lowered her glasses, all pretense gone from her face. "You think you're terribly clever, don't you?"
Twilight shifted a bit at the look of unrestrained hostility, but her voice betrayed nothing. "It's not a matter of theory, Miss Strike."
The agent's expression began to resemble that of some sort of feral creature. Derpy found herself preparing to leap to Twilight's defense, but the look disappeared from Three Strike's face as quickly as it had first shown itself. Feigning professionalism, the agent turned on her heels and stormed off, calling back over her shoulder, "I wish good luck to you in keeping that position of yours, Miss Twilight Sparkle. I have a feeling that you'll run out of it before this matter is over and done with."
"Good luck coming up with a decent threat next time," Spike remarked casually as he carried the paper bags into the kitchen.
"Okay," Twilight Sparkle began as she spread a fluffy plaid comforter over the bed. "You can use this guest bedroom for as long as you need to, provided that you keep it just as clean as the rest of the library." She adjusted the cover in an effort to ensure that it was perfectly even. "Spike serves breakfast at seven, lunch at one, and dinner at six. I'll have him cook an extra portion for you, but no snacking allowed, okay? If you want to do that, you'll have to find a way to pay for it on your own."
Twilight sighed and looked about. "You know, this used to be the Librarian's Office before I moved in. I like to keep my studies closer to my bed, so I didn't have much use for it until Applejack and Rarity got trapped here during a storm." She giggled. "They had such a problem sleeping in the same upstairs bed that I swore I'd convert this into a guest room the very next day. What do you think of my efforts?"
Derpy Hooves smiled dreamily back at her from across the bed. "Cool."
Twilight's right eyebrow went up. "Derpy, you've barely said two words in a row ever since I sent Miss Strike packing. Is there something bugging you?"
Derpy's eyes avoided Twilight's gaze in different directions. "Did you mean it when you said we were friends?"
"Of course," Twilight replied cheerily. "Why do you ask?"
Derpy drooped her head forward onto the comforter. "I don't see why you'd want to be."
Twilight rested her own head and forelegs on the opposite side. "Honestly, I hadn't much considered the idea before today. I changed my mind because I saw something that I hadn't taken the time to see before." She smiled warmly. "You're a good pony, Derpy."
The pegasus mare blushed. "I don't think so."
"Really?" Twilight questioned. "What about when you were ready to go to whatever awful place Miss Strike was calling a 'reeducation facility' just so that you wouldn't get me in trouble?"
"That was—" Derpy began to respond without thinking.
"That was you being considerate of me," Twilight interrupted. "Even after you realized that it was a mistake to do that all the time, and even though it was of no benefit to you, you still tried to help me."
Derpy's expression turned to pure wonder. It really had felt different to deliberately risk her own happiness for somepony else's.
"I didn't have any pony friends when I came to this town," Twilight continued in a somewhat somber tone of voice, "and I didn't intend on making any either. I made an effort to sound obstinate, but I was really thinking things like, 'Who would want me for a friend?' and, 'I'd just be butting in on their lives.'" An obvious smile returned to the unicorn's face. "But the ponies who became my best friends saw through my act and decided to bet on the good that they saw underneath. Now, I want to make that same bet on you."
"Thanks, Twilight," Derpy mumbled, her face having turned beet red. She looked up from the comforter. "Was that what you were writing about in your diary earlier?"
"Diary?" Twilight asked, raising her head from her hooves. "Oh! You mean the letter to Princess Celestia?"
"You write her letters?" Derpy wondered aloud.
"Well, to be accurate, I write 'reports' to her," Twilight elaborated as she rose from the bed. "It's part of my continuing studies on the Magic of Friendship." She paused for a moment before beaming enthusiasm began to overtake her expression. "You want to give it a try?"
Derpy drew back a bit. "I wouldn't know what to say to the princess."
"It's nothing too formal," Twilight coaxed as she moved toward the door to the main library. "You just honestly tell the princess anything that you learned recently about friendship." She poked her head out the bedroom door. "Ready to take another letter, Spike?"
The violet-scaled dragon hung upside down from above the doorway, quill pen and parchment in hand. "As always."
Twilight narrowed her eyes. "Were you eavesdropping?"
Spike waved a clawed hand dismissively. "Twilight, when I drop some eaves, you'll know it."
Twilight groaned. "Uh-huh. Do me a favor and look up the word 'eaves' when you're done, okay?" She turned to the room's third occupant. "Don't be shy, Derpy. Just tell Spike anything you learned about friendship today."
Derpy contemplated this for nearly a half-minute before raising her suddenly confident and cheerful gaze to meet Spike's. "Dear Princess Celestia," she began. "Twilight is the best pony."
Silence hung in the air and a powerful blush arose on Twilight's face. She opened her mouth to respond.
"In the whole world." Derpy continued.
A few seconds passed.
"Is . . . is that it?" Twilight ventured cautiously.
"The End," Derpy concluded with pride.
Twilight's mouth hung open as Spike began to chuckle. "Well, it—" she began unsuccessfully before restarting. "It has to be a bit longer than that, Derpy. We can't send—"
The parchment disappeared in a flash of green flame that burst forth from Spike's mouth. He grinned mischievously. "Man, I’m gonna love reading the reply to that one."
When Derpy began to laugh at Spike getting smacked down from his perch by an enraged Twilight, she marveled at how unfamiliar it felt. Had it really been so long since she'd expressed real joy? The introspective thought came to a quick end when yawns began interrupting her giggles. Thankfully, Twilight was quick to notice this. She excused herself and the misbehaving Spike from the room while bidding her new friend goodnight.
Derpy gazed about the cozy room and blew out the lantern lights one-by-one, marveling at just how pretty and inviting everything looked compared to the place she'd lived in just hours before. The tired and preoccupied pegasus mare tripped over her saddlebags, spilling a few of the contents across the floor as she fought to regain her balance. A surge of embarrassed anger washed over her mind just before a strange sight extinguished it.
A silver necklace bearing an amber pendant lay on the floor, glittering even in the darkened room. Derpy lifted the beautiful object with a careful hoof and squinted at the flickering glow within the gemstone. Did I own something like this? Her attempt to recall the necklace's origin brought forth only a powerful yawn from a mind too worn-out for curiosity. Derpy laid the pendant on the nightstand and proceeded to bury herself deep in the bed's incredibly cozy covers, resolving to confront the mystery item at a later date as her mind drifted off into slumber.
Bits and pieces of a muffled conversation could still be heard from the room beyond.
"So quick? I hope Derpy's didn't bump into this one on its way."
"I don't . . . works like that. Anyhow, what's it say?"
" . . ."
"I was right. There is no Bureau of Social Corrections."
"So Miss Strike was a total phony? Why even make up all that stuff? Who would go that far just to get to Derpy?"
"Can't say for sure, Spike. You know what this means though, right?"
"That the one who . . . is still out there?"
"Yep. Get a message ready for the Sheriff's Department. We finally have a suspect."
Three Strike marched briskly through the streets of Ponyville in the murky twilight that followed the last rays of sunset. Various building tenants stepped outside to light the many lamps that would provide illumination for the town's nightlife. Her brow remained contorted with anger and she bit roughly at her lower lip. Putting a hoof through the gold ring at the end of the hairpin that held her bun in place, she pulled with a fearsome flourish and released her mane. The hair immediately bounced back into its naturally fluffy state, almost frizzy from being pent up for so long. Three Strike felt a mild sense of relief as her hair fell free, but nothing could truly quell her anger at the moment.
"Oh! Hello there, Pinkie Pie," sounded a soft and demure voice from behind. The canary yellow pegasus mare named Fluttershy trotted forward with a bag of goods from the general store balanced carefully on her back. "What're you doing out so late? See, I accidentally ran out of—"
Three Strike whirled on the unfortunate pegasus with a furious glare, her eyes practically aglow in the dim light.
Fluttershy recoiled and nearly dropped her bag. "Oh my," she exclaimed, her voice taking on the quality of a frightened half-whisper. "I'm—um—I'm so sorry. Y-you're not Pinkie." Her voice locked up under the stranger's imposing stare. She gulped loudly. "M-my mistake?" The glare continued unabated. Fluttershy forced a timid smile and rushed headlong through her next words. "Nohardfeelings? That'sgoodokaybyethen."
Three Strike watched the pegasus mare bolt off into the dim light and smirked. "Kindness, huh?" she muttered upon resuming course. She tossed her hair back, feeling just a bit lighter on her hooves than she had a few moments ago. "Maybe those six won't be so hard to deal with after all."
Amethyst 1A: "Night Raid"