“Do Humans Hibernate?” Rainbow has a question on her mind. She's not entirely sure why it's bothering her so much. It probably doesn't help that the only human she could ask is the world's greatest liar. [COMPLETE STORY]
“Do Humans Hibernate?” Rainbow has a question on her mind. She's not entirely sure why it's bothering her so much. It probably doesn't help that the only human she could ask is the world's greatest liar.
Cover art by Pusspuss this random guy called ‘Pen Mightier’ who probably wishes he is Pusspuss but isn’t.
Marshal: (mɑː.ʃəl) noun….etymology - archaic: Middle English, from Anglo-French ‘mareschal’, of Germanic origin; akin to Old High German ‘marahscalc’, from ‘marah’ (horse) + ‘scalc’ (servant). Originally referring to "a person in charge of the upkeep of horses or stable hand”. The station became a position of trust and power in medieval courts and went on to acquire its modern military usage.
Bare winter sunlight kissed the fresh virgin snow where it stretched on forever atop the sleeping earth. Here where the naked trees slumbered and autumn went to rest, silence reigned. In short, it was boring as buck. And Rainbow Dash absolutely hated everything about the place.
"...Daring Do barrelled out of the boulder's way and landed in a screeching stop just an inch shy of the endless chasm. Behind her the giant boulder rolled into the bottomless drop, crashing its way down the chasm wall. The crashing and smashing noises from below seemed to echo on forever before fading away into the distant underbelly of the ancient temple. She let out the breath she didn't even know she was holding..."
Rainbow read out the adrenaline-pumping action with such enthusiasm that one might have mistaken it for a funeral sermon for Daring Do.
"...and Daring Do knew she had finally found it – the crystal coffin where her foalhood friend, Prince Charming….s-slept f-f-forever.She had read the ancient manuscript twice. There was no mistaking what she had to do to r-reawaken h-him. S-she must k-kiss..."
Somepony held his breath, almost expectantly.
Rainbow Dash's ears perked to attention, flicking from side to side. She should only have a hibernating tortoise and the idle wind for an audience. And any pegasus knows the wind never holds its breath. She looked up from the book cradled in her lap to frown at the frosty winter landscape.
It stared back.
She leapt out of her bright blue furtotally stood her ground at the sight of the towering mountain that had silently snuck up on her.
To say her gaze fell upon it would be inaccurate. Even where it squatted before her, her eyes had to ponderously climb its ridiculously tall frame like the slow, fretful rise of a roller coaster. And when she reached the tuft of messy dark mane at the peak there was that heart-stopping moment where she realized that she had, in fact, reached the top, that her eyes had run out of things to climb and that things could only go out of control from there, fast.
Her totally-not-panicking heart slowed a little as a distant memory slowly caught up with her. It is a little known fact that Rainbow Dash organizes her life and memories as one big race. She calmed down enough to allow one lazy memory to finally draw level with her; A faint memory of that one random alien that hung around ol' Egghead a lot. Rainbow knew him about as well as that weird store owner with the sofa and quill fetish. They were mere bystanders in that slow lane of life, a mundane background to her own fast lane. Wasn't he Twilight's gofer? Or was it Captain or royal-gofer or something? She honestly didn't know the difference. There probably wasn't one when it came to princesses.
"Oh, sorry, was it too early to hold my breath?" His face suddenly lit up with realization. Rainbow had a sneaking suspicion it was a mocking one. "Alright, tell me when."
She just stared at him as a fish might stare at a grand piano. He probably had some purpose in the universe at large, but she couldn't even begin to imagine how it could possibly involve her in any way. Everything about the giant from his weird black and purple armour to his freaky two-legged squat stood out like a sore hoof in the door of normality, the party balloon zooming around at a wake, the toffee in the bottle of painkillers.
"Hey, don't leave the sleeping prince hangin'!" He waved an impatient...claw(?) at her. "I've been coming here to this icy ass-end of nowhere to listen every single day for the past five days. Not once have you ever made it to the juicy bit and finished the damned story."
"You've been hiding and listening to me reading for the past five days?!" She finally found her voice as it welled up full of indignation. "Wait, have you been watching me cryi-..." She demanded, hotly, before quickly stopping herself. "I mean, I totally haven't been coming here every day, especially not to do uncool things like reading out uncool books, okay?! That would be, y'know, like this uncool!" She shot into the air to measure out with a hoof just how uncool it was. It was a lot uncool.
"You said it, not me." He shrugged, grinning that same shit-eating grin that was totally starting to grate on her. "But, hey, you're Rainbow Dash, you're..." He paused to take out a Twilight-brand flash card from his pocket. It was even purple! "....the most awesome pony in Equestria." He read out slowly and deliberately. "Surely anything you do is automatically cool." He said, cocking a challenging eyebrow at her.
She rolled her eyes. Figures that Egghead put him up to this. It was totally her.
At least he's honest about it.
Rainbow relaxed a little at the knowledge that Twi had a hoof in all this. "Heh, more like super-ultra-extreme-awesomazing! But awesome's cool too." She fluttered down halfway towards the alien.
“But not even the super-ultra-extreme-awesomemazing Rainbow Dash can make egghead stuff like books cool, right?” He taunted with a grin.
“Is that a challenge?” Rainbow leered, landing with a crunch in the snow. She took a deep breath as she flipped her book open once more. “Watch me.”
"Oh, this oughta be good." He said airily, leaning back against a nearby tree.
She shot him a dirty look. "Hay, sorry, little guy. I got uncooly interrupted." She said to the snow-covered burrow under the tree. It regarded her cooly in reply. "Where was I? Oh yeah. Daring Do must kiss her old friend to...to awaken him from his accursed slumber. She gazed down at the face of her foalhood friend....where he lay, f-f-forever asleep." Her lower lip quivered as the rest of her slumped down. "Daring Do rubbed a forehoof across her eyes. She was surprised to find they were wet. She wh-whispered softly....Tank...oh, buddy..." She whimpered, clutching the book tightly against her chest.
She found her face was suddenly well and truly wet. And cold. Melting snow dripped off her steaming mane as she slowly, shakily turned to face her attacker. Her normally russet eyes flared a furious crimson as they locked on their new target.
"I swear, random snowballs just start flying everywhere when I get bored." He had the gall to say while packing a fresh snowball, giving her little moment all the reverence of a sun cream peddler attending day court.
“So does horseapples, obviously. Do you even know who you just threw a snowball at?!” Rainbow demanded as the last of the snow on her head escaped in a puff of frightened steam.
"Yeah, I know exactly who I'm throwin'em at. 'Cause you know what's the difference between a snowman and a snowwuss?" He pointed his readied snowball at her. "Snowballs."
'He...he actually acted cool while being lame.' She trembled violently at the absolute misuse and abuse of coolness. "You....you..." She began to channel Commander Hurricane himself. "You totally un-radical lame-o!" She declared his crime against all things awesome as she launched herself into the air.
He wisely dive-rolled out of the way of the rainbow cannonball that threatened to shave his face as it blitzed past him. He gave a smug chuckle as it rammed straight into the tree behind him. "You can't hit shit."
"That wasn't what I was aiming at." Rainbow called back from above.
"You couldn't...." He noticed the looming shadow growing wider and wider around his feet. "Fuck my life." He looked up just in time to see an entire treeload of snow fall towards him right before it buried him alive.
Rainbow gently touched down on the fresh mound of snow with a flutter of her wings. "I totally could. Kyu, Eeh, Dee." She gave a smug chuckle before blowing the mound a victory raspberry. "Bweeeeeh."
She received a burst of snow in her open mouth for her troubles. "Gotcha, thunderbutt!" He roared, bursting out of the mound like a drunken tatzlwurm, gripping her around her withers.
"Think again, lameface!" She cried in defiance, flaring her wings and taking flight, launching both herself and the limpet clinging onto her into another snow mound. They burst out the other side in a shower of snow and pinballed in two different directions. The two quickly rolled upright, snowballs held in their claws/hooves as they rushed at each other in a mad dash.
"EAT SNOW!" They tossed their snowballs at each other in perfect unison. The two projectiles met in midair, exploding in a burst of snow. Something flew out of the cloud of snow and continued travelling in the human's direction. It was a soggy rainbow-coloured hoof-sock, the same one Rainbow had been wearing.
"What the fu-..." He gasped before eating a faceful of sock.
"You can eat that too." Rainbow laughed as she dove into a sliding tackle between his legs, kicking his ankles wide apart as she slid past. "The dirt's on the house." She chuckled as he crashed and burned in the snow behind her.
She panted as she picked herself up and dusted the snow off her fur. That. Was. Awesome!She hadn't felt that excited and awesome since...since...
Her glowing grin turned into a little frown as she looked back at the little burrow under the tree behind her. Her frown grew deeper as she looked back at the mound of shame that was the defeated human. Huh, was he...trying to cheer me up? Rainbow shook her head. Naaaah, that'd be cool, and he's too uncool for that.
A little smile spread across her face. Uncool or not, she had earned her bragging rights fair and square. And Rainbow Winner Dash never wastes a chance to flaunt her victories. She trotted up to the defeated snow mound and gave it a victory boop. "I totally won." She declared, smugly.
There was a loud clicking sound. "Yeah, you're also totally busted." The mound said with a chuckle.
Rainbow glanced down at the brand new pair of hoof-cuffs adorning her forehooves. "Hay, what gives?!" She demanded, rattling the chains at him.
The human dug himself out of his mound of snow with surprising ease. "Hey, I can't have you getting away from me now, can I? It's important we get started on the right foot." He chuckled darkly, much to her horror. "Rainbow Dash," He cleared his throat authoritatively, "You are under arrest for deliberate disruption of official weather patrol work, breaking and entering and destruction of government property."
"What?" Rainbow flinched at all the big words looming over her.
"You're busted for sabotaging winter and wrecking the weather factory." He translated for her.
"Ooooh, that. Uh, maybe we can call it even?" She gave him a sheepish little pony squee.
"Oh, it's even, alright. The punishment is six to twelve months banishment and being thrown in the naughty corner of a dungeon in that place you're banished to." He read out from another flash card. “So yeah, on a scale of one to ten, you’re totally screwed.”
"Wha...?" Rainbow's eyes widened as the horror set in. "No way!"
"Ya way." He said, grimly. "If you were in Cloudsdale." He added, breaking out a mischievous smile. "But you're in Ponyville and here we play by Twilight's rules. Which is why I said it's important you and I get off on the right foot. We're gonna be spending a loooot of time doing awesome community service stuff together." He said, rubbing his hands together.
"Wait, with you?" Rainbow's stomach churned at the thought of spending even more time with the grating human. Twelve months dungeon suddenly sounded a lot more appealing. "I mean, don't I at least get to object in a trial or something?"
"Well, ponies in Ponyville generally just accept the local fed's ruling. The alternative is appealing to the court in Canterlot." He shrugged. "I mean, if you really want Cloudsdale having a say in where you're banished to..."
Rainbow gave a loud groan. "Fine, fine, but isn't there, like, anypony else I could do the community service thing with? Like, I dunno, Cranky? Steve Mag? Discord? Hay, even that jam stallion?" She pleaded.
"Well, I'm the lesser of two evils, really." He shrugged. "Your choice."
"Who's...the other one?" Rainbow’s ears drooped as she worked up the courage to ask.
He looked around furtively, as if the trees themselves might listen in. He leaned in close. Rainbow found herself gulping as she leaned forwards to meet him halfway, ears perking to attention. "There is a monster from aeons past that has been kept sealed in the deepest darkest dungeon of Canterlot." He whispered, almost as if he was afraid somepony or something might be listening. "He is an old forgotten king of a warlike race that has wiped itself off the face of Equestria, with a tragic backstory so tearjerking it made the San Palomino desert cry itself dry. They say that his right hand alone is so powerful he created Mt. Canterlot by jerking off in his dungeon. He was such a brooding badass lone wolf that he banished Nightmare Moon by friendzoning her. And if that's not enough, he is so roguishly handsome he once winked at a mountain and it forever became known as the Neighara Falls. No horseapples."
Rainbow totally did not shiver from her mane down to her dock. "Uh, I'll stick with you, thanks." She said, hurriedly.
"Yeah, I wouldn't want to be alone with me either." He nodded in grim agreement.
"Wait, what?" She blinked.
"So yeah, as Princess Twilight's Guard Marshal and, well, only guardsman, I've got the awesome privilege of being your parole officer." He grasped her forehoof. "Looking forwards to working with ya, Rainbow." Her chains rattled as he gave her hoof-cuffed forehooves a vigorous shake.
"Same here." She rolled her eyes.
"That's the spirit." He smiled, giving her a reassuring slap on the withers. "I'll give you the bad news first; Twilight has a big list of things you can do to serve out your sentence starting with, surprise, rearranging her library." His grin turned into a dark frown. "For the fifth time this week." He added, flatly.
"Oh, jooooy. A list!" Rainbow double-facehoofed. The hoofcuffs didn't give her much of a choice. "And the good news?"
"I'm still working on that one." He admitted. At least he had the decency to look sheepish about it.
"I caaan't wait." Rainbow grouched.
"Me neither." He agreed, "But we're gonna have to be patient ‘till 6 o'clock tomorrow morning. I'll catch'ya there. Again." He chuckled as he waved goodbye.
"Hay," She called out, "I can't walk home like this." She waved her hoofcuffs plaintively at him.
"Really? I thought you'd enjoy the challenge." He grinned, earning him a really dirty pout.
Celestia punted the sun into a beautiful wispy pink and yellow sky, casting perfectly sculpted morning shadows across the picturesque little town. It might have been majestic as buck if anypony was awake to give any, but there weren't.
Except perhaps Rainbow Dash, but she didn't have any bucks left to give. "It's too flocking early." She muttered, shivering a little as she pulled her flight scarf tighter around her neck. Normally around that time she'd still be curled up in bed, staring at Tank's sleeping basket until lunch time. On that particular day she didn't even have time to fly over to his burrow. She had resolved to kick the hay out of their job list in ten minutes flat. She'd make it to Tank's burrow for the rest of the afternoon even if it killed her.
Puffs of snow rose off the ground in her downdraft as she flapped to a hovering landing by the palace. She pulled her flight goggles off just in time to see the sun crest over the tip of the palace, illuminating the permanent rainbow of Friendship that spiralled away into the winter sky. She gave a loath little sigh as she looked around.
She didn't even have to wait ten minutes before spotting her parole officer, fully dressed in his black and purple Friendship Guard uniform. He was kneeling by the entrance, studying the ground with all the grim concentration one more commonly applies to pick-up lines or filling out tax returns. On the snow in front of him was what looked like a black chalk outline. How he managed to get chalk on the snow was a mystery best put down to Twilight science and left at that.
She froze when she noticed the shape of the outline. It had four limbs and a pair of wings, all sprawled out in a position that looked anatomically painful. There were a few smaller chalk outlines a little way off. She wasn't sure whether or not to feel reassured that she couldn't recognize their shapes.
"What's going on?" She instinctively dropped her voice to a whisper, just in case she woke up the chalk outline.
"I'm investigating a disappearance." He said, grimly. "It was a pony, moustache, four foot two."
"Whoah." Rainbow murmured, unsure of what else to say.
"Yeah, four foot two's pretty wide for a moustache." He nodded in agreement.
"W-was it..." She gulped. "Murder?" The very word tasted bitter in her mouth.
"Well, no." He waved a hand at the chalk outline. "Otherwise there'd be a body, right?" He pointed out just how empty the chalk outline was.
"Uh, right?" She frowned at the surprisingly water-proof logic.
He took a pinch of the earth beneath the snow and rubbed it thoughtfully in his fingers. Then, with all the air of a connoisseur, he took a whiff and a lick.
Rainbow felt her curiosity grow. "What is it?" She asked.
"It's worse than I thought." He replied, dourly, staring off into the middle distance. "It's dirt."
"What does it mean?" She asked, practically leaning over his shoulder.
"Not a thing," He said, his face screwed up in fierce concentration, "Quick, Rainbow, we gotta reconstruct the crime scene." The human launched into a flurry of activity as he abruptly straightened up.
"Wh-what?" Rainbow blinked, taking a surprised half-step back.
"No time to explain!" He said grimly, "Rainbow, quick, lie down in the outline!"
"U-uh..." She didn't even pause to consider the order amidst the urgency of it all. She planted herself in the snow and arranged her wings and limbs to fit the outline as best as she could. "Like this?" She hazarded.
"Leg there, wing slightly to the right..." He manhandled her into position, causing her normally cool blue fur to turn a warmer shade of pink. "Perfect!" He nodded in satisfaction. "Just in time."
Rainbow frowned at that. "Just in time for what?" Her eyes slowly widened as she noticed four figures silhouetted against the sunrise strolling up the path to the palace. The four ponies paused their chatter as their eyes landed on the blue pegasus sprawled on the ground, doing her best impression of a catfish attempting suggestive yoga in the snow.
Rainbow could only squeak as she felt the snow around her melt and steam under her burning blush.
"O-oh, my, Rainbow darling," Rarity was the first to break the silence with a dainty giggle into a forehoof. "It would appear the evildoers have finally developed a good taste in beauty." She loosened the neckline of her anorak. "Oooh, is it just me or is my parka a little warm for the weather?"
"O-Oh no, Rainbow, w-who did this to you?" Fluttershy rushed over and draped herself over Rainbow's body. "O-oh, R-Rainbow, I-I'm so sorry." She squeaked, tearfully.
"Oh Dashie!" Pinkie faux-wailed, grabbing the pegasus in a chokehold. "I'll catch the meanie-mean-pants whodunnit and avenge you! Lots!"
"Hay, don't just write me off like that!" Rainbow protested. "Like, literally, Pinkie!" She gasped for breath, clawing at the pink hooves around her neck.
"Shuuush, it's alright, Dashie. Save your breath." Pinkie hushed reassuringly. "Go ahead and trot into the light! There are probably birthday cakes and parties there! Make sure to find out and tell me!"
"No, Rainbow, don't look at the light!" Fluttershy pleaded. "I-if that's alright with you, I mean!"
Applejack lowered the brim of her hat, casting an ominous shadow over her eyes. "The perp was probably her arch-nemesis, the dirt. It's always been threatening revenge for all them flying headbutts. And now it's gone and dunnit." She gave a dismal shake of her head at the tragedy of it all. The dirt gave her a dirty look in response.
"Hay, I don't crash!" Rainbow was quick to defend herself. "I just...uh...land with style."
"It's alright, Rainbow. Ah'll cry for ya. Inside." The farmer gave what could have been a sob or a giggle-snort, it was hard to tell under the hat.
"You mean...this murder was premeditated?" Rarity gave a dramatic gasp. "Oh, the equinity!" She swooned.
"Nooo, dirt, why you do this?!" Pinkie howled at the dirt. The dirt didn't look the slightest bit remorseful.
"Naughty dirt, y-you should be ashamed of yourself!" Fluttershy joined in with a very genuine wail. The ground at least had the decency to remain silent.
"It was me." The human admitted to the murder with all the guiltless viciousness of one bringing home the groceries and admitting to forgetting the milk.
"Oh, brohoof." Pinkie raised a forehoof to him in salute. He replied with a brotherly fistbump.
"Nice one, partner." Applejack doffed her hat at him approvingly.
"A masterpiece, Marshal." Rarity nodded in agreement.
"Oh, that's alright then, I think." The Element of Kindness was kind enough to forgive him for his transgressions.
"Traitors!” The Element of Loyalty yelped at all the brazen treachery.
"What's all the noise?" Twilight's voice joined the throng as the purple princess herself trotted out to the palace's front door. She paused at the sight of the crime scene. "Mars?" She raised an eyebrow at her guard marshal. "I'm sure we've been over this." She intoned, warningly.
"Is this the one about my 'snuggle first, ask questions while snuggling' policy? Or is it about your 'stop snuggling when they stop breathing' policy?" Her marshal asked, looking the very model of innocence.
"No, it's my 'letting me in on your pranks' policy." The princess gave him a reproachful look. Nopony missed the mischievous gleam in her eyes though.
"This was a prank?!" Rainbow cried, shooting the human an indignant glare. Everypony stared down at her as a scientist might eye a hamster discovering a world beyond its wheel. "But...but...you were acting all cool investigating everything." She almost broke into tears at the abuse of coolness.
"Rainbow, for somepony who loves dishin'em out, yer mighty darn blind when yer on the receiven' end of a prank." Applejack chortled.
"We didn't lose anypony?!" Rainbow demanded.
"Ya lost some pride, maybe." Applejack sniggered.
"That was for yesterday. Now we're even." Rainbow's parole officer chuckled as he offered her one of his hands.
"We'll see about that." Rainbow growled, roughly pushing his hand aside before rolling onto her hooves.
Rarity trotted up to help dust the snow off Rainbow's fur and scarf. Her horn lit up with a tinkling blue glow as she magically dried off what little had melted. "Well, jokes aside, Rainbow, I'm glad the darling gentleman was able to get you to join us somehow. We had all lost hope!" She gave the marshal a smile of gratitude.
"Huh? Join what?" Rainbow looked around the circle of hopeful faces.
"It's Friday, pancake day!" Pinkie chirped, hopping in place. "You can't be telling me you forgot about pancake day?! Well, we kinda guessed you did 'cause you never responded to any of my invitations, reminders, singing telegrams, smoke signals and messenger pigeons. And Applejack went on about giving you some space over Tank, and...mmhhmmhhhhuummh." Pinkie carried on mumbling into the forehoof Applejack had stuck in her mouth.
"Oh, uh, right..." Rainbow deflated a little at the reminder. She looked around, biting her lip all the while. Surely she doesn't deserve to have fun? Not when Tank was gone. That'd be...disloyal to him. "Well, I've got my community service stuff to do, so..." She looked to the Marshal to bail her out.
"Oh, come, darling." Rarity chided, pushing the blue pegasus along in front of her. "I'm sure Marshal can wait a while, especially if there are pancakes in it for him." She gave him a wink.
"I am not one to argue with pancakes. Or ladies." The Marshal chuckled. "Rainbow Dash, you've been sentenced to pancake duty." He said, waving a clipboard at her.
"Wait, what?" Rainbow swiped the clipboard out of his claws. "You just added it in crayon!" She pointed out the scrawl on the otherwise immaculate list.
"Standard royal stationery." He shrugged.
"It's pink!" Rainbow argued.
"You have something against pink?" Pinkie Pie gasped, pressing her nose up against Rainbow's. "You're not pinkist, are you?"
"Uh, n-no." Rainbow wisely shook her head. "I-I love pink. S-some of my best friends are pink." Rainbow, element of political correctness, sputtered.
"Good! So you have nothing against pancakes either!" Rainbow found herself suddenly herded into the palace by a flurry of pink. She couldn't help but steal a glance at the weird human as she was ushered inside by her friends towards the welcoming smell of hot pancakes. She caught sight of Twilight pulling him aside for a private talk. Whatever it was about, Twilight seemed happy about it, even so far as giving him a hoof-bump of approval.
A thought suddenly occurred to her. Wait, did he...did he force her to come over to make sure she'd have breakfast with her friends?
She chuckled dryly to herself as she trotted after the girls. Nah, that'd be way cool, and he's way too uncool for that.
The world had ended. The two of them were the only survivors. And their only hope was to somehow salvage order out of the apocalyptic wasteland of books and despair. This was where awesome retired and excitement went to die. But books, books never change, not even here in this graveyard of fun. One moment you think you are safe in the overdue books pile and suddenly you get jumped by a...
"Gah!" Rainbow cried, pulling her forehoof back from a book as if she had been stung by a bugbear.
"A thesaurus." The Marshal picked up the offending book up with all the care one might give a perspiring sock.
"It's sharper than a sword." Rainbow muttered, nursing a papercut.
"Yep, you could totally screw up a guy's life by telling him his chocolate could be anything else other than chocolate." The Marshal nodded in sympathy. "Makes you wonder, finding a thesaurus in the overdue books pile," he sighed at the tragic sight, "What sort of fucked up soul could have committed such a sick crime?"
"There's no other word for it." Rainbow muttered.
They stared at each other. "Pffft." They snorted in perfect symphony. "Bwahahahah!" They broke into wild laughter. "Hahahah...hahah...hah." They trailed off into weak chuckles, their mirth soaked up by all the paper in the room. "Buuuuuuuh..." They flopped lifelessly onto the book pile as one, empty husks sapped of all fun.
"That's it, I'm history." Rainbow muttered, her nose stuck in a massive tome titled 'A Brief History of Equestria'.
"Well, I'm geography. Beat that." The Marshal's voice sailed out of a thick volume labelled 'The World is Flat, Deal With It'.
"I'll beat something soon." Rainbow gave a long-suffering sigh as she picked herself up and got back to work. "My Little Chryssie." She lazily tossed a few more books onto her shelves. "'Bon Bon's Acceptance', 'How to Raise Your Moon', 'Stardust', 'Gladiator', huh? What's this one about? '1000 Virgin Ma-...'" The book suddenly slipped right out her forehooves. "Hay! What gives?!" She cried as the Marshal held the book out of her grasp.
"Why don't you deal with the 'Rule of Cool' section?" He pointed at a corner of the library. "You're the expert on the subject, right?"
"Heh, not like the whole section's totally about me." She grinned, zooming off to the Rainbow Dash section of the library. "Heehee, this is totes more my speed."
"Good. I don't want you to tell me you lost the race because you weren't at your best." He said, in the offhoofedly slow voice of a deadly predator edging his prey into a trap.
His words hit a nerve like a homing missile. "Was that a challenge?" Her eyes flashed menacingly. "Do you even know who you're talking to? You should look up 'speed' in that thesauruthing. That'll give you a clue."
He gave a dry chuckle. "I don't mean to brag, but ever since Twilight's been disqualified on grounds of horse-godhood, I've taken on the mantle of Equestria's fastest librarian. It is the ultimate expression of mental, manual and futile speed." He shadow-boxed in demonstration. Or was it shadow-sort? Shadow-shelve?
"Hah! Well, Rainbow winning Dash is about to steal your mantle and wipe the floor with it." Rainbow pointed a forehoof at him.
"Alright then." He rubbed his hands together excitedly. "Everything from the flash-mob section to the Pinkie Pie section is mine. Everything else is yours. Ready? One, two...." He launched himself at his work.
"Hay! You didn't say 'Three'!" Rainbow protested, taking flight towards her own pile.
"I did in my heart. That's all that truly matters!" He called back, stealing a head start.
'He's doing it again, saying cool things while doing totally lame-o things! That's. Just. So. UNCOOL!' Rainbow growled at yet another crime unto all things cool. 'I'll totally own this race and show him just how much of a loser he really is!" She attacked her bookshelf with zeal that bordered on demonic.
As she flitted about completing her first section, she stole a glance at the Marshal. He was chuckling quietly to himself, his nose buried in what looked like a raunchy clop novel. Rainbow was about to gloat when she noticed the two fully completed sections behind him. She gave a little squeak as she focused on her sorting once more, fighting to catch up dominate!
She panted as she shelved the last book into her third section. She took a moment to scout her competition. His brow was furrowed in deep, brooding concentration as he slowly flicked through a magazine. Her eyes suddenly widened with embarassing recognition. 'Is that a Playcolt magazine?! What is thatdoing in Twilight's library?!" Rainbow couldn't help but break into a soft blush at the thought. She shook herself free of the distraction, turning her attention to his shelves. He was only one bookcase away from completion!
She gritted her teeth as she threw herself back into her book-sorting with feverish fervour. A rainbow blur sent books flying into their shelves in a whirlwind of colour. Twenty books left. Fifteen books left. Ten. Five. Three...two....
She slammed the last book into its slot before whirling around, heart pounding. She found her nemesis where she last saw him, still giving the photo magazine all the intellectual reverence of a man confronted by divine scripture. He had completed his half of the library except...except for that porn magazine in his hooves! Or claws! Or whatever those things he uses to hold porn were called!
"I WIN!" Rainbow declared.
"Oh?" The Marshal finally looked up from his magazine. "So you did." He nodded approvingly. "Congratulations, Rainbow. It is with great heaviness that I pass on my mantle to you. Wear it with pride. You are now Equestria's fastest librarian." He said, solemnly.
Equestria's fastest librarian threw both forehooves into the air as she whooped, "Yeah! I am Equestria's fastest librarian! Whoo!" She trailed off into thoughtful silence as her mind finally caught up with what she just said. "I-I'm Equestria's fastest librariaaaaaan! My life is ruuuuuuuined!" She gave a tragic wail, breaking down into a puddle of tears. "It's like being an egghead but 20% cooler! But 20% of zero is still uncool!"
"I feel ya, Rainbow." He sighed, patting her on her withers. "Hang in there, buddy. We'll make it through this together."
"Shut uuuup. Don't tooouch meeee." Rainbow sobbed, grabbing hold of his arms as if they were her last anchor to coolness.
"Hey, tell you what." He said, consolingly. "Let's make it a daily challenge. Every day you win we knock a day off your sentence. Every day I win you gain a day. We'll call today your first win and shave a day off."
"Really?" Rainbow cut her sobbing short to give him an exuberant look, complete with perky ears and swishing tail. "Whoo! I win a day!" She shot off into the air in celebration."Ahah! Oh yeah!"
"A lady of simple pleasures. I like that." He chuckled at her celebratory mid-air dance.
"One day less with you, one day less with....uh..." Rainbow's chanting trailed off into silence. "Hay, what's your name anyway?" She suddenly asked. "Everypony's calls you 'Marshal'. Is that, like, seriously a name?"
"Actually it's M.A.R.S.H.A.L." He said, hijacking a blackboard and spelling out the letters. "It stands for Mojo Augmented Radical Small Horse Actuated Link. It is a prototype magical generator powered by sheer awesomeness. It powers the first bipedal pony power-armour fueled by hot-blooded coolness, me.” He drew a caricature of what looked like a pony standing on its hindlegs about to stomp something that was either a castle or a box of crayons. “Our meeting was no coincidence, Rainbow Dash. You are my destined pilot. With the two of us combined, nothing shall stand in our path. Come, Rainbow Dash, embrace your destiny!” He threw his arms out invitingly.
"Whoah. R-really?" She quavered, trembling with excitement. A coolness-fueled power armour? Just like Iron Mare in the Power Ponies? With an abbreviation and everything?! That’s, like, super ultra extreme awesomazing!
"Nah, I just made that up to screw with you.” He gave a sudden dismissive wave. “I have no idea what the hell the word means* but it's probably something badass."
*Marshal: (mɑː.ʃəl) noun….etymology - archaic: Middle English, from Anglo-French ‘mareschal’, of Germanic origin; akin to Old High German ‘marahscalc’, from ‘marah’ (horse) + ‘scalc’ (servant). Originally referring to "a person in charge of the upkeep of horses or stable hand”. The station became a position of trust and power in medieval courts and went on to acquire its modern military usage.
"Badass my ass!" Rainbow felt like she had been robbed. She had no idea what she lost but she had a feeling she’d never get it back, ever.
“I'm the Marshal of the Friendship Guard." He went on. "Most just call me 'Hey Marshal!', though some like to shorten that down to 'Hey You', 'You Lucky Bastard' or my personal favourite, 'AAAGHWHATTHEBUCKSAVEMEAAA'. But my friends call me 'Mars'."
"Mars, huh?" Rainbow committed the name to her internal scoreboard. Now that she had a really big reason to keep score, she decided it was finally worth learning a thing or two about her nemesis. After all Twi always said, 'Know yourself, know your enemies and...uh...you will win one thousand friends'? Something like that anyway. 'I'm gonna find out more about him every day, especially his weaknesses! I'll play him like a yoyo! Hah, lucky I thought of it first. No way he's gonna keep up with me now!' Rainbow Dash thought as she gave the Marshall a scheming leer. "So, uh, how did you end up here anyway, Mars?" She asked, innocently.
"Heh, thought you'd never ask. Nobody can ever resist." Marshall chuckled darkly, slowly straightening up to his full height. "I was a genetically engineered cybernetic soldier created for my world's final war. I have a tailor-made backstory so edgy I can shave my carbon fibre pubes with it. I am powered by a dark matter core whose brooding emo alone is enough to plunge happy horseland into eternal night. But because of funding issues and a little fabrication accident resulting in me being exponentially more sexy than the general, I was left in cryostasis to keep the planet from overheating. That's, like, being frozen in a popsicle in a giant freezer." He added, noticing Rainbow's blank look. "Then one day Twilight found my cryostasis pod underneath her crystal pony bed strewn amongst the rest of her toys. When she unfroze me, she realized that for the sake of all the mares of Equestria she must keep me on a short leash. So that's why I'm here, serving as her guard marshal."
"Whoah, really?" Rainbow's eyes grew as wide as dragon eggs.
"Ya, really." He nodded. He suddenly looked down at his crotch. "What? What was that?" He said, seemingly speaking to thin air.
If he were any regular stranger gibbering to himself, Rainbow would have totally done a sonic rainboom in the opposite direction. But he is a bucking super soldier frozen in a giant popsicle for Celestia knows how long! He can talk to himself all day long and he'd still be cool! Totally not a pun too.
"Sorry, Rainbow, I'm talking to the artificial intelligence embedded in the microchip in my left testicle." He gave her a long-suffering look. "She likes to rudely interrupt my conversations with entirely random but witty bits of exposition. What was that, Largehard? Cute pony detected where?" He looked around at Rainbow Dash. "Largehard, me and my google-powered heart-seeking vision found her first. So you can keep your undefrag'd mittens to yourself. No, cancel lock-on! Bad Largehard! Bad!"
Rainbow found her cheeks warm up. The...the anti-sniffle intelligence thing in his crotch is talking to him and telling him she'scute? That's, like, super cool! E-Except the 'cute' thing. Rainbow Dash doesn't do 'cute'. Nope.
"Natural wit." He nodded sagely to himself. "Beats artificial intelligence all the time."
"You mean real mischief, right?" Princess Egghead herself chuckled as she pushed the door to the library open. "Mars, I'm sure we've been over this. You know, about you and your tall tales?"
"Yep. We've established that you love'em, your royal Princessness." He said, saluting smartly.
She gave a light giggle at that. "Alright, you. Okay, sure, they're cute. But mark my words, mister, they're gonna get you in biiiig trouble one of these days." She waved a forehoof at Rainbow. "Besides, when it comes to coolness, Rainbow is more gullible than Fluttershy. You realize she is gonna believe every word you say, right?"
"Well, yeah. That's what makes her...." Marshal paused to look down at a flash card. "...cool!"
Rainbow fluffed out her chest at that. "Yeah, I am pretty coo-....wait a sec! You mean you've been pulling my tail all this time?!" She spluttered.
"Well, yeah, duh." He rolled his eyes with a chuckle. "Everyone knows I ended up here because some bastard pawned me off this magical suit of armour at a comic book convention. It is cursed to be irremovable until the day my one true love removes it for me. I am here in Equestria on a quest to find her. Or, y'know, him, as the case may be. I'm not picky."
"Whoah, really?" Rainbow eyed the suit of armour with wide-eyed fascination.
"Ya, really." He winked at Twilight.
Twilight just gave him a helpless smile and a long-suffering sigh as she trotted out. "Just make sure you sort all the books by the Oxcolt classification system before you go out hunting for your one true love, okay?" She gave them a sweet sideways smile over her withers.
"But you said Dewhoof system this morning!" Her marshal groaned.
"That was this morning." She gave him a conspiring wink before chuckling sadistically at their collective cries of despair.
“Darn it, my schedule was full of so many important world-saving things this afternoon,” he sighed, shaking his head ruefully.
“Like your beauty sleep?” Twilight teased with a giggle.
“I hibernate to look this good, you know,” he flashed her a million bit smile.
“Whoah, how ugly were you in summer?” Rainbow recoiled.
“Let’s just say my face back then was the inspiration for the Oxcolt classification system.” He gave Twilight an irritable look.
“Do you want me to lecture you on all two hundred and forty three pros of the Oxcolt system?” Twilight raised an eyebrow as pointed as a guillotine.
“Hey, actually, I’m totally feelin’ the Oxcolt system today. In fact I’m gonna organize my hats and my toilet paper by the Oxcolt system.” Marshal was quick to change his tune.
"Come on. Do it well and there'll be some fresh muffins for both of you." Twilight gave them both an encouraging smile before leaving them to their trials.
Rainbow took a slow, deep breath, as if drawing in the courage she couldn't find inside. Strange how it was so easy to go face a dragon or a hydra but so difficult to call out to her own friend. "Hay, Twi?" She peered out of the library door to call after the princess. She cursed her voice for retreating a pitch or two higher than usual. "Can we, uh, talk for a bit?" She gave her friend a beseeching look.
"Sure. What's up, Rainbow?" Twilight asked as her pegasus friend carefully closed the door behind her.
"Uh, well, uh..." Rainbow's ears drooped a little as she lowered her voice. "Well, uh, I..." She hesitated. "Uh, I wanna know, what's this whole punishment thing about?" She stalled before kicking herself for stalling.
"Well, what do you think it's for, Rainbow?" Twilight asked, cooly.
"Okay, okay, okay, sorry, I know, alright." Rainbow quickly waved a forehoof at her friend. She gave a slow huff before biting the bit and ploughing through with it. "Okay, I know I'm really bad at sayin' this, but I'm sorry, okay?" She blurted her apology out all at once like a nasty bitter pill. "I'm sorry I wrecked the factory, and I'm sorry I didn't say sorry sooner." She hung her head. "It's just...I was so...Tank was..." She felt tears well up with the words. She shut her eyes tight.
Rainbow suddenly felt a forehoof curl around her neck, pulling her into a tight hug. "Hay, Rainbow, it's okay." She heard Twilight whisper in one ear. "You were having a tough time. I'm sorry the rest of us weren't with you any earlier when you really needed us." Twilight gave her a tight squeeze. "Just remember that we're here for you, especially now." There was a slightly accusatory note in her voice, almost suggesting that she knew about Rainbow's sneaky little visits to Tank's burrow over the past five days.
"Thanks, Twi." Rainbow hiccupped softly. "And I'm...I'm also sorry you ended up having to punish me for the whole, y'know, thing." She added, sheepishly.
"Oh, the punishment is nothing personal. Honest, it's just to ease some red tape over the law." Twilight waved a dismissive forehoof. "We need to show those who care that the Council of Friendship is not above the law. Besides, you're doing us a really big favour, Rainbow."
"Huh, I am?" Rainbow frowned.
"Yeah." Twilight nodded with a smile, "You know how Applejack and Pinkie are spending Hearthswarming at the Pie farm, right?"
"Yeah?" Rainbow said, slowly.
"And Rarity and Fluttershy are going home to their own families this year, right?"
"Y-yeah..." Rainbow's ears drooped perceptibly.
"And Spike and I are spending it with my BBBFF, my not-so-brand-new-but-still-awesome sister-in-law and my parents in Canterlot, so..."
"I get it, okay!" Rainbow snapped. "You're all going away for Hearthswarming. I know that. I don't need your pity and..."
"No, Dash, I didn't mean it that way." Twilight quickly said as soothingly as possible. "The five of us were the only ones who've taken the time to get to know Mars ever since he got here. I know you've been a bit skittish around him because he's all new and everything..."
"Hay, I don't do skittish. Awesome doesn't skit." Rainbow quickly pointed out.
Twilight rolled her eyes before continuing on, "...but you're the only one we can count on to keep him company this Hearthswarming. Please, Dash? For me?" She pleaded, resorting to her best puppy-Sparkle eyes. The only comparable weapon in the art of persuasion was, quite probably, a ballista to the face.
"Nnngguuuh....." Rainbow growled beneath her beseeching siege before finally throwing her forehooves into the air in defeat. "Fine! Whatever! But I still don't get why you had to glue us together with this whole community service thing!"
"Rainbow, I'm gonna be a friend and be really frank with you now." Twilight sighed, rubbing a forehoof on her temple. "Where would you be if I hadn't?"
"Ugh." Rainbow flinched a little at the question, her ears drooping perceptibly. "Yeah, okay, point taken." She muttered at the floor. "Fine, I'll babysit your pet human for you for Hearthswarming. But I better find something awesome in my Hearthswarming sock in return!"
"You bet, Rainbow." Twilight smiled, giving her pegasus friend a sisterly hoof-bump. "Hay, enjoy yourself too, okay? He's a good friend once you get past the cheesy humour."
"There's a lot to get past." Rainbow muttered, returning to the library. "Hay! What's that book fort doing on my half of the library?!" She shouted as she disappeared inside.
"Not yours anymore, snoozer-loser!" The book fort's king declared.
Twilight could only wince at the loud crash echoing from within. It took her every fibre of self control she had to turn around and pretend that her books were perfectly, totally alright.
"Yer a bad liar, Twi." An orange mare stepped out of the shadow of a nearby corridor. She pushed her hat up to aim an accusing glare at the princess.
"No, she didn't find out. That makes me a good half-truth-er." Twilight winked at her friend. "Look, we've tried everything else together; Races, Wonderbolt shows, pancakes. But the moment we turn our backs she's back up there reading to Tank. And you know things are only gonna get worse when all of us leave for Hearthswarming. Rainbow can't be left on her own, not after all that. This'll be good for both of them. Besides, the arrangement's keeping Cloudsdale and the Weather Factory off our backs." A glower darkened Twilight’s face at the mention of Weather Factory. “Some of the words the Weather Factory chose to use….” She muttered under her breath, “Yes, I think it is definitely safest that my Marshal keeps his eyes on Rainbow for a while.”
"Ah seriously think ya should be tellin'er how much the Council of Friendship's payin' for that darn weather factory." Applejack pointed out. "I'm not just sayin' this 'cause I'm one of them farmer folk who depend on that factory, but she just went and wrecked the biggest source of Equestria's weather. It's almost as bad as stopping the sun from shinin', and we know what the punishment for that is." She gave her friend a pointed look, "It sure as hay ain't sortin' books, but it's a darn close second."
"Maybe in the future. But right now that's the last thing she needs. You know what she's going through better than anypony, AJ." Twilight gave her friend a disapproving look.
"Consarn it, Twi, Ah hate it when yer actually all wise and princessly like for once." Applejack rolled her eyes. "Fine, whatever, as long as Pinkie and I don't suddenly find our flanks buzzin' awkwardly callin' us back home halfway through the Hearthswarming meal with our families." She muttered as she fell into step alongside her alicorn friend.
"Aw, you worry-wart." Twilight teased. "What's the worst that could happen?"
"Now ya just had to ask." Applejack gave a long suffering sigh.
"I could do with a chalk outline inside me. I think I died a little inside." Rainbow groaned as the two survivors crawled their way out of the shadows towards the palace doors, stretching their weakly quivering limbs like dying withered flowers towards the sunset beyond.
"I left the chalk with my mortal remains in that library. I'm nothing but a spirit ascending to paradise now." Marshal rasped, reaching out for the light at the end of the tunnel. "Rainbow Dash, we're in heaven!" He declared as they stepped out to meet the glorious sunset.
"You sure this is heaven? 'Cause I'm pretty sure you're still with me. I can hear you a little too clearly, buster." Rainbow muttered, darkly.
"Dammit, we're in hell, aren't we?" Marshal muttered. "I knew clopping to that Countess Coloratura hug pillow would send me straight to hell. Oh, dear goddess Coloratura, please forgive me for I have sinned! Please find it in your heart to forgive this humble sinner and raise me to your razzle-dazzle paradise in the sky!" He cried, raising his hands up in prayer to a Rara-shaped cloud drifting past in the sunset sky.
"You have no self-respect, do you?" Rainbow rolled her eyes in disgust.
"I am hanging out with you." He pointed out, dropping his arms to his sides.
"Hay!" Rainbow protested. "I have a fan club. Ponies queue up to be seen with me."
"Are you getting competitive with my Countess Coloratura hug pillow?" He raised an eyebrow that was as suggestive as an eyebrow could get without being propped up by a rolled up Playcolt magazine. "'Cause I wouldn't mind that in the slightest."
The normally brash pegasus broke into a furious blush. "K-keep your fantasies to yourself!" She yelped, making her point with a flying headbutt.
He tumble-dived out of the way of her rainbow bullet. "Hah, you still can't hit shit!" He laughed as she rammed into the palace wall behind him.
"That's still not what I was aiming at." Rainbow called back from above.
He looked down to see yet another shadow grow wider and wider around his feet. "I'm ready for you this time!" He probably would have leapt out of the way of the landslide of snow rushing down from the palace rooftops. His trousers, however, had other plans, as they suddenly came loose and dropped down around his ankles. He barely managed a hop and skip before falling under the deluge of snow from above.
Rainbow hovered high above the mound of snow, well outside grabbing range. "Huh, can't see you." She twirled an oddly familiar trouser belt in one forehoof while shielding her eyes with the other, making a show of looking around for him. "That snow must be deeper than four inches, huh?"
A face shook itself free of the snow. "How the hell did you do that?" It sputtered.
"Winning? Sorry, kinda tough explaining that to somepony who's never done it before." Rainbow laughed at the human struggling to unbury himself.
"No, the trouser thing." He demanded. "That was a belt buckle! You've got hooves. You just broke physics!"
"I've also got a tongue." She showed him with a raspberry. "It can unbutton, unzip and undress anything in one second flat, physics or no. Kinda a survival requirement when you're friends with the queen of frou frou." She gave him a smug grin.
"Well, let's see if your tongue-fu can untangle this!" He suddenly burst out of his mound of snow.
"Hah, I'm not gonna let you grab me aga–" Her words trailed off as she noticed he was making no efforts to grab her. Instead, he was twirling something in his hands. Then she realized why he had kept her talking while taking his time unburying himself; He had secretly fashioned himself one of those Zebrican bolas out of his own pants. The bola-pants were already in flight before she could even dodge. It struck her in her barrel, wrapping itself tight around her withers and wings. She gave a loud squeak as she suddenly plummeted, crashing bum first in the thankfully soft snow.
"Cry! Your tears are part of my five-a-day!" He cackled. She looked up just in time to see a pair of bare hairy legs rushing at her. She gave a loud squeak of fright as she dug herself out and rolled out of the way of his flying tackle.
"Hope your five-a-day includes my hoof!" Rainbow barked as she rolled upright, snowball at the ready.
"EAT SNOW!" They both roared as they launched themselves into a snowball storm.
The palace doors opened a tiny crack. Six pairs of eyes peered out at the rumpus in the snow outside, just as it escalated into a full-out fracas.
"Guys, maybe this wasn't such a good idea after all." Twilight said, worriedly.
"What're ya talking about, Twi? This is great!" Spike chuckled, dipping his claws into Pinkie's tub of popcorn.
"I do agree with Spikey-Wikey. They do appear to be communicating." Rarity nodded.
"They're totally makin' friends!" Pinkie declared through a mouthful of popcorn. "Five bits on Mash-Mash!"
"Oh, I do so enjoy a friendly wager." Rarity accepted the bet with a hoof-bump.
"Yer all horrible." Applejack muttered, hoofing over her bits into the pot.
"Oh, I do hope nopony gets hurt." Fluttershy paid her share.
"Ya really think those two're gonna survive Hearthswarming?" Applejack asked, wincing as Rainbow rammed snow down Marshal's boxers.
"Oh, I am sure the two will be the best of friends by the time we get back." Rarity said, confidently. She flinched as Marshall pulled said boxers over Rainbow's face, visibly affronted by the flagrant abuse of flagrant fashion.
"I hope you're right, for their sake." Twilight trembled as the two were reduced to a kicking and flailing cloud of snow. "I don't think either of them will survive otherwise."
Two war-weary warriors staggered into the warm embrace of Sugarcube corner together. One shook errant snow flakes and big fat water droplets out of her wet fur and tail into the convenient shake-shield erected around the entrance. The other wrung out his pants before slipping them back on soggily. As one they ambled in and collapsed into a booth with a heavy sigh.
"What're we doing here again?" He groaned, almost as if he were questioning his entire life.
"My wings are wet. I need somewhere warm to dry them off or they'll freeze in mid-flight." Rainbow muttered. "Why did you follow me here?"
"You're still wearing my boxers on your head." He pointed out. "And while I'm fine going home commando, I kinda would like to give my lucky boxers a wash before I ever wear'em ag–." Rainbow wordlessly catapulted the elastic garment back at him. Said boxers made planetfall on his face with the sort of force more commonly associated with meteor strikes.
Rainbow had achieved surface temperatures high enough to instantly evaporate all the damp in her fur and wings into a puffy little cloud of steam. The heat certainly showed in the flush on her face. She whirled around at all the other ponies staring at her. "My ears were cold, okay?!" She blurted out.
Everypony quickly turned back to their mugs of hot cocoa and sweets, pretending as hard as they could that Rainbow Dash hadn't just trotted into Sugarcube Corner wearing a pair of underpants on her head. But Rainbow couldn’t help but overhear a few terse whispers break out here and there, on very topical things such as ‘pissing off the Factory’ and ‘making the weather from scratch sucks’. She let her ears droop, willing them to shut out the conversation. Except that left her with staring at Marshal tucking his underpants in his collar like a napkin.
Unfortunately that wasn’t very helpful in her efforts to forget they were ever anywhere near her head. "I thought those things fell off in the fight. What's it made of, ursa traps?" Rainbow demanded.
"Funny you should ask.” He put on that knowing grin once more. “There was once a seventh element, the Element of Modesty. Once upon a time during the Windigo Ice Age, the birth rate was so low the diaper makers were making more money making adult diapers. They were so desperate they actually turned to Princess Platinum of all people for a solution. And surprisingly, she kinda did come up with a solution. She personafied the want-it-need-it spell.” He grinned at Rainbow’s sudden expression of horror. “Yep, I can see you’ve seen Smartypants. Yeah, imagine Smartypants as a walking breathing avatar of lust. Actually, I’ll save you the effort. You’re looking at him.” He chuckled as Rainbow quickly averted her eyes, a bright blush blooming on her cheeks. “Don’t worry, that’s where the Element of Modesty comes in. It was sacrificed to create this, the ultimate seal against the greatest indecency ever known.” He stretched the pair of underpants Element of Modesty in demonstration. “Plus I kinda used up most of the spell’s power to help Clover, Pansy and Cookie create the Fire of Friendship.” His grin only widened as Rainbow’s jaw dropped at the implication. “What, you really think laughter and jokes alone could produce the kinda hotness needed to melt all that ice? Case in point.” He laughed, pointing at the puff of steam rising up from Rainbow’s burning mane.
"Hello again, you two~" A thick bubbly voice sailed over ahead of its owner, the pink of pinkness herself, Pinkie Pie. “Hay, hay, are you telling Dashie the Hearthswarming story?” She gave an eager bounce. Her eyes fell on Rainbow and her burning blush. “Ooooh, you are!” She giggled. “What’s wrong, Dashie? Oooh, you didn’t know? Does that mean you don’t know the true meaning behind sticking gifts in socks? Or raising the ‘Unification Flag’? Or the Hearthswarming dolls? Or where the first carols came from? ‘Cause you know, when they talk about singing carols to keep the Fire of Friendship burning...”
There was a loud thump of something smacking against wood. Marshal and Pinkie looked down at the smoking form of Rainbow Dash faceplanted on the table. “I think you broke her, Pinks.” Marshal whispered, fanning the smoke rising from Rainbow’s mane with a napkin.
“I think she actually believes you.” Pinkie whispered back. “Well, nothing a few drinks can’t cool off.” She said in a louder voice as she offered the menu.
“Good idea, Ms. Saleswoman.” He chuckled. “My usual then.”
"Your usual coming right up, Mash-Mash!" She twirled on the spot before smoothly sliding a tray bearing a tall mug of hot strawberry milk and a bowl of what looked like rock candy.
Marshal didn’t even stop to ask what tophat she pulled the tray out of. "Thanks, Pinks." He gave the pink pony a grateful nod. "Looks awesome! I'm really diggin' the marshmallow pony with the pants on its head." He pointed down at the skilfully sculpted marshmallow slowly melting in his milk.
"I thought you'd get the reference." Pinkie giggled.
"Traitors." Rainbow muttered from where she was flopped flat against the table.
"Hay, Mash-Mash won me five bits so it's the least I can do." Pinkie giggled defensively.
"Nice to know my friends are right behind me, betting on my enemy." Rainbow groaned. 'Hay, wait! This is my chance to learn more about him and his weaknesses!' Rainbow's eyes suddenly lit up with the glow from the devil's workshop within. 'I gotta find out all his likes and dislikes while I'm here.'
"Guess you kinda did help me win the bits. So tell you what, Dashie. Your drink's on me today." Pinkie offered, cheerfully. "What would you like?"
"I'll have whatever he's having." Rainbow waved a forehoof at Marshal's drink. 'That'll tell me what it is and he'd never suspect a thing!' She grinned inwardly at her own deviousness.
"Another hot strawberry pop-rock shake, comin' right up!" Pinkie announced.
'A...pop-rock shake? That doesn't sound anything like the Taliconite Elixir or the Mane-iac Chemical X.' Rainbow thought, at least before her entire train of thought was thrown violently off the rails at the sight of Pinkie pulling a second tray straight out of her...mane?
"Wait, how did get...? Your mane? How did you even know what I was gonna order?" Rainbow spluttered in disbelief.
"Aw, Dashie, you're so cute when you're trying so hard." Pinkie giggled. She leaned in close and whispered into Rainbow's ear, "Lemme give you a free one on the house. He can't resist a good ear-scratch."
"A...what?" Rainbow blinked.
Pinkie gave her a big wink as she sauntered up to him, ears fidgeting exaggeratedly. "How's the pop-rock shake?" She asked, hopping up and hooking her forehooves over his lap playfully. Pinkie's bright grin turned twenty degrees more victorious as Marshal's lips curled into a fond smile.
"Tastes absolutely rockin', Pinks. Thanks." He slowly reached out towards Pinkie's mane. Rainbow was about to warn her friend, but the triumphant grin on her pink friend's face suggested she knew what she was doing. Rainbow gulped, watching carefully, taking in every detail. Pinkie's triumphant grin quickly turned into a lopsidedly goofy smile as he curled his claws behind her ears and gave them a firm petting.
"Teeheehee, anything for you, Mash-Mash." Pinkie giggled, leaning into his claw, her ears twitching pleasurably under his ministrations.
His normally bright, sharp expression had gone completely mushy and googly-eyed, completely vulnerable and open to defeat. So he can’t resist scratching pony ears. Rainbow did a mental hoof-pump of triumph as she committed his weakness to memory.
She paused as she came to a sudden realization. If she was going to take advantage of his weakness she was gonna have to let him touch her ears with those claws of his. She frowned a little at the unsettling thought as she eyed an idle specimen resting on the table in front of her. She was gonna have to learn a bit more about this creature's weakness if she was gonna exploit it properly, she decided. Checking that he was still entirely distracted by Pinkie's ears, she leaned across the table and slowly inched towards exhibit A. At a glance it looked kinda like Gilda's talons, except all fleshy, soft and definitely less sharp. In fact the more she looked the less claw-like it appeared. She tilted her head to one side as she eyed the mysterious digits, her tail swishing to and fro in the air with the excitement of this new discovery.
Feeling particularly adventurous, she gave it a poke with the tip of her hoofsie. It twitched. She gave it another poke. One digit flicked up and gave her a firm poke in the nose.
"Bwah!" She squeaked, drawing back in a hurry. She went cross-eyed as she tried to peer down at the weird tingle tickling the tip of her nose. No matter how much she tried to scrunch or shake her nose it simply wouldn't go away. "Wh-what have you done to my nose?!" She demanded, pawing at her nose with both forehooves in a vain effort to shake off his strange alien magic.
“That was the one finger rocket boop, the strongest secret technique of an ancient school of martial arts that has been lost to a tragic succession war. It completely ignores all physical defenses, waving them as it blows by on its way to invade your very soul. First, you’ll feel a funny tingling in your nose.” He explained, casually. “Then it’ll travel down your throat, sensuously spreading across your withers and into your wings, caressing your primaries like a gentle preening.” Rainbow would’ve rolled her eyes at the excessively over-detailed description of his secret technique. But to her surprise, she could almost feel everything he was describing. Was it just her imagination?“Then you’ll start to get the most awkward wing boner ever.” Nope, not just her imagination! Wingies! Much wingies! “Then it’ll wriggle its way lower into your tush, invading deep between your rear legs to...” He suddenly paused, clearing his throat. “Heh, listen to me ramble, eh? Dunno what to do with myself, sometimes.” He chuckled. Nopony else in the bakery shared in his chuckle. They were all too busy straining their twitching ears, hanging onto his every word. You could hear a pin drop, or, indeed, a wing pop, even a few tail stirs and, dare say, thigh fidgets.
“Aw, c’mon!” One stallion in a corner groaned in protest. Cries and moans of agreement rang out across the bakery.
“It’s called a secret technique for a reason.” Marshal shrugged, unapologetically. “I can go on giving away all my secrets all day. But I prefer showing’em. And I know most ponies do too.” Pinkie purred happily as Marshal demonstrated more of his secret finger techniques on her ears.
“See, Dashie, all the secrets you could ever want.” Pinkie sighed happily.
'Heh, thanks Pinkie. Making him give away his secrets is easy-peas!' Rainbow Dash was on a roll. Her cunning was totally paying off in spades! Plus the warm prickling feeling in her nose wasn't unpleasant either. In fact it was kinda nice. Rainbow couldn't help but imagine what it'd be like to have that pleasant tingling all over her own ears as his hands ran through her mane, softly touching–
Rainbow blinked as she realized Marshal had stopped ruffling Pinkie's mane, the two staring at her own goofy drooling grin.
She gave a tiny whimper-squeak as she quickly wiped away the drooly grin off her face. Fortunately, Marshal didn’t seem to notice as he nonchalantly segued into a completely unrelated question. "Say, Rainbow, you haven't touched your drink. Do you know how to drink a pop rock shake?"
"Huh? O-of course I do," Rainbow blurted out as she fought down her blush, "I w-was just waiting to see if you do. Y'know, just in case you need some help."
"How kind," he chuckled, reaching out for the bowl of candy and grabbing a whole bunch, "Well, cheers then." He raised the clump of candy to her in a toast before raising it to his mouth.
Determined not to be left behind, Rainbow quickly grabbed a large hoofful of her own candy and threw it in her muzzle. "Mmmmffff?!" Something popped in her mouth. Crackles burst across her tongue. A flurry of flavour tap-danced all across her muzzle like a blueberry-flavoured fireworks display. "MMMMHHH!" She whined, pointing plaintively at her mouth as the storm of crackly snappy blueberriness played havoc with her tongue and cheeks. Her eyes widened as she noticed him lower that hand of his, revealing an intact handful of candy. He hadn't eaten his at all. He tricked her!
"Calm down, Dashie. It's just pop-rock candy," he chuckled.
"MMHHMMMMHHHMMMM!" She pointed a deadly forehoof at him before miming something very violent and possibly lethal at him.
"Oooh! Oooh! I'm the bestest at charades!" Pinkie waved her forehooves in the air. "Nutcrackers? Hammers? Lots and lots of hammers?"
"I got it." Marshal grinned, "I think it's moon banishment. Either that or hot, kinky sex. I'm really liking my chances here."
"One second, lemme ask her in pop-rock-ese." Pinkie giggled, grabbing a hoofful of Marshal's candy and taking a bite. "Mmmhmmuuuhmm?" She asked Rainbow in her own native language.
"MMMMHHMM!" Rainbow flailed her forehooves in distress, her fluffy cheeks puffing up with all the crackling and popping.
"Mmhhmmmhumhumfrum." Pinkie nodded in sympathy. "Mmmmhmmhmm." She planted a reassuring forehoof on Rainbow's withers. "Mmh. Mmh mmh." She pointed at her own muzzle before swallowing slowly and deliberately, as if demonstrating how simple it was to a foal.
"Mmmm." Rainbow closed her tearful eyes tight and swallowed. "Fwaaaah!" She took a deep lungful of air. She allowed her blueberry-tinged tongue to hang out, sighing at the soothing feel of the cool air on her abused taste buds. "Wha da 'ay whazzat?" She demanded.
"Sorry, Rainbow, thought you knew the trick behind pop-rock shakes." He chuckled alongside Pinkie.
"Buk 'uu!" Rainbow snapped.
"Nope, sadly that's not the solution to everything." He grinned. "Here, lemme show you." He emptied her bowl of pop-rock candy into her mug of hot strawberry milk. The milk and melted marshmallow began to fizz and froth, turning a very cheerful shade of dark pink.
Rainbow watched in amazement, her tongue left forgotten for a moment.
"Pinkie makes the best pop-rock shakes. Go ahead, give it a try. It'll help with your tongue." He said.
She didn't need telling twice. She took the mug in her forehooves and took a sip. Just as promised, the smooth marshmallows and milk immediately washed out the thick tangy taste clinging to her tongue. The fizzy strawberry and blueberry froth tickled and warmed her mouth with a pleasant buzz. It was like drinking cider; Smoother, richer and sweeter cider.
She gave a loud contented sigh as she set her mug back down, her pop-rock crisis quickly forgotten. "That was just…you know….” She waved vaguely at the air, as if fishing for words out of the ether.
Marshal came to her rescue with a Twilight-brand flash card. “Super-ultra-extreme-awesomemazing?” He suggested with a grin.
“Yeah, that! I’ll drink to that!” Rainbow giggled, raising her mug. Marshal met her midway with his own mug before joining in drowning themselves in pop-rock shakes.
The two gave loud sighs of satisfaction as they set their mugs down. "Mmmm, I could just drown in this stuff and die happy." He sighed.
“Teeheehee, I tried that once.” Pinkie giggled. “It...wasn’t actually much fun. ” Her grin turned into a frown at the memory.
'Heh, he could die to this stuff, huh? So pop-rock shakes are one of his weaknesses. I got him now.' Rainbow sniggered to herself as she took a smug sip of her own shake. 'Mmmmmm, I could just drown in this stuff and die happy!' She felt herself melt into a puddle of goo inside. ‘Definitely can’t be worse than being imprisoned in someplace I’m banished to.’ She thought fuzzily. ‘Wait a sec, isn’t this supposed to be punishment? Why the drinks and the help with the book-sorting and everything?’ The milk-induced bliss dissolved in the sudden realization. She looked up at him suspiciously. ‘What is he planning, being all goody-goody with me? Huh, probably thinks he can lower my guard and get me again? Heh, I’ll beat him at his own game for once.’
He seemed to notice her staring into her own cup. “What’s wrong, Rainbow? Did you find Sombra hiding at the bottom of your cup or something?” He asked.
Rainbow’s mind worked so quick it could have given her sonic rainboom a run for its bits. “Hay, Pinkie, are evil dark overlords part of the recipe?” She asked, innocently.
“Hmm, nope. At least not yet!” Pinkie giggled. “Oooh, Dashie, you just gave me an amazing idea!” She exclaimed, suddenly bouncing away.
“You realize she’s gonna go stuff Sombra in a shaker now? What, that pop-rock meltdown not bad enough for you?” Marshal raised an eyebrow.
Rainbow took advantage of Pinkie’s absence to enact her plan. “I dunno, isn’t that the whole point of this whole punishment thing? This stuff isn’t trying hard enough to be prison grub.” She tossed up a leading remark while casually swirling her cup. ‘I’ll slowly tease more juicy info I can use out of him. Heh, he won’t know what’s coming.’ She mentally rubbed her forehooves together gleefully.
“That’s the point. Why build walls when you can trap your prisoners with good eats?” He grinned.
“So you take all your prisoners here?” She asked, slowly leaning in for the kill.
“Yep. The Cakes are pretty good at fattening’em up. Y’know, so I can eat’em out later.” He casually threw her completely off balance. “I do have a thing for fast food.” He went on, with the air of one commenting on the weather.
Rainbow had to bite her own cheeks to force down the rising blush. ‘Wait. Focus, Rainbow. He’s doing it again. Every time I try to dig up some dirt on him he just shrugs me off with something completely lame! But I’m not lettin’ him get away this time!’ She quickly recovered and put on her best ‘cool story bro’ look. “Sounds like a lot of work for a guard,” she said, “Don’t dungeons make it easier for you to catch a snooze on the job?”
“I prefer catching’em free-range.” He shrugged. But there was a twinkle of mirth in his eye, seemingly fascinated by Rainbow’s cool reaction.
“At the rate you’re going, you’ll sooner catch a cold,” Rainbow scoffed, “Is it really that much fun messing with me?” She launched her coup de grace.
He suddenly turned pensive at her question. She knew she had him.
When he finally spoke up again, he seemed more sombre, if just a little. “Did dumping Nightmare Moon on the moon for one thousand years turn her good?” He answered her question with one of his own. “Has one thousand years of collecting pigeon droppings as a lawn ornament turned Discord for the better? Did being tossed to the end of the universe for one thousand years do the Sirens or Tirek any good?”
“Wasn’t there this Egghead thing about trying insane things over and over expecting the same results?” Rainbow frowned.
“I just think leaving it up to somebody else like prisons, moons or big random numbers is a really half-assed way of saying you don’t care.” He shrugged. “If you’re gonna help someone, help’em. Don’t leave it until it’s… it’s too late.” He trailed off, turning even more thoughtful.
Rainbow’s ears twitched to attention at the sudden crack in his demeanor. She had expected to corner him into admitting that he was screwing around with her and her sentence, maybe even open up more leeway to retaliate. She certainly didn’t expect him to turn all brooding and stuff.
“Heh, I can’t believe you’re arguing the pop rock shakes,” he suddenly chuckled, his jovial mask back on, “Do you really have a problem with them?” His grin alone managed to promise a world devoid of pop rock shakes. “‘Cause I was thinking of ordering a second round, y’know.”
She quickly shook her head. He was suprisingly persuasive.
“So shut up and drink so we can get to that second cup,” he said with a chuckle...before the colour suddenly drained out of his face, “Scratch that, I think we’re about to have an actual problem with’em.”
Rainbow followed his gaze to find Pinkie approaching with two mugs billowing glowing purplish green steam. The steam curled into something that just about resembled a sinister grin.
Everypony in the store was quick to recognize another ‘baked bads’ incident in the making and stampeded for the nearest exit. Marshal and Rainbow suddenly became one in purpose as they pushed a window open and dove for dear life.
“Um, refills?” Pinkie called out after the customers quickly disappearing over the horizon. “Oh, okay then.” She shrugged, before downing her latest experiment.
“Are we okay?” Rainbow asked, peering down from a tree a good two hundred yards away from ground zero.
“I dunno,” Marshal said, peeking through a mailbox’s slot, “Your butt tattoo would be buzzing if there were any friendship problems or apocalypses, right?”
They both eyed Rainbow’s butt carefully. It was thankfully devoid of any butt buzzing.
“I’m not waiting for my flank to start buzzing.” Rainbow whispered.
“Neither am I.” Marshal agreed.
They agreed not to wait for Rainbow’s butt to buzz. It was a start.
It was 7 PM when she finally gave Marshal a parting raspberry. As she took off into the darkening sky she couldn't help but feel a little pang of guilt. 'Darn it, I forgot to see Tank today!' She bit her lip as she looked down at the darkness swallowing up the earth below. No way she'd be able to make a safe landing in that forest in the dark. ’Sorry, little guy. I'll make it up to you tomorrow.' She sighed as she banked towards her home. She couldn't believe she hadn't thought of him at all that day. She couldn't help but spend the rest of the flight home wondering why.
The sun rose. For a split second it thought it had risen late that day for the sky was already occupied by a certain somepony who, by some grand schedule of the universe, shouldn’t be awake for another five hours at the very least. Intent on not being outdone by the laziest pony in Equestria, the sun picked up its pace. But not even a giant flaming ball of gas burning in the void could hope to outspeed or, indeed, outshow a sonic rainboom.
Rainbow Dash doubled and tripled her speed, leaving a brilliant rainbow contrail as she zoomed towards their agreed meeting spot. Despite being the fastest pony in Equestria, punctuality had never been her thing. And that morning was no exception. No, that morning she was gonna be early, early enough to spring a surprise ambush on the unsuspecting human. She had even set her alarm clock for once. Her plan was foal-proof.
She slowed down as she inspected her landing spot at the town gate. She bit back a curse as she noticed a telltale black and purple dot waiting patiently by the gate. ‘He’s a whole half hour early?! What kind of loser wakes up that early?!’ She thought heatedly as she swooped down in a silent glide. Deciding some surprise was better than none, she swooped in for the kill, intent on ploughing the snow with his face.
“Gotch-...oof!” She squeaked as his form crumpled like paper mache under her flying tackle, sending her rolling and tumbling in a tangle of trouser legs, shirt sleeves and broken twigs. “H-holy sunbutt! I annihilated him!” She cried in horror as she emerged from the knotted pile of clothes she had ploughed into the ground. “Hay, loser, if you’re gonna lose, you gotta lose properly. Don’t just go and...and do the sissy thing and, y’know, blow up like that!” She cried at the Element of Modesty underpants beneath her. Oh no, is this how humans die? They just...just get vapourized?!“Hay, s-speak to me! Hay!” She pleaded, wringing the underpants back and forth in the hopes that it might somehow come back to life.
“Oooooooo...Raaaaaainbow Daaaaaaaash.” She heard a voice wail hauntingly in the wind.
“W-wha…?!” Rainbow looked about wildly in fear. “Wh-where are you?!”
“I have ascended into a hiiiiiigher foooorm. Thaaaaank you, for releasing me from my mortal fleeeesh.” The voice howled.
“W-wait! I-I….I really whacked you?!” Rainbow cried in disbelief. Thoughts whirled around her head like a tornado day gone mad. How was she gonna tell Twi she killed her human?! “N-no! W-why d-do you have to be so weak, you weakling?!” Rainbow cried out against the injustice of mortality. “Wh-what...wh-what do I do?” She bowed her head in defeat.
“Taaaaake my undeeeeeerpants and enshrine them for all to sssssee. Let all of ponykind be inspired by the contours of my crooooootch for generations to coooooome. Pun intende-...”
“Like hay I will!” Rainbow catapulted the underpants into a nearby bush. There was a loud slap, to which the bush replied with an empathetic ‘Ow’.
“You just assaulted a naked man in a bush with his own underpants. I hope you’re proud of yourself.” The tall form of Marshal emerged in all his birthday suit glory from the bush. “About time you arrived. Do you know how long I waited in the nudie?”
“So you are alive!” Rainbow barked angrily. “Once I get free, I’m going to correct that!” She declared, fighting to free herself from the tangled clothes still knotted about her wings and rear legs.
“Hey, don’t sound so disappointed at me being ali-...” Marshal dive-rolled out of the way of a shirt-bound Rainbow and her desperate leap attack.
“Aww, c’mon!” Rainbow whined as she struggled to free her wings from the tangled shirt, “How the hay am I supposed to hit you if you move?!”
“Hah, joke’s on you. I have my underpants of +20 evasion equipped.” Marshal pulled out of his roll with his underpants magically equipped. He demonstrated his superior pants-powered evasion technique by rolling out of the way of another flying tackle. “Forget ever hitting me. You can’t even hit puberty,” he taunted.
"How do you keep dodging me?!" Rainbow demanded in between trying to bite the shirt off her wings.
"Time slows down in a circle around me." He explained, casually. "I exist a single step outside of time, you see. It was a side-effect of Twilight screwing her time travelling when she sent me to your timeline from one thousand years into the future. I was sent here to protect you and your foal, the one destined to one day lead the Equestrian resistance against the evil time wizard, Starswirl the Bearded and his chrono-legionnaires.”
“Whoah, really?” Rainbow gaped. “But wait, I don’t have a foal.” She pointed out the glaring threat to Equestria’s future survival.
“Not yet?” He frowned. “I must have arrived earlier than I thought. Oh well, nothing we can’t fix.” He grinned, his claw things making creepy grabby motions. “For Equestria!”
“W-wait, y-you’re screwing w-with me again, right?” Rainbow’s efforts to free herself from the shirt grew twice as desperate. “C-can’t I adopt or something? H-hay!” She squeaked as he stepped closer and closer.
“Nope, not screwing with you.” His grin only grew wider as he reached down towards her. Her ears drooped in horror. “At least not until you finally hit puberty.” He laughed, pulling his shirt and trousers free from her tangled form.
“H-hay!” Rainbow cried, “I’ve totally hit puberty! In fact, I hit pubes for breakfast! And I’m gonna have yours for dessert!” She ambush-tackled him midway through putting his trousers on, sending them both into yet another rolling brawl.
The sun could only silently roll its eyes as it finally caught up. It decided to put five bits on Rainbow. The moon put twenty on Marshal’s pubes.
Rainbow did not enjoy the walk through town in the slightest. It wasn’t all the Hearthswarming decorations that had gone up on display since the last time she showed her face in town. Neither was it the sight of all the snow and frost that had to have been hoofmade for the first time in decades, or even the ponies trotting by with their pets. No, it was all the dirty looks and unsavoury whispers she attracted from ponies she passed by. Most of them were, unsurprisingly, her fellow weather pegasi, who had no doubt had to craft winter from scratch instead of buy it all ready-made from the factory. She had had a feeling she’d tick off one or two, maybe three ponies. She didn’t realize the whole town would be upset. Midway down Mane Street she decided it was better to just keep her ears flat, her eyes cast down on Marshal’s boots in front of her.
To her relief, Marshal took a sudden turn off Mane Street, leading her away from the unfriendly eyes, instead taking a weirdly winding route through the thankfully deserted back streets. The reprieve gave her enough time to shake off the nagging feeling that the dark, judging looks were still following her. Their destination for the day was, at least, positively deserted. It was an old storage barn on the far edge of town, just before the sparse clumps thatch cottages gave way to open snowfields. It was a blushing bright red with spotlessly whitewashed doors and posts, looking the very picture of an idyllic snow-crusted country barn. Which meant it was one of those awkward barns that saw very little practical use outside of being raised as a yearly family team-building effort. You can hardly sing about raising a barn without actually raising one after all.
At the very least this one had found some use in housing the town's community projects. Or at least keep the more embarrassing failures out of the public eye. Such as the one under the a large gray canvas sheet the two found inside. "Tadah!" Marshal whipped the dust cover off with a dramatic flourish.
"What...is that?" Rainbow frowned at the anti-climatic sight before her. "Another crime scene?"
"It says here that it's a sleigh." Marshal said, addressing his clipboard. Though one could almost hear his inner copper accusing the clipboard of not only murdering but also zombifying the truth.
"Something's been slain here alright. I'm not sure what it was but it died painfully." Rainbow muttered, eyeing the thing that could have been a sleigh in a past life or two.
Marshal tapped his pencil on the clipboard. "It's meant to be pulled by a team of pegasi to fly in the presents for the Hearthswarming festival this year."
"Looks like somepony wanted those presents really badly last year." Rainbow said, trotting around the scene of carnage in the middle of the barn. "Dragons and hydras, by the looks of it." She gave it a sniff. "And timberwolves too." She recoiled at the smell. "The only way you're gonna get this to fly is to launch it with one of'em catapult things. Probably how it used to travel before." She waved a forehoof at the twisted wreckage before them.
"You see a problem. I see a challenge." Marshal tossed his clipboard over one shoulder before pulling up his sleeves.
"What? I don't think finishing what the dragon and hydra started is that much of a challenge." Rainbow pointed out. "Oh, right, this is supposed to be punishment. Of course we're fixing it." She sighed at the sight of the toolboxes and buckets of paint.
"Hey, I know what's totally gonna you chompin' at your bit." He grinned, looking through his flashcards. "Guess which team of pegasi will be pulling the sled on Hearthswarming?"
"I dunno, the mailmares? I mean, it does kinda looks like they did the pulling last year." Rainbow shrugged. "Oh Celestia," Horror dawned on Rainbow's face, "No! Please, anything but the mailmares!"
"Nope, the Wonderbolts." He smirked.
"Oooooooooo..." Rainbow trembled like a sleeping volcano smelling coffee. "...ooOOOMIGOSH! OMIGOSH! OMIGOSH!" She zipped up into the air, eyeing the sleigh critically. "No, no no, this won't do! But if we...and we take that...and yes, yes, no, yes!" She flitted about the remains of the sleigh like a hummingbird that wasn't so much humming as she was fangasming. "But yes, no, yes, yes, but no, but yes! YES! YEEEES!"
"Did you just have an orgasm?" Marshal raised an eyebrow. “Wow. Gotta take notes. Mares like pulling sleighs.”
"No time to lose!" Rainbow threw the doors to the barn wide open, letting the fierce light of dawn flood their workspace. "This sleigh needs to be 360 degrees cooler by Hearthswarming!" She declared.
"You realize that means we'd be right back where we started, right?" Marshal pointed out. But Rainbow had long since reached a speed that his voice would never be able to catch up with. "Fine. For today's challenge, we'll split the sleigh in two. Whoever finishes their repairs first wins."
"Heh. Ready? One...two!" Rainbow called back, not dropping an iota of speed.
Marshal could only roll his eyes with a chuckle as he got to work.
The morning flew by in a flurry of activity. While by midday the sleigh still looked like it had been burned by a dragon and chewed on by a timberwolf, at the very least it no longer looked like it had been sat on by a hydra. That was when Rainbow finally decided to put into motion the plan she had been practicing to perfection all night long. Winning was not enough, after all. Rainbow winning Dash must completely, utterly dominate. And to achieve that she must exploit his weaknesses to the fullest to establish just how awesome she truly is!
She very carefullyaccidentally tossed her paintbrush underneath the sleigh. It slid right across to the other side where Marshal was busy sanding a board with his back turned to her. Just as planned! She carefully wriggled her way under the sleigh, crawling on her belly, before poking her head out the other side. "Uh, hay, Marshal? Could ya pass me that?" She called out.
"Huh?" Marshall looked around at paint brush on the ground. "How the heck did you manage that? Were you trying to do another chalk outline?" He frowned, picking up the brush. He froze as his eyes landed on the little pony poking out beneath the sleigh. No amount of practice prepared her for his intense stare. She barely remembered to twitch her ears exaggeratedly as Pinkie had demonstrated. The rest of her could only pony-squee sheepishly.
"Rainbow Dash." He cleared his throat as he knelt in front of her. The pained look on his face surprised her; You'd think Discord, Nightmare Moon, Chrysalis, Sombra and Tirek had ganged up to tear Equestria a new one. Either that or his boxers had shrunk in the wash. "The fate of the world, no, the entire universe depends on you." He said, grimly.
"I-it does?" Rainbow was thrown a little off-balance. Just a little.
"There's no time to explain, Rainbow." He said. "Quick! You must let me scratch your ears!" The urgency in his voice left no room for hesitation, casually shooed logic out the door and informed sanity that there were no vacancies.
"O-okay!" Rainbow said before she could stop herself.
One of those claw things of his slowly reached out towards her. Rainbow flinched at its approach. Suddenly this plan didn't seem like such a good idea. She closed her eyes tightly as she braced herself for the sake of the universe.
Something large but warm lightly caressed her mane. She was surprised at how soft and gentle it was despite its size. It was almost comforting. She felt his claws curl to firmly dig into the soft fur right behind her ears. Her heart leapt at the sudden shiver rippling from her mane down to the tips of her hoofsies. 'Waaaaaah, it actuallyis comforting!' She felt her ears twitch to attention, almost pressing themselves against his touch. 'Yes!' Rainbow gave a mental hoof-pump of victory. 'This really is his weakness! 'Cause I can feel myself draining all his awesome! Hmmm!'
She felt his hand run through her mane, down the crop that grew down the nape of her neck, before tracing slow circles across her neckline and withers. 'Oh, are necks his weakness too?' Rainbow chuckled inwardly. 'Heh, he's practically throwing his weaknesses at me. This is gonna be a snaaaaaap!' She couldn't help but stretch her neck into his touch, flopping her entire body to one side. She purred in delight, revelling in her complete power over his weakness. 'Too easy! Ooooh yeaaaaaaaah!' She cooed inwardly at how effortlessly she was winning
She felt her breath catch as his hand finally left her. She gave a mewl of protest as her eyes fluttered open, seeking out why the awesome suddenly ran dry. "Phew." She heard him breathe a sigh of relief. "And the world is saved. Thanks to you, Rainbow Dash." He smiled the contented smile of the battle weary warrior ready to die happy after completing his duty to the world.
'Good for them! But what about me?!' Rainbow thought, hotly. "Uh, are you sure? Like, shouldn't you make doubly sure the world is properly saved? Triply even?"
"Hmm." He seemed to deeply contemplate her suggestion. "Yeah, this is the fate of the world we're talking about. Let's not leave any room for doubt." He agreed.
'Too easy. Now I'm totally gonna win this, hooves down!' Rainbow chuckled triumphantly to herself. 'Mmmm...maybe in another ten minutes. Oooooh yeaaaaah....maybe twenty.'
“Wow, Rarity, it looks about ready to eat a hydra or something.” Cheerilee gushed as she trotted around the sleigh, admiring it from every angle. “The PTA and the children will love it!”
Rarity gulped as she eyed the beast. It was obviously not moving, and yet the tight angled curves, glittering spark decals and fiery red finish made it look like a blazing meteor rushing towards a date with the dinosaur apocalypse. “Well, if a diet of hydras is what it takes to get the children to love it, so be it.” She smiled a watery little smile.
“I’m still sorry I got you to do this so very last minute, Rarity. Though I honestly didn’t expect you to finish it so early. Or do such a smashing job on it.” Cheerilee said in awe. “What’s your secret?”
“Oh, I only got the fastest pony in Equestria to do it for me.” Rarity chuckled, waving a forehoof towards a pile of hay in a corner of the barn. “As well as our gentlecolt of a Marshal, of course.” Cheerilee followed her gaze to find two figures sprawled out atop the pile of hay, snoring in perfect synchrony.
“Oh, Rainbow and the human helped?” Cheerilee’s smile turned into a little frown. “I didn’t expect…”
“Of course you didn’t.” Rarity interrupted before Cheerilee could complete the thought. “These two are always out to surprise us. Why, I was at loss at how to get the sleigh done in time when these two so very generously offered to help. But when you think about it, I guess they are the Element of Loyalty and our town’s Marshal of the Guard.” Rarity trailed off into a little giggle. “Oh, imagine the excitement when the foals hear the alien and the Element of Harmony built their Hearthswarming sleigh. And just wait until the PTA hear just who the head teacher persuaded to do her hoofwork.” She gave said head teacher a conspiratorial wink.
A little smile quickly grew into a sly grin on Cheerilee’s face as she quickly realized the benefits of being friends with a national hero and the alien giant. “Heehee, I can almost imagine the looks on Spoiled Rich and Filthy Rich’s faces,” she broke into a little giggle. “In fact, why wait for the PTA? It’s cocktail night at Berry’s bar and I think these two have earned themselves a little reward.”
“I’m sure they’d be delighted, darling. I’ll let them know when they wake up.” Rarity smiled the smile of a fishermare reeling in her catch.
“Nine at Berry’s it is then. See you later, Rarity!” Cheerilee gave the fashionista a parting wave before slipping out of the barn.
“One down.” Rarity allowed herself a satisfied nod, giving the giant atop the haystack a little wink. The giant paused his snoring to reply with a thumbs-up.
Twenty days passed. Twenty days of her sentence down. Twenty days had been knocked off her sentence with her winning the daily challenges twenty times in a row. She had also won twenty new titles from their previous record holder including fastest toilet paper roller and quickest bubblegum remover in Equestria. She had discovered so many of Marshal's secrets and weaknesses that she had taken a leaf out of Twilight's book and started a list and everything. She had taken great care to exploit at least one weakness a day, drawing an ear-scratch from him one day, forcing a belly-rub from him another. He was completely putty in her hooves and there was nothing he could do about it! Winning had never felt so good!
Plus twenty pop rock shakes later and she still can't get enough of the stuff. They were awesome!
Rainbow Dash was on top of the world. She was winning. Sure, it was great that she was winning her life back. But most importantly, she was back where she belonged - in a competition, in a race, in the lead and winning. And it was super-ultra-extreme-awesomazing!
She glided effortlessly across the crisp morning sky. A light fog had rolled in from the mountains, splitting the sunlight into lancing golden beams against the blanket of white. But if having to wake up early can’t get her spirits down, a little bit of fog had no chance. "I'll fly, and I'll fly until the ends of the sky~" She sang as she danced and pirouetted through the clouds.
As she made her final approach towards the Palace of Friendship, she spotted a purple dot under the fog. She banked to the left and corrected her approach, slowing into a perfect hover right above her. "Hay, Egghead!
"Oh, hay, Rainbow." Twilight seemed surprised to see her for some reason. "I wasn't expecting you to visit. What's up?"
"Hay, always great to see you, Twi." Rainbow landed in front of her alicorn friend. "But I'm here to show Marshall who's boss. Again." Her grin made up for the lack of sun in the fog. "Can you show me where the big guy is so I can whoop his flank for the day?" She looked around the palace grounds for any sign of the human.
"Oh." The droop in Twilight's ears and the crestfallen look in her eyes gave Dash a sudden pang of worry.
"Huh? What's wrong? Where is the big guy?" Rainbow asked, worriedly. "I-is he alright?"
"He's at home, Dash." Twilight said, slowly. "He's going away to hibernate. Don't you remember him telling you?"
"Wait, hibernate?" Rainbow gasped, "I-I thought he was just pulling my tail again!"
"Unfortunately humans do hibernate, Rainbow." Twilight explained, slowly. "He has been struggling to stay awake to supervise your sentence. But now that it's over it's time for him to catch up on his sleep."
“Wait, my sentence is over?” Rainbow took a half-step back in surprise. “When the hay did that happen?”
“I thought you’d be happier knowing that.” Twilight frowned. “I mean, you’ve been winning so many of his daily challenges, I thought you were in a hurry to get it all over with.” She slowly trotted over to Rainbow's side. "Hay, Rainbow, are you alright?" She asked soothingly, curling a wing comfortingly over Rainbow's trembling withers.
"No!" Rainbow snapped, suddenly backing away from Twilight. "He can't go! Wh-what happened to looking after him for Hearthswarming?! H-he can't just up and go! At least not...not without saying...saying goodbye." She gulped as she realized what she just said. "W-who cares, anyway?! I-I don't! I don't care where the big lug's gone! G-G-Good riddance!" She shrieked before shooting off into the foggy sky. She barely heard Twilight call out after her. She didn't stop to make out what she said. She just flew and flew as hard as she could. It didn't matter where, as long as it wasn't there.
'Why? Why would it matter if he left?' She thought to herself hotly, 'Hay, why would it matter if he said goodbye or not?' She bit her lip as harsh realization struck her, 'Maybe...maybe he didn't say as much as a goodbye because it didn't matter to him? Maybe I was nothing more than a criminal serving time to him?' She quickly shook herself at the weird thought, 'Why does it matter if that's all I was to him? Why do I care?' She demanded, angrily. "THAT UNCOOL LAME-O!" She cried at the sky. "I'm gonna find him and tell him exactly how uncool he is!"
But where does he live?
The sudden realization almost floored her. She didn't know where he lived. Hay, come to think of it, she barely knew anything about him at all. They'd spent twenty days together, brawled together, pranked each other, even hung out tolerated each other over pop-rock shakes! How could she not know anything about him?!
Well, other than him being a super popsicle soldier. Or an abbreviation-fueled power armour. Or the fires of molestation. Or all the other horseapples he'd tell her whenever...whenever she tried to get to know him better dig up dirt on him.
'Why? Why won't he let me find out anything about him? I thought we're....we're....' She angrily bit back her tears. "I'm so gonna find him and vapourize him! Again!" She vowed to the winds as she rainboom'd across the sky.
The fog only grew thicker and thicker as she flittered about Ponyville. She knocked on one door. No answer. 'Maybe he lives next door?' She thought, hopefully. She knocked on another. No answer. 'He's gotta be here somewhere!' She pounded on a window. She called down a chimney. She screamed in the middle of the square. But the town was as silent as the grave. Every door remained shut, every window barred, every home dark and empty. Her panicked search reached a fevered pitch. The deathly silence roared in her ears, trying to drown out the pounding of her own heart. As the sunlight grew more and more feeble, as the town faded away in the mist, she slowly came to a dreadful conclusion; She only had one place left to search.
She flew up high, all the way to the ends of the sky, to the corner of the world where the naked trees slumbered and life went to rest.
‘No! Please, no! Not here! Please don’t be here!’ She pleaded. “Please don’t go away! I don’t want to lose him! Please!’ She crash-landed in her panic, rolling and tumbling to a stop in the snow. She quickly dug herself out of her snow crater, scrambled onto her hooves and ran for the snow bank that stood guard over that sacred place; the burrow.
He’d be inside. She didn’t know how or why she knew that, but he’d be inside. She launched herself at the snow. She desperately clawed at it with her forehooves. “C’mon.” She growled as her numb hooves struck a particularly cold chunk of ice. “C’mon!” She barked, blinking away cold tears as she bashed at a hard wall of frost. “C’MON!” She cried as she dug and dug and dug at the seemingly endless wall of snow.
The last of the snow finally gave away. Behind it was a long, dark tunnel. It seemed to go on forever, sucking away what little strength Rainbow had left. He was in there somewhere. She willed herself to follow him in, to bring him back no matter what the cost. But no matter how much she wished it, she simply couldn’t move her hooves. She couldn’t feel them where they stood rooted to the ground.
The burrow seemed to deepen before her very eyes, taking him further and further out of her reach, spiriting him away to someplace she could never follow. “No! Don’t take him away from me! Not again!” Rainbow shrieked. “NO! NO! NOOOOOOOOOOOO!”
She shot up out of her bed. Her fur was drenched with sweat. She was panting for dear life. Something hot and wet burned on her cheeks and stung her eyes. She looked wildly around the surrounding darkness. A flash of lightning flooded the room with harsh light. She almost jumped at the stark sight of her own room. Her pounding heart froze; Tank’s empty basket struck her like a cockatrice. She struggled against her tangled blanket in an attempt to get away, somewhere, anywhere that wasn’t there. But the blanket proved stronger. As another crack of thunder struck, she resorted to diving under it. Before she knew it she was sobbing. She wasn’t sure whether it was fright, shame or loss. But she was determined to cry it all away.
Twenty eight days passed. Twenty eight days of her sentence down. And an extra twenty eight days knocked of her sentence with her daily wins. One more day remained on the clock and she stood to shave it off with one more win that day. By all rights that win was already hers. She knew that day would be her last day.
But Rainbow Dash didn't feel quite as awesome. Being ahead in the race, leaving her competition in the dust, winning, all of that just didn't feel as great anymore. Which was weird as buck, 'cause there's nothing Rainbow winning Dash loves more than winning.
Except...it feels like with each win she's losing something. Thinking about it, all she's really losing are the days on her sentence. And that's a great thing, right?
Then why does she hafta work real’ hard to convince herself of this?
'I'm probably just getting bored. I just need to win today and end this once and for all.' She thought to herself, hotly. She attacked the snow piling atop town hall’s roof with a vengeance, clearing the rooftop in ten seconds flat. ‘Just need to clear up Sugarcube Corner’s roof and I’m done with this. Forever. Maybe if I finish quickly, I can still make it to the Pony Tones carols thing at town hall.’ She thought to herself angrily as she prepared to take flight.
Except a sudden punt to her rear sent her flying a little early. "Wh-whoaaaaah!" The force sent her careening off the roof and into a snow pile on the ground below before she could even spread her wings. “H-hay! What gives?!” She cried, digging herself out of the pile. Before she could recover a fierce downpour of freezing rainwater drenched her from mane to hoof. The sudden chill took her breath away. Her chest seized up, refusing to allow her to breathe. Before she knew it, she was a victim of a pegasus’ worst enemy; Frost. “H-h-h-heeeelp, s-s-somepoonyyy…” She could barely cry out as cold, blood-chilling fear suddenly gripped her.
To her dismay the town was deserted. Everypony must still be at the Pony Tones carol recital. Nopony would be able to hear her cry.
“Hay, Rainbow Crash! Don’t bother screaming for help. The Factory made sure nopony will be able to hear you. We even paid the Pony Tones to sing extra loud. Just so happens the rest of your council buddies are out of town too. What a shame, huh?” Rainbow would’ve sworn the grating voice belonged to a warthog if only she didn’t recognize it so well. She looked up. Her heart fell. Sure enough, hovering above her was Dumbbell, the bane of her flight camp days scaled up to pain-in-the-plot size. Rainbow had always suspected there was a brick somewhere in his ancestry, except that’d be an insult to all bricks everywhere.
“Thought you needed some help chillin’ out. But you’re lookin’ as cool as ever down there.” The burly pegasus stallion laughed at her plight. On either side of him were his two bulky flank accessories, Hoops and Score, whose grins were surely stolen from some poor bullfrog somewhere. They joined in Dumbbell’s laughter, if only to avoid having to think of something witty of their own.
But to her dismay there was a fourth face she recognized, one that still haunted her with regret. She loomed high above Rainbow, her forehooves gripping a pitch black raincloud, the very same cloud raining ice cold water down on Rainbow’s frozen wings. “L-L-Lightning D-Dust?!” Rainbow rasped, her chest seizing up with the effort alone.
The turquoise pegasus mare snarled at Rainbow’s recognition. “Didn’t think you’d remember me at all, Rainbow Dash.” Rainbow winced at the bitterness in Lightning’s voice.
“What’s wrong, Crash?” Dumbbell laughed. “Too cold for you? Gimme a second. Lightning, why don’t you warm it up for her?” He waved a commanding forehoof at the turquoise pegasus.
“With pleasure.” Lightning growled, giving the raincloud a firm stomp. An explosive bark of thunder filled the air. Rainbow gave a squeak of fright as she ducked for dear life, only to land in a frosty puddle of slush. The frost on her fur burned. She couldn’t even feel her wings anymore. She gave them an experimental flap. She couldn’t help but give a squeak of terror as she found her feathers had begun to freeze. She was well and truly grounded. And for a pegasus that was a step short of death. Humiliation and terror competed for tears, but her eyes were too frozen for either.
“So, you’re probably wondering why we’re doing this, right?” Dumbbell asked, casually. “For old times sake, I’ll give it to you straight, Crash. You know the score. You dirt-sniffing pegasi have one job — stay in line and do as the Weather Factory tells you to. It’s easy, Crash. Do the job right and the Weather Factory will leave you to whore yourselves to the ground pounders or whatever it is you dirt-sniffers do. But you flocked up, Crash. Oh, you flocked up baaad. Do you know how much profit the Factory was supposed to make out of supplying the winter for all of East Equestria before you bucked everything up? I’d give the value in terms of your life, Crash, but you ain’t worth the cirrus in my tail.” He sent Rainbow cowering to the ground with another roll of thunder. “Think you can get away with anything now that you’re a bigshot council member? Think you’re above Cloudsdale and the Factory? Well, think again Dash. Karma’s a bitch and we’re the pound keepers. Let’s start with poor little Dusty here. Once she’s had her fill of payback, we’ll show you how rainbows are really made at the Factory. Take it away, Lightning.”
Lightning clenched her teeth as she glared down a sight she has long been waiting for; Rainbow Dash cowering at her hooves. But to her surprise she found Rainbow gazing up at her with a sorrowful look.
‘I just think leaving it up to somebody else like prisons, moons or big random numbers is a really half-assed way of saying you don’t care. If you’re gonna help someone, help’em. Don’t leave it until it’s too late’
There are days when Rainbow wondered if she did the right thing at the Wonderbolt Academy. If she knew the instructors would outright expel her friend rather than help put her back on the straight and narrow, she might have taken matters into her own hooves. She had sought out her friend to try and make amends since, but Lightning Dust had quite literally disappeared off the face of Equestria. Now she had suddenly returned and it looked like it was all too late. And it was all her fault.
No. The fastest pony in Equestria is never too late. Not even time can outrun Loyalty.
“L-Lightning Dust…” Rainbow fought to smother her fears as she looked up at her former friend in grim defiance. “I-I’ve been l-looking for you for a while, y’know.”
Lightning’s eyes widened noticeably. “Wh-why?” She seemed taken aback. “So you could rub in that cadet badge you stole from me? Is that it?” She demanded, stomping the raincloud. The icy deluge doubled in an instant. To Lightning’s dismay, it failed to turn away Rainbow’s gaze, even as she trained her eyes against the frosty downpour.
“N-No. B-Because I wanted to say…” Rainbow gulped as she forced out the most difficult word in her dictionary. It took every bit of loyalty she had in her to force it out against what was left of her pride, “...I’m sorry.”
“You think you get to play the Element of Loyalty? After all this time?!” Lightning demanded.
“N-No. I b-b-bucked up the first time, Lightning.” Rainbow growled. “But I’m not g-gonna buck up this time. I’m not gonna let my f-friend do something she’s gonna gonna r-regret. Not again. And this time I’m gonna do it myself. No Spitfire, no Wonderbolts, just you and me. Don’t do it. N-not for me, for you.” Lightning almost flinched at the dead certainty in her voice.
“What’s the hold-up, Dusty?” Dumbbells growled. “Do I need to remind you that Wind Rider’s promising you your whole life back for this? Now do it.”
“You seriously think I’m just gonna let you off for smearing my name and ruining my life just because you’re flockin’ sorry?!” Lightning demanded, wings flaring angrily. “Well, buck you, Rainbow Dash!” She reared up, preparing to cloud-buck the lightning bolt to end all lightning bolts.
The sane bits of Rainbow Dash was screaming for her to crawl away, duck for cover, at least brace herself. But a strange, fierce, right feeling compelled her to stand by her friend, especially now when she needed her the most. It was stupid. It was crazy. But she wouldn’t leave her, not this time.
“Grrrrrr….” Lightning growled before rearing up on her hind hooves, “Buuuck you, Rainbow Daaaaaash!” she screeched.
She leapt up high into the air with a powerful flap of her wings before suddenly dropping down in a hammer-dive. On top of Dumbbell, specifically his face, flattening him into his cloud. A deft roundhouse kick scythed Hoops in the neck, slamming him down alongside his boss. Lightning spun around to finish with a body slam on Score. But a sudden supplex grab from below her stopped her mid-lunge. With a single supplex throw from Dumbbell, Lightning was sent crashing down into the slurry alongside Rainbow.
“Stupid whorse.” Dumbbell growled from above, nursing a bleeding lip. “You’re that deadset to be a loser, huh? Well if you’re that desperate, I’m sure we can fit both you and Crash in the same ice cube.” He waved his cronies up to flank him as he took control of the lightning cloud.
“L-Lightning?” Rainbow gasped at the darkening bruise forming around Lightning’s left eye.
Lighting spat slush out as she peered up at Rainbow. “Dammit, Rainbow Dash. You’re a bad influence, you know that?” She chuckled bitterly. “You’re the expert at this whole hero business. What happens now?” She rasped, looking up at Dumbbell. The burly stallion was rearing up, preparing to stomp down on the lightning cloud above them, ending it once and for all.
“Pants.” Rainbow murmured, sounding half-dazed.
“What?” Lightning blinked.
Dumbbell and Score suddenly crashed down into the slurry ice next to them with all the force of a falling star, their bodies bound together by what looked like a Zebrican bola that may have been a very familiar pair of pants in a past life. Hoops was quick to join them with a crash of his own, his face blinded by a very elastic pair of underpants the Element of Modesty. For three stallions wearing pants derivatives, they were screaming very effeminately under their own frosty deluge.
Just as Rainbow was about to run away check their masculinity with a good kick, something grabbed her around her barrel. She was surprised at how easily she recognized them as a pair of hands by their warm touch alone. They lifted her up with effortless ease. She suddenly found herself cradled against an all-embracing heat that felt like a touch of heaven against her freezing fur. She snuggled tight against it, digging herself as deep as she could into that life-giving warmth. Something thick and warm wrapped around her numb wings. She just about registered that it was a fluffy jacket big enough to pitch a tent in before its owner suddenly lifted her up further. She was hefted onto his broad back, her head resting on top of his. She felt a soft blush warm her cheeks as she realized he was putting himself in between her and her attackers, a very protective gesture that...that...she totally didn’t care about, the i-i-idiot!
With her safely stowed on his back, he reached forwards and just as easily picked up Lightning Dust from under the rain. The turquoise pegasus was so cold she barely put up a token fidget as he tucked her under his left arm, wrapped in what could have easily passed for a sail if it wasn’t shaped like a shirt.
“Huh, who the fuck littered this shit all over my town?” Marshal growled below her. “Did I screw over some butt-ugly slugs in a past life for them to come haunting me now? Well, I’ll tell you the same thing I told you then, y’all still look like ass. So much so that I can’t tell which bit of you I should throw those pants at. At least it made aiming shit easy.”
"M-Mars, y-you're kinda out of ammo to aim." Rainbow pointed out how he had kinda run out of clothes to toss about.
"Heh, ammo?" Marshal grinned his usual shit-eating grin. "A real man keeps his ammo in his heart." He thrusted his hips out, sending the stallions flinching in fear. "And saves the big cannons for last." He guffawed.
Dumbbell, Hoops and Score may have the collective IQ of a pair of pants, but even a pair of pants knew when the shit was running down both legs. And the sight of the big hairless monster towering over their cowering forms was a good hint that it was a shit-running moment. So in the best of pants tradition, they decided to leg it. Or tried to anyway. Their retreat was blocked off by a wide circle of ponies. Some looked confused, even fearful. Most of them were positively furious. But what struck Rainbow the most was that all of them were ponies she and Marshal had helped out on community service over the past few weeks. “Wow, you brought the entire town here?” Rainbow glanced down at Marshal.
“Well, sorta. A few might follow a knight in shining armour to battle. But everyone will follow a naked man swinging his pants around as a weapon,” he chuckled.
“W-wait a sec!” Dumbbell pleaded the crowd through chattering teeth. “W-w-we’re here to take Rainbow Dash to t-the Cloudsdale g-guard! T-t-to g-get h-her back f-for all t-the damage s-she did to winter, a-all t-the extra work we h-had to do to m-make w-winter by h-hoof! We’re h-here to get justice for you guys!” he begged the crowd. “Ya gotta believe us!”
Rainbow gulped. A crowd is only as good as the show you put on, and she didn’t have very much to show. And after that stunt she pulled with the weather factory, she was certain all the townsponies she’d pissed off would turn her over at the drop of a horseshoe. The worst part is, she knew she deserved it. She hung her head, bracing herself for the inevitable.
“Hay, I don’t know how you ponies do things in Cloudsdale, but this is Ponyville!” Rainbow’s ears perked up as she heard the familiar voice of Cheerilee speak up. “We have our own ways of unscrewing problems, and as far as we’re concerned, Rainbow’s done plenty. I mean, she helped me fix up the Hearthswarming sleigh for the foals.”
“She cleared up all the slippery frost from our roads and refueled all our street lamps.” Mayor Mare spoke up for Rainbow.
“She unfroze my butt from a park bench!” Lyra added. “It was a very cold bench!”
“And she saved me when I ran out of toilet paper!” Bon Bon pitched in. “Uh...not that I was in trouble or anything.”
The clamour quickly grew into a din as more and more ponies spoke up for Rainbow. All the boring chores, all the menial tasks, she hadn’t realized just how much her community service meant to the ponies she had wronged. The realization struck her like the Friendship Express. Egghead and Marshal had planned this all along.
“B-but...s-she screwed you all over!” Dumbbell fought to make himself heard over the clamour. “H-hay!”
“Hey, kid. Newsflash - Loyalty goes both ways.” Marshal gloated, “And guess who’s the Element of Loyalty.”
“I-if it w-weren’t for you screwing around….” Dumbbell shot Marshal a look of pure hatred, “Wh-who the flock do you think y-y-you are, ya dumb ape, messing with the F-F-Factory?!”
“Who am I?” Marshal gave a harsh bark of laughter that sounded more like the hacking roar of an ursa, sending the three stallions cowering in their puddles of slush. “Rainbow, tell’em.”
An almost predatory grin spread across Rainbow’s face. “Heh, hope you’ve all put on your jammies and weewee’d ‘cause this is Marshal; Stands for Mojo Au-Omened-thing Radical Small Horse Actually Link. He’s an awesome-powered super soldier power armour designed for his world’s final war. He runs on coolness; My coolness. And I’m his pilot. His right hand alone is so powerful he created Mt. Canterlot by jerking off in his dungeon. And they had to sacrifice an Element to seal his legendary wang before it could burn down Equestria with his Fires of Friendship….that’s the thing you’re wearing on your face, by the way.” She pointed at Hoops.
The three stallions looked between the underpants Element of Modesty stuck on Hoops’ head and the crotch of legend. Their eyes widened in abject terror, squeaking croakily like smushed mice.
“Largehard reports targets locked.” Marshal announced, eyes glinting menacingly down on the three cowering ponies. “Awaiting delete command.”
“Let’s take out the unadorable trash!” Rainbow waved a commanding forehoof from her pilot seat above Marshal’s head.
“Fuck-Yous locked and loaded! Aim. Fire!” Marshal declared. Hoops flinched as Marshal aimed a titanic hip thrust at him. “You, you shall die a virgin the day you move out of your mother’s basement!” Hoops gave a wail of despair as he took cover underneath his own forehooves. Score tried to scoot away on his butt, only to run into Dumbbells. “You, a hydra shall rise out of your toilet seat and bite your balls off the day you ask anypony out.” Score could only break into hopeless sobs as his fate was sealed. “And you…” Marshal licked his lips with relish at Dumbbell’s look of pale-faced terror. “You shall lose your dong inside the next pony you stick it into!” Dumbbell gave a loud squeak as his forehooves darted down to his crown jewels.
They scrambled over each other to escape, slipping and sliding in their own piddle as they spread their wings to take flight. But the frost had long since set in their wings. They crashed and tumbled into each other in a big pile of limbs and bruises. “You’re bucked! You’re all bucked!” Dumbbell finally shrieked effeminately, as if he had already lost his masculinity to Marshal’s curse. “The Factory won’t forget this! Go ahead! Try and wrap up winter without our help! You buck with the Factory and the Factory’ll make it rain bucks! And when you’re all sitting on a buckin’ frozen desert, remember that it was Rainbow Crash who screwed you all over!”
Rainbow flinched, her ears splaying back at his threat. ‘What have I done?!’ She thought in fear.
A thoroughly-packed snowball slammed into Dumbbell’s mouth. “Hay, lame-o!” A familiar cocky little voice called out. “Rainbow Dash’s the Captain of the Ponyville Weather Patrol! She’ll clear up winter in ten seconds flat by herself if she has to!” Scootaloo shouted, readying another snowball in a forehoof.
“You little…” Dumbbell began before he was interrupted by another snowball hitting him right between his eyes.
“She’s right!” Shouted a loud blonde-maned pegasus. “We’re pegasi. We make our own weather.” Rainbow’s assistant weather patrol manager, Cloud Kicker, declared as she pelted the thugs with a snowball of her own.
“We’re done taking marching orders from you! We fly our own course!” Cried another pony in the crowd, a certain Cloudchaser, as she joined in the snowballing.
“Who the buck do you think we are?!” Her twin sister, Flitter, joined in.
“We’re weather patrol ponies! We stand by our Captain!” Another of Rainbow’s weather mares, Blossomforth, shouted as she lobbed her own snowball.
“Buck you and your cheap lightning-infested rainclouds!” Cloud Chaser barked, “The Factory can keep its flank out of Ponyville!”
“Y-you can’t...We’re the Factory! The Factory won’t forget this!” Dumbbell cried in protest.
“We don’t want’em to. We want’em to remember!” Rainbow barked. “We are Ponyville, and these skies belong to us!”
“YEAAAAH!” An entire town’s worth of snowballs pelted the Factory thugs.
“You’ll oof…I’ll agh...We’ll never *meep*...” Dumbbell spluttered in between the barrage of snowballs. But he never got another word out as he and his lackies were smothered in a hailstorm of icy snowballs.
“We got’em now!” Rainbow threw an imperious forehoof down like a bolt of lightning. “Mars! Epic finisher attack!”
“AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAH!” The three stallions managed to make breezies sound manly with their shrieks of terror as they slipped and slid over one another to escape. A storm of snowballs followed them as they ran for their lives.
“Dammit,” Marshall muttered, watching the stallions take off with his pants and underpants, “My clothes always seem to fly off like that. Rarity’s gonna have my balls for this.”
There was a sudden eruption of cheers. It was uncertain whether this was for the town’s victory over the factory or Mar’s clothes flying off. Again. But there were cheers nonetheless.
“Marshal and Rainbow sent’em running home to their mommas!” Scootaloo cheered.
“Marshal! Rainbow! Marshal! Rainbow!” A wave of chants rose up. No sooner did Marshal put Rainbow and Lightning down when Rainbow was picked up once and tossed by the cheering crowd, fluffy jacket and all.
Marshal wore a proud smile on his face at the sight, which was quite something considering he was wearing nothing else. With a satisfied sigh, he left Rainbow to the celebrating townsponies, turning instead to the light green pegasus sitting quietly next to him. “Hey, you okay?”
The pegasus stopped glaring at Rainbow to shoot Marshal a dirty look. “Mind your own business.” She muttered, drawing the shirt draped over her withers tighter around her shivering body.
“Are you sure you want me minding my own business?” Marshal gave her an eyebrow and a few choice hip thrusts. “‘Cause trust me, business is doing great.”
“Okay! H-Here! Mind my business! I-it’s y-yours! T-take it! Take all of it!” Lighting squeaked. “Eeep!” She recoiled as he suddenly knelt down by her side. “P-please d-don’t mind it too hard.” She pleaded, shutting her eyes tight.
“Thanks.” Her ears perked up at the unfamiliar word. “For coming through for Dash. What you did means a lot to me.” She took a little peek and found herself face to face with the alien. His gaze was earnest, something she didn’t expect the business-giant was capable of.
The normally brash pegasus turned silent at his sudden show of gratitude, as if struggling to grasp the unfamiliar concept. “But...I was gonna hurt her.” She blurted out, her face falling under the sudden weight of her shame. “I was...I was such a stupidhead!”
“But you didn’t.” She heard him say. “You did what few ponies could’ve done. You beat the odds. You saved her. You did good.” He gave her a reassuring pat on the withers.
She didn’t even know how much she needed to hear those words until that very moment. “Good.” She tasted the word for the first time as it mixed in with her tears. “I-I d-did good.” She sobbed.
“Hey, uh…” He said awkwardly, seemingly taken aback.
“I’m not crying!” She cried.
“It’s raining, okay?!”
“It’s raining hard! And if you say otherwise, imma boop you so hard you’ll eat nothing but sprinkles through a curly straw for the rest of your life!”
“O-Okay, sure. It’s raining. Totally”
To her relief, the furless giant found more interesting business in the form of Mayor Mare tapping his knee for his attention. “Well done, Marshal,” the mayor said with a smile. “I was getting worried about how the weather factory would react, considering how dependent we are on them. But neither will bother us now that the town’s ready to rally together and make our own weather. It’ll save us a pretty penny too. I’ve been wanting to build a statue to myself for a while now.” She trilled.
“I’m sorry I wasn’t able to catch them, your honour.” Marshal said, sounding bitter. “Intimidating them into scarpering was the best I could do, especially when there were ponies in danger.”
“You did very well, considering you were by yourself, Marshal. Leave the rest to me. I will send a letter to the royal guard to put out a search warrant for these criminals.” Mayor Mare said, “I’m pleased Princess Twilight took my concerns on our town’s of security seriously and appointed you in the first place. What, with all the monsters and apocalypses happening here, you’d think Canterlot would listen to my pleas for permanent guards. Hopefully this will convince the Princess to start bolstering your ranks.” She turned her attention to Lightning. “Besides, you caught one of them.” She waved a forehoof at Marshal’s captive pegasus.
“Whoah whoah whoah!” Rainbow peeled herself from the cheering crowd to step between the mayor and Lightning. “Mayor, ma’am, this pegasus totally innocent, I swear! She…”
“Hay, Dash, it’s okay.” Lightning wiped her eyes before looking up at them, a look of brave determination on her face.
“No. I’m not abandoning you. Not again.” Rainbow snapped.
“Nah, Dash. You already pulled me out of a bad place. Almost died to do it too, ya crazyhead. As much as I really hate to say it, you were right.” Lightning gave a soft, defeated huff. “I totally wasn’t thinking straight. Buck, I was about to do something I’d never have been able to take back. I...dammit, Dash, I hate being wrong, especially when high’n’mighty prancy types like you gotta point it out to me. So for once I’m gonna go do the right thing.” She patted Rainbow on the withers. “I’ll do my time. I deserve that much for being such a stupidhead. While I’m at it, I’ll testify against those buckers from the factory. I’ll get’em for you, I promise.”
“Lightning….” Rainbow murmured. “Hay, uh, I know I was a lousy friend before. But if you’ll gimme a chance when you get out, I wanna start over. I’ll be better this time, promise,” She said, giving Lightning a hopeful look.
“Why wait ‘till then?” Lightning chuckled, “You already risked your feathers to stop me doing something super stupid with my life. I’d say that’s a pretty friendly thing, right?”
“Heh, cool. As long as we don’t make a routine out of it. I hate owing this big lug favours.” Rainbow chuckled along, nudging Marshal in the knee.
“The town hall ponies and I can look after her.” Mayor Mare said, nodding at Lightning. “Why don’t you make sure Rainbow Dash gets home safely, Marshal?”
“Um, wait a sec.” Lightning turned to face the tall giant. She gulped a little as her eyes made the journey up the steep sculpted slopes until it made the summit that was his face. “Uh, hay, um, thanks, I guess?” She said, with the slow care of somepony handling a ticking parcel. She made to take off the shirt he had draped over her. “I guess this belongs to you?”
“Keep it. You look like you need it more than I do right now,” The bare naked man guffawed, “Besides, I like the look of wet mares in unbutonned shirts. It’s cute.”
The shirt or the mare didn’t stay wet for long as a sudden hot blush from Lightning snap-dried the shirt in a puff of steam. She quickly dropped her eyes to the ground, mumbling something that sounded much like ‘Not cute. Big idiot’.
“What? What do you want now?” Lightning muttered, noticing Rainbow staring at her.
“Uh, if you don’t want that thing, I’ll get rid of it for you.” Rainbow gestured at the shirt, looking as nonchalant as her glowing blush would allow her. “N-not like I want it myself or anything.”
“Buck you, Dash.” Lightning muttered, drawing the shirt tighter around herself.
Rainbow carefully hung the wet towel by the cheery fireplace. She sighed as her mane and fur fluffed up faster than popcorn in the fire’s warmth. The shower had been a necessary evil. She needed it to get rid of the wet frost in her wings. A pegasus with frosted wings is a grounded pegasus, and a grounded pegasus is a homeless pegasus. But her mane and tail was unfortunately naturallyfluffy. It takes a lot of patience, tenacity and broken hairbrushes to get that trademark Rainbow Dash windswept look. Which meant her life must well and truly be on the line for her to even dream of washing outside the privacy of her own home.
She had expected Marshal to take her to the palace to warm up. Much to her surprise he had offered her a hot shower at his place instead. Despite her misgivings, she agreed so quickly she surprised herself. She was even more surprised to find his home wasn’t some dark lair in the mountains or a temple of doom or something. In fact, it was a newly built thatch cottage just a little out of the way in an old vineyard comfortably nestled in a riverside grove. Cute, cozy, with flower planters at the windows - it was idyllic to a fault. It was not a guy’s place, let alone an otherworldly alien’s.
There are certain standards you expect a guy's pad to maintain; It should firstly be super messy which is like normal messy but with the dirty laundry as a sidekick and mom as a sworn nemesis. It should also be uber coltish which involves having towering mountains of sports magazines and hidden valleys of clop collections. Growing up in a family full of guys, Rainbow knew this was universal. Marshal should be no exception. She finally got her chance to find out for sure when the human disappeared to take his turn in the shower.
Something wasn’t right. At first it was just a nagging feeling. But as she looked about the living room and adjoining kitchen, more unsettling details leapt out at her. The carpet was the lush fur-friendly variety that all ponies used but was surely more a chore to clean than it was worth for bare-skinned creatures like him. Despite it being so brand new it still sparkled, the kitchen set along one wall was entirely pony-sized. It sat at odds with the dizzyingly high ceilings, obviously built to accommodate Marshal.
She was a little disappointed in the contents of the icebox, or lack thereof. No self-respecting pony should ever be caught with an empty fridge. There was a traditional low dining table surrounded by pony cushions in one corner. There was even a very well-kept planter at the window sill growing all the pony favourites such as daffodils, dandelions and, her own personal favourite, roses. Rainbow didn't know very much about gardening but she knew it must take a lot of care and effort to keep those growing through winter. And yet there wasn't a single thing that personalized the living space; no photographs, paintings, not even a single decoration or souvenir. It was bare of anything that suggested Marshal lived there.
If she didn't know any better, she'd have thought it was a pony's home.
She knew she shouldn’t, but the nagging feeling won out. Her curiosity led her deeper into the quiet house. She finally found herself at a door at the end of a long, empty corridor. She raised an ear in the direction she came from. She heard the faint pitter patter of the shower in the distance. Deciding she probably still had some time until Marshal came out, she cautiously pushed the door open. She had expected a spaceship or a portal to another world or a phonebooth or something. But it turned out to be a very regular, very boring-looking bedroom. The bed was one of those large herd-sized beds, though that was probably more to accommodate his size than anything.
She had heard that the first place to search when raiding a colt's room was under the bed. "Ahah!" She looked underneath, so sure that she'd finally hit pay dirt. Except she found a whole lot of disappointment and nothing else. There wasn't even that Coloratura hug pillow she was looking forwards to seeing.
With a frustrated huff she straightened up and looked at the rest of the room. There was a plain wooden wardrobe and a few unassuming chests of drawers. Impatience took over as she pulled the wardrobe open. Within hung two spare sets of uniforms along with a single set of plain white pajamas. Dissatisfied, she turned her attention to the drawers. To her surprise the first contained a well organized grooming set, including a variety of very comfy-looking fur brushes, preening combs and luxurious-looking mane shampoos and massage oils. There was even a book on pony grooming next to it, one bearing the stamp of Twilight's library.
If she didn't know any better, she'd have been torn between puzzlement or the creeps. But considering it was Marshal, she opted for mere puzzlement. Looking around at this whole house, it was as if a non-pony had gone to the trouble of imagining what the perfect home for a....for a pony would be like.
That was when the realization struck her. He...he didn't build this home for himself. He built it to share with somepony, somepony he cared for so much she was all he thought about when he built it.
But who was it?
Her ears drooped as the answer came to her; there wasn't a single photograph or memorabilia in the house, the brushes and combs didn't have a single hair on them, the fur shampoos were untouched and the icebox was empty.
That special somepony didn't exist in his life. Not yet, anyway. He was still waiting for her, tending the flowers, keeping everything spick and span, just in case she trotted into his life one day.
But why? She hated to admit it, but he wasn’t an unlikeable guy. Sure, he was full of stupid jokes and tall tales. But he was more or less kinda sorta okay-ish. Most ponies aren’t picky when it comes to stuff like race or gender so it should have been easy for him to find somepony who might fancy a human. So why was his house so desperately empty?
Then she remembered how long it took her to find out where he lived. Come to think of it, this was the first bit of personal info she got on him, ever. How’d he manage to hang out with her for almost a month without sharing even the tinsiest bit of his private life with her? Come to think of it, she had tried to raise the question a few times. He had always gotten away somehow...by distracting her with one of his tall tales.
Is this what he was keeping all to himself?
Why? Why hide all this loneliness? Why deal with it all by himself?
But most importantly, why does all this emptiness hurt so much to look at? It’s just like...just like looking at Tank’s empty basket...
"It's sad, isn't it?"
Rainbow gasped. Her heart threatened to choke her where it lodged itself in her throat. She whirled around in a sudden fit of panic. Dark dread struck her as she realized she had been caught red-hoofed snooping around the bedroom by a sombre-looking Marshal. The tall human gave a long sigh, pulling his towel off his hair and draping it over his bare shoulders as he stepped into the room. His eyes lingered on the grooming book still held in Rainbow’s forehooves.
"U-uh, t-this isn’t what it looks like, honest!” She began, very convincingly. It kinda didn’t help that she was trying to hide the book against her barrel at the same time.
"It's alright. I don't blame you. Everybody's curious about the big mysterious monster who lives in the house at the edge of town." He waved a hand dismissively. But she could see the disappointment in his eyes. She'd never seen that look on him, and the very sight cut into her chest like a lightning bolt. "As you can see, I have nothing to hide." He waved at his bare room. "Happy?"
Rainbow felt tears and lameness well up in her eyes. With it came uncoolness; How could she, the strong and awesome Rainbow Dash, bawl her eyes out like a little foal? With it came fear; What if he never wanted anything to do with her ever again? But more than all that, with it came sadness; How could he live with such hollow loneliness?
If you’re gonna help someone, help’em. Don’t leave it until it’s… it’s too late.
Rainbow Dash had faced evil goddesses, eldritch horrors, even butt-symbol socialists. She faced everything head-on, even the passing of the seasons. She wasn’t about to throw in the towel and run, not here, not now. "N-No!" She cried, dropping the book on the floor. She felt her cheeks burn with something thick and wet. But she bit back the saltiness collecting in her muzzle and glared defiantly up at him. "No, I'm not happy!"
"Rainbow?" He blinked, surprised. "Y-You're crying." He pointed out, intelligently.
"Because I-I get it." She trembled, fighting to look up at him through the stinging tears. "I get it, okay?! L-Looking at this place is like staring at Tank's empty basket. Except it's a whole house!" She thought of Tank and the big empty gap he had left in her heart. All the tears and loss she had carefully put away came flooding all at once. "Staying in this place is like living in a big empty hole, waking up every single day only to be reminded of that missingsomepony!" She sobbed. She wasn’t sure whether she was sobbing for herself or for him. She wasn’t sure of anything anymore. "Why do you do this to yourself?! It's stupid! So stupid!You're stupid! Stupid stupid stupidhead!"
“Whoah, Rainbow. I’m sorry! I’m sorry I made you cry. I didn’t mean it, I…” Marshal panicked.
"I-I'm not crying! I’m not! I’m not, okay?!" She wailed in denial. She wasn't even sure why she was crying anymore, just that she must. Otherwise her heart would explode. “Why?” She demanded in between sobs, “Why are you’re such a…” She didn’t get to tell him exactly what he was. Before she knew it she had been swept up in a hug. She gave a loud squeak of surprise at the sudden embrace.
“Thanks, Rainbow.” She heard him say as he squeezed her tight against his bare chest. She would have struggled against all the mushiness pinning her. She would have fought tooth and hoof against all the lame besieging her. But for some reason his words left her feeling powerless in his embrace.
“Wh-what t-the hay are you t-thanking me for, i-idiot.” She sniffled, wiping her wet cheeks against his chest vindictively.
“Do I look like I know what what the fuck I’m doing?” He chuckled, weakly.
“S-Saving the world a-again?” Rainbow half-scoffed, half-sobbed.
“Nah. The world can wait in line,” he said, softly, his back sinking down against the dresser until he was sitting on the floor. The shift in his weight caused her to flop into his lap. She didn’t say anything, instead snuggling deeper into his hold, allowing his warm embrace to lull her sobs.
“What I meant to say was, ‘thanks for seeing past all my bullshit’,” he finally said. “That’s all most ponies want to see when they look at where I live, at my life, at me. So that’s what I give’em, a little glamour, a little razzle dazzle.”
“You mean your ‘horseapples’,” she muttered with a sniffle, “Is that all you’re ever gonna show me too? Because that’s all I am? ‘Most ponies’?” she demanded, bitterly. "What is it this time? You're actually a pony who gained the ability to transform after being bitten by a magical monkey? The house is secretly a giant robot designed to fight off nightmare dragons?"
“Heh. Nah, you’re too weird to be ‘most ponies’, you’ve proven that much.” he chuckled, earning him a half-hearted boop. “Fine, you get to hear my emo sob story, bullshit-free, if you really want it.”
“Before hearthswarming would be nice,” Rainbow muttered under her breath.
“Hey, I’m about to spill my emo heart all over your face. Trust me, you don’t want me rushing this.” He took a slow, reluctant breath. "So, you've probably figured I'm not exactly local."
"No, really?" Rainbow rolled her eyes.
"Nah, took the crazy town express over. One day I was sitting in my own normal little dimension, getting all normally hyped up over normally asking out this girl I barely knew. I had it all normally planned. It was gonna be normally perfect. Then abnormal bitch-slaps me in the face and I landed here all of a sudden. I think that was nine years ago now. I kinda lost track of the first three or four years."
"You've been in Equestria for nine years?" Rainbow raised an eyebrow. She was certain she had never heard of any mysterious aliens living around these parts.
"Nope, fate fucked up her throw and missed Equestria by a mile. Dropped me in outer Gryphonia instead," he said with a bitter chuckle, "Took me a while to convince those chicks I'm not food. Kinda had to pick up enough of their lingo from inside a cage."
"What?!" Rainbow growled, wings flaring with righteous fury. "Who were they?! Imma fly over there right now and..."
"Easy, Dash," he chuckled, “That was yoinks ago now. The Gryphonian civil war probably sorted them out. It certainly allowed that skinny little human kid to sneak out the back door while they were all fighting over who gets to shit from the tallest roost,” he stared off into the distance, seemingly reliving more memories. “I spent the next few years travelling all over. Roamed with a Saddle Arabian caravan until they stopped over in Maretonia. By that point I was old enough to strike out on my own. Worked the docks in Maretonia until I signed up with a Minoan trade ship. Went back and forth to Minos, got to know some of their minotaurs quite well. Actually considered settling down there until we ran into some dragon raiders on my last voyage. Washed up on the coast of North Luna Bay. One thing led to another and I ended up freezing my butt off in a jail cell in Yakyakistan which, admittedly, was an improvement over freezing my dick off in the tundras. I managed to super piss-off the yaks, which is like normal piss-off but while wearing this cape that wasn't yak enough for them. That was when I met her." His lips curled into a sad yet fond smile at the memory. "Her name was Crystal Heart. She was a simple unicorn mare. Serving time for stealing yak bread of all things," he chuckled, shaking his head. "She would always go on about how 'This day is going to be perfect.' I got so pissed off one day that I decided to prove her wrong. I busted out of prison in the middle of the Yakyakistani winter, kidnapped her from her cell and carried her flank with me across the Crystal Wastes. She hated my guts forever for that.”
‘Crystal Heart, so that’s her name’ Rainbow thought, her ears drooping a little. She had a sinking feeling she knew where this was going.
"Took a while for her to open up to me," he went on, his smile growing wider and wider in reminiscence, "We got totally wasted in a tavern in outer Zebrica one night. We were so buck-faced plastered we practically blubbered our dark emo backstories to each other. She told me she escaped from the Crystal Empire. Some evil megaprick with a fetish for stairs and crystals mind-fucked her into doing some really evil shit in Equestria to bring the Crystal Empire back. She had children apparently, but she'd always break down crying before she could talk about what he made her do to them. She blamed herself for all the shit he forced her into. Had enough emotional baggage to sink Cloudsdale twice over." He gave a soft sigh at that. "Despite all that, she still had room to think about me. After hearing my own sob story, she dragged me back to Equestria, swearing she'd do some good and help me find a way home. We arrived in Canterlot just as the mother of all motherfuckers was screwing up everyone's day and sucking off everyone's butt tattoos while he was at it. It was like watching a vacuum cleaner with an ass fetish."
"Tirek?" Rainbow gasped.
"Yeah, that's the bastard." He nodded, grimly. "I'll be honest, I was ready to leg it. But not her. No, she led as many survivors as she could into this secret crystal mine underneath Canterlot that nobody knew about. I kinda ended up helping and soon we had at least half the city stuffed down there. We were just getting the last few through the entrance when butt-eater himself came knocking.” His eyes glazed over as he choked a little. “Her last words were so calm, so certain. I still...I still have nightmares of them. ‘I’m sorry I can’t be with you the rest of the way. I hope you find your way home, wherever ‘home’ may end up being. Remember, you found good in me. If you can do that, you can find good anywhere you desire. Thank you. I….I had fun.’
"And then she went and did the big damn hero thing and collapsed the cave entrance on top of herself and ol’ butt-eater.” Rainbow felt his trembling grip on her tighten. “That was when I realized it, Rainbow. I...I might already have found home without even knowing it. All I had to do was, I dunno, reach out and help her. But I always told myself I’m just a piddly little human and she’s an uber-magical unicorn. I thought things would turn out okay for her somehow, someway, y’know, magically or some shit. So I….I left it. And by the time I realized I could’ve gotten off my ass and did something for her, it was...it was too late,” he bit his lip, closing his eyes, his face a picture of regret.
Rainbow Dash opened her mouth to say something, anything. But whatever it was wouldn’t come out. She had never been one for the touchy feely-stuff. Why talk when you can act? Except, as Rainbow Dash had learned the hard way, no amount of action, not even destroying an entire weather factory, can turn back time.
But that wasn’t what her friends did when Tank was leaving. That wasn’t what Marshal did when Rainbow was stuck sitting in front of Tank’s burrow every day. They didn’t try to turn back time. They helped her, the one who was left behind. Because it’s the ones who gotta carry on with the race who need help moving forwards again, the same way….the same way Marshal had not only helped Rainbow move forwards but also pushed her into the lead again. The same way Marshal had helped Crystal Heart finally move forwards towards her own finish line.
The same way she will help Marshal keep up with her in the race, no matter what!
A fierce new determination welled up within Rainbow. She threw her uncertainty aside, forcing her thoughts into words as best as she could. “Hay, uh, I think...I think you’ve already helped her. I mean, we’re kinda the same, me and her. We both did really uncool stuff in the past, stuff we weren’t proud of. And you helped us feel like...like we’re making up for it, making it right.”
“You….you think so?” A hint of hope crept into his voice.
“I…” Rainbow took a slow, deep breath before nodding with a strange but familiar certainty, “I know so."
“I guess I never….I never thought of it that way,” Marshal murmured, “I mean, she was so determined to get me home. Now looking back, I think….I think understand why she smiled when she said ‘thank you’ at the end…” His voice trailed off into a soft sob. He bowed low, cradling his face in his hand. “Oh, Cryssie….Cryssie...”
“Hay, uh, Mars?” Rainbow quavered, feeling more and more out of her depth. “U-um, s-sorry, I didn’t mean….” She hesitantly reached out to him.
“No, thank you, Dash.” He suddenly smiled up at her through his tears. Rainbow squeaked as he pulled her into an almighty bear hug. “Thank you. Just, thank you. Thank the goddamn you!”
“O-okay! S-sure! Wh-whatever you say! J-just let me breathe!” Rainbow pleaded as she clawed at the arms crushing her chest in.
“Oh, uh, sorry,” he chuckled wetly, giving her room for air, “It’s just...wow, I didn’t realize how much I needed to talk through all this.” He sighed in relief, a sigh long overdue.
“Me too.” Rainbow admitted, sheepishly. “I dunno, it feels sorta…” She waved a hoof in the air vaguely, as if hoping to fish the word out of the air.
“Yeah, kinda like…” He grinned widely through his tears as he pulled out a purple Twilight-brand flashcard from seemingly nowhere.
“...super-ultra-extreme-awesomemazing!” They exclaimed at the same time. “Jinx! Jinx again! Jinx times infini-bwahahahahahahah!” They broke down in gales of wild wet laughter.
“Hahah! Ohaha! Too late, it’s on a killing spree! I-I think we’re already in heaven, Dash!” Marshal guffawed.
“Hahah! You sure this is heaven? 'Cause I'm pretty sure you're still...heheh...with me!” Rainbow cackled. They held onto each other for dear life as they laughed and cried their hearts out. Rainbow laughed and laughed, willing herself to float off in their shared little bubble. Here, the rest of the world, the loneliness and loss, all melted away into nothingness. Even when the laughter faded into companionable silence, all that was left was the two of them, gazing into each other’s eyes, their faces still glowing with big goofy smiles.
It was an indescribable feeling. Rainbow Dash was used to leading races by miles, crossing the finish line all by herself. But for the first time ever, it felt like she was about to cross with somepony else, somepony she wanted next to her all the way to the finish line.
‘But...what about him? ’ Doubt reared its shadowy head. ‘Can I...can I really help him move forwards with….with me?’
Her concern for him must have shown on her face as he slowly mirrored her frown. “Rainbow, you okay?” He asked.
Rainbow steeled herself. “Um…” She finally broke the silence with a question that came out awfully timidly for the usually brash mare, “Uh, did you….ever find her?”
“I…” Marshal faltered, looking thoughtful. “I guess it’s more like I’ve been waiting for her. Not long after the whole Tirek thing, Princess Celestia gave me the Medal of Harmony for what she said was 'going above and beyond', no matter how much I told her it was all Crystal Heart. I spent the next six months searching for her before Equestria finally declared her dead. They gave her a posthumous Medal of Harmony, buried an empty casket and built this lawn ornament to her in Canterlot. Me? I was dead sure she wasn't dead. The high and mighty queen does not suffer sissy things like death. I wanted to believe that if she found out where I was and she still gave a fuck about my ass she'd come find me. I went and got the most high profile job open to me; I applied to be a guard in the disaster-magnet of Equestria – Ponyville. I guess the Medal of Harmony was good enough a job resume. I told Twilight my reasons, of course. She went out of her way and made me her Marshal, the adorkable girl. And...I guess I’ve been waiting here ever since.”
Rainbow suddenly saw in his forlorn smile that sad little mare who would spend her days reading bedtime stories next to a snowdrift. She couldn’t help but wonder if he saw something similar in her. But remembering Crystal Heart’s last words...no, Crystal Heart doesn’t want him to live in the past as she had done. She wanted him to move forwards.
And it was down to Rainbow to help him move on.
“So…” Rainbow’s heart raced. She wasn’t entirely sure why she felt as if everything hung on what she said next. “This is all for her?” She waved a forehoof at the pony brushes, the grooming book, the house, everything.
He closed his eyes pensively. Rainbow held her breath all the way through his thoughtful silence. After what felt like forever, a sad little smile dawned on his face as he slowly opened his eyes. “Nah. Not anymore, anyway. I used to tell myself that all I wanted was to honour her last wish, to build a home and share it with somebody special, just like she told me to.” he said, his voice solemn yet certain. “Now I think I can finally start believing that. I can finally properly honour her memory by getting off my ass and doing what she told me to do.” He gave Rainbow an earnest smile. “Thank you, Rainbow.”
An empty stretch to the finish line was all Rainbow had ever wanted. But suddenly there was so much more! It was something that was setting off sonic-rainbooms in her chest, something that was causing her cheeks to burn like Celestia’s sun, something that was spreading her wings and raising her high into the sky. It was, for a lack of a better word, super-ultra-extreme-awesomemazing. She had no idea what it was, but she knew it was because he was there, sharing that final stretch to the finish line with her. And it’s crazy but she didn’t want the finish line to ever come, forever and ever.
Except….the finish line was coming. It was already the last day of her sentence. She bit her lip, regret welling up as she realized she had done too good a job reducing her own sentence. If only….if only she could be punished for just one more day, just one more, that’d be all she could ever wish for.
Wait! That’s it!
“Hay, uh, I lost today.” Rainbow said. Admitting defeat came so easily to her it was almost scary. “That means I’m getting an extra day on my sentence, right?”
“Wait, but you were…” Marshal began, puzzled.
“Nope,” Rainbow was quick to cut him off, “I lost. A deal’s a deal. Gimme another day in the slammer.” Rainbow couldn’t help but smile as his puzzled look quickly melted into a chuckle.
“Heh, fine. But you asked for it,” Marshal chuckled.
“Uh, why do I not like the sound of that?” Rainbow raised an eyebrow, suddenly regretting her life choices.
“Well, speaking of slammers, you realize you’re in Ponyville dungeon right now, little Ms. Jailbird?” He grinned widely. “Do you know what that means?”
“Uh…” Rainbow gave a sheepish little pony squee. “Wh-what does that mean?” She followed his eyes as they slowly flicked up to her puffy fluffy mane. It had dried out completely midway through their shenanigans, making Rainbow look as if she was wearing Pinkie on her head.
As one their eyes travelled over to the fur brush and preening comb lying forgotten on the floor next to them. “Nope.” Rainbow said, looking him sternly in the eye.
“Yep.” Marshal grinned.
“Noooooope!” Rainbow’s smile grew watery.
“Yeeeeeeeeeeeep!” Marshal raised a pair of eyebrows so criminal they might as well have gone the rest of the way to the moon.
“NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!” Rainbow made a desperate leap for safety. But Marshal and the brush quickly tackle-glomped her into the carpet. There is much speculation on what followed, mostly in the form of horror stories surrounding the legendary Ponyville dungeon. But nopony knows for sure what horrific torments could possibly induce a pony to obediently return every day for more. Its first ever inmate would always decline to answer when asked, though it’s worth mentioning that she would always do so with a furious blush.
Nineteen times her sentence was extended by another day.
That last day of her sentence forever remained a day away.
She had actually considered the prospect of never winning ever again. To her surprise she was really cool with it. Some part of her, a Dash from a past life, screamed in abject horror; She must have gone well and truly mad! There can't be anything that Rainbow Winning Dash loves more than winning!
It might be the loving groomings and belly rubs. It might be the laughs and chuckles over the pop rock shakes. It might even be all time she wasted doing all those chores with him. Whatever it was, it felt like winning all the time. And she never needed to win anything else ever again as long as...as long as this could go on forever and ever.
And Rainbow would do anything to make it so.
The moon shook its moonbeams vindictively at the speeding rainbow bullet as once again it beat the mighty regolith to the horizon. The sun had long since given up trying to rise earlier than the laziest pony in Equestria. Their daily losses had lost them a fortune in a series of poorly-planned bets to the heartless Princess of Love and the merciless Princess of Friendship.
The sun fumed as it reached the little grove housing Marshal’s cottage the Ponyville dungeon just seconds behind the blue comet. The little whirlwind snapped up the newspaper and emptied the mailbox as she zoomed across the vineyard leading up to the door before slowing to a hovering landing on the porch. She rummaged in her saddlebags with her muzzle and pulled out a brass key hanging on a locket keychain. She was perhaps the one and only prisoner in the history of the universe who legitimately owned the key to her own dungeon.
The inside of the house was still dark but she had long since become able to walk its entire length and breadth with her eyes closed. Thankfully she knew Marshal always thoughtfully left a fully-fueled oil lamp by the door for her. Oil lamp in one wing, she stopped by the fireplace to drop a fresh log in the dying embers. With a gentle flap of her free wing she quickly nursed a merry little flame. Satisfied that her fire was crackling merrily, she trotted off to the kitchen to drop off the mail, newspaper and fresh groceries in her saddlebags. Stopping only to tie off her mane in a practical ponytail, she quickly got to work.
It wasn’t long before the kitchen was bustling with activity. With practice and a lot of help from Bon Bon, she had graduated from cereal and toast to pancakes and waffles. Sure, Marshal would still tease her that her pancakes looked a lot like hearts (“T-th-they came out l-like that, i-i-idiot!”), but she had come a long way from setting off the kitchen alarm by proximity alone. She gave a satisfied little sigh as she lay on a carpet in front of the oven, watching the breakfast muffins slowly rise within. It was one of his favourites, one of the many new things she had learned about the funny human in the past nineteen days.
Tree Hugger had taught her the finer points of tea-making. Rainbow had always been a coffee pony, but she had quickly come to enjoy tea, especially when a perfectly brewed pot gave Marshal that at-home smile. The tea set and the basket of muffins made for the perfect centerpiece to the table she carefully set out, an art she learned from the Cakes. She gave the table a critical look. Yep, it was totally starting to look like home. An awesome one, that is.
With everything prepared to perfection, she gave a frustrated huff as she realized she had run out of excuses to put off the inevitable. Her trepidation only grew with every step closer to his bedroom door. She took a slow deep breath, steeling herself as she nosed the door open.
She half-expected to see the burrow hole beyond.
To her relief the door opened to reveal the familiar bedroom and the curled up form of Marshal under his blanket. Everything was exactly as she had left it last night, even the five alarm clocks she had set up on his dresser.
She held her breath as she crept across the soft carpet floor, her heart silently asking the same question she asked herself each and every day. ‘Will he still wake up today?’ She always anticipated the answer with both hope and fear.
It was fear that struck her that day. Her breath caught. Her heart froze. His form – it was missing the rise and fall of a breathing, living being. “M-Marshal!” She cried, rushing up to his side. She hooked her forehooves over the bed’s edge before giving the blanketed form a fierce headbutt. “W-w-wake up! Ya gotta wake up! Hay!”
“Gotcha, thunderbutt!” A pair of hands suddenly lashed out from the darkness beneath the bed, lashing themselves around her barrel. She gave a loud squeak of surprise as she was suddenly pulled underneath the bed, straight into the inescapable clutches of the prison warden himself. “Heh, finally found the hug pillow I was looking for. I was looking all over….huh?” The warden’s chuckle died away as he felt the little pony quivering in his hold. “Rainbow, uh, sorry, I just wanted to surprise you with a prank, honest. I didn’t mean….Are you okay?” He asked, worriedly. He bit his lip, hesitantly raising a hand up to comfortingly stroke her mane. “Hey, Rainbow? Speak to me, please?” He pleaded, softly.
“Y-you’re a-awake!” She sobbed, half-relieved, half-furious, as she buried her face in his chest. “I-I thought….I thought…” Her forehooves clutched onto the folds of his pajamas like her life depended on it. “Mars! You idiot! You loser! You totally un-radical lame-o!” She punctuated her angry cries with thump after thump of her soft little hoofsies on his chest. Her cries slowly faded away together with the strength in her hooves. She finally flopped down against his chest, sniffling quietly in exhaustion.
Marshal said nothing, instead gently running his fingers through her mane soothingly. Rainbow didn’t even have anymore energy to be indignant, instead allowing him to lull away what remained of her sobs. But her anger would not be calmed, she swore it. She was so angry at him for being such a tease, she was angry at him for being so easy to forgive, she was angry at him for….for making her worry he’d disappear the moment she took her eyes away from him.
She had no idea how much time passed. They remained like that for what felt like eternity, with her sniffling softly and him holding her tight. She finally allowed herself to stir when she felt a strange sensation on her forehooves. It felt, soft, warm, incredibly comfortable...and wet? Her ears twitched curiously as she slowly unburied her eyes from his pajama top. She felt a sudden blush bloom on her face as she discovered what it was - it was Marshal, soothingly kissing her the fur of hoofsies. “W-w-w-what the buck are you doing?” She barely managed to bluster.
“You’ve got a few burns on your hooves.” He said, flatly. “I am a leftover conduit of creation. I transmit the very energy that first created the universe through my lips and tongue.”
“You're really trying hard to sell those horseapples these days.” Rainbow muttered, her blush turning two or three shades deeper. She hadn’t even noticed the burns in her bustle to get everything ready. How does he always notice small things like that?
“Well, you're the one pony who saw through my one bullshit that mattered.” He shrugged in between gently blowing on her burns. “I told you you don’t have to cook for me.” He peered disapprovingly at her over the tips of her hoofsies.
“B-But you cook dinner every day.” Rainbow huffed, looking away.
“But I can cook without making everything heart-shaped.” He grinned his trademark shit-eating grin.
“T-They’re not h-heart-shaped!” Rainbow pouted. “T-they were meant to be, y’know, ‘homes’.” She added, quietly.
It was Marshal’s turn to glow red in the dark. “O-oh, uh, th-thanks, I guess.” He joined her in their newfound sport – competitive eye-avoiding. “Uh, wait a sec, I think I keep the burn cream in the first aid box.” He suddenly blurted out, reaching out for his nightstand for something, anything to end the awkwardness.
“W-wait.” Rainbow squeaked.
“Wait for what?” Marshal frowned.
“I...um…” Rainbow turned the cheery colour of a tomato struggling for self-expression. “I...I think they’re a-already healing with….with whatever it is y-you’re d-doing.” She blurted out.
She gave a sheepish little pony squee as Marshal’s puzzled look melted into a wide, mischievous grin. “Then we should make doubly sure they’re healed. Triply even.”
That was another thing she was angry at him for – she simply couldn’t stay angry at him for long.
The alarm clocks eventually went off as one. They were left ignored. Time did not exist in that little world underneath the bed.
“That was amazing.” Marshal sighed contentedly. “Why are you so amazing, Rainbow?”
“Sorry, the stupid questions office is closed at the moment.” Rainbow shared in his sigh of satisfaction. She didn’t feel like arguing. Her breakfast muffins were pretty awesome. Eating them together on the couch in front of his fireplace somehow made it all that more awesome.
He decided to echo her sigh, just a touch louder.
She frowned a little as she let out an even louder, firmer sigh.
He replied with the very sigh of the meteor that ended the age of the dinosaurs.
She took a long, deep breath before giving a sigh that could have qualified her for the alicorn of sighs.
They sighed together in unison, creating the very sigh that could have solved the meaning of life itself. Except it was ruined by a simultaneous burp. This was quickly followed by yet another of their spontaneous gales of laughter. They laughed and laughed until they finally slumped weakly against each other, gasping for dear life.
They settled there for a while in the afterglow of their mirth, listening to the merry crackling of the fire. “Hey, Rainbow?” He finally said, slowly.
“Yep, that’s me,” Rainbow replied, “You realize that’s a really lame way to start a conversation, right?”
“Yep, you’re Rainbow alright. Gotta check, y’know,” he chuckled, “Uh, I guess I just wanted to say…” He started, strangely awkward. Rainbow’s ears perked up, sensing he had something important he wanted to bring up. “Well, I’m ready to listen whenever you’re ready to talk about it.”
Rainbow’s heart froze. The rest of her body must have done the same as she felt Marshal suddenly shift against her. “U-uh, w-what a-about?” She faltered at his raised eyebrow.
“Filly, I invented bullshit.” Marshal said, flatly.
She sighed in defeat. There was no dodging when she had been that obvious about it. “Y-you noticed, h-huh?” She gave a sheepish little pony squee.
“Well, I’ve noticed the bags under your eyes for a while now. It’s hard to miss you falling asleep on the job as well. Something’s eating you, Rainbow. And whatever it is, it’s probably got a killer stomach ache.” He earned himself a playful jab in the shoulder for that. “What’s worrying you?” He asked, giving her an earnest look of concern.
‘Every time I close my eyes I dream of you going and leaving me behind.’
‘But more than that, I’m scared that if I close my eyes, you’ll leave me for real.’
She opened her mouth to reply. But for some reason the words were buried under the leaden weight in her heart. The only thing that made it were her tears. She shook herself, willing the answer to come out. But all she managed was a soft whimper.
“Hey, it’s okay. There’s no rush,” he whispered, his gentle caress lulling her tears in that special way only he could do. “Let’s sort it out one thing at a time. You haven’t slept in a while, have you?”
“I-I did, I…” Rainbow began.
“I mean proper sleep. Not dozing off and planting your face on the condom practice models in the middle of Cheerilee’s sex ed class.” He pointed out, deadpan. “My point exactly.” He nodded at the sudden blush on Rainbow’s cheeks.
“But...I-I dun wanna sleep.” Rainbow mumbled.
“Tell you what,” He grinned a mischievous little grin, “Today’s challenge is staying awake. You snooze, you loose.”
“What?! That’s not fair!” Rainbow cried in protest at his blatantly dick move. She only had one day left on her sentence. She can’t afford to win even a single challenge! And he knew it, the smug lame-o!
“What? You don’t wanna sleep, right? It’d be an easy win.” He said with a triumphant smile. “In fact, I’m feeling reeaaaaaal sleepy now after all that awesome chow.” Marshal let out a long, exaggerated yawn. “Y’know what? I’m really feelin’ the siesta now. Wake me up when it’s poprock shakes time...”
“Wait! I-I’ll…” Rainbow grit her teeth as she glared up at him angrily. “Fine, I’ll do it.” She finally bowed her head in defeat, giving in with a sigh. “I’ll take a little nap, okay?”
“Hey, don’t look so glum about it.” She felt his hand gently rub her withers. “I’m actually a Tantabus crafted by Starswirl himself. But I broke out of his dreams one day by distracting him with a particularly hot wet dream involving a couple of sirens, a chicken and a soup ladle. Being a creature of dreams, my hand has the power to craft the best snoozes by touch alone and…”
“Okay, okay, I get the it.” Rainbow gave an exasperated sigh. “Use your freaky tantabus touch thingy. Just...just promise me you won’t let me go.” She said, placing her forehoof in his palm. “I mean, seriously, if you’re not there when I wake up, I’m gonna make you eat that sleigh for breakfast tomorrow. I’m gonna check, I swear.”
“Promise.” He grinned, grasping her forehoof in his hand before wrapping a bright red cloth ribbon around both. For some reason the ribbon tying her forehooves reminded her of the day they first met, the day he introduced himself by arresting her.
“Hay, what gives?” She huffed. She still put a hoof down on the knot to help him tie it, however.
“Hey, I can't have you getting away from me now, can I?” He chuckled, echoing his words from that day. “See? It’ll take a crowbar the size of a hydra to pry us apart.” He said, demonstrating the strength of knot.
“T-that’s totally unnecessary.” She muttered, aiming her blush at anything but him. “And no weird wet dream things,” she quickly added.
“Well, that’ll involve tying the Element of Modesty around the ribbon, but…” Marshal waved a familiar pair of underpants.
“O-okay, maybe a bit of the wet dream thing. But not too much,” Rainbow conceded with an exasperated sigh as she flopped back against his shoulder. She gave the knot around her forehoof one last experimental tug. Happy that it would certainly take a hydra-sized crowbar to tear them apart, she settled down as Marshal pulled a blanket over them both. “Hay, Mars? You’re really gonna be there when I get up, right?”
“I will,” he smiled, curling an arm around her withers in a gentle hug, “Promise.”
It was the same dream that had haunted her every single night. Very occasionally it was Tank. Sometimes it was Twilight. But it was almost always him.
She found herself back where the naked trees slumbered and autumn and life went to rest, at the burrow at the end of the sky. It was another chilly starless night, it always was. She moved almost by rote, digging her forehooves into the wall of ice protecting the little burrow. She would dig and dig and dig into the bitterly cold earth until her hoofsies were numb and sore, until her eyes stung with frozen tears, until her very chest hurt with every frosty breath. Legs trembling, heart heavy, body and soul worn out, she finally threw herself at the last of the snow. The ice wall crumbled and gave away under her weary frame. She grunted softly as she slowly looked up into the long hollow darkness beyond. As always, it stretched away into an eternity beyond her reach, sapping what little strength she had left.
She knew he was waiting for her somewhere in that pitch black murkiness. All she had to do was find him, call out to him, tell him how she felt, convince him to stay with her.
But what if he doesn't stay with her?
The question, the dread, the tears would always freeze her hooves to that spot. Her numb hooves would never take that first step. She would never find the voice she had lost somewhere in her chilly heart. She would never find him. He would remain lost to her forever.
Rainbow whimpered, willing herself to curl up into a tight little ball, to shut out the heartless burrow, the cruel darkness, the merciless march of time, everything.
That was when she felt it – a strange, silken warmth around her otherwise numb and freezing forehoof. It was a red ribbon, lovingly tied into a cheerful bow. She looked down at the alien object with a frown. Where had it come from? This had never been part of the dream. This was new. This was different.
The end of the ribbon curled across the snow before trailing off into the darkness of the burrow. She could sense something at the other end, something familiar, something warm and inviting, something she must get to no matter what.
She grit her teeth, throwing one trembling forehoof forwards to drag herself painfully across the stinging frost. One slow crawl, two, three. She painstakingly pulled herself into the darkness, drawn onwards by the faint strength within the bright little ribbon. The burrow’s murkiness weighed heavily on her for her trespass. The darkness threatened to smother her for her insolence. ‘This is a place for the resting!’ The endless abyss growled like the echo of tombstones.
“Give him back.” Rainbow growled back.
‘The living are unwelcome here!’ The darkness barked with a force that almost blew the poor little pony back across the frost.
“I’m not leaving him behind!” Rainbow shot back, tightening her grip on the ribbon and digging herself into the bitter earth. “I’m bringing him back!”
‘Why? Sooner or later, all things come to rest here! Your tortoise, everypony you love, everything! That is the way of things!’ The burrow roared, ‘Why bother?!’
“No…” Rainbow felt her tears well up once more. She felt her grasp on the ribbon weaken.
‘Futile. Your laughter, your fun, your pop rock shakes and breakfast muffins, all is futile before us,’ the grave said, coldly, ‘We are the one and only certainty. Realize this. Spare yourself unnecessary pain.’
“No…” The conviction in her words waned, sapped by the relentless darkness. She felt her strength leave her. Her face fell, defeated. “Please...somepony...help me,” She pleaded, putting all her strength into holding onto the ribbon, “I don’t want to lose him. Please….please….please…”
She felt something soft brush against her forehoof, tightening her grip on the ribbon. She gave a soft gasp as the warmth in the touch gave her life once more. She looked up in surprise.
“Hi, Rainbow.” A gentle smile greeted her, the last smile she had expected to see there. Forehooves decked with golden horseshoes, mane adorned with her royal tiara, wings flared defiantly against the abyss, her familiar face glowed radiant amidst the darkness.
“T-Twilight?!” Rainbow gasped. “H-how’d you get here?!”
“Luna.” Twilight explained, briskly, scowling at the burrow’s depths. “She told us you’re in trouble. Cadence and I have been working on a solution. We’ve been waiting for days for you to go to sleep properly.” She suddenly dug her forehooves into the dirt as she draped her wing over Rainbow protectively. “Hold on! It knows I’m here! Whatever you do, don’t let go of that ribbon!”
A low wail slowly built up into a high-pitched scream. The ear-splitting screech howled through the burrow like a whirlwind, flattening them into the ground. Inches, hooves, they slowly lost ground as the unearthly howl roared with all its might to push them out of the land of the unliving.
“No!” Twilight cried as a stream of purple flash cards blew away from her in the cruel wind. “T-that was all the plans I prepared with Cadence and Luna!”
“Seriously, Egghead?!” Rainbow cried incredulously as she hung on for dear life.
“Rainbow!” Twilight shouted over the howling darkness, “This is all in your head! This is your own fear trying to push us back!”
“F-fear?! I-I’m not afraid o-of anything! Ever!” Rainbow shouted back, defiantly. The screams only grew in force, blowing them both back. They clung onto the ribbon, but only barely, like a kite flapping about at the end of a strained tether.
“Rainbow, I….” Twilight gulped, closing her eyes tight. “I….I understand what you’re going through! I-I’m an alicorn now! I-I’m immortal! Everypony I know will leave me one day, even the ones I love! Trust me, I wrote four papers and a review on this! I know the feeling inside-out!” She opened her eyes, her irises burning with defiant determination, “But I’m not letting you make the same mistake!”
“I…” Rainbow whimpered, “I don’t want to lose him!”
“And you won’t!” Twilight shouted to make herself heard over the deafening roar, “You’re the Element of Loyalty! Your love will be strong, stronger than even Cadence’s! And Cadence said so, so it’s got to be true! It’ll be strong enough to conquer anything, even time, even the end!” Twilight put both forehooves around Rainbow’s, tightening Rainbow’s hold on the ribbon, “As long as you hold onto it and never let go.” She gave Rainbow a determined nod, “Now, come on! Let’s find my Marshal!”
Rainbow gulped, nodding uncertainly. As one the two pulled themselves up the ribbon, fighting tooth and hoof against the furious storm. One pull, two, three. The ribbon led them onwards, deeper into the dark.
Finally, at the centre of the storm, where the darkness was thickest and the howling loudest, they found it - the end of the ribbon. It was anchored to a crystal coffin floating in endless darkness, the very same that awaited Daring Do at the end of her story.
‘You will regret this!’ The screams wailed angrily. ‘When he’s gone you will live the rest of your days alone!’ The winds rose to a fevered pitch, turning into a galeforce hurricane. ‘This is all that awaits the living!’
“Don’t be scared, Rainbow!” Twilight cried over the storm. “No matter what, you will always be the one to wake him up! Because this is the only place he’ll ever come to rest!” Twilight traced the ribbon to Rainbow’s forehoof, down her withers to her chest. “Here, right here, forever!” Twilight placed her forehoof over Rainbow’s heart.
Rainbow bit her lip as she peered up at the Crystal Coffin. Doubts and fear clamoured to avert her gaze. But the ribbon had yet to let her go. If anything, the frail little thing held strong, even as the hurricane roared around it. He hadn’t given up on her.
And she’s totally not losing, not to him!
“Don’t leave the sleeping prince hangin’, huh?” Rainbow chuckled, wetly. She blinked the tears out of her eyes before giving Twilight a determined gaze. “Thanks, Twi. Thanks for screwing my head on straight.”
“No problem, Rainbow.” Twilight smiled her usual sweet smile. But the touch of sadness in her eyes did not go unnoticed by Rainbow.
“Twilight…” The storm around them seemed to fade away into the background as Rainbow’s eyes widened in realization. “The ones you said you love….” She gasped.
“Time’s running out, Rainbow!” Twilight cried, the storm’s howl returning to drown out their voices. “We’re doing this Crystal Empire style. I’m throwing you there!”
“But...what about you?!” Rainbow protested.
“I’m trusting you with my Marshal, Rainbow!” Twilight didn’t stop to answer, instead releasing her hold on Rainbow. With an almighty alicorn buck she kicked out, thrusting Rainbow straight for the Crystal Coffin. “Now GOOOOO!”
Rainbow sailed through the darkness, straight into the eye of the storm. “Twiliiiiiiiiiight!” She cried, watching her friend fall back into the endless darkness.
“You got this, Rainbow!” Twilight called back as she disappeared into the depths of the burrow, “I know it!”
“Grrh!” Rainbow growled, turning her eyes back towards the coffin. She threw her forehooves back. “So you want a kiss, huh, big guy?!” She suddenly broke into a mad if tearful grin, “Well, kiss this!” She reared back as she flew straight into the coffin, ribbon-bound forehoof sailing through the air.
The rocket boop that followed shattered the coffin, blasting the burrow down to its howling core. A rainbow halo erupted forth with an explosive boom, ripping apart the dead earth, engulfing the naked trees and purging the starless sky above it. The rainbow rose higher and higher, breaking free from the ends of the sky, flying on forever and ever to eternity.
Her ears slowly perked up. The world was quiet, save the gentle crackling of the fire. Her bed was so soft, so comfy, it felt like she could simply lose herself in it for days. Its warmth curled around her form perfectly, cradling her like a foal. It even rocked…
Wait. Her bed stopped rocking the day she crash-landed her foal crib. Her bed has no business rocking. What the buck is going on…?
“♫~And I’ll fly and I’ll fly, to the ends of the sky, hmmm hmmmm hmmm~♪” She heard someone’s singing trail away into a cheerful hum. Her heart leapt at the voice. She recognized it! She quickly blinked the fuzziness out of her eyes, eager to see him. She was greeted by the sight of Marshal, humming through the breakfast muffin in his mouth, one hand occupied with what looked like the Hearthswarming wish list for every foal in Ponyville, the other curled around her and knotted to her own forehoof. She quickly realized where she was - on her back, cradled in his lap with her hoofsies in the air.
She was filled with far too much relief to have any room for silly things like embarrassment. ‘It was just a dream. Thank Celestia he’s alright.’ Rainbow gave a soft little sigh. She resisted the temptation to tackle-glomp the poprocks out of him, contenting herself with simply marvelling at how well and alive he was.
‘Huh, what’s this…?’ Rainbow frowned, silently reaching up behind her ear for something sticking in her mane. To her surprise it was a pack of familiar purple flashcards bound on a string. ‘Could this...could this be the same ones Twilight lost? Was she...really in my dream?’ She thought, taking a peek at one.
She almost lost her horseapples at the first one – a well-referenced encyclopedic collection of very inappropriate Hearthswarming pickup lines. She definitely lost her horseapples at the second one – a perfectly choreographed script of dirty talk with timings on the appropriate stage of intercourse they should be used. She was completely out of horseapples at the third – it was a carefully annotated diagram of a pony and a human joined together in a worryingly intimate act, complete with step-by-step instructions.
Only one pony alive could have taken such a calculated systematic approach to dirty kinky hanky panky sex. ‘What the buck, Twilight?! How were these supposed to help us face certain doom?!’
“Hmm?” Marshal must have heard her lose all her horseapples. Rainbow felt the whole world slow down as his eyes began their journey downwards towards her and her little pile of catastrophe. She threw caution to the wind and went back to her original plan – She tackle-glomped the poprocks out of him, running him over like the world’s most adorable bulldozer.
“Wh-whoah, Rainbow!” Marshal cried as she sent both of them flying backwards. There was a loud crash as they landed in an explosion of of half-wrapped Hearthswarming presents, wrapping paper and ribbons. “Avalanche!” Marshal warned, grabbing Rainbow and rolling out of the way as a massive sackful of presents upturned itself, flash-flooding them with enough gifts to put Santa Hooves out of a job for good.
As the streamers and ribbons finally settled like rubble and debris in the wake of a stampede of clowns, Marshal found himself lying atop the half-empty sack with a little pony clinging onto his chest. “Uh, Rainbow? You’re awake now. The wet dream’s over.” He finally broke the silence with a chuckle. “I know. I checked.”
Rainbow peered meekly at him over the tips of her hoofsies. “Uh, sorry, there was a, um, twittermite on your chest.”
“Oh,” he sniggered, “That wasn’t a twittermite. It was just a Martian, one of the many tiny citizens that inhabit the giant mobile colony of Marshaltopia. That’s me, by the way. The Martians have recently converted to a new religion, swearing to worship the glorious Thunderbutt, honouring her feast by sharing in the sacred drink of poprocks and holy bread the shape of hearts, praying that one day they may rise to taste the paradise that is her bountifully lush seat. I guess one of them just got a little over-excited at seeing their goddess.”
“Pfft.” Rainbow managed to stifle her giggles for but a second before she broke out in earnest laughter. “Bwahahahah! L-lemme guess, their holy book’s written in pink crayon?”
“Let’s just say it’s got a divine plot.” Marshal sniggered.
“And they worship her by doing their ‘for-pony’ dance?” Rainbow giggled.
“Twenty four times a day, seven days a week!” Marshal barely managed to throw in before the two were reduced to laughing, cackling wrecks. It took a while for them to run out of giggles and chuckles. But the happy silence and blushing smiles that followed seemed to have an endless supply.
“Hay, Mars?” Rainbow finally spoke up, her voice soft yet filled with glowing conviction.
“What is it, Rainbow?” Marshal smiled in reply, his one free hand idly stroking her mane.
“What would the Martians think if Thunderbutt tells them she wants to become part of Marshaltopia?” Rainbow asked, her smile radiating hope.
Marshal’s eyes widened. “R-Rainbow…” He gasped, “T-that...that would be heaven on earth!” He cried in joy.
Rainbow felt herself fill with a calm, fervent certainty. In all her years of brash attitude and assertive energy, she had never felt more confident and sure than she was at that very moment in time. “I wanna do it, Mars.” Rainbow said with absolute vehemence. “I wanna be your home, forever and ever!” Her bright rose-coloured eyes gazed deeply into his own, willing him to feel her one wish, her dream, her one passion for the rest of her life.
“R-Rainbow, I…” Mars gazed back at her through glistening tears. “I want to be the one to cross the finish line with you, forever and ever.” He closed his eyes as he leaned in, touching his forehead against hers. “I-In all my life, I never would have dreamed...I’d find home again.” He smiled softly as he opened his eyes, gazing into hers. In them she saw herself, perfect, complete, whole. “I’m home, Rainbow.”
“Welcome home, Mars.” Rainbow half-chuckled, half-whispered through her own tears. “Stay a while, please?” She pleaded, softly.
“Forever, Rainbow.” Mars answered her by gently caressing her cheek, slowly drawing her into him. She met him halfway. Their lips met softly, tenderly.
Rainbow slowly drew him in deeper in her embrace..
Marshal responded by gently pulling Rainbow into him.
Rainbow retaliated with a more passionate tug.
Marshal struck back with a fierce unrelenting tenacity.
At some point their tender moment graduated into a full-out kiss-of-war, each side unrelenting in their declaration of love, until finally the very air gave up and left them, forcing them into an overdue tie. The two collapsed panting on top of one another, their goofy grins mirroring one another, their rosy glows lighting up the room.
“Oh man,” Marshal finally punctuated his panting with a chuckle, “I’ve been planning forever to ask you out to dinner tomorrow after we sort out the presents and the sleigh. I really suck at asking girls out, huh?”
“Well, yeah. I beat’cha to it.” Rainbow grinned smugly. “But I’ll let you do the first date. Consolation prize and all that.” She giggled.
“Gee, how generous.” Marshal rolled his eyes. He gave a soft, contented sigh as he ran his fingers through her silky mane. “Y'know, this is the most awesome thing that's ever happened to me, and this is coming from the guy who uncovered the Crystal Empire by making the world's biggest strawberry snow cone. So I'm totally not complaining when I say this was kinda sudden, Rainbow." He gave her a curious little smile, "So I'm guessing you're out of your funk, huh? Just had to sleep on it?”
“Oh.” For some reason the question didn’t bother Rainbow anymore, let alone admitting to it. “I was just kinda wondering, do humans hibernate?” She said with a knowing smile.
Marshal’s eyes widened as he silently put two and two together. The alarm clocks, the breakfasts, her little upset earlier, suddenly it all made sense to the human. “Rainbow, you could’ve just asked, you know.” His own words gave him pause for a second as he seemed to contemplate his very worth as a person. “Actually, I can see how asking me anything can be a bad idea.” He conceded with a sheepish grin. "Uh, sorry, my bad."
“It’s okay, I already know the answer.” Rainbow smiled.
“You do?” Marshal raised an eyebrow.
“Yep, you don’t hibernate.” Rainbow’s smile slowly turned into an impish grin. “Because I’m never letting you get any sleep.”
Marshal’s puzzled look slowly mirrored Rainbow’s own grin. “Heh, you realize tonight is Hearthswarming Eve, right? It’s the longest night of the year.”
“Well, you can tell Hearthswarming to move over. I’m gonna steal its mantle and wipe the floor with it.” Rainbow's cocky grin only widened. “I’ll be your longest night ever.” Rainbow said, silently thanking a certain purple unicorn for her flashcards. She sighed as she put on a gentle smile. "Hay, Merry Hearthswarming, Mars."