Clover saw her love for the first time when the world was ending. The wind screamed like a dying animal and froze her tears to her cheeks. She had crossed strange lands and survived impossible odds. She had stood beside Princess Platinum throughout the journey, only to die here, in this forgotten crevice. The rest of their people would die soon after, she knew.
Hope walked in on four legs, bundled in layers of cloth and wool. Something about the set of her jaw brought Clover back to her hooves. Those narrowed eyes reminded her that, certain doom or no, she wasn't dead just yet. Ice and snow piled themselves on the newcomer's cloak, but she plodded forward without a thought for her burden.
The next day, Clover told Princess Platinum that her loyalty to the throne had been enough to overcome the windigos’ hate. The lie burned on her cheeks.
“We should tell the others,” Smart Cookie said. She hated secrets, and if opprobrium was the price of their love, then Clover knew Cookie would pay it without flinching. She never flinched from anything, and that gave Clover the courage to stand up to Princess Platinum for the first time in her life.
On the second day after they defeated the windigos, she had sought out Smart Cookie in the earth pony encampment. Clover told Platinum she was carrying out routine diplomatic duties. She told herself she needed to thank Smart Cookie for her courage on that horrible day. Strictly speaking, neither story was a lie.
They spoke for hours, trading theories of economics, comparing their systems of government, swapping tales of their journeys across the ice, laughing about everything and nothing. Once, Clover made a joke about pegasi, and Cookie's eyes grew hard.
The day after that, Clover told her about growing up at court, using brains and books and a thin claim to noble blood to rise higher and higher, closer to the princess. She talked about fealty and duty and loyalty. For her part, Cookie spoke little. Instead she listened with such intensity that Clover found herself drawn out further and further, telling all about Princess Platinum's favor, Princess Platinum's moods, Princess Platinum's dreams.
Peace and security were fragile things. Dangers loomed, but with help from the newly-minted Sergeant Pansy and the grudging cooperation of their leaders, they put the ghost of Commander Hurricane’s father to rest, built a great wall in time to save their new settlement from stampeding jackalopes, and squelched Bluebelle’s separatists before they could fracture the tribes.
Cookie rarely spoke about her own past. Over time, Clover pried loose tales of harvests won and harvests killed by frost. She learned of six younger brothers and the games they played. She learned of their deaths, one by one by one, in the journey through the ice and cold and dark.
“We should tell the others,” Smart Cookie said, and they did.
Princess Platinum’s anger showed itself in a thousand small ways. Clover was no longer invited to dine with her. The seneschal suddenly had trouble scheduling appointments. Platinum never looked Clover in the face, except when she thought Clover wasn’t watching, and a queer iciness would flash across her eyes.
Clover understood what was happening well enough. A unicorn who loved a hornless pony was barely a unicorn at all. Clover was too important to replace overnight, but she found herself with fewer and fewer responsibilities each week. It was clear where this path would lead.
“It doesn’t matter,” Smart Cookie said over a picnic lunch of strawberries and wild grass. “The first months were the dangerous part. If they want to replace us now, let them. We already did the important work.”
Clover agreed. It was nice to have more time for her research, anyway. Star Swirl’s notes were a hodgepodge of partly-tested spells scattered through reams of fruitless theorizing, a hundred golden needles among a thousand haystacks. She had her laboratory, a thatch cottage away from the city, by the fields where Cookie worked. As the sun went down, Cookie would curl up while Clover pored through spellbooks by candlelight. When the thaumaturgic formulas blurred together, Clover would gaze at Cookie’s sleeping form until the feeling passed, marveling at how she radiated hope even while she slept.
How she watched the sun rise, proud as if she had made it with her own hooves; how she pretended to understand when Clover spoke of spellcraft, matching excitement for excitement until they were bouncing with glee; how she smelled of grass and sweat and home and, somehow, of cinnamon; how she ignored the stares like the trivialities they were; how she cheated at cards, but only when she knew Clover was watching; how she whispered, half-asleep, of the nation they would build.
Even as the tribes chose to forget them, Pansy still relied on them. At her side they signed a pact with the harpy lords and recovered Star Swirl’s journals from a hive of thieving frost goblins. “I don’t know what I’d do without you,” Pansy told them as they delved through the Undercaverns.
From one to another, another to one, the incantation went. Star Swirl’s half-crazed journals circled back to those words again and again. A mark of one’s destiny, singled out alone, fulfilled. The spell was at the heart of everything, but every time she almost had the spell complete, the thaumaturgic strands slipped from her grasp. It was maddening.
“This should work,” Clover said. The spell was clearly based on love—one to another, another to one—but somehow her magic did nothing. “Why doesn’t it work?” If the formulas were right, the spell would transform them into wholly complete beings unlike anything the world had yet seen, and Star Swirl’s formulas were always right.
“Quit your worrying,” said Cookie. “Come here.”
The next day, they were blazing a trail through the forest with Pansy, searching for the Storm Sapphire. Clover was picking her way between gnarled trunks and grasping vines, brushing against Cookie as often as she could, when the cockatrice came upon them. Clover stood transfixed by those horrible eyes and the serpentine body and the tooth-filled beak and the horrible eyes and the batlike wings and the eyes the eyes the eyes the eyes
Then she was in a sunlit courtyard, and Cookie all but melted against her side. Her joyful face was lined with age. A gray-maned Pansy was herding a cockatrice into a sturdy box, making soothing noises all the while.
“How long?” said Clover.
“Fourteen years,” Cookie said through her tears. “I missed you.”
Clover held her, wondering what this meant.
Clover hadn’t aged a day in those fourteen years, but the rest of the world had moved on. The tribes were a single nation in truth as well as in name, and the looks they drew were not quite so hateful. Princess Platinum even visited to welcome Clover back to the realm of the living.
“I know who my true friends are, now,” Clover said, and closed the door in her face.
Cookie had crowded Clover’s books and journals into a corner of their cottage, dust-covered save the spot where Clover had stood, petrified. Cookie’s eyes darted there reflexively every time they walked by.
They put everything back where it belonged. Clover found herself doing most of the lifting. Cookie had always been the spry one, but no longer.
They fell into their old routine. Clover’s research was the same as ever, and if Cookie came in from the fields earlier than before, it only meant they had more time together. They could almost pretend nothing had happened.
From one to another, another to one. If she could just complete the spell, it would restore Cookie’s youth. Clover poured in all her power and experience and love, strength enough to move mountains, but still the magic eluded her. Some crucial piece was missing, and she did not know what.
Princess Platinum sent letters. Clover sent each one back unopened, until finally they stopped.
Everything else went right. She wrote volumes of new spells. The nation grew into something wholesome. Cookie brought in harvest after harvest.
Years passed in happiness. They lived, and grew older.
When Cookie didn’t return, Clover went looking. She found her collapsed in the fields.
The doctors frowned solemnly from Cookie’s bedside. They weren’t sure what the problem was, only that it seemed to be getting worse, not better.
Clover raged silently. Star Swirl’s spell could fix this. If she hadn’t lost fourteen years to a careless mistake, maybe she could have solved it. Maybe she could have made everything better.
“You’re silly,” Cookie said when she told her. “You did everything a pony can do.”
“It’s not fair,” said Clover. “We should’ve had longer together.”
“We should’ve,” said Cookie. “I’d do anything to stay with you. But there’s nothing to do. Promise me you’ll find someone else. I won’t have you living the way I did, when you were gone.”
“I can fix this!” Clover kicked the wall, chipping the wood. “I just need more time to work!”
Cookie blinked. “Time to work. There’s an idea. If you’re working on a cure, I can keep from getting worse, for a while.”
“The same way you did. We need a cockatrice.”
Clover hadn’t been to the forest since her last encounter with a cockatrice, and Cookie made her promise not to look for one alone. She needed help.
“You two are the cleverest ponies I know,” said Pansy, “but right now you’re being too clever for your own good.”
“Please,” said Clover. “It’s her only hope.”
“You’re taking this too far,” said Pansy, and then, “you’re scaring me.”
So Clover swallowed her pride and went to Platinum’s new palace.
Platinum listened with eyes like flint. “You’re insane,” she said.
“I love her,” said Clover. “You were my world, before, yet I didn’t let you come between us. I won’t let death come between us now.”
She left the palace with command of two dozen guards.
It took less than a week. With that much horsepower at her disposal, and Cookie sharing the knowledge she had gained in her own search, catching a cockatrice proved easy.
That night, they took the final step. Cookie was too weak to stand. They spent hours side by side, saying little. At midnight, Clover brought forth the solid oaken cage with the cockatrice.
“You need to move on once I’m gone,” said Cookie. “No telling how long it’ll take before you finish the spell. Promise me you won’t go around with a Cookie-shaped hole in your life.”
“I won’t,” said Clover. “I promise.”
She slid away a panel on the box, exposing wire mesh. The cockatrice’s scrabbling claws could not penetrate, but its fierce gaze could. Moments later, Cookie was frozen in stone. She looked, if not peaceful, then at least calm. Clover ran a hoof along the unyielding mane, took a breath, dropped the hoof to the floor.
Clover went to her notes. Star Swirl’s spell seemed more impossible than ever. With Cookie gone, the strands of magic seemed meaningless. She studied for hours, days, weeks, growing more and more confused, losing what little mastery of the spell she had managed to tease out.
This wasn’t going to work. For decades, her research had stagnated. Now it was going backwards. Maybe someday, somepony would finish the spell, but it would not be her. If she wanted to see Cookie again, there was only one option left.
Clover opened the cage. The cockatrice burst forth, and all she saw was the eyes.
Sergeant Pansy, My Old Friend,
My heartfelt condolences in the wake of yesterday’s tragedy. I had not expected to lose Clover, too.
I will ask you not to recapture the cockatrice or reverse its magic. I do not understand her decision—indeed, it fills me with nothing but sorrow and rage—yet I will tolerate it nonetheless. Had I tolerated her ways earlier, as you did, perhaps we would never have grown apart. Perhaps we would never have come to this point. But such speculation is useless, now. There remain only my mistakes and my friend’s fate.
I will safeguard their remains in my palace, to preserve them as they would surely wish. I hope you will do them the honor of speaking at the wake—you always were their truest companion.
Her Royal Highness Platinum
Princess of Equestria and Lady Protector of Unicornia
Dear Princess Celestia,
You won’t believe what I found! Did you know that your vault has these statues that are even older than you are? There’s one of Clover the Clever and one that’s probably supposed to be Smart Cookie, only she looks really sick. They’re so ancient, I can hardly believe they managed to stay together all this time. I wonder if there’s supposed to be one of Pansy, too?
Could you see where these statues came from? The artist was incredible. The Clover statue has this expression of… I want to call it determination, but that sounds too grim. There’s hope, too. I can really believe that this is the pony whose faith in the future saved Equestria from the windigos. It’s in her eyes, if that makes any sense. Clover was such an incredible mare.
Could we put the statues where ponies will see them? I don’t think something like this should just be left in the dark.
Your faithful student,
Now that your coronation is complete, I would like you and your friends to meet some very special ponies. Please meet me by the statue of Clover the Clever in Canterlot’s statue garden, and bring the Elements of Harmony.
From all of us together, together we are friends. With the marks of our destinies made one, there is magic without end.
Rainbow energies whirled, filling Clover with ineffable joy. There was power, power enough to shake nations, and her body was bursting with vigor. Passions battered her, so piercing and so pure she could do nothing but weep, laughter and kindness and loyalty, honesty and generosity, and a sixth for which she had no name. They twined through her, permeated her, and finally faded.
She found herself on her knees. Before her stood mares of all three tribes, as well as two impossible ponies with both horn and wings. That perfect joy was gone, but in its wake was a perfect peace… and that nameless feeling, too.
“What,” she said, “what was that?”
“Friendship.” It was a winged unicorn who spoke, the smaller of the two, the one with the coat like mulberries. She approached tentatively, as if she were the one in awe. “I finished Star Swirl’s spell, the one you were working on. It uses the magic of friendship.”
Of course. She had tried to fuel her magic with love for a single pony, but the spell took something bigger than that, something more inclusive. It took friendship, and Clover had never been good at that, no more than Star Swirl before her.
Maybe it was time to learn.
A laughing projectile tackled her from behind. Clover rolled and found herself looking up at Cookie, young and spry and horned and winged. Clover barely noticed her confusion before she felt her weight crushing her own wings—her own wings!—and that was when laughter overcame her.
They lived happily ever after.