It's the first Heart's and Hooves Day since the Crystal Heart was restored, and possible couples across Equestria are taking advantage of the day!
This original side story is my entry for Equestria Daily's SHH&HLE event. It is an anthology of short stories featuring as many ships as I can shake a stick at, but has the advantage of most of the stories not being connected, so readers can enjoy the ships they support, and skip the rest. The connected stories will be indicated by their daytimes, and list one pony in a pairing twice. Also, fair warning this fic features nearly all of my original characters. Do try to keep track. Ready? Lets go!
It is the first Hearts and Hooves Day since the return of the Crystal Empire and the Crystal Heart. The day is young, and many a mare or stallion see a great opportunity to get together with her or his intended beloved, at least for the day. Join Princess Cadence, Shining Armour, and the other married couples of 'FiM' as they tell the tale (or tail) of what can happen to many a heart in just one day!
Any evaluations you might have on this fic would be appreciated, even though it is clearly a shipfic. Just know that if you only give a Like or Dislike, I cannot really use that as feedback to improve my next effort, which is likely to be the Third Gear main story. Anyway, if you have anything you would like to share, please do leave a comment below.
Note: No, Ba'ast isn't in this one. It's just a fun picture, and it seems I like to cause a little chaos myself now and then.
The Prologue, In Which the Married Couples Explain All
"Welcome, everypony, have you gotten comfortable? If not, please take a moment to do so."
"That's right, get comfy, because we're going to tell you a fantastic tale. It may take awhile, so it pays to be seated or lying down."
"Oh, but we haven't introduced ourselves, have we? This is my husband, Shining Armour."
"And this is my wife, Princess Mi Amore Cadenza. We're..."
"What I meant to say is 'this is my wife, Cadence."
"We're coming to you from the great, newly-restored Crystal Empire, or as some have taken to calling it, Crystal City, where the Crystal Heart helps to spread all things positive throughout our fair Principality of Equestria."
"But we're not alone, are we, Shining?"
"Not at all. We also have other established and married couples joining in on the tale from their cities and towns via Telepathy."
"It's the great advantage of being so well-connected, Prince Armour,"
"Oh Windy, you're jumping in ahead of time again,"
"Ha-ha! You know me, always charging in with or without a plan. I'd appreciate it if you didn't call me by that nickname over the Telepathy, though."
"Oh, sorry dear. This is my husband, Windwalker Azure."
"And my lovely wife, Aerial Azure."
"We're transmitting to you from beautiful Las Pegasus in Western Equestria!"
"We're ready here too,"
"Ah, that has to be the Patriarch himself,"
"Let them introduce themselves per the plan, Windy."
"Ooh, point taken. Please go ahead, old friend."
"Gladly, my friend. This is my wife, Verdant Sweet Pepper, the real heart of our home and farm."
"And this modest fellow is Verdant Redwood. I chose him as my husband."
"Ahem. We're coming to you from Verdant Fields near Hoofington in Western Equestria."
"Excuse me, is it our turn yet? I still don't quite know how this works."
"I think it is, honey-buns,"
"Yes, go ahead over there. Also, thanks for looking out for Twily and her friends so much, even though they probably don't noticed it all the time."
"It's our pleasure, Prince Shining Armour. Oh my, I'm blushing!"
"Lets get started, shall we? From Ponyville in Central Equestria, this is my wife Cup Cake,"
"Oh yes, and my husband, Carrot Cake. Did I do it right?"
"You did an excellent job, Mister and Missus Cake."
"Thank you, Princess."
"No, thank you."
"Ah, yes, joining in the festivities from here in Canterlot are my perenial partner, Fleur de Lis,"
"And stallion-about-town, Fancypants."
"Well done, Love."
"Thank you kindly,"
"Well then... Aren't the Shadows in as well?" Cadence asked.
"It seems they may be too busy focusing on the psychic network," Windwalker said.
"Well, I should have expected as much, given the range. It really would have been easier to get together here in the Crystal Palace,"
"Easier, but also harder to respond quickly to what went down, don't you think so, Captain Armour?"
"Now that I think about it, you're right, Redwood. Now then, since we've made our introductions, should we explain what we're doing for our audience?"
"It's not my place," Pepper said. "You are the Princess of Love and Light, after all."
"She's right, dear, and isn't this all about Love and Light?"
"Yes it is, and great segue too!"
"You see, dear audience, ever since Twilight and her friends helped to protect the Crystal Empire from Sombra and retrieve the Crystal Heart, rumours of what that very Artifact can do have spread throughout Equestria, and perhaps beyond. In particular, ponies are interested in the spreading of Love. Isn't that right, Shining?"
"Right. And it's sometimes scary what some ponies will do based on a rumour or urban legend like that. And since we're talking about Hearts and Hooves Day--"
"And the first one with the aurora from the Crystal Heart visible from coast to coast,"
"Yes, well, that's one of the more critical details, isn't it, Wing Commander Windwalker?"
"None other -- and as we all know, it's during such events that ponies, mares and stallions alike, do things they wouldn't normally be crazy enough to try."
"Such as approaching a secret love whom they have admired for some time. Why, it took ages for Shining here to get up the nerve to ask me out,"
"Time and my friends' help, but I'm glad I did."
"In any case, we'll be telling you all about what happened to certain ponies, about whom you might be interested, on this most auspicious of Hearts and Hooves Day," Cadence said.
"For your convenience, each story will have the ponies involved named in the title," Redwood said.
"That way, you can experience the stories you like," Sweet Pepper said.
"And mostly in the order you like," Cupcake said.
"That's right, but if the same pony gets listed more than once, pay attention to the time of day in the title, too," Carrot said.
"That way you don't get mixed up by accidentally traveling in time," Aerial said.
"So sit back and relax or grab your crash helmet and pads, because it's bound to be a heck of a ride," Windwalker said.
"Because here it comes," Cadence said.
"Third Gear OSS: Sharing Hearts Is Magic starts now!" They said together.
Morn, Noon, and Evening: Princess Celestia and Discord
Celestia rose early, as she always must, in order to raise the sun that would rouse all of Equestria from their slumber. As much as she didn't like to be reminded of her royal duties and how they automatically distanced her from her subjects, it was a fact of her life, and it could not truly be ignored. As she worked her magic to bring the dawn, the elder Princess of Equestria sighed.
"Now what has you so down?"
"Discord! I didn't even sense... no, of course I wouldn't be able to sense you're approach. Did you want something?"
"Now now, Celestia, calm down. I'm not here to make trouble, or at least not my usual volume of trouble." Here the Draconequus paused dramatically. "But I fear that before I can get down to the business at paw, claw, or talon I need an answer: why the sigh, dear Princess?"
Celestia stared at the Spirit of Chaos, who had on at least three separate occasions been one of the most wily and dangerous threats to Equestria. She didn't know what it was about him, but ever since Fluttershy had succeeded in her efforts to start guiding him on the path to being at least Chaotic Good, he had seemed... more sincere and open to... correction -- Celestia guessed she could put it that way. And the more Discord was this way, the more Celestia somehow found herself confiding in him.
"Today is Hearts and Hooves Day," she said, testing the waters.
"Ah." Discord stopped his slow walking around (he seemed to find it difficult to stand still for very long) and turned back toward Celestia. "Is that it? That can't possibly be it."
Celestia sighed, and decided to have out with it all at last. "I've been wondering, for some time, actually, whether I would have a Special Somepony in my life before I found a successor as the Princess of the Sun."
"Really? I wonder which one of those I could help you with," Discord tapped his chin with a claw as he thought of the possibilities.
Celestia chuckled. "No offense to you, but I doubt ponies would trust you very far with the sun, at least not yet."
"Really? I think I'd make a great Alicorn Princess, Princess."
"Please don't," Celestia rested a hoof over Discord's talon, which he had been about to snap.
"Very well. As there are very few who could raise and lower the sun instead of you, without also vacating the Moon's post, what kind of 'special' would your Special Somepony be?"
"He would have to somepony who understands responsibility, and all the weight that comes with it. Somepony with untold patience who isn't in complete awe of me. Somepony who could stand beside me as an equal, and be... normal with me, instead of always calling me 'Princess.' Somepony who either doesn't understand the distance between royalty and other ponies, or to whom it doesn't matter at all."
"Is this a list of characteristics of an ideal match for marriage? I thought you just wanted somepony to hang out with for Hearts and Hooves Day."
"You're right, for once." Under her breath, Celestia added, "not that a marriageable stallion wouldn't be nice."
"As nice as that is," Discord said, blinking in surprise, "we only have so much to work with. Lets see who we've got." He snapped his claw, and the pad of paper on which he had been scribbling notes vanished, to be replaced by a Magic Eight Ball.
"You can't be serious," Celestia said.
"Well, that's a fine way to show your appreciation. And really, the success of this depends more on how serious you are than how serious I am. And for once I'm perfectly serious. After all, if you're busy going on dates, imagine all the mischief I could get off to."
"I meant to say 'chaos.' Can you be serious here? I'm holding a Magic Eight Ball, and it's burning to be used." The black ball turned slightly red, as though it really was getting hot.
"Okay, fine." Celestia thought this was all a waste of time, but it was still worth a try, somehow. She focused.
Discord began to shake the ball. "Who is Celestia's ideal match, among those living in this world right now?"
"That's not a yes-no question,"
"This is a Magic Eight Ball, dear Celestia. I would have thought you'd know that. Now focus."
Discord stopped shaking the ball, and then waited, peering into it. "Well, that can't be right," he said, and before Celestia could ask a question, he shook the ball again. Paused and stared a second time. Shook it a third time. "That's just outright impossible," he said, shaking it a fourth time. "Ridiculous," he said, shaking the ball. "Utterly ridiculous. One last try, maybe?" While Celestia watched with a raised eyebrow, he gave the ball a really good shake. "This thing must be busted," he decided, and he tossed it on the ground.
Now more curious than ever before, Celestia picked the item up with her magic and decided to take a peak: DISCORD. The Princess of the Day rolled her eyes, and gave the ball a good shake of her own, and it came up: DISCORD.
"I told you it was impossible," he said.
Celestia looked over the ball at the Draconequus, and the more she thought about it, the more it seemed to be the exact opposite of impossible, ridiculous, or unlikely: here was the only being who was possibly longer-lived than she, an individual of such great power that, should he wish it, the world could be just the way he wanted it to be with a snap of his claw or paw or tail. He was the only one, other than Luna, Celestia's own sister, who did not always call Celestia 'Princess' first. And he certainly was not in awe of her. Moreover, he was the first and last of his kind, so far as anyone knew. Deep down, that had to be a great loneliness to bear -- one similar to the one Celestia had felt regarding Luna after she'd been forced to banish Nightmare Moon, or to the one she felt after Starswirl forbade her from seeing the King Sombra of the Inverse Equestria.
"Maybe, or maybe not," Celestia said aloud.
"Eh? You can't mean..?"
Celestia smiled. "Does it disturb you?"
"A lot less than I'd like it to, given your less-than-friendly history."
"We don't have to marry," Celestia said, covering her mouth with a hoof to stifle a giggle. "But won't you be my Special Somepony for today?"
Discord paused, and he thought, then he hung his head in a sign of submission. "Fine, but only for today."
"That's all I could ask,"
"Or should ask," Discord muttered.
"I heard that," Celestia said, smiling.
* * *
Throughout the day, when Princess Celestia had a moment to spare (which was often, since most ponies were out pursuing romantic possibilities instead of going about their normal business), ponies saw strange sights: Discord giving her flowers, or sweets, or little baubles to wear; Discord taking Celestia to the derby or the theatre or to a meal; Discord being a letter-perfect gentlestallion. But it was Hearts and Hooves Day, and all these actions were perfectly within the spirit of the time.
"Well, do you still think it's ridiculous now?" Celestia asked Discord as afternoon began to turn to evening. She had a flower in her hair, and she was wearing a simple pale blue evening dress. She had even went to the effort of putting on a light layer of makeup. Discord was wearing a necktie, but that was as far as he went.
"I honestly don't know how to answer that," he said.
Celestia laughed lightly. "Well then, have you enjoyed our time together?"
"Have I? That sounds like it's almost over, but we're not through here yet, oh no!"
"What do you..?"
"We have only done all the mundane things, but Celestia, did you forget who you were with? With me, the impossible is possible."
"Oh-ho. In that case," Celestia said, "I'm game for doing the impossible if you are,"
"You're on," Discord raised an arm.
"As long as we put things back the way they're supposed to be when we're done."
"I said 'you're on,' didn't I?"
They vanished in a flash of light, to do what only the supremely magical could do. Night had already risen when Celestia and Discord returned from playing among the stars. They had tried, really they had, to put everything back, but somehow things looked just a little bit brighter for the both of them. "Maybe we should do this again sometime," Celestia said, with a genuine and brilliant smile on her face as the stars twinkled above.
"It wouldn't be impossible," Discord said, and in parting he bowed and kissed the top of her foreleg -- an old courting gesture that perhaps only the ancient Houses still used. Only the grin on the Draconequus's face did not reveal whether or not it was a joke. Celestia was willing to out-wait him and see.
Pinkie Pie was excited, but then she usually was, to some degree. Give her the slightest reason, and she found a way to throw parties with the highest amount of energy around. Today was different, though. Not only was it Hearts and Hooves Day, a special day for couples, but Pinkie wasn't even in Ponyville at all. Today found her waking up in Detrot!
Detrot was completely new to Pinkie Pie, and Pinkie Pie was completely new to Detrot. This meant new opportunities to make first impressions, and more importantly, friends. It was too bad Pinkie's Ponyville friends couldn't make it, but hey, she understood that everypony had her or his own thing going on, especially on a day such as this. Pinkie could never dream of holding her friends back.
At the same time, none of them could possibly hold Pinkie back from this, a party that was sure to have the highest energy out of all the celebrations she'd planned so far. It would be a party that would allow the ponies in attendance to set their hearts and souls out for all to see, and the theme was so perfect that it would be a waste if nopony showed up -- because the theme was 'Detrot Rock City!'
Pinkie hopped on down to the venue, one of the largest night clubs available within the entire city -- except now Pinkie was almost done turning it into a day club. Just a few last-minute decorations, and all she'd have left to do was ensure the bands got set up. And then it would be up to the ponies of Detrot to show up.
"I've done it!" A stallion who was a bit lanky trotted up to Pinkie, all smiles and satisfaction.
"Hi! I've never seen you before," Pinkie said. "Then again, I've never seen most ponies from Detrot. Not yet, anyway. Ha!" She snorted a little. The stallion laughed along with Pinkie for a couple seconds, then he shook his head to get back to business.
"Wait a minute, this is important, Miss Pie."
"Please, call me 'Pinkie!' All my friends do,"
"What I mean to say is, I did it."
"What did you do?"
"I maximized the publicity for this event. Now that I've blessed it as the hottest trending event in Eastern Equestria, you should have no problem selling out tickets."
"Selling? Silly stallion, admission is free or by donation. How else are we all going to be friends by the end of the party?"
"Even better: it's like a charity event."
"No, it's a party. To make friends."
"But you see, without my publicity backing it, this would have been a total bust. A complete flop."
"Why?" Pinkie's ears drooped, and she went from happy to dismayed in three-quarters of an eyeblink.
"Well, because you didn't have the right connections, I suppose."
"You didn't know anypony here. But now you know Trenderhoof, so everything will be just dandy."
"Ooooooooooooh. Why didn't you say so, Trenderhoof? Hey, mind if I call you 'Trendy?'"
"I prefer 'Trend,'"
"Hey, that's cool!"
"That's exactly what I do, Miss... I mean, Pinkie. I go all across Equestria and publicize all of the little ponies and events that would practically be unknown if not for my word on them."
"That's right: ponies get famous on my word, and because I spread my word about events, they become well-attended. I can change anything that's obscure or unheard of, and make it into the newest, freshest trend in Equestria."
"All by yourself?"
"Yes. That's part of my genius."
"But I thought I did a good job giving out invitations!"
"That may be fine where you're from --"
"Ponyville. It's where I'm from, silly."
"Oh yes. Anyway, giving out invites yourself may work fine there, but that's not how many other cities and towns work. Maybe you've noticed that ponies aren't quite so friendly here?"
"Now that you mention it, some ponies did slam their doors in my face."
"And of those who took the invitation, how many do you think bothered to open it, or just forgot about it, or even threw them out?"
"But that's rude!"
"Again, not the way of ponies in Detrot. You have to understand them to be able to spread the word to them, and I know how. That's how I maximized your event's--"
"Oh, I see,"
"Yes. If you want to throw parties with as many ponies as possible, then I'm pony you should know who can make it happen outside of... Ponyville, was it?"
"Yes it is!"
"Okay, when does the pre-party start?"
"Then I'll help you finish decorating. When are the bands supposed to check in?"
"Oh, here they are now!" And Pinkie bounced off to introduce herself. Shrugging, Trenderhoof followed.
* * *
Although it was still morning, right on the hour the music started thumping and the ponies, they were jumping in the club. Between sets, Pinkie gamely approached ponies to introduce herself. Trenderhoof kept careful watch of the pink Earth Pony so he could grab her by the tail and point out on whom her 'aggressively hyperactive' style would not work to her favour. Although it exhausted him, he found great satisfaction in guiding Pinkie, and in making her parties even better than they would have been originally -- not that this one would have exactly been as bad as Trend had originally thought, given the dozen ponies who actually arrived with their invitations in hoof.
Trenderhoof was very impressed with Pinkie Pie and her high energy, not to mention her ability to make friends -- most of them on her own. The Unicorn felt that she had a lot of party planning skills. She could go far on her own, and even further with his help.
Hours later, the party was still going strong, and through ponies' donations, Pinkie was raising a significant amount of bits. "Hey, we should team up again," Trend said to Pinkie as she worked the music machine.
"Okey-dokey, Loki! I mean, 'absolutely, Trend!'" Pinkie chuckled and blushed a little at her mistake.
Hm. I wonder if there are any other ponies who are even remotely like her? Probably not, Trenderhoof thought. "I brought you a drink, Pinkie."
"Thanks, Trend. This is really thirsty work!"
Except to you it's not work at all, and everypony here knows it. But are any of them impressed by you the same way I am?
It had been Rainbow Dash's long-standing dream to fly with the Wonderbolts, but this was different. Although Saorin' was a Wonderbolt just like Spitfire and Fleetfoot, Dash considered him more as being a close friend and peer. Like Dash, Soarin' seemed to like to catch a few winks when he could, and he always seemed to be hungry for something, no matter the time of day.
Soarin,' the only core member of the Wonderbolts who was a stallion, came flying into Ponyville in the early morning to help Dash with a few of her weather jobs. Being Ponyville's Weather Manager meant that Dash didn't have to do everything herself, but she did have to try to coordinate everything so that sunny or inclement, everything was where it should be according to the plan set out through the Equestrian Meteorological Association.
Twilight said that Dash did not understand all of the technical points of weather management, but then she was skilled enough that she did not have to understand in order to get the same job done. All the nitty-gritty stuff was for jargon-heads like Twilight. As long as Dash knew how to get the job done, she didn't care whether or not she had the right names for everything. In fact, the other Pegasi took turns translating for her when she issued the day's instructions each morning.
Having Soarin' around to help out was definitely an education that Dash felt was worth giving her attention to: he had finished his formal training, unlike Dash, who had dropped out mostly because of the bullying and pressure Fluttershy had faced. Because he was also a bit of a slacker, Soarin' was able to intuit what Dash meant by her instructions -- or when she gave them to Soarin,' her suggestions.
The weather jobs themselves were mostly routine and boring things that Dash did several times a week or a month. One of the more interesting jobs had been to ensure all of the snow and ice had melted so everypony could enjoy the sun with her or his Very Special Somepony. Dash knew how to handle it because she had been Weather Manager for a number of years. It was only when she had to coordinate with other teams that things started to conflict and get messed up.
After the jobs were finished, Soarin' followed Dash down to a diner for breakfast. "I know all the best places," Dash boasted.
"You've been doing this for years, so you'd better. B'sides, I'm hungry enough to eat a whole wagon load of hay."
"So you've brought your appetite. Well, prepare to get satisfied!"
The food didn't disappoint, or at least Soarin' didn't slow down enough to say anything much until he was full and satisfied. "You must've put away three times your own weight over there," Dash said, amazed.
"What can I say? I was hungry and the food was great! Now what d'you wanna do, Dash?"
"What else, but to catch a few winks?"
"Oh wow, what a great idea!" They paid their server and went off to find a cloud with just the right consistency in which to nap.
When the 'lazy' duo woke up, they decided to make some 'lazy' circuits of the sky. Despite what they were calling it, they flew in formation, taking turns as lead pony, while they executed stunt after stunt. The lead always called the stunt out, and then the wing pony had to stay tight and keep up.
It was while Dash and Soarin' were doing a wide vertical loop that Cloudchaser and Snowflake came flying up. "Hey, something going on?" Dash asked, having noticed them coming in from a fair distance off.
"We just thought we might join you in a friendly flight," Cloudchaser said, leading her partner as they flew right alongside the other two.
"A friendly flight is fine," Soarin' said.
"But a little race would be even better," Dash said.
"That is, if you're both up for it," Soarin' said.
Cloudchaser glanced over at Snowflake. "YEAH!" Summed it up perfectly.
"Alright," Soarin' said. "What say we start the race at the top of our next loop in five, and make a complete circuit of Ponyville's streets, ending back here?" Dash and Cloudchaser nodded their agreement. Snowflake simply snorted. Everypony was in, and they drew up even with each other just to make sure. Up they went into another wide loop, still keeping neck-in-neck until they reached the top.
At the top of the loop, Cloudchaser and Snowflake both started to flap their wings madly. Soarin' and Dash simply tucked their wings in tight to their bodies, and dropped into power dives. They started slow, but used gravity and inertia to pass the other two, only pulling up before when it was clear that waiting further would end in a crash.
After pulling up, Soarin' started gliding. He and Dash were still moving very quickly, so they did not have to worry about their other competitors right away. But they took turns leading the race with the occasional flap of the wings to jump ahead of the other racer for half a second or a little more.
Since Ponyville was a fairly small town, it made for a fairly short track, but it was by no means simple, since it was effectively a wheel-and-spokes configuration. The flyers had to choose their direction quickly whenever they flew over a crossroads, and then remember where they had been so they did not repeat a road instead of making further progress.
Soarin' and Dash lost their original boosts from their power dives minutes after they first pulled up. Now they had to flap their wings to maintain their speed, while Cloudchaser and Snowflake started to catch up by flying in a steady, but slightly faster, rhythm. Dash noticed where they were as she took a turn, and decided to put a little extra power into her wings from then on, which in turn drove Soarin' to work harder. She also noticed that the racers were gathering some spectators, which was fine by her: the growing crowd's energy made it seem like she was recharging, and that let her put even more strength into her wings.
Only those who had never seen Dash at her most serious would seriously call her a slacker. She worked hard enough to become a skilled and fast flyer even as a filly, performing the Sonic Rainboom when her weight was not as much of an issue. The was also fast and agile enough to clear the sky visible over Ponyville in ten seconds, all on her own. Dash had won the Best Young Flyers Competition awhile back by pulling off a second Sonic Rainboom in order to save Rarity and the Wonderbolts, and she had pulled off another one at Princess Cadence's and Shining Armour's wedding. After that, she had trained at the Wonderbolts Academy in her first step to becoming a reservist and a Wonderbolt, smashing every record there was in the process. Yes, Dash was an exceptional, no, awesome flyer. And there was one move she could do that she had never seen anypony else pull off.
Dash pulled it off now, surging forward on a wave of seven-coloured light. Even as she crossed the imaginary finish line, the shockwave from her Sonic Rainboom coloured the sky over Ponyville before fading to a sunset spread. Dash hadn't even realized how long she'd been flying and racing, but then that was what happened when you had fun.
The audience below was happy to treat the racers to a well-deserved dinner. They pretty much ignored how Cloudchaser and Snowflake came in after Soarin,' and treated all four of them the same. Contrary to what some ponies might say, it was one of the things Dash enjoyed about Ponyville. She would just never admit it, since if she did her reputation as a serious competitor would take a serious hit. But the workout, the energy of the experience, and the meal were all worth it to her.
After all of that, all Dash and Soarin' could think about was walking off their meal together. They wandered around Ponyville, and saw quite a few couples doing the same thing. Dash and Soarin' were athletes for the activity's own sake before anything else, so to both of them, the day had begun and ended perfectly.
As the sun shone down on the land, and across at the shaped clouds that made up Las Pegasus, two figures flew on a spiraling flight path away from the city. Rook Sapphire watched the white-coated, light-blue maned form as she flew ahead of him. Naturally, he was looking for the telltale signs of a course change -- the sudden change in angle of a feather or the subtle turn of the mare's head. But Rook was also watching his partner because he admired her and her physicality.
Rook knew a thing or two about physicality, being one of the strongest Pegasi in the Azure Wing, the ancient Pegasus House responsible for the security and defense of Western Equestria. Despite his bulked-up form, his wings were of fairly average size, and he had about the same agility that lighter Pegasi had, thanks mostly to his continuous training with one of his generation's best flyers -- no, the best flyer!
Prism Azure was the young mare flying Lead. She had always been Flight Lead, displaying the most skill out of the three of them, and she continued to display the greatest speed, agility, and tactical and strategic thinking on an individual basis, out of their whole generation. But Prism Flight was among the best because it had three great flyers contributing to its success. And of course Prism, with her reflective grey eyes, was the best of them.
Next was Rook, who liked to think of himself as the stabilizer of the group. Usually calm and collected, he provided the voice of reason against the group's more daring tendencies -- except on those occasions when there was obviously no reason to hold back. Rook's strength and endurance meant that individually he could fly or run for longer than anypony else, except for the Azure's Wing Commander himself, Prism's father, Windwalker. His bulk and iron-hard muscles also meant that he could take more and harder hits than anyone else, which was a useful trait when you had to gain control of a rogue tornado. Rook's blue eyes were sharp, and he could easily scan for incoming objects from a fair distance. He wore his mane slicked back because it was the easiest to deal with after flying at high speeds. It was light-blue on the inside, and almost purple on the outside, and at the ends of his tail. Nopony dared tease the stable Rook about his mane colour, though, because he has enough skill to fly with the best.
The final member of the Flight, who was not present today, was Contrail Blue. Contrail's build was more on the average side, and his coat was more pale than Rook's, but his eyes were a darker blue. In contrast with Rook, Contrail's mane was slightly spiky while also slicked back, and it was a paler blue on the outside and ends. He also had a slight tear at the top of his left ear, where he'd gotten injured doing an aerial stunt. Contrail was the daredevil of the group, always pushing the others to do things they would not normally consider. Sometimes these turned out to be excellent maneuvers that they adopted for later use, and sometimes it landed at least one of them in the hospital. But when the three of them did something, they did it together.
That was exactly the way they'd grown up, too: following the Azure's tradition Contrail, Prism, and Rook were part of a large group of foals that had been divided according to the friendships they formed as they played together. While the three of them formed their own Flight, some were groups of four. They played, ate, and even slept and bathed together until just before they started to mature physically. Then they trained and flew together, to the point where when they were doing exercises or on patrol, they could tell what one of them was about to do even as that pony thought of doing it. That was the basic objective of such a traditional practice as group rearing, and Rook could not argue against it working.
The only issue that arose from group rearing was also its greatest strength and draw: when Flight members also included at least one set who were of complimentary genders, they often became romantically involved, and later married. Although this had happened with both Rook's and Contrail's parents, that was not the story behind how the Commander and Auntie Aerial got together. She had, after all, not been a member of the Azure at all, but she had been a native of Las Pegasus.
But returning to the issue with group rearing and romance, when there were only three members to a Flight, one of them inevitably got left out. Most of the time, the two competitors would work it out between them so the more deserving was able to prove him- or herself to the third member. This would give the leftover member enough time to become romantically-involved with the third member of another Flight, before becoming too attached to the idea of marrying the pony for whom they were competing. But Contrail was stubborn, so he was at a complete loss when Prism first chose Rook over him. Rook had been very worried about his best friend, because he appeared to be in a deep depression unless they were flying, and then he was fantastically mission-focused -- so unlike Contrail the prankster and daredevil. Fortunately, Contrail seemed to have found another mare on whom to focus his attentions and efforts. That left Prism and Rook to go on dates, like today's event, without having to worry about their friend.
Rook brought his attention back to the present when he saw a feather twitch, and he banked to follow Prism down and to the right. She went into a spin, and so did he. She pulled out and into a power-climb, and he followed gamely. A spiral and a dive, and he was right there on her wing.
Prism brought them down for a hard landing on a hillock overlooking Hoofington.
"Have you had enough already?" Rook asked quietly.
"Careful, you never know when I'll catch my second wind," Prism teased, not sounding the least bit out of breath. Not surprising, given her dream to train with the Wonderbolts and then serve with the Azure's own Bolts From the Blue -- better known as the Skybolts. Contrail and Rook would be right there with her. It was their promise to her as members of Prism Flight. "But now I have yet more proof I can always count on you." Prism sidled right up next to Rook, and the stallion's actually felt his heart skip a beat at the contact, even though they had been close ever since they were foals, even before they were yearlings. But this was different, because now they were older, if not much wiser.
"You know you might catch flies if you keep your mouth open?" Prism asked, staring right up at his face. Then she laughed as he widened his eyes in surprise, and then clapped a hoof to his own jaw to close his mouth, since he hadn't even realized he had opened it. "Aww, nopony's perfect," she teased.
"And here I thought you wanted perfection," Rook said, recovering.
"Close to it, anyway, but how am I supposed to look good if you and Con are both perfect?"
"You say that like you're anything but,"
"Now who's teasing?"
"Who's teasing? Not only are you in perfect shape, but you have perfect flying form. You're the most agile and fastest flyer in the Wing,"
"Apart from Father and Mother," Prism sighed, and smiled: Until recently she had been unable to say such a simple thing, what with Aunt Aerial's right wing being mangled from trying to stop a tornado from running rampant through Cloudsdale practically on her own. Of all the miracles that could have happened, it was their curious Earth Pony childhood friend who came up with a way to heal that wing, only recently -- and just as soon as Gearhead was done, Aerial had taken to the skies to test her strength and ability.
At that moment, Rook had been more afraid than he had ever been in his life, thinking that Prism would fall even more deeply in love with Gearhead than she had already been, because he had given her mother back her wings and taken away her pain. Prism surprised everypony, though, and thanked Gearhead in a mature manner. Contrail and Rook had grown up with Prism, and neither had any insight about what she must have been thinking when she seemed to have decided to look to her own wingmates for a romantic partner. Both were relieved, however, because they had had feelings for her for a long time, and despite their good intentions, Contrail and Rook had both been envious of the attention Prism had paid to Gearhead. Make no mistake, she still followed his successes, but she no longer behaved like a lovestruck filly around him.
If only she could mature enough to ease up on teasing Rook, but then that flirty playful aspect was part of why he was attracted to her. At least, Rook thought that was the case as they continued to watch the sun finish rising into the sky.
As though sensing his thoughts, Prism turned around to face Rook, and rearing up next to him, planted a kiss on his cheek. "C'mon, slowpoke," she said, launching into the air, "lets see what'cha got!"
Rook shook off his shock, and leaped after her. "You're on," he called.
This time when they flew, Prism didn't plan on leading in a team flight exercise, and expressed her intent by drifting to the left or right whenever Rook got too close to being in wing formation. This time as she climbed for altitude, he had to know that they were competing freestyle.
Yes, he knows, Prism thought as she gazed admiringly at Rook as he flexed his muscles to climb even, and even pass her. Prism might have an edge in speed and agility, but Rook had pure power. Power for any climb, any dash, and any dive. The two Pegasi approached their altitude limit, the air becoming thinner and colder around them, and then they let their forward momentum go. Prism banked to the left, and Rook went right. When they were both oriented to the ground again, they dove with their wings pulled tight against their bodies, and gained massive amounts of speed.
Prism pulled out of the dive first, pulling up and into a tight spiral that ended with her flying inverted. Rook reacted quickly enough that he was only half a dozen meters below, looking downward right at her. Then he pulled a drop-turn, and she was following him into a series of flips, rolls, and corkscrews. But he could not keep up the lead as long as he wasn't actively using his strength, pumping his wings: In a glide, even with his Pegasus magic to help him, Rook's aerodynamic profile simply was not as good as Prism's. It's a good thing I like him so strong, Prism thought as she rolled opposite him, looking into his eyes, as she moved to retake the lead.
Prism and Rook continued to fly exactly like this for hours, each pushing the other to surpass her or his previous limits in endurance, strength, agility, and innovation -- but also working together in an aerial dance. Prism could only imagine if they had an audience below, pointing up as the sun glinted off of her own white wings or Rook's mane. And throughout it all, they were never more than ten meters away from each other, no matter how unpredictable a move might have seemed to anypony watching.
Prism and Rook flew over Verdant Fields and looped back to Hoofington, where they landed for a brush-down and a late lunch. "So," Rook said suddenly as they sat across from each other at a table outside a restaurant, "did I pass the test?"
"With flying colours," Prism did not miss a beat. "But then, you knew that. And I already knew I can count on you with my life."
"Now that's a silly thing to say," Rook said, and Prism put a look of consternation on his face. "You might say 'I trust you with my life,' but I don't think it could possibly come so cheaply as to turn it over to another. To me it's the same sort of thing as saying 'I would die for you.'"
"And you wouldn't?"
"Of course not! I can't imagine how you'd feel if I died and left you alone. Well, not alone because you'd have Contrail and the rest of the Wing, but you'd still have to mourn me because I was foolish enough to even think about dying."
"So far I agree with you,"
"So instead of dying for you, I'd rather live for you."
This time Prism was the one whose jaw dropped.
"We of the Azure live in service of the ponies around us, so they can live their lives more normally and not have to worry about thinks like security or peace. These are things that they simply have, in part because of our efforts. But what use is that if we can't enjoy the same in our dotage?"
"Rook! I'm seriously too young to be thinking about getting old,"
"Don't worry, I won't hold it against you, Prism. I just think that in the end, my's own life is the best legacy I can leave for those around me, and those after me. And I want my life to be as full and long as possible. With you."
"That's so cheesy!" Prism giggled, but then she thought of her mother, living for more than a decade with that pain and a bad wing, unable to fly. How must she have felt, waiting and watching, not knowing whether she would ever be able to feel the sky again. If that tornado had killed her, or if she had despaired and given up, she certainly would never have flown again. And she would have left her family without a core member, not to mention all those students at Wonderbolts Academy for whom she was an instructor, mentor, and role model. "But I won't hold it against you," she added after only a couple seconds of thought.
Then she leaned over the table and kissed Rook more directly. This time he kissed a little back. When Prism pulled back, she could feel her energy returning in full. "Lets go," she said breathlessly.
"You're always in the sky, Prism," Rook said as he paid the bill.
"And you're right there with me!"
"That's because I love the mare who is loved by the sky,"
"I know," Prism pumped her wings and was high above the city in seconds, Rook right behind her, and rapidly coming up alongside.
"Where to?" Rook asked, a grin on his face: he knew she didn't want to go home just yet.
"Lets follow the sun, and see where the wind carries us!"
"Roger that," Rook said, and they turned toward the coast and the ocean beyond it.
"What, did you forget who I am or something?" Applejack and Contrail Blue stood on a hill overlooking a section of the orchard at Sweet Apple Acres, the Apple family farm on the edge of Ponyville. Contrail had flown in the previous evening so he would be well-rested to participate in the harvest -- after all, if there was one thing he knew Applejack would appreciate, it was help from another pony, even if he wasn't from the area.
Contrail was a native of Las Pegasus in Western Equestria. In fact, he was a member of the Blue, a branch family of the fabled Azure Wing, which oversaw security in that region. Ordinarily, Contrail would be training with the other two Pegasi of his flight, but today was Hearts and Hooves Day, and that meant that Prism and Rook were having the day off to go on a date. The main reason Contrail didn't want to be the third wing was because he was still getting over his feelings for Prism, who was still the best flyer in all of Equestria, in Contrail's opinion.
Contrail had come to Applejack because, despite being a daredevil, a prankster, and a bit of a slacker when the situation allowed for it, growing up the Azure way and training with Prism Flight had given Contrail a deep appreciation for those who worked hard, putting in their best effort for the best results. To say the least, Applejack impressed him, not only because she worked harder than some stallions Contrail knew, but because she was the matron of Sweet Apple Acres, managing it well at a comparatively young age.
And when Contrail compared Applejack and Sweet Apple Acres, he used Verdant Fields, managed by Patriarch Verdant Redwood himself, as his benchmark -- yes, a massive family farm managed by a knowledgeable, adult stallion that had been around for millennia, against this little farm where a small family lived and worked.
"Just makin' sure, 'cause here comes the sun." On cue the sun rose, its light spreading rapidly over the trees and the apples they bore, ready for the picking.
"Contrail Blue, Prism-3. Heading out!" Contrail leaped from his ready position and flew at top speed right at the trees. He leaned into a counter-clockwise spiral, hitting the trunks exactly as Applejack had told him to, and the apples began to fountain down, into the baskets set all around the trunks. Grinning, Contrail straightened out and continued to bounce from tree to tree like a pinball for a few more seconds. Then, having lost most of his speed, he climbed and came about, using a dive to increase his speed for another pass.
"Let me show you how we do it," Applejack said. She set herself in front of a tree, lifted her hindquarters, and with a single solid kick, sent all the apples in the tree tumbling into their baskets. "It ain't fast, but it does the trick."
"Okay," Contrail said, hovering nearby after his second pass, "but have you considered how you might be able to do it faster?"
"Sorry, but we Earth Ponies don't have your speed, and it's different askin' Rainbow and the others to help. I normally don't like to impose either, but I'll ask if I actually need the help."
"I'm actually talking about something else: my ability, as a fact."
"Your ability? You mean your special talent? Isn't it only for flying and other Pegasi?"
"You'd think that, but the same way my little sis, Radar, can sense obstacles and critters other than Pegasi shows how a flight-related skill can extend to a non-flyer. All we've got to do is make sure you're in my slipstream, and you'll get my speed boost. That's what I do."
"But I gotta slow down to do any apple bucking,"
"Not if you do it with your forelegs, or if you're moving backwards, if you can handle that at speed."
"I think not,"
"Wanna try it? You could drop down form a branch right into the slipstream."
"I don't know. Isn't that a mite dangerous? I mean, if I timed it wrong..?"
"You'd probably just land on the ground. No harm, no foul."
"And if it works? How do I stop without hurting myself or punchin' a hole right through one of my trees?"
"I suppose you could just slam on the brakes normally, but nobody's ever done anything except ride it out before. If you wanted to, you could be first to try it."
"I think not,"
"But I will try the boost," Applejack said.
"Alright! Lets get you into position."
Applejack was relieved that she didn't have to climb into a tree herself, but she started to become nervous as she watched Contrail zip off to get up to speed. As she understood it, he usually used Contrail Booster with other flyers, like her wingmates Prism and Rook, or even Gearhead with his Alicorn Engine, which let him fly despite being an Earth Pony. The trailing flyer flew, also at speed, right behind Contrail, and then got sucked into the stream to shoot out over Contrail faster than she or he could fly normally. Now that Applejack thought of it, how could it possibly work with a falling Earth Pony?
But then she saw Contrail speeding toward the spot directly underneath her branch, a light reddish-brown and blue blur extending meters from his tail in one direction, and just a little bit going over his head. That was his slipstream. Applejack took a deep breath, and when she saw Contrail's grin, so much like Rainbow Dash when she was getting ready to try a new stunt, AJ decided to try anyway. She jumped out of the tree.
And in the following moment, could not believe that she'd just done that. She seemed to miss Contrail's head by the merest moment, and then her legs were going through the ribbon that he pulled behind him. It started to pull her, and not knowing what to do, her legs locked in place. She stumbled, and fell into a roll. It took a moment before she could pick herself back up, but now as Contrail came around, she wanted to try again. When Applejack saw Contrail's expression change from one of concern to a wide grin, she realized that he saw it on her face too.
So Contrail carried Applejack back into the tree. "This time, try to run in the air as you fall. If you can build your own momentum as you come through the slipstream, it should work. I felt it, but you didn't move."
"Lets just give this a go," Applejack said, but she knew that Contrail saw that she was too stubborn to just let this all go now. He nodded, and took off again.
As Contrail approached, Applejack made sure she was facing the same direction in which he was flying, and crouched to flex her legs. She chose a moment a little earlier than the last time, and then made her leap, legs wheeling in the air. She was startled when her hooves touched the slipstream and she felt a little resistance this time. She went a couple steps, speeding up moderately, but then a hoof fell through and caught on the ground below. Applejack went tumbling again, to end up lying face-down in the dirt.
"I almost had it," she said, getting up as Contrail approached.
"Aww, I think we should only try once more so you don't get too banged up to keep working, AJ."
"I can do this,"
"We can, but we have to use a little moderation here. You don't want to turn all this over to Big Mac, do you?"
"Not after Apple Bucking Season before. Good point," Applejack said, nodding. "Once more!"
This time Applejack jumped even earlier, and by bending her knees almost to the barrel of her chest, she was able to pass right over Contrail without hitting him. Then she ran like mad. Her hooves contacted the slipstream, and seemed to bounce against the surface. She struggled to keep her balance, then found that she slipped off to the left, onto normal ground. She was heading for a tree at two or three times her normal speed!
Applejack turned slightly to the right and jumped, putting out both forelegs. With the same satisfying sound as with normal apple bucking, her hooves contacted the trunk. Even as the apples fell to their baskets, Applejack landed and oriented on the next tree past the first one. Again she jumped, but this time when she returned to the ground she was moving at her normal speed. "That didn't last long," she complained.
"That's because you slipped off before you could get up to full speed, but you did great for your first time actually riding the slipstream. With practice, this could work. What did you think?"
"That I like apple bucking with speed, and I'd like to try again, only with a little bit of a change."
"This'll be worth it,"
"Okay then. One try with your change," Contrail said.
This time Applejack stood on the ground ten meters before her usual starting tree. When Contrail became visible behind her, she broke into a canter, and worked up to a full gallop. This was nowhere near Contrail's all-out flying speed, but it gave Applejack something to work with when he started to pass her, and he was able to leap right onto the slipstream and center herself without losing control again. Almost immediately she saw what he'd meant by 'not being at full speed,' since this time she was able to keep up by keeping her pace, only now she had it relaxed to a canter instead of a gallop: Contrail's magic was doing most of the work.
When Applejack leaped in order to buck a tree, her speed stayed the same as when she was on the slipstream, so she was able to continue keeping up, and when she landed she regained the small amount of speed she'd lost in hitting the tree. She leaped twice more to make sure she'd gotten it. "Okay, lets do this!" She shouted ahead to Contrail.
"Roger that," he said. "I'll split left, you go right!"
This time, as they approached a set of trees, Contrail started his series of ricocheting strikes to the left side, and Applejack jumped to the right. For a moment Applejack thought she would have to deal with landing on normal ground and her speed dropping rapidly (or tripping and falling) again. Luckily Contrail had judged his angle perfectly, and came flying back at the perfect timing to put the ribbon back under her hooves -- if only for long enough for her to land and leap again as she went left this time, and he went right.
Applejack and Contrail kept going like this for a good six minutes, but after that the Contrail Booster wore off, and they had to do their harvesting at normal speed again. "Not to complain," Applejack said, "but now this feels so slow."
"Yeah, ponies who've used the Booster seem to say that a lot."
"It's not a bad thing,"
"You can't exactly say that with all the progress we've already made, huh?"
Applejack looked back, at the rows of trees they had only just managed to clear of apples: Two whole rows, in a matter of minutes. "Yeah!"
It took several minutes before Contrail felt like he could use the Booster again, but this time they were able to get through two and a half rows before it wore off. They continued like this until lunch, when they took a well-deserved break. "You know, I could get used to this," Applejack said.
"In that case, I guess you wouldn't mind if I came to help out more often?"
"Mind? I appreciate the help, truly. And to tell ya the truth, that speed of yours is some kind of rush."
"I guess that means you've got a bit of the thrill-seeker in you, and that's not bad at all. For a farmer."
"And you've got a bit of the farmer in you. Not bad, for a flyer."
Applejack smiled at Contrail, who grinned right back.
"To future collaborations," Contrail said, raising his bottle of apple juice.
"Future collaborations," Applejack raised her own bottle so they could clink them together. She couldn't help thinking that the future would be fun, after all.
Coco Pommel gave most ponies the impression of being smaller and younger than she was. Most of them seemed to react in one of two ways: they either thought she was cute, or they thought they could push her around to get whatever they wanted from her. Coco supposed her pale coat, light blue mane, and open matching blue eyes didn't help counter the impression she gave off, but she liked the way she looked, and keeping her mane short helped to keep it from getting tangled when she worked on clothing or a costume.
Coco was just a small-town Earth Pony, but everypony who ever saw her work told her that she had exceptional skill with needle and thread. Many of them told her she ought to share her talent with the rest of the world, or that she could make a big debut in the fashion world, if only she went to the right place and met the right ponies. Such words made Coco wonder: Where are these miracle towns? In order to answer that, she loaded up on supplies and, with her family's permission, went out into the world.
Nopony had ever mentioned that the world could be so harsh when they told her she could find her successes out in it. Many of the companies she approached to ask if they would sponsor or mentor her turned her away on sight, or simply refused to see her. Even those who did see her work often raised their noses and turned away when she gave them her expectations regarding sales prices. Coco thought her prices were reasonable, given the quality of the clothes she made, and the fact that she lacked any magic with which to make them. The most helpful tip she got was that her design was 'lacking' somehow, and she should go see what the ponies of the fashion world were producing. When Coco asked for clarification, she was immediately turned away.
All these months away from home, and all Coco had to show for it was wasted effort, money, and materials. In fact, she was beginning to run out of materials with which she could make new clothes, and the ones she had made were piling up on her wagon, unsold and unwanted. She had made them so well that she could not take them apart to reuse the material without damaging it. Coco hadn't even reached Neighagra Falls, and she was on the verge of breaking down into tears and quitting!
"Hey Good Lookin,' what's shakin'?" The bright male voice startled Coco back to the present and reality.
"Oh my, I'm so sorry!" She squeaked as she stepped rapidly back from the stallion. She hadn't even realized she had been brooding in the street.
"It looks like you could use some cheer, so let this Cheese Sandwich be your guide!"
"Cheese Sandwich?" Coco looked at the stallion's poofy, cloud-like brown mane, his loud shirt with all the colourful flowers, and his massive smile. "I'm going to follow a..." She couldn't help it: the corners of her lips lifted slightly. "... a Cheese Sandwich?" She guffawed a little, then quickly covered her mouth with a hoof. "I'm so sorry!"
"'Sorry?' For what?" Cheese screwed up his face and waggled his tongue at her. "If I'm not in a town for a wild party, it's to get a true laugh!"
"What's a true...? A sudden twist in Cheese finally put Coco over the edge, and she couldn't help but break out in laughter.
"There, that! That's exactly what I wanted from you."
"Ah-ha-ha! I've never laughed so hard before. Ha! I don't think I can stop..."
Cheese waited, a patient and satisfied smile on his face as Coco continued to roll, laughing and gasping for breath, on the ground. When she finally stopped, there were tears in her eyes, and she had to hold her stomach because it hurt a little from laughing so much, so suddenly. "So, how ya feel now, Sweet Thing?"
"My stomach hurt a little, but I feel good," Coco accepted an extended hoof to help her back up to her own.
"Say, wanna get something to eat?"
"I don't have --"
"I wouldn't want to impose,"
"Oh, dont you worry 'bout that: this Cheese is Equestria's Premiere Party-Planning Pony. I can afford a meal or seven with a pretty gal like you. B'sides, you look like you could use a little something after all that belly laughing. And Gouda do I know that feeling from when I got started!" Cheese started walking, and Coco didn't have much choice except to follow him.
"But I'm not going into party planning,"
"Getting started is about the same for most ponies, regardless of profession. What you need's a big break, but to get a big break you need to be in the right place at the right time. Whether you're lookin' for inspiration or the right connection, it's all about timing."
"But how do I know if my connection won't happen after I leave a place?"
"You don't know," Cheese said, "but eventually your timing will be right. But only if you don't give up and pack it in." They came to a restaurant, and Cheese showed Coco inside. The greeter recognized Cheese, and brought them to a table right away. "This is my favourite place in town," Cheese boasted. "Order anything you like."
"But it looks so expensive!"
"That's okay: I threw a couple parties here that were attended wall-to-wall, so the owner gives me a deal. Seriously, anything you want on that menu, you can consider it yours."
"If you insist..."
"Oh yeah, I do!"
Cheese didn't talk much until after they had both placed their orders. "So, what profession are ya diving into, Missy?"
"My name is 'Coco. Coco Pommel.'"
"'Coco,' huh? That's a sweet name. Literally! Oh, but go on,"
"I'm good at making clothes, so I'm trying to break into fashion."
"Really? Got any fashion tips for Cheese?"
"I don't know..."
"Oh, go on. I don't mind." Cheese had the biggest grin on his face.
"Well, okay, then. Your shirt is... the tiniest bit too loud."
"Yes. All the colours make it hard to look at."
"So what does Coco Pommel, fashion artist on the rise, suggest?"
"Oh, I don't know about that," Coco said, blushing. When she realized that she was blushing, she felt herself redden more deeply, and she covered her face with her hooves. Cheese put his hooves gently over hers, and slowly, gently pulled them away.
"Hey, no hiding from Cheese," he said softly. "How 'bout a smile?" He demonstrated with his own face.
Too close! Coco tried to pull away, but Cheese was right there, and suddenly he was making funny faces again. Coco startled and froze for a moment, then she started laughing again. Ponies at the tables nearby started laughing too, then someone stopped and said 'hey, why're we laughing?' which only made more ponies laugh.
When Coco finally stopped laughing, she could no longer feel the heat of her blush. She sighed, and looked across the table at the stallion sitting there. It seemed he knew just how to tickle her to pick her up out of a foul mood. "My recommendation is a solid colour. Maybe blue,"
"Like the cheese?"
"Yes, thank you. Do you do this sort of thing for everypony?"
"Just the ones I like especially well, although I do find it hard to turn away from turning a frown the right side up. So, what's your plan from here?"
"I don't have one," Coco smiled wistfully. "I was about to give up and go home."
"But not anymore?"
"That's Gouda! Anywhere you wanna go?"
"Ponies keep telling me I should go see what the real fashion designers are making,"
"You are a real fashion designer, if you're working with clothes, Coco. It sounds to me like you're lookin' for Manehattan, though. It's a touch city, but if you can make it there, as they say, you can make it period." Cheese flashed a smile. "It's my hometown, you know."
"I didn't know that, or anything much, about you, really."
"That's okay, but if you wanna know more, and you wanna get to Manehatten, why not travel together?"
"You're going to Manehattan too?"
"No, I'm going all over Equestria! A couple of days or a week in one town or city, then on to the next to see the sights and throw as many parties as I can. That's what this Party Pony does." Cheese took out a map. "I'll be goin' through Hollow Shades to Fillydelphia, and from there to Manehatten before I drop down to Baltimare and Detrot, and then I'll swing back west toward Dodge Junction and Appleoosa."
"That sounds like quite the journey,"
"I'll just keep goin' round and round throughout Equestria, trying to surpass my last party every time, 'cause I have to surpass the original Party Pony who inspired me."
"I didn't know you had somepony else inspiring you,"
"I didn't mention it earlier? Her name is Pinkie Pie, and she lives in Ponyville."
"Don't look so disappointed, Coco. Two Party Ponies together for too long's a bad idea any way you slice it. But then, I don't stay in one place, but I do move around to spread the cheer. So how 'bout it? Wanna come with me part of the way?"
"I'd like that, Cheese Sandwich."
"This Cheese won't stand alone then, Coco Pommel. At least not until after Manehattan."
"And if Manehattan isn't the right place for me, maybe I'll come with you even further."
"A traveling fashion party? Now there's a theme I haven't done!"
"Did I just inspire you by accident?"
"Yup, 'cause you never know when it'll happen!"
Coco laughed again. She hadn't realized it before, but she liked Cheese. Maybe not like like, but she liked how he made her laugh.
Gearhead flew at high speed and high altitude, his twin-core Alicorn Engine leaving its double-tail trail of turquoise particle behind him. The Engine was made of two mid-sized cones that housed seven pure gemstone rings, each narrower than the last until you got to the last one, which was itself a cone. The rings spun, generating the energy Gearhead needed for flight and defense, and even the twin-core's weapon system, which had not been a feature of his single-core prototype.
It was, of course, possible for Gearhead to fly faster than he was going now, but that would take the use of his full-armour stabilizer, which when docked and fully deployed around the Engine, nearly tripled his size. The armour and arms would be vastly inappropriate for the date he was going on this Hearts and Hooves Day, so he left the full-armour behind in favour of the mini-stabilizer. It still had pylons that docked directly to the Engine's cores, but it was much smaller, so while the speed and power boost was also smaller than with the full-armour, Gearhead still flew faster than he did with just the Alicorn Engine. And he was eager to see Dawn again.
Dawn Shadow was the second-born daughter of the Third Conclave of Flowing Shadows, the ancient Unicorn House that lived near Hoofington in Western Equestria. She had a pale blonde coat, a white flowing mane, and stunning amethyst eyes, but what Gearhead cared about most was her limitless compassion, and how she did not seem to care that he was an Earth Pony, or even how unusual he was.
Gearhead had grown up nearby, at Verdant Fields. In order to learn enough about his powers to gain control over them, he went to study first at the Library of the Azure Wing, and then at the Hidden Library where the proud Unicorns of the Conclave learned their magic. Every Unicorn who saw him, or even heard of him, approached the brown-coated, rust-red maned Earth Pony to ask about his power, his odd shoes, and why he was studying magic -- all except for Dawn, and her big brother Dusk. These two, who would become two of the most powerful magi of their generation within the Conclave, only cared about approaching Gearhead as a friend.
They had studied magic together -- Dusk, Dawn, Gearhead, and anypony who cared to join them -- helping each other understand the different facets and procedures involved in spellcasting with their different perspectives. What they had not known then was how deep Discord's involvement in their lives went, even before he had gotten loose again, and Gearhead confronted him directly with the Elemental Six. It was Discord who was responsible for planting the seeds that made it impossible for Gearhead to farm, while he gained instead a power that needed near-constant study to control.
As for Dawn, an affinity for Light and Wind Magic was practically unheard of within the Conclave of Flowing Shadows before her. As the name implied, they tended to specialize in Dark/Shadow and Water/Ice Magic, the same types of magic with which Dusk, with his jet-black coat, dark blue mane, and dark purple eyes, was so proficient. Although Dawn was practically the opposite of what was to be expected of a Shadow Conclave Unicorn, she was not shunned or avoided. Her family still gave her their unconditional support, and probably would have even if she had not proven to be as powerful as she was. It was this unconditional love that Dawn passed forward to the others in her lives. It was like a light living within her, and it seemed to shine on all that surrounded her.
Gearhead spotted the hillock where he and Dawn had agreed to meet, and went into a controlled dive to get in close before he landed. He used the Heads-Up Display in his flight glasses to zoom in. Even in the pre-dawn darkness, he could see that the mare had not yet arrived, but that was okay. As he got close, Gearhead flipped his body so he was leading with his tail. He swiveled the cones on their actuators where they were mounted to the harness at his shoulders, so he maintained full control as he oriented himself. While they were pointed at the ground to slow him down for a few seconds, he had them pointing out to the sides for his final landing.
As soon as he was on solid ground, Gearhead put the Engines into Standby Mode, and then shrugged out of the harness before propping his glasses up on his forehead. Then he turned to watch the sun rise and wait under the shimmering aurora from Crystal City. Princess Celestia seldom disappointed, raising the sun exactly on time -- and since Gearhead awakened before the dawn most days, he ought to know. But this morning another phenomenal sight appeared at the same time to make even the sun seem dim by comparison. Gearhead had to nod his head quickly to knock his glasses back into place to avoid being blinded.
Dawn seemed to fly out of the sun, and she came to land right in front of Gearhead. "Too much?" She asked. With her ears folded shyly down, a slight blush to her cheeks, and the gesture of nervously pawing at the ground, it was definitely too much for Gearhead. He didn't know whether to laugh or just fall over, but his glasses fell off his face just with the effort to suppress it all. "Hey, don't laugh!"
"But Dawn, you're just too cute, even when you're making an entrance!" She was one of the only ponies around whom Gearhead felt comfortable enough to speak using contractions. Usually he was too focused on expressing his modestly, and even thought without them. It was his easiest, and to some his most annoying, mark of being the Black Sheep, the only Verdant who could not farm at all.
"Well, then I might just stop trying,"
"Don't be sore, you'll get it eventually," Gearhead came up and hugged her gently. "Good morning."
"Good morning. Well then, lets see what you have planned for our date,"
"Oh, it's nothing special," Gearhead grinned. He put the Engine back on (he could not just leave it there), and Dawn teleported them into the city.
From the outset, their date really was not anything special, at least not in practice. Prior to this, Gearhead had little romantic experience at all. His most memorable dates (when he had allows himself to go on dates) consisted of taking Fluttershy to an area in the Everfree Forest that was almost entirely covered in flowers. Because of how the large flower that acted as the area's centerpiece was shaped, Fluttershy called it the Butterfly Glade. While the Pegasus mare had enjoyed just sitting there enjoying the ambiance, or taking in the scents of all the different flowers (which Gearhead still mixed up), not everypony would enjoy that sort of thing as a pass-time. And Gearhead had to admit that after years of not seeing each other at all, and then seeing each other only briefly or in passing in recent years, he knew next to nothing about Dawn's tastes.
They had breakfast at a little diner for breakfast, went to an art gallery, and saw a short show. They were all activities that were fairly standard for a date, and except for the ponies doing it, it seemed like there was nothing special about the day at all. "Alright," Dawn said with a sly expression on her face. "We've done all the things normal couples do. Now lets do something only we can do."
"Let me see..." Gearhead put hoof to chin as he pondered, or pretended to, because he already had an idea. He led Dawn outside where the sky was clear all around them, and then he turned and wrapped his legs tightly around her. The Engines cores came up form where they had been hanging like small saddlebags, oriented to both sides, and spun up, throwing their energy all around the couple. Even as Gearhead condensed it into a protective field around himself and Dawn, he started to lift off, and then they were increasing speed, and flying out over the city.
Gearhead changed his flight angle so Dawn could see the city below, and the ponies all around going about their business or pointing up at them. "Now this is how to see a whole city," Dawn said.
"You have yet to see anything, Princess." Gearhead spun them about, and Dawn gasped a little, looking up as they dove upward into the sky. There were some light clouds, so Gearhead took them between the vapours, closely enough that Dawn reached out and touched them with a hoof. And then she was spitting and huffing.
"One went up my nose!" She said, indignant. "Come on, we have to show that impertinent cloud what happens when it does that," she said, tugging at him.
"Alright, alright. Settle so I don't drop you, please."
"I'm not worried about you not catching me,"
"Of course you aren't: your father would kill me if I missed." But Gearhead came around anyway, and at Dawn's direction, cleared the clouds with a swift kick from his rear hooves, like a Pegasus on the weather team.
"Okay, I'm ready: show me more!"
"As you wish," Gearhead said, oriented them almost vertically. He watched Dawn's expression as they kept accelerating without turning, and then as he snapped both cores into position so they were oriented directly down.
"Uh-oh,"~ Dawn sang out playfully. Underneath his glasses, Gearhead winked.
And then, in a double-ring of suddenly-massive particle thrust, they jumped upward. They blasted right through magi-sound barrier after barrier, protected by Gearhead's particle field and Dawn's reflexive defensive magic. Despite that protection and the lessening of the G-forces against them, Gearhead noticed that Dawn ended up squeezing her eyes shut at some point.
"You're going to want to see this," Gearhead said as he slowed them to a near-hover.
Dawn gasped at the sight of the illuminated world spread out below them, the sparsely star-spangled void above and all around them, and the brilliant sun that seemed to split the two. "It's so beautiful!"
"But we're not here just to stare, are we? Come, lets do something nopony else can."
"I thought we already were!"
"To quote a certain Apple, 'nope!'" Gearhead wrapped his tail around Dusk's, and gently put his forehooves to hers when she held them out, and started to gently spin them both using the Engine for a little thrust here or there so they would stay floating together, still protected by that turquoise field. Dawn soon realized what they were doing, and laughed, gamely putting her own effort into their gliding, spinning movement.
"If only we had music," she said.
"Hey, I'm working on it."
Dawn had to laugh at that. "You can never let it rest, can you?"
"Of course not: there's no 'perfection,' only 'better.'"
"I'll remember that."
"For when you claim to be perfectly happy, of course!"
"What about you?"
"Oh, I'll be careful enough not to use 'perfect,'" Dawn nuzzled his ear lightly. "But I am happy you brought me here."
"Are you worried about getting back down?"
"Should I be?"
Gearhead grinned, wrapping his forelegs around Dawn tightly again. "We have this," he said, and the Engines flared brilliantly, pushing them back up toward their world.
The sun was bright in the sky, and a few clouds graced the sky. The gentle breeze that stirred the grass and leaves was perfect, so it seemed to Fluttershy like this was the kind of day that one could sing about. Or hum, softly, as the case was with her. Fluttershy loved taking care of her animal friends from the nearby woods, and she even let some of them live in, or at least visit her, inside her cottage. She was one of the few Pegasi who preferred to have her home firmly on the ground. It was not as though she was afraid of flying, or even bad at it -- not anymore. At this point, it was more about keeping her home accessible to all of the creatures who wanted her help or just her company. From ant to Zebra, Fluttershy would never turn a friend away.
Today was special, though. Her friends had insisted on it. Rarity had been especially keen on arranging a day during which Fluttershy would spend some time with a close stallion friend she could trust completely. That was going to be Big McIntosh today. Big Mac was Applejack's hard-working older brother, a big stallion thanks to his years as a farmer. He was also soft-spoken, to the point where most ponies thought he was shy. Fluttershy knew better, that he chose to keep his own council most of the time, but he was far from quiet to those who knew how to listen.
Most ponies did not listen. They were more interested, as the Cutie Mark Crusaders had been, to see if they could play matchmaker for Big Mac. The Crusaders had thought he would be a good fit for Cheerilee, their teacher. What they could not have known was that the two of them were already old friends, since both had grown up in Ponyville. If they had been interested in dating, they would have been doing it already. But Cheerilee was focused on the well-being of the foals she taught, and farming was a daily, sometimes an hourly, effort for Big Mac and his family.
Fluttershy had been concerned that spending time with her would just put Big McIntosh behind on his work, but Applejack promised she had it covered, so there would not be anything about which to worry. In addition, last night Gearhead had confided with Fluttershy that Contrail was coming in to help Applejack. The quick-flying Pegasus would certainly be a great help to Applejack!
Fluttershy found Big McIntosh at the gazebo in town, finishing up some minor repairs with a hammer and several packs of nails. After what had happened at the last Summer Wrap-Up Festival, he always carried extras. Fluttershy approached quietly, but waited and watched Big Mac work, concerned that something might happen and he might hurt himself on a falling board. She sighed in relief when he completed the job without a problem, which cause Big Mac to turn around and face her directly.
The stern expression the big stallion had prepared quickly vanished, replaced by a little smile. "Good morning, Fluttershy."
"And a good morning to you, Big McIntosh. Are you out doing repairs? Should we try again another day?"
"Nope," he said, "it's fine. And call me 'Mac,' please. Saves on time," he said, chuckling. Fluttershy smiled. "I do have some other repairs, but if you don't mind coming with me, then we won't have to go looking for each other later."
"That sounds smart," Fluttershy admitted. "Okay!"
While Fluttershy watched, Big Mac made a number of small repairs around town, and just in time on a number of counts. Other stallions stood around dumbfounded as they watched the larger stallion pull off some more difficult jobs that they could only do with a ladder or scaffolding. In one case, he even reached an awkward spot using a trampoline -- and while he seemed to enjoy it, Fluttershy felt like she could never get on a trampoline.
Only, Big Mac saw her apprehension, and coaxed her gently onto it. "Just bounce gently," he said, demonstrating on solid ground since the device was not big enough to support both of them. "I'm just gonna keep jumpin' until you join me," Big Mac teased the frozen Fluttershy.
"Why you--!" Fluttershy knew it was a joke, and she was not really angry, but she was part of a group or friends where at least one of them was jokingly egging another on, so she instinctively reacted the way they would. And she bounced, gently at first, but then she started going higher and higher. She even used her wings to send herself spinning or rolling, only to pull out before she hit the trampoline again. In the end Big Mac had to drag her off while she panted, a smile plastered to her face.
Big McIntosh also encountered a number of animals in need as they walked around the town. A young rabbit had gotten up a tree, and forgotten how to climb back down, so Fluttershy coaxed it down. A chickadee hurt its wing flying too close and too quickly near a copse of trees, so Fluttershy checked the wing and applied a splint and bandage. A grizzly bear had an itch on his back he could not scratch. It was too deep under the bear's fur for Fluttershy to get to effectively. Big Mac had her step back, and with some direction from Fluttershy, managed to take care of the itch, and find and remove the source of irritation -- a colony of insects the bear had displaced while he hunted. Fluttershy returned them to their home in the Everfree Forest, with some trepidation from Big Mac (more because of the insects than because they were going into the Everfree, alongside of which Big Mac had lived all his life).
To some extent, Fluttershy wished she could visit the Butterfly Glade. It was a clearing inside the Everfree that was full of the most beautiful and fragrant flowers she had ever seen. Unfortunately the fastest way to get there was to fly over the forest, and obviously Big Mac could not do that. Since Fluttershy had only gone by air, she did not know how they might get there on hoof, not to mention still making it back to Ponyville in time for dinner, let alone lunch. She was also scared of the creatures they might encounter trying, and this time without Gearhead or his adopted ice dragon daughter, Snowbelle, to watch for threats from above. Snowbelle was at her ancestral home, in any case, learning the Dragon Arts from her own kind, anyway. Fluttershy was glad to leave the Everfree Forest behind.
Big McIntosh brought Fluttershy to a fairly nice restaurant for lunch, and afterward he brought her to a spot where the sun hit the leaves and grass to light them up just so. It was not a sunrise or sunset, and it was not the Butterfly Glade, but it had its own appreciable beauty.
"Thank you, Mac," Fluttershy said, leaning gently against him.
"You're welcome, Fluttershy."
So far it was a nice day. It was not even over, and Fluttershy felt like singing.
Although he could have teleported right to the door, Dusk appeared at the main entrance to Verdant Fields out of courtesy and honour, both to his intended and to her family. Dusk Shadow was a muscular Unicorn stallion with a jet-black coat, dark blue mane, and dark purple eyes. Like almost all of the rest of his family in the Third Conclave of Flowing Shadows, he specialized in Dark/Shadow and Water/Ice Magic, but he was far from a dark or evil pony. No, the Conclave applied their knowledge for the betterment and defense of Equestria, as the second-oldest member of the Alliance, which dated back to the days described in Hearthswarming Eve. One of the other Houses in the Alliance was the Pegasus House, the Azure Wing. The final, and oldest House, was Herd Verdant.
When Dusk knocked on the front door to the modestly-sized house, it was Sweet Pepper who answered. The matron of the house, Sweet Pepper had a big grin on her face, and mischief sparkled in those pale green eyes of hers. "Ah, Dusky," she said. "Ivy's just finishing up getting ready. Do come in."
"I would really prefer it if you just called me 'Dusk,'" he said, accepting the invitation. The house was sparingly furnished, Dusk knew, but the walls were festooned with family photographs: the Verdant was a very large family, spread out all across Equestria, and beyond. They comprised their own network of (of course) farms, textile specialists, miners, metalworkers, and politicians. While Redwood had all the official power as the Patriarch, Sweet Pepper clearly had the power behind the metaphysical throne. And Gearhead was obviously the most famous of them all, as the owner of Gearhead's Gadgets, although Dusk and his little sister Dawn knew him as a friend -- Dawn might hope to knew him as something more, but that was in the future.
"But it's so much fun to tease you," Sweet Pepper said, inviting Dusk to take a seat beside her. He had just started to sit down, having ignored Pepper's second jibe, when Ivy came down the stairs from the second floor.
This was one of those times when it was hard to imagine Ivy hard at work in the fields, plowing or sowing or harvesting. The young mare had her long mane in an elegant high ponytail that flowed down the back of her neck and across her shoulders like a waterfall. The effect would have been perfect if her hair was the same colour as water anywhere, but it was even more impressive in brilliant red, shot through with bright green. She wore a simple pale green dress, but her best ornament was her eyes, a bright, deep green that seemed to always shine from within.
Dusk straightened back up, and bowed. "My lady," he said.
"You're embarrassing me," Ivy blushed. Her voice, if it had a texture, was soft and silky.
"Well, since I can't seem to get back at your mother here..."
"And you never will, young stallion: I'm much too clever for you."
"We'll see," Dusk promised. These were Earth Ponies, whom many Unicorns in Canterlot regarded of being less intelligent and sophisticated, but even as they lived on a farm, Dusk believed they could never say such a thing about the Verdants.
"Have fun," Sweet Pepper said, seeing the stallion and her daughter to the door.
"Thank you," Dusk said.
Hoofington was just a couple hours' walk away from Verdant Fields, and Dusk could have easily teleported them there to visit museums, exhibits, watch theatrical or operatic shows, or to eat at expensive restaurants. He probably would have done all of those if he thought any of them would impress his date. He understood, however, that Ivy was unlike most other mares, and that difference was why she had felt embarrassed earlier: she was a workhorse, unafraid of effort and getting dirty. Yes, she knew the courtly manners, and she was perfectly elegant and proper when the situation called for it (Dusk had seen her be so at the Grand Galloping Gala), but none of that sort of thing impressed her. She might even feel stifled by it.
Whether at the Gala or another official function, Ivy often attended as a representative of the Verdant. She carried herself elegantly because it was expected, but what made other ponies treat her differently was the sensation of calm and well-being she projected onto nearby ponies, most of the time by establishing eye contact with them. It was said, although Dusk did not have a way of confirming it easily, that Princess Celestia looked forward to seeing Ivy ever since her debut at the Gala, and because of that rumour, other ponies raised Ivy up so high in their estimation of her that few approached her. If anything could bother a mare who was the salt-of-the-earth type, it was being put up on a pedestal so high, she couldn't see the people on the ground. So treating Ivy like she was some kind of nobility was among the worst things you could do to her, and some ponies, none of whom knew her, treated and spoke of her like she was a fourth princess.
Instead of some establishment in Hoofington, Dusk took Ivy out to a hill that overlooked a riverbank. The hill and riverbank were covered in all sorts of flowers, some of which Dusk could not identify, since he dealt mostly in herbs and spell ingredients. Ivy's expression lit up at the sight, and she was certainly ready to burst forth and explore, but Dusk put a leg across to block her. "Not yet," he said. And then he let loose a high-pitched whistle.
The flowers seemed to explode as birds and insects of every colour and size erupted into the air, swirling, spiraling, and diving among the flowers, and sweeping across the river's surface. Ivy gasped, her smile growing wider. "Wow! I had no idea this was here."
"That's because it's a secret," Dusk said. "Of course, I had a little help setting it up, but I'm glad you like it."
"Like it? I love it!" Ivy reared up and gently kissed Dusk. Then she raced off among the flowers and their denizens, eager to catalogue them all. Dusk followed after, trying in vain to wipe the stupid grin he felt off his face. It wasn't working.
After the flower-viewing, Dusk and Ivy explored the river. The stallion knew that Ivy was looking for more plants and animals, but since they were new to the area, she would not find any similar to the ones at the hill more than a few meters from that very spot. He and Dawn had worked hard to bring out those flowers, and attract those birds, butterflies, and other insects that comprised a complete ecosystem, to that exact spot. And just with that blissful expression on Ivy's face, Dusk thought of the effort as being completely worth it.
While they walked, Dusk found some gemstones in the river. They were not anything special on their own, but Dusk was a Unicorn of considerable talent. He could do many things with the emerald, sapphire, and ruby ingots he found, and so he took them and placed them in one of his many omnipresent pouches. Later, he would give Ivy another present, one made with effort, and not bought with money.
It was a simple, meaningful date, during which most of what Dusk and Ivy did was walk and watch -- Ivy walked, and Dusk watched her while he walked alongside. As they returned to the house, Ivy gave Dusk another chaste kiss on the cheek. "Thank you for a wonderful day," she said.
"Thank you for agreeing to come with me, Ivy."
"And thank you for treating me normally," Ivy said. To this, Dusk's only response was for him to kiss her. When they pulled back, Dusk thought he saw a goofy grin on the mare's face for a moment, but she quickly tucked it away, if it had even been there in the first place. Dusk waited until he was certain the door had closed behind Ivy, and she was not going to come back out.
Yes, if there was one treasure Dusk could give Ivy, it was that he did not hold her in complete awe like most of the other ponies outside of her family. What Ivy craved most was to be treated like everypony else by everyone else, but her compassionate, loving aura usually made that impossible. The only ones who could give her what she wanted was her family, who loved her, and the stallion who fell in love with her.
Dusk walked to the gate with this knowledge in mind, then he teleported the rest of the way home. He would have to remember to thank Dawn, when she got home.
Rarity knew that she had a guest coming, so she did as much of her work as she could, setting up the next stage in an inspiration blitz, before he could arrive. She jumped when she heard the doorbell ring: she thought she had more time than this, and far from being ready, she was just a little sweaty and dirty from her efforts. Regardless, she could not keep her gentlepony caller waiting, so she put the cloth she was working with down so that it would not wrinkle, and quickly made her way to the door, slowing down to a normal speed for the final three steps. She cleared her throat, then opened the door.
All words failed her at the sight of the individual waiting for her. "Hi!" He said.
"Oh, hello. You're one of Sweetie Belle's friends, aren't you?" Rarity was a little annoyed, but she could also feel her stress slipping away at the absurdity her expectations had set up. And not for the first time.
"Button!" Sweetie Belle swept down the stairs and tackled the Earth Pony colt. "Hi!"
"Hi, Sweetie Belle. Can I come inside, or did you wanna go play at my place?"
"I'll be going out, so it might be better if your mother could watch you," Rarity said. "Just be sure to have Sweetie Belle back before dark, even if I'm not back yet."
"Roger that, Ma'am!" Button said, saluting.
"I'm not old enough to be a 'Ma'am' yet,"
"Alright, go and play."
"Just let me go get my bags," Sweetie Belle got off of Button Mash, and ran back up the stairs. The colt took the opportunity to recover his own hooves and dust himself off. "Okay, back, bye!" Sweetie Belle came sweeping back down the stairs and seemed to pick up and carry Button away with her. Rarity was left on her own front door, giggling to herself.
"Oh, I'd better get ready," the Unicorn said, and she turned to go inside.
Only her date had arrived. "Good morning, Miss Rarity," the statuesque Unicorn stallion said. Statuesque in stature, but not in personality, Rarity thought. The last few times she had seen him he had behaved rottenly, either to her or to her friends. But Prince Blueblood had promised that he would try to change. Now would be a good test to see if he had carried through on that promise -- partly because Rarity was a bit of a mess.
"Prince Blueblood, how nice to see you," Rarity winced slightly, since she was not giving off the best physical impression at the moment.
"It seems I've caught you a bit early, and unfortunately we haven't the luxury of time."
"One of Aunt Luna's plans, apparently. Are you okay with going out like that?"
"Then lets see what I can do, and please call me 'Blueblood' today." The Prince took his cape off of his shoulders, and using his magic, wrapped it around Rarity until she was covered completely. She could not see out of it, but she was beginning to get angry. She would have railed against Blueblood if he did not pull on the cloth, spinning her. When she came to a stop, she was clean and her hair was as she had made it at the Gala. "My memory's far from perfect, but will that do?"
Rarity strode to the nearest mirror and examined herself. "Quite," she said, retrieving an evening gown and slipping it on. She turned to see Blueblood still waiting beyond the threshold, so she came over to him. "Shall we?"
"Of course," Blueblood said, and they walked off together.
Because of her previous experiences with him, Rarity was watching Blueblood's actions with a careful, critical eye. They ate a quick breakfast at one of Ponyville's little restaurants, which surprised Rarity because she thought Blueblood might protest against eating with the 'common folk,' and then they took the train to Canterlot. During the train ride, Blueblood surprised Rarity again, by asking her questions about her personal preferences and about her work. He did not volunteer any information about himself, and he did not boast, which was even more impressive. So as they pulled into Canterlot, Rarity asked him what he was up to these days.
"Aunt Celestia and Shining Armour are giving me military training. I'm hoping to become an effective field commander, but I can't do that without the soldiers' trust. That's what the chess game taught me."
Rarity remembered the game: with ponies standing in for the pieces, Blueblood had faced off against Luna. The better the connection between commander and soldiers, the more quickly they responded to commands. Blueblood lost completely after Luna gained such an end in charisma over him that she was able to command her pieces in real-time. Blueblood had then made an effort to correct his mistake and catch up, but he had taken too long. Still, for the sake of those fighting for him, he refused to give up until the very end. That persistence had won him enough of his soldiers' admiration that Luna lost her real-time command in mid-move, and had to correct from over-reaching. It was impressive that Blueblood had not lost so completely that he had not taken any pieces. In fact, given that he had realized his error at all, it was impressive that he had recovered enough to have Luna on the defensive for a little while.
All of this reminded Rarity that Blueblood seemed to be honest in his attempt to change his attitude. She was glad to see that bearing out so far, but she was still angry at him for how he had treated her at the Gala, and felt that he deserved the defeat that Gearhead had given him then -- and another in the guise of Alicorn Prince Dusty during Hearthswarming Eve. Rarity wondered how their date would bear out now. Perhaps a visit to an art gallery or museum, an opera or theatre show, and a diner at Canterlot's finest establishment?
With these expectations, it was justifiable that Rarity was surprised when Blueblood brought her to a Museum of Pranks. They had a good chuckle together at all the artifacts on display from pranks that Princess Celestia and Luna had pulled on each other and on their castle staff. There was also a good selection of items and details on pranks that Starswirl had pulled in his day. Twilight would flip if she saw this, Rarity thought: she idolized Starswirl as a role model, but from the exhibit, it seemed he was closer in demeanor to Pinkie Pie than to Twilight herself.
After the museum, they did go to an art gallery, but Blueblood led Rarity to a wing housing more contemporary art. The pieces were by ponies from all over Equestria, including some from Ponyville. Because they were all displayed at the gallery equally, and because Blueblood seemed genuinely interested, it gave Rarity a feeling of warmth and gratitude.
At lunchtime they ate in the outdoor section at a restaurant that was small and out of the way, similar to the one at which they had had breakfast. The food did not look particularly spectacular, but it was delicious, and Blueblood did not hesitate to eat any of it.
After lunch, they went to see a show at a comedy club that was practically build behind the castle. Rarity was doubly surprised because half of the comics were ordinary Earth Ponies, while the other half were Unicorns who Rarity would have expected to see at the high-society gatherings at which she had taken part around the time of Twilight's birthday. Instead of making fun of each other, they made fun of themselves -- except in those cases when they teamed up as duos, and then most of the time it was the Earth Pony who played the Straight Man, and the Unicorn played the fool, although with the twist of it being a fool who thought he was being smart.
Rarity only remembered laughing so hard to Pinkie's jokes. Beside her, Blueblood showed no sign at all of holding back. It was as if he was competing to laugh louder than she was. "So the same Prince Blueblood who fussed about a little mud doesn't mind being uncouth enough to laugh at a joke?" Rarity asked him after the show.
"Am I the same?" Blueblood scratched his chin. "Maybe, maybe not. Just don't tell anypony: I have a reputation to uphold as a snooty member of the Canterlot elite class." From the word 'snooty,' he turned his nose up in a parody of Jet Set and Upper Crust, nose straight up in the air so he did not have a chance of seeing where he was going, and he turned his voice completely nasal. The previous comedy act had primed Rarity a bit too well: she could not possibly hold back her laughter.
After that, Blueblood chose a restaurant that specialized in food from the West Coast as their place for dinner. Rarity had to admit that not only had he been a gentlepony to her, and avoided going to all the places snooty ponies would go, but he had been fun and entertaining too, and all of this was a nice chance of pace for Rarity.
When Blueblood escorted Rarity all the way home to Carousel Boutique, it was well after nightfall, and they were both surprised to see that Button Mash and Sweetie Belle were sitting at the kitchen table, on their portable gaming terminals. "I wasn't expecting this," Rarity said.
"Was getting dark, so of course I walked her home," Button said in the somewhat choppy language of a gamer caught in his game. "We got back, but you weren't, so I couldn't leave her alone."
"Stayed and played," Sweetie Belle said helpfully.
"So I see," Rarity said, "and it's sweet of you to do that, but if you stay much longer I'm sure your mother will start to worry."
"Can't leave. Hard part," Button said.
"What are you playing, anyway?" Blueblood asked, coming up behind Button to see.
"Is that a pickax? Foals play games that emulate work and find it entertaining?" Blueblood blinked at Rarity, who shrugged.
"S'not work. Game,"
"So what's the point of it?"
"Collect resources, build house, get better stuff."
"And don't get killed by monsters," Sweetie Belle added. "Ah, Creeper -- run away, run away!"
"That tree thing on legs? Why is it hissing?"
"Oh brother," Button sighed. He'd been trying to get away, but he moved too late, and was caught in the explosion. Blueblood jumped back, startled, and watched as Button's character respawned.
"That was... unexpected."
"I hate when that happens: I lose all my stuff."
"If you can get it back quickly, I'll allow that before asking you to get your things together and going back home," Rarity said.
"I'll be quick," Button promised. With Blueblood watching, the colt really was quick. He even got back to the relative safety of his game character's house before shutting his terminal down.
"Thanks for today," Sweetie Belle said, and she pecked him on the cheek, provoking what Rarity thought was the cutest little blush. He managed a little incoherent mumbling as he walked out the door. Rarity was worried until she saw him walking straight in the direction of his house. Apparently the night air had knocked him sober. Sweetie Belle gave Rarity a hug, then she went upstairs to prepare for bed.
Rarity turned to Blueblood. "Thanks for today," she said, copying her little sister.
"Does that mean I get a kiss?"
"Well, since you were so good..."
Blueblood smiled, and Rarity gave him another reason to do so. As he left the house, he wasn't nearly so knocked for a loop as Button had been, but he still looked a little stunned at the day's success. Yes, Rarity would call it a success. It had been an excellent learning experience.
Twilight Sparkle got off the train in Canterlot and headed up to the castle. She had left Spike in charge of the library while she went to see Princess Celestia. Twilight wanted to ask her mentor for her thoughts regarding the princess in the origin story for Hearts and Hooves Day. In part, this was because Twilight still felt partly responsible for what the Crusaders had done to Big McIntosh and Cheerilee the previous Hearts and Hooves Day. Twilight felt that if she had more information, she could do more to prevent such incidents in the future.
Also, she had ripped up and burned the page containing the recipe for the love poison.
The castle guards recognized Twilight instantly, some of them nodding in acknowledgement as she went inside. For many years before coming to Ponyville, Twilight had lived and studied here under Princess Celestia. Each time she returned, she felt a surge of nostalgia for those times, especially her private study sessions with the princess. Usually, though, Twilight did not have the time to relax and enjoy the familiar ambiance, since they was usually some crisis to be resolved when she came back here. Coming back on her own like this was the only way Twilight seemed to see Canterlot in his calm, everyday glory these days.
Most of the ponies Twilight saw were out and about in pairs -- mostly stallions and mares, but there were also a few fillies and colts, and even groups who were hanging out as friends, the way Twilight usually did with the others. The Unicorn paused, reflecting on how she would not even have those friends if Princess Celestia had not insisted she go to Ponyville in time to stop Nightmare Moon. It was an odd thing for which to be grateful.
Twilight shook herself out of her reverie, and continued to look for Princess Celestia. When Twilight did not find her mentor in the throne room, she went up to the balcony from which Princess Celestia often overlooked the city. She was not there either, though. Next, Twilight used the secret back-passages to get to the circular room where Princess Celestia and Luna practiced their magic, and taught there one-on-one magic lessons. Just to be sure, she used the Shift Focus technique that Gearhead had taught her, and saw the golden and silvery-blue magic auras that floated thickly in the air all around the room. There were, she saw, some specks of magenta and some of turquoise mixed in with them now, from herself, Cadence, and Gearhead. But no sign that any of the princess had been here all that recently. Twilight blinked to relax her eyes, and returned to the main hallway network to continue her search.
As she walked, Twilight nearly bumped into a young stallion in unmarked chainmail. The Pegasus had an orange coat and blue eyes and a matching mane. With all the guards that were around elsewhere, Twilight was surprised to see anyone so ill-equipped in the palace. Obviously, though, this one was not a member of the guard, or at least not yet. Perhaps Twilight would ask Shining about that when they saw each other next: Twilight realized she did not know anything about the recruitment process for the city and royal guard.
"Excuse me," Twilight said, moving to go around the Pegasus.
"Wait, what're you doing back here?" The Pegasus extended a wing to the side to try to block her path. Twilight could have tried to dodge around, but more to the point she was not in the wrong being here.
"If you must know, I'm here to see Princess Celestia."
"Really? I'm surprised you got passed the guards," Twilight could see that he wanted to snicker at her, but was holding back, probably to try to appear courteous. Only the way he had expressed his doubts had been very rude, in Twilight's opinion.
"If you knew who I am, you wouldn't be surprised at all, but I'll chalk it up to you being new here. I know I've never seen you here before, and I've spoken with the Princess plenty of times."
"Who are... wait a minute, you're one of the mares in the stained-glass windows."
"The princess has a lot of stained-glass windows," Twilight said, teasing the poor stallion just a little more.
"The ones about the defeats of Nightmare Moon and Discord," he said. "So you're... oh, I'm so sorry!"
"Well, now that you know--"
"It's just that I'm a little lost. I came to interview for a position in the Canterlot Royal Guards, but I took a wrong turn somewhere, and now I don't know where I am."
"That's definitely be embarrassing. Almost as much as enchanting an object to create a problem to solve."
"Almost," the stallion chuckled, relaxing.
Good, Twilight thought. "I'm Twilight Sparkle. I used to study here with the princess, but now I live in Ponyville."
"I'm Flash Sentry. I'm from a small town near Cloudsdale."
"Nice to meet you, Flash. If you want, you can come with me while I keep looking for the princess."
"Only as far as a hall or room I can recognize: I don't want to be a bother."
"That's okay, I've developed some patience for new company."
"Wait, why are you looking for the princess?"
Twilight sighed. "I can't seem to find her, but don't worry: I'm sure she's around somewhere. In the meantime, would you like some help preparing for your interview?"
"I don't know if I even have it anymore, considering how late I am by now!"
"Don't worry: I'm sure Kibitz will be able to fit you in somewhere."
"Kibitz is Princess Celestia's right-hand stallion. He's a sort of personal assistant or secretary who takes care of whatever she needs done. In fact, maybe he even knows where the princess is. Come on!"
Princess Celestia was not in her office when Twilight and Flash arrived, but Kibitz was. He looked up after granting them entry, and smiled wanly. "I'm afraid Their Highnesses have both decided to give themselves a little time off, which means I am left taking care of all of this." He waved a hoof, indicating the scrolls piled up on the desk. "It is not the first time this has happened, and it probably will not be the last, but there you are. Now, what can I do for the two of you?"
"Mine is more of a personal request, unless you know something about the ponies in the Hearts and Hooves story.
"Sorry, but that was before even my time," Kibitz smiled sardonically: It was a standing joke that he had served the crown since Princess Celestia's and Luna's coronation -- which should not have been possible. Twilight matched Kibitz's smile with one of her own, to show she understood, but Flash just stood there, wide-eyed. "And what can I do for you, young stallion?" Kibitz asked, bringing Flash out of his stunned state. Twilight suppressed a giggle.
"Oh, I'm Flash Sentry. I was supposed to come in for an admission interview for the Canterlot Royal Guard, but..." Twilight nodded to Flash, reassuring him that it was okay to tell the truth. "I got completely lost, until Twilight here helped me out."
"The palace can be a bit of a maze for those unfamiliar with the layout of the inner corridors, but then that was the intended design, apparently. Now, as there is presently nopony else here to see me, I can take the interview right now. Normally I would have a little more time to be more thorough, however as you can see, I have a bit more work than usual today. So, unless you would like to reschedule for another day, I will be brief."
"No, it's okay,"
"Well then, Miss Twilight, if you wouldn't mind taking notes..?"
"Not at all," Twilight said, pulling up the extra chair and clearing enough space with which to write at the desk. She nodded to Kibotz, and then turned her attention to Flash.
"Now, Mister Sentry, why do you want to become a member of the Guard?"
"I want to be able to serve Equestria, and protect my family. I think I can do that best here."
"Could you give me an example of a situation where you successfully protected somepony?"
"It was just a small incident, but I protected my younger siblings from a Harpy."
"I got a little scratch, but it was treated for infection right away."
"What are your greatest strengths?"
"To be honest, I practically only have my strength and speed," Flash said. Kibitz looked skeptical, because Flash was not big enough to come across as physically fit. "Pegasi usually need speed more than strength, but I'm also tough in a wiry way. That's why my frame's smaller than some other stallions."
"What is your greatest weakness?"
"I'm not very creative, but on the other hoof, I take orders well -- to a point."
"When would you start questioning orders?"
"There's a certain point when it seems unnecessarily hazardous or, like, maybe 'suicidal' is the better term. If an order's likely to get the unit, or even part of it, killed for little or no gain, I'd be against it. I may not be the smartest flyer around, but I'm not a fool either."
"Prince Blueblood is likely to gain a command of his own when he finishes his military training. How far would you follow him?"
"As long as he makes sense, and makes good use of his training, I'll make good use of mine. But like I said, no intelligent soldier is going to follow a meaningless order or throw his life away for nothing."
"Speaking of life, would you die if it meant protecting other ponies, not limited to the Princesses?"
"Do you mean 'would I take a magic blast or spear for them?"
"Yes, and pretend that the hit would be fatal."
"Of course I would want to keep others, the Princesses especially, from getting harmed, but if I died doing it I wouldn't be of any further use, would I? If I can, I'd much rather continue to protect them as a living guard. Luckily, we're usually in a position to be armed and equipped to take damage from threats without dying, so we can continue our duty of guarding lives without losing our own. I hear Prince Shining Armour even has a magic shield that can adjust its size and shape to whatever he needs. If I had one of those, I could protect the ponies whose safety I was responsible for as long as I had to."
Twilight almost laughed: Flash was talking about one of the gemstone weapons that Gearhead made through his geomancy as though it could be a piece of standard equipment. It was a nice idea, but the amount of jewels it took to create a single gemstone dagger was prohibitive when one thought about equipping the entire Guard, each with his own personalized weapon. But if Flash could prove his worth to the Princessess, or became close friends with Gearhead, he could get a dagger -- and the latter situation did not even require that he be a member of the Guard.
Twilight saw Kibitz check a clock. "Thank you, Mister Sentry, that will be all for now. We will schedule another interview when Princess Celestia or Princess Luna is available to oversee the next stage in the procedure."
"Thank you, Mister Kibitz!" Flash jumped to his hooves, sporting a big smile.
"Don't get too happy yet, Mister Flash: this is just the first level, a preliminary screening. You still have far to go."
"Yes I do!" Flash said, and Twilight realized that he was talking about a larger vision, and not the interview process.
"Thank you, Kibitz," she said, nodding. The elder Unicorn merely nodded back, and returned to the big pile of paperwork.
"Now, wasn't that nice?" Twilight asked, outside the office. "You got your interview after all. Congratulations on passing the first test, Flash Sentry."
"Thanks to you, Twilight Sparkle," he said, shaking her hoof. "Thank you!"
"No, I didn't really do much," she said, blushing.
"No, you really saved me there. I can't believe how lost I was out there."
"We just stumbled across each other. We barely avoided literally bumping into each other, too."
"Well, that too, but if you weren't in that room with me, I wouldn't have been able to think of how to answer the questions."
"How do you mean? The practice we did before?"
"That too, but I kept thinking 'what would Twilight want to hear me say?' Just that question was an amazing guide for me."
"Really?" It was hard for Twilight to believe that such a small thing could give Flash the answers he needed, even for this early stage.
Flash grinned as he nodded. "So thank you, really."
"Okay. You're welcome, I mean."
"So maybe look me up later, when I'm in the Guard."
Twilight laughed. "You sound so sure," she said.
"I feel like it's what I'm meant to do,"
"You mean like 'fate?'" Twilight frowned.
"Don't be ridiculous," Flash said. "It's something more. And you helped me make it happen, Twilight."
"Well, when you're really successful, be sure to keep in mind that you can always ask for additional training and opportunities from my brother, Shining Armour."
"I'll definitely keep him in mind, too: I won't forget what you've done for me today."
"Good, because I think I got a report for the princess out of you too."
"Then I'm glad to help," Flash said, and they parted ways, uncertain whether they would ever meet again, not knowing the future.
But both were certain that they could shine within their own futures.
Fluttershy was lying in the grass near her cottage with a small group of her critter friends when she saw the telltale turquoise tails streaming toward her in the sky. Following her gaze, the animals also watched as Gearhead came angling in. As he approached Ponyville airspace, still flying at an altitude that bordered on where normal Pegasi could not reach, the Earth Pony slowly decelerated. In the process of doing so, Gearhead shed the kinetic energy that came with having breached the magi-sonic barrier multiple times. The boom shells that developed and wrapped around him left him then, diffusing in the sky ahead of his flight path as they continued on and lost their strength. On the ground, their passing would barely ruffle a feather, Gearhead was such a conscientious flyer.
At first Gearhead was obviously heading toward his shop, which he had built next to the river that served as a border with the Everfree Forest. He used that proximity to easily mine resources from the forest for use in building his gadgets, but unlike classic mining and stripping techniques, Gearhead had his much more eco-friendly Read and Gathering techniques: he found what he needed first, and used the second technique to draw those resources to him with minimal disturbance to the ground where those minerals were buried. Watching him work often gave Fluttershy renewed appreciation for his geomancy.
Fluttershy stared when the flight-path that the particle trail described curved directly toward her, but then the Earth Pony turned back toward his original objective, and she could not help feeling disappointed. The Pegasus wondered if Gearhead still felt awkward because of their earlier break-up, and decided to give it some time, thinking to maybe go and ask.
As it turned out, she did not have to trouble herself, because Gearhead came walking to the cottage on his own. Fluttershy smiled to himself, since it seemed like Gearhead had wanted to leave his vaunted Alicorn Engine behind when he came to see her. He had done that sometimes before, too, but he was usually quick to rely on it for the slightest of challenges. When he came closer, Fluttershy could see that the stallion's mane was still a little wet, and she chuckled a little: had he really taken a quick shower just for her sake?
"Good afternoon, Fluttershy. May I join you?"
"Certainly, sir," Fluttershy said, giggling softly. She watched the stallion as he walked into the small circle of animals, and they made room for him to lie down across from the mare. She had realized it before, but by taking a little here and there, and by avoiding destroying homes when he could, Gearhead had earned a lot of respect from the animals who lived in the area, including those who made the Everfree their home.
Such things flew in the face of all the unfortunate things that Fluttershy knew had happened earlier in Gearhead's life: the inability to control his abilities and the bullying he received as a result were similar to what Fluttershy had experienced as a filly. In retrospect, it was funny how similar their pasts were, at least in concept. But where Fluttershy had stayed mostly land-bound and befriended the fauna that found her, Gearhead had struck out on his own, leaving childhood friends behind and finding more here in Ponyville.
Friends who had helped him become more open. Recently Gearhead had appeared to be happier as well, but Fluttershy could tell that there was still something weighing him down when she looked more closely into his green eyes, or watched for the slight downturn at one corner of his mouth whenever he started to brood. Fluttershy could not help feeling that such an appearance did not suit this friend with the rust-red mane, interspersed as it was with three bright turquoise streaks, an apparent gift from each of his improved Alicorn Engines alongside the brightening of his eye colour.
"What is it?"
Gearhead looked up. "I do not want to burden you with my problems," he said.
"Now, you know better than that. At least let me listen. Otherwise, I'll just keep asking," Fluttershy put a determined expression on her face, and Gearhead sighed.
"Fine, I will admit it: I miss Snowbelle."
"Of course you do: she's your daughter," Ice dragon or not, Fluttershy thought. "You love her, and taking her to learn from her own kind was a hard decision. But you and I both know that it was the right decision."
"I can sense her just fine through our psychic bond, yet I cannot help missing her anyway."
"Can you get a sense for how well she's doing?"
"She is content and not in any danger. Beyond that I cannot tell, and we agreed not to pry into one another's thoughts."
Smiling reassuringly, Fluttershy put a hoof over one of Gearhead's own. "You're worried the dragons will teach her something you think she shouldn't learn. That she won't be your daughter when you go to pick her up."
"Of course I cannot help worrying about the possibility, even though I cannot change it, nor can I go and interrupt her training. I have to trust her."
"She is smart enough to choose what is most right for her,"
"Even when she tries to intimidate you into action?"
"That was my fault, for not seeing beyond to the truth. I'm trying to be better than that. I'm not trying to replace her mother, never that. But everyone needs some of the right kind of affection. Even you." Fluttershy saw Gearhead narrow his eyes fractionally when she mentioned Snowbelle's mother, but she could not have avoided bringing her up. Clearly, Gearhead still bore some anger toward Sombra for trapping her in the deep caverns of Canterlot Mountain, and toward Chrysalis for killing her. Despite having avenged the dragon, it seemed like Gearhead would continued to carry that anger with him.
But at least Fluttershy and the rest of their friends could be there to help him carry it. She moved closer to wrap Gearhead into a light hug, and they stayed that way for several moments. When Gearhead finally pulled away enough to look into Fluttershy's face, he still looked concerned, but less so than before.
"Is it the Black Sheep?" Gearhead would continue to carry this mark as long as he could not sow, grow, or harvest any useful plants, and unfortunately he lacked any Earth Pony magic with which to do that. As long as he was the Black Sheep, he could not be considered as a possible Successor, and because his father, the Patriarch Redwood, was vocally supporting him against his oldest brother, Vines, Redwood was taking a lot of heat. He ran the risk of being completely discredited if Gearhead did not succeed as a farmer, as though what he did as a gadgeteer and Artificer did not matter. Not only that, but Gearhead was afraid that the stigma attached to being 'Black Sheep' would extend to the mare he married and any foals they had together, and he wanted to avoid bringing them into that.
"Do you think I should be dating?"
"If it makes you happier, then what harm can it be?"
"I have hurt others because I have tried,"
"I know, and so have I," Fluttershy smiled sadly. Gearhead immediately put a hoof over hers in a mirror gesture to what she had done earlier. "Everyone deserved some happiness," she said.
"Well, there seem to be many places where you are happy," Gearhead said.
"Do you want to accompany me to one of them?" Fluttershy said, standing up.
"Are you sure you want to leave your friends?" Gearhead asked. They chittered or growled at Fluttershy.
"They say to have fun," Fluttershy smiled. "Are you up for a flight?" She asked, spreading her wings. She only got to 'up' before Gearhead wrapped his tail around his dagger's hilt and started his incantation:
"Quattuor Magnae Spiritus, ventus transmutare alas." Silvery wind swirled into being at his sides, quickly altering shape until they became a pair of wings, although they did not fully materialize. Fluttershy lifted off, and headed directly toward the Everfree Forest. She did not have to check to ensure Gearhead was following her, because she felt the slight presence of his Wind Wings, even before he drew even with her.
Together, Fluttershy and Gearhead soared over the trees, avoiding whatever threats lurked below, until they came to the clearing that was open to the sky, but sheltered by the trees gathered at its edges. The who field within was covered with flowers of ever hue and scent, but the most spectacular flower was the one at the center. It was larger than the rest, with petals shaped like a butterfly in pink, with green and blue chasers throughout. Because of this flower, Fluttershy had decided to call this place the Butterfly Glade, and until they had broken up over the misunderstandings that Fluttershy took from Iron Will's seminar, she and Gearhead had come here often, together with Snowbelle, just to enjoy the flowers.
Fluttershy flew a slow spiral around the glade, dipping her nose to smell each flower over which she flew. Gearhead followed her, but not so closely that his wings would disturb the flowers or the critters living here. When they came to the flower at the center of the glade, Fluttershy alighted gently beside it, and gestured with a hoof for Gearhead to come join her. He hovered a couple meters away, and when the flower's stalk started to sway, he dismissed his wings to drop lightly the rest of the way to the ground. For a moment Fluttershy thought she would have to try to catch him, but the sly magic-user called the slightest wind back to coalesce under his hooves and cushion the rest of his fall.
Regardless, there was so little space in the Glade for them to stand without disturbing the flowers, and so stallion and mare sat side-by-side. The multitude of colours, shapes, and scents washed over them in the slightest of breezes. They were still there when the sun began to set and the moon began to rise.
As Hearts and Hooves Day approached, Big McIntosh felt his dread grow: only the previous year Apple Bloom and her friends Sweetie Belle and Scootaloo had thought it would be a good idea to meddle in his affairs by tricking him and Cheerilee into drinking a love poison. The poison had reduced the two normally-responsible friends to fools who spewed so much sweet-talk that when it was all over, Mac was surprised the whole town did not have cavities. It was not as if Mac did not like Cheerilee, but neither liked the other in that way: they were both professionals, and getting married while under the influence had not been on either's To-Do list.
And try to understand: the Crusaders had only done all that because they wanted to show their teacher how much she meant to them. Big McIntosh? He was just collateral. But he could not stay angry with his little sister and her friends, because they had not meant any harm, had undone the poison without any lasting effects (although some of the townsponies looked at Mac and Cheerilee funny sometimes), and they had done Mac's chores at the farm for a week. He could forgive them.
Mac liked hanging out with Cheerilee on occasion, there was nothing wrong with that, but he was mostly focused on his chores at home. He knew that if he was going to court a mare, he wanted to do it properly, as a sign of respect. Unfortunately he seemed to attract all kinds of attention even when he was trying to complete a simple errand, such as buying some nails. Mac did not understand where the trouble came form, but suddenly found himself having to fend off the advances of a top Wonderbolt, among others.
Mac enjoyed quiet, calm, and routine. He liked working outdoors, and he liked feeling like he earned the food on the table and the bits in his pouch. Loud was pretty far from his scene, so he was more amenable to Fluttershy's company when they encountered each other -- ironically she seemed like one of the more grounded mares around, despite being a Pegasus. Only earlier that day, Mac had enjoyed a stroll around town with her -- well, the 'stroll' had been an ancillary effect of Mac's efforts to do some repairs around Ponyville. He just 'happened' to find Fluttershy along the way, and they just 'happened' to go around the same way. Repairing houses and bridges, and helping animals -- that's what they had been doing.
So why did Mac go away feeling like he'd been on a date?
And then there was the other mare. This was one who had popped up during the Summer Wrap-Up Festival that had been so frustrating for Big Mac, but this was one filly you did not ignore if you knew what was good for you! Even thinking about her now, Mac wondered if he had accidentally summoned her. She was, after all, the Guardian of Dreams.
"Greetings and good after noon, Big McIntosh. Did your date with Fluttershy go well?" Princess Luna had appeared, a grin on her face. Today, as during the festival, she had chosen to leave her regalia behind, and was instead wearing a plain pair of horseshoes and a simple pale blue skirt.
How do I keep a telepath out of my head? Mac thought, but instead of asking her that, just in case she wasn't listening, he said, "Yup,"
"Are you ready for some fun?"
Somewhere in the universe, a set or several of pink ears just perked up. "Yup," he said guardedly.
"Then let us be off," Luna said grandly, circling around behind him and ushering him away from the farm, one hoof pointing down the road.
"To where?" Mac wanted to know what the Princess of the Night had planned.
"But isn't it more fun when it's a surprise?"
"Usually it's the stallion's job to come up with a plan,"
"Yes, but I love a good twist. Also, I know all the good places." For some reason, Mac didn't doubt that. And this was not the first time Mac had not been in charge: Applejack ran Sweet Apple Acres, even though Mac was older and Granny was still kicking.
It seemed to Mac like Luna had games on the brain. Ponyville had a modest arcade, and she just had to try all the two-player games that were there, paying for Mac's way as well. He saw how focused she was on the objective, no matter what the game was, and that it let her win, although she could never beat the player who went by 'BIO.'
After the arcade, they found a small court for ball games, where some colts were playing. Mac recognized Featherweight, Pipsqueak, Snips, and Snails. "You there," Luna called, "do any of you want to play some two-against-two?"
"I'm not exactly sure that'd be fair," Pipsqueak said.
"Hmm, perhaps you are correct, little pirate. Four-against-two, then?"
"You're on!" Mac put a hoof to his face: even with twice the numbers, Luna and Mac were bigger, stronger, and faster than their proposed opponents. Even without Luna's magic or wings, they would dominate the game completely. This prediction was no less true against Caramel, Time Turner, Roseluck, and Fiddlesticks. And Luna did not so much as flex her wings the whole time.
"I am feeling peckish," Luna said after four games left Mac huffing and puffing. "I would not be against getting a snack at this time... your treat?"
"Eiyup," Mac sputtered, still regaining his breath.
Big Mac had been worried about what venue Luna would choose, but it turned out he did not need to worry at all: she chose a simple restaurant where the menu was completely reasonable. In fact, the portions they served could even be accused of being too generous, and the quality of the food was great too. Luna had obviously done her research.
But Mac had not done his: Luna ordered two courses and a dessert. "It takes more energy to control the moon than you think," she said by way of explanation. Still, the meal did not run more expensive than if they had eaten at a fancy Canterlot restaurant, which they could have done. At least the servings were much better here. They both even ended up with leftovers.
"And now," Luna said, "a light adventure to work off the meal." Mac wondered what she meant, until she game him a long, stout staff and led the way into the Everfree Forest. "This will double as work," she said to Mac as they walked. "Some miscreant monsters have been wandering closer to Ponyville lately. If we show them that the town is guarded, they will leave off."
"If large predators from the Everfree are gonna come threatenin' my friends and family in Ponyville, there's no way I'm lettin' 'em though!" Mac charged ahead, and Luna gamely paced him, smiling the whole way.
Soon they ran into a monstrous face-off: a group of twelve Timberwolves against a group of seven Cragodiles. "Cease at once, and return to your homes, or we will teach you what happens when you stray so far," Luna proclaimed. Even at a lower volume, her Traditional Royal Canterlot Voice pushed the beats back, and threatened to blow the Timberwolves away altogether. Still, they did not seem convinced. In fact, they were growling. "Ah, a warm-up," Luna said, levitating the sticks and stones around her to use as projectiles.
Perhaps solely because of that threat, the creatures started to charge. Mac let loose his own roar as he met them, while Luna unleashed a full barrage, knocking most of the Timberwolves and Cragodiles back, but one of each still made it through. Mac came back around with the staff, and gave the Timberwolf a wicked uppercut under the jaw, and followed through into a sideswipe to the Cragodile's head. Normally even the stoutest oak would shatter against stone when swung that hard, but Mac remembered Granny saying that Crags had a weakness if you hit them in the right spot on their heads. You just had to be able to reach it, and the staff did that. The Cragodile tumbled away, stunned.
"Well done," Luna said, hugging him in congratulations. "And now, onward!"
"You mean that wasn't them?"
"How is it you usually put it?"
"Yes, exactly that. 'Nope!'"
As it turned out, the animals that seemed to be on a rampage were running from a rogue Cockatrice. The half-avian, half-lizard was going around, chasing whatever it encountered, and turning any that did not run to stone. Watching from a distance so they could properly understand the situation, Luna made a disappointed 'tsk' in her throat. "Games are all well and good," she said quietly, "but this one is just being a bully for the fun of it."
"Agreed. But what can we do?"
Luna looked at Mac's staff, and the other objects they had. "Throw that at it," she said, nodding to Mac's yoke.
"It was a gift from my mother," he protested quietly.
"We will get it back. We just need to knock it off balance, and it should not know what to make of this right away, even if you do not manage to knock it unconscious. Then we move in while it's distracted."
"Got it," Mac said. He took his yoke off and aimed, moving just to test that he had every motion right. Although the yoke was solid wood, he could throw it accurately over a fair distance. When he did make the throw, neither pony expected it to knock the Cockatrice out cold, but the knock to the head probably should not have made it stumble sideways, stiff as a board. Wary that they might have to deal with a creature clever enough that it not only knew they were there, it was trying to draw them out, even Luna hesitated at first. Then the Cockatrice leaned a little left before straightening back out. It ruffled its feathers, at which point Luna decided to charge in. Just as it was staring down at the yoke on the ground, Luna wrapped a large, thick cloth around the Cockatrice's head, and then used her magic to tie it secure.
"We can release it a ways from here," Luna said. So she would not do anything overly cruel to the creature, even though it was being a bully.
After the Everfree Forest, Mac was content just to watch Luna raise the moon. After her earlier comment about the effort to do exactly this, he appreciated it a little more.
"Thank you, Mac, for putting up with me tonight, and also for protecting me," Luna said.
"You don't need me to protect you,"
"I appreciate the sentiment all the same, especially as most stallions I have met seem to refuse to acknowledge my abilities. You are different, so I think you."
Mac had been about to demur that praise by insisting that it was the way Granny had raised him, but Luna silenced him with a kiss, and left him with his thoughts -- some of which she would no doubt read when she walked ponies dreams that night.
As Gearhead fell more deeply into sleep that night, he was somewhat surprised to find Princess Luna waiting for him. When at rest, his mindscape took the shape of a fortress city with seven walls ringing it at even intervals. The next set of walls were higher up, like a layer cake, until the top, where the tower of his most central thoughts stood. There were gates posted at each of the cardinal directions, and each ring was further divided into quadrants for compartmentalization, so that Gearhead could decide what was and what was not easily accessible.
It was a pretty close match for what Luna had taught him to do. Mostly her lessons were about psychic defenses, since there were some things Gearhead did not want Snowbelle to find out through their psychic bond -- she was his daughter, after all, despite being a dragon. Some of Luna's lessons, however, were about countering psychic attacks, and even how to reach out toward another being's psyche and explore the accessible bits. Gearhead had not had the ability to do any of this before Snowbelle hatched and linked with him. Now, though, it seemed he was becoming more and more skilled at it. Luna charitably allows that he might have a knack for it. But he was by no means a psionicist or dreamwalker. Gearhead preferred it that way: the mind was a dangerous place to dive into, especially alone.
"Is it time for another lesson?" Gearhead asked, appearing at the gate where Luna had appeared to let her in.
"Actually, I wanted to consult with you," Luna said, coming inside anyway.
"Very well. What is the topic?"
"Ah well, I am afraid I know very little about them, unless you are referring to familial and friendly relationships."
"A little more than that, and I think you know a little more about it than you think you do. After all, am I not your third female visitor this day?"
"It depends on where you mark the beginning and the end,"
"Well, I happen to believe that I am the third."
"That's my line," the Thirdson said.
"In any case, there does not seem to be a single source for romantic relationships. They can happen suddenly just as easily as they can happen gradually, between friends or strangers one has just met."
"It seems you know much on the subject already,"
"I do not hear you disagreeing,"
"Because so far I agree. One can look for romance, and romance can find you regardless of your effort, or lack thereof. Mother pursued Father, but I doubt that is a common thing."
"Says the one being pursued," Luna said.
"No, says the one not ready for romance," Gearhead corrected her.
"Perhaps it can happen whether you are ready for it or not," Luna mused. "Did you not find yourself connected in such a way with the Azure's eldest?"
"You are talking about Prism's crush on me? I gave her the time to see where it would develop, and meanwhile I was definitely not ready for her."
"Then what about the Conclave's second-eldest, since she is not so forward or daring?"
"She is certainly fun and kind, however I think I will lose the race to Big Sister Ivy, and then Dawn and I will be siblings-in-law."
"And if you still wanted to be together?"
"I suppose I could leave the Herd. It would also solve my personal problems with Vines, but only my problems and not those of future generations he might affect. And I could never stop supporting those who supported me in turn."
"She is a lovely mare who deserves better."
"Ah, so here we arrive at the truth: love makes us see ourselves as unworthy, or else the thing we want most is for our most beloved one to achieve the greatest happiness possible, even if that means being apart."
"I never said that,"
"You did not have to."
"And what about you?"
"I had fun, and I think my sister did too. I need not have a partner who sees the world through the traditional lens, not after all I have seen. But long-lived as I am, I still desire the companionship of another, even if he might pass before I do. I hold Big McIntosh in high regard, but I do not know if this is 'love.'"
"Perhaps love takes time for immortals,"
"Time our mortal loves do not have?"
"Maybe, and if so then you will have to decide in time for it to make a difference."
"I am surprised in some ways that nopony tried to use the Crystal Heart's power."
"It would not have worked," Gearhead said.
"First because the Crystal Heart reflects and amplifies either Light and Love or Despair and Hate, emotional forces that are already present,"
"False love does not work for long: Heads butt, a strong personality takes advantage of the weaker one, or the relationship decays until it falls apart. Even love potions cannot make a false love true, without true love being there in the first place -- at least a speck of it."
"You almost sound like you are speaking from experience,"
"I am speaking from the point of learned theory, and from observations. I do not know if I am in love, or ready for it. I do know that it will happen eventually. When it does, I want to make sure I do all that is possible to make it the best it can be."
"Can love be made to be something?"
"Probably not, but I hear it needs to be worked at to make it work."
"That sounds similar to using a love potion,"
"I do not know: I have loved others, mostly family and close friends, but I have never been in love."
"How does one know? The pony herself seems like the worst one to identify it."
"So ask another, if you can dare to do so."
"I would rather not," Luna said.
"I thought so."
Luna paused to think. "For something so central to our lives, love is so very ill-defined. I have heard it said that we can know it when it happens, but not before."
"I have heard of that as well, but never experienced it."
"I do not think I have either, but then neither of us are looking for love."
"If this was a fiction, that would be exactly when it finds us," Gearhead said.
"Then I think I had best move on before it does," Luna said, and then she vanished.
Love, like Friendship, is a real, physical force in this world, Gearhead thought. I have seen both vanquish powerful foes. It is an awesome, unbeatable, impacable power. And it makes ponies do strange, stupid things and think strange, stupid thoughts. For the lucky, this somehow leads to greater happiness, an end to be wished for.
But not to be made. Gearhead meant to create his own future, so the thought that he was not in control of parts of his own life was somewhat upsetting. Then again, Love was also uncontrollable.