• Published 1st Nov 2015
  • 7,225 Views, 1,315 Comments

Dark Matter - moguera

Matters come to a head. Dawn Lightwing and his friends must deal with plots that will shake Equestria and the world to their very cores.

  • ...

An Interesting Diversion

Chapter 1: An Interesting Diversion:

Three days after the battle in Ponyville:

"It seems you've been a busy stallion," observed Elderflower, Baron of Dream Valley as he sipped leisurely from the cup of tea in front of him. As members of the unicorn nobility went, he wasn't a particularly impressive specimen. His appearance was fairly average overall, not burdened by the overbearing plumpness that afflicted more than a few of his peers from a life of indolence and rich foods, nor the statuesque physique sported by the more vain members of the Noble Court. Being neither an article of ridicule nor admiration had allowed him to go through many a social function almost completely unnoticed. Save for the immaculate suit jacket he was currently wearing, Elderflower could have easily passed for a sharp-eyed librarian or archivist. His dark-lavender coat was offset by a darker-purple mane, which served to frame a pair of brown eyes that observed his conversation partner with interest. A few ponies had noted that Elderflower, at least superficially, resembled a certain mare who made her home in Ponyville. Said mare, as was often the case, was the overall topic of discussion for these two ponies.

"Well, with that fracas in Ponyville, it's hard not to be busy," observed the other pony. Unlike Elderflower, who used his magic to levitate the teacup to his lips, the other pony was forced to curl a fetlock awkwardly around the delicate cup set in front of him in order to drink from it. A fellow unicorn, this stallion sported a darkly-tanned coat that contrasted harshly with the off-white color of his mane. He looked across the table at the Baron with glittering crimson eyes that almost seemed to glow with a faint luminance, though such a quality was almost certainly a trick of the light. The stallion's most unsettling feature, however, was his horn. Nearly all unicorn horns were coated with velvet that matched the color of their fur. However, in this stallion's case, the horn was the same off-white color as his mane, looking uncomfortably like a shard of bone growing straight out of his skull. Instead of velvet, the horn seemed to be sheathed in some strange, transparent substance that caught the light and glittered like crystal or glass.

Often, Elderflower had wanted to ask Wight Shade about his horn, genuinely curious as to what the substance that coated his horn was. Perhaps it was something similar to a scab or rash, twisted by Wight's otherwise absent magic into something that resembled neither. Or perhaps it was an artificial coating, something to cover the alicorn of the horn itself and protect it from damage in the absence of a unicorn's natural velvet. However, such questions were not appropriate for a baron like him to ask. Even though this was a private conversation, it was strictly business-oriented and Elderflower knew it wasn't a good business practice to be asking a stallion about their deformity, even when said deformity was practically right in his face.

"Yes, I heard that was quite the unpleasant incident," commented Elderflower, refusing to indulge his curiosity and instead confining their conversation to the topic at hoof, "I could see all the smoke and dust from here, practically all the city could. Details are a bit scarce though. A great many ponies are quite concerned about what happened."

"I'm sure they are," said Wight with a coy smile, this time not bothering to lift the cup to his lips and instead lowering his head to sip from the rim. Such an act was rude in the extreme, of course. But Wight, as always, didn't seem to care in the slightest. Elderflower had to keep his lips from curling back in disgust at the uncouth display. It wouldn't do to alienate Wight right now, not when the stallion was his most important informant from inside the Royal Palace. Wight Shade's position as Majordomo to Princess Luna gave him access to all kinds of sensitive information and obtaining his services had been a major coup for Elderflower.

"And..." prompted Elderflower, trying to move the conversation along.

"It's nothing serious," replied Wight with an amused smile at the Baron's impatience, "It was an altercation involving that colt, Dawn Lightwing. A member from that Cult Solar bunch went in and tried to kill him."

"And that somehow led to an incident that yanked Princess Celestia out of the middle of the Day Court and down to Ponyville for at least two days?" asked Elderflower raising an eye.

"Both Dawn Lightwing and his opponent were formidable ponies," said Wight, "You should at least know about Dawn's prowess to a certain extent, given the events on Diamond Mountain."

"But for it to cause such a large disturbance..." Elderflower trailed off and shook his head. "It's immaterial in any case. What's important is that the incident has apparently caused quite the disruption at the Palace."

"That it has," said Wight, "Which was why I came to you now, as there are several interesting things occurring at this moment."

"And they are...?"

"Firstly, as a consequence of the battle, Ponyville is in dire straits. Many of its inhabitants lost their homes and businesses as it ran its course. Even with relief efforts from the crown, there's only so much that can be done."

"I see," said Edlerflower, refilling the cups of both himself and his guest, "In other words, the townsponies will need additional relief from other sources." He smiled slyly. "I'm sure that a function could be arranged to serve as a fundraiser. As the leaders of our nation, we, the nobility, should take the lead in providing aid to the suffering commoners."

"An excellent idea," said Wight, "However, I'm afraid you're already being beaten to the punch on that account. The Marquess Fancy Pants and Duke Prince Blueblood are already in the process of planning exactly such a function as we speak."

"It's just as well," said Elderflower, "If it were anypony aside from those two, Twilight Sparkle would probably be much too suspicious of their motives. That said, I can see several ways to turn this to my advantage."

"I am sure you can," said Wight, matching Elderflower's smile, "After all, several of the ponies invited to the party have said that they will attend, only on the condition that Ponyville send a distinguished representative to the party itself. It's no secret exactly who they are angling for."

"Of course," replied Elderflower with a chuckle, "It's so nice when my peers do the hard work for me."

"There's another gem of information you should hear," said Wight, "And I think this one will provide you with a much more clear-cut plan of action."

"Oh...And what is that?"

"Princess Celestia is preparing a major mobilization of the Royal Guard," said Wight, "Remember what I said about the Cult being responsible for the incident? They have apparently been a serious thorn in Celestia's side for months now, particularly because their dogma is built around revering her while, at the same time, reviling her beloved sister. Princess Celestia is using this incident to justify taking large-scale action against the group and she is using the Royal Guard to carry said action out."

"Hmm...What of it?" Elderflower pushed his empty cup aside and set his elbows on the table so that he could rest his chin on his hooves.

Wight chuckled softly. "In order to take such an action, she will need to mobilize the entirety of the Royal Guard. You understand what that means, right? When she takes action, the streets of Canterlot, the Royal Palace, the entire city will be all but empty of the Guard. Only a few token members and Princess Luna's personal Guard will be here."

"In other words...the Palace will be practically unguarded," said Elderflower, his eyes widened.

"I know that it was originally your fallback plan, but you may want to consider making it your primary plan," said Wight, "An opportunity like this does not come along very often."

Elderflower couldn't stop himself from smiling. "I think that's an excellent plan. I have another idea as well. Coincidentally, this will be the perfect chance to carry both of them out."

"I see," said Wight, "I look forward to hearing about your exploits, Lord Baron. Good hunting."

Several days later:

Dawn Lightwing snapped his wing out sharply to the side, letting out a quick, puffing exhalation of breath as he did so. A second later, he retracted the wing and, in the same motion, executed a quick crossover step that carried him in the opposite direction before snapping out the wing on that side. From there, he went into another sequence of motions, thrusting his wings out in front of him or sweeping them around his body in tight arcs. He worked through the motions methodically, paying attention to his every movement. At one point, they had become so ingrained into his body that he could go through them without thinking in the slightest about what actions he was taking.

However, now it was different. Dawn had never gone through his forms quite like this. A little over a week ago, a stallion from the Order of Celestial Light, a group that Dawn and those close to him referred to as the Cult Solar, had come to Ponyville and attempted to kill him. Their battle had forced Dawn to push himself harder than he ever had in his entire life. As a consequence, he had completely drained his magic, almost past the point of no return. The result was that his own magic, the magic of a pegasus, which enabled flight and allowed Dawn to practice the martial art known as the Gale King, was now depleted and inaccessible. Until it recovered, Dawn couldn't fly. Nor could he stir even the tiniest bursts of air from his wings, which had once been able to generate powerful tornadoes almost completely at will.

Thus, even as he went through the familiar motions of the First Form, those motions felt strangely foreign to him, as though he was a novice, walking his way through the form for the first time. It was an awkward and unpleasant experience, but one that Dawn also regarded as fresh and different. As his mastery over the art of the Gale King had improved, he had directed his attention outwards, towards the winds he controlled and what he could do with them. However, with those abilities and senses locked away, Dawn was now able to turn his attention inward, towards his own body. What he discovered was surprising. He was amazed how forced and awkward some of his motions felt. Going through the forms like this had led him to realize that he hadn't been doing enough to truly perfect his technique. It seems that, no matter how far I progress, I inevitably end up back at the beginning, he thought wryly.

Dawn was an interesting pony to regard. His coat was a jet-black color, which contrasted sharply with the flowing silver of his mane and tail. For a colt his age, his body was surprisingly well-built, though not bulky in the manner of bodybuilders. Rather, it was a compact, flexible musculature that didn't inhibit his movement. However, Dawn's most interesting features were his eyes. Turquoise in color, the irises were dominated by a pair of slit-shaped pupils that gave the impression of a cat or a dragon. Being watched with those eyes could be an unsettling experience for those who did not know the colt behind them.

It was these eyes, the Eyes of Nightmare, as they were called, that were the ultimate catalyst behind Dawn's current condition and the situation he had been through only a few days ago. The stallion that had tried to kill him belonged to a cult that considered his eyes to be a sign of demonic possession. Because of that belief, Dawn had been ostracized and persecuted for much of his life. That had only changed recently, after he had come to Ponyville. The ponies here, one pony in particular, had taken him in and given him a home. They had stood in defiance of the Cult Solar and its attempts to kill him, something Dawn couldn't thank them enough for.

Near the end of his practice, his leg clipped an uneven section of the ground, well-hidden beneath the evenly trimmed grass, that made him stumble. It took several steps to keep from toppling over to the ground. Once he'd stabilized himself, Dawn glanced down at the section of the ground he'd tripped over and sighed. He wouldn't have tripped if his magic was still available. Through the wind, he could feel the contours of the earth below him as the air flowed between the blades of grass, mapping out the shape of the terrain beneath it. But, with that sense gone, Dawn felt strangely divorced from the world around him. Getting caught by things like this was becoming a commonplace occurrence.

Marking the position of the sun, Dawn sighed in disappointment. His training time was up. It was time for breakfast, which he had to eat early if he wanted to make it to school on time. He didn't have time to go through the form that had just been interrupted again. Despite his mother offering to fly him out, Dawn didn't wish to be a burden to her. She had her own work to take care of and he didn't wish to add to her load, however temporary the situation might be.

A bubbling sense of frustration welled up inside the colt, prompting him to grimace. Taking a second, Dawn took a deep breath and let it out slowly, allowing the sense of anger and frustration to flow through him and settle down. In the past, he might have stamped down those feelings mercilessly and bottled them up until they exploded out at the most inconvenient time imaginable. Now however, Dawn simply relaxed and accepted what he was feeling before allowing the feeling to pass. In a way, this was probably one of the most important skills he'd acquired since he'd come to Ponyville.

Feeling calmer, Dawn turned to face his home, a small cottage on the outskirts of town. It was a quaint place, with a front path that meandered down before crossing over a burbling brook that ran through the property. A spacious yard of green grass afforded him plenty of room to practice, even if said yard was not quite as even as it appeared to be. All around the property were a variety of burrows, holes, small houses, and hutches. All of them housed some form of animal or another. The trees strewn about the place dangled birdhouses like fruit. A short distance away from the cottage and its yard lay an imposing wall of trees, the border of the mysterious Everfree Forest, a place regarded by the inhabitants of Ponyville with wariness and suspicion. Dawn knew its dangers more than most. After all, he'd spent a year within its confines.

Dawn made his way up to the cottage's front door and pushed it open. As he stepped inside, his nose twitched as he picked up the warm, savory scent of potato pancakes, spiked with the smell of green onions and chives. His stomach let out an eager rumble, prompting Dawn to smile. He'd certainly missed his father's pancakes while recovering from the fight.

Entering the kitchen, Dawn found his parents hard at work. A canary-yellow pegasus mare with a flowing pink mane was setting out dishes on the table, her graceful figure gliding from one task to the next with practiced efficiency. Behind her, at the counter, a tan earth pony stallion hummed cheerfully as he tended the potato pancakes sizzling away on the griddle over the stove.

When the mare spotted Dawn, her teal eyes widened and the corners of her mouth turned up in a radiant smile that lit up the entire room. "Good morning Dawn."

"Good morning Mom," said Dawn in response, unable to keep a smile from his own face. His "mother," the mare he'd spent the last few months living with, had been the one to bring him out of his self-enforced exile in the Everfree Forest and give him a home. Ultimately, she had ended up adopting him, something that Dawn couldn't thank her enough for. In many ways, Fluttershy had saved his life on the night she'd finally convinced him to start living with her.

"Morning kid," said the stallion, pausing to give Dawn a quick smile over his shoulder before turning back to his work, "You're right on time. Order up!" Caramel's spatula was a blur as he rapidly flipped the pancakes into the air before catching them deftly on a platter. Biting down on the edge of the platter with his teeth, Caramel brought it to the table and slid it into the center while Fluttershy set out crocks of butter and sour cream.

The group settled down to eat their breakfast. Like Fluttershy, Dawn only picked out two of the pancakes at a time, supplementing them with a small dollop of sour cream, which he spread in a thin layer on the top pancake before carefully cutting and eating them, his movements precise and dainty, but also slow and deliberate, as he stared down at his plate with an almost comical look of concentration. Both Caramel and Fluttershy had to stifle giggles at the sight, since, however funny it might have looked, there was a serious reason for Dawn's focus.

Like her son, Fluttershy was a dainty eater, spreading a little butter on top of her own pancakes before cutting off small bites, one at a time. She ate at a brisk pace, barely bothering to look down at her plate as she worked, instead watching her son as he carefully made his way through his own breakfast.

Caramel, on the other hoof, piled up no fewer than four of the savory cakes on his plate, adding a generous helping of sour cream to one side of the plate. He speared an entire pancake with his fork and dunked it in the sour cream before lifting it up to his mouth to take a substantial bite. After that, it was simply a matter of dunk, bite, chew, swallow, and repeat until the pancake was gone from his fork and it was time to move onto the next one.

The kitchen was silent, save for the clatter of forks and knives on plates and the chittering of Fluttershy's many animal friends in the background, many of whom were working their way through their own breakfasts. The peaceful breakfast scene seemed to be one that could be found anywhere, with nearly any healthy family in Equestria.

Dawn finished his first two pancakes and began to reach out for seconds. However, as he did so, his hoof clipped the crock holding the sour cream, causing it to wobble before it fell over with a clunk, spilling some of its contents over the table. Dawn's eyes, which had been slow in looking up from the plate, immediately snapped to the source of the noise and widened as he saw his accident.

Both Fluttershy and Caramel froze and watched Dawn carefully, their smiles nowhere to be seen now as they watched the colt warily. They could see the muscles in Dawn's outstretched foreleg clench, dragging his hoof across the surface of the table. His eyes narrowed as he all but glared at the crock, as though blaming it for being in the way of his hoof.

Without a word, Fluttershy stretched out her wing and gently brushed the tips of her feathers over Dawn's back, seemingly snapping the colt back into reality. Dawn's eyes closed and he took a deep breath, letting it out slowly. His muscles unclenched and he pulled his leg back off the table. "I'll get a rag," he said, pushing himself away from the table and heading over to the sink.

Caramel reached over and set the crock upright again so that Dawn could easily wipe the spilled sour cream off the table. After cleaning up the spill, Dawn sat back down and, this time making sure to carefully watch what he was doing, reached over and fetched himself a second helping of pancakes from the platter.

Breakfast proceeded without any further disruptions. After breakfast, Dawn made his way to the door and put on his saddlebags in preparation for the walk to school. Fluttershy came up behind him, pausing a short distance away and clearing her throat. Dawn jumped sharply and whirled about, before realizing that it was his mother and relaxing again. With a warm smile, Fluttershy hoofed over the lunch she'd prepared for Dawn and watched as the colt set it inside his saddlebag.

"Have a good day at school," she said, leaning in to nuzzle Dawn before planting a gentle kiss on his forehead. "It'll be okay," she whispered into his ear before pulling away.

"Thanks," said Dawn, smiling slightly before opening the door. Fluttershy stepped out behind him and watched as Dawn trotted down the path and headed off in the direction of Sweet Apple Acres and the site of the temporary school until Ponyville's actual schoolhouse could be rebuilt.

Her ears twitched at the sound of heavy hoofsteps as Caramel came up to stand next to her, both of them watching as Dawn's form receded into the distance. "His fuse is getting shorter," Caramel pointed out.

Fluttershy nodded. She didn't like the feeling, as though she and her coltfriend were always tiphoofing about Dawn, like he was some sort of volatile substance that might explode at the slightest jostling. It brought to mind too many memories of those first months after she had adopted Dawn and the simmering anger that seemed to lay just barely beneath the colt's calm, stoic exterior. Dawn's anger could be frightening, if not downright terrifying at times. While Dawn had managed to address and resolve his personal issues, through some rather questionable methods, the memory was still fresh in Fluttershy's mind. She had never been the subject of Dawn's ire during those times, but simply understanding how close Dawn had been to doing things that were potentially unforgivable was frightening enough.

The accident this morning hadn't been the first one in recent days. Ever since his fight with Terra Heart, Dawn had become unusually clumsy. The other night, he hadn't been watching where he was going and had bumped into the living room table, upsetting a glass of water Fluttershy had set on it. Before that, he'd and fallen against a birdhouse, knocking it over and greatly upsetting the family of robins that resided within. Fluttershy had to spend a few minutes patching him up from the pecking he'd received from the irate birds.

At first, such a situation could easily be explained by his recovery. Dawn's first few days out of bed had been filled with wobbly, uncertain steps, and his stamina had been low. But much of that had recovered in the past few days. Yet Dawn's strange bout of awkwardness remained.

"He'll be all right," said Caramel softly, "Once he gets his magic back, I don't think we'll have anything to worry about."

Fluttershy nodded. But, while they waited for Dawn to fully recover, it was upsetting to see him so distraught about such simple mistakes. She and Caramel might not have thought anything about cleaning the little messes that sometimes resulted (or the bigger ones for that matter), but Dawn was clearly taking it very hard that he was becoming such a burden to his parents. In a way, it was ironic. Adapting to having Dawn in her life had been surprisingly easy for Fluttershy, particularly because Dawn was so mature and self-sufficient. But now, this was one of those times he most closely resembled his actual age, messes, mood swings, and all. She just wished that the situation wasn’t so traumatic for the colt in question.

"Mail for you."

"Thank you, Ditzy," said Rarity, graciously taking the letters from the gray pegasus hovering a few inches above her front porch, "Do you have time to join us for tea or do you still have more work to do?"

Ditzy beamed at the alabaster unicorn, her amber-colored eyes rolling about on separate tracks in the process. "Sorry, but I still have to finish my rounds."

"I see," said Rarity, "Give my best to your husband then. Is he doing all right?"

Ditzy's expression sobered. "He's...coping," she said, "Dinky and I are doing all that we can, but he's taking it hard, even if he doesn't show it as much as Applejack does."

Rarity reached out and brushed a strand of Ditzy's blonde mane away from her face. "I'm sure he'll get through this if he has you to help him. You have a gift for making ponies feel better, dear."

"Thanks," said Ditzy, briefly raising her hoof to cup Rarity's.

"Let me know if any of you need anything," said Rarity, "You're all practically family to us and we'll do whatever we can to help...but you know how Applejack can be."

"Yeah," said Ditzy, her lips twitching upwards again, "Thank you, Rarity. I'll see you later." She flapped her wings and pulled back from the door before shooting upwards out of sight.

"Mailmare?" inquired a stallion as he came up behind Rarity.

"That's right," said Rarity, turning to smile at the stallion.

"Everything all right?" he asked.

Rarity sighed. "Ditzy seems to be doing well, but I believe she is still upset about Granny Smith's death as well."

The stallion nodded, stepping back to make room from Rarity as they headed back into the house. They went into the living room, which had been temporarily repurposed as Rarity's design studio while she waited for repairs to be completed on the Carousel Boutique. The house they were currently in belonged to Rarity's parents, who were abroad on one of their many trips, which was just as well, as the house was not just being used by Rarity; but by her younger sister, Sweetie Belle; her assistant and apprentice, Coco Pommel; and the stallion currently beside her, her long-term guest and acting accountant, Flaxseed.

Glancing aside at the stallion now, Rarity smiled in approval. Flaxseed certainly looked much better than he had when she had first seen him. In fact, he was an excellent specimen of a stallion, as far as she was concerned. Sporting a gold-colored coat that practically gleamed in sunlight, as well as a black mane shot through with streaks of stately gray, he was fairly easy on the eyes. And speaking of eyes, his were the color of shelled almonds. All in all, he was a stallion Rarity didn't mind being seen with in the slightest...If only he wasn't so skittish.

Therein lay the problem. Flaxseed's pony-shy personality was significantly different from that of her friend, Fluttershy's. Flaxseed's personality was the consequence of a life on the run, moving from place to place, never getting too attached to any one pony, lest they betray his trust, and always looking over his shoulder. His pleasant eyes were the source of the problem. They looked normal now, but when he was agitated, angered, or afraid, those eyes underwent a startling transformation, going from brown to a deep, blood-red, with slit-shaped pupils. In other words, like Dawn Lightwing, Flaxseed also sported the Eyes of Nightmare, an affliction that made him the target of the mysterious and antagonistic Cult Solar. Rarity considered it quite lucky that Terra Heart had been so focused on Dawn when he had first arrived. Had the imposing earth pony warrior known about Flaxseed, she didn't like to think about their chances of escaping him.

Still, she thought, he's getting better.

"Anything important in the mail?" asked Flaxseed, drawing Rarity's attention back to the bundle of letters she held clenched in her magic.

"Oh! Let me see..." She began to flip through the envelopes, seeing where they had come from. "Hmm...Mortgage payments for the house, better forward those to Mom and Dad...something from the Academy of Arts and Sciences; that's for Sweetie Belle...Ah! Here's the report on the relief payments. I hope that's good news...And from Canterlot...Oooh...Oh!"

The remaining envelopes fluttered out of Rarity's magical grip. Flaxseed managed to scoop them up in his own magic before they hit the floor. The single envelope remaining in Rarity's grip tore itself open so that she could get at the missive within, unfolding it and scanning it eagerly.

"Something important?" asked Flaxseed.

"It's from Fancy Pants," replied Rarity without glancing away from the letter, "This is...Oh my! I need to get this to Twilight right away!"

"What's up?" asked Flaxseed.

Rarity was already making her way to the door, her curling, dark-purple mane bouncing with each prancing step she took. "Fancy Pants is setting up a fundraiser at his estate in Canterlot," she sang as she opened the door, "He's trying to raise more money to assist with relief and reconstruction efforts. Apparently, having somepony actually from Ponyville there will help encourage the other Nobles to give to a charitable cause."

"And you're taking that note to Twilight Sparkle because...?" asked Flaxseed.

"Because Fancy Pants is requesting her presence specifically," said Rarity, vanishing out the door and shutting it behind her.

Inside the house, Flaxseed stood there silently for a moment, the rest of Rarity's mail still hovering in his magic as he stared at the door. "...Oooookay..."

"I think I'm done," said Dawn, setting his sandwich down on the table and pushing it away from him.

"Come on," cajoled Scootaloo, who was sitting next to him, "You need to eat more than that. You're not gonna get better if you starve yourself."

"I just...I don't really feel all that hungry right now," said Dawn.

"Yer just upset that the other half ended up on the ground," pointed out Apple Bloom tersely, giving Dawn a flat look from across the table.

"Hey!" snapped Scootaloo, whipping around to glare at the yellow earth pony filly.

"It's the truth," replied Bloom in a strangely haughty tone as she looked pointedly away.

Scootaloo frowned, wanting to say more, but not really finding the words. Besides, Bloom was right. Still, it was unlike Apple Bloom to be so callous in her words. She was fully aware that Dawn was upset about his condition, but apparently had no thought of being tactful about it. Granted, the Apples were well known for their bluntness at the best of times, but this was taking it to an almost willfully provocative level.

She's been like that ever since her grandma died, thought Scootaloo. It certainly wasn't hard to make the connection between the Apple Family matriarch's passing and Bloom's new attitude problems. Considering that the trigger for Granny Smith's death had apparently been her exertion in helping keep the lands around Sweet Apple Acres stable with the magic of herself and the rest of Ponyville's earth ponies during the battle with Terra Heart, Scootaloo found herself wondering if Bloom blamed Dawn indirectly for Granny Smith's death.

For his part, Dawn was staring silently at what remained of his sandwich. Scootaloo wasn't certain whether he'd heard Bloom's words or not. As it was, she could still see the frustration in Dawn's eyes. He'd fumbled the sandwich when taking it out of his lunch bag, resulting in one half dropping to the ground. She wanted to sigh. He shouldn't be taking it this hard.

"That's enough," snapped Sweetie Belle, sitting halfway between Scootaloo and Apple Bloom. Her puffy, purple and pink mane bobbed as she looked rapidly back and forth between her two bickering friends. The angry expression adorning her face softened as she looked at Apple Bloom. "I know you're still upset about your grandma, but please don't take it out on others."

"Ah..." Bloom froze, mid speech before sighing and sagging. "Ah know...."

Sweetie smiled and extended one hoof to gently rub up and down Bloom's back. The white unicorn filly then turned her attention to Scootaloo, her expression getting more serious in the process.

Uh oh, thought Scootaloo as she leaned away from Sweetie's gaze. The next second, Sweetie was stalking away from the table, her magic dragging Scootaloo along with her. After pulling her a fair distance away, Sweetie stopped and stared at her friend.

Scootaloo's bright-orange coat did little to hide her athletic build as she faced her friend, the breeze playing across the fields ruffling her already messy fuchsia mane. Scootaloo looked over at her unicorn friend, watching with confusion as Sweetie's pale-green eyes ran over her from head to tail.

"Uh...what's this about?" asked Scootaloo, immediately flinching as Sweetie took the opportunity to step in close.

"Come on Scootaloo," whispered Sweetie in a harsh, almost conspiratorial tone, giving Scootaloo a sly, knowing smile, "Your coltfriend's right there, having trouble feeding himself. This is your chance!"

"My chance for what?" asked Scootaloo, raising a skeptical eyebrow.

"You know," said Sweetie waving her hooves in excitement, "Your chance to get closer!"


"Yeah!" exclaimed Sweetie, freezing before looking around to check that there weren't any eavesdroppers nearby, "It happens all the time in romance stories. You know...the hero is badly injured and is having trouble feeding himself, so his compassionate fillyfriend steps in to nurse him back to health and feed him herself. Don't tell me you can't see it!"

Scootaloo's light-purple eyes rolled upwards as she thought about the scenario Sweetie was clearly talking about, her imagination trying to create the scene inside her head.

"Say 'ah,'" she said, holding a spoon of soup pinched between the feathers of her wings and bringing it towards Dawn's mouth.

"Aaaah," said Dawn slowly, opening his mouth wide and letting Scootaloo slip the spoon inside before closing his jaws over the utensil and swallowing its payload. Releasing it again, his blue-green eyes met Scootaloo's own. The two of them smile happily as identical blushes spread across their cheeks and the air around them filled with rainbows and sparkles. Scootaloo giggled coyly as she moved to provide another spoonful of soup to her hungry coltfriend.

"That's it!" prodded Sweetie, bouncing in place, "You can see it, right?"

"I can see it," said Scootaloo dubiously, "It just looks...so...wrong..."

"Oh come on!" snapped Sweetie, throwing her hooves out, "This is your golden opportunity to really get close with Dawn. You should be forcing him to accept your help even if you have to tie him down and hmph!"

Sweetie's voice was cut off abruptly as a pair of slate-gray arms wrapped around her, covering her mouth and reducing her words to muffled, indignant, yet still squeaky, grunts. Behind her, a pegasus colt fluttered to the ground, grinning apologetically over Sweetie's shoulder as he pulled her closer to himself in order to keep her from struggling out of his grip.

"Sorry about that," said Rumble with a giggle, "I think she's been getting into her sister's romance novel collection. Some of those books are pretty silly."

"Yeah," agreed Scootaloo, before freezing and staring at Rumble, "But how do you know about what's in those books?"

Now it was Rumble's turn to blush as he looked pointedly away from Scootaloo. "Well...Cloud Chaser likes those books too. She leaves them lying around and..."

"Say no more," said Scootaloo, planting a hoof against her face, "Sweetie, I know you mean well, but that's not gonna work for Dawn. He's frustrated because ponies have to care for him. Simply forcing him to do that against his will would make him feel even more like a burden."

"You should at least talk to him," suggested Rumble, who continued to restrain Sweetie even as she tried to reply to Scootaloo, "If nothing else, maybe giving him a chance to vent his frustrations will help him feel better about it."

Scootaloo nodded. Rumble had a pretty good point. "Thanks," she said, before turning and heading back toward the table.

Finally, Rumble let Sweetie go. She immediately rounded on him, giving him a glare. "Ugh! Did you have to be so rough about it?"

Rumble shrugged. "You were getting carried away. Besides, I don't think your sister would want to find out you've been digging through her secret book stash again."

Sweetie went bright red and dropped to her haunches, looking at the ground. With a soft laugh, Rumble wrapped a wing around her and tried his best to console her.

The remainder of classes passed relatively uneventfully. Scootaloo kept one careful eye on Dawn throughout her lessons, watching as the colt worked through his assignments sullenly. She saw him fumble with his pencil more than once, dropping it to the ground in the process. She was grateful they were currently in a tent, with a grass floor. Had they still been in the actual schoolhouse, the clatter of Dawn's pencil falling to the floor during a silent work period would have drawn the attention of every other foal in the classroom, a response that would not have been kind to the ebony colt's nerves.

Dawn wasn't the only one struggling. Apple Bloom was clearly having trouble concentrating as Cheerilee went through one lesson after another, sometimes staring blankly at her desk without moving to take a single note or write a single answer. To her credit, Cheerilee seemed to notice, but apparently said nothing, clearly discerning the reason behind Bloom's issues. While she didn't want Bloom to feel like she was being pitied, Cheerilee also didn't want to put any extra pressure on her during this difficult time in her life.

As classes ended, the foals filed out, heading for their homes, or the shelters where they were staying. The Cutie Mark Crusaders were amongst the last foals out of the oversized tent that doubled as Ponyville's temporary schoolhouse, a melancholy atmosphere drifting over the group.

"Come on Dinky," said Bloom, looking at the newest and youngest addition to her family, "Let's get home. We've got chores to catch up on."

"Oh!" Sweetie jumped in excitement, "Wait a second, Bloom! I need your help with something!"

"If it's another cutie mark idea fer Rumble, ferget it," said Bloom, almost glaring at her friend, "Ah ain't in the mood fer that now." Rumble actually looked a little relieved at Bloom's words, which was understandable, considering the "ideas" the three girls had tried coming up with for his cutie mark.

"No! That's not it," said Sweetie, "I need you to do something for me."

"What are ya talkin' 'bout?" demanded Bloom, "Even if Ah had time to help ya, Ah need to take Dinky home."

"That's fine," said Sweetie, beaming, "Rumble and I will walk Dinky home. I just wanted to ask..." She opened her saddlebag and slid a book out of it. "...if you could take this back to the library for me."

Sweetie floated the book over to Bloom, who took it in her hooves and stared at it, her expression softening.

"Go ahead," said Sweetie, smiling warmly at Bloom, "Maybe you'll find something nice for yourself while you're there."

Bloom stared silently at the book for a moment before tucking it into her saddlebag. "Maybe Ah will," she said, before turning to Dinky, "Are ya okay with Sweetie Belle and Rumble walkin' ya home?"

"I sure am," said Dinky brightly, "I'll let Papa and Aunty Applejack know where you are."

Giving a small smile of her own, Bloom reached over and gently ran a hoof through Dinky's mane. "Thanks," she said softly.

Bloom hoisted her saddlebags and headed into town, making for the library. Sweetie and Rumble came up on either side of Dinky and began to lead her back toward the Apple Family farmhouse.

"Say," said Rumble as they walked, looking around, "Where are Dawn and Scootaloo?"

"Probably off doing their own thing," said Sweetie, "Don't worry about it."

"Where are you taking us?" asked Dawn, doing his hardest to keep up as Scootaloo dragged him between the trees. It didn't help that one of his forelegs was clamped tightly between her own and that Scootaloo was flying just barely off the ground. Dawn had to dance on his remaining three hooves to keep from falling over as he was towed along in her wake.

"You'll see!" exclaimed Scootaloo in giddy tone as she continued to tug her coltfriend along.

Their path led through the fields and orchards of Sweet Apple Acres, winding between trees. Several times, Dawn nearly tripped over hidden bumps or extended roots. But Scootaloo's insistent tugging kept him going along, even as he bent all his reflexes towards avoiding twisting an ankle. The last thing he needed right now was another trip to the hospital.

"Here it is!" exclaimed the filly as they emerged from the trees and headed towards a hill that hosted a single apple tree. The tree stood strangely alone on the hilltop, compared to the rows upon rows of its brethren lined up on either side. Dawn wondered if it held some sort of special significance to the Apple Family. Scootaloo pulled him all the way up to the tree's base.

"What is this place?" asked Dawn, looking around now that Scootaloo had finally let him go.

"This is my favorite spot here," explained Scootaloo, settling down next to the tree, "Rainbow Dash loves to practice over the orchards, so I'd always sneak onto the farm and watch her from this hill."


Scootaloo blushed and looked away, grinning sheepishly. "Well...I don't think the Apples would've minded, but this was before I was a Crusader and before Rainbow and I decided to become sisters and all..."

Dawn blinked and stared at Scootaloo for a moment before turning to survey the area around them. The orchards seemed to stretch on forever, loads upon loads of trees, some of them already putting out blossoms in preparation for the first crop of apples for the year. It was a beautiful view, especially in the light of the afternoon sun. In the near distance, Dawn could see the Apple Family’s barn and the farmhouse next to it. He tried to imagine what it was like back then, sitting on this hill and watching as Rainbow Dash soared through the clear, blue sky above. It was certainly a calming feeling. But, at the same time…

“Why did you bring me here?” he asked, turning to Scootaloo, “What is the point of all this?”

Scootaloo's smile faded and she looked seriously at Dawn. "It's just..." she stared down, "I'm worried about you."

"Worried?" Dawn leaned back away from her, "What do you mean?"

"These past few days, I've seen it," said Scootaloo, "You're getting frustrated, angry, upset...I've noticed...Everypony's noticed." She looked up at him again. "You're starting to scare ponies, Dawn, especially me and Fluttershy."

A jabbing pain struck Dawn in the chest as those words reached his ears. I'm scaring her... He remembered the last time he'd frightened Scootaloo, on the evening of her First Flight party. Her delusional, controlling father had tried to take her away from her home. Dawn had beaten him back and, in a fit of anger, had been prepared to remove the stallion's wings. Had a certain mercenary not intervened, Dawn would have deliberately mutilated and maimed Scootaloo's father. He remembered the way she'd looked at him after that, how she'd stayed away from him, leaving him feeling isolated...alone...

And he was doing it again. "How?" he asked.

"You're getting angry so easily these days," said Scootaloo, reaching out her foreleg and hooking it around Dawn's own, pulling it towards her, "We can all see it. You get frustrated whenever you have an accident, no matter how small it is. You have to actually stop yourself and calm down before you lash out at something or somepony."

"Is that what you're afraid of..." asked Dawn hollowly, "...that I'll lash out at somepony."

"I'm not," said Scootaloo, pulling Dawn a little closer to her, "I know that you're better than that now. You won't make that same mistake again. But...I'm afraid about what you're going to do to yourself. Even if you aren't bottling up your anger anymore, you're still letting every little thing get to you so that you have to force yourself to relax."

"I..." Dawn wasn't sure what to say. What Scootaloo was saying was indeed the truth. He'd been getting frustrated and angry much more easily these days. Ever since his fight with Terra Heart, he'd come to realize how dependent he'd grown to be on his wind-sense. He was so used to knowing where everything was around him that he didn't even need to look at an item he was reaching for or at an obstacle he needed to navigate around. His hooves moved before he thought about tracking them with his eyes. He had difficulty telling how far or close an object was right away. It was as though he was strangely divorced from the world around him...

...And it was agonizing. Every time he tripped on something he'd normally would've skipped past without a second thought or knocked over something he could usually pick up with no difficulty, Dawn was reminded of just how helpless he was, how empty he felt without his magic. Even after his fight with Red River and Storm Front, when he'd been battered and most of his feathers had been burned away, Dawn hadn't felt so completely detached from everything

Dawn suddenly felt Scootaloo's arms wrap around his shoulders and pull him towards her, knocking the colt out of his thoughts as she pressed her forehead up against his. "Dawn, we're here for you," she said, looking him straight in the eyes, "I'm here for you. I know it's pointless to tell you not to get upset about your accidents and I know that you'll keep having them, probably until you get your magic back. But...it's okay to depend on us too."

"I...don't want to be a burden..."

Dawn turned his head away, but Scootaloo's hoof went to his cheek and immediately pushed his head back so that he was still facing her. "It's okay," she said, "It's okay to let us take care of you. You fought so hard back there. You need to rest. That's why you have us, so we can take care of you during times like this, just like I hope you'll take care of me if I ever end up like that. We're here for each other. That's what matters." She pulled him in a little tighter. "You're a burden I want to carry."

Slowly, Dawn's lips stretched upwards in a smile and he leaned into Scootaloo's embrace. "Thank you," he said, extending his wings to wrap around her even as he raised his own arms to hug her back.

Scootaloo grinned before pulling Dawn into a long kiss, holding onto him tightly as he kissed her back. The kiss seemed to stretch on forever until the two of them finally pulled apart. When they did, tears were leaking from Scootaloo's eyes.

"Geez," she said, swiping at them with her foreleg, "You have got to be the most high-maintenance coltfriend ever."

Unable to stop smiling, Dawn used the feathers of one of his wings to gently brush the tears away from Scootaloo's eyes. "But still yours."

"Yeah," she said, relief flooding into her voice, "Still mine."

They leaned in to kiss each other once again.

Author's Note:

IIIIIIIIIII'm baaaaack! Sorry it took so long to get this out. There were was so much going into this story that I almost wanted to break it into two. As I've said in my blog posts, it's over thirty chapters long. I almost ended up delaying it further as my pre-readers abruptly went MIA, but I didn't want to stiff you all after promising a Halloween release (assuming this gets through the moderators while it's still Halloween, the cue is probably pretty crowded).

Not a whole lot to say about this chapter, as it's mostly about covering some more of the aftermath from the previous story. That said, I am again attempting to flex my writer's muscles in an attempt to engage in some of the facets of storytelling that we fanfic writers often overlook, namely introducing the characters. The biggest weakness we fanfic writers have as a whole is our tendency to gloss over descriptions for characters that we are already familiar with from the show, like the Mane Six and other familiar ponies. But, considering it from a writing perspective, it's important to build descriptions of them into the story as well, along with settings and locations we're already familiar with. This might bog down the story unnecessarily for some, but I think it's important.

Next chapter: WAFFs abound.