The construction of Equestria’s first skyliner had been something of an open secret over the past two years. You’d have an easier time squeezing that last bit of toothpaste out of a tube made of tigers than you would squeezing anything official out of the Bremareton Shipyard—but the size of the Opera Concordia’s skydock meant that most anypony with eyes could picnic on a nearby bank and count the staterooms along the side of its gilded alabaster hull. Trains out west being cheap and speedy, families had planned entire vacations to the Seaddle area just to watch the ship come together.
Not that Twilight knew families did that firsthoof, nor had she learned that going there alone on a free weekend. Or that, if she'd had ever been there, she'd have given an instant's thought to teleporting on board and eluding the security patrols to study the levitation matrices inlaid in the hull, or the cyclonic repeating engines humming in the lower stern. She'd have never dreamed of strolling through the gardens of the Promenade.
Above all, she never would have gone to Princess Celestia to ask for a modest library in the bow of the vessel. Twilight was a practical pony, and books were very dense objects. Front-loading the ship with too many of them would drag the whole thing down like an anchor carved from a quasar—and of course there wasn't any kind of convenient levitation matrix that could counteract the issue.
Again, it wasn’t like she knew about any of these things before boarding the vessel for the Summer Solstice Steeplechase. Nevertheless, a small grin tugged at her lips and she couldn’t repress a small chuckle as she turned to the second chapter of The Work of the Work of Harmony: Marekind’s Latest Marvel. The book had come out a month ago with the christening of the ship, and its large, glossy pages still had that resiny, just-off-the-presses smell. On most days, that alone was enough to get her back hooves dancing.
If she hadn’t sunk herself a foot deep in one of the library’s numerous reading cushions, she would have been bouncing off the shelves like an oxygen molecule. Her library back in Ponyville was cozy, and her room in Canterlot had enough overhead for Rainbow Dash to practice her EKG maneuver, but those two could not begin to compare to this place. The Princesses’ sun-and-moon seal informed the library’s basic layout: the bottom floor was covered with resplendent gold carpeting and polished, round tables, while a pale blue crescent rose along the back of the room and leveled out into a spacious mezzanine. Banks of rosewood shelves ascended the walls and became them, the margins between the book cubbies inlaid with lustrous leaf filigree. Crystal chandeliers turned like mobiles from a domed ceiling painted like the sky on the verge of dusk. End to end, the library could’ve challenged Ponyville Town Hall in terms of spatial endowment.
The greatest feature of the library, however, lay along its forward edge. The kingdom’s best glassmakers had toiled for half a year on its formation—one month, it seemed, for every ten feet it amassed in height and breadth, Twilight could only hypothesize how they had put it in place. Set into the Opera Concordia’s lower bow and crossed with impossibly thin brass muntins for its mass, it gazed over the pre-dawn countryside slipping beneath it in silence. Anypony looking out from within its radius soon learned just how small they were in this wide open world, but they also learned how it was to see as gods saw.
Twilight had all of this to herself—the library’s only other patron had departed an hour before midnight. Sure, she’d signed up to run the Steeplechase’s night stages, and her circadian rhythm was now honed for optimal performance for the moonlit hours. But those first two books on the Via Equestria had flown by so quickly, and there was so much more she wanted to read! She turned the page in her book and tapped her chin in thought. The idea of pulling her first all-dayer had a certain, if bizarre appeal to it. She could do it, too. This upcoming day was a travel day, and they wouldn’t pull into Starsweep Peak until tomorrow. She’d have time to get her internal clock back on track for the night shift and read until her ears fell off.
Then the mezzanine doors banged open, and Twilight’s heart kicked her ribs so hard that it redefined the cage match.
The voice crack and the whole yelling in a library thing pointed to one pony, and one pony only. “Rainbow Dash! What are you—”
“Oh thank Celestia you’re here,” the pegasus cut in, half dropping, half slamming onto the main floor with a forward roll. She then shoved Twilight’s book aside and started tugging her out of her cushion. “You’ve got to come see this—I-I-I don’t know anypony else who’d know—”
“Rainbow—Rainbow!” Twilight pushed her friend away attempting to cope with the fastest violation of her personal space in recent memory. “What are you doing, barging in here like that?” she hissed. “You scared me half to death!”
“That makes two of us, then,” said the pegasus.
“You bet that makes two of us! Do they have barns ponies are born in at Cloudsdale, or—” Twilight ceased her tirade as her eyes caught up with her mouth.
If Rainbow’s weight shifted from hoof to hoof any faster than that, she’d have been tap dancing. She looked like she couldn’t decide whether to face Twilight or to watch the doors behind her, too, and her irises had contracted to the size of bits.
“Is this a prank?” Twilight’s eyes narrowed.
“Huh?” Rainbow’s ears folded against her head. “I—I don’t think it is.”
“What do you mean?” The unicorn stamped her hoof. “It’s either a prank or it’s not.”
“I—” Rainbow grunted. “Twilight. I have no idea what’s going on, and I’m getting freaked out over here. Please,” she added, clutching her friend’s hooves in hers. “I don’t know who else to go to right now.”
Twilight opened her mouth to speak—and closed it. A scared Rainbow was one thing. One reduced to begging set off more than a few alarms in her head. The pegasus was squeezing her hooves so hard that Twilight could feel the pressure on them. She couldn’t begin to imagine what had gotten so far into her friend’s head. But the evidence was there, staring her in the face, and it was her duty as a good friend to help out.
Who knew? Maybe there was a friendship report in it. She rose from her cushion, set her book on a nearby table, and nodded at Rainbow to lead her away—as long as they walked. The Opera Concordia may have been the largest airship to ever grace the Equestrian skies, but most of its interior hallways were only wide enough for two ponies to squeeze past each other.
From the library, Twilight and Rainbow climbed a flight of tiled, fanning-out steps into the Promenade, an open, three-chambered atrium rising through the heart of the skyliner’s five inner decks. At the fore of the bow chamber, a pair of brass-trimmed staircases rose in spirals from within clear glass tubes, and purple carpeting muffled the two ponies’ hoofsteps as they climbed their way to the top.
Twilight noted the way Rainbow couldn’t keep her eyes forward—half the time she was urging her on over her shoulder with exaggerated tilts of her head while spending the other half fixing her gaze on nothing. At least, nothing Twilight could see—every time they came around to face the atrium again, the pegasus all but plastered her muzzle against the glass as she scanned the space below. There was an Everfree wolfwood planted in the middle chamber that gave off the impression it wanted to sniff the occasional passing pony, but Twilight doubted that was what was eating her friend.
“Where are you taking me?” she asked Rainbow, peeling her friend’s face free of the glass for the fifth time.
“Princesses’ chambers,” came the reply.
Twilight missed her step, and she barely caught herself with a levitation field before the the staircase practiced unlicensed dentistry on her front teeth. “What? What were you doing up there?”
Rainbow subsequent account of her flight between the tethers was as burning to Twilight’s ears as actual fire.
“Habaza— Were you trying to get everypony killed?"
"Haystacks, Twi! You’re my counselor all over again!” Rainbow moaned, flaring her wings in defiance. Twilight winced; she’d heard stories about flight camp.
“You know what those cables are made of. I couldn’t take one out if I tried,” Rainbow carried on. “You—you honestly thought I’d do that if I could?” If her eyes had turned any harder than that, they could have scratched diamonds.
“No no no no no!” Twilight waved her hooves in front of her. “That wasn’t what I meant—”
“What did you mean, then?”
The unicorn shut up. Much as she wanted to protest Rainbow’s abject lack of common sense, she had to relent. She’d acquired a length of hardened spider silk some months back and, after fashioning a harness out of it, had suspended herself from a bundle of threads less than half a centimeter in diameter. Yes, she’d once witnessed Rainbow tear down a barn with nothing but momentum and spunk, but no wing-sharpening spell could compare to the adamantine scalpel Twilight’d dulled to cut the silk.
The words “We’ll talk later” popped into her head but went unvoiced. She hated saying those words. They were just as bad as redirecting the topic, which she was about to do, and were tantamount to admitting she’d been stumped. By that time, however, they had reached the top of the stairs and had stepped out beneath a pale orange sky. Paired teak walkways wrapped around the three glass and brass-latticed domes capping the inner Promenade, and some ponies were already up and about taking advantage of the loop for some early morning trotting.
“All right, rewinding,” said Twilight, drifting toward the starboard walkway. “Your old nemesis from camp catches you doing something incredibly dangerous and ill-advised—and I wholeheartedly agree with his judgment—and he escorts you to Princess Celestia’s quarters for disciplining.”
Rainbow hopped into the air and flapped alongside Twilight. “Yeah. Then comes the part when everything turns crazy. He tosses me into the hall and obviously there are gonna be more guards there, except every single one of them was—” The pegasus made a sudden, strangled noise. “Oh, Celestia. Hide me.”
After a brief shock, Twilight rolled her eyes at her friend’s choice of refuge. She looked ahead and determined the source of Rainbow’s panic with minimal difficulty: an echelon of six pegasus guards were banking toward her, led by their red-crested captain. “Rainbow, my tail isn’t going to keep those guards from seeing you. Get out.”
Her new rainbow-colored tail extension lashed the deck like a snake on a trampoline.
“Look,” she sighed. “Princess Celestia knows who you are. If her guards ask, I’ll tell them I’m taking you to her. Seriously—this is getting weird.”
“You don’t understand.” A hoof poked out from Twilight’s tail and pointed at the captain. “That’s my old counselor.”
“Oh.” She watched Amber Swift’s patrol fly overhead and exchanged glances with him, but that was the high point of their encounter. He led his patrol toward the bow in no particular hurry. “Well, that was anticlimactic.”
“Huh?” Rainbow risked a head check out from under her straight-cut sanctuary. Sure enough, her great fillyhood foe went along his way without betraying the slightest hint of acknowledging her presence. “Okay—you were wrong, Twilight. Things aren’t just weird. They’re getting super weird.”
“Because he ‘forgot’ he took you into custody just now?”
Rainbow stepped into the open and resumed walking, passing by the pools and sunchairs astern of the Promenade domes. “No. It’s not just that.”
Rainbow sighed the exact kind of sigh a pony made when they knew what they were about to say next wouldn’t be believed. “Five minutes ago, he was unconscious.”
“You’re kidding,” said Twilight, trotting to catch up. Rainbow’s propensity for resolving conflict through battery echoed between the covers of her flight camp file. In her mind’s eye, Twilight saw a storm of blue hooves pounding on an unprotected head. She didn’t recall seeing any bruises on the captain as he flew past, but armor was good at hiding those kinds of things. “Did you do that to him?”
“W—what? Holy comoly, Twi!” Rainbow reared up and threw her forehooves wide. “Where’s my credit here? I’m not dumb enough to clobber a member of the royal guard. Somepony else’d done that to him, folded him up like an accordion or something, and dumped him there.” She pointed to a nearby section of gunwale. “The rest of his squad didn’t do much better.”
“Rainbow...” Way to go, Twilight. Accuse your friend of grievous assault without evidence, huh? The unicorn chose to remain silent—she had dug herself a very deep hole, and every reply that came to mind was a shovel in disguise.
“Just wait.” The pegasus stopped before the double doors leading toward the Princess’ chambers and turned toward Twilight. “I promise you I’m not going crazy. You’ll see.” Rainbow pushed the doors open.
Her ears collapsed and her wings followed suit a moment later. “No. No no no!”
Twilight tried to look around her friend for something—anything—out of the ordinary. What she saw was an orderly, brightly-lit hall with purple carpeting, golden walls, and five pairs of guards spaced over its full length, all of them giving the colorful pegasus in the threshold a questioning eye.
“This isn’t right,” Rainbow yelped. Her eyes darted toward the other end of the hallway—the final doors sequestering the Princesses from the rest of the Opera Concordia. “The words! Where’d they go?”
Twilight brought her hoof to her face, knowing the gesture couldn’t save her from dying of embarrassment. Finishing her outburst, Rainbow proceeded to charge into the hall as if the guards knew better than to block her way. She didn’t even manage to pass the first pair before they drew together, crossed their inner wings in her path, and angled the tips of their outer ones at Rainbow’s temples—their glares could have set a cockatrice to flight.
“She’s with me, sirs,” Twilight called to them. “We wish to have a brief audience with the Princesses.”
They looked up, recognized Princess’ Celestia’s protégée, and withdrew.
“That’s right,” Rainbow blurted. “Move aside, we’re coming through.”
Twilight resolved to drag that pegasus down to the library the first chance she got and read her all twenty-two volumes of Neat and Tidy’s Elements of Social Etiquette if she had to tie her to a chair. Tabling the thought for the moment, Twilight joined Rainbow at the other end of the hall.
The Princesses’ chamber doors were thick slabs of frosted glass, engraved on one door with an eight-rayed sun and the other with an upward-opening crescent moon, and both halves were as spotless as cheetahs vandalized by poison joke.
“This isn’t right,” said Rainbow, running her hoof over the glass. She pulled it away and looked at it as if she expected something to jump out at her.
“On the contrary, it looks like everything’s all right,” said Twilight. “What else were you expecting to see?”
“Uh, not this?” Rainbow Dash pointed at the guards. “They were knocked out when I got here, too. The door here—” smacking her hoof on the glass— “had writing on it, and I saw the pony who did it, except she didn’t seem like a normal pony.” The pegasus made whirling motions with her hooves. “She was pale—like really pale, skin and bones almost, too, and her eyes were these big white things! She was the one who’d knocked out all the guards, and when she brushed her hoof on the door like this, it left behind words.“ Rainbow demonstrated for her friend’s enlightenment, which would’ve been useful had Twilight needed to hear anything more. She cast a grip field around the pegasus’ tail and made to drag her away.
“I’m calling this here,” she grunted, her brows flat. Rainbow never settled for the easy way with things. “I’m not sure what you were—ngh, trying to pull just now, but believe—ugh, me. I’m not laugh—for crying out loud, will you stop acting like a yearling already?”
“No. No more of this.”
Groaning, the unicorn looked over her shoulder, expecting absolutely nothing from Rainbow’s words by that point. She was wrong. Just beyond the Princesses’ doors was a tall silhouette, blurry and soft through the frosted glass, and parts of it rippled on their own.
Twilight dropped her spell. As soon as the magenta aura around her tail faded, Rainbow Dash crouched in place and snarled at the door, wings primed to launch. “All right!” she yelled. “Come on out!”
Her belligerence turned to confusion the moment the silhouette raised its head, as it developed a long, slender horn. Then a pair of wings rose from its sides like chrysanthemums in bloom, and a moment later, the doors swung outward.
“Ahhh.” Princess Celestia yawned, lifting a hoof off the floor as she did so. Her pink eyes opened when she finished and fell upon a unicorn who wanted nothing more than to disappear into the carpet. “Good morning, Twilight Sparkle,” said the Princess with a smile. “And good morning to you, Rainbow Dash.” Noticing the pegasus’ aggressive posture, she asked, “Is everything well?”
Twilight rushed over and shoved her hoof so far up Rainbow’s mouth that she felt a uvula. “Everything’s fine, Your Majesty! Rainbow Dash and I were just about to leave—weren’t we, Rainbow?” Her eyes flicked between the utmost respect for her mentor and rock-powdering rage at her friend.
Whether it was Twilight pumping her head up and down for her or Rainbow realizing the exact depth and texture of the trouble she was in, the pegasus nodded.
The brow lift was subtle, but to Twilight, it loomed above the stars. “Very well, then. If you’ll excuse me.” Princess Celestia’s tone was one step behind her words, and the cold hoof of fear brushed Twilight’s heart. But her mentor’s next words soon returned to their customary ease, brushing that fear aside. “It has been so long since I’ve slept in,” she explained with something of a guilty smile, “and I’m afraid I may have over-indulged myself. Duty calls! Good day to you both.” She passed down the hallway to the salutes of her guards and walked outside.
A small grin appeared on Twilight’s face as she worked through the math. The Princess couldn’t have been late to raising the sun by more than seventy-three seconds. Her bemusement lasted nowhere near as long as that, however, as it ended the moment she retrieved her hoof from Rainbow’s jaws.
“Well,” she said, scraping saliva off the end of her foreleg. “That could’ve gone a lot worse.”
Rainbow popped her jaw back in place with both hooves. “Twilight?” A lingering twinge in her cheek demanded a moment’s rubbing before she could continue. “Why’d you say we were leaving? We’re going out there to talk to her, right?”
“That was the original plan.” Even as she only saw them looking straight ahead, Twilight thought she caught one or two of the guards shooting her friend the kind of glare reserved for timberwolves pawing at the edge of the Everfree Forest. She turned to follow her mentor outdoors.
“Why isn’t it still the plan, then?” the pegasus asked as she trotted after her. “We’re gonna talk to her as soon as she gets done raising the sun, right?”
“That’s the thing, Rainbow,” Twilight replied. “There’s nothing to talk about.”
Twilight spun around. “I know what you think you saw. But think about what the Princess saw. What I saw. Rainbow, I know you mean well, and I want to believe you’re not going through with this atrocious behavior of yours for nothing, but you don’t have any evidence we can show her. I mean, I—” She sighed and rubbed circles in her forehead. Looking Rainbow Dash in the eye during moments like these was like trying to reason with a rose-tinted hurricane. She imagined she’d even have more fun with the latter. “Fine. If you notice anything else weird happening over the next few days, you come talk to me, all right?”
Her offer didn’t go over with Rainbow as well as she expected it would have, since the pegasus fired back, “Just so you can send me away again, like you’re doing now?”
“Princess Celestia is in danger! I thought you of all ponies’d care the most about that!”
If the guards had paid no attention to Rainbow Dash earlier, they sure were now. Their eyes changed from pea-sized irises to full-on deathgazes in moments as they had more time to take in the crouching, snorting pegasus mare in their midst.
Twilight knew those words should have provoked her. They should have stung, should have piqued her into fits of rage that tore her lungs to tatters. If there was one thing she took seriously in her life—even more so than learning from her friends—it was the bond she shared with her greatest mentor, a bond no normal pony in Equestria could ever hope to replicate as long as Twilight Sparkle walked upon the land. Questioning the integrity of that bond was questioning her right to live. How dare Rainbow use it against her?
And yet, as Twilight opened her mouth, the words of anger failed to come. She felt a surge of something different building over her head, ready to crash down the moment she faltered, and she only just threw up a mental dike against the assault. In anger’s place came a melancholy stepping into the vacated plaza of her mind, and her words to Rainbow were quiet. “Barring my family and you girls,” she said, referring to the rest of their friends, “she’s the pony who shaped me into who I am today. I owe her my life as I know it. So, if you feel the Princess is truly endangered—and I mean endangered—” Twilight hesitated. This sentimentality ground against some of the most fundamental scientific principles out there—skepticism and first-hoof observation, but their driving force swirled beneath them, unshakable and unstoppable: instinct. She breathed deep. “I’ll believe you.”
“She’s ‘truly endangered,’” Rainbow insisted, folding her forelegs across her barrel.
Twilight rubbed the bridge of her muzzle . Could she have expected this kind of thing to go any different with that mare? “Can you bring me proof?”
“You’ll have it.” Rainbow reached out for the door leading to the outside deck, only for it to rattle against a magenta aura. “C’mon, Twilight, quit blocking the door. Let’s talk to Princess Celestia.”
“No.” Rainbow could glare at her until Canterlot came crumbling down—she was not going through that door and making things worse for herself. “I’ll go and talk with her on your behalf. I believe you, Rainbow. But there’s not anything you and I can really do about this mysterious pony of yours right now.”
Rainbow Dash’s jaw hung in space.
This had gone on long enough. Twilight gritted her teeth, calling to mind the arcane motions of a second spell that would solve the problems she faced that instant. Rainbow’s eyes widened a moment later as strands of magical energy swirled into being around her limbs and barrel. She caught on, too late, to Twilight’s plan.
“I’ll see you back in the stateroom, okay?” said the unicorn, the point of her horn glowing white.
“Twilight, just what do you—”
Twilight collapsed the stasis field, using its inward momentum and the newly-freed part of her mind to bind Rainbow in place. A flash of light and a popping sound followed in short order, and when the sparkling afterglow cleared away, the pegasus was nowhere in sight.
She didn’t think there was anypony in the stateroom at the hour, so there’d be nopony to disturb Rainbow Dash while she got some much-needed rest. Reflecting on that thought a little, Twilight failed to stifle a yawn as it welled up from her lungs. Sleepy was as sleepy did. She wasn’t sure how her words were going to go over with the Princess in a little bit, but she could be more certain that a bunk downstairs was starting to call her name.
Smooth cotton sheets. Sculpted foam pillow. A mattress that never got hot beneath her flank, no matter how long she held it there.
Shoot. This kinda bedding was too good for her—she was gonna get soft by the time she made it back to Ponyville. Applejack swung her legs over the edge of her bunk and hunched over, letting her mane fall over her face.
The stateroom was quiet—just the way she wanted it at that moment. Running this race with her friends was noisy work, and heavens to Betsy if she didn’t blow her top at Rarity yesterday. Her mind wandered back to the early morning orchards of Sweet Apple Acres, right at the time when the dew from the grasses tossed colorful light beneath the shadowed canopies, and she pictured herself harvesting with nopony but Big Macintosh for company.
If she didn’t understand why her brother kept his words to himself before, she sure did now.
Because she’d been all but senseless when Rarity dragged her there from the spa, Applejack took the moment to look about the stateroom. The bunks were arranged into two towers of three, all of them cantilevering out from the opposite walls of the stateroom. Every other bunk but hers was unoccupied. A small porthole on the wall showed her a bluing sky that meant she’d slept in. She wasn’t happy about that at all, but she’d picked up a lesson or two over the years on forcing work on too little sleep.
The other end of the stateroom had a small booth with a table and a lamp, a closet for everypony’s saddlebags, and a door leading into the bathroom. Royal blue carpet covered the floor and walls, and a small light, currently extinguished, peeked out from its brass fitting in the ceiling.
Most all of it could’ve fit into her bedroom back home. Make no mistake, the airship life was swanky (and the massages weren’t half bad, either). Still, she was counting down the days until she could stretch her legs nice and proper on a real bed: one stuffed with good, honest straw.
She hopped onto all fours, but a yawn surged from her lungs like a stampede of wildebeests, dropping her back onto her bunk. Stars above! There was tuckered, and then there was... well, there was this. A shower was in order: a cold one, the only kind that got the ol’ blood flowing on slow mornings like this one.
She only got to lay a hoof on the bathroom door before the middle of the stateroom exploded in a flash of purple light.
“—you think you’re doing?”
Yelping, Applejack reared up, her hooves ready to strike—only to see a scowling Rainbow Dash when the spots cleared from her eyes.
“What in tarna—” Applejack returned to all fours. “What’s gotten into you, R.D.? I coulda smacked you a good one.”
“Ugh!” The pegasus stormed past and vaulted into one of the top bunks. She pulled her covers over her ears, leaving Applejack’s mind buzzing with questions.
“Did something happen, sugar?”
The answer that came back to her was too muffled to make sense of.
“Sorry, Rainbow, what was that?”
Snoring like a roaring pride of lions cut her off.
Applejack sighed. That filly got off on some mighty strong moods every now and then, and when those moods rose to the top, Applejack found it easier to change the weather herself than to reason matters out with her. At any rate, she had no interest in ruining her morning with more of the same verbal tussling that did yesterday in. She took care to close the door behind her quiet-like as she took her shower, though Rainbow’s entrance had taken away the need for it to be cold.
A few minutes later, she’d toweled off, got her mane tied up, and donned her hat. She was ready to get the hay out of that small little room and get something in her belly, and a steaming heap of oat ‘n’ apple flapjacks sounded more and more like doctor’s orders with every passing second. Surely the chefs they hired onto this flying hotel contraption had the know-how to put out a mean homestyle spread. Here was the sixty-four thousand bit question, though: how in the world was she going to find a restaurant when she didn’t even know how she got to her own stateroom?
“Like, wow, Crescent. It’s been ten minutes since breakfast and you’re thinking about lunch already?”
“Lay off, Gigglebug! The food’s free, I gotta enjoy it while I’m here!”
The laughing voices outside the door summoned Applejack like a parasprite to a polka. Throwing the door open behind the passersby, she poked her head into the hallway and put on her most courteous voice. “Pardon me, ladies, but would y’all be willing to help a poor pony with some directions to the best vittles at this hour?”
The mares were more than happy to oblige her, though navigating this hooped-up corn maze in the sky remained a challenge for the farmer. She managed to traverse the Promenade with little incident—though she thought that one tree tried to sniff her as she walked past. A chain of events more accident than intent followed as she stumbled her way higher, until she found herself at the front end of the fifth deck staring at a floor-to-ceiling panel of frosted glass. The words “High Wind Café” were etched on its front face in flowing letters.
“Ain’t that purty?” she muttered, walking around the glass. She ventured one glance into the restaurant ahead—and that was that. Before she could stop herself, her hoof was pulling her hat over her eyes.
The image lingered in her mind despite her self-inflicted blindness. The cafe split into two identical terraces sloping down from the center, and in place of walls it had windows: long, curving panes of glass that magnified the rolling fields thousands of feet below. Waiters with groomed manes and dress coats walked in and out of an open kitchen while floating plates of food to cloth-covered tables. A platform on the right side of the restaurant supported a baby grand and its player, a tall mare with half-moon glasses and her mane done up in a double bun. Despite this, the kitchen turned out to be the loudest part of the establishment, where cooks and hosts barked at each other in Fancy over the sizzle of stoves and the clanging of knives and spatulas.
The food itself smelled strange—familiar scents like peppers and olive oil mixed with hints of something nutty or fermented. Applejack couldn’t find a bowl of cereal or a stack of toast among the dishes out there, much less her oat ‘n’ apple flapjack stack, and her stomach somersaulted in disappointment.
Was there one place—just one—on this ship where a filly didn’t have to conduct herself like a city pony to eat?
“Good morning, Applejack,” called a voice to her left.
The earth mare yelped, earning the attention of a sizable portion of the café’s patrons. She turned and laid eyes on a familiar yellow and pink pegasus waving at her from the edge of the restaurant. “Oh, for Pete’s sake.”
Seeing her friend’s reaction, Fluttershy wilted onto her table like a daisy thrown into an oven. The apologies gushed forth as soon as Applejack took the seat across from her. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to startle you.”
Applejack chuckled. “Aw, it ain’t nothin’, pardner,” she said, tipping her friend’s chin back up. “To be honest, I’m glad you’re here. You’re the first friendly face I’ve seen all morning.” Applejack decided against bringing Rainbow into the conversation and picked up the faux leather-bound menu laid before her.
Was it just her, or did they print this menu on another planet? Her eyes tumbled down the page like a sack of apples down a cliff. Tarragon quiche au fromage du chevre? Miso soup spectrum with traditional pickles and sweet rice? Frittatas di Sestrimare? What in the name of all things pony were half these things? “I think I’m a little lost here,” she confessed, laying the menu back down. “Think you could help me out? What’re you havin’?”
The pegasus cycled her wings once before folding them, a small smile emerging on her face. She answered questions from her friends just fine, but it often paid to phrase them in ways that gave her the impression she was helping out. “Ah. Well...” She picked up her menu from the table and turned it so Applejack could read it, tapping a hoof on an item on the second page. “This grilled polenta dish sort of grabbed my attention. It’s prepared with a mozzarella and cherry tomato confit aux fines herbes, and it isn’t supposed to sit too heavily on the palette. Or... so I heard.”
Applejack blinked. “Uh, they wouldn’t happen to have anything along the lines of a bowl of grits or biscuits ‘n’ gravy, would they?”
Fluttershy’s eyes traveled the rest of the way down her menu. “I’m sorry, Applejack.” Her voice faded. “I don’t think there’s anything like—wait. Oh, nevermind. No.”
“Maybe I’ll just start with a glass of water.” The earth mare tilted her hat over her eyes.
“They have artesian well, sparkling, tonic, and mountain spring,” Fluttershy informed her.
The ponies who ran this ship wanted her to starve. “Can I get the one that comes from the well? And whatever looks good from that menu? I’m guessing you’re used to this ‘cause of all the time you spend with Rarity in polite places, but I’m more outta my element here than a catfish on a Canterlot crosswalk.”
Fluttershy’s ears folded down. “Applejack? Would you like to eat someplace else?”
“No!” The speed and force behind her answer caught her flat-hoofed, as it did for the ponies seated nearby. As much as she feared making even more of a foal of herself in a high-falutin’ establishment such as this, Applejack thought Fluttershy was comfortable with this sorta gig, and it’d have been downright shameful for the farm pony to insist her friend leave with her just ‘cause she couldn’t stand acting classy. She slumped in her seat until her chin came to rest on the table. If Fluttershy didn’t want to leave in even the tiniest amount, she wasn’t going to force the issue. “I mean, no, it’s fine,” she continued, poking at the flower vase. “You were here first. I’d be weeds in your wheat asking you to relocate. No—seriously, Fluttershy—”
Applejack put a hoof on her friend’s shoulder before she could rise out of her seat. “I’ll only be happy eatin’ where you’re happy eatin’ and that’s that. Sit.”
Fluttershy complied with the speed of resting dough. In silence, she started kneading the wrinkles out of the tablecloth with small circles of her forehooves. The waiter swept by at that moment, eliciting a small cry of surprise from the pegasus when he asked for her order, but she sent him away quickly enough and returned to staring at the table.
In desperation, Applejack rifled through her mind for topics that could get her friend to forget herself. “So.” She leaned forward. “How’d things go with Pinkie after the race yesterday?”
Fluttershy looked up. “Hm? Oh. It went fine. Why do you ask?”
“Just outta curiosity, ‘s all,” said Applejack, shrugging. This wasn’t a bad start. “Y’all went and split for someplace the moment y’all crossed the finish line last night.”
“Oh, that. Sorry.”
“Sorry, nothin’. How ‘bout you tell me ‘bout the race? I’m sure you had some amazing moments out there.”
It took a little more prodding and goading after that, but she finally got Fluttershy to give a quick account of her time in Blackhoof Bayou. She relayed the search for finding that “hair o’ the bog” thing as if she were drinking a glass of slightly expired milk, and the far-off gaze she fell into when describing the plateau party shot worry through Applejack’s mind. Fluttershy did seem to pick up by the time she reunited with Pinkie at the aid station, however, and she even offered up a verse of the song they sang together. By the time she explained why they had run off after arriving in Brindlebrook Village, she didn’t seem like she noticed her hooves were pattering softly across the tabletop.
Applejack nodded. “I see. So y’all had to deliver that flower to her old stallion lickety-split, huh? How’d that turn out?”
Fluttershy brought her hooves together. “It was... strange.”
Fluttershy coughed and reached for her water glass. “Well, as it turns out, hair o’ the bog doesn’t lose potency if it’s slightly singed. In fact... it becomes quite—I’m not sure how to explain it.”
“Ain’t nothin’ but time here, sugarcube.”
“It—” The pegasus made a face as if she’d swallowed a teaspoon of vinegar. “The best explanation I can come up with is that it tries to repair itself. And it uses whatever’s at hoof to do so.”
Applejack scratched her head. “I’m not sure I follow you.”
Fluttershy folded her forelegs on the table and put her head down. “I’m sorry. It was just a very strange night.”
“Aw, c’mon. You’re doing a great job. I could’ve been at that party you mentioned earlier; that’s how well you’re doing. Just tell me what happened once y’all got to Pinkie’s place.”
The pegasus’ face scrolled up from beneath her mane. “Well, once we got upstairs to her father’s bedroom, we saw his family standing by the side of his bed. He’d lost most all his hair by that point—only a tiny tuft on the top of his head and some around his fetlocks.”
“Gosh.” Applejack tried to imagine the same fate befalling Big Macintosh. Mercifully, her horse sense intervened before the lower half of her brother’s coat disappeared.
“Pinkie turned off the lights. I heard her walk over by her father’s side. Then she said, ‘Open wide, Papa.’ There was a really, really loud bang after that—I think his bed must’ve jumped in the air— and by the time the lights came on again, I was clinging to a rafter and Mr. Pie had hair.”
“Hot dog! That’s great news, Fluttershy.” Applejack reached across the table for a high one, but her exuberance faltered when she didn’t see the same reflected in her friend’s expression. “What’s going on now? Do you know how hard it is to keep that silly filly on task sometimes? It’s a miracle her pappy got his coat back. You should be proud of yourself.”
“It—it wasn’t exactly his coat,” the pegasus stammered.
“Remember what I said earlier about the hair o’ the bog trying to repair itself with whatever was at hoof?”
“Well, Pinkie had kept that flower in her tail for a fairly long time by the time we arrived at her parents’ farm.” Fluttershy sighed. “Once we turned the lights back on…”
The epiphany came slowly, like chocolate syrup oozing down the sides of a delicious sundae. The smile stretched across Applejack’s muzzle just about as quickly. “Oh. Oh, ho ho!” she chortled, pounding the table. “That’s evil.”
“I believe Pinkie’s exact words were, ‘Hey, Papa! You look just like me now!’” Fluttershy’s brows dropped to half their height. “‘That’s weeeeird. Funny, but weird.’”
“Land’s sakes, girl!” Applejack clutched her stomach before she laughed it out of herself. “I could’ve sworn you sounded just like our Pinkie there.”
“I... I may have had some practice,” the pegasus admitted, turning so red that it wiped the yellow from her cheeks.
Applejack had known that Fluttershy’s penchant for song, though nowhere near as prevalent as Pinkie Pie’s love of patter, still figured into many of her dealings with her animals and the ponies around her. Music to sooth, and all that other historical mumbo-jumbo. The farm pony had never thought to connect those musical inclinations to a talent for voices, however, and a couple of good-natured pokes and prompts earned her a few more impressions of Ponyville’s most infamous fete-filly.
“It was the worst decision I ever had to make last Tuesday,” said Fluttershy-as-Pinkie, holding her head between her hooves and spinning her eyes around. “I could’ve had a slice of cake, or I could’ve had a cupcake, or I could’ve had a muffin, and I only had enough bits to pay for one ‘cause Gummy ate the rest of my allowance that week.” Fluttershy reached across the table for Applejack’s shoulders and shook them. “Oh, it was horrible! Don’t you ever let yourself get into a situation where you have to choose between the three—“
“Your meals, ladies.”
The waiter’s soft voice was like a wedge driving into Applejack’s thoughts. She blinked as a covered plate slid in front of her, accompanied by a glass of artisan well water or whatever Fluttershy had called it. Murmuring her thanks, she stole a glance across the table.
“Goodness.” Fluttershy rubbed her hooves together as she gazed at her own dish. “I don’t think I’ve talked that much in a very long time.” Her ears pinned downward as she realized what she’d just said. “Sorry for being a loudmouth.”
“Don’t you go pickin’ that load up again, now,” said Applejack. When a puzzled expression flitted across Fluttershy’s face, the farm pony pressed ahead. “I’m serious. You’re an honest pleasure to listen to—more’n you give yourself credit for.” She grinned. “Now, I’m starvin’. You ready to chow down, pardner?”
The silvered covers rose from their plates, and the scent of warm cornbread laced across Applejack’s nostrils. It came from Fluttershy’s meal: two spongy, golden squares crisscrossed with grill marks which came tucked under a mound of cubed tomatoes, cheese, and herbs with a sprig of rosemary on the side. The earth mare’s mouth watered up. She looked down at her own plate, almost forgetting where she was eating as she did—
But then she was back in that high-class restaurant feeling more conspicuous than a pig in a pansy garden. There were apples on her plate, that much she knew. Why a pony’d go and cut them into hair-thin translucent slices and stick ‘em on a plate like papier-mache, however, was beyond her. She picked up one of the slices in her teeth. It flopped horribly against her chin.
She let it drop back to her plate while her heart did the same thing. Lost for words, Applejack tried anyway. “Fluttershy? What am I looking at here?”
Fluttershy cringed. “I—I know you like fresh fruit in the morning, but they didn’t have anything like that here. The gala carpaccio was the closest thing they had.” She let her head hang.
Applejack looked back at her plate and half expected the soggy slices to reach for her face. She pushed it toward the center of the table before it could get the chance. “I’m sorry, sugarcube,” she said. “I don’t think this establishment’s for me at all.”
There was a squeak from the other side of the table. “I can take you somewhere else, if you’d like?”
“I went over this before,” said Applejack, waving her hoof. “You’re more than entitled to eat here. Maybe this place has it in for me, but I’m not gonna walk out on you just ‘cause I can’t stomach it here.”
“Are... are you sure?” Fluttershy tapped her hooves together while glancing off to the side. “Because on my way up here, I passed by the restaurant beneath this one. I noticed they were having a flapjack special and... well, a part of me thought of you.”
Applejack sat up.
In a booth tucked far in the back of the restaurant, Applejack feasted.
Pancakes. Latkes. Creeps, or whatever those Fancy-pony things were called. And flapjacks—flapjacks filled with blueberries and raspberries and peaches and apples, flapjacks smothered beneath slabs of whipped cream and chocolate chips, sour cream flapjacks as a palate cleanser from the sugary rush—all of them arrived hot and steamy and had a melt-in-your-mouth texture that came very close—not quite, but very close—to the way Granny Smith made ‘em back on the farm.
Applejack tipped her hat to the staff of the Journeymare’s Saloon—now here were some ponies who knew their way around a griddle. Having sent the waiter off for a third plate, she leaned against the booth’s backrest and sighed. “Fluttershy? Can I say you are one of the greatest friends I’ve ever had?”
“Oh, I don’t know about that,” she said. Bless her soul—she was dining on the lightest pancakes Applejack had ever seen—slices the size of bits and half again as thick. She looked to be enjoying herself as she spooned whipped cream over them. Tiny spoonfuls, at that, but she kept adding them on and on until her plate resembled a small avalanche.
“I don’t say anything I don’t mean, sugarcube. You know that.”
“Of—of course. Not that I meant to imply you do or anything.”
“Please.” Fluttershy accepted the bowl of chopped peanuts the earth mare handed her.
Applejack leaned back smiling as her friend nibbled at her breakfast. That willowy pegasus was always weighting herself with enough doubts and worries to bend an oak to the ground. If only she didn’t feel like she had to shoulder those burdens again every time she set them down. Still, for the moment, she was at peace. That’s what mattered. There was just something about her that, as she talked about the things she looked forward to seeing on the ship, got ponies to slow down a spell and listen. Maybe it was the way she looked at a pony—for one, she looked. Eye contact was scarce enough with a filly like her.
But there was something else there, too. Folks talked with Rainbow and Rarity and Twilight, and those three always had some sharp glint in their eyes that charged a pony’s heart. Fluttershy’s eyes did no such thing: they soothed and reassured; they took a pony’s pulse down and put it at ease. There was her smile, too—she was always fighting it down without realizing it, and here it had room to come out on its own. She didn’t aim to hypnotize, and she didn’t put other ponies to sleep from boredom. She was only honest and straightforward.
Lots of ponies thought of her as a reclusive, internal mare. It was a hollering shame they didn’t give her more chances to prove them wrong.
“They’ve even have a surf machine on the lido deck,” she said, dabbing a bit of cream from the corner of her lip. “Pinkie said she was going to try it out later, so I thought I would go up there and—oh.”
Before Applejack could ask what a surf machine was, the waiter returned with a plate of oat ‘n’ apple flapjacks as big around as her hat. He slid in front of her like it was a challenge, tipping her a wink as he headed back for the kitchen.
Applejack laughed. “Git, ya rascal!” She turned back to the plate in front of her, deciding the syrup jar was her first priority. “I still can’t believe I’ve got room for all this.” She poured syrup over the melting pat of butter on top. “Guess that race yesterday took more outta me than I figured, huh?”
Then she paused. A thought occurred to her, and Fluttershy needed to hear it. “This is amazin’. We’ve lived down the road from each other all these years, and I can still count the number of times we’ve done breakfast together on my hooves. Why haven’t we done this more often?”
Fluttershy shrugged. “It’s a mystery, isn’t it?”
“Well, I say you don’t be a stranger ‘round my farm, now. Pinkie Pie nothing—I know you cook for yourself in that little cottage of yours. We could be right terrors in the kitchen one morning, you and me.” Applejack raised her water glass with a nod. “How’s that sound, neighbor?”
Fluttershy reached for her own glass. She paused, allowing the moment to hang—then she smiled and held her glass aloft, too. “I’d like that—if you’ll have me over, of course.”
“Do you really hafta ask?”
In a booth tucked far in the back of the restaurant, two glasses clinked together.
Up on a raised section on the sky deck, steel drums and roaring bass blasted Pinkie’s body from horse-sized speakers stacked three high on both sides of the deejay’s stage. Wrapped in the beat pumping from the tan pegasus’ turntables, Pinkie slammed her hooves on the dance floor and whipped her head around like a bola. The ponies around her knew how to get into the rhythm, too—they leaped, spun, stomped, and cheered, and they linked forelegs with her and hurled her from partner to yelling partner, and it was all she could do to hold onto herself as momentum flung her across the space of the Heavenly Drop Club.
Of course, it wasn’t just about the groovy dances that were making this for Pinkie. You had to consider the pool games, too, or the all-you-can-eat popcorn and nachos bar on the lido deck, the rock climbing, the bingo nights, the fancy dinner and gala later on, the parasailing—everything, everything! And all of this was three thousand feet above the Equestrian countryside, in the company of a thousand other ponies looking to race hard and play hard all throughout the week. It was about whooping past the top of her lungs and driving her heart like a jackhammer, for what else would the bards sing about when they looked back upon this new epoch of fun history?
If this was all a dream, she had to wake up! It wouldn’t be fair of her to keep this incredible feat of party engineering trapped within her head! She’d rush out of bed, head straight for Twilight’s library, and convince her to build a skyliner right then and there—surely she had a book on the subject.
Pinkie’s awareness returned to the dance floor as the deejay’s set crashed through its outro riff, and the thump, thump, thump of her heart melded with the solo kick for the final four bars. Up on the stage, the deejay peeled her headphones off and cut the music, and the cheers spilled off the sides of the deck.
“I’m DJ Loudabee!” she cried, leaning over her setup to high one the front row. “Thank you all for haulin’ your haunches outta bed for Morninglight Mayhem, ‘cause you guys were amazing! I want all of you back here with your friends at the Drop tonight for my friend Everfreak, okay?”
“Wooo!” Pinkie screamed with the crowd, pumping her hoof in the air. So help her, she was going to wear grooves in the floor with all of her friends by the time they got back to Ponyville.
With the dance over, everypony began to flow toward the stairs leading down to the sky deck, and Pinkie turned to follow them out. Her coat was shiny from movin’ it for the past few hours, and she shook her head just to hear the beads around her neck clap together like dozens of tiny hooves.
Pinkie’s smile, formerly as wide as her face, shrank to a smidgen less than as wide as her face. She wished she was hearing that applause coming from her friends and not from strings of brightly-colored plastic—not that there was anything wrong with bright and colors and plastic, of course! It was just a shame that they had all missed out on an incredible dance. Twilight and Rainbow Dash had stayed out of the stateroom all night and were still gone by the time she woke up, she knew better than to try and disturb Rarity’s beauty sleep, and Applejack and Fluttershy—
The earth mare gasped. The saying that came to mind involved devils, even though she hadn’t breathed a word about them. Adding to that, Applejack was most definitely a pony and not some red-skinned meanie-pants with horns and tight pantyhose. And Fluttershy—Fluttershy was even less a candidate for devilry than Applejack was. The whole thing made no sense. Yet there they were, the two of them, waving up at her from the bottom of the stairs.
“I don’t know who came up with that phrase,” she said, bouncing down to meet them, “but that pony must never have heard of you two and how nice and wonderful and super incredible the both of you are!” She threw her forelegs around the both of them and pulled them into one of her Pinkie Pie-patented good morning hugs, topping it all off with a cheery “Good morning!”
“Uh...” said Applejack.
“Um...” said Fluttershy. Her hoof reached over to pat the back of Pinkie’s mane.
The patted mare let go and returned to all fours. “What are you two up to?”
Applejack turned back to Pinkie and tilted her head toward the Promenade domes. “We just finished with breakfast a little while ago, so the two of us were gonna spend some time in th’ Arboretum,” she explained. “Fluttershy gets to chat with the critters there, I might learn a thing or two ‘bout aerial tree transport. Bloomberg needs more friends out West and Braeburn wrote me ‘bout some coyote pack hasslin’ the trains out there.”
The best pony to wear a cowgirl hat in Ponyville inhaled a breath through her nostrils, released it, and shared a glance with Fluttershy. Nodding, the earth mare turned back to Pinkie. “You’re welcome to come with us if you want.”
“Aw, sugar straws.” Pinkie stamped a forehoof on the deck. “I’ve already been through there, and there’s still so much of this ship I still have to see,” she explained while sitting down. “The Arboretum’s really, really pretty, though! You should try a flower or two while you’re down there. They can’t call it an ‘eat-’em’ for nothing.”
“That sounds like a swell idea, Pinkie Pie,” said Applejack, turning toward the stairs leading down into the Promenade. “We’ll be sure ‘n’ grab you somethin’ for later.”
“Can you make it a Whitefeather lily?” Pinkie called after her.
“You got it!” Applejack replied while holding the door for Fluttershy.
Pinkie waited for the last hair of Fluttershy’s tail to slide behind the stairwell door before bouncing off toward the stern, humming as she went. She’d absolutely meant what she’d said about there being so much she had yet to see on the ship. If she wanted to keep her friends back home dazzled with her parties, she needed to branch out and see how ponies threw it down in the big leagues.
And the biggest player of them all called to her from the back of the ship. The instant she learned it was there from Twilight’s library presentation, she knew she had to go try it out. The surf machine, so they called it, was a giant blue slope on the lido deck that spanned most of the gondola’s width. Embedded pumps at the forward end pushed a broad sheet of whitewater up the slope into a shallow basin on level with the sky deck. The idea, so Pinkie had heard, was that ponies could ride the fabricated wave on funny boards for as long as they could without falling.
She reached the back part of the sky deck where it opened down into the pools and the surf machine, all but draping herself over the railing as she stared at the slope. Now that the machine was open, the rushing water was a lot quieter than she imagined it would have been. On the whole, everything was a lot quieter—there were maybe one or two ponies lined up to try the machine out. Where was everypony else?
Maybe they didn’t know where the surf machine was. What a horrible thought! It was the only one that made sense to her, at least. She’d left her megaphone back in the stateroom, but there was no shortage of tethers to climb. She could inch her way up top and scream something really loudly like hey, everypony, did you know this ship has a surf machine? You should really, really try it out right now.
Her plans went forgotten, however, as soon as she focused on the first pony in line. She was a unicorn wearing a lavender coif and sunglasses, and a black one-piece obscured her cutie mark. Her light gray coat was familiar, as well as the little smidge of purple mane that peeked out as she whispered something to the attendant. She couldn’t seem to keep her eyes in one place, either. Maybe she was on the lookout for spies.
The attendant, another unicorn with a green coat and a blue vest, said something back to the mare that put her at ease. He escorted her halfway up the slope, set the board down on the water and invited her to lie down on it, keeping it steady in the glow of his horn. A moment passed when the board wobbled beneath her belly, but the mare managed to hang on, and she was finally able to get herself settled in.
Pinkie’s jaw opened in anticipation as the attendant nudged the mare into the current with a hoof. She was tense, real tense—her hooves were turning white from gripping the front of the board so hard. Pinkie couldn’t argue with her results, though—by the time the mare reached the center of the slope, her shoulders had relaxed a little, and she was even starting to wind her way back and forth a few feet at a time.
“Way to go!” Pinkie cheered, waving. “You ride that wave, girlfriend!”
The mare looked up at her. Instead of smiling and acknowledging Pinkie’s support, however, she screamed.
Sometimes, ponies screamed when she was around. There were a hundred different reasons why they did so, but before Pinkie could call them all to mind, the board’s forward edge crashed downward and was lost in a spray of droplets. The de-boarded mare performed a dreamy half somersault, but her landing definitely needed more work. Her back splashed into the water and she was whisked upward into the top basin.
“Whoa!” Pinkie pushed herself off the railing and made for the other side. She had to go apologize for throwing that pony off of her groove—the last thing she’d wanted was for her to slip up and fall off like that.
“Hey,” she called, splashing into the hoof-deep water of the collecting basin. “Hey, listen! I’m really sorry about earlier! I was just having so much fun watching you because you looked like you were having fun, too, and—Rarity?”
The mare hunched over in the basin had her mane flopped over her face as she felt around for her missing coif and sunglasses, but that stopped as soon as she flopped her forelock over the back of her neck. There were no questions about it—those were Rarity’s blue eyes, and that was Rarity’s horn, and that was definitely Rarity’s slack-jawed “oh Celestia—where in Equestria did you come from?” look.
“Are these yours?” Pinkie Pie nosed a pair of folded black shades in the water onto her eyes. The morning became twenty percent less bright. No surprises there, considering who Rarity probably borrowed them from.
“I, uh...” Rarity glanced off to the sides, where a couple of other ponies had stopped to look at her. “I’m terribly sorry,” she said. “Who are you?”
“Oh, Rarity.” The sunglasses bounced on Pinkie’s muzzle in time with the rest of her body. “It’s me, Pinkie P—” Realization bowled her over like a perfect strike. “Shoot! You should’ve told me we were playing a guessing game—you know how much I love those! Hang on, hang on... Ha! I’ve got one!” She wiped a foreleg in front of her face, replacing her smile with an instant scowl, and she leveled her other leg between Rarity’s eyes. Reaching deep into her core, she dredged up her best rumbly accent and let loose.
“Hasta la vista, filly.”
“Pinkie Pie!” Rarity snapped, pushing the earth mare’s hoof out of her face. “Now is not the time to be playing Termineightor! Can’t you see I—”
“Wow, first try!” cried Pinkie, sweeping her friend up in her hooves. “I guess the sunglasses gave it away, didn’t they?” She noticed the other ponies slowly gathering around the two of them with questioning looks on their faces. What? Did they not know she was the liquid metal film pony from the future, or was it that they didn’t know who she and Rarity were at all? Well, she wasn’t too worried about getting to know other ponies, since she threw them all parties at some point or another, but Rarity was always trying to make a name for herself out there.
“Hey, everypony!” She lifted the unicorn onto her shoulders so they could get a better look at her. “This here’s my best friend Rarity! She’s smart and elegant, she’s great at playing games, and she’s the most fashionable pony I know! She makes gorgeous dresses and you should all buy one from her!”
Murmurs passed between the other ponies, and at least one gave an appreciative “Oooh.” Getting there, but it didn’t take a firemare to figure out the audience was only warming up. Pinkie breathed deep, ready to fire off another volley of praise and publicity for her friend, when a shining, periwinkle aura enveloped her body.
“Hey, that tickles,” she noted. The aura didn’t stop there, however—it lifted her hooves clear of the water, and for the moment, her legs dangled in space. She felt weight slide off of her shoulders and splash down, and soon she was looking down into Rarity’s narrowed eyes and the glow of her horn.
“Hiya, Rarity! Where are we going?” As the unicorn stepped out of the basin onto the sky deck, Pinkie Pie floated in front of her like a puppet.
“To have a word with each other,” Rarity answered her, her smile taut. That counted—Rarity deserved every moment in the spotlight, and smiles were the only payment Pinkie accepted for her social services. Still—
“Just a word? Why not several?”
“That’s what I mean, darling.”
Pinkie’s brow furrowed. “Then why’d you—”
“Shush!” The periwinkle aura around Pinkie’s body dissipated, dumping her rump into the curve of a very nice deck chaise by the side railing. Rarity took the next chaise over, swinging her legs over the side so she could face Pinkie. Gone from the unicorn’s face was the smile from before—Rarity looked like she’d just swallowed a cupcake made of green beans.
“Is... is everything okay?”
Rarity pressed her hoof on the earth mare’s muzzle. “Pinkie, dear—sweetheart. I’m not sure what you thought I was doing, but I wasn’t actually trying to be noticed out there.”
“Mm fmm hmm?” Pinkie’s eyes widened.
“Think about it, Pinkie. I am an up and coming designer in Canterlot and a known associate of Fancypants. And while he may be Canterlot’s most important pony—of what, I’m still uncertain, but he is—his influence can only go so far to cover me if I am seen indulging in... more rustic activities.”
Fancypants—now there was a stallion who understood how to have a great time. Pinkie pulled Rarity’s hoof off of her mouth. “I don’t think you have anything to worry about,” she protested. “Didn’t Fancypants get those guests to toast all of us at a party he wasn’t even hosting?”
“Well, I—” the fashionista sputtered. “Sure, but—”
Pinkie pounded her hoof into her other hoof. “I bet you three chocolate lava muffins with coconut and caramel on top that if you showed him what a surf machine was, he’d be the first to put one in his yard,” she said. “And then you could take the credit for it when all the other big snooty ponies get one for themselves!”
“I mean, I guess I have to say this. If you didn’t want to be spotted on that huge wave just now, you wouldn’t have gone anywhere near it.” She rolled her eyes and threw her forehooves behind her head. “It just doesn’t make sense any other way.”
She brought her hooves back down and leaned over until her muzzle floated just an inch away from Rarity’s. “You couldn’t stay away from the call of the blue, could you, Rarity? Blue means Dashie, and Dashie means fun, and summa kumquat potato, nopony can resist fun.”
The unicorn could only stare at her. Ah, the targeted application of logic. If she hadn’t toppled that bookcase on herself that one time at Twilight’s, that nifty philosophy book might never have squashed her muzzle with its teachings.
“You’re really overthinking this,” she continued over the unicorn’s silence. “Wherever you go, ponies follow. Look—there’s a whole bunch of ‘em lining up to try their hooves at surfing, and it’s all thanks to you!”
A noise like a pressed balloon sputtered from Rarity’s lips. She twisted in her seat.
The line had grown to about ten ponies or so, and several more were trickling into place—most of them were the ponies Pinkie had told about Rarity just moments before. The earth mare slid up next to her friend and slung her hoof over her withers. “Not bad for a trendsetter, right?”
“Hmm.” Rarity lifted a hoof to her chin, surveying the ponies below her. She must’ve come around to Pinkie’s view of things, for the unicorn’s withers shook with a quiet chuckle. “Goodness me. I suppose you may have a point.” She turned to the earth mare and brushed her neck with her muzzle. “Thank you, Pinkie. I do feel a little silly about all of this, now.”
The earth mare threw her hooves around Rarity’s head quite ignorant of its wetness and the flailing of her front legs. “You’re welcome! Hey, we should get in line. It’s starting to fill up fast.”
“Oh, no no no no no,” said Rarity, pushing Pinkie away. “I’ve had my fill for the morning. You go on ahead, though. I’ll be up here to cheer you on, Pinkie Pie swear,” she concluded, sweeping through the requisite motions.
That was good enough for Pinkie. If she didn’t get downstairs right away, who knew how long she’d have to wait for her turn on the surf machine?
The answer, as it turned out, was ten minutes. Lots of wonderful ponies stepped up to the challenge of riding their first wave, and lots of them had wonderful wipeouts to kick off their surfing careers. There was that one earth colt who got his board swept out from under him—the moment his legs touched water was the moment he became a pony turnover. The pegasus filly after him had it even rougher—the attendant gave her a countdown before letting her go. She didn’t even make it to “two” before she overbalanced and facefaulted into the current.
With every place she advanced in line, Pinkie’s heart pounded harder. Her tail got twitchier, too. Well, duh to that last one. Ponies out there were falling over themselves like white on frosting. Even the good ones only put off the inevitable—the colt before her stood up on his hind legs and pull off a few spins for the crowd before kicking his board away. Of course she cheered his performance with all the other ponies—it was gonna be a hard one to top.
She reached the head of the line, right by the side of the machine. Every drop of water splashing on her hooves, every burble of liquid tongues collapsing on the foam, every lash of her tail told her she was that much closer to hanging two. Then the attendant trotted up to her, board in glow.
Every fiber in her body screamed out with her. “Yes! I—”
That was all she managed to get out. Driven past its limits, her tail reared up and whipped down one final time. The ensuing crack sent a deep rumble through the big gas bag thingy overhead, her ears went ringy, and ten feet of space opened behind her as the ponies after her tumbled into those waiting further back.
Cinnamon a million, that was a doozy of a twitch right there! There weren’t any actual doozies coming down the pipe, of course—that was a whole different set of shakes and shivers.
“Are you sure you’re ready, miss?” asked the attendant, his brow arched.
“Sure am!” she chirped. “I get these weird twitches all the time that tell me what’s gonna happen in the future, but I’ve never done anything like that before! And I love it when that happens, ‘cause that means I have absolutely no idea what’s going to happen next! Well, we could probably rule out anything that involves this story’s update schedule. There’s just no predicting that ever.”
The attendant rolled his eyes. “Miss, please...”
“Oh, right, surfing! Gimme that board.”
As Pinkie set her hooves one by one on the fiberglass, she looked out to the rest of the ship and saw ponies gathering nearby. They bobbed in the pools below or stood off to the sides—some looked down at her from the opening in the sky deck. True to her word, Rarity was there at the railing with a daiquiri, and she returned the wave the earth mare gave her with a smile.
Pinkie wasn’t a showmare. When she threw parties, they were always for other ponies—or griffons, or donkeys, et cetera. Parties had momentum, and that momentum needed direction. This meant she spent most of her time taking care of the little behind-the-scene details most ponies didn’t pay much attention to: punch bowls and pastries never ran low at a Pinkie Pie production, and nopony went without a conversation partner. She was fine with never hearing a word of thanks on the small stuff so long as her guests enjoyed the big ones.
Realizing the assembling ponies had come there to watch her for once—she gulped a little. This was a huge responsibility she was taking on all of a sudden. She wasn’t nervous. On the contrary, she was excited—she was psyched! Life continued no matter how she performed on this surf machine, but, at the same time, she needed to give everypony a show they wouldn’t ever forget.
All right, then. She had all four hooves on board. On her signal, the attendant would let her go. She closed her eyes and pulled a breath through her nose. Her heart pumped within her chest like a train engine—nothing she could do about that, so better to let it work on its own. She exhaled, ready as she was ever going to be.
“Okey dokey,” she said, nodding to the unicorn.
The aura holding the board steady dispersed.
And so did the board. Pinkie had only a moment to observe the water beneath her belly before she performed Equestria’s greatest atomic flop. Then the noise died down, and things went dark for a little bit…
“Pinkie Pie? Pinkie Pie, darling? Can you hear me?” The voice echoed down to her as if from the far end of a very long tube.
“Mmm... mama?” Pinkie opened her eyes. Everything was blurry, with two blobs of light gray and purple taking up the center of her vision. “I don’t wanna go to school today.”
“It’s Rarity, dear,” the blobs said, soon resolving into the familiar face of her fashionable friend. She had one hoof holding up the earth mare’s head and the other tucked behind her back. “You had a nasty fall just now. Do you remember any of it?”
“A little.” With Rarity’s help, Pinkie was able to stand on her hooves and tottered out of the shallow waters of the collecting basin. Her memory was kind of hazy—she remembered there was a jolt the instant the water swept her board away, and then... “‘Biff.’”
“‘Biff,’” Pinkie repeated, totally serious as she and Rarity took their chaises from before. “That’s the sound I made when I fell, right?”
Rarity dragged her hoof behind the back of her own head while looking off to the side. “Sure, we can go with that. What happened out there, anyway?”
“I fell,” Pinkie replied.
“Yes, you did,” Rarity agreed. “It’s just that, well... that was rather unexpected.”
Pinkie tilted her head. “Huh?”
“I mean—” Rarity’s jaw performed a small, silent acrobatics routine as she looked for words in the sky. There wasn’t really any other way to describe what her eyes did then. “I would’ve expected this sort of thing to be your forté.”
“Yes and no.” A silly smile snuck across the unicorn’s face. “I suppose you’re just talented with so many things and comfortable with even more that, well... I would’ve thought surfing would’ve been among them.”
Pinkie threw herself back in her chaise laughing—it was a good laugh, too, one that got her tummy all pinchy and her legs kicking. “Hee hee ha ha ha! Oh, Rarity, that’s a good one!” she said, wiping her eyes. “Hoo hoo! What in Equestria gave you the idea that I’d be good at something I was only trying for the first time? If anything, I’m gonna need a whole lot of work before I do anywhere as well as you did your first time through.”
Rarity turned a shade of barn. Coughing once, she stumbled over an apology the earth mare told her wasn’t necessary, then continued. “Well, when you put it that way…” She let her eyes slip from side to side conspiratorially, then held a hoof up to the side of her mouth as she leaned in. “You don’t suppose you’re up for another try, are you?”
“Only if you’re coming, too,” Pinkie insisted.
“Really now,” said Rarity, rising from her seat. She held her hoof out. “How could I refuse an invitation like that from a lady like you?”
One thing became clear soon enough: neither Pinkie Pie nor Rarity were on their way to Haywaii’s North Shore for a shoot on the waves within the next year or so. Pinkie was sure she was going to run out of ways to fall over before the day was done, and yet she couldn’t keep herself from stepping back on the board again and again.
To the earth mare’s amazement, Rarity was the first of them to try standing on two legs professional style, and her mane flapped this way and that in the wind as she wobbled her way over the water. Lunchtime came and passed for the price of ten seconds’ success—her front legs shot way high up in the air and she unleashed an amazon cry—totally worth the sore hips afterward, she said.
By late afternoon, Pinkie noticed some very special ponies gathering on the sky deck rail. Applejack and Fluttershy had returned from their trip to the Arboretum to cheer on her wave-taming attempts, and Applejack even had her front leg slung over Fluttershy’s withers. Pinkie stood by her claim that the Opera Concordia still had so much to offer her activity-wise, but the two looked like they were enjoying themselves so much that they deserved more time on their own. And there they were now, hollering cheers for Rarity from Applejack and slightly less loud calls for Pinkie from Fluttershy.
Twilight showed up a little after the others did, and they’d shared a few words before Rainbow Dash hobbled up on deck, rubbing her eyes after what must’ve been an incredible nap. The moment she noticed the pegasus on the approach, Twilight whisked on over and whispered a few words in her ear that got her standing straighter. After a questioning look, Rainbow drew Twilight in for a hug and joined her other friends on the railing, where the four of them made a great big cheering section for the Raripie fan club. Having come up with that name on the spot, a small part of Pinkie wondered if similar names existed for her other friends. Then her board beached at the bottom of the wave and bucked her off.
Late in the afternoon, the pumps were turned off and the surf machine fell silent. Pinkie went with the rest of her friends back to the stateroom to freshen up for dinner. Hard to believe the day of repose had come so quickly to its end—an end hastened through the relentless bubblepop blasts in the Heavenly Drop later on that evening.
After a long, peaceful night of travel filled with dreams of friends and happiness, the Opera Concordia touched down on the morning edge of Pinstripe Plains.