Then someone bashed her chair.
Velvet yelped and slipped off and onto the grass. Her chair clattered where it fell. A few heads looked up.
“Ow…” moaned someone. Not Velvet: shock notwithstanding, she was fine.
She sat up in time to see Derpy fly over and hover agitatedly. Sitting up on the other side of the fallen chair, and rubbing her head, was another unicorn.
“Ooh… ow…” The unicorn mare hissed against the pain, then added, “That really smarts.”
Upon being flung out of their chair, a Canterlot pony’s first words would probably have been “I say! Do you mind?” Velvet’s first words were: “Are you all right?”
“Sorry,” groaned the unicorn mare between head-rubs. “Wasn’t looking where I was going. Ow, ow, ow!”
“Lyra?” said Derpy.
Velvet peered closer as the unicorn lowered her hooves. Wait a second. Didn’t she recognize that name? Lyra…? The coat colour and mane looked familiar too.
Memory pulled a full name out of the address book. “Lyra Heartstrings?”
“Yeah. Who’s asking?” Lyra moaned, then she batted Derpy aside. “It’s all right. Don’t fuss. I’m fine, I’m fine. I’ve hit my head harder – argh! – than that before. This is more shock than anything – Ow!” She continued nursing the “shock” pounding her skull from the inside.
Around them, the other patrons went back to raising the background chatter again. Velvet stood up and offered a hoof before noticing a scroll on the grass.
“Pardon me, is this yours?” she said.
Lyra jolted into life, grabbed it, checked it, turned it this way and that. “Darn, darn, darn! I lost my place!”
“What is it?” said Velvet, buying her memory more time. How did she know Lyra’s name? Surely not a Canterlot acquaintance?
“Ley line map.” Lyra turned it back and forth without looking up. “I was following this one. I think. Or was it this one?” Apparently remembering herself, she grinned sheepishly at them. “So sorry about the bump, ma’am. I was so focused on this one line, I wasn’t watching the road up ahead –”
Only in that moment of mutual eye contact did they both flash around the eyelids with the spark of recognition.
“Oh!” cried out Lyra. “Hey, Miss Tw–”
Velvet’s hoof rammed over her mouth.
“–mmfh Murf-mff, mmff mmff mff mffh!”
“Please just excuse us a moment,” said Velvet to an utterly perplexed Derpy. “Can I just have a private word with my friend here?”
“Oh, you two know each other?” said Derpy. “Did you meet in Canterlot?”
“Yes, something like that. One second, please?”
“Of course, of course. I’ll wait here.”
When Velvet had dragged a still mumbling Lyra a few yards from the café’s outermost tables, she let go and yanked a stunned Lyra closer to both mouth and ear.
“Can I ask you something, Miss Heartstrings?” she whispered.
“It is you!” Lyra hissed excitedly; it was all Velvet’s restraining hooves could do to stop her bouncing up and down on the spot. “You’re Twilight’s mom! You’re Twilight’s mom!”
“Shh! Lyra, please! Keep your voice down!” Nervous, Velvet cast a glance over to the café. Derpy alone watched them, and she waved happily. Velvet warily waved back before returning to restrain the bouncing Lyra.
“You do remember me!”
“I’m very sorry. Have we met before? I remember your name and face, but –”
“What wedding, sorr–?”
“Captain Shining Armor’s wedding, remember? Your son?”
“Yes, thank you. I do remember who my son is, at least.”
“Remember he married Princess Cadence?”
“And I can remember my daughter-in-law, ye–”
“Well, I was going to be one of her bridesmaids before the changelings attacked!”
Uncertainty forced Velvet’s memory to check the files again. Had Cadence mentioned a Lyra at some point? She hadn’t had much chance to talk ever since taking up her princess duties, and even after the wedding, most of their conversations had been almost as rare as Twilight’s. Had Shining Armor mentioned a Lyra in a letter somewhere? Anyway, Velvet was certain she’d seen Lyra around Canterlot before, though she couldn’t say where.
“And and and –” continued Lyra, whispering like a firework about to go off, “I was at Celestia’s School for Gifted Unicorns with Twilight! You remember? You remember?”
Hopefully not, Velvet thought. She’d walked Twilight to and from school, but never with her… well, “friends” was a bit of a strong word. There’d been so many foals waiting outside the school entrance.
“I’m sorry,” said Velvet. “I don’t –”
“No problem, no worries, pas de problème, keine Sorge, non c'è problema, and all that hullabappalooza!” Lyra burst out of her restraints and for a moment Velvet felt she’d been grabbed in a headlock. “Aw, it’s such an honour, being remembered by Twilight’s mom! Me! Little old me! WOOHOO!”
That definitely broke the skin on an eardrum somewhere. Wincing, Velvet tried to back out of the tight grip. “It’s very sweet of you, dear, but –”
“Ohohoho! I gotta tell everyone that I was remembered by Twilight’s mom!” And Lyra’s lungs inflated as though about to scream it to the world there and then.
Velvet’s hoof got to the mouth faster. The back-blow almost popped Lyra’s cheeks.
“No! Please, don’t!” hissed Velvet.
Stunned eyes, slightly reddened by pressure, blinked back at her.
“Don’t tell anyone who I am,” Velvet said. “Please?”
Velvet wondered if it was safe to release the lock. She took a dare and removed her hoof.
“But why?” repeated Lyra.
Because I don’t want to go around as “Twilight’s mom”, thought Velvet in big red letters across the black sky of her inner skull. It’s too complicated.
Aloud, she said, “I don’t want to make a fuss. This isn’t a time when I want everyone to know who I am, you see. Just please keep this quiet?”
Lyra’s blank look merely signalled a time in between the natural bounces of her mind, because then her grin bounced up again, extra sly.
“Ahhhhh…” she said. “You’re undercover, huh? Gotcha.”
Perhaps the wink she gave Velvet was less embarrassing than the planned name-shouting of before, but there and then it seemed a close-run thing.
“Just Velvet will do,” said Velvet coldly.
“A codename, too. Good work, good work. Got your backstory worked out?”
“My what, sorry?”
“Your cover story! Where you came from, what you do, that sort of thing. Can’t do undercovering well without a cover story. I know that from experience.”
“Ooh, ooh, let me try! OK. You’re a refugee from a past rainbow-versus-dark-rainbow war with the evil Lord Tirek, you were originally a botanist who became a specialist houseplant salespony, you’re a ghost-writer for the Daring Do adventure series, and you are in a secret hero alliance with all the mothers of the ponies who wielded the Elements of Harmony! Ooh, better: you were the original ponies who wielded the Elements of Harmony! Obviously, that last part is top secret. Wait, wait… wait…” Glowering, Lyra broke off, caught in the fascinating logical conundrum of using a top secret identity as part of a public cover story.
True to form, Velvet ended up regarding Lyra in much the same way most ponies did after five minutes’ talk with her. Whatever planet she was on, it must be a heck of a good place for her to not want to leave it.
“Look,” Velvet said, pleading sanity, “I just want a relaxed day here. Nothing fancy. No fuss. No awkward questions. No pains. Please?”
“Pains? But what are you doing?” said Lyra, reverting to foalish innocence.
Velvet opened her mouth, then shut it. “Visiting my daughter,” she eventually said.
Puzzled, Lyra glanced at Derpy.
“No, no, not her!” Velvet noticed Derpy waving again, and weakly waved back. “I’m just killing time until I can see my daughter. I got here early.”
“Then why don’t you just see her early?”
Velvet steeled herself. That question. No, no, no…
Yet Lyra was much quicker than Derpy. She also won a small medal that day, because she immediately said, “Got it! Perfect timing! It’s like a surprise birthday party. You don’t show up until it’s ready. Say no more, say no more.” She peered under the table at Velvet’s saddlebag. “Hey, golden roses! Haven’t seen those in a while.”
“You moved out of Canterlot?” Velvet said, relief pushing her into a newer, safer direction.
“Ha! Nope-a-roonie. Never moved in.”
“But I could’ve sworn I saw you there –”
“Visiting friends. I live here in Ponyville, but I made lots of friends there in Canterlot. And because I know you’re going to ask: my parents live out in the country, out of town, and I’ve already made plans to visit them this evening. I got something special waiting.”
“Oh. Well.” Velvet recovered. “Have a lovely time, Lyra.”
“Thanks, Twilight’s m– Oops, sorry! Velvet, I meant Velvet.” Another conspicuously inconspicuous wink. “Anyway – Ooh, anything else? I wouldn’t want to just break off randomly.”
Nothing else came to mind, except a constant nagging worry that Lyra would blurt out “Twilight’s mom” again at any moment. “I think that just about covers it,” said Velvet.
“Great! Back to business!”
Up came the ley line map, onward marched Lyra. Enough of Velvet’s kindness surfaced in time to jump forwards and hold a restraining hoof on the mare’s shoulder; she’d been about to walk into the table.
“I’d look up every now and again,” advised Velvet gently.
“Oops-a-daisy.” Lyra blushed, but embarrassment did not become her, and the red flush faded far more quickly than it had arrived, like a red traffic light when a pony actually needs one.
Derpy, still hovering over the table, leaned forwards, wobbling as she fought not to flip herself over accidentally. “What are ley lines?”
“Invisible magical lines of force that run across the country connecting special ancient sites,” said Velvet before she could stop herself. Twilight had mentioned them a few times in her youth, and then rapidly stopped when she’d learned the scientific community harrumphed the idea.
“Exactly!” said Lyra. “See that? Smarts run in the family –”
A sudden meaningful coughing fit plagued Velvet until Lyra shut up.
“And in mine,” was Lyra’s lame cover. She frowned and turned the map upside down. “Am I reading this right? You’d think a map would get the compass directions, at least. All I got for sure is the Friendship Castle, and I had to draw that in myself.”
Derpy giggled and winked at Velvet’s tilted puzzlement. “That’s typical Lyra. She always does stuff like this. But we love her all the same.”
Both mothers watched as Lyra followed the line a little too devotedly, walking over tables, under chairs, around bemused patrons, and once or twice into waiters laden with trays. Some angry foreign shouting pursued her out of the café’s territory, yet she never looked up. Velvet sighed. Children were the same, no matter what age.
“She’s a friend of Ammy’s, you know,” said Derpy, sitting down again. Her hoof instinctively reached into the bowl to scrape the sides for any iota of ice cream left. “They met at –”
“Celestia’s School for Gifted Unicorns?” Velvet recited.
“Yeah! Poor things never got very far, but they tried their best.”
“It’s a very demanding school.” I should know, thought Velvet behind the grimace. Too demanding, she’d felt at times.
“Lyra’s so smart,” continued Derpy. “See, I didn’t know you could look at invisible lines until she came along just now. The more you know, huh?”
“Education comes in many forms,” was the best Velvet could say without laughing.
Brushing himself down and hiding his fury, Savoir Fare arrived at their table. “Mademoiselles, Ai tayke eet you ‘ave fineeshed?”
“Yes, thanks, bill, please,” said Derpy.
“Bill?” Velvet frowned.
“For dessert! It wasn’t on our first order.”
“I’ll pay,” said Velvet at once.
“Aw, but I can pay for –”
“It’s only fair, isn’t it? You paid for the main meal, so I can pay for dessert. Split it between us. Fair?”
Derpy gave a grudging nod. “I can pay, you know.”
“Of course I know you can.”
Like I said, Velvet thought, children were always the same.
And there was something childlike about Derpy, for all that she was a mother. She had the sort of wide-eyed, beaming innocence that made a part of Velvet want to shield her from the rigours of the world, even though Derpy was fully grown and perfectly capable, as she put it, of financing her own life activities.
Velvet left a generous tip. It wasn’t Savoir Fare’s fault her own memory had soured over what had been a charming dessert. Savoir himself made a point of bowing and choking out an “Enchantée!” as they left, even delivering a parting kiss to each mare’s hoof.
Trouble was, looking up at the sun, it was almost time for her appointment.
With her special little pony.
The golden roses in her saddlebag stung through the fabric.
Velvet didn’t remember much, but she didn’t forget the look on Lyra’s face when the question had been asked: Then why don’t you just see her early?
“Hey,” murmured Derpy, gently nudging her with a wing. “Are you feeling all right? You seem so sad.”
“No, I’m fine, I’m fine, I’m fine.” Velvet hurt her cheeks set against her own smile.
After a while, Derpy said, “Are you going to say hello to T– to your daughter now?”
“Not yet,” said Velvet, watching the sun inch its way from the peak. So soon. She’d had acres of time, and suddenly this appointment was too soon.
“No!” Velvet’s voice was a whipcrack.
“It’s OK to be nervous if you haven’t seen each other for a long time.”
“It’s not that.” It is that, Velvet thought. She hated her own brain.
“Aw now, you can’t go and see family looking like that.” Derpy hummed to herself. “One more thing before you go?”
“I like talking to you. I don’t get to talk to many mothers. I don’t know why, but I feel like they steer away from me sometimes.”
Velvet wondered why. If anything, mothers should steer clear of Velvet.
Part of her was starting to envy Derpy’s home life. She barely seemed to have any problems worth caring about, if the worst she had was a wonky eye and the coordination to match. Shallow stuff.
Derpy looked about for inspiration. The chatter of the café drifted far behind, almost gone.
After they turned the corner, she burst forth: “Hey, why don’t you meet my family?”
“Right now?” said Velvet. Her first, irritatingly pernickety thoughts were: What time would that take? What would happen if she showed up to Twilight’s late? What would Twilight say? Or do?
“Just for a drink,” pleaded Derpy, “of tea or coffee or hot chocolate or something. Then you can go and see your daughter. I promise it won’t take long.”
“I don’t know…” Velvet fixed her sights on the descending sun. If she stared around it long enough, she could imagine it moving ever so slowly, perhaps slower and slower until this moment stopped. Just for a while.
Then another part, a part that had been silent since the first days of motherhood, reared and whinnied at the sky. Why not? Why stick to a bunch of rules? Why not break a few? Didn’t she deserve some personal time for a change? Do something! Do something that made her nervous, got her blood up, made her want to push herself further and gallop faster!
Hang this appointment stuff! She’ll do something she hadn’t done in a while: visit a strange new house with strange new ponies. A household of ponies led by Derpy? At last, someone fresh and different who made her feel like she could be special for once.
The air in Ponyville alone lightened her from the heart outwards. She rebelled.
“Yes,” she said, with newfound grit. “I’d be delighted to.”
“But just for a drink,” insisted Derpy, failing to hide the delight sparkling in her eyes. “I don’t want you to miss anything.”
“Oh, I’ll make sure I don’t.”
It was a close-run thing that Velvet didn’t rear and shout YEE-HAW! A very close thing indeed. Freedom, for a little longer. Freedom from herself.