“I’ve heard you’re having some… problems?”
Applebloom spun in place, trying to ignore a sinking feeling. She recognized that voice. “Discord!?”
“Exactomundo.” Discord started playing keep-up with his fang. “One, two, three… anyway, I’m not actually evil any more. For given definitions of ‘not evil’… I’m not sure I’ve got the hand of it, to be honest.”
Discord broke off his ramble for a moment, caught the fang, and used it to write on a scroll. “Was… honest. Ooh, three more times and I get a free pen!”
Applebloom blinked. Discord was a bit overwhelming at the best of times…
“Anyway. Enjoy the trip!”
He snapped his claws. Applebloom had just the time to frame the question in her mind – what trip? – before the magic triggered.
Diamond Tiara began to come awake. “Nnngh… can’t be time for school yet…”
As she stirred, the back of her (still very drowsy) mind began to notice things that didn’t make sense. For one thing, there was sunlight beating down on her. She could feel the heat on her coat, especially on her left side.
But that didn’t make sense, did it? She’d certainly gone to bed at home…
And then there was the fact that on her right side, the cooler one, there was something… itchy.
She shifted position, and something gritty dug into her forelegs.
Suddenly, she realized what it was.
“Why is there sand in my bed?” Diamond asked, blinking and getting up. And seeing that, instead of her familiar bedroom, she was on some kind of beach. “Am I dreaming?”
“Nope,” a horribly familiar voice answered from landwards of her. Diamond spun, wobbling slightly, and saw that… as she’d thought… it was Applebloom.
“Basically,” the other filly continued, “I dunno exactly why or how this happened, but we’re stranded together on a desert island.” Applebloom rolled her eyes. “Go team.”
Diamond Tiara felt like sneering, but that was quickly subsumed by a rising wave of panic. “Stranded?”
“Yeah, pretty much.” Applebloom pointed further inland. “I kinda woke up first, so ah went t’ the top of the biggest hill ah could find. There ain’t anythin’ else ah can see – no fields, no other land, nothin’. Just sea, and this here island.”
“Why? What happened? Did you do this?” Diamond felt sick. “I… I… what about school? I’ve never been tardy!”
“We got bigger things to worry about,” Applebloom pointed out firmly. Diamond resented the tone of voice – and the fact that it made her feel like an idiot – but it let her get a clamp on part of her hysteria. That just made the rest of it come to the fore, though.
“W… what do we do?” she asked quietly.
For a moment, Diamond could swear that Applebloom was gauging her with the kind of look that she was more used to getting from miss Cheerilee. Then the moment passed, and there was just the cool appraisal of another filly. Imagination painted a sneer beneath.
“Okay.” Applebloom put aside her assessment of Diamond, and began pacing. “I know a bit about surviving in th’ wilderness – you know, the Everfree-”
“You have been in the Everfree?” Diamond blurted, unable to stop herself. “How? Wasn’t that unicorn… Twilight something, petrified last month? And if she’s the student of Princess Celestia, how…”
“Huh.” Applebloom’s short statement carried some surprise. “I didn’t know you knew that. About miss Twilight, I mean.”
“My father keeps me up to date on all the local ponies of importance.” Diamond puffed out her breast. “It’s something I should know, as a pony who’ll be important herself one day.”
This time, Applebloom looked very sad.
Diamond shook her head. Can’t be anything important.
“Okay, anyway,” Applebloom resumed, “’cause our farm’s right up next to the Everfree, ah know how to survive in there for a bit just in case ah get lost, or somethin’. But this ain’t exactly the Everfree.”
“Oh, well spotted,” Diamond rolled her eyes this time. “Sure you don’t have some Buffalo blood in you?”
Applebloom looked up for a moment. “…nah, don’t think so. But mah cousin’s kinda interested in a buffalo girl, so might be that ah’ll have one in the ol’ family tree soon enough.”
“…no, that was a…” Diamond sighed. “Never mind.”
“Ah, I gotcha.” Applebloom gave a sage nod. “Still, there’s a few things ah do know. Most important things are normally shelter, water an’ food in that order. Here…” she looked up at the sun, burning fiercely with a midday heat which felt wrong to the earth pony filly – seeing as she felt like it was only eight or so in the morning. “Ah think water’s the most important.”
“Well, go on then.” Diamond waved. “You know this sort of thing, so go find some water.”
“Yeah, about that…” Applebloom rubbed the back of her neck. “If this were the Everfree, ah’d be able to do it easy. But it ain’t. And there’s two of us.”
“…so?” Those details seemed quite unconnected.
“Ah just plumb don’t have th’ time.” Applebloom gestured around at the whole island. “In th’ Everfree, ah’d know where to look for water, food, shelter, all that. But here? It might be that th’ water’s halfway across the island. I could probably manage myself, but not both of us.”
Diamond started to get a sinking feeling.
“So, we’ve got a problem.” Applebloom nodded to her. “Well, you have the main one. Basically, y’all got a choice. Either we each look for our own needs, or we work together. And ah do mean together.”
Diamond Tiara knew almost exactly what ‘together’ meant. She’d have to do some of the backbreaking work, as much as this… farmer, who was much better at it anyway even if she didn’t have a cutie mark for it, and even take orders from her.
“No way am I working with you!” she said, suddenly coming to a decision. “You don’t have a cutie mark for this, so you’ll probably just screw it up!”
Part of her thought that annoying the pony who was clearly the expert around here was a very bad idea. But it was a small part, and she didn’t really pay any attention.
“Aright, then.” Applebloom nodded to her, in a very good imitation – good enough that Diamond had to admit she couldn’t find any actual flaws in it – of court style. “Ah’ll go get lookin’ for mah water, then.” And she turned around and trotted off.
‘Dear Princess Celestia. Since I find it very, very hard to choose between my friends – and I do not think it fair to invite a pony to a ball without also inviting their friends – I will have to decline your invitation and return my gala tickets.’
Twilight finished writing, signed the scroll, and passed it to Spike. “Send it, please.”
“Right.” Spike incinerated the scroll and tickets.
“But…” Pinkie gazed at where the tickets had been, stretching out a folorn hoof. “Party?”
The unicorn shrugged. “Look, I’d rather just not go than have us fight over it…”
Spike gulped. “Uh oh… I don’t feel so good… uh…”
Green flame erupted, and a wrapped package coalesced to land on the table with an almighty thump.
As an afterthought, a scroll appeared on top of it.
Twilight picked this one up herself. “Spike… there’s some throat sweets in the bathroom cabinet, third row on the left. I think you need one.”
“Yeah,” Spike croaked and headed off.
Twilight scanned the scroll. ‘Dear Twilight Sparkle. Sorry, I wasn’t thinking. Here – the Ponyville census data should be up to date, so this should be about the right number. Yours, Princess Celestia.’
She lowered the scroll. “Pardon?”
Pinkie ripped the paper off the package. “Hey, it’s hundreds of gala tickets!”
Rarity nodded. “That must be what she meant by census data. Oh, this will be marvellous!” She took two tickets and headed off to her shop. “I will have so much business!”
Twilight resolved to try a slightly different way of phrasing things in the future.
Though this would probably be a lot more enjoyable, actually, if the snobbish attitudes of Canterlot high society were simply buried under the entire population of Ponyville…
“Well, we’ll certainly give you a try-out,” Spitfire said. “I’ve never seen a pony that can do what you can in the air.”
“Yay!” Dinky cheered, as the Ponyville mailmare accepted an application form that Soarin’ passed her. “Go mum!”
“Twilight!” Applejack said, hurrying up to the unicorn. “You gotta teleport me home!”
“Why?” Twilight blinked. “I thought you were doing a roaring trade?”
“Ah ran out,” Applejack said bluntly. “Now get me to somewhere ah can resupply, afore Carrot Top overtakes me!”
“Sho, anyway, enough about… about… me!” Berry said, taking another drink of the excellent vintage. “Wha’ about you?”
Blueblood adjusted his tie nervously, looking for an escape route. There were other ponyville mares eying him from all directions, waiting for their chance.
“Okay, the next thing you do is you put your hooves up like this!” Pinkie said, demonstrating.
Princesses Celestia and Luna tried to copy her, wobbling slightly.
“Close enough!” Pinkie grinned. “Almost there, just three or four more steps to go, and then we try with the music!”
“What is this called?” Luna asked, steadying herself with wingbeats.
“Well, Angel Bunny and I invented it, so I call it the hare hare dance!”
Dozens of nobles looked on, most of them undergoing partial brain reboots.
“Wait,” Sparkler said, casting a spell over herself and Fluttershy. “That should help. It’s what I always use at Winter Wrap-Up when the animals are cranky.”
“Oh.” Fluttershy shuffled her hooves. “What does it do?”
“Basically, it just makes animals calmer. I know it’s what your talent is supposed to do already,” Sparkler shrugged, “But I don’t have it, and any little helps.”
Dash helped Cheerilee corral some of the colts and fillies who had started to wander off. “Hey!”
“Thank you, Dash,” Cheerilee said, sighing. “They’re hard enough to handle at the best of times.”
“You’re telling me!” Dash gasped, having just intercepted the Crusaders about to do what would have started as an attempt to get a high society cutie mark and ended as an international incident. “I’m the fastest pony in Equestria and I can’t keep up! Hey, Featherweight, put down that camera!”
Spike cracked his knuckles, and sat on the piano’s stool. “Right. What did you want me to play?”
Rarity frowned. “Let’s see… what about the Moonlight Sonata?”
“Right.” Spike ran over the music in his head. “Yeah, I know that one. You go get Cadance, I’ll grab Shining Armor.”
Neither of them were quite sure why they’d decided to play matchmaker, especially with ponies who’d clearly already fallen for one another. Perhaps it was just an excuse to be out of the – riotous – main room, which had been fairly annexed by the Ponyville contingent.
Or maybe it was because Rarity wanted an in with the couple to design their wedding outfits, and Spike wanted an excuse to play romantic music in the same room as Rarity.
Whatever the reason, they were both quite happy with the arrangement.
“That was the most fun I’ve had in a thousand years,” Celestia said quite seriously, as caretakers started to clear away the detritus of the evening. “Can I invite them all again next year?”
“Well, I doubt any of them will complain,” Twilight mused. “But you might have a mass boycott by the Canterlot nobility.”
Celestia shrugged. “Bunch of stuck-ups anyway…”
Reconciliation, part two
Applebloom trotted briskly into the island’s forest, looking around for anything that might be useful.
And ah had to unpack everythin’ that might be useful into th’ lab again… About all that was left in her subspace pocket – such as it was, and what there was of it – was a ream or so of paper and some pencils, as well as a mobile phone. Which would have been rather more useful if Equestria had cellular phone towers or even satellites.
She stopped, as something caught her eye. A coconut lying on the ground. Looking up, she saw the tree it had come from.
A quick, expertly measured buck, and she had a fresh coconut. A minute or so with a convenient stone, and she’d broken into it and drunk some of the ‘milk’ – which was a relief, given the climate.
She also now had a gourd to carry water, as and when she found it. Pity she didn’t even have any saddlebags.
“Ah guess that’s another thing t’ work on…” Pushing herself back up, she took the husk of the coconut in her teeth and began carrying it awkwardly with her towards the hill.
Sure, she could store it in her subspace pocket, but that would get blatantly obvious to Diamond. And… it didn’t seem fair to her, either, to make a big thing about sharing the effort and then use advantages like that.
The first stream she found was ten minutes into the forest, but it was a pitiful and muddy thing. Taking the stop as an opportunity to finish off the coconut milk, Applebloom then crouched down where a tree shaded the water somewhat and decided to test something.
One of the first things Zecora had taught her was what almost amounted to an earth magic ‘spell’. It simply told the user how pure water was.
The spell was almost unbelievably primitive in nature, and took quite a lot of effort to do, but it was useful for making sure that the water you were about to use for a potion wasn’t contaminated – or, for that matter, to test if the water you were about to drink was potable.
As she’d expected, the test came back negative. But it was good to know that she could still pull it off.
“…kay… what do ah know about geography…” Applebloom studied the island carefully. “Right. Ah reckon that, if it rained, there’d be water… on… oh, ah’m an idiot.”
Picking up the coconut again, she headed for the beach. If there was a good stream, it would of course flow into the sea… and she could follow it back up, to find where it was easily accessible.
“Stupid flies, stupid sand, stupid sun, stupid island…” Diamond Tiara muttered continuously as she trudged through the undergrowth.
Rivers just… happened, didn’t they? No, that didn’t make sense. She tried to remember what they’d been taught about the founding of Ponyville – why it had been set up near (though not on) a riverbank, and why the river had been dammed a decade or so later.
“…okay, I need to find a canyon. Stupid trees, stupid…”
Diamond tripped over a rock, and stumbled. There was a moment of sharp pain, but when she looked it seemed like she hadn’t actually cut herself. It still felt horrible. And she was getting sweaty in this horrible heat, and she was thirsty, and there were still all those insects and…
She wanted to go home.
The filly forced herself back upright. There was no way she was letting Applebloom beat her at something!
“Finally.” Applebloom picked up the coconut shell, and filled it from the clear water of the spring she’d just found. That would do for a while, but it would probably be best to pick up another coconut or two – and then get to making some kind of set of saddle-bags to let her go further with a water supply.
Hmmm… perhaps more coconuts, strung on twine? Ah don’t know how to make twine, o’ course, but… ah, I’ll see if there’s some vines.
Water thus taken care of, the next thing on the list was food. That was easy enough for now – more coconuts, since there were several palm trees along the beach alone. Applebloom had also seen a few grasses and quite a lot of ferns – hardly gourmet, but perfectly edible.
Shelter. That was the third thing which was important. It could get very cold at night, especially out in the open – sand, in particular, lost heat within minutes. (One Loop, she and Applejack had moved to Appleloosa – the stargazing trips they’d taken were beautiful, but she’d never before known you could be shivering in the desert!)
How can ah do this… palm fronds, ah guess, for a kickoff. Ah’d try knockin’ down a tree, but that might have to wait until ah have a saw or somethin’ to turn it into planks.
That led to her thinking about an artesian well, because the spring wasn’t exactly strong. Just a trickle, really, into a thankfully large pool.
As the sun set, Applebloom stood back and looked at her work. She’d only had a few hours to really work on it, but she felt fairly proud of what she’d created.
It was, fundamentally, a lean-to. Built around the base of one of the largest trees she’d found, dozens of medium-sized branches had been piled on to a frame supported by a couple of forked ones. Using the hairy husks of the coconut to rope bits of it together with fragile ties had brought her some time to work with it, and by the time the ties had parted the accumulated weight was enough to hold the frame fairly stable.
Finally, she’d piled sand around the outer edge of the shelter, and more of it to make a simple firepit.
Now, where’s those dry bush bits ah wanted to use with a fire drill…
About half a mile away next to the stream she’d found late in the day, cold, hungry and scared, Diamond Tiara cried herself to sleep.
“Okay,” Twilight said. “This should be fun.”
The other pony in the room nodded. “I’ve got my costume.”
Twilight took a stance, all four hooves on the floor. “Ready?”
“Laughter!” Pinkie said, following the instructions of the strangely knowledgeable purple pony.
“Honesty.” Applejack was a little less eager, but willing to give this Twilight the benefit of the doubt that she knew what she was doing.
“Magic!” Twilight finished, and flared her horn.
Nightmare Moon watched, confused and worried, as six beams of light coalesced…
And out of them came a pink-purple-yellow alicorn decked out in a fuku, who kicked her in the jaw. “In the name of Harmony, you shall not trouble Equestria any more, blaggard!”
Twilight held in a snigger.
“You’re sure you don’t know what happened?” Celestia asked.
“No,” Cadence replied, shrugging. “Poor Shiny was very worried when I collapsed, but it must have just been a faint or something.”
“Perhaps…” Celestia left, and Cadence could imagine the confused thoughts running through her head.
Shining entered the room. “I don’t feel comfortable lying to Celestia about something like this.”
“Oh, Shiny!” Cadence fluttered her eyelashes. “No harm done, right?”
The stallion frowned, then shrugged. “I suppose.”
In all honesty, he didn’t know precisely what had happened – or why his girlfriend had suddenly got changed into a short dress and teleported out of the room.
“…I suppose the Elements did look a bit like my old foalsitter,” Twilight allowed. “But it could just be that they take the form of someone familiar to me? I mean, she is who I associate with comfort and with harmony – it’s her talent, isn’t it?”
“Yes, it is. It is…” Celestia finally shrugged. “I suppose they did work – my little sister is back, and that’s what matters here.”
Discord appeared in Celestia’s study. “Hey, Celly! Long time no see. Oh, where are the Elements?”
“That is just the problem!” Celestia shouted, startling Discord. “I have no idea. For some reason, whenever Twilight and her friends do… something, they summon a duplicate copy of my niece who kicks the problem until it is not a problem any more.”
“They do, huh?” Discord asked. (Hey, he wasn’t going to lose this opportunity to press Celestia for information. Especially when she apparently hadn’t noticed it was him.)
“Yes! Nightmare Moon comes back – kicked in the face. Dragon causes problems in Ponyville – kicked in the chest. Rampaging hydra? Kicked in all the faces. And then there was the Ursa Minor that got kicked in the fundament.” Celestia sighed. “I don’t know what is going on.”
Then she blinked. “Wait. Discord?”
“Thank you, come again!” Discord said, jumping out the window.
“A-ha-ha!” Discord said, holding up a grey Cadence. “I managed to corrupt the pony who was using the Elements of Harmony, and now there’s nothing you pathetic ponies can do to stop me!”
Twilight rolled her eyes. “There’s two problems with that. First, that’s my mild mannered foalsitter, not the Elements summon. And my foalsitter’s talent is, well… harmony. As in, getting on well with everyone. Reverse that, and…”
The grey Cadence kicked Discord in the teeth.
“Second, we can still perform the summoning.”
She and her five friends rattled off the names of their Elements, and the by now familiar Cadence-in-a-Fuku appeared in front of them. The other Cadence promptly collapsed.
“Er…” Discord mumbled around the hand massaging his injured jaw. “This isn’t going to go well for me, is it?”
“Nope!” Twilight replied cheerfully.
Admittedly, making a magical double of Cadence with the mirror pool could have gone very wrong, but it did let her be in two places at once as and when they needed her to be.
And, as fuku-Cadence kicked Discord in both knees and followed up with a roundhouse kick, Twilight could just about spot Celestia on a balcony in the distance. And judging by her movements, probably tearing up her latest theory and stamping on the bits of paper.
Reconciliation, part three
Applebloom whistled to herself as she finished making a hole in a piece of good stone. With the branch she’d prepared for it, it would be a passable hammer…
“Applebloom,” she heard a familiar voice croak.
“What is it?” she asked, turning around. “Ouch. You’re a sight.”
Diamond Tiara’s mane was unkempt and ragged at the ends, where it hadn’t held up to the night on hard ground well. There were runnels of salt down her muzzle where she’d clearly been crying. Her coat seemed matted with sweat, her colour was quite unhealthy, and she was actually trembling slightly just standing there.
“Yeah,” Diamond said, not even reacting to Applebloom’s comment much. “I… I…” She seemed to be struggling with something. “…help? Please?”
Applebloom blinked, surprised. Then chastised herself for that response. She ain’t a monster, and ah should remember that. “Sure. I guess this means we’re working together now?”
“Yeah.” Diamond Tiara nodded jerkily. “I don’t know anything about this. I just… I want to go home.”
Applebloom nodded. “Okay. Come with me, ah’ll show y’ how to find stuff. You’ll have to pick your own up, but ah’ll tell y’ what to do.”
“Right,” Applebloom said, about an hour later, to a much recovered Diamond.
By kicking up water from the pool she’d found yesterday, she’d managed to give Diamond a cold shower (since having her bathe in the pool might have left it too dirty for drinking) and that followed by drying in the sun had had a considerable effect on the earth pony filly.
“Now, one of th’ most useful things is these here palm trees. Y’ll have had coconut at those fancy dinners o’ yours?”
“Yes, I have.” Diamond looked up at the tree. “But where’s the coconut? Isn’t it supposed to be white?”
“Only on th’ inside,” Applebloom replied. “And it ain’t shaved, either. But the real important stuff is actually th’ milk. Okay, watch me first.” Backing up carefully to the tree, she kicked out at it and knocked one coconut loose. This one she let fall, and it bounced to the floor without breaking (as it was supposed to).
She scooped it up. “Okay. Think y’ can do that?”
“…what, kick a tree? But…” Diamond seemed lost. “…don’t you have to be very strong to do that?”
“T’ do it for a living, yeah.” Applebloom nodded readily. “Mah sister and brother are two o’ the strongest ponies in Ponyville for that reason. But any earth pony – hay, any pony at all – can buck once or twice. Come on, ah’ll spot y’all.”
Seeing Diamond’s reluctance, she sweetened the deal. “Since you’re new, and all, you get this one as well if you knock one down. It’s only fair – you ain’t trained for this.”
The shock on Diamond’s face was followed by a flash of genuine gratitude, before it was replaced in turn by suspicion. “Is there something wrong with that one?”
“What? No!” Applebloom shook her head vigorously. “Hay, if you’re worried about that ah’ll let y’ have one of the ones in th’ stores back at th’ shelter instead.”
“No, I…” Diamond struggled again. “…sorry. I… Father made sure I was familiar with business practices, and… you just don’t get gifts, there.”
Applebloom nodded. “Ah get what y’ mean. Guess they just ain’t used to bein’ honest.”
“Suppose.” For a moment, there was an actual smile. But then Diamond seemed to realize it was there, and crush it down again.
It was a start, anyway.
“Right, so first ah’ll have y’ do it slowly, so y’ know what you’re supposed to do.” Applebloom reached out and supported Diamond’s midriff.
“Hey! Get off!”
“If y’ do it slowly, you’ll just fall over unless ah spot you.” Applebloom replied, using the same tone she remembered Applejack teaching her with. It seemed to help, as Diamond just tried kicking out instead.
“Right, that’s actually pretty good.” Applebloom pushed Diamond’s knees down slightly and raised the angle of her hooves. “That lets you kick the hardest. Martial arts, actually…”
“Not again!” Diamond said, scowling. Despite six or seven blows to the palm tree, it remained resolutely unbucked.
“Hmmm…” Applebloom said, frowning herself. “Your technique is fine now. Ah know what it must be – you’re just not hitting hard enough.”
“This is as hard as I can do!” Diamond whined.
“No, it ain’t,” Applebloom denied. “It’s just as hard as y’all think y’ can do. Now, ah want you to know how ah used to help mahself learn. Ah pictured th’ tree as the thing ah felt th’ most angry about, and ah bucked it as hard as ah possibly could, and that made me kick it harder. And th’ thing is, it actually made me feel better about what ah was angry about. What is it that makes y’all angry?”
Seeing Diamond blush slightly, and deciding to not ask for now, Applebloom shook her head. “Never mind. Just imagine that palm tree is the thing that makes you angry. And you’re gonna buck it so hard you’ll send it flyin!”
“…aaaaAAAARGH!” Diamond let out a scream of rage, and kicked the palm tree with all her might. The force of the blow sent her mane flying in all directions, finishing the work of unravelling her original delicate hairdo, and drove her forwards as the tree bounced back. She tumbled forward in a complete somersault, landed sprawled on her back, and panted with the effort.
Applebloom whistled, walked out of her sight-line for a moment, and then came back with four coconuts.
“Well, if you ain’t a natural at this!” she said, grinning. “Ah said ah’d give y’all one for the one y’ knocked down, and so here y’ go. You got two, so here’s two more.”
Diamond Tiara blinked. “I… did two?”
“You sure did. Nice work, pardner!”
Diamond matched the grin. “Maybe that’s why you don’t have a cutie mark for it, then, if a posh filly’s better at it!”
She froze, mortified. That had just… slipped out.
But Applebloom only laughed. “Good one. Ah admit, y’all have a point… anyway, here’s the important bit. ‘cause of that bright sun, y’all are sweatin’ a lot. That’s kinda salty, so y’ need t’ get the salt back. Now, the milk in a coconut ain’t actually milk, but it’s got a lot of those salts…”
“Good,” Applebloom said, as Diamond dragged another branch into the area around the (now expanded) shelter. “That should do us for firewood for th’ evening.”
Taking two of the sharpest-tipped branches, she speared some coconut meat on each one and passed one to Diamond. “Here y’ go. Don’t worry, ah’ll handle dinner. Y’all have earned it.”
The pink filly accepted the speared coconut, and felt tears prickle in her eyes. “…thank you. I’m so…”
“Nah, like ah say, y’ earned it,” Applebloom said, trotting off. “Now, where did ah see that Taro…”
Shining Armor woke up.
Blinking, he realized just where he was. It was… his room, back at Mom and Dad’s house. But it looked… old.
Like it used to when he was… oh.
Twily told me about these, Shining thought to himself as he got up. A quick check revealed that he did indeed have his cutie mark – and there were cards on the bookshelf congratulating that fact. It must be the morning after his cute-ceneara.
I think that makes Twily about… four? Three? Something like that.
That meant he hadn’t met Cadence yet. Pity, really.
Actually, it meant Cadence was still a pegasus. Which really sucked, because that meant he couldn’t meet her again until after she’d ascended – throwing off those delicate circumstances would be a bad idea.
Right, what was I supposed to be doing… he dug through his old memories. Right. School.
“Well done, Shining!” the teacher said, reading over the essay. “Though I’m surprised you gave me five pages – I only set half a page.”
“…oh, sorry,” Shining rubbed the back of his neck apologetically. “I guess… yeah, I was just really interested.”
Actually, he was having trouble adjusting to being a colt again. Twilight might think she was the most academically inclined of the family, and that was for the most part true… but writing? Shining wrestled Guard paperwork every loop. Compared to that, essays were nothing.
Twilight grinned, shaking her head. “Shining… I can’t believe you accidentally used a spellform that hasn’t been invented yet.”
“Look, I said I hadn’t had a loop like this before!” The colt pointed at his little sister, now about seven. “And you’re one to talk! Literally. You’ve been this articulate since we looped in, and that was ridiculous for four.”
“I’m a prodigy, Shiny.” Twilight shrugged. “Even more now, I suppose… I think Celestia’s already noticed me. Hey, when’s the graduation party for your school?”
“Uhh… three weeks. I’m probably going to be top of the class,” Shining said, grinning uneasily.
“I’d be disappointed if you weren’t, it’s only junior high,” Twilight rejoined. “Anyway, here’s an early present for you. It arrived yesterday.”
She plucked a letter out of her schoolwork and passed it over. Shining took it, opened it, and then just stared.
He could just about hear Twilight saying something through the rushing sensation that made him feel weak-kneed with relief, but he didn’t care what it was. The letter was the only important thing, right then.
Next year, love. Next year.
“Right, you ‘orrible lot!” Drill Sergeant Emery Paper shouted. “I don’t want any of you wannabe Private Pansies who can’t handle the pace! Thirty times around the ground at a gallop, and that’s on the ground for you pegasi! Move!”
Shining fell into a comfortable rhythm fairly quickly. He’d kept up his own personal regimen since he’d first turned up this Loop, out of sheer habit, and it had paid dividends – he was very fit. As might be expected for a young stallion who’d trained daily since he was ten.
Actually, he finished first. Well ahead of all the other unicorns, and beating out an earth pony called Steel Resolve by about two seconds.
“Well, well…” Emery came over and looked him up and down. Taking in, in particular, the fact that Shining quickly recovered from the exertion. “Looks like you ain’t just a smart-arse, cadet Armor. Does your ladyfriend like that stamina of yours?”
Shining nodded. “Yes, sir! Makes it easier for me to keep up when she goes flying, sir!”
Emery blinked, thrown off slightly. But he recovered quickly enough that only Shining’s veteran eye noticed. “Glad to hear it! Now, the rest of you get the message?”
One pegasus staggered as he reached the finish, nearly collapsing from the sustained exertion of the sprint.
Emery shook his head theatrically. “Clearly not! Cadet Armor’s lady friend doesn’t seem to have trouble managing something you lot clearly can’t keep up with!”
Shining felt dozens of death glares on him. Well, looked like he was the designated target for this round of Basic…
“What’s that you’re working on, lieutenant?”
Shining turned, seeing that the speaker was a major, and saluted. “Sir!”
“At ease.” Major Jump – High Jump, son of High Class – looked over the spell formulae scattered across Shining’s table. “This looks very complex, lieutenant. I can’t quite follow it myself. What’s the intent?”
“Right. This here is the intent formulation – basically, it defines the target of the warding. And this one defines the sink end of the equation.” Shining tapped the paper, pointing out buffers and flow directors and overflow systems. “More or less, it allows for a protective spell to be cast over a principal that deflects the effects of hostile magic spells – there’s the intent filter, see – into an inanimate sink which takes the damage.”
The younger unicorn shrugged. “It’s still not very good, since it can’t take more damage than the sink can absorb before failing and it doesn’t last more than an hour or so, and it takes a prepared sink…”
“This isn’t good?” Major Jump shouted, banging the table and making Shining jump. “Lieutenant, if this spell is overloaded then the pony it protects would have been severely wounded or outright killed anyway by the attack it deflects! What’s the problem?”
“Well…” Shining trailed off, embarrassed. “The spell formula takes up eight pages of dense script. The only ponies I know of who can actually cast the damned thing are my sister and I.”
“Sister?” Jump frowned. “Oh, I know the one. Twilight Sparkle, right? That filly who’s revolutionizing the academy. Yes, if it takes that kind of ability to pull off I can see why it would be a problem. You’re trying to simplify it down, then?”
“Yes, sir.” Shining nodded smartly.
“Good stallion. Keep at it. And I’ll expect to see you and your girlfriend at the party my wife’s setting up next week, as well – I’ll want an update.” Jump tapped his forehead and trotted off.
“I forgot how much effort this whole thing was,” Shining said, shaking his head. He’d just received the information that he was to be promoted to captain – and even with all his foreknowledge, he’d only shaved about a year off the total time.
Cadence shrugged. She’d avoided ascending this time, claiming that it would be ‘interesting’ to stay as a pegasus for once. “Well, you were very good the first time around, dear.”
“Suppose. Oh, Twilight reminded me that Nightmare Moon’s return is scheduled for next week. What do you say we go and watch?”
“Sounds good to me,” Cadence said. “What’s she planning this time?”
“Actually, she wanted my help. I wonder why…” Shining trailed off.
“Twilight,” Cadence said, “This is just cruel.” She was giggling, though – the sight before them was just too funny.
Twilight shrugged. “I’m thinking of making an artefact that casts this spell when triggered, actually. You up for that, Shining?”
Shining nodded. “Why not.”
In front of them, Nightmare Moon tried desperately to retain either dignity or threat level. It was difficult, because she was trapped inside a giant pink shield that rolled around like a hamster ball.
Reconciliation, part four
“Diamond,” Applebloom said sharply, “Ah think it’d be best if you saw this.”
Diamond Tiara hurried over. The week or so they’d spent on the island had been wearying for her, but she’d gained no lack of respect for Applebloom’s practical skills. Anything which worried her was probably cause for alarm.
“What is it?”
“Well, ah don’t have a weather forecastin’ cutie mark,” Applebloom said, deadpan, and Diamond held back a giggle, “but that don’t look good.” The engineer and Looper nodded to the east, where clouds were gathering on the horizon.
“So? It’s just a storm, right?” Diamond asked.
“Yeah, it’s a storm,” Applebloom agreed readily. “And no, it ain’t just a storm. They ain’t scheduled out here, there ain’t a team of pegasi watchin’ it to make sure it’s safe, and we ain’t got much of a shelter against that kinda winds.”
“…oh. Sorry,” Diamond said. “I just… yeah, you know.”
“No sweat.” Applebloom thought for a moment. “Ah think it might be a good idea for us to look for a cave, or somethin’. Either that or a big ol’ tree which is good and sturdy.”
“Right.” The pink filly nodded. “I’ll look on the north side, you take the south.”
“Fine by me.” Applebloom paused. “You know how to check if a tree’s after bein’ sturdy?”
“No…” Diamond said, drawing the word out. “But I do recognize what a cave looks like, and what a tree looks like. And – gosh! – I can even recognize the difference between a big tree and a small one. So I’ll find the ones for you to check.”
This time, it was Applebloom who chuckled. “Alright, you got me.”
“Hmmm…” Applebloom said, looking the large fallen Monkeypod tree. It still had earth on the exposed roots and hadn’t rotted away at all, so presumably it hadn’t fallen too long ago. “Yeah, this might actually be better than an intact one.”
“Good.” Diamond’s voice had nothing but relief. “I thought it might be, but I didn’t know if that was a good idea, and…”
“Well, you’re right.” Applebloom started looking around. “If we use some big logs, or maybe fell another tree so the canopy is a kinda umbrella…” she paused. “Tell you what. Can you go get some more coconuts, and make sure all the ones we got which we use for water are full, and bring ‘em up here? Except two. Leave them by th’ firepit, because ah think it might be a good idea fer us to get ourselves around a hot meal before the storm comes.”
“That sounds like a good idea.” Diamond waited for a moment, then set off.
“Well, ah knew she could rise to it, but ah’m still surprised she did,” Applebloom said to herself. “And ah shouldn’t be.”
Applebloom had been careful to keep in mind what her unexpected companion could and could not do so far, and never set her a challenge she couldn’t do. Granted, a couple of times at least she’d thought she couldn’t do something, but after enough prodding she gave it a try – and promptly proved herself wrong.
Watching her, the farmpony-in-training had been struck by a realization.
Diamond Tiara, loud-mouthed spoiled bully that she was, wasn’t actually very self confident. Oh, she seemed it, and probably even felt like it, but her obvious surprise at being able to do the tasks Applebloom set her told its own story.
And she’d been so proud of anything she and ‘bloom had built together, it was almost heartbreaking.
Guess that comes of having everything done for you… you start to think you can’t do it yourself…
Applebloom had been analyzing the trees while she thought. Selecting a breadfruit tree, she gave it an almighty buck – which sent it crashing down, the bulk of the foliage on top of the fallen trunk but with a substantial amount over the area she’d selected to be their ‘cave’. A second, this one some kind of ash, finished the job.
“It ain’t perfect, but it’ll do,” she said with satisfaction. “Now, ah’d better get some vine, too, for ropes to tie the branches together…”
Diamond Tiara huddled next to a pony that, only a little more than a week ago, she wouldn’t have been seen dead with.
That might still be an option, she thought. No. Shut up.
“Hey, Applebloom?” she asked, shakily. “You heard how the wind’s always the best part, right?”
Applebloom chuckled. “Yep. And ah heard when you said the waitin’ was the best part, and ah bet in ten minutes you’ll say the rain’s the best part.”
“Oh, no, you worked out my cunning plan.” Diamond paused. “How did you manage to make the soup? What did you cook it in?”
Both of them knew what Diamond was doing – trying to distract them from the storm. But it was nice to pretend they didn’t.
“Okay, this is actually kinda neat,” Applebloom said. “You know how you heat up water and then it boils?”
“I have noticed. Once or twice.” Diamond Tiara’s sarcasm was almost a physical object, no matter how brittle her voice was.
“Good. Well, don’t know if you know this bit, but things have to heat up to burn too. It ain’t enough for them to be held in a fire. So, paper burns a lot easier than wood does.”
There was an almighty crash from outside, and both fillies jumped.
“Really makes one appreciate pegasi,” Diamond said shakily.
“Yep,” Applebloom agreed. “Anyway, as ah was sayin’, ah cooked it in a coconut. The coconut had to get so hot to catch fire that it couldn’t do that when there was water right next to it – the water would get to boilin’ long before the coconut would get to burnin’.”
“Wow.” Diamond blinked. “That is neat. Why doesn’t Cheerilee ever teach us about that?”
“’cuz if she gave us access to fire, then me and Sweetie and Scoots would probably burn the Everfree down,” Applebloom deadpanned.
Mention of the other two Crusaders wounded the conversation severely, but it wasn’t more than another thirty seconds before Diamond Tiara got it going again with another question. “What about the hair?”
“The coconut hair?” Applebloom grinned uneasily. “Well, see, ah kinda ruined the first batch, ‘cuz ah forgot to take the husk off…”
Despite – or perhaps because of – the tenseness of the situation, Diamond Tiara giggled. That turned into a shriek when a lightning bolt struck very near by.
“Y’ know, you probably saved mah life,” Applebloom said, into the relative stillness. “Ah was all for hidin’ under a tree, and ah think they’re supposed to either fall over or explode if they get hit. But this tree ain’t the tallest around, not any more, so it ain’t gonna get struck.”
“Heh… does this mean I owe you less?” Diamond asked, still shivering. She felt Applebloom move closer, until they were touching.
“There ain’t any question of who owes who, Diamond,” Applebloom said. “We work together, and we stay alive.”
The storm blew itself past them overnight. Exhausted, wet and emotionally drained, the two fillies fell asleep once the wind dropped and woke nearly at midday.
The island – the one they’d started to think of as ‘their’ island – was an incredible mess. Trees were bereft of limbs, small floods had cut muddy incisions into the surface soil, and their beach-shelter had been carried away by the winds. The whole beach was covered with driftwood.
“So much for a week o’ work,” Applebloom sighed. “Ah well. At least we got more wood to work with-”
There was a sudden explosion of light, nearly overhead.
“What’s that?” Diamond Tiara asked, squinting into the sky.
Applebloom laughed, beating her hooves on the floor and then started dancing – not very well, of course. “Woo-hoo!”
“What is it!?” the other filly insisted.
“That’s a sonic rainboom!” Applebloom said, grinning fiercely. “There’s only one pony who can do one o’ those!”
A purple flash appeared a few hundred yards down the beach.
“Applebloom? Diamond Tiara? Wonderful!” Twilight shouted, galloping over. “Oh, I’m so sorry it took so long for us to find you!”
“Well, ah could wish y’all had turned up sooner,” Applebloom said, still grinning with the euphoria of being finally rescued. “But it weren’t all that bad, ‘cept for the first day and the last.”
“Yes, we saw the storm.” Twilight winced. “Must have been terrible.”
“Diamond here found us a place to ride it out,” Applebloom said, nodding towards her. Said pink filly started at being addressed, looking a bit overwhelmed.
Rainbow Dash landed next to Twilight. “Okay, I told the crew where we are. They should turn up by evening.”
“Crew?” Applebloom asked.
“Yeah.” Twilight nodded. “I forgot to mention – Filthy Rich hired a zeppelin to help with the search. Dash and I have been using it to quarter the entire ocean, once Discord finally told us he put you on a desert island.”
“Pity you didn’t manage to get him to say which one…” the young Apple groused.
Diamond Tiara was nearly speechless. “Father hired a Zeppelin?”
“Yep!” Dash nodded. “He really is filthy rich, isn’t he? Hay, the Wonderbolts volunteered to help, too. It was just luck that I was on the south-flank sweep today.”
Twilight eyed the two fillies, but said nothing about their unusual lack of friction. “Okay, want to show us around? We’ve got about four or five hours until Jack of all trades is within easy teleport range – I was pushing it a bit with that one…”
Applebloom knew that was a flat lie, given that this was the Looping Twilight (as always), but didn’t press it. “Okay. Hey, Diamond, you found where we stayed last night, you show ‘em.”
“O…okay.” Diamond looked around for a moment, getting her bearings. “Right. This way.”
“Hey, Diamond, you got a moment?” Applebloom asked.
The filly looked up. It was their third day back in Ponyville, and the first day back at school (the first had been consumed with reunions and the second with a combination of the press and medical checkups).
“Uh…” for a moment, Diamond’s eyes flicked over to Silver Spoon, next to her.
Applebloom held her breath.
“Yeah.” Diamond got up. “Hang on a minute, Silver.”
“Sure.” Silver Spoon nodded.
“Okay. There’s something ah didn’t tell you,” Applebloom said, once they were in a fairly out of the way corner. “This… is kinda hard to explain. Twilight does it better. Basically, ah’m one of a load of ponies in a time loop. Every few years, we go back to the day before that Summer Sun celebration where Nightmare Moon turned up. Not all of us always turn up, and ah’m one of them – Twilight’s the one who always does this…”
“So… we’ve been through this before?” Diamond asked, eyes widening.
Before she could decide what to feel, Applebloom waved her hooves. “No! The whole desert island thing, that ain’t never happened before. And ah’m going t’ try to make sure it ain’t never going to happen again.”
“…do you mean it happens all the time, or…?”
“No, that’s just me bein’ a farmgirl.” Applebloom scratched the back of her head. “Anyway, I just… wanted to let you know. It don’t feel right, keepin’ secrets from y’all after that.”
“…I kind of have one too, then.” Diamond swallowed. “When you told me to imagine the tree was the thing I was the most annoyed with? It was, er, you and the other bl- the other crusaders.”
Applebloom laughed. “That’s all? Ah kinda guessed it might be!” The laughter died down. “But thanks for tellin’ me.”
“That’s okay.” Diamond smiled. “And thank you for telling me. Er… am I a… a bitch, in the other loops?”
“Kinda, yeah.” Applebloom nodded. “Ah ain’t gonna lie. But it actually ain’t all that surprisin’, cause you’re ten and ah’m… lots.” She then looked around and whispered to the other filly. “It ain’t the first time you’ve saved mah life, either. It seems like whenever you’re in one o’ these loops and it goes strange, you’re actually kinda awesome.”
Then the Apple gave a shrug. “Still a bitch… but an awesome bitch.”
Diamond broke out laughing herself. After she’d managed to push it back to giggles, she said “well, if that’s the best I can get…”
Applebloom grinned. “Hay, I dunno. There was this one time you were a magical filly warrior…”
“Do you have pictures?” Diamond asked. Then frowned. “But… next time, I… oh, I wish I knew how to make it so I didn’t act so nastily to you.”
Suddenly she gasped. “Wait, I know! It might work, anyway.”
“What’s that?” Applebloom asked.
“You know… loads of stuff from these loops, right? Make a business deal with my father, some time shortly after the Summer Sun celebration. It’s about two weeks after Nightmare Moon’s return that Father started walking me through our business partners and why they are what they are, so…” Diamond shrugged. “Best I can do, I think.”
“…that might just be the best gift y’ could have given me, if it works,” Applebloom said. “Ah don’t want to have you as an enemy, in any life. Friends are much nicer.”
“Yeah,” Diamond replied, nodding. “They are. Sorry I didn’t know that before.”
“Goodness,” Princess Rarity said, looking around. “So this is what the Discordian era looked like. I have to say, he didn’t have much of a sense of style back then…”
Princess Twilight Sparkle nodded. “Maybe it took him over a thousand years in a statue to think of good jokes?”
“Possibly. Right, what happens now?”
Twilight gestured to the other four elements. “Pick two, we have to use three each to do the sealing.”
“Do we have to? I mean, can’t we just talk it out?”
“Nope,” Twilight shook her head. “Fluttershy tried. It just… didn’t work. He’s not got the perspective being defeated can give you.”
“Right.” Rarity looked the elements over. “I pick… Kindness and Laughter.”
“Okay.” Twilight paused. “Why?”
“Because that way they are colour coordinated.” Rarity looked offended that Twilight even had to ask. “Alright, how do I put these on?”
“Wings. Sorry, I never worked out a better way.” Twilight levitated the Loyalty and Honesty necklaces over her own wings, fastening them at the base.
Visibly cringing, Rarity followed suit. “This looks dreadful.”
“It’s Discord, he won’t mind.” Twilight shrugged.
“Yes, but I do…”
“Look, Rarity,” Twilight said warily. “I’m just giving you a warning. Dash, Fluttershy and Applejack all overdid something massively when it was their turn with me in this loop variant, so…”
“Oh, you worry too much,” Rarity replied. “Anyway, I have some political manoeuvring to get done. Remember? We agreed you got the natural world and I got the work of civilization.”
“True…” Twilight nodded. “But I’m still… oh, maybe it is nothing.”
Princess Rarity paced back and forth. “I don’t understand it! No matter how fabulous, ornate, utilitarian or subdued the clothes I create, the griffins don’t like them! We’re running a heavy trade deficit… I must find something that they like!”
Her problem could be summed up with the fact that most supplies of cotton and silk came from the Griffin Lands. Since they had claws, as opposed to hooves, it was much easier for them to make fine cloth.
“Hmmm… oh, this is so frustrating!”
Twilight blinked. “Okay, explain that again.”
“So, we were running a trade deficit with the griffins,” Rarity began.
“I got that bit.”
“I discovered that the one product that we make which griffins are willing to purchase is our range of magical items.”
“Okay…” Twilight pressed. “And how did you get from that to invading their country?”
“I’m… not entirely sure,” Rarity said, frowning. “But it involved catnip at some point in the process. Possibly we started selling it to them, I’m not sure.”
“So.” Twilight massaged her temples. “You personally invaded the Griffin Lands, overthrew their government, seized their entire supply of fabric for the last three years and went on a month-long bender making dresses.”
“That about sums it up,” Rarity nodded.
“Right. Sorry, but you’re probably going to have to head to the moon. Quite apart from anything else, we need to salvage Equestria’s international reputation – and that means making it clear you weren’t acting according to official policy. At least you didn’t take the army.”
Rarity raised a hoof, then sighed. “Alright, Twilight. Sorry, it looks like I did go over the top.”
“Yeah, you think?” Twilight asked sarcastically. “Look, I’ll send you up some supplies or something. Make it a yearly event.”
“Alright.” Rarity frowned. “But they’ll get so dusty if I just leave them there… perhaps I should send what I make back down again?”
“Why not.” Twilight lifted up a calendar. “I think ‘Charity Day’ would work. The rich donate, the poor get the clothes.”
“Sounds good to me.” Rarity looked a bit more chipper. “Alright. See you in a millennium.”
“Sorry?” Celestia asked. “You want me to what?”
“I want you and your sister to go dig Princess Rarity out,” Twilight repeated. “Since she may be a little… obsessed, after that long on the moon, you may need to find ponies who can operate the Elements of Harmony. Perhaps those friends Luna’s made in Ponyville?”
“Alright…” Celestia said, dubiously. “But why dig her out?”
“Off-cuts,” Twilight answered. “A thousand years of accumulated off-cuts from a thousand years of Charity Days.”
The power-spell specialist unicorn left, still looking a bit flabbergasted.
“It’ll be nice to see her again,” Spike said. “I didn’t know she’d ascended too.”
“It was only last Loop,” Twilight explained. “I think this is the first time someone aside from me and the newest alicorn has been awake in one of these, actually.”
“Neat. And, uh, thanks for hatching me so early.”
Twilight nodded. She’d hatched Spike’s egg personally the minute it turned up, meaning that the dragon was about thirty now and a well-known sight around the palace.
“Hey, you’ve got a blank flank!” Diamond Tiara shouted into the stillness of the cute-caneara, pointing at Applebloom’s exposed side.
Applebloom winced. Not again-
The other ponies were looking at Diamond Tiara with equal confusion.
“Well, she could have a talent in anything! Hay, I don’t even know what mine means…” Diamond indicated her own cutie mark. “I mean, what does that mean? I’m good at wearing jewellery?” Her tiara slipped down slightly. "Guess not…"
There were giggles, and Applebloom watched in shock as Diamond Tiara proceeded to joke about every cutie mark in the room.
When she got around to Applebloom, Diamond winked, and whispered “Gotcha there, Applebloom!”
“Wait, are you-”
Diamond nodded, and winked again. “Lucky you, huh?”