• Published 31st Aug 2019
  • 2,836 Views, 384 Comments

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 4

"Ohh, whatever they're doing, why can't they do it faster?" Watt moaned, pacing the room so quickly and fiercely that he was beginning to wear a track in the thin rug.

Ditzy, Breeze, Watt, and Cloudcover occupied the waiting room of Ponyville Urgent Care. Upon their arrival at the hospital, Candyfloss had still been conscious, though admittedly very weak and thoroughly miserable. For the moment, there was nothing his employees could do but wait for an update from one of the nurses.

"Please calm down, Watt," Breeze urged. "We're all on edge. No need to make it worse than it already is."

"The ponies here are experienced professionals," Cloudcover reminded them. "Whatever Dr. Candyfloss is suffering from, I'm sure they can stabilize it."

"You guys saw him, didn't you?" Ditzy asked quietly, taking slow, deep breaths to keep her nerves at bay. "That's no common cold. I sure hope Cloudcover is right and everything will be fine."

"Fortunately, Mrs. Doo, it appears it will be," came a female voice.

Nurse Redheart, head of the nursing staff, trotted into the waiting room. "You four are the ones who are here for Mr. Candyfloss, right?" she asked.

"Doctor Candyfloss," Watt corrected.

Redheart checked the patient information on her clipboard. "Err..."

"Just go with it," Ditzy explained. "Candyfloss is a self-proclaimed doctor of love, and honestly, I've never seen anypony do what he can do as well as he does. He deserves the title."

Nurse Redheart just nodded. "Anyway, we aren't entirely certain yet what Dr. Candyfloss has come down with," she hesitantly admitted. "We suspect it's simply a nasty virus that hit him hard in his advanced age. We've already administered everything he needs to keep the fever and cough under control, and I'm quite pleased with how he's doing. He is awake and alert, resting comfortably in his room and making idle conversation with the other nurses. You four may see him, as long as you keep any conversation soft and low-key, of course."

She stared at Watt specifically. He seemed to get the hint, and held his frantic movements in check as much as he could.

"Thank you, Nurse Redheart," Cloudcover said politely as she led the four of them into the hallway.

"My pleasure," the nurse replied, smiling. "You'll find Mr... um, I mean Dr. Candyfloss's room just around the corner, at the end of the hall."

Ditzy wanted nothing more than to dash to her boss's bedside as fast as her hooves would carry her, but she respected the rules and trotted ahead at a normal pace. Watt moved along at only about twice the speed as the rest of them; for him, that was a sluggish plod that Ditzy didn't doubt was taking all his concentration.

The ponies turned the corner and almost bumped right into Nurse Sweetheart, the often upbeat purple-and-white earth pony that diligently watched over many of the patients.

"Oh, excuse me!" the nurse apologized, chuckling as she stepped aside. "Go on in. I must say, what a charming friend you have in there. I'm sure he'll be delighted to see you all."

The four matchmakers peered into the room she had left. It was a large, comfortable room with a wide window letting in plenty of morning light, and its occupant was lucky enough to have it all to himself. Dr. Candyfloss was lying quietly in bed, his eyes scanning the text of a novel suspended in his silver aura. After a moment, he looked up.

"Ah, there you four are," he said, his typical calm smile spreading across his face. "Come in, come in. I'm feeling much better at the moment."

Ditzy let her wings fall limply at her sides, relieved. "It's good to see you, Doctor Candyfloss," she breathed. "For a little while there, we were getting really worried."

"Bah," said Candyfloss with a chuckle. "Some health struggles are inevitable at my age. The ponies here are excellent at what they do, though. I'm sure with some continued medicine and a few days of rest I'll be right as rain."

"Just don't try to get back on your hooves too quickly," Cloudcover advised. "I know the medication is helping, but the last thing you need to do now is overexert."

"I'm no fool, dear Cloudcover," the boss said with a small smirk. "I shall stay put until the doctors are convinced that I am well enough to leave."

Ditzy smiled. "We're all glad to hear that!" she chirped. "I know you're job is important, but if you aren't well enough to do it, it's not a good idea to force it."

"Speaking of which, Doc," Breeze cut in, "is Equestria Speedy Shipping Services temporarily closed, or is one of us gonna manage the office while you're out?"

Candyfloss pointed to the phone at the bedside table. "I've actually had the office's number re-routed to here," he explained. "Clients can call me, and I'll call you four at the office to send you on assignment. You will, however, need to take turns covering the other office duties and paperwork. I can't be there for that, but I can certainly answer a few phone calls."

"I call first office shift!" Watt declared, jumping in place.

"Watt, you... you hate covering the office..." Ditzy pointed out.

Watt stopped. "Oh yeah," he said, blushing. "I guess I got caught up in the helpful mood."

Candyfloss smiled. "Between the four of you, and with no incoming calls except for my assignments for you, I'm sure none of you will be too overworked, but I do apologize for any inconvenience."

"Psh, don't worry about us, Doc," Breeze said with a wave of his wing. "You get well. We'll handle the rest."

Candyfloss nodded. After a moment, his smile seemed to grow smaller and sadder.

"Before I send the four of you back to work, there is one other thing we must discuss," he said quietly.

"Oh?" Cloudcover asked. "Is something else amiss?"

Candyfloss shook his head. "No, but as Ditzy witnessed, my poor Mr. Feathers met his tragic end early this morning, and that event has set me to thinking about some more... somber topics."

Dr. Candyfloss paused to stare out the window for a moment, choosing what he wanted to say. Ditzy and the others waited in tense silence.

"While I'm sure we're all glad that this didn't turn out to be a terribly serious illness after all, there are some facts we can't ignore," the old unicorn said finally. "I've spent more than three-quarters of a century in our land of Equestria, and while I don't plan on going anywhere anytime soon, there's no denying the fact that, someday... and that day is perhaps not so many years away... I too will be gone, just like Mr. Feathers."

Watt frowned. "Aw, Doc, we don't need to plan for that right now," he whined. "Dont'cha think we should wait till we're all back at the office for a staff meeting or something if we have to touch on that topic?"

"We'll certainly discuss it in more detail there once I am well," Candyfloss agreed, nodding slowly. "But I feel I should share the essentials now, while it's on my mind."

There was a small pause as his employees simply nodded, waiting for him to continue. "For many years, I have been the owner and CEO of Equestria Speedy Shipping Services," he began. "While the four of you are some of my most successful and longest-term employees ever, none of you, not even Cloudcover, the most senior among you, are the ones I first opened the company with. As the founder, our matchmaking company has never run without me for more than a short time."

"So what will happen when that has to change?" Ditzy asked slowly.

"To be completely certain, I don't know," Dr. Candyfloss sighed. "When the day comes that I either pass on, or am simply unfit to work any longer, something will need to change. And regarding that change, I have only one request."

"Which is?" Breeze asked.

Candyfloss smiled as a look of nostalgia crossed his face. "Over these many years, I've seen so many ponies find a bond with those they love. Helping ponies who are scared or doubtful realize that they can meet the pony of their dreams is the single greatest thing I've experienced in life. And so I ask you... no, I beg you, when I can no longer play my part in making that happen... don't let it end. I don't know if one of you would be the one to take my place, or perhaps a new pony will come along with a talent like mine or something similar. But no matter what option, please... don't let Equestria Speedy Shipping Services end when my career concludes. Equestria deserves the service you four provide. All I ask is that it lives on after I'm gone."

Ditzy smiled broadly. "Dr. Candyfloss, I think I speak for all of us when I say this is the best job we've ever had," she assured him. "We'll do everything we possibly can to keep the company running when that day comes."

"But that day is a ways off," Watt announced. "It's good to have a plan I guess, but the Equestria Speedy Shipping Services we're all used to isn't going anywhere just yet!"

"Quite right," Candyfloss chuckled. "Now, I'd like the four of you to get back to the office; I'll contact you if any calls come in."

The four matchmakers trotted to the door. Ditzy turned back and waved briefly.

"Bye Doc! Feel better!"

"Goodbye, Ditzy."

Candyfloss sent her one last smile, his silvery eyes sparkling, as she gently closed the door.

"Dinky, I know you're used to sleeping in over the break, but you might want to get up now..."

Dinky's eyes fluttered open. Mid-morning sun streamed through the Overseer suite, but as Dinky was in her usual spot in the bottom bunk, she was shielded from most of it. Honeydew stood at the bedside, smiling shyly. The pink filly's mane, left hanging loose once again, was nevertheless expertly brushed and groomed.

"Morning Honeydew," Dinky said, smiling. "One sec."

Dinky rolled over and knocked on the base of the bed above her. "Rise and shine, Clarity!" she called loudly.

Honeydew suppressed a giggle. "Clarity's not up there," she explained. "She's already awake and outside."

Dinky gawked. Clarity was absolutely never awake before she had to be. She was the deepest (and often most disheveled) sleeper Dinky knew.

"Why?" she asked, bewildered.

"Um, cause she's the Overseer?" Honeydew reminded her. "It's the first day of classes. She had to be up in case the other fillies needed help or directions. To be fair, I did have to wake her at the right time. She wasn't, um, exactly thrilled to be up at that hour, but she has to be until the first-term students get used to being here."

Dinky laughed. "Ah, right. Where are we meeting her?"

"At breakfast," Honeydew replied. "Scuffle's probably already there too, so I'm gonna head to the castle. Come join us when you're cleaned up?"

Dinky nodded and hopped out of bed as Honeydew quickly stepped out into the tower. After a shower and brief grooming, she made her way to the dining hall in the castle. Clarity waved almost as soon as she entered, patting an open seat next to her.

"'Sup Dinks?" Scuffle asked as she sat down.

"Nothing much," Dinky admitted. "I'm sure we'll all be busier after our first classes though. What's on your schedule?"

Scuffle held up the paper in his aura while he munched on his toast. "Advanced Summoning, with Morningstar," he said. "Not the most riveting thing on here, but I needed to take a couple electives. Besides, my teleportation accuracy needs work, and summoning uses the same kind of spell. It'll be good practice."

Dinky nodded. "And you, Clarity?"

"Transformation and Conjuring," Clarity answered. "Are we in the same class?"

Dinky shook her head. "Looks like we're taking T&C separately this year," she said. "I have it in the middle of the week."

"As for today," Honeydew said, swishing her tail excitedly, "Dinky and I have Magical Biology together again! We'll be heading to Professor Chestnut's classroom right after breakfast."

Dinky's eyes lit up. There was nothing quite like watching Honeydew in her element. Seeing her meek friend get the chance to really shine, and show off just how brilliant she really was, was always a delight.

Clarity had just about enough time to wish her friends luck before a group of young fillies gathered around her, asking for directions to various parts of the castle. With a brief wave, she trotted off to help them.

"Looks like it's time to get started," Scuffle decided, hefting his saddlebags across his back. "Dinks, Dewey, go talk to some plants or whatever it is you do in that class. I'll seeya later."

Honeydew giggled as he trotted off, and then the two fillies hurried to class as well.

Early in Dinky's first year at Celestia's Academy, it wasn't uncommon to see Honeydew skulking through the halls, as if fearing somepony would attack her at any moment. So watching her literally skip into Professor Chestnut's classroom was nothing short of heartwarming.

The Magical Biology classroom, unlike Honeydew, hadn't changed a bit. The earth-toned, wood-paneled room was very different than the ornate brickwork that made up most of the castle, and one east-facing wall was made fully of glass, letting the morning sun stream over the great multitude of plants in the room. Professor Chestnut, the stocky brown unicorn mare that had become Honeydew's mentor, grinned broadly as the two fillies approached.

"Girls! So good to see you both!"

Honeydew beamed. "Hello, Professor," she said sweetly. "We're finally in the highest class! I hope you're going to show us some of the most intricate ins and outs of the field this year."

Professor Chestnut laughed. "I am, but as usual, you'll already know half of them," she admitted. "I just can't stay ahead of your appetite for the subject, Honeydew."

"Yeah, you're two steps ahead of the old bat," came a squawking voice, as a bright green, talking bird fluttered down from the rafters and perched on Chestnut's sun hat. "I suppose you're gonna be here all hours of the day like usual, doing another research project for elective credit?"

"What do you care, Cornelius?" Dinky cut in, smirking. "Honeydew gives you all the birdseed you want every day. You're in no position to complain."

Cornelius took off again, leaving the professor's hat in favor of perching on Honeydew's horn, using the notch near the base as a grip for one of his talons. "Fine," he crowed, "I guess there's worse ponies to have hanging around the place than little Honeydew."

"We can talk all about this year's research after class, Honeydew," Chestnut reassured her. "For the moment though, we have to get started on the lesson."

Dinky and Honeydew quickly took their seats. Cornelius seemed content to remain firmly attached to Honeydew's horn, only finally returning to the professor's hat when the filly lit it to retrieve her school supplies.

"Welcome once again to Magical Biology!" Professor Chestnut called, quieting small group of assembled students. "If you're here, you should have taken the first two levels of the subject sometime during your first four years here. If you haven't, I'm afraid you may have arrived at the wrong class."

She chuckled, but Cornelius scowled. "Nah, these are the right ponies, Chestnut," he grumbled. "I've seen every one of these ugly muzzles in here at least twice before."


Dinky smirked. Cornelius was nothing if not consistent with his insults.

"Anywho," Chestnut continued, "in the past, all of you have learned a more than a little about using your unicorn abilities to tap into the innate magic of living things. Every one of you knows the spells necessary to connect on a subconscious level with plants and animals, as well as how to use natural magical ingredients for your own purposes, such as preparation of potions. What remains now is to put those skills to use in some more advanced applications."

"Such as?" Cornelius interjected. "C'mon, Chestnut, you're boring them. Get to the point."

Professor Chestnut lit her horn and slowly rotated her wide hat until Cornelius faced away from the class. "In this course, we'll be learning about some of Equestria's rarer magical species and the powers or properties they possess," she continued, ignoring the bird's grumbling. "We'll also be fine-tuning the skills you've already learned in your earlier years; by the time this term is concluded, my hope is that all of you will have a deep appreciation for just how intimately connected all life really is, bound by a magic that only a very lucky few in Equestria... specifically, the ponies in this room, are able to truly fathom."

Dinky watched out of the corner of her eye as Honeydew squirmed delightedly in her seat, with a quill at the ready for the moment Chestnut would begin her lecture. Her friend noticed the glimpse and smiled slightly.

"Well, let's not waste any more time," Professor Chestnut said, clapping her forehooves together. "We've got a lot to cover, and just one more term to do it. Let's get started!"

Dinky felt the water, creeping slowly through the roots. She felt the sun, nourishing the leaves. The air surrounding the tree, while quite cool, was fresh and clean.

What's the problem, then? she thought to herself, concentrating on experiencing the tree's state of being as fully as possible.

Remembering what Honeydew always told her, she pushed her more concrete thoughts out of her mind, focusing only on wordless sensation. After a few moments, she began to feel a faint disturbance in her joints. Not quite pain, but certainly a sort of weakness. A tiny intrusion, that felt as if it were eating away at her strength, though at an extremely infinitesimal rate.

...Eating away?

Dinky ceased her spell and opened her eyes. "Insects?" she asked finally.

Honeydew nodded. "Definitely. Pretty sure they're wood-boring beetles."

Dinky let out a tired sigh. "This is hard, Honeydew."

"It just takes practice," Honeydew said simply, idly scribbling a few notes about the beetle-stricken tree in her notebook. "Of course, it's easier to diagnose ailing life with magic when you've had time to cultivate a bond with it."

"Well, sure," Dinky admitted, "but this is a tree. It's hard to get to know a tree on a personal level."

Honeydew didn't seem to hear, as she was already using her magic to use the same diagnostic spell on a nearby birch. "Oh, I see," she said, after just a few seconds. "Go on, Dinky, see if you can figure out what's wrong with this one."

Dinky shut her eyes and once again reached out with magic, tapping into the essence of the old birch. Systematically, she ran all the same checks, but try as she might, she couldn't find anything amiss. Puzzled, she glanced at Honeydew.

"I can't feel anything wrong."

"Well, it's a less obvious one," Honeydew admitted, stroking the bark with a forehoof for a moment. "It's struggling with a bit of micronutrient deficiency. Maybe the soil is too alkaline for it to absorb them well..."

Dinky stared blankly. "Honeydew, you're a pony," she said slowly. "How does a pony know what a micronutrient deficiency would even feel like?"

Honeydew just shrugged, smiling at her friend apologetically. "The professor and I have worked with a lot of trees these last few years..." she mumbled a little self-consciously. "Like... a lot of trees."

Dinky laughed. "Hey, more power to you," she praised, leaning up against Honeydew and nuzzling her playfully. "Seems like you're gonna breeze through even the highest level class."

Honeydew blushed. "Maybe," she squeaked. "I'm sorry, I hope I'm not showing off or anything."

Dinky shook her head quickly. "There's a big difference between showing off and just being good at something," she pointed out. "Don't worry, it's easy to tell you're good at this simply because you love it and worked hard to master it."

"Alright, class!" came Professor Chestnut's voice from some distance away. "Class is over for today! Remember to bring along reports next week regarding your findings, including the position of any ailing plants, the problems identified, and suggested treatments. See you then!"

Dinky's classmates began to disperse, heading back toward the castle. Honeydew swished her tail eagerly, but glanced at Dinky before moving.

"Would you like to stay behind with me for a bit while I talk to the professor?" she asked.

"Sure," Dinky replied. "It'll be cool to hear what your research is about."

Honeydew quietly trotted across the grass until she was standing beside Professor Chestnut. The mare gave her a smile.

"Honeydew, how are you?" she asked cordially. "Judging by your letters, it seems like you had an excellent winter break in Ponyville."

"I did," Honeydew replied. "Dinky here let us stay with her all winter. Ponyville is lovely, and not half bad for collecting research specimens, either."

Professor Chestnut smiled at Dinky. "I'm glad to see you and Honeydew are still thick as thieves, dear," she commented.

"I don't think that will ever change," Dinky assured her. "So, I hear she's doing some more new research with you this year?"

Surprisingly, instead of thrilled, Chestnut looked a bit concerned. "Yes, of course," she said, turning back to her star pupil. "But Honeydew, the proposal you sent me a few weeks ago is... erm, rather lofty. Spellweaving is difficult in any context, but something of that caliber..."

"Oh, I know," said Honeydew in an unusually casual manner. "But think of the impact it could have on the whole field of study if we can pull it off!"

"Hold on," said Dinky, shaking her head. "Honeydew, exactly what kind of project are you designing? And what is 'spellweaving'?"

Honeydew and Chestnut exchanged a glance. "You haven't explained the magnitude of this project to your friends yet, I see," the professor chuckled.

Honeydew tapped her chin with a forehoof, thinking. "Well, Dinky, spellweaving is basically magical pioneering," she explained. "Rather than learning to cast an existing spell, or finding a new way to apply it, a pony who is spellweaving is trying to figure out how to control magic to create an entirely new, undiscovered spell. It, um, usually requires a very high aptitude for at least a certain type of magic, and a whole lot of trial and error, in order to come up with something even partially successful."

Dinky's jaw dropped. "You're designing your own spell?" she asked, aghast. "Does Clarity know about this? I don't think she'd ever stop talking about it if she did."

Honeydew shook her head. "No, I just came up with my research proposal near the end of the break, so I hadn't really talked to anypony about it yet. I did bring it up to Scuffle one afternoon when we were alone, but um..." she paused, giggling softly, "err, Scuffle doesn't quite get it. He hasn't wrapped his head around how big of a project it would be."

"Spellweaving is one thing," Chestnut added, "but the spell Honeydew is hoping to design is..."

"Insane?" Cornelius cut in.

"Rather ambitious," Chestnut corrected.

Dinky cocked her head. "How so?"

Honeydew fidgeted anxiously. "Well, one of the most common spells used in this subject is the one used to connect with and sense another living thing. You and I were using it today."

Dinky nodded. "Yes...?"

"Over the last few years, one thing I've learned about magical biology is that every living thing has its own unique needs," Honeydew continued, looking at some of the trees she and Dinky had been casting spells on not long before. "Even in similar conditions, some plants or animals may respond really differently to the same thing. That makes it really hard to detect a subtle problem affecting a whole ecosystem at once; the only way around it is to connect with many, many individuals to look for similarities. And I, um... aim to change that."

Dinky's ear twitched. "What do you have in mind?" she asked.

Honeydew tried to look confident, but Dinky could tell she was growing more nervous. "Well," she mumbled, "I thought there might be a way to develop a sort of scanning spell: something that would allow a pony to trade a deep connection with an individual for a less intimate connection with a whole community at the same time. It would make biological or chemical trends within small areas much faster and easier to detect, and make measuring the scope of the problem trivial. I call the concept Lifesense."

Dinky knew enough about magical biology to realize Honeydew was describing a monumentally powerful spell. Stunned, she looked at Professor Chestnut.

"I've been perusing the literature almost nonstop since Honeydew sent me the proposal," the mare admitted. "While a spell like this has never been successfully cast, I honestly can't find anything in any study of unicorn magic mechanics suggesting it would be impossible. As far-fetched as it is, if Honeydew wants to try to develop a Lifesense spell... then I'm happy to work with her on it this year."

Honeydew beamed. "Thank you, Professor!" she squealed. "Together, we just might stand a chance!"

"If there's any way I can help, I will," Dinky promised. "Come on, let's go tell Clarity and Scuffle; they may not know a lot about the subject, but friends' support is valuable no matter what."

Professor Chestnut nodded. "Well, meet me on one of your free periods this week and we'll begin brainstorming," she instructed. "I'm looking forward to it! After all, Honeydew, you're one of the most talented biologists I've ever taught. And before this term is over, I think you might be teaching me a thing or two of your own."

"So... Honeydew wants to talk to more than one plant at the same time?" Scuffle asked, scratching his head.

"You really don't have even a basic understanding of what Honeydew does, do you?" Clarity asked flatly.

Scuffle's eyes flitted nervously. "Uh⁠—"

"There's nothing wrong with that," Honeydew said absently, scribbling in her notes. "Scuffle doesn't care that I have no appetite for battle magic. Why should it matter to me that he isn't a magical biologist?"

Scuffle's relief was apparent. "Yeah, Clarity, gimme a break," he mumbled, earning an eye roll from the grey filly.

Dinky and her friends were gathered in the shade of a big tree near the residence towers. As Dinky had predicted, Clarity's enthusiasm for Honeydew's spellweaving experiment was nearly boundless.

"So Clarity, you know a lot about magic in society," Dinky began. "How rare is it for a unicorn to design a new spell?"

"Most unicorns never do," Clarity said simply. "Though the ponies we're surrounded by don't really count as 'most unicorns', since this place is for some of Equestria's most magically talented ponies. Those that do design spells usually don't design a lot; each one takes a lot of time and effort. Princess Twilight is a spellweaver of course, as are most of the professors here. Even my sister Lucid has created a custom illusion or two. But it's not an art everypony at the Academy will learn."

"Now, maybe I still don't quite get it," Scuffle said hesitantly, "but Dewey isn't 'just' designing a spell, right? She's designing like... a big spell."

"Right!" Clarity yelled, causing all her friends to jump. "Honeydew's making an attempt to bring something to the table that could turn a whole magical discipline on it's head! Isn't that amazing?"

Honeydew, who had been gradually sinking lower and lower as Clarity's feverish excitement built, placed her forehooves over her face. "Stop talking about it like I've already done it," she whined. "Even with Professor Chestnut's help, it's more likely that this will end up being a study on how not to create an ecosystem-wide spell. I'm excited to try, but I know I might not succeed."

"Clarity's not trying to jump the gun," Dinky said reassuringly, looking down at Honeydew's green eyes peering over the tops of her forehooves. "You know her. She's just really excited about new and powerful magic."

Honeydew slowly sat up. "I know," she said quietly. "I guess I just don't want to set everypony's expectations higher than I can meet. I feel like it would help if I could talk about the subject with a peer besides the three of you. I need some unbiased input from another magical biologist."

"Oh?" came another voice. "Perhaps I can help with that."

The strum of an acoustic guitar and the clack of castanets echoed through the air as a deep blue unicorn strode around the corner of the nearby tower, greeting the four surprised ponies with a gleaming grin.

"Tango Trot!" Clarity gasped, leaping to her hooves. "Good to see you! How are things going as the colts' Overseer?"

"Oh, simply splendid, Clarity," the colt replied. "Just ask your fine friend Scuffle there. He'll tell you last night went smoothly for all the colts."

"Yeah, Tango's got the Overseer shtick down," Scuffle said, nodding slightly.

Tango Trot paused as his gaze shifted to Dinky and Honeydew. "Ah, and I see your other friends are here too," he said, flashing the girls a smile. "We've been in class together before, but I'm afraid I have little more than a passing knowledge of either of you. If I recall, it's Honeydew and, erm..."

"Dinky," Dinky finished. "Clarity's already had a lot of good things to say about you."

Tango Trot laughed. "Ah, you flatter me," he said smoothly. "Of course, I've heard only the best about all of you from her as well. Clarity insists you're simply some of the most talented unicorns she knows."

"We all have our specialties, I suppose," Dinky admitted.

"Which reminds me," Scuffle interrupted, "what's your talent, Tango? We've been living in the same tower for years, and I never thought to ask."

"I should think that would be obvious," Tango Trot chuckled. "Without my favorite magic, my entrances would never be quite as dramatic!"

The Overseer struck a dashing pose, which was inexplicably accompanied by a chorus of guitars and tambourines. Scuffle raised an eyebrow.

"So you're good at like... being a total ham?"

"Scuffle!" Clarity scolded.

Tango appeared amused rather than offended. "I'm something of a savant with sound magic, my friend," he chuckled. "By no means is it limited to music; I can use magic to vibrate the air to produce almost any sound... or mimic any voice."

He spoke the last four words in a voice that was entirely indistinguishable from Scuffle's own, causing the colt to step back in surprise.

"But enough about me!" Tango announced before anypony could comment on his abilities. "I know I'm not the only one here with some unique magical abilities. I stopped to chat because⁠— oh and do pardon me for listening in⁠— I couldn't help but hear that Honeydew here is seeking somepony with a bit of a background in magical biology?"

Honeydew nodded shyly. "Well, yes," she admitted. "Professor Chestnut has mentioned you before; I guess you're no stranger to the subject, huh?"

Tango Trot's brilliant white grin appeared again. "Well Honeydew, if I may be so bold, perhaps I could lend a hoof toward whatever research foray you've undertaken," he offered, slicking back his mane with a forehoof. "The professor, of course, has made it no secret that you're simply brilliant with such matters, but two heads are better than one, after all."

Honeydew blushed slightly at the praise. "Um, I s-suppose that could be nice," she stuttered.

Tango Trot seemed to pick up on her hesitation. "Ah, but I'm being too hasty, perhaps?" he asked. "Silly me, I'm being terribly forward for somepony you just met."

Honeydew tried to reply, but suddenly, Tango Trot's eyes lit up, and he quickly pulled a flyer from his saddlebags with a flicker of magic.

"I've got an idea that perhaps the four of you would entertain," he said, displaying the flyer for the four friends. "Tomorrow, after classes are over, there is a special train running from the Academy to Canterlot. It's an opportunity for students who may have forgotten to pack something on their journey to the Academy to pick up a replacement from the shopping district. And of course, this also presents an opportunity for students to simply spend an evening roaming Equestria's fair capitol. If you all can spare the time, perhaps the five of us can take advantage of it to have a bit of fun and get to know each other better?"

Clarity smiled. "That sounds fun, actually," she replied. "You and I should probably go anyway. It'll be good if there's at least one Overseer there in case anypony needs us. What do you all think?"

"I haven't been to Canterlot in a while," Dinky agreed. "I'll go."

"I'm in," Scuffle added.

Tango Trot turned to Honeydew. "What do you say?" he asked softly. "Care to join us, and perhaps discuss a bit of biology on the way?"

For all his flowery speech and dramatic flair, Tango Trot seemed quite sincere with his welcoming demeanor, at least in Dinky's mind. Honeydew apparently was feeling the same; in spite of her guarded behavior around new ponies, a hopeful smile crept across her muzzle.

"That sounds nice, Tango Trot," she said, nodding. "I'll be there."

"Wonderful!" Tango declared, causing another cascade of music to fill the air with a tiny flicker of his horn. "In that case, ladies— and Scuffle— I shall see you tomorrow. Have a pleasant evening!"

With a final grin, Tango Trot teleported away, a lingering clatter of castanets hanging in the air behind him.

"Dinks," said Scuffle under his breath. "Seriously. This guy."

Dinky sat beside Scuffle as the train rumbled toward Canterlot. Across the aisle, Tango Trot sat with Honeydew, slowly swaying his tail and listening patiently as Honeydew explained the details of the Lifesense project she was about to start.

"What about him?" Dinky asked.

"He's so goofy," Scuffle laughed. "What a showboater. He's an alright dude, but still."

Clarity's head popped up from the row behind them. "Scuffle, exaggerating your personality around other ponies is literally how you socialize," she said dryly. "It's awful hypocritical to call Tango out on doing what you do."

Scuffle snorted. "A fanfare doesn't play every time I enter a room," he said flatly.

"And Tango doesn't take every opportunity to point out how he's clearly the best at whatever he's doing," Dinky snickered. "Face it Scuffle: different method, same style."

"Whatever," Scuffle grumbled. "There's worse ponies to have around than pretty boy over there. Looks like Dewey's comfortable around him now, so he can't be that bad."

There was a loud whistle as the train arrived at the artificially-lit Canterlot station. The five unicorns stepped out onto the street and were greeted by gentle snow flurries: likely one of the last snowfalls of the season. It decorated the colorful rooftops and awnings of the grand city, giving everything an almost whimsical appearance.

"Ah, home," said Tango Trot contently. "My family may hail from Maregentina, but we've lived in Canterlot since I was but a foal."

"Lead the way then," Clarity invited. "Let's hit the shopping district."

Tango Trot did just that. Dinky, near the front of the group as well, listened to his continued conversation.

"I must say, Honeydew, this concept is utterly fascinating," the colt complimented. "Feel free to disagree, but based on what you've told me, I would imagine a good place to start would be figuring out how to wrench the connection spell away from a single target and split it up, as we would with, for instance, levitation spells."

"That's the first hurdle, yes," Honeydew agreed. "The problem is that the typical way to cast the life connection spell is to block out all outside sensory interference. I've started jotting down some theories on a workaround for that."

Tango turned his head to glance at Dinky. "You're not a stranger to the subject either, my friend," he pointed out. "Any suggestions?"

Dinky thought about it. A moment before she replied, Tango Trot stopped dead, standing stone still and staring straight ahead.

"Um, Tango?" Honeydew asked, tilting her head.

"What's wrong?" Clarity asked, trotting forward.

Tango's horn suddenly surged with light. Strangely, it wasn't his normal sky blue aura, either. Instead, it was a brilliant white one.

"A spark once thought extinguished may still burn..." he said softly.

There was a long pause. Dinky and all her friends were at a loss for words. A moment later, Tango Trot suddenly got a hold of himself, noticed their stares, and cringed.

"Err... terribly sorry. Quite ruins the mood sometimes, that does."

"What was that supposed to be?" Scuffle asked.

"I know what it was," Clarity breathed, looking flabbergasted. "Tango Trot, are you... are you one of the rare ponies with precognitive powers?"

"'Powers' is putting it generously," Tango Trot said, embarrassed. "Technically... yes, on rare occasion, certain unicorns are born with some level of clairvoyance. It's a highly unusual magic, and one of the only types that can't be learned through study. You either have it or you don't."

He sighed. "Mine doesn't allow me to see the future, in case you're wondering," he continued. "Most of the time it doesn't even give me a clear idea of what I'm predicting. All it does is generate some cryptic phrase relating to a future event. The event in question could happen in five minutes or five years, so even if I can decipher the meaning, I don't know when to expect the result. All in all, it's more of a hassle than a gift."

"You think so?" Dinky asked. "Sure, maybe the clues you create are kind of esoteric, but I've never met anypony with precognition before. I think it's really cool."

Tango Trot shrugged the compliment off. "What do you suppose that nonsense about extinguished sparks means, then?" he asked.

Dinky shrugged. "I dunno," she admitted. "But I'm sure if we keep it in mind it'll be apparent sooner than we— oof!"

Poor Dinky was so engaged in her conversation that she ran right into the backside of a mare standing outside one of the shops. "Excuse me!" she apologized, quickly backing off. "I was distracted, I didn't see—"

The pony Dinky had run into slowly turned around. She was a rather aged unicorn mare with a yellow coat and a straight, silver mane. A familiar image of an oil lantern was emblazoned on her flank. Her eyes, aided by a pair of small spectacles, met Dinky's, and at once, her gaze morphed into a glare.

Dinky gasped and backpedaled frantically, hearing the similarly surprised utterances of her friends behind her.

"B-Bright Spark!"

"Dinky Doo," the mare replied, narrowing her eyes further. "What an unpleasant surprise."

Bright Spark, of course, was the ex-dean of Celestia's Academy. During Dinky's tumultuous first term, the old mare had done everything in her power to remove her from the school, especially once dark magic became a factor. Her downfall had come around after Princess Celestia got wind of her attempts to blackmail Overseer Sparkler into framing Dinky. But here she was, years later, looking no less furious than she had been on that fateful day.

"So," Bright Spark said sharply, "it seems I've once again crossed paths with the dangerous magical criminal that is for some reason still permitted to study at the Academy. And with all of her little troublemaker friends in tow, too. Lucky me."

"Why, Professor Spark," Tango Trot said in his politest tone, presumably to defuse the tension, "I'm certain you've got the wrong ponies. Dinky and her friends are some of the Academy's most upstanding students."

Bright Spark laughed. "Please," she spat. "These four ponies did nothing but break the rules, ignore orders, and put other ponies in danger, and this one—" she pointed an accusational hoof at Dinky, "—is a dark mage. A criminal who destroyed property and assaulted other ponies with dark magic, and got away with all of it."

In Dinky's mind, it was actually a relief to be called a "dark mage". Bright Spark knew all about Dinky's struggles with dark magic, and even about the accidental resurrection of Scorpio, but— and Dinky thanked the stars for it on a daily basis— she was not among the extremely few ponies who was aware that there was a wraith hidden beneath Dinky's false pony exterior. The current staff of the Academy all knew her secret, of course; that was a necessity, for reasons of safety in case anything ever went amiss.

Tango Trot laughed. "That's nonsense," he chuckled. "Imagine, Dinky of all ponies, casting dark magic."

"Um, actually, Tango, that part's true," Dinky admitted awkwardly, cringing a bit at his surprised expression. "But what she's referring to happened years ago."

"And Princess Celestia is aware of everything that happened, and pardoned Dinky for all of it." Clarity added quickly.

Bright Spark scowled. "Yes," she hissed, flicking her tail angrily. "Rather than expel a student using dark magic, they expelled the dean who tried to stop her. Brilliant move, Princess. Really well done."

Dinky stamped a forehoof. "That's not why she booted you out of the Academy and you know it," she growled.

"Ooh, feisty," Bright Spark chuckled darkly. "I suppose I better watch myself, or you'll try to murder me with dark magic like you almost did to Sparkler."

Some animalistic part of Dinky's mind kicked to life as the ex-dean fueled her growing rage. A moment later, she felt Clarity's hoof on her shoulder.

"Temper, Dinky..." the grey filly said quietly. "No need to stoop to her level."

Dinky took a deep breath and gently calmed the churning darkness inside her. She was its master, and she knew better than to let it loose in public, even when her temper flared.

Scuffle took a step forward. "Buzz off, Bright Spark," he snapped. "Dinky won, and you lost. It doesn't matter what you think of us anymore."

Bright Spark turned up her nose. "Fine," she said haughtily. "I'll be patient. One day, somepony's going to get killed at the hooves of this little maniac and her dark spells. Perhaps then Celestia will realize how foolish she was."

The old mare stormed off and was lost among the crowd.

"...My, that was something," said Tango Trot finally. "I suppose we know which Spark my prediction was referring to now."

"Tango Trot..." Honeydew mumbled, looking at him imploringly. "Please don't think of Dinky any differently just because she once had a run-in with dark magic. She's a good pony, we promise."

Tango Trot's beaming grin appeared. "Not to worry," he said, "I can already tell our good friend Dinky's devotion to her friends is far stronger than a few dark spells. While it's a surprising tidbit about her past, it's clearly no issue now."

"Thanks, Tango," Dinky replied, smiling appreciatively. "Now come on, let's all have a great night out, just like we planned."

The door swung open, and the lights in the apartment flickered on. Bright Spark shut the door with a swift kick of her hind hoof, and sighed. An old, somewhat overweight tabby cat meowed at her from the back of the couch.

"Yes, yes, Boris, I'll get your dinner," the old mare snapped, plodding into the kitchen and filling her pet's dish. Her cat, as cats do, sauntered into the room and began to eat, ignoring her entirely.

"Boris, you won't believe who I ran into this evening," Bright Spark began, while the cat paid precisely no attention. "That forsaken filly Dinky Doo is still lurking around Canterlot. That pony is the very definition of injustice! If she'd never stepped into the picture, the world would still know me as Bright Spark, dean of Equestria's most prestigious academy of magic, instead of Bright Spark, bitter old nag of Hickory Lane in Canterlot."

Boris, apparently having eaten enough for the moment, abandoned his dish and wandered off. Bright Spark followed him back into the parlor.

"If only there was some way, Boris, to show Equestria what a horrible little pony that Dinky Doo really is," she ranted. "But the princesses are all on her side! There's no getting around that."

Something hit the front door of the apartment, creating a single, sharp knock. Raising an eyebrow, Bright Spark stepped forward and pulled it open. There was nopony there, but a plain-looking piece of paper was tacked to the door by a strange shard of pink crystal. The old mare examined it, confused, before tearing the note free and scanning it.

Dear Ms. Bright Spark,

This evening, in the Canterlot marketplace, I heard a rumor that you have suffered a terrible injustice, due in no small part to a certain filly that everypony seems to adore. Nopony cares about her past, choosing to regard your valiant outcries against her as petty lies.

Don't worry. I believe you.

It's a bit early to go into detail, but I can assure you, you and I would both benefit from exposing Dinky Doo for the criminal she is. And I think I may have a way to help you do just that. Reply on the back of this letter, and return it to where you found it if you'd like to know more.

I hope to hear from you. Maybe together, we can end that filly's lucky streak once and for all.

A sinister smile slowly crept over Bright Spark's muzzle. "Imagine that, Boris," she whispered. "It seems I'm not the only pony in Equestria who feels this way after all."

A quill was quickly engulfed in the ex-dean's aura. She penned a reply on the back of the letter as quickly as she could.

What an intriguing offer. I'd love to hear your thoughts on the matter.

Bright Spark wrenched the curious crystal out of the wood, and tacked the note back in place with it. Chuckling with devious delight, she disappeared back into the apartment and softly shut the door.

Soon it was Wednesday morning. Back in Ponyville, Ditzy sat behind the desk, chewing the end of her quill as she pored over some of the company's finance reports. She and her three coworkers had been taking turns covering office duties during Candyfloss's absence, and right now, it was her shift.

There had been little time to think about the plans to locate Sparkler, or even about what Dinky may be up to during her first week of the new term. Shipping requests had been coming in more frequently than usual, all four employees had their hooves full keeping up.

The phone rang, disrupting the quiet of the office and making Ditzy jump. She quickly snatched up the phone, fumbling with the receiver to hold it to her ear.

"Equestria Speedy Shipping Services, Ditzy speaking."

"Ah, Ditzy," came the airy voice of Dr. Candyfloss. "Just the pony I wanted to hear from. We've got another shipping request in, and I can tell, this one is definitely best left in your hooves. Your style of shipping is just what this client needs."

"Sure thing, Doc!" Ditzy piped up, grabbing the notepad. "Just tell me where to go and who to look for."

"Fortunately, this one's very nearby," Candyfloss stated. "A teen student at the Ponyville School of Friendship seems to be feeling a little more than just friendship for one of his classmates. He's asked for a shipper to meet him behind the student dormitories, so since that's on school grounds, I'd contact the head mare and let her know you're coming first. Your client shouldn't be hard to find at all, though; to my knowledge, there aren't many griffons at the School of Friendship."

Ditzy jotted down the instructions. "Client is a griffon behind the School of Friendship dormitories," she repeated. "Got it. Anything else?"

"That should be all," Candyfloss replied.

Ditzy heard a female voice on her boss's side of the phone. "Mr. Candyfloss, your lunch is here," she said sweetly.

"Ah, Ditzy, I've got to go," the old stallion said. "They're planning to let me out of the hospital tomorrow, but for now, keep doing what you're doing. As always, the lovesick citizens of Equestria are counting on you."

Ditzy giggled. "Don't worry, I won't let them down," she replied. "Bye for now, Dr. Candyfloss."

"Goodbye, Ditzy my dear."

The pegasus hung up the phone. Looks like somepony else will be covering office duty for a bit, she thought, smiling.

Head mare Twilight Sparkle, who was a family friend of the Doos ever since her brief stint as Dinky's private magic tutor, was more than happy to give Ditzy a visitor's pass to the School of Friendship once the situation was explained. In just minutes, she was on her way to the designated spot. With a few quick flaps, she touched down on one of the many stone pathways snaking throughout the campus.

"Let's see..." she mumbled to herself. "It can't be too hard to spot a griffon, right?"

Something grabbed Ditzy's tail and yanked with surprising force. The poor pegasus yelped as she was unexpectedly dragged around the back of a huge tree. Spinning to face her assailant, she came nose-to-beak with a blue griffon, flicking his tail back and forth as he stared at her.

"Are you the pony that matchmaking place sent?" he asked.

"Y-yeah," Ditzy stuttered, slowly regaining her composure.

"Good. Up here."

With a catlike leap, the griffon propelled himself up into the branches of the tree. Surprised, Ditzy quickly fluttered up and perched carefully on a sturdy bough across from him.

"Sorry about the rude intro," her client said quickly. "I'm trying to keep this whole thing kinda under wraps, you know?"

Ditzy giggled. "Honestly, I get this sort of thing all the time," she admitted.

The griffon looked momentarily relieved. "The name's Gallus," he said, extending a talon in greeting.

"Ditzy Doo," Ditzy replied, placing her forehoof in his grip. "What sort of job do you have in mind, Gallus?"

"Well, personally, I think I could've handled it myself," Gallus said, sounding slightly annoyed, "but a friend of mine insisted I try calling you guys. Isn't that right, Ocellus?"

Ditzy nearly fell off her perch as a large bird sitting in a nest one branch over suddenly burst into blue flame, vanishing an instant later to reveal a slender, aqua-colored changeling. "Don't give me that nonsense," the insectoid creature chided. "You're running out of time, so it was time to call in some help."

Gallus rolled his eyes while Ditzy paused to get over the second startling surprise in the last 30 seconds.

"This is Ocellus, by the way," he said curtly, gesturing to the changeling as she gave a delighted chirp and a wave of greeting. "She thinks maybe Equestria Speedy Shipping Services is just what I need right now."

"See, there's a big school dance coming up," Ocellus explained, "and Gallus really wants to go with a certain friend of ours, but he hasn't worked up the nerve to ask her."

"I never said anything about wanting to go with her," Gallus corrected, crossing his arms.

"You didn't have to," Ocellus replied, grinning playfully. "I'm a changeling, Gallus. You can't hide your feelings for her from me. I can taste them from ten pony-lengths away."

"Ugh, fine," Gallus grumbled, turning back to Ditzy. "So I've grown very close to my friend Silverstream, okay? She's a hippogriff I met right after I first enrolled here, and I wanna take her to the dance. Can you help me or not?"

"You came to the right pony!" Ditzy declared, noticing Ocellus's widening smile on the edge of her vision. "I handle requests like this one all the time. If you already hang out with Silverstream anyway, then a good place to start is to take her to do something casual that you two already do anyway. Something she really likes. Her reactions are a good way to gauge her interest in you, and once you're confident you've got her in a good mood, enjoying spending the day with you, then ask her to be your date."

Gallus frowned. "With anygriff other than Silverstream, that would work just fine," he grumbled. "But there's one tiny problem. It's impossible to tell when something is really meaningful to her, because she likes everything."

"I can confirm that..." Ocellus admitted, flitting her wings nervously. "True, Silverstream gives off lots of positive emotions when she's near Gallus. But she also does that around me. And our other friends. And also around ice cream, and flowers, and staircases, and plumbing fixtures, and just pretty much just everywhere when the weather's nice, and⁠—"

"I get the picture," Ditzy cut in. "But won't that just make it easier? Sounds like she'll probably say yes, provided you ask her before somepony else does."

Gallus's grumpy expression gave way to one that looked a little depressed. "I mean, that's true..." he sighed, "but that's just it though. How do I know if it's meaningful to her if it's that easy? How do I sift through the massive amount of positive feedback she gives to find the things that actually matter the most?"

Ditzy was caught off guard. "That's, um, a good question," she admitted.

Gallus slumped on the branch. "I'm just worried that, if everything is amazing to Silverstream, then really, nothing is. Especially not me..."

"Don't say that!" Ditzy and Ocellus cried in unison. Ocellus smiled sheepishly and backed off a pace or two, motioning for Ditzy to take charge.

"Gallus, if you're willing to do as I say, I think I've got a plan," the pegasus announced, smiling as a curious Gallus met her gaze. "If all goes well, we'll find out what really matters to Silverstream soon enough. It's just gonna be a little... complicated."

Changelings, as it turned out, were capable of transforming into inanimate objects. This became awfully convenient when there was no reasonable vantage point to watch Gallus interact with Silverstream without being spotted. At this particular moment, Ditzy peeked out from her hiding spot, crouched behind a large berry bush that was, in reality, Ocellus.

"So what's the plan, exactly?" Ocellus somehow whispered, despite being in a form that lacked any sort of mouth.

Ditzy couldn't answer right away, as she needed a moment to mentally adjust to the situation. The concept of inanimate objects talking to her had been one that hadn't sit right with her for quite some time, ever since a particularly strange duo shipping assignment she'd completed alongside Watt years earlier, that she'd been trying her hardest to forget ever since.

"Are you okay, ma'am?" Ocellus asked nervously.

"F-fine," Ditzy stuttered, shaking the thoughts of her nonsensical past adventure from her head. "The plan is pretty simple in theory; Silverstream is going to be joining Gallus for an afternoon together, under the pretense that it's all part of a friendship assignment for one of his classes. Gallus's job is just to make Silverstream happy. Our job is to discreetly make sure the little adventure the two of them are about to go on goes as planned."

"Got it," Ocellus chirped. "Just tell me what to do and when to do it."

A moment later, Gallus wandered into view, and alongside him trotted a creature that Ditzy knew at once must be Silverstream. From the waist forward, her anatomy was a lot like Gallus, with a hooked beak and a set of claws on each foreleg. Her back half though, in contrast to Gallus's catlike body, much more closely resembled a pony. Her pink feathers stood out against the still mellow colors of the approaching spring season.

"So what kind of assignment is this, exactly?" Silverstream asked.

"Some kind of a friendship treasure hunt, I guess," Gallus answered. Ditzy noticed he was awfully good at playing it cool around the object of his affection. Better than most of her clients, anyway.

Silverstream cocked her head slowly. "Which is...?"

"We have to follow a series of clues or something that will lead us to the treasure at the end," Gallus explained. "Of course, the school's made it into some kind of teamwork exercise."

Silverstream's eyes widened. "That sounds like literally the most fun thing ever," she breathed in apparent awe.

"Right, sure," said Gallus absently, glancing at the first clue, that Ditzy and Ocellus had provided him with earlier. "Come on, looks like we have to go to the library to start."

"Lead the way!" Silverstream sang, flapping along behind the griffon as the two of them disappeared into the school.

Once the coast was clear, there was a brief, fiery flash as Ocellus returned to her original form. "Do we follow them?" she asked.

"Yep," Ditzy said with a smile. "The treasure hunt will serve as an inconspicuous way to get Silverstream to reveal her interests. We need to be ready at each stop to deliver the next clue without being noticed."

Ocellus grinned. "Don't worry, ma'am," she said excitedly. "Changelings are great at that!"

Ditzy took to the air. "No time to lose, then," she declared as Ocellus buzzed up to hover beside her. "Hurry, let's get to the library!"

By the time Gallus and Silverstream stepped into the library, Ditzy and Ocellus were already huddled on the second story walkway, peering down between the bars of the railing.

"We need to see if there's a difference between Silverstream's reactions to various things she likes," Ditzy explained, glancing at her assistant with one eye while the other remained on her targets. "I'm sure there must be a way to tell which ones are really her favorites."

Ocellus looked unsure, but she kept quiet, watching the griffon and hippogriff below.

"So," Gallus said, squinting at the piece of paper, "the first clue says 'a good book is a treasure in itself, but one of these books will lead you closer to the treasure you're looking for'."

Silverstream looked left and right. "So the next clue is in one of the books?" she asked. "But there's like... a bazillion books here!"

"Eh, I'm sure it's hidden in one we already like," Gallus said casually. "Come on, Silver, go grab some of your favorites."

Silverstream raced off, and was back in just moments with an armful of books. "These ones!" she declared, dumping about twenty of them on the table.

Gallus raised an eyebrow. "There's a lot of different types of books here," he said, spreading them out a bit so he could see the covers. "What genre do you like the most?"

Silverstream thoughtfully tapped a claw to her chin. "Hmm, well comedy is always great," she admitted. "What's better than a good laugh after a long, stressful day?"

Gallus opened his beak to reply, but he was cut off. "Oh, but romantic tales are so great too!" Silverstream continued. "A real prince charming sweeping a lucky somegriff off their hooves! It's so heartwarming."

Gallus nodded. "Well, that—"

"Wait!" Silverstream cried, her voice turning several heads in the quiet library. "Mystery! Mystery books are great. They really push you to try to solve the case before the main character does. The intrigue! The suspense! They're so much fun!"

Ditzy watched and Silverstream went on and on about nearly every genre she could think of. She turned to Ocellus, who was shaking her head slowly.

"This is the problem," the changeling whispered. "She seems to like all of them, so there's no way to tell what genre is really her favorite."

"Lucky for us, we've got some other things to try," Ditzy replied. "I think it's time to move them along to the next station."

She handed Ocellus a second clue, written on a small slip of paper. "Get this to Gallus without catching Silverstream's attention," she instructed.

Ocellus nodded and darted down into the library. After she was hidden behind a bookshelf, Ditzy saw a small flash of blue light.

As Gallus continued to sit, listening to Silverstream's excited monologue, a book suddenly fell from the shelf behind him. He turned around and spotted a copy of the ever-popular adventure novel, Daring Do and the Sapphire Statue. A few shelves above, a tiny, pale blue mouse waved at him from a gap in the books before disappearing back into the darkness behind them.

"Hey, Silverstream, how about adventure stories?" he asked, picking up the well-worn book.

"Ooh, those are super-incredible!" Silverstream gasped, ignoring the shushes of some nearby students trying to study as she snatched the book from Gallus's claws. "An epic quest all across Equestria sounds like fun. Reading about one is almost as fun as being on one and..."

A slip of paper fluttered out from between the pages as Silverstream opened the book. She caught it before it was even halfway to the floor and gasped.

"Gallus! The next clue!"

"Imagine that," Gallus intoned, trying to fake at least a little surprise. "What's it say?"

"You won't have to run, jump, swim, and fly to reach the treasure like Daring Do does, but to find the next clue, go to the part of the school where you can do all those things with your friends," Silverstream recited.

"I guess we're heading to the athletic fields then," Gallus assumed. "C'mon, let's check around the Buckball field or something."

With Silverstream leading the way, the two of them quickly exited the library. Ocellus plopped down next to Ditzy again once the coast was clear.

"I don't know if this is gonna work, ma'am," she mumbled sadly. "So far, this just like Gallus was worried it would be."

"We just need more data," Ditzy encouraged. "I've been shipping ponies for years now, and I've had to read a lot of ponies' reactions to a lot of different things. There has to be a way to determine which things Silverstream likes more than others. Let's head to that buckball field, and soon, I'm sure we'll find it."

Ocellus gave her wings a short, uncertain buzz, before following Ditzy into the air again.

This time, Ditzy and Ocellus were stationed under the bleachers well before Gallus and Silverstream arrived.

"Silverstream seems pretty active," Ditzy observed as the two students approached the field. "Let's see how she responds when Gallus brings up different sports and activities."

"Hmm," Silverstream hummed, flying several pony lengths into the sky for a bird's eye view of the buckball field and surrounding athletic facilities. "Where do you think a clue could be out here, Gallus?"

"In with the sports equipment or something, I guess," Gallus answered dully.

Silverstream stopped. "What's wrong?" she asked gently. "Not enjoying the treasure hunt?"

Gallus blinked. "Uh... no, nothing's wrong!" he squawked. "Come on, let's find the next clue."

"Silverstream can be a little scatterbrained, but despite that, she's not oblivious to her friends' feelings," Ocellus whispered, earning a slow nod from Ditzy. "Gallus needs to keep up his part of the act or she's gonna catch on."

"Don't worry, I think he's figuring that part out for himself," Ditzy pointed out.

"Hey Silver..." Gallus began cautiously. "You're fast, and pretty strong, so I guess you've gotta be into some athletics, right?"

"Well sure!" Silverstream sang. "Obviously I've always had a soft spot for swimming since, y'know, I grew up as a seapony."

"So swimming is your favorite?" Gallus chanced.

"Well, maybe!" the hippogriff replied. "But the organized sports the ponies play here are loads of fun too! Oh, and I just love flying; whether it's a race or an obstacle course, I'm always happy to stretch my wings!"

"Do you... have a favorite though?" Gallus asked.

"Gee," Silverstream said pensively, tapping a claw on her chin again. "They're all so great, Gallus. They're really just all my favorite!"

Gallus frowned and stifled a sigh. "Yeah, that's about what I expected," he said with a shrug, watching Silverstream dig through a bin of Buckball equipment.

"Shoot," Ditzy grumbled. "No luck here either. But we can't give up!"

"What else can we try?" Ocellus asked, furrowing her brow.

"I've got another idea, but we have to get the next clue to Gallus," Ditzy replied, hastily scribbling the next clue down on a sticky note and attaching it to a buckball she'd swiped from the equipment bin the moment they'd arrived. "See if you can get his attention while Silverstream's distracted."

Ocellus poked her narrow body out from between two levels of the bleachers and waved frantically to Gallus with both forehooves. Once the griffon met her gaze, Ditzy passed her the ball. Ocellus balanced it carefully on her back, and with a springlike flick of her elytra, catapulted it to Gallus before slipping back beneath the stands.

"You sure are... versatile, Ocellus," Ditzy complimented, garnering a beaming smile from the little changeling. "This whole operation would've been really tricky without your help."

Ocellus watched as Gallus shared the latest clue with Silverstream and led the two of them to their next destination. "I just hope it's not all for nothing," she squeaked anxiously. "Come on, let's get to our next hiding spot!"

Silverstream eyed the plethora of options in the cafeteria, her gaze darting from item to item almost too quickly to follow.

"Fish! No, no... maybe vegetables? Fish and vegetables! Wait, no, obviously dessert is the most tasty. But not really the most satisfying, you know? Sometimes you need a good balanced meal."

"So you don't really have a favorite?" Gallus asked, raising an eyebrow.

Silverstream ran her tongue along the rim of her beak hungrily. "Gosh, Gallus, I think we're just lucky to have so many amazing things to try!" she admitted. "We didn't have nearly this many options in Seaquestria. I love all of them!"

Ditzy groaned and placed her head in her forehooves as Ocellus awkwardly patted her back. "It's just no use," she mumbled to her assistant. "I've been on hundreds of assignments, and I've never seen anything like this. I have no doubt that Gallus could get Silverstream to go to the dance with him, but... I can't seem to get what he really wants out of her."

"Don't give up, ma'am," Ocellus encouraged. "There's one clue left. Maybe the last stop will be a breakthrough!"

"It's worth a shot," Ditzy agreed. "Sneak the last clue onto Gallus's lunch tray, and we'll give this one more try."

Ocellus assumed the appearance of one of the lunchroom staff. As Gallus passed by with his lunch, she gave him a wink and slipped the last clue into the groove of the tray right next to the mashed potatoes. As Gallus and Silverstream sat down to eat, she darted back to Ditzy's side.

"Great work," the pegasus praised, patting Ocellus on the head briefly. "I've got one last task for you, if you're up for it."

"If you think it'll help Gallus, I'm on it!" Ocellus declared, saluting.

Ditzy whispered the plan to her helper, and the little changeling nodded and zipped away, leaving Ditzy alone to wonder if there was still a chance of saving this assignment.

"The treasure awaits you in the school's main hall," Gallus read.

"Oh my gosh!" Silverstream screeched. "We're almost at the end already. You're so good at this, Gallus!"

Despite his worries, Gallus smiled at her boundless enthusiasm. "Come on, Silver, you helped too. In fact, why don't you do the honors and open the doors to the end of the treasure hunt."

"Can do!" Silverstream sang, giving the School of Friendship's large front doors a push.

From a high balcony overlooking the entry hall, Ditzy watched as the doors swung open and the two arriving friends realized what was waiting for them. Now, there was nothing to do but watch, and see how things played out.


Ocellus, along with three other individuals that Ditzy later learned were Yona the yak, Smolder the dragon, and Sandbar the earth pony, waved to Gallus and Silverstream from the middle of the grand hall.

"You guys!" Silverstream gasped, flapping frantically over to meet them. "Did you beat us to the treasure?"

"Not quite," Sandbar laughed. "We are the treasure!"

"Well, to be more precise, the friendship we share is," Ocellus giggled.

"What a surprise," Gallus said with a roll of his eyes as he joined the rest of the group. "I never would've guessed friendship would be the treasure."

"I know, right? What a great lesson!" Silverstream cried, sounding every bit as sincere as Gallus did sarcastic.

"It may have been kinda obvious, but I guess it's not so bad," Smolder chimed in, shrugging. "I mean, hanging out with all of you is pretty awesome."

"Yona think we're very lucky to have each other!" Yona added, stomping her front legs in affirmation.

"We totally are," Silverstream agreed. "I got to spend all afternoon on an awesome hunt with an awesome friend!"

She turned to Gallus, bringing her voice down to a less shrill level. "Gallus, thanks for bringing me along for the treasure hunt," she said, smiling. "I had a ton of fun. Hanging out with you might be my favorite way to spend an afternoon."

Gallus's eyes widened. "Your favorite?"

Silverstream grinned. "Yup! And my other favorite is racing with Smolder, or exploring with Sandbar, or smashing stuff with Yona, or⁠—"


Gallus turned away. Silverstream cocked her head.

"What's wrong? Was it something I said?"

"Nah," Gallus mumbled. "I'm fine. Think I'm gonna head back to the dorms, though. Later, guys."

Most of Gallus's friends looked on in confusion, but Silverstream rocketed into the air and planted herself in front of Gallus before he could exit. "You aren't acting fine," she said, taking hold of the griffon's shoulders. "You seemed kinda down during the treasure hunt too..."

Gallus tried to resist, but Silverstream's big, sad eyes quickly seemed to get the better of him. He looked at the floor.

"Look, Silver, I just... I mean, first I just wanted to ask you to the dance, and then—"

Silverstream's beak curved into a huge smile. "The dance? With you? That sounds like so much fun, I'd love to! We can—"

"Silver!" Gallus interjected, silencing his excited friend.

She blinked. "Hmm?"

Gallus sighed. "Silverstream, I know you'd love to be my date to the dance," he said slowly. "But what if, for instance, Sandbar had asked you? Or Smolder? Or Ocellus? Would you have said yes to them too?"

Silverstream glanced over her shoulder and smiled at her friends. "Well, of course," she chirped. "You're all my best friends. Why would I say no to any of you?"

"And that's the problem," said Gallus dully.

Silverstream suddenly looked quite offended. "You're... mad at me for appreciating my friends?" she asked incredulously.

"What? No!" Gallus gasped, putting up his front claws defensively. "It's nothing like that! I just, y'know..."

He stopped, and for a moment it appeared he was about to give up on explaining himself. To Ditzy's relief, Ocellus gestured at him from the background, urging him to continue.

"I... I just get worried. I really like you, but you like everygriff so much that it just seems like I'm just another face in the crowd."

There was a lengthy silence. Silverstream appeared to be contemplating Gallus's words.

"...Who says having lots of close friends makes them any less special?" she asked finally.

Gallus faltered. "Uhh..."

"Gallus, since the Storm King was defeated, I've had a chance to meet a whole bunch of creatures that live here in Equestria," Silverstream explained in a surprisingly calm, controlled voice. "And it didn't take long for it to become super obvious that every single citizen of this land is different— and amazing— in their own way. I put value in almost everything because I know what its like to have no variety in my life. No library of amazing books. No smorgasbord of amazing food. And also... no amazing friends, who are all unique and interesting and fun in their own special ways."

"I never thought of it that way," Gallus admitted, his wings and tail drooping. "Man, I'm sorry Silver..."

Silverstream chuckled. "It's fine," she cooed. "Just promise me you'll remember that loving all my friends doesn't mean I love you any less, alright?"

"Yeah," Gallus said, standing back up and smiling confidently back at her. "Yeah, I think I can handle that."

"Alright, you two, that's enough of that mush," Smolder grumbled, flying to the door and beckoning to the rest of her friends. "Come on, let's all go do some planning for that big dance."

"Yay!" Silverstream cried, racing out the door after Smolder. She was quickly followed by Sandbar and Yona, leaving just Gallus and Ocellus behind. Gallus passed a small sack to Ocellus, mumbled something to her, and then took off after his friends.

On the balcony, Ditzy sat in awe of what had just happened. After a few moments, Ocellus floated up to her hiding spot and alighted beside her.

"Gallus said to thank you for the help, even if things didn't quite go how we expected," she giggled, tossing the little sack to the pegasus. "Here's the payment he owes you."

"I was thinking about this all wrong," Ditzy admitted, shaking her head. "Fostering love and friendship is my job, but I've still got a lot to learn."

"Everything worked out in the end though," Ocellus chirred, happily flitting her wings. "Now you can take what you learned and use it to make your future assignments better."

Ditzy smiled as she led the way outside. "Speaking of assignments, Ocellus, you really helped make this one go smoothly," she complimented. "You're one talented changeling. If you're looking for work after you graduate... maybe stop by Equestria Speedy Shipping Services."

Ocellus beamed. "I just might take you up on that someday, ma'am!"

With another client's request complete, Ditzy took to the skies again, waving goodbye to her new friend as she disappeared into the clouds.

"Hey guys, I'm ba—"

Ditzy cut herself off, glancing around the employee lounge in surprise. This late in the day, it was normal for everypony to be returning from the afternoon's assignments, but Breeze and Watt were nowhere to be found. Only Cloudcover was present; he stood staring out the window, watching the clouds drift by.

"Hey Cloudcover," Ditzy greeted, trotting toward her friend. "Where are the others?"

"Out," said Cloudcover, unusually curtly.

Ditzy cocked her head. "On assignment?"


There was a pause. Cloudcover simply continued to stare at the sky.

"So... what's going on then?" Ditzy ventured.

Cloudcover took a slow breath. "Ditzy, every once in a while, life decides to throw a wrench in the works," he said levelly. "Now and then, things happen. Wild things that simply don't make sense."

"Um, y-yeah..." Ditzy stuttered, taken aback. "Life has thrown me a few curveballs in recent years. I had a million-bit debt charged against me once, and my daughter is a powerful dark creature pretending to be a pony. But scary as those moments are... things usually turn out okay, don't they?"

Cloudcover didn't reply. Ditzy flattened her ears against her head.

"Err... Cloudcover?"

"It came out of nowhere," Cloudcover said suddenly. "No more than a few hours ago, everything was fine. There was no indication that anything was wrong. Everypony is simply baffled."

Something in Cloudcover's voice sent a pall of dread creeping over Ditzy. "What are you talking about?" she asked, her voice shaking.

Cloudcover finally turned away from the window enough to glance at her from the corner of his eye. He wore an almost haunted expression.

"We received a call, not thirty minutes ago," he said softly. "It was Ponyville Urgent Care. There's been a... a change in the boss's condition. We decided Breeze and Watt should be the ones to rush over to talk to the hospital staff, while I waited here for you. Though honestly... I'm not sure, at this point, why there was even any rush."

Ditzy paled. "D-don't..." she stammered, feeling her insides knotting with horror. "The doc talked to me just this morning. P-please don't tell me..."

Cloudcover turned back to the window just as a passing cloud blocked the sunlight, seeming to drain the brightness from the cozy lounge and leaving everything dull and faded. His voice quavered just a bit as he spoke.

"Ditzy..." he said hoarsely. "Dr. Candyfloss is dead."