A long day passed in which Twilight Sparkle drafted speech after speech, only to crumple them up and throw them away at various stages of completion. Now, it was night time, and her candles burned low. “My dearest ponies...” she said aloud, her quill flowing over the parchment. “I, your princess, come before you to- no!” she growled. The speech was crumpled and tossed into the overflowing waste bin.
“Who?” an owl hooted from his perch near her desk.
“Who's the question, isn't it, Owlyscious?” Twilight asked. “This thing I'm asking of the ponies of Ponyville is strange, inconvenient, and could even be dangerous. Who am I to ask it of them? Who am I asking this of the ponies of Ponyville? Am I asking this as a friend? A normal citizen? The town librarian? Or a princess of Equestria? I don't want to just order them around... but it's essentially what I'm doing. How do I be gentle with them?”
Owlyscious did not answer, content to preen his feathers.
“Got you more parchment, Twilight!” Spike said, coming down the stairs. As he set the thick paper down at her desk, he yawned. “I'm about ready to hit the sack. You need anything else?”
“Not unless you've got some good speech ideas,” Twilight said, putting her head on her hooves.
“Just tell everypony the truth!” Spike said. “The Shimmerwood deer need a place to stay, so we're volunteering. They won't be here long. That's-” he yawned- “That's all there is to it!”
“No, Spike, it isn't,” Twilight said. “Mayor Mare is right. This is going to be a big disruption in everypony's life, whether I want to admit it or not. I need to handle the subject delicately.” Her ears drooped- indeed, her whole body drooped. “I don't think I know how, though.”
Spike came up to Twilight and wrapped his arms around her. “Of course you do. You've done so many amazing things, this speech is a piece of cake. Ponyville loves you and respects you. Just tell them to have faith in you, and that you'll do everything in your power to make things right.”
“No buts!” Spike said firmly. “Twilight, I know you can do it. So if you can't believe in yourself, I'll believe in you for you, and you can believe in me!” He pumped his arm into the air. “Together we can't fail!”
“Aww, Spike!” Twilight said, wrapping him in a hug. “What would I do without you?”
“I dunno,” Spike said. “Probably panic. We're pretty much family.”
“I should think so,” Twilight said. “And as your surrogate big sister, I say it's time for you to go to bed.”
“O-” Spike yawned, “Okay.” He toddled toward the stairs. “And as your surrogate little brother, I say you-” he yawned again, “need to stop worrying about the speech and just write it.”
“You're right, of course,” Twilight said. “Good night, Spike.”
“Night,” Spike said, walking up the stairs.
Twilight watched him go with a serene smile. He really was like her- Her eyes went wide. “Brother...” she whispered. “Brothers and sisters... that's it!” She turned back to her desk, her quill suddenly flying across the page.
The next morning, the ponies of Ponyville trotted towards the great stage in front of town hall. Mayor Mare was standing behind the podium, and behind her, Twilight, Rarity, Rainbow Dash, Pinkie Pie, Fluttershy and Applejack all stood. The six friends exchanged glances, most of them looking Twilight's way with eager anticipation. “Welcome, fillies and gentle-colts!” Mayor Mare said when there seemed to be no more ponies approaching. “Thank you all for taking time out of your busy schedules to be part of this town meeting. It concerns a matter of grave importance that will soon be affecting all of our lives.” A ripple of speech ran through the crowd at this. Ponies turned to each other and whispered intensely. “If you would,” Mayor Mare said firmly. When they had quieted down again, she said, “Now I shall turn the podium over to Princess Twilight Sparkle, who will explain the circumstances in greater detail.”
Her five friends gave her looks of great confidence. Twilight swallowed hard. Her horn shimmered, and her speech fluttered around her, the pages organizing themselves by the numbering she'd given them. She trotted past the retreating Mayor Mare to the podium, and her speech settled down in front of her. Finally, her horn gave one last purple flicker, and her mouth shimmered with the spell. “Can everypony hear me?” she asked. Her voice was magically amplified, and most of the ponies either nodded, said 'yes,' or gave her a hoof's up. “Thank you. My dear friends and fellow citizens, you have been called here today because I have something I wish to ask of you.” Murmurs rose again; Twilight waited until they settled down. “I assume you all have not forgotten the great explosion of lights in the skies above the Drackenridge Mountains a few days ago.”
There were murmurs of confirmation.
“The details of what transpired beyond our borders are too dense and esoteric-” Applejack cringed at the large word- “to go into here, but it is enough to say that a great battle took place, one that involved Princess Celestia and Princess Luna.” Loud murmuring rose up; ponies turned to each other and chattered excitedly. “Please, settle down,” Twilight said. When it was again quiet, she continued. “The battle was, thankfully, without casualties. It was not, however, without loss. Far beyond Ponyville, and beyond Equestria, there has long been a great forest called the Shimmerwood. It has been a magical, beautiful place, and it has been home to a large population of deer.” No murmurs this time, but ponies all throughout the crowd looked at each other with wide eyes. “Unfortunately, during the battle, the Shimmerwood was damaged beyond repair. All the deer inside were able to evacuate, but most carried nothing more than some bare supplies on their backs, and now, all of them are homeless.”
“How awful!” somepony said.
“Yes, it is awful,” said Twilight, her tense body relaxing some at the cry of sympathy. “The deer's leader, Lady Falalauria, is currently trying to find them a new homeland, but it will take some time, and meanwhile, Princess Celestia has offered to open Equestria's borders to receive the deer refugees.” Twilight swallowed hard once more. She stomped her back hoof to firm her spirit. “And in my desire to be magnanimous, I have made an offer as well. I have volunteered Ponyville and its surrounding lands as a temporary refuge for as many of the deer as wish to stay.”
Now there was a burst of loud chatter, ponies talking excitedly, anxiously, nervously to one another. “Where will they stay?” somepony shouted.
“We currently plan to house them just outside the Everfree Forest,” Twilight said. “The fields to the south of the city will also be opened.” Twilight cleared her throat loudly, silencing the chatter. “I realize that this is a lot to ask of some of you. You are used to your daily routines, your normal friendships, and your own way of doing things. But I ask you, please, find it in your hearts to welcome these deer into our town. They are not so unlike us as you might think. In fact, we owe them all a debt of gratitude.” Twilight smiled. “As some of you may recall from your history lessons, long, long ago the deer were the first intelligent peoples to develop civilization. They were reading, writing and speaking before ponies had even learned to make fire. Because of this, all ponydom owes them a debt of gratitude. They developed the forms and systems of government that we still use today. Their invention of parchment and ink allows us to communicate over long distances. Even our Equestrian language is based on one of the old deer languages. In a sense, the deer are our older brothers and sisters, the ones who helped us learn and grow. Now they have fallen on hard times, so I hope that, in the spirit of family, we might be good younger siblings, and find it in our hearts to be kind, welcoming, and generous. Thank you.”
Everypony was silent for a few moments. Twilight tensed. Then, clopping started. It came from her left- she looked over and Applejack was stomping her hooves on the stage. Pinkie Pie was next, then Rainbow Dash and Rarity, and finally Fluttershy. Then somepony out in the crowd started to clop, then another, and in a rush the whole crowd erupted in clopping, so that the stomp of hooves filled the air.
“Thank you!” Twilight cried. “Thank you all, from the bottom of my heart!” The crowd noise died down, so she took a moment to add information. “The deer will be here tomorrow morning. I look forward to seeing the welcome you'll show them. That's all- you are dismissed.”
The crowd began to talk excitedly to each other. When Twilight turned around, her friends were all around her.
“That was a super great amazing speech, Twilight!” Pinkie Pie cried. “It makes me want to bake a whole bunch of cakes just for every single deer!”
“Ya knocked 'em dead, sugarcube,” Applejack said.
“Thanks so much, girls,” Twilight said. “I couldn't have done it without you!”
“We are pretty great,” Rainbow Dash said. Rarity elbowed her in the side.
That afternoon, Applejack trotted into Ponyville, her saddlebags full of fresh apples. All around her, ponies shopped, ponies ate, ponies relaxed, but above all else, ponies talked. Moreover, they all talked about the same subject. Applejack stopped beside a cafe to listen.
“So I wanted to write my cousin,” a green earth pony said, “she says she's met some deer before. But there isn't time.”
“I think it'll be all right,” said a blue pegasus. “I mean, they're basically guests of the crown, right? So they'll have to be on good behavior or Celestia will ship them off.”
“I'm nervous,” a yellow earth pony said. “What if they're smelly?”
“They're supposed to be ancient and powerful,” the blue pegasus said. “Why would they be smelly?”
“Dragons are ancient and powerful too, but they definitely smell,” the yellow earth pony said.
“Well, I trust Princess Twilight,” said the green earth pony. “She's saved Ponyville and Equestria so many times, she's earned the right for us to take her word. And all her friends support her, too! If the Elements of Harmony are on our side, I'm sure it will work out.”
“I hope you're right,” the yellow earth pony said.
Applejack broke away, mostly satisfied. All the ponies she'd listened to raised good points, points she might have raised herself if she knew nothing of the deerfolk. This made their vote of trust in Twilight and the others very reassuring. I just hope we can reward it, she thought.
Finally, she made it through the busy streets to the decorated light blue walls of the Carousel Boutique. Applejack took a moment to look at the building and raise her eyebrow. She had never liked it. It was too decorative, too cute, too... frou-frou. She had never told Rarity, because most of the times she'd passed it over the years she hadn't known Rarity at all, and nowadays they were good friends, so Applejack hated to hurt her feelings. It wasn't a lie if you said nothing at all, right?
Her heart stung from inside at the thought. Yeah, yeah, I guess it is a lie, she told herself. I oughta be honest with her. But not yet. She pushed the door open.
“You're late!” Rainbow Dash cried, pounding her hoof on the delicate table in Rarity's kitchen at the back of the boutique.
“Sorry 'bout that,” Applejack said. “Had to handle a produce swap with Golden Harvest. She grew some mighty fine carrots this season.” She took a moment to hang her hat on a wall peg.
“Ooo, how delightful!” Rarity cooed, her horn shimmering blue as she levitated a tray onto the table. It had a tea kettle, three sturdy cups, and some cream and sugar. “I always manage to forget, Applejack, do you take honey in your tea?”
“Sugar's just fine, thank you kindly,” Applejack said. With a grunt of satisfaction, she settled down in the seat next to Dash.
“Get your sugar now, girls, cause this pony's gonna pour it on!” Dash said.
“Please, Dash, I've tried to tell you how all that sugar is bad for your blood pressure,” Rarity said. “It can lead to overly visible veins which will simply ruin your complexion.”
“Complexion? Um, hello, I'm blue,” Dash said.
“I reckon Rarity's got a point even outside o' beauty tips,” Applejack said. “Too much sugar's always risky.”
“Yeah yeah,” Dash said, watching eagerly as Rarity finished putting sugar in her tea and passed it to Applejack. Applejack gripped the spoon between her hooves and carefully ladled a few rounds of sugar into her steaming light brown tea. “You done yet?”
“Have at it, Rainbow,” Applejack said, nudging the sugar bowl toward Dash with her nose.
“Oh boy oh boy,” Dash murmured, greedily grabbing the bowl and dumping a torrent of sugar into her tea. Rarity and Applejack both put several gulps of cream into their cups, but Dash waved her hoof at the pitcher. “None for me, as usual.”
“I just don't get it,” Applejack said. “All that sugar, and no cream?”
“Since when did you become a tea expert?” Dash asked. “You only started drinking it the same time I did.”
“I been readin' up a little,” Applejack said. “Cream an' sugar balance each other out, y'know? Don't do to have one without the other.”
“Pfft, whatever,” Dash said. She took her cup in both hooves and raised it. “Let's do the toast.”
“Sure,” said Applejack, raising her own cup.
Rarity levitated her cup, and the three porcelain cups clinked together. “To the adventurers,” she said. “Here's to making it through another week.”
They spent several minutes blowing silently on their hot tea. Ever since the three of them had come back from their incredible journey to save Twilight Sparkle, they had been meeting once a week for tea. At first it had been very informal, and very raw- they had all needed time and space away from everypony else, time for them to speak only to each other about what they had been through together. Nowadays, it was officially held each Thursday, and they did it to talk about their various struggles throughout the week. The three of them, so different from each other in their own way, seemed to know each other now better than any other ponies.
Each of them occasionally felt guilty about meeting separately from their other three friends, because it was perpetuating a slight but noticeable distance that had developed between each half of the six ponies. Yet what could Applejack, Rarity and Rainbow Dash do? They had struggled and journeyed and sacrificed together. They had been bound by ties no other ponies could understand.
“I am looking forward to seeing Lady Falalauria again,” Rarity said, “though I wish it were under much better circumstances.”
“I just hope we can make all her deerfolk feel at home,” Applejack said. “Ponyville sure as shootin' ain't the Shimmerwood.”
“We just have to be open and kind and nice,” said Dash. “And if anypony tries to make trouble, we've gotta try our hardest to keep the peace.” Dash sipped her tea and sighed. “Let me tell you, after dealing with the foals in the Junior Adventuring Group, handling adult ponies will be a snap.”
“Yes, how is that going, Dash?” Rarity asked. “You mentioned it had recently become easier for you to keep the children obedient.”
“Well, er,” Dash's ears lowered. “It's become easier because I've been sort of... compelling them.”
“Compelling?” Rarity repeated. “How are you-?” Rarity's eyebrows rose. Then they lowered as her eyes narrowed. “Rainbow Dash, have you been using your Gift of Loyalty to keep the foals in line?”
“I can't help it!” Dash moaned. “They're so difficult otherwise, and it's just so easy! All I have to do is flip on the ol' cutie mark-” she raised her flanks up to eye level, and her rainbow-colored lightning bolt cutie mark began to shine- “and it's 'Yes Miss Rainbow Dash,' 'Of course Miss Rainbow Dash,' 'That's a great idea, Miss Rainbow Dash'!”
“Rainbow!” Applejack cried. “Lady Falalauria would call that an abuse o' your gift!”
“Would she?” Dash said. “I'm not making them do anything harmful. Heck, all the crafts and lessons in the Group are for their own good! Besides, it's been such good practice for using my gift, and Falalauria did say that we needed to learn how to use them.”
“Hmm,” Applejack rubbed her chin, “I still don't know if I like it.”
“I'm still uneasy also,” Rarity said. “I'll grant you that it's a good thing for you to learn to use your gift. But I'm not sure you should be using it to force obedience in unsuspecting foals.”
“That's part of why I have been using it,” said Dash. “I know that when I look at all these kids, I'd never want anything bad to happen to them, so I'm always extra careful in what I tell them to do. It's helped me build a fine control.” She turned to Applejack. “How about you, AJ? Still using your Gift of Honesty a lot?”
“Darn tootin',” Applejack said. “I can barely turn it off! Heck, nowadays I can't just tell when somepony's lyin', I can actually force the truth out of 'em.”
“Awesome!” Dash cried.
“Oh, and uh, don't tell Twilight this, but I can tell she sometimes uses magic to look better than she ought after she pulls an all nighter,” Applejack said. “It's gotta be some sort o' illusion spell, but I see right through it.” Applejack turned to Rarity. “How about you, Rarity?”
“Still training my Gift of Generosity every morning and evening,” Rarity said. “I've actually gotten quite good at seeing across great distances. Even as we speak,” her eyes grew wide and filled with stars, “I can see the pegasuses working in the rainbow factory in Cloudsdale. Ooo, they're pulling a double shift!”
“How about looking through time?” Dash asked.
Rarity sighed, her eyes returning to normal. “That has proven... more difficult,” she admitted. “Every time I look into the future I'm presented with a range of possibilities. I still haven't learned how to tell the most likely future from all the ones I see. Oh, now I understand how valuable Falalauria's Truth Sense is. I wish I had something similar.”
“There's gotta be a way y'all can start learnin' how to pick out the best future,” Applejack said. “Lady Falalauria said you were destined to be greater than her, after all.”
“She didn't quite say that,” said Rarity. “She said I could be greater than her. It's no guarantee.”
“I reckon you will be,” said Applejack.
“There is something odd that's been happening lately,” Rarity said, causing Applejack and Dash to sit up. “For some reason, when I look into the future these days I see less choices than I used to. It's like I keep bumping into walls, walls of darkness. As though the future's being hidden.”
“That can't be good,” Dash said.
“We'll have to ask Lady Falalauria about that when she shows up,” Applejack said.
“Whatever it is, we can handle it,” said Dash. “We've been through worse.”
“I don't know about worse,” Rarity said. “We had a somewhat easy time of it on our travels, always finding friends and making allies. But you're right in a broader sense. If we struggled and endured once, we can do so again.” She sipped her tea gently. “I know I'm capable of anything with you girls beside me.”
“I feel the same way, sugarcube,” Applejack said.
“Together forever!” cried Rainbow Dash. She raised her teacup again, and with smiles all around the three friends shared a second, more boisterous toast.