• Published 31st Dec 2017
  • 399 Views, 9 Comments

Upside-Down Cake - Impossible Numbers



Derpy tries her best not to feel like a failure in the lead-up to Hearth's Warming. Intriguingly enough, so does Rarity.

  • ...
3
 9
 399

Upside-Down Cake, Part V - Derpy

After that little experience, Derpy changed course. It was probably a good idea to keep her distance and wait for the chaos to blow over. It usually was.

She wandered Ponyville for a while, grateful that today was one of those unseasonably warm ones the Cloudsdale team liked to schedule for no apparent reason. Not a cloud in the sky, not a hint of a snowflake, not a mist or a cold breeze to worry about. Already, green patches of grass showed up among the piles of snow. On any other day, she might have stopped to appreciate small mercies.

But word would be spreading around Ponyville. It wasn’t even lunchtime, and already she wanted today to be over.

What she ought to do was go back and offer to pay. That was her normal response to scenarios like accidentally eaten lunches or the occasional broken door. However, she found it a lot easier to offer pay to her friends than to someone random, like – say – Filthy Rich. And she suspected this wasn’t one of those normal things that a dent in her finances could easily fix.

Instead, she went for the Ponyville market. She had things to buy this Hearth’s Warming.

Stalls all over the place, simple wares, humble foods, and none of those big impressive buildings like the Barnyard Bargains store: this was more her speed. Cheerful and carefree, she’d stopped many a time to chat with one of the stallholders, like Applejack or Daisy or Lucky Clover. Business was so slow there that she could stand around for hours talking about who was doing what, how they were doing it, and where and when they were planning it.

Except for today.

As she turned the corner, the hubbub of voices and coins and hoofsteps overwhelmed her. She could almost feel the heat radiating off all those bodies, and marvelled that there was any snow left.

Ponies, ponies everywhere, and not a stall in sight. Mainly because all the bodies got in the way.

Cringing, she flew up and over the mass of colours and shifting shapes. Ponyville might be a tight-knit community, but its citizens were still not immune to the usual panic buys, rising demands, and petty squabbles of the season. Here and there, she saw pegasi rise up and dive back into the scrum. Bags rode the currents like flotsam caught on the tide. Voices rose higher and higher, trying to drown each other out. Occasionally, a space opened up where two shoppers had gotten into a louder argument than usual. There was even some pushing and chest-jabbing.

Derpy stared in horror. She’d hoped to get her shopping done early for a change, to avoid the rush. By the look of it, everyone else in town had hit upon the same idea.

Instead, she shot over the lot and went for Sugar Cube Corner. The bakery stood on the margins of the marketplace, somewhat uncertain like a nervous loiterer on the edge of a dance floor. The building certainly looked a lot more appealing than the mob, what with the sweet-natured “gingerbread house” aesthetic. Surely there, she had a chance to –

Nope. They were queuing out the door. She sighed. Not Sugar Cube Corner too…

Right now, she could really do with a soft, chewable sugar rush. Ponies left her numb and speechless in confusion, but a muffin was a muffin. She bought it. She ate it. It didn’t complain or bring the roof down. All in all, a welcome arrangement.

So bracing herself, she landed and stood in line. The urge to avoid jostling had lost against the urge to have muffin.

After a while, they moved one pony forward.

After another while, they moved one pony forward.

The next while passed by without comment, and they moved one pony forward.

Derpy waited for this new while to do something interesting, but it merely ignored her and passed by, and they moved one pony forward.

At this rate… her lips moved with silent calculation… it’d need three more whiles before she reached the front door.

She sighed. Another while, another move one pony forward.

The sun arced across the sky. This was the only sign of time passing; the marketplace remained a chaotic scrum and the queue barely moved.

She bent her legs to jump up and go home: maybe she’d blow some bubbles or play some board games against herself. If anything, though, the prospect made her sag, and she stayed in the queue. Everyone else would either be on weather duty or out there in the market mess, anyway. So who did she have now?

“Hey, sport,” said a careless voice approaching.

Derpy looked up, guilt shooting through her, hoping to the heavens that Filthy Rich hadn’t sent an assistant to hunt her down, but then saw it was only Lemon Hearts. Lemon Hearts was OK, if a bit weird. Derpy’s guilt went back down to hide.

For now, she merely had to deal with Lemon Hearts’ strutting approach. The unicorn mare had a straw between her lips.

“Thanks for saving my spot.” She winked and slid in beside Derpy. Mares muttered on either side, but said nothing aloud. Lemon Hearts for her part looked utterly unconcerned, puffing on her stick of hay.

“Miserable, isn’t it?” said Lemon Hearts to no one in particular. “Happiest time of the year, and you spend half of it in crowds and queues. How sad.”

“Yeah,” said Derpy, just in case this was meant for her. “Sad.”

“You don’t mind me puffing on this, right?” Lemon Hearts pointed at her stick of hay.

“Uh…”

“Good, ‘cause I’m puffing on it anyway.”

“Excuse me –” began an indignant voice behind them.

Lemon Hearts rounded on the culprit. “I wasn’t asking you, short stuff. What are you, the good manners police?”

They finally reached the doorway. Derpy squirmed where she stood. No one had anything against Canterlot types, not per se. Sometimes, Ponyville got the odd snooty type, but there were others who were right at home in Ponyville and didn’t bring any snobbery with them at all. And then there was Lemon Hearts who, despite her fine curls and agreeably dainty eyelashes, managed to be to Ponyville what a Ponyvillian would be to Canterlot.

“What you getting?” said Lemon Hearts, making sidelong eye contact.

“Don’t know,” said Derpy with a shameless sigh. It wasn’t as if Lemon Hearts could make her feel any lower. “I just want something nice and sweet.”

“Might have a bit of trouble choosing at the counter, then.” Lemon Hearts peered over the heads. “At least you got time to think. That queue’s zigzagging, look.”

“I guess I could get one of those nice gingerbread houses,” said Derpy, and a thought struck her. Against all good sense, she met Lemon Hearts’ careless gaze head-on. “Say, maybe I could get one as a gift for Dinky?”

“What are you asking me for? It’s your gift.”

“Oh, never mind.” Derpy sagged where she stood. “I just remembered. She wants a Power Ponies action figure collection.”

“Nice. Is that the next generation model, or the classic model?”

They both moved one pony forward. The queue definitely moved faster now. She could see the hats of Mr and Mrs Cake at the counter, along with one or two temporary assistants.

“What?” Derpy said.

“I know. Makes you sick, doesn’t it?” To Derpy’s well-brought-up shock, Lemon Hearts turned her head and spat on the floorboards. “They say things like ‘It’s the thought that counts’ and ‘Peace and goodwill to all ponies’ and ‘Tis better to give than to receive’, and then turn around and add, ‘Oh, by the way, get me this useless junk that’s barely any different from the last round of useless junk, and get ready for a tug-of-war at the toy store ‘cause it’s gonna be a popular piece of garbage all right’.”

“Er…” Derpy looked about for inspiration. She still wasn’t sure what to order.

“And you better do it, or they’ll roast your heart on a spit. Call that peace and goodwill? Ha! I blame the modern lifestyle. Too edgy, if you ask me. Too jumpy. Too rushed. Everyone lives on their nerves nowadays, like they do in the city. No carefree attitude or nothin’. Manehattan has a lot to answer for, if you ask me. Canterlot’s going the same way too.”

Derpy frowned. Not solely because Lemon Hearts could corrode the air around her with her mere presence, but because the tone didn’t match the content. Lemon Hearts spoke the words of a complainer, but smirked and kept winking as she spoke them. Somehow, the thought of a fight over action figures seemed like high entertainment to her.

Lemon Hearts chuckled, and to Derpy’s ears, it wasn’t a nice chuckle. It had too much leer in it.

“I mean, do you feel full of peace and goodwill right now?” she said, pouting and shifting her stick of hay.

Derpy hummed. “Not really.”

“It’s ‘cause the whole thing is a swindle.”

“Well, not because of that.”

Suspicious eyes bored into hers. “Why? What mess you done now?”

“I don’t want to talk about it.” Derpy wondered how she’d guessed, but then gloomily wondered what else it was going to be. Clumsy ponies like her had a reputation. They said you could trust Derpy to be joyful, but you’d be daft to trust her with a job. She’d once half-destroyed the Town Hall, and even she had no idea how she’d done that one.

“Mixed up the Hearth’s Warming lists, did you? Ha. Lyra’s the same. Get her away from music, and she suddenly can’t hold a list straight, never mind keep a load of them straight.”

“Yeah,” said Derpy helplessly. “Sounds crazy.”

“A screw-up if ever there was one.”

Derpy had no idea of how to get rid of the mare. Even as the queue moved forwards, her brain’s only suggestion involved saying some very rude things. Helplessly, she added, “Yeah. Screw-up.”

Yet her brain turned traitor on her. She suddenly remembered Hearth’s Warming Eves and Hearth’s Warming Days long past, and every single one had seen her struggling with lists. She’d tot up the stuff and give herself a reasonable budget – after much coaxing and calculating from her best friends, because she struggled with any number bigger than ten – and then she’d happily go to the shops, and within an hour she’d be over-budget and still struggling to meet the list.

Sometimes, it was just because she miscalculated. Sometimes, it was because she bought something edible and then got a craving, and later had to go back and get a replacement. Sometimes, she was flat-out swindled and the thing would turn out to be a cheap knock-off that fell apart once she turned the corner. Sometimes, she just couldn’t say no to a persuasive salespony.

Not once did she ever make it work. Despite everything, she’d end up breaking the things or mucking up the wrapping, and it was guaranteed – when the day finally came – that she’d find someone patiently pointing out that this wasn’t what they’d ordered. And anyway, someone else would have also bought it, causing much embarrassment. Even though the recipient often never even went into the required level of detail: it was like getting a request for a cardboard box, getting a cardboard box, and then finding out they’d really wanted a Paper Cube Double-Layered Storage Unit and not, for instance, the first cardboard box that looked nice on a shelf.

Come to think of it, had she ever not disappointed someone in some way?

Gah! The whole thing was so ineffably awful, she wanted to go back to bed and hide for the rest of the winter.

And now, she wondered what exactly she was going to do to make this year any different. Same old Derpy, she thought. Same old, same old Derpy.

“Hello, Derpy,” said Mrs Cake.

“What can we get you?” said Mr Cake.

Derpy shook herself back into the present, and was horrified to find her eyes had wandered again. Beside her, Lemon Hearts had gone back to her bored bystander look.

“Oh, uh…” said Derpy.

“Excuse me,” said Mr Cake. “Do you mind not puffing that indoors?”

Lemon Hearts froze. Her stare could have frozen an oven.

Then with an exaggerated gape, she opened her mouth, rolled her tongue out, wrapped the stick of hay, and drew it back with a slow clamp of teeth and lips. She chewed slowly and without relaxing her stare at all. Then she swallowed, in as theatrical a manner as possible.

“Ex-cuse me,” she trilled cheerfully. “And now you’ve done your part for the neighbourhood watch, Mister, we’d like you to do your actual job, please.”

Muttering broke out behind them. Derpy surrendered. She had enough to deal with as it was, and now this?

“Two muffins, please,” she said.

“I’m sorry, dear,” said Mrs Cake, giving her husband’s scowl a grimace of disapproval, “but we’re fresh out.”

“Season of giving, everyone,” said Lemon Hearts, smirking.

Derpy cut across her; she’d seen Mr Cake open his mouth. “Gingerbread ponies, then?”

“Make that two,” said Lemon Hearts.

“I’m sorry,” said Mrs Cake. “We’ve only got the one.”

“Cinnamon swirl, then,” corrected Lemon Hearts.

Two hastily sealed bags landed on the counter. Only then did it occur to Derpy that… Unless she’d hid it in her mane… Or…

“Um,” she said, patting herself down and turning red. “I forgot my purse.”

Ponies behind them groaned and complained at once. Behind the counter, the Cakes gave each other worried looks. Any other time of the year, they might have passed it off on the Sugar Cube Corner equivalent of a tab, but this was not that kind of season, and –

Lemon Hearts tossed a few coins onto the counter. “Keep the change.”

Face creased with suspicion, Mr Cake counted it out. He grunted.

“It’s exact,” he said.

“I thought I’d make it easy for you. Don’t want you to strain yourself.” Lemon Hearts levitated the bags and sauntered off without so much as a backwards glance. “Move it, Big Rump. And you.” Angry curses broke out as she shoved her way through.

“Sorry about her. Aheh.” Derpy gave the Cakes a hasty grin, and then scurried after her, throwing apologies to every pony she bumped along the way. “Hey, one of those is mine –”

“Relax. I’m getting you out of this walking morgue, all right? Let’s get a table outside.”

This brought Derpy up short. Up till now, she wasn’t entirely sure what Lemon Hearts wanted besides a chance to jump the queue.

“A table?”

“You’d rather stand? Come on. Won’t take long. We can point and laugh at the crowds together.”

I’ve had just about enough of this. Derpy frowned. “You really are as sour as a lemon, really.”

“The clue is in my name.”

All the same, the idea was inviting. Sans any firm plans of her own other than a general desire to avoid Barnyard Bargains, Derpy sat on the cold stool and drew it up to the rounded table. Sugar Cube Corner had strayed into café territory in recent years, and the large parasol things kept them shielded from the weather even during the winter. Besides, lots of ponies liked to sit and watch the crowds whilst munching on warming goodies. Few things were better than a sweet luxury no one else was having.

Opposite, Lemon Hearts rocked the stool under her own thrown weight, and then attacked the cinnamon swirl with gusto. Derpy looked down and stared at her own gingerbread pony. Suddenly, she wasn’t sure she should be eating it.

She groaned. This was all so pathetic. Even if Filthy Rich let her off, he’d still tell Rarity what she’d done, and then what? No one was that generous twice. And this stupid gingerbread wasn’t going to solve that.

“I’m a screw-up,” she muttered bitterly.

“Hm?” Lemon Hearts’ mouth was full. “Sorry?”

She stared out at the scrum of the marketplace. “I’m a screw-up, aren’t I?”

Lemon Hearts swallowed. She looked about, as though checking for eavesdroppers. She knocked the parasol over so that it hid her from public view. Derpy was so far gone by this point that this wanton vandalism barely registered as a matter of interest.

Then, to Derpy’s amazement, the mare smiled. Not smirked. Not grinned. Not leered. Genuinely smiled. There was something of the Rarity about that smile.

“Yes,” Lemon Hearts said bluntly. “But there are worse things than being a screw-up.”

Derpy poked at her gingerbread pony’s belly. “Like what?”

“You care, don’t you?”

Lemon Hearts’ stool scraped back. Hoofsteps approached. To Derpy’s surprise, the mare gave her a gentle pat on the withers.

“Something bothering you, hon?” Compared with the sting of before, this almost was honey. The tones dripped with sweetness and smoothness. “I can tell.”

“I don’t want to talk about it.” Giving in, Derpy broke off a gingerbread leg and crunched it. Bits of sugar tingled along her tongue, but it was otherwise like eating clumps of dirt. Even her appetite was disgusted with itself.

She looked out – around the parasol – at the crowds again. Crowds of ponies, none of whom were known as screw-ups or klutzes or bumblers or fools.

“Everyone makes mistakes,” said Lemon Hearts, giving her another gentle pat. Derpy didn’t much care about the sudden change. She was sparking with gratitude deep inside, but all the same…

“Not like mine,” she said to the table.

“You love Hearth’s Warming. Don’t you?” It was blunt. Blunt, but not like a club. Blunt like a pillow.

At last, Derpy said, “Yeah.”

“You love helping out. Don’t you?”

“Yeah.” Derpy looked up. “Where are you going with this?”

“Nowhere you haven’t already been.” Where the mocking insouciance had lounged about her face, now Lemon Hearts shone with concern and the air seemed somehow brighter, as though seen through a soft focus. “You made a mistake, that’s true. You’ve made mistakes. Yet you keep trying, because you care about those mistakes. You want to do better.”

“Well, yeah, but…”

Now Lemon Hearts wrapped a limb around Derpy’s shoulders, and for once things felt… nice. For a moment, the image of Barnyard Bargains didn’t bother her so much.

“So keep trying.” Lemon Hearts gave her a gentle shake of encouragement. “All you have to do is learn from your mistakes. And you will. Because you care.”

“But what if I just make more mistakes?”

“Then try harder. Figure out what you did wrong. Don’t hide away or sulk like a child.” Another friendly pat. This close, Derpy could smell the slight vanilla perfume of the mare. “Sometimes, when you care about things so much, it hurts to get them wrong. I can’t lie. But Hearth’s Warming means so much to you, doesn’t it? None of this ‘rushing around, buying stuff’ garbage. I’m talking about the true meaning of Hearth’s Warming.”

And Derpy felt as though the sun were finally warming the world around them. There even seemed to be less snow on the rooftops. To her own delight, part of her had wanted very much to hear those words all along.

“You really think so?” she said.

Lemon Hearts let go, but met her gaze. “You’ve got a good heart, Derpy. Not many ponies really believe there’s more to Hearth’s Warming than tinsel and toys. Whatever happens, I’m in your corner, got it?”

Derpy crunched another gingerbread leg. This time, the texture was crumbly and soft like a firm cake.

“Fanksh!” she said around her mouthful. “Dad’s weally nice of ‘oo!”

“Anytime, hon.” Lemon Hearts strode back and slipped onto her seat. “Tell you what.”

Derpy swallowed. “What?”

“You might appreciate this more than me. I don’t know if you’ve heard, but a bunch of us are going up to Canterlot for a bit?”

“Oh yeah. Rarity mentioned it. She made it sound so incredible!” Shamelessly, Derpy tossed the rest of the gingerbread into her mouth and crunched.

“She made you her plus-one?”

“Uh uh.” Derpy’s cheeks bulged. She tried to say, “She wanted to ask Sweetie Belle.”

“Whoa! Watch where you’re spraying!” Lemon Hearts cringed and wiped the crumbs off the table. “Well, I don’t really give a monkey’s about this sort of thing. I only took the ticket to be polite – don’t laugh – but if you think you’d enjoy it more, you’re more than welcome to nick it.”

“Wait… aren’t you looking for a plus-one?”

“No. No, I don’t think so. Anyway, what do you think? I could make arrangements with the other girls.”

“Yeah!” Then Derpy thought about it. “Oh. Wait. No, I’d… I’d better not.”

“Really? A moment ago, you were dancing for joy. What gives?”

“Who’d go with me? No one would want to. They’d have to be the lower class pony.”

“Oh, that. Never mind that. It’s just role-playing, really. It means nothing.” Lemon Hearts hopped off her stool and gave another warm smile. “Don’t beat yourself up before the struggle begins. Promise me that?”

“Sure.”

“Like you mean it.”

Derpy rolled her eyes, and then shook her head to stop them wandering again. “I promise. I promise. Don’t see why, but –”

“Good girl. I’ll let you figure it out, then.” She made to leave, but then paused and turned back. “Oh, and one more thing.”

“What is it?”

Lemon Hearts’ smile became somewhat glazed. “Don’t you dare tell anyone else about this soppy talk, or I’ll skin you alive. Got it?”

“Er… sure?”

“I’ve got a reputation to maintain.”

“Eh?”

“Skin you alive. Remember that.”

Derpy shrugged, totally lost. Social niceties had passed her by, especially Canterlot ones. She guessed this was some sort of playful banter.

“OK, then?” she said.

Satisfied, Lemon Hearts winked and sauntered off. Derpy sighed with relief as though a weight had slipped off her back. Cheered up no end, she watched the mare snap at a few bystanders before she disappeared into the crowd.

All the same, Derpy left for home a few minutes later. She reckoned she could try harder, and try again and again, but best to sleep on it, she felt. Besides, the sooner today was over, the better.