Clouds of steam from the engine mingled with the fine mist of a drizzly spring morning as passengers disembarked from the express train from Canterlot.
Among them, a lavender coated unicorn mare paused to savor the pervasive scent of apple blossoms that hung in the air, smiling up at the familiar hoof carved sign hanging over the station house proclaiming her destination: Ponyville. She cast an apologetic glance over her shoulder as the passenger behind her irritably cleared his throat, and hastily stepped down onto the hoof scuffed concrete of the platform.
When she'd moved a bit out of the way of the milling crowd of earth ponies and unicorns, she paused again to properly stow the book she'd been reading, which had been hovering at her side like a dutiful companion since she'd exited the train. She pulled an umbrella from her saddlebags and opened it over her head. There it floated in a cloud of sparkling purple magic, its shaft balanced like the point of a top on the tip of her horn. It spun lazily on its axis as she set out, trotting down the quaint streets of her home away from home.
She hadn't gotten very far when a cheery voice called out her name. "Twilight! Hey, Twilight! Twilight Sparkle! What brings y'all down t' Ponyville?"
The lavender unicorn looked around with a quizzical expression, then looked up to see if a pegasus was calling her. Up on the roof of a nearby building a bright yellow earth pony mare with apple red hair was waving to her enthusiastically with a wide grin on her face. She wore her mane in a tight, braided bun underneath a pink bandanna, and a sturdy canvas harness both secured her to the roof with stout ropes and served as a place to hang an eclectic array of tools and pouches that almost obscured her hammer and half apple cutie mark. Both the young mare and her gear were damp from working in the soft rain.
Twilight peeped out from underneath her umbrella with a smile of her own. "Apple Bloom? What are you doing up there in this weather?"
The yellow earth pony replied in a matter of fact tone as she gestured at a newer looking patch of shingles beneath her hooves. "Fixin' a leak. Y'never know they're there 'til the rain's comin' down."
She plucked up a hammer in her teeth and slipped it into its loop on her harness, and then gave the unicorn an eager smile. "Speakin' of comin' down, I was just 'bout t' knock off. Perhaps y'all'd care t' join me for a cup o' joe down at Sugarcube Corner."
Twilight's stomach rumbled a bit, and she called up to the young handymare with a faint blush on her face. "That sounds fantastic! I was in a hurry this morning to catch the express so I missed breakfast."
Apple Bloom nodded and started to carefully pick her way up toward the peak of the roof where she'd anchored her safety harness. "Well then if'n that's th' case we oughta get a move on. Granny always says y' can't think on an empty stomach, and y'all're the thinkinest pony I ever met. Gimme a second and I'll be right down."
The lavender unicorn let out a chuckle tinged with a bit of nervousness as she watched the young earth pony untether herself from the roof. "Don't rush on my account, Apple Bloom. You're awfully high up."
The red haired mare tossed her head as she made her way across the wet rooftop toward a ladder down to the street. "Pfft. This ain't nothin'. Our ol' barn down at Sweet Apple Acres is a whole 'nother story, and sometimes it feels like I'm up there all the WHOOP!"
Without warning Apple Bloom's back hoof slipped sideways on the slick wooden surface, causing her to tumble onto her side and start rolling down the steep incline. Twilight Sparkle's pupils shrank to pinpricks as the young mare dropped over the edge into empty space, plummeting toward the street. The handymare cried out in terror, as the sound of tools striking the cobblestones rang out below her.
Her scream died in her throat, leaving only silence aside from the thundering of her heartbeat in her ears and a silvery thrumming that it took her a moment to recognize as the telltale sound of a unicorn's horn at work. Her muscles unclenched, no longer bracing for the expected impact that was far too late in coming, and she opened her eyes to see the billowing grey clouds above, with a haze of purplish sparkles floating all around her.
Apple Bloom turned her head, realizing that she was hanging upside down with her hooves pointed skyward, and saw Twilight Sparkle standing below with her legs splayed and tail hiked, her horn glittering with her magic over an expression of utter panic that was dissolving into one of relief.
The young earth pony's voice came out with a shaky laugh as she was gently lowered and rotated so that her hooves touched down on the cobblestones among her scattered tools. "Th-thank you most kindly, Twilight. I was happy enough to see ya when I was up there, now I'm twice as glad to be seein' ya down here."
As soon she was on the ground the unicorn mare surged forward and took her into a hug, her own voice shuddering as all the possible alternate endings to what had just happened flashed through her mind. "First Spike and now you. You kids are gonna give me a streak of grey in my mane if you keep this up."
Apple Bloom let out a chuckle as she disengaged and gave her rescuer a wry smile. "Y'all sound like my big sister."
Twilight shook her head and slowly let out her breath. "That's because your big sister is usually right about these sorts of things."
She looked up at the dangling ropes of the safety harness hanging from the peak of the roof. "That sort of aerial work really seems like it would be a safer job for a pegasus." She reached out with her magic to retrieve her hastily tossed aside umbrella and reposition it over her head.
The young handymare let out a snort as she set about gathering up her tools and replacing them in her harness. "Hey, yer talkin' to a gal who spent a lot of her fillyhood fallin' outta things tryin' t' get her cutie mark. If'n there was a pegasus who could do the job they'd be welcome to it."
A pensive look settled on her youthful features as she checked over her gear. "Y'know it ain't in my nature to belittle a pony, but havin' the big sister I got it really ain't in my nature t' lie neither. I ain't met a pegasus yet who knew a durn thing about buildin' stuff. I can't fault 'em fer what they can do with clouds and such, a lot of it's right nice, but when it comes t' good solid materials like wood, stone, and plaster they don't know a nail from their tail or a plank from their flank."
She caught herself and shot the older mare a sheepish look with a slight blush adorning her cheeks. "Pardon my Fancy talk."
Apple Bloom shrugged and looked skyward. "I don't rightly blame 'em. Not much call t' know how t' fix a roof when y'all live on top o' th' rain clouds."
They set out toward Sugar Cube Corner, with the unicorn edging her hovering umbrella over so it covered both their heads.
Twilight pursed her lips, not quite willing to concede her point. "Even so, if you're gonna work so high up you should have a pegasus or unicorn watching to make sure you're safe."
Apple Bloom shook her head sadly. "I ain't been in business long enough t' hire ponies just t' be spotters, Twilight. And anyhow, there ain't many unicorns 'round these parts who can catch a full grown pony outta th' air like you can. Only one I can think of with that sorta hornpower is Snails, but t' tell the truth he's the last feller I'd want lookin' out for anypony's safety."
The young mare gave an exasperated roll of her eyes. "As much time as that colt spends in Froggy Bottom and the Everfree, I don't think he cares a whit fer his own."
A thought struck her, and she turned to look at Twilight with a raised eyebrow. "Speakin' o' reckless colts, what's Spike been doin' that's got ya all in a flutter?"
Twilight let out a weary sigh, accompanied by a wry smile. "Good choice of words. His wings have gotten big enough to support his weight for short glides, so now it's all I can do to keep him from climbing every tower in Canterlot and jumping off. I think I'm neck and neck with Canterlot University's Head Custodian in a race to see who's going to have a nervous breakdown first."
Her ears drooped and she rolled her violet eyes as she repeated the point and counterpoint to an argument she'd been having with herself for months. "Intellectually, I'm well aware that Spike is nigh indestructible, but every time I see him launch off a high ledge my heart stops for a few seconds."
The younger mare clucked her tongue sympathetically. "I'm still a mite surprised that he's even got wings. That one time he got all big on us he didn't have 'em. I always kinda reckoned that was how he was gonna turn out when he grew up."
The unicorn sadly shook her head. "Well, the thing you need to understand about dragons is that as magical creatures their growth and development is tied to their desires. If a dragon wants wings, they'll grow wings. There are documented cases of them growing extra legs, or gills. There's even one record of a dragon who lived on the trackless plains of Obscuria who grew a second head so they could have someone to talk to. The reason Spike got so large in that unfortunate, greed driven growth spurt was because on a subconscious level he wanted to be big and strong enough to take and hold everything he laid eyes on, and got into a sort of feedback loop with his innate draconic nature. Being able to fly didn't cross his mind."
A rueful look crossed her pensive features. "That idea he got out of those stupid "Thunderpony" comics that I should never have let him read."
Apple Bloom gave her a grin. "Well, if he's the reason you've gotten good at catchin' critters outta th' air, me n' my family owe him as much thanks as you."
Twilight shook her head with another mournful sigh. "I gave up trying to catch him or teleport him down after the first couple times. You know how willful he can be. All it meant was that he started sneaking off without me knowing. It was worse finding out about it the next day from irate custodians whose buildings he'd damaged."
Her ears and tail drooped. "Finally, Princess Celestia stepped in. She assigned a couple of really nice pegasi from her personal guard to instruct him in proper flight procedures." She gave Apple Bloom a smile that didn't quite reach her eyes. "He's starting to make real progress now. At least he's not crashing into walls in the middle of the night anymore."
The athletic young earth pony beamed at her companion. "Ah, good deal. Problem solved, then."
Twilight looked away, suppressing yet another sigh. "Yes. Problem solved."
Apple Bloom cocked her head. "I ain't nowhere as sharp about these sorta things as my sis, but it sounds t' me like somethin' is still eatin' ya. That's three sighs and countin'."
The lavender unicorn shook off her melancholy and gave her youthful companion a more genuine smile. "It's nothing. Really. I've been under a lot of stress recently, between getting my research published and grant applications and both academic and courtly politics and my dad's arthritis and now Spike turning the campus into a hardhat area."
She cast a fond glance around the quaint environs of Ponyville, which exuded cheeriness despite the grey weather. "I just needed to come back here to center myself. Talk to Applejack, get some quiet time with Fluttershy, have a laugh with Pinkie, see how all the foals are doing."
At the mention of the pink party pony's name, Apple Bloom's brow furrowed. "Well, I can guarantee you'll get the first two down at Sweet Apple Acres, along with as much apple cobbler as y'all can handle, but I gotta warn ya that poor Pinkie hasn't been in much of a state fer laughin' lately."
A look of concern washed over Twilight's face. "Oh no. She's well into her third trimester by now. She's not having complications, is she?"
The younger mare shook her head gravely. "Not of the medical variety, no. Doc Muffin says she's fit as a fiddle." She gave a sigh and a shrug. "Long story short, it ain't the foal inside her that's givin' her trouble. It's Tootsie."
She nodded toward Sugarcube Corner as it came into view. "I hope for your sake and hers Pink's havin' one of her good days today, but all the same ya better brace yerself in case she ain't."
Apple Bloom turned her amber eyes back toward Twilight as the unicorn pondered her words. "I think Pinkie Pie has finally met her match."
A short walk in the misty rain later, the two mares were coming through the door to Ponyville's favorite sweet shop. As they entered to the merry jingling of the bell, Twilight was instantly struck by the tension in the air, made palpable by the muffled sound of a shrill voice raised in anger in the back room. The other participants in the seemingly one sided argument were only audible as a calming, conciliatory tone, as the indistinct shrieking gave way to wails and sobs.
Apple Bloom let out a sigh and shook her head. "Aw dangit. Bits t' donuts Caramel forgot t' lock all th' windows again."
Both mares looked up as a harried looking blue earth pony with white streaks in her rosy pink mane poked her head out of the double doors, allowing the sobbing hysterics in the back room to spill into the normally cheery storefront. "Welcome to Sugarcube Corner, how may we help..."
Her maroon eyes widened in surprise as a smile lit up her face."Twilight Sparkle! You wouldn't believe how good it is to see you, dearie!"
The lavender unicorn raised a hoof in greeting as she closed up her umbrella and slipped it into a stand by the door. "Hello, Mrs. Cake, it's good to see you too." Her brow furrowed with concern. "What's going on?"
The sobbing in the back room subsided, and a shaky voice choked out a querulous response. "T... Twilight is here?"
A moment later the other side of the double doors swung open and a muted pink pony came shuffling out, her cheeks streaked with the tears that were dripping down from her watery, red rimmed blue eyes. Her mane and tail hung limp and listless in a tangled mess that wasn't so much energetically frizzy as it was hopelessly frazzled. In addition to a general air of puffiness about her face, she was also very, very pregnant.
Without a word she carefully made her way around the counter and crossed the tiled floor of the sweet shop to where Twilight was standing, sniffling and letting out small sobs as she waddled purposefully forward. She came to a stop in front of the lavender unicorn, her lower lip quivering as her bloodshot eyes seemed to focus on a point somewhere in the distance.
Twilight could scarcely believe what she was seeing. She'd never seen her normally bubbly friend look so worn out. She spoke up with a tentative voice. "Pinkie, I..."
That was all she got out before the pink earth pony surged forward and pulled her into a tight hug, burying her face in the scholarly mare's shoulder. She sat heavily down on her haunches and proceeded to blubber a fountain of tears and snot into her old friend's lavender coat, rocking back and forth as she did so.
Twilight let out a sigh and eased herself from an awkward half crouch into a seated position as well, throwing her forelegs around Pinkie Pie's trembling shoulders. She looked up toward the counter to see a haggard, rather sheepish looking Caramel walk into the room to stand by Mrs. Cake's side. As soon as he laid eyes on Twilight he gave her a nod in greeting, not wanting to interrupt his wife's reunion, or draw her attention, having just narrowly escaped her wrath.
Presently, Pinkie's mournful, cracked voice arose from the vale of sniffles and sobs. "It's my little snuggly wuggly sugar dot. She took off again and I don't know where she is."
The pink mare started to tremble. "For all I know right now she could be down a mine shaft or trapped in an old refrigerator or stuck on a raft in a rip-tide or kidnapped by parasprites or down a quaray eel's gullet or encased in amber or packed in a steamer trunk bound for the Far East or fleecing tourists in Los Neighgas in a crooked poker game."
The despondent pink mare hugged her old friend tighter. "She's too little to know how to play the flop effectively, Twilight! She'll lose her shirt and she's barely out of diapers! She'll have to start knocking over convenience stores to cover her losses and wind up doing a nickel in the big house!" She let out a wail and buried her copiously leaking snout deeper into the nonplussed unicorn's shoulder.
An awkward silence descended on the scene once more as the precision wheels in Twilight's head spun, trying to find a gentle way to assure Pinkie Pie that her three year old daughter probably wasn't running an illicit gambling operation.
Before she could come up with a proper reply, the sob filled stillness was broken by the jingle of the shop's bell and the flutter of wings. Twilight suddenly found herself slammed sideways onto the floor as Pinkie Pie tossed her aside, her distended belly barely clearing the prostrate unicorn as she landed with a heavy clatter of hooves and rushed forward.
After a moment of disoriented thrashing the lavender mare collected her wits and rolled over to see the pink earth pony crushing a little chocolate brown pegasus filly to her chest and smothering the squirming foal with kisses. Her tiny wings buzzed like a hummingbird's, and her frizzy pink tail lashed behind her in agitation as she squinched up her little face at this onslaught of maternal affection. A bedraggled looking doll made in the likeness of a cyan pegasus pony wearing a yellow and blue flight suit with a rainbow mane and tail hung from the filly's dainty little muzzle.
A stocky beige pegasus colt with a shock of dark brown mane curling over his forehead landed beside mother and daughter with a clunk, his lip twitching a bit in disgust at the unbridled kissy-face as he gave it a wide berth.
He met his own mother's eyes with a nod as he stepped forward to help Twilight to her hooves. "She was out at Sweet Apple Acres playing with Windfall, just like I said she'd be."
Mrs. Cake gave him a nod and a proud smile. "Good boy, Pound. I think we can declare your punishment over."
At this, the colt ruffled his wings and gave a small sigh of relief. He turned his attention to Twilight as she used her tail to dust herself off. "Hello, Dr. Sparkle. Pumpkin's gonna be really happy to hear you're in town."
The lavender unicorn raised a hoof to ruffle his curling mane. "It's good to see you, Pound." She stepped back to look him over as he bashfully smoothed his forelock back into place with a faint blush. "Let me get a look at you. You're getting so big!"
It was true. Every time she saw him he seemed to double in size, looking like a colt half again his age, even though he was only as old as Apple Bloom was when Twilight had first met her. His hooves were almost comically large, contributing to his naturally heavy tread, and promised that when he reached his full growth he'd possibly be even taller than Big Macintosh. She pursed her lips slightly as she noticed the young pegasus was sporting a faded black eye. She also noticed that he'd gotten his cutie mark since she'd last seen him: a silver horseshoe with a red heart at its center, enveloped by a pair of white wings.
She gave him a smile. "You're gonna have to tell me about getting your cutie mark." She cocked a wry eyebrow. "And how you got that shiner."
Pound Cake blushed a bit hotter as he rubbed the back of of his neck with a broad hoof. "It's all the same story, and it really isn't that cool..."
Before Twilight could press him, she was distracted by Pinkie Pie's stern voice suddenly replacing the sounds of kissing. "Tootselina Margaret Esmerelda Gummy Pie !"
Pound took his opportunity and pushed off from the tiles with another emphatic clunk, zipping out of the room in a flutter of wings before the scholarly unicorn could react. Mrs. Cake gave her an apologetic shrug as the double doors flapped behind her.
Twilight turned back to see the pregnant mare holding her pouting firstborn out at foreleg's length, pinning the filly in a piercing, blue eyed glare. "What did I tell you about flying off without telling mommy or daddy?"
The pink maned foal crossed her little hooves in front of her and mumbled a reply through the doll clamped in her mouth.
Pinkie's eyes flared and she lashed her tangled tail behind her. "Don't you try bamboozle me with all your smooth talk, young lady."
She let go of her daughter and planted her hooves on her balloon marked hips, leaving the tiny pegasus hovering in midair in front of her. Tootsie's demeanor went from defiant to abject under her mother's angry gaze, and she muttered through her doll in a woeful little voice.
Pinkie let out an exasperated breath and ran a hoof through her frazzled mane. "Oh, you forgot, huh? Well you can forget about any dessert tonight."
At this, the chocolate colored filly's deep blue eyes went large and watery, and Twilight could almost swear she heard a tiny, sad violin playing somewhere nearby.
Pinkie's eyes widened in turn, and a shudder ran through her as she quickly averted them. She jabbed a shaking hoof toward the stairs. "N-none of that! Room! Now!"
Tootsie Pie huffed and wiped a tear from her eye with a tiny hoof, and did as she was commanded, her little body taking on the classic pose of a disgruntled pegasus: hanging like a sack of resentful flour from her fluttering wings as her legs dangled down limply. She cast one last reproachful look over her shoulder and buzzed upstairs.
Pinkie slouched forward with her hooves over her eyes, and had soon melted into a blubbering puddle of misery right there on the floor.
A look of resolve settled on Twilight's face, and she enveloped her friend in a gentle cloud of sparkling magic, lifting her limp, weeping form up into the air. She turned to Apple Bloom and gave her a nod, floating a small sack of bits out of her panniers toward the young earth pony. "Get us something to go, and meet us at the spa."
Soon, Twilight and Pinkie were settled in a large steaming tub of jasmine tinged water, with the lavender unicorn gently working a comb through the pink earth pony's mane.
The expectant mare let out a sorrowful sigh, her eyelids heavy in the soothing atmosphere. "That kid... She's running me raggedy, Twilight. One minute she's there and the next she's halfway across Ponyville getting into Celestia knows what. I can't keep up with her. Not on foot. Not like this."
She cast a frown down at her belly as she gently rubbed a hoof across it. "I look like a balloon but I feel like a sand bag. And to think I used to be able to get the drop on Dashie when I felt like it."
Twilight nodded sympathetically as she paused to pick apart a tangle without tugging too hard on Pinkie's scalp. "Well, to be fair, you were ten years younger, and you weren't carrying an extra passenger."
Pinkie shuddered, slumping her shoulders. "Y'know, this one's gonna be a pegasus too. I couldn't take the suspense anymore, so I had Doctor Muffin cast a See the Foal spell. She's gonna be a beautiful little pink filly with a golden brown mane. Caramel and I are gonna call her Pudding."
She let out a small sob, trying to keep her emotions in check. "The only part of me that still moves fast is my brain. Too fast. Every time Tootsie goes off on one of her little adventures I imagine a million zillion ways something bad's gonna happen to her, and I know I can't get there in time to protect her. What's it gonna be like when I've got two little tornados going in every direction at once?"
Twilight felt her own throat starting to tighten up, and she laid aside the comb and just put her forelegs around her old friend, craning her neck to nuzzle the pink mare's cheek.
Pinkie's voice became thicker as she kept talking. "I... I keep having dreams about being knee deep in taffy, and it's not awesome... it's... it's just terrible because all my... my sweet little babies are flying away and I can't get to them. And the ones where they're laughing and happy and playing together are worse than the ones where they're being chased by storm clouds or pterodactyls. Because I can't join them."
Her voice came out tiny and sad as she dragged a foreleg across her snout. "That one's already coming true. Do you know what Tootsie said to me the other day? I was scolding her. Again. All I seem to do these days is yell at her and at Caramel and at the Cakes and their sweet kids or anypony else who comes in earshot. I haven't been so bad for business at Sugarcube Corner since the days when I ate three cupcakes for every one I put in the case."
She choked out her next words over a lump in her throat. "T-tootsie told me that I wasn't any fun anymore."
Twilight hugged her dear friend tighter, feeling an echo of the lance that doubtless plunged through Pinkie's heart upon hearing that. "Oh Pinkie, I don't know what to say..."
The pink mare let out a weary breath and reached back to stroke the unicorn's cheek with her hoof. "N-nothin' y' can say, Twilight. It's a problem that's as old as Equestria, since pegasi started marryin' earth ponies and unicorns."
After a long, pensive silence Pinkie spoke up again. "Mrs. Cake knows what it's like, raisin' a kid in three dimensions. She's been a big help, and so has Pound, bless his little heart. He's such a good colt. He chases Tootsie down for me all the time without a peep of complaint." She gave her companion a fragile hint of a smile over her shoulder. "At least my friends stick by my side..."
Twilight had been thinking deeply as they sat together in the warm water. "There has to be a solution. That's what problems are, just solutions waiting to happen."
Her eyes went wide as one of the ornate lotus shaped lamps adorning the bath chamber flickered on. "Say... what about that flight spell I cast on Rarity?"
Pinkie sat up, blinking her limpid blue eyes, before breaking out in gales of bubbly laughter, flopping back against Twilight and churning the scented bath water as she helplessly kicked her legs.
Her voice came out as a throaty chortle as she wiped fresh tears from her cheeks and turned to give the nonplussed unicorn a shaky grin. "Oh Twilight, all I could think of when you said that was me floating around like a big pink blimp with butterfly wings. M-maybe I could rent out advertising space on my sides and fly over hoofball g-g-games." This set her off again, and swept Twilight up as well as the pregnant mare's Element of Harmony reasserted itself.
Pinkie was gasping for breath when it finally subsided, slumped in her lavender coated friend's hooves with a smile brightening her face. "Ohhhh, that laugh felt good. I love you so much, Twilight."
Twilight tried to shake off the giggles. "I'm serious, Pinkie."
The pink mare stuck out her lower lip and furrowed her brow. "You do remember what happened, right? The flameout and thousand foot fall?"
The lavender unicorn huffed. "Well, sure, but that's because Rarity wasn't operating her wings within proper tolerances. She flew too high and too flamboyantly."
Pinkie shifted and peered over her shoulder at her. "And I also seem to remember you sayin' it was super hard to pull off. While you were casting it I thought your horn was gonna pop off your head like a bottle rocket and then we'd have to run and catch it before it put somepony's eye out and they'd have to wear an eye patch and find a parrot willing to work cheap and learn a bunch of songs about treasure chests and rum. I miss rum. I can't drink anything stronger than carrot juice with a bun in the oven. Well, I don't miss drinking rum so much as I miss being able to make Bananas Foster whenever I want, but still..."
Twilight grabbed the opportunity to cut in, refusing to be dragged into a tangent. "Well, yeah it was tough, but I'm a lot more proficient than I was back then."
She tapped her dripping hoof on her chin as her mental wheels started to turn. "Plus perhaps if I looked at the underlying theory maybe I could simplify it somehow. I'll have to dig that spellbook out at Books and Branches while I'm here. Then I could probably cross reference its source notations with the codices on file at Canterlot U. Maybe there's a base principle that could be updated for a modern Incantation System that would..."
She was interrupted by the sound of a gentle snore coming from the pink mare slumped in her embrace. Twilight tsked and nudged her. "Pinkie!"
The pregnant earth pony jerked awake. "Nuh! Foopnarple!" She blinked into full consciousness and looked over her shoulder at Twilight with a sheepish grin. "S-sorry, Twilight. You were saying?"
The unicorn rolled her violet eyes. "That's not important. The important thing is that even if it's still a tough spell I'd be willing to put out the effort if it'd make you happy, even if it's just for a little while."
Pinkie sniffled, her eyes brimming again with tears. "It... it's nice to cry with happiness for a change too, Twilight. I... Ooh!"
She looked down at her belly with widened eyes. "Puddin' just kicked!" She pulled one of the lavender unicorn's hooves forward and carefully placed it on the curve of her belly. "Feel that?"
Twilight felt the stirring of Pinkie's foal and caught her breath, speaking in a hushed tone. "Now that is magic."
Pinkie gave her a gentle smile. "I think she likes you too."
The warm silence was broken by the sound of Twilight's stomach rumbling loudly. The lavender unicorn started blushing while Pinkie succumbed to a fit of giggling. "I guess we're both getting messages from our tummies."
The scholarly mare cleared her throat sheepishly. "I'm beginning to wonder just where Apple Bloom got to."
Right on cue the door to the bath chamber swung open and a the red headed earth pony poked her head in. "Did I hear somepony callin' my name?"
Twilight helped Pinkie ease herself to a more upright position and turned to face her with a cocked eyebrow. "Apple Bloom, where've you been? I'm starving."
The young handymare gave her a sly grin. "I went back t' the farm to gather up some Apples."
With that, she stepped aside, and her elder sister and sister-in-law came in with their faces lit up by broad smiles. Applejack carried a bushel of apples on her back and Fluttershy bore a picnic basket on hers.
The two mares set their burdens down on the large tub's catwalk and reared up to lean on its edge, where they were greeted by a warm, albeit sopping wet, hug from Twilight Sparkle. Being already damp from walking across town in the rain, they didn't mind at all.
Applejack gave Pinkie a wave with a solicitous look on her face. "How y'all doin' Pinkie? A.B. here said y'were havin' a bit of a rough day today."
Twilight let loose of the blonde mare's shoulders and settled back into the tub while accepting a juicy looking apple from Apple Bloom.
Fluttershy spoke up, her sweet voice taking on an apologetic tone. "I'm so sorry about what happened, Pinkie Pie. We would have sent Tootsie straight home if we'd known she'd come over without your permission."
Pinkie settled back against the side of the tub with a sigh. "It wouldn't have done any good anyway, she would have just gone someplace else and gotten into even more trouble. At least when she's with you I know she's with someone who can handle her."
The soft spoken pegasus ruffled her wings self consciously, not quite managing to hold back all the pride on her voice. "Windfall wanted me to tell you that she's sorry too."
The pregnant pink pony slouched down a little, not even trying to conceal her jealousy. "You get all the breaks, Flutters. You got the wings to keep up with your kids, but they're so well behaved you don't even have to."
The butter colored mare fidgeted a bit as a blush blossomed on her face. "Oh... Believe me, they can be a hoof full, especially now that the twins are fledging."
She let out a dainty sigh. "For what it's worth, I kind of know how you feel. Big Bunny is such a good father to them, but he's in the same pickle that you are. It just breaks my my heart seeing him down there watching us while we're up playing kites or dragonfly tag or riding thermals. He says he doesn't mind, but... well..."
Applejack chimed in, giving her younger sister a nod that set Apple Bloom rummaging in the picnic basket. "Ol' Macintosh ain't no better a liar than he is a flyer. Me n' Bloom feel th' same. It'd be right nice t' play with our nieces n' nephew, but once they get them l'il wings workin' all they wanna do is go up."
She looked gravely at Pinkie as the pink earth pony began to sink down into the tub with her face clouding up, and decided to try to redirect the conversation before she broke down again. "Anyhow, I believe somepony mentioned pickles somewhere in there. Lookit' what we got for ya, Pink, straight outta Boca Del Fuego down in Mexicolt. A couple buddies o' mine on the rodeo circuit owed me a solid and sent 'em up."
Apple Bloom gave Pinkie a wide grin as she produced a jar full of deep purplish red, positively sinister looking chili peppers tightly packed in a murky liquid. The pregnant pink mare sat bolt upright with her blue eyes taking on a glazed, manic focus. "Those... those aren't... Oh, you guys are the best!" She reached out with trembling hooves. "G... Gimme!"
Twilight obligingly floated the jar over to her, idly chewing her apple as the everything she'd heard and discussed started to slowly churn in her mind, pieces of a puzzle looking for a few gaps to fill in.
Her concentration fled as Pinkie snaffled the lid off of the jar and greedily dug in to its pungent contents. All of the other mares in the room found themselves starting to tear up in the cloud of stinging vapors that suddenly filled the air.
Later that afternoon, Twilight bid farewell to the Apple sisters and their graceful sister-in-law, promising to avail herself to Sweet Apple Acres' hospitality for the duration of her stay in Ponyville, and escorted a greatly rejuvenated and refreshed Pinkie Pie back to Sugarcube Corner.
They'd scarcely made it through the door and called out a greeting to Mr. Cake, who stood behind the counter, when a loud squeal and a clatter of small hooves sounded on the stairs, and a pale orange unicorn filly with a curly, carrot colored mane barely contained in a pair of pigtails came galloping down. She narrowly avoided taking a header when she reached the bottom, and her thick glasses flew off of her excited little face, only to be caught out of the air in a cloud of whitish blue sparkling magic. The errant spectacles fell into formation with a shoal of hovering pony dolls all decked out in fancy dresses and suits that followed in the filly's wake.
She skidded to a stop in front of Twilight, hopping up and down as she gazed up at the unicorn scholar with wide blue eyes. "Miss Twilight! Miss Twilight! Lookit! I can make 'em do a gavotte!"
With that she floated her glasses onto the bridge of her snout and screwed her face up in concentration as the hovering dolls paired off and started to spin through the air in a complex dance, trailing blue sparkles as they moved.
They all came to a sudden stop and tumbled to the tiled floor of the sweet shop as Mr. Cake's gently exasperated voice called out. "Pumpkin... What rules are you breaking?"
The suddenly abject filly hung her head, dutifully replying. "No playing with my dolls in the shop."
The lanky stallion nodded. "Right. And?"
Pumpkin dug her hoof. "No running inside, expecially on the stairs."
Mr. Cake nodded again. "And?"
The little light orange unicorn's tone became meek and quiet. "Use my inside voice."
A wry smile plucked at the corners of her father's mouth. "That's the hat trick, sweetheart. Now why don't you say a proper hello to Dr. Sparkle and Mrs. Pie, and then maybe if you ask Dr. Sparkle nicely, she'll want to see what you've learned how to do since she last visited."
Pumpkin Cake drew herself up and bobbed her stubby little horn to both mares. "Good afternoon, Miss Twi... Dr. Sparkle. Good afternoon Missus Pie. Dr. Sparkle, would you like to see some of the new magic tricks I can do?" They both suppressed a chuckle at the filly's elaborate decorum.
Twilight gave the young unicorn a fond smile. "Of course, Pumpkin. I'd love to see what you've learned."
The pink earth pony leaned in and spoke in a loud whisper to the filly as she cast a shifty glance toward her father. "You can just call me Pinkie, gumdrop, no matter what your papa says. Mrs. Pie is my mama."
She gave Pumpkin a broad wink, then turned to nuzzle Twilight's cheek. "You two have fun. I'm gonna go find Caramel and apologize for all the bite marks I left on his rump this morning. And then I need to bake a cake for Tootsie."
With that, she set out at a careful walk across the sweet shop floor, a bit of her old spring creeping into her step as she went. Twilight gave her a final wave before sparking her horn to life to help Pumpkin gather up her dolls.
Soon the two unicorns had removed themselves to a patch of fresh green lawn out back behind the sweet shop, which rustled softly in a gentle breeze while the pegasus weather crew hauled the clouds away overhead to let Celestia's cheerful springtime sun shine brightly over Ponyville. The elder mare knelt on the cool carpet of grass as the young filly stood with her legs braced and her curly tail hiked, making her assortment of fancy dressed dolls loop and whirl in intricate patterns across an invisible dance floor above their heads.
Twilight complimented her with an earnest note of pride on her voice. "You've got remarkable control, Pumpkin. I don't think I could keep half as many objects up when I was your age, let alone get them to do the waltz."
The filly grinned from ear to ear as her horn sparkled. "Thanks, Miss Twilight. Those workbooks you loaned me really helped. Plus it's fun!"
Twilight let out a fond chuckle. "Yeah, it is. I can't think of anything I'd rather stay up all night doing besides magic."
She sheepishly cleared her throat. "Don't you stay up all night doing it, though. Not 'til you're a lot older, you hear me." Pumpkin rolled her deep blue eyes and nodded.
The elder unicorn cocked an eyebrow as one of the dolls caught her attention, hovering over the rest. She bobbed her horn toward it. "Who's that fellow up there? Doesn't he get to dance?"
Pumpkin responded hesitantly as she kept her attention locked on the dancers. A blush was beginning to show on her light orange cheeks. "He's a brave knight. He looks out for the others and doesn't let anypony pick on them."
Twilight reached out with her own magic and pulled the little stuffed pony down to eye level. It was a light colored pegasus with a dark mane, decked out in a soft grey cuirass and a helmet adorned in red, yellow, and blue yarn.
A pensive grin stole across the lavender mare's face as she noted that the felt wings kept flapping even when telekinetic control passed from Pumpkin to her. "You put a Make It Move spell on the wings. Very clever."
The wheels that began to spin in the unicorn scholar's head went still again as she turned the tiny pegasus knight sideways and noted his cutie mark, drawn on his flank in magic marker. "This is your brother's cutie mark."
A couple of the stuffed dancers bumped into each other, but recovered as the blush deepened on Pumpkin's face, and she shifted a little, such that the lenses of her glasses shielded her eyes with reflections. "Yeah. He didn't want me to put it on there, but I did anyway."
Twilight dug a hoof in the grass, proceeding carefully. "I think that's very sweet. I guess he doesn't want his friends to tease him, huh?"
Pumpkin shook her head. "No way. Nopony teases my brother. He's the toughest, bravest colt in our grade. Even the big colts don't mess with him. Or anypony else, as long as he's around." The dolls started to drift toward the ground, settling in the grass as the little unicorn slouched her shoulders. "He's just kinda... I dunno. He feels... bad about what happened when he got his cutie mark."
The lavender mare allowed the little pegasus knight to settle in among the other dolls, its cloth wings still softly beating the air. "He said he got it the same time as he got that black eye, but I haven't heard from him how he got either."
Pumpkin edged closer to the older mare and lowered her voice to a whisper. "He doesn't like telling the story. I can tell you, but you gotta promise not to tell him I told you."
Twilight nodded solemnly and made an X across her heart with a hoof, then tapped it lightly against a closed eye. The unicorn filly edged even closer, nudging her glasses up a bit higher on her nose. "Okay. Well, the thing is, he got the cutie mark and the black eye when he got into a fight with a couple of his friends."
She looked away, hanging her head. "And the reason he got in the fight in the first place was over me. We were headin' home after school was over, and Sparrow and Arrow Dart wanted to go play kites, and Pound said he didn't want to ditch me and then Zephyr Breeze said who cares I was just... just a dumb ol' pinhead nerd and that all I did was slow Pound down."
She sniffled and dragged a hoof across her nose. "And then Pound gets real mad and tells him to take it back and Zephyr laughs in his face and shoves him and calls him ground pounder and says he should just turn in his wings and go make mud pies with all the dumb ol' dirt ponies and next thing I know Pound knocked him out of the sky."
Her voice became small and distant. "Then the Dart brothers jumped on him and it was like this cloud of hooves and wings and tails and then they're on the ground with Zephyr and they're all beat up and Pound is up there with his eye all swelling up and blood coming out of his nose and he's saying that they better apologize to me right now, and if he ever catches them picking on earth ponies or unicorns again he'd make mud pies out of their faces."
She gave a small shake of her head. "And the way he said it wasn't yelling or mean or anything, it was so calm it made me kinda scared to hear him talk like that. Then Zephyr and Arrow and Sparrow all start crying and say they're sorry and promise they'll be nice to ponies who can't fly and he says okay and tells them to go home."
Pumpkin raised her glistening blue eyes to meet Twilight's concerned gaze. "And when they're gone then he starts crying and I start crying and he walks me home and he had a long talk with Mom and Dad and then they sent him to his room while they talked it over, and I went and said I was so sorry for everything and he said it wasn't my fault and..."
She faltered, letting out a tiny sob. "... and that I was his twin sister and he'd never leave me behind just 'cos I can't fly and if his pegasus friends didn't like earth ponies or unicorns for something so stupid then he didn't wanna be friends with 'em anymore. Then he said he wished that ponies could just be friends without caring about that sort of thing. And that's when his cutie mark showed up."
Twilight broke the pensive silence that followed. "Well... On one hoof, I'm sorry to hear he let words, as wrong and mean as they were, provoke him into hurting somepony..."
The little filly sighed, fidgeting in the grass with her dainty hooves. "Yeah. That's why he feels so bad about it. I think it hurt him inside more than it hurt his friends on the outside when he saw what he did."
The lavender mare laid a hoof on the young unicorn's shoulder. "On the other hoof, it's a very brave thing to stand up to your friends when you think they're doing or saying the wrong thing. While I can't condone of his actions, I approve of his motives. You can be proud of him for that."
Pumpkin nodded, nudging the little pegasus doll. "I am. That's why he's my knight. He doesn't like to talk about stuff like this, but he knows how important my dolls are to me, so this is how I show him I'm proud of him."
The lavender unicorn reached out with her magic and gently picked up the heroic little figurine, examining the cutie mark. "So what happened with his friends?"
The filly shrugged. "He went around to their houses the next day and apologized for what he did, to them and to their mommys and daddys. The Dart brothers forgave him pretty much right away, but it took a couple days before Zephyr would even look him in the eye. They made up too, though. That made me really happy, 'cos Pound loves flying and I'd feel terrible if he didn't have anypony to fly with."
She let out a wistful sigh. "I wish I could fly. Pinkie tells me when I was really little I used to be able to do it with my magic, but these days I can't lift anything bigger than a bag of sugar."
She looked up at Twilight with a hopeful look on her little face. "Do you know any magic spells that let a pony fly? And if you do could you teach me?"
The scholarly mare gave a little shake of her head. "I know a couple, but they're kind of tough to pull off, even for a grownup unicorn."
Pumpkin pawed at the ground and hung her head with a look of disappointment settling on her face. "Awww."
Twilight reached up and tousled the filly's curly orange mop, the wheels in her own head beginning to turn again, as she slowly spun the knight doll around in a shimmering cloud of purple sparkles, watching while its cloth wings kept steadily beating.