Cultural Artifacts - Where the Nadir is Apogee
DISCLAIMER: My Little Pony is the property of Hasbro, Inc.
Johnny Cake and Johnny Appleseed arrived at Sweet Apple Acres as they had since they'd completed Trixie's wagon. There was work to be done here, work they were familiar with, and while they were more distant relatives than they had been, they were still Apples.
Applebloom was off to school and called to them as she left. Big Mac was in the barn, but neither of them saw Applejack anywhere.
"Johnny," Johnny Cake told her husband, "You go help Mac, I think a daughter needs a mother-daughter talk."
Appleseed grinned and trotted off to help Big Mac. Johnny Cake continued into the house. She called out before actually entering. Granny Smith called back. The old mare shook her head and gestured upstairs.
Grandmother is too far away, Johnny Cake thought as she trotted up the stairs, Someone needs her momma.
She found Applejack exactly where she expected, and in pretty much the state she'd expected. Standing in front of the mirror, very nicely prettied up, staring at the image.
Johnny Cake stepped over so Applejack could see her in the reflection. Surprised, Applejack scrubbed off the lipstick with a foreleg and tried to put her loose mane back in her usual ponytail.
"Oh to be young and foolish," she said and stepped up to catch her ersatz daughter's frantically fumbling hooves before the hurt herself or snatched herself bald.
Applejack stared at her in shame and shock. Johnny Cake just gathered her in and held the confused mare until her sobs began, and finally subsided.
Crying had ruined the very nice job of mascara and other cosmetics most would have been shocked that Applejack knew, had, and could successfully use. Johnny remembered her own Applejack had run away to the Oranges in Manehatten. Her sister-in-law had immediately taught the filly all the 'high-class' behaviors. She'd treated it as what it was, a filly off on a lark discovering who she was. Use of make-up and the Manehatten manners and accents had been one of those skill sets.
As Applejack subsided to mere sniffles, Johnny pulled out the tablet and thanked Celestia that the written languages were so similar. 'Stallion trouble?'
Applejack nodded, glanced at the mirror and saw the mess she'd made of her 'prettying up' efforts. 'Yeah, he just ran away.'
'Sweetie, he runs away from Celestia. Boy's taste just doesn't run to pretty ponies. No matter what he's wearing.' Johnny showed the message to Applejack. 'If you were a human, you would have clobbered the poor sucker.'
Applejack chuckled at that. 'Thanks.' Applejack wrote. She briefly considered, then added, 'I guess the other thing was, he needed a friend, and I couldn't do that either. I couldn't get what I wanted, and couldn't give him what he needed. Some `reliablest of ponies`.'
Johnny Cake tousled Applejack's mane. 'Even Celly was reduced to futility. There weren't many who could overcome.'
'Rarity, Fluttershy, Pinkie Pie.' Applejack wrote. 'Three of the Elements. Twilight and I were affected. Rainbow never laid eyes on him.'
'Which proves nothing. You didn't help, but you didn't hurt him, and you two were first out of his family. That counts for a lot.'
Applejack said something that sounded thankful. She stood up and headed for the door. Johnny followed.
She looked at her ersatz daughter and considered. "Gonna have to have a talk with that boy," she said to herself.
Outside, Big Mac and Johnny were hauling rails to make repairs to the fences. Johnny trotted up to her husband.
"All fixed?" he asked.
"Just a bit of 'why doesn't the boy like me' tangled up with 'why couldn't I do something?'" she said as Big Mac and Applejack discussed something.
"First one's easy. After a while, a pretty mare doesn't turn the head the way it would on a colt. He's mentioned grandchildren. Figure he's closer to Granny Smith's age. If she suddenly found herself your age, she's still got all of her memories of dad and my brothers and sisters. All the memories of a wife, of two generations, and all the kids, they sort of crowd out a pretty face. Especially if that pretty face seems a filly, rather than a mare," Johnnie said, "He's an old, hard stallion, despite that he acts my age. As for not helping, I should have done more than just keep our Princess from doing something stupid. I would be immune, not just resistant."
Johnny Cake nodded, then heard the hail from the younger pair. "Back to work, old folks," she interpreted.
He laughed and followed her.
Woona had accepted, with good grace, the paddling by both princesses. The best 'revenge' is knowing I did their job without the ability to speak or understand one word of the demands placed on me, she thought as she composed herself to walk back into the Big Guy's home and get some ice for the royal fundament.
The place seemed deserted when she arrived. Silly, the Apples are at work, Celly is probably standing guard/worrying/crying, the rest have jobs and lives, she chided herself and went to the cold box to get some ice.
"How did it all go so wrong?" she wondered aloud, "Well, that's stupid, Nightmare is the answer. How did such a moron convince me of anything? Simple, the ponies setting me off were just as dumb as the idiots who attacked him." She found several cold packs in the freezer and gingerly applied them where they'd do the most good. She walked into the family room and lay down on the ottoman.
"Now what do we do?" she thought aloud as she looked at the area outside the French doors, "The locals are going to be no help with the post-traumatic stress, despite their willingness to." She turned away from the scene to look around the house. "And what are we supposed to, do?" she asked as her eyes fell on several well-worn books on an upper shelf of the bookcase, and she worked out the words from the translation matrix they'd puzzled out with Princess Celestia. 'Surviving Post Traumatic Stress Disorder', 'Help for Caregivers: PTSD', 'How the Mind and Body Remember', 'Shell Shock and Battle Fatigue: Investigation into the Psychological Basis' and several others on psychology.
"Of course, it's not like it's just going to jump out at me from a clear, blue sky. I mean this has to be the first time he's faced anything remotely traumatic in his entire combat-filled life," she said as she levitated the books over to her. "Let's just hope I can do an adequate translation job." She added a pencil and pad of paper to her floating collection and began reading and taking notes. "And I was calling Nightmare an idiot, sheesh, horse calling the mule hooved."
Should have expected this, Dash thought as she nosed into the Big Guy's hospital room. Celly was there, expected, but so was Fluttershy, which she hadn't been expecting. Both were talking in soft voices to the figure in the bed. Okay, that's not really Princess Celestia, but it is so, she doesn't speak our language. I have to be clever.
"Fluttershy, have you thought about helping the Big Guy get a pet after he wakes up. You know, like you helped with me and Tank?"
I hope Discord is listening, and will translate, Rainbow thought.
"Oh, do you think he'd want one?" Fluttershy asked, radiating Pinkie Pie levels of enthusiasm. "The book he lent Rarity had cats and dogs and birds in it. He knows what ponies are, so there's probably birds and fish and tortoises and -"
"Tort, never mind," Pinkie said.
"How does she do that?" Rainbow asked, searching for any remaining sign of Pinkie.
'She can do anything, as long as it's funny.' Celly hooved over a paper for Rainbow to read. 'The Big Guy has several cinemas about that. If Discord ever ran into Bugs Bunny, I shudder to think about it. '
"Yeah, considering Angel, a rabbit called Bugs would be a problem," Rainbow said, then wrote it down for Celly.
"So would he want a dog, or a cat, or a bird, or a hamster, or a butterfly, or a fish?" Fluttershy asked, doing a fair 'Pinkie Pie' herself.
"I don't know. We could look at some of the pictures around his house, or ask one of the ponies who live there," Rainbow said, and watched as Fluttershy wrote down her question as a checklist, a lot faster than Twilight could have created one.
Fluttershy hooved it over to Celly, and excitedly waited a response. The alicorn would glance from the paper to the happily waiting pegasus, with an expression most ponies would have towards a beehive they'd accidently knocked over. 'Do I walk away slowly, or run like Nightmare Moon is after me?'
"Fluttershy," Rainbow said carefully, "You're scaring her."
"Really?" Fluttershy asked as she turned the 'too much enthusiasm for one pony' gaze on Rainbow Dash.
Celly took the break and made some notes, then floated the paper to Fluttershy.
"Kuvasz, that must be a human word, but it's next to dog, so maybe it's a breed," Fluttershy said, "I've never heard of that breed of dog."
"Maybe somebody can help us figure it out," Rainbow said, and grinned nervously as Fluttershy and Celly stared at her.
"It's perfect!" Discord shouted happily, "I mean other than Wainbro Crash thinking of it."
"I can think of several major problems right off the bat," Tom replied.
"Bat away, Bat Man," Discord said.
"Nightmare self-identifies as female. So you really mean to make her the Big Guy's -?"
"Exactly!" Discord said happily.
"Okay, I should have seen that coming, two, she's a shapechanger, and while not strong enough to face us in our native form. Without the Alicorn Amulet backing us, we have no chance forcing her to stay in one form."
Discord snapped his fingers, and caught one of the cherry pies raining from the sky. "Child's play."
"A child would have included the ice cream," Tom countered and put up an umbrella.
"Nightmare, she's still a coward, and if she knows that Celestia and Luna are gunning for her, she's not going to advertise. Besides, I have a wonderful idea. The Kuvasz is a guard dog, designed to look like a sheep. So as not to disturb the sheep, and to not tip off the wolves. Even I wouldn't be so cruel as to fail to give Nightmare an ace in the hole."
"Okay, three, a large powerful dog, surrounded by sleeping ponies?" Tom asked.
"Her master will be the one who rescued her from Bergen-Belsen," Discord replied, "Next."
"Last," Tom said, "How are you going to keep Celestia and Luna from coming after her anyway?"
"We make sure they understand that she's the Big Guy's -"
"Thank you," Tom said.
Discord pouted. "You really want to keep that 'Everyone' rating, don't you."
"Some people already think we lost it. But most of them are old enough to get the jokes," Tom replied, "We still have to find him, or a big enough piece of him to interact with."
"That's easy." Discord whipped out a stick. "I have this."
"Aren't you going to ask what it is?" Discord asked.
"No," Tom replied remarkably flatly for someone who was a sphere.
"Come on, ask," Discord said.
"Aren't you the least bit curious?" Discord said in a wheedling tone.
"Come on, ask," Discord said.
"Fade to black," Tom replied.
"That's not fair!" Discord shouted. "HEY! That's not what the stick is for!" he yelped.
Glory opened the letter which the pegasus in royal gear had dropped off. It was addressed to her, from the 'Office of the Chief Cabinet Secretary' undersigned by 'with consultation by the Seneschal of her Solar and Lunar Highnesses' her uncle's most formal titles.
She opened the letter as if it might explode.
While I am concerned by your lack of progress, you forget that you've only been at this a few days. Generating a clientele takes weeks if not months. I was preparing to consult with members of the other governments on your behalf, when a matter of even graver concern and greater interest came upon us. One you are well aware of, but not the wider ramification, and perhaps not the opportunities presented.
The other governments are appalled by this failing of pony decency. While their pleas are falling on deaf, royal ears, and they are having trouble coordinating their alternatives, they are pressing a case that the Big Guy should be put under international supervision. Despite the obvious fact that he already is and it did not influence events as they'd hoped.
Consultation with experts from other governments revealed their biases and advice on the subject. More on that later. To the immediate problem. While it is in some ways reassuring that such a potent destructive force has behaved so scrupulously in no small part due to his own morals and inclinations, but also from his severe worries about what the Diarchs will do to him should he misstep. This may have been quite useful in the past, and may prove so again in the future. To deny the basic rights of self-defense is to invite a disaster exactly as occurred. And will invite similar problems in the short and long term. I doubt the Diarchs meant to expand their protection of the ponies this far. Although they may have, but hoped the ponies would not 'use a shield as a sword'. As this has transparently turned out to be not the case, there remains a tempestuous effort to mitigate the damage. None of the 'pony-centric' methods: medical, social or political will work. The similar solutions put forth by dragon, griffon and diamond dog 'experts' travel the spectrum from ludicrous to bizarre. None of which are of any help to our sovereigns, who are staking the claim to the responsibility and thus basing their claim to retaining guardianship. The other nations feel, rightly or wrongly, that while the Equestrian policy was correct, when a potential enemy acts in a more civilized fashion than the 'innocent civilians' being protected from that enemy, something has gone seriously wrong and a change in superintendence.
This has also convinced the local factions to up their rhetoric about their Highnesses moving him to a more secure location. I believe it would again require Discord's active cooperation to achieve that feat.
Simply, you have now been thrust into the front lines of a diplomatic contest, both internationally and internally with no clear idea of who is on your side at any given moment. His household seems to be your only steadfast allies in this, as they are desirous of his health and welfare, with actual knowledge of his tastes, habits, and needs. As government policy may change, and communications can be tampered with, I'm sending this now. Follow the advice of his household, and your own conscience. While I may have to transmit orders I think are horribly unwise, you are an independent command. Captain Armor is not in your chain of command in this. Technically, you report to my office, but only in an advisory capacity. The Diarchs can issue orders, but their interactions have met with a near unbroken string of disasters. So look to the ends they are demanding, not the means they are offering. Take their orders as mission orders rather than tactical orders.
There are rumors that Princess Buttercup and Major Grass Lights have had an early and unauthorized end to their medical observation. Be careful, they are not likely to be willing to 'spare' ponies who have 'fallen under his influence'. I'm afraid that as it stands, your charge will be unable or unwilling to defend himself with the ruthlessness needed. Then it will fall to you to fill that gap. This is a resource we were fortunate to get, and can never replace. While sharing it with our neighbors is being a good steward, protecting that asset is standing government policy at all levels. I say again, at all levels.
Good Luck and My Love, your Uncle.'
Glory sighed. The Princesses' advice can't be trusted, communications are compromised, and a big batch of soldiers working for who knows whom are likely on their way here. As well as commando teams from the other nations. And all I asked about was getting him to eat our food, she thought, Lovely.
"Bonbon," Stardust Sprinkle said as she walked from the restaurant where she and some of the others in the group had just finished lunch. It took the mare a moment to realize just how serious Bonbon was being, and that Lyra was a short distance away, out of earshot. "Keeping secrets from your lover? I have no secrets from my friends." She gestured to the group with her.
"I take it you received the lecture from Sparkle that we all did," Bonbon said, her tone flat, her expression neutral.
"All her speculation about the Poison Joak only changing his form? That mind control wasn't really part of the powers. You were there, why do you ask?" Stardust Sprinkle said.
"I just wanted to know what you thought of it," Bonbon's near monotone was beginning to worry Stardust Sprinkle.
"I think it's like a lot of her speculations, pure twaddle that makes her feel better. I mean, she caused enough disasters with her magic and craziness, it's no wonder her Highness had to lock her away from all the other ponies while she was growing up." Stardust Sprinkle giggled, and so did some of the others.
Bonbon didn't join them. "It wasn't speculation. It was word for word what Princess Celestia told her. And if the Princess knew what Poison Joak did, I think the rest of what Twilight repeated can be taken for Gospel Truth," Bonbon said, she sounded bored now, and her expression seemed to be dragging all the ponies towards it. Her eyes didn't show anger, but she seemed like the sky before a storm. "Did you look at his Cutie Mark? No, too busy looking near it. It was a mirror, with a heart looking into it and a pony reflected in the glass. I talked with others, the few who bothered to look saw a pony rather similar to themselves. Just like every pony saw the most appealing coloring, mane and tail styling, and heard the most appealing voice," Bonbon said, "Just like what the Princess said through Twilight. He appeared as the most beautiful Alicorn anypony could imagine, and that magnificence and splendor alone brought out our innermost nature. Inspiration, like breathing on embers and driving them alight. But the embers had to be there in the first place. Imagine, all of us stripped bare of pretense and external inhibitions. Burning only with our own internal fires. Neighzsche's Supermare, a pony bound only by her internal rules. Governed by her drives alone."
Stardust Sprinkle was shivering at the implications. The quavering of the others was not helping her concentrate.
Bonbon didn't relent. "I'm not exactly proud of how I acted. But we certainly saw what you were, stripped to your core and driven to act on what was there. I'm just curious about one thing. Did you want him gone, because you were afraid he'd entice you to abandon your husband and foals if he smiled at you? You supported us so you wouldn't be tempted?" Bonbon asked, her voice and expression full of sympathy as Stardust Sprinkle felt her guts twist into knots and her head whirl like a windmill, "Don't worry. When I did talk to him, he values loyalty and friendship almost as much as we say we do. But he really believes it. As for you being so ravishing he couldn't keep his eyes off you, he's been saying 'no' to a teen-aged Celestia, who's daily flowering into an evermore gorgeous mare and still has all the stallion-craziness of a teenager. And the 'noes' just keep coming. After that little incident, I doubt he'd look at you or anypony with anything other than fear and disgust for quite a long time. I'm sure 'Celly' will want to thank you properly for that, someday. But don't worry about that either. Letting you live, everypony knowing what you are inside, should be punishment enough for any pony." Bonbon walked away.
Stardust Sprinkle heard the others drifting away as she stood and shivered. Looking into herself and seeing what she had been willing to do. And seeing her family, who she knew she would have abandoned for a better, more interesting stallion. She shook her head in mute denial of the facts, but she knew they were true. That she'd been who she truly was, not who she had been afraid of becoming, but who she knew she was deep inside. Worse, she'd been shouting orders to the others, not even risking her own skin to get close.
"No," she said softly, before she broke down and cried.
"You aren't normally one for the spa," Lyra said quietly as she walked beside Bonbon.
She destroyed Stardust, but she looks like she got the worst of it, Lyra thought as she looked over her marefriend's downcast and hopeless expression.
"It's a compromise. I really want to scrub myself off with steel wool. But you'd never let me do that, so this is an alternative," Bonbon said as she walked, plodding along one hoof in front of the other.
"You didn't do anything wrong," Lyra said, and found herself facing a furious Bonbon. She took a step back.
"Not you too. Yes, we all did something wrong. We didn't learn from our past mistakes. We didn't let him tell us what he wanted, and we didn't listen when he tried. We insisted on beating him into 'proper pony behavior', despite there not being one kind of pony behavior. Pinkie Pie and Twilight are both ponies, and there's not much similarity there. Mainly, I was blind to the flaws of my fellow conspirators, and I was insanely jealous of someone who I thought was taking you away from me, but would have welcomed me in with open arms if I'd just asked to be let in." Bonbon was crying now, despite her furious expression and defiant stance. "So don't excuse it all away. I want to make good for what I've done and grow beyond it, not make excuses for it."
"Bonbon," Lyra said as she nuzzled her marefriend, "I apologize, I didn't think."
"And there's been too much of that going on around here," Bonbon said through her sniffles. "We have to stop it, or there's only going to be more misery."
"Okay." Lyra led her towards the spa, glancing back occasionally as her friend trudged along.
"Did you find anything?" Discord asked Tom. He could sense his counterpart was not sulking, but profoundly reticent for some other reason. "Well, how about a piece big enough to talk to?"
"That I can honestly say no to," Tom replied.
"But you found something?" Discord asked as he leaned close to Tom, "Something we can't walk to?"
"Sawhorse, ropes," Tom said, "Celestia, Luna, Cadence, Twilight, Pinkie, Stardust and others, as stallions, lots of whimpering and tearing sounds. Happy?"
Discord straightened up. "I think I can imagine it," Discord said woodenly, "Thank you. Weren't you the one who wanted to keep the 'Everyone' rating?"
"Let the kids think he was losing at limbo dancing under the sawhorse and torn a hamstring," Tom said.
"Yes, those would accomplish the same things," Discord said and shuddered. "Okay, with that happy thought, shall we continue the search?"
"You could try and take control of his body, and at least simulate that there was an active mind in here," Tom said.
"So could you," Discord replied.
"I could, but that would be more your speed," Tom said, "I'd prefer a sportier model."
"If I did it long enough to get the Alicorn Amulet, we could be more help in fostering his recovery," Discord said and clapped his hands, "Okay! Where's the owner's manual?"
"He doesn't have one," Tom replied.
"Well, then I can't do it," Discord replied.
"But nobody reads the manual," Tom said.
"I have to be different," Discord said. He took a haughty pose. "It's also necessary so I don't break him any worse than he is." He bent over Tom, rubbed his hands together and grinned. "After all, I could just walk him out of the hospital, apparently back home, and take a little detour to the stairway to Celestia's quarters, except take the stairway down."
He let Tom shiver with the thought of what would happen from that meeting.
"I almost think he's in the right state of mind to survive that. No one would be crazy enough to go in there, so they probably don't have the door barricaded, or nailed shut, or covered over with a foot of steel-reinforced concrete," Discord said.
"And just think how the others will react to finding him down there," Tom said.
"Too cruel, let's think of something else," Discord said. "I hate the idea that something could ever be too chaotic!"
"Life-affirming chaos," Tom said, "Remember. That would be hard to overdose on. Friends stopping by with soup, getting a house-trained puppy to brighten your day, random acts of kindness. That kind of thing. Much harder to reach the saturation with that."
"Yes, I suppose, it's just that," Discord trailed off.
"Yes?" Tom asked.
"It's just not amusing anymore. Not that it's boring, boring I could handle. It's just not fun," Discord said as if admitting a terrible personal problem.
"Dodge City," Trixie announced as she climbed down off the top of her wagon, and plucked the arrow out of her hat. She knocked on the side of the wagon. "It's safe to come out." She smirked at that. For all his usually hidden good points, he was still a terrible coward.
"Sorry," Blueblood in disguise said quietly, "I'm afraid my early conditioning still gets the better of me."
"Not a problem," Trixie said and grinned, "Nice to know you have weak points."
She paid off the pegasi who'd brought them here, and tipped the guards who'd been 'included' in the fee. "Thanks. Somebody needs to send an army in there and clean up."
"Got one to spare?" one of the guards asked.
"If I could teach him to fly, I think I may just have one," Trixie replied. They shared a chuckle before she walked back to Blueblood, who looked like he'd seen a ghost. "Trouble?" she asked and stared at the stallion and mare who were walking across the street into the best hotel in town. Trixie and Blueblood were in the far more modest one.
"Not for us, but I may have to make it mine," Blueblood said, and sighed, "I need a huge favor, and it might be expensive."
"I'm not killing them," she said.
"No, I need to rent a hall, and get some rather expensive cider. For probably thirty to sixty ponies," he said.
"Who are they?" Trixie asked of the pair as they entered the hotel.
"Major Grass Light and Princess Buttercup, two rather quiet but active opponents of 'the current administration'," Blueblood explained.
"For your family, or some other faction?" Trixie asked.
Blueblood snorted. "They never stayed loyal to any one faction long enough to really form bonds. More like a 'lets you and him fight', while they steadily advanced their position." He chuckled. "Until they ran into someone with a vendetta for their trickery, who proceeded to kick them to the curb and stomp on them. Back to square one. I'm almost glad they don't believe in the magic of friendship."
"Sounds like that's going to happen again," Trixie said, "Say, I happen to know of a forest that needs cleaning. You don't suppose they'd give up their political ambitions, for a little actually benefitting people?"
Blueblood smiled. "Yes, that would be a better idea than letting them flop around loose. I'm going to have to ask you to play my leimare, for a little while."
" 'Leimare'? That's the fanciest term I've ever heard for a painted pony. Just how dumb am I going have to be?" Trixie asked.
"Dumber than I'm supposed to be," Blueblood said.
"Minxie's not dumb! Momma said Minxie's sharp as a top!" Trixie said in a filly-like voice.
"That just might do it, although Princess Buttercup may require a different handling," Blueblood said.
"I don't think I'd want to handle her without a waterproof bodysuit," Trixie said, "Her, I've her of."
"Do tell," Blueblood said as he pulled the wagon to the lot outside their hotel.
Dinky tried to keep her head up, but it seemed to be magnetized to the ground. She kept winding up staring closely at the dirt. She'd walked this path to school so many times before, but today felt different. She'd checked with the hospital, there'd been no change. She couldn't sleep on his feet, and she had the irrational certainty if she could, just for one more night, he'd be better the next morning.
"Well, if it isn't the Ponyville Monster's favorite blank flank," Diamond Tiara said, and Silver Spoon giggled in support.
I don't need this, Dinky Hooves thought as she walked along. She raised her head and spotted Dinky Doo, and the other two 'Dinkies' who looked close enough to her to be siblings, despite having different fathers and mothers. Let's end this before she decides to start treating me the way she treats Applebloom.
"Isn't it sad that your momma had to pick a monster for a daddy," Diamond Tiara said and she snickered with Silver Spoon.
"No," Dinky replied in happier tones than she felt, "I think it's sweet that the 'monster' met me and Dinky Doo, then met my momma and decided to be friends with a lot of ponies."
She gave Diamond Tiara a piercing glare. "What's sad is that as soon as any mare meets you, your daddy can't convince them to be your momma for love or money."
Diamond stepped back as if slapped.
"I've got a nice daddy, who makes my breakfasts, and lunches, and helps me with my school work. And all your daddy's money can't bribe a mare to put up with you. I feel sorry for you, I really do. But it is your fault. Maybe if you weren't so mean, you'd have a momma by now," Dinky Hooves said. She felt Dinky Doo and Silver Spoon staring at her, but she was in no mood to deal with Diamond and her attitude.
Diamond teared up, broke into sobs and ran off. Dinky turned back to the school house and continued walking. The Crusaders and several others were staring wide eyed at Dinky Hooves having sent Diamond Tiara off crying.
"That was harsh," Dinky Doo said, and looked at Dinky Hooves worriedly.
"My daddy taught me that if you start a fight, be ready to finish it. He's started a couple, like with that plant in the Everfree, but he finished it. I finished this one. If none of the adults care what Diamond said and does, then we have to deal with her," Dinky said to Dinky Doo.
"Didn't say I didn't like watching it," Dinky Doo said, "I just said it was harsh."
Dinky nodded. Nobody picks on my momma or my daddy, she thought.
Spike was getting worried. Normally, Twilight would have been up and active long before now. Also, Mystery and Sveti were still in their room, either talking low enough the privacy screens prevented eavesdropping, or both were like Twilight, lying in bed wide-awake but uninterested in joining the rest of the world.
"Twilight?" Spike asked as he walked up to his friend with a thermos of tea and a few treats on a tray.
"Hi Spike," the unicorn lay on her back, the translation matrix hovering over her head, but it was more an exercise of her powers than something she was actively studying.
"Spike, what happened? What the princess said about the effects just bringing out who we really were. I just sat like a lump, thinking, even Applejack was more direct than I was."
"My heart belongs to Rarity," he said, to derail the chance of the conversation going that way. "Everypony in town was addled by him, well, all the girls were. It might have been funny, in retrospect, if Celestia had sailed in to help, or Luna, or both." He chuckled.
Twilight showed her first signs of getting out of her funk, by glaring at him.
"I said in retrospect, but with Rarity doing the gowns, Applejack the food, Pinkie organizing the party after the wedding, maybe a Sonic Rainbow right after the 'I do's, and you of course as best mare. The whole thing would have all of Canterlot talking for years."
"Spike, that's a wonderful idea," Cadence said as she and Shining Armor walked up the steps to Twilight's room.
"Sunshine, sunshine, ladybugs awake. Slap you hooves and do a little shake." Both Twilight and Cadence laughed at the exchange.
Armor and Spike just grinned.
"What are you doing here?" Twilight asked, and looked at Spike.
"Not me," he held up his hands and said, "I was looking forward to a quiet day."
"Mystery asked us to help Sveti. It turns out she's even worse off than most of the ponies," Cadence said.
"Can I help?" Twilight asked eagerly.
"Well, I wouldn't want to take you away from studying your ceiling," Cadence said as she 'deeply' considered, "Looked pretty important. Might even lead to a new religion. Oh Great Ceiling."
"Cadence!" Twilight protested.
"Okay, just this once," Cadence said. She winked at Armor, who nodded.
Grass Light hadn't expected a message, nor an invitation for his entire group, but he took it in stride.
"Aren't you expecting a trap?" Princess Buttercup asked, her voice trembling almost as much as her body.
Much as Grass Light hated the fawning coward, she was his paymaster. For now, he thought, Unless this is a better offer.
"I don't think whomever delivered this would have let it be seen being delivered unless it was on the up and up," he said, "Besides, I have a reinforced platoon of soldiers, they wouldn't be on the invitation list to an ambush, unless there's a battalion of troops in town we haven't noticed."
"Yes, well, Celestia has eyes everywhere," Buttercup whispered, as if they were even now being spied on.
"Then why would she invite us to one place? Why not pick us off in small groups while we were scattered throughout town?" he asked.
She nodded. Then headed to her closet to find something appropriate to wear.
I like the idea of changing allegiance, he thought, At least I will be rid of 'the cookie monster'.
Rarity paged languidly through the book. The elegant creatures and their elaborate costumes still drew her admiration, but she had the images of the magnificent stallion she'd seen cluttering her mind. Something prevented her from capturing anything but the most disappointing slivers of the creature's magnificence on paper. A dozen sheets of paper with half-finished diagrams, enough for an entire new season, littered the table and the floor.
They just aren't right! she thought angrily, I saw him, drank in the very sight of him. Why can't I capture that on paper?
She tried again, referencing the book, and began sketching. After a few minutes, she stopped. She sighed and set the paper beside the others. "Maybe I shouldn't be so critical," Rarity said, "Twilight did tell us that he revealed our innermost nature and desires. I guess I should treat that as a paragon to aspire too, rather than a goal I can achieve."
She spread the drawing over the table and began collecting sections and segments into another drawing. As she worked, her smile grew. Then she grinned as she made another drawing based on the Big Guy's almost militant austerity, and found her muse was flowing onto the paper in a much more satisfactory manner.
"Oh, he'll love this," she thought happily. "Oh, so will Starlit Circlet, such power on such an ungarnished frame."
I wonder if I should send him the designs? she wondered, then chuckled, then it hit her, I'm thinking of flirting with another stallion, and one so, so, so. She grabbed several sheets of paper and simply let the designs flow onto the paper. Thank you, thank you, thank you, she thought, then laughed, Oh I hope no one heard that. They won't stop running until they hit the ocean.
Spike closed the door and began tiptoeing back to the library. "No luck, Rarity is, ah, busy," he reported upon his return.
Twilight rolled her eyes and knocked on the door to the griffins' lair. "We are here to help."
Mystery stuck his head out, but held the door partially closed. "You and Armor are fine. Princess Cadence will have to stay out. I apologize, I'll explain later, but I have to insist."
"I'll check on Fluttershy and Applejack," Cadence said, "I'll be back later."
Armor frowned but nodded.
"Spike would you like to come with?" Cadence asked.
"Would I!" Spike said and jogged over. Cadence lifted him onto her back. Once outside she extended her wings and took to the air.
"What say we buzz Rainbow Dash before we head to Fluttershy's?" Cadence said and laughed.
"He's shooting at us!" Tom screamed as he took cover, "He's really shooting at us!"
"This is just training," Discord said from the pit behind the rifle targets, "Of course considering how those idiots are shooting, you would have been just as safe right at the bull's eye."
"So what do we do?" Tom asked.
"I think this is like a cinema. A replayed memory," Discord said, "We might want to wait a bit, then go watch. But I don't think we can talk to him at this point."
"So we look somewhere else?" Tom asked.
Someone called and all the firing ceased. "Let's go." Discord flew out of the pit as the troops changed the targets out. Tom followed.
There was a big man with three chevrons, yelling at everyone. And a saturnine stoic with two chevrons who'd been taking some of the mediocre shots aside and drilling them very differently. A teen-aged version of the Big Guy was in this other group.
Discord and Tom watched the Big Guy fumble through the drills initially, and they left the area.
"I already know how that story comes out," Discord said, but still tried to give '3 chevrons' a wedgie, to no avail.
The distraught griffon staring out of the pile of pillows had little resemblance to the proud spy who'd arrived so recently. "You don't understand what an Alicorn means to the griffons," Sveti said miserably.
"While you ponies preach peace, love and tolerance, we knew what the Windingos did in your home, and we knew you were the source. We also knew you'd 'awakened' Discord, but not how you'd done it. Or why," Mystery explained, "We were very forceful in saying 'no ponies here' at our borders."
Twilight stared in stunned amazement. "I've never read that anywhere!"
"Because we were very good at sending the message diplomatically, and then hunting down and eating any interlopers who passed the borders after the warning to turn back," Mystery said.
Twilight squirmed at that.
"I've read the history of that time," Armor said, "But that ended when Celestia arrived."
"It ended earlier than that," Mystery said as he laid down near Sveti. The distraught griffon crawled up next to him. "With the arrival of another Alicorn."
"Princess Luna?" Twilight asked. Her ears folded back against her head at the mirthless chuckles of two griffons. "Nightmare Moon."
"Your chronicles don't tell much about what Nightmare did before she started attacking the ponies," Mystery said, "But she went after all the other races first. Maybe Luna was trying to control what she was becoming, and trying to stay loyal to her sister's desires. But what Nightmare Moon did to the griffon nobles enabled the formation of a single griffon nation out of the tribes. Because she slaughtered 90% of the competitors to the throne, and she gave the survivors a reason to unify: they had to prevent the murder of criminal invaders/pony interlopers. So when Celestia arrived to 'negotiate', we already knew we had a knife at our throat."
"So, Celestia's bringing peace and harmony to all the races of Equestria, was because she was perceived as the velvet glove on Nightmare Moon's iron fist," Armor said. He glanced at Twilight. "There are some history books you haven't had access to. Because Celestia didn't know that when she first went to the other races. She thought she was negotiating in good faith, and with great skill."
"But she was coming in after a massacre and threats had already been exchanged," Twilight said, "No wonder the Princesses hate Nightmare so much. But Nightmare's an idiot, where'd she come up with, oh that's where she got the plan. Princess Luna."
Armor and Mystery nodded.
"And don't think we didn't celebrate when Nightmare finally turned on you ponies," Sveti said, "We figured you deserved it. Once the velvet glove put the iron fist down, we basically decided to have little to nothing to do with you ponies. The odd ambassador, a spy or technical mission, but there's no reciprocation. There's no pony embassy in griffon, dragon, zebra territories or even Saddle Arabia. We don't want you, your problems, or your attitudes in our territories, and a thousand years of diplomacy by Celestia hasn't changed that. Everyone comes to Canterlot, not because it's the center, but because we don't want ponies in our lands."
"While all that is, educational," Twilight managed, "What does that have to do with you?"
"The Alicorn is a death god: an indiscriminate slayer of the skilled and powerful. The ultimate hammer to beat down those who'd rise above the ponies. Suddenly, we have someone, who isn't dreading Celestia for 'exceeding' you ponies. Who has bested Nightmare Moon and even Discord. Keeps Celestia dancing around in fear and confusion. Exactly the person we need to overthrow 'the Solar Tyrant', at least in our minds," Sveti explained as if each word were physically painful to say, and was being dragged from her. She stared at Twilight and the mare drew back. "What nearly happened to him, I expected would happen to me, from the Alicorn male. That he would do that to me. Worse, I welcomed it, if it would save my people, he could destroy me. I was too clever, stuck above what was an `acceptable` level for griffons." Sveti burst out sobbing. Mystery turned to cradle her head on his shoulder.
Twilight shifted uneasily from foot to foot as she listened to the griffon's tears. She glanced at her brother who seemed ashamed that he was intruding.
"But you were as taken with him as everypony else was," Armor said, and seemed ashamed for having said it. "You'd fallen not only for the 'death god', but for him as a male. And when he didn't take advantage."
Sveti managed to nod, but kept crying.
"He wouldn't have hurt you," Fluttershy said.
The two unicorns turned to stare at the pegasus.
"When did you come in?" Armor asked.
"A bit ago. That sound like what that meanie Nightmare would do. Hurting Princess Celestia, by using Princess Luna," Fluttershy said and approached the two griffons. "He wasn't ignoring you. He just didn't want to hurt you," she said, "And now he needs you." She gently nosed the griffon. "He doesn't like hurting people who haven't hurt him. He likes protecting them."
Sveti nodded tearfully. "How can I help?" she asked.
Fluttershy looked away. "I don't know, I was hoping you did, I'm sorry."
Grass Light and Buttercup arrived at the bar and looked around. "Blueblood," he said and shook his head, "I thought you got exiled after your little stint on the throne."
"I did go overboard a little," the foppish prince admitted, "But, all the power," he exulted, "All the responsibility," he whined. "It just got to me," he whined some more. "Well, that's neither here nor there. There are sandwiches and cider for you and your troops." Blueblood gestured at the spread set out on the tables. The troops descended on it like a pack of ants at a picnic. Blueblood walked over to a table set up with its own platter of sandwiches, and a pony keg of cider.
Grass Light frowned but led Buttercup after Blueblood. Waiting at the table, and waiting on them was a piece of fluff who looked as dumb as Blueblood's usual dollies.
"You go upscale enough that this one can actually talk without a running start?" Grass Light asked and ignored the glare from Princess Buttercup.
"She can talk." Blueblood pulled a chair away from the table for Buttercup, but didn't hold it for her. Grass Light took the seat nearest the cider, to Blueblood's irritation. He grinned a challenge at the fop, who looked uncomfortable and took a seat opposite.
Buttercup and Grass Light grinned at discomfiting the arrogant, 'imperial' stallion.
"I don't know if you've been keeping up with the events surrounding the Ponyville Monster," Blueblood said, "But a recent disaster has made the other nations sit up and take notice. Mumsy has decided that it would do all of us good to quiet any internal squabbling about his disposition, until the external questions have been answered and it's announced he'll be staying in Equestria."
Grass Light smiled. So the other nations are interested, that opens a lot of doors, he thought, How does that brain manage to generate enough power to keep his legs moving? He took a healthy swig of cider and appreciated the rich flavor.
"And where does she get the horsepower to think she can bring all the factions in line?" Buttercup asked, and took a sip of the cider and a nibble of a sandwich as she floated it by. "If the other factions bend their necks to her once, some might think she had the power to make it happen again."
"I think she was attempting to appeal to your patriotism," Blueblood said, as if trying to remember the words of a script. "After all, it benefits us all, doesn't it?" He glanced to his girl, nervously. She just shrugged.
Okay, she's not his control, Grass Light thought, Just a local bimbo. And he put her out of his mind.
"After all, the factions would have to agree," Blueblood added, looking at the two with fear in his eyes.
Grass Light drained the cider and poured himself another. He grudgingly poured one for Buttercup, but ignored Blueblood's hopeful expression.
"Why should we grant your mommy an advantage? If it looks like she's the one who's going to cost Equestria, someone else can pick up the pieces," Buttercup said, "Besides, we could just collect him ourselves. If we already have him, that would give us the advantage in any negotiation."
Or let us sell him to someone else, Grass Light thought.
"Your loyalty to Equestria should outweigh your loyalty to your faction. Even if you win, you'll still need what he can give us," Blueblood lectured.
Grass Light and Princess Buttercup just grinned at his naivety. Blueblood's ears folded sideway in perplexity and defeat. The two chuckled at his distress.
"So, I can't ask you nicely to do as I ask?" Blueblood asked.
The pair chuckled at him.
"Sorry, punk," Grass Light said.
Blueblood looked imploringly at Buttercup. "Your loyalty to our people, unicorns or Equestrians?" he practically whimpered.
Buttercup shook her head, and drank the last of her cider. Among the troops they'd finished off the cider and the sandwiches. "We're done here," Buttercup told him coldly.
Blueblood sighed. "Mumsy will be so disappointed. Oh I guess that's why she had me poison the cider."
Grass Light had a glimpse of one of his officer freezing as he held the open keg over his mouth to get the last drop out.
"It's a very interesting poison!" Blueblood said with enthusiasm, "It comes in two parts. Since both are harmless on their own, they are completely undetectable, and altogether immune to neutralization by magic."
Grass Light felt his guts grow cold as he realized neither Blueblood, nor his floozy, had touched the cider. Not a drop, he thought, Did he know we'd never share it with him? No, he's an errand boy. But someone else set up a good errand.
"Oh, well you probably don't care about that," he admitted with embarrassment and shuffled his forehooves.
"I think I can stand to hear a little more," Buttercup said woodenly.
Blueblood brightened immediately. "Oh, we'll, your brain has a lot of fat in it. Mumsy says mine's mostly fat, but the poison gets in there, stays for years, waiting for the second half. The second half of the poison gets in. The two parts race through your brain. You'll live, probably." Blueblood ran a hoof over Buttercup's skull. "It concentrates where magic manipulation is strongest. Flight for pegasi, around the horn for unicorns. You'll live, but you might as well be an earth pony, and a weak one at that. You might live, but you might as well be dead." He grew serious. "The cider contained the first half."
"Why?" Buttercup asked, looking to the troops moving towards the table. To a pony, they were as uncertain as she and Grass Light were.
Blueblood stomped the table. "To guarantee your cooperation," Blueblood thundered. He sat back and grinned at them. "And sooner or later, you would do it to mumsy and me. Poor mumsy had to put up with my fascination with ancient history, I was so proud that she found something useful in all my studying. In ancient times, we could use our control of the sunlight to beat the earth ponies. But the pegasi, those militaristic brutes, needed something to terrify them and their 'honor code', since they didn't fear death." He squealed happily. "Since we're returning to the old ways, I'm so happy to help mumsy. She'll be so proud of me."
"What do you want me, us to do?" Buttercup asked.
The pretense of joy and childlike innocence vanished, the anger that remained might have been childish, but it was cold. "You have encouraged that fool," Blueblood said and nodded to Grass Light, "To fight battles that weaken our position. You will now convince him to do something useful. The road to Baltimare needs to be cleared of bandits. You have troops, you will do it. Once you reach Baltimare, you will remain there, unless you hear otherwise. And you will have nothing more to do with the Ponyville Monster." Blueblood looked at Grass Light with undisguised hatred.
That's not the hatred of a child, the unicorn realized. Grass Light only relaxed when the gaze swept the room. Hardened troopers drew back at that gaze. Then it settled again on Buttercup, who shied at it.
"If any of you do not comply with these orders," Blueblood said coldly, "One of my mother's agents will introduce all of you to the other half of the poison." He stood up out of the chair. "Good day to you all. You have work to do. Don't let me keep you."
His bit of fluff fell in with him and the pair passed through the horrified troops. Grass Light looked at the empty mug in front of him. He stared at it for quite a while.
"Remind me to never get you angry at me," Trixie said after they'd passed out of sight of the bar. Trixie returned to her normal coloration, mane and tail-style.
"I would give you the same 'do it for friendship', and 'do it for Equestria' steps, and you'd do it for one of them," Blueblood returned to his disguise's colors and accent.
"Do you know what they'll do to them in Baltimare to find that poison? Good as the Canterlot alchemists are, the ones in Baltimare make them look like puling infants," Trixie warned.
"A good thing there's no poison then. I'd hate to have them find something," Blueblood said. He smiled. "I stole it from something the Big Guy was watching, and laughing about. Him trying to explain it was almost as funny, but well worth it."
"Wait. This wasn't your mother's plan, and there is no poison. So if they quiz your mother, she'll correctly deny everything. When will you tell her, or anyone?" Trixie asked.
"Never. We take that secret to our graves, or if the Big Guy dies," Blueblood said, "Those clods won't keep the search or the instigator, my mom, secret. So she'll suddenly have lots of influence, and no idea why. She's not someone who can adjust her plans. So the whole thing will hold together long enough for Celestia to keep the Big Guy in his home, then the nobles will infight to such a degree she'll be justified in doing nothing."
"And no one will ever realize you're the one behind it all," Trixie said, "How can you stand it?"
"Imagine having to perform, but every standing ovation meant someone with a club was waiting for you in your dressing room, and every 'boo' meant a lecture when all you want is to rest. You'd learn to give a performance that leaves everyone between vaguely pleased to vaguely unhappy. This is the same. If I show skill or cleverness, then I get dragged deeper into the mess I don't believe in. If I'm useless, then they leave me alone. If these idiots relate that I pulled the stunt, I reply that I had a letter from mumsy that I destroyed after memorizing or copying down important details. Then they go look for who could copy my mom's horn writing. And I get to go off and do what I want. Sure it stinks as a life, but it's better than the alternative." He looked at her intently. "You're free, in ways I can only dream of being."
Trixie shook her head. "Well, I hope you've saved some for the performance tonight." she said.
"Of course," he replied and smiled.
Applebloom walked into the boutique with Sweetie Belle.
"Ah good, Applebloom, Sweetie Belle, I'm so glad you could make it. We have a little problem, or our friend has a little problem," Rarity said.
Behind her, Fluttershy waved nervously. The pegasus gave Rarity a worried glance, but tried to keep smiling.
"You see, all the medical people are saying the Big Guy needs to feel safe, but how does someone who can march into the middle of the Everfree Forest to fight an ancient, plant monster feel unsafe? Then I decided I didn't need to understand the problem of how he feels unsafe, but how to make him feel safe." Rarity pulled the design sheet off the table and proudly displayed it.
Sweetie Belle groaned. "Why didn't we think of that?" she demanded.
"Now girls, Fluttershy and I will need your help," Rarity said. "We'll need to complete these designs as soon as possible. Better they be ready and fitted before he's released from the hospital."
"You, really want my help?" Sweetie Belle asked.
"Oh course, dear," Rarity said and nuzzled her little sister. "The rest of us will be so busy with our part of the project, we won't be able to keep track of the whole thing." Rarity led Sweetie Belle over to an easel. She flipped the cover up and displayed the image. "Your job will be to help us keep track of what we've accomplished."
"Okay! I'm the boss," Sweetie Belle said, then looked at Rarity's elegantly upraised eyebrow. "You're the boss, I keep track of the work."
Rarity nodded. "It's a very important job."
Sweetie Belle gave a determined look and nodded.
"Very good, now, here's where we start," Rarity said and led them into the fabric storage.
Nurse Redheart never expected to be accosted with one of the ruling Diarchs. She only realized it was 'Woona' after a few moments of the mini-Diarch shouting excitedly in a completely unintelligible language and waving around several legal pads full of old-style script, and several books that from their incomprehensible titles had to come from the Big Guy's library.
"I don't understand," she admitted.
The mini-Diarch facehooved. She held up one pad and one book. The title on the pad read 'Surviving Post Traumatic Stress Disorder', implying that the title of the book was the same.
"Oh good grief," Redheart said, she gestured. "Follow me." She trotted to the doctor who ran the counseling department. "Doctor, you aren't going to believe this," Redheart said as she entered.
"This is Ponyville, right now I'd believe anything," the harried young stallion said as he looked up from the table covered with open medical journals and textbooks all on the subject of his rather intense research.
"How about textbooks on the subject?" Redheart said, "With translations?"
The stack of books, and the stack of notes landed gently among the collection of fruitless research.
"By all that's dear, I hope this isn't a dream," the doctor said and began paging through the notes. Making notes himself on the pads of paper he'd been working on.
Woona was grinning so hard a stiff breeze might have blown the top of her head off.
Redheart grabbed a blank piece of paper. 'Stay here with the doctor, I'll send a note to the Princesses,' Redheart wrote and showed it to Woona.
'Thank you, I'm glad I could help', appeared over Woona's head in Equestrian script.
Redheart headed out to the nurses' station. Nurse Tenderheart was gossiping with Nurse Snowheart. "Sometimes I think Twilight Sparkle is right. This place is crazy."
"How so, today?" Snowheart asked, then laughed.
"The Big Guy just happens to have books on the subject," Redheart said, "No wonder Sparkle is so gah-gah to get into that library."
"Let's hope they help," Tenderheart said, "Poor guy's been through enough."
"Falling in love with your patient?" Redheart asked and grinned at Tenderheart's blush.
"Yes, I saw him dash into Rarity's. He was so, beautiful," she said wistfully, "I just wanted to watch him." Tenderheart frowned. "Then Rarity shoved him in a closet and that mob ruined everything. I can't believe they'd be so stupid." She stomped a hoof. "Why didn't they just talk to him? It's not like any of them were in season."
"It's mine, because I saw it first," Snowheart said. "Just remember what your job is. Get him healthy and get him home."
"Don't you wonder?" Tenderheart asked, "What it would be like, to have a stallion like that?"
"Yeah, I'd have to have a platoon of armed guards all the time, male guards, to keep pushy fillies away," Snowheart said, "There's a piece of advice I got when I visited a museum once, and it's stood me in good stead ever since I was a foal."
"That's that?" Redheart asked.
" 'Look but don't touch'," Snowheart replied, "They may want a smile and a hug, but they aren't your's ladies. No matter how bad their mare treats'em. They aren't yours." Snowheart walked away to check on their most notorious patient.
Redheart and Tenderheart nodded.
"I just wonder what happens if some fool tosses a mess of Poison Joak at him," Redheart said.
"They'll be fortunate a hospital is nearby," Tenderheart said.