“…and so, that’s why, through his dedication to the ideals of scholarship, loyalty, and service, the pony who inspires me most is the Princess’ biggest helper and probably best friend, her major domo Abacus Plinth.”
The classroom filled with polite applause as the ten-year-old mare took a small bow and returned to her seat.
Shining Armor joined in with the rest of the students, glancing occasionally at the notes he’d made for his own presentation. Well, okay, the notes that Twily had helped him make. By which he really meant the notes she’d made, while he’d talked about the assignment the night before it was due.
Twilight had been reading, of course. She was half his age, and every librarian at the local library already knew her by name. But at some point, she must have looked up and seen the trouble he was having. Or maybe he’d groaned louder than he’d realized.
But in any case, around the third time he’d muttered how completely hopeless everything was and how stupid he’d been for putting this off the whole week, she’d pulled herself out of her books long enough to roll her eyes and trot over to where he was struggling. She’d picked up a pen she shouldn’t rightly have been able to hold properly yet, grabbed the blank piece of paper he’d been staring at forever, sat down in front of him and said, “Okay, so why?”
He’d blinked. “Why what?”
Rolling her eyes again, she’d replied, “Duh! Why Flash Magnus?”
And so, Shining had rambled about Flash Magnus for about twenty minutes, while she occasionally scribbled something down. After he was done, little Twilight had made some last marks on the scrap paper she’d been writing on and handed it back to him.
“Here,” she’d smiled.
There, in her childish hoofwriting (but with fewer spelling errors than he would have made, he admitted to himself), had been the notes for his presentation. Organized with numbers and arrows showing exactly what order he should actually cover his points, as opposed to the order he’d said them in.
He’d started to thank her, but by the time he’d looked up again the little filly had happily trotted back to her corner and dived back into her history book. He’d grinned and shaken his head, and left her a thank-you note instead. She’d like that better anyway.
Now, he sat at his desk, staring at the folded paper covered with his sister’s notes. He could have recopied it, of course. But he’d gotten distracted, and then it had been time for bed.
Meanwhile, Miss Brightheart was still marking down notes of her own about Cherry Parfait’s presentation, giving Shining a little more time to think.
Each foal was supposed to give a presentation on the pony who inspired them the most. Miss Brightheart had forbidden her students to use Princess Celestia, to avoid having half her pupils give presentations on the fine qualities of their Alicorn ruler. She’d also asked them to please find someone besides their parents if they could. Again, to create some variety in their responses.
Shining had decided upon Flash Magnus immediately. He was brave, noble, and a hero to all of Equestria. He was the obvious, perfect choice. It hadn’t been until last night that Shining had had second thoughts about using the Pillar of Bravery.
As the teacher opened her mouth to ask for the next volunteer, the bell rang. Miss Brightheart’s “Fifteen minutes for recess” was almost completely drowned out as the foals poured out of the classroom towards the playground.
River Stone sat at the edge of the playground, digging into the ground with a stick. She’d been there since recess had started.
Shining Armor had been about to ask her if she’d wanted to play, but something was plainly bothering her. Of course, when Shining had asked her what was wrong, she’d said “nothing,” and kept on digging.
So, he’d said, “Okay,” and lay down in the nearby grass, and waited.
Eventually, after the divot she’d made had become a small hole, she’d sighed.
“I want to do mine on Miss Brightheart,” River Stone said. “I even wrote out a bunch of notes on why.”
One of Shining Armor’s ears went flat, and he gestured vaguely with one hoof. “Okay, so?”
Digging her stick into the dirt a little faster, River went on, “So, I don’t want to get laughed at! Ponies already call me a teacher’s pet. And anyway, what would she think? I don’t want her to think I’m just kissing her flank.”
Shining frowned. “I don’t think she would.”
But River Stone just sighed. “I dunno. I do want to be a teacher when I grow up. And I do want to be like her when I do. But…”
She stopped digging, leaning on her stick like an old mare with a staff. “I wrote some notes on Mistmane, too. I guess I’ll do that one.”
She sighed again, looking down. “At least I’ll get a good grade. I guess.”
As the bell rang to return to class, Shining Armor looked at his friend. She seemed very small just then. Afraid. And very, very sad.
Something within Shining Armor’s mind shifted then. It didn’t change so much as solidify, the idea he had been worrying over since the previous night coming into sharp and unrelenting focus.
“Do yours on Miss Brightheart,” he said.
She shook her head. “I can’t! Everypony’ll just laugh!”
“No, they won’t,” he said firmly. “I’ll go first.”
Not wanting to risk somepony else going before him, Shining had asked Miss Brightheart as soon as he got back in if he could go next. She’d seemed a little surprised, as Shining had always hated oral reports. But she’d said it should be alright.
Now, he was in front of the class. Chalk board behind him, almost every friend he’d ever had in front of him, along with a few foals who were distinctly not his friends. But somehow, he didn’t care. It was as if the rest of the world had fallen away, and all that had been left was what he was there to say, and why. Nothing else mattered anymore.
“My report is gonna be in two parts,” he said. “’Cuz we’re supposed to talk about the pony who inspires us the most. And one of mine isn’t a pony.”
The room was uncomfortably silent. Nervously, Shining glanced over to Miss Brightheart, who seemed genuinely curious. She gave the barest of nods, encouraging him to continue.
“So, um… the first one that inspires me is… my little sister, Twilight.”
It seemed like the entire class dissolved into laughter, until Miss Brightheart stood. Then, order restored, she sat back down and turned to Shining Armor.
“Go on, Shining,” she said.
The young colt took a deep breath, then said, “None of you have met her, even if you’ve been over, ‘cuz she’s always reading. But my little sister is smart. I mean, really smart. She knows algebra and… trig-non-mity…?”
“I think you mean trigonometry, dear,” Miss Brightheart smiled.
There were a few giggles, and Shining Armor nodded, saying, “Right, that. I mean, I can’t even say it. Most ponies don’t even start learning that stuff until college. But, Twilight knows it. Not ‘cuz she was taught it in a class or anything, ‘cuz she wasn’t.
“She’s too little to go to school. She’s five.”
Now, the class was silent.
“And magic?” He shook his head. “She’s already read everything that Canterus Agrippa ever wrote. She’s read the entire Golden Bough series, which is a lot of books by itself. And she keeps pushing herself, keeps studying…”
Shining sighed, bringing out the crumpled paper he had. “At first, I was gonna do my report on Flash Magnus. Miss Brightheart, would you say these are good notes?”
Lowering her spectacles, she looked them over, nodding slightly. “Well, these are fine, if lacking in penponyship…”
“That’s hers. She did that for me last night.”
Turning back to the class, he went on, “Twilight has plenty of reason to be full of herself, to have a big head. To look down on other ponies. And you know what? She doesn’t. With all her brains, she’s still cool.
“I mean, sure, she still gets into stuff a lot, and she can be a pain sometimes – you should hear her go off about whatever she’s just finished reading, geez, it’s like watching a train run by at full speed – but she’s a great sister.
“More than that, she’s my best friend.”
Shining sighed. “I’ll probably never be as good at anything as she is at almost everything. But if I ever am, at anything, well, I just want to be as good a pony as she is. ‘Cuz my little sister… is awesome.”
He glanced to Miss Brightheart, who nodded to him again, and then back to the class.
“The second one that inspires me is… my toy tiger.”
Somepony laughed again, but it was only one. Shining Armor didn’t see who, though. He could feel the blood rushing to his face as he talked to the floor.
“You probably remember my tiger. I used to bring him for recess a lot, when we first started school. He was always my favorite toy. But, he’s also more than that.
“I got him from my mom. He doesn’t look it, but he’s an old toy. Like, really old. And when I was little, he kept the nightmares away.”
He rolled his eyes, adding, “I mean, okay, maybe not really. He is a toy. But, it seemed like he did, and if any of you ever had bad dreams when you were little, that really helped.”
Despite themselves, several of the other students were nodding.
“But more than that… well, Miss Brightheart said that something to look for in a pony we admire is an ideal. And, um, there’s an ideal that goes with him. ‘Cuz I remember when my mom was talking about him, when she first gave him to me.”
He grinned a little ruefully. “Weird, huh? I was really little then. Twilight wasn’t even born yet. But somehow, I still remember it. And when she gave me him, she told me all about how tigers are great fighters, and, um, some other stuff.”
Shining shook his head. “But the thing is, lots of ponies can fight. Almost anypony can fight, really. That’s not an ideal. It’s just, a thing creatures do. And sometimes, ponies get hurt that way. Lots of speaking folk do.
“So, that’s not why.”
He scratched the back of his mane. “’Cuz then, she also said how a tiger stands by their friends no matter what. How they treasure love and kindness, how they help and protect ponies who need it, especially foals. How my tiger had been doing that for longer than anypony can remember.”
Shining Armor looked up at his classmates with an intensity they hadn’t seen before.
“And that’s what I want to be like, more than anything else,” he said. “I want to be not just a good friend, but also help ponies who need help, and protect anypony who needs protection. More than anything, I want to be there for ponies. For all ponies.”
He swallowed, adding, “I want to be there for all of you. I want to protect you from whatever tries to hurt you.
“And if you let me, I always will.”
There was a second of silence, then all the students gasped.
Shining Armor opened his mouth to ask what was wrong, when he felt it. The light surrounded him, flowing out from him and flowing through him, lifting him up as it enfolded him. Burning with a heatless flame, blazing with a brightness that didn’t hurt.
And then, as suddenly as it had begun, it was over. Shining Armor landed unceremoniously on his rear, rubbing the back of his head.
Everyone in the class, even Miss Brightheart, was staring.
“What?” he asked. “What happened?”
Miss Brightheart raised an eyebrow. “Shining, dear, you might want to look behind you.”
Shining glanced back, then gave a double-take, gasping with joy. For there on his flank, for all to see, there was now a shield of black. Emblazoned upon it was a mystic star of violet, with three more azure ones above.
He leaped into the air, whinnying. Even as he landed, he galloped around the front of the classroom, leaping and kicking excitedly, still whinnying all the while.
Then, he stopped. He was still in class!
Oh, geez, he was still giving his report!
Still at her desk, Miss Brightheart was jotting something into her grade book. Then, she looked up with a knowing smile.
“I think that’s an A,” she said.
There was some more laughter then, but it was the good kind. Meanwhile, feeling better than he had in maybe ever, Shining Armor trotted beck to his seat.
He was a protector of ponies.
He really, really was.
Nothing would ever be greater than that joy.
He barely heard when Miss Brightheart asked who would like to go next. But he saw when River Stone hesitantly raised her hoof, and gave her an encouraging smile.
A moment later, River was standing alone in front of the rest of the class. She swallowed, then looked up from her notes. She spoke with a voice that was almost steady.
“My report is on Miss Brightheart.”
There were a few nods and a few eyerolls, but no laughter. Nervously, she glanced over at the teacher.
Miss Brightheart, for the first time, seemed genuinely speechless. But, she didn’t seem upset. Instead, as River refocused on the class and gave her presentation, she wore a strange smile, blinking back tears as a slight blush tinged her cheeks.
It was late, and his parents probably thought he was asleep. They’d all gone out to dinner, to celebrate his getting his cutie mark. Then Dad had announced that since there was no school tomorrow and this was such a big occasion, both foals could stay up as late as they wanted. Mom had suggested they play a board game, and Twilight had suggested Trivial Chase.
But when they’d all gotten home, Shining had excused himself and gone to his room, closing the door. He’d been there for a while. He could hear Twily and his folks playing, and it would’ve been nice to have been playing with them.
But this was important. It couldn’t wait.
Shining Armor continued his examinations of his cabinet’s bottom drawer with a critical eye again and again as he filled it, speaking quietly as he did. Lavender blooms, his old baby blanket, some tiny cushions. Making small adjustments as needed.
“You should’ve seen her, though,” he concluded as he straightened the drawer’s padding again, testing it for comfort. “Once she got up there, she was great. And I think she felt better for giving the report that was more true. I know I did.”
He glanced over to the toy tiger sitting on his bed.
“But, in a weird way, that’s kind of why. I don’t know how else to explain it. But… when I was little, you were all that stood between me and my nightmares. Then, later, you faced them with me. Or I did with you. Or, I dunno, something.
“But today, I realized something when I was up there, waiting to be laughed at, even being laughed at.
“I can stand on my own.”
He busied his hooves adding more lavender, then sat on the floor where he was, still facing the drawer. Then, grimacing, he turned to face the bed.
“I don’t know what else to say. When was the last time I played with you? Months, I think? A year? I mean, you were my mom’s toy first, you must have known that someday…”
His voice trailed off, and he chuckled a little.
“What the heck, I’m explaining to my toy why I’ve outgrown him.” He shook his head. “Real mature, Shining.”
Then, shrugging, he went on, “Maybe this is helping me deal with stuff. I dunno. I know I loved you growing up, and I’m glad mom gave you to me. I had a lot of fun playing with you, and just having you nearby always made me feel safe.
“But I’m older now. I’m not a grownup, exactly, but… I don’t need you anymore.”
He looked at the stuffed tiger on his bed, soft and worn.
“You know, it’s funny. Mom and Dad both checked for magic on you, and couldn’t find any. But you’ve never needed repairs, and you’ve always washed out fine. So I think you were made by somepony who really wanted you to last. Somepony skilled enough to hide their magic. And if that’s true, then there’s no telling how old you are.”
He contemplated his old toy for a moment, then added, “So, I guess that means you’ve heard all this before, huh?”
Slowly, guided by the uneven wrinkles on the bedsheets, the tiger fell over onto one side.
Shining Armor sighed.
“It feels weird saying this to a stuffed toy, but I am sorry,” he said. “Any toy can seem alive, but you were always, I dunno, more than that.
“I’d thought for a while I’d end up giving you to Twilight,” he went on with a rueful smile. “But I mean, come on. Even when she was a toddler, you know what she cuddled in her sleep? Books.”
Shining Armor walked over to the toy and gently picked it up in his teeth. A moment later, he was tenderly stowing the tiger in the drawer among the small blankets and sweet-smelling flowers.
“Dad always said that lavender was great for storing important things, so they’d be safe from bugs and stuff,” he said softly. “Plus, it smells nice.”
As he finished tucking the baby blanket around his old toy, he thought of the times he’d tucked his sister in, when she’d fallen asleep and had to be carried to bed. That was what the stuffed tiger looked like now, somehow. Not like an outgrown toy in storage, but a tiny creature that was sleeping.
“Mom said one time that her uncle gave you to her ‘cuz he didn’t have foals of his own,” he whispered. “Maybe someday Twilight’ll have foals, and I’ll give you to one of them. But I’ll find somepony you can play with again someday. I promise.”
Stepping back, the colt considered that he really should have been feeling foolish then, talking to a plaything of cloth and stuffing, seeing to its comfort. But instead, it just felt... right.
He reached in, scritched the tiger one last time behind the ears.
Then Shining Armor gently closed the drawer, and went out to play games with his family.