• Published 30th Mar 2021
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The Foundling - kudzuhaiku



After her success as the Princess of Detention, Luna has a half-baked plan to become the Princess of Home-Ec.

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Immortal alicorns cannot die of embarrassment

Luna witnessed something that inspired her to be a better pony. Her sister, Celestia, taught a lesson in forgiveness, one that was wholly improvised. For Luna, who still bore the lashmarks of guilt and shame, this lesson was a balm that relieved the painful itch that plagued her very soul. It was something that made Luna believe in the relationship she shared with her sibling and it restored some of her injured faith. Forgiveness was a foundation stone of Equestrian society, something that set it apart from other nations and city states.

It was moments like this one that reassured Luna that her sister had truly forgiven her.

Almanac Avocado was just a bit weepy, the sort of thing that happened to foals whose emotions got away from them. Though teary eyed, she made every effort to be dignified—however, it didn't quite work out as intended. In time, she might become a graceful sort, the rare sort of pony that somehow seemed composed even with mascara running down their cheeks, but today was not that day.

For whatever reason, Rarity of Ponyville came to mind.

"Letting go is hard," said Almanac.

"Truer words have yet to be spoken," replied Celestia.

"My brain is full of hamsters. They're cranky now."

"Under any other circumstance, I would say a statement such as that one was an amusing distraction, but right now, I must give it the seriousness which it is due." Leaning in a little closer, Celestia reached out one immaculate wing; lightly she touched Almanac on her breast, just above her heart, and just below her neck. "Magic is all about intent and intent is power. A spell is a projection of the intentions that give it power. This is why goodness has potency. And you, Almanac Avocado, are full of goodness. Now, let go."

Nothing happened. Almanac concentrated—so much so that she was looking a little sweaty—but Overcast remained a hamster. Luna knew from experience that sometimes breaking your own spell was almost impossible, even if it had been extraordinarily easy to cast. She had experienced this in her youth—which was normal, all natural-born casters struggled—but this problem persisted for her as an adult. While she was a magical creature, an alicorn no less, she was not gifted with magic in the same way that ponies like Celestia and Twilight Sparkle happened to be.

Of course, Almanac was at that age when anything was possible. Foals—especially the very young—did not fully comprehend the depths of their power. They had imagination without restriction. With this power, they had accidents. Magic training was very much like potty training. One had to learn restraint. To hold everything in. One had to be mindful of spills and leaks. The cost of this training was, of course, restriction. As a foal grew and learned about limitation and magical hygiene, much power was lost. Understanding one's power diminished it and foals who were credible, capable casters more often than not became adults of tepid mediocrity.

It could be said that magic training and potty training were poor comparisons. Any foal could be a bed-wetter; eventually they would grow, develop restraint, and the problem went away with maturity. For little unicorns though, an exceedingly different problem presented itself; unicorns foals were little housefire-setters. Wet sheets were no real danger, but dangerous blasts of wildfire were. Little earth ponies and little pegasus pony foals had tantrums—little unicorns had tantrums with magic and posed a considerable threat.

Luna hesitated to make such comparisons, because her sister did not run a potty training school.

"I can't make anything happen and I'm actually trying! Really! Please don't send me back to magic kindergarten!"

"I'm sorry, Miss Avocado, but until your friend is a pony again, I can offer no such assurances," was Celestia's gentle but firm response.

"My brain feels like it does when I eat ice cream too fast!"

Both Luna and Celestia exchanged a worried glance.

"Did you ever get that feeling when you sneeze that your eyeballs will pop right out of your peeper pockets and go shooting across the room like thrown Ogres & Oubliettes dice?"

Mystified and a bit alarmed, Luna could not help but ask, "Peeper pockets?"

"Yeah… I worry sometimes that they'll just go popping out and splat right into my gander goggles… like right now!"

"Gander goggles?" Luna could not help but wonder if she had missed some of the modern parlance somehow.

"Do eyeballs act like corks to keep your brain held in? What stops your brain from pouring out your ear? Earwax?"

"Such a delightful imagination," Celestia remarked with genuine interest while she looked directly at her sister.

"What are gander goggles?" asked Luna. "And what does this have to do with geese?"

Almanac's ears flapped like frantic bird wings and her cheeks puffed out enormously. The hamster on the table twitched, made a peculiar face that hamsters should perhaps not make, and then... nothing happened. Luna expected something to happen, anything, but she was left strangely disappointed. She waited, her ears pricked to the sound of little Almanac grunting, and her horn detected a faint disruption to the magical flow around her.

"Don't fight the spell," Celestia suggested, "Relax the spell. Just let go of it. Send the hamsters off to lunch. Visualise something… like… imagine the tide going out or—"

"I've never seen the ocean," Almanac said to Celestia. "And every time I dream about it, I wet the bed."

"Oh… well… don't visualise the tide going out then," Celestia replied with a solemn nod.

"So much pressure in my brain… goodbye, eyeballs!"

Extending her wing once more, and with a mischievous smirk plastered across her face, Princess Celestia brushed the tips of her primaries over Almanac's nose. The result was immediate. Explosive. The little avocado green filly sneezed so hard that her mane whipped out in every possible direction, her forelegs shot out from side to side, and then there was an "ACHOO-CHOO-CHOO-CHOO!" that knocked her glasses askew.

Caught up by a dreadful wind, the almost-mauve hamster went parasailing, lifted aloft by his pudgy hamster waddles of flab. He might have gone shooting across the parlour, but instead smacked into Celestia's other wing, which she held out in preparation for catching him. The wee tiny hamster bounced, squeaked in protest of this rough treatment, and just before he landed on a cushion beside the table, he turned into a unicorn just in time to come crashing down upon his face. With his hindquarters up in the air, Luna had an excellent view of Overcast's cutie mark, an overcast moon, a full moon surrounded by poofy grey clouds.

The mark had appeared after reconciling with his mother, and then in a fit of tearful gratitude, Overcast had sworn the entirety of his life to Luna's service. Though Luna would never say it aloud, she found the mark reassuring. Comforting somehow. Overcast was loyal. That mattered. His mark was evidence of his oath. For Luna, it was confirmation that she was somehow worthy of the same adoration that her sister received.

"Young Master Overcast… so pleasant to see you. I had plans for us to have a prolonged talk just two days from now. It was written in ink on my schedule. But, fate it seems, has conspired to bring us together sooner. Come now… get yourself righted." Folding her wings against her sides, Celestia returned to her state of serene calm.

"Um, hi!" Immediately after the chirpy, cheerful greeting, Almanac acted as though there was absolutely nothing wrong. "Nice of you to join us for tea, Overcast."

It took the colt several seconds of struggle to right himself, and when he finally did, he looked as if he was in the middle of a hard day. His mane was mussed, his eyes were unfocused, and there was something hamsteresque about him that Luna could not sort out. She checked his ears, which were normal, he didn't have buck teeth, but there was something most certainly hamsteresque that lingered.

With wide-eyed innocence and her glasses still crooked, Almanac asked, "Are you having a nice day?"

"No," Overcast deadpanned. "I was having a terrible day. An absolutely terrible day. And then my friend ambushed me and turned me into a hamster. So no… not a good day."

"Somepony should have a talk with that filly," Almanac replied. "She's dangerous."

"And she broke the rules," Overcast retorted with a sour expression of contempt. "What did I say about dueling? They must be fought fairly so we can—"

"You said to never get into a fair fight."

As if she were watching a tennis match, Celestia's eyes went back and forth, side to side with every exchange.

"You dope!" With a careless flick of magic, Overcast tried to fix his mane—and failed spectacularly. "The whole point of dueling is to learn how to counter and riposte! To defend! It's not about winning, it's about the duel itself so we can learn from it!"

"Says you," Almanac said with a bratty turn of character. "But you kept winning. It's easy to say it's not about winning when you're the one that keeps winning. But when you're losing, it's all about not-losing. Which means winning."

"If you wanted to win, you should have applied yourself more. Worked for it." Then, the young colt cleared his throat, flicked his mane once again with a bit of magic, he rested his hooves upon the table's edge, and said, "I'm sorry. It was never my intent to insult you or your parents. Or your family, for that matter. Had I known I'd done that, I would have apologised."

"You deserved a hamster time-out, Mister."

"I said I was sorry."

"I want you to be sorrier!"

"I'll make it up to you, I promise. You have my word."

Somewhat mollified, Almanac nodded. "I'm sorry too. We can be sorry together. Probably in detention. Or maybe we'll get banished. Or sent to the dungeon. Or worse. I'm sure there's worse."

"Oh, there's much worse," Celestia said, gently interrupting the exchange between friends.

Gulping, Almanac shrank down and tried to look as small and helpless as possible.

"Young Master Overcast… how are your parents?"

"Can we just skip the small talk and get right to the lecture, Princess Celestia?" the bold colt replied.

"No," Celestia said to the colt and she lowered her head down to his eye level. "I like the small talk. I detest the lecturing."

Almost squeaking, Almanac turned to Celestia asking, "Then, uh, maybe don't lecture?"

Slowly, Celestia turned and leveled her best deadpan stare upon the poor filly who dared to suggest the most unthinkable thing imaginable. "There have been many discussions, none of which have yielded results. When this happens, I am left with no recourse but to lecture."

"Aren't you the pony that told me to never stop trying?"

Frozen in place, Luna felt a cold prickle of actual terror.

But, there was nothing to fear. Nothing at all. Celestia smiled her gentle smile and Luna let go of a breath that she did not realise she'd been holding. A soft laugh startled her and with a flood of relief, Luna realised that her sister was amused. Why the rush of fear? There wasn't an answer. But little Almanac appeared to be just as relieved as Luna was, and she smiled sweetly up at the much larger alicorn. After a good shake to get everything out, Luna could not help but feel a little stupid.

"I told you," Overcast said to Almanac in some vaguely annoying manner that the colt had turned into an artform. "Princess Celestia respects courage. If you stand up to her, she'll like you."

Never one to miss an opportunity, Celestia swung her head around to face Overcast until she was almost nose-to-nose with him. "So you did this."

"So what if I did?" he asked.

"Good work. I applaud you for inspiring your fellow students." Then, Celestia's tone changed to one of warm concern when she asked again, "How are your parents?"

"Things aren't great," the colt replied.

Nodding, Celestia began to prepare a cup of tea and some sympathy for Overcast.

"A divorce seems likely." Anger flashed in Overcast's eyes, cold, frozen anger that seemed to chill the room. "My dad blames me, of course. He says that if I'd just kept my mouth shut, things would be fine. He's really angry that my mom found out all the things he said. She doesn't trust him now. They've tried talking, but it just turns into shouting, and I can't stand it. Rips up my guts and gives me a stomach ache."

"I'm really very sorry," Celestia said whilst she poured some tea into a cygnet cup. She added some sugar, a slice of lemon, and gave it a stir with a nudge of golden magic. "I know your father, young Master Overcast. He was a student here, as I am sure you know. He received middling marks the entirety of his academic career. Your father did only as much work as was necessary while also balancing a busy social life. I respected him for it. But…"—her face darkened, as if a cloud drifted in front of the sun—"he was never one for taking responsibility. When something happened, it was always circumstance, or bad luck, or the fault of another. If you can forgive me for saying it so bluntly, Noble Fir was not a pony that lived up to his namesake. He was a wellspring of caddishness."

"My mother and I… things are getting better. I'm really glad for that." Fretful, the colt shook his head. "Don't get me wrong… I love my father… or did… right now, I don't know what I feel. But my mother… she gave me my name. She was always defending me from cheerful ponies and she reminded them that storm clouds brought rain. I really, really hurt her and I don't know how to get over that. But I'm trying."

"I know you are," Celestia replied as she put down the cup full of tea in front of Overcast. "How is your little problem?"

"Which one?" he asked. "I have a whole lot of little problems." While speaking, he cast a fierce glare in Almanac's direction. "My worst problem is right there. If she keeps doing everything that she does, my grades are going to suffer."

"Uh-oh," Almanac said, and then she immediately jammed a scone with a missing blueberry into her mouth. All of it. With her hoof. Then, while chewing, she made every effort to look as innocent and harmless as possible.

"Your little dark magic problem, if I have to be specific."

"Oh. That." The colt inhaled, held it for a time, and then sighed. "I'm not as powerful as I was. That… well, if I am completely honest, it bothers me. Well, part of me. I don't do it intentionally, really I don't, but there are times when I just sort of… well, it happens without thinking because it was a habit for so long. But I'm getting better, I swear. I just have to work harder for the same results. That's all."

Then, before Celestia could respond, he continued, "I've noticed some changes. While my overall casting is weaker, I have these moments… there's times when… sometimes when I am listening and I allow my magic to free-roam I hear positive things. Good things. That didn't happen before. It's nice. Before, everything I heard was just negativity, and Princess Luna taught me why. I was caught in a feedback loop because I was channeling negativity into my magic and that negative magic sought out more negativity to make itself stronger. Princess Luna has helped me to understand myself and I'm getting better. Honest, I am."

"Don't be troubled, Master Overcast. I believe you. And I believe in you. You'll get better."

"Thank you, Princess Celestia."

"You've noticed the loss in power."

"Of course I have. I'm sensitive about that."

Frowning, Celestia offered up a gentle shake of her head. "Such a complicated thing, power. Some unicorns crave it. Unicorns crave power like dragons crave wealth. Both will do anything to get it. Even very bad things. After so much trial and error, and a number of dreadful failures, I've learned a few things about the subject. To take power away is dangerous and unpredictable. I wish I'd learned this lesson sooner. But… it is important to replace that which is taken away so ambitious little unicorns don't feel slighted."

"I think I understand," Overcast replied.

"How goes your divination studies?" she asked.

"They're difficult. But not impossible. I like them. Thank you for making those classes available to me, Princess Celestia."

"I never developed the knack for reading siguls and glyphs found in the bottom of teacups," Celestia said in an almost wistful tone. "Make no mistake, I tried. I understand that you show promise." Sitting up straighter, she unkinked her long neck. "I am of the opinion that divination is the most powerful school of magic. It is knowledge. And as we all know, knowledge is power. My student, Twilight, did well in divination, though not with the tea leaves as I had hoped. Her focus lies with information retrieval and library magics. With Cadance…"

Here, Celestia paused and blinked several times.

"With Cadance, she never showed much promise in divination as I had longed for. The only time she showed talent was when matchmaking. She actually failed her Portents & Premonitions class and had to take remedial studies to make up for her failure. The worst part is, she never saw it coming…"

Something detonated in Luna's mind, right between her ears, and before she realised it, she was laughing.

Overcast too, began laughing, but his was quiet, reserved, and well-mannered.

Alas, poor Almanac did not; instead, she asked, "What's so funny?"

"Ah, divination jokes will always be funny," Celestia said between chuckles. "There's a novel waiting to be read in tea leaves and tea leavings. Tyromancy has much to teach us, but so few can commune with cheese."

"I am starting to understand the mysterious ways of cheese," Overcast said.

"Really? Well, good for you, Master Overcast." Celestia seemed pleased; her eyes were warm, bright, and sunny. "I bet it scratches that itch for power."

The colt seemed embarrassed and averted his eyes. "It does, actually. But it's so difficult. I have to work so hard at it for so little in the way of results. I find it very frustrating. And Almanac ate my assignment."

Now it was Almanac's turn to avert her eyes, and she made an effort to stare out the window.

"Way, way back in the day," Celestia began, "tyromancy was known as the Whisperings of the Night Princess. Don't laugh, it's true. Little ponies actually believed the moon was made of cheese… a great all-seeing, all-knowing, all-powerful, omnipotent cheese. Now, of course, we know that the moon isn't made of cheese, though some little ponies insist that it is, but what we do know is that cheese made from the milk of magical creatures with magical diets can be surprisingly prophetic."

"Oh, that is so embarrassing," Luna whispered, and she took a turn staring out the window.

"Back then, we had cheese-oracles," Celestia continued, "ponies that would stow a cheese away until it was truly foul and stinky. We called them holey ponies. The cheese would be kept in a tight container for a time, and when the tyromancer wanted to know the future, they would crack the lid off, stick their heads in, and inhale the rancid fumes. Then, afterwards, they would babble with the cheese-tongue, and an assistant would write down everything said so it could be deciphered later, after the madness dissipated and they were mostly sane again."

"The worst part is, she's not joking." Sighing, Overcast shook his head and then slurped his tea. "It's all true. Every word of it."

"That's so gross," Almanac said with a shake of her head.

"Magical mammals pass along magic through their milk," Overcast explained to Almanac. "This magic in the milk, it congeals and curdles just like the milk does, and it concentrates. Sometimes, it goes bad. You get a cheese that reveals the future, but only bad things, so the outcome is misery. There are evil cheeses in the world, and some of them even gain sapience."

"You expect me to believe that there are evil thinking cheeses?" asked Almanac.

"Yes," Overcast replied without hesitation. "A tyromancer is obligated to do battle with them, as stated in the Introduction to Tyromancy: Volume I. We have to share our classroom with the myomancy students… I can't stand them. I just… can't. They're all so mousy and timid."

Confused, and more than a little doubtful, Almanac scowled at Overcast. "Myomancy?"

"Prophecy done by mice. Sometimes, they nibble graffiti onto a cheese and leave behind messages. A pony can learn to read these messages."

"You're fulla cheese, Overcast! Shut up!"

Luna—who knew the truth—also knew another truth: Celestia had enrolled Overcast in the most difficult, most obtuse, most mind-meltingly awful of classes. Why? To keep the colt's mind busy and occupied. If he was busy trying to read cheese, he wouldn't have time for his felonious hobbies. It could be said that Overcast was only happy when he had a problem to solve and divination proposed that the universe itself was a puzzle to be sorted out.

Like the myomancy students that he detested, Overcast had taken the bait. Now, the young colt would be so occupied trying to figure out the mysteries of the universe that he wouldn't have time to cause so much trouble. And so far, it seemed to be working. Yes, it was a risk; what Celestia said was true. Divination was power. Incredible power. Phenomenal power. But to have that power, one first had to make sense of it… or go mad in the process. Luna's own dream magic derived from divination, but to tamper with it without the proper foreknowledge was to invite madness and disaster.

It was a clever solution that Luna greatly respected.

"I lost a student who felt slighted." Almost whispering these words, Celestia's eyes turned sad, unfocused, and distant. "She was ambitious and hungry for power. I made a mistake. Honestly, I did. I restricted her and she starved. She went mad with hunger. I should have known better. I wish I had known better. She was dangerous. Her ambition knew no bounds. No end. Taking everything away from her was the worst possible thing I could have done."

The big white alicorn sighed and it was a bitter sound, one heavy with regret.

"Every failure is a lesson." Another sigh. Another shake of her fine, delicate head. Celestia, the Eternal Sun, failed to shine at this moment. "Every failure is a lesson. But some failures hurt more than others." Without warning, Celestia turned to Luna and said, "Sister… losing you… everything that happened… that was the most important and most painful lesson in my life. It was the first time that the consequences truly mattered. I couldn't live with myself. Because of what happened, I've spent the past thousand years trying to learn from my every mistake."

At a loss for words, Luna failed to respond.

Then, Celestia leveled her heavy stare upon poor Overcast, who cringed away.

"While it pains me to have to lecture you, I most certainly will. I'd rather we have discussions, but with this last incident you leave me very little choice, young Master Overcast. I received a report that you reduced Miss Sparrowhirst to tears with some particularly cruel words and exposing some of her secrets."

"I did that," Overcast said in a flat voice that was devoid of fear.

"Why would you do that?" asked Celestia.

"Because it needed to be done and I don't—"

"You don't get to determine that," Celestia said to the colt. "As a prefect, I expect better from you."

"I didn't ask to be a prefect," he retorted. "It's a condition of my probation."

"I can't think of any good reason that would justify what you did."

"Sparrow called Almanac a gross green fart stain and made her cry."

If these disgusting words had any effect upon Celestia, she showed no sign. "That does not excuse what you did. You should have reported this to a teacher."

"She had it coming!"

"Nopony 'has it coming', Master Overcast. It could be said that you had it coming, but considerable leniency was shown. I worry, because I don't wish to be burdened with another one of my dreadful lapses in judgment."

"Tell the truth, Overcast. Please, just tell her the—"

"Shut up, Alma."

"Don't you tell me to shut up you stinky cheese-talker! I'll turn you into a hamster! See if I don't! You keep telling me that we need to trust adults to do right and good! So now's your chance… tell her!"

"It won't make a difference, Alma. She's going to punish me no matter what."

"Tell her!"

"Tell me what?" Celestia gently asked.

"He lied to you," Almanac said and she cast her fierce, unflinching glare at the colt across the table. "He lied to you. Yes, Sparrowhirst called me a gross green fart stain, and yes, I cried about it, because she's mean, but Overcast didn't let her have it for that. He behaved. He was good!"

"So what happened, Almanac?" asked Celestia. "Just as before, I'll know if you lie to me. But I am inclined to believe you because of your previous honesty. What is the truth?"

"Alma, please don't. Just let it go and don't make it worse. For my sake. Please, please—"

"Overcast ignored her and refused to give her the time of day. When he didn't respond, she got mad. She said things. Awful things. And he ignored all of them. But then she started teasing him about marrying the criminally insane Princess Lunatic, and she said even worse things about the honeymoon, nasty things, gross, revolting things, and then she and her friends started making smoochy-smoochy noises and that's when Overcast spilled her secrets and told everypony about the time she tried kissing one of her filly friends to see what it was like but got so grossed out she threw up into her friend's mouth and then they were both so grossed out that they threw up on each other."

Still as a stone, Luna was conflicted, but a part of her wanted to laugh.

Another part wanted to cry.

She did neither.

"Not a word of this was mentioned in the report I received." A cool deadpan, Celestia's voice conveyed no emotional reaction whatsoever. "Please, excuse me for a moment while I collect my emotions. I ask for your patience."

"Almanac, why?"

"Because, Overcast! We're friends, that's why!"

"Now everything is worse. So much worse. I kind of want to throw myself out the window right now." The colt turned to look at the window for a moment, shuddered, and then went still.

"Overcast, why are you such a pain?"

"Almanac"—it took Luna a moment to hear the sound of her own voice without cringing—"Overcast and I share a special bond. This has to be difficult for him. Humiliating, even. Be thoughtful."

"You defended my sister's honour—"

"Don't you tease me!" Eyes bulging, Overcast turned on Celestia with a sudden, vicious ferocity. "Don't you dare tease me!"

Jerking her head back at the unexpected reprisal, Celestia shook her head. "I would never tease you about something with this sort of importance. You showed my sister loyalty, and for that, you have my gratitude."

Sulking, Overcast folded his forelegs over his barrel and turned his head away. "But you're still going to punish me."

"What else can I do? Rules were broken, Overcast. I cannot help but notice that you were willing to accept your punishment without a word being said about what really happened. I am proud of you. Really, I am."

"But I'm still being punished."

Frustrated, Celestia's nostrils flared. She started to say something, but no words found their way past her thin lips. The sharp angle of her chin moved up and down, but her mouth did not open, not with this attempt. This entire time, Luna agonised over her own need to express herself, but words seemed in short supply for both sisters. When neither of them could speak, they both shared a look between themselves, one that spoke volumes.

"What's the point in doing good if we still end up being punished for it?" With her jaw muscles tensed, Almanac's chubby cheeks made her appear almost like an apprehensive bespectacled chipmunk. Her avocado green pelt became discoloured around her face as the skin beneath turned rather purple. "If I'm just going to be punished anyway, I'd rather do the bad thing." Frustrated to the point of anger, and turning ever-more purple by the second, she punctuated her words with a powerful snort.

A lone booger broke free of the surly bonds of gravity and rocketed upwards in a lonesome, curving flight. Just before impact with the ceiling, Celestia's horn glowed with dazzling daylight, and the rocket-booger vanished, leaving behind this unfair plane of existence. Distracted, all four ponies looked upwards where the booger wasn't, each of them reacting in their own way.

"Princess Celestia?"

"Yes, young Master Overcast?"

"How… how did you track something moving that fast? I mean, you didn't even look at it. I need to know."

"Prepare for disappointment, young Master Overcast. Such secrets are shared with students who behave themselves."

"Dare I even ask where it went?"

"Elsewhere, Master Overcast. It went elsewhere, to realms unmentionable."

No longer purple, Almanac's small head remained craned upwards. "That was awesome."

Stating the obvious, as she was wont to do, Luna said, "That was a much-needed diversion."

"Princess Celestia…" Clearing her throat, Almanac restarted what she had to say. "Headmistress Celestia, please, don't punish Overcast. Can't you just… forgive him?"

"No," Overcast said, before Celestia had a chance to respond. "What I did was wrong. Let's just get that out of the way. I know exactly what I did. Sparrowhirst and I really hate each other. She knows exactly how to bully me, and for the longest time, she was the very bane of my existence. I failed. Me. I did it. If I don't face the consequences from this, I'm not going to learn much of anything. I didn't mean to respond the way I did… it just… it just sort of happened without me thinking about it. My temper got the best of me."

Luna alone saw the pain and conflict in her sister's eyes.

"I don't trust my teachers," Almanac said, almost spitting out each word. "This is bad. I hate this. And if you punish my friend, I might start hating you too. Just a little. Maybe more. If I start to hate you, you'll be sorry. Because I'm a pest! I'm a pest and you see what I do to my friends and you don't wanna know what I'll do to my not-friends."

"I wish you would have told me." Once more lowering her head, Celestia eased herself down to Overcast's eye level with all of the practised ease of an accomplished headmistress. "I can't fix all of the broken things if you don't help me. This is the reason why I wanted you as a prefect. We are in a state of crisis. The changelings have ruined everything. Everypony is so suspicious of one another. There are so many deep wounds. I no longer recognise my own school. It hasn't been this bad in a long, long time."

While she had nothing to say, Luna did have quite a few thoughts. She had no frame of reference because of her long absence. To say that all of this pained her sister was an understatement. What was once a well-oiled machine was now a wreck, a gross parody of its former self. But, Luna was confident that it could be fixed. Celestia would fix it, because her sister was just that kind of pony. She did not give up, and Luna took great comfort in that fact.

"All I ever do is complain," Overcast said, and he did not make eye-contact with the big mare desperately trying to connect with him. "I have tried to tell you stuff. Nothing has changed. I'm not sure anything will ever change. Everything just feels so pointless."

"That's the changeling mind-stuff," Almanac said to Overcast. "It lingers."

"I guess." The colt shrugged. "I can't tell where the changeling magic ends and where I begin."

"Things take time to change," Celestia said, though she spoke to nopony in particular. Perhaps she told this to herself. "Once upon a time, in the magical land of Equestria—"

Almanac interrupted, saying, "That's a horrible way to start a story. Maybe you should attend a creative writing class."

"Thank you, Miss Avocado. Anyhow." The big mare shook herself slightly, but it was enough to cause the entire room to tremble around her. "A long time ago, a very long time ago, I had a student who did nothing but complain. She complained about everything. And everypony. Why, she even had the nerve to complain about me. If she was awake, she was complaining.

"Mindful of her complaints, and even agreeing with some of them, I made her a prefect. You might think that would have helped things, but no." She shook her head and sighed. "Not even a little. That made things worse. Because now, she had some authority. Nibbles Nettles just had to find something to complain about, because that was just the sort of pony she was.

"Little Nibbles Nettles grew up into a spiteful, angry, firebrand of a mare… and she lived to complain. I gave her a role in the administration, but when I tried to pay her a salary, she complained about that, too. Said the money would be better spent elsewhere. Miss Nettles complained about all the feces everywhere, and she led the charge to have the school modernised with indoor plumbing. No more chamber pots, no more crud crockeries. No more thundermugs. The school was outfitted with toilets. And showers. And there was much rejoicing.

"But not Miss Nettles. She turned her critical eye on the runny grey gruel served to the students. Oh, she had a lot to say about the gruel—none of it was nice—but she did agree that it was mostly hot and that there was plenty of it. After a prolonged battle, and the near defenestration of an accountant, she established the school's nutritional health program.

"Every single day, my inbox was flooded with her official, formal complaints. I hired staff to deal with them all, because managing them was a full time job and I could not teach and handle all those complaints at the same time. Much less rule Equestria. Miss Nettles turned to standards… mostly complaining that we had none. We had illiterate teachers. It's true. They could teach magic and had no good reason to read or write. But Miss Nettles felt differently.

"She spearheaded an effort to have reading, writing, and arithmetic taught in the school. Not just magic. Other classes, too. The teachers resisted her efforts, because enforcing standards put them at risk of their job. She caused a lot of friction. Miss Nettles did not have a surplus of friends, and she never married. The entirety of her existence was dedicated to the school, which she turned into a place of actual education, and not just magical instruction.

"One day, I realised that I Miss Nettles and I were having a conversation, and she hadn't complained. Much. Oh, she'd slipped a few little complaints into the conversation, like seasoning into a stew, but we were talking. Actually talking. And it occurred to me, my school was doing well. Spectacularly, in fact. It wasn't too long after that… at least by my standards, anyhow, that she died. Nibbles Nettles died at the astonishing age of ninety-three, after eighty years of service to the school. Exactly three ponies attended her funeral, and I vividly recall that day as the janitor, a groundskeeper, and I myself all mourned her passing. When she was finally gone, when she was finally quiet, everypony breathed a sigh of relief. Yes, even me."

"Why tell me this?" asked Overcast.

"Because," replied Celestia, "you like to complain."

The colt's face paled beneath his almost-mauve pelt.

"That's right. You understand me now, don't you? If you keep complaining about how bad things are, I will put you to work. You will be made to fix things. For a pony to complain about something, they have to care about it."

"You're serious."

"Very much so, young Master Overcast. Go down into the Dead Archives. You'll find Nibbles Nettles' records. She has an entire shelf dedicated to her accomplishments, which are many."

Ears sagging, the young colt shook his head. "But… Luna," he said, as if this explained everything. "I am to become her eyes. And whatever else she has planned for me."

"I do believe my sister could use a spare pair of eyes around the school," Celestia replied.

"I would not object to that," said Luna.

"But… my pledge—"

"I would not hold you back, Overcast."

"But this is something Princess Celestia is asking me to do."

"Overcast"—Luna filled her lungs with some much-needed air—"as I have told you many times now, choice will be returned to you when you make better choices. If my sister offered you a job, and you took it, such a thing would not conflict with my interests and what I want for you. Your talents would be useful in the school."

"But I don't know what I want just yet," he said, almost stammering. "I mean, right now, I'm still trying to turn things around."

"I'm not asking you to commit yourself," Celestia said to the colt. "But it is a future to consider. Even if you don't commit yourself completely, a little help right now would be appreciated. I need my teachers to trust Luna the same way that they trust me, and to show her the same respect. It starts by doing a better job as a prefect. You trust me. I trust you. We share and exchange information. You alert me to problems. I've done everything within my power to accommodate you and your interests, young Master Overcast. And I will continue to do so even if you refuse me right now. Because I want what is best for you. But I also want what is best for my school, so I am willing to take a bit of risk by giving you the means to help me make changes."

There was a curious pang in Luna's heart, a strange prickle that made her skin crawl.

"Just think of your friend, Miss Waterkey. She's started the Student Self-Help Center. I'm giving her resources, rooms, everything she needs to make change happen. Students are coming to her for help. And my sister's involvement, too, of course. It's a satisfying start."

The cold prickle thawed into a warm sensation of fuzziness. Wednesday Waterkey found the help she needed by helping others. No longer the Invisible Filly, she was the public face for Luna's special program. It had all started with detention and transitioned into something else. While it was a slow start, things were happening. There were regulars who showed up almost every day. This success was a reminder for Luna that she could make a difference, even without the trust and acceptance she craved. Those things would come in time, perhaps.

"But… I'm a mess. I can't be trusted with my own life right now."

"You stood up for my sister," Celestia said, almost whispering. "Even if you went about it in the wrong way, I still appreciate that you did it. You are bound to fumble and make mistakes. That's fine. That's expected. This is a school. Mistakes have to be made for learning to happen."

"Overcast"—little Almanac pressed her front hooves together as she said his name—"you should do this. I know its hard, and its probably a lot of work, but I'm hard, and I'm a lot of work, and I'm worth it, aren't I?"

"Alma, I don't know how to respond to that. Of course you're worth it. But… what Celestia's asking me to do… I don't know if I have it in me. I'm still recovering. My parents are probably going to get a divorce, and there's no telling what that will do to me. I can't control my temper. Because of my eavesdropping, none of my teachers really trust me or like me that much. Neither do the students. Everypony is afraid of having their secrets and wrongdoings exposed. What else can I say?"

"Some of us battle Discord. Some of us battle bugs." Almanac tapped front hooves together several times. "Some of us have to save the school. I know it doesn't seem like much in comparison, but somepony has to do it. You could be that pony. You love the school. I've heard you say it."

"Thank you, Almanac. I really am sorry about my careless words. I never meant to hurt you. I wanted to help you, but I made a mess of things. I always make a mess of things. And that's why I'm worried about failing."

Luna thought of her own failures, which stung a little, but her spirit stayed strong. For whatever reason, she was in a good mood. At least for the moment. This could change with all the unexpected fury of a feral squall out over the heartwaters of the ocean. Her thoughts strayed, drifting, going elsewhere, and she thought of home and hearth. But now was not the time. Perhaps when the school was more stable, she would mention this to her sister. Still, the idea persisted, and what a pleasant idea it was.

"Princess Celestia…"

"Yes, young Master Overcast?"

"I need some time to think about all of this. I'm not saying no, but I can't say yes. Not right now. I can't even figure out why you would trust me after all I've done."

"Because, I trust my sister, and she believes in you. All formality aside, Overcast, but you started down a dark path. Of your own free will, of your own volition, you turned yourself back around. You chose reconciliation and rehabilitation. Even though it is very difficult and painful, you are rebuilding your relationship with your parents… though it seems that your father… well, I have nothing nice to say and you know how the saying goes. I want to hold the door open for you so you can live up to your full potential. By the way, I plan to stick a service pin to your prefect's collar."

"Please don't do that," he replied, almost whining. "I don't deserve it."

"This will be a special pin… a moon of some sort, perhaps. And not a radiant sun."

"I know you mean well, but that will just get me teased. And I'll probably lose my temper. Just to make it clear, I wouldn't be ashamed to wear it, but I don't trust myself. That'd be like a bullseye or a lightning rod for trouble."

"You are getting the pin, and with it, no more foalish, youthful titles. Instead of young Master Overcast, you'll be Mister Overcast. Won't that be nice. A bit of maturity, yes indeed. How refreshing."

"No," he squeaked, his voice cracking like a dropped plate. "No, that won't be nice at all. Don't do it."

"Your lacy prefect's collar makes you look like a supreme-extreme megadork. I stuffed it into your bookbag after you became a hamster."

"Thanks, Alma. I needed that. Thanks."

"You're welcome."

"I'm actually trying to stay out of trouble," the colt said, and picking up his teacup, he stared down into the depths with one squinty eye. "Really, I am. Trying to… trying to fix things with my mother, that's taxing. And getting into trouble takes away from that. It distracts me. Princess Luna kept her word and she helped me reconnect with my mom. That was… incredibly hard and it felt like I was going to die that night. I feel really conflicted saying all of this, because… because I love my dad… and I keep talking about my mom, and I think my dad hates me, and to be honest, there's a part of me that hates him, and I'm right back to where I started, waiting for love to die so it will stop hurting and that's what made me dabble in dark magic in the first place."

"Do you need a hug?" asked Celestia.

"No!" Immediately, Overcast pulled away and almost spilled his tea.

"There's no shame in it—"

"Yes there is," he said with a shake of his head. "I'm already a teacher's pet. And a snitch."

"I think you need a hug—"

"And I think you need to stop ruining my life!"

"Mister Overcast, that's a bit harsh, don't you think?"

"I'm not like you," he said, defending himself. "I'm mortal. I can die of embarrassment."

Just when it seemed for certain that Celestia would murder one of her students with an act of aggressive kindness, the door opened and a guard entered. A different guard than the one before—though to the casual onlooker, one would not be able to tell the difference, due to the uniformity spell enchanted in the armor. Luna could see right through the disguise though, and recognised the older pegasus.

He was one of hers, even though he wore the golden mail.

"Your Majesty, I come bearing news for you."

Nodding, Luna waited.

"Your Majesty, the foundling has been born and is ready for pickup."

Right away, Luna was almost overcome by anxiety, but she stuffed it all down. It would have to be sorted out later. Recovering herself, she asked, "Any word about the mother? Is she well after her… experience?"

"Your Majesty, I've heard nothing. I'm sorry. The message sent made no mention of the mother."

Somewhat worried, Luna nodded. Looking about, she realised that Almanac and Overcast were staring at her, confused, and her sister, saddened, stared out the window. Luna knew better than to ask, or to even mention it. She knew her sister's feelings on this issue, how it wounded her and troubled her heart. This was one of Luna's most important duties, because she was the Princess of Foundlings.

"Thank you, Commandant Aurum. I'll depart at once."

"I'll arrange an escort. Hammer and Anvil will be roused and—"

"No." Celestia's deadpan refusal silenced the old pegasus. "No, my sister will take the royal railcar. Have it prepared at once and send word ahead through all the proper channels."

"Sister?" Brows furrowed, Luna tried to figure out what her sibling was up to. "It's faster to fly. I can be there and back before dawn if I leave right now."

"Luna, you're taking the train. And your loyal legion will escort you."

"Sister, this is not wise. The foundling will upset them." Luna considered saying more, but Celestia had that look in her eye.

"Commandant Aurum, prepare the royal railcar. See that it is well-staffed. Spare nothing. I want it ready to go within the hour."

"Yes, Your Majesty. At once."

Before Luna could say anything, Aurum was gone; the old pegasus was fast on his hooves, which made him a useful messenger. She stared at her sister, confused, but knowing that Celestia surely had her best interests in mind. There had to be a purpose. But what? Why? Or maybe it had nothing to do with her, but the students. Perhaps exposure to a foundling might offer up some sort of valuable awareness.

"What's a foundling?" asked Almanac.

"I'll leave that for Luna to explain, Miss Avocado. Right now, you need to prepare for a field trip. I'll dispatch a messenger to your parents so they won't worry."

"But I have assignments that need doing and I—"

"Take them with you, Mister Overcast."

"But I—"

"But nothing. You're going, that's final. This is of the utmost importance that you go together. Trust me."

"Sister?"

"Trust me, Luna. Please?"

"Of course."

"And please, have a nice time together. No pressures, no worries, just a nice sleepover. It will be pleasant. And fun. Not to mention educational."

"I wish I knew what was going on," said Luna.

"Telling you would spoil the surprise, Sister." Then, turning her full attention to Overcast, she said, "We'll talk when you come home. Just you and I. Don't be worried. Be prepared for the best to happen."

"Did you talk to a cheese?" asked Overcast.

"I have other methods," Celestia replied with a broad smile. "This is your time, Overcast. Your clouds will part and you will shine. Make the most of it."

"What's about to happen?"

"Something wonderful. Something life changing. Now hurry, you must be ready."

Luna realised that her sister knew something.

"Fate brings ponies to tea," Celestia said. "Now, away with you. All of you. Go have the time of your lives. As for myself, I'm going to go and announce some new policies. There's still daylight, so there's still time to make changes."

"Goodbye, Sister."

"Goodbye, Luna. Go have fun! Go on!"

Author's Note:

My editor is AWOL and this has been ready to go since yesterday. Might be kinda rough. Please report all typos. You know the drill.

There's a lot going on here than first appears on the surface.

So, what's a foundling, you might be asking. Don't worry, I'll show you.