• Published 1st Dec 2017
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Welcome Home - Trick Question

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The First Remove

You are Ruby Pinch.

After a momentary dissociative fog, you snap back to reality. The horn is there because you're a unicorn, of course. Why were you imagining that you were somepony else? That's a weird thing to dream up, but your mind wanders a lot, especially when you're tired like this.

That horn is also why you're currently in the Carousel Boutique, standing next to the Princess. You're here for magic training that she's been gracious enough to supply for free (since you couldn't possibly afford to pay). As you stretch your neck, you glance down at your cutie mark: three large red rubies. What are the odds, you wonder? If Mom had named you Amethyst Pinch, would they be purple instead?

"Did you get all of that, Pinchy?" your tutor asks you.

"Oh—this is embarrassing," you say, and punctuate the sentence with a long, deep yawn. "I totally spaced out there... I'm really sorry, Princess." You blink a few times and put on a stalwart face, resolving to stay awake. It helps.

"That's fine," she says. "But as I've mentioned several times before, please call me Rarity. There is more than one princess in Greater Ponyville, after all. Besides, darling, you don't want me to call you 'Ms. Pinch', now do you?"

The Princess of Generosity smiles with the warmth of a hundred Suns, and you smile shyly in return.

"No, ma'am—I mean Rarity. I like Pinchy," you say, rather assertively. Well, assertive for you, at least. You realize that an act which feels assertive to you probably wouldn't feel quite the same way if you were somepony else. But you're not somepony else, so that's a strange thing to think about, and then Rarity starts talking again so you stop with the silly thoughts altogether.

"I've hidden six gemstones in this room. I want you to find them using the gem location spell I've taught you," says Rarity. "You have been practicing, yes?"

You nod vigorously. "Oh yes! I've been using it to find gems outside, actually."

"Good! But please, be very careful about wandering too far from Ponyville without an escort. The outskirts are a dangerous place these days," she says.

As you nod in agreement, you decide not to tell her about getting kidnapped by Diamond Dogs and then being rescued by the Princess of Loyalty (who, true to her title, promised not to tell anypony else what happened). Obviously, Princess Rarity would never let something that dumb happen to her! You probably shouldn't have been out there alone, anyway. Mom wanted to come with you, of course, but she'd probably have run away screaming at the first sign of danger. Mom means well, but it's not like she has any...

"Some of the gemstones are smaller than others," says Rarity, "and one of the six in particular will be exceptionally difficult to find. I shall sit here and read, and watch you from time to time." Rarity takes a seat and begins reading from an issue of Cowsmoopolitan.

You're sure the magazine is a ruse so you won't think you're being watched when your back is turned. Everypony is always doing terrible things behind your back, you're certain of it. It's just like Mom used to do, back when you were much younger. She was always doing stupid things to hurt herself, and then she'd hide it from you so you wouldn't know about it. If she had been open about her problems, maybe it would have been easier to forgive her (which you've done, nevertheless). At least when you think Rarity is hiding something, she seems nice and straightforward about it. It isn't like she's making fun of you, or lying to you about anything important. (You hope.)

You look over your withers back at Rarity, who is currently pretending to read the magazine. It's a very convincing act. You return to your task. Standing from a vantage point that captures most of the room, you cast the spell and squint.

You immediately see your aura shining with three separate signatures: one large, one mid-sized, and one small. The large one is behind the sewing machine under a tiny piece of fabric. You probably could have found that one without the spell. The medium one is hidden inside a bolt of fabric, and the small one lies beneath a warped rug. The rug wasn't here last week, so it was kind of obvious. Still, the small gem's signal was very faint, so it was a little more challenging than the other two.

You retrieve the gems. All three are rubies, of course. Rarity has a flair for poignancy. She also has a flair for pretty much everything else she does, and you secretly admire that in her. You head back with three rubies levitated beside you, and set them down on the desk. "That's the first three," you say.

Rarity smiles very wide, and her face looks like Mom's does whenever she finds your report card and discovers you earned straight A's. Unfortunately, you've never been able to hide it well enough to keep her from finding it altogether. Mom works from home so she has plenty of time to snoop. You aren't sure what the look on Rarity's face means, because it doesn't make sense to you. It looks like a mixture of happiness and sympathy. Privately, you call it the Mystery Look. Mom makes that face a lot, not only when she finds your report card. "Excellent work, and very fast!" says Rarity, with a clop of her front hooves.

"Not really. That's only half of them," you say, frowning.

Rarity sighs deeply. "Pinchy, you must learn to take pride in your accomplishments. Your progress has been incredibly rapid for a unicorn your age!" she says, and a pair of vertical creases appear between her eyes. "These three are the only ones I expect you to locate. The others are very tricky. Don't stress yourself over whether or not you'll find them. Just relax, and take your time."

She's clearly patronizing you. But you'll prove her wrong. You need to. Other ponies must respect you. You need to be useful to other ponies so that you can finally stop all this self-doubt. You need to be worth something.

You can't end up like Mom.

The spell has faded, so you turn around and recast it. You look thoroughly around the room, squinting. You can't see any other glowing signatures. Wait...

You walk slowly toward the bolts of cloth. Something is glowing inside the orange bolt. It's almost impossible to see because the orange bolt exactly matches your aura color. You reach in and pull out a gemstone.

"Excellent!" says Rarity, almost shouting with exuberance.

"That was very clever," you say, as levitate it over to her. "Where in Equestria did you find a bolt that matches my aura so well?"

"Well, I had to dye it," she says. "But I can use it to make a dress for you later."

You know you have a puzzled expression on your face, but you can't help it. Why would Rarity, a bonafide princess, spend so much time on a simple test like this? Why would she offer to make you a dress? You're not that important. You dismiss your confusion and look around the room. The spell is still active, and you don't see anything. You spend a few minutes carefully peeking from every steradian on both sides of the room, but see nothing. Rarity certainly wasn't joking about the difficulty.

"You shouldn't feel required to keep trying, because the last two gems are incredibly hard to find," says Rarity. "I'm impressed you found the fourth one."

"No," you say, shaking your head decisively. "No hints, and I will not give up."

Rarity's lips pull inward for a moment. "Alright then, Pinchy. Just try to relax. Believe me, it will help with detection."
Like hay it will, you think. You don't need to relax, you just need to be smart—and you are smart. You pause and think carefully. If you can't detect the gems when the spell is on, maybe you can detect their absence when the spell is off...?

You stand on one side of the room and turn the spell on and off several times in a row. You're not seeing anything, but the light overhead is flickering just a little.

"Ah!" you say, suppressing a smile. You look up at the overhead light, which is very bright, so you have to squint. Turning the spell on again reveals the tiniest boost to the glow, on one side of the light. You reach in with your magic and remove a large ruby.

The gemstone is very hot, so hot you can even feel it with your aura. You didn't know that such a thing was possible before now. You're certain this an intentional lesson Rarity embedded within the test.

"Let me take that one from you," says Rarity. You feel her touch your aura as she plucks it from your magical grasp, and the sensation is strangely intimate. You blush. Rarity sets the ruby on a ceramic plate she recently added to the desk, obviously to allow the gem to cool.

"Okay, one more," you say. "Unless you've hidden seven gems to test me further?" You eye Rarity with high suspicion.

Rarity rolls her eyes. "Heavens, no! I'm being forthright with you, Pinchy," she swears, making the same motion that the Princess of Laughter uses. "There is but one gem remaining. I don't expect you to find it, and in all honesty I think I made it much too difficult, but the fact you found all of the others is amazing! You should be very proud of yourself."

"No. I'll get it," you say flatly, and you see her frown. She looks worried.

You spend the next fifteen minutes searching for your aura everywhere in the room, with no luck. You try turning the lights off, but nothing is visible. You suspect the ruby must be very tiny. But even if it were infinitesimal, you would still be able to see your aura around it...

"Darling, it's okay. I made the last one too difficult," says Rarity, and her face looks sad. "Your mother is coming to pick you up soon, so we should stop for now. There are some lessons about using spells I haven't taught you yet, and to be fair, you need that information to have any chance at this one. You've done an amazing job."

"Not yet," you say. You want to ask why your mother is coming to pick you up, but it doesn't really matter. All that matters is finding that last gem. Lessons you haven't been taught, you wonder? Maybe you're going about this the wrong way. You can't see the aura, that's obvious. So... what if there's no way to see the gem at all?

You're uncertain if this will do anything, but you turn off the lights again and close your eyes. Rarity is whisper-quiet. You cast the spell, and as you complete the casting you get the idea to hold the magic—like a singer stretching out a note. It's exhausting to do, but you focus on listening, smelling...

Wait! Somehow you sense something, but not with your five senses. It's like a sixth sense, one you never knew you had. You can feel it inside your mind, gently making contact with the all six gems in the room. It feels a lot like when you use telekinesis on an object to grasp it from a distance, but it's much more subtle. You walk toward where you intuitively know the sixth gem is, keeping your eyes shut tight. It's right next to the table where the other five are lying, but slightly lower. The gem is inches from your face, you're sure of it. You open your eyes, and Rarity is seated right in front of you. She flips on the light switch. The princess has a convincing poker face. You realize you have a look of surprise on yours.

"Can I help you, dear?" she asks.

"It's... it's inside you," you say, then you burst out with a brief laugh. "You put the gem inside your body, so that your living aura would block my ability to see my own aura! But, I guess I can sense it anyway?"

Rarity gets the Mystery Look on her face again, and she hugs you tightly before you have a chance to recoil. "You are beyond incredible, darling," she says. "Yes. Our magic can indeed penetrate living auras, but you can't see into flesh. You have to use your magic sense to feel in the places you cannot see. While normally you can see your aura through objects, there are a few things that can block that ability—I'll review them with you next week. Your magic sense, however, will always function as long as your magic is available, which is why it's essential to practice it."

"Huh. I guess it really was too hard," you say. "But I did it anyway, so... go me?" you add, with a gentle smile.

Rarity hugs you tightly again. It's weird, but you do kind of feel good about yourself for once. You also suspect the Mystery Look is on your face.

"Oh, wait. Do I have to, well, get the gem out of you?" you ask.

Rarity's eyes widen. "Goodness, no! I'd rather not have you open me up. But I will return it to you, ahem... perfectly clean, of course, in a few days." She blushes.

"Oh. Returned to me? Do I need to find it again?" you ask.

"All of these rubies belong to you now, Pinchy," says Rarity. She places the five rubies into a pair of saddlebags and levitates it onto your back. The saddlebags are very well-made, and they have your cutie mark embroidered on them, so it's clear they're yours as well.

"You, you can't be serious," you whisper. Those gems weren't just boring old rubies. They were rare and flawless, just like everything Rarity uses. Even each of the little ones must be worth a hefty pile of bits.

Rarity grins. "Of course I'm serious, dear," she says. "At this point, you've learned everything about gem location that I can teach you. You can practice your magic sense on your own now. Next week we'll start working on the basics of illusion magic. I'll have to start preparing now, because I fully expected getting you this far would take at least another month."

You sit down and rest for a while, feeling even more fatigued now than you did when you started. Rarity gives you a glass of juice, and that helps. Using magic can be very tiring, just like heavy lifting or painting or solving a hard puzzle. Your brain takes more energy than any other part of your body, after all, and magic takes a lot of brainpower. But this thing you've done today? It's good, you think. You can't deny that you did well, even though you try to deny that most of the time. This is good, yes. You smile.

There's a knock at the door, and Rarity answers. "Ah! Perfect timing. Welcome, Berry Punch," she says. They do an air-kiss and giggle. You really don't understand that.

"Pinchy!" says Mom, and she turns and gallops past Rarity, picks you up, and squeezes you tight. You smell something on her cheeks. It smells a little like wine, and you wince.

Dammit, Mom.

"Honey, you can go outside and get in the cart. I'll be right out, after I talk with Princess Rarity." Her breath smells like mouthwash, but that isn't fooling you. You probably know Mom better than she knows herself. You've lived with her your whole life, after all. Well, except for the couple of times they took you away from her for a while.

"Oh. Why are we taking a cart?" you ask.

"You'll find out soon enough," says Mom, and she grins.

You go outside, and there's a small haycart loaded with several boxes. You climb in next to the boxes and rest while Mom and Rarity gab it up. You feel kind of sleepy because you stayed up late last night doing homework, but you resolve to stay awake for a few more hours. It's your birthday today, which Mom usually remembers. You're not counting on that, but you should at least be prepared.

You fall asleep in the cart anyway, but a few minutes later you're awakened by the motion of the cart. Mom has latched herself up and is trotting into town.

Since Mom is an earth pony, this load won't even make her break a sweat. "I see the saddlebags, and Rarity told me how well you did today!" she turns back and briefly peeks at you with the Mystery Look, but she keeps trotting. "She didn't give me any details about what you did, though, so you'll have to tell me all about it. We're going to have a lot of fun together celebrating your awesome magic."

You smile. "Oh, cool," you say, and you mean it. Yeah, you do love Mom. It's not her fault she has a drinking problem—it's a physical addiction she developed when she was a little foal. She tries her best, and everypony makes mistakes.

Then it hits you: is the Mystery Look what pride looks like? Is that what you've been seeing on other ponies' faces all along? Is your mother proud of you? Is Rarity? Maybe all this time, inst—

Mom yelps and twists to the left, and everything spins upside-down. You fly out of the cart as you hear wood cracking behind you, and you slam into the side of a stone building. It winds you, and painfully.

Hitting the ground, you cry and gasp for breath, kneeling there right next to the wall. Looking up from the ground, you see Mom's legs behind the overturned cart, and you hear her curse. You feel bad, but you can forgive her... even though she's obviously drunk off her rump again.

One of the boxes has smashed open, and party supplies have spilled out. Party supplies? You can't think clearly because you're still struggling to breathe. With a loud THUMP, a large block of granite appears on the ground right next to you. What in Equestria is going on? You hear loud hoofsteps striking the ground at a galloping pace. They're getting close, and fast. You feel worried for some reason, but you don't k—

Suddenly you jerk upright in bed, throwing your covers across the room and screaming loud enough to wake everypony in the house. You're drenched in sweat. You're confused about where you are, and everything else too. Were you in a dream? No, it felt too real to be a dream. You were gaspin' for breath, and... didn't it have something to do with Mom? No, Ma wasn't there, cause you'd remember that thing, even though you can't hardly recall her face no more. You ain't sure about the rest.

The door to your room bursts open, sending fractured pieces of wooden lock flying right out the open window. "Y'okay?" says a large alicorn who reminds you of one of your sisters.

Wait. Sisters? What were you just thinkin' about? How come dreams gotta fade so quick...

And who are you, anyway?

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