Pumpkin had never felt so nervous in her life. She was pacing around, unable to sit still. Her testing was due to begin any minute.
With Pound’s encouragement she had decided to take Twilight’s offer to try out for Celestia’s School for Gifted Unicorns.
She felt like something was squeezing her lungs, her breaths coming in little huffs. A part of it was the anticipation of what would happen. What questions would they ask? What tests would she have to do? What kind of ponies would the examiners be? Would they be snooty and condescending, or would they be like Twilight?
“Calm yourself, Pumpkin,” said Carrot. “You’re not going to accomplish anything by working yourself into a frenzy.”
She gulped. “How am I supposed to be calm?” She put her hooves to her head. “I can’t do this! This was all a big mistake! Let’s go home quick before it's too late.”
Cup stood up and pulled Pumpkin into a hug. “Relax,” she said comfortingly. “You don’t live in Canterlot, so the worst that will happen is that you’ll fail the test. No one will be able to mock you or humiliate you if you don’t pass.”
Her parent's were the only ones that came along. She really wished that Pound could be there with her, but he was in school. Pinkie was watching the shop.
When Pound had been there it had seemed so easy to be strong. Now she felt like the biggest weakling ever. And that, she reminded herself, was exactly why he wanted them to be apart: so that they could become strong ponies on their own.
Cup sat down on her chair, rubbing her back. “You’re going to do fine, Pumpkin. Just remember that the worst that can happen is you don’t get accepted. It’s not like they’re going to lock you up in jail if you don’t meet their standards.”
Pumpkin looked up at her mother. “I… I know that, but still…” She looked back down. “Twilight vouched for me. I don’t want to let her down.”
“Did you forget what happened when you ran away?” asked Carrot. “You thought that Twilight was mad at you for ‘making her look bad’ in front of the principal. But she wasn’t.
"The only thing you can do is give it your best effort. You might pass, or you might not. Either way, Twilight will still care for you.”
Pumpkin took a deep breath. “Yeah… you’re right. I’m still kinda nervous though.”
“Of course you are. Everyone gets a little nervous right before attempting something big. It’s okay to be nervous, just like it’s okay to be jealous or angry. It’s only when you let those feelings control you do they become a problem.”
Cup kissed her forehead a few times. “Just breathe. Twilight put her confidence in you. You might not succeed here, but Twilight believed that you had the potential to. And if she thinks you have what it takes then I believe in her.”
Pumpkin closed her eyes, nuzzling her mother for comfort. “I really wish they’d just call me in already. Once it starts I think I’ll be fine. I’ll show them what I can do and then that’ll be it. Whether I pass or fail at least it’ll be over.”
Cup and Carrot both nodded. “We’ve all been there. Even if it’s a fail it’s a relief to just know.”
The next few minutes were tense, but after what felt like an eternity a pony opened the door nearby and called out her name.
The three of them followed the mare inside.
She was in a conference room, set up for about a hundred or so students. At the bottom of the risers was a table set up for four. There were two mares and two stallions, each of them wearing a suit or a tie.
The mare that brought them in directed Cup and Carrot off to the side, while Pumpkin went to stand in front of the four examiners.
Pumpkin’s heart was beating fast. Now that the moment was upon her a part of now wished she could have waited a little longer.
She looked around at the four examiners. The first stallion looked pretty serious. The second one looked a bit snooty, like he was already counting her out. The first mare looked bored, but the second one looked interested. Out of the four of them only one seemed like they were going to give her a fair chance. It didn’t fill her with confidence.
The serious looking stallion adjusted his glasses, saying, “Hello there. Please state your name for us.”
Well, at least they were starting off with something simple. She couldn't possibly get that wrong. “I’m…” She gulped, then started over, “I’m Pumpkin Cake.”
“Well, good. At least we know we have the right applicant. I am Gold Rush."
"Star Power," said the bored-looking mare.
"Mystic Art," said the snooty-looking stallion.
"Tranquil Ocean," said the nice-looking mare.
"Alright," said Gold Rush. "Now that introductions are out of the way just what brings you here today?”
Pumpkin’s eyebrow went up, and she gulped again. Was this some kind of trick question? “I’m here… for the test. The test to see if I qualify for Celestia’s School for Gifted Unicorns.”
“Obviously,” said Star Power, rolling her eyes. “Can you skip the obvious questions and just get on with it?”
“Honestly!” said Mystic Art. “What else would she be here for?”
“Let’s all calm down,” said Tranquil Ocean. Addressing Pumpkin she said, “What is your goal? You’re here for the test, yes, but the test is nothing but a demonstration of your talents. Assuming you pass what is it you want to accomplish at this school?”
Pumpkin found herself smiling back at Tranquil. That question was straightforward enough. She looked up towards the ceiling, thinking of everything she had gone through in the past few months.
What did she want out of this? What was her end goal? After thinking on it for a minute she said, “My ultimate goal is to one day become an alicorn.”
Cup and Carrot both gulped. The other three judges already looked like they had a low opinion of Pumpkin before, but now they looked like they had lost any interest whatsoever in her. Tranquil was the opposite though. Her eyes sparkled with interest.
Star sighed. “Spare me the drivel,” she said condescendingly. “Could your answer be any more generic?”
“Seriously,” said Mystic. “Ponies hear about Twilight coming to this school and being granted alicornhood and suddenly every applicant thinks they’re the special ones who will inherit the position next.”
Pumpkin hung her head a little.
Tranquil said, “Why? What does alicornhood mean to you?”
Pumpkin felt like just leaving the testing room and giving up, but then she remembered her Pinkie Promise to Pound. She had said she would give it her all.
Gathering up her courage she raised her head and said, “I want to be an alicorn because I want to be extremely powerful.”
Gold shook his head. “Typical child. Power is not a kid’s game, you know.”
Tranquil said again, “Why? What do you want to do with that power?” Her horn flashed, and a pair of energy wings appeared on Pumpkin’s back. “You’ve studied, you’ve worked hard, you’ve practiced, accomplished great feats, and now you’re an alicorn. What’s next?”
Pumpkin kept her gaze focused on Tranquil as she answered. “I come from Ponyville, and we recently had an invasion of bug monsters attacking us. I got separated from my family except for my brother Pound. He’s only a few minutes older than me, but he’s the strongest pony I know. He’s not like Twilight and gifted with magic. He’s a pegasus and a little kid. Despite that, he’ll do anything to protect me.
“My brother used to be out of control and tried to fight anyone that picked on me, until Twilight taught him that it was wrong. She showed him that fighting others only made things worse. Now he tries to talk things out.”
She closed her eyes, putting a hoof to her heart. “My brother taught me everything I know about being strong. He’s always been my shield. When he was attacked by the bug creatures and I was left alone I still begged him for help, and in a way he came to my rescue. Even though he was petrified his heart remained with me, giving me the courage to help save others ponies with the magic I awakened.”
She opened her eyes, setting her hoof down. “I did everything I could, but I wasn’t strong enough. Those bug creatures… there were just too many of them to fight. If Twilight hadn’t arrived when she did we would have all been petrified.
“Pound is my hero, and has always protected me. He never brags about it or shows off. He’s just happy to know that he kept me safe. And that’s how I feel too. I was so happy I had a magic that allowed me to protect others, but right now I’m still too weak.
“I don’t want to be an alicorn or become powerful to look down on others, or to become a princess, or to get a castle, or have ponies bow down at my hooves.” Her eyes grew misty. “The only thing I want is to catch up to my hero and be exactly like him.
“I want to put myself in danger to protect everyone else from harm. I want to be like my Auntie Pinkie Pie and Twilight and become part of the new Elements of Friendship. I want to save the world so that all the other weaker ponies can live in happiness, and enjoy friendship without some monster ruining their day. I want to be the one that everyone comes to when they’re having trouble.”
The tears ran down her face. “I want to show my brother how much I appreciate what he taught me about being a hero, by becoming a hero for as many ponies as I can. And to do that I’ll do whatever it takes, no matter how hard it is.
“I want to see their smiles. I want to hear them laugh. I want to wipe away their tears. I want…” She put a hoof to her heart again.“I want to become strong enough to protect all of our dreams.”
She kneeled down. “If you give me a shot I’ll work my hardest to create an Equestria that doesn’t need alicorns or Royal Guards, and every pony lives in peace and harmony with one another.”
Cup and Carrot were pressed up against one another, quietly crying. They felt so proud of their daughter.
The other three judges had lost their haughtiness, taken aback by Pumpkin’s maturity.
Tranquil was smiling widely. “Very well said, young unicorn. I think we’ve all seen the shape of your heart. Isn’t that right?” She turned to her colleagues.
Gold cleared his throat. “Well, um... yes. It seems there is more to you than meets the eye. While your goal may be noble, though, that’s only a small portion of what constitutes an enrollment. This is a school for gifted unicorns, after all.”
Star didn’t sound quite so bored now. “That is correct. Show us what makes you think you’re gifted. You said your magic awakened in a high-tension situation. Show us what it is.”
Pumpkin let out a breath. She could see the change in the way the three judges looked at her. Now they actually looked interested in her. It made her feel more confident.
Pound… he had saved her again. If he hadn’t pushed that promise out of her she probably would have given up.
“My magic is to create anything.”
“Anything, you say?” said Mystic.
“Well… I’m sure there are limits, but I don’t know them yet.” Her horn glowed, and five magical spheres appeared around her. “My special magical talent is to create these spheres of energy. After I make them I can turn them into other things.”
She made a shield around herself, then a weapon. She made a sledgehammer that hit a bell she conjured up, making it ring. She made a comb which she ran through her mane. She made a bowling bowl which she threw at some pins.
“Interesting,” said Gold, scratching his chin. “An imagination based power.”
“I agree,” said Star. “With that level of adaptability there’s almost no limit to what she could conjure up. A magic that can change for any situation.”
“Well, well,” said Tranquil. “A noble goal and an impressive bit of magical talent. She’s certainly got my vote.”
Mystic stood up, walking around the table. “I’m not convinced just yet.” He lifted up his chair in his magic. “Defend yourself.”
Pumpkin summoned her shield, and she stood her ground as the chair collided with it, bouncing off.
“So at least your shield is actually a shield. Let’s test you some more. I want to be sure your magic actually works ‘as advertised’ and it’s not just a visual trick.” He pointed to the chair. “Cut it in half.”
Pumpkin hesitated. “Are you sure? I don’t want to be destroying school property.”
“I gave my permission, did I not? Just follow instructions.”
So Pumpkin created a sword and hacked at the chair. Unlike the bug creatures the chair was made of a sturdy material, and it resisted her efforts to cleanly swing through it.
Maybe she just wasn’t using the right tool for the job. Getting rid of the sword she created a saw instead, and that worked much better.
A minute later the top half of the chair fell to the floor.
There was a scratching of quills.
The stallion kept giving her different objects to transform her magic into. For the most part she mimicked every object she was told to for the next ten minutes, but constantly keeping her magic active was taking a drain on her concentration, and she started screwing up before hurriedly correcting it.
Eventually he took pity on her and allowed her a break.
Pumpkin let out a heavy sigh as she finally released her magic.
The stallion fixed his chair and went to sit down, writing down on the pad in front of him. “Well, you’re certainly a cut above other fillies around your age. For a pony that doesn’t come from Canterlot stock it’s quite intriguing.”
Pumpkin felt a little disheartened. It wasn’t like she didn’t expect the bias, but it still hurt. She didn’t voice her feelings, though. She had to show them she was made of tougher stuff if she ever wanted to earn their respect.
“So what do the rest of you think?”
Tranquil said, “I already stated how I felt earlier. I think she’d make a fine addition to this school.”
Gold said, “Hmmm… well, she does have a certain potential that’s begging to be explored. I wouldn’t say her power is something that can back up her bold claims, though.”
Star looked at one of her hooves, filing it a little. “I agree with that. Noble aspirations and a bit of a unique ability does not a world-saving pony make. Thinking big is good, but do try to keep your head in a realistic area.”
Pumpkin felt her confidence waning again. Her boldness earlier, while genuine, made it seem like she was being egocentric. She put her hoof to her heart again, once more thinking about her actions during the invasion.
Maybe she wouldn’t ever be as skilled as Twilight, but she did have power. She just had to remember that. If she backed down now she’d only confirm their low opinion of her.
“Then give me the chance to prove you wrong!” she said confidently. “Right now my power is like a seed that has only just bloomed. It’s just a tiny bit of what it will be when it’s full grown.
“Besides, the strength of one’s magic has nothing to do with their ability to save the world. Twilight’s friend Fluttershy won over Discord with nothing but kindness and friendship.
“Twilight put me and Pound’s words in her friendship journal, right next to hers, because she believed that even someone as young as me can still influence and help others.”
She took a few steps towards them, her eyes blazing. “So if you want to look down on me just because I come from Ponyville, or because my magic isn’t at its strongest, then fine. So long as I have my brother’s heart inside of me I’ll become stronger than anyone. I’ll never back down.”
Mystic stared at her. “Well, you’re bold, if nothing else. Do you really think we’re the worst you’re going to face here? As instructors we must retain a professional demeanor. The students might not be so kind.
“Do you believe you’re more special than the other students here? I can assure you that you’re mistaken if you believe that. You show a little more maturity than the usual kids that try out, but ponies like you are common. It has nothing to do with your town of origin, although I will state that the dropout rate for students is much greater in non-Canterlot residents.
“It doesn’t cost anything to talk big and have a dream. What matters is if you have the guts to follow it through despite turmoil and setbacks.
“I’ll give you, mmm… let’s say three months. That’s usually about the time when the majority of students first drop out. If you can last that long without giving up and without failing grades you’ll have earned my respect.”
Pumpkin pushed forward, though she thought it would be better to keep quiet. “I don’t need your respect!”
He blinked. “Is that so?”
“This has nothing to do with your opinion of me. The only thing that matters to me is helping others the way my brother taught me. This school is like a shortcut, but whether I get in or not isn’t important to me either. It just means it will take a little longer to master my power.”
Pumpkin’s mind flashed back to the times Pound threw himself in danger for her, the way he offered to take the blame for things he hadn’t even done, and his growth through training with Twilight in keeping control of his temper.
“My brother taught me enough lessons. Now I have to learn to be strong without him holding my hoof. When I grow truly strong I want to be like my heroes, and save as many ponies as I can, just like he did for me. It has nothing to do with rewards and prizes or anything to do with me. It’s about them, the ponies in need.
“The only thing my brother wanted is to see me happy and safe, and I feel the same about them. That is the very spirit of the magic of friendship.”
Mystic looked thoughtfully at her, then he shrugged. “You seem to have decent drive, but words are cheap. Action is what other ponies admire and respect, so I’ll give my vote for your approval to see what you’re made of.
“You’ve got my curiosity. Let’s just see how long you last before the pressure breaks you.”
“I agree,” said Star. “Anyone can talk big. It takes guts to follow through, so let’s just see if you can really defy our expectations. I’ll also give you your chance to prove yourself.”
“Well,” said Tranquil, “You already have my vote.”
Gold said, “I have nothing further to add. They’ve said it all already. If you really mean what you say then prove it through your actions. Nothing else will satisfy me.”
Pumpkin found it a little hard to breathe. All four of them had voted yes.
“Well, then,” said Tranquil with a warm smile, “welcome to Celestia’s School for Gifted Unicorns.”
Pumpkin beamed, happy tears coming down her eyes.
“So we have a new addition to the school, huh?” came a voice near the door.
Pumpkin looked towards it and her eyes went wide as Princess Celestia walked toward her. It was the first time she had seen the mare in person. She felt weak. She was standing before the most powerful and influential pony in the world.
She was trembling slightly as she looked up into Celestia’s kind eyes and warm smile, noticing neither. “O-OH!” she exclaimed, a bead of sweat coming down her face. “S-sorry!” she said quickly, bowing to her. “I’m so sorry.” This was nothing like Twilight. She had no doubt she was to bow to Celestia.
Celestia lay down in front of her so they were on the same level. “There’s no need to be afraid,” she said gently, rubbing Pumpkin’s head.
Pumpkin looked up, tears running down her eyes, fearing she had made a horrible first impression. “Y-you were watching my test?”
She nodded. “That’s right. Twilight told me about you, Pumpkin.”
She flushed as Celestia used her name. “She did?”
“That’s right. It seems you and your brother both understand well the magic of friendship, and I’m always proud to hear that.” She put a hoof to Pumpkin’s chest. “When we put our hearts together there truly is nothing that we cannot accomplish. Wouldn’t you agree?”
Pumpkin nodded, putting her hoof over Celestia’s. “My brother lives in my heart, and he’s the strongest pony I know. I may be small now, but as our hearts grow we’ll be stronger too, and one day no one will ever be able to beat us.”
“That would be lovely. I do acknowledge your potential for greatness, though I hope you won’t be offended when I say that your raw magical ability isn’t quite the level of Twilight’s when she was a filly. You won’t be my personal student like she was, but you’ll still make a fine addition to this school.”
Pumpkin smiled. “I think I’m lucky just to get in. I wasn’t expecting to be good enough to be trained by you personally, but what I have right now is good enough.”
She gave Celestia a hug around the neck. “Thank you for believing in me.”
Celestia returned it. “You’re very welcome, my little pony.”
She had done it. She had taken the first step towards catching up to her brother. She couldn't wait to see his reaction to the news.