Sweat trickled into Scootaloo's eyes, and she blinked them away, her hooves shaking so much she couldn't move them; she was paralyzed with fear. Only a stone's throw away from her was Rainbow Dash's cutie mark, imprisoned in a glass jar, taken by Cozy Glow.
The demonic pegasus filly herself was aiming the Staff of Sameness at the three foals standing between her and victory; three foals who didn't seem like much of a threat. And yet they had thwarted her power and were the only ones who had a chance of stopping her.
The end of the Staff leveled with Scootaloo's eyes, and panic took hold of her, erasing all fragments of hope that she had been clinging on to. As the blast came, Sweetie Belle stood in front of the two other ponies and lit her horn, struggling to keep a shield up to deflect the Staff's magic.
Scootaloo didn't move. She couldn't. She let the hopelessness creep into her soul, let the fear control her. And she didn't do anything.
The shield splintered. Everything turned white.
Scootaloo sat bolt upright in her bed, panting heavily. The fear slowly faded as she recalled the nightmare and mentally scolded herself.
"Not again," she muttered to herself. Ever since the little incident with Cozy Glow, she'd been having the same dream nearly every night. She had to continuously remind herself that they had defeated Cozy Glow and that she wasn't coming back, and there was no way what happened in her dream would happen in real life.
Maybe not, a dark part of her soul whispered. Twilight released Cozy Glow so you could reform her. So it's always possible that she's just pretending to be your friend, and then she'll turn back to her evil ways and destroy you and Apple Bloom and Sweetie Belle.
"Shut up," Scootaloo told it, pushing the thoughts out of her head.
It was true that, after the last incident, Princess Twilight Sparkle had released Cozy Glow from her new stone prison with the intent that Scootaloo and her friends reform the troubled filly. She was given a room in Twilight's Castle (which was surrounded by shards of Chrysalis's throne and was basically a safe, with the only key in the capable hooves of Starlight Glimmer) and was always under supervision from some of Twilight's pegasi guards from the air. The Cutie Mark Crusaders, however, determined not to let Twilight down, rescued Cozy Glow every day, and just sort of... hung out around Ponyville, not really sure what to do. Scootaloo doubted that there was a How To Reform Your Greatest Enemies manual in Twilight's library, although the princess should at least keep a journal full of tips and tricks for future reformations.
After a couple of months, Cozy Glow started to soften up towards the three fillies, and they began to warm up to each other. This might of had something to do with taking Cozy to meet Diamond Tiara, who was probably Cozy Glow's best friend now, which didn't make Silver Spoon very happy. The two foals had hit off right away, and when the Cutie Mark Crusaders reluctantly left to go help Button Mash with a cutie mark problem, (Sweetie Belle didn't seem to upset about leaving, though), they came back to find Cozy Glow a changed pony.
Ever since then, tensions around Cozy Glow had relaxed, mainly due to her change in attitude. It actually seemed like the reformation was working, but some creatures weren't as forgiving of Cozy's actions as Twilight Sparkle, Starlight Glimmer, and the Cutie Mark Crusaders. Gallus and Smolder gave Cozy Glow a wide margin whenever they saw her, whispering to each other in hushed voices that suggested that their words weren't particularly kind ones. While the rest of their friends had tentatively reached out to Cozy, the griffon and dragon weren't willing to forgive the foal for almost sending them, and all the magic in Equestria, to another realm.
Scootaloo lay back in bed, but she didn't get any sleep for the rest of the night. When it was finally light enough to see her hoof in front of her face, and she heard small noises that meant that her two aunts were awake, she slipped out of bed and trotted downstairs, blinking the sleepiness out of her eyes.
"Scootaloo!" her aunt Holiday said cheerfully when the filly entered the kitchen. She and Auntie Lofty were sitting at the table, both with a steaming cup in front of them with a plate full of flapjacks in the center. "Come join us for breakfast."
"Thanks, Aunt Holiday, but I have to go." Scootaloo grabbed a pancake, stuffed it in her mouth, and dashed outside, grabbing her scooter and helmet on the way out the door. Within a few minutes, she was flying (figuratively) down the streets of Ponyville, twisting between the few ponies up and about in the early hours of the morning. She skidded to a halt at the back of Carousel Boutique, looking up towards Sweetie Belle's window while blowing her bangs out of her eyes.
"Coo-CAW! Coo-CAW!" she called, the special bird call she and the rest of her friends had invented. It meant, "Come on, let's go!"
Sweetie Belle pushed open her window and yawned. "Caw-coo," she muttered sleepily, code for, "I'll be there in a minute." She disappeared and reappeared a few moments later, with a helmet on her head and a rope in her hooves. She tied the rope to the window frame and lowered it to the ground before sliding down.
Rarity didn't like Sweetie Belle going off to hang out with Cozy Glow (she hadn't quite forgiven Cozy, either), so Sweetie Belle left through her window. No matter how hard she tried, Rarity couldn't quite figure out how she did it. On a completely unrelated subject, Rarity also couldn't find out why Sweetie Belle had a sudden interest in rope.
Sweetie Belle gracefully leaped into the wagon attached behind the scooter, and the two foals sped off towards Sweet Apple Acres and were surprised to find Apple Bloom waiting for them at the gate, eating an apple with another one in her arm. As soon as they pulled to a stop, Sweetie Belle used her magic to grab the second apple and levitated it over to her, taking a huge bite when it reached her hoof.
"What's the rush?" Scootaloo asked Apple Bloom, who was completely unfazed by Sweetie Belle's theft, although she was giving her a dirty look.
"Couldn't sleep." Apple Bloom shrugged, tossed the rest of her apple into her mouth, and reached behind her and pulled a helmet from behind a bush. Jamming it onto her head, she hopped in the wagon, holding onto the edge so as not to fall off.
"Sounds like we had similar nights," Scootaloo said ruefully. "I had my nightmare again."
"You mean, the one where Cozy Glow wins?" Sweetie Belle asked, using her hoof to wipe away the remains of the apple from her face. "I had that one, too."
"Ditto." Apple Bloom's eyes were curious and wary at the same time. "Do either of you have any idea why it might be happening?"
"I told Rarity about it the first time I had it, but she said it was just 'post-saving-the-world trauma.' She said the same thing happened to her after she defeated Nightmare Moon."
"Hmm..." Scootaloo looked doubtful. "I feel like it's more than that..."
The trio stopped in front of Twilight's Castle (even though the princess was now living in Canterlot, everypony still called the castle Twilight's). Starlight Glimmer opened the door for them, looking exhausted. Dark circles were under her eyes, and her mane was frizzy from a restless night.
"What happened, Starlight?" Sweetie Belle asked, taking in the sight of the slightly demoralized headmare of the School of Friendship.
"Just a new student at the school," Starlight said in a tired voice. "A kirin. Her name is Autumn Blaze. Applejack's friend from the Peaks of Peril. Applejack suggested that she might want to come here so that she can learn more about friendship, but... she's a lot. Never stops talking. I'm a bit confused on how she's friends with Fluttershy..." Starlight trailed off. The Crusaders looked at each other, the silence uncomfortable. Starlight shook herself. "Actually, there was something I wanted to ask you, girls. Pizzelle's struggling with her Generosity homework, and I was wondering if you guys could help her out."
"Sure!" Scootaloo quickly agreed. It had been a while since they had done any tutoring at the School of Friendship, and she kind of missed it. Helping other ponies and creatures understand friendship was about as fun as helping other ponies and creatures discover their true talents and earn their cutie marks. She paused as a new thought occurred to her. "Um, can Cozy Glow come along?"
Starlight froze, and the CMC could easily see that, while Starlight had forgiven Cozy for her past actions, she still didn't fully trust her, and the idea of letting the former villain mingle with her students was unsettling to her. Scootaloo pushed on. "I mean, it would be good for her, right? Maybe if she helps us teach others about friendship, she'll learn a thing or two herself?"
"It's not that," Starlight said quickly, although it was clear that was the main reason. "It's just, Cozy manipulated the students at the school with lies and fake friendships, and... I'm not sure how well they would react to having Cozy in their midst again. But... I guess it's fine. You are our friendship tutors, after all. It's up to you to decide how you want to teach ponies. If you think having Cozy Glow with you will help her turn to friendship, it's fine by me."
A few minutes later, the four foals were walking the short distance between Twilight's castle and the School of Friendship. Cozy Glow trailed behind the CMC, eyeing the purple building with apprehension. Unpleasant memories were quickly surfacing, none of which she was eager to recall. "Are you sure this is a good idea?" she asked nopony in particular. Sweetie Belle glanced back at the filly and noticed her expression. She stepped back to comfort her.
"Look, I know you've done some... things at the School of Friendship," she started, but Cozy interrupted with a guilty tone.
"Including manipulating everypony into attacking six innocent creatures, stealing all the magic in Equestria, and trying to send that and Starlight Glimmer to another dimension." She hung her head. The Crusaders all looked at each other.
"But this is your chance to start over!" Scootaloo tried to say enthusiastically. "Make new friends! Leave the past behind you and try to make things right!"
Cozy gave her a dirty look. "And how many ponies and creatures do you think will actually be willing to give me this second chance?"
Scootaloo stopped, at a loss for words, trying to come up with a counterargument, which didn't help Cozy Glow at all. Apple Bloom sighed and put her hoof on Cozy's shoulders.
"Cozy Glow, I know that asking for the forgiveness of ponies and creatures that will probably never forgive you otherwise is just about the hardest thing you can do," she started, "but they will forgive you. It might take a while, and you'll probably have to save the world to gain the trust of everypony, but they will forgive you eventually. But if you never try to get them to forgive you, it's never going to happen."
The pegasus filly smiled, but the moment the Crusaders looked away, her face fell again. She trotted sullenly behind the three fillies as they approached the School of Friendship, the sparkling structure gleaming in the sunshine. Upon seeing the building, Cozy Glow winced and focused on the ground. This place held too many memories for her.
Under a tree beside the lake sat a cream-colored pegasus with a golden mane done up in a bun, her cyan eyes focused on a group of flashcards laid out in the grass in front of her. She blew her bangs out of her eyes frustratingly and glanced up. "Apple Bloom! Sweetie Belle! Scootaloo! Thank goodness you're here!" She leaped up and dashed over to them. "We have to do something generous for one of our friends, and I have no idea what I'm supposed to do!"
"You could ask for help," Cozy Glow suggested. "Isn't one of the parts of friendship asking your friends for help when you need it? That way you could have bracelets for all of your friends..." She immediately trailed off under the furious glare Pizzelle sent her way.
"What is she doing here?" she snapped. "Isn't she supposed to be banned from the school or something?"
"Well, she was just trying to help," Sweetie Belle put in, trying to make light of the situation. "And she did give some pretty good advice."
PIzzelle snorted. "Yeah, right, like I'd want advice from a villain."
"But isn't another part of friendship forgiving others when they make mistakes and giving them a chance to start over?" Apple Bloom added gently. "Shouldn't we do that for her?"
"She already had her chance," Pizzelle spat, gathering up her notecards and spreading her wings. "I'll just figure something out on my own. I don't want to see her again."
As she winged off towards the school, Cozy Glow, curled up in a ball underneath her tree, her hurt expression impossible to hide, no matter how hard she tried to convince herself that she was fine. The Crusaders came over and sat next to her.
"So... that could've gone better," Scootaloo said, looking expectantly at Cozy, hoping to draw out some sort of response. But the filly just flinched and curled up tighter.
"You're not helping," Sweetie Belle growled out of the corner of her mouth. "Anyways, Cozy Glow, I heard that Pinkie Pie's having a big sale at Sugarcube Corner, if you want to go..."
"Really?" Scootaloo perked up as Cozy discretely shook her head. "I didn't know that? Is it like two-for-one donut day or is it..." She trailed off as both Sweetie Belle and Apple Bloom shot her a look.
Cozy Glow stood up, her head still hanging and her eyes still downcast. "I think I just need some time to myself," she whispered. "You know where to find me. It's not like anypony really trusts me to go anywhere on my own." She trudged off to Twilight's castle as the Crusaders looked after her.
"So... about that sale at Sugarcube Corner," Scootaloo started.
"Oh, for Celestia's sake, Scootaloo, this isn't the time!" Apple Bloom snapped.
"I wasn't going to get something for myself!" Scootaloo flared. "Okay, yes, I was going to get something for myself, but come on, guys, you can't walk in there without needing to buy something! Anyways, I was thinking we could tell Pinkie Pie that Cozy Glow's feeling down, and she could make her something extra special to cheer her up. That's what Rainbow Dash always does for me, even though her extra special things usually turn out to be slightly on the crispy side, but that's beside the point." She stood up and hurried off to her scooter, Sweetie Belle and Apple Bloom behind her.
The Crusaders delivered Cozy Glow her extra special ten-layer cake with extra icing that Pinkie Pie made, but they had to leave it outside her door, as she didn't respond to their knocks.
"Should we be worried?" Scootaloo asked as they left, her mind flashing back to her dream.
"I think we should wait until we have something to really get worried about," Apple Bloom reasoned. "Remember, Cozy Glow's afraid that no one will give her a second chance or trust her ever again. If we can't at least try to trust her, then we'll fail Twilight. She asked us to try and reform Cozy Glow, and we will not let her down."
"Besides, we should give her the benefit of the doubt until we have a better reason not to besides her previous actions," Sweetie Belle added. "If it turns out she's been plotting something in there that could destroy us all, then we might get a little more suspicious of this kind of behavior. But for now, let's just assume that Cozy Glow needs some time to herself, and when she's ready, she'll come back out, like good friends do."
Without much else to do, the Crusaders retreated to their hangout in the woods, wondering if they could find somepony with a cutie mark problem that they could solve to take their minds off Cozy Glow, preferably somepony who had an open mind and would potentially allow Cozy Glow to help out. They wandered the streets of Ponyville, looking for something they could help with when they saw Pizzelle hurrying out of Rarity's boutique.
"Hey!" Scootaloo said cheerfully, as if that morning had never happened. "How's your Generosity homework going?"
Pizzelle froze and a guilty look spread across her face. "Well, the truth is, I sort of tookCozyGlow'sadvice," she mumbled, but the Crusaders caught her every word.
"Pizzelle, that's great! How did it work out?" Sweetie Belle exclaimed, thinking that they should hurry to Twilight's castle so that they could tell Cozy. This might cheer her up more than any cake, no matter how much icing.
"Great!" the pegasus said enthusiastically, unfolding her wing to show them the stash of friendship bracelets she was hiding under it. "I asked Rarity if she could help me, you know, since she's the element of generosity and everything, and she was such a huge help! I'm going to go give these to my friends right now! Oh, and, could you please give this to Cozy Glow?" She held out a rainbow bracelet with glittering beats woven into it. "I made it myself," she said, flushing as Sweetie Belle used her magic to pick up the bracelet. "Please tell her I'm sorry."
"We will!" Apple Bloom said enthusiastically, her hooves growing impatient. "In fact, we'll go to it right now!" The three Crusaders raced to Twilight's castle, and inside the door they found a disheveled, very worried-looking Starlight Glimmer, who was pacing anxiously.
"Starlight! You'll never guess what just happened!" Scootaloo burst out as they entered. Starlight swung around to face the fillies, her eyes wide and crazy.
"She's gone!" she shrieked hysterically. "Cozy Glow! I went to her room to check on her, but she wasn't there!" She shoved her face an inch from the Crusaders'. "I don't suppose you three had anything to do with it?" she snapped, a crazed look in her eyes. "Perhaps she bewitched you to giving her supplies through a seemingly harmless cake?"
"What? N-no! Starlight, we want to help Cozy Glow turn to good, not turn to evil!" Sweetie Belle protested. "Starlight, what's going on?"
The purple unicorn took a deep steadying breath, and the crazy look in her eyes calmed a little. "Come on," she said shortly, "I'll show you."
She led the way up the stairs to Cozy Glow's room. The large iron door looked undisturbed, and Starlight inserted the key around her neck into the lock and opened the door without a problem. It was once they were in the room that they saw the real issue.
The chunks of Chrysalis's throne lay peacefully around the room, in the same place they'd always been. The huge cake the Crusaders had brought Cozy stood against the wall with a few bites taken out of it. But one wall was entirely gone. A huge hole with singed black edges let in the fading light from the setting sun, casting the room in a scarlet glow. Cozy Glow's bed was blasted across the room and tipped on its side. Starlight wordlessly righted it and glanced at the Crusaders, expecting a reaction from them.
"Cozy Glow did this?" Apple Bloom asked in a stunned voice. "B-but how?"
"I'm not sure," Starlight admitted wearily. She froze, spotting something that unnerved her. "Girls, come look at this." She lifted the mattress off the bed frame of Cozy's bed and picked up some drawings from underneath it. Spreading them on the desk, the four ponies studied them with interest.
"Wow. I had no idea Cozy Glow was such an artist," Sweetie Belle said, picking up a drawing. "These are unnervingly realistic."
"I suppose so," Starlight said. "But what are they about?"
The pictures showed a shadowy figure with different nightmarish images cared into its smoky depths. Pictures of broken friendships, shattered artifacts, and ghoulish vampire ponies with mouths open wide, showing off glistening white fangs-
Scootaloo looked away, unable to keep staring. "These pictures... you don't suppose Cozy Glow's been having nightmares, do you?" she asked. "She seemed troubled this morning, and she hasn't really been herself..." She trailed off, remembering that she didn't exactly know what Cozy Glow was really like. Was her personality like she was when the Crusaders first met her, or was it more like after she'd started the process of reforming? The two fillies were completely different.
The sun dipped behind the mountains in the distance, and a scream broke out somewhere towards the edge of Ponyville. The Crusaders and Starlight exchanged a worried glance before running out of the castle and down main street. Ponies were fleeing towards the castle and the School of Friendship, panicked looks on their faces.
"What's going on?" Starlight asked, trying to interrogate some frightened ponies with varied success. The Crusaders hurried towards the Everfree Forest, but skidded to a halt at the edge of town, frozen by fear.
Emerging from the forest was a large, dark, smoky figure, deep purple tendrils curling around the trees, and, finding nothing alive, they retreated and blindly searched for something new to torment. It sensed the Crusaders' fear and slowly crept towards them, reaching towards them, wanting to grab them and reel them in-
Something collided with all three fillies, and they crashed in a heap in front of a house. Somepony pulled them behind the house, hiding them from the beast. Apple Bloom, Sweetie Belle, and Scootaloo groggily blinked, shaking their heads to erase the creature's paralyzing fear from their brains. Scootaloo staggered to her feet, looking around in a daze for their savior.
"Cozy Glow?" she stuttered in shock. "B-but how-" She broke off as the pegasus gave her a withering glare.
"Sh!" she snapped. "It might hear you!"
"What is that thing?" Sweetie Belle asked, leaning heavily on the wall of the house for support. "It looked familiar..."
"It is?" Apple Bloom asked, blinking hard to clear the last vestiges of fear from her brain. "Sorry," she said when Sweetie Belle flashed her a look. "I was just more focused on the fact that it was going to destroy us! So sorry I don't notice everything you do."
"Stop fighting!" Cozy Glow ordered in a hushed voice. She sighed and turned around to face the only three ponies that she might consider friends. If she couldn't trust these ponies, she could trust nopony. "That thing is called a Tantabus," she whispered, lowering her head in shame. "I think... I think I created it. I mean, I started seeing it in my dreams, right after I got released from stone, and Twilight told you guys to reform me, you know? It seemed to be feeding off of my negative emotions; the more guilt and sadness I felt, the stronger it became. And I couldn't seem to get rid of it. So I-"
"Drew pictures about the things you saw?" Sweetie Belle jumped in, putting pieces together in her brain. "We found those pictures when we went into your room and saw the wall had exploded. You've been having nightmares?"
"So have we!" Scootaloo said, a little too loudly, because the other three ponies glared at her. "Sorry," she whispered. "But isn't that a strange coincidence that we've been having nightmares around the same time as you?"
"It's no coincidence, I'm afraid," Cozy Glow said sadly. "The Tantabus has grown too strong for me to contain it in my dreams, so it started escaping to other ponies' dreams, causing nightmares all over Ponyville! And then today, when I was in my room, I was feeling so guilty and left out that the Tantabus took advantage of it. It escaped my subconsciousness and into the real world, busted me out of my room, and now it's going to turn all of Equestria into a living nightmare, and it's all my fault-" Cozy Glow broke off, tears welling in her eyes and streaming down her cheeks. "Twilight should never have released me from stone," she whispered, her voice barely audible. "I'm too dangerous. Everypony was right about me."
The Crusaders looked at each other, too frightened to say anything. In truth, they had guiltily been thinking the exact same thing.
"Maybe there's still a chance to make it right," Apple Bloom said optimistically. "Maybe saving Ponyville from your own mess would be enough to change their minds about you. Actually, some ponies have already started to change their minds about you."
"Yeah!" Sweetie Belle chimed in. "We just talked to Pizzelle, and she said your advice really helped! She told us to tell you that she's sorry and to give you this." Sweetie Belle pulled the friendship bracelet off her wrist where she'd been keeping it and tossed it to Cozy Glow, who caught it awkwardly and studied it with uncertainty in her eyes.
"You're not dangerous, Cozy Glow," Scootaloo said gently, coming next to her and wrapping her wing around her as far as it would go. "You're our friend."
Cozy Glow looked up with something new in her eyes, something she'd never felt before - hope. She slipped on the bracelet and turned and marched boldly out of the alleyway where they were hiding. The Tantabus was inspecting the house across the street, dark tendrils prying open doors and slipping between the cracks in windowpanes, searching for ponies to torment. It whirled around and snarled when it saw Cozy Glow.
"I didn't know nightmares could snarl," Scootaloo whispered to Apple Bloom, who shushed her.
Cozy Glow faltered when she saw what she had created, but she took another step towards the creature. "I'm not afraid anymore," she said loudly. "I know what I did and I'm sorry for it, but I won't always let my past decisions influence the ones I'm making right now. I won't fall to fear and guilt. And you need to leave."
Ponies slowly emerged from their houses and shops, the terror replaced with shock. The Crusaders wordlessly watched as Cozy approached the Tantabus, her voice growing louder and stronger with each word. The Tantabus shivered and shrank until it was the size of an egg. Cozy Glow stood next to it, saying, "Leave my friends alone."
The Tantabus shattered into a thousand tiny pieces, disappearing forever.
The hole in the wall was slowly being repaired, so Cozy Glow was moved to a different room until it was fixed. The door still locked, and there were still a few pegasi watching it from the air, but the pieces of Chrysalis's throne had been removed, and Cozy was allowed a little more freedom and trust. She slowly began to earn back the trust of the students at the School of Friendship and helped the Crusaders by tutoring students when they needed to solve a cutie mark problem. Twilight Sparkle came to visit Ponyville the day after the Tantabus incident to assess the damage and see Cozy Glow's progression for herself. While she acted a little skittish around the filly, she later admitted to her Council of Friendship that Cozy Glow was changing for the better, and for her friends to treat her with kindness and respect.
Scootaloo returned home the night after Cozy Glow defeated the Tantabus with her own power with hope in her heart and contentment thrumming through her. Cozy had finally gained some friends - real friends, not just pawns in a diabolical plan to take over the world. And she was starting to see the magic of friendship, and may even spread it to other creatures across Equestria and the lands beyond. She climbed into bed and closed her eyes, knowing that she would have peaceful dreams tonight.