• Published 31st Dec 2017
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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.

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Upside-Down Cake, Part VI - Derpy

Well, she’d had time to sleep it over, or at least to sleep it off. The alarm clock went off, the sun shone through the windows, and Derpy burst out of bed bright and beaming to greet the blank-slate-of-a-day.

Outside, the whiteness of Cloudsdale was brilliant as snow on a Hearth’s Warming postcard, though lacking in robins.

Normally, the sight was business as usual for her. True, a city of cumulus and rainbows, attended by a flock of winged ponies, looked like most ground-dwellers’ idea of Heaven, but most of the place was given over to weather factories and workers’ living quarters. Pegasi were not known for playing harps, though Cloudchaser was known to play a mean harmonica, and didn’t wear white robes when imitation Wonderbolt suits were in stock. Pegasi there didn’t live in paradise; they either worked or just lived normal lives between shifts. If Cloudsdale was Heaven, it was a Heaven post-Industrial Revolution.

Yet this time, Derpy looked out and saw the simple beauty of the clouds, marvelled at the joyful colours of the rainbow cascades, and savoured the general sense that all was too good and light and soft to be any more than a living dream. And nevertheless, there it was: as real as real could be.

“All set, world?” she said happily. “Here comes a Holly Jolly Hearth’s Warming!”

Derpy the Derp-eyed Delight wolfed down a bowlful of breakfast and went rockin’ around to the factory. She was still skipping and posing and air-guitaring when she passed through the main gates and among the vats of cloud solution. Geysers of pink drowned out her whispered singing.

“The snow’s comin’ down,” she crooned, revelling in an old favourite and trying to capture the parentheses with even quieter whispering.

“(Hearth’s Warming) But I’m not makin’ it fall!

(Hearth’s Warming) It got the ponies on the ground!

(Hearth’s Warming) My friends, please please pleeeeeaaaaaase come visit ‘cause-I’m-dying-of-loneliness-also-it’s-cold-and-windy-and-the-windigoes-are-coming-to-get meeeeeeeee!

Ah, I love the classics, she thought.

“Morning, Flitter!” she called out. Up ahead, her squadron were assembling. At least, she liked to think of them as her squadron. Sounded professional.

Flitter’s smile peeped out of her face. “You’re in an oddly lovely mood.”

“Why wouldn’t I be? ‘Tis the season to be jolly, full of holly, by golly, dolly, folly, colly, lolly, molly. I just love saying things that rhyme with ‘jolly’. Don’t you? Nolly, olly, polly, quolly, rolly, solly, tolly –”

Flitter coughed nervously, her gaze twitching about the place. “Not that. I mean… after what happened yesterday?”

Uh oh. Hastily, Derpy put on a season’s grinning.

“Oh, I don’t let that sort of thing get me down,” she said. “What’s important is that everyone should be jolly on Hearth’s Warming.”

“Well, sure, but you don’t think there’s such a thing as –”

“No buts! No ifs! No idle tiffs! Or… something like that. Come on! Let’s go show everyone the true Hearth’s Warming spirit!”

Wincing, Flitter patted her bow and said, “Um, if you say so. But I’d tone it down, if I were you.”

Up ahead, most of the Weather Team – her squadron was made up of eight ponies, including herself – stood haphazardly in the middle of the corridor, waiting for their shift to start. Flitter slid in amongst them and then contrived to indicate she wasn’t really there, but of course if she was then she’d been there the whole time and had just wanted to be quiet…

“…a pretty easy day today,” Rainbow Dash was saying, to those elements of the team that hadn’t yawned or fallen asleep. “Cloudchaser, you and Bulk Biceps cover the east side of Ponyville. Make sure the cloud cover is geared towards cumulostratus; we want partial cover to keep things reasonably steady. Raindrops, you and Thunderlane cover the west side. Clear the leftover cumulus. We’re expecting sunny spells to creep up on the town for a few days, and then we’ll hit ‘em with another blizzard.”

“Why?” said Raindrops, cocking her head.

“Don’t ask me. We just get the orders. Anyway – THUNDERLANE! What did I just say?”

“I was resting my eyes,” said Thunderlane sullenly. “It’s too early for this sort of thing.”

“NEGATIVE! I said nothing like that, and you know it.” Rainbow Dash’s training time with the Wonderbolts last fall had clearly rubbed off on her. She rounded on Bulk Biceps, who currently resembled a sleeping mountain. “BULK! BULK! Someone wake him up, for Pete’s sake. Come on, guys. We do this every year –”

Facing this spectacle and all the shouting, Derpy hung back for a moment. Under Rainbow’s current mood, news about the incident yesterday was not likely to go down well, and would result in even more shouting. Besides, Rainbow Dash tended to shout at her more than anyone, even sometimes calling her… Derpy shuddered… “featherbrain”.

Nonetheless, she stiffened her limbs and forced the smile. The team needed her. If she played them carefully, she’d get a much happier tune out of them. Maybe even a carol. Yes, nothing said “Hearth’s Warming spirit” like ponies joined in song.

“Cheer up, everyone!” she said. “It’s Hearth’s Warming!”

Rainbow Dash rounded on her, or rather snapped to attention and aimed all cannons. The Wonderbolts had not so much rubbed off on her as clung on tight.

“Not yet, it isn’t,” she said. “And where have you been? You know what time we start in winter.”

“I sure do,” said Derpy, carefully ignoring the punctuality issue. “It’s your favourite season, Rainbow Dash! Playing in the snow? Drinking snow cider? Chilling out indoors while it’s chilling out… um, outdoors?”

For a moment, actual softness crossed Rainbow’s face. The scowl melted. Inner summer shone through. Then the face flash-froze again.

“Work first,” said Rainbow Dash. “Then play. We’ve got a big responsibility. We can’t let Ponyville down.”

“That’s right!” Casting about for inspiration, Derpy saw either drooping eyelids or puzzled stares. “Tell you what: we could sing carols while we do it.”

Groans and snorts ran among those parts of the crowd that hadn’t dropped off. Cloudchaser shivered.

“Come off it,” she said. “I’ve heard ‘Ice Spirits Melting on a Friendship Fire’ umpteen times already.”

“Or, or, or we could have a snowball fight!”

“My brother did that,” muttered Thunderlane. “He got an ice block in the face.”

“Oh, how terrible!” Flitter patted him on the shoulder. “I didn’t know. I’m sorry.”

“Um.” Derpy tapped a hoof, trying to stamp out a thought and all the awkwardness creeping in. “How about we sit by the fire and tell each other Hearth’s Warming stories?”

Even more groans and snorts ran among the crowd, waking up the likes of Bulk Biceps at last.

“FIRE!” he yelled. “WHAT FIRE!? EVACUATE! EVAC –”

“Whoa, whoa,” said Rainbow Dash. “Calm down, big guy. There’s no fire.”

“OK,” said Sunshower Raindrops, “but name one story we haven’t heard ten times over. A Hearth’s Warming Tale? Done to death. The Founding of Equestria? Every child knows it, and it’s historically unlikely, I might add. And let’s not get into How the Dragon Ate Hearth’s Warming.”

“I love that one!” said Derpy. “And… I’m… sure you will too.”

“Yeah, right,” said Cloudchaser with a shrug.

Rainbow Dash rose up into the air over their heads; quite apart from the commanding position she now took, everyone knew she was nigh-addicted to being airborne and would jump up to the opportunity whenever she could.

“Derpy, come on. Let’s just get this job done first, OK?” she said, implying she’d actually get a chance second. Everyone else’s faces said: Don’t count on it.

Derpy’s chest tightened. “I’m just trying to raise everyone’s Hearth’s Warming spirits,” she said, dropping the act and feeling the worse for it. “When I think about the lovely music of the season, well… um… I just want everyone to hear what I hear.”

“Don’t you know it’s not Hearth’s Warming time? At all?” said Cloudchaser. “Yet?

Anyway,” said Rainbow Dash. They all turned to her while she floated back and forth in midair, as though pacing before the troops. “No snowfall until next week, understand? We’re melting this layer off first, then blizzard time.”

Derpy gaped. Sure, she could agree to lay off on the carols and stories, but no snow? For an entire week!?

“But, but, but,” she said, wishing she hadn’t lost the initiative already. “There must be snow! It’s winter! It’s Hearth’s Warm – coming up to Hearth’s Warming! We can’t have either without snow! Snow is perfect! How will anyone play in it if it isn’t there? And, and, and don’t the songs go on about a white Hearth’s Warming?”

“Derpy,” said Rainbow Dash threateningly. “What’s the matter with you?”

“Yeah,” said Thunderlane, who seemed sore about the brother-got-an-iceblock-in-the-face thing. “We gotta wait for the Snowflake Department to make the next batch. They don’t just magically turn up.”

“And timing is everything,” said Raindrops, patting herself on the temple smugly. “Specific patterns in the overall distribution of pressure and temperature depend on an exact balance –”

“What Rainswot over there is saying,” said Cloudchaser, and she earned herself a dirty glare for this remark, “is that we don’t just dump the stuff willy-nilly.”

Thank you,” said Rainbow Dash, and at once the squadron clammed up like students who’ve just seen the headmaster storm into the room. A lot of stiffening ensued. “OK, since you were late, Derpy, you’re with me, Blossomforth, and Flitter, OK? Cloud clearance for now. North side first, then tending down to the centre. We’ll meet Star Hunter’s team coming up from the south, and then report to the Mayor at Town Hall and take a break. You got all that?”

“Uh…” said Derpy, who needed the time to catch up. “North. Centre. Town Hall. Mayor.”

“Good enough,” said Rainbow Dash, who resented the time to slow down. “We’re off in five minutes, got it?”

“Yes, Captain Crash,” muttered Thunderlane. Not quietly enough.

“Say that again!”

I-mean-yes-Rainbow-Dash! Yes, Rainbow Dash!” He saluted hastily. “Just like you said! Off in five minutes! Got it!”

Under the giggling, he blushed. Rainbow glared at him again, and then there was a multicoloured blur, and she was gone.

Grumbling, yawning, and in Flitter’s case patting her bow with something akin to fashion paranoia, the team walked or flew towards the exit. As they went, Derpy traipsed behind them, screwing up her lips in thought.

I do care, she thought over and over. I do care! That’s what matters, right? So all I have to do is get them to care. This should be easy. Who wants to be unhappy, especially this time of year?

Once in the small staff kitchen, the squadron spread out. Cloudchaser sprawled over the cloud cushions, Raindrops went over to the bookshelf and half-slid on an ice patch, Bulk Biceps found a corner where he could stand quietly and flex his muscles, and Thunderlane and Flitter stood behind Blossomforth, who got a mug and filled it from the tap with liquid rainbow. A sip, and she shivered and yelped.

“Oh, so spicy!” she said around her tongue. “Yep, that did the trick.”

“You wimp,” said Thunderlane, grinning.

“It woke me up, didn’t it?”

Derpy chewed her lip some more, standing at the entrance. She could not let the day start like this. She was on a crusade. Next thing would be they’d forget it was Hearth’s Warming at all…

“Oh, guys!” she cooed, suddenly remembering. “Hey, guys! I know what’ll get you in the mood!”

“Yeah, getting the leaky water vats fixed.” Raindrops glared at the ceiling. “We’ve got ice dripping in again.”

“No! You remember the Hush-hush Gifthorse Tradition?”

More groans and snorts indicated that they did, and not with relish. Bulk Biceps paused in mid-stretch, looking like a giant croissant covered in flour.

“GOT MINE!” he said proudly.

“Well,” said Derpy, nodding at him, “how about we make the exchange early this year? That’ll put you in the right mood.”

Blossomforth put her mug back into the sink while Thunderlane gulped his drink. She shook her head.

“Don’t you understand, Derpy?” she said gently. “Every time you do something like this, you make us less likely to –”

“Hooray for Hush-hush Gifthorse! Hooray for Hearth’s Warming!”

Behind the slumped Blossomforth, Thunderlane yelped and fanned his tongue with both hooves. Flitter filled her mug.

“Do we have to?” said Cloudchaser.

“HOORAY FOR HEARTH’S WARMING!” bellowed Bulk Biceps, who could get carried away.

“If it’ll lift our spirits,” said Raindrops under the shadow of defeat, “why not?”

Giggling, Derpy waited until they were all surrounding her, each bearing a wrapped parcel. The Hush-hush Gifthorse Tradition was an old favourite when she’d started out. No one knew ahead of time who’d get the present for whom. Everything was done with an ice bowl and names on pieces of paper. It was so fun to pick one out, read it, let no one else know, and then do some detective work figuring out what kind of gift would best please the lucky pony. She danced for joy.

“Blossomforth,” she said proudly. “This is for you!”

“Thanks.” Blossomforth seemed happy enough taking it off her. She even kept up the smile as she started hacking at the wrapping. Admittedly, it faltered a bit after the first few tugs failed to remove the ribbon, but pegasi were strong and she’d force it off sooner or later.

Everyone else handed theirs over wordlessly. Derpy saw Bulk pass his to Thunderlane, and then saw the big lug receive one from Raindrops, and then saw him unwrap the noticeably thin specimen as easily as his tiny hooves could allow when powered by muscles a bull would be proud of.

He got a box of chocolates. A cheap box of chocolates, from Barnyard Bargains. It still had the discount sticker attached.

“What a great gift!” she cooed, smiling.

“ER,” said Bulk, trying to smile in turn and giving up. “I CAN’T HAVE CHOKKIES!”

Raindrops shrugged, unwrapping her gift. “Everyone likes chocolate selection boxes. You can’t fail with those.”

“GOT A DIET! STRICT DIET!” He flexed his muscles to emphasize the point.

“I got hair gel,” said Cloudchaser, grimacing. “What a shock.”

“I got a bookmark,” said Raindrops, groaning. “Oh, not another one. You got me this last year.”

“You’re hard to shop for!” said Flitter, gritting her teeth. “At least you didn’t get a bunch of hairclips. Who gets hairclips for Hearth’s Warming?”

“You like hair stuff!” said Cloudchaser.

Derpy finally dropped the smile. “That’s it? That’s all you guys got? What about all the really cool stuff in the shops?”

“I know, right?” said Thunderlane. He held out a thin slip. “Here’s yours.”

“For me! Why, you shouldn’t…” Then she realized the thing was as thin as an envelope. “Oh.”

And the contents were just as disappointing, namely because the thing under the wrapping was an envelope. She opened it.

“Money?” she said.

“Yeah, I couldn’t think what you wanted,” he said as though he didn’t care. “So I thought I’d let you decide.”

“That’s it!?

“I thought I’d play it safe.”

“But last year, I got you a Wonderbolt history book!”

Raindrops raised a hoof. “Ooh, sounds nice. Trade?”

Shameless and suave, Thunderlane shrugged. “Sorry. I didn’t know what you’d have liked. We’re not that close, you know. We all just work together. Sure, we’re friends, but you know, not friends friends.”

“What?” It sounded like a fine social distinction, but then it also sounded like he was making up excuses. After all, Thunderlane always made up excuses. If he’d had a first name, his middle name would be “excuses-excuses”.

“Erm…” Blossomforth now wrestled with the wrapping on her gift. “Little help, please? I think I’ve got my hoof caught in the –”

Instantly, Rainbow Dash burst into the room. “Look lively, ponies! Showtime! Let’s go, go, go!”

“Come on, Wonderbolts,” muttered Thunderlane. Beside him, Flitter tittered behind a hoof.

“Or someone could get me some scissors?” Blossomforth grunted. “Anyone? No? OK, I’ll catch you up, I guess. Um… my wing’s caught on the tape, just so you know…”

They strolled down the corridor towards the sunlight. Derpy walked a little way apart from the others, none of whom seemed nearly as bothered by the lack of spirit as they should’ve been. They were friends. Of course they were friends. Long years at Flight Camp and in the Weather Team, everyone cheering when Rainbow Dash and Thunderlane had made it to the Wonderbolts too. What was going on?

“Where’s Blossomforth?” said Rainbow Dash suddenly.

“Unwrapping a present,” said Raindrops.

“What? Is she mad? This isn’t the time for that! Flitter, go and knock some sense into her.”

“Yes, Rainbow Dash. I’ll get the scissors.”

After Flitter vanished down the corridor behind them, Rainbow Dash stopped and stared briefly, but then decided it best for her sanity to shake the matter off and continue.

They emerged onto the Cloudsdale plains, just before the drop-off to the world below. By now, Derpy had lost the rosy tint in her eye. This was all so much cloud stuff and big empty sky now.

“Doesn’t anyone care?” she said sadly.

“I CARE!” said Bulk.

Thunderlane rolled his eyes and nudged her elbow. “It’s great you care about Hearth’s Warming so much. And we care about it, really we do. It’s just… one of those things, you know?”

“I don’t understand,” she said.

“You know.” Vaguely, he waved a hoof as though reeling in a line and hoping he’d hooked a good argument on the other end. “Grow up. Get older.”

“To quote the ancient words of Sunstruck the Bedazzled Hermit after he saw sunlight for the first time,” chimed in Raindrops. “‘I spoke as a foal, I understood as a foal, I thought as a foal; but when I became a mare, I put away foalish things.’”

Derpy growled. Of all the things they could’ve said – called her a shrieking loudmouth, mocked her wrapping skills, anything – this was right down at the bottom of the depths. The Summer Sun Celebration: a bit overblown. The Running of the Leaves: so much sweat and dirt. Nightmare Night: an excuse to dress up stupid. Fine. But Hearth’s Warming!?

“Hearth’s Warming,” she said, throwing down each word as though throwing down gauntlets for them all, “is not foalish.”

“But it’s not exactly –” Thunderlane shrugged and looked pleadingly at Raindrops, who shrugged back. “You know.”

“Or maybe it is!” Derpy wished she wasn’t coming close to shouting, but the shouting was coming up her throat. “And maybe being foalish isn’t so bad!”

At the edge of the cloud bank, Cloudchaser and Bulk Biceps threw themselves off and began gliding down, out of sight. Thunderlane and Raindrops got into position. Whether they’d been struck by her counterargument or not, they spread their wings as though they hadn’t heard.

Off to the side, Rainbow Dash tilted her head curiously. “What’s foalish?”

“Raindrops said Hearth’s Warming is foalish,” said Derpy, really really wishing she didn’t sound so petulant. Instead, some worry peeked out of her face. “It isn’t, is it?”

“Well… no,” said Rainbow Dash, glaring at the two offending pegasi. “I love Hearth’s Warming.”

Neither Raindrops nor Thunderlane said anything. Their focused stares winced briefly.

“Exactly!” Derpy sighed with relief. Daylight shone on her hopes again. “It’s just like all the really good stuff. Like the Sandmare who puts young ponies to sleep with sand – I almost caught her once! And – oh, I almost forgot! – there was the Blue Bird of Happiness! You remember when we went looking for one of those back in Flight Camp, Rainbow Dash?”

Now it was Rainbow’s turn to wince. “Uh, maybe not the best time to –”

“Talk about a fun adventure! Turned out it was in my yard all along!”

“That was a chicken.” Rainbow started and put a hoof over her mouth. “Er, not that I was there.”

She reddened with the giggling; Raindrops and Thunderlane threw themselves over the edge, taking their giggles with them.

“And then there was the Umbrella Nanny with her magic brolly,” said Derpy, letting this go. “Remember the story, the one where she saved Hearth’s Warming by going into the Tooth Breezie’s tower? And fighting off all those evil henchmares?”

Rainbow Dash steeled her face against the impatience bursting out. “Derpy!”

“Yeah?” However, Derpy’s heart quailed inside. Those tones left no room for doubt, even up against her wilful optimism.

Eye-to-eye, they were. Rainbow said, as though talking to a child, “Is something up? You’re acting weird.”

“I just happen to care about Hearth’s Warming. That’s all.”

“We know about the Barnyard Bargains thing.”

Derpy sagged, surprising herself. Half of her had planned to deny unto the last that any such thing had happened, but then that half didn’t think things through.

“Is that what this is about?” Rainbow said.

Someone really ought to tell her we’re not Wonderbolts. The way she talks half the time, wow.

“Am I in trouble?” Derpy rubbed the back of her neck. “I am so sorry! I’ll pay if I have to!”

“Don’t worry about that. Filthy’s got insurance, and it’s not like this is the first time he’s had his store trashed. Anyway, he’s rolling in money. I bet he could fix things easily.”

Uncertain about Rainbow’s grasp of economics, but trusting as ever in her superior wisdom, Derpy nodded at this. “OK?”

“I really meant your… your…” Rainbow gestured to all of her.

“My what?”

“Your cheeriness. You know?” Despite being the clear superior – in flying, strength, wisdom – Rainbow cringed. “It’s kinda freaking me out. Maybe the others too.”

“Freaking out?” Derpy bit her lip. “Why? I’m not bothering anyone, am I?”

“You know.” Rainbow moaned helplessly and hovered again, darting to and fro as though looking for an answer around them. “It’s like Snowfall Frost in that Hearth’s Warming story, right? She hated the holiday so much that everyone thought she was a jerk who needed to get out more.”

“But I’m nothing like –”

“I know, I know! You’re like the total opposite of that. You love the holiday so much that you’re like the Anti-Snowfall Frost. But… Darn it, how do I put this…? Everyone thinks you need to get out less. You see what I mean?”

“You mean…” Derpy felt the edges of the idea creeping up on her, and eyed it suspiciously. “Tone it down?”

“Right down.”

“Like I talk about it just once a day.”

“A bit more.”

“Once a week?”

“A bit more.”

Derpy’s eyes widened with horror. “Once a month?

“Actually, I was thinking…” Rainbow shrugged. “Just… not… at all? Maybe?”

If her eyes were wide with horror, now Derpy’s whole visage swelled with utter existential terror.

Not at all!?” She too rose and flapped, hovering while her insides burned with too much energy.

“Yeah, yeah.” Rainbow landed at once, trying to stand stiffly to attention. “Not at all. It puts ponies off. They want to let it all out on Hearth’s Warming, not weeks before. Just stay quiet and do nothing.”

And that was it. Rainbow was wiser than her, and always cleaned up after her messes, and told her to stay and do nothing. And she disobeyed. And she created more messes.

Derpy landed hard, scattering puffs of cloud under her hooves. “Oh. OK.”

“Just till the holiday.”

“Sure,” she said to the ground.

“Then you can let it all out in one big boom.”



“Promise.” The word turned to ash in her mouth.

“Great. Oh, looks like Flitter and Blossomforth are coming back.” Clearly trying to stay on Derpy’s friendly side, she gave the mare a thump of encouragement. Derpy winced at a blow like an iron bar. “Who’s totally psyched for winter, huh? Three months of the coolest season ever?”

Derpy didn’t see the point. If she couldn’t even raise spirits without mucking something up… Maybe she could try harder, but not right now. Anyway, she saw her present still stuck to Blossomforth’s hoof. Summed it all up, really.

Ignoring the grunts of Blossomforth’s attempts to shake off the tape and ribbon and wrapping, Derpy bent her legs and threw herself away from Cloudsdale. A rebellious smile creased her face.

Maybe not these guys, she thought, and there was an edge to the words. But Ponyville’s a whole different town. We’ll see who’s a Snowfall Frost and who isn’t. Try harder. Figure out what I did wrong. Don’t hide away or sulk. Not for the true meaning of Hearth’s Warming!

Halfway down, it occurred to her: no one had said what the true meaning of Hearth’s Warming actually was.

This could be a problem.