A bright white expanse filled the wandering mind's perception. Despite the bleak sterility of the void, it was not at all uncomfortable; it felt warm, peaceful, and inviting, like a mother's embrace. Even formless, this abyss was like heaven to the perceptions of the mind.
How long had it been here? It could have been days or years, or conversely it could have been mere moments since it came to this peaceful place. The flow of time here didn't seem to matter to a being without a body or beating heart. It was a place for a rest well earned.
The formless one hadn't always been without form or place. It had once known multiple shapes, and had many family and friends. In an inspired act of love, it dedicated its very existence to ensure life for those that would surely die. In exchange, it willingly sacrificed its body and the names it had been known by in both worlds.
A presence intruded on the mind's rest; it felt and heard the crunch of leaves and dirt under hooves. With every step he heard, the sound of plants in the wind soon followed. As the sounds drew ever closer, the mind began to perceive the growth of grass and flowers—standing out against the void—at the point each sound originated. The mind mused that the pattern matched the spacing of a horse's hoof-falls perfectly, so it found it odd that it could not sense any presence there with it.
“Goldenrod...” a sweet, motherly voice whispered to the mind.
“That's a name that I didn't expect to hear again,” he thought in amusement, focusing on the voice. “Is this the afterlife?”
There was a giggle. To Goldenrod, it was paradoxically youthful and ancient; the laughter of an ancient being that had lost none of its youthful spark. “No, dear. It's nothing so grim,” the feminine voice sounded cheerful in this revelation. “I simply brought you here, to the privacy of my plane of existence, to thank you, and make unto you an offer.”
If Goldenrod had a face at that moment of time, an expression of surprised confusion would have broken out across it. “Thank me? For what?”
“Why, for all you have done for Equestria of course—for all you've done for me.” she chided. “Don't think that your noble actions have gone outside my notice. Your actions averted a great tragedy.”
Goldenrod again found this humorous. “Noble? Hardly. My actions were as selfish as they come.” The only hint at the location of his conversation partner was through the appearance of plants and grass. He suddenly found it quite disturbing that he had no form of his own, meaning that he couldn't direct his senses toward the equally formless entity. “Do you think maybe you could take a form of some sort? It's unnerving not knowing what the other person looks like.”
“But of course!” she replies softly. “How rude of me.”
To his senses, it was almost as though she was being inked into existence on a piece of parchment. From the equally spaced flowers on the arbitrary ground, hooves came into existence. Up from each hoof swam a creamy-white leg. The legs merged into a body, and from that body, sprouted a head and wings. Her head was pointed with a horn, as well. From her head sprouted a slightly frizzy auburn mane, which was soon matched by an equally frizzy tail. There was a flash, and upon her flanks appeared an inkwell and quill. In the incredibly detailed perception of his non-form, he could even make out a small seal on the inkwell: the world.
“You're an Alicorn, yet...you're something more.” Another plane of existence? Plants growing in her hoofsteps? “You're the embodiment of Equestria herself, aren't you?”
The Alicorn smiled, winking one blue eye. “That's right, Goldenrod.” She brought a hoof up to her mouth and smothered a laugh. “By my daughters and those who remember me, I am called Gaea.”
“...the Mother of All,” he mused, knowing full well she could hear his thoughts. “Would that make you the Mother of the Alicorns then?”
“Oh but you are the clever one, aren't you?” A thoughtful look crossed Gaea's face. “Yes, the ones you know as Celestia and Luna are my daughters, in the same way that you too could become one of my children.”
“Becoming an Alicorn isn't something that comes through birth, exactly. Instead it is a gift I bestow upon rebirth of those I deem worthy. Take Celestia and Luna as an example. In previous lives, they were twins who amounted to many great things. Upon their deaths, they were given the choice of being reborn as something more—a pillar for Equestria, if you would—or to peacefully pass on. Unhappy with having left Equestria as it was, they chose to meet the challenge and serve Equestria not as leaders, but shepherds. For all they had done and continued to do, they were rewarded with domain over the sun and moon.
“Then of course there is dear, loving Cadance.” She chuckled. “She too is my daughter, but Celestia and Luna see her more as a niece, simply because of how young she really is. They also see the difference in birth parents as something that separates them. She never seems to mind though, bless her soul.”
Goldenrod wasn't quite sure what she was getting at. “What does this have to do with me?”
“I'd like to offer you the option of becoming one of my children of course.” She smiles curtly. “You've more than shown to be a strong male figure—something Equestria is sorely lacking—willing to make hard choices for the good of others.”
“I'm hardly the ideal choice for that,” he responds with ill humor. “My reasons were selfish. What I did was not heroism or nobility or anything of the sort. Everything I did was for either myself or Scootaloo. Saving Earth and Equestria were just side effects. No, Scootaloo needs me more than Equestria does.”
Gaea frowned at Goldenrod, an eyebrow raised. “You think to downplay your virtues, and refuse a gift of greatness?” She hummed idly. “Would you, then prefer to pass on to your next life then?”
“No.” Goldenrod didn't even need to think about it. “There's a lot I still need to do in Equestria. Right now, there's a little filly who needs a big brother more than anything. I might not be a hero or worthy of becoming a god, but at the very least I'm good enough to be her brother. I don't doubt that it is in your power to give me shape once more. I get the feeling you've already done it once before.”
The Mother of All grinned at him knowingly. “Nothing escapes you, does it?” she replied with a nervous laugh. “What gave it away?”
“The plants did,” he thought flatly. “Plants were always prospering around me, just like how they grew around your very hooves.”
“Indeed,” she remarked. “All souls who enter the world must have a form, but when you entered Equestria, there was no form ready. As such, I created one suited to your unique state. The plants were just a motherly touch I felt would work for you.”
“...and you made me a colt because I was but a child to the world—intelligent, but with my eyes still closed to the ways of Equestria.”
“That is right. I take it then that you would wish me to again give you form, not as an Alicorn, but as one of the more mundane ponies?”
“Yes,” he thought, imagining a grin on a face. “Just make sure I'm older this time. I'll have a harder time taking care of Scootaloo if I cannot be perceived as old enough to care for myself.”
A thoughtful look returned to Gaea's visage. “Would you like to become a unicorn—a proper unicorn—again?”
“Hell no.” Again, this wasn't something he even had to think about. “I've had enough magic to last me seven lifetimes. Besides, Scootaloo doesn't need a unicorn for a big brother. She needs a pegasus like herself.”
“Very well, a pegasus you will be.” Her horn began to glow in an aura so white that it made her coat look gray in comparison. “Farewell, Goldenrod. I hope that some day we may meet again.”
Twilight Sparkle watched as the mist that had once been Goldenrod began to dim and dissipate. There was nothing left of their friend aside from the glowing mist. Even though they had known him only a short while, the loss was well felt by the entire group. Even Rainbow Dash had turned away so not to show any tears.
The only pony in the group who hadn't teared up was Scootaloo. Her face was frozen in a smile rife with sorrow. “Come on, everypony, don't be sad,” she offered. Her voice betrayed the brave face she was trying to put on for the group. She sounded sadder than anypony in the group likely felt. “It's not what he'd want.”
Applejack swallowed, forcing down her own sadness. “Ah reckon she's right, ya know.” She smiled softly, mirroring Scootaloo's bravery, and joined Apple Bloom beside Fluttershy. “Just like our Ma an' Pa, he'd want us to be happy for all he's done.”
“Oooh! You're right!” Pinkie Pie exclaimed, quickly perking up. “He'd want us to throw a party in his honor! Oh, but there's so much to do!”
Twilight watched Scootaloo's smile waver as everypony reaffirmed the orange filly's sentiment. That smile almost broke at Rainbow Dash's mention of her regret at not being able to race him again to break the tie, but still the filly remained strong. Twilight leaned down and whispered into the filly's ear, “He'd be proud, you know. You're already living up to his assessment of your cutie mark.”
The sorrow left Scootaloo's smile as she looked up at Twilight. It was just what the filly had needed to hear. “Thank you, Twilight.” She gave the mare's foreleg an affectionate nuzzle before running off towards the path. “Come on, everypony! Let's go home!”
Falling behind for a moment, Princess Celestia's student watched as everypony else ran after the pegasus filly, not wanting to let her out of their sight. Casting a wistful glance back at the spot where Goldenrod had ceased to be, she caught sight of a fog forming over the area. The normalcy of the Everfree Forest was returning.
She faced back down the path, and saw that her friends were almost out of sight. Breaking into a sprint, Twilight quickly caught up with the rest of the group. She was just about to voice her concerns about the Everfree Forest's wildlife when a loud crack sounded off behind them, accenting a bright flash of light.
“Am I too late for my funeral?” A vaguely familiar voice called out.
The voice sent a chill down her spine. No, it couldn't be!
“Damn, I missed it again, didn't I?”
Watching her perplexing guest intently, Twilight Sparkle couldn't help but marvel at how much about Equestria she still didn't understand. By all rights, Goldenrod should have died as a result of what happened. Yet here he was before her, napping in the corner of the main room of her academy residence, with an equally sleepy Scootaloo nestled against his side, beneath a large yellow wing.
Everypony had received a royal summons a mere day after their departure and return to Equestria. To Twilight's absolute shock, Goldenrod had not only received the same summons as everypony else, but the Princesses also issued a formal invitation to a private audience at his earliest convenience following the audience granted to everypony who had returned from Earth.
They had taken the train to Canterlot right away and made straight for her academy residence. In spite of his youthful, adolescent form—somewhere between the puberty and young adulthood, making him just a bit shorter than Fluttershy—he was napping almost as much as Rainbow Dash. Goldenrod always put it off as catching up on peaceful sleep.
Most intriguing though was his reincarnation as a pegasus. Each time she broached the question, he'd pretend that he didn't hear her, or would change the subject. The most he ever let slip was that it wasn't his place to discuss, and he was very adamant that she would have to ask either Princess, first. While she had given up her questioning, she intended to find out more.
“Mmmm... What time is it?” he groaned, gingerly retracting his wing from over the filly. Squinting at her, Goldenrod frowned. “You've been staring at me again while I napped, haven't you? Look, I've said it before, Twilight. It's purely up to the Princesses if they want you to know.”
“I-okay, yes. I've been watching you. It's just that you were so good about being open before.” Twilight let out a sigh. “But ever since you died, it's like you've locked yourself in a closet. I just want to know what you saw. Come on, just a hint.”
“You're not going to let this go until you get time alone with Celestia, are you?” He rose to his hooves, careful not to disturb Scootaloo. The look in his eyes—mostly magenta again, bearing only a few flecks of green—was one of weariness. “Fine. I'm only going to whet your appetite though. I saw the heart of Equestria. That's all.”
Biting back a comment about how annoying cryptic comments were, Twilight forced her attention back to the clock. It was fast approaching the appointed time of their audience with Celestia. “Fine, that's clearly all I'll get out of you. Get ready to go, we'll be meeting everypony else at the castle gates.”
Walking into the throne room of Canterlot Castle, Goldenrod couldn't help but fight back a shudder. The place was deathly silent, and as he and the others were escorted to the base of the throne, he couldn't stop thinking place was creepy. There were three Alicorns in the room, a familiar looking Captain of the Guard, and countless Royal Guards and Night Sentinels. All of them stood as still as statues.
The Guards and Sentinels weren't what bothered him. Their eyes were locked on everypony as they strode up the blood red carpet. No, it was the three Alicorns that put him at ill ease. Was it that he had met their mother—his mother now too, he realized—that made him uncomfortable? He knew they had been mortal ponies just as he is. Or was it just their combined gaze that set him aback?
Reaching the stairs leading up to the raised platform on which the throne sat, he stopped. Bending one foreleg, he shifted his weight to the other side and bowed his head respectfully. He wasn't sure this was how ponies dealt with bowing, but he needed to make it clear that he did not see himself better than any other pony. Goldenrod was, after all, now one of their subjects.
“Thank you, my faithful subjects, for coming here this day.” Princess Celestia announced, smiling radiantly. “It fills me with great pride to see you all fight not only for Equestria's safety, but for the good of two worlds.”
Twilight stepped forth as the voice of the group. “It was our duty as Equestrian citizens, Princess.” she offered meekly. “We also had our personal stakes in the matter. It wasn't something we could stand idly by and let happen.”
“While that may be, dear Twilight,” the white Alicorn replied softly. “What you and your friends have accomplished has averted total war.”
Golden didn't mind his role being downplayed. In fact, he was the one who encouraged Luna to do so. As much as he would like to have his share of recognition, it was more important that his new life in Equestria didn't begin in the limelight as the hero of two worlds. With the friends Scootaloo had—and who they were related to—she was already going have an interesting life to say the least. She didn't need a big brother who was 'that hero that hasn't done anything recently.'
“For your actions in the defense of Equestria and all of her citizens,” Luna announced in the Royal Canterlot voice. “There is no greater honor we can bestow upon you all than induction into the Order of the Eclipse as honorary Knights of Equestria.”
Damn it. I thought she was joking about knighthood.
One by one, the Bearers of the Elements of Harmony were summoned before the three Princesses. Each Alicorn placed her horn on the withers of the recipient, beginning with the pink Princess Cadance, followed by Luna, and ending with Celestia. As they returned to join the others, Guard Captain Shining Armor levitated a pendant from a box, and placed it around their necks.
He got his first good look at the pendant when Fluttershy came back down to join the group. The pendant was a sterling silver shield bearing an emblem of a total solar eclipse. “Know this,” Princess Celestia declared. “So long as you bear the sigil of the Order of the Eclipse, any Guard or Sentinel you encounter will be obliged to help you in a time of need.”
Goldenrod watched Twilight as she received her knighting. He found it endearing how much she blushed as she was knighted. Then again, with both her older brother and the Princess beaming with pride in her, it would be hard not to be slightly embarrassed. When Shining Armor levitated her Order sigil around her neck, the stallion couldn't help but give his sister an affectionate nuzzle.
That was when Goldenrod first became aware of an audience observing the whole spectacle. The sound of a mare sobbing somewhere behind him drew his attention to the 'back' of the throne room. Ponies of all kinds had gathered. Among them were a sobbing mare and stallion bearing a close resemblance to Twilight and her brother. Then he thought he caught sight of a handsome yellow earth pony stallion wearing a hat, bearing an apple cutie mark, flanked by Apple Bloom, Big Macintosh, and an elderly earth pony mare. Not far from them, another unicorn family sat alongside Sweetie Belle, watching Rarity proudly. Finally, he spotted a rough, Amish looking family of earth ponies, all bearing similar grayish manes. They seemed to be watching Pinkie with pride, in spite of her goofy bouncing in the presence of royalty.
When could they have had the chance to get all these families here? Did they receive invitations the same day as us, but caught a later train? He was observing a few pegasi watching from the back when his eyes were immediately drawn to the front of the pack. Of course Scootaloo would be here at the ceremony too! She was, after all, his adoptive little sister.
“Yer up, hayseed,” Applejack said with a slight elbow to his ribs. “Stop makin' goo-goo eyes with mah cousin an' get on up for yer recognition!”
He gave her a confused look. “Your what?” he sputtered. “But I wasn't!”
“Sure thing, sugar.” She gave him a wink, and then gently bucked him towards the stairs. “Show'em yer all that!”
Goldenrod slowly ascended the steps to join Celestia, Luna and Cadance in front of the throne. His cheeks were burning as red as Big Macintosh's coat, and not just because he was receiving an honor he didn't feel he rightly deserved. He'd just been accused of checking out his friend's cousin. Was I? I mean...he was pretty good looking, in a pretty-boy sort of way. He shook his head, and stopped just short of bumping into Princess Celestia's chest. Through reflex, he sank into the same stance he had at the beginning of the ceremony, again bowing his head.
As Princess Luna dubbed him with her horn, she whispered into his ear, “We will be borrowing you shortly after closing the ceremony and sending everypony off to the celebration. Do not be alarmed.”
Then it was Princess Celestia's turn, both to dub him and whisper into his ear, “I am very proud of you, my little pony.”
Swallowing his sudden anxiety, Goldenrod rose, and strode towards Shining Armor. The white stallion didn't bear any of the apparent mistrust and animosity he'd expressed towards him when he'd first seen Goldenrod's human form. Instead, there was a look of modest approval in his eyes. Nodding, he presented Goldenrod with the sterling silver sigil of the Order of the Eclipse.
As Goldenrod returned to the group, Scootaloo broke free of the crowd of families, and practically flew to his side. She tackled him in a big hug almost instantly, beaming with pride and excitement. Can anyone blame her? Her 'big brother' is a knight! He broke out in a gigantic grin and mussed the filly's hair with a hoof.
“I'm going to disappear for a bit after the ceremony is over,” he whispered in her ear. “Don't fret. Just go to the party with everypony else and I'll catch up with you.”
Goldenrod found himself floating in a bright white void again. He wasn't alone though. The three Alicorn Royals were present as well, giving him appraising looks. Celestia and Cadance seemed to be surprised by his unsurprised face, while Luna seemed amused.
“So you can do this too then?” he asked, grinning but keeping his tone respectful.
Luna looked at Cadance with a smirk, and let out a jovial laugh. “I told you he met Mother,” she stated in a singsong voice. “You owe me five bits.”
Cadance gave her 'aunt' a playful raspberry in response.
The Solar Princess, on the other hoof, was all business. “So it is true then, Goldenrod. You met Mother Gaea.”
“Yes, your majesty.”
“Tell me,” her voice was silky smooth. “What did Mother seek from you?”
“She came to me with an offer,” he said honestly. “Gaea offered me the choice of becoming an Alicorn like you. Said something about Equestria needing a strong male figure.”
“You didn't, that much is clear.” Cadance offered with a sweet smile. “Why?”
“I'm not the pony she's looking for—the strong male figure I mean.” He glanced off into the void, where Scootaloo had been beside him only moments before. “Equestria doesn't need a pony like me. Scootaloo needs me far more than Equestria does.”
The pink Alicorn let out a girlish giggle. The look on her face told him everything going on in her head. 'Aww, that's so adorable! I just wanna take you home and keep you like a pet... but then Shining would get mad at me.' Instead she said, “That's a very noble sacrifice.”
“Few have ever been offered Mother's boon,” Celestia added softly. “You are the first to ever reject it. That filly must really mean a lot to you.”
Goldenrod smiled, looking down sheepishly. “She does, your majesty.” He let out a soft sigh. “I can't really explain it, but I saw something in that hurt little filly that I needed to nourish, not as a parent or friend, but as a brother. I wouldn't have it any other way.”
The three Alicorns exchanged glances. Their smiles were of both pride and acceptance. What he said seemed to solidify an opinion among them. “We see now why Mother granted you this chance at life,” Luna spoke. “The love and devotion you hold for Scootaloo is everything we cherish in our subjects.” Then she added with a wink, “While I speak for myself more than the others, I can understand why she thought you a good candidate for being an Alicorn. I would have gladly called you a brother.” This last remark drew a sour look from Cadance.
Shifting his hooves awkwardly, he glanced at Luna. “I suppose technically we are related...Mother gave me form not once, but twice.” He winked at the Moon Princess before turning to Celestia. “One last thing, it might be time to have the talk with Twilight.”
Princess Celestia began to blush profusely. Even Luna and Cadance had to muffle laughter with a hoof. “I- there's nothing I can tell her that she hasn't already learned!” she sputtered. “You know how she likes to read!”
Goldenrod couldn't help but laugh. “Sorry, that was a bad choice in wording.” He rubbed the back of his head with a hoof. “I meant you should probably talk to her about Mother eventually. She was very adamant on learning about why I'm even still alive, and I wasn't sure you would want her to learn about Gaea from anyone but you.”
Composing herself, the Princess gave him a soft smile. “Ah, yes. I suppose this is a matter I can trust my most faithful student with.” She paused before asking, “Was there anything else you wanted to say?”
“Only that I'd like your blessing in taking guardianship over Scootaloo.”
The three Alicorn Princesses exchanged nods. “Consider the paperwork already done. It's the least we can do for the filly.”
“Now, who wants to go party? I bet there's lots of tasty cupcakes and other treats!” he cheered. “I'm eager to get started on showing Scootaloo what having a big brother is all about!”