• Published 31st Aug 2019
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Magic of the Heart - Pegasus Rescue Brigade

In the final installment of the "Shipping and Handling" trilogy, Ditzy and Dinky once again wind up in the center of one of the greatest trials Equestria has ever faced.

  • ...

Chapter 3

There was nothing Ditzy could do but watch the scene unfold. Her gaze, and for that matter, all eyes in the room were locked on the unicorn that Glow had invited into the hall. Sparkler, however, was focused solely on the pony that had addressed her.

"It can't be..." she breathed, tilting her head as if her vision was deceiving her. "Dinky Doo? Is that really you?"

Glow raised an eyebrow. "You know Ditzy's daughter?"

"You know Dinky's mom!?" Sparkler cried, much more loudly.

"I don't care who knows whom!" Mayor Mare yelled, stamping a forehoof. "Let us get back to the topic at hoof. Cosmic Glow, you're saying this unicorn, Sparkler, is the daughter of you and the groom, Autumn Breeze?"

"Exactly," Glow snarled. "I'm disgusted by the idea of these two ponies starting a life with each other when I know firsthoof how carelessly one of them can cast away his own child."

"Glow, you're twisting this to your own benefit!" Breeze argued.

"You're just trying to worm your way out of your mistakes!" Glow shot back.

"Oh, I'm the worm now? That's rich, coming from you."

"Don't insult me when you know I'm right, you—"


A wave of pale purple magic washed over the room, so bright and distracting that it grabbed everypony's attention. Even the two bickering exes finally quieted as everypony turned their attention back to Sparkler. Silently, the young mare stepped forward, pushing past her mother and continuing until she stood just as the base of the stage where Mayor Mare, Ditzy, and Breeze were still rooted in place.

"So... is it true?" she asked, staring at Breeze with an expression that betrayed no emotion. "You left my mom suddenly, all those years ago?"

"I didn't know she was pregnant!" Breeze said desperately.

"That's not what I asked," Sparkler said, frowning. "Are you the pony who was dating my mother twenty-some years ago, or aren't you?"

Breeze stepped back, looking a little intimidated by the mare's no-nonsense interrogation. "I... well, yes. That's me."

Sparkler's frown deepened. "Then you're, at best, a careless, fickle pony," she said levelly. "I can't tell you who to love, or who not to love, but it sounds to me like you handled that loveless situation poorly. My mother has resented it all my life and I resent it too."

Breeze's wings drooped. "I... I know. Sparkler, I'm sor—"

"Don't bother," Sparkler said, turning away. "You're no father of mine, Autumn Breeze. Don't try to apologize to a pony you don't even know."

Ignoring the stunned expressions of the crowd, Sparkler made her way down the aisle toward the exit. Glow grinned devilishly again as she glanced at Ditzy, who was still standing silently on stage.

"Well now, Ditzy, that sure is a shame, isn't it?" she began, her voice dripping with exaggerated fake compassion. "If Breeze is any sort of decent pony at all, then he'll at least set the situation with his current family right before he goes marrying into a new one. Perhaps there won't be a wedding today after all."

"Glow, I don't understand," Ditzy mumbled. "It's not like this incident is going to make Breeze suddenly take you back. What could you possibly have to gain from this?"

Glow scoffed. "Sparkler deserves to know the truth," she barked. "Naturally, I'm looking out for my daughter."

"...No, I don't think you are, mom."

All eyes turned yet again to Sparkler, who had stopped just a few steps from the door. "Breeze did have a point," she continued, stoic as usual. "You knew both who he was, and where he was, years ago. And you waited until today to bring me to him."

"Like I said, I wasn't going to do that to you when you were just a teen," Glow replied, frowning. "You didn't need that sort of baggage distracting you during your first few years of study at that Academy."

"That excuse is a load of horseapples," Sparkler snapped, beginning to grow angrier. "If you didn't want to tell me back then, fine. The problem is that you waited until now, until specifically today, during a wedding, to do this."

"Well, how else was I going to break up the wedding?" Glow growled.

Sparkler raised an eyebrow. "Why... did you need to?"

"What else could I do?" Glow snarled. "Even if I can't win your father back, but there's no force in Equestria that could make me stand idly by as that dim, walleyed pegasus gets him instead. If I can't have him, then she's certainly not worthy of him either!"

Sparkler's eyes went wide. "You... you're worse than Breeze is!" she cried, lifting a forehoof slightly and leaning back as if encountering something rancid. "This was never about me! This wasn't even about setting the record straight with Breeze! This whole debacle was just your revenge ploy against Ditzy Doo!"

Ditzy could see Glow's expression change as she realized she'd said far too much. "W-well, Sparkler, that—"

Sparkler's horn flared with pale purple, causing Glow to step back. "You tried to raise me to avoid forming a bond with anypony!" she screamed. "You told me I should learn to put feelings aside, like you do, because it was the only way to avoid hurt and disappointment, but you've been a hypocrite this whole time! You've just been manipulating me and everypony else to sate your lust for vengeance! That's not a pony who has put her bitterness aside at all! That's a pony who's consumed by it!"


"No!" Sparkler roared, magically amplifying her voice so much the windows of the hall shook with its force. "Apparently, I've been born to a careless, flighty father and a disingenuous slimeball of a mother! I want nothing to do with either of you for one second longer!"

In a brilliant violet flash, the furious unicorn teleported away, leaving the hall in stunned silence. Glow continued to stare at the spot where Sparkler had been a moment before, looking rather shell-shocked.

"Erm..." Mayor Mare muttered finally, "so... regarding the ceremony. Are we planning to continue, or...?"

Ditzy glanced at Breeze, and was able to see the answer in his expression. She sighed, tears forming in her eyes, and shook her head.

"No, Mayor Mare. We have to take care of..." she fished for the right words, "...of some other concerns first. Sorry for wasting your time."

Mayor Mare nodded and gave the pair of pegasi a sympathetic glance as she stepped forward to address the crowd. "Unfortunately, this wedding is postponed until further notice," she declared. "The bride and groom will contact you again when, or if, a new date is chosen.

There was the usual clamor of dozens of ponies rising to their hooves and making their way to the door. Ditzy stepped down from the stage and walked over to Glow, who was still staring into space. The unicorn slowly turned to look at her.

"Well, you got what you wanted," Ditzy murmured, making no attempt to hide her tears. "You stopped the wedding, at least for now. You also gave Breeze even more reason to resent you than he already had, and lost any shred of respect your daughter may have had for you. I hope you're satisfied, Glow."

Glow stared at Ditzy for a long moment. Suddenly, her expression grew enraged and she reared up as if she was going to strike the other mare.

"This is your fault!" she declared.

"I... what?" Ditzy stammered, raising her wings in surprise. "All I did was stand here while you trampled all over our wedding day, and now you're blaming me for your misfortune?"

"Yes, because it shouldn't have to come to this in the first place!" Glow shrieked. "Each time we interact, I lose something else. First, it was my top record at Equestria Speedy Shipping Services. Then it was my job. And now, Sparkler! You've done nothing to deserve that stallion you're so enamored with, but somehow, everything just works for you. All I'm doing is seeking justice, making sure that we both get what we deserve, but somehow, you're still the one with the job, the company record, and the stallion!"

Ditzy struggled to come up with a response to Glow's terribly twisted logic, but fortunately, she didn't have to. A third pony stepped up behind the two mares.

"Glow, perhaps we can have a word?"

Glow wheeled around and found herself staring into the calm eyes of Dr. Candyfloss. "Oh, it's you," she spat. "Sorry, Candyfloss, I have no interest in whatever Celestia-damned mumbo jumbo about the power of love you're about to try to force on me."

Candyfloss shrugged. "Very well, then," he said simply. "In that case, I believe you're quite done with what you came here to do. Now leave my employees in peace, please."

Glow harrumphed and galloped to the door, pausing one last time to glare at Ditzy and the rest of her coworkers. "This isn't over, Ditzy Doo," she threatened. "Justice will be served one of these days, just you wait!"

Before Ditzy could reply, the unicorn turned tail and bolted into Ponyville.

A few minutes later, Ditzy and her friends and family stood outside the town hall. Each pony looked rather agitated, though Ditzy felt quite a bit more sad and shocked than angry. Breeze stood by her side, scowling, while the rest of the shipping crew lingered nearby. Dinky and her friends remained huddled together near the side of the building, busy with their own discussion of the incident.

"I'm so sorry, Ditzy," Cloudcover said, placing one of his wings over Ditzy's back for a moment. "I never thought we'd see that ghastly mare again, much less in a way such as this."

"Cosmo really doesn't know when to quit," Watt grumbled, referring to Glow by the nickname she hated so much.

"We'll figure it out," Ditzy said softly, trying to force a small smile. "Breeze and I have to, um, re-evaluate our situation a little, but I'm sure in a couple of weeks, we'll be back here again to do this for real."

"I'm quite certain you will," Candyfloss said reassuringly. "As I said before, the two of you have a bond that could weather almost anything. Cosmic Glow, on the other hoof, appears to have broken another of her tenuous bonds today..."

Breeze stamped a forehoof. "She keeps going out of her way to mess with our lives," he said indignantly. "I hate to say it, but she kind of deserves it."

"Sparkler doesn't, though," came another voice.

Ditzy quickly turned her head when she realized Dinky and her friends had made their way over to the group. "How do you know Sparkler anyway, Dinky?" she asked, tilting her head.

Dinky shuffled a hoof shyly. "Well, uh," she said, lowering her voice considerably, "remember that filly I almost killed with dark magic, the night Scorpio came back? That's her. Though I never knew she was related to Glow until today."

An image flashed through Ditzy's mind of a thoroughly beaten, unconscious unicorn lying in one of the infirmary beds at Celestia's Academy. So that's why she looked a bit familiar...

"Mom," Dinky continued, her eyes full of concern, "I know what just happened was really bad, but... please, can my friends and I go look for Sparkler? I'm sure you and Breeze are feeling hurt too, but you have each other, and your coworkers and friends, to help you. And Sparkler... doesn't. She's alone, and I want to make sure she's okay."

Ditzy couldn't help but smile. "Honestly, Dinky, I agree with you a hundred percent. I'll be okay; you all go make sure your friend is too."

"One second, Dinky," Clarity quickly cut in. "I entirely agree that Sparkler deserves somepony's attention, but, well, we know she can be a little..."

Scuffle smirked. "She can be kind of a bi—"

"Her personality can be a little volatile," Clarity finished, derailing Scuffle. "She's tricky to talk to. I think it might be a lot more effective if we don't overwhelm her, and unfortunately, a whole group of her old schoolmates showing up to talk to her at once would be quite overwhelming."

"You think we should just leave her be?" asked Honeydew worriedly.

"No," Clarity clarified. "But I think just one of us should talk to her. She responds to that better. And although we parted with her on good terms at the end of our first year, only one of us really got past her self-imposed barriers enough to really get to know her."

"So you think I should go by myself?" Dinky asked, looking to her other friends for their opinions.

"Clarity does make a good point," Honeydew admitted. "I know I wouldn't really know what to say to Sparkler, but you might."

"I'm gonna trust the pony with the talent for figuring out how other ponies really think and feel," Scuffle agreed, pointing to the Cutie Mark on Clarity's flank. "You go, Dinks. That'll be best."

Dinky nodded. "See you all back at the cottage then," she called as she scampered off into Ponyville.

Ditzy watched as her filly ran off in one direction, and her friends slowly ambled off in the other. Now, only the members of Equestria Speedy Shipping Services remained outside the town hall.

"I suppose we should get going too," Breeze sighed. "We need to start sorting this whole mess out."

"Before we go," Ditzy said, glancing back toward Doctor Candyfloss, "Doc, what were you going to say to Glow back there if she had let you?"

Dr. Candyfloss looked troubled. "Cosmic Glow could not understand why her schemes always hurt her in some way," he began. "I wanted to try to warn her, try to explain what keeps happening so that perhaps even she could find some peace herself, instead of stripping that peace from the lives of others."

"Unfortunately, Glow's never been particularly inclined to believe any of your philosophies," Cloudcover pointed out.

"Quite right," Candyfloss admitted. "What Glow needs to understand is that the magic that forms not only the bonds of love, but those of friendship and family too, is very powerful. As matchmakers, we treat that magic with respect; we are honored to have the chance to spread it further across Equestria and implant it deeper in the hearts of the ponies we encounter. But Glow, during her days as a shipper, spent her time manipulating ponies, bringing them together with subterfuge. Today she went even further, trying not to just tamper with, but to actually break those sorts of bonds for her own aims."

"If everything you've told us over the years is right, Doc, then that sorta behavior's probably not without consequences, huh?" Watt asked.

"Quite perceptive, Watt," Candyfloss praised, "When respected, and spread with sincerity and goodwill, love and friendship are the unifying forces of society in Equestria. But those who try to douse the flames of love, break the bonds of family, or even destroy friendship itself have always met with misfortune in the end."

"And Glow thinks she can beat those odds?" Ditzy questioned.

"That's why I wanted to at least try to show her her folly," Candyfloss answered, nodding. "What you all need to remember, and what Glow desperately needs to learn before it's too late, is that in our beautiful land of Equestria and all the realms beyond, there is no magic greater than the Magic of the Heart. I go through life with such a sense of contentment because I truly believe that not just romantic love, but all forms of the heart's magic will always prevail. If Cosmic Glow continues to abuse it, to impede it and attack it, it will continue to retaliate until she is left with nothing. At present, she is so consumed with an obsessive desire for revenge that she has blinded herself to that fate. I only hope she can see this someday, before it's too late."

Ditzy looked to the pale winter sky as she considered Candyfloss's words. "For all our sakes, Dr. Candyfloss, and for hers as well... I hope so too."

Dinky dug her hooves into the ground, skidding to a halt in the Ponyville marketplace and glancing around for any sign of Sparkler.

"Why Dinky, I haven't seen you in a while!" came a familiar voice.

Dinky turned and spotted a purple earth pony waving at her from one of the stands: her old teacher, Miss Cheerilee, from her days at Ponyville Elementary years ago.

"Miss Cheerilee, good to see you!" the unicorn greeted. "Sorry to be so curt, but I'm really in a hurry; I need to find a unicorn that probably came through here a few minutes ago."

Cheerilee chuckled. "Let me guess. Pink and purple, with a few gems for a cutie mark?" Cheerilee asked, surprising Dinky. "She rushed through here just a minute ago. The poor dear, she seemed really upset."

"That's her," Dinky said urgently. "Please, do you know where she went?"

Cheerilee pointed. "She galloped right into that diner," she directed. "I think she's still in there, unless she left by magic. I certainly haven't seen her come out on foot."

"Thank you," Dinky said, already galloping away. "Happy Hearts and Hooves Day, Miss Cheerilee!"

"Same to you!" the mare called as Dinky sprinted away.

Dinky slipped into the establishment Cheerilee had indicated as inconspicuously as she could. It only took a second to spot Sparkler; facing away from the door, the older filly was seated in a booth in the far corner, her head resting on the table next to a still-untouched, steaming mug of hot cocoa. For a few moments, Dinky stood still, considering her next move.

Alright, she mentally coaxed herself, I need to be prepared. In the past, Sparkler's been very easy to anger. If I'm gonna be helpful, I have to watch what I say.

Cautiously, she approached the table. Sparkler didn't seem to notice somepony standing next to her, so Dinky made the first move.

"Um... hey Sparkler."

Very slowly, Sparkler lifted her head off the table. As she looked at Dinky, her intense, violet eyes betrayed a wide array of emotions.

"So it was you," she said flatly. "I shouldn't be surprised; of course you'd be the pony who'd show up right after something like that happens. It's like my last year at the Academy all over again; every time there's some sort of chaos in my life, there's Dinky Doo, somehow involved, regardless of whether or not she caused the problem."

Dinky grinned sheepishly. "Old habits die hard, I guess," she responded.

Sparkler glanced out into the aisle. "So you didn't bring Autumn Breeze? Or my mom? Or some small army of ponies to try to cheer me up or something?" she asked suspiciously.

Dinky shook her head. "Just me."

Sparkler said nothing, but the relief in her expression was obvious. Dinky made a mental note to thank Clarity later.

"Sit down, I guess," Sparkler grumbled, gesturing to the vacant seat across from her. "I know better than to try to get you to go away."

Noticing Dinky's grimace, she softened a bit. "And I guess... you did end up being a good pony to confide in, back in our days in school together," she admitted. "Sorry for being rude. As you can probably tell, today has been... less than ideal."

"I can imagine," Dinky said, sliding into the booth across from her ex-overseer. "But I thought bottling it up might not be the best idea. I figured you could use somepony to talk to."

"You have nothing to gain from trying to help, but here you are anyway," Sparkler said with a smirk. "Old habits really do die hard."

The pink pony paused and flagged down the waitress. "Hey, could you bring another hot cocoa over for my guest here?" she called. "Oh, and put some marshmallows in that one please."

"I don't think I have any bits on me," Dinky admitted.

"It's on me," said Sparkler simply. "Now... to start, how do our moms know each other? I'm hoping you can shed some light on that at least."

Dinky frowned. "It's not a very pleasant story, Sparkler."

Sparkler rolled her eyes. "None of this has been pleasant," she pointed out. "Just fill me in. Please."

Trying to stick only to facts and leave any opinions about Glow out, Dinky recounted the story of Ditzy and Glow's time together at Equestria Speedy Shipping Services, going into particular detail about Glow's attempt to sabotage Ditzy's assignment for Princess Luna. Sparkler listened silently until the whole tale was through.

"So when mom worked at that matchmaking place, she literally saw my father every day for a couple years and said nothing?" Sparkler asked, shaking her head in disbelief.

Dinky nodded solemnly. "She spent her whole last year there trying to keep my mom away from your dad," she said sadly. "You would've been in your..." she paused to calculate, "...fourth year at Celestia's Academy while that whole incident was going on, but your parents were coworkers even before my mom entered the picture."

"So you met my mom before we ever met at the Academy then?" Sparkler inquired.

"Not just that," Dinky admitted. "I used my first spell ever when trying to defend my mom from your mom. Ironically enough, if not for Cosmic Glow, I probably wouldn't have demonstrated my magical abilities enough for Princess Celestia to accept me into the Academy."

"Well, I'm glad something good came out of it for you at least," Sparkler grumbled, finally taking a sip of her now-lukewarm cocoa.

"Not just me!" Dinky argued. "I know that was a rough year for you, Sparkler... and that a lot of it was my fault, however unintentionally, but I still remember what you said to me on the last night of that term."

Sparkler looked wistful for a moment. "With a fair amount of wit, a lot of heart, and a little bit of Hocus Pocus... there's nothing you can't accomplish," she recited, as if she'd just uttered the line yesterday.

"Right!" Dinky affirmed, clapping her forehooves delightedly. "Even before I knew who your mom was, it was clear she'd steered you down the wrong path growing up, but you were ready to break free from that, to let friends into your life. You and Presto were going to—"

Dinky didn't even get to finish her sentence; Sparkler's entire expression changed at the word "Presto." She stared down into her cocoa, suddenly acting as if Dinky wasn't even there.

"Sparkler?" Dinky asked, casting a bit of yellow light across the table. "Are you okay?"

"I wanted... so badly to change, to be better, Dinky," Sparkler said hoarsely, a tear or two rolling down her muzzle. "Although you were just a filly at the time, I thought you'd shown me the way to do that, the way for me to reach my goals, to accomplish whatever I set my mind and heart to. I thought I still had one more chance to be better than this bitter, reclusive mare I am."

"W-what are you talking about?" Dinky stuttered, taken aback. "You did! You still do! What's wrong?"

"I can't—" Sparkler choked. "I can't bring myself to talk about it. If you want to know so badly, I can show you."

Dinky reached out and placed a forehoof on Sparkler's. "I want to help, Sparkler," she said resolutely. "Just help me understand what's got you so upset."

Sparkler sniffled a few more times. "F-fine," she managed. "If you've never been on the receiving end of a memory spell before, then heads up: it's a bit weird the first time."

"Memory spell?" Dinky questioned.

Rather than elaborate, Sparkler's horn burst into purple light, and she leaned forward until her horn met Dinky's. The younger filly felt a sudden rush of magic, and everything went white.


Dinky shook her head to clear her blurry vision. Disoriented, she looked around at her distorted surroundings. The place that came into view was not the dim diner from just a moment before. Now it was a vast hall with stained glass windows depicting famous unicorns.

The main hall at the Academy, she realized. Am I looking into Sparkler's memories?

A translucent shape passed right through Dinky, causing her to jump in surprise. It took only a moment to realize that the apparition was Sparkler herself, trotting slowly through the hall and glancing around nervously. Dinky quickly noticed how different this Sparkler looked; she was a few years younger than the Sparkler that had been sitting with her in the booth a minute before, and her coat was covered in small, whitish marks. Dinky cringed when she realized they were barely-healed cuts, remnants of her dark magic assault on the poor Overseer years before. Clearly, the memory she was witnessing happened only a short time after she and Sparkler had last seen one another.

"Hey, Sparkler!" Dinky called, but as she had kind of expected, the hazy image of Sparkler showed no indication of hearing her. With no other option, trotted after the other filly.

For a few moments, Dinky silently watched Sparkler wander the crowd of gathered fifth-term ponies, not pausing to speak with anypony. The young mare was on a mission; she was looking for somepony, and Dinky had a pretty good idea who.


Sparkler's head snapped to the right as a green stallion approached. Dinky knew the pony very well; he was Professor Morningstar, one of the teachers she'd grown quite familiar with.

"Hello, Professor," Sparkler said softly.

"What are you waiting for?" the stallion asked. "The graduation ceremony is going to begin in just a few minutes. As the Overseer and the valedictorian, you'll be one of the leading ponies in the proceedings, so you should probably go get ready."

"That's just it though," Sparkler replied, glancing around with increased urgency. "It's very important that I speak to my fellow Overseer before we begin. Have you seen Presto?"

"Err, Presto isn't here I'm afraid," Morningstar revealed, shifting his weight awkwardly.

Sparkler's expression barely changed, but Dinky suddenly felt a wave of desperate panic. Stunned, she realized the memory spell was allowing her to experience Sparkler's emotions as well, at least to some extent.

"He's not?" Sparkler squeaked, in a voice more feeble than Dinky was used to hearing. "Then where...?"

"If you recall, he missed the end of term ceremony a few days ago due to an urgent family matter," Professor Morningstar pointed out. "We received a letter just this morning that whatever has happened in his home town is much more substantial than he first thought. We sent his diploma out in this morning's mail; there's simply no way he can be here to attend graduation."

Dinky suddenly felt quite sick, and judging by the look on the ghostly Sparkler's face, she felt much the same. She blinked at Professor Morningstar in the state of shock.

"I'm sorry, I'm sure the two of you had quite an alliance as Overseers this year," Morningstar said. "There's little time to dwell on that, though. Chop chop, those of you who are here need to prepare to graduate!"

He trotted off. Sparkler stared after him for a few moments, shaking slightly. Struggling to remain standing, she staggered to an unoccupied corner of the room, quickly trying to rub any tears away from her face.

"Too late..." she gasped, sobbing. "I'm too late. She told me... Dinky Doo told me to trust somepony, to let somepony in. But the one pony who can show me how, who even wanted to show me how..."

Dinky felt her own tears begin to flow freely, and she couldn't help but feel they weren't entirely due to the emotional link created by the spell. She quickly trotted closer to the distraught pony, reaching out to try to help. But she was only a spectator; all she could do was watch as Sparkler's feelings of loneliness and hopelessness crashed over her in waves. Her eyes were so clouded by tears that she hardly noticed as Sparkler, and the whole scene around her, began to fade once again to white.

Dinky sat bolt upright, a few stray tears hitting the wood of the table. Sparkler returned to her normal sitting position, watching morosely as Dinky tried to recover from the memory spell.

"I was... worried that was what you were going to show me," she said finally, wiping away the last of her tears. "But couldn't you write to Presto? Contact him in some way?"

Sparkler simply shook her head. "I knew Presto for five years, and never once asked him anything about himself," she mumbled. "I don't even know what city he lives in, much less an address. I know nothing about his family, or even what his plans were after we graduated. By the time you convinced me to finally accept his advances, it was already too late. He didn't come back to school, and since I never showed him any hint of interest, he probably assumed I just didn't care for him. I never... I never saw him again."

The older filly rested her chin on the table, staring at Dinky with glassy eyes. "It's pathetic," she sighed. "The reason I always end up telling you this stuff is simply because you're the only pony who'll listen."

"Sparkler..." Dinky said softly, still feeling the last lingering effects of the emotional link in the memory spell. "I'm so sorry, and I know you really cared about Presto deep down, but... there's no way he's the only pony in Equestria who would want to be your friend. You didn't manage to make any friends after leaving the school?"

"I tried precisely twice," Sparkler admitted. "That's how long it took for me to realize I'm an awkward, mopey unicorn that naturally drives all but the most tenacious ponies away. Maybe Presto could've helped me fix that, but..."

"That's not true," Dinky said gently. "You're a good pony."

Sparkler said nothing. Dinky reached out to touch her forehoof, but she batted it away.

"Look," she said flatly. "I'm gonna spend some time alone. My mother's an absolute shrew of a pony. My father's not somepony I feel I can really try to get to know right now. My old friend is long gone. That just leaves you, Dinky, and while you're a confidante, I don't know that it's exactly accurate to say we're friends. Plus, you're going back to the Academy in two weeks."

Dinky frowned. "What are you going to do next, then?"

"I don't know," Sparkler admitted. "Just please, try not to dwell on me. You've got your own life and your own problems. Go help your family and friends recover from the havoc my mother just wreaked. I'll be ok."

Dinky shifted uncertainly. "Are you sure?"

Sparkler gave Dinky a wooden stare. "Just go, Dinky."


"Go. Please. I need to be alone."

Sighing, Dinky scooted out of the booth. "Just... take care of yourself, Sparkler," she said softly. "Things will turn out okay, you'll see."

Sparkler, as usual, said nothing. Dinky felt her gaze follow her as she turned and trudged out of the diner.

It was nightfall. The door to a Ponyville cottage much like any other slammed open, and a furious and miserable Cosmic Glow plodded inside. It was immediately apparent that the interior of her home had changed drastically since she was out. All the furniture was still there, but everything belonging to Sparkler that could be carried on one's back had vanished.

Sparkler was gone, and she'd taken every one of her possessions with her.

Glow screamed in frustration and hurled herself onto her bed, staring up at the blank ceiling. She glanced to one side, catching sight of her disheveled appearance and pitiful expression in the mirror.

"What are you looking at?" she snarled at her reflection, flinging an apple core from her bedside table at it with magic. Unfortunately, she used a bit too much force, and the projectile left a series of cracks radiating out from the point of impact. Glow stared at her distorted reflection, the uneven sections of the mirror making her eyes appear offset.

"Oh, now even you're sympathizing with that pitiful pegasus?" she asked the image. "She doesn't need anypony else. She's still going to get the stallion she wants eventually, and now I've lost the last pony who still gave me any respect."

The reflection didn't have anything to say to Glow's complaints. She rolled over, facing the wall. "Maybe today isn't the day this ends," she continued aloud, "but someday, someday I'll get back the good life I deserve. And when that day comes, Breeze and Watt and Cloudcover and Candyfloss, and most of all, that infuriating Ditzy Doo, will finally get put in their place."

There was a single loud rap on Glow's front door. "Sparkler?" she called, lifting her head in the vain hope that her daughter had changed her mind. But there was no reply, only silence.

Slowly, Glow rose to her hooves and pulled open the door. She was greeted by nothing more than a rush of cold night air. She snorted, and made a move to close the door, but paused. A note was attached to the wood, tacked on by a shard of some sort of pinkish, glass-like substance.

What in Tartarus is this? she thought, yanking the paper down with magic. She stepped into the brighter light of her home, and scanned the message, painstakingly written in beautiful cursive with a quill.

Dear Miss Glow,

I couldn't help but overhear of your predicament today. I know you're feeling angry and upset, and it seems like all those feelings stem from the same source: the pegasus Ditzy Doo. Clearly, you really hate her, and you'd love nothing more than to get revenge, to finally put her in her place.

...It seems we have something in common.

I'd like to propose a partnership of sorts. An alliance. We don't know each other, but trust me, finally getting your revenge against Ditzy Doo will be a win for both of us. If you're interested, leave a reply on the back of this note, and return it to where you found it.

Consider it. I'm looking forward to your response.

The note was unsigned. Glow raised an eyebrow.

And here I thought I was the only pony in all of Equestria who couldn't stand that wretched Ditzy Doo, she thought. She stared at the note for a few moments more, thinking. She knew nothing about the pony who had written it, or what sort of plan he or she had. The only thing she knew was that this pony was apparently just as interested in revenge as she was.

And really, that was all that mattered.

"What have I got to lose?" Glow muttered, flipping the note over and grabbing a quill. She scrawled a short reply on the other side.

I'm interested. What do you have in mind?

The dour unicorn carefully tacked the note back where she found it, and with a final glance out to the dark streets of Ponyville, softly closed the door.

Two weeks later, the lives of Ditzy and Dinky began to return to something resembling what they had been before the wedding. Glow had not shown herself again since crashing the ceremony, and Sparkler seemed to have disappeared entirely. For Dinky, however, circumstances were about to change once again. It was a Monday morning at the beginning of March, and that meant her final term at Celestia's Academy for Gifted Unicorns was ready to begin.

Dinky, Clarity, Honeydew, Scuffle, and Pipsqueak stood on the platform, listening for the distant whistle that would signal the arrival of the train.

"Well, here we go," Scuffle sighed. "It was a nice break while it lasted."

"C'mon, Scuffle," Dinky chided. "You like magic as much as the rest of us. You can't tell me you aren't at least a little excited."

"Besides, you've got that, erm, what was it? Dueling class this year?" Pipsqueak added.

Scuffle brightened a bit. "Right, combat magic," he corrected. "I can't wait to finally sling some spells at an opponent again! I don't think I've been in a proper duel since the four of us took on ol' Sparkler in our first year."

"Just keep the battle spells in class," Clarity warned. "I'm your friend, but starting today, I'm also your Overseer. I'd hate to have to report you to the dean or something."

Scuffle waved away the warning. "Yeah, yeah, I'll be good," he droned.

Clarity sighed. "I don't know, I'm worried I sound harsh," she said, her eyes flicking left and right self-consciously. "I really hope this whole Overseer thing turns out okay."

"You have nothing to worry about," Honeydew affirmed, nuzzling Clarity. "We'll support you, just like when any of us have to face something unfamiliar."

"Oh, that reminds me, Dewey," Scuffle piped up. "You said something last night about considering trying something new this year. What was that about?"

Honeydew blinked and blushed slightly. "Oh, um... just a new look I was... toying with," she mumbled.

"A new look?" Dinky asked, cocking her head. "What do you mean?"

Honeydew nervously shuffled her hooves. "Well, you know how, in the little farm town I come from, fillies and mares are expected to keep their manes tied back in public?" she asked. "I've always kept mine like that, but nopony at the Academy, or most of modern Equestria for that matter, would think it was a problem if I didn't. And Clarity always says trying new things will help me learn to be a little more confident. So I was, um, trying out some styles in the mirror this week, and..."

She hesitated. Squeezing her eyes shut in apparent anxiety, she lit her horn and tugged the various ties free from her hair. With a delicate shake of her head, her long, wavy mane fell free.

"...and I was thinking of wearing it down like this?" she finished with a questioning note, as if asking permission.

Dinky had seen Honeydew's mane down plenty of times in the privacy of their dorm, but she was always amazed at exactly how much mane Honeydew really had, since she usually did an exceptional job of bundling it up very tightly into two matching buns at the sides of her head. When loose, it hung down much further than one would expect, reaching almost to where her forelegs met her body. It also almost never seemed to tangle, which was practically a miracle; Honeydew's special talent may have been for magical biology, but if ponies could have a secondary Cutie Mark, Dinky felt positive mane-styling would be Honeydew's.

"W-wow," Scuffle stuttered, his eyes wide. "Last time I saw your mane down, we were just foals. It looks... really nice like that."

"Absolutely ace look for you, Honeydew," Pip added. "I think your classmates will like it."

Honeydew blushed. "If you say so... I guess I can give it a try for a few days."

"See, we've all got new things to try this year!" Clarity announced. "I'm going to be an Overseer, Honeydew's got a new look and some new research to begin, Scuffle's finally getting the chance to show off his battle magic skills against his classmates, and Dinky—"

She stopped. Dinky glanced at Pip and sighed.

"And I get to find out what it's like to go months at a time without seeing Pip," she muttered.

A distant whistle rang through the winter air. The train was coming, and at last, the reality of the moment forced itself to the forefront of Dinky's mind. She quickly pulled Pipsqueak into a tight hug.

"I really don't want you to go," she whispered.

"I'll be back before you know it," Pip promised, nuzzling her forehead comfortingly. "And till then..."

Pip reached into his saddlebag and pulled his diamond pendant free, slipping it around his neck. Dinky hurriedly did the same with her magic. As soon as they were both in place against the ponies' chests, they began to glow with golden light.

"They still work as well as ever. Good thing you're such a great enchantress," he said with a wink.

Dinky smiled. "Sparkler's emergency enchantment is probably still on them, too," she pointed out. "Though I suppose you can't exactly come dashing to my rescue if you're at sea."

"You aren't going to need rescuing," Pip laughed. "You've got three friends there who have the magical know-how to protect you way better than I ever could."

He lowered his voice. "And if things were to get real bad, well... come on, you're a wraith. There's hardly anything in Equestria you couldn't vaporize if you really needed to."

Dinky rolled her eyes. "You're as bad as Scuffle."

"Nuh-uh!" Scuffle argued, interrupting their tender moment. "I always assume you're gonna blow stuff up, not vaporize it. There's a difference."

Dinky attempted to make a rather dark comment about blowing a certain somepony up if he didn't shut up, but the train pulled into the station, making a racket that drowned out any conversation for a few moments.

"All aboard for Celestia's Academy for Gifted Unicorns!" the conductor called.

"We're gonna get on board," Clarity said quickly. "Come join us once you and Pip have finished up."

She hopped onto the train, and Honeydew and Scuffle followed suit. Dinky turned back to her coltfriend, her eyes wet.

"You ought to get going," Pip said gently. "Promise you'll show me all your new spells next time we're together."

"Only if you show me all your Navy stuff," Dinky replied with a smirk. "I bet you'll look great in that uniform."

Both ponies laughed, and then Pip paused, looking around the station platform curiously.

"Say, Dinky, is your mum here to see you off today?"

"Nope, she had to work," Dinky informed him. "Why?"

Pip leaned forward and quickly kissed Dinky, sending a bright blush across her face.

"'Cause it's sort of awkward to have your mum around when I do that," he chuckled.

Dinky giggled. "Fair," she admitted. "I guess this is goodbye for now, Pip. Be safe, okay?"

"You too, Dinky," he said as he turned to go. "Hurry up now, that train's about to leave."

Dinky paused for only an instant longer, and then, determined to keep her mind on a joyful future instead of the somber present, she spun around and leapt onto the train.

Dinky stared out the window at the foothills of Canterlot mountain as she sat beside Clarity. The two of them had been separated from their friends for the time being; Ponyville was the second-to-last stop on the way to the Academy, so finding four seats in close proximity was rare.

"You're really lucky," Clarity said finally. "Pipsqueak really cares about you. There's no way being separated for a while will change that."

Dinky smiled. "I know," she said distantly, clutching her pendant. "He's probably right. I should focus on the Academy for now, and time will fly. It always does."

"Right!" Clarity affirmed, patting Dinky on the back. "When we met, four years ago today, we were two little fillies with big challenges waiting for us. We're older, wiser, and more magically talented now, but things haven't really changed, have they? This year has some new challenges for us, and I hope my best friend is ready to tackle them with me."

Dinky grinned and gave Clarity a hoof-bump. "We got this," she declared, sounding more upbeat. "Now, time to face the first one. What's expected of you as the Overseer today?"

"Well, technically my role doesn't officially begin until the opening ceremony tonight," Clarity said pensively. "Tango Trot and I will introduce ourselves to the school and lead the students to the residence towers. After that, I need to try to be available to help the fillies with any problems, and make sure everypony follows the rules. They told me at orientation that, for the first few weeks, I'll mostly be busy helping first-term students find things."

Dinky opened her mouth to reply, but a tiny sound caught her attention. She swiveled one ear, listening carefully. There was a sniffle, and then a quiet sob. Somepony nearby was softly crying.

"Do you hear that?" she asked in a low voice. "Sounds like it's coming from the seat right in front of us."

"I'll take a peek," Clarity announced, casting one of her favorite illusions and turning completely invisible almost instantly. Dinky waited silently for a few seconds, and then her friend flickered back into view.

"It's the filly in front of us," she whispered. "She looks small. Probably a first term student. I hope she's okay..."

"If only there was somepony around whose job it is to make sure the new students are okay," Dinky giggled, smirking sarcastically.

Clarity blushed. "Oh, right. Duh. Wish me luck."

The grey filly stepped into the aisle and cautiously trotted forward. Dinky discreetly peered over the back of the seat.

The filly on the other side was a bit unusual looking. For one thing, she was a pinto, the only one Dinky had ever seen besides Pipsqueak, though the shades of her coat were quite a bit darker, with a grey base color and big, irregular spots that were nearly black. Her mane was a ruddy red-brown, with two long braids that gradually darkened to black at the tips. Dinky caught a brief glimpse of her teary eyes, which were a soft yellow-orange.

"Hey, is something wrong?" Clarity asked.

Realizing she had company, the pinto unicorn sat up quickly and hastily dried her eyes with the side of a forehoof. "Um, no. Well... yes. Maybe," she stammered.

Clarity raised an eyebrow. "That's not much to go on," she chuckled. "But if you need something, maybe I can help. Is it alright if I sit with you for a minute?"

The filly scooted over toward the wall of the train, giving Clarity some space. Clarity sat down and produced her most welcoming smile.

"I'm Clarity, by the way," she greeted, extending a forehoof. "And you are?"

"Inkwell," the filly replied. "Sorry if I was bothering you, ma'am. I'm just a little stressed out. I didn't mean to disturb the older students."

"You weren't bothering me!" Clarity said hastily. "I just wanted to check on you. I'm one of the academy's student Overseers, so if you need some help, and there's no professors around, I'm your pony."

Inkwell sniffled again and smiled. "That's a relief," she breathed. "I know next to nothing about Celestia's Academy. I'm glad there's at least one friendly pony on staff there."

"Is that why you were upset?" Clarity asked, placing a foreleg around Inkwell's shoulders. "Because you're scared and alone in a new place?"

Inkwell nodded. "I'm the youngest of seven sisters, but all six of the others are pegasi and earth ponies, so I'm the only one going to this Academy," she explained, idly twirling one of her braids. "I'm used to being surrounded with older, more experienced ponies who already know what's going on, so being alone all of a sudden is scary."

"I know a pony like that," Clarity told her. "She was the only unicorn in her whole town; she didn't have even an inkling of what other unicorns were like, let alone what she would find at the Academy. Now she's a brilliant magical biologist and incredibly loyal friend."

Inkwell quickly began to look much more cheerful. "Maybe it won't be as strange and intimidating here as I thought," she said brightly. "Thank you, ma'am. I'm feeling a lot better."

Clarity beamed. "I'm more than happy to help. Oh, and please, call me Clarity! No need to be so formal."

Inkwell mirrored the Overseer's smile. "So, if you're in charge of all the fillies, does that mean you're a super-powerful unicorn mage, Clarity?" she asked.

Clarity laughed. "I don't know about that, but I do love magic," she replied. "You've had some practice with magic already, right Inkwell? What sort of magic is your favorite?"

Inkwell chewed her lip. "Err, my favorite is kind of a weird one," she admitted, pulling a wide sketchbook from her saddlebag. "Take a look."

She flipped the book open. From her viewpoint over the back of the seat, Dinky couldn't help but be impressed. The page was covered in dozens upon dozens of intricate symbols, written in shiny black ink with some of the most beautiful, adept horn-writing she had ever seen.

"Oh, runes!" Clarity gasped, surprised and delighted as she leaned in to examine the page closely. "Did you make all these yourself?"

"Uh huh!" said Inkwell excitedly. "I'm a wiz with a quill. It's my special talent, see?"

She turned a bit to show off her flank. On it was an image of, unsurprisingly, an inkwell, with a decorative, wavy smear of black ink running across it from left to right.

"That's really cool," Clarity said sincerely. "Using runes as part of spells is a higher-level topic, so they won't teach you much about it this year, but if you want, later this week when there's some time... maybe I can show you a few little tricks you can use when pairing them with simple enchantments."

Inkwell squealed. "That would be amazing! Thank you ma'am... err, Clarity!"

"No sweat," Clarity said casually. "Now, I should probably make a quick round of the train and make sure no other fillies need my help. Keep an eye out for me at the opening ceremony, ok?"

"Can't wait," Inkwell cooed. "See you soon."

Clarity slid out of the seat and stepped back over to where Dinky was sitting. The purple filly gave her a grin.

"Still wondering if you're fit to be a great Overseer?" she asked playfully. "Seems like that filly sure thinks you are."

Clarity smiled. "Maybe this won't be so hard," she said hopefully. "Look out, Celestia's Academy! A new Overseer is on her way!"

With a deafening whistle and a screech of wheels, the train pulled into the subterranean station that was the only access point to the Academy grounds. Inkwell, encouraged by Clarity's words, eagerly ran off with a group of other foals her own age. Dinky, Clarity, Honeydew, and Scuffle reunited at the station's exit, on the balcony overlooking the castle.

"I'm so happy to be back," Honeydew said dreamily, gazing at the school fondly.

"Me too," Clarity agreed, "but right now, I can't hang around and enjoy it. I need to go meet with the dean and the colts' Overseer before the opening ceremony. See you three later!"

She disappeared almost immediately in a flash of red light. The other three friends looked at one another.

"We've got a while till the ceremony starts," Scuffle pointed out. "Let's just walk."

The trio of ponies started down the ramp. For once, Honeydew was the first to speak.

"By tomorrow, Professor Chestnut and I will be planning out this year's research," she stated. "I really can't wait to show her the notes I wrote up over the winter break."

"Does Professor Chestnut still have that rude talking bird?" Dinky asked with a grin.

"Cornelius? Of course!" Honeydew exclaimed. "And he's quite friendly under all that strutting around and acting tough. You know, like Scuffle."

Scuffle glanced at the pink filly out of the corner of his eye. "Shush, Dewey."

Dinky laughed. "Don't deny it Scuffle, she's got you all figured out."

"Gah, now they're gangin' up on me," Scuffle grumbled, smirking. "I just can't win when it comes to you two, can I?"

Dinky could easily tell by his expression that he didn't mind his friends' teasing at all. Just like Honeydew had said, he just liked to put on a show.

"Ooh, hang on," Honeydew said suddenly, hopping off the path and into the grass on the steep hillside. "Let me just check on the bush the professor asked me to plant last term. I'll be right back."

Honeydew cantered off toward a grove twenty or so pony-lengths away, her long mane trailing in the air behind her. Once she was out of earshot, Scuffle spoke up.

"Dinks, d'you remember when me and Honeydew were foals?"

"Of course," Dinky responded. "You two were pretty different when we first arrived here. You were a bully, and Honeydew was almost paralyzingly timid. She wanted absolutely nothing to do with you."

"Right," Scuffle said with a slight nod. "Look at her now, though. She isn't gripped by those intense panic attacks she used to have anymore. I mean, she's no Clarity; I don't think she'll ever be that confident. But she jokes along with you two, and she's willing to try new things or go on adventures, as long as her friends are at her side. She's genuinely excited and passionate about a lot of things. I'm really happy for her; turned out all she really needed was some good friends."

Dinky smiled. Scuffle had his rare moments of mature insight, though he only ever seemed to share his thoughts with her when Clarity and Honeydew weren't present.

"Scuffle, the day after the whole Scorpio incident, you told me that you were gonna wait to tell Honeydew you like her as more than a friend, because both of you were still learning how to nurture a strong friendship with other ponies," she reminded him. "But think about what you just said; Honeydew has grown so much since then, and so have you. Clarity and I would be devastated if we had to say goodbye to either of you. Now that she's become so relaxed around you, I just don't understand why you're so afraid to tell Honeydew how you feel."

Scuffle kicked the dirt. "Well, that's just it, Dinks. This little group of ours, it's real close-knit, y'know? We've had each other's backs for years. If I tell Honeydew that I'd..." his voice dropped to barely more than a whisper, "...I'd like her to be my fillyfriend, and she doesn't feel the same, what if that hurts this group dynamic we've got? I've been over the moon watching Honeydew grow comfortable with having me around. What if that makes her withdraw around me again?"

"But if you don't say anything, this is about as far as you're gonna get with her," Dinky pointed out. "Clarity and I see you blush every time she's near you. I can't imagine you'll ever be really satisfied if you don't at least try."

Scuffle looked thoughtful. "You got a point, I guess," he mumbled. "I can't pretend I haven't thought about getting to cuddle up with a special somepony of my own like you do with Pip."

Dinky snickered. "If it turns out Honeydew likes you too, I think you might get a bit more than just some cuddles," she said mischievously, waggling her eyebrows. "You know what they say about the quiet, shy ones."

Scuffle blushed ferociously. "S-shut up, Dinks. You're the worst."

"I know," Dinky sang, flicking her tail playfully.

Both ponies quieted as Honeydew came galloping back toward them. "Sorry for the wait!" she called. "I just wanted to pick a few berries; I'm going to be trying out a new potion recipe with them this week and—"

She paused, frowning. "Scuffle, you look very flushed," she said, concerned. "Are you not feeling well?"

"I'm fine," Scuffle said quickly, while Dinky stifled a laugh. "C'mon, Dewey, let's just get to the castle, yeah?"

Honeydew nodded, and the three ponies resumed their march toward the front gates.

It's amazing what a pony can get used to. In her first year, the Academy's grand main hall, with its vaulted ceiling, shimmering illumination orbs, and ornate stained glass displays, had left Dinky breathless, overcome by wonder at its sheer grandeur. But after four years spent here, she trotted into the colossal chamber as casually as she would her own living room.

That being said, watching the current first-term ponies react as they stepped inside was rather entertaining.

"Guess we better find a seat," Scuffle admitted. "We took our time getting here. Looks like the ceremony's about to start."

The trio of unicorns hurried to a few open seats. They'd only just gotten settled when the usual blare of trumpets signaled the start of the day's proceedings. As he had for every year of Dinky's education, Professor Morningstar stepped up to greet the students.

Dinky quite liked Professor Morningstar as a pony, but she'd taken only very few of his classes over the years. His main role was to teach the critical Practical Magic class to students in their first term, and every course he offered past that was an elective that built on those topics. Dinky had overlooked those electives in favor of subjects that interested her more. On the other hoof, since Professor Morningstar was the Academy's most accomplished illusionist, Clarity had naturally taken nearly every course he offered.

"Good evening, everypony, and welcome to Celestia's Academy for Gifted Unicorns!" the professor greeted, waving to the audience. "Those of you who have been here before know the drill by now, I'm sure, but for those who don't, we'll kick things off with a word from none other than the mare in charge, Dean Spiral Script!"

He hurried away as a middle-aged mare strode onto the stage. Her coat was a washed out blue-grey, and her curly mane was purple, with two stripes of bright white running through it. She smiled out at the large gathering of ponies before her.

Dean Spiral Script had been a professor at Celestia's Academy for many years, but her time as its dean had begun at the start of Dinky's second term, since the prior dean, the corrupt, arrogant, and power-hungry Bright Spark, had been ousted at the end of the year prior. Spiral Script, fortunately, was nothing like her predecessor; her greatest priority was making sure the Academy provided a quality education to the ponies lucky enough to attend. Her pride in the school was always on display in the form of her dean's robe, a thin white cloak trimmed with the purple and yellow colors that represented Canterlot and the Academy. Bright Spark had rarely bothered to don the ceremonial vestment, while Spiral Script, in contrast, almost never took it off.

"Welcome, welcome!" Spiral Script greeted, waving to all the students. "It's so wonderful to see so many familiar faces back here for another year, and just as exciting to see all the new ones. I know most of you have heard my speech in years past, so please sit tight for a bit while I give your youngest classmates a proper introduction."

Dinky inevitably let her mind wander a little bit as Spiral Script recited the usual lines about the importance of magic in Equestria and the hard work and dedication it took to master it. By the fifth time around, the Academy's opening ceremonies, while grand, did begin to become a bit routine. She paid more attention when it was over, of course. After all, the next guest was somewhat more highly anticipated than the dean.

"Now, to formally begin our new term as always," Spiral Script said with a smile, "let us all stand and welcome our fair academy's founder, Princess Celestia!"

Right around that moment, the light of the setting sun struck the stained glass windows at just the right angle to illuminate a section of the stage with a rainbow of colors. A bright light suddenly erupted from the center of the spotlighted area, fading a moment later to reveal the regal form of Princess Celestia.

"Good evening, everypony!" Celestia greeted. "At the start of each term, for hundreds of years now, I've had the honor of being one of the first to address a new class of Equestria's brightest young unicorns, and I have to say, even after all this time, seeing this crowd of eager faces each year has never become any less joyous."

Many of the foals in the youngest class looked on in awe. Most of them, Dinky assumed, had probably never been this close to one of Equestria's princesses before.

"Although there is much entailed in ruling Equestria," the princess continued, "I will always make time to give the Academy my attention throughout the year, as will Princess Luna and, occasionally, Princess Twilight Sparkle. Although, Twilight has her own school to run now, so her interaction with our Academy is, unfortunately, limited. The education of the brightest young minds in Equestria is one of the highest priorities of all the princesses, though, and with the help of our wonderful dean and dedicated professors, we're happy to be able to provide that education to all of you."

After a few more minutes, Princess Celestia's words of encouragement for the students concluded, and after she departed, the students were directed to the dining hall for the opening feast.

"So what d'you think Clarity's up to?" Scuffle asked a few minutes later, through a mouthful of sweet potatoes.

"I'm sure the dean's just making sure the Overseers know the procedure for tonight," Dinky said. "Each of them has to lead a couple hundred ponies to the residence towers, and make sure everypony gets situated in their dorms. I'm sure there's a lot of details for them to remember."

"We'll see Clarity soon, though," Honeydew reminded them. "They always introduce the Overseers right after dinner, right?"

"Yup," Scuffle attempted to say through an even larger mouthful of food.

"Um, excuse me..." came a small voice. Dinky looked around, confused, before spotting a small filly standing behind her bench. Specifically, a familiar pinto unicorn.

"Hi there," Dinky greeted. "Inkwell, right? What's up?"

"You're the pony that was sitting with Clarity on the train, right?" Inkwell asked, gazing up at Dinky quizzically. "I figured I'd be polite and introduce myself! If you're friends with a pony as nice as Clarity, you're probably a great pony too."

"Nah, Dinks sucks," Scuffle chortled before Dinky could reply. "We keep Clarity around to keep her under control."

Fortunately, Inkwell wasn't oblivious to the sarcasm. The filly giggled as Dinky shot Scuffle a glare before looking back to her.

"Anyway, the name's Dinky Doo, and these ponies with me are Honeydew and Scuffle," she introduced. "We're all in our last term like Clarity is, so don't be afraid to ask us for help if she's not nearby."

"Okay," Inkwell affirmed. "Will Clarity be around soon, by the way?"

"Any minute," Honeydew assured her. "You'll be able to check in with her again when we get to the residence towers, don't worry."

Inkwell pranced in place for a moment. "Great!" she said as she trotted away. "Thanks for being so nice to me, Miss Dinky! See you later!"

Dinky smiled as the filly disappeared into the crowd. "I get the feeling we're going to be seeing a lot of that pony this year," she said with a chuckle.

Spiral Script appeared at the front of the room, waiting patiently as the students' din quieted. "Now, our last order of business for the evening is, of course, our student Overseers," the dean explained. "It is at this time that I'm going to hand the reins over to two of our most capable and skilled fifth-term students. First, our fillies this year will be managed by our beloved senior student, Clarity."

Predictably, Clarity teleported into view, earning a few delighted gasps from the younger students. She waved to the fillies as many of the youngest ones pushed closer, eager to meet their Overseer.

"And for the colts," Spiral Script continued, "we have a pony I'm sure is a popular choice. Join us on stage please, Tango Trot."

From somewhere, or perhaps everywhere, there was the reverberating sound of a single strum of an acoustic guitar, followed by the distinct, momentary clatter of castanets. In a teleport spell accompanied by an over-the-top puff of blue smoke, Tango Trot materialized onstage.

Dinky didn't know Tango Trot very well, but there was no denying that he was a suave and attractive young stallion. His coat was a vibrant royal blue, and his mane, slicked back and perfectly groomed, was a rich brown. His alluring smile and sky blue eyes had a tendency to leave many of his peers swooning. Though his entrance, Dinky thought, was a pretty clear sign that he might have been a bit too earnest in doing things with dramatic flair.

Or maybe she just had a thing for the often more grounded nature of earth ponies like Pip. Clarity spoke highly of Tango Trot, so Dinky reserved any judgement so soon.

"Hi everypony!" Clarity greeted. "The two of us are here to make sure you all have a safe and worry-free term this year. We'll both be available all evening to help you get settled in, and around tomorrow morning to direct you to your classes."

"Please gather at the ends of the room and join us for our walk to the towers," Tango Trot instructed in his silky, well-enunciated voice. "Fillies at the front of the room with my lovely co-overseer, and colts at the back with me. Once we get there, we'll deliver further instructions."

Both ponies teleported in unison, appearing at opposite ends of the room. The students all rose to make their way to their respective positions.

"Here's where we go our separate ways for the night, girls," Scuffle stated. "See you at breakfast, yeah?"

"Of course," Dinky said with a nod. "Have a good night, Scuffle."

"Sleep well," Honeydew added with a smile.

Dinky and Honeydew trailed along at the back of the great group of fillies as they made their way out of the castle and up the side of the valley to the residence towers. Once everypony was crammed into the lobby, Clarity spoke again.

"Alright, this is the fillies' tower," she called. "New students, take note: there is a powerful spell surrounding this place that makes it impossible for colts to enter. Likewise, their tower won't let you in, no matter how hard you try. To your right is the door to the lounge, where there is no such spell. That's where you should go if you're planning to relax or study with one of your male friends. Simple, right?"

There were a few nods. Clarity seemed satisfied.

"Now, there's plenty of room upstairs for all of you to make yourselves at home," she continued. "I'll be making the rounds for a few hours, so don't hesitate to come and get me if you need anything. Welcome to your new home-away-from-home, everypony!"

Clarity gestured to the stairs, and the fillies began to gather their luggage and disappear up the steps. Dinky spotted Inkwell among the crowd; the little filly paused long enough to wave to Clarity, and the Overseer responded with a grin and a wink before the advancing herd of fillies swept Inkwell up the stairs. When the room was finally empty, Dinky and Honeydew made their way over to her.

"So... how'd I do?" Clarity asked. "Did I miss anything? Was everything clear?"

"It was just about the best Overseer intro I can remember," Dinky declared. "Now come on, let's go unpack so you can go check on all the other fillies."

"Um, Dinky," Honeydew gently interjected. "Unfortunately, Clarity can't stay with us this year. She needs to stay in the Overseer suite so it's convenient for the other students to find her."

Dinky's face fell. "I completely forgot. The three of us have shared a room for years..."

"Now hold on, you two," Clarity chuckled, trotting to the nearby door to her suite. "It's true that I need to stay in the Overseer suite, but I checked with Dean Script, and there's nothing in the rules that says I can't invite ponies to stay there with me."

She kicked open the door with a hind hoof, revealing the large, comfortable dormitory. It contained not only the usual bed meant for the Overseer, but a set of bunks from elsewhere in the tower as well.

"What do you say girls?" Clarity asked, giggling at her friends awed expressions. "Wanna live it up in the Overseer suite together this year?"

"You have to ask?" Dinky questioned, her levitating luggage already halfway through the door.

Chattering excitedly, the three fillies set to preparing for the next morning, when their last term at the Academy would truly begin.

At dawn the next day, when most of the Academy's students were still asleep, two particular pegasi were already wide awake, and seated in a quiet law office near Ponyville.

"Honestly, Mr. Breeze, you have nothing to worry about," the attorney said, closing the large book of Equestrian statutes on the desk in front of him. "Your daughter is considered an adult by Equestrian law. As such, you legally owe her nothing, and the same goes for her mother. In order for either of them to demand anything of you, they would have had to come to you with the matter before your daughter's eighteenth birthday, which, as I understand it, passed more than four year ago."

Breeze's stiff posture relaxed. "That's what I expected, but it's still a relief," he breathed. "You're positive there's no circumstance in which Glow could snare me in any kind of legal trap with this?"

"The only thing I can think of is if she would claim you were aware of your daughter prior to her reaching adulthood," the attorney replied. "She wouldn't really get anywhere without proof, but she'd certainly create an annoying hassle for you until that got sorted out."

"Half of Ponyville witnessed Glow introduce Sparkler to Breeze two weeks ago," Ditzy pointed out. "Glow's been pretty delusional, but I don't think she's quite crazy enough to try to claim otherwise; there were too many witnesses."

"Then all is well," the stallion said, rising from his chair. "Have a good day, you two."

Ditzy and Breeze left the law office and were quickly in the sky over Ponyville. Ditzy opened her mouth to speak, but Breeze cut her off.

"Hold on, Ditzy. Let's wait until we get to work. Cloudcover and Watt will want to discuss this too."

Ditzy nodded, lapsing into silence until Equestria Speedy Shipping Services came into view. Breeze alighted smoothly in front of the door. Ditzy overshot slightly, and had to flap hard to stop herself running into the front edifice.

"You alright there?" Breeze asked her.

Ditzy nodded. "You know how it is," she said casually, trying to momentarily align her eyes before they drifted apart again. "My depth perception isn't the best. Now, head upstairs. I'll meet you there in a second; I just want to give Dr. Candyfloss an update first.

Breeze nodded and disappeared up to the employee lounge. Ditzy trotted into her boss's office, humming idly.

"Morning, Dr. Cand—"

She stopped, surprised, as she took in the unicorn in front of her. Dr. Candyfloss sat hunched at his desk, his head resting on one forehoof while the other idly flicked at his tiny drinking-bird desk toy. The old stallion's wispy mane hung limply, and there the dark circles under his eyes were rather hard to ignore.

"Ah... good morning, Ditzy," he said hoarsely.

"Doc, are you alright?" the pegasus asked in alarm, trotting up to his desk.

"Nothing to worry about, my dear," her boss replied, smiling gently. "I've come down with something rather rough, it seems. Happens to the best of us."

Ditzy did not look convinced. Candyfloss forced himself into a more upright position.

"Now, was there something you needed, Ditzy?" he asked, after clearing his throat.

"Err, I just wanted to let you know that everything went well with the lawyer," Ditzy admitted. "So we don't need to worry about Cosmic Glow. Now we just have to figure out how we're going to handle the whole situation with Sparkler."

Candyfloss started to nod, but paused when he was gripped by a coughing spell. He took a few gulps of water before resuming the conversation.

"That's good to hear, Ditzy. I'm sure it will take you and Breeze no time at all to figure out how you'd like to handle that bit."

Ditzy nodded. "Not to change the subject, but are you sure you're ok, Doctor Candyfloss? Maybe you should take the day off and rest."

Candyfloss waved a dismissive forehoof. "I'll be fine," he said, turning away to levitate his shipping journal up onto the surface of his desk. "Head upstairs, and I'll call you when a job comes in."

Ditzy nodded and closed the door, cringing as she heard the poor stallion begin to cough again behind it.

Three stallions' heads turned expectantly as Ditzy stepped into the lounge. "Morning guys," she greeted, smiling slightly.

Watt jetted up onto the back of the couch, perched precariously with all four hooves on the narrow space, and leaning forward in a way Ditzy felt certain would've put the center of gravity of a more average pony well past its tipping point. "So spill the beans, Ditzy!" he chirped. "What's going down with old Cosmo and her daughter?"

Ditzy and Breeze quickly brought their coworkers up to speed on the matter. Watt grinned widely at the good news, while Cloudcover simply looked relieved.

"Well, that's one matter off your plate," Cloudcover said. "Does this mean the two of you are going to begin to arrange your wedding again?"

"...Not quite," Ditzy admitted. "Being legally in the clear is great, but we've far from sorted this whole mess out."

Cloudcover nodded solemnly. "I suppose it's the matter of poor Sparkler that is still weighing on you two?" he asked.

Breeze sighed. "It's not an easy thing to just take in stride," he explained, as Ditzy put a comforting wing over his back. "I mean, think about it. All of a sudden... I have a daughter. I brought a pony into the world more than twenty years ago, and I had no idea until just recently. Glow doesn't show any sign of repentance, so I couldn't care less how she feels about the whole thing, but... well, now I'm living with the knowledge that an innocent filly grew up without a father, under the care of..."

"A sociopath?" Ditzy finished for him.

"Well, yeah," Breeze mumbled. "Dinky knows Sparkler better than any of the four of us, and you heard what she said about her; Sparkler's often an angry, bitter, and antisocial pony. And these last few weeks, all I can think about is how maybe, if I'd known, if I'd been able to do something sooner, I could've prevented that."

"You couldn't have known, old friend," Cloudcover soothed. "Cosmic Glow was so determined to keep her pride intact that she kept Sparkler from you until revealing her existence could be used to hurt you. It's tragic that poor Sparkler was used as a pawn in Glow's game, but all the guilt lies with her."

"That's what I've been saying," Ditzy added. "You didn't do anything wrong, Breeze."

"Maybe so," Breeze said, his voice growing more resolute, "but you know what? Just because I'm not responsible for it doesn't mean I can't do my part to right the wrong. Before Ditzy and I pledge to spend our lives together, I want to tie up this last loose end from my past relationship. I want to find a way to make things right with Sparkler."

He looked at Ditzy imploringly. The mare smiled at him. "Then I'm with you," she announced. "Let's make an attempt to clear the air with Sparkler."

"Aww, you two are the most selfless ponies I know!" Watt declared, flicking his short, spiky tail back and forth rapidly in apparent delight. "No wonder Candyfloss is so proud of everything you guys have accomplished!"

"But don't get too ahead of yourselves," Cloudcover warned, gesturing with a wing to mimic a waggling finger. "You can have all the good intent in the world, but Glow has certainly demonstrated that some ponies simply aren't receptive to it. Try as you might, Breeze, Sparkler may simply choose to shut you out, no matter what. And you'll need to be prepared to accept that possibility."

Breeze looked at the floor. "I know," he said levelly. "I've been bracing myself in case it comes to that."

"Maybe it won't though," Ditzy reminded him. "Dinky managed to reach the scared, suffering pony under that stoic outer shell. Maybe we can too."

"Maybe we can, and maybe we can't," Breeze said, turning to gaze out the window at Ponyville. "But by Celestia, we're certainly gonna try."

The grating sound of the intercom filled the room. Ditzy perked one ear, waiting for Candyfloss's voice to follow. It didn't come.

"That's odd," Cloudcover muttered. "Maybe the intercom's on the fritz?"

"Again?" Watt whined. "I just fixed that thing last month."

"I'll go see which of us Candyfloss meant to call," Ditzy said, trotting to the door. "Be right back."

With a brief flap of her wings, Ditzy fluttered down the stairs and carefully pushed open the door to the office.

"Hey, Dr. Candyfloss?" Did you try to call—"

Her train of thought was derailed by Candyfloss's vacant stare. Although only a few minutes had passed, he somehow looked noticeably more unwell.

"Ditzy, my friend..." he said, in a voice that was now barely more than a whisper. "I seem to have underestimated things a bit. Could you be a dear and contact Ponyville Urgent Care?"

Before Ditzy could reply, the old unicorn swayed dangerously in his seat. Instinctively scrambling to keep his balance, he jerked a foreleg forward over his desk. The action sent his unlucky glass desk toy tumbling to the floor, shattering against the tile.

"Oh, Mr. Feathers..." Candyfloss groaned, not even seeming to care as he too slid out of his seat and ended up sprawled on the floor.

"Doctor Candyfloss!" Ditzy gasped, darting to his side. "Hang on, I'll call for help right away!"

Candyfloss hardly seemed to hear her. He feebly stretched out a foreleg, trying to reach the glimmering shards of what was once Mr. Feathers. Ditzy carefully stepped over him, shaking as she grabbed at his desk phone.

"Hello, Ponyville Urgent Care? Please, send paramedics to Equestria Speedy Shipping Services right away! It's an emergency!"