• Published 22nd Jan 2020
  • 1,275 Views, 248 Comments

Never Alone - SoloBrony



It's time for Cozy Glow to get back out in the real world and figure out where she fits into Equestria. She's tried superheroics, supervillainy, and accidentally destroyed the world; now she has to try being normal. Yeah, probably not.

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Just Breathe

I'd taken Pine back to Applejack and Autumn. With Pine's permission, I had taken Applejack aside and explained the situation to her. When I finished, she sighed heavily.

"Dang fool thing that mare did. This isn't gonna be an easy rift to fix." She looked at me with concern. "Are you gonna be okay with this one, Cozy? I know it hits awful close to home for you."

I grimaced, and sighed. "I'd like to say I'm fine, but we'd both know that's a lie. If I have to be honest, I'm furious."

Applejack winced. "Yeah, I figured as much. Can't say I'm too happy myself, 'specially hearin' about two different situations like this so close together..."

I growled, but kept my voice hushed so it wouldn't carry. "And how do you think I feel?! The whole thing with Bree is still fresh for me, and now I've gotta deal with this?" I scoffed.

Applejack nodded, and placed a hoof on my shoulder. "I know, filly. But the map chose you for a reason. You're gonna make it through, one way or the other. I believe that."

I grit my teeth, took in a deep breath, closed my eyes, and let it out, forcing myself calm. "I know. We have to take care of this, for him," I indicated Pine, "if nothing else. I'll keep it under control."

Applejack nodded, and looked over to Pine in thought. "It sure sounds like he needs all this explained to'em..."

I looked over as well. "Yeah, but I don't even know what to say to him! That's why I brought him to you. I figure if anypony can explain what to think of all of this to him, it'd be you."

Applejack chewed her lip a bit. "I mean... it ain't exactly my area, but I'll give it a shot, I guess. But what about the mom?"

I winced. "I don't know. I don't really wanna handle that, either... but I guess I promised Pine, and I guess I understand her issue a little better..."

Applejack looked over at me in surprise. "You're sayin' you can relate to River? Really?"

I fidgeted in place. "Don't say it like that! But... yeah. I mean, she got panicked and mad and did something stupid... that's me all over." I frowned. "Or at least it used to be."

Applejack studied me for a few seconds, considering, and then slowly nodded. "I reckon I get why the map sent you, now."

I shrugged uncomfortably. "If you say so. I still think almost anypony could do a better job, here."

Applejack shook her head emphatically. "No, I don't think they could. I think..." she looked back over to Pine. "I think I should stay here, with Pine. I know what to say to'em, and I think you'll know what to say to River."

She believes in me? To deal with this? Is she crazy? Or... does she really trust me?

I blanched. "What?! But, Applejack! Last time I dealt with an abusive mom I—"

Applejack cut me off with a serious look. "Does this feel the same t'you? If you really think that'll happen again, say the word and Ah'll come with ya, or heck, we can get out of here. I don't want you doin' anythin' you think is unsafe."

I froze and thought it over, really taking a moment. I took a deep breath. "No... no, this isn't the same. I don't hate River, and I'm not afraid of her. I'm just angry she did that to a... a kid." I glanced over at Pine. "Is that... selfish of me? Caring just because he's a kid, like me?"

Applejack huffed, gently pressing her hoof to my shoulder. "No, Cozy. You're jus' feelin' protective 'cuz you know exactly how bad this stuff can be. Now, I can't pretend to know what it was like to go through what you went through... and that's why I can't offer the same kinda perspective to River you can."

I shuffled a bit. "But the only perspective I want to offer her right now is an up-close view of my hoof at high speeds."

Applejack just studied me neutrally, making me uncomfortable. That was kinda supposed to be a joke...

She raised an eyebrow. "Well... d'you think that'd help?"

I started. "What? No! O-or... I don't think it would... probably?"

Applejack snickered. "Well, the map sent you for a reason, like I said. We're partners on this, so I'm listenin' to what you suggest. And maybe she does need somepony to put her hoof down firm, or maybe she just needs to hear somethin' you have to say."

I took a few deep breaths, really turning it over in my mind. "I guess... I guess I do have a lot of things I want to say. A-and I guess there's a lot I want to ask her about, too..."

Applejack smiled sadly and nodded. "I kinda figured as much. So how do we handle this?"

Come on... I've fought monsters and villains, I can handle one pony—kirin who messed up. I can do this!

I took a deep breath and steeled myself. "You handle Pine, I'll handle River."

Applejack's smile brightened, and she clapped me on the shoulder. "Knew I could count on you. And if anything dangerous or too bad happens, you just come straight back t'me, right?"

I nodded hurriedly. "Right. We promised my mom I'd stay safe, so..."

Applejack nodded, and we split up.

I watched Cozy set off, little bundle of nerves that she was, and I sighed. I was nervous as all get-out, too, but I was doing my best to put up a brave face for her. I turned to go back to the table, only to stop short as Autumn approached me. She glanced at Cozy and then back to me.

"Are you sure it's really a good idea to send Cozy on her own to deal with this?"

I laughed more out of nerves than anything. "Wouldn't say I'm sure, but I'm not much certain of anythin' with this quest."

Autumn frowned and set a hoof on my barrel. "I remember you saying in your letter that you were trying to trust her more, now. I can appreciate that, really! But doesn't it seem like this is a bit too much?"

I sighed and sat down, looking over to watch Cozy make her way towards the edge of the village. "Maybe. But if I'm bein' perfectly honest, I'm not much sure what else to do. I don't want River feelin' like we're gangin' up on her, and I don't even know what I'd have t'say to a mare like that. 'Don't do it again?' It's pretty obvious t'me that she already knows that, or she wouldn't be avoidin' home so much. I know from experience, when I get too set on doin' things my way durin' one of these trips, it can just cause even more trouble."

Autumn nodded slowly. "I guess I can see that. How do you think Cozy will handle it?"

I shrugged, and then laughed. "Heck if I know! She's one unpredictable filly, and strong-willed, too. Only thing I know for sure is she won't let River back around Pine until she's darn sure things'll work out. An' she's clever, too; she might not believe in herself that much, but I think she'll figure somethin' out. And in any case, I think River will want to hear what Cozy has to say; hearin' about these sorts of things from a foal who went through'em herself is sure to make an impression."

Autumn cocked her head. "But you don't think you should be there to mediate?"

I shook my head. "If I went there, it's bits-to-apples that Cozy'd never open up, feel like she can say what needs t'be said. 'Sides, somepony's gotta talk to Pine, help'em sort things out on his side."

Autumn smiled at me, nodding. "Well, I'll be here to back you up the whole way, AJ. Heh, rhyme. But seriously; you just say the word if you need me to step in."

I smiled back at the ever-positive kirin, standing up and adjusting my hat. "Awful thankful for that, Autumn. Let's get to it."

I was nervous, but I pushed that down. I had to keep reminding myself I'd faced far worse.

Unfortunately, my mind kept coming around to the idea of someone hitting Pine, and my anger just kept building the more I thought about it. It got to the point that it was hard to breathe and my legs felt like lead, and I had to stop and lean against a tree to breathe and let it all recede.

It's not fair to River to put all of my anger at Bree on her.

But that's not the point! She hit her own foal out of anger!

She made a mistake, but I need to see how she feels about it before you go all roaring rampage Cozy on her!

I sucked in deep breaths, and by the time my anger faded my legs felt like jelly, and I felt dizzy. I tried to focus, think back on something that could help with this.

Celestia said... it's easy to judge from the outside. But I haven't had to parent anypony, so, I've got to keep an open mind. I mean, I can judge right from wrong, but I really need to listen to them just listen to them before I do anything rash.

I took a few more seconds to gather myself and sort my mind out, and I made my way. River Flash was, fittingly enough, at the river, and had a grey-blue coloration that matched it as well. She was tending the waterwheel that ground the grain for the village. I took a second to steel myself, and walked up to her.

And I almost immediately noted that she looked miserable. She perked up when she saw me, but it was pretty blatantly faked.

"Oh, hello, filly! Are you visiting the village?"

I nodded. "Applejack and I were sent here on a friendship quest. My name's Cozy Glow."

She blinked in surprise, pausing in her work. "A friendship quest? Like Applejack and Fluttershy before?"

I nodded. She seemed nervous, but I couldn't pinpoint why, only hazard a guess.

Time to be blunt. Works for Starlight.

"It seems like the problem is between you and your son." I grit my teeth a little before continuing. "Would you mind telling me about that?"

Her eyes shot wide in surprise and she slapped down on her rump. "You're here to help us?" She took a deep breath, holding a hoof against her chest. "I-I don't know what to say, but thank you."

I raised an eyebrow. "Don't thank me yet." I strode over near her and sat down as well, and I tried to keep from glaring. "He told me about what happened."

She flinched, turning away from me to look at the river. "... Good. Then I guess I don't have to explain. What should I do? When I told Rain, the village leader, she just said I had to sort it out myself! I thought there would be some sort of support, but Autumn's anger-management classes obviously haven't worked for me! So... should I go to the stream?"

It took me a few seconds to sort through that. "You... turned yourself in?"

She threw her hooves up. "Of course! I hit my foal, what was I supposed to do? Pretend it never happened? Wait for it to happen again?!"

I flinched. Yes...? "No...?"

She nodded frantically. "Exactly! I had to do something. But... but I don't know what to do! I didn't mean to hurt him, but it could happen again..."

I held up a hoof. "Could you explain exactly what happened? I get that he was throwing a tantrum and turned into a nirik, but if you didn't mean to hurt him, what did you do?"

She cringed. "Well, it's just, our house is built into a tree. It's flammable. Our village has burnt down before! I was trying to calm him down, but once he went up he just kept getting louder, and started smashing everything, and I was so worried something would catch fire, I... I transformed too, and I swatted him before I even knew what I was doing. I-I think I thought it would stun him out of it, and it did, but..."

She was shaking violently by the time she finished, and held a hoof up to her mouth. She started crying and turned away from me, slowly rapping her forehooves around herself and rocking back and forth. "What do I do? He was so terrified of me, it killed me to see him look at me like that. I tried to explain to him that I didn't mean to hurt him, that it wasn't his fault, but... he just seemed so scared, and when I tried to... I tried to hug him and he backed away from me."

She took a second to wipe her eyes as she continued, her face sick. "A-and I was terrified that I would hurt him again, and I just felt so sick and disgusted with myself, I just... I just wanted to get myself out of my son's presence. I didn't want him to be around anyone who would scare him like that. I went down to the stream of silence, so it would never happen again, but I realized that he's still relearning his vocabulary after the years of silence. We only recently got his stutter under control... if I could never..."

She hitched and buried her face in her hooves. "If I could never speak to my own son again, how could I help him with anything? And would I even feel the same for him after? I just couldn't... but my temper has been so bad since we changed back. I started avoiding everyone in the village, just to avoid flare-ups, but after so long under the effects of the stream I just don't have any control over my feelings anymore!"

She started sobbing into her hooves, and by the time she was finished talking I felt heartbroken. I imagined, just for a second, Mom in the same position she was in now. She'd been in a similar position; I'd been afraid of her shortly after I came back, and that alone seemed to make it hard for her to know what to do with me. The idea of how she'd feel if she accidentally hurt me, and I blamed her for it...

It made me want to throw up.

I trotted over next to the weeping mare and sat down next to her, just close enough for our coats to touch. I watched the river flow past for a little while, thinking of what to say, while she wept.

"Being a parent is pretty tough, huh...?"

She hitched and looked at me with anguish. "No! Or, it didn't used to be... my son was what made my life feel worth living. He brightened everything for me! He's the center of my world, the reason I feel like I should get up in the morning, but now I don't know what to do for him!"

I sighed. "You know... when I came out here, I was really furious with you."

She sniffled and wiped her face. "Really...? Well, that makes two of us, I guess. I m-mean, what kind of monster hits their kid?"

I scoffed. "Oh please. You didn't even mean to do anything wrong, or hurt anyone. Everything you've done was with good intentions, you just messed up. Everyone does that. You wouldn't know a monster if it up and bit you, if you think that's what you are."

Or if it up and sat down next to you, for that matter.

Less self-sass and more helping the parent and kid!

She just scoffed at me in turn. "W-well you don't understand. He—"

I held up a hoof and shot her a glare that could curdle milk. She flinched slightly, and I took the opportunity. "I do understand. My birth-mother used to hit me, bad, and my brother and sister, too. So I think I understand pretty well why this is serious to you, because I understand the harm that can be done. From personal experience."

We stared at each other for a few seconds. The mare's expression turned from offense to horror. "What do you mean she used to hit you...?"

I huffed. "I guess you could probably find the scars under my coat, if you're really curious. There was a lot of other bad stuff, too, but you wanna know what the worst part was?"

She cringed, but I pressed on anyway, not even caring about her answer. "It was the words. Not the cuts, not the pain, not going hungry or being completely humiliated. Those were awful, but the worst part was the words. A good friend of mine told me everyone thinks to themselves in their head with different voices. Well, do you know what voices a foal uses? Think back."

She froze, thinking on it. "T... their parents?"

I felt my temper rising, but not at River. I let it run free.

"Bingo. Or at least, that's what I did, and I bet it's what any kid who's been screamed at by their parents enough does. You hear 'you're worthless', 'good-for-nothing', 'lazy', 'ungrateful', 'selfish', 'ugly', 'fat', 'stupid'... whatever words they use, do you know what happens? They rattle around up here," I pointed at my head sharply "constantly. Every time you're ashamed, upset at yourself, or you just doubt yourself, it's all multiplied by whatever hate they already put inside of you! Hate for yourself!"

I was breathing hard, staring at her and leaning up at her, and she looked almost terrified. I took a deep breath and settled back down, bringing my mind back in focus. "If your kid had bumped his head as hard as you hit him, would you even be worried? No! I can tell because you love him and you didn't stay around that night, so it wasn't like you hit him hard or he was injured, right?"

She blinked, confused. "No, he was alright, physically..."

"Yeah, exactly. The reason it even matters that you hit him is because you betrayed his trust. And you know that, obviously. And yeah, that hurts. But you just did it once, by accident; he can get over that! Everyone makes mistakes! Maybe it's a good way to teach him that you do, too, and you're not perfect, or something, or whatever parents do to turn stuff into teachable moments! Look, the point is, the emotional harm is what counts, so you need to go and address that. What you're doing now is a lot worse than hitting him was!"

She cringed, her ears folded back. "But what if I hit him again...?"

I sighed. "Well that is a problem, if you think it's likely. If it becomes a pattern, then you'll just end up exactly like my... ex-mom. Or at least, it'll still be bad. Even if he can live with it, it's going to change how you see your relationship if you get used to hitting him in anger like that. That's what happened with Bree... she just stopped apologizing one day, I guess because she got tired of feeling bad about it, and started blaming us. So, yeah, you need to get a handle on your anger."

She followed along with what I said, ears still folded back, and nodded along. When I finished, she sighed. "But how do I do that? That's the whole problem!"

I gave her a flat look. "It's not the whole problem. You've been neglecting him!"

She averted her eyes from mine. "I didn't mean to...! I just, I wanted to keep him safe from me. I check up on him, I still sleep there, I just..."

I groaned, waving a hoof in a 'get on with it' gesture. "Yes, you just avoid him during the day, mope all the time, and barely talk to him, is that about right?"

She sighed again, deeper this time, closing her eyes. "Yes..."

"So you're emotionally neglecting him. And that's the part that really hurts! He thinks he drove you away! He's been pretending to be happy when you're around because he thinks that will get you to stick around more!"

Her eyes shot wide at that and she stared at me in horror. I held up a hoof, taking a deep breath. "Look, there's no point in worrying about that now. Spilt milk or whatever; you can go make it up to him and never do it again when you get back. But as for your anger issue, we're going to need to do something about that." I stood up. "And... I've got an idea."

She stood up as well, watching me with pained, yet hopeful eyes. "Really? What is it?"

I began doing stretches. "It's something that really helped me learn to control my temper, and treat violence as a tool rather than an instinct, so I stopped having violent outbursts."

She eyed my behavior. "S... stretches?"

"I'm going to teach you martial arts."

She eyed me flatly, almost disbelievingly.

"Umm... beg pardon?"

I paused in my stretches and scowled at her. "You heard me. Do you want to solve this problem or not?"

She hesitated. "B-but that... how would learning to fight make me less angry and less violent?"

"Because right now, you only understand violence in terms of getting really mad, and then using a lot of force, having no control. What you want to be able to do is control your anger and control your violence. So I'm going to teach you to control violence – martial arts! And it really does change how you think of fighting."

She eyed me with clear skepticism. "I really don't know... this doesn't sound like a good idea..."

I groaned and rolled my eyes. "Okay. First? You don't have any other ideas to compare it to. Second? I know what I'm talking about. When I get mad, I don't jump to violence anymore. I almost did, once, and that was an extreme situation, but I still held myself back. And that's because fighting isn't just an instinct for me any more – it's a choice."

She looked around nervously. "B-but you're just a foal! I can't fight with you!"

I snorted, and started digging in my bag. "Yeah, you're right, you can't fight with me. You'd get whupped so bad they'd never find all the pieces of your shattered pride."

I spotted her staring at me in disbelief as I drank a potion. I just smiled as I downed it and tossed it aside, and continued. "But we can spar – that's a training fight, where we try not to hurt each other – and that's going to teach you how to control your movements and avoid hurting someone unintentionally."

She recoiled. "But I could hurt you on accident!"

I shrugged. "You're not my mom. I don't care if you hurt me; I'm a fighter. I've gotten plenty of bumps, bruises, and black eyes in my time. The emotional damage is what matters, and there isn't any of it in a spar. But you don't need to worry about that anyway, because you won't be able to actually hurt me anyway, since you're still a novice."

She hesitantly took a step backwards. "T-this really doesn't sound like my kind of thing. I don't know... it sounds risky."

I sighed. "Do you want to feel safe near your foal again, or not?"

She froze on the spot. "Of course I do! But I can't just go fighting some other—this is crazy!"

I'd finally just had enough.

"Well, guess this will be easy then!"

I pounced at her, causing her to flinch in surprise, and my hoof flew out so fast she didn't even have a chance to react before it gently tapped her nose. She scrunched her muzzle. "W-what was—"

I skirted around her and tagged her in the barrel with a rising hoof, kicking off of my hind legs hard enough to shove her over, though not hard. She sprawled, looking alarmed and confused, and scrambled to her hooves. "H-hey, stop!"

I looked at her sternly. "No! Because what happens if you get surprised by your kid again, huh?" I pounced at her again, and she backed up, but I had stretched my back out to give the appearance of a much higher jump than what I actually went for; instead, I slid beside her and spun my hooves into hers, just hard enough to make her flop onto her rump and keel over in a panicked, flailing mess.

I pounced on her while she was down, pinning one of her hooves in an awkward position. I leaned in close. "You need to defend yourself, so you can learn to get a grip when things suddenly get chaotic around you. So it never happens again!"

She struggled in frustration with me, and after holding her pinned for a few seconds, I released her, jumping up and squaring off. She slowly got to her hooves, actually glaring at me now.

"Cozy, this is ridiculous! What are you trying to prove, here?"

I rolled my eyes. "I'm not trying to prove anything. I'm trying to teach you."

She huffed and threw her head back. "Well I'm not playing along with... this!"

That suddenly set me off for real. I growled at her. "Oh, I get it. So your son is the center of your universe right up until you have to do something embarrassing or weird, huh? Is that about right?"

She looked alarmed. "No! That's not—I mean, martial arts to deal with anger issues?! This is silly!"

"Run a better idea by me, and we'll go with that!"

She hesitated, opening her mouth and leaving it hanging for a second. "Ah... I..."

"That's pretty much what I figured! Maybe you need a little more motivation. These will sting!"

I pounced in, laying a light shot on her cheek and barrel, both just hard enough to ache a bit and jostle her. She reeled back in surprise and threw a hoof up to defend herself, and I wrapped a leg around it and hauled her over, sticking a rear hoof out to catch her and soften the fall, but not enough that it wouldn't be aggravating.

She grunted, scrambling to her hooves, and was about to object again when I popped her gently in the jaw.

That should do it...

She glared at me, and then reared up and roared, turning into a nirik in a pillar of flame.

I tackled her underside, flipped her onto her back, and bodyslammed her hard enough to almost knock the wind out of her. She went back into her normal form in a daze. I looked at her from my position on top.

"Sorry, but going nirik means you've lost control, and that means you take a penalty; I put you down before you can escalate the spar."

She stared at me agape, and I just leaned in close and whispered, "Oh, and that potion I drank made me fireproof, by the way, so I didn't even have to avoid your flames."

I hauled her back to her hooves. She was dazed, but no longer angry. She eyed me critically. "So... you're going to punish me every time I go nirik? Is that the idea?"

I waved a hoof irritably and blew a raspberry out of the side of my mouth. "No, it's not punishment. But if you start attacking me full-force, you could end up getting seriously hurt. You could easily get a leg broken if I block you the wrong way as you try to pounce or run past at full force, for instance. So if that happens, I have to subdue you immediately. But it will probably hurt, and if that helps you get yourself under control, great. It's not the point at all, though."

She shook her head. "I don't even understand... for a second I lost control, just like with Pine, but I just... you just stopped me so effortlessly. I felt powerless."

I nodded. "That's because you are! You have no idea how to fight! You literally can't do anything out here unless I let you – not even run away, because I'm faster than you!" I buzzed my wings for emphasis. "And a setting in which you're powerless is the perfect one to learn not to cause harm."

I would know.

She hesitated, tapping her chin. "Are you... are you really absolutely sure about this?"

I nodded sternly. "The cutie map sent me here, and this is all I can think of that will really help you out with this. I mean, I could just leave and hope that you hating yourself is enough to keep you from hitting Pine again, but that's not really good enough for me. Is it good enough for you?"

She shook her head. "I'm just... still trying to wrap my head around this."

I nodded and strode up. "Well, at least we're getting somewhere. I want you to try to hit me." I took a low stance, ready to guard.

She threw a very hesitant, slow swat at me. I irritably swatted it aside, causing her to flinch a tiny bit.

"Hey! What the heck was that?"

"You need to get over your nerves. You've got to swing a lot faster, and then have the control to prevent a hard contact. Like this!"

She barely had time to register my words and try to lift a defense before I swung, but it didn't even matter; my hoof moved way too quickly for her to track or do anything about, at that range. It tapped her on the head so gently it barely depressed her coat, and was back down at my side before she could even blink in response. She stared at me.

"I... I don't think I know how to do that. That was so fast. Everything you do seems so fast!"

I shrugged. "I probably should have mentioned, I've actually fought monsters for real before. If you don't believe me, you could just go and ask Applejack. I'm not just some kid with a few classes, or something."

She shook her head in befuddlement. "Why would a foal be fighting monsters?!"

I grinned at her. "Now that's a long story, but let's keep it short and say that the map of friendship doesn't send just anypony to deal with problems. Now, try hitting me again!"

She tensed up, and I could predict the swing just from her balance. I swatted it aside and nodded.

"Okay, that was better. It was obvious that it was coming because you tensed up so much, and it was still too slow, but you pulled it really well. Try relaxing more before you swing."

It took several more tries before she started to get the idea, and I ended up blocking a pretty heavy swing. I grinned.

"Okay, that was fast enough. I'm not quite in range for you to swing too fast for me to defend. But it also landed too hard; you need to learn to be fast, but also gentle. What if you had to restrain Pine from doing something that would hurt him?"

She blinked a few times, and then lit up. "Oh! So we really are practicing being gentle!"

"Gentle, but effective. And if you do it enough, 'gentle' will be your default when you move, and you'll only hit hard when you really intend to."

She laughed. "That actually makes sense! I get how this could actually help now!"

I laughed too. "Well, I guess it's on me for not explaining it well before I just went all bugbear on you, but, well... I'm still learning too." I scratched the back of my neck with a hoof. "I haven't really had to train anyone, aside from myself. I'm just trying to pass on what helped me stop hurting people."

Her expression became appraising. "For a bit, there, I guess I didn't remember you were here to help me... or thought you were just crazy. But I appreciate the effort you're putting in."

I smiled back at her. "Well... I really appreciate the effort you're putting in to being a better parent. I wish everypony took it as seriously."

She frowned to the side and cocked her head at me. "I'm really sorry about what happened with your mom."

"Ex-mom, and don't worry about it." I puffed out my chest and stood tall. "I have the best mom in Equestria now, so I'd say I broke even."

She cocked her head to the other side. "You were adopted?"

I nodded. "By Princess Luna, actually. It's... another long story."

Her eyes widened, and then she blew a raspberry. "If you'd said that to begin with, then I'd have believed you about being a fighter! Although..."

I smirked. "Either you wouldn't have believed me, or you'd be afraid of ticking off the Princess?"

She bounced her head around considering it and eventually worked out to a nod. "Yeah, I guess so. You thought that far ahead?"

"Not really. I just don't tell folks that about myself unless I have some reason to. I don't want them thinking of me in terms of her."

She raised an eyebrow. "I guess standing in her shadow is kind of rough, huh?"

I shook my head. "No, not at all. It's just that, if I do something embarrassing, I don't want ponies thinking of her as a bad mom."

We watched each other for a few seconds, and she scoffed and shook her head with a smile. "Being a child can be pretty tough, too, huh?"

I shrugged, and then smirked. "Alright, enough slacking! Now, since we were talking about restraining Pine safely, I was thinking we'd do a drill where I run around and you have to stop me without being too rough; I think that'll help with your movement speed..."

We kept training for a couple of hours that way, going back and forth, with River tending to the waterwheel during the breaks in our training. She'd spent so much extra time here that it really didn't need any tending for the time being, but she was pretty diligent about her job. The sun was setting by the time we made it back to the village, and River's confidence had already grown by leaps and bounds.

We returned to River's house to find Applejack, Autumn, and Pine inside. The door had scarcely opened before Pine had practically pounced at River. She leaned back and caught him in surprise, and they stared at each other in shock. Applejack and Autumn stared, too. I just hoofpumped.

"Yes! The kid-catch drill actually worked!"

River started laughing intensely, and hugged Pine tight. Applejack came outside and sat next to me, watching the display with a contented smile. I nudged her with my rump.

"So, you explained what was going on to Pine, and got him to stop feeling bad about driving his mom off?"

Applejack nodded, grinning down at me. "Took a lot more doin' than I thought it would, but we got him to feel better. He's been waitin' all excited for her to come home ever since."

I smiled softly at her. "You really did have a lot of confidence in me, huh?"

She nodded and looked back to the two embracing kirin. "Knowin' you, knowin' your history, seein' how you've overcome your anger problems, and knowin' your Ma? Yeah, I figured it was a safe bet."

I snickered. "Well, it wasn't easy getting her to agree to what I had in mind, but I think it's really working for her."

Autumn had finally come outside, and just stared at me for a second before commenting, "Wait, why does Cozy have a busted lip?"

I laughed at that as River turned scarlet, and pointed a hoof at her. "I was training her, and she got a good shot in! I'm proud of her!"

River looked between Applejack and Autumn nervously. Applejack laughed and rubbed her forehead.

"You mean t'tell me you helped her deal with her anger issues by teachin' her to fight?"

I nodded, and she just laughed harder.

"Why that's the most – hahaha! – that's the most Cozy Glow thing I ever heard!"

I blinked at that, nonplussed, but then thought about it, shrugged, and nodded.

"You know what? I'll take it."

All of our attention was diverted to a humming noise, and it soon became clear our cutie marks were glowing. Applejack took a deep breath and let out a contented sigh. "I reckon that means it's time to head on back to Ponyville, Cozy."

I shook my head. "I need to stay a few more days. I need to train some other kirin for River to practice against; there's probably other folks here who could benefit from it, and she wanted me to teach Pine, too."

Applejack looked me over fondly. "Oh yeah...? Well, I don't suppose it would hurt none, if'n you're sure. I'll let your Ma know, if you two will look after her...?"

She glanced to River and Autumn, who both nodded in the affirmative, and then looked back to me and tipped her hat. "Mighty fine workin' with ya, Cozy. I'm proud of ya; don't be a stranger, y'hear?"

I nodded, and almost yelped in surprise when Applejack gave me a hug. I leaned into her and hugged back affectionately. As we disengaged, she opened her eyes and yelped. I jumped back in surprise. "What's wrong?!"

"Cozy, your wings! When did the crystals spread that far?"

I looked at one of my wings. What had previously been thin black crystals running along a few of my inner feathers had now expanded to run tendrils down half of my feathers, and almost encased some of the inner feathers entirely. I blinked a few times in surprise.

"I... I don't know. I didn't notice."

Applejack grimaced. "You need to keep an eye on that. I'll tell Luna, but if it spreads any further you come back straightaway, y'hear?"

I nodded, frowning in puzzlement.

I never felt it spread...

I shook my head and folded my wings. "Alright, Professor. They feel fine, at least."

Applejack cocked her head. "I thought you stopped callin' me professor a while back?"

I realized my error and laughed sheepishly. "Oh, right, sorry. I guess this whole thing felt a little like a field-trip to me. I did learn a lot."

Applejack tousled my hair. "That so? Well, if you ever wanna have me as a professor again for real, y'just let Starlight know."

I nodded with a smile. "I'll think it over."

With that, Applejack departed, and I spent a few days in the kirin village River, Pine, and the volunteer Autumn, who was excited to dig into my new anger-management process. By the time I departed, I'd made three new friends, and River seemed completely at peace.

On the train ride back, when I thought over it, I kept coming around to one line of thinking.

What I did for River and Pine... that is the kind of hero I want to be.