The Rains of Vanhoover

by kudzuhaiku


Like an unwanted, uninvited, unwelcome guest, wind-driven mizzle crept in when the door opened, dampened the floor, and then was held at bay once more when the door was shut. Grey sunlight—the colour of optimistic depression—permeated the windows, a cold light that held no cheer. The griffon who had entered took a moment to give himself a gentle shake near the door, and then, in silence, he made his way to the bar, where he sat down with familiar feline grace. 

With an almost unnatural calm, Nut allowed his ward to cling to him. She trembled, panted, and was in a state of quite some distress. Her blackened eye was now almost halfway open, and both eyes were weepy. She had the sniffles, which made Nut worry that she might wipe her nose on him; it was just a thing that earth ponies did and he would bear her no ill-will should it happen—but he would be annoyed, oh yes. That went without saying. 

“It felt like the world was a-endin’,” she said in a whispery waver. Reaching out, she clung to Nut’s foreleg with a vice-like grip. “They was fightin’ and hollerin’ and it felt like something was a-squeezin’ my heart. And it felt like the world was a-endin’. 

He was far too rigid to move, to respond. 

“All of a sudden, it felt like I couldn’t breathe no more, and no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t get no air into me. It was scary, Nut… real scary. Everything still feels tight.” 

Before he could respond, the voice of Red Maple unexpectedly came from behind them, and he heard her say, “You had a panic attack. Don’t worry, everything is fine.” 

With a swift kick, she sent a chair skidding over the floor, and when it stopped near Tater Blossom’s chair, she scooted it over just a few more inches until both chairs touched. She sat down, and before Tater Blossom could protest, the pegasus mare peeled the earth pony off of Nut. After a moment of initial reluctance, Tater Blossom melted into Red Maple’s embrace, closed her eyes, and went still. 

“Blackie is up in her room, cooling off. She’s turned on and frustrated.” 

Teeth clamped together to the point of causing painful pressure in his jaw, Nut turned away. While a part of him was relieved to know that Black Maple was fine after her ordeal, he wished that Red Maple would spare him unwanted details. He could hear her softly shushing Tater Blossom, and there were sounds akin to a sort of clucking, which made him think of chickens. 

“You were fightin’…” 

“Honey, that’s what we do. We’re pegasus ponies. My daughter and I squabble. No matter how much we bicker, we still love each other very much.” 

“It felt like the world was ‘bout to end.” 

“That’s the panic attack. Rusty Dusty has those any time he spots deep, open water. His are pretty bad. Debilitating, even. He can’t even fly and he fights to breathe.” Red Maple stroked Tater Blossom’s neck with her wing as she turned to Nut and said, “I sent Blackie away so I could calm Tater down. If I would have known that she would come upstairs and did what she did, I would have stood her in the corner instead.”

“Thank you for looking after Miss Blossom,” Nut replied. 

“May I please take her home with me?” asked Red Maple in the most sincere manner imaginable. 

He understood what she was doing, or, at least, he suspected that he did. “I fear that I’ve grown rather fond of her.” 

“Surely, you can share. There’s no need to be selfish.” 

“I went to a troll-infested farm to find her. Pulled her right out of the produce bin myself.” 

“That makes her special,” Red Maple said, “maybe even one of a kind, but I still think you can share.” 

Hating himself just a little, Nut expressed what was really on his mind, and asked, “Is Black Maple alright? Can our friendship, whatever it might be, survive this?” 

Eyes sad, Red Maple pulled Tater Blossom a little closer, securing her in a fortress-like embrace, and her ears pinned back. In absolute silence, the kindly maternal mare stroked the distraught filly’s neck in a rhythmic, slow, methodical manner, and her silence left Nut wondering if she would respond at all. 

“You say it feels like the world is ending… Rusty Dusty, he says the sky is crushing him.” Red Maple wrapped both wings around Tater Blossom’s head while her gaze lingered upon the stairs that led upwards. “We pegasus ponies, sometimes we can be a little slap-happy with our wings. There's a lot of jokes about it, but we do have a pecking order. My daughter and I, we’re open with our disputes and just say whatever is bothering us. We trust each other and no matter how bad our squabbles might appear to others, we’re still friends afterwards.” 

There was a pause, she sighed, and then said to Nut, “If you want to know what I think, I think my daughter showed her ass and pitched a fit with you just like she does with me to test the boundaries. That’s how we work. It’s what we do. You might not want to hear this right now, but if you do give her a chance, and you stay friends, or whatever it is that you are, this is bound to happen again. It’s a test of trust. I don’t expect you to understand it, but this is our way.” 

Red Maple was certainly correct; this was the last thing that Nut wanted to hear right now. While he made no rash, hasty decisions, he did find himself wondering if he wanted to deal with this in the future. Even worse, it made sense, and he hated that. These were passionate ponies, temperamental sorts, and they clearly had their own way. Rationality and reason were abandoned for reckless expressions of temper. 

“I might be wrong. There’s always a chance I could be wrong. She told me that she was aroused by the idea that you might finally lose your temper. I know she wanted you to lose your temper. Getting stuffed into a sack was a new and novel experience for her, and I have no doubt that she enjoyed it, because she’s weird like that. Gets it from her father. When I go home, I might stuff him into a sack just to see what he does.” 

“When I got into a fight with my mama, I got shunned.” 

“Well, that’s ignorance in action.” 

Nut bit his tongue. Literally. He was about to voice his protest, but decided to trust in Red Maple’s goodness. Right now, the maternal pegasus was doing a marvellous job of calming Tater Blossom, far better than anything that he might do. Now was not the time for heated exchanges. He wondered what else might be said. 

“I have a thick enough skin to survive being wrong. From what little bit you told me downstairs, it sounds like your mother couldn’t stand the loss of control. You made her look foolish in front of everypony, and for controlling, manipulating types, that is the worst thing ever. I wouldn’t actually know, because I’m not that way. Your mother had to beat you down and brand you as wicked to save face… and I can’t stomach the thought that a mother would do that. If I had to pick between my daughter and being right, I’m picking Blackie every time. She’s very dear to me. She’s fun to squabble with.” 

Tater Blossom squirmed a bit, her chair creaked beneath her, and then she went still against Red Maple. Somewhat overwhelmed by everything that happened, Nut feared that he might never understand pegasus ponies, and worried that his shortcomings made him a tribalist. Not understanding made him feel as though he was a failure as a biologist, because he was expected to know. At least, it sure seemed that way. 

“A-squabblin’ shouldn’t be fun,” Tater Blossom said to Red Maple. “Shouldn’t squabble at all, I reckon. Discord is wickedness.” 

“But we have to squabble,” Red Maple replied. “It’s healthy. How else do we clear the air? Blow off steam? If my daughter and I don’t have ourselves a tiff, we resort to meanish passive-aggressive wing clipping, and that’s just rude, because she’s better at it than I am.” Then, entirely out of the blue, she added, “Oh gosh, it’s so cute how she adds a-prefixes to random verbs. It’s like a little sprinkle of pepper on food. I adore it. Nut, please let me take her home.” 

“Mrs. Maple?” Nut turned the full force of his incredulous stare upon the pegasus mare. 

“Oh, don’t act surprised, Nut. I went through a phase when I was younger and I was bound and determined to break with family tradition. I was going to be a school teacher, and not an innkeeper. And then I grew up a little more, and I thought maybe I’d have an inn, and I would be a teacher to the foals who stayed there. After that, I grew up a bit more and realised how stupid that sounded. At long last, I came to my senses. Though, I don’t rightly know if that is what caused my cutie mark… I did meet with Rusty Dusty right about that time, and he might have had something to do with it.” 

With a slow, laboured blink, which was really more like dragging his unwilling eyelids over his eyeballs, Nut was reminded of the fact that Red Maple’s cutie mark was a bed. Again he blinked, then a third time, and after a fourth, he still did not recover. For an innkeeper, a bed was a perfectly sensible mark to have, a bit of positive, reassuring advertising for all to see. 

But to have a bed appear for other reasons… 

Once more, Nut turned away; he could no longer bear to look at Red Maple. 

“Being an innkeeper is a noble pegasus tradition… sharing our nest with others is important to us. Hospitality meant safety. Sharing our nest meant you were under our protection. When Equestria was still wild, I suppose it meant more. Now that I think about it, I’m pretty proud of my daughter. She’s protecting others from the vicious pimps and gangs that might prey upon them. That’s respectable, I guess. I’ll have to think upon it, I suppose.” 

“A while back, a rather intimidating fellow came in with some rather rough cohorts,” Nut said to Red Maple while he looked away. “He bellied up to the bar and told Black Maple how it was going to be. She was going to pay for protection… or else.” 

“Oh goodness… what happened?” 

“I am told the poor chap suffered twenty-nine distinct fractures in his jaw. I earned my ale that even. Black Maple told me that she sent his teeth back to him in the post, and included a note saying that services were due for payment rendered. We’re still waiting to hear back from him, but it might take a year for his jaw to heal fully.” 

Then, almost grinning, he added, “Sitting at a bar is dangerous. Sometimes the stool slips out from beneath you, and down you go. Honestly, Black Maple is to blame. The bar should be padded for safety and comfort.” 

Holding tight to Tater Blossom, Red Maple giggle-snorted, and then sniggered for a time. 

“I cannot deny it, Miss Maple is my friend.” His almost-grin vanished and was replaced with something far more solemn. “She has spirit. I admire what she is doing here, even if I don’t agree with it for my own reasons. Society has undesirable elements, or at least, unwanted elements”—he paused—“perhaps it’s not my place to judge. We creatures must do whatever it takes to get by. Some resort to this willingly, and Miss Maple provides a place of refuge so they can conduct their transactions in safety. In light of the history lesson about pegasus ponies and inns, it certainly casts Miss Maple’s actions in a far more noble light. It changes how I see her, without a doubt.” 

“Are you feeling calm yet, honey?” Red Maple asked Tater Blossom. 

“Keep talkin’,” the filly replied, “it helps.” 

“Well, now that you’re nice and calm, honey, you and I, we’re going to have a long talk about mothers and daughters. If you get upset, you tell me, and we’ll stop. But if you think you can keep going, that’d be great. Because you need sorting out. What you need is some honesty, even if it is hard honesty, just like Blackie needed some hard honesty.” 

“Alright, I’m a-listenin’.” 

“Oh, she did it again… it’s so charming.” 

“I did what?” 

“Oh, never you mind, honey. Anyway, about mothers and daughters…” 


All things considered, Tater Blossom seemed rather chipper once again, and Nut found himself admiring her indomitable spirit. The panic attack—he trusted Red Maple’s opinion on this—worried him a great deal, mostly because he wasn’t sure what could be done about it, or future attacks. If this was an issue of trauma, future attacks seemed certain, and he hoped that she would bounce back from them. 

Perhaps a chit-chat with Grandfather Gestalt and Grandmother Lambda was in order. 

Gestalt, along with Lambda, had pioneered Cogitology, a radical and different approach to psychology, which slowly replaced the old models. He theorised that the psyche was comprised of multiple parts, which he called cogs, and that the psyche as a whole was independent from its parts, something else entirely. Of course, Gestalt wanted to call the new model Thunkology, but Lambda put her hoof down and it was said that she gave him quite a stern eyebrowing—which, apparently, was still whispered about in hushed tones even to this day in Canterlot. 

Satisfactorily, Gestalt had proven most of the old model wrong, and now, with Princess Cadance leading the way, the new model prospered. Lives were changed. It was a quiet accomplishment, the sort of thing that the common pony would never be aware of, but that was how it went for the many accomplishments of House Eccentrica. Their great many quiet successes made them Eccentrics. 

“You haven’t moved in a while, Nut. You ain’t even hardly blinked. Is you alright?” 

Tater Blossom’s curious homespun grammar roused him from his detached state. Her words only caused an avalanche of further thought, all of his worries, fears, and concerns. He thought of his failures, which seemed to stack up together at the moment. His grand social experiment was dead. A friendship that he valued more than he realised or admitted was now in grave danger. 

Also, he had a ward, and she was looking right at him with a worried, or perhaps fearful expression. She was no failure though, but an accomplishment. Or would be, if he did all of the right things. Doing the right things proved harder than he thought, and today's explosion brought sharp contrast to everything. If necessary, he would most certainly walk away from Black Maple—but the very idea of doing so left an icicle lodged in his heart. 

“You have your pen out, and your journal open, but you ain’t wrote a thing.” 

He glanced down and sure enough, the page was empty, save for a blot of ink where he’d pressed his pen. What had he started to write, only to abandon? Try as he might, he could not recollect whatever thoughts he’d attempted to put to paper. Tater Blossom was still staring at him, and her half-open swollen black eye gave her a curious, squinty appearance. 

“You wanna know what I think, I think yer lovesick. That’s what I think.” 

“Preposterous.” The speed at which he spat the word out was astonishing. Tater Blossom was wrong, and one word, no matter how many syllables it had, was enough to drive this point home. “What a risible, farcical, nonsensical notion. The very idea itself is daft.” Suddenly with a bad taste in his mouth, he concluded that daft was far too short a word, and very much wanted to berate himself. 

“Mmm-hmm.” She nodded, which made her ears bob in a rather cute way. “So, about this trip to Canterlot. How long will it take?” 

“Ten to twelve hours,” he replied, “depending upon conditions. Canterlot is, I think, about seventeen-hundred or so miles from here? Not entirely sure. Our flight leaves at eight of the even, and will arrive around dawn or thereabouts.” Still miffed about his ward’s accusation, he thought about all of the ways he might tell Miss Blossom that she was wrong.

“And Widowwood is between here and Canterlot.” 


“You can’t call it off with Blackie.” 

“Why not?” 

Tater Blossom’s nostrils flared. “Well, ‘cause I like her. And her mom too. They’ve been good to me. I need them… I do… and that means you can’t call things off with Blackie.” 

“Your reasoning is highly suspect and dubious.” 

Her head tilted off this-a-way, and that-a-way, until she snorted in Nut’s general direction. 

In her defense, it was a rather eloquent snort, expressive in a way unique to equine creatures. A lot went into the snort; proper head angle, expressive eyes, placement of the ears in a just-so position, plus internal acoustic management for maximum volume. So, all in all, it was an articulate snort. He gave it a passing grade. 

“Red told me some things I needed to hear. It’s like Mrs. Oleander saying that the only sin is theft… and I still can’t think of a sin that isn’t theft somehow, no matter how hard I try… but everything that Red told me rings true in the same way. After so much not-knowin’ and outright lies in my life, I need things that offer blessed assurance. Things I can trust. Honest words that I can pick apart and know that they is true.” Then, with her ears assuming a somewhat more submissive position, she added, “And you need to be providin’ these things for me. I’m a-trustin’ you to do that.” 

There was a heartfelt sincerity and earnestness to her words that gave Nut pause. He sensed no manipulation there, just a straightforward expression of want and desire. She was trusting him—with the whole of her life. He thought about her wounds and the care she needed, and in light of the panic attack earlier, not every injury was one that could be seen. His ward needed help, and he reasoned that this was her way of asking for it. 

“Blackie and I did a lot of jawin’ afore things went and spoilt.” Now hunched over in her chair, Tater Blossom appeared more foalish than young mare. “I was doin’ good in the kitchen too… well, it’s not really a kitchen, but it kinda is. But I was doin’ good. She showed me what needed to be done, rather than just tell me, and that made things so much easier. While we was a-workin’, we talked and talked and talked some more.” 

“Do tell, what did you discuss?” 


It sounded as though she said ‘everythang’ and Nut allowed himself a gentle smile when he said, “That tells me very little.” 

“We talked about you, and then me, and then you, and then me, and then we talked about Almighty Celestia for a time, and then I talked about how much I miss Pa and the others, and Blackie told me that I’d go back there one day, when I was too big and too well spoken to be ignored. She said that she’d come with me, and that you’d be there too… so for this to happen, I need you and Blackie to sort out yer differences, if you please. Because I really, truly do need the both of you. I’ve never met anyone like Blackie… or you for that matter. Or most of these ponies I’ve been meeting. It’s like gettin’ a drink of water, but for the soul. I’ve been thirsty. And you know how much I love me my water.” 

“You haven’t been put down, insulted, or belittled for being intelligent.” 

“No, I haven’t, and it feels good. Well, except for now, I kinda worry that I sound dumb, and that gives me a powerful worry, it does.” 

“Not everypony in the city is an intellectual—but you’ve had the good fortune to be exposed to my milieu. I like to think that I keep exceptional company.” 

“You kinda do… these are the ponies I’ve been needin’ in my life.” 

The employee break room suddenly felt confining; too small a room for too much emotion. Something about the idea of being intellectually starved resonated with Nut, and after the events of today, he felt unsettled. Out of sorts. Overwhelmed. He was going home to face his parents—and his failure. Disturbed, his mind traveled back in time, back to the point when he’d waited for Tater Blossom’s return, not knowing her fate. He’d been exposed to considerable stress and he still hadn’t sorted himself out. Of course, the long walk to the train platform had also proven to be quite harrowing—bloodshed seemed to be the only outcome for a few tense moments. 

Stress was not something he dealt with well, and it was all piling up. 

What he needed was a period without stress, but the foreseeable future would be nothing but stress. Which, when he thought about it, caused him just a little stress. The tension was building. Anxiety lurked in the depths of his mind, the dark, disparate, unsettled places he dared not look for fear of what may peer back. He needed some downtime, a bit of pampering perhaps, but the future held promises of nothing but prolonged strain. 

“So, tonight’s trip… will it be like the train?” 

“I suspect my parents booked us a private cabin. At least, that is my guess. We’ll know when we arrive at the station. Prepare yourself for the dreadful sin of sleeping together in the same room.” 

Again, she snorted, and it was every bit as eloquent as the previous. 

“Are you excited?” he asked. 

“I am,” she replied, “but I’m also scared.” 

He was unprepared for this answer. 

“Fear of flying?” He had hopes of sorting everything out with a bit of logic and reason. 

“Fear of everything.

As it turned out, he was ill-prepared for this response as well. 

In the next room over, a typewriter began to clatter. Nut watched as Tater Blossom’s ears jerked and bobbed at the sound the metallic clickety-clack. Mrs. Oleander was busy—but this was almost always the case. A business was like an organism, where only the fittest earned allowed continuance, and Mrs. Oleander was a natural-born survivor. 

In light of her recent panic attack, her fear was all the more worrisome for Nut. 

She was beautiful, but fretful—he noticed it now that he paid attention. What manner of beauty it happened to be remained elusive to him. She admitted that she was afraid, but she would pull through somehow. Though he was only just now getting to know her, he knew this about her. She was a thoroughly courageous creature, even if her own anxieties loomed over her like some dreadful shadow. 

“Come, Miss Blossom. Let us go for a walk… ‘twould be good for us to stretch our legs before our departure.” 


In the teahouse, a tempest brewed. Outside, the sun made a valiant effort to shine, and the wan light that reached the windows only served to highlight the grunge of the city. The teahouse was a quiet, respectable sort of place that reeked of tea and dry, intellectual wit. Nut much prefered pints of ale over teacups of tea, but his prefered spot for ale was currently inaccessible. 

“I like tea.” In Tater Blossom’s eyes, a storm could be seen, simmering, preparing to boil over. 

“Well, you certainly like sugar and cream,” was Nut’s dry reply. 

It was his hope that his wit would keep his ward amused. 

She laughed, but her heart wasn’t in it. He could tell. Her insincere laughter echoed in his ears and left a hollow ache somewhere in the vicinity of his heart, a vacancy he longed to fill. Though he’d only known her for a short time, he cared for her—deeply—and he treasured her as his friend. She was something special, a bright shining star suspended in the velvet night that demanded attention. 

He was repressed, a creature of discrete restraint. She was a curious creature of great wit who reveled in the world around her, even if she didn’t understand it. He was a hardened lump of brass; which is to say, he could be cold, hard, unyielding, and without feeling. She was a basket of kittens, something too inviting, with too much warmth and appeal to ignore, for one simply did not disregard a basket of kittens. 

Even a lump of brass had taken notice… 

“A mare is what she is,” she began, “and you can tell her measure by what she makes.” Head held low over her wide teacup, a cup suitable for lapping, her ears rose and fell with her every breath. “I was told this from an early age. It was pounded into my head. A mare is her household, the happiness of her husband, and her worth is measured by how many foals she has.” 

Watching as the pale sunlight shone through the grimy film on the windows, Nut sat waiting. 

“Today, I met a mare that only had one foal… and she was a greater mare than my mother. I’m a-tryin’ to sort out why, and I think I can say why. Ma, she had a lot of us… a whole lot of us. And about halfway through, I think she got tired. She stopped raising us and allowed us to raise each other. Mama got lazy. 

“But Red, she had one foal… Blackie… and then she poured all she had into that one foal, and then some. From the sounds of things, she has a husband that loves her to pieces. I’m having a real hard time with this, and it is hard to put into words, Nut. More and more, I’m seein’ proof that my mother was nothing but lies. That her every word was falsehood… and it makes my heart ache. Plus, there’s that book you bought me, it’s been tearin’ up my innards.” 

In some way, he understood. When he left Canterlot, he found that Equestria was not the bright, shining beacon of civilisation that was told to him in great detail during his formative years. It was not a prosperous land of abundance where even the poor lived like royals. The rosy picture painted of the plucky poor who supped from the cornucopia of abundance that was Equestria was torn to shreds shortly after his arrival in Vanhoover. 

But… he’d survived, and he had no doubt that Potato Blossom would endure this. 


“I come from my mother, Nut. What does that make me?” 

“You come from your father as well, and I rather like him.” 

His words did not have the desired outcome he craved and her sudden sigh left him listless. Hickory had failed too; Nut knew this and he was cognisant of the fact that his ward was aware of it as well. While he wasn’t sure how to fix this, he did have an idea of what to do. He would write about this. This was Miss Blossom’s integration into society: coming to terms with her upbringing in an isolated, insular community. A controlling, manipulating mother. Lies and falsehoods. His ward had to face all of this, overcome it somehow, and then survive in a world utterly unfamiliar to her. 

He could see the value in documenting such a process, for surely it would be a boon to others, would it not? 

“Everything I thought what a mare was is now all shook up. Ruint. Everything feels a mess, and I don’t know what this makes me. I don’t know who I am. I like Black Maple and Red Maple… I do… but knowin’ them has broken me in some way, it feels like. Nothing feels right, and everything feels so uncertain like. Now I don’t know who I’m s’posed to be, or how I should grow up, or what’s expected of me. Even before I left home, I was powerful confused about my life, and now, it’s all worse somehow.” 

“Things will get worse before they get better,” Nut mentioned, without knowing why he said it. Honesty felt important here, but so did comfort. “We removed you from your home, which was harmful to you. There is time to heal, Miss Blossom.” He thought of another pony that needed to heal, and he felt a terrible pang of worry for her. “This is just the start. Things have to fall apart… all of the old has to fall away so the new can replace it.” 

“That panic attack scared me, Nut.” 

“Something will be done about that, I give you my word.” He leaned over the table and in a low voice, he tried to offer some reassurance. “You’ve trusted me thus far. I’ve escorted you away from home, without trouble I might add, and I am doing everything within my power to provide for you.” He thought of how he’d swallowed his own pride, but said nothing about this. “I can’t change the world, but I can change a life. So that is what I shall do.” 

“It felt like the world was ending. And like everything inside my head was a-comin’ apart.” 

Still leaned over the table, he listened. 

“I thought my heart would stop beatin’, but it was also beatin’ so fast that it hurt. My ears was a-ringing and I was real scared. Everything hurt… my whole body hurt. All my muscles went tight and there was this pressure just behind my eyes. Then I got all sweaty like and felt like I was gonna barf. When I got to feelin’ like I was gonna choke to death, that was when Red got to me. Felt like I couldn’t breathe. Thought I was gonna die.” 

Why were happy endings so complicated? Nut found himself wondering this as he contemplated the current mess. The downtrodden filly leaves the farm to find her place in the world, happens to be a rousing success, and lives happily ever after. Only, this was not the case. Tater Blossom was a mess. Right now, she was on the verge of tears, and he feared that she might have another panic attack. She’d left home to get better, not worse. 

The poor girl had been uprooted, in both the literal and figurative sense. 

She bowed her head, inhaled softly, and then began to lap up her now-cooled tea. Nut watched her, a lump of brass who felt far too much, and his own panic crept up on him. He was heading home; there would be so much to explain, to sort out. There would be an endless stream of questions, all of which would demand careful answers. It was almost enough to be paralysing. 

His linen shirt and tweed vest now felt prickly, like a vestment of briars, and the upholstery of the chair beneath him was now somehow coarse and uninviting, as if changed by magic. Something about his choker collar now felt too constrictive, and then, in a moment of beleaguered befuddlement, he wondered if he too was about to have a panic attack. 

Distance had grown distorted; the patrons of the teahouse were now far away and the distant murmur of their voices caused his ears to pivot wildly in each conceivable direction. His chair didn’t quite feel solid beneath him, he was aware of the curious sensation of it sagging somehow, leaning from side to side, and the table felt a little less than real. It was as if he was a ship, perhaps, a ship that rocked to and fro, slapped silly by the heartless waves that loathed the tall ships of seafaring equines. 

Nut was a pocketwatch too tightly wound. 

Then, with the same suddenness as when it arrived, he was fine again. His linen was reassuring and his tweed comforting. Beneath him, his chair was solid once more, and the table ceased to jiggle alarmingly. The world somehow undistorted itself and he gave a little tug at his collar with his magic as he regained his austere tranquility. 

Surely, endless hours of conversation to satisfy the many inquiries of his parents couldn’t possibly be that bad. His parents were pleasant ponies, convivial conversationalists. Intellectuals. Even better, Canterlot intellectuals. All was calm, all was right. When he sipped his tea, he was disappointed that it wasn’t ale. It wasn’t foamy, or creamy, nor did it taste of malt and hops. It rather tasted of garden trimmings boiled in water and left to go tepid. 

Tea, he decided, was dreary. 

When Tater Blossom lifted her head, pale brown tea dribbled from her still-extended tongue and soaked her fuzzy chin. She licked her muzzle, her orange tongue flicked about in a counter-clockwise motion, and the mess vanished, with only moistened lips left behind as evidence of her sins against cleanliness. For the first time, he noticed how broad her ears were, leaf-shaped, full and wide. It might be evidence of exceptional hearing, and maybe he would find a way to test it later. 

At this moment, there was nothing about her that was a mature mare; she was all filly. 

“I like tea,” she announced for a second time. 

“You do have a certain fondness for cream and sugar,” he replied, an echo of his previous statement. 

She smiled; it was like the sun smashing through the clouds to impart warmth and cheer upon the sodden, pallid citizens of Vanhoover. “I like tea just about as much as I like water. Coffee was bitter and kinda gross, but tea is nice.” 

“Clearly, you did not add enough cream and sugar to your coffee.” 

“Is Canterlot a holy city?” she asked. 

He took a moment to consider before saying, “Only when it is overrun by changelings.” 

She was bewildered; he was entranced. 

“There are temples, chapels, and sanctums in Canterlot,” he said, humouring her with a straight answer. “But those can be found here in Vanhoover as well. No, what makes Canterlot special is the Royal Academy of Science. ‘Tis a storied building, a place of old knowledge, and creatures from all around the world come to study there. My family laid its foundations as a gift to the world. You must never enter that place alone. It is dangerous like no other place in all of existence.” 

“I s’pect yer pullin’ my leg.” 

He changed the subject. “Canterlot is a cramped city. Vanhoover is spread out, while Canterlot is a tiny city built atop a mountain. Much of the city is vertical. You will find many stairs and lifts. There are also many interdimensional and hyperdimensional spaces, which can be quite disorienting for those experiencing them for the first time. The tower that is my family home is quite thin and stately from the outside, but it is immense on the inside. Bewilderingly so. The library is almost an acre and a half. It is a tremendous space. One can easily get lost in the library maze.” 

Then, as a warning, he added, “The shelves move sometimes and the maze changes configuration. Keeps the mind sharp and helps with mental awareness. Somehow, even with the moving shelves, the books maintain their order and you can find what you are searching for if you know where to look. But getting there can be a problem.” 

They were two ponies in a crowded teahouse, all alone with one another.