• Published 23rd Sep 2021
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The Only Mark That Matters - CocktailOlive



The story of Radish Root, a pony with obscene cutie marks.

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30. Twilight's Birthday

Radish Root grabbed Saguaro Shade’s shoulders and dragged him to the floor. Saguaro Shade bucked Radish off, throwing him far across the gym mat. Radish landed on his feet and galloped at him. Saguaro Shade dodged, then grabbed Radish by the flanks and shoved him down. He pinned Radish’s right forehoof behind his back.

“Root, you need to stop switching up fighting styles during battle. The Royal Close Quarters Defense stance will cover all your bases if you let it.”

“But if I throw in a Ranger move, anyone anticipating a guard move will be thrown for a loop. And nopony’s going to know how to counter a buffalo move.”

“If a manticore is bearing down on Celestia, do you want to sit there going through a rolodex of styles in your brain, or do you want one form stored on muscle memory to carry you forward?”

“There are anti-manticore moves?”

“There are moves to counter everything. But only if you work with your fellow guards as a team, and only if they can rely on you using moves they know.”

“Okay. Show me.”

Saguaro Shade helped Radish up. They took positions facing each other, preparing for another round.

“Oh, I think you’ve got new orders,” said Saguaro Shade, nodding to the far wall. Shining Armor had walked in and was waving Radish over. Radish trotted over to him, toweling off.

“Captain.”

“Hey, Root. How’s hoof-to-hoof going?”

“Corporal Shade says there’s hope for me yet.”

“Sure. Did you know Twilight’s birthday is coming up? The third.”

“Oh? I didn't realize."

"She's having a party in Ponyville. She asked if you're available. You are. I'm giving you a day pass so you can attend."

"Really?"

"Yeah, Root. This is important. It's Twilight's first birthday since she's made any friends. Ensuring it goes well is a top priority. That means you are going to go there and have fun, even it's some Pinkie Pie-planned kiddy party with a clown. You're going to enjoy the punch, even if it's nonalcoholic. You're going to compliment the cake, even if it's lemon. And if there's a piñata, you're going to whiff so that Twilight can be the one to break it."

"Yes, sir."

"No being a wallflower, either. But if Twilight wants to dance with you, your hooves don't go past her withers. Got it?"

"Aye, captain."

"Now, let's talk gifts. What are you going to give her?”

“Uh, well, I think she might like some books from Princess Luna’s collection. Princess Luna’s read them, and a lot of them are rare first editions of texts that are centuries out of print.”

“See, classic mistake. Everypony gives her books. She can get her own books. A real friend would get her something personally meaningful.”

“I was going to include a card.”

“You know, Rarity is making her a whole dress from scratch.”

“Well, I could give that a shot. What are her measurements?”

Shining Armor scowled.

“Just… come up with something homemade.”

“Yes, sir.”

Radish visited his personal garden plot. There were no mushrooms yet, but daisies in various colors were coming in nicely along the margins.

Nothing more homemade than homegrown.

He inspected them and saw a perfectly-formed flower with long, showy petals the same color as Twilight's mane.

The nicest girls should get the nicest flowers. And a librarian should get a flower worthy of her library's collection.

He dug it up, cleaned it, pressed it dry in newspaper over the next few days, mounted it on thick stock paper, and labeled it by species and the location and date of its collection. He had it framed and wrapped at the palace's gift wrapping center. Shining Armor flagged him down on his way out.

"Good news, Root! Rarity’s cat is sick, so we’re moving Twilight’s birthday to Canterlot!”

“What?”

“It's going to be here in the palace, at seven."

“Oh, nice.”

“Is that her gift? What is it?”

“An Aster elegantula, sir. A model specimen.”

“Sounds fancy. Good job.”

“Thank you, sir.”

“The party’s in the palace ballroom, so dress up nice and formal.”

“Oh. Uh…”

“What?”

“I, uh, don’t really have formal clothes.”

“We do pay you, don’t we, Root?”

“Yes, sir.”

Radish found Spats in their barracks, shining a pair of dress shoes.

“Hey, Spats? You’re kind of a clotheshorse, right?”

“How’d you guess?”

“I need nice clothes. For a thing.”

“Twilight Sparkle’s birthday?”

“Yeah.”

“I can’t believe they’re getting to use the ballroom again. The new plaster is barely dry.”

"You got something I can borrow?”

“You know you’ve got like twenty pounds of muscle on me? You’d wreck anything I could lend you. And you’d look like a clown.”

“Could you come help me pick out something, then?”

“Sounds fun, but I’ve got a real date tonight.”

“Can you at least give me some pointers about what to buy?”

“With your colors, you’ll want to stick to earth tones.”

“But I am earth tones.”

“No, darker earth tones. You could push into the blues as far as navy, or go as warm as maroon. If the sales ponies try to put you in anything outside of those, walk out the store.”

“But what kinds of clothes?”

“Button-ups and slacks. Maybe a sweater. Most Uptowners are skinny little willows. They don’t really make nice clothes for big slabs of meat like you. Just don’t go up a size to compensate- you’ll look like you’re swimming in them. Don’t be afraid if some of those muscles show through, though. I doubt Twilight will turn you away for looking too buff. Shining might. And don't fall for that shirtless collar fad- it's a tragedy of our times.”

“Thanks, Spats.”

“Have fun at the party.”

“You have fun too, on your date.”

“Oh, I will. She’s a classy dame. Taking me to the Garden Party.”

“Isn’t that right next to the ballroom?”

Spats froze. He looked down at his shoes and frowned.

“Those six are going to make a scene, aren’t they?”

“I’ll try to stop them.”

“Don’t make promises you can’t keep, Rad.”


Radish wandered the boutique district of Canterlot’s Uptown. The vast majority of apparel stores were geared towards mares. He found one with stallion-shaped mannequins and entered, looking around.

“Need any help?” asked the salespony.

“Yes. Lots.”

She assisted him in trying on various shirts. He settled on a maroon button-up.

“I like it. Now, I’ll need pants to match.”

“Well, we don't have much of a selection right now. Pants are out for stallions.”

“Uh, out?”

“Guys are going bare-bottomed to formal events these days. Cutie marks are back in! You’re going to want to show yours off. Even touch them up a bit so that they really pop off your fur.”

Radish stared at his reflection in the mirror.

“You know, I think I’d prefer to wear pants. I don’t want to seem too trendy.”


Fully dressed, Radish walked up the palace ballroom, a large building on the south side of the palace’s entertainment quarter. There were a lot more ponies than he thought would be invited. As the shop pony had said, most stallions were without pants. Twilight and her friends were engaged in a conga line to a rockabilly song belting out of a small phonograph. Radish put his gift on a table as Shining Armor entered behind him.

“Sir, am I late?”

“Nah. Those six always get up to some shenanigans when they’re together, so I had everyone else come thirty minutes later so we could skip all that.”

“What were the shenanigans?”

“There was a whole thing where they disrupted the Garden Party outside. Now I guess the parties have merged.”

“Oh. How’s Spats?”

“Spats?”

“Radish! I’m glad you could come!” said Twilight, loping up to Radish and Shining. She was wearing an understated yellow dress.

“Thanks for the invite, Twilight. Happy Birthday! Nice dress.”

“Thanks! Rarity made it for me!” she said, turning and posing to show it off. Radish could feel Shining Armor staring at him.

“Radish! Heads up!” called out Pinkie Pie’s voice.

Radish turned to see a slice of chocolate cake sailing through the air at him. He ducked and caught it with his tail. He transferred it to his hoof and took a bite.

“Nice reflexes, Root. Wish you were that quick in drills,” said Shining Armor.

Pinkie Pie bounced up to them. “Hey, Rad-a-Rooty! Welcome to the party!”

"Hi, Pinkie Pie."

She looked at Shining Armor. “Hi there! I'm Pinkie Pie! What's your name?”

“Pinkie Pie,” said Twilight, proudly, “Allow me to introduce you to my-”

“Ooh! Are you Twilight’s boyfriend!?”

Twilight gagged. Shining Armor screwed up his face. Radish looked at the cake slice, and put the rest in his mouth.

“Of course not!” howled Shining Armor.

“Oh, my bad. You're not ready to put that label on your relationship, huh? I understand."

"Pinkie!" cried Twilight.

"And look- don't feel threatened by Radish, here." Pinkie said, pulling Radish into a noogie. "They're just pen pals. Even though some of us are rooting for him. No pun intended."

Shining Armor glared at Radish.

Ah ha ha!” laughed Twilight, loudly. “Say, why don’t we-”

The song on the record changed to a more high-tempo jam.

“Ooh! I love this one!" said Pinkie. "Come on, Radish! Let's scoot boots!"

Pinkie Pie grabbed Radish and dragged him to the dance floor, leaving Shining Armor gritting his teeth and Twilight cringing. She twirled Radish in the air by his hooves. He held on for dear life. She slipped on a piece of cake, and the two of them skidded across the floor in opposite directions.

Rarity helped Radish to his hooves.

“So good to see you, lieutenant,” she said. “And I must say, you’ve built an excellent ensemble around the pocket square I gave you.”

“Thanks. My friend Spats helped.”

She leaned into him. “Is Spats that stallion you came in with? He's quite striking.”

“That’s Shining Armor. Twilight’s brother. And he’s-”

“Brother? Oh, that could get complicated. No, I best not. Unless... did he say anything about me?"

"Uh... he said your cat is sick."

"Ah, he sounds like a compassionate, caring individual."

"Sure."

"What does he do for a living?"

"Actually, he's-"

Radish felt something flat and hard bonk the top of his head. He turned to see Rainbow Dash standing behind him, holding a large wooden mallet in her wings.

“Hey, Radish! Ever play croquet?” she asked. “I challenge you!”

“Rainbow Dash! We were having a conversation!” admonished Rarity.

“Yeah? I think Fluttershy’s about to beat you to the punch.”

She pointed to the refreshments table, where Shining Armor was serving punch to Fluttershy. Fluttershy seemed pleased as punch to make his acquaintance.

“Ooh, that sneaky-! Pardon me, I’m going to introduce myself.”

She stomped over to the table, but changed to a more delicate gait as she closed the distance.

“So, croquet?” asked Rainbow Dash.

“How do you play?” asked Radish.

“I dunno. We’ll figure it out.”

“Okay.”

After a few rounds of non-regulation croquet, Radish went back inside to get some punch. He didn’t see Shining Armor, but there were now a pair of older unicorns, a stallion and a mare, near the punch table. They greeted Radish as he approached.

“Radish Root, right? Twilight’s pen pal?” asked the mare.

“That’s right, ma’am.”

“I’m Twilight Velvet, this is Night Light. We’re Twilight’s parents.”

“Oh! Nice to meet you. And welcome to the palace. You’ve raised a wonderful-”

“We need to talk to you," said Night Light. "In private.”

Well, that’s not good, Radish thought.

They brought him through a door to the ballroom’s kitchen, which was now vacant and dim. Night Light cast a spell and locked the door behind them.

“What… uh… what’s going on?” Radish asked.

“First of all, we want to thank you for all you’ve done for Twilight,” said Twilight Velvet.

“Oh, I’ve barely done anything.”

“Are you kidding?” she said, rolling her eyes. “She told us all about how you helped on the dragon mission, the bat pony mission…”

“And we’re sorry that she killed you out there. Trust me, we didn’t raise her to do that!” said Night Light, putting his hoof on Radish’s shoulder.

“Really? She told you about all that?”

“Yes, why wouldn’t she?”

“I guess those missions are more classified on my end than on hers.”

“Ooh. I hope she hasn’t broken the law by telling us,” said Night Light.

“Why, Celestia might send assassins in the night to silence us!” laughed Twilight Velvet.

Night Light laughed loudly. Radish laughed uneasily.

“Speaking of Celestia,” said Night Light, “she’s the reason we want to talk. We know about your cutie marks.”

Radish cringed.

“No, it’s okay,” he said. “But there's something about them you need to hear.”

“Something about them?” asked Radish.

“See, when you got them, it was a bit of a cause célèbre in Canterlot,” Twilight Velvet said. “Celestia had the city's top minds trying to figure them out. They were supposed to do it discreetly, but ponies talk anyway. Soon, the whole town was abuzz, speculating on what they could mean."

“Celestia said no one ever reached any meaningful conclusions about them," said Radish.

"Well... they didn't have all the available information... because I withheld some," sighed Night Light.

"What do you mean?"

"One of my ancestors, a unicorn named Midnight Runner, well... apparently he once saw a pony with cutie marks very similar to yours."

"Are you serious?"

"This was during the Tribal Era, when the three pony kinds lived separately and despised each other. They would only begrudgingly meet to trade goods and services. Midnight Runner was... ah..."

He looked to his wife. She put a hoof on his shoulder and nodded. He sighed.

"He was a spy for the unicorn tribe."

"Whoa, what?"

"It was his job to sneak into earth pony territory and keep tabs on what they were doing. The unicorns had all kinds of suspicions about what the other tribes were up to. Some feared they were amassing armies, or developing secret weapons. Midnight Runner's talent was stealth spells. He could even evade the earth ponies' animal sentries. During one of his forays into the earth kingdom, he snuck into a pottery studio, thinking it was some kind of weapons forge. The potter there had cutie marks of himself... having sex with a unicorn mare."

"With a unicorn? But most earth ponies in those days would have never even seen a unicorn their whole life."

"Yes, that's true. Just like how you got cutie marks of Celestia without ever meeting her."

"Did Midnight Runner find out what they meant?"

"No, he didn't even think they were real. He assumed they were a vulgar joke, like some kind of anti-unicorn propaganda. He didn't even report them- he was afraid his superiors would punish him for even claiming to have seen something like that."

"Then, how do you even know about it?"

"He recorded it in his field journal. Unicorns keep everything their ancestors wrote, so it's been passed down for ages. It was encrypted, but a thousand-year-old cipher isn't hard to crack."

"Huh. But why didn't you tell anyone?"

Night Light sighed. "Because his writing is just so... bigoted. He was a true believer in unicorn supremacy. His notes are full of bile and slurs for earth ponies and pegasi. He entertained violent fantasies about conquering and subjugating the other tribes. It's..."

He was shaking. Twilight Velvet hugged her husband. "It was painful for us to read," she said.

Night Light composed himself. "Yes. Most ponies in those days were probably like that, but to have it in your own hooves, from your own ancestor... I was ashamed, lieutenant. Showing the journal to cutie mark researchers would have meant giving the entire thing up for analysis. Investigators would have examined every page, down to the ink. Historians would have studied every word. They might have published their findings, and then everyone could have seen every hateful word Midnight Runner wrote. The thought of friends and neighbors seeing that, Celestia seeing that, our kids seeing that... I couldn't do it. I'm sorry."

"But you're not responsible for your ancestors."

He sighed. "But I was responsible for my children. At the time, Shining was a hotshot cadet, Twilight was already Celestia's star pupil, and Spike was just a hatchling. I feared this would put a dark cloud over all their futures. So I kept it secret, and all those cutie mark researchers never heard about it."

"Would it really have helped them?"

"We'll never know now. Maybe it could have given them some new lead to pursue, or a spark of inspiration that could have brought answers for you. Everyone was treating your marks as an intellectual riddle to figure out. We had all lost sight of the fact that we were supposed to be helping the little boy who got them. I never thought I'd come face-to-face with him. And I never thought he'd grow up to be my daughter's friend." He bowed his head. "Please, forgive me."

"It's okay. Really, it is. I know a thing or two about public shame. I wouldn't want to wish it on you, or your kids."

Night Light held up two small notebooks in his aura. "Here's the original notebook, and the deciphered version. They're yours do with as you see fit. Share them, publish them, have them studied, anything you want."

Radish took them. "Thank you. But I'm not going to show them to anyone. My marks are my burden alone. I don't want them to cause anyone else an ounce of anxiety."

"Thank you, lieutenant."

"I appreciate you telling me. Let me repay you, somehow."

“No. No friend of Twilight owes us a thing," said Twilight Velvet.

Radish looked down at his slacks. “Well, uh, if you’re curious about what they really look like… would you like to see them? Very few ponies have.”

“Seriously?” asked Night Light.

“Yes!” said Twilight Velvet.

Radish checked around, then lowered a side of his slacks. Night Light cast a bright light onto Radish’s cutie mark.

“Well, I’ll be,” Twilight Velvet said.

“Wow, I didn’t think it would be so detailed,” said her husband.

“And Celestia doesn’t want to do that?” scoffed Twilight Velvet.

“Mom? Dad?” called Shining Armor, banging on the door. Radish quickly cinched up his slacks. Night Light grabbed his drink and splashed Radish with it. He stood wet and blinking in confusion. Shining Armor used magic to unlock the door and threw it open.

“Mom? Dad? Root? What are you three doing in here?”

“Oh, I accidentally spilled club soda on Radish here. We were helping him get it out before it stained,” Night Light said.

“I thought club soda got stains out,” replied Shining Armor, suspiciously.

“You hear that, Vee? It gets stains out!" exclaimed Night Light.

"Thanks son, you’re a genius!” said Twilight Velvet.

“Okay, well, come rejoin the party when you’re ready.”

He backed through the door, eyeing Radish.

“Sorry about that, lieutenant,” said Night Light. “I was afraid he would think we were having one of those ‘What are your intentions with my daughter?’ kind of talks.”

“Oh, I-”

“Yeah, especially after the last guy,” said Twilight Velvet.

“The last guy?”

“One time a cadet tried to romance her. Roses, chocolates, serenades under her window- the whole nine yards. Shining had him sent to the front lines.”

“The front lines of what?”

“The Guard intermural dodgeball tournament. It was a massacre.”

“Poor guy was never the same,” sighed Night Light.


They emerged from the kitchen. The ballroom's lights had been dimmed and a contemporary ballad was playing on the phonograph. Several of the ponies were slow-dancing.

"Radish, there you are!" said Twilight, trotting up to them. "Come on! Dance with me!"

"Oh? Sure."

They walked to the center of the dance floor. Radish took to his hind legs and held out a hoof.

"Oh, you dance bipedally?" she asked with surprise. "That's so sophisticated."

"That's me, Twilight. I'm Mister Sophisticated."

She stood on her hind legs, wobbling a bit. He took her hoof to steady her, and placed his other on her withers. They held each other at arm's length and slowly circled.

A flashbulb went off from the side. Twilight Velvet had snapped a photo of them. She waved grinningly, then gestured for them to ignore her.

"I'm glad you could come to my birthday," Twilight said.

"Me, too," said Radish.

"I like your pants."

"Thanks. They're new."

"Sorry to have my birthday in a public setting. It was a last-minute change."

"What do you mean?"

"You know, if we were having this party in my own home, you wouldn't have to hide your cutie marks."

"Yes, I would. Spike would be there. And your folks."

"Well, they go to bed earlier than the rest of us."

Radish scanned the room. "Where is Spike, anyway?"

"He's been outside, psyching himself up to ask Rarity to dance all night. Oh! There he is."

Twilight pointed to the far side of the room, where Spike was nervously approaching Rarity. He wore a red bow tie. His scales were polished to a mirror shine, causing him to reflect spots of light across the walls like a disco ball. He held out a claw and asked her something. She said something cheerfully, and put her hoof in his claw. They slow-danced, closely. Twilight's mother snapped a flash picture of them, too.

"Aww," said Twilight. "Looks like that scale polish you sent him did the trick."

"I'm glad."

"But I'm worried he's setting himself up for disappointment. I just don't think Rarity will ever reciprocate his feelings."

"He's got his whole life to deal with disappointment. Let him enjoy a dance."

"Sorry. I didn't mean to touch a nerve."

"Hmm?"

"You know, because Celestia didn't... reciprocate your feelings."

"Oh. Yeah. Well, it's okay. I get a salary from her, and that's almost as good."

Twilight chuckled and leaned her chin on his shoulder. "I'm glad you stayed in the Guard. And I'm glad we became friends."

"Me, too."

The song ended, transitioning into a disco beat. Radish and Twilight separated and dropped back to all fours.

"Look, Twi," said Radish, "Don't plan your special days around my special... problem. You should have your birthdays however you want, wherever you want. I'm fine wearing pants, I promise."

"You shouldn't have to hide who you are when you're among friends. How about we plan a special get-together sometime, where we can all hang out unclothed? No kids, no parents, no pants."

"You know what? That sounds nice."


Radish lay in his bunk, paging through the decoding of the ancient text. It was the closest thing to an answer he had received in all his years. It was also the farthest thing from an explanation.

He turned to a new page. In this one, Midnight Runner had described earth pony children with a series of colorful metaphors.

Well, that's... elaborate.

He found the entry about the earth pony with cutie marks like his own. Midnight Runner didn't see fit to describe them in any detail, but simply denigrated their bearer's appearance, profession, and odor.

Who was the potter? My ancestor? And who was the unicorn mare? Did they ever meet? Am I their descendant?

Radish pondered it over.

No, that's impossible. He was probably just another unlucky guy with no answers. Maybe the cutie marks weren't real at all, and it really was just a vulgar joke about the enemy.

Radish flipped another page.

Funny, for a spy, he seemed to have missed something big.

“Hey, Radish? What's wrong? Is that book not a good one?” asked Spats, entering the room.

“Not really. It just leaves you with more questions than answers.”

“I hate it when they do that. How was the party from your end? My date did not care for Twilight’s friends. She dragged us out the minute Applejack started digging up weeds. I spent a while trying to calm her down, but I don’t think it’ll work out between us.”

“Sorry.”

“No biggie. She was only beautiful and wealthy. You make any headway with Twilight?”

“Headway?”

“Did I read it wrong? You two seem perfect for each other. It’s a tale as old as time- the delicate aristocrat girl falling for a rugged soldier type. Then they run away together, so her father, brother, and betrothed hunt them down and kill the guy. Then she throws herself off a cliff in grief. Classic story.”

“We’re just friends.”

“Probably for the best. The captain’s her brother, after all, and the cliffs around here are high.”

A tiny envelope poofed into existence in front of Radish. Inside it was a note from Twilight's parents.

Radish- just to be clear, we have no problem with earth ponies mixing with unicorns. ;) -TV
And you seem like you'd do just fine in dodgeball. ;) -NL

"But her folks seem to like me."

“Really? That was never my strong suit. Speaking of which, nice clothes.”

“Thanks. I took your advice.”

“I wish more ponies did. The world would be a classier place.”


Dear Radish,

Thanks for coming to my birthday party! It was a lot of fun, and I learned a new lesson on friendship from Rarity.

I got your gift! Thank you! The library in Canterlot had an extensive herbarium, something the one here in Ponyville is lacking. You’ve inspired me to start one. How about I name it after you? I’ll have Spike start setting it up right away.

Your Pen Pal,

Twilight Sparkle

P.S.: My parents had a lot of nice things to say about you. Thank you for making them feel welcome at the palace.

P.P.S: Sorry if I was an awkward dancer. I'll be better at it next time, I promise.

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