• Published 31st Mar 2014
  • 16,972 Views, 2,856 Comments

Project Sunflower: Harmony - Hoopy McGee



After the events of Project: Sunflower, Erin returns to Ponyville to study magic. Meanwhile, something is stirring on the newly-discovered world of Harmony.

  • ...
55
 2,856
 16,972

Chapter 13: A very busy weekend, part 1

~~*Twilight*~~

Twilight yawned hugely as she made her way through the streets of Canterlot, which were painted a cheerful gold by the freshly-risen sun. Breakfast that Friday morning was at The Silver Crescent, at Rarity's suggestion. According to her, the place had just opened up recently and had quickly become locally popular.

Rarity had been right. Twilight saw the line before the café itself even came into view. The line of ponies went out the door and down the street before disappearing around the corner at the end of the block. Twilight let out a short groan at the sight, and started wondering if she’d be able to convince Rarity to eat elsewhere. As she got closer, though, she noticed that there were two sets of doors. The set on the left was for to-go only, which was responsible for the long line. The second set of doors was for sit-in dining and had no wait at all.

Her mood much improved, Twilight picked up the pace at the prompting of her grumbling stomach and let herself into the second set of doors. She immediately spotted Rarity sitting at a small table in the dining area, reading from a menu and sipping tea. Her friend’s mane was up in a business-like bun on the back of her head, though, for Rarity, ‘business-like’ still included several jeweled pins to keep it in place.

“Hi, Rarity,” Twilight said as she sat down, slinging her saddlebags over the empty chair between them.

“Twilight!” Rarity beamed and put aside the menu. “How lovely to see you. You look… hmm… Not exactly well rested, actually.” She offered a sympathetic smile. “Yesterday didn't go smoothly, I take it?”

Twilight uttered a short, bitter laugh. “You could say that. Their paperwork was such a mess, I actually took a break to bring Spike back to help out. They only had half of the visas completed and properly signed off—I had to run over to the Ministry office itself to rush everything through! And, even then, I had to drop Princess Celestia’s name more than once to get anypony moving.” She sighed, massaging her temples with her hooves. “On top of that, I have the strangest feeling I've forgotten something important.” Shrugging, she offered up a weak smile. “Oh, well. At least the most crucial stuff should more or less be ready by now. I’m heading back there after breakfast to make absolutely sure.”

Rarity smiled. “Another crisis averted by Twilight Sparkle’s amazing organizational skills! This calls for a celebration.”

Twilight chuckled. “Well, yes. I am good at organizing. I just wish everything hadn't been so…” she waved a hoof vaguely, trying to get the right word to pop up in her tired and stress-addled brain.

“Last minute?”

“Yeah, that works.” Twilight looked around. The line at the to-go window was moving pretty quickly. Ponies would walk up and order their drinks, shuffle off to one side, and a few moments later one of the baristas would pass over an insulated paper cup full of coffee. “This place sure is busy,” she noted.

“They have excellent coffee,” Rarity said. “It doesn't hurt that they're also very quick. Plus, they have their logo emblazoned on every cup of coffee they sell. It’s all about branding, dear. Ponies see those cups everywhere, and so they want the same thing.”

Twilight frowned at the logo printed on her menu. “You know, I have to think Princess Luna might be upset about that, since it looks an awful lot like her cutie mark.”

“Well, it’s not as if a crescent moon is an uncommon symbol,” Rarity replied. “Doesn't your father also have a crescent moon cutie mark?”

“Well, yeah, but it looks totally different!” Twilight rolled her eyes and grimaced. “Okay, you’re right. Maybe I’m just a bit cranky after the day I had yesterday.”

“It’s quite alright, darling.”

Twilight smothered a yawn behind her hoof. “Sorry. Anyway, how did your day go?”

“Quite well, actually! They desperately needed my help with the aesthetics of the planned designs, the poor dears. Here, I have something to show you that I think you might be interested in.”

Rarity’s horn glowed, and a bundle of papers came floating out of her own saddlebags. Twilight took the papers in her own field and looked at them with growing interest.

“Is this...?”

“The diagram for the magical construct that goes into the cachettes?” Rarity grinned. “Why, yes it is!”

Twilight tilted her head, perking her ears forward curiously. “Cachettes?”

“It’s what we've been calling them. ‘Magical batteries’ and ‘aetheric storage’ sounds so technical, and ‘torc’ doesn't apply to earrings, necklaces and the like.”

“Oh, I see!” Twilight said as she leaned in to get a closer look at the diagram. “Wow, they've made some refinements since I worked on it last.”

The initial concept for the magic batteries had been to form an incomplete spell circle, one that lacked any release conditions or triggers. The circle would gather magical energy up to its maximum capacity, but not be able to release it on its own. A pony would have to consciously draw magic from it for it to release any of the stored energy.

“Hmm… Looks like they've made the energy gathering even more efficient than when I helped with the initial design.” Twilight's eyes traced along the circle. "They've simplified it considerably, as well."

“So I understand,” Rarity said. “It’s fairly easy to replicate, though it is a little tedious.”

“It would be.” Twilight took out a sheet of paper from her own saddlebags and began taking notes. “So, what new materials are they trying to use for infusing this circle?”

“Well, they have some success with various precious metals, and some dense hardwoods. Those go fairly quickly, but aren't as stable. Gems have the highest stability, but take considerably longer to inscribe.” Rarity smiled. “That’s what I wanted to ask about. Altering crystal structures enough to etch this design into it takes a qualified unicorn a good amount of time. I was wondering if you could think of any way to speed up the process?”

“Hmm... “ Twilight frowned while she studied the designs. They really were elegant in their simplicity, with hardly any room for improvement. Still, Rarity was counting on her, so she set herself to studying the designs, looking for any way to improve things at all.

Her quill flew as she took notes, even going so far as to replicate the design itself on a piece of paper in minute detail in order to make sure she understood the circle in its entirety. While her quill flew, so did her mind, trying to figure out any small tweaks or changes that could result in an even simpler version of the circle.

“Twilight?”

“Yes?” Twilight looked up, flushing when she saw both Rarity and their waiter looking at her. “Oh, sorry. I was a bit caught up in this. Did you order already, Rarity?”

“Yes, I did. Did you know what you wanted, dear?”

“Um… I’ll have whatever you’re having, I guess,” she said.

The waiter made a note on his pad. “Right. I’ll have your food out in a jiffy!”

“You do that,” Twilight said absently as she returned to studying the design in front of her. She chewed on her bottom lip, making notes and writing out calculations on a piece of scratch paper beside her. “Maybe... invert the second matrix,” she muttered. “No… That would throw the third quadrant out of balance. We’d need to adjust the initial phase to gather… Hmm…”

As she kept working on the problem, she slowly became aware of something tugging at her attention. Finally she looked up to see Rarity looking at her with an amused smile.

“What?”

“Your food is getting cold, Twilight,” Rarity said, pointing with the fork held in her magical grip.

Twilight looked down to see a plate with a single poached egg, rye toast, and some sectioned grapefruit sitting before her. She poked at the toast with her hoof while frowning. “Uh. I really should have ordered something else.”

Rarity smirked. “Consider it revenge for tempting me with garlic bread yesterday.”

“Okay, okay, fair enough.” Twilight’s eyes slowly gravitated back to the design schematics. "I don't think I'll be able to simplify that any further, though I do have a suggestion."

Rarity lowered her teacup and smiled with a twinkle in her eye. "Yes, Twilight?"

"We could increase the capacity for storage by making larger circles," Twilight said. Her horn glowed and her quill began sketching. "Look. You could make a larger structure that would store a similarly larger amount of magical energy and ship those to the homes of the host families where the Equestrian students will be staying. That would decrease their reliance on torcs, which, in turn would allow for fewer torcs being required."

"Twilight," Rarity said.

"And I bet we could even use the larger stations—I should come up with a name for that, really—I bet we could make it so that they could actually recharge the torcs! Right now, we're planning on recycling the ones we ship to Earth. You know, having the students send theirs in to be recharged and sending back fully charged ones in replacement. This could cut down on a lot of the logistics required for that!"

"Twilight, dear, I—"

"Material composition wouldn't be as large of a problem, either. It could be made out of any kind of metal or wood. Or, heck, even stone for a circle this large." Twilight frowned and crossed out some of the notes she'd written down before starting over with some calculations. "What would really be perfect, though, is if we found some way to convert other forms of energy into magic. Say, electricity."

"That's not—"

"I mean, humans have electricity in abundance! They even make it directly out of sunlight. Sunlight! That's pretty amazing, don’t you think? If we could make a solar-powered aetheric converter—Ooh, I like that name! I'll make a note of it—then a pony could stay on Earth indefinitely!" Twilight looked up and grinned. The grin started fading when she noticed the glassy-eyed look on Rarity's face. "Um... I got carried away, didn't I?"

“Just a bit, darling,” Rarity said. “I was asking for the jewelers, not for the sake of the exchange students. Though, I must say, having a larger store of magic to charge the cachettes is a grand idea, and solves another problem we've been having.”

“What problem would that be?” Twilight asked.

“Well, apparently the smaller cachettes have storage issues.”

“Well, they would have,” Twilight said, nodding. “The ability to retain magic increases drastically as the size of the circle increases. Something the size of an earring would last less than a day of minimal-to-moderate use.”

“And that is the issue they’re having,” Rarity said with a sigh. “However, if we can give them something larger to use to recharge it… well, that opens up many new possibilities, doesn't it?”

“Yes.” A flash of inspiration hit Twilight right then and she grinned hugely. “And I may have a way to speed up the inscribing process!”

“Oh, that’s wonderful!” Rarity beamed and leaned forward eagerly. “What would we need to do?”

Twilight’s quill was already racing over a new sheet of paper as she answered. “Simply put, we can use a mock-up of the design, scaled to the correct size and adjusted for the materials used. A unicorn could use a simple transcribe spell to push it from the first medium to the second. If you use a printing press for the circle and the target material used is standardized enough, then you could push through several inscribed cachettes in the time it takes to do a single one now!”

Twilight sat back, feeling a warm glow of satisfaction at the overjoyed look on Rarity’s face.

“Oh, Twilight, you have no idea how much time this will save us!”

“Well, I could probably come up with an estimate. How long does it take now?”

“For a gem inscription?” Rarity hummed and tapped her hoof on her chin. “On a good-quality gem, it takes a skilled unicorn roughly a full eight hour day.”

“Well, then, if this works out as well as I hope it will, then I believe you’d be able to complete an inscribed gem in roughly one-tenth that time. So, you would save approximately seven hours and twelve minutes per gem, at a guess.”

Rarity was staring at her with a confused little smile on her muzzle. Twilight decided to clarify.

“Of course, that’s just a rough estimate based what you've just told me and on what I believe would be the optimal results from transcribing onto a gem. I may be missing some variables, since I’m not all that familiar with the current process.”

“Oh, Twilight,” Rarity said before she began laughing. After a moment, Twilight joined in, though she wasn't completely certain how what she said was funny.

~~*Applejack*~~

Ponyville’s open market was thrumming with activity, even before noon. Early harvests had already started coming in from the local earth pony farms, mostly leafy green vegetables, and ponies were lining up to get the fresh produce. Sweet Apple Acres was geared more towards growing grains and legumes while waiting for the apples to come in, though they typically did have a field or two devoted to alfalfa.

AJ wandered the open market, checking the prices, even though she didn't need any produce at the moment. Granny’s garden had several types of lettuce growing in it, which was plenty for the Apple family’s meals.

What AJ needed had been a bit more complicated. Winter had passed but it had left its mark on the farm. They needed fresh paint for the barn, new nails, and a variety of other durable goods. She had just arranged a delivery from Filthy Rich’s Barnyard Bargains, and was now in the mood for a quick snack before heading back and getting to work.

It was while Applejack was trotting towards Sugarcube Corner that she spotted Erin. Her friend was walking around and scanning the sky with a thoughtful frown on her muzzle.

“Hey, there, Erin,” Applejack said as she approached. “What’s up?”

Erin blinked and looked over, breaking into a huge smile. “Hey, AJ. How are you doing today?”

“Fine, just fine. I was headin’ to Sugarcube Corner to pick myself up a bite to eat. Care to join me?”

“Sure, sounds fun!” Erin fell in beside Applejack.

Erin was limping, Applejack noticed as they walked. Not very much, but she was definitely favoring her right foreleg.

“Everything okay there, sugar? Only, I noticed you seem to be havin’ trouble with your leg.” Applejack pointed her muzzle at the limb in question.

Erin’s muzzle twisted into a grimace. “Just a little sore. My morning runs are a lot harder than they used to be. I keep hoping my earth pony magic will kick in, but so far it hasn't happened.”

“Earth pony magic?” Applejack shot Erin a confused smile. “Ain’t sure I know what you mean.”

“You know, increased strength and endurance?” Erin glanced over at her and frowned. “I thought that was part of having earth pony magic.”

“Well…” AJ chuckled. “It is and it ain’t. Earth ponies tend to be hardy, and we can get knocked around more than most ponies and still stay standin’, but it ain’t like we just get it hoofed over to us. We have to work to get stronger, just like anypony else.”

Erin let out a dissatisfied grunt. “Yeah, I think I’m starting to get that. Granted, I've only been going for runs for a few days, but… Well, my old body was a lot stronger and faster. It’s annoying to be so out of shape.”

“You’ll get there.” AJ nudged her with a shoulder. “And, speakin’ of ‘gettin’ there’, here we are.”

Applejack held the door open, letting Erin go in first. Mrs. Cake gasped at them, an expression of relief on her face as she came around to the front of the counter.

“Oh, girls! I’m so glad you’re here!” the shopkeeper said as she trotted towards them. “Are you here to help with Pinkie?”

AJ blinked, confused.

“Something is wrong with Pinkie?” Erin asked, sounding concerned.

Mrs. Cake’s ears drooped. “Oh, I just thought… well, she’s been up in her room for the last three days and has barely left it.” Her brows knit as she cast a worried glance towards the top of the staircase. “I don’t even know if she’s been eating! We haven’t seen her out of her room for days, now.” She scuffed a hoof on the floor. “Every time we try to talk to her, she shouts through the door that she’s ‘researching’. I’m starting to get really worried!”

AJ looked upwards, in the general direction of Pinkie’s bedroom. Her snack would have to wait. “We’ll see what we can do, Mrs. Cake.”

“Oh, thank you, girls!”

Erin followed Applejack up the stairs until they reached Pinkie’s door. Applejack was about to knock, but something just felt… off.

“You reckon’ she’s okay?” AJ whispered to Erin.

The other mare’s mouth was set in a firm line. “I think I know what the problem is,” she said, her voice sounding a little exasperated.

AJ frowned and scratched a hoof along the back of her mane. “What’s that?”

“She’s probably been locked up here with her tablet this whole time,” Erin sighed. “I should have expected something like this.”

Applejack frowned at the other mare. “Uh, them doohickeys ain’t actually dangerous, are they? Only, I told Apple Bloom I’d let her use mine some time.”

“They’re not at all dangerous by themselves,” Erin replied. Applejack noticed that her ears were drooping as she said it, though. “It’s all in how you use them, really.”

With that, Erin rapped a hoof sharply on the door three times.

“Go ‘way!” Pinkie’s voice said through the door. “M’busy!”

“Pinkie, it’s Er—um, Sunflower. I’m here with Applejack, and we—”

A huge commotion could be heard through the door, followed by the sound of hooves scrambling across a wooden floor. Half a second later, the door was flung open with a crash. The lights were off in her bedroom, and Applejack got a quick impression of bloodshot eyes and a snarled mane.

There was a shriek of “Sunflower!” as two pink forelegs shot out the doorway, wrapping around Erin’s neck and pulling her into the darkness.

“Uh…” Applejack proceeded more carefully, looking around as she stepped into Pinkie’s bedroom. All of the shades were lowered, casting the room in gloomy shadows. Empty bags of snack chips littered the floor, and every surface had a bakery box stacked on it, some empty and others still partially full. It looked like Pinkie’s diet for the last three days had been nothing to brag about.

Pinkie herself was looking even rougher. Her coat was greasy and sticking up in all directions, which AJ judged meant that she hadn't showered or even brushed herself in the last few days. The food crumbs stuck in Pinkie’s coat and mane were a pretty big hint that she was right.

Definitely gotta keep an eye on Apple Bloom, if I ever let her use mine, Applejack thought.

Pinkie had Erin in the middle of the floor, holding Erin’s muzzle between her pink hooves while she shot off question after question, barely seeming to take the time to breathe as she did so. Erin was frozen, staring at Pinkie like a mouse would stare at a snake.

“...to why they had to go there? Does it really matter who was on first? Why just a thermos? Do your toys really come to life when nopony’s looking? Do you guys really have magic board games, and how can I get one? How many humans actually try to raise leopards?”

Applejack put a hoof on Pinkie’s shoulder. “Pinkie…” she said, trying to get a word in edgewise.

“... was completely obsessed with honey, only he spelled it wrong! There are ogres in the swamps?! Was Gary really king of the humans? And video games! I know I missed so many references and I need you to explain them to me!”

“Pinkie!” Applejack said, giving her friend a little shake.

“Someone should tell that cricket that wishing on stars doesn't do anything! I've tried it!”

Enough, Applejack decided, was enough. She pulled Pinkie Pie away from Erin and turned her around so they were facing each other “Pinkie Pie! Snap out of it!”

“P. Sherman,” Pinkie rasped weakly, her eyes darting and haunted. “42 Wallaby Way…”

“Pinkie, stop!”

“Where did they get the coconuts, Applejack?” Pinkie’s eyes focused on her, intent and frantic. “Where? They’re tropical!”

“The prop department,” Erin said, finally shaking off her shock. “It was just a movie, Pinkie Pie.”

Pinkie’s head slowly rotated to look at Erin. Her eyes blinked slowly, and a look of realization started to settle over her features.

“Oh… that’s right…” Pinkie said in a whisper. The tension fled and her body slumped. “I kinda forgot. I… I haven’t slept in a while, I think.”

“Have you been watching movies on your tablet this whole time?” Erin asked, frowning at a glowing lump on Pinkie’s bed.

“Mister Hugglebunny,” Pinkie corrected absently, her head drooping toward the floor. “And… uh, kinda. I guess?”

“Pinkie, that was three days ago.”

“Oh.” Pinkie blinked owlishly and looked around as if seeing her room for the first time. “Really?” she asked in a meek little voice.

“Really,” Applejack said. “At least, that’s when I got mine. An’ you been holed up here this whole time, doin’ nothin’ but watchin’ movies?”

“And shows. And short subjects.” Pinkie shuddered and whispered, “There’s so many...”

Applejack snorted and walked over and flicked on the light switch, which caused Pinkie to flinch and suck in a breath of air while clenching her eyes shut. The light didn't do the room’s appearance any favors. And, now that the initial shock was over, she became aware of the smell: a combination of sugar, stale air and unwashed pony.

“First things first,” Applejack said, trotting over to a window and opening the shade. “We get these windows open and get some fresh air in here.” She suited words to action, pushing the window up. A welcome breeze immediately started to freshen the room as she made her way to a second window. “In the meanwhile, Pinkie, you’re going to take a shower,” AJ said as she struggled with the second window. It was stubborn, requiring a bit more muscle than the first one. “You’ll feel better if’n you’re clean, I reckon’.”

“Oh…” Pinkie looked down at herself, blushing. “Yeah, I suppose I’m probably pretty stinky, huh?”

“Just a bit,” Applejack said with a smile. “While you’re cleanin’ yourself up, Erin an’ I will clean up your room.”

“We will?” Erin asked, flinching a little when AJ turned to stare her. “I mean, yeah. We will.”

“Oh, you don’t have to—”

“Just hold it there sugarcube,” Applejack said. “You need a clean place to sleep. An’ you’re gonna sleep, just as soon as you get back out of your shower.” She butted Pinkie gently with her head, urging her towards the door. “Go on, now. Git. We got this.”

Pinkie sighed and, defeated, slunk towards the bathroom. Applejack took a moment to look around the room.

“Right,” she said with a decisive nod. “Erin, can you go and ask Mrs. Cake where the clean bed sheets are? These need changin’.’”

“On it!” Erin said, heading towards the doorway.

“And bring up a garbage bag when you come back up!” Applejack looked around and sighed. “Make that two!”

“Right!” Erin called back as her hooves clattered down the stairs.

AJ worked on getting the rest of the windows open. Between the fresh air and the natural light, things were already a lot better in Pinkie’s room. The next order of business, Applejack decided, was to strip the bed. She started to make her way over only to stop and stare at what she saw there.

Pinkie’s bed wasn't unoccupied. Propped up in a sitting position was a large stuffed rabbit, roughly the size of a small dog. It was a dark, cloudy grey with a dingy white belly. It had shiny black button eyes, and one of its large ears was flopped over its face. That, along with a mouth that seemed to be stitched into a frown, gave the thing a morose appearance.

The rabbit was wearing denim overalls, but that wasn't the strangest thing. The front of the overalls had been cut away and inexpertly sewn back together into a kind of harness. Something glassy was being held in the harness and, after a moment, Applejack realized it was Pinkie’s tablet. The power cord trailed out of the pocket of the rabbit’s overalls and down towards the outlet.

“So,” Applejack said with a grin as she approached it. “You must be Mister Hugglebunny.”

She wasn't expecting the screen to light up, and she sure wasn't expecting a sad-sounding voice to emanate from the stuffed rabbit.

“That’s right,” Mister Hugglebunny said.

“Huh,” Applejack said, taking a step back. “That’s creepy.”

“What’s creepy?” Erin asked from the doorway. She had a bundle of clean sheets on her back.

Applejack pointed wordlessly. Erin trotted up to get a better look, then stopped and stared for a long moment. Then, unexpectedly, she burst out laughing.

“Oh, that’s perfect!” Erin said. “That is so Pinkie Pie.”

Applejack couldn't help a chuckle of her own. “Reckon’ you’re right. Come on, let’s get this room cleaned up.”

Between the two of them, it didn't take too long. Mister Hugglebunny got moved to the nightstand, the sheets were changed and the blankets vigorously shaken to expel any wayward crumbs. The stale old baked goods and snack bags were piled into the garbage bags. Gummy, Pinkie’s pet alligator, was standing by his food dish, which had separate bowls for food and water, both of which were full. That meant that Pinkie had at least still taken care of her pet, even though she’d stopped taking care of herself.

They had just finished cleaning the floor when a freshly-showered and much saner-looking Pinkie Pie walked back into the room.

“Oh, wowie!” Pinkie said, looking around with wide eyes. “You didn't have to do all that! Now I feel bad…”

“I’m the one who should feel bad,” Erin said with a sigh. “I didn't mean for my present to make you stay up for three days straight.”

“Well, that’s my fault,” Pinkie said, then yawned until her jaw cracked.

“Nice work on Mister Hugglebunny,” Erin said, nodding towards the stuffed rabbit which was currently slumped over itself on the nightstand.

“Thanks!”

“Now, Pinkie,” Applejack said, putting on the voice she used to talk to Apple Bloom when the girl was up to her usual shenanigans, “I don’t wanna hear about you doin’ this again. You understand? You need sleep, and you can’t shut yourself away for days just to play with a new toy, no matter how fun it is.”

Pinkie sighed, her head drooping towards the floor. “Yes, mom.”

Applejack spluttered. “I ain’t…” She stopped, noting that Pinkie was looking up at her with a gleam in her eye and a small smile curling up the corner of her mouth. She chuckled. “Right, sorry. I’m just worried ‘bout ya, that’s all.”

“Thanks AJ,” Pinkie said, coming up and giving her a hug. She smelled a lot better, like soap and shampoo, AJ noted. Then Pinkie hugged Erin, too. “Thank you both. If it’s okay with you, I think I’ll get some sleep, now.” She yawned again. “I’m pretty tired…”

“You got it,” Applejack said as she and Erin moved out to the hallway. As AJ shut off the lights, she noticed that Pinkie had already slid between the sheets.

“G’night, Mister Hugglebunny,” Pinkie murmured as Applejack shut the door.

“Good night, Pinkie Pie,” the stuffed rabbit replied.

Applejack shuddered. “That’s just plain weird,” she whispered to Erin, who was already making her way downstairs.

Erin chuckled. “You get used to it, if you set up the personal assistant feature.”

“I ain’t so sure I want to, now,” Applejack replied as she followed Erin down to the main floor.

Mrs. Cake was overjoyed to hear that Pinkie had showered and was now sleeping off her three-day movie binge. In fact, she was so happy that she refused to take their bits when they ordered, no matter how much Applejack argued. AJ finally gave in with a sigh, and settled down to eat her pastry.

Applejack’s apple tart didn't last very long, and neither did Erin’s chocolate-drizzled donut. Soon enough, the two of them were back out on the road.

“Well, that was sure strange,” Applejack said as they walked along.

Erin, who looked a little downcast, nodded. “Yeah. I really should have checked up on her sooner.”

“Ain’t your fault,” Applejack asserted. “Pinkie’s a grown mare. She should know how to take care of herself.”

Erin grunted and walked in silence for a few seconds. Eventually her eyes turned skyward again.

“Lookin’ for somethin’?”

Erin smiled sheepishly. “Um, yeah. Rainbow Dash took me flying yesterday. I was kind of hoping she’d be able to do it again today.”

Applejack whistled, impressed. “You’re up and flyin’ already? That’s sure impressive!”

“I’m not exactly flying,” Erin said with a wince. “More like being dragged through the air. My wings still aren't working right.” Erin scowled at the offending appendages.

Applejack shot her a sympathetic smile. “I’m sure it’ll all work out, Erin.”

“Yeah,” Erin said morosely. “I’m probably just too eager. Heck, I haven’t even been here a week, yet.”

They walked in silence for a little while. Then Applejack had an idea. “Tell ya what. Why don’t ya come out to the farm for a bit, and we’ll see if I can’t help ya figure out how to get in touch with your earth pony magic.”

Erin perked up at that. “Really?”

“Why not?” Applejack chuckled. “Gotta warn ya, though. It ain’t like learnin’ unicorn magic. To get you in touch with earth pony magic, I gotta work ya, and hard. It’s the only way.”

“That’s fine!” Erin said with an eager smile.

“Well, come on, then!” Applejack said, grinning. She broke into an eager trot, heading for home.

~~*Erin*~~

The rhythmic click-clacking of the train provided an underlying rhythm to Erin and Ditzy’s conversation on what had turned out to be an absolutely beautiful Saturday morning. The two of them were sitting across from each other on the Canterlot Express, talking quietly while Dinky ignored them both in order to stand up on her hind legs and peer out the window at the scenery that was drifting by.

Erin’s wings twitched uncomfortably under her simple green sundress. It was one that Rarity had made for her before she’d gone back to Earth and, as such, it was lacking in wing-holes. Fortunately, her first pony body had been just a bit broader across the shoulders, which meant that there was enough room for the wings underneath. Still, the fabric was pressing her wings into her sides, causing the feathers to ruffle occasionally.

To Erin, the mild discomfort was worth it. She wasn't getting nearly as many stares as an apparent unicorn than she had as an alicorn.

Ditzy had seen Erin in her dress that morning and had immediately panicked, asking if it was expected to wear clothes while in Canterlot. Erin had assured her that plenty of ponies went without. Ditzy had compromised with a wide-brimmed white straw hat with a bright yellow daisy tucked into its pink band, which had the advantage of looking nice while also keeping the sun out of her eyes. Dinky had given in to her mother’s demands to look presentable, but only to the extent that she’d allowed her mane and tail to be combed and tied back with dark purple ribbons.

Currently, Erin was relating her experiences with trying to unlock earth pony magic, trying to embellish the story here and there to make it more interesting. Still, there was only so much one could do when working with stories about weeding and hauling bags of seed until every part of your body ached.

“At least they fed me,” Erin said with a chuckle. “Applejack insisted. Told me all my work was worth at least a meal.”

“And you said yes, right?” Ditzy asked.

“Of course! Have you ever had Granny Smith’s cooking?”

“Can’t say that I have.” Ditzy cleared her throat and glanced at her filly, who was still totally enraptured by the view outside of the window. “I imagine Big Macintosh was there?”

“Yeah,” Erin replied. She tilted her head, looking curiously at Ditzy. There had been an odd note in the mare’s voice when she asked that. “He was there. Why?”

Ditzy cleared her throat and looked away.“He’s… Well, he’s nice. And he’s a good worker.” She blushed and leaned closer, adding in a near-whisper, “And he’s not bad to look at, either.”

Erin gasped, clapping both forehooves up to her mouth. “Oh my gosh, are you...?”

“Shh!” Ditzy said, nodding towards her daughter, who was still glued to the window. “Let’s just say… Sometimes, the view is so nice that I sometimes find myself staying longer than strictly necessary when I deliver their mail.”

Erin couldn’t help giggling, and Ditzy joined in a moment later. This caught Dinky’s attention, who turned and scowled at them.

“What’s funny?” the filly asked.

“Nothing,” Erin and Ditzy said at the same moment, which got them giggling harder. Dinky grunted in annoyance and went back to staring out the window. Erin resolved to try to find some subtle way of sounding out Macintosh to see if he’d be interested in dating a mare with a young filly.

“So, do you think it did any good?” Ditzy asked after the giggles died down. “Do you feel any closer to being able to use earth pony magic?”

Erin grimaced. “I don’t know about that, but the earth felt a lot closer to me by the time I was done.”

“Oh?”

“Yeah. It was caked onto my hooves, crusted into my coat, and I even had some in my mane and tail.” Erin sighed. “You should have seen the state of my shower once I got done washing it all out.”

Ditzy gave a sympathetic wince. “I can imagine. I know what it’s like when Dinky comes in after rolling around in the mud for a day.”

Dinky pulled her attention away from the window. “I don’t roll in the mud!”

“What about last Tuesday?”

That was a mud fight.”

“Well, that mud fight took me almost two hours of cleaning after you tracked half of Ponyville through my house, little filly,” Ditzy said with a frown.

“Yeah, well…” Dinky blushed before letting out an annoyed huff. “Rumble started it!”

Ditzy shook her head. Dinky, in an apparent bid to pretend like the last few seconds of conversation never happened, turned resolutely back to the window and pointedly ignored them.

“So, what were you two planning on doing while I’m looking up Twilight?” Erin asked. “Did you want to see if I could give you a quick tour of the palace?”

Dinky whipped her head around to stare at her mother with pleading eyes, which Ditzy ignored. “That’s okay,” Ditzy said, ignoring the whine her daughter let out in response. “I’d feel pretty out of place around all those important ponies. I was thinking of taking Dinky to see the Royal History Museum. We could meet up there, once you’re done talking to your people, if you want?”

Erin wanted to make some assurances that Ditzy would fit right in with the “important ponies”, but decided not to push it if the mare felt uncomfortable about it. Besides, the museum was actually a place she was interested in, as well.

“Sounds good,” she said.

They chatted for a little while longer, mostly just exchanging small talk about life in Ponyville. The train pulled up to the Canterlot station slightly after noon. As they put their saddlebags on, Erin and Ditzy confirmed their plans to meet at the museum’s gift shop in three hours, said their goodbyes and went on their separate ways.

As opposed to her last visit to Canterlot, this time everypony ignored her. Erin grinned as she trotted along, glad that she’d thought of wearing a dress this time. Even if it did make it feel like a bunch of sweat was gathering under her wings.

The guards at the castle gateway took a quick look at the ID that Erin produced from her saddlebags before ushering her in. Erin asked a palace servant where to find Twilight’s quarters. The first servant didn't know, but she was able to bring Erin to a second servant, who gave her what were probably the most convoluted directions that Erin had ever heard.

With an eye on the time, Erin trotted through the hallways, occasionally asking for directions, until she found herself outside of what she was pretty sure was the apartment that Twilight was currently staying in.

She knocked and waited. After a few seconds, the door opened, revealing a startled Twilight Sparkle.

“Oh! Erin, I wasn't expecting you,” Twilight said.

There was a long pause while Erin worked that over in her head.

“Uh… You asked me to stop by, remember?” Erin studied the blank look on Twilight’s face. “The exchange students, and how having a native Earthling might help?”

Twilight’s mouth dropped open and her eyes widened as the fur on her cheeks darkened with a blush. “Oh… Um… That all happened last night, actually.”

Erin gaped at her.

“Um… sorry?” Twilight said with a feeble smile. “I totally forgot I asked you to come out! The paperwork was a mess, and everything was so last-minute, it was insane. I was running my tail off the minute I walked through the door. The only one I could count on was Spike from my parent’s place for some extra help and it was still a close thing.” She scuffled her hooves and ducked her head. “You’re not mad, are you?”

Erin blinked several times in rapid succession. Then her shoulders started shaking. A moment later, the first chuckles bubbled up, quickly turning into full-blown laughter. “Oh, Twilight,” she said. “Don’t ever change. No, I’m not mad. This actually works out well for me.”

“It does?”

“Yeah. My neighbor, Ditzy, wanted to see Canterlot anyway. She has some relatives in Cloudsdale, so if you didn't need me, we were going to head out and stay with them while she showed me around the city.” Erin grinned. “You know how much I've always wanted to go to Cloudsdale, right?”

Twilight let out a relieved sigh. “Right,” she said with a nod. “I’m still sorry. I shouldn't have forgotten.”

“It’s fine, really. So, what are your plans for today?” Erin asked. “I’m meeting up with Ditzy and her daughter for a late lunch after taking care of some things in the Harmonics compound. We’re meeting at the Royal History Museum. Did you want to join us?”

“Ooh, museum!” Twilight said, her eyes growing wide. “Oh, but I can’t. Princess Luna was going to give me my first lessons in dream magic in about ten minutes.”

“Well, that sounds even better!” Erin smiled and nudged her friend with a hoof. “You’ll be the first unicorn to learn this magic in centuries, right?”

“The first of many,” Twilight replied, nodding and doing a very poor job of hiding the gleeful smile on her face. “And not just unicorns. It seems like pegasi and earth ponies can learn aspects of this magic, too.”

“Oh, neat!”

Twilight nodded again. “Luna sent out couriers all over Equestria with recruitment posters, and apparently the first volunteers have already started to arrive.”

“Well, that’s great!”

“I should get going to Luna’s chambers,” Twilight said. “Did you want to walk with me?”

“Sure,” Erin said, stepping aside so Twilight could exit her apartment.

The two friends filled each other in on their days since they’d last seen each other. They were only able to cover the very basics before they reached the doors to Luna’s own quarters. The two Royal Guards standing outside of her door gave them both implacable looks before returning their stares to the opposite walls.

“I guess I’ll see you when I get back to Ponyville,” Twilight said, giving Erin a hug. “Give the girls my love for me, okay?”

“You got it,” Erin replied, returning the hug. “You take care. And have fun!”

“How can I not?” Twilight asked with a smile that lit up her face. “I’m going to be learning new magic!”

Erin laughed. Twilight disengaged the hug and turned to the guards, who knocked and then opened the doors to Luna’s chambers without a word. With one last wave, Twilight turned and trotted eagerly through the doorway.

Watching her friend go, Erin couldn't help but feel a little sad. It would be at least a few more days before they got to see each other again. Still, maybe this dream magic was something that Twilight could end up teaching her, along with regular magic.

Perked up by that thought, Erin gave both of the guards a polite nod—which was, of course, stoically ignored—and then walked away, making her way towards the Royal Gardens and the Harmonics gateway back to Earth.

~~*Maggie*~~

Doctor Maggie Henson frowned down at her tablet, flipping through page after page of expenses and budget items. She could feel a headache coming on and, not for the first time, she marveled at how different math could feel when it was used in physics versus, say, a cost-analysis report.

A brief knock at her door broke her concentration. “Come on in,” she called, immensely grateful for the excuse to put the tablet aside.

The door was opened by a familiar auburn-maned pony. “Hi, Maggie,” Erin said with a smile.

“Erin! Good to see you. Come on in!”

“Thanks,” Erin said. She opened the door wide enough to accommodate for the saddlebags she was wearing over her light green dress and stepped inside. “Do you have a minute?”

“I have all the time in the world for anything that doesn't involve budgets, shipments and line-items,” Maggie said with a chuckle.

Erin froze in the process of sitting down in one of the pony-adapted chairs in Maggie’s office. “Ah,” she said, then cleared her throat. “Well, about shipments…”

Maggie sighed. “What about shipments?”

“Well, I may have just ordered a ton of stuff online, and used the address here as the shipping address.”

Maggie chuckled. “That’s fine. I told you that you could do that, remember?”

Erin nodded, looking uncomfortable. “Yeah… though, this might be a bit more than you intended for when you made that offer.”

“What do you mean?” Maggie asked with a sinking feeling in her gut.

“Well… It may be easier if I just showed you.” Erin pulled her own tablet out of her saddlebags with her teeth. After tapping a few times with a mouth-held stylus, she passed the tablet over to Maggie, who began flipping through various order confirmations.

“Ah… wow.” Maggie let out a low whistle. “This is kind of a lot of stuff.”

“Um, yeah.” Erin fidgeted in her chair for a moment. “Is that okay?”

“Yeah, it’s fine. Can you send the order confirmations to my email? I’ll put the mail room on alert.” One particular item caught Maggie’s attention. “A bulk order of Lego bricks?”

Erin blushed and cleared her throat. “My new neighbor has the cutest little filly,” She said by way of explanation.

Maggie laughed, shaking her head as she passed the tablet back. “Might be kind of tricky, taking them back apart by mouth,” she pointed out. Then she laughed again at the dismayed look on Erin’s face.

“I didn't think of that…” Erin frowned and ran a hoof through her mane. “Well, I suppose I’ll still order them. Maybe she can figure out how to take them back apart with her magic.”

“Oh, she’s a unicorn?”

“Yup!” Erin grinned and perked back up. “Her name is Dinky. I’m actually meeting her and her mother at the Royal Museum in a little bit. And then, we’re all going to Cloudsdale!”

“Oh, nice!” Maggie said, straightening up in her chair. “Make sure to take lots of pictures!”

“Are you kidding? I’m probably going to fill up the storage on my tablet with ‘em!”

“Send them to me next week when the gateway opens back up, if you can.” Maggie said. “Oh! That reminds me. We’re finally getting the contractors out there next weekend. They’ll get the WiFi working, get the solar tiles installed, and then leave the weekend after.”

“Oh, cool,” Erin said, her ears perking up. "I know the mayor was concerned about it."

“You’ll probably find my letter waiting for you when you get back to your house, asking you to get a place for them at the local inn.”

“Oh, sure. I can do that. Pony beds might be a little on the short side, though. How many will be coming?”

“Four for the solar panels, and six for the WiFi setup. And they’ll be bringing air mattresses, so no worries there,” Maggie said. “You think you have enough bits on hand for that?”

Erin chewed her lower lip for a few seconds before nodding. “Yeah, I should.”

“Well, here,” Maggie said, rummaging around in a desk drawer until she found a cloth bag. She passed it over to Erin, who took it in an upturned hoof. “There’s eight bars and a hundred bits in there. That should cover lodging and food. Try to get receipts for everything, if you can, so we can track it all.”

“Got it,” Erin said as she tucked the bit pouch into her saddlebags. “I should probably get going… I’m not sure how long it will take me to get to the museum, and I don’t want to be late.” She snorted and stamped a hoof. “I probably shouldn't have called my mom and just stuck to sending her an email, like I’d originally intended. I really didn’t think we would talk that long.”

Maggie thought about how she would have felt just getting an email from one of her daughters after that daughter had moved to an entirely different world for a week. “Well, knowing Lynne, I’m sure she preferred the call over the email. Moms never stop worrying about their kids, after all.”

Erin’s ears flattened and she ducked her head sheepishly. “Um, yeah. I suppose you’re right.”

“Well, I suppose I should get back to this budget,” Maggie said, casting a loathing glance at her own tablet and the hateful budgetary analysis contained within. “Don’t forget to send those email confirmations to me.”

“Got it,” Erin said as she slid out of her chair. “I’ll get them to you before I go back across the gateway.”

“Thanks, kiddo,” Maggie said.

They said their goodbyes. Maggie stared at the door of her office for a few seconds after Erin left, then sighed and picked up her tablet to begin once again trying to make heads or tails out of her third quarter budgetary requirements.

~~*~~

It was a small town in the middle of nowhere, so far north that there was some dispute if it was even inside the borders of Equestria. As far as the locals were concerned, it could go either way. When things were going well, then the town was independent and Equestria could mind its own business. When things were going poorly, which was more often than not these days, then the Equestrian government wasn't doing their jobs right.

Some ponies would tell you that the name of the town was Trotter’s Mill. Others would tell you that it was called Northreach. The one tavern in the town saw the occasional brawl because of this. In fact, brawls happened often enough that the proprietor of that tavern never bothered replacing the glass in the windows that got broken, instead installing sliding wooden shutters which were left open during business hours on the rare days when the weather was nice enough.

The roads were deeply-rutted with wagon tracks, left there after the rains had turned the streets to mud, which happened every spring. A brown-cloaked mare stepped carefully between the ruts, not wanting to twist an ankle. She had a long way to go, still, and an injury at this stage of her journey was unacceptable.

She didn’t know much about this town. In fact, she didn't know anything about it, other than the name that was on the map she’d purchased three towns back. The map had listed the town’s name as “Hay Junction”, and it was a fortunate thing that she never mentioned that name to anypony who lived there. The resulting fight would likely have lasted for days.

After all, there wasn't much else to do besides fight in this town once the day was done.

Her plan, such as it was, was to find an inn to spend the night. She had a small bag of bits around her neck, and a larger bag secured firmly under her belly. This was a rough countryside, after all. Robbery was a definite possibility. With any luck, any thieves would be satisfied with the smaller bag of bits around her neck and not be bothered to search her.

She’d worked hard for those bits. She wasn't about to let some dirty ruffian take them away.

Her plan was interrupted by the crowd. There were about twelve of them gathered outside of a large notice board, grumbling and griping to each other as they eyed a young pegasus attaching a notice to the board.

She slowed to a halt, eyeing the ponies and occasional griffon warily from under her cowl. In her experience, a muttering crowd was rarely a good thing. Fortunately for her, the crowd’s ire was focused on the young pegasus stallion, who was dressed in a sash of midnight blue and silver.

The mare recognized Princess Luna’s colors when she saw them. Curiosity welled up and, against her better judgement, she approached the scene.

The pegasus was ignoring the crowd, though the way he was twitching his ears and ruffling his feathers indicated that he wasn't unaware of the mood. The large notice was being attached in the center of the board, the pegasus beating the nails in with his steel-shod hoof instead of using a hammer. When he was done, he cast a wary eye over his shoulder, spread his wings, and launched himself into the air.

The mare faded back into a convenient alleyway as the townsponies crowded around the sign. There was arguing, a little bit of shouting, and a scuffle or two. Eventually, everypony moved on, either to their homes or to the tavern, where they could complain loudly about the notice.

The mare stepped out of her hiding place, glancing around to make sure nopony was looking her way. It was clear. With a light step, she trotted up to the notice. It was on creamy white paper with a red scroll-work border and lovely calligraphy. It was a pity that somepony had spat on it.

She read the notice once, quickly. Then, surprised, she read it again more slowly.

Princess Luna needs you!
Do you have what it takes to join the Dreamguard?

Generous pay with great benefits
An ancient school of magic, revived for the modern era
and taught by Princess Luna herself!
Open to earth ponies, pegasi and unicorns of all backgrounds
Apply in person at Canterlot Palace
Or apply by mail at the address below

Only the best will be accepted. Do you have what it takes?
Find out today!

The bottom of the notice had the promised address, as well as Princess Luna’s royal seal.

The mare hummed uncertainly, considering her options. On the one hoof, she had a plan already. Granted, it was a plan that had dragged her halfway across Equestria, through tiny little ramshackle towns, and would soon continue into lands unknown—by which she meant unknown by anypony civilized, of course.

On the other hoof, it was entirely possible that she was chasing a fantasy, and would find nothing at the end of her quest aside from bitter disappointment. That was assuming she managed to avoid the robbers, the wolves, the bears, and freezing to death in the bitter cold of a land that hadn't quite realized that it was supposed to be spring.

This Dreamguard, though… A new school of magic. New opportunities. And a chance to be taught by a Princess!

The mare stood, frozen with indecision, in front of the notice board for a good ten minutes. Finally, with a sigh, she let her head droop. Chasing power for power’s sake was one thing, and she was even alright with the potential disappointment that would set in if it turned out she was only chasing shadows.

But she was so very tired, already. The thought of continuing on through such an unpleasant course when a much more appealing opportunity presented itself was simply too much to bear.

Besides, she could get a room in Canterlot that had actual hot running water for a bath.

A light blue hoof reached up and pushed the cowl of her cloak back, revealing a silvery-blue mane perched over a weary but determined face.

“I shall join this ‘Dreamguard’,” the mare said, her voice resolute in spite of the exhaustion she felt. “Just you wait, Twilight Sparkle! I will master this new magic! And then, you will have to acknowledge that the Great and Powerful Trixie is a mare to contend with!”

“Hey! Shut up out there!”

Trixie jumped, letting out a startled squawk. She looked around and noticed, with great discomfort, that very nearly every window she could see had the face of a scowling pony or griffon staring out of it. Each and every one of them was focused on her.

“Trixie believes she should be going,” she muttered, turning away from the notice board and starting to trot away. She heard a door slam open behind her. “With haste!”

She magicked a smoke bomb out of her saddlebags and dropped it behind her as she broke into a run. And, as she galloped away from the town, she started laughing. Maybe this was a sign that her life was finally starting to turn around!

This could be the start of great things, indeed! she decided.

With another laugh, Trixie increased her speed, heading south. Back towards Equestria, where, with any luck, her destiny awaited her.

Author's Note:

Yay, Trixie! :trixieshiftright:
Don't worry, this won't be her only appearance. She's got a pretty big part to play in this story. Not as much as the Mane 6, of course, but she'll definitely be back. And, yes, this alters her story from Magic Duel. Rather than continuing her quest for the Alicorn Amulet, she's going to go to Canterlot and try out for the Dreamguard.

For Applejack's scene, you can see what happens next (from Big Mac's perspective) in Sunflower: Side Projects, Red Apples chapter 4.
And now, some editing shenanigans:

~~~
BP’s editor’s note:

Imagination is a good thing during writing and editing. But sometimes it can backfire...

“I don’t wanna hear about you doin’ this again. You understand? You need sleep, and you can’t shut yourself away for days to play with a new toy, no matter how fun it is.”

BP: Bad thoughts! No, brain!
Hoopy: Oooh... I didn't think of that connotation...
Lycan: LMAO! Don't hate me, but I downloaded a copy of this doc to read in class. I burst out laughing and startled a few classmates. It was funnier still until my instructor started to get curious... Then it got awkward...


Ekevoo’s editor’s note:

This deserves the light of the day, too:

Brilliant Point: NOW it's creepy? Not the whole teletubbie bunny thing?
Ludicrous Lycan: Hated those things... The L4D2 mod gave me the willies!
Hoopy McGee: I have to go check that out...
Hoopy McGee: WHY DID I CHECK THAT OUT?!

Join our Patreon to remove these adverts!
Join our Patreon to remove these adverts!