Starlight barely avoided walking into a stack of books more than twice her own height as she walked into the Castle of Friendship’s throne room.
The entire room was filled with similar stacks, she noted as she looked around. Her mentor, Princess Twilight Sparkle, was zipping around, looking at one book after another.
“What's going on?” Starlight asked.
“Map!” Twilight answered succinctly, a note of excitement in her voice. “Summoned! Friendship problem!”
Starlight looked at the large, magical map of Equestria in the middle of the room. Sure enough, two cutie marks were hovering near the center. “You and Pinkie Pie are being summoned to… Cloudsdale?”
As though on command, Pinkie Pie popped out from within a stack of books. “Hiya!”
Twilight appeared as startled by her appearance as Starlight was. Had Pinkie not already been in the room?
It's Pinkie Pie, Starlight thought, don't question it. She had learned that the hard way.
“So if you've been called by the map,” Starlight asked, gesturing to the stacks of books, “what's all this?”
“Preparations!” Twilight said, sounding almost out of breath, “I've only been called by the map once before, not counting that time we were all called to deal with… well, you.”
“Right,” Starlight said flatly.
“So I have to make sure I'm ready!”
“Seems a little excessive if you ask me.”
Pinkie Pie was the one to answer. “Oh, you have no idea! Fluttershy told me she was even more kooky last time, except of course she didn't say ‘kooky’ because she's Fluttershy, but I'm sure that's what she meant--”
“I was not kooky!” Twilight interrupted, indignantly.
Starlight decided not to challenge Pinkie Pie on the hypocrisy of her calling somepony ‘kooky’, instead focusing on the map. “Cloudsdale, huh… How are you going to get up there? It's too far to teleport, isn't it? I mean, you can fly, Twilight, but Pinkie…”
“I've scheduled a hot air balloon ride,” Twilight said, “and then I'm going to use some magic to let Pinkie walk on clouds. It's an easy spell.”
“Have you tried it?” Pinkie asked, looking at Starlight.
“The spell? I haven't really needed to--”
“No, silly! Flying in a hot air balloon! It's really fun! But of course hot air balloons have nothing on helium balloons, because come on, helium balloons are just the best thing ever. They float and they come in all sorts of colors and they're great for parties and if you breathe in the helium like this--”
Pinkie pulled a balloon out of her mane - how had that fit in there? - quickly untied the knot at the bottom and put the air hole to her mouth. Her voice having taken on an even higher pitch than usual, she continued: “--your voice goes all squeaky like this, isn't that great?” She giggled. “Although I do have a friend who says she doesn't like them for some reason, I wonder why... Oh well, at least she likes hot air balloons.”
Starlight wasn't sure what to say to that.
Suddenly Twilight perked up from her latest book. “What's the time? We have to go! We can't miss the balloon ride! Come on, Pinkie, no time to lose!”
And then Twilight and Pinkie Pie were gone in a flash of magic, leaving Starlight behind in the cluttered throne room, with only the pair of cutie marks hovering lazily above the map for company.
~ * ~
Twilight had expected to spend the balloon ride discussing what the friendship problem might be with Pinkie. But Pinkie seemed more interested in catching up with Cherry Berry, the earth pony in charge of the balloon.
As much as Pinkie claimed to be friends with everypony in Ponyville, Twilight would've found the excitable party pony’s friendship with the laconic pilot odd, had she not already met Pinkie's sister Maud. Cherry said maybe five words for every forty of Pinkie's, yet they seemed to have a genuine connection.
Pinkie's focus on Cherry Berry didn't mean she wanted to keep Twilight out of the conversation. Every so often, she would turn to Twilight and provide some brief (for Pinkie, anyway) context about something one of them had said. Of course, her judgment of which things needed that context was questionable at best. Pinkie explained that “Enterprise” was a mutual friend of theirs who lived in Ponyville - which Twilight had already guessed - but didn't say a word about what a “P4” or a “flapmobile” was.
Maybe Twilight would've figured it out if she had actually been listening with more than half an ear. In lieu of discussing the friendship problem with Pinkie Pie, she had taken to looking through the tome she had made in preparation for her previous friendship mission.
What was left of it, anyway. Back then, she had stupidly torn out each solution that hadn't worked to end the feud. Twilight wanted to go back in time and knock some sense into herself, but she knew better than most how bad that idea would be.
The reading wasn't helping. She didn't feel much more prepared than when the ride had started, and she hadn't felt very prepared then. She was about to close the tome and put it back in her saddlebags when she was startled by an excited Pinkie.
“Twilight, Twilight! Did you hear that?” Pinkie grabbed Twilight's shoulders and shook her, “I think we found the problem!”
“Huh? Already? But we're not even in Cloudsdale yet!”
“Cherry Berry was just telling me about last time she, Enterprise and Moon Dream hung out--”
Cherry interrupted her, presumably knowing it would take Pinkie a while to get to the point, “They seemed terse with each other.”
“And they're usually good friends?” Twilight asked.
“Best friends since childhood. Moon Dream’s sometimes chilly towards me, but this is new.”
“But Pinkie,” Twilight asked, confused, “didn't you say Enterprise lives in Ponyville? If this is the problem, why are we going to Cloudsdale?”
“She's visiting her parents,” Pinkie said, “and Moon Dream lives there! She has this whole professional setup where ponies can come to have their dreams interpreted!”
Parents in Cloudsdale? Twilight thought she had heard Pinkie say something about Enterprise using magic earlier. I must have misheard, she thought.
“Do you know why they were being terse?”
“I didn't ask,” Cherry said with a shrug.
“Well,” Twilight said, “we'll have to find out. Can you land us by Enterprise's parents’ house when we get there?”
~ * ~
Twilight cast her cloud-walking spell on both Pinkie and Cherry Berry as the balloon gently landed in front of a small cloudominium. The building was stocky, almost as wide as it was tall, with a flat roof. Neatly trimmed potted plants sat on hardcloud window sills near the neat little door in the front.
The strangest thing Twilight noticed about the place, however, was not part of the building itself, but rather the vehicle parked outside. It was a pod, large enough to fit one or two ponies inside, sat on of a ski-like frame. At the top of the pod, a complex-looking rod stuck out, holding four large blades that pointed horizontally in each cardinal direction.
Twilight had seen the vehicle before. In fact, she had almost collided with it in mid-air. What was it doing here?
“What is that?” Twilight asked Cherry Berry, pointing.
“Oh, that? That's the Pedal-Powered Propeller Pitcher.”
“The P4!” Pinkie interjected with a grin.
“It's an old model.” That was apparently all Cherry Berry had to say on the matter, because she hopped out of the balloon and began tying it to a fence. Twilight found herself wondering why a cloud in a city full of flying ponies would have a fence. Maybe it's decorative?
She pushed the thought away and jumped out of the balloon after Cherry and Pinkie. As an alicorn, she could walk on normal clouds without the cloud-walking spell she'd used for Pinkie and Cherry, but she still noticed that the surface beneath her was harder than most clouds. These ponies had hardcloud covering outside the house?
Cherry Berry knocked on the door.
While they waited, Pinkie said, “Ooh, Twilight, this is so exciting! I just know you and Enterprise are going to get along great!”
“Let's hope so,” Twilight said.
…what was that look Cherry Berry was giving her?
Twilight didn't get time to ponder before a greenish teal pegasus mare with her lush green mane tied up in the back opened the door. She wasn't an old mare, but she was old enough that Twilight doubted she was this Enterprise. Probably her mother.
“Hello?” the mare said. She looked at Cherry Berry, “Oh! Cherry Berry!” She turned her head towards a nearby staircase and shouted, “Enterprise! Cherry’s here!”
“Coming!” came a voice from upstairs.
With a quick look at Twilight and Pinkie Pie, Enterprise's mother added, “She's brought friends, too!”
Enterprise’s voice turned hesitant, “Is it Moon Dream?”
“No!” The mother turned back to the guests. “Oh, I'm so sorry, where are my manners. Come in! My name is Canopy. I'm Enterprise's mom.”
“Thank you, Canopy,” Twilight spoke as the three of them entered the cloudominium. “My name is Twilight Sparkle, and this is Pinkie Pie.”
“Hiya!” Pinkie Pie said.
“Twilight Spa--” Canopy’s eyes suddenly went wide. They flicked up and then down, to Twilight's horn and wings. “As in Princess Twilight Sparkle? ...here?”
“Yes, ma'am,” Twilight confirmed. “We're here because we've been summoned to solve a friendship problem and we believe it might involve your daughter.”
“A princess in my living room…” Canopy looked a bit dazed by the idea.
“I know, right?” Pinkie said, “She's a pretty big deal!”
“Pinkie!” Twilight chided. The last thing she wanted was for these ponies to think she was self-important.
“Hey, Cherry,” Enterprise's voice came from behind them, “Who are these friends mom said--”
Twilight turned her head around and was surprised by what she saw. A yellow unicorn with a striped blue mane had come downstairs. A unicorn, here?
But what really took Twilight aback was the way the unicorn’s expression shifted from surprise to a steady stare at Twilight. Her stare, unlike her mother's, didn't speak of astonishment that a princess was in their living room.
It spoke of stone cold hatred.
“Hi, Enterprise!” Pinkie beamed.
“Hey,” Cherry stated.
Enterprise suddenly smiled towards the rest of the group and spoke, “Hey, Cherry, Pinkie!” Her voice was smooth and cheerful, with no trace of whatever emotion seeing Twilight had seemed to cause.
Did I imagine it?
Enterprise went on, “What brings you two here?”
Two? Twilight cleared her throat. “Hi. My name is Twilight Sparkle. We're here to…” She trailed off. Enterprise wasn't looking at her.
Pinkie Pie started talking, “So you know how I told you about that biiiiiig map Twilight has at the castle? The magical one that sends us on quests to fix friendship problems all over Equestria?”
“Yeah?” Enterprise said.
“Well, today I was baking some cupcakes when I realized my cutie mark was glowing, so I asked Gummy if he knew what that meant and he said he totally did and…”
Twilight remained silent as Pinkie went through all the events that had led them to this point, in far too much detail. She watched as Enterprise engaged with Pinkie from time to time, asked questions to grease the wheels of the monologue, and looked around at Pinkie, Cherry and Canopy… But she never so much as glanced at Twilight.
Canopy seemed to notice as well, glancing worriedly between her daughter and Twilight. Twilight gave her a questioning look, but she seemed almost as bewildered as Twilight felt.
Enterprise's expression darkened after it became clear that the group thought she and this Moon Dream might be the ponies with the friendship problem.
“Now, honey,” Canopy said, “I don't know what's going on between you and Moon Dream, but if Pinkie Pie and the princess have been sent to help--”
“The princess…” Enterprise interrupted in a low voice, “What princess?” As though to drive home the fact that Twilight wasn't actually invisible, Enterprise turned her head, finally looking - no, staring - into her eyes. “I don't see a princess here.”
“Huhhh?” came a confused sound from Pinkie Pie. “Twilight's a princess, silly! See?” Pinkie prodded at Twilight's horn and wings.
“No, I- I mean,” Enterprise stuttered, not seeming sure what she meant. But Twilight understood, and it stung.
“It's okay, Enterprise,” Twilight spoke dimly, “I'll leave you alone.” She got up. “That's what you really want, isn't it.”
She closed the door behind her softly as she left, leaving behind three confused gazes and one stone cold stare.
She sat down on the hardcloud front yard facing away from the house, head low.
It didn't take long before she heard the door open behind her. Twilight turned her head and saw Pinkie Pie and Cherry Berry.
“What was that all about?” Pinkie asked seriously. “First you leave, and then Enterprise gallops upstairs without a word...”
“Couldn't you tell?” Twilight said, “She hates me. I don't know why, but that pony despises my very existence.”
“That can't be right…” Pinkie said.
“No, Pinkie,” Cherry said, “she's right. I'm sorry, princess. I should have said something.”
“You knew?” Twilight asked, keeping her voice level to avoid sounding accusatory.
“I knew she didn't like you. Never thought it was this bad.”
Pinkie looked as though she was having trouble processing the very idea of one of her friends not liking one of her other friends.
“But… why? I don't even know her!”
She was spared from having to come up with an answer by another voice cutting in from above. It was quiet enough that Twilight could only barely hear it. “That's just it, isn't it? You don't know me.”
Twilight looked up to see Enterprise sitting at the edge of the flat roof. The mare was looking away from the group, so Twilight couldn't see her face.
“You didn't even know about me. Well, guess what, that's not mutual. I live in Ponyville. I know your story.”
“Did I… do something to you?” Twilight asked.
Enterprise went on, as though Twilight hadn't said anything, “Well, here's my story. I was born here, in Cloudsdale. A unicorn born to pegasus parents, in a city not meant to hold my kind. Librarians and tornado assistants don't get paid very well, and they're jobs that require you to live locally, so mom and dad couldn't scrape up the bits to move to the ground. They tried to ask Celestia for help, but they couldn't even get an audience. So they had to raise me here.”
“That sounds rough,” Twilight said. She looked at Pinkie and Cherry Berry. They both looked as though they had heard all of this before. They probably had.
“It was rough. I could barely walk on my home city, let alone move from cloud to cloud without being carried. I was bullied, I was teased, I could barely even play with other foals. Moon Dream was the only pony around me who understood.”
“I don't want your pity!” Enterprise snapped, finally looking at the group below, then continued in the same low tone as before. “I wanted to become a princess when I was a little filly, you know? Because then I could have wings like everypony else.”
Twilight glanced at her own wings.
“There was nothing I wanted more. But I learned to fly without them. Flying machines, that's my special talent, that's what I love to create. That's who I am. Someone who has fought through life and come out soaring, through hard work and many tearful failures.”
“That is very respectable--”
“And who are you, Twilight Sparkle, princess of friendship?” Enterprise asked, raising her voice. She filled the word ‘princess’ to the brim with scorn.
“You were born in Canterlot to successful parents.”
That much was true. “Yes--”
“Who enrolled you in the fanciest school around, where you were personally pampered by Princess Celestia herself!”
“Pampered?” Twilight raised an eyebrow.
“Your cutie mark lets you do whatever the hay you want without giving a flying feather about whether it's possible or not!” Enterprise was getting worked up.
“You probably haven't had to put in effort and hard work even once in your life!”
“What?!” That wasn't true at all!
“Enterprise,” Cherry began.
Enterprise ignored her. “Ponies like me are out here, suffering from the circumstances we were born into, Twilight! And you're the pony Celestia takes under her wing? You're the kind of pony she turns into a princess?! You are the kind of pony who gets…” Enterprise trailed off. Was she struggling to find her words?
Twilight didn't say anything. She won't listen to me until she's finished her monologue, she thought. She looked around instead. Pinkie looked stunned. Cherry looked worried, sharing the expression with Canopy, who had joined the group at some point without Twilight noticing. They all kept quiet.
When Enterprise spoke again, the fervor was gone, her voice barely more audible than a whisper. It was hard to tell with the distance up to the roof’s edge, but Twilight thought she could see a tear trickling down Enterprise's cheek.
“You're the kind of pony who gets to be everything I wanted to be.”
Silence reigned for a few long moments.
“Enterprise,” Twilight finally spoke. She flew up to the roof and landed a few feet from Enterprise. “You're right. I don't know you. But you don't know me as well as you think, either.”
Enterprise gave Twilight a forlorn look. For the first time since Twilight had arrived, hatred was nowhere to be seen in the gaze. Instead, Enterprise looked like a filly looking for comfort. Twilight resisted the urge to move closer.
“I'm lucky, yes. I'm a Canterlot elite who was personally mentored by Princess Celestia herself. And as it turns out, that path led to these.” Twilight twitched her wings a little. “But that's not all I am. I am a pony who gets way too excited about a good book. I am a pony who has bad days and good. I am a pony who loves oatburgers, a pony who makes checklists three times longer than I am, a pony who can't deal with not having a plan.”
Enterprise lowered her gaze, frowning down at the rest of the group.
Twilight continued, “I spent many hours studying hard to perform the simplest of spells. And I didn't know the first thing about friendship until Princess Celestia sent me to Ponyville to study it. I worked hard to understand the ins and outs of friendship before I was given my wings. Which, by the way, I never asked for.”
Enterprise closed her eyes.
“I'm neurotic and overconfident. I'm afraid of quesadillas and ladybugs. I once accidentally made half the population of Ponyville fight over a ragged old doll because I was afraid of disappointing Princess Celestia.”
“I heard about that,” Enterprise muttered.
“My point is, there's more to me than being a spoiled princess, just like I'm sure there's more to you than wanting to fly. If you can see past that, see past me having the things you wanted back when you were a filly, I think we could even be friends.”
“Moon Dream was right, wasn't she?” Enterprise said, opening her eyes to look at Twilight. “A few days ago, she found out how I felt about you. She doesn't know you any better than I do, but she took issue with it anyway. She said I shouldn't judge anypony without getting to know them first. That I'm letting my past cloud my view of other ponies too much.”
So that's what happened between them. “...she may have had a point there, yes.”
“It got heated. We both said things we didn't mean - at least I hope she didn't mean them - and we barely talked to each other when we met with Cherry the next day, like Cherry told you ponies. I haven't talked to her since then.”
“Do you want to go talk to her now?” Twilight asked.
Enterprise hesitated. “...yes, I think I'd like that.” She paused. “Princess Twilight?” There was no scorn in the title this time.
“I'm so sorry. For everything.” Enterprise held out a hoof. “Friends?”
Twilight smiled softly and took the hoof in her own. “Friends.”
~ * ~
The mare who opened the door was a purple pegasus with a pale gray crescent mane. She was wearing a blue nightcap, despite it being past noon. She looked like she had been crying.
That must be Moon Dream, Twilight thought. She and Pinkie Pie were hiding behind a smaller cloud shaped like a bush, some distance away from the front door to the small cloud building. They had agreed to stay out of sight, at least for the time being - this was Enterprise's visit, first and foremost.
“Hey, Moon Dream… We need to talk,” Enterprise said.
“Y-yeah,” Moon Dream answered, “Come in. Please.”
“Do you think they're making out?” Pinkie asked after a while.
“Making out?” Twilight echoed, “What?”
“Making up!” Pinkie blushed, “I totally meant making up! No secrets to keep here!” Her eyes darted back and forth above a grin that was too wide even for Pinkie Pie.
Twilight couldn't suppress a much more real grin creeping into her own face. She tried to imitate Pinkie Pie's voice as she said, as dramatically as she could, “FOOOREVVVEEERRRRR!”
Pinkie Pie blushed harder. Then the two ponies both burst into laughter.
Suddenly Pinkie Pie covered Twilight's muzzle with a hoof. “Shh! You're going to give us away!”
I'm going to give us away? Twilight thought, recalling how much louder Pinkie Pie's laughter had been than hers.
She didn't have time to voice the thought before the door opened. Enterprise and Moon Dream stepped out, both looking much happier than when they had entered.
Enterprise pointed a hoof towards the bush cloud. “They're over there,” she said. “Hey, Princess Twilight, Pinkie, you can come out now.” She had barely finished the sentence before Pinkie bounced over the bush. Twilight settled for stepping around it.
Moon Dream bowed to Twilight. “It's an honor to meet you, your highness.”
“Please, just call me Twilight,” Twilight said, “It's nice to meet you as well, Moon Dream.”
Pinkie Pie bounced around the group. “Everypony is getting along! Woohoo!” She stopped moving in mid-air, looking down at her flank. Sure enough, her cutie mark was pulsating.
Twilight could feel that hers was doing the same thing. It was an odd sensation. “This means we've done what we came for,” she explained to Enterprise and Moon Dream, who were looking at her cutie mark with puzzled expressions.
Pinkie landed gently straight down on the cloud, then pulled everypony together with hooves that seemed to reach longer than they should. “GROUP HUG!”
~ * ~
After Twilight and Pinkie had jumped out of the balloon in Ponyville and said goodbye to Cherry Berry, and Pinkie had left in the direction of Sugarcube Corner, Twilight found herself pondering Enterprise's words.
Ponies like Enterprise are out there, suffering from the circumstances they were born into. And I'm the kind of pony Celestia takes under her wing.
Starlight and Spike met her at the castle door, welcoming her home.
What kind of ponies do I take under my wing? Do I help ponies like Enterprise enough?
As the three of them walked together, talking about the friendship mission and some sort of rare hoofball card Spike had collected while they were gone, Twilight was only half paying attention to the conversation. Even after all this time and all the changes her friends had made to make it feel like home, the large hallways of the castle still felt vaguely threatening some days. It felt like she didn't quite belong there and the walls knew it. Twilight caught her reflection in a particularly shiny part of the crystal walls and frowned.
I don't see a princess here.