Potato Blossom’s cheeks were somewhat stained with tears, like soil left dark after spring showers. Though her eyes had red spiderwebs, she wore a brave smile, and Nut was relieved to see her. A more careful examination revealed little twitches, taut muscles, and telltale signs of anxiety. The fact that she smiled when under distress revealed much of her character. Her face was still battered, still bruised, though t’was fading fast.
“Are you well?” he asked.
She took a deep breath, started to reply, and failed. Her lips flapped in a frustrated raspberry, she drew in another deep breath, and then tried a second time. “I s’pose. Still feel spooked. I can’t go back out there and face the crowd after I caused a scene. Plus, I’m sleepy.”
Princess Celestia, who stood nearby, reached out with her wing and patted Tater Blossom on the neck. Nut noticed that the filly flinched a little, startled, but she did not pull away. No, she leaned in to the affectionate touch, and allowed it to happen. It was a gentle moment of reassurance, one that made Nut feel things. What those feelings were, however, remained unknown to him.
“I got to meet Prince Gosling, and he done told me about how he and his ma were shunned.” Tater Blossom sidestepped a little closer to Princess Celestia. “Talkin’ to him made me happy. He knew all the right things to say.” With a tilt of her head, she peered sidelong at the princess beside her. “Almighty Celestia didn’t have much to say, but then again, I s’pose not much needed to be said.”
“It was best that I listened,” Princess Celestia said in a matter-of-fact way. “You’ve had more than enough sermons in your life, Miss Blossom.”
“Yer nothin’ like Ma said you’d be.”
“And thank goodness for that. Who wants to be a vindictive harridan?”
“A termagant you are not.”
“Thank you, Mister Nut.”
“I can’t go back out there,” Tater Blossom said. “Just thinkin’ ‘bout it makes it hard to breathe and everything feels tight. Please, don’t make me go.”
“We can go home,” Nut said to reassure her. “The walk might do you some good.”
Tater Blossom relaxed beneath Princess Celestia’s touch and Nut felt his own muscles respond in kind. Potato Blossom had come to the fabled city of Canterlot, met the goddess, and rather than meet a fiery being of vengeance, she found a kindly grandmotherly figure. Of course, Nut had his own goddess encounter, and now saw Luna in a wholly different light. He felt better, changed somehow in some irrational way that defied explanation, and was certain that Tater Blossom felt much the same way. She had encountered the divine—and all of her mother’s destructive doctrines had been challenged. Nut had no idea what might come of it, but he hoped that his friend would heal.
“Wish me luck, I go to face the crowd.”
At the sound of Luna’s voice, Tater Blossom froze. Nut’s eyes darted leftwards, and he could see Luna’s vague outline in the doorway of Celestia’s private offices. He could not help but wonder how Tater Blossom might react to Luna, and this situation had any number of terrible outcomes. Celestia gestured with her other wing, beckoning her sister to come closer. The tension in the air was like that of an impending thunderstorm or a squall rolling in from the ocean.
“Sister, come meet this nice filly.”
“Why hello, nice filly. What a handsome guardian you have.” Luna’s approach was slow, measured, and oh-so-very regal. “He and I had an exchange of pleasantries.”
“It could be said that you truly came into your own atop the water tower.”
Tater Blossom, trembling, shook her head from side to side. “I don’t understand…”
“Perhaps not now,” Luna replied, “but one day, you will. Miss Blossom, you show remarkable decorum and courage.”
“For meetin’ you and not a-runnin’ away?”
“No.” Luna’s now-narrowed eyes glittered with mischief. “For standing in the foul miasma of my sister’s sweaty wingpits… somehow without flinching or fainting. Commendable.”
Nut was forced to bite his lip to keep his laughter from escaping. As for Tater Blossom, she crowed with laughter, but then jammed her hoof into her mouth to cork the flow of mirth. Little snorts came shooting out of her nostrils like tiny cannonballs, all while Princess Celestia’s eyes rolled in the most dramatic way possible. It was the sort of savagery that could only exist between siblings—and Nut was too busy with his attempts to contain his laughter to think about how he was an only foal with no siblings
After Tater Blossom pulled her slobbery hoof out of her mouth, she asked, “Is it a sin if I laugh?”
“No.” Princess Celestia seemed bothered by her own response in some vague, indiscernible way.
“I think the real sin is for somepony to suggest that you do not love your sister,” said Nut.
“That’s rather judgmental.” Princess Celestia’s eyes first went to Princess Luna, and then to Tater Blossom, who chortled beside her.
“You say it is judgmental, but you did not say it was wrong.” Pleased with himself, Nut held his head high and his ears stood in a proud, pricked posture.
“Bold.” Princess Celestia affixed her commanding, maternal gaze upon Nut.
With an almost feline enthusiasm, Princess Luna began rubbing her cheek against her sister’s neck. She grunted, a decidedly unprincesslike sound, and Nut observed that Tater Blossom had taken notice. There was something about Princess Luna, and she had changed in some way from how he remembered her. Not only did she look younger, but she acted younger. In fact, there was something almost Potato Blossimish about her, but Nut couldn’t say how or why.
It confounded him.
“It’s almost a relief knowin’ and seein’ that Ma was wrong.” There was a long, shuddery sigh from Tater Blossom, followed by a bit of a sniffle, but she maintained her composure. “She was always going on an on ‘bout what was moral, and what ain’t… and more and more, I’m seein’ that all she had to say was a pack of lies.”
“I may take an unconventional approach,” Nut began, “but I don’t let anypony tell me what is moral. I try to approach right and wrong through rationality. A great many things that society believes to be moral are, in fact, quite immoral. When I try to draw attention to these things… it never goes well. Defying convention never ends well for me, for some reason.”
With her sister still rubbing against her, Princess Celestia seemed thoughtful. After a few moments, she turned to Nut and said, “It seems as though everypony is attempting to uphold conventional morality. But not you. Out of all of House Eccentrica, you alone are the true nonconformist. The odd black sheep.”
Caught off guard, Nut gave these words careful consideration as he asked, “What is it that you think I do different?”
Princess Luna pulled away from her sister to look at Nut directly, while Tater Blossom reached up to adjust her hat. He found himself quite uncomfortable with suddenly being the center of attention, as it was in his nature to strive to avoid notice. Yet, here he was, with the commanding gazes of two alicorns held fast upon him.
“Time passes. Convention changes. Ponies are so focused on upholding conventional morality that they are letting the past hold back the future. But not you. Nut, you seek to define your own sense of morality. This is not an easy path. Thankfully, you don’t have to go alone. You have an apprentice in dire need of these lessons due to the circumstances of her upbringing.”
He flogged his brain for a response, but all his efforts were for naught.
“It will cost you dearly, but I think you already know that. Traditions and social mores are the hardest things to change. Just look at what it is doing to your apprentice. See how she suffers as she has to examine all of her values to see which are worthy, and which must be cast aside. Such a terrible price. For her, it left her shunned. Cast out. Unwanted.”
Nut found the words he wished to say, but he lacked the desire to say them. Still, such words were necessary, and with great regret he said, “It cost me Pod. My family. I mean, we’re not estranged, but we don’t see eye to eye. It feels like everything went wrong. All because I wanted to discover myself. The pony that I wished to be, and not the pony that everypony wanted me to be.”
In response, the taller of the two princesses nodded. “The right thing is never easy.”
“But am I doing the right thing?” Too late, he realised the folly of his own question. Even after saying that he didn’t let anypony tell him what was moral, and yet here he was, asking a proverbial goddess what she thought was moral. It left him feeling foolish.
Princess Celestia chuckled hard enough that her body shook. “Only time will tell.”
“The cost… what if I am wrong?” asked Nut, who was still in a weird place that he’d rather not be, which was seeking morality advice from some ancient, immortal being. “I’ve given up so much already.”
“Life will demand far more of you. I wish we had more time, but others demand my time and attention. Go do something about Vanhoover, Nut. So long as the city isn’t burnt to the ground, I shall be forgiving. Good luck, and good parting.”
“Yes”—Princess Luna’s head bobbed up and down in an almost manic manner—“go and do something about Vanhoover. I bid thee to bring unbridled havoc to bear upon the injustices found there.”
“Is this… is this like a formal request?” Nut found himself in an odd place, because sometimes the sisters were… playful.
“I seem to recall that you swore an oath—”
“Yes,” Luna said, interrupting her sister, “I definitely remember an oath. On the day of your cute-ceañera. You swore an oath. As I recall, you were quite giddy about it. So much so that your mother had to pull you aside and calm you down.”
“But I am one pony… and there… there is a whole city in need of what for and maybe something greater.”
“Luna, would you please hold still—”
“I can’t,” the younger of the two sisters replied, “the moon is full. Me. I am the moon.”
“Do you need to go potty?” Tater Blossom asked.
“HAH!” Luna’s outburst was almost thunderous in the hallway. “I am off to lay waste to the carnival games and have fun! I shall give away the prizes I claim to win the hearts and minds of mine subjects.” Hooves clattering, she sprang away and went running down the hall while flapping her wings.
“Oh… I must be going… when Luna discovers that the carnies rig their games, she’ll be livid… oh dear. Oh bother… excuse me, but I sense catastrophe waiting in the wings!” Princess Celestia hurried away in pursuit of her sister. “Remember your oath, Nut. Potato Blossom, it was nice to meet you. Remember what Gosling told you. Go do great things together! I must save the carnies from Luna’s sense of self-righteous indignation!”
And then, the sisters were gone. Nut exchanged a glance with Tater Blossom, and he wondered what thoughts must be stampeding through her head right now. She’d been raised to believe that Almighty Celestia was a divine being, a creature of smiteful, frightful fury—and now, she’d seen a glimpse of the real Celestia. He’d need to keep an eye on her, because she was bound to react to this somehow, but how was unknown.
“They’re… very… silly ponies,” Tater Blossom said at last.
“Oh, verily,” he agreed.
“I’m kinda relieved. Ma said that silliness was sinfulness. But she also said that Almighty Celestia alone was without sin. So if Celestia is a silly pony, that means I can be a silly pony, and that’s a relief. ‘Cause I like being a silly pony, but I don’t wanna be a sinner.”
“That seems to be a remarkably logical observation.”
“Thanks. I needed to hear that.”
“Come, walk with me, Miss Blossom. Canterlot is a beautiful city at night. We’ll take the long way home.”
The playground was lit with colourful paper lanterns that cast multihued islands of light. There were ponies out here, adults, who’d stepped outside to enjoy the night. But Nut noticed none of them. He only had eyes for the pea green mare on the swing set. Taffy, a dusky shade of nightfall, was almost invisible in the dark. It occurred to Nut that Pod and Taffy complimented each other, as they were both uncommon colours… unpopular colours.
Taffy’s shade of blue wasn’t too far off from Luna’s.
Pod was a bit too big for the swing, but it didn’t matter. Beside her, Taffy swung back and forth while speaking in a low voice. Nut couldn’t hear what was said, but even knowing so little about Taffy, he suspected that it was kind, reassuring words of some kind. Though they were adults now, something about the playground and the paper lanterns made Nut feel like a foal again, or perhaps he was nostalgic for a time when everything was simpler. When things made sense. A time when he’d been told that it was decided that he would marry Pod, his cousin and best friend, because that was the right thing to do.
It certainly simplified his life and took a lot of pressure off of him.
To enjoy it, all he had to do was conform—and he rather failed at that.
A lifetime of conformity. That is what drove him away. The idea that his life had been planned out for him. His marriage and shared future. With marriage would come a lifetime of this. Navigating the Canterlot social savanna, keeping track of the big players, the predators, the survivors, the grazers who gathered to feed—he wanted no part of it, any of it. Pod did. She dismissed his severe dislike of Canterlot’s social savanna as early onset curmudgeonliness.
“I don’t know how to make things right with Pod.”
“Well,” Tater Blossom said while she sidled closer to Nut, “don’t be a thief of truth. Maybe just tell her how you feel.”
These words resounded in his ears and brought up ideas that had floated in his mind over the past few days. There is but one sin, and that is theft. Plus, there was the oft-repeated words of Secundus, we pay our debts sometimes. Nut knew that his silence had driven Secundus away, but perhaps it wasn’t too late to salvage things with Pod. His apprentice’s advice was deceptively simple, but also had awful complexity.
“I love Pod,” Nut said to the filly beside him, “but I hate all the things she wants. Well, most of them. She wants to settle down. Settle in. She wants a life that she can boast about. Pod is a Canterlot pony through and through. I could never be happy with her. Sooner or later, all of my resentment for all the things she wants would spill out on her directly. And that… that is the worst thing I can think of. Pod deserves better. This makes her happy… and she deserves that happiness. But she and I could never coexist because of it.”
“You gotta tell her that. Nut, you owe her that.”
“But it will hurt her.”
“Yeah, prolly. It’ll likely hurt a goldurn lot. Bein’ stabbed in my hindquarters all those times hurt too, but I lived through it. And in a few weeks, I’ll live through it again. I done reckon I’ll recover, scratch my mad spot, and get over it.”
Even with this earthy wisdom that lingered in his ears, he hesitated.
“It hurt me when Mrs. Oleander said that my ma was a thief. But she was right to say it. My ma… she is a thief. It pains me to say that and makes my heart feel all jumpy. I needed to hear it. Mrs. Oleander said it, and I don’t hate her for it. She’s my friend, and I trust her. If you love Pod, you need to do right.”
He sighed when he concluded that his sensible friend was correct.
With his hooves almost dragging, Nut made his way over to the swing set…
“It makes me feel weird when y’all say each other’s names like that,” said Tater Blossom.
Nut noticed that Pod had a tight grip on the well-oiled chains of the swing. She’d been crying, and the idea that she’d wept while she sat on the swing caused a rush of strange feelings to go ricocheting through his guts. She was holding on for dear life, and he suspected that he knew why, for he was probably the cause.
“Pod…”—he inhaled—“I’m really very sorry that I told you that if you ever swung over the top of the swing that you’d get sucked into an alternate dimension full of foal-munching monsters.”
Her eyes widened, then narrowed, widened again, all while her barrel rose and fell. ”You came over here to apologise for that of all things?”
“Well, I owe you a number of apologies, and thought this might be a good way to warm up.”
“I owe myself an apology for that one,” she said, her demeanour rather curt. “What a gullible filly I was to believe such nonsense. You were so solemn and serious when you told me. I should’ve known better, but I trusted you and your educated confidence. You really were a prat, you know that?”
“Before this turns into a battle of bloody noses on the playground”—Taffy raised her hoof in a gesture to halt—“we should go to Donut Joe’s. Get a proper table between the two of you. Even if the preventative measures fail, the blood will not look too out of place amongst the globs of raspberry jam filling.”
“Oh… capital idea.” Pod’s words lacked their usual enthusiasm. “Just what I need. Hindquarter enlargement. Fetch the harpoons, Taffy. We’re going whaling.”
“We’re all dressed up, so we might as well go somewhere,” Taffy said to Pod.
“Oh, very well. Let’s go.” Pod lurched out of the swing and her gown dragged through the dirt down below. “A batch of warm princess puffs with creamy filling do sound tempting—”
“Lewd?” Pod’s head tilted off to one side.
“Puffy princesses with cream filling!” Taffy said it loud enough that several heads turned.
“Oh… that is lewd.” Pod’s ears fell back and her orange tongue could be seen as it flicked across her lips.
Eyebrow arched, Nut said, “And Pod eats them by poking her tongue through the tiny hole—”
“Oh, I know,” Taffy replied. “I love to watch. Pod has a talented tongue.”
“Lewd,” Nut deadpanned.
“I feel dirty,” Tater Blossom announced.
“Blame the lewds,” Taffy replied. “Now, let’s go get some donuts. I’m determined to salvage this night somehow.”
The walls and shelves of Donut Joe’s were cluttered with enough garniture to cause overstimulation in any pony that tried to take it all in. Pictures. Urns of those departed who wished for their mortal remains to hang out in the donut cafe for as long as it existed. Trophies. Celestia collectables. Keepsakes of Luna. Tourist knick-knacks such as miniature models of famous Canterlot towers.
It was magnificent.
All four of them were crammed into a corner booth with a round table. Tater Blossom was beyond excited, and showed no signs of sleepiness. Unaware of the danger, she made a valiant effort to examine every little thing in her immediate surroundings, and now behaved as if she was jazzed on java. While she checked out the bric-a-brac, Nut watched the ponies present, and it appeared as though quite a few socialite refugees came here to recover with donuts and drinks.
Canterlot might be the only city in existence where tuxedoed ponies went out for donuts.
“Right there, Taffy!”
With a turn of his head, Nut looked in the direction of where Tater Blossom pointed. There was a framed colour photograph on the wall, with a herd of mares gathered around a table. All of them were dressed in their distinctive finery, which was rather tattered and disheveled. The mares almost looked as though they’d escaped a war zone. In the middle of the group was Twilight Sparkle—still a unicorn.
“What a friendship lesson that must have been,” Taffy remarked. “This place has history.”
“Pod and Nut have history.”
“Indeed, they do, Tater.”
“We do.” Pod’s head turned and she watched a young couple come through the door.
Nut too, watched the couple. They were perfect, of course. He was wearing a stylish jacket, black with blue trim, while she wore a simple-yet-elegant white gown. Not a hair was out of place on either of them, and it was obvious to any onlooker that the both of them were very much in love. That wretched phase of love with cooing, big soulful eyes, pet names, and all of the things that caused outright and utter disgust in all those who witnessed the saccharine displays of infatuation.
“The Bounty of Equestria,” the waitress said as she sat down an enormous platter of donuts upon the table. “A little taste of everything, from every one of our cities. Crullers. Maple bars from Vanhoover. Cream-filled. Jellies, including the jalapeño jelly donuts famous in Las Pegasus. I’ll be right back with your drinks. Enjoy.” She departed, and took her nasal deadpan with her.
“Oh my.” From the tone of her voice, it was easy to guess that Tater Blossom was intimidated by the platter of donuts. “What are these, and what do I start with?”
Saying nothing, Nut snatched up a maple bar, because he had to determine if they matched the glorious maple bars of Vanhoover. After a polite bite, he was left disappointed. This wasn’t much like the real thing. Sure, it was delicious, but it only had the mere suggestion of maple, and not the overpowering, cloying assault upon the senses that a true Vanhooverian maple bar was known to cause.
“Try a princess puff,” Pod suggested. “They’re light, airy, flakey, and come with a surprise. There’s citrus cream and blackcurrant jelly. Donut Joe goes through a lot of trouble to make sure that you won’t know which is which.”
In silence, Nut munched his maple bar while Tater Blossom surveyed the massive platter. Pod seemed a little happier, while Taffy was happy. But then again, Taffy always seemed happy, and Nut suspected that she was just that sort of mare. He found her attractive, due in no small part because of her bubbly, effervescent disposition.
Following Pod’s suggestion, Tater tore into a princess puff, which bled out pale orange cream filling. It was gone in three bites, and after licking her lips, Tater destroyed all evidence of its existence. Nut couldn’t help but be impressed by Tater Blossom’s voracious appetite. He found himself relaxing a little, and even enjoying his maple bar—which wasn’t terrible, just different.
“Well… I suppose you don’t have telekinesis so you can hold it up and explore it with your tongue,” Pod said to Tater Blossom. “That’s the real fun in eating them. Sucking out the filling and then devouring the hollowed-out puff.” With a kind smile, Pod plucked out a straw from the container on the counter, levitated it over, stabbed it into another princess puff, and then set it down upon Tater Blossom’s plate. “There you go. Have fun.”
“Why, thank ya.”
The waitress returned with four enormous glasses of chocolate milk, which she sat down upon the table, and then she was off to attend to other customers. Nut found himself wondering where she lived. If she struggled to pay the bills and keep the lights on. How hard was it to make ends meet here in Canterlot? How did a waitress survive here? He was almost certain that he was the only pony in the room to think such things, and the awareness of it left him some self-conscious angst.
For him, it was just more confirmation that he didn’t belong here.
When he glanced at Pod, he caught her with her eyes on him. For a moment, when their eyes met, he felt an old familiar spark. But with it came a cascadevalanche of emotions and thoughts of Black Maple. In a weird moment of introspection, he saw two very different lives stretch out before him, with different outcomes. One involved staying here, in Canterlot, and his awareness of the struggles of waitresses slowly fading away with time, until it wasn’t even a background thought or a passing distraction.
Pod’s love was like anesthetic, which was, perhaps, the point. It crossed his mind that this might’ve been the matchmaker’s intention. A little something to dull the pain as the last vestiges of rebellion and nonconformity died within him. As those fundamental aspects within him died, Pod’s company would make their passing bearable. It was a bleak thought, but it was an honest thought. Though he’d infected Pod with some of his thinking, it wasn’t a total shift in world outlook. She was still a creature of the Canterlot Social Savanna.
Black Maple’s love on the other hoof, was like a sharp stab with a pin. A thorn in the side. She would never allow complacency. He would never fully be comfortable with her. There would always be poking, prodding, testing, her charms would never allow him a moment’s peace—and a part of him knew that he prefered that. It was better for him. Made him grow. He adapted. Survived.
This new awareness caused him no end of pain, but he could not unthink it.
Growing up. The end to foalhood. Surrounded by donuts and chocolate milk. A life of privilege could not save him from this inevitable fate. Was this what he wanted? Yes. It was. There was no turning back now, it was time to embrace the ache. The last and final bridge to adulthood. Or, perhaps he was a bit too dramatic. But this did feel like a transition, a turning point, and once he committed himself, he feared that nothing would ever be the same.
The truth would either set him free, or completely ruin everything.
Pod had a princess puff and Nut watched with bemused interest as he finished off his maple bar. When she stuck out her tongue, there was something almost timeless about her, a suggestion that she would be forever young. She would grow up, sure, but she would always be sheltered. Pod would never want for anything. All of her fetching innocence and youthful appeal would be preserved, because in some ways, she would remain an eternal filly, protected from the ravages of hard living.
He felt bad for thinking of her in this way, but he knew it to be true. She was already betrothed to his replacement. While Taffy might expose Pod to some of the harsher aspects of the world due to her planned profession, at no point would either of them ever be in any real danger. They belonged here on the entirely artificial Canterlot Social Savanna, insulated from the harsh reality of the world at large. Canterlot was above the clouds, and above all the troubles found down below.
Her tongue probed the tiny filling hole and when it vanished into the depths, her eyes widened with sweet surprise. She was beautiful, painfully so, though perhaps not in the traditional physical sense. Nut still loved her, everything about her, which made what needed to be done so much harder. He’d left home to avoid consequences, plain and simple, and to come home meant that he had to face the music. Saving Tater Blossom from her troubles at home led him here, back to Canterlot, where he had no choice but to face down his own trials and tribulations. It was fitting in some way, perhaps poetic, but these travails felt a lot like justice.
Tater Blossom was attempting to suck blackcurrant jelly through a straw, which left her cheeks collapsed, leaving her face hollow and pinched. She made a valiant effort and there were vulgar slurping and sucking sounds from within the secret confines of the princess puff. As he watched the filly continue her exercise in futility, he thought about how special this moment was, how precious it was. Because he had suffered, because he had gone hungry, this meant something. The excess food mattered more, as did the joy to be found from consumption.
But for Pod, this was just another night out, in a never-ending series of nights out.
For the first time, Nut began to understand the weight of the choices he had made, and wasn’t sure what to think of them. He’d done this to himself. All of his misery was his own. At any moment, at any time, he could return to this life—it was just a matter of coming home. As he ate the last bite of his maple bar, he thought about everything that Princess Luna had said. Rather than be depressed about all of this, Nut found that he was… satisfied? Perhaps that wasn’t the right description. But he was glad to know the truth, relieved. He hoped that his relationship with Princess Luna would progress and grow into whatever it was meant to be.
As was so often the case, his thoughts strayed to the Gallopagos.
He could leave it all behind. All of the complication. This hoof wringing. Every bit of angst, fear, uncertainty, and doubt. He could leave the world behind, with all of its social savannas and unnecessary complexity. All these interactions, such as the apology he owed Pod. He thought of salty breezes, a rocking ship, and surrendering himself to his obsession. The world and its troubles would no longer matter and all of this was temporary. Ephemeral. Distractions to be dealt with and brief encounters to sort out along the way to something greater.
Yet, there was a part of him that had no desire to leave this behind. Sitting here, at a table in Donut Joe’s, with Tater Blossom, Pod, and Taffy… he felt the joy of living. Made all the more pleasurable because of the struggle for survival. Because he’d gone hungry and done without. For the very first time in a long, long time, Nut suffered serious doubt about his future plans, and wondered if he should perhaps reconsider.
But he couldn’t.
His plans were part of his identity. A central component to who and what he was. His reputation. He was Nut, the up-and-coming evolutionary biologist who would one day do the impossible, and mount an expedition to the Gallopagos. His academic career had been wholly shaped by his plan, and was the primary reason he had any sort of reputation at all. His quest gave him a sort of gravitas that was typically inaccessible to young upstarts such as himself, but he had a sort of minor fame associated with his name. All because of the plan.
Letting go of the plan would destroy him and his future.
He would sink back into obscurity.
Turning back now would be his ultimate undoing.
He’d found a way to be noticed without flaunting his status as a noble. No longer was he Nut, of House Eccentrica. Now, he was Nut, the up-and-coming evolutionary biologist with the absolutely bonkers plan to visit the Gallopagos. This got ponies talking. It opened doors. The sheer brass balls of it all allowed him access to the academics who mattered. Why, it was the very sort of influence that got him sent to the Widowwood. Which, in turn, led to the rescue and recovery of his apprentice.
Everything he was and would be was because of the plan.
To disavow his plan, to even think of it, was to abandon his future.
Yet, here he was, torturing himself.
“Is this normal?” asked Taffy.
“Yes,” replied Pod. “Here is Nut in all his glory. Alone in a crowd.”
He smirked as he pulled his chocolate milk closer, and then just sat there, enjoying himself. Pod and Taffy made a fine couple. As he sat there, smirking, leaning over his chocolate milk, he thought about fatherhood. He’d been home for quite some time and hadn’t seen hide nor hair of his own father, who was probably busy with work, no doubt. Nut tried to recall time spent with his father, and found, much to his own dismay, that there weren’t that many memories to recollect. But, the memories that Nut had were happy ones, at least.
His father was consumed by his work, in a job that offered no pay.
With her princess puff now devoid of all blackcurrant jelly, Tater Blossom crammed the disemboweled dessert into her mouth and chewed away with no thought of table manners. When she swallowed, her hungry eyes began to search the piled high platter for her next victim. There was no doubt about it; Tater Blossom was a highly evolved eating machine. Before anypony could say anything, or even react, she stretched her neck out, lowered her head, and snatched up a glazed cruller from the edge of the platter. Nut could not help but notice that she’d picked off a straggler from the herd.
The patterns were everywhere; one only had to be aware of them to see them.
He sipped his chocolate milk and wished that it had been malted. Pod was an extraordinary creature, and Taffy deserved all of her—including the part that held out hope for him. By leaving home, he attempted to avoid this awkwardness, this pain, but now here he was, stuck staring down the mess he’d made. As a colt, Pod had made him feel things; he discovered things about himself. Pod was the creature that allowed him to catalogue his sexuality and he learned an awful lot about himself because of her.
It wasn’t too late to fix things. If he wanted to, he could easily insert himself into their lives. He could come home. Tater Blossom would get a very different education here. In time, he would find happiness, right? Once all the vital parts of him withered and died. His own bitter resentments would surely fade in time, right? Wasn’t that just growing up? Acceptance? It was like learning to eat things that you didn’t particularly like, but they were good for you. Canterlot might never be to his liking, but surely he could accept that it was good for him.
With the cloying sweetness of chocolate milk thick on his tongue, Nut felt noodly.
“So, tell me, Nut,” Taffy began as she looked into his eyes. “What have you done since leaving home? What have you accomplished? Have you done anything to make a name for yourself? How goes seeking your own fortune?”
He spent a moment staring back into her eyes and thought about what he might say. He had, in fact, made a name for himself, and had even become something of an expert, but talking about it in polite company might be frowned upon. There was an apology that needed to be said, but this was a pleasant, welcome distraction.
“I’ve become something of an expert on mimics,” he said to Taffy. “My work has revealed a number of things. They’re blobs of biomass with specialised cells that can, at a moment’s notice, become anything. With almost any shape. These cells can become brain cells, or skin cells, or nerve tissue, or basically anything that is necessary. Mimics don’t even have a stomach until one is needed. When they surround their prey, the inside layer becomes cells specialised in digestion. The thing that has gained me some fame, or perhaps notoriety, is that I came up with a specific term due to their unique physiology.”
“And what might that be?” Taffy asked.
“Well, I said in a paper that mimics have a transient anus. That got me dragged before the school review board, and I was made to explain myself. They thought I was joking, and the joke was not funny. Once I explained the phenomenon, the term became an accepted part of scientific nomenclature. So, I have the distinction of originating the term and I will go down in the historical record as the discoverer of transient anuses in mimics.”
When Pod pulled her head away from her chocolate, there was a long ribbon of drool that stretched from her lower lip to her straw. She appeared disgusted, and rightfully so. There’d just been a discussion about transient anuses right after she’d buried her tongue into the filling hole of a princess puff. Nut allowed himself a moment of quiet, sensible satisfaction for having so disturbed poor Pod, but he did not dare grin.
“But… why though?” Taffy blinked a few times in rapid succession, but the shock did not wear off and she remained transfixed in horrified fascination.
Nut shrugged. “A lot of creatures void excrement through their mouths. Mimics could do the same, but they don’t. When mimics pass waste, they have to take great care that they are not discovered. So, they create a specialised anus on demand and pass waste that is invisible, or otherwise disguised as something else. In the archives, where I dealt with the mimic menace, I discovered that the mimics were disguising their waste as writing pens that didn’t work.”
“Some ponies put pens into their mouths to write.” Pod shuddered and squeezed her eyes shut for a second. “Oh, that is just vulgar.”
“All manner of office supplies were doled out through many a transient anus.”
“There exists a sentence that shouldn’t exist.” Taffy too, shuddered. “Dare I ask how you made this discovery?”
“Oh”—A wide, manic, noodly grin could not be held back—“that’s a funny story. I crept up on a mimic unawares and gave it a good scare. The creature was so disturbed that it immediately voided its bowels, grew a pair of legs, and then scarpered off in search of a new hiding spot.”
“So you… watched as… the uh, transient anus was made manifest…”
“Yes, Taffy, I did.”
“Gross,” Pod hissed.
“Well”—Taffy dragged out the word until it stretched quite long—“that’s an… accomplishment. You should be… proud… I guess. I mean, you’ll be going down in the annals of history—”
“Taffy! Must you?”
“Must I what, Pod?”
Pod hissed like a steam kettle left unattended on the stove, and then replied, “Nevermind.”
“So you’re developing a reputation for mimics, and you seem to like studying them… so do you mind if I ask why you don’t specialise in them? I mean, there seems to be much that isn’t known, and you seem to be discerning their secrets. Why not devote yourself to this?”
“Well I… well, uh… well… I don’t know. It was just a means to an end. Something I did for school to get high marks. I… uh… well…” Rather than continue to flounder, Nut sipped his chocolate milk, oblivious to the frothy brown colour, and gave careful consideration to Taffy’s questions.
Why didn’t he devote himself to this?
It was a fair question.
Almost nothing was known about mimics, mostly because the academics that attempted to study them typically ended up as a part of the food chain. Well, this part was debatable, those who studied mimics vanished, but digestion seemed the most likely of outcomes. Vanhoover had a mimic problem, because mimics seemed to like moist environments, at least this was the suggested hypothesis. One could make a name for themselves if they could somehow study mimics—and not end up as cleverly disguised fecal matter.
“I want to make a name for myself,” Taffy said to Nut. “Ambition is a huge part of who and what I am. I envy you… I do, really. I’m in a field where it is tough to stand out. But, it is a rather newish field, or at least a field regularly infused with newish ideas, and so I want to leave my mark. That’s why I’m eager to settle down and start a family. Somepony specialising in foalhood development should have a ready batch of test subjects.”
“How can you hurry up and start a family with a mare… I don’t wanna sound mean, I just wanna understand.” Tater Blossom sucked in a deep breath, then another, and her eyes went wide. “That came out wrong. Please don’t think I’m bad.”
“Calm down, Tater.” Taffy offered up a reassuring smile to the anxious filly across the table. “Two mares can start a family without too much trouble. Nut could help us, if he chooses to do so. We can always find a contributor, if we need one. Deep breaths, Tater.”
Then, while Pod calmed Tater down, Taffy continued, “I want to make a name for myself, but I don’t even know where to begin. At the moment, I lack credibility. I’m told I have talent, but my lack of experience hurts my prospects. What do I have to do to get noticed? I need to have my theories validated. What good does it do me to have all these ideas if I can’t sort them out or put them into practice?”
“It’s fine to ask questions,” Pod said to Tater in a hushed whisper. “You don’t have a mean bone in your body.”
Nut’s eyes went to Tater Blossom for a moment, saw that she was mostly fine, and then he returned his steady, unwavering gaze to Taffy. “You can’t make a name for yourself in a crowd. I mean, sure, maybe… but the odds feel slim. To be noticed, you must stand where nopony else dares to stand. Surround yourself with a whole lot of nothing, so much so that you’re the only thing that stands out. Do this, and you will be noticed.”
“You make it sound so simple, Nut.”
“Well, for me, it has been, Taffy.” He leaned over the table and unbeknownst to him, his eyes narrowed with fierce intensity. “It’s Canterlot, Taffy. You have little chance of standing out amongst the best and brightest. You are but one star among many. Plus, it is the way we do things here. Our accelerated degrees and doled out diplomas. We become doctors after a year in school and then gain life experience. While that is respected here, in Canterlot, it’s sneered at with contempt almost everywhere else. Why should we be so privileged that we get to skip out on our own educations?”
Taffy seemed shaken by his words and Nut waited for her to respond.
“Is that… is that true?” she asked. “Are we held in contempt?”
“Indubitably.” Nut saw the hurt in her eyes and a part of him felt bad, while another deeper, darker part felt like celebrating. “Verily.” He inhaled and softened his tone. “Everypony else is expected to struggle, but not us. Nopony else is guaranteed success. Regular ponies aren’t just given a diploma and then made to succeed. They work for it. Most of them don’t even complete their education. The dropout rate is high. Those who get degrees often end up working in unrelated fields. It’s a huge mess, Taffy… but not for us. We’re protected from failure… but also from our own meaningful success.”
“Taffy, imagine being born on the bottom, and having to work your way up. How would you feel—”
“Oh… I get it.” Taffy’s ears drooped while her whole body slumped. “This seems so obvious… but for some reason, I didn’t make the connection until just now. Well, I feel a bit stupid.”
“Not stupid,” Nut said to her. “Just unaware. Canterlot is the city above the clouds, and the clouds obscure everything down below. It’s why I left.”
“Here we go. At last.” Pod patted Tater Blossom, but her keen eyes were focused on Nut. “The heart of the issue. That owed apology. Perhaps an explanation with some actual meaning, but I’m not holding my breath.”
“Pod, be nice. Or else.”
“Or else what, Taffy?”
“A year of endless, merciless pranks—”
“Oh, that’s not fair at all!”
“—maybe even a few mean-spirited ones. Don’t try me, Pod.”
“We all have our dark sides,” Nut remarked.
“The place where the sun don’t shine… no wait… that came out all wrong… no, no, no.” Tater Blossom’s head shook from side to side and then, with nothing better to say, she gobbled another donut into her maw to keep her mouth busy.
“I can’t imagine you having a dark side, Nut.”
“Nor I you, Taffy.”
“Oh, I can be passive aggressive with a lovely smile.” Taffy flashed her best false-smile while she batted her eyelashes. “My father was a little less than pleased when I stepped out of the closet. He was hurt. Upset. Kept going on and on about what had he done wrong. As if he was responsible for my lesbian lusts. So I pranked him. Endlessly. Ceaselessly. He had to be reminded that I was still the filly that he’d raised. Daddy had to be made to remember who I am. Eventually, he did. He came around. Sadly, he still thinks that he failed somehow, and he even went through a phase where he blamed my mother for not showing me enough affection, somehow implying that me being attracted to mares is because I seek out the motherly love I wasn’t shown enough of. But he’s getting better. I think. At least, I’ve convinced myself that things are better.” She seemed sad for a moment when she added, “It’s been a while since I’ve seen him.”
Nut thought of the whoopie cushion left in Gestalt’s study.
“We have something in common, Nut. I don’t think your parents understand you either.”
“Oh, indeed.” Pod’s eyes rolled as she spoke. “Always going on about what is best for him. And I’m stuck listening because I live there. Blah, blah, blah, all this talk about what Nut could be, and should be, and ought to be, plus all the usual stuff about wasted potential, and I’m wasting my potential too, because I chose to try things the hard way… which, as it turns out, is just the normal way… but I’ve been made to live with Nut’s sins by proxy.”
“I’m sorry, Pod.”
“That’s not the apology I expected, but I’ll take it.” Pod assaulted Tater Blossom with a paper napkin while she said to Nut, “One night, Clove actually blamed me for not trying harder. She tried to make this my fault. Gestalt let her have it… and once she was cowed, he let me have it too. He didn’t blame me for you leaving… he just said that my feminine wiles were lacking.”
Groaning, Nut collapsed against the table and heaved a weary sigh.
“I can’t even go home,” Pod muttered. “No, I don’t want to talk about it. Nut… you left. And when you did, everything got dumped on me. Everything. Even though the betrothal was broken off years ago, and everything was all happy smiles and reassurances that the future was still promising, all of that changed when you left. You were gone. Everypony was so certain that you’d come around… that somehow I’d make you come around. You’d come to your senses, everypony said, and then they’d give me helpful advice on how to help things along. But you scrammed.
“You scrammed and nopony could quite believe that it had happened. And within a day, ponies are asking me if I did this, or if I did that, or if I gave you the space you needed to get sorted out, and there’s all these inquiries to determine what I’d done wrong. Meanwhile, you completely dodged all the consequences. I had to listen about how I was too clingy, or that I didn’t quite cling enough, or I wasn’t this, or that, and I had to hear all these whispered arguments about me, me, me.”
“Pod”—he kept his tone as neutral as possible—“why didn’t you leave? I mean, you’re clearly not with your parents… but why stay with my parents? Why stick around? Why subject yourself to this?”
“Because I need a place to live while I’m in school,” she spat out with hushed contempt. “Because all of this is temporary. At least, I hope. My parents completely cut me off and did everything short of disowning me. Clove and Bulb were nice enough to take me in.”
“Yes, but why stay? Why not just move out and live by your own means?”
Pod’s mouth fell open and in that moment, Nut knew why he left. He saw it on Pod’s face. She was willing to endure all of this… and for what? To what end? The shock and disgust on her face left him confused and hurt, but also confirmed his suspicions. He felt vindicated even as he felt crushed. Something dreadful tickled its way into his heart, and the love he felt for Pod diminished in some horrifying cancerous way.
She was a Canterlot pony through and through.
The idea of leaving was never even entertained; just enduring until the storm passed.
He was willing to leave and suffer for his freedom, and Pod, she was not. Pod, the pony that he once loved, and a part of him still loved, was too attached to all the trappings of society to go her own way. She would stay, wait this out, and claim her entitled reward for persistence. One day, she would have the Agate Tower, because he wouldn’t be around to claim it. All she had to do to have all these things was endure some discomfort, some shame, and some degradation. For the cost of a little abasement, she would have a secure life of plenty, never wanting for anything.
“I don’t know if I like how you’re looking at me,” Pod said to Nut.
He chose a not-entirely dishonest response: “It is a bit of a shock to hear of all of this.”
“That look you have on your face is worth an apology.” Pod’s voice grew chilly and she rested both of her front hooves against the chromed edge of the table. “Something just changed between us… I can sense it.”
“You’re not wrong.” He took a deep breath and abandoned all thoughts of running away. It was time to sort this out. While he might not be able to make this right, he could at least lay it to rest. “Pod, I love you. I doubt that will ever change. But the fact that you’re willing to tolerate all this nonsense just so you can maintain your prefered lifestyle… that’s exactly why we can’t stay together. You love all of this”—he gestured at everything around him with his hoof—“and I can’t stand it. Had I stayed here, had we stayed together, I would have grown to resent you.
“At least, that’s what I think, Pod. I suspect the matchmakers knew exactly what they were doing when they paired us. You’d anchor me in place. Because I love you, I’d allow you to console me as I settled in and all the vital parts of me slowly died off. Out of a misguided sense of duty, or obligation, or whatever it might be, I’d stay with you and make things work… but at the cost of everything I value about myself.
“You’re willing to settle… and that’s fine for you. For me, myself, I’m not willing to endure this kind of nonsense. You want Canterlot… and I don’t. I mean, just sit back and take an objective look at what you’re willing to put up with to stay here. Which is fine for you. But I can’t live this way. For that… I’m sorry, Pod. I really, really am. All of the things you want are things that I hate. Things I can’t stand. You deserve happiness. Taffy and you, both of you can be happy.
“I want you to have happiness and to be happy. You and I cannot coexist, and for that, I apologise. It is for the best if we truly end things between us and abandon all hope of ever making things work. There. I gave you my apology, and my reasons for departing. Now I need for you to let me go.”
The sound of Tater Blossom chewing and the thumping of his own heart was all that Nut could hear. Everything else around him had gone silent in some weird, unnatural way. He rather felt like throwing up, and it seemed as though that his alimentary canal picked a wonderful time to practice some impossible feat of complex gymnastics.
He made an effort to read Pod’s face and found that he could not. Her eyes were glassy, brimming with tears, but her feelings were unknown. In disturbed silence, he sat and watched as her nostrils quivered. It was a reaction he was familiar with; she was controlling her breathing so that she could contain whatever emotion it was that overwhelmed her. Taffy reached out and grabbed Pod’s fetlock in her own. Pod did not pull away, but allowed Taffy to comfort her.
“What you said makes a lot of sense,” Pod said at last. “And I agree. I was probably intended to be a stabilising force in your life. Which might be why I’m being blamed for something outside of my control. You were always a free spirit, Nut… and I… and I was always told that I needed to find some way to rein you in. That if I made myself desirable enough, you’d do what was right.” She gulped, swallowed again, and shook her head. “For the longest time, I struggled with not feeling very desirable, but I’ve already let that slip.”
“Pod… I’m sorry. A lot was expected from both of us. And rather than draw me in, it drove me away.” Nut’s throat felt hot, sandy, and parched.
“I get it now,” Pod said, her voice cracking mid-sentence as the first tears went dribbling down her cheeks. “All the pressures placed on me, all the expectations… that’s why you left. I can’t say I blame you.”
“Whatever you do, Pod, don’t blame yourself. And don’t feel bad for wanting this life. You’re happy here. I mean, happy enough I guess. Things are pretty burdensome right now. Like you said, all of this is temporary. Eventually, all of this will pass. The storm will blow over. You and Taffy will marry. When one of you foals, the status quo will sort itself out, and everypony will quiet down for the sake of stability. Everypony will focus on preparing the next generation for life in Canterlot.”
While tears spilled down her cheeks, Pod levitated a chocolate frosted donut with pink sprinkles to her mouth, and in a truly foalish display of table manners, crammed the entire thing right in. The whole of her muzzle was now smeared in chocolate, and her nose covered in pink sprinkles. Was this relief he saw in her eyes? He couldn’t tell. So focused was he on Pod’s feelings, that he neglected to figure out how he felt.
“Nut, forgive me for being so blunt about this, but are you truly alright with helping us start a family?” Taffy leaned close to Pod, who licked the chocolate and sprinkles from her snoot. “I mean, there’s a lot of pressure. A part of me fears that you agreed out of a sense of obligation. It’s all Pod could talk about. That… that became the plan. Our plan. She had me thoroughly convinced that it would all work out… and if I might be honest, I’m having some doubts. We can make other plans. I don’t want you to feel as though we’re trying to fence you in. Oh dear… there’s just no good way to say any of this without sounding dreadful.”
When Nut smiled, it was a sincere one, one that cut through the pain in much the same way the sun pierced through thunderheads. He considered his words, weighed them, measured them in his mind, because they were of great importance. What he said next—and how he said it—would determine the future happiness of everypony involved.
“I’m fine with this arrangement, but there is a condition.”
“And that would be?” asked Taffy.
“If you want those foals to know their father, you come and visit me. In Vanhoover. Do not try to lure me back to Canterlot. No guilt, no emotional blackmail, no dirty tactics. We do everything fairly or we don’t do it at all. And when you need a donation, you come to Vanhoover. In short, do nothing to attempt to coerce me to come back to Canterlot. If I want to come here, I will… but I will not be made to come here.”
“Deal.” Pod sprayed out pink sprinkles when she spoke, one of which landed upon Nut’s nose.
“That seems remarkably reasonable and fair.” Taffy nodded her approval. “We want you to be happy to see your foals… not resentful.”
Pod shoved another whole donut into her mouth and went to work, chewing.
“How involved are you with Black Maple?” Taffy’s eyes were either half closed, or half open, depending on how one saw such things, and more than a little bit of worry could be seen within them. “What I am trying to say is, I don’t want the two of us to complicate things for the two of you.”
Was honesty the best policy? Yes, he decided. It was. He wiped the sprinkle from his nose with a paper napkin, which he then put down, and once more, he found himself taking great care as he chose his words. “I don’t know how involved I am with Black Maple. Before I left, I stuffed her into a sack for her own good. We had a bit of a row. So I don’t know how she’ll deal with all of this… and honestly, I don’t care right now. Pod and I are family. I owe Pod—”
“Owe?” Taffy shook her head no. “Not sure I like the sounds of that.”
“Call it familial obligation. Call it whatever.” He shrugged and tried to be objective about all of this. “Pod and I still have blood ties. Miss Maple and I have a rocky and complicated relationship that is ill-defined. She will either be supportive, or she will not. If she is not supportive, perhaps it is best that she and I go our separate ways. Perhaps this will offer some much-needed clarity for the both of us. If she is wholly supportive, this might very well change how I feel about her.”
Another donut met a grim end as its red jelly innards spewed over Pod’s muzzle.
“Mmm, twawhawwy,” Pod said around a mouthful of vivid-red donut gore.
“Strawberry, darling? Why don’t you tell us that after you’ve chewed and swallowed. Like a big girl.” With a turn of her graceful head, Taffy batted her eyelashes at Pod, who had jelly that dribbled down her fuzzy chin.
Without a word of warning, Pod lunged forwards and wiped her sticky, jelly-smeared face against Taffy’s cheek. This made Taffy pull away in alarm, but she wasn’t nearly fast enough to avoid Pod’s dreadful retribution. Taffy’s foreleg bumped her tall frosty glass of chocolate milk, which would have fell over if it weren’t for Nut’s excellent reflexes. There’d be no crying over spilt milk, not while he could do something about it.
“Oh, rude!” A bright red smear went from almost mouth to ear and Taffy pushed Pod back with one hoof. “Now I’m sticky.”
Tater Blossom sniggered for a bit, and then slipping her straw between her lips, she began to slurp up her chocolate milk in earnest. As for Nut, he felt as though some great weight had been lifted from his back. There was still a huge mess, but it had been tidied up a bit—which greatly pleased the lurking Disgustang, who demanded neat tidiness in all things.
“I’m all sticky,” Taffy said again. “You’re lucky you didn’t get any on my gown, you creep.”
Nut allowed himself to relax a little as he leaned back into the overstuffed cushion. Things were far from over, but things were better. He flicked his straw out of the way and drank some of his chocolate milk; like Pod, he no longer cared if he got messy, though he was careful. When he tilted the tall glass, he chugged the frothy, whipped chocolate milk, which left behind a foamy moustache on his upper lip.
As was so often the case, his thoughts turned to Black Maple. Now that things were sorted out with Pod, perhaps he could make some headway with the pegasus that was the bane of his existence. If their friendship could be salvaged, he could do that. Surely things could be fixed. Repaired. He drank more milk, which soothed the bile-burnt flesh of his throat.
“This has been an amazing night.” Nervous, Tater Blossom licked her lips, and then met each of the eyes of her companions in turn.
“Has it now?”
“It has, Nut.” She nodded while she spoke. “I got to feel like a princess. There’s my new hat, which I love. My panic attack was bad, but I got to see what Princess Celestia was really like, and talkin’ to Prince Gosling was nice. And even if a lot of this talk has gone over my head, it’s nice a-seein’ all of y’all sort this out. Even if you don’t agree, it seems y’all care for one another. Stayin’ together as family seems all important like and I mighta learned something. Plus, I like that Taffy and Pod are together. Sure, it confuses me, but it’s makin’ me think ‘bout stuff, and I need to be made to think ‘bout stuff.”
“Oh, that’s a hat. I thought you sprouted antlers.” Wearing a wide grin, Taffy snatched up a donut that oozed green jelly. “I meant to say something about it when you met us on the playground. But stuff happened. And then I was going to say something about it here, but stuff happened.” Then, without further ado, she took a huge bite of the donut she levitated.
Within seconds, she became a bit sweaty and her forehead moistened while her ears twitched.
“Jalapeño jelly donut,” Pod said knowingly. “No kisses for you later.” With a turn of her head, she faced Nut. “Honestly, I don’t understand why she tortures herself like that.”
“We endure trying experiences so that we might test our mettle,” Nut remarked.
“But the point of a donut is to be pleasurable—”
“Says who, Pod?”
“Says everypony, Nut.”
“I disagree. By enduring the burn, all the other donuts will be sweeter by comparison.”
The green mare shook her head. “I love you, Nut… but I do not understand you.”
“Not sure I understand myself,” he replied.
“Phew… hot!” Taffy fanned herself with a paper napkin as sweat trickled down her temples. After she licked green jelly from her lips, she took another cautious bite while Pod watched in horrified fascination.
While some of his love for Pod had curdled a bit—something had fundamentally changed between them—things weren’t as bad as Nut first thought. Or maybe they were and he just hadn’t sorted things out yet. It bothered him that Pod wanted to remain here in Canterlot, that she would wait out these troubles. He watched her as she watched Taffy eat the spicy jelly donut. Other ponies had different minds and that was the real trick to life: attempting to empathise with those who had radically different mindsets.
He would never be happy with Pod, and that crushed him. That part of his life, his upbringing, all of that was truly over. The knowledge left him diminished somehow, but he also felt free. There could be no doubt; Pod was the true great love of his life, or had been. They’d started out as playmates. Then came friendship. Familial love made an easy transition to erotic love. The exploration of infatuation between them happened without reservation or shame.
Nut realised that what had died between them was whatever complicated bond of love that existed beyond familial love—that was gone but the familial connection would survive. Their love had withered, gone bad, that connection was severed, and no doubt, that was for the best. He suspected that the current existing connection could only grow stronger from this, and he found himself with optimistic hopes for the future.
He had, perhaps, saved their relationship by ending their relationship.
To celebrate the moment, he picked up a donut with a suspiciously green ooze and had himself a bite. It was, indeed, hot. Not hot like a cup of tea, nor hot like a summer’s day. But it wasn’t hot like the supposed fires of Tartarus. He chewed for a bit, thoughtful, about both his relationship and the heat factor of what he ate. In a rare moment of playfulness, he levitated his donut across the table, hovered it right before Tater Blossom’s nose, and as she stared at it, cross eyed, he gave it a little squeeze. Under pressure, the donut pooted out a dollop of green jelly, which glistened on the tip of Tater Blossom’s snoot.
Then, with a smirk on his face, he returned his donut to himself and had another bite.
“You used to do that with me,” Pod said to Nut. “It… it was something that always stood out. You were always so serious, Nut. So focused and so driven. But then you had these moments when you’d do something like this… like that. I treasured those moments. They meant more because they were so infrequent.”
“Sort of like how a spicy jalapeño jelly donut makes other donuts sweeter.”
Blank-faced, Pod turned to look at Taffy. “Point taken.”
Tater Blossom’s tongue escaped the confines of her mouth, lapped at her nose for a brief moment, and then vanished. For a time, nothing happened, but then it became rather obvious that she was engaged in a struggle to act like nothing was wrong. A glistening bead of sweat rolled down from the crease below her ear, and her eyes turned glassy with excess moisture.
“Funny,” Pod said to nopony in particular, “but I feel a bit more grown up right now. It is an odd feeling. Nut and I finally cleared the air and… and I think I actually have some real understanding of why he left. I don’t resent him for leaving. That’s the thing… I did resent him for leaving. So did Secundus. But right now… it’s strange. Now that the air has been cleared, I find myself… relieved? I don’t know if that is the right word. Everything is still raw and in need of a good sorting out. But I want Nut to be happy”—she turned to look at him—“I want you to be happy in the same sort of way that I want Taffy to be happy. It matters in some important way that I don’t fully understand.”
After another bite of donut, Nut gave careful consideration to Pod’s words. Perhaps that was the trick to growing up—or being in love for that matter. Valuing somepony else’s happiness above your own. Of course, this could be a trap, too. If he’d stayed in Canterlot to keep Pod happy, at the expense of himself… he could see how things could go wrong. But, perhaps in this instance, things had worked out. She would be happy, and so would he, but this happiness came at the cost of whatever romantic love they’d shared.
If this was, indeed, the case, was it a worthwhile exchange?
His initial impression was a resounding yes, but he had a lot to sort out.
“You know, Nut… there are other ponies. It’s frustrating sometimes how you slip off to have a good think and leave all of us in want of your company.” Pod cleared her throat, and when she spoke again, her tone softened. “Again… alone in a crowd. If this were a tawdry romance novel, you’d be described as ‘brooding and mysterious’. But that’s a load of road apples. It’s frustrating to have to fight to keep your attention. You just… slip off.”
Somewhat embarrassed, he reflexively offered up one standard issue apology. “I’m sorry, Pod. Were I able to help how I am, I would have done so by now. This is just how I am.”
“Well, make an effort to stay with us,” Pod demanded. “It’s no different than staying awake during a long, trying study session. How is it any different than dozing off? I mean, you just… slip away. You check out. Those eyes of yours go vacant. The lights are on, but nopony is home. And then you just stare off into space in some vaguely disconcerting way. It makes others think that you don’t care about them or what they have to say.”
“But I do care—”
“Saying it means nothing, Nut. You must show it.”
He stuffed the last bite of donut into his mouth just as a fabulously dressed couple slipped out the door. The open door caused a rush of outside air to come whooshing in, and he smelled summer. At least, he smelled all of the things he associated with summer. The hot smell of greenery. A whiff of chlorinated water from the city’s many decorative fountains. Roasted peanuts and popcorn from the street vendors.
So many ponies chewed gum.
The smell of it was ever-present.
Unicorns loved gum, and could deal with the dainty, delicate foil-paper wrappers, while earth ponies and pegasus ponies had to fight with such things. Yes, unicorns had a culture of foods that were difficult for the other tribes to enjoy. It occurred to him that he was doing it—again—and with a sigh, he returned his attention to Pod, who now scowled at him.
“I was just thinking about how unicorn culture is so exclusionary,” he said to her in an attempt to make things better.
Her scowl became a saggy frown. “Say again?”
“We have foods that we enjoy that are troublesome for the other tribes to partake in. Like… gum and gum wrappers—”
“—and clothing. Even these donuts. You and I, we just levitate them off the plate with no concern, but Miss Blossom, she has to go about it the hard way. It’s been happening all night. She picked a donut on the edge of the pile so she wouldn’t be rude and I thought about her picking off a straggler from the herd. If she’d stuck her face down in the middle of the pile and dug out a donut from the bottom, it would have been considered rude.”
“Is… is this what goes through your head?” asked Pod.
“Yes,” he replied, matter-of-factly.
She leaned over the table, her ears angled forwards, and Pod’s frown became a prim straight line. Nut could see that she was thinking, and from the looks of things, she was thinking about him. At least, all of her attention was focused on him. Perhaps she was wondering if he was pulling her leg, or maybe she had her mind blown. Whatever it happened to be that she thought, she didn’t seem keen on sharing it.
“Wait”—Taffy held up her hoof to halt the conversation—“Nut, you mentioned foods that are troublesome for other tribes, then gave an example of gum, but then right after that you mentioned clothing. Which is not food. I think what we have here is evidence of—”
“Is Pod’s dress not a candy wrapper?” Nut’s cool deadpan made Taffy’s eyes go wide. “You can’t tell me that Pod isn’t a well-wrapped snack for you to partake in. Something is being eaten behind closed doors.”
With these words still in the air, Pod coughed, choked, coughed again, and then wheezed. Frantic, Taffy wacked Pod on the back, while at the same time she shot Nut a wry smirk. Meanwhile, Tater Blossom’s face turned an unnatural shade of red. After she sputtered for a time, Pod recovered enough to give Nut a glare of unknown intent. Taffy gave Pod a few more back-wacks for good measure while Nut allowed himself a low chuckle.
“See, Taffy, I told you… I told you. Nut has a sense of humour, but it is a wretched, stunted thing that relies upon ambush of the unwary and unwitting.” After she coughed and cleared her throat, Pod clung to Taffy while she tried to breathe.
“And he puns, too.” Tater Blossom averted her gaze when Nut glanced at her. “It’s awful. He needs to stop. There needs to be a law.”
Pleased with himself, he drank a bit more of his chocolate milk, and then finished it off completely while his three tablemates doled out feminine glares. Tater Blossom’s needed a bit of work, but she was a contender. Pod’s was stern, while Taffy’s held the threat of promised mischief.
“Don’t worry, Pod. If these undesirable traits are passed along to our offspring, we have discipline and conditioning we can fall back on.” There was a faint smirk on Taffy’s face as she gave Pod a reassuring squeeze.
“One time,” Pod began, “Nut came home from school, and he was well-behaved, and he didn’t run amok through the library, and everypony had their guard down. We went out for dinner to celebrate something… I do not recall what it was. Right in the middle of eating, Nut, he gets this weird look on his face, and he asks his mother a question.
“He says, ‘Mother, what do you get if you divide the circumference of a pumpkin by its diameter?’ And poor Clove, she is quite confused, and rightfully so. So she consults with Bulb, and neither one of them can answer, much less understand the question itself. Down at his end of the table, Nut, has this incredibly smug look on his face.
“So Clove, in a dreadful moment of poor judgement, she finally says to Nut, ‘Very well then, Nut. What do you get if you divide the circumference of a pumpkin by its diameter?’ In a moment of unfettered antisocial behaviour, Nut says back to Clove, his own mother, ‘Pumpkin pi.’ And right after he says this, everything goes quiet and still. A mare at the next table over, she faints. I mean, she just topples right over and splashes into her soup.”
Pod pointed her hoof at Nut in an accusatory manner. “He destroyed dinner. Lambda lost her appetite. Gestalt choked into his napkin. Clove had to apologise for her son’s behaviour. And this whole time… Nut is just gleefully smirking and celebrating his heinous act.”
“I don’t get it,” Tater Blossom said.
“You don’t want to get it, darling,” Taffy replied. “Pod, my love, I am having second thoughts. We can find another father… another donor with more desirable traits.”
“No, Taffy.” There was a prolonged forlorn sigh from Pod. “I fear these are Nut’s best qualities. As much as it pains me to admit it, I rather liked that he disrupted everything. I mean, dinner was boring. Everything was boring. Playtime was boring. And when the boredom reached some unbearable, intolerable level, Nut had a way of dealing with it. He was my hero. I knew that I certainly couldn’t get away with behaving in such a manner. But Nut? Colts will be colts, as the saying goes.”
“Why, Pod… that might be the nicest thing you’ve ever said about me.”
She smiled, and when she did, so did he.
Yes, things felt a little better after the intense discomfort that took place earlier.
“Say, Nut… have you read the latest Daring Do novel?” Taffy asked.
“No… I can’t say that I have. Why?”
“In her latest adventure, she finds herself in a den of antiquity—”
“Taffy!” Pod almost shrieked her beloved’s name. “Oh, that’s horrible, Taffy! Ghastly!”
“I don’t get it,” Tater Blossom said while she eyed the remaining donuts.
It wasn’t the pun that made Nut chortle, but Pod’s reaction. His glass of chocolate milk was empty. The platter of donuts had a few survivors, but not for long, given Tater Blossom’s determined expression. She never left food behind, as far as he knew. To encourage her, he gave her a slight nod, and much to his pleasure, she caught on right away. The always-hungry earth pony pulled the platter closer and then savaged the survivors in a grisly jelly and frosting strewn massacre.
Not even the remaining jalapeño jelly donuts would survive.
The playful squabble between Pod and Taffy ended when Taffy licked a bit of frosting from Pod’s nose. This lick turned into a quick peck, and then the light peck progressed into a rather steamy smooch. Nut stared for a moment—how could he not—and then when he turned away, he saw that others watched. Tired, fatigued in some awful way, he did not judge their reactions, but ignored them completely. As for Pod and Taffy, they only had eyes for each other.
Coming home wasn’t so bad—but he was eager to leave already.
One more day, he decided, just one more blissful day.